Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Forte on the Role of Religious Speech in a Republic

From David Forte. Check it out here. A taste:
The words “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” are not mere “ceremonial deism.” This phrase was made up by Eugene Rostow in 1962 when he was dean of Yale Law School, and used calculatingly and wrongly by Justice Brennan in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) to claim that these references to God “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

As Professor Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago Law School noted, “‘Ceremonial Deism’ is an odd name for a ritual affirmation that a Deist would be very reluctant to endorse, since Deists think of God as a rational causal principle but not as a personal judge and father.”
True, but two points. One is the understanding of "Deism" being offered here is that of the impersonal God of "strict Deism." Arguably there are other viable definitions of the term. However to many very learned folks in today's scholarly discourse (such as Nussbaum and Forte) that's what the term has come to mean.

Second, if you look at the utterances from the Founding era that Forte offers to support the claim, they are all, we could say, generically monotheistic: James Madison's "Governor of the Universe"; Thomas Jefferson's liberty securing, gifting "God" of justice; the "Creator" of the Declaration of Independence who endowed men with "unalienable rights"; and George Washington's "Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."

None of these is necessarily the Triune God of orthodox Christianity.  If you read Forte's article in detail, you see he attempts to answer a question posed by Justice Kagan that basically asked (my words, not hers) "what if this Court endorsed Christianity?" It doesn't but it does endorse generic God belief.

"Ceremonial Deism" is a word off putting to many of those who like terms like "so help me God" and "God save ... this Honorable Court."

What about "generic monotheism"?


Tom Van Dyke said...

What is it about academic types who have to gin up a label to slap on everything. This "lumping" almost always conceals more than it reveals.

Fact is, there is no "generic" One God in any non-Western culture with the same attributes as the God of classical theism.

Classical theism is the conception of God that has prevailed historically within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Western philosophical theism generally. Its religious roots are biblical, and its philosophical roots are to be found in the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian traditions. Among philosophers it is represented by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Avicenna. I have emphasized many times that you cannot properly understand the arguments for God’s existence put forward by classical theists, or their conception of the relationship between God and the world and between religion and morality, without an understanding of how radically classical theism differs from the “theistic personalism” or “neo-theism” that prevails among some prominent contemporary philosophers of religion. (Brian Davies classifies Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and Charles Hartshorne as theistic personalists. “Open theism” would be another species of the genus, and I have argued that Paley-style “design arguments” have at least a tendency in the theistic personalist direction.)

Daniel said...

Labels are necessary for communication. Academic conversation is not possible without using labels with complex definitions or even labels that evade precise definition. But if there is not a commonly understood definition that I share, then I need to make it clear how I am using my labels.

"Deist" seems to me to be a very useful label in describing ideas of the 19th century. But it is not so useful applied to the 18th century because it seems that it could be applied to anyone who challenged Christian orthodoxy from any rationalist perspective; often it seemed to be used as a slur rather than as a description.

Likewise, 'ceremonial deism' is more slur than definition. Without question, not everyone who uses the phrases and practices of 'ceremonial deism' is a Deist. It would be more accurate to refer to 'ceremonial monotheism'.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Depends on what you're trying to communicate. In the academic world, it's universals, but when I look at stuff like this where Islam is the elephant in the room

the only way to fit the elephant under the generic umbrella of "religion" is to cut off the trunk, the ears, the tail, and of course...the tusks.

JMS said...

Professor Forte “doth protest too much, methinks." There is demonstrable evidence of “respect for religion,” public religious speech and “space for religion” in the U.S. throughout its history and today. Did he miss Pope Francis’ and Netanyahu’s addresses to Congress, Mike Huckabee’s zingers, Sunday “blue” laws, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz at Liberty University, Dr. Carson’s address to the National Prayer breakfast or being at the top of the Iowa straw poll, or the multitude of Christian TV and radio networks and programs?

He also seems to misconstrue his own assertions about “guarding against sectarian use of government to suppress others” by quoting Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. Recall that the most famous observation from that document speaks precisely to the professor’s point. Jefferson observed, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Another one-sided observation of Professor Forte is that “virtually every major political or social reform in our nation’s history has been motivated by religious belief: common education, abolition, workers' rights, protection of women, temperance, desegregation.” That is partially true and partially false because each initiative was also opposed by equally fervent religious beliefs.