Friday, December 11, 2009

Gary Amos, the Declaration, and "Christian" Ideas?

In my last few posts have spent some time trying to shift the discussion away from asking what key figures of the founding were or were not Christian to asking if the ideas that shaped the founding were or were not Christian.  I chose to do this in the context of a series of essays at "Cato Unbound" that addressed the question of which factors led to the emergence of the modern world produced by the what Alvin Toffler would call the "Second Wave".    

In that spirit, I attempted to narrow down the topic a bit by asking two questions that I hoped would be a baseline for the beginning of a Socratic dialogue about what ideas shaped the founding era, the origins of those ideas, their impact on bringing about the modern world, and how we can apply this information in our efforts to catch the "Third Wave".  In the spirit of putting first things first, I would like to focus on the first question:

"Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?

In his essay "How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity" at Cato Jack Goldstone provided a quote from Joseph Priestley that he felt captured the spirit of the the founding age:

"Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy. . . the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive."

Goldstone then added the following analysis: 

"This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past. Instead the new engineering culture proclaimed that an earthly paradise lay in man’s future, and that it would be brought about by mankind’s own progress in developing and applying new scientific knowledge rather than by divine redemption."

He then went on to say what was perhaps the chief catalyst in the acceptance and spread of this new engineering culture:
"What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers, the prohibition of diverse religious beliefs in any one society, the elevation of the rights and needs of political and social status elites above those of ordinary inhabitants — in order to develop and implement the idea of society as a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state. Yet this was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries. 

This is what Tom Van Dyke would call the "prevailing narrative" of the founding.  In short, the story is that man woke up from a long intellectual slumber, threw off the chains of religion, embraced "Deism", and in his newly enlightened state recreated the world around him and ushered in the modern world.  That is what we read in the History book right?  They tell us John Locke was a "Deist" and  Jefferson and company followed his lead and set up a government based on "enlightenment principles".  In short, the idea of "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" that provided a fertile ground for the new engineering culture was an idea of the enlightenment.  Furthermore, the best thing they did was throw off the oppressive "Christian Ideas" that lead to the Dark Ages to begin with.

I would like to present a different narrative.  One that will take a good while to lay out but I do think will shed some light on the truth about the American Founding and where the idea of "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" came from.  Let me state from the outset that I do not believe the Bible advocates any specific form of government.  I have to say this because whenever one begins to talk about "Christian ideas" or principles behind the founding David Barton's name comes up and people start talking about how the Bible says nothing about Republicanism.  My narrative is not one about the form of government but the purpose behind it.  It is not about the Constitution it is about the Declaration of Independence.  It is more about "free individuals" than "a limited state".

With all that said, is it possible that the Declaration of Independence is filled with "Christian Ideas"?  Well that is the thesis of Gary Amos in his book, "Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence".  Before reading this book I was very skeptical of the whole idea that many of the ideas contained in the Declaration were Christian.  They seemed more generally religious than anything else.  That is until I read this book, considered the evidence, and changed my mind.

The best way to start this series of posts off is with a few words from Amos himself as he sets the scene in which the Declaration of was drafted:

"Jefferson's Declaration bore no hint of fear or dread, only intense resolve. Jefferson spoke simply, directly, like a lawyer laying out the points of a criminal indictment.  His Declaration reflected the soul as well as the mind of America.  It breathed a manly passion; it looked upward toward lofty goals.  And, point by deliberative point, it marked out the colonists case.  

The Declaration was about what everyone in American knew.  New states can be formed; some should be, if before the court of heaven and world opinion the cause is just.  Man's law cannot be arbitrary, without insulting the laws of nature and nature's God.  Truth can be known, sometimes so clearly as to be self-evident.  God created men, and created them to be equal, endowing them with inalienable rights-rights that they could not give away and that no one can take from them.

Because God made men and gave them their rights, men create governments under God's law to protect those rights.  A government that destroys inalienable rights deserts its purpose and forfeits the right to rule.  Men must endure bad government but not a tyrannical one.  And this king, George III, is a tyrant.  He is not simply a bad ruler.  he is a despot and a destroyer.  

What makes him a tyrant?  He is bent on destruction; the record is clear.  He has done everything the political theorists have called tyranny at least since the Puritan revolution of the 1640's.  Jefferson listed over thirty reasons, showing that the king was more than bad or incompetent ruler.  He was a tyrant.  He had lost his right to rule.  

The final paragraph declared the colonies free and independent. The deed was done.  The representatives had acted. Now it was up to the people of America and Divine Providence to make the Declaration more the mere words.  

Jefferson's Declaration was a masterpiece of law, government, and rights. He tied together with a few words Hundreds of years of English political theory.(Bold type added by me)  The long shadows of the Magna Carta, the common law, Calvinist and Catholic resistance theories, the English Bill of Rights, and the Petition of Right are cast within its lines.  

The ideas were not Jeffersons, but the writing was.  And it was magnificent. With the king's English, Jefferson parted the king from his colonies. Through the Declaration, America became the direct heir of the best of the British liberal traditon." p.32-33

I am sure that most can see where he is going with this.  I think there is at least one founder that would agree with him:

"(Source, Charles F. Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams [1851] Vol. 6, p. 3-4)

There have been three periods in the history of England, in which the principles of government have been anxiously studied, and very valuable productions published, which, at this day, if they are not wholly forgotten in their native country, are perhaps more frequently read abroad than at home.

The first of these periods was that of the Reformation, as early as the writings of Machiavel himself, who is called the great restorer of the true politics. The "Shorte Treatise of Politick Power, and of the True Obedience which Subjects owe to Kyngs and other Civile Governors, with an Exhortation to all True Natural Englishemen, compyled by John Poynet, D. D.," was printed in 1556, and contains all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke. This writer is clearly for a mixed government, in three equiponderant branches, as appears by these words:

"In some countreyes they were content to be governed and have the laws executed by one king or judge; in some places by many of the best sorte; in some places by the people of the lowest sorte; and in some places also by the king, nobilitie, and the people, all together. And these diverse kyndes of states, or policies, had their distincte names; as where one ruled, a monarchie; where many of the best, aristocratie; and where the multitude, democratie ; and where all together, that is a king, the nobilitie, and commons, a mixte state; and which men by long continuance have judged to be the best sort of all. For where that mixte state was exercised, there did the commonwealths longest continue."

The second period was the Interregnum, and indeed the whole interval between 1640 and 1660. In the course of those twenty years, not only Ponnet and others were reprinted, butHarringtonMilton, the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, and a multitude of others, came upon the stage.The third period was the Revolution in 1688, which produced SidneyLocke, Hoadley, Trenchard, Gordon, Plato Redivivus, who is also clear for three equipollent branches in the mixture, and others without number. The discourses of Sidney were indeed written before, but the same causes produced his writings as did the Revolution. Americans should make collections of all these speculations, to be preserved as the most precious relics of antiquity, both for curiosity and use."

--John Adams

These three periods of English history where the "Christian Idea" of interposition was used to resist tyrants were all before the "Enlightenment".  If Amos and Adams are right then America was not trying to create anything new it was trying to build on what was already there.  I think this is where even brilliant men like Jack Goldstone miss it when they attempt to use the political philosophy of Locke and company to explain how "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" came about but completely ignore the political theology behind the philosophy. 

Maybe there is more to this fertile ground that "was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries" than the "prevailing narrative" is giving us?
Maybe the "Christian Principles" narrative needs to be given some more thought?  

While I am at it, I might as well chime in for a second on one "Christian Idea" that I think Goldstone and I agree hindered us from coming into the Modern World:

"What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers"

Maybe I was right about the Lockean vs. Augustinian forms of Christianity and the two different views of God that each branch represents.  Christianity does not have to be seen as fatalistic and authoritarian.  Or does it?   Chime in.  More to come...

1 comment:

David Kalivas said...

Will look forward to re-reading and commenting on this once I complete end of semester grading -- so many essays, so few days left. ;-)