Sunday, February 20, 2011

John Winthrop on Inequality

"GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission."

Dude look like Shakespeare or what?

I continue to find the 1600s and 1700s the most fascinating period in man's history: the bridge between the ancient and the modern, the Biblical and the Enlightenment. Particularly interesting are those who left the Old World for the New World, the American forefathers, and their descendants, the men of the Founding era.

They asked the same questions we do today, with even less certainty of what man could and should do if given the chance to start over. This new America was a blank slate; the colonists could keep the good and leave the bad behind in the Old World.

In this case we have the estimable John Winthrop [1588-1649], the elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company. In his speech to a boatful of émigrés aboard the Arabella in 1630, his A Model of Christian Charity speech is best known for this line:

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we haue undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake."

The "city upon a hill" part is familiar; that this Christian "New" England could shame Christianity if it didn't behave righteously, not as much.

Eventually, this "new" England---America---came to the proposition that all men are created equal. But John Winthrop, like all sensible men, noticed that's not literally true. Some are bigger, some are smarter, better-looking, more charismatic, dignified. How then to reconcile this with his Bible?

Winthrop's theological answers are fascinating, that "princes" [no doubt, leaders such as himself as well] use their God-given station and power

"...first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them: so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor nor the poor and dispised rise up against and shake off their yoke."

Not that the princes or leaders are better than anyone else:

"From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man."

There's more, about Christian charity, mercy, and the like, citing Matthew 7:12: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you---although Winthrop notes we must "perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods." [In other words, you must love your neighbor as yourself, but not more than yourself: to ignore your own good is more than you'd reasonably ask of your neighbor.]

What's amazing is that on the boat on the way to this New World, this "new" England, Winthrop already has a pretty good picture of what starting over from scratch will look like. Inequality is inherent in nature, whether by genes, charisma or blind luck. What will these godly men and women do about it?

In our current culture wars between ancient and modern, the right and left, the religious and secular, and the label-defying whirlpool of the "social gospel"---communitarianism, libertarianism and "radical individualism"---these Puritans like John Winthrop understood the questions clearly, and deeply:

It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical.

There were two parallel justice systems in "Olde" England, the civil and the ecclesiastical. The former was more technical, the latter dealt with not only religious matters, but the "social issues," marriage, divorce, adultery, and the like.

The Puritans left that parallel system behind---most likely out of a hostility toward Roman Catholicism and its successor regime, the Church of England. Their system would be both ecclesiastical and civil, but this also means it was not to be theocratic: indeed, the clergy were kept away from the reins of government.

Winthrop continues:

"In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular Estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public."

Theological concerns ["conscience"] are put on a level plane with "civil policy": the care of the public. The "particular Estates" are of course the rich, privileged, and I would also think the clergy and their theological concerns and moral judgments. They cannot be permitted to bring about "the ruin of the public."

And, we might say, neither can any "private respects," in other words, what's called "radical individualism."

It's tempting, in the current cultural wars, for religious/biblical conservatives to claim the Puritans, and for the secular left to reject them. "City on a hill" was echoed by Ronald Reagan and there's no doubt about the Puritans' religiosity. However, socially and politically speaking---John Winthrop's political theology is first and foremost communitarian, not libertarian, not "Tea Party."

In the interest of history, I tried to pare Winthrop's Bible stuff to the minimum here, but it's impossible to separate his communitarianism from his theology, to separate his vision for man's restart in the New World from his Bible. Winthrop's complete speech is here. For him to have given that speech to English self-exiles without really knowing what to expect, well, that it's worth reading after almost 400 years, and it's why we keep studying these guys.

Me, I think John Winthrop could probably get elected president as the nominee of either of our parties. Or perhaps his communitarianism would torpedo him with the right and his religiosity with the left. Or perhaps all the more reason to listen to what he had to say.  On one hand, by abandoning ecclesiastical courts, they separated church and state, on the other, they combined the ethos of religion and government.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

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