Sunday, July 19, 2009

Does America Have a Creedal Soul?

Robert Locke says no.

I disagree. But he makes an interesting argument worth listening to. Most but not all of us at American Creation understand John Locke as "America's philosopher." We argue as though if we understand Locke and what the DOI is really about, we'll unlock the key to America's soul. Robert Locke cautions us to stop trying to look for a consistent theory of the Founding, that instead we should understand America was founded on contradictions and we should embrace those contractions. You can read his entire article here. Before I quote him I will note one error at the beginning is that he seems to miss that Locke's social contract invoked God as the guarantor of "unalienable rights" just as the DOI did. On with the quote:

The Constitution is the actual, legally-binding, law of the land, upon which our other laws, and thus the structure of our society, are based. It is the foundation of our nation, not the Declaration. The Declaration could have been followed by any number of constitutions, which would have established our society in any number of ways, proving that the Declaration itself does not establish the character of our society. It is even arguable that that the constitution that follows from the Declaration is the failed Articles of Confederation, and that America didn’t work until the ideology of the Declaration was at least partially rejected in the more conservative Constitution.

Furthermore, the ideas expressed in the Declaration are contradictory. For example, Lockean natural right, the source of unalienable rights, is founded upon John Locke’s social contract theory. But the Declaration says that men are endowed with these rights by God, not by the social contract. This is a puzzling assertion in light of the fact that God was worshipped for 4,000 years without anyone noticing that He had endowed man with unalienable political rights. The Bible does not mention social contracts (of Locke’s variety) or democracy. When it does discuss governments, like King David’s Israel or the Roman Empire, it not only does not say that they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, but frequently intimates quite otherwise.

Furthermore, the Declaration claims that all men are created equal, a simple empirical falsehood. As John C. Calhoun pointed out, only two persons were ever created, and one was subordinated to the other. All the rest were born, and people are not born to equality. Even if one is not a biblical literalist (I am not), the point stands, as consideration of evolution gives similar results. To claim that our equality consists in the equality of our incorporeal being as souls equal in the eyes of God, instantly concedes that this equality does not exist on the corporeal plane of politics. So does the Declaration lie? Yes, but it achieved American independence, which was its purpose, so it is still a great achievement. But brilliant barbs of rhetoric hurled at an English king to rally the fighting farmers of 13 colonies, constitute neither philosophic truth nor the foundation of a society. Further undermining contemporary attempts to extract a national proposition from the phrase, at the time when it was said, "all men are created equal" clearly meant all middle-class white males to the people who said it, if we are to judge by their actions. The contemporary concept of equality simply isn’t in the Declaration. There may be independent philosophical reasons to believe it, but it is not "the American way" in any historical sense.

The problem of contradiction is even worse in the Constitution, which is a curious mixture of Greco-Roman ideas, Christian ideas, Lockean natural-right ideas, plus a few other odds and ends from Montesquieu and other sources. Now a propositionist can claim that America is founded on these multiple propositions, but even all these ideals taken together as ideals, do not found the nation. It is only their synthesis in the Constitution, in which they are combined in a certain way, modified and compromised to fit, and gifted with institutional arrangements to embody them, that founds the nation. The separate strands of idealism, in abstracto, are not a constitution, and found nothing. Therefore even if there is a national proposition, which I deny, it can only be the Constitution as a whole, not any set of ideas abstracted from it. It follows that what the Constitution actually says, with all its compromises and deviations from ideological purity, should be our ideal, which implies a strict-constructionist approach to its judicial interpretation. There is a reason why office-holders swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, not to the ideals of the Declaration.

My point here is that the Constitution means what it says, not what some ideals abstracted from it say. The Constitution, with its various compromises and its playing off of various ideals against each other, quite wisely limits the degree to which it embraces these ideals. It establishes some democracy, but not absolute democracy. It invokes Divine providence, but does not establish a church or even specify which variety of Theism it takes as its inspiration. It allows autonomy within a federal system, but not total autonomy. It allows the Federal government to enact laws for the general welfare, but reserves powers not given it to the states or the people. To argue that the essence of the Constitution lies in "the ideals of the Constitution, not its compromises," as Straussian scholar Henry [sic] Jaffa has done, is precisely the opposite of the truth. The compromises are of the essence of the thing, and these compromises deliberately and ruthlessly subvert attempts to abstract "propositions" out of it. The founders were perfectly well aware of the trouble abstract ideology can cause: in the 18th century, it produced the French Revolution; in the 20th, judicial activism.

10 comments:

King of Ireland said...

This is a good post and gets to the heart of our topic here. I will have to read this whole article and think on it. I would personally go back to the Declaration as the founding ideals of this nation. I would do so because it, like the French Revolution, was predicated on destroying the argument for the Divine Right of Kings. I feel we did it with natural law and the Biblical/God view of things and they did it with Enlightenment philosophy. But both certainly attacked the same issue.

Until that was dealt with, no Constitution would be seen as legitimate by the people.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I like some of the ideas in the essay too, but in the opening excerpt he gets it completely backwards:

The Constitution is the actual, legally-binding, law of the land, upon which our other laws, and thus the structure of our society, are based.

Actually, the states had their societies and their laws well in place, and the ratification of the constitution changed very little.

The government is not synonymous with society: at best, per Montesquieu, it's an artificial but relatively faithful reflection of its underlying organic society.

At worst, well, whether under Robespierre or Napoleon, France was still France.

King of Ireland said...

"Actually, the states had their societies and their laws well in place, and the ratification of the constitution changed very little."

Good point!

Pinky said...

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What a simple statement of absolute fact:

"The Constitution is the actual, legally-binding, law of the land, upon which our other laws, and thus the structure of our society, are based."
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I agree with Robert Locke in the excerpt completely.

The intellectual elites--who joined together to form the foundation for our union--most certainly had to have known what they were doing when they framed the future of our nation and its society. And, when the Supreme Law of The Land was ratified with its Bill of Rights, we see into their genius of producing something the general public might never have authorized given their religious prejudice against the basic freedoms so insured.

Now, lawyers have worked hard to overcome our "unalienable rights" in their pleadings and other bamboozles; but, in the main, we continue to uncover who it is that we are capable of becoming.

Most often it takes great courage to prevail against conservatism.
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We don't discuss states when we discuss a national union; although states are part of the overall mix. The nation is forging the states to slowly come into compliance. Whoever said that the wheels of justice grind slowly; but, exceedingly fine made an strong point.

Pinky said...

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A strong point, that is.
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To deny that America has a "Creedal Soul" is another matter.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Most often it takes great courage to prevail against conservatism.


Hah, Phil. These days it takes zero courage to oppose the status quo. There's no danger to life or limb, and it's conservatives who have more reason to fear for their livelihoods if their views are known. In fact, the wrong bumper sticker gets his car keyed in the parking lot.

It takes zero courage to oppose the status quo because it avoids any moral responsibility for making tough moral decisions and compromises, and permits an affectation of moral superiority because feel-good solutions never have a moral downside.

And of course it takes intelligence and study of both history and reality to defend the status quo; its opponents avoid all burden of proof that their feel-good solutions will actually be positive change and not carry any negative unintended consequences.

Plus, opposing the status quo is highly fashionable, and gets the girls.

Not a bad deal at all---no real-world consequences, but moral superiority, intellectual sloth, and babes to boot.

Pinky said...

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I suppose you are correct, Tom.

Status Quo is the better choice of words.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

That's not to say opposing the status quo didn't require great courage in days past. Just not today.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom,
Since the Founders had "compromises" in our Constitutional government, how can you state absolutely that supporting the status quo is always the way to go these days?

Government brings accountability so that we can live in a free society, where we can maintain equal liberties under law. These liberties are to be protected and defended, otherwise, we will set a precedent of undermining liberty for "what"? Another's crime? Another's abuse of power? Or another's lack of responsible behavior? Tell that to Bernie Madoff's victims!

So, I don't understand, how you are saying that we should always defend the status quo (I do understand that government that is holding to the "good" should be upheld, but not if it impinges on another's liberties... and trust)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Why would I say we should always defend the status quo? Even the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke said

"A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."

What I said was defending the status quo takes intelligence and study, to tell what should be changed and what shouldn't, to be able to tell the good from the bad.

To those who oppose the status quo who say things can't get any worse, I reply that they have no imagination.