Friday, November 7, 2008

Abstract Ideals, Time Bound Practices, and Historical Context

In trying to get a handle on America's Founding -- an historical event which in part because of the authority of the US Constitution, many idealogical sides want to claim -- abstract ideals, time bound practices, and historical context, taken together, necessarily yield unresolved disagreements over how to properly understand said event. Two things got me thinking about this recently. The first was the opinion of one of my Positive Liberty co-bloggers on the culture war over America's Founding and religion:

Thus, while Prof. Herzog might have wanted to analyze and critique on rational grounds the 2004 Texas Republican party platform’s assertion that “the United States of America is a Christian nation, and the public acknowledgment of God is undeniable in our history [and that] our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible,” I am increasingly inclined to suspect that such approach misses the real point. Campaign verbiage of this sort simply is the sort of rhetoric one hears in the Bible Belt just as one is likely to encounter equally emotional but nearly substance-free economic and political rhetoric in the environs of Ann Arbor. In other words, understanding such phenomena is more properly the work of sociology or social psychology than of political theory, let alone philosophy.

He's right in a sense. Because political philosophy involves asserting moral claims, political theorists of one stripe or another are inclined to give historical events politicized readings. Sociologists, or perhaps historians may claim some type of more objective analysis, something less "political" than how political theorists likely view events. Though, the social constructionists or legal realists are likely to note all of these disciplines are ideological and hence political.

Dr. Barry Shain makes a similar point -- and this is the second thing that got me thinking about abstract ideals, time bound practices and historical context. Shain is one of the few notable paleoconservative professors of political science at a reputable university -- Colgate. He also argues something close to the Christian America thesis, or in his case, the Protestant Christian America thesis, although in a much more learned and nuanced manner than do the Bartons and Federers of the world. Although I'm not much more impressed with the case he makes. He's hard on the Straussians who argue for more of an Enlightenment America thesis (oddly enough, he works with one of them -- Robert Kraynak), and argues their history is politicized (and indeed, this is in part because they are political scientists, not historians). Shain notes:

I think the current state of American history is a troubling problem and, sadly, among the causes, is too great a reliance on the historiography of political scientists. Because of the shift of attention by professional historians away from subjects of importance and interest, the dissemination of historical learning has been turned over to political scientists, most particularly Straussians, whose skills, interests, and professional competence leads readers and students away from a serious exploration of historical subjects and, the appropriate humility that hopefully follows.


The strangest thing today in American history is that the only group that supports a decidedly liberal reading of the Founding is one that is on the right, that is Straussian political theorists. How odd is this? The far left, that I assume dominate many departments of history, is too concerned with the particular fate of women and oppressed peoples to have the time to defend American historical liberalism. So who does? Well, those most frequently lauded by conservatives and supported by conservative organizations, that is, Straussians. I suppose, for me, that they are often poor historians is less frustrating, though not necessarily less dangerous, than that their history marginalizes conservatives and yet is supported and feted by the same people it marginalizes....So those who are viewed by many as authentic conservative voices, for example Charles Kessler, regularly lecture and describe America as an enlightened nation. I am sorry to disagree, but America, in the eighteenth century and still today, is a Christian country. If you are dubious and would prefer to travel in space rather than in time, take a quick trip to Europe so that you can see and feel what post-Christian enlightened nations actually feel and look like. It is incomprehensible to me why conservative donors support those who relegate them to the position of some kind of afterthought in the history of a nation that is authentically Christian and conservative. Is it some kind of self-loathing? I have yet to make sense of this strange anomaly. Indeed, American history is not only Christian, but at least until the end of the eighteenth century, it was Reform Protestant.

I would submit that whether one concludes as Shain does -- that the American Founding ought to be understood as a "Reform Protestant Christian" event, and not an Enlightenment event depends on whether one views said event though its abstract ideals or time bound practices. Shain clearly chooses the latter:

Isn’t it possible that most contemporary readers have little idea what happiness meant when used in the Declaration or, more broadly, in the context of eighteenth-century political and moral thought? Too often, English readers assume that the eighteenth-century meanings of key concepts have remained unchanged over the course of 200 hundred years. This is an illusion...and, I fear, does far more harm than good....Almost every word in the Declaration, but particularly in the second paragraph that has been given so much attention, is regularly misread. It is frightening to me that people read the Declaration and claim that “it means that the authors held that all people were equal in society.” Everyone writing at the time was aware that no married woman could own property and that most people in the Western hinterlands were politically dispossessed. Most of the population in the coastal South or in large Northern towns owned or engaged in commerce involving slaves. Do most people think that the Declaration’s authors were terrible hypocrites or simply liars?

Liars no. Perhaps hypocrites. They posited various ideals and oft-did not live in accord with those ideals, like a rich leftist who takes advantages of tax shelters with which he in principle disagrees or a black conservative who takes advantage of an affirmative action program with which he disagrees. Jefferson said all men were created equal but owned slaves. Were those black slaves not human? The only way to get a "Protestant Christian America" reading out of the US Founding is to read it through those time bound practices, as opposed to abstracting any timeless ideals from the Founding. If one views Founding era practice as dispositive in determining Founding principles, one could aptly conclude that "all men are created equal" meant all white propertied Protestant males are created equal. As Robert Locke put it:

Crucial facts about what America was founded on are deliberately hushed up by both liberals and conservatives and admitted only by the non-respectable Left and the non-respectable Right. Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. The Constitution, as originally written, holds that our ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid.

Shain is one of those members of the "non-respectable Right," and appeals for authority to a prominent member of the "non-respectable Left" -- Mark Tushnet:

Critical legal theorist Mark Tushnet further observes “it was not ‘religion in general’ that the framers saw as the basis of secular order. Rather, it was Christianity and, more specifically, Protestant Christianity.”

Yes, it's those critical legal theorists, deconstructionists and trashers of America's Founding that they are, who without hesitation inform us that America was founded on racism, sexism, and class rule, and therefore, originalism is not a viable theory of constitutional interpretation because it is morally indefensible. And if America was founded on slavery, sexism, stealing land from Indians and class rule, then the crits are right, America's Founding is morally indefensible and only important to study from an historical or sociological perspective, but can yield no moral authority whatsoever. Citing a bunch of slaveholding, racists, sexist bigots for moral might as well ask what would Hitler do?

The problem for Shain is his case for a Protestant Christian America is indissolubly linked to this racist, sexist, morally indefensible view of America's Founding. As Shain noted:

...Marty Diamond and Herb Storing...were both dedicated scholars and sought the truth and followed it wherever it led, be the outcome convenient or not....[T]hose scholars who came to prominence after them have not followed them in their work habits and in their commitment to the truth. Their prominence among American conservatives, I fear, has been bad for history and, quite likely, bad for America and American conservatism. I remember, when still in grad school, an exchange that I had with Tom Pangle in which he accused me of exposing myths that were needed to protect American democracy, and in so doing, of writing in the tradition of Carl Schmitt. It was pretty clear to me that what Tom was accusing me of was describing, truthfully and faithfully, central features of early American history. More particularly, what warranted his attack was my demonstrating that American political thought and practices was importantly shaped by Reform Protestantism and not some idealized enlightenment.

I would note Pangle et al. have damn good reason for accusing Shain of positing something that could destroy American democracy. Those "central features of early American history" are not just America's Protestant Christian foundations but that "ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid." Given that such ideas have been rightly consigned to the dustbin of history, those who would appeal to America's Founding for any kind of moral authority have no choice but to look for an alternative approach.

What those who defend America's Enlightenment liberal foundations do is abstract ideals from America's Founding and focus on them as opposed to practices inconsistent with those ideals like slavery or state established Protestantism. If one looks to Founding era practice, "all men are created equal" means all white, propertied, Protestant males. Abstracting ideals from the Declaration, one could conclude that since blacks and women are human beings -- the term "men" meaning "mankind" or "human kind" includes blacks and women -- racism and sexism violate the Declaration regardless of Founding era practice. Likewise, the same Founding era natural rights theory holds all men have unalienable rights of conscience and Christians take those rights on an equal footing with "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination," regardless of Founding era practice or laws to the contrary. America founded on slavery or anti-slavery? America founded on privileging Protestant Christianity or an enlightened equal rights among religions? It all depends on the perspective from which one looks. The meaningful difference being one of those perspectives (the "non-respectable one") is morally indefensible, the other is not.

I'll let you be the judge as to the proper one.


Jonathan Rowe said...

This was a post at Positive Liberty almost a year ago and gave way to a lively conversation in the comments which may be read here:

Tom Van Dyke said...

No one has a goddam idea of what you're talking about, Jon, except you and me and of course Phil, who says he now has a handle on Strauss.

Racism and sexism, as the Founders understood it, was mere paternalism. Noblesse oblige. Just as a Down Syndrome kid, or Caliban from The Tempest is not quite "equal" in terms of ruling himself and could use a little guiding hand, so too the landed, male gentry of the Founding saw themselves.

Prangle is quite right. After we throw the sexist racist Founders to the wolves of 21st century sensibilities, there will be nothing to build upon but ashes. Ashes make for a lousy foundation.

Phil Johnson said...

I liked the approach this paper takes toward the questions involved.
It might be true that sociology--rather than any other discipline--is the better venue for truly understanding the Founding Era.
No doubt exists in my mind that the people of America were and are Christian by nature and, therefor, so was and is the society--colonial as well as national. That point is well made in the paper provided by Johathon.
In so far as the Declaration and equality are concerned, I think it's important to think about how we use our minds and develop our ideas. The entire idea of positivism seems to rest heavily on the idea that we can speak things into existence that are not yet operative. To tell our child that she is a wonderful artist every bit as gifted as Rembrandt has more to do with encouragement than it does with actuality.
I read a great little book and have it on my selves, Future Perfect. The basic premise is that you cannot get into the future from here; but, that you must go into the future, reach back, and pull yourself into it. Maybe that is more to the point of the Founders' thinking?

Phil Johnson said...

"have it on my selves"
Uh, that would be book shelves.

Phil Johnson said...

I think you're seeing the emphasis Struassians put on the value of using a language that identifies them with the every day citizen. Does it really make any difference if what is said or claimed is really true after all?
To speak about equality is a point in question.