Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moses and the "Key Founders"

The reason why I titled this post that is because, as you will see, Bruce Feiler has a book out entitled America's Prophet, Where God Was Born that stresses Moses as a central figure of inspiration to America, and Feiler argues the central historical fact that buttresses his thesis is when Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin were asked to design a Great Seal, Franklin and Jefferson both proposed:
“Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
If you haven't yet gotten his book (it's on my reading list) you can watch this extremely enlightening blogging head conversation between Feiler and Robert Wright here.

Now, there's certainly a strong kernel of truth to Feiler's claim. Moses did indeed inspire America. My concern is clarity and the potential misuse of Feiler's thesis. I worry that Christian Nationalists will misuse Feller's argument in the same way they've misused the Donald S. Lutz et al. study. They've commonly noted the Moses/Great Seal/Liberty Bell Leviticus quote to prove America's "biblical" foundations.

Interestingly, Feiler's thesis seems to be not "Christian Nation," but "Mosaic Nation," that Moses in fact was a more important political-theological figure than Jesus, something that might tick off "Christian Nationalists." But such an idea could also be shoehorned into a "Judeo-Christian Nationalist" thesis.

Feiler, seems to be if not a liberal, some kind of moderate who doesn't have an axe to grind (other than the thesis he's trying to defend). He's written op-eds on the matter in places like the Washington Post, making him a potentially attractive resource for Christian Nation types (i.e., "even this liberal guy agrees with us").

Feiler probably wouldn't appreciate (if he noticed it) such a potential use or misuse of his thesis. His thesis, as I understand it, is a broad, ecumenical, dare I say "liberal" and "enlightened" tale of Moses' influence of America. And, of course, that is exactly how Moses influenced America. For instance, in his Time Magazine op-ed, Feiler begins:

"We are in the presence of a lot of Moseses," Barack Obama said on March 4, 2007, three weeks after announcing his candidacy for President. He was speaking in Selma, Ala., surrounded by civil rights pioneers. Obama cast his run for the White House as a fulfillment of the Moses tradition of leading people out of bondage into freedom. "I thank the Moses generation, but we've got to remember that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was ... he didn't cross over the river to see the promised land."

"Eight months into his presidency, Obama might want to give Moses a second look. On issues from health care to Afghanistan, the President faces doubts and rebellions, from an entrenched pharaonic establishment on one hand and restless, stiff-necked followers on the other. There's good reason, then, for Obama to heed the leadership lessons of history's greatest leader. Like presidential predecessors from Washington to Reagan, Obama can use the Moses story to help guide Americans in troubled times. From the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Americans have turned to Moses in periods of crisis because his narrative offers a road map of peril and promise.

A Philly Inquirer article about his thesis is entitled, "Author promotes Moses as a model for getting along," and Feiler's site promotes it as "Can Moses Unite Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore?"

Again, this is to stress that Feiler's thesis is Moses as a broad metaphorical inspiration, exactly as the "key Founders" -- Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin --understood Moses. Not as the strict, orthodox, the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God understanding of Moses. But a looser, more political understanding. In short, an Enlightenment rationalist understanding of Moses. One that could look at many of the world's historical figures and "find" in there what supports one's political narrative, which is exactly what Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin did with Moses and America's non-Judeo-Christian heritage sources. Examining the other proposed narratives for the "Great Seal," we see from Jefferson (quoting the Great Seal site, not Jefferson or Adams):

For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

And J. Adams:

...the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

Synthesizing Greco-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian and picking and choosing what one thinks "rational" from those sources; that was the Enlightenment method of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. And that, as far as I see it, is the method of Moses' political inspiration of America.

In a later post, I might reiterate why the enlightened Americanist invocation of Moses arguably conflicts with the orthodox Christian/evangelical/fundamentalist narrative of Moses.

In other words, those who should proceed with the most caution when invoking Moses' influence on America are those who don't take the narrative with a metaphorical grain of salt.


Daniel said...

Interesting post! But I don't think you can really say that Franklin and Jefferson chose what was rational in the Moses story. They chose an image of an active, intervening God bringing down the primordal powers of choas on the heads of God's enemies.

It is difficult to cast Moses in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. The power of the image is not found in leading a band of slaves away from the authority of Pharoh. It is in the burning bush, in the miraculous plagues, in the coming of the angel of death, in opening the sea, in calling the sea down on the heads of Pharoh and his armies, and in pillars of fire and of smoke. The image chosen by Franklin and Jefferson invokes the prophet engaged in the impossible. I assume that either would claim the event as a metaphor and not as literal fact, but its choice remains an indication that things do not fit our neat categories.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

No, Daniel...
Moses was invoked metphorically for opposition to the British who were oppressive in their taxation (without representation). Moses stood for 'good leadership' in challenging authoritarianism.

Moses also "brought us the Law", whcih underwrites our understanding of the basis of our society...limiting man's actions to consider another's boundary. This is what the law is and does; establish boundary.

Moses was representative of establishing a "vision of a Promised Land". or of giving hope for a better future. Augustine's "City of God", Dante's Divine Comedy,
Voltaire's "Candide",Plato's "Republic", Aristotle's "Politics", America's "Declaration of Independence" and many other classics have been written to re-orient man toward "seeing" a vision for tomorrow. This image has been useful politically, theologically, and socially to bring about a "reforming" of society.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Oops, in that "mix", 'giving hope' must be balanced with a critical mind. The pragmatic tempers the 'ideal' of the Promised Land, or "the vision". This is what Voltaire did, or other "critical minds".

One cannot hold to a "pure" "idealism", nor to a "pure" "rational realism" without doing disservice to our Representative democracy...

Phil Johnson said...

An interesting, if long, interview with the author.
Puts bright light on otherwise almost ignored information.

Daniel said...

Take a look at the quotation: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh ..." Moses is not simply standing up to Pharaoh. This is not the power of reason being depicted.

Yes, Moses and the Exodus can be viewed in many ways. He was a leader who stood against a tyrant. But this depiction is a pre-rational image of divine power.

I said in my original response that it was probably read as metaphor rather than literally. But it does indicate that there was something more than Enlightenment Rationalism there. A picture of Moses in Pharaoh's throne room would not have the same power.

King of Ireland said...

Daniel makes a really good point that I think is hard to refute.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

So, what about Jefferson's "bible"? Didn't he cut out the miraculous? And how can you MAKE someone believe in the supernatural? Isn't that a choice that must be made by individuals?

King of Ireland said...

Jefferson was just one of the three first of all. When did I say we had to make anyone believe in the supernatural.

Daniel's point was that they could have picked any part of the Moses narrative but they chose to use the most supernatural part that shows God's intervention. It is a good point if ones knows all of the story.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

There were many naturalists as our Founders.
I had just finished listening to a science/religion talk by a priest and when he was asked if he believed in miracles, he said that he "officially" did, and there was much laughter. In this case, there was a "position" of believing what one didn't really adhere to. This seemed as if the Church would've "demanded" this priest to pretend that he believed in miracles. So, I imagine there are cases where for one's job, one pretends what one doesn't believe.

The priest was talking about natural law, and determination, etc. He argued for a causal effect as Einstein said he didn't believe in God playing dice with the universe, in opposition to quantun theory where things are indeterminant.

I guess my view of a "Bultmanian type view, where the text needs de=mythologizing....

King of Ireland said...


I believe things were set in motion clockmaker style. I also believe God intervenes in response to prayer. Most people take on extreme or the other. I think the truth a balanced version.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I am not so sure I believe that "God answers prayer". That would mean that God intervenes in the affairs of men and I just can't believe in 'divine providence'.

King of Ireland said...

Is it divine providence? It is our desires He listens to.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Just stopped in on a busy night. Not only Washington but Madison himself attributed the making of the Constitution to divine providence, not just the success of the revolution. Anybody wanna help me here? They're out there, I just forget where they lay.

And those two weren't even particularly religious.

It sort of fits with Angie talking "humanism." As King of Ireland educated me, Renaissance---"Christian"---humanism let man participate in God's creation, not as God's obedient dog, but as God's friends, and sons and daughters. And Renaissance humanism came well before the Enlightenment, which was kinda cold, let's face it.

Discussion around here has been really great lately. Thx to all. We established this safe place together. Intellectual honesty is important, mutual respect is necessary, but it's only love that makes it happen, and love comes from the divine place and from no other place.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Love" without justice is tepid sentamenatlity or idealism that has not been tempered by the pragmatic problems in the world...

"Love" without mercy is harsh and cruel, as we are limited creatures that cannot know all there is to know to make "right choices". Inevitably, we will step on another's toes. This is where ethics play into the mix in making decisions.

I think that one has to resolve for THEMSELVES where their commitments lie, otherwise life is devalued and justice is not done.

I am tired of the Church trying to "do good". Sometimes "doing good" is enabling another's disease. I have seen much personally where money is handed out, people deny another's abuse, or "forgivenness" is demanded without regard for the costs or without re-building trust.

So, please, don't give me platitudes about "world peace", "world hunger", "world solutions", we can't even do what is right in this regard in our local communities.

Is it "right" to demand another to "care" about what you think is "right"? That is the "moral quesiton", as it seems that there is a lot of Planning for certain politically correct issues, and a lack of allowing things to "be"....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Erasmus was the Christian humanist in attempting to reform the Church from within.

Luther, though, had good questions that "Authority" did not want answered. Luther stood for the uneducated or disempowered as the Church was taking advantage of their ignorance (in indulgences).

Does the Church do this today? I think so, when they use "spiritualized terms" for political ends, or politically correct ends, using another without their consent or disregarding the individual's own personal interests.

Personal interests are deemed "selfish", becaue these might not fit in with what the Church demands (the Kingdom). Then the "theological" coercion starts, justifying the Church's position and "ends".

Phil Johnson said...

This is a great topic.
Some of my family still puts themselves right smack dab in the hard core of Evangelical Reformed Protestant Christianity.

The ones that even looked at the link, decided it was a bad place to go. And, that was the end of it for them.

What a world!

Daniel said...

Blogging heads has an interesting discussion between Robert Wright and Bruce Feiler on this topic here: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/23762

Jonathan Rowe said...

I did link to that in my original post. You could tell Feiler is a pretty reasonable guy, as is Donald Lutz, from U Dallas.

I'm just afraid of the potential misuse by the David Barton types.

Daniel said...

Oops. Maybe it was from the link in your original post that I listened to it. Again, thanks for the post.

Daniel said...

There is not much point worrying about misuse by Barton, et al. If there is evidence that Washington was not a dialectical materialist, someone will misuse it. It probably helps that people like you are willing to bang their heads against those walls again and again for the benefit of anyone who cares to have an open mind.

Mark D. said...

A number of the top-tier Founders had a very high opinion of Judaism and viewed the Jewish tradition as the primary source of western morality. John Adams, for example, felt that way, and wrote quite movingly on the contributions of Judaism to western civilization.

What makes this even more impressive is the small number of practicing Jews present in the colonies and in the early Republic. Alongside Catholics, Jews definitely were at the numeric margins of American life at the time of the Founding and the early Republic.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As the Jews were known as "people of Torah", the Sarceans were also known for "freedom". I think I remember somewhere reading that these were Muslims that viewed Europeans as "barbaric" or uncultured. Liberty was the concept for Islam.

So, we have people of the Law and people of liberty. Erring on one side or the other leads to anarchy or legalism, limiting freedom.

Does anyone know about the Sarceans and their affliation with Islam? I don't remember where I read it...

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Saracens" is an antiquated term for the Muslim world, altho not the Turks.

The Saracen world preserved Greek philosophy and science and passed it to Christendom around 1100-1200, but as this article argues [from 1886!], they preserved it, but did not advance it.


And, as Islam became progressively more "religious," it drove philosophy and science underground, and the Muslim world began its decline from its Golden Age to the mess we see today.

By contrast, Christendom picked up the baton of philosophy and science, never to drop it, and so left its Dark Ages behind.

Political liberty came much later in the western world, culminating in 1776, and I've yet to hear a convincing argument that it ever existed in the Muslim world.

Daniel said...

My knowledge of early Islam is pretty thin, but I am aware of a few notable things it did with Greek philosophy. They applied historical methods to their own history, and developed a rigiorous method of evaluating supposed sayings of Mohammed. The used Greek rationalism to work. They famously advanced Greek mathematics. They took Greek science and built optics. They began some advances in philosophy but did not achieve a reconciliation with revelation so were suppressed; but those advances were developed by Aquinas, who was able to achieve that reconciliation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't mean to underplay the "Saracen" greatness, but in our age, there's also a tendency to overplay it.

Islam's Golden Age came to a halt with al-Ghazali's "Incoherence of the Philosophers." Ibn Rushd [Averroes in the West] cleverly tried to reply in "The Incoherence of the Incoherence," but al-Ghazali won the day.

And yes, Aquinas saved rationality from religion in the West by reconciling them.

jimmiraybob said...

And, as Islam became progressively more "religious," it drove philosophy and science underground, and the Muslim world began its decline from its Golden Age to the mess we see today.

On this point I agree whole heartedly.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I found where I had read about the Saracens.

A book, "The Discovery of Freedom" by Rose Wilder Lane (did she found the Libertarian Party for women?) wrote that the Saracen emir, who was a Kurd,wanted an alliance with England by giving his sistner in marriage to King Richard, the Lion-hearted, but was rejected.

Since the Christian King would not "make peace", they attached and took Jerusalem. "They did not sack it and as soon as its defenders surrendered, they released their prisoners. The terms that the victorious emir imposed upon the invaders were, that they must go home. He gave them forty days in which to dispose of their property or pack it before leaving." (pg,104)

The Saracen civilization ceased to exist and Lane could not find the answer are to why. But, her thesis in this book is that this was a second attempt to establlish conditions where "human energy can work under its natural individual control succeeded, as it did succeed for almost a thousand years, because anarachy was not as pure among the saracens as it was among the Israelites."(pg.109)

She attempts and I think gives good reason to believe that this was a second attempt to establish 'freedom' against authority, but the last and final attempt was in the American Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"The Discovery of Freedom" by Rose Wilder Lane

Yes, you mentioned her before, Angie, and I remember looking her up. She is not a reputable scholar, which explains her claim for "liberty" as we know it having Muslim roots.

It does not.

Pls confirm anything you read from her with an independent source before posting it here, OK? Such claims junk up the discussion.

Phil Johnson said...

please send me an email. I'm at a computer without your address and I have something to send your way.