Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Invoking “God” in Political Arguments (In Short, God Yes, Revelation No)

That's the title to my latest post on my other blogs. I am not going to reproduce the whole thing here, but rather link to it.

This site studies the religion and the American Founding and for good or ill all sides had invoked the Founding Fathers for their political desires. My post takes a jab at the "Christian Nationalist" conservative evangelicals (why I'm not reproducing it here).

What my post really criticizes is this method of citing verses and chapters of scripture as the ultimate authority to "settle" various moral matters in the political context. I argue why it's not effective and I also assert the Founding Fathers tended NOT to do this. And it's not because they were all Deists. Indeed, there were orthodox evangelical Christians among them like John Witherspoon who likewise, when they made political arguments didn't use the method of citing verses and chapters of scripture (see his Lectures on Moral Philosophy).

Likewise with James Wilson. Personally I don't think he believed the Bible inerrant or infallible (he may have). But even if he did, what he DOESN'T do, in his vast public WORKS where he gave lectures on the "law," is cite it verse and chapter to "settle" political-moral issues. Rather he invokes God and has some positive things, in principle, to say about scripture. But then for all of the substantive rules, he gets to his results without citing verses and chapters of scripture as authority, hardly citing the Bible at all. Witherspoon and Wilson both had this same method that is reminiscent of Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Scottish Enlightenment.

So I think what I argue in my Positive Liberty post, America's Founders like Witherspoon and Wilson understood, in the non-sectarian, eccumenical society they were trying to build, it just was not a good or useful idea. They commonly invoked God in politics but did so without being verse and chapter proof texters.


Tom Van Dyke said...

It’s helpful to be able to defend one’s moral position non-Biblically to those who reject the Bible, but we would not want to expel religious conviction from the public square or say that the Bible is not a proper language to speak to those who accept it.

Would we?

Gore, citing Luke 12:54-57 for scriptural support, argued that it is dishonest for anyone to claim that global warming is merely a theory rather than a scientific fact.

“The evidence is there,” he said. “The signal is on the mountain. The trumpet has blown. The scientists are screaming from the rooftops. The ice is melting. The land is parched. The seas are rising. The storms are getting stronger. Why do we not judge what is right?

“I think there is a distinct possibility that one of the messages coming out of this gathering and this new covenant is creation care — that we who are Baptists of like mind, in attempting in the best of our human abilities to glorify God, are not going to countenance the continued heaping on contempt on God’s creation.”

Daniel said...

Interesting observation.

The early colonies did cite scripture, even in their statutes. But by the 18th century, I am not aware of much use of scripture in political discourse. Even an enthisiast such as John Wesley, in arguing that the American Revolution is not justified, does not cite scripture. I wonder, it is often said that Romans 13 was part of the background discussion, but were there documented references to Romans 13 by opponents of the Revolution?

Jonathan Rowe said...


The answer to the 2nd Q is yes. I should link to Seabury's and Boucher's sermons on the matter.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Jon, you write here

Frazer's point that Tory preachers Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury followed what the Bible actually says and the Whig preachers followed, not scripture, but Locke's Enlightenment teachings has the effect of ripping the rug out from underneath the "Christian Nation" thesis. The Tory preaches posited "Christian principles"; the Whig preachers posited "Enlightenment principles."

But Locke's disputation of Seabury and Boucher-type views need not be called "Enlightenment." Locke was every bit as chapter & verse as they, but applied reason, no different than the scholastic medieval philosophers began doing 100s of years before the Enlightenment.

Only the literalist/fundamentalist Christian can impose this view of the Enlightenment on history, of "what the Bible actually says," and that of course is theology or ecclesiastical argument, not history.

Book Four of John of Salisbury's Policratus [1150]:


Quite Christian: there were no Whigs yet, not the Enlightenment, nor even the Reformation.

King of Ireland said...


You hit the nail on the head! The frame of the discussion needs to shift. I wonder if it ever will?