Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Acton Institute's "The Birth of Freedom":

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of seeing the premiere of the Acton Institute's "The Birth of Freedom," in Washington, DC accompanied by my friend and Positive Liberty co-blogger Jason Kuznicki and friend David Boaz.

I give it a mixed review. The production values were great. My biggest problem was with the content. And given I have very strong opinions on the subject matter, it should surprise no one that I might have issues with it.

First, in fairness, the special was only an hour and therefore time constraints prevented them from including everything they could have, everything I thought they would. I expected to respond to a different documentary. There were stronger arguments, I thought, they could have made.

The basic thesis of the movie was to show how religion (particularly Christianity) was greatly responsible for notions of human rights, particularly the classic liberty and equality rights of liberal democracy, and the consequent abolition of slavery, and formation of modern "republican" government.

The Institute features many notable scholars and academics in the Roman Catholic tradition (though the documentary had non-Catholics as well). And those scholars, for the most part, do very valuable work (Rodney Stark and Robert P. George, probably the two most notable). Contrast this to D. James Kennedy's "Christian Nation" propaganda specials, which likewise featured some prominent scholars (like Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, Donald Lutz, and Mary Thompson) but intermingled them with hucksters like David Barton, Peter Marshall and William Federer, all filtered through D. James Kennedy's extremely un-academic, distorted lens. The "Christian America" thesis, within the academic community, rightly has a reputation for being very un-scholarly, but still greatly appeals to quite sizable conservative evangelical circles.

The Acton Institute, on the other hand, uses sound scholarship, attempting to engage academia on their grounds. Mark Noll wrote a book on how evangelicals let their scholarly standards slide, how Roman Catholic intellectuals -- like those featured in First Things Magazine -- better maintain those standards. The Acton Institute follows in the "First Things" tradition of high scholarly standards.

Though more academically authentic, the Acton Institute's special to me still projected an air of superficiality. But again, perhaps this is because they only had one hour. Perhaps they have plans to market this documentary to a "mass audience" who tend not to care about scholarly footnotes.

As for the show's content, John Locke was mentioned (of course, given his centrality to the Founding, he'd have to be). And I expected them to follow the chain of tradition that traces Locke to Aquinas and then to Aristotle: Locke appealed to "the judicious Hooker" who was the Anglican heir to the Christian natural law tradition of Thomas Aquinas to which the Roman Catholic Church still adheres. And of course, Aquinas' method of appealing to "nature" and "reason" traces to Aristotle. So in Locke, it could be argued that we see the synthesized classical-Christian natural law tradition. Along the way, they could have noted Grotius and Suárez as key expositors of the traditional natural law from which John Locke drew. And of course, that case can be answered -- it could be argued that Locke was not as "authentically Christian" as some understand him to be. But I'm not going to answer that case here, because the program didn't argue it (as you would think Roman Catholic intellectuals would!).

Rather, they turned to John Witte of Emory School of Law who simply asserted that Locke drew from the Calvinist-Protestant tradition and that social contractarianism was developed in Calvin's Christendom. Now, I'm sure that Witte can make a respectable scholarly case for his thesis, but I was utterly unsatisfied by his bare assertion. When one posits novel, revisionist theses (and that's what the tenor of this special attempted -- to "revise" the current record in academia that is too slanted towards secularism), one has the burden of providing compelling evidence (i.e., I want to see the footnotes) to support the claims. Again, perhaps that evidence exists, but a one hour special full of "sound bites" might not have been the proper place to present all of it.

My understanding of Locke is that he was not at all a Calvinist, that there is no evidence that ties Locke to Calvin, other than a Calvinist component in Locke's late 17th Century British cultural environment. Some try to connect Locke to Calvin through Samuel Rutherford of Lex Rex fame. But Locke never cited Rutherford. And the program didn't even claim this.

The program also, surprisingly, avoided the scholarship of Brian Tierney, of Cornell, who traces Locke's ideas to various Roman Catholic natural law sources. As Rick Garnett put it, summarizing this body of scholarship: Arguments similar to those put forth by Locke "were advanced regularly by recusant Catholics in England, in the late 16th and very early 17th centuries." Again, this is a contentious scholarly claim and much work needs to be done in order to convince the academy of its veracity. But the program barely touched it, other than some brief assertions that human rights were developed in the Catholic Middle Ages.

The program addressed the issue of slavery and noted how the Christian West was the first to abolish slavery, a fact that academia mostly ignores. This, of course, is true.

Though, experts on slavery, most notably David Brion Davis, note it was the Quakers, in the early 1600s who first questioned the morality of the universal institution of slavery. Dr. Stark advances a novel claim that the Christian West actually abolished slavery much earlier in the Catholic dominated "Middle Ages," but that slavery somehow made a comeback for "economic" not theological reasons. The program highlighted Stark's novel assertion, without any scholarly explication, and totally avoided the Quakers' key role in 17th Century in getting the ball rolling which finally led to abolition in the West. Rather it picked up on William Wilberforce's later crusade. Perhaps that was because Wilberforce was an evangelical while the Quakers were theological liberals. In any event, even if medieval Catholics first advanced moral objections to slavery, given slavery's persistence in the West and universality until the 18th Century, it is not at all clear that these early objections to slavery were anything but aberrations in the Christian West, which traditionally justified chattel slavery on biblical and philosophical grounds. Again, the program didn't touch this historical nuance.

The program also, typical of the Christian right, bashed the French Revolution and tried to connect it with modern secular leftism. They contrasted the traditional religious beauty of the cathedral at Notre Dame with some sterile monument made to the French Revolution. As one of the first question askers, I noted that they drew a false dichotomy between America's and France's Revolutions. Sure there were differences between the two (obviously -- the two events turned out quite differently) but both appealed, at base, to the same ideals, the same Enlightenment principles of a generically defined Supreme Being who grants men unalienable rights to Liberty and Equality. I noted, these ideals, though "religious" or "theistic" were hardly "biblical." I further noted that most of the American population including George Washington and many traditional Christians supported and viewed the French Revolution as a parallel ideological event to the American -- twin republics founded on "liberty" -- and only after the fact did most folks realize the subtle but profound philosophical differences between the two. That France had an aristocracy to unseat and a national Church to disestablish most likely caused the different outcomes of the two revolutions. The response -- as expected -- was the French Revolution was more influenced by Rousseau/the French Enlightenment, the American, more by the conservative or moderate Scottish Enlightenment. I don't disagree, but that doesn't change the fact that the two events, at base, appealed to the same Enlightenment ideals of a generically God-granted rights to political liberty and equality.

Finally, the program concluded, somewhat disappointingly, by simply giving Robbie George a soapbox for numerous minutes to bemoan modern secularism and relativism -- how that is a terrible place to rest notions of human rights.

Where I agree with the program's assertions: The notion that men have unalienable God-given rights to liberty and equality is a very "solid" place to rest human rights. And the Western tradition of "rights," especially as articulated by America's Founders, was done in a context of a complementary, warm public religion, not a cold anti-religious secularism.

Still the notion of unalienable liberty and equality rights will always exist in great tension with traditional biblical religious principles. The biblical authenticity of "unalienable rights" to "liberty" and "equality" is highly suspect. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind,:

From the earliest beginnings of liberal thought there was a tendency in the direction of indiscriminate freedom. Hobbes and Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife....In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious belief, party by assigning -- as a result of a great epistemological effort -- religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. Such rights are not matters of opinion. No weakness of conviction was desired here. All to the contrary, the sphere of rights was to be the arena of moral passion in a democracy. p. 28.

And I would note, perhaps contra Bloom, that the sphere of Liberty and Equality rights ought to be the arena of moral passion. But how do we "know" that men have a "right" to Liberty and Equality? The answer: Because God grants them such rights. The problem is such rights are not really found within the text of the Bible, and only evolved over much time in Christendom, and tended to be articulated by heretical philosophers. A "selective" reading of the Bible can vet such rights; but traditional biblical readings may hold the contrary. Jefferson held that men had an unalienable "right" to worship no God or twenty gods. Jefferson's and Madison's (he helped pass it) landmark statute on religious liberty in Virginia -- one based on "natural right" -- held such rights extended to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

In other words God grants men an unalienable right to break the very First Command (as well as other parts of the Decalogue and Bible) something that Hindus, Muslims, and others do simply by practicing their creed. The Bible nowhere speaks of "unalienable rights," certainly not of a God given right to worship as one pleases and many of its texts intimate the opposite.

The Bible also nowhere abolishes slavery, but arguably intimates its legitimacy. Whenever the term "liberty" is used, the Bible invariably refers to "spiritual" liberty, or freedom from sin, not political liberty. Therefore, as Robert Kraynak notes, the Apostle "Paul could say (without contradicting himself) 'for freedom Christ has set us free ... do not submit to the yoke of slavery' (Gal. 5:1) and 'slaves, obey ... your earthly masters' (Col. 3:22)." One could be both a chattel slave and "free" in Christ at the same time.

The tension between traditional religious notions and modern politics is called the "political-theological problem," a problem the program did not address. Those, like the Acton Institute, who attempt to tie notions of human rights to their theology either explicitly or implicitly argue the following: "Since our theology gives you human rights in the first place, you only have the right to do what this system holds to be moral." Regarding morality derived from the Bible alone, such a thesis is utterly inconsistent with the idea of universal religious freedom as championed by America's Founders. That principle holds men have an unalienable right to do not just what the Bible forbids in the First Commandment but that for which the Bible proscribes the death penalty. (See Deuteronomy 13).

Natural law scholars hold something more consistent with America's Founding principles -- that you only have the natural right to do what is consistent with the natural law. This is, I understand, Robbie George's position. Worshipping "false gods" might violate the Bible but doesn't violate the natural law. Hence it's not a problem to say men have a natural right to worship as they please. However, this system can be extremely archaic and unsatisfying when it comes to, among other things, sex -- that Elephant in the room. The traditional natural law holds masturbation, even in the privacy of one's home, to be "unnatural" and hence there can be no "natural right" to it. Ditto with contracepted sex, even between married couples.

Somehow, I think the natural right to political and personal liberty is more meaningful than that. After all, the text of America's Declaration of Independence does not suggest such a narrow dynamic but rather broadly proclaims that men have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Phil Johnson said...

Watching the trailer and the preview to the Acton movie made me wary of their point.

Reading your review convinced me they are making their case on false assumptions.

There is a peculiar thing about the "unalienable rights" when we stop to think about it. That is that the American colonists began living in a natural world. Babies were born and lived out their entire life in a rural setting closer to nature than any Europeans under established governments were ever able to experience. It is very difficult for us to consider that colonists lived on the edge and right in the natural state. Some struck out into the wilderness and cleared their own land. My ancestor Elisha Walker Rumsey was one of those frontiersmen.

They experienced the "unalienable rights" first hand. And, they understood our nation's founding statement *** like we have a hard time doing.

*** our nation's founding statement: “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.“
Imagine a people so free that they understood what it means to be in possession of "unalienable rights".

Thanks for the paper. It obviously took some good effort on your part.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure. It was a lot of fun going there with friends I knew from email/online but had met for the first time and then discussing the program with them afterwards.