Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Observation on Bill Federer's Recent Article

So I linked to Ed Brayton's criticisms of Bill Federer's recent Christian nationalist article. I read Federer's article. This part struck me:
After being president of Harvard, Samuel Langdon was a delegate to New Hampshire’s ratifying convention in 1788. The Portsmouth Daily Evening Times, Jan. 1, 1891, accredited to Samuel Langdon: “by his voice and example he contributed more perhaps, than any other man to the favorable action of that body” which resulted in New Hampshire becoming the 9th State to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus putting it into effect. There Rev. Samuel Langdon gave a speech titled ‘The Republic of the Israelites An Example to the American States, June 5, 1788, which was instrumental in convincing delegates to ratify the U.S. Constitution:
Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz. – That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured … and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ…a complete revelation of his will … it will be your wisdom … to … adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.”
I understand why a Mormon would believe in the theology of Langdon's address, precisely because of when and where Mormonism was founded. Mormonism incorporates various eccentric late 18th Century Americanist historical dynamics into its theology. For instance, they believe as a matter of doctrine that America’s Constitution was a divinely inspired document.

Because orthodox Christianity was founded one thousand and some hundred odd years before America and thus teaches nothing special about America as a particular country, serious scholars of political theology, many of whom devoutly believe in orthodox Christianity and try to get the faith right, understand these sermons and their premises differently.

I’m thinking of among others Drs. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Robert Kraynak, Gregg Frazer and John Fea.

The notion that Ancient Israel had a “republic” that could serve as an example to the newly established “United States” is as much a creation of Whig and Enlightenment thought as it is “biblical.” And since the concept of a “republic” actually derives from the Ancient Greco-Roman tradition (for whom America’s Founders had an affinity) arguably that ideological strand gets dragged in too here.

As Dr. Frazer observes on the content of this and related sermons:
[They] seem to depict God’s role as something similar to Rousseau’s legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon’s sermon] “for their happiness” rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignly determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau’s legislator).
— Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.
If I remember correctly, Dr. Frazer claims Samuel Langdon was a "theistic rationalist" not a "Christian." This may not be correct insofar as the "theistic rationalists" were not orthodox on matters like Trinity and other traditional doctrines of the faith. Langdon may well have been an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

One thing Dr. Frazer claims about the "theistic rationalists" is that their God (unlike the "Christian" God) was man made; the key Founders and those who influenced them remade God in their image. So Rev. Langdon may have been an orthodox Christian. But it seems he's still revising the biblical record.

I don't think there's any question that Elias Boudinat was an orthodox Christian.  But he did something very similar when he claimed that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel. And as with the notion that the Ancient Israelis had a "republic," this notion too was originally posited by European Rabbis.

21 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

De Republica Hebraeorum (also known as Respublica Hebraeorum and The Hebrew Republic)

1617

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrus_Cunaeus

I don't really care about the opinion of liberal historians who have their own axes to grind [just as the right-wing ones do]. The idea was well known, and undoubtedly had an influence on the founding that is difficult to quantify directly.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured ...."

Bold face is mine.

This is certainly a "classically liberal" sermon, the kind America's Founders dug. Dr. Frazer's point (made after the uber-Catholic Robert Kraynak, and some others) is when you hear things like liberty, equality and rationality being preached from the pulpit, it's something foreign to traditional Christianity which has snuck in.

Lex Lata said...

"And since the concept of a 'republic' actually derives from the Ancient Greco-Roman tradition (for whom America’s Founders had an affinity) arguably that ideological strand gets dragged in too here."

"Affinity" is probably an understatement. :) The Federalist Papers contain numerous references to classical political history and philosophy, for example, and Adams couldn't shut up about the governments of Greek and Roman antiquity in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.

Yet there's no discussion of an ancient Hebrew res publica there, nor in any other contemporary American constitutional writings of analogous stature that come to mind (I could be missing something, natch). If the narrative had some level of general or ambient popularity, I wouldn't be surprised, but the principal political theorists of the founding generation don't seem to have given it thorough consideration in print. Nor would I expect to see much of that, even among the more devout and orthodox. Regardless of whether the Israelites ever operated under a republic (however one defines that term), the ideas of government portrayed in the OT reflect largely theocratic and monarchical thinking--something the Framers were strongly inclined to reject.

Jonathan Rowe said...

LL:

I'm inclined to agree with your analysis. While the principal Founders were busy envisioning themselves as revived Roman republicans, the pulpits did have figures like Rev. Langdon who argued the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic."

I agree, it wasn't a "republic," but some kind of theocracy. But Whig thought packages ideas to fit a particular way of thinking. And that was the "republic" (what today we might term democratic-republic) was the "only" viable form of government.

Jesus of course, spoke of a Kingdom of Heaven. The revisionist pulpit actually had at one point substituting the term "Kingdom" for "republic." As in Jesus' "republic of Heaven."

Jonathan Rowe said...

And let me put a personal card on the table. My religious sentiments sometimes change from day to day, but I am most certainly not an atheist.

I don't have a problem with freethinking in religious matters where the record gets revised and reunderstood. But that, it seems to me, is exactly what is going on.

But, the past is a foreign country as historians are apt to say. The late 18th Century was the era of "classical liberalism."

Modern lefty liberal theology may well be revising the record too. But it's a different system, a different worldview.

One of my favorite non-rationalist figures from the late 18th Cen. is Swedenborg. I don't think I've read a thing from him that I would call a "bad idea" or something I disagree with.

However, I'm just not convinced his ideas, however much I might like them, were actually revealed to him when he visited Heaven and Hell.

Lex Lata said...

Hi, Jon.

To be clear, I think in theory a republic could possess theocratic characteristics, and I don't have a firm opinion one way or the other as to whether there existed an ancient Hebrew republic. The question turns principally on the definition or connotation of "republic" one applies. My natural instinct would be to use the more modern, post-Revolutionary formulation of a system of popular sovereignty, accountable representation, the rule of law, and "no more kings," in the words of Schoolhouse Rocks. But res publica/republic has enjoyed significant elasticity in practice, as Madison complained in Federalist 39.

Lex Lata said...

Sorry, that should be "Schoolhouse Rock!" Accurate citation matters.

Lee ewell said...

IMHO, I would describe ancient Israel as a theocratic kingdom. It started out as a tribal chiefdom and evolved into a hereditary monarchy that God promised would last forever (2 Sam 7). Throw in Mosaic Law and, well, you get the picture. Not much of a "thing of the people" or state commonly owned by the people going on.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Wearin' me out here. Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. The concept was clearly well-known.

Thomas Paine, "Common Sense" 1776

Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As I understand, the notion that the Hebrews had a kind of republic was well known among the colonists. And Eric Nelson's work is where we see the European genealogy of the this notion (his work also interestingly connects such notion of "republicanism" with something that is more economically egalitarian than what that era's "liberal" thought produced).

This is Whig ideology. The notion is the "republic" is if not the only valid form of government, the most preferable. Monarchy is either invalid or less preferable.

If the Christian religion was to be venerated by the people, it had to be made to "fit" with such sentiments. That's what we see Paine doing. That he turned out to be no Christian is no surprise in this sense.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The near-unanimous credit given to the "invisible hand" of Providence in creating America is far beyond what is claimed for Whiggism here. Frazer's attempt to tie in Rousseau and thereby the continental Enlightenment misses the mark widely.

The problem with "Enlightenment" as a concept is that in Europe, Spinoza and Descartes were the spearpoint against religion. As such they are irrelevant to the American context, and mostly irrelevant to the British one as well.

What Paine himself believed is of zero consequence; in 1776 he was taken at face value as a biblical Christian. Indeed, as his heterodoxy became well-known, his star fell from the American firmament.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't know enough about Spinoza or Descartes to comment. Though I seriously doubt Descartes from exoteric proof quotes (the kind used to prove Locke's Christianity) would qualify as a strict deist as opposed to some kind of freethinking Christian.

https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101012182606AAWKKdx

Likewise Rousseau exoterically claimed to be a Christian.

http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/rousseau.txt

I don't know why you would rope Rousseau in with Spinoza and Descartes. Most scholars lump Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as representing three different strands of enlightenment thought, but all tied together in the concept of "state of nature"/social contract and rights.

The idea that the Ancient Israelis had a republic came from Europe and then was imported into America. A lot of it from Great Britain. But some from the continent as well.

And Nelson puts Rousseau, with Montesquieu as notable thinkers in this European "republican" tradition that traces back to Cunaeus in 1617.

"It is a measure of [James] Harrington’s remarkable influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought. Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life."

[...]

"European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind. Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice. Republican political theory would now embrace neither the protection nor the abolition of private property, but rather its redistribution. The coercive power of the state would be used to impose limits on private wealth, and to generate a roughly egalitarian diffusion of property throughout the commonwealth."

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2016/04/drs-noam-chomsky-eric-nelson-and.html

Lex Lata said...

Hi, Tom.

"The concept was clearly well known." Dunno if you're also talking to me, but just in case, and just so I'm clear--my thesis is not that the Founders/Framers had never heard of a Hebrew republic.

Rather, I contend that the works of republican/federal advocacy we have from the Founding's principal constitutional theorists (Adams, Jay, Madison, and Hamilton, but YMMV) seem to give the idea little, if any, consideration--especially when compared to their copious and sometimes exhausting explorations of the governments of Greek and Roman antiquity. The relative silence strikes me as especially conspicuous with Adams, who spent a couple hundred pages of his Defence exploring the pros and cons of various "ancient republics" in detail, and dedicated entire chapters/letters to discussions specifically of Carthage, Rome, Sparta, Athens, Achaea, etc. Ancient Israel receives no such deluxe treatment.

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." I use that line a fair amount myself, but it really depends on context, doesn't it? Our house has no cat food, no litter box, no cat toys, no cat hair all over our furniture and clothes. Those absences are decent evidence we don't have a cat.

That Adams, Madison, etc., paid so little attention to the idea of a Hebrew republic, especially while writing so often (and sometimes at such length) about other governments of antiquity in pieces meant for public consumption, supports an inference they didn't find the notion all that compelling or useful.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't know enough about Spinoza or Descartes to comment. Though I seriously doubt Descartes from exoteric proof quotes (the kind used to prove Locke's Christianity) would qualify as a strict deist as opposed to some kind of freethinking Christian.

Likewise Rousseau exoterically claimed to be a Christian.

I don't know why you would rope Rousseau in with Spinoza and Descartes.


Because they represent the continental Enlightenment, and as such really have little relevance to the Anglo-American one.

That's why they draw the distinction between the former and latter in the first place. It's key to the discussion!

Most scholars lump Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as representing three different strands of enlightenment thought, but all tied together in the concept of "state of nature"/social contract and rights.

Yes and no. True that Locke is social contract, but the Americans de-emphasized that component of his thought to the point that it pretty much disappeared. Remember, the Founders' Locke is not necessarily the "real" Locke.


Hobbes was despised, of course, and beyond perhaps Jefferson, Rousseau is irrelevant in the American context as well.

The idea that the Ancient Israelis had a republic came from Europe and then was imported into America. A lot of it from Great Britain. But some from the continent as well.

And Nelson puts Rousseau, with Montesquieu as notable thinkers in this European "republican" tradition that traces back to Cunaeus in 1617.


Well, he's the scholar and I'm sure he's right but Rousseau's spawn, the French Revolution, is as far from a Hebrew republic as you can get. Perhaps the "real" Rousseau is somehow down with the concept dep down in his writings, but that's academic. In the real world he could not have been perceived as anything but.

Again, we are doing not "political philosophy" as Leo Strauss calls it, but more a forensic pathology of "philosophical politics," if I may. Not the lofty thoughts of the philosophers as such, but how the lesser lights, the "gentlemen," weaponized them and sometimes even put them into practice.

I was going to comment further on your exc comment, but I'd like to leave off here, as I think this is the sweet spot of the discussion. [The agrarian stuff was a philosophical and political dead end anyway.]

The Founders were not genuine philosophers but they were "gentlemen" like you find in Plato's dialogues starring Socrates--largely of the privileged class, young men who were excited by politics and sincerely wanted to use the wisdom of the ages to remake the world, to find--found!--what Strauss calls the "best regime."

Thx again for the ace reply, blogbrother. This is a return to what this blog has historically been about.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Lex Lata said...
Hi, Tom.

"The concept was clearly well known." Dunno if you're also talking to me, but just in case, and just so I'm clear--my thesis is not that the Founders/Framers had never heard of a Hebrew republic.

Rather, I contend that the works of republican/federal advocacy we have from the Founding's principal constitutional theorists (Adams, Jay, Madison, and Hamilton, but YMMV) seem to give the idea little, if any, consideration--especially when compared to their copious and sometimes exhausting explorations of the governments of Greek and Roman antiquity. The relative silence strikes me as especially conspicuous with Adams, who spent a couple hundred pages of his Defence exploring the pros and cons of various "ancient republics" in detail, and dedicated entire chapters/letters to discussions specifically of Carthage, Rome, Sparta, Athens, Achaea, etc. Ancient Israel receives no such deluxe treatment.

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." I use that line a fair amount myself, but it really depends on context, doesn't it? Our house has no cat food, no litter box, no cat toys, no cat hair all over our furniture and clothes. Those absences are decent evidence we don't have a cat.

That Adams, Madison, etc., paid so little attention to the idea of a Hebrew republic, especially while writing so often (and sometimes at such length) about other governments of antiquity in pieces meant for public consumption, supports an inference they didn't find the notion all that compelling or useful.


"Lex," thx for yr reply and you are such a welcome addition to the proceedings hereabouts. Erudite, sharp and honest is all one could ever dare to hope for from an interlocutor. To business:

"Affinity" is probably an understatement. :) The Federalist Papers contain numerous references to classical political history and philosophy, for example, and Adams couldn't shut up about the governments of Greek and Roman antiquity in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.

I think that's why I took such an interest in "Common Sense," having studied "political philosophy" per Plato and Leo Strauss. And, beyond Strauss--Aquinas and the Calvinists, but that's another story, though relevant to our task here.

http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/catholic-sources-and-the-declaration-of-independence.html

http://www.davekopel.com/Religion/Calvinism.htm

This ain't no David Barton shit around here. It's not about cosmic or biblical truth

;-P

it's "what was the religious landscape of the Founding era?"

That's the history part. The rest is up to 21st century America. The thesis here is only that the Constitution neither requires nor forbids a religious nation, say a [Judeo-] Christian one.

To circle back to the point of "forensic political philosophy," and to your point above--John Adams's influence on the founding of the republic ended somewhere around July 4, 1776. He did not help win the war except in the diplomatic mission to France, he did not participate in drafting the US Constitution. His service as Washington's VP was undistinguishhed, as was his presidency. Like George HW Bush, he was more a witness to history than a maker of it.

I put it to you, Lex--whoEVER quoted Adams' Defence of the Constitution? Adams was a ninny. A learned ninny, true, but nobody gave a damn what he said about anything--and least of all his "friend" Jefferson, who is barely responsive to anything Adams actually wrote to him in their decade-long correspondence.

Adams and Jefferson are the biggest dead ends in American "political philosophy." Neither won the Revolution, neither framed the Constitution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

__________________

Hey, "Lex," as a thought experiment, I submit as a debate topic:

Resolved: Aside for Adams' instigation of revolt, Jefferson's preamble to the D of I and his [unconstitutional?] Louisiana Purchase.

Historians spend so much time on Jefferson and Adams precisely because they wrote so much, and we still have their writings.

Actually, we shouldn't call them "historians." They are scholars. A scholar of philosophy is no more a philosopher than an audiophile with an encyclopedic record collection is a musician.

Oh, I just made the opening argument, din't I?

;-)

Problem is that the scholars Jon mentioned above could never agree to a debate that proposes that when it comes to understanding our past, they might be bullshit.

Floor's yours.



Big dunghill, precious few diamonds.

Lex Lata said...

Hi, Tom.

There's quite a bit going on there, so I won't address everything you've written.

1. "Historians spend so much time on Jefferson and Adams precisely because they wrote so much, and we still have their writings." In many respects, I think that's likely correct. Given history's reliance on the written record, there's a selection bias inherent to the enterprise. The literate and prolific naturally leave more grounds for analysis behind than the illiterate or the laconic. (That Jefferson and Adams served as President didn't hurt.)

2. "whoEVER quotes Adams' Defence of the Constitution[s]?" Off the top of my head, I can recall authors quoting the Defence for Adams' thoughts on secular government and gun rights.

But that's rather beside my point, as is Adams' absence from the Constitutional Convention. I mention the Defence not because of any influence its contents might have had on readers, but because it is an especially large (if sometimes cloudy) window into the thinking of a leading commenter on republican and constitutional ideas at the time. Adams' comparative silence on the notion of a Hebrew republic (when he goes on ad nauseum about other ancient republics) is one piece of evidence suggesting that the idea didn't loom especially large in the minds of this country's early political theorists and practitioners. Madison's silence is another piece. Hamilton's, another. Etc. When these fellas analyzed ancient republics to develop or defend specific republican constitutional ideas being put into actual practice, they looked to Tacitus and Polybius and Cicero, not Moses and Joshua and David.

JMS said...

Great discussion! I second Jon's agreement with Lex Lata's analysis.

But back to Federer's usage of the Lutz article, Lutz clearly refutes Federer's claims. Here is what Lutz wrote:

“The Pattern of Citations from 1787 to 1788 – Tables 4 and 5 illustrate the pattern of citations surrounding the debate on the U.S. Constitution. The items from which the citations for these two tables are drawn come close to exhausting the literature written by both sides. The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible had little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists' inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.” (pp. 194-195)

The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought Author(s): Donald S. Lutz Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 189-197 Published by: American Political Science Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1961257

Lex Lata said...

JMS: Interesting. Just for fun, I took a slightly different and much lazier approach than Lutz, and ran some word searches in The Federalist Papers, with the following results:

Rome--17 (Roman--9)
Greece--17 (Greek--4)
Achaean--17
Sparta--12
Athens--10 (Athenian--8)
Carthage--7
Lycia--4
Israel--0
Judea--0
Jerusalem--0
Jews/Jewish--0
Hebrew/Hebraic--0

A bit gimmicky perhaps, and I don't want to overstate things--many of the Framers readily used Judeo-Christian allusions in plenty of other contexts. Here, though, when invoking governments of antiquity to publicly explain and justify the architecture of a written Constitution for a federal republic, the Artists Formerly Known as Publius steered clear of the OT.

Lex Lata said...

Thought y'all might find this amusing, if you didn't already know about it. I recalled that Adams had a low opinion of Paine, and finally looked the specifics up. Here's Adams reminiscing (two or three decades later) about a conversation he had with Paine regarding Common Sense: "I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me."

The picture that emerges is of a conflict between a near-heretical revolution-rouser who disingenuously and enthusiastically invokes the OT in a discussion on government, and the relatively more religious, sober technician of law and politics who finds the argument "ridiculous." Putting the question of Adams' accuracy aside, that's kinda funny.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The picture that emerges is of a conflict between a near-heretical revolution-rouser who disingenuously and enthusiastically invokes the OT in a discussion on government

Actually, it tells us what we REALLY need to know--the religious landscape of the Founding era. Paine eventually showed his true colors, and became a pariah.