Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Christianity and Rights

To continue my conversation with Jonathan (which I hope is of interest to more than just the two of us...):

I agree with a great deal of what Jonathan writes in his latest installment. It seems to me that the difference between our positions concerning the Founding and its principles largely lies in this: I see Jonathan as drawing a boundary too constrictive and impermeable around the Founding ideas. I cannot dispute that Jefferson and other deists (or whatever they all were--that's another ongoing debate in this space) viewed the Declaration of Independence—to use one important, concrete example—through the lens of their particular worldview. But does that mean that the text itself is not open, to some extent, to other interpretations through the lenses of other worldviews? To return to an earlier example, the Catholic signer of the Declaration, Charles Carroll, was not a theologian, but I'm not aware that anyone has questioned in general his Catholic orthodoxy. How could he sign the Declaration if it were simply, case open and shut, an expression of principles rooted in a worldview hostile to or at least inconsistent with a Catholic one? Did he misunderstand it? Was he dishonest? My own view is that he was neither and that he, like me some years later, can in good conscience fully subscribe to the principles articulated by the Declaration, even if he (like me) would want to qualify and clarify its meaning in a way that rendered it consistent with the Catholic tradition. That is not to say that the parameters of meaning are utterly amorphous: there are limits to how the words "inalienable rights" can be legitimately interpreted. Jonathan wants to set those limits relatively more narrowly; I want them to be more expansive.

This is not a problem unique to the Founding, by the way. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was subscribed to by people from an even wider variety of religious/political/philosophical points of view. And its meaning and value have similarly been debated at length. The example is relevant: Catholic proponent Jacques Maritain said that it is possible to "establish a common formulation" of human rights even if we will not find a "common rational justification of these...rights."

Jonathan's intriguing statement here is a seed for further discussion:
However, we don't necessarily need the traditional, orthodox understanding of the Deity to serve the role of the ultimate guarantor of liberty and equality rights (one could argue that society needs the orthodox God for other reasons, but that's a discussion topic for another day). The God of Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin (the men who actually wrote the Declaration of Independence) serves that role just fine. Indeed some might argue, given this was the God in whom the formulators of liberal democracy believed -- the God who inspired them -- this God is a better guarantor of political rights than the orthodox biblical God.

It's a very interesting claim, which can be founded on a strong argument. But in the end I don't agree. Reasons forthcoming in a post some other time.


Phil Johnson said...

I see a perspective beginning to form here.
When we look at the God of Nature, we see an umbrella like entity that can include almost every other god imaginable; but, when we look at the God of the Bible, we see a very narrowly defined god that excludes every other imaginable god.
This is an important distinction. In fact, it shows the secularist god reaching out to all people as they are and not requiring them to change their beliefs. The God of Nature is a much better god for a mixed society. I would imagine even strongly entrenched Fundamentalist Christians would agree on this. 23% of Americans are Roman Catholic; 5 of the Supreme Court Justices are Catholic; the Catholic School System is second in size only to the Public School system; Catholics hold the majority of faculty positions in American universities; and on and on.**
It seems to me there is food enough for thought so that evangelicals would back down on their demands we say America was founded on Christian principles.
** Stats from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Tom Van Dyke said...


The Jefferson Bible left the Lord's Prayer in. There's no question that the the God of the Founders and the God of the Bible are essentially the same.

All else was human-generated dogma which could be disregarded in all good theological conscience and merely led to sectarian strife.

As for Maritain, he is correct only up to the point where varying justifications for human rights diverge. For starters, what is Human? Peter Singer and the Pope have different ideas, both of which are pretty reasonable.

Brad Hart said...

The fact that the Jefferson Bible contains the Lord's prayer is irrelevant. After all, the man did remove references to Christ's divinity -- hardly a CHRISTIAN thing to do.

"There's no question that the the God of the Founders and the God of the Bible are essentially the same."

While some founders would agree with you on this, there are others that would not.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm going to respond in a bigger post in a few days but let me pick on something:

"But does that mean that the text [of the DOI] itself is not open, to some extent, to other interpretations through the lenses of other worldviews?"

Absolutely it is, and that is, to some extent, a problem for religious conservatives.

Personally, I am a libertarian, a classical liberal with a socially liberal worldview.

The text of the Declaration of Independence contains broad guarantees -- "blank checks" if you will -- to such concepts as liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. An evangelical can look at the Declaration and see their biblical God as granting the right to live one's life as a good Christian. A Roman Catholic can look at the Declaration and see a document that complements their Aristotelean-Aquinas natural law tradition. Heck Mormons literally believe the Declaration to be sacred scripture on the same level as their three Testaments. And social liberals can see blank checks to lifestyle liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was Robert Bork's point in Chapter 3 of "Slouching to Gomorrah." And I agree with Bork and laud the Declaration for the reason Bork opposes it: The very text of the Declaration is quite amenable to my worldview that doesn't believe government has any role in "making men moral" (as Robbie George once put it) but rather believes simply government should protect men's rights and leave us alone. The Declaration talks about "rights," not duties and says men have a right to pursue "happiness," not a duty to pursue "virtue."

At this point, "Christian America" apologist usually note the God of the Declaration clearly was the biblical God or that its ideas are all "biblical," as though they "own" the content. But as an historical and philosophical matter, this false. Sure the Declaration is compatible with a traditional biblical worldview; but it's compatible with all sorts of worldviews. It was a document written with very broad rhetoric and in a theological sense indeed can be all things to all people, or at least many things to many people.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Hart, Tom Paine is the only one I'm aware of who would not agree, although I'm sure there are other outliers.

I do hope you're aware that I do not argue from the Christian Nation point of view. The issue of Christ's divinity and all the etc. falls under "dogma," which is why the Founders parked it all at the door. But this is why the new term of art "Judeo-Christian" holds probative value.

The Lord's Prayer is clearly directed at the Judeo-Christian G-d, the same one Jefferson referenced in the D of I as endowing man with certain unalienable rights. The D of I does not make the truth claim such a God exists, mind you, only that we hold that He does.

Brad Hart said...

Rowe stated:

"Heck Mormons literally believe the Declaration to be sacred scripture on the same level as their three Testaments."

As a devout Mormon myself, I have to disagree with you here. Mormons DO embrace the Dec. of Ind. to be a special document -- and I would even concede that most Mormons believe it to be an inspired text -- but the D. of I. does not compare in any way to the scripture accepted by the Mormon Church.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay so "inspired" but not quite on the same level as the three testaments?

Brad Hart said...

Far from the "The Book of Mormon," "Doctrine and Covenants," "Pearl of Great Price," "Holy Bible," and other writings, but still many consider the D. of I. as inspired in the sense that they believe God had a hand in establishing America.