Saturday, May 2, 2009

Michael Lind on the Christian Nation Issue

Because the current President recently challenged the "Christian Nation" thesis, some notable talking heads have addressed the issue and I hope to blog about all of them. You can read Michael Lind's agreement that America was not founded to be a "Christian Nation" on Salon here.

Many of his arguments I (and my cobloggers) have already seen (i.e., the Treaty of Tripoli). I'll try to highlight some of his unexpected and contentious claims.

First since I'm used to dealing with the Founding era, this quote from tenth president, John Tyler, in an 1843 letter, was new to me:

"The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent -- that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions."

This certainly wasn't the way everyone thought back then. However, when someone quote grabs from the Holy Trinity case and like materials, it's helpful to show that you can quote mine from other sources -- i.e., the President of the United States in 1843 -- for the opposite point of view. I did a quick search and found the entire letter here.

Here is another interesting passage from Lind's article:

True, over the years since the founding, Christian nationalists have won a few victories -- inserting "In God We Trust" on our money during the Civil War in 1863, adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War in 1954. And there are legislative and military chaplains and ceremonial days of thanksgiving. But these are pretty feeble foundations on which to claim that the U.S. is a Christian republic. ("Judeo-Christian" is a weaselly term used by Christian nationalists to avoid offending Jews; it should be translated as "Christian.")

I've noted before the term "Judeo-Christian" might have some value; but those who most often use it tend to do so in a meaningless way. There was no alliance of Jews & Christians during the Founding era. It was "Protestant Christians" in one box -- the "in" box -- and Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims and pagans in the other more "out" box. And the "in" group was not "orthodox Protestant Christian theology" either (that's what the Christian Nationalists might like you to think); rather it was nominal Protestant Christian identity. So Jefferson who rejected every tenet of orthodox Christianity was in the "in" box of "Protestant Christianity" with more orthodox figures like John Witherspoon and Timothy Dwight.

Further, Jews regard Jesus as a false Messiah and reject most of the New Testament as divinely inspired. Is "Judeo-Christian" a lowest-common-denominator system that includes these points? Few of the "Judeo-Christian" nationalists (most of whom are conservative orthodox Christians who opt for a more inclusive term) want to go there for good reason.

So, I'm with Lind so far. But then he makes a claim that surprised me:

The third argument holds that while the U.S. government itself may not be formally Christian, the Lockean natural rights theory on which American republicanism rests is supported, in its turn, by Christian theology. Jefferson summarized Lockean natural rights liberalism in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "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 to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …" Many conservatives assert that to be a good Lockean natural nights liberal, one must believe that the Creator who is endowing these rights is the personal God of the Abrahamic religions.

This conflation of Christianity and natural rights liberalism helps to explain one of John McCain's more muddled answers in his Beliefnet interview: "[The] United States of America was founded on the values of Judeo-Christian values [sic], which were translated by our founding fathers which is basically the rights of human dignity and human rights." The same idea lies behind then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's statement to religious broadcasters: "Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews and Muslims" -- sorry, Hindus and Buddhists! -- "all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator."

In reality, neither Jewish nor Christian traditions know anything of the ideas of natural rights and social contract found in Hobbes, Gassendi and Locke. That's because those ideas were inspired by themes found in non-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy. Ideas of the social contract were anticipated in the fourth and fifth centuries BC by the sophists Glaucon and Lycophron, according to Plato and Aristotle, and by Epicurus, who banished divine activity from a universe explained by natural forces and taught that justice is an agreement among people neither to harm nor be harmed. The idea that all human beings are equal by nature also comes from the Greek sophists and was planted by the Roman jurist Ulpian in Roman law: "quod ad ius naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt" -- according to the law of nature, all human beings are equal.

Desperate to obscure the actual intellectual roots of the Declaration of Independence in Greek philosophy and Roman law, Christian apologists have sought to identify the "Creator" who endows everyone with unalienable rights with the revealed, personal God of Moses and Jesus. But a few sentences earlier, the Declaration refers to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Adherents of natural rights liberalism often have dropped "Nature's God" and relied solely on "Nature" as the source of natural rights.

I understand and agree with the argument that natural rights liberalism as it comes from Hobbes and Locke is not "biblical" (arguably not "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian"). Though usually we don't see Gassendi mentioned. However, Lind traces the source for natural rights to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Perhaps I've been reading too much of the Straussians on the matter but, this is not how I understand the concept of natural rights. It's true that the "natural law," defined as what man discovers from reason, has pagan Greco-Roman origins (Aristotle invented or "discovered" it). However, the classical and then Christian notion of natural law was not, or at least initially not "rights" oriented.

The Straussians argue "rights" are a Hobbsean-Lockean modern invention; there is another school, the Rodney Stark/Brian Tierney school (which I plan on blogging about in great detail in the future) that holds medieval Roman Catholics actually invented the concept of "rights" which Hobbes & Locke then inherited. Both of these schools would agree that the concept of rights are not explicitly found in the Bible. Though the Stark/Tierney school argues natural rights are implicit in the creation story. Both also agree that the classical Greco-Roman system of "nature" is not "rights" oriented but rather "duty-virtue" oriented.

Needless to say, I am not yet convinced by Lind's assertion that natural rights theory (as opposed to mere "nature" or natural law) traces back to Ancient Greece and Rome. I see it as something that comes later.

Also, the idea of noble pagan-Greco-Roman sense of duty and virtue was quite influential during the Founding era. And this is something Christian Nationalists also tend to ignore. The Straussians see a defect in the Founding because the Declaration of Independence mentions ONLY rights, not duties and the unamended Constitution seems silent on both rights and duties. The amended Constitution added a "Bill of Rights." The Straussians would be happy if the Constitution and DOI more explicitly invoked the "noble pagan" sense of duty and virtue as opposed to the more modern "rights teachings" invoked in the DOI, (but not the Constitution).

But the point to take home is "Judeo-Christian" morality arguably wasn't the prevailing morality, at least not among the men who wrote the DOI and the Constitution; rather a noble pagan "Greco-Roman" sense of virtue and duty was. Yes, there were overlaps; but there were also differences. Though the DOI and US Constitution are relatively brief documents, the Federalist Papers and Notes taken during the Constitutional Convention were not brief at all. It is true that some "Judeo-Christian" philosophy and morality can be identified in those sources (i.e., Madison's comment about man having a degree of depravity in Federalist 55 and Ben Franklin's call to prayer at the Constitutional Convention that makes a biblical allusion); but Greco-Roman ideology, especially as it relates to duty and virtue, far outweighs the "Judeo-Christian," at least in those specific sources.

When the "Christian Nationalists" skip over this part of his and say America has "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian" foundations, period, they distort history. In that sense I agree with Michael Lind.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Lind makes a bellyful of claims and proves none of them, contenting himself with defeating strawmen like:

the question of whether American government is Christian. and

The second argument is that the constitution itself is somehow Christian in character.Few argue that, although John McCain once gave a muddled answer in that direction. But not those who study the question seriously. If it were a Christian government, non-Christians would be barred from serving in it.

But as is almost always the case with boilerplate arguments like Lind's he completely overlooks federalism, which left religion to the states. And some of them did have religious tests.

Lind also drags out the Treaty of Tripoli and claims that

Conservatives who claim that the U.S. is a "Christian nation" sometimes dismiss the Treaty of Tripoli because it was authored by the U.S. diplomat Joel Barlow, an Enlightenment freethinker.Again, a straw man, as even David Barton argues completely differently, that the Barbary pirates saw themselves in a religious war, and it served America's purpose to observe it wasn't a "Christian nation" in the sense that the Crusader states were.

As for Tyler's letter, that the US had/has "total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us" is a big, well, duh. That's not the controversy. We all know the US has no established church. The question about the Christian nation is in its ethos.

Lind also asserts that "Judeo-Christian" is used to avoid offending Jews. Nope. It's to acknowledge that America's God isn't necessarily Jesus, but IS the God of Abraham.

"Many conservatives assert that to be a good Lockean natural nights liberal, one must believe that the Creator who is endowing these rights is the personal God of the Abrahamic religions."

That's right, Mr. Lind. The same creator, the same God that John Locke himself wrote of in The Reasonableness of Christianity. Nor could he ever argue successfully that the signers understood the "nature's God" of the D of I as anything other than the God of Abraham, as they were monotheists believing there is only one God.

Adherents of natural rights liberalism often have dropped "Nature's God" and relied solely on "Nature" as the source of natural rights.

I'm sure they did and do, Mr. Lind. Just not John Locke or the Founders. The type of guys you're talking about started another revolution. In France.

but in the 21st century it is clear that democracy as a form of government does not require citizens who believe in supernatural religion. Most of the world's stable democracies are in Europe, where the population is largely post-Christian and secular...

And those democracies except for Britain are largely less than 50 years old, and the population is currently breeding at less than replacement level. Mr. Lind, a self-described historian, takes a lot about the future for granted. He should know better. Democratic, secular Europe is a blink of history's eye.

Finally on page 2, Lind finally stops knocking down straw men and gets to the real argument, that America was founded on "Judeo-Christian" principles, which even the confused McCain issued a correction as what he "meant" to say. To get around that, Lind creates a 1500-year black hole of history and philosophy between the Greco-Romans and Thomas Hobbes on the issue of rights theory. Yes, Jon, let's continue to examine that one too. Lind's balderdash adds nothing to the honest inquiry into the history of ideas.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Oh come on Tom. You are being to hard on Lind. There's some good stuff in there. I didn't know about the Tyler quote. And he raised the issue on whether natural rights really existed in Greco-Roman pagan natural law. I don't think it did; but we need more study on the matter.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, Lind goes after "conservatives" and then puts bad arguments in their mouths so he can refute them. Crapcrapcrap. Then he skips virtually everything that didn't feed his point, especially [and inexcusably] federalism, which left religion to the individual states.

Jon--and gentle readers---here's Brian Tierney.

He argues it was a Salamancan [the "scholastic" theologian/philosopher named Francisco de Vitoria [1492-1546] who teased liberty and natural rights out of Aquinas' natural law and "dignity of the human person."

The Protestant Hugo Grotius built on Vitoria's work, and of course, Grotius was well-known to the Founders and to the Founders' influences like Pufendorf and Locke.

The point being, as one commentator put it, was that the Enlightenment didn't create natural rights and liberty ex nihilo, as is commonly argued, and which Lind does here, although he makes vague motions in the direction of the Greeks and Romans.

Anywhere but in the direction of Christianity!

As for the Tyler quote, it says nothing that's not already known. The US government had and has no established church.

I'd recommend this Andy Jackson quote as stronger for Lind's own case:

"I was brought up a rigid Presbeterian, to which I have always adhered. Our excellent constitution guarantees to every one freedom of religion, and charity tells us, and you know Charity is the reall basis of all true religion, and charity says judge the tree by its fruit. All who profess christianity, believe in a Saviour and that by and through him we must be saved. We ought therefor to consider all good christians, whose walk corresponds with their professions, be him Presbeterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, methodist or Roman catholic. let it be remembered by your Grandmother that no established religion can exist under our glorious constitution." -- letter to Ellen Hanson, 25 March 1835

Jackson plainly says you need to believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, to be a Christian and also restates the obvious as Tyler did, that there is no Church of the United States.


King of Ireland said...


I just posted on my blog some thoughts about my evolution from Christian Nation supporter to whatever I advocate today. I was out to help David Barton a while back when I left missions. You and Ed reasoned with me and I now see how bad he and his ilk are. I am not sure where I stand as far as trying to be a good Christian by influencing government for the better in that I am not totally sure what to advocate or why yet.

I do consider myself a libertarian and am seeking to go to law school for property law to find more answers. Anyway, read what I wrote it will encourage you in your endeavors in truth seeking and help you realize that profound impact you had in steering me away from the Barton crowd.

My grandfather was a national labor figure and I having been looking for my cause in life to impact the world the way he did. I am glad that I was stopped in my tracks. I have a lot of influence over others at times.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

A long, rambling post,covering alot of territory. But this caught in my craw: "There was no alliance of Jews & Christians during the Founding era. It was 'Protestant Christians' in one box - the 'in' box - and Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims and pagans in the other more 'out' box."

I'd say (but you know this) that Jews were respected as a harmless curiosity (rather like the Indians), paleo-orthodox Catholics and (and depending upon which state we're talking about) Presbyterians in the 'out' box, and Muslims (and Buddhists and whatever) not in any box at all - theoretical abstractions of no practical consequence.

Novak's point about the OT fetish of colonial Americans has alot of merit - many saw America as the new Zion, and the migration across the Atlantic as the reprise of the trip through the wilderness to the promised land.