Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Thoughtful Responses to a Piece I Wrote

So over at the Law and Liberty site, friend Mark David Hall has a piece that reviews Steven K. Green's new book, "The Third Disestablishment." Prof. Green is more of a "strict separationist" than Hall, and the two have previously debated on multiple occasions.

I entered the comments and ended up posting a link to a piece of mine published in 2012 entitled "Liberty For All" and received two thoughtful, lengthy responses. The first is from EK who writes:
That was a nice piece of writing. I don’t agree with much of it because I think your understandings of who the Puritans were and what the Bay Colony was all about are inaccurate but it was a nice piece of writing. I’m reminded of a pathologist examining a tissue sample looking for and so finding and describing signs of disease but silent on signs of health because. . . well . . . pathologists are paid to look for disease.   
A few years ago I began looking for the sources of the republicanism and self-government that is said to be fundamental to the American experience. I think I can safely say that reading American history should begin in 1534 with the dissolution of the monasteries and the Act of Supremacy and that our history should be read forward from that point and not backwards from the present.  
American history actually began in 1620 when Coke, after having been humiliated by James I, entered Parliament, aligned himself with the Puritan faction and began attacking Stuart notions of the divine right of kings and broad assertions of the royal prerogative. This culminated in the Petition of Right Parliament of 1628-9. The Massachusetts Bay Charter was also issued in 1628-9 and the Petition of Right is last constitutional document we share with the British.  
What the Winthrop migration did was to establish a republic where ultimate sovereignty was placed in God, not the king, and where the voters were sovereign. In 1630, the franchise to vote was limited to members of congregations but, in the case were almost all of the settlers soon became members of a congregation, this was not restrictive but rather the broadest possible extension of the franchise since it was not based on property or civil status. Six years later, Thomas Hooker and John Haynes took the more conventional approach and limited the franchise in the Connecticut Colony to 40 shilling free holders. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont followed Connecticut. Nevertheless, throughout American history this difference in the franchise does not seem to have made much difference at all in New England history.  
Special circumstances allowed the colonization to succeeded. The settlers were a stratified sample of English middle-class religious enthusiasts who shared a common culture and common vision for the future. They arrived in a land that had been depopulated in the 1610s and where the surviving Massasoits were in imminent danger of annihilation from unaffected tribes to the north, south and west. The surviving Algonquins from the Massachusetts Bay to the Connecticut River viewed cooperation with the Winthrop party as the best way to prevent further depredations and incursions from the Abenakis to the north, the Mokawks to the west and the Naragansitts, Pequods and Wampanoags to the south. The Puritans’ attitude towards the Massasoits and their affiliated clans in south-central New England was paternalistic and, to an extent, condescending but it was never intentionally cruel or exploitative. It appears that ultimately the Puritans’ Indian allies were not extirpated but rather assimilated.  
Read this way, the Puritans are not dour religious ideologues and bigots dressed in sad colors who spend all their time quoting scripture, hanging witches and Quakers and branding nice young girls with scarlet “A’s”. They become radical constitutional democratic-republicans who overthrew kings, established popular sovereignty, representative government and set men free. To an unhealthy extent the good the Puritans did was buried with them but that which was not so good has lived on and become a cartoon of evil.
And Standing Fast replied:
Jonathan Rowe: I read your article. I thought you started out really well. But, kind of got bogged down later on. I would like to address several points you made that I disagree with:

The concept of unalienable rights does not come from the Enlightenment, but derives from traditional teachings on the Ten Commandments and Cicero’s writings. Although they come from two different traditions, the principles are not incompatible. The teaching on the Ten Commandments says they were given by the Power that created the Universe whose authority supersedes any and all earthly powers. And from these commandments it is possible to infer precisely what these rights are and that they are given by God. As God is the Author of Life, Liberty and the Laws which govern the Universe, including mankind, we can say that they are unalienable. Cicero refers to a Divine power whose authority is also supreme and whose word is Law. He wrote that in order to be just, man’s laws must be consistent with God’s law.

These ideas came together in the Early Christian Church. To understand this tradition, it is necessary to study the ancient documents of the pagan world, the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, Greek and Roman law, The Holy Bible, The Code of English Common Law, Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation and Resistance Movement, the Mayflower Compact, the English Civil War, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the English Bill of Rights, the confessions of the various denominations & sects of Protestants, and America’s founding documents. After which you can begin reading the writings of the individuals who played a part in the establishment of this tradition, and be able to place them in the context of what they knew. That way, the development of these ideas is much easier to track. Who knew what and when did they know it?

Roger Williams’ religion places him outside of the Puritan fold, although for awhile he was a member of this sect. He started out as a communicating member of the Church Of England, was later ordained in the Anglican Church (Protestant in that the Pope was not the head of the church, but theology was Roman Catholic), then joined the Puritans (Low-Church Anglicans because they followed Protestant Reformed tradition and refused to use the Book of Common Prayer but believed the monarch should be the head of the church), then he joined the Separatists (exiled Puritans who did not believe the monarch should be the head of the church), then joined the Baptists (exiles and independents who came out of the Reformed and other Protestant traditions but did not believe civil government should have any power over matters of Conscience), left the Baptists because he disagreed with them on important points of theology, doctrine and church practice. More than any other individual on either side of the water, he championed Liberty of Conscience and Separation of Church & State. His influence has been under-rated by historians because they read what his enemies wrote without understanding what the arguments were about.

John Locke was influenced by Williams, Milton, Penn, Coke and others. And he, in turn, influenced Trenchard & Gordon. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Witherspoon, Thomas Paine, and the rest of the 18th Century American Political Philosophers. But, they were also influenced by people who neither knew Locke nor agreed with him.
My brief response, not meant to be comprehensive, but rather open the discussion that can proceed in the comments, follows: My main disagreement with EK is that while I try to contrast Roger Williams with the Puritans of Massachusetts who banished him as representing different visions -- Williams as an innovative hero on matters of religious liberty, with the Puritans as villains here -- EK seeks to collapse the distinction and make Williams sound not as good as he has been made out to be, and the Puritans, not as bad.

I agree more with Standing Fast on Roger Williams' innovative role as a religious liberty hero, but disagree on other things. First, while Cicero was a purported influence on the Declaration of Independence (by Thomas Jefferson himself) I'd like to see more evidence that Cicero's notion of "nature" included something like the unalienable rights of conscience (religious liberty) that Jefferson and others championed.

And the notion that the Ten Commandments are the source of "unalienable rights" is not just disputed, but arguably the opposite of what's accurate.  I spill much ink in my article explaining the tension between the First Commandment and the notion of unalienable rights of conscience that give men a right to worship no God or twenty gods, axiomatic to the unalienable rights of conscience.

This has to be answered with more than a mere assertion that the Ten Commandments are the source of "unalienable rights."

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