Saturday, June 16, 2018

Robert Kraynak: "Catholicism and the Declaration ..." Part III

I Six Sources of the American Political Tradition 
One important source is Protestant Christianity, ... The political creed of the American Puritans ... was "covenantal theology"-a sort of Old Testament Christianity that saw the American Puritans as New Israelites whom God had chosen to build a godly nation in this new land that would be "a city upon a hill" or a New Jerusalem. Their polity was a theocracy governed by a spiritual elite of "visible Saints" who were bound by a covenant with God to implement His divine law and by a covenant with the people to respect their consent. Other dissenting Protestants, such as Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites, were not tolerated by the Puritans, but the dissenting sects have outlived the Puritans in later centuries because they have been less theocratic than the Puritans and more willing to accept religious liberty. Though the old Puritans are gone, a pale reflection of their original covenantal theology remains today in the vision of a divinely chosen Christian America among certain Protestants of the Christian Coalition (but rarely among Catholics, for whom America has never been a chosen land or New Jerusalem in the Biblical sense). Protestant Christianity has profoundly shaped American political culture, providing the inspiration for many social movements (including intense antiCatholicism at times), and continues today in various diluted and embattled forms. 
This is the kernel of truth in the "Christian America" thesis. However, orthodox Protestant scholars have rejected this thesis in part because it's bad theology. We continue:
A second source of the American political tradition is English common law. Unlike natural law or constitutional law, common law is loosely codified customary law-a compendium of practices, statutes, and judicial decisions that together make up the historic rights and privileges of Englishmen. ... 
... In a recent book, The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, andthe American Tradition, M. Stanton Evans argues that notions of freedom and consent in America owe more to common law and feudal contracts than to Enlightenment theories of individual rights. James R. Stoner also notes the influence of common law on America's "unwritten constitutionalism." Stoner argues that the long list of grievances in the central part of the Declaration of Independence (largely unread today) were taken from traditional English common law principles, such as trial by jury, opposition to the quartering of troops without consent, and opposition to taxation without consent. Robert L. Clinton also argues in God and Man in the Law that many provisions of the U. S. Constitution were specifically taken from English common law (a traditional, particularistic claim) and to the natural rights of all mankind (a rational, universalistic claim) in justifying their actions.

A third element of the American political tradition is also part of the English heritage, namely, an aristocratic notion of gentleman statesmanship. Some of the great Puritan leaders, such as John Winthrop, were gentleman rulers who appealed to social hierarchy as well as to covenant theology for their authority. Many leaders of the American Revolution, as well as many framers of the U. S. Constitution, were members of Virginia and Massachusetts dynasties of political families and social elites. Though not possessing hereditary titles or noble birth in the feudal sense, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and others were not simply men of the people, either. They were gentlemen politicians-members of the social aristocracy (some possessing landed estates) who constituted an educated and cultivated elite enjoying the leisure to devote their lives to politics, manners, war, and scholarship.  
The reference to "sacred honor" at the end of the Declaration of Independence is undoubtedly a reflection of the gentlemen's code of honor-a pledge to dedicate their lives, fortunes, and honor to the cause of the Revolution. ... For the first generation of the American republic, they stood as a quasi-aristocratic counterweight to the democratic revolution that they fostered; and even those among them who were completely selfmade men, such as Benjamin Franklin, were molded by the manners of courts and aspired to some of the social distinctions of gentlemen. They were (somewhat inconsistently) gentlemen politicians dedicated to republican government. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

"However, orthodox Protestant scholars have rejected this thesis in part because it's bad theology. "

An odd and out-of-place editorial insertion on your part in Kraynak's thoughts. And it depends on what "orthodox Protestants" you mean. Mostly left-liberals like Mark Noll and John Fea, and the occasional outlier like fundamentalist Gregg Fraser?

Is liberal Christianity "orthodox?"

Tom Van Dyke said...

Historian Paul Johnson:

As he made clear in his first inaugural address, the dispute between North and South, and its resolution, would illustrate the way in which the democratic process was divinely inspired: “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? . . . If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.” He added that “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favoured land” could still solve “our present difficulty.”

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, he appealed both to world opinion and God for approval; or, as the text has it, “I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favour of Almighty God.” Lincoln confided to his cabinet that the timing was determined by what he considered to be divine intervention in the Battle of Antietam. The Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted in his diary, “He remarked that he had made a vow, "a covenant,” that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle he would consider it an indication of the Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of the slaves. He was satisfied it was right”and confirmed and strengthened in his action by the vow and its results.”

Probably no man ever reflected more deeply on the relationship between religion and politics than Lincoln, the archetypal American statesman. To clarify his own thought, he wrote on a slip of paper, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest and wills that it should not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

These reflections he recast into a famous passage in his second inaugural address. It is impossible to imagine Lincoln’s European contemporaries Napoleon III, Bismarck, Gambetta, Thiers, Garibaldi, Cavour, Marx, or Disraeli thinking in these terms. Gladstone, it is true, might have done so, but he would not have ventured to publicize his thinking in a critical address—or even to his cabinet colleagues. Lincoln did so in the certainty that most of his countrymen and women could and did think along similar lines.

It is because religion was the determining factor in the two decisive events of American history, the Revolution and the Civil War, that Americans have continued to accord it a special place in their political process, both at the popular and at the highest level.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's not just Mark Noll. There were two other co-authors to Noll's book to which I linked who are every bit as orthodox and distinguished as Noll is.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Drs. Noll, Hatch, Marsden, Frazer, Fea, and add to that orthodox Catholics Kraynak and now Deneen on the same page here. Not so easy to handwave and dismiss this group.

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