Saturday, August 29, 2020

More From Allan Bloom on Revolutions in Modernity

What we saw last post is Allan Bloom asserting "modernity" began with three revolutions: English, American and French. I want to continue with this section of "The Closing of the American Mind," this time on pages 160-61:

Americans found little to charm them in the ancien regime in France. Its throne and altar were the very reality of, respectively, the unjust inequality and the prejudice that the American regime was intended to replace in the world. America, they believed, would succeed in its project with relative ease because we began here with the equality of conditions. Americans did not have to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it. But the need to do all this, plus the presence of the Parisian mob, which could not accept the rule of law, prevented the French from attaining the reasonable consensus required for orderly democratic government. 

But another view of these events dominated public discussion on the Continent. To some Europeans, the Americans represented an intolerable narrowing of the human horizon, and the price paid for their decent order and prosperity was too high. The French aristocracy had a nobility, brilliance and taste that contrasted sharply with the pettiness and grayness of liberal society's commercial life and motives. The loss of what that aristocracy represented would impoverish the world. More important, the religion that was dismantled could be thought to express the depth and seriousness of life. If the noble and the sacred cannot find serious expression in democracy, its choiceworthiness becomes questionable. These are the arguments, the special pleading of the reactionaries, the disinherited of the ancien regime.

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property? Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? Communism or socialism never really made much headway against the respect for private property in the United States. Locke's definition of property suited, and still suits, our tempers perfectly, and Rousseau's critique of it made almost no impression here, although it was and remains very potent in Europe. And freedom for us meant merely acting as one pleases, restricted only by the minimum demands of social existence. We had not adequately understood what really setting laws for ourselves required, nor had we gone beyond the merely negative freedom of satisfying brutish impulsion. As for religion, the domesticated churches in America preserved the superstition of Christianity, overcoming of which was perhaps the key to liberating man. Should a good regime be atheistic, or should it have a civil religion? And, finally, what in the world can we do with the Napoleonic —heroic ambition and military glory—other than ignore or debunk it? 

Such were the questions raised on the slaughter-bench of History by the French Revolution, questions that we were not eager to hear. ...

So we see that "modernity" was brought to the world by means of revolutions fought for similar ideals (though not the exact same and in this case the devil may be in the details), first in Great Britain, then America, then in France. 

I agree with Bloom that America was lucky that it didn't have "to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it" and that was a large part of why America more successfully implemented the principles of liberal democracy than France did.

Though as Gregg Frazer has noted, the Loyalists in America weren't exactly treated with kid gloves. And as I have noted, the Anglican establishment at the state level was defenestrated. By this time, Americans were already highly suspicious of the Anglican establishment across the ocean. We could only imagine what would have occurred if the Church of England was uniformly established in the American colonies at the time of the American revolution. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Allan Bloom on the Big Three Liberal Revolutions

I strongly recommend Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and Leo Strauss' "Natural Right and History," not necessarily because I endorse everything in them; there is much in both books with which to disagree. Sometimes strongly.

Rather it's the way Strauss and his followers, especially Bloom attempt to penetrate the past great thinkers and historical events. The seriousness; the intensity. They truly give you a "grand tour" if you can stick around and follow them until the end.

And the part of the tour which explores the American founding is as contentious as it is illuminating. Below, I'm going to reproduce an excerpt from "The Closing of the American Mind" where Bloom deals with the big three revolutions of liberal democracy: English, American, and French. 

Bloom popularly appealed to a "conservative" (right of center) audience; but I think the book's appeal transcends politics. On the section I will reproduce, instead of writing something that would tickle the ears of the conservatives, where the American revolution was "good" and the French was "bad," etc., he gives us a different honest, interesting, informed take.

Bloom does not see "revolutions" -- any of them -- as either conservative or "Christian"* events. The three revolutions each were unique and could be viewed as sui generis. Or we could view them, as Bloom does, as part a larger connected history.

From pages 158-59:

Modernity is constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed, and made possible by a new science of nature that masters and conquers nature, providing prosperity and health. This was a self-conscious philosophical project, the greatest transformation of man's relations with his fellows and with nature ever effected. The American Revolution instituted this system of government for Americans, who in general were satisfied with the result and had a pretty clear view of what they had done. The questions of political principle and of right had been solved once and for all. No further revolution would be necessary, if revolution means changing of the fundamental principles of legitimacy, in accordance with reason and the natural order of things, and requiring armed combat against those who adhere to old orders and their unjust forms of rule. Revolution, a new word in the political vocabulary, which first referred to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, made in the name of very much the same principles as ours, is akin to the movement of the sun from night to day.

The French Revolution, called a new dawn by Kant, was a much greater event than the American Revolution in the eyes of the world at that time because it concerned one of the two great powers in it, the veritable school of Europe, with one of the oldest and most civilized peoples. It was fought and won for freedom and equality, as were the English and American revolutions. It would seem to have completed the irresistible triumph of modern philosophy's project and to give a final proof of the theodicy of liberty and equality. But, unlike its predecessors, it gave birth to a dazzling array of interpretations and set off reactions in all directions that have not yet exhausted the impulse it lent to them. The Right—in its only serious meaning, the party opposed to equality (not economic equality but equality of rights)—at first wanted to undo the Revolution in the name of Throne and Altar, and this reaction probably breathed its last only with Francisco Franco in 1975. Another form of the Right, as it were a progressive Right, wanted to create and impose a new kind of inequality, a new European or German aristocracy, on the world, and it was blasted out of existence in Berlin in 1945. The Left, which intended to complete the Revolution by abolishing private property, is still quite alive but has never succeeded in doing so in those nations, particularly France, most influenced by the French Revolution. It was the Center, the bourgeois solution, which in the long run won out, but after so many regrets and so many disappointed aspirations, in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as it had in England and the United States. The last really great bourgeois-haters died at about the same time: Sartre, De Gaulle, and Heidegger. (Americans are not sufficiently aware that hatred of the bourgeois is at least as much a thing of the Right as of the Left.) One can expect a certain literary afterglow, since bourgeois-baiting is almost a reflex among writers and is unlearned with great difficulty, as was proved when so many kept at it even though there were Nazis and Communists around who might have merited their attention. In order to keep that flame alive, many literary persons interpreted Hitler as a bourgeois phenomenon, an interpretation that they have made stick by force of repetition.

Bloom has other variations on this theme in other parts of the book which I hope to reproduce and discuss sometime in the future. 

*Meaning traditional orthodox Christianity. There are plenty of varieties of Christianity. Bloom would probably argue that what's known as "liberation theology" is the theological heir to revolutions. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Virginia Constitution, "lack" of religious tests, TJ, & heresy

 I, for a long while, was under the initial impression that the 1776 Virginia Constitution can be seen as an exception when it came to the imposition of religious test oaths for public office. The following snippet had led me (and many others) in that direction:

The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide, Part 56 by John J. Dinan

Section 7. Oath Or Affirmation

All officers elected or appointed under or pursuant to this Constitution shall, before they enter on the performance of their public duties, severally take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation:

   "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as ______________ according to the best of my ability (so help me God)."

Although the current oath has been uncontroversial, previous oaths have generated significant controversy. The 1864 Constitution was the first to require officeholders to take an oath [my italics] and the purpose was to ensure that officeholders were not supporters of the Confederacy. Then, the 1867-68 Convention approved a "test-oath" that would have prevented a significant number of past supporters of the Confederacy from holding state office. Both of these oaths approved by the 1867-68 Convention provoked significant controversy, whether at the time or in coming years. [end excerpt]

A little research shows that my initial impression was wrong. As can be readily seen, the Virginia Constitution doesn't lack religious test oath legislation.  See Founders Online here, and here, and again here, which show, early on (~1779), a list of various test oaths for state office.

In Virginia, even when an oath-taker held religious scruples that person still had to “repeat the formulary, which in his opinion, is or ought to be observed on such occasions, according to the religion in which such person professeth to believe, … .” While apparently quite tolerant this particular clause put a person like Thomas Jefferson in an awkward position.

Thomas Jefferson, an unorthodox Christian, was elected Virginia Governor on June 1, 1779. According to common law & Virginia statute TJ should have served from jail. At least, that’s how Frederick Jonassen (So Help Me ?, pg. 329, footnote 148; also Bradley) put it:

Until 1786, a non-Christian in Virginia would have to keep his religious opinions to himself because of a statute that made it a criminal offence to publically utter a non-Christian view."' <148>

148 - It is not clear how these provisions were enforced, whether through religious tests or otherwise. And a “professed atheist, polytheist, or unorthodox Christian” in Virginia presumably “would have had to serve from jail, because both by common law and statute Virginia criminalized at least the public utterance of such views. Note as well that Anglicanism was "established" or preferred even to other Protestant sects in Virginia until 1786.51

Gerard V. Bradley, The No Religious Test Clause and the Constitution of Religious Liberty: A Machine That Has Gone of Itself, p. 683; 51 - Isaac, Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists' Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775, 31 WM. & MARY L. REV. 345-68 (1974); 52 - S. BOLTON, SOUTHERN ANGLICANISM 5 (1982). 

Written in 1781 and 1782, Jefferson assessed the state of religious rights in Virginia after the 1776 Constitution in his Notes on the State of Virginia Query #17 (published 1785):



The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free; but when they proceeded to form on that declaration the ordinance of government, instead of taking up every principle declared in the bill of rights, and guarding it by legislative sanction, they passed over that which asserted our religious rights, leaving them as they found them.

The same convention, however, when they met as a member of the general assembly in October 1776, repealed all acts of parliament which had rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exercising any mode of worship; and suspended the laws giving salaries to the clergy, which suspension was made perpetual in October 1779. Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wiped away, we remain at present under those only imposed by the common law, or by our own acts of assembly. At the common law, heresy was a capital offence, punishable by burning. Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canonical scriptures, or by one of the four first general councils, or by some other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express and plain words of the scriptures. Heresy, thus circumscribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October 1777, c. 17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring, that the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De haeretico comburendo. By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands [my italics].

This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.  The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hall on Rakove at Christianity Today

Mark David Hall has an article out at Christianity Today that reviews the new work by Jack Rakove on religious liberty and the American founding. A taste:

The Boundaries of Toleration

Historically, religious toleration has been the exception rather than the rule. But early modern thinkers such as John Milton and John Locke argued in favor of tolerating dissenters, and in 1689 England’s Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which offered limited protections to non-Anglican Protestants. Rakove states that the act “did not legally bind Americans,” but he suggests that it did “influence their behavior.” However, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were already doing a superior job protecting religious liberty, and many American colonies soon joined them in surpassing their mother country. (I do not mean to imply that religious liberty was always and everywhere advancing in British North America. For instance, in 1692, following the Glorious Revolution, Maryland repealed its groundbreaking 1649 toleration act.)

In the Anglo-American world, the boundaries of religious toleration were regularly tested by members of the Society of Friends—better known as Quakers. Among other peculiarities, Friends decline to swear oaths, a practice Rakove attributes to the Fourth Commandment. I suspect he means either the Second or Third Commandment’s admonition not to “take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7, ESV). (Different traditions number the commandments differently.) But even citing Exodus is incorrect—Quakers refuse to swear oaths because they take literally biblical passages such as Matthew 5:34–37, where Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all. … All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (NIV). Furthermore, Quakers are pacifists and so refuse to serve in the military. They were routinely jailed because they acted on these convictions.

In 1696, Parliament passed a law permitting Quakers in England to affirm rather than swear some oaths. However, they were not allowed to be witnesses in criminal cases or hold civic offices—disabilities that remained until 1826 and 1832, respectively. Yet as early as 1647, Rhode Island permitted them to affirm rather than swear. Many American colonies followed this example and, in addition, exempted them from militia duty. The United States Constitution bans religious tests for office and permits anyone to affirm rather than swear oaths, which enabled Quakers to serve in the national government 44 years before they could do so in England. Rakove almost completely ignores these important advances for religious liberty in America.

Hall clearly endorses religious exemptions more so than Rakove does. That's the point of the review. However, figuring out how the founding fathers/First Amendment ought to apply is complex. Like Hall, I tend to generously support religious exemptions. Though I think Justice Scalia in Employment Division v. Smith got it right that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment doesn't require such. 

That is, to the extent that these exemptions are legitimate, they are as creatures of legislatures and state constitutions. 

Further, scholars such as Marci Hamilton, Philip Hamburger and Phillip Munoz have demonstrated that such is the correct originalist understanding of religious liberty. True, America's founders did support giving exceptions and accommodations from the secular law that might burden religious practice. But did so more as a privilege that could be taken away.

(I understand this point is quite contentious in some scholarly circles; but at the moment I would kick the can to the above mentioned three scholars and can link to some of their arguments in the comment section if any readers so desire.)