Wednesday, May 16, 2018

First Things: "GODLY POLITICS"

By Curt Biren here. A taste:
Citing Midrash Rabbah - Devarim, John Milton argued against monarchy and for republican government. Milton insisted that “God did not order the Israelites to ask for a king … but ‘God was angry not only because they wanted a king in imitation of the gentiles … but clearly because they desired a king at all.’” 
Milton’s views resonated with many of his contemporaries, including the English politician Algernon Sidney. For Sidney, monarchy “was purely the people’s creature, the production of their own fancy, conceived in wickedness, and brought forth in iniquity, an idol set up by themselves to their own destruction, in imitation of their accursed neighbours.” 
In 1776, during the momentous debates leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense. Influenced by Milton, Paine argued against monarchy and for republican government. Referring to 1 Samuel, Paine wrote, “These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty has here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.” 
This history tells a story very different from the conventional Enlightenment account. The political institutions of America and throughout the West today reflect at least in part the Christian Hebraists’ careful study of the Bible and related texts and commentaries. Our republican form of government was not conceived in strict separation from religious discourse, but rather as part of an extensive deliberation concerning what godly politics requires of us.
As I noted in the comments,  one question to consider is whether this is sound theology. It doesn't seem apparent that the Bible as a whole condemns monarchy; likewise it doesn't seem, either, that the ancient Hebrews understood themselves as having a "republic" (which was an Ancient Greco-Roman institution).

The contemporary scholars the original piece sources (Eric Nelson and Yoram Hazony) admit that Christians didn't "see it" in the biblical texts until certain rabbinic commentaries were discovered. And then the usage of this understanding by 17th Century European republicans -- and then Thomas Paine in the 18th Century -- seemed entirely opportunistic.

Likewise, as it pertains to America, the line of thought mentioned above was no doubt influential; but it was of a number of different strains of influence others of which perhaps didn't view the concept of "republicanism" as an authentically Hebraic thing. 
Did "Publius" in the Federalist Papers have this understanding? Not from what I remember.

Further, I note Eric Nelson stresses that key to the thought of the Hebraic republicans was economic redistribution through a revised understanding of Agrarian laws that in principle limited how much wealth individuals could own and redistributed for the sake of balance. Just as the notion that the ancient Hebrews had a "republic" was part of a revised understanding of the Old Testament, so too was the notion that the Old Testament's redistribution of land constitute a type of "Agrarian law."

As I understand it, both the concepts of "republican" forms of government AND "agrarian laws" derive solely from the pagan Greco-Roman tradition and that such concepts were "read in" to the Old Testament. I could be wrong in my humble understanding. But, according to Dr. Nelson's research, the two rise and fall together: all of the notable 17th and 18th century figures who argued the ancient Hebrews had a "republic" also argued that God instituted an original agrarian law in the Old Testament. And that BOTH the ancient Hebrew's "republic" and "agrarian law" models could provide instruction for the then present in Europe and later in America.

Finally, I note that the more liberal republicans who didn't rely on the notion that the ancient Hebrews had a republic also didn't seem to buy into the present need for Agrarian laws. James Madison is instructive here. He was more classically liberal than republican. His views on property left no room for Agrarian laws. And he, as far as I know, like the other two authors of the Federalist Papers never indicated he thought the ancient Hebrews had a "republic." 


Tom Van Dyke said...

As I noted in the comments, one question to consider is whether this is sound theology.

The historian has no special authority to enter any theological opinion, which is why I'm skeptical of those who call themselves "Christian historians."

I do not believe in such an animal, or if he exists, he must be prepared to take a step back from the rank of pure historians--say Michael Medved or Christopher Dawson, both of whom I like very much, indeed the latter far more than "pure" historians. But I would not push his POV at this blog, that the Incarnation of Christ is a reality, and human history can be viewed through no other lens.

I would also add here that the Protestant Reformation let the genie out of the bottle as to what may be called "sound theology." I'd further add that the development of British-American political theology would likely have been impossible without it, as it ended the Catholic Church's monopoly on what was and wasn't theo-politically permissible.

As for the theology of agrarian republics, let's remember that the Founders loved their Locke but rejected his untenable "labor theory of value." The Founders took no one set of theories locke, stocke & barrelle.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"As for the theology of agrarian republics, let's remember that the Founders loved their Locke but rejected his untenable "labor theory of value." The Founders took no one set of theories locke, stocke & barrelle."

I think for America's Founders, if we can say one vision prevailed, it was Madison's which saw no place for Agrarian laws.

Nelson's view -- if I understand him right -- is that for contemporary Western liberal democracies, including America, EU, the other former British colonies, and perhaps the Asian and other nations influenced by the West and that have achieved 1st world status -- the Agrarian vision prevailed in the sense that it sees a place for government redistribution of excesses. Progress income taxes, social safety net and entitlement programs, etc. Basically proto-Rawlsianism, one that accepts inequality of outcomes in principle, but also limits on wealth and the need for redistribution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The income tax was not instituted in the US until 1913, and required a constitutional amendment.

I would suggest redistributionism is a product of 19th century modernity rather than biblical or Founding principles. In a land with limitless frontiers, agrarian liberty was available to anyone willing to work for it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"I would suggest redistributionism is a product of 19th century modernity rather than biblical or Founding principles."

Here is how Nelson deals with it.

"It is a measure of 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. Before Cunaeus and Harrington, 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. Many republican thinkers continued to ground this approach in the Biblical text—from Harrington’s close friend Henry Neville, who praised Moses for having “divided the lands equally,” to the Boston Patriot Perez Fobes, who declared in a 1795 sermon that ..."

Pages 46-47 of this document.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is the quotation from Fobes' sermon:

"we feel also, and revere the wisdom of GOD in the appointment of a jubilee, as an essential article in the Jewish policy. This, it is probable, was the great palladium of liberty to that people. A similar institution perhaps may be the only method in which liberty can be perpetuated among selfish, degenerate beings in every government under heaven."

It's like with the idea that the Ancient Hebrews had a republic. We may not be able to judge on historical grounds whether it's good theology. But I'm no serious theologian of the OT or NT either. I see the situations and subsequent commands the Ancient Jews faced as in many ways sui generis. But that's not what these folks argue.

This is what Bono was all about a few years ago.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Final thought for now re these portions of the Bible and how they have impacted the modern world. It may be that it's in fact our system of bankruptcy and not necessarily redistribution through reviewed Old Testament influenced Agraraian laws that owes so much to this narrative.

Whether one is a religious conservative, moderate, libertarian or lefty liberal, I think it's pretty indisputable that the Bible is a pro-debtor book.

My old Business Associations professor, now at Penn Law, David Skeel has done serious research on this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but we and the English also had debtors' prisons. They were banned here in 1833 federally, but not in the states until later.

In your lengthy quote above, I see no American names except Jefferson, who was not involved in Virginia's or America's constitutions. His musings on political theory are largely idiosyncratic, except where he and Madison agree.

As we've noted with even Locke, the Americans took only the parts they found useful in various thinkers. As they were men of action and not merely letters--there is really no American Locke or Rousseau in that era*--the Americans may not have fancied themselves great thinkers, but did see themselves as great synthesists and practical men, taking the best of everything from Rome to the modern day.

*The closest may be Madison, but even his Virginia Plan ended up on the cutting room floor.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For example:


A sharp dissonance strikes the attuned ear. The dissonance is born from the erroneous presumptive congruence by these popular accounts between the foremost of such Framers—James Madison—and the paragon of those classical political scientists—the Baron de Montesquieu. That is, when James Madison (with the Federalists) shaped and defended throughout 1787 the document which became our Constitution, he did not follow Montesquieu’s most important admonitions, but rather presumed to “correct Montesquieu” in three cardinal ways. These “corrections” have proven both significant and unfortunate in our republic’s life. Madison should have stayed the Montesquieuan course, as his Antifederalist opponents pointed out at the time.

Popular accounts of this on talk radio—by conservatives with whom one usually agrees—have missed the memo. And the big idea. Recently in my car I heard a popular radio conservative giving voice to precisely this false equation: “Madison read and followed the dictates of Montesquieu.”

No, he did not. After reading Montesquieu’s most important admonitions in Spirit of the Laws, Madison decided that he could outsmart him. The Montesquieuan admonitions were actually limitations on what a well-functioning republic could allow, and thus, be. And Madison got greedy, not wanting to abide by those limitations.

First, Montesquieu required republican governments to maintain limited geographic scale. Second, Montesquieu required republican governments to preside over a univocal people of one creed and one mind on most matters. A “res publica” is a public thing valued by each citizen, after all. “How could this work when a republic is peopled diversely?” the faithful Montesquieuan asks. (Nowadays in America, for example, half the public values liberty and the other half values equality, its eternal opposite.) Thirdly—and most important—Montesquieu mandated that the three branches of government were to hold three distinct, separate types of power, without overlap.

Before showing just how correct Montesquieu was—and thus, how incorrect Madison was—it must be articulated that in the great ratification contest of 1787-1788, there operated only one faithful band of Montesquieu devotees: the Antifederalists. They publicly pointed out how superficial and misleading were the Federalist appropriations of Montesquieu within the new Constitution and its partisan defenses...

Jonathan Rowe said...

The reason for the lack of American focus in the quotation by Nelson is because his thesis isn't necessarily about America but rather geopolitical. Though it's the 1st world, which is America, the EU, former Brit. colonies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and arguably some Asian nations.

He particularly focuses on "republicanism" as a geopolitical movement. As noted the classical liberals of that era, like Madison, were less concerned about economic egalitarianism. Nelson goes so far as to say liberalism through Rawls wasn't as concerned about economic egalitarianism as the "republicans" whose thought he features (17th Century Europeans).

"Before pointing out the irony of this account, it is important to acknowledge its force. It is, after all, undoubtedly the case that the “priority of liberty” in present-day liberal political philosophy significantly constrains the range of responses it can offer to the problem of economic inequality. Even John Rawls, however strongly he might reject the perspective of his more libertarian critics, nonetheless insists that inequality per se is not inconsistent with the principles of justice. On his view, as long as the position of the least well-off social group is improved under a particular economic arrangement, it does not matter that the arrangement in question might improve the situation of the most would be preferred even if it would result in greater inequality. So the notion that contemporary liberalism is, to a certain degree, indifferent to the demands of equality seems reasonably uncontroversial. It is also the case that, beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, an important strand of republican political theory developed which did indeed advocate the imposition of a rough equality in holdings—and to that degree can certainly be recruited to challenge the liberal perspective. What is not appreciated, however, is that this seventeenth-century development represented the most dramatic possible break with the earlier tradition of republican thought, which had accorded enormous respect to private property rights, and had exhibited a particular horror of coercive attempts to redistribute wealth."

That's on pages 2 & 3 of the above linked Word document.

I do find it interesting in that many notable left of center scholars who appreciate the American Founding and its antecedents -- the ones who aren't trying to debunk it all -- seem to stress "republicanism" prevailing over "liberalism."

Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for the lengthy quote. As much as Eric Nelson is selling a powerful connection between the Bible and republicanism [via a "Hebrew republic"], I keep losing his train of argument--especially when modern liberalism [which I would call modernity/leftism]--is dragged in.

I submit the modern left's project is political only as far as it is economic. [We apparently not allowed to call this "Marxist."]

There were some like The Levellers or whatever that Hoagland fellow is selling who were the precursors of modern redistributivist schemes, but I see little evidence that these utopian schemes made much headway in the real world until 1917.

The great value of the "Hebrew republic" theme is that the West--may we say Christian?] world was exploring the limits of what appeared to be man's natural state, monarchy. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, although giving Parliament the last word, still didn't pitch the monarchy entirely, although it at last rested sovereignty with the people, not the crown.

Yes, it was argued that God hated monarchy per 1 Samuel, but the first step was merely to establish that republics were OK with God, and not a violation of Romans 13 [since there would always be a claimant to the throne with some degree of legitimacy].

What shape the republic took once established, "agrarian" or commercial [as it turned out], was of far less biblical concern.

Actually, considering all this, it's interesting they didn't talk much of the Italian commercial republics [Venice, Florence, Genoa]. Probably because they were Catholic, eh? :-)