Saturday, September 18, 2010

Joe Farah Commits The Fundamentalist Fallacy

On "rights & God." I've blogged about this before but think I will mention it again because it's a line of reasoning common among conservative evangelicals who wish to claim the American Founding, especially the Declaration of Independence (and many more sophisticated Christian conservatives reject the DOI for reasons similar to what I'm about to write).

Farah debated a gay conservative leader of GOProud and tried to invoke the American Founding, in particular the DOI. The Founding Fathers did not support gay rights (a concept unknown to them) and, from what I've seen didn't think too much about homosexuality, which remained deep in the closet. Sodomy laws had long been on the books and the FFs didn't give much thought to removing them. Jefferson, apparently, supported making sodomy a non-capital crime in a proposed revision to the VA criminal code, a code that also sought to decriminalize bestiality. You can google what that reduction for sodomy was.

I haven't seen any evidence that one person was executed in post Founding America (I'm not even sure about pre-Founding America) for the crime of sodomy. And the Cato Institute, in their brief submitted in Lawrence v. Texas, argued (unrebutted so far) that sodomy law prosecutions/convictions invariably involved men raping other males, which may explain why Jefferson wanted to decriminalize bestiality, but not sodomy.

Still, the laws did their damage in other ways and are rightly off the books.

Where I think Farah errs is his philosophy of rights/God/the DOI. It goes something like this: 1) Rights come from God; 2) God tells us what is sin in the Bible; 3) therefore there can not be a "right" to do what the Bible forbids. Proof text, proof text, proof text the Bible. That's what Farah argued during the debate.

The problem with this sentiment is manifold. Leaving aside the issues of whether God exists and whether the Bible is true, it's not what the Bible says; it's not what the DOI said; and it's not what the Founders said or did as a matter of principle. And the Founders wisely avoided this method (prooftexting the Bible to find what our unalienable rights are) because it didn't work for them, and in fact was what they were trying to get away from.

First, the Bible doesn't mention the concept of unalienable rights. And many smart evangelical/fundamentalists reject the concept for this very reason. I know you can construct a theological case for unalienable rights based on Imago Dei, in the same way you can construct other theological doctrines that are disputed on Sola Scriptura, and other theological grounds, like original sin or TULIP. But the first step for proof-texting evangelicals is to realize the Bible doesn't specifically mention the concept of unalienable rights.

Second, the DOI says that men have unalienable rights to life, liberty (meaning political liberty) and the pursuit of happiness. But it does not cite verses and chapters of Scripture for that or any proposition and does not identify God as Jehovah or the God of the Bible. The DOI does not say "look it up in the Bible" to determine the special content of our unalienable rights.

Third, the Founding Fathers recognized men had an unalienable right to do wrong in some instances, or at least what many orthodox (and non-orthodox) Christian believed to be wrong. The rights of conscience were the most "unalienable" of liberty rights. And holding that your neighbor has the right to worship God (or not) according to his conscience and to freely speak his mind on why he so does invariably grants men a right to break the first table in the Ten Commandments, most notably the First Commandment itself.

The Founding Fathers believed in granting the right to worship universally, to Christians and non-Christians. That includes Jews, Muslims, Hindus. Most orthodox Christians believe Hindus worshipped false gods (I suppose there is always a potential Acts 17:23 defense for Hindus, seems a stretch though). Many, but not all, orthodox Christians believe Muslims worship a different God. And a few notable orthodox Christian theologians believe Jews worship a different god than Christians because Jews don't worship a Triune God.

Back then, I think more orthodox Christians -- at least the theologians -- would agree Jews and Christians worshipped different gods. And here is where the unitarian controversy which I am so fond of writing about is relevant. The second and third American Presidents were militant unitarians. The first and fourth may well have been unitarians (certainly they never spoke in overtly Trinitarian language) and Ben Franklin politely and gently affirmed unitarian doctrines. Even if their views were "unrepresentative" of the larger era, the fact that played such prominent roles (among other things, they wrote the DOI) means American political-theology had to fully accommodate them.

When reading the theological debates of that era, we see the unitarians and trinitarians accused one other of breaking the First Commandment, of worshipping different gods. The orthodox theologians argued God was Triune in nature, and hence unitarians (and Jews, logically speaking) worshipped different gods. Since God is Triune, their gods (those of any non-Trinitarian) were false.

The unitarians were more generous in recognizing trinitarians worshipped the one true God of the Universe whenever they worshipped God the Father. But worshipping Jesus as God was 100% sinful idolatry (to the more pious unitarian; the more latitudinarian unitarians probably thought worshipping Jesus as God more silly than sinful) and wrongly took rightful worship away from the Father -- the only Person who deserved to be worshipped as God.

So granting religious liberty to unitarians & trinitarians alone necessarily means giving men an unalienable right to sin according to each's respective understanding of the Bible.

Finally, the Founding Fathers, especially when they moralized, rarely cited verses and chapters of scripture as "proofs" to settle things. Rather they preferred speaking in a more general philosophical language of "Nature" as discovered by man's reason. (This is not to say that they didn't speak in biblical metaphor -- they commonly did, even, indeed especially Thomas Paine, when talking politics.) And that's because they knew just how disputed, just how much blood had been shed over sectarian religious squabbles, especially those where the parties disagreed on how to interpret Scripture.

The Founders recognized, contra many of today's conservative evangelicals, it's not just so "easy" to look something up in the Bible to settle things. The Bible is one thick, complicated book that lends itself to multiple interpretations, some more "literal" than others. After Rome lost its monopoly on political theological matters, the Christian West went to war in literal and figurative senses over matters of sectarian biblical interpretation.

For instance, there are powerfully convincing arguments in Christendom that hold Romans 13's prohibition on revolt is absolute, that what the FFs did against Great Britain -- indeed what they said God gave them a right to do -- was as sinful as witchcraft. In this sense, the American Founding was anti-Christian and anti-biblical. The Christians in England and the many (perhaps as many as 1/3!) who remained loyalists in America were sympathetic to this understanding of Scripture which for all we know is the "right" one.

But the Founders had no interest in that method of debate. "Nature" had already determined that men had an unalienable right to revolt against tyrants. So go back and interpret the Bible accordingly, even if, as Rev. Samuel West instructed in 1776, we have to conclude that St. Paul was joking in Romans 13.

The Founders removed revelation from politics; that was the only way to solve the political theological sectarian wars based on how to properly interpret revelation. Government therefore would no longer care whether the Bible really taught original Sin, TULIP, Trinity, eternal damnation. And any political matters that stemmed therefrom was consigned to the realm of private conscience.

The bottom line is, in order to make an "American" argument you have to do better than "the Bible says it's sin, therefore there can be no right to it." No, the American Founders held, as a matter of principle, in certain circumstances, men had an unalienable God given political liberty right to do what the Bible terms sin. The alternative was to continue religious persecution and sectarian bloodshed.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The Founders removed revelation from politics

Without getting into the tall weeds, there's an OK case to be made that they removed revelation from national politics.

However, the US government was designed to have limited and clearly defined powers. The details of everyday life were, as before, left to the states. [Sex, violence, alcohol, all the things that make America really great.] If a state wanted the Bible to guide its laws [or even have an established church, like Massachusetts], the Constitution didn't molest those rights. That the 14th Amendment subsumed the states' purview on these matters---or abolished religious conscience in the drafting of such laws---is not yet self-evident, although it appears to be the prevailing assertion.

Mark in Spokane said...

Good points, Tom.

I think this debate also hinges on who gets lumped into the category of "Founders." If we are talking the "top tier" Founders -- Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, etc. -- you may be right Jon. But if we start looking a public discourse during the Founding period, that doesn't really Wash. The Liberty Fund published a two volume (over 600 page) collection of political sermons during the Founding Period, evidence of a significant effort to ground public life in religious conviction -- and religious conviction that self-consciously identified itself in Christian faith (whether orthodox or not).

There is a public meaning to the Declaration and the Constitution, a public meaning that transcends what an individual Founder may have believed its words meant.

Jason_Pappas said...

Rowe: Finally, the Founding Fathers, especially when they moralized, rarely cited verses and chapters of scripture as "proofs" to settle things. Rather they preferred speaking in a more general philosophical language of "Nature" as discovered by man's reason.

Reading the intellectual leaders of the Revolution, I tend to see their search for truths in God’s handiwork (i.e. nature) rather than God’s word (i.e. the Bible). My impression is that the FF were extremely empirical both philosophically and in practice. Do most historians generally agree?

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'm well familiar with Sandoz's collection in the Liberty Fund. If the Samuel West sermon is not reproduced there (I can't remember) it's certainly representative of them.

West was a unitarian Christian and I think you are right that the theology of the DOI is in some way "Christian." However, it's not the Christianity of Joe Farah.

That was my main point. It's far more nuanced. It appeals more to natural reason, Aristotelian essences. It actually might speak more to today's Catholic theologians than evangelical proof texters. Though there is debate over whether this "rational Christianity" is more modern and Enlightened than what traditional Thomists posit.

They did consult the Bible. However, that they had to deal with Romans 13, something that on its face seems to categorically forbid revolt perhaps explains why a different kind of Christianity (than verse and chapter proof texting) was needed to speak to revolutionary concerns.

In any event, West's sermon is worth a read.

BTW: I haven't studied the 2nd tier Sam Adams or Roger Sherman in as much detail as I have Witherspoon. And though Witherspoon was orthodox in his personal theology, when he preached politics, he turned to the same moderate Enlightenment technique of arguing on the basis of reason, not revelation. But sounding like a Thomist, he then claimed that arguing on the basis of reason will ultimately vindicate revelations claims and beat the infidels at their own game.

This is what he taught his students at Princeton (not Calvinism) and you can read his entire "Lectures on Moral Philosophy" (what he taught his students at Princeton) online for free via googlebooks.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But sounding like a Thomist, he then claimed that arguing on the basis of reason will ultimately vindicate revelations claims and beat the infidels at their own game.

Also the answer to Mr. Pappas. Revelation, properly understood, is never in conflict with reason, rightly applied. ["Right reason."]

Again, this is what's called "natural law." Any a priori theological [or philosophical] claims must be proven a posteriori to be good for man, by experience and reason. On the ground.

For instance, if God lets Abraham actually kill Isaac, that's bad religion, and also a shitty way to run a society, let alone a government.

For one thing, if we sacrifice our first legitimate male heirs, they're going to get wise in a hurry and knife us in our sleep like at age 5. Even more likely, mom is gonna cut your throat before the kid gets out of diapers.

King of Ireland said...

"The Founders removed revelation from politics;"

First of all Jon, I want to say that this is really very good. I think it is one of your best posts.

But, I think statements like the one above can be problematic. The reason is that most people that would read this think of "reason" as something akin to Averrones(spelled it wrong I think) type pure rationalism. This is not the kind of reason that almost all of the founders were talking about.

They were talking about what Aquinas called general revelation. That is, intuitive reason given to man by God at Creation.

Without getting into the "tall weeds" of this I think it is more accurate to say that the orthodox and non founders agreed to agreed to disagree about personal interpretations on parts of "Special Revelation" that had no bearing on political discussions.

The fact that, at least to me, they invoked imago dei in the most foundational verse of the DOI makes your statement wrong. That idea is part of Christian theology taken directly from the Bible.

I have some other minor quibbles but I will leave them alone for now to give this outstanding post some breathing room.

Jason_Pappas said...

I agree with you, Mr. Van Dyke, that the FF didn’t see a conflict between reason and revelation. That’s implicit in my post. You seem to imply that revelation was confirmed by empirical reasoning. I was suggesting it was the other way around. I see the empirical reasoning in the leaders among the FF but seldom do I see them add “and we know this from such-and-such paragraph in the Bible.”

Aside from the preachers among them, I don’t see the reasoning from religion—mainly reasoning from reality, particularly history. I don’t doubt that they adhered to the harmony of reason and faith. However, they demonstrate a greater reliance of deriving conclusions by empirically considering His work—nature.

My tentative hypothesis is that religion was a handmaiden to empirically-based philosophy, not the other way around as Aquinas would have it.

PS, I am interested in hearing more on King of Ireland’s “intuitive reason.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Pappas, "natural law" is an attempt to span that gap, making neither subordinate to the other.

I'd also question whether the Founders shed all the presuppositions of Britain going back to the 1600s, like the radical French revolution did.

There was a rather bold political theology of God-given rights, but that seems to me to be a natural outgrowth of prevailing theologico-political theory, indeed of "natural law."

Jason_Pappas said...

Natural law is a concept going back to Cicero and the Stoics. Actually it goes back further to Sophocles’ play Antigone. The identity of natural law with divine law depends on one’s theory of natural law. Since the colonial liberal arts curriculum was based on Latin literature and letters, read in the original, it isn’t always clear to me which theory of natural law is being referenced.

Operationally, their empirical approached suggests a reliance of direct examination of nature, first and foremost. After all, Locke was the founder of British Empiricism a century before our Revolution. Newton, Boyle, Locke, and others weren’t waiting for divine law … they were on the ground reading the laws in nature’s book. If there was an equation of natural law and divine law, it was purely formal.

Which FF has an extended discussion on natural law?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Pappas, we've actually touched on Cicero's importance, through Aquinas, to Locke's 'judicious" Rev. Richard Hooker, the "Founder of Anglicanism." A lot of the best stuff is in the comments section around here, so I hope we see more of you. Your presence is always a plus.

To answer your question with a minimum of fuss and tall weeds, there are James Wilson's lectures on law, but I have never seen a Founder [except Jefferson, and only in semi-disagreement]write contra the most explicit example of what you ask for, Alexander Hamilton's just famous The Farmer Refuted [which is also explicitly anti-Hobbes]:

"There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.


To grant, that there is a supreme intelligence, who rules the world, and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and, still, to assert, that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appear to a common understanding, altogether irreconcileable.

Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original." Blackstone.

Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.

Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty; nor the least authority to command, or exact obedience from him; except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity.

Hence also, the origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations, as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man or set of men have, to govern others, except their own consent? To usurp dominion over a people, in their own despite, or to grasp at a more extensive power than they are willing to entrust, is to violate that law of nature, which gives every man a right to his personal liberty; and can, therefore, confer no obligation to obedience."

And more:

Jason_Pappas said...

I realize that I’m stepping into the middle of an ongoing conversation. I respect that fact and understand my concerns will undoubtedly have been addressed and re-addressed time and time again. I’m only glad to read what’s been written and even more delighted when someone suggests documents to consider. Thanks for the Hamilton piece. I’m always overjoyed when I see the founders’ knowledge of Locke on display. I’m sure we’ll return to this topic again. Travel will take me away for a few days. Thanks for the welcome.