Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Joe Farah Commits the Christian Nation Error

In this article here. John Hagee commits the error too. Indeed, it's evangelical megachurches and homeschoolers who are likeliest to fall into this trap. I'm going to skirt the issue of whether atheists can be good Americans (I think they can), and rather focus on the problems with Farah's thesis.  As he argues:
America was founded on a creedal statement. It can be found in the Declaration of Independence: 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Thus, America was founded on the principle that the Creator God endowed men with certain unalienable rights. This statement formed the basis of self-governance in a world ruled by kings and tyrants. It is the principle that set America apart from the rest of the world. 
It’s important to note that the founders – and most of the 2 million people living in America at the time of the founding – were Christians who believed in the One True God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They weren’t referring to any other god. They rejected Allah. They rejected paganism in all its forms. They rejected atheism.
America was thus founded as a Judeo-Christian nation, tolerant of other views, but with the understanding that only a moral people governing themselves to the best of their ability under God’s eternal laws were capable of maintaining the liberty established uniquely under this covenant.
The problems with Farah's argument are manifold.  Let's dig in.  Farah connects the DOI with his understanding of biblical Christianity which then slips into "Judeo-Christian." I'm not exactly sure what the modernish term "Judeo-Christian" means. As fundamentalists like Farah use it, apparently it means the orthodox Christian God where Jews get to tag along because of the special place they have as antecedents to Christians. Indeed, evangelicals like Farah, John Hagee, and Hal Lindsey who interpret biblical prophesy as demanding a pro-Israel stance (not all of them do) are, I observe, especially likely to parrot "Jews and Christians worship the same God, and Muslims (and apparently everyone else) do not."

Farah then quotes from Founders John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin to support his case.  The problem is these Founders were not "Christians" according to his understanding of the faith.  They all rejected the Trinity.  Farah didn't have to reference those Founders.  But given they wrote the DOI it's understandable that he did.

It's simply not true that those Founders "rejected Allah."  To the contrary, they rejected Joe Farah's exclusivist understanding of the faith.  I have evidence from each of those three Founders AND from George Washington claiming that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  AND I have evidence from Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison claiming unconverted Great Spirit worshipping Indians worship the same God they did.

Moreover, Farah wrongly claims the Founders rejected "paganism in all its forms."  They actually held the noble pagans of Ancient Greece and Rome (whose surnames they adopted) in very high regard.

Finally, the DOI is not a "biblical covenant."  Rather it's a social contract that references a generic monotheistic God as the guarantor of unalienable natural rights.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I always take "Judeo-Christian" as an honest acknowledgment that some Founders didn't accept the Trinity thing.

Although "Judeo-Christian" is a neologism [invented in the 20th century], it works.

Exc for Jefferson and Franklin [yet again], I see no evidence of other Founders believing that their own God was not the God described in the Bible. Farah has not completely screwed the pooch here, although he may be wrong on some details:

In principle the Founders would have included Allah, I think, although they knew little of Islam. I do not recall any specific instance of a Founder denying that the God of the Muslims is not the God of Abraham and the Bible.

And I do disagree that the D of I was a "covenant," a contract with God.

However, I also disagree that the D of I is a social contract. Unalienable rights are at odds with social contract theory---you cannot contract away a natural right, you do not bargain for your rights with the state.

"Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution? Such seems to be the sentiment of Mr. Burke: and such too seems to have been the sentiment of a much higher authority than Mr. Burke -- Sir William Blackstone."

---Founder James Wilson, Of The Natural Rights of Individuals

The D of I is a natural law document.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The DOI certainly is a natural law/natural rights document.

How that works with the social contact can be complex and contentious. Man leaves the state of nature and enters into a social contract. Man gives up a portion of liberty he had in the state of nature as a trade off for a government that exists to remedy certain "inconveniences" in the state of nature. But certain rights are "unalienable" and hence you can't bargain with them. What man surrenders, what he retains, what the consequences of those unalienable rights are ... I think the Founders themselves disagreed on how it would exactly go down. Hamburger wrote a paper on it that is worth revisiting.

But I think this is all still Locke as understood by America's Founders.

Michael Heath said...

Jon Rowe writes, "But certain rights are "unalienable" and hence you can't bargain with them. "

I think the only tenable premise is that all our rights are unalienable, where there is no viable mechanism to determine what is and what is not a right. One founder's argument illustrating the futility of inventorying all our rights was his right to wear his hat in his own home; how could anyone list all our rights? And then determine which is not a right worthy of government protection or a right which can be justly sacrificed by the exercise of government power? You can't.

My argued premise* still demands that we concede a limitation and even prohibition on the exercise of our rights given the existence of government. So instead of determining what is and what is not a right, an impossible exercise, the more prudent course is to determine whether government has properly exercised constitutionally delegated powers which effectively suppresses the exercise of some people's rights. Both in terms of limiting or prohibiting the exercise of our rights in service of a government interest, e.g., raising revenue to fund the development of the common good such as roads, but also in protecting the exercise of one person's rights at the expense of another's competing right**. This approach is a far more workable model which is quite simple to execute with the exception of some competing rights debates where we ocassionally, though I think rarely, only have bad choices where in those rare cases someone's rights are unjustly sacrificed at the expense of another's - for which there is no better alternative solution.

*This idea is not original but instead heavily influenced by Randy Barnett's research on what the founders understood regarding the DofI and its relationship to the original meaning of the Constitution. This idea largely influenced the Privileges and Immunities clause, the 9th Amendment, and ultimately the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

** David Souter wrote an essay recently, perhaps within the last year, about this being a very tough aspect of the job for him when he served on the SCOTUS. And yet we too infrequently frame our debates within the context the protection of one person's rights comes at the sacrifice of another's.

Jonathan Rowe said...


It's true the DOI does say we have an "unalienable" right to "liberty" in a general sense.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

[Corrected for typos.]

I think the only tenable premise is that all our rights are unalienable, where there is no viable mechanism to determine what is and what is not a right.

My own studies are directed at rights and "rightstalk." I do believe our modern confusion is in not being able to tell natural [unalienable] rights from political [positive] rights.

For instance the right to trial be jury is not unalienable, it's a feature of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Many other countries use professional judges instead, and we do not call them violators of human rights.

So to Franklin Roosevelt's reformulation of rights in the Four Freedoms, esp "freedom from want." This is the present dilemma. the right to food & shelter? Then the right to health care? The right to free Wi-Fi?

And who pays?

My purpose here is not to litigate the issues of our times, but to illustrate that "rights' can be inalienable or they can be conventional, i.e., the result of a convention, of politics.

[As for Randy Barnett, his "presumption of liberty" in the Founding ignores their unspoken but understood self-limitation on it, the "natural law." The difference between liberty and license, as Locke says in another context. The "presumption of liberty" does not extend to "license." That it does is a modern---libertarian I suppose---POV and argument, not the Founders'.

This isn't to say the Constitution prohibits such a view via legislation, only to say the Constitution does not demand Dr. Barnett's view a priori. The Constitution permits both natural law and libertarian regimes.