Friday, July 3, 2020

Steven Green: "The Religious Beliefs of the Founders Don’t Always Fit in Present-Day Categories"

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Steven Green's response after Mark David Hall's initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Green:
I agree with most of Professor Kidd’s observations. As I suggested in my essay, we should resist forcing twenty-first century categorizations about belief onto those leaders of the founding generation who were, by all accounts, complex individuals. The presence of Christianity (Protestantism) in the founding culture was ubiquitous, so commentators should resist attempts to segregate its religious aspects from its secular ones. All of the founders were religiously literate—something that stands in stark contrast to many political leaders today—and were comfortable discussing religious ideas. But they were also synthesizers of Enlightenment rationalism and Whig political theories. Professor Kidd and I agree that “deism” was a broad and ill-defined perspective, at least its American variant. That’s why I prefer—like Professor Kidd—to consider figures like Washington and Jefferson theistic rationalists. But they were not conventional Christians.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh God not the "theistic rationalists" garbage again.

"Their rationalist leanings led them to ground the authority for government in Enlightenment notions of natural rights and the consent of the governed, not in some higher authority."

Consent of the governed may easily be found in 16th century pre-Enlightenment Christian political theology, in the Catholics Bellarmine and Suarez [Grotius's chief influence] and for example in the highly influential Calvinist tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos, which "was printed twelve times in Latin, and translated into English in 1581, 1648, and 1689 (the latter two being revolutionary years in England). In 1683, the despotic Stuart monarchy in England order the book burned." [Suarez' in Defensio fidei was also burned by James I in 1613.]

Calvin himself, toward the end of his career, advocated in theory and practice representative government "by common consent" in both Church and State as the "best condition by far"; "and even when men become kings by hereditary right this (does not seem consistent with liberty) ".'1

And we need not look far to see where natural rights were indeed grounded in a higher authority.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"

If this is a "rationalist" argument, it is certainly not a secular one.

1 HD Foster [1916], "The Political Theories of Calvinists before the Puritan Exodus to America"

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