Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fukuyama, Liberal Democracy, and the Tibetan Lamb

It has been about year since I started contributing to this blog and I have learned a great deal over that year and even before that as a reader and commenter.  In fact, I came to this discussion with a desire to answer some questions I had been thinking about for quite a while and have found a lot of answers. Questions that started when I began to study the rate of Christianization among the Tibetan speaking peoples of Asia a few years ago when I was there.

What I had begun to notice, in my studies, was that of these 800 or so distinct ethnic groups that all started out on the Tibetan plateau, the ones that lived in more "liberal" nations had a far higher Christianization rate than those who did not. In other words, all of the groups that had almost no interaction with Christianity(or for that matter any foreign ideas) seemed to live under totalitarian regimes or strict theocracies. 

Ok, I am sure that many of you are asking what any of this has to do with American Creation?  Well, this realization was the spark that re-ignited my interest in political theory that brought me to this blog.  The long and short of it is that I had just witnessed first hand what I had read about in Jihad vs. McWorld years earlier about the coming clash between the modern and tribal world. More specifically, I began to focus on the role that just government could play as this script was acted out.  This is the focus I brought to AC.

As I wrote, commented, and listened to many diverse points of view here there was one statement that continued to pop up over and over again that caught my attention.  Here it is in the words of Ed Brayton from Dispatches:

"There isn't a single provision in the Bill of Rights that has any concept even remotely analogous in the Bible. The Bible does not say a word about political liberty or political rights."

I am sure many of you are wondering about how what I shared about Tibet and just government have to do with Ed's statement?  It is quite simple, in that I feel that rights are fundamental to all just government. So if Ed is right that would mean that the Bible does not promote just government.  This implication would completely contradict my view that one of the main Christian obligations to the tribal world is to aid them in establishing just governments.  In other words, for a well meaning Christian that wants to bring heaven to earth this pursuit could be a waste of time.

With that said, as I began to study this topic it became abundantly clear that major streams of Christian Thought have used the Bible to promote the merits of just government based on inalienable rights; confirming that the pursuit of these ideals was not a waste of time. In fact, these rights were said to be grounded in man being made in the image of God.  Simply put, according to the way some interpret the Bible man has an inherent dignity because, as Locke would say, he is the "workmanship of God".  If true, this directly contradicts statements like the one made by Ed Brayton and brings into question what version of Christian theology he and others that follow his line of reasoning are beholden to?   

Now some might say, "What is all this theological talk doing on a history blog?"  I would retort that it is impossible to have a reasonable historical discussion when such profound ignorance about the relevant theology exists. Nonetheless,  I think it proper to stray away from truth claims and focus on the validity of labeling various streams of political theology as legitimately Christian or not.

If this is a valid line of historical inquiry, and I think that a proper understanding of Church history says it is, then the questions about the founders and their view of the foundations of just government would seem to boil down to these essential two:

1. Is there a historically valid biblical case for rights grounded in imago dei?
2. Is this case for rights that was used at the founding?

These two questions are at the heart of our ongoing discussion about vast differences in certain aspects of Enlightenment and Christian thinking and knowing the difference.  Especially those aspects that revolve around what Francis Fukuyama would call "the end of history" which was a popular topic of discussion in both circles during the founding era and into the next century.  The former called it the millennial reign of Christ and the latter utopia but both were looking forward to the day where lion shall lie down next to lamb. Which both seem to agree is only possible in a universal state of just government. A concept that goes back to Plato and Fukuyama's thesis brings back into the forefront.

At the heart of the modern version of this discussion is if "liberal democracy" is the key to a universal state of just government?  If so it seems prudent to ask what form of "liberal democracy"? That is if there is more than one form. I would submit that there is and that one is based on Enlightenment thought and its idea of man made rights and another on Christian thought and imago dei. If America is to be the example to be followed by the rest of the world then my two questions above carry great weight. That is because I don't think Fukuyama's version of the "end of history" refers to the Christian influenced version of "liberal democracy" and if the foundation of our success the last 200 years is found in God given inalienable rights this could be bad news for the Tibetan lamb.

It is also a shame because I think there is a possibility that Islam may allow for inalienable rights based on imago dei as well. But that is a discussion for another day. 

New "Star Spangled Banner" Verses Uncovered

Quite insightful:

Restoration Of 'Star Spangled Banner' Uncovers Horrifying New Verses

Madison's Notes Discuss Christianity v. Theistic Rationalism

Another repost here.

Let me note some folks here disagree with the term "theistic rationalism" to describe the theological system Madison was talking about. So let's clarify: Madison's notes on why he wrote the Memorial and Remonstrance which led to the separation of Church & State in VA, refer to the issue of "what is Christianity?" He noted 1) Arianism and Socinianism as presenting themselves as "Christian"; 2) folks dispute what books properly belong in the biblical canon, and 3) folks practice a form of "Christianity" that doesn't hold the biblical canon as "infallible" but rather that only certain "essential" parts of the Bible are divinely inspired.

Madison didn't believe government had a right to take cognizance of which theological systems qualify as "real Christianity." Back then, as today, the "orthodox" didn't believe a system that denied the Trinity and the infallibility of the biblical canon to be actual "Christianity." Rather they argue it is some "other" religion. Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed it "theistic rationalism." Back then the orthodox theologians said it was no better than "Deism." Those who believed in it, however, termed it "rational Christianity" or "liberal unitarian Christianity."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Founding father quote of the day: why do we have government?

"Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

-- Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), Revolutionary War veteran, co-author of The Federalist Papers, the first Secretary of the Treasury, and an early leader of the Federalist Party.

Calvin Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence, Part Deux

Part One is here. Coolidge was the American president from 1923-1928. As presidents go, people sort of liked him. He retired from office gracefully, and "Silent Cal" has his picture next to "taciturn" in the dictionary: old joke, according to which U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife allegedly visited a poultry farm. During the tour, Mrs. Coolidge inquired of the farmer how his farm managed to produce so many fertile eggs with such a small number of roosters. The farmer proudly explained that his roosters performed their duty dozens of times each day.

"Tell that to Mr. Coolidge," pointedly replied the First Lady.

The President, overhearing the remark, asked the farmer, "Does each rooster service the same hen each time?"

"No," replied the farmer, "there are many hens for each rooster."

"Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," replied the President.

Cal was cool.

On July 5, 1926, on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Coolidge continued:

"Ours is a government of the people. It represents their will. Its officers may sometimes go astray, but that is not a reason for criticizing the principles of our institutions. The real heart of the American Government depends upon the heart of the people. It is from that source that we must look for all genuine reform. It is to that cause that we must ascribe all our results.

It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their declaration and adopted their Constitution.


About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.


In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes. We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general. Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought.


They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped."

[Next up: Woodrow Wilson on the Declaration.]

The Founding's View of the Nature of Man

The American Founders wisely recognized that soteriology---the business of salvation---is not "political theology," which is how man should live, and his duties to his fellow man in this world. In fact, the "fellow man" part is precisely where there the Christian political theology is located. But when it comes to salvation, you're on your own, man. No government ever got anyone into heaven.

It's agreed between Aristotle and Aquinas, and even "state of nature" early modernists, that man is a social animal. That's the key to the philosophical history about the nature of man. All political philosophy must flow from there, or else it's just singing "We Are the World," which is a nice sentiment, but not reality.

We're not hermits by nature---because every hermit is "free." We're not tiger or polar bear males that eat their young, yum. And mostly, we are not mantises or Black Widows that eat their male mates for the good of the children either.

Historians like Barry Alan Shain argue that the Founding-era understanding of "rights" was not the radical individualism of modern political philosophy [John Stuart Mill, etc.], but communitarian: the smaller community has its values, and the imposition of a "larger" community---a national government, the "state"---might use its overarching power to destroy the very notion of "community." We all become drones in the Universal Homogeneous State.

On the other hand, on behalf of the individual, natural law, imago Dei, and a posteriori observations like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations ["squashed version" here], well worth your time] all argue that man is best when he is free, and further, that society is best [healthiest; vital; dynamic] when the individual is free within the sphere of "ordered liberty."

This was the Founders' view, sometimes called "classical liberalism."

One might accuse "ordered liberty" of being oxymoronic, but it's a "golden mean."

After all, a well-functioning society is good for the individual as well, even if he's not as "free" as Caligula. Free individuals make for better societies. We are not ants, afterall.

And Caligula's unmoderated freedom was bad for even Caligula himself. Surely he was unhappy; dude had no eudaimonia. Caligula was such an unsocial animal. His "freedom"---and was any man ever more "free" than Caligula?---isn't what the Founders meant by freedom.

Now it's true that Jesus was apolitical, and soteriology was his ultimate
message, the next world, not this one. Still, the corollaries for political theology are accessible to [right] reason.

As for tyranny, John of Salisbury in Policraticus [1150 CE, a pre-Gutenberg bestseller] is already on the path toward "resistance theory"; the Calvinists [more precisely, his Reformed Theology successors Theodore Beza, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Mornay[?], John Ponet, Lex Rex Rutherford, and the Phillies extended their winning streak to eight games and just traded for Roy Oswalt, who starts against the Diamondbacks tomorrow] provide the theological argument, and not a small amount of military heft, in the English civil wars of the 1600s that were a dry run for the American Revolution.

Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God. Why? Because tyrants are all about their own good, not "the common good." Now, the odd thing about the "Calvinists" is despite their rigid theological doctrines of predestination and "the elect," their political theology still arrived at no distinction on this earth between how one should treat "elect" from "non-elect." Soteriology is not political theology! You treat the "unelect" the same as the elect.

This is the Christian political theology. One cannot do justice to Christianity merely with sola scriptura or the neo-Lutheranism of Karl Barth, nor as a mere Hobbesian political arrangement, where man's religious impulse must be subordinated to and controlled by the "state."

The Founders rejected both poles.

We must do justice to Christian political theology in our discussions of the Founding, or speak of Christianity not at all, which, admittedly, many folks these days prefer not to.

But we can't trot out a one-size-fits-all caricature of "religion," as if Christianity is no more than the Flying Spaghetti Monster or some Kiwanis Club. That's not "Christianity" as the Founding era understood it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Use of Reason In America’s Founding Era Political Pulpits

Another repost to my new group blog here.

Founding quote of the day on the source of human rights

"The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records.  They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

- Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), "The Farmer Refuted," February 1775,  quoted in James H. Huston, The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations (Princeton University Press:  1995), pgs. 196-97.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Did Betsy Ross Create the First American Flag?

The contributions of women during the American Revolution (and in virtually every other era of history) have often been overlooked or obscured thanks in part to the chauvinistic trends of early historiography. Despite such trends, the occasional feminine hero has emerged from this hazy background to claim their rightful place alongside other fellow revolutionaries. Women like Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison and "Molly Pitcher" are remembered in countless paintings, monuments, and history books for their contributions to the "cause of liberty."

Arguably one of the most popular female figures of the American Revolution is Betsy Ross. In fact, the Betsy Ross House and Memorial in Philadelphia is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Philadelphia. We of course remember Ross as the original designer of the first American flag in 1776. In fact, the first American flag is rarely referred to as the "Flag of '76" but as the "Betsy Ross Flag."

But is the story true? Did Betsy Ross really create the first American flag?

As the legend states, Betsy Ross, who had recently lost her first husband in the war, received a visit from none other than General George Washington and two other members of the Continental Congress, who admonished Ross to create a flag of "thirteen stripes and thirteen stars." The stars were to be in a circular pattern, to symbolize the fact that, "no colony would be viewed above another." The legend goes on to state that as soon as George Washington's boots stepped out her front door, Betsy Ross set about making the first American flag.

So how true is this story?

Unfortunately there are little or no primary sources to prove the Betsy Ross story. In fact, the only evidence we have to defend the Betsy Ross story comes from Ross' grandson, William Canby. Ross supposedly related her story to Canby (who was eleven at the time) while on her deathbed. Canby then waited another 30 years before publicly announcing the story in a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (click here to read a copy of Canby's paper). By then, roughly 100 years had passed since the alleged visit between General Washington and Betsy Ross.

Though the story cannot be 100% confirmed, it is important to remember that it also cannot be completely rejected. To be certain, Betsy Ross and her first husband had established a semi-successful upholstery business in Philadelphia. If George Washington had commissioned Ross to make the flag, perhaps he learned of her business while attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Skeptics, however, argue that there is little likelihood that Washington would have visited Ross in 1775, due to the fact that he was extraordinarily busy and quickly departed the city to take command of the Continental Army. But again, none of this conclusively refutes William Canby's story (though it does cast some serious doubt on it). Historiann's review of Marla Miller's Betsy Ross and the Making of America best describes this virtual "tug-o-war" over Betsy Ross' ultimate legacy:
Betsy’s collaboration with the Revolutionary government as a flag maker can’t be dismisssed merely as wartime profiteering or political exigency. Miller offers two full chapters on the question of Betsy’s contribution to creating the U.S. national flag in the late spring of 1777, and concludes that there’s both verifiable merit and dubious myths in the family tales her daughter and grandson told in the nineteenth century. As we have learned about “The” Declaration of Independence, there were many flags for many different purposes and many different flagmakers working in Philadelphia at the time. Miller concludes that Betsy was certainly one of them, and that her work for the war effort as the very young widow Ross probably reflected her real political sympathies. On the other hand, while there’s no evidence one way or the other as to what kind of work she did during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, Miller concludes that "it’s hard to imagine her finding among the suffering community of rebellious Philadelphians enough sources of income that she could refuse on principle to fabricate tassels, mattresses, chair covers, or camp equipage for enemy quarters during the entire course of the occupation," (Hat tip: John Fea)
In reality, the question of whether or not Betsy Ross made the first American flag actually misses the point. During the American Revolution, literally dozens of different flags were used to commemorate a large assortment of events. Such is the case with our American flag as well. As historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thacher Ulrich points out:
There is really no point in arguing over who made the first flag because there wasn't one. The stars and stripes that we know today had multiple parents and dozens of siblings. True, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a cryptic resolution specifying that "the flag of the thirteen united States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation," but nobody specified the shape of the flag, the arrangement of the stars, or the ratio of the canton to the field. In October 1778, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams actually told the Neapolitan ambassador that "the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white and blue." Flag sheets from the 1780s and 1790s do in fact show flags with three-colored stripes. As for Betsy's nifty five-pointed star, a Smithsonian study showed that four-, six-, and eight-pointed stars were far more common. Although Charles Wilson Peale's 1779 painting of George Washington at Princeton shows stars in a circular arrangement on the general's flag, the stars themselves have six points.
Despite the controversy, Betsy Ross (and the flag she allegedly created) are likely to remain shrouded in mystery for generations to come. Perhaps the mystery is what makes the "Betsy Ross Flag" so intriguing. After all, the thought of a lonely and patriotic widow, bravely sewing together America's first colors is as American as the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

But that's a story for another day.

While We're At It

Here is a link to a series of essays about political theology and modernity from 2007 at Cato Unbound. Much of what we have been discussing here the last few months was discussed there.  It is interesting stuff to say the least.  This outstanding post by Jon Rowe at "The One Way" hits on this theme as well. I think it was was also from 2007. 

Strauss in mentioned in Jon's post and the so called Neo-Conservative roots of our War on Terrorism policy is at the heart of the Cato essays. So for Phil's sake, I am going to make this more of an open thread and allow for some contemporary political insights hoping it remains within the frame that Jon's post emphasizes about how we can learn from our own intellectual history on religion and tolerance as we seek to influence Islamic parts of the world.

Kraynak: Christianity vs. Modernity III

There has been a great deal of dialogue on this blog about the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and more generally between European and American styles of liberal democracy.  Also, much has been recently stated about Leo Strauss and the whole classical vs. modern debate as well and how the discussions about liberal democracy fit into this frame.  I hope that this third, and final, excerpt from Robert P. Hunt's essay Robert Kraynak: Christianity vs. Modernity adds to this discussion.

Here it is:

"The second of Kraynak’s major theses--that any endorsement in principle of human rights and democracy might constitute a surrender by Christianity to modernity--is the more controversial of the two, especially for those of us who reject the liberal model of man and society but who believe that a principled (and non-liberal) Christian defense of human rights and constitutional democracy is consistent with traditional Christian natural law teaching. I wish to focus the remainder of my comments on this latter thesis, and question whether Kraynak’s effort to link Christian personalism--and, most especially, the Catholic personalism of the Second Vatican Council and figures such as Maritain and Murray--and liberal democracy is entirely successful. I will argue that Kraynak’s argument is grounded in a reading of intellectual history that, contrary to his own stated purpose, fails to do full justice to the distinctiveness of the Christian tradition and its developing understanding of the limited, yet invariably moral, nature of the state.
Kraynak’s argument seems for the most part to be an extension to the whole of contemporary Christianity of themes addressed by the late Ernest Fortin, who focused on what he perceived to be the weaknesses of contemporary Roman Catholic social thought. Fortin wondered whether any Catholic defense of human rights and religious freedom as anything other than a prudential concession to the political facts on the ground might not place contemporary Catholic social thought in conflict with its historic commitments to "virtue, character formation, and the common good." For Fortin, this might produce within the Catholic tradition "a latent bifocalism that puts it at odds with itself and thereby weakens it to a considerable extent."2 Those who would wish to preserve these historic commitments to a hierarchically ordered view of nature ground their arguments in a philosophical anthropology that takes most of its political bearings from the insights of ancient political philosophy. By contrast, Catholic personalism and rights talk is liberal and modernist in orientation--the two terms being somewhat interchangeable. To endorse human rights and democracy as a matter of principle is to endorse the modern project.
Kraynak argues that there are "three great periods of Christian theology, each associated with a dominant philosopher": (1) the Platonic or NeoPlatonic Christianity of the early Church fathers; (2) the Aristotelian Christianity of medieval Scholastic theology; and (3) the Kantian Christianity of modernity (Kraynak, 153 ff.) The reader is left to infer that pre-modern (i.e.Platonic and Aristotelian) Christianity was teleological, hierocratic, prudentialist, and not favorably disposed to rights talk or democracy. (Kraynak dismisses all too quickly the efforts of scholars such as Brian Tierney to establish that "natural rights" talk originated among medieval constitutionalists.) By contrast, modern Kantian Christianity is deontological (it adopts a morality and politics of categorical imperatives), egalitarian, rights-oriented, and pro-democratic. At a number of points, Kraynak seems to assume that all rights talk is liberal and modernist (neo-Kantian) and that liberal democracy and constitutional democracy are synonymous. At others, particularly in his analysis of contemporary Catholic social thought, he retreats slightly from this assumption, at least as regards the efforts of Catholics to avoid the pitfalls of philosophical liberalism.
In support of the former assumption, Kraynak argues, for example, that "today, the term 'person' refers to a human being with a duty to forge his or her own identity or moral personality by an assertion of the will" (Kraynak, 154), that "the deep premise of rights is the natural freedom and natural equality of the autonomous self"(Kraynak,172). Even though modern Christian theologians believe that rights can be detached from these voluntaristic premises, the subversive nature of "the deep premises" gradually take over because "rights are essentially ungrateful claims against authority, either for protections and immunities against authority or for entitlements against authority" (Kraynak, 172). Thus, the fundamental premises of contemporary republican self-government are, at root, individualistic and voluntaristic: "those who see republican self-government as the decisive test of human dignity oppose any authority that stands above the will of the people" (Kraynak, 24). And "many modern Christians" have bought into the Kantian, modernist assertion "that the consent of the people and human rights are the sole legitimizing principles of political authority" (Kraynak,181)." (Bold text is mine)

The point contained in the first bold faced text is giant obstacle to arguments that claim there is no biblical source of rights and that "rights talk" is an Enlightenment interpolation to authentic Christian thought.  This line of reasoning results in statements similar to those found in the second bold faced text that fail to realize that consent of the governed and human rights were ideas that had been around in Christianity long before Kant was even born.  Brian Tierney's arguments that seek to prove this point remain untouched while the culture war obsession with lesser lights like David Barton and Peter Lillback rages on.  I guess it is easier to pick the low hanging fruit?

Friday, July 23, 2010

James Otis: Forgotten Founder

On the Laws of Nature and
Rebellion to Authority

When we think about the great Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, the obvious names that pop up on everyone's radar include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, etc., etc., etc. Rarely does the name James Otis ever show up. In fact, most Americans are probably unfamiliar with this very important and influential man and the brief role he played during the American Revolution.

From the onset of the rising conflict between Britain and its colonies, Otis was an important and passionate participant. And though Thomas Paine would eventually emerge as the Revolution's premiere writer thanks to Common Sense, James Otis was one of the original masters of the pen. His blockbuster piece of the time, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, served to help further the growing belief that the rights of the people were derived not from man but from God and nature itself. Otis writes:
Is not government founded on grace? No. Nor on force? No. Nor on compact? Nor property? Not altogether on either. Has it any solid foundation, any chief cornerstone but what accident, chance, or confusion may lay one moment and destroy the next? I think it has an everlasing foundation in the unchangeable will of GOD, the author of nature, whose laws never vary. The same omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good and gracious Creator of the universe who has been pleased to make it necessary that what we call matter should gravitate for the celestial bodies to roll round their axes, dance their orbits, and perform their various revolutions in that beautiful order and concern which we all admire has made it equally necessary that from Adam and Eve to these degenerate days the different sexes should sweetly attract each other, form societies of single families, of which larger bodies and communities are as naturally, mechanically, and necessarily combined as the dew of heaven and the soft distilling rain is collected by the all-enlivening heat of the sun. Government is therefore most evidently founded on the necessities of our nature. It is by no means an arbitrary thing depending merely on compact or human will for its existence.


The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all to any other form they please. Such alteration may and ought to be made by express compact. But how seldom this right has been asserted, history will abundantly show. For once that it has been fairly settled by compact, fraud, force, or accident have determined it an hundred times. As the people have gained upon tyrants, these have been obliged to relax only till a fairer opportunity has put it in their power to encroach again.

But if every prince since Nimrod had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyrannize. There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature and the grant of GOD Almight, who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it ordinarily in their power to make themselves so if they please.
And though Otis clearly appeals to the laws of nature justifying resistance to tyrants, taxation, etc., he also acknowledges the sovereignty of the British king and the superiority of the "mother country's" laws:
The sum of my argument is: that civil government is of God; that the administrators of it were originally the whole people; that they might have devolved it on whom they pleased; that this devolution is fiduciary, for the good of the whole; that by the British constitution this devolution is on the King, Lords and Commons, the supreme, sacred and uncontrollable legislative power not only in the realm but through the dominions; that by the abdication, the original compact was broken to pieces; that by the Revolution it was renewed and more firmly established, and the rights and liberties of the subject in all parts of the dominions more fully explained and confirmed; that in consequence of this establishment and the acts of succession and union, His Majesty GEORGE III is rightful King and sovereign, and, with his Parliament, the supreme legislative of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, and the dominions thereto belonging; that this constitution is the most free one and by far the best now existing on earth; that by this constitution every man in the dominions is a free man; that no parts of His Majesty's dominions can be taxed without their consent; that every part has a right to be represented in the supreme or some subordinate legislature; that the refusal of this would seem to be a contradiction in practice to the theory of the constritution; that the colonies are subordinate dominions and are now in such a state as to make it best for the good of the whole that they should not only be continued in the enjoyment of subordinate legislation but be also represented in some proportion to their number and estates in the grand legislature of the nation; that this would firmly unite all parts of the British empire in the greater peace and prosperity, and render it invulnerable and perpetual.
Now, perhaps Otis was simply closing out his pamphlet by offering a brief, brown-nosing compliment to Britain and the King. Perhaps Otis didn't want to cause too many ripples in the pool. Or perhaps Otis is laying some of the early groundwork that would later be used to justify rebellion against kings. In Otis' mind, the British king is the sovereign and rightful executive of government so long as he/she accepts the fact (established by the laws of nature themselves) that all men are inherently free. The king's authority is the result of the people's willingness to concede power into his/her hands and not the result of a heavenly mandate. Otis justifies this belief by appealing to Hobbes' Social Contract theory in which the governors and the governed seek to find an agreeable equilibrium. As a result, Otis' ideas were based more on natural law than on any belief in Divine Right Kingship. In consequence, Otis was able to avoid many of the Romans 13/submit to authority in the name of God arguments, which served to make his argument even more appealing.

And though Otis' views on natural religion and rebellion to authority are hardly unique (their origins go WAAAAAAY back) it is important that we recognize the fact that his works were among the earliest sparks that helped to ignite a virtual lightning storm in the American colonies (appropriate analogy, since it was a lightning strike that killed Otis in 1783). Otis' contributions may have been relatively small when juxtaposed with those of the "key founders" but they are, nonetheless, extremely noteworthy.

***Up next: James Otis on the abolition of slavery***

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bishop James Madison, American Jacobin, Repost

I originally wrote the post in Jan. 09. I re-posted it at my other group blog The One Best Way (formerly known as Positive Liberty) which is very slowly regrowing its readership.

Thomas Jefferson on the Bible in Public School

We’ve all heard it said that our Founding Fathers would be appalled at the fact that religion – particularly the Bible and other Christian teachings -- has been removed from the public school system’s curriculum. Over the years, a number of Christian enthusiasts have fought tirelessly for the inclusion of prayers in school, classes on the Bible, etc. To lend support for these causes, a number of "Christian Nation" apologists have appealed to the legacy of our Founding Fathers and their alleged loyalty to the Holy Scriptures. The ultra conservative Christian group, Wallbuilders is a perfect example of this phenomenon. On their website, they point to the establishment of the American Bible Society as evidence that our nation’s founding was based on biblical doctrine. In addition, Wallbuilders makes the claim that, “the signers of the Declaration of Independence firmly believed in the Bible as the primary text in America’s schools.” [1]

And while there were a number of signers to the Declaration of Independence that believed in making the Bible the premiere text for American schools, many were against such an idea. After all, the teaching of the Bible in a school setting brought up a number of church/state issues that have continued to our present day.

The foremost advocate against the use of the Bible – as many of you can easily imagine – was none other than the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson. As we all know, Jefferson was a passionate proponent for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In addition, Jefferson was also a devout supporter of education reform. Jefferson believed that a secularized education, free from the shackles of religious piety would create a superior learning environment. It was largely due to this conviction that Jefferson established Mr. Jefferson’s University, or the University of Virginia as it is known today.

For Jefferson, the instruction of biblical or Christian doctrine took a back seat to the more important lessons of ancient history and philosophy. As Jefferson stated:
“Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” [2]
A number of Christian apologists – David Barton in particular – have insisted that Jefferson not only supported the study of the Bible in public schools, but in fact participated in its teaching. This myth is not only the result of over enthusiasm, but also the result of poor historical research and knowledge. As Jim Allison states:

"On page 130 in his The Myth of Separation, David Barton makes the following claim:

'Thomas Jefferson, while President of the United States, became the first president of the Washington D. C. public school board, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymnal as reading texts in the classroom. Notice why Jefferson felt the Bible to be essential in any successful plan of education: I have always said, always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.'

Barton's reference for Jefferson's service on the Washington D. C. school board is J. O. Wilson, "Eighty Years of Public Schools of Washington," in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. 1, 1897, pp. 122-127. Barton's quotation from Jefferson is taken from Herbert Lockyear, The Last Words of Saints and Sinners, 1969.

Apparently, Barton wants us to conclude that, since Jefferson was president of the board for a school system that used the Bible for reading instruction, he must have approved of using the Bible in this manner. In fact, some readers of this web site have claimed in their e-mail correspondence with us that Jefferson requested the Bible to be used for reading instruction. But nothing in Barton's source supports either of these claims. In fact, Barton's source suggests that someone other than Jefferson was responsible for introducing the Bible into the schools, and that this policy was adopted after Jefferson had left Washington for retirement in Virginia. Here are the facts:

On September 19, 1805, toward the end of Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, the board of trustees of the Washington D. C. public schools adopted its first plan for public education for the city. Given its resemblance to a similar plan proposed several years earlier by Jefferson for the state of Virginia, Wilson (Barton's source) suggests that it is likely that "he [Jefferson] himself was the chief author of the...plan." The plan called for the establishment of two public schools in

...poor children shall be taught reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of the mathematics as may qualify them for the professions they are intended to follow, and they shall receive such other instruction as is given to pay pupils, as the board my from time to time direct, and pay pupils shall, besides be instructed in geography and in the Latin language.

As you can see, there is nothing in this plan that mentions religious education or the use of the Bible in reading instruction. Nor, we might add, was the Bible mentioned in any of Jefferson's plans for public education in the state of Virginia, either before or after his presidency (check out an extract from Leonard Levy's book
Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side for documentation on this point). There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Barton's source that connects Jefferson to the practice of Bible reading. So how did the Bible come to be used in the Washington public schools? Remarkably, Barton's own source provides an answer to that question." [3]

[1] Wallbuilders. “The Aitken Bible.”, accessed July 23, 2008.
Thomas Jefferson, Administration of Laws and the Description of Laws?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guess the President

"But what I am suggesting is this---secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square...[T]he majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

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"Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause."

---Barack Obama, Keynote Address, Call to Renewal's Building a Covenant for a New America Conference, June 28, 2006

Monday, July 19, 2010

Deists in Disguise

One more for now from Rev. Samuel Miller.

In this interdisciplinary field of history/politics/theology the biggest challenge I've faced as someone thinking about trying to "cross over" more into "real" publishing is novelty. Finding and doing things that haven't been done by someone before.

I've concluded that the "key Founders" -- the FFs on American currency -- if pushed would have considered themselves "Christians" not "Deists." Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn't view itself as incompatible with "Christianity." Yet many in the academy endorse the line "the FFs were Deists not Christians."

I think this much is understood by a number of notable scholars. But not enough.

HOW did this come to be? The real story is less well understood.

The standard line from "Christian America" is the FFs were virtually all "Christians" and the bad, secularist revisionists "stole" that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously.

That narrative, of course, is as phony as "the Founders were all Deists" narrative.

I have found that the self understood "rational Christianity" of Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, and perhaps Madison, Washington, G. Morris and others was considered "not Christian" and, in principle, no better than "Deism" by prominent Founding and post-Founding era conservative clergy. The D. James Kennedy's of the day, many of whom occupied prominent places in the academy back then. And they, accordingly, deserve a large portion of the responsibility for the idea that secular scholars later ran with: The Founders were "Deists."

That kind of irony, I dig.

The figures in question include Timothy Dwight, Jedidiah Morse, Bishops Samuel Seabury and William White and Rev. Samuel Miller. James Renwick Willson was even less respectable than the figures thus named. But he deserves particular notable mention for his sermon on the American Presidency that most scholars misidentify as Bird Wilson's.

With that, here Rev. Samuel Miller illustrates this mindset in his letter where he argues that Unitarians, though they call themselves "Christians" are really "Deists in disguise."

[Paragraph breaks added for clarity.]

You are now, I trust, prepared, without hesitation, to answer the questions which were asked toward the close of the first Letter;—viz— What estimate you ought to form of the opinions of Unitarians? How you ought to treat their persons? How to consider their preaching? How to act with respect to their publications? Whether you ought to regard them as Christians at all? Whether their congregations ought to be called churches of Christ? And whether the ordinances which they administer ought to be sustained as valid?

You are prepared, I hope, to decide, promptly and without wavering, that they are By No Means To Be Considered As Christians, in any scriptural sense of the word; that their preaching is to be avoided as blasphemy; their publications to be abhorred as pestiferous; their ordinances to be held unworthy of regard as christian institutions; and their persons to be in all respects treated as Decent And Sober Deists In Disguise.

Such is the estimate which I feel constrained to form for myself; and, of course, that which I wish to impress upon your minds. And, if I do not deceive myself, you have seen enough to preclude all doubt as to its justice. If they reject every fundamental doctrine of the religion of Christ, they, of course, reject Christianity; if they reject christianity, they, surely, are not christians; if they are not christians, their congregations, evidently, ought not to be called churches, nor their ordinances considered as valid: and, these things being so, you ought to regard a proposition to go and hear them preach, or to read their publications, as you would a proposition to hear a preacher of open infidelity, or to read an artful publication of a follower of Herbert or of Hume.

I have said, that Unitarians ought to be considered and treated as Deists In Disguise. I beg that this language may not be misconstrued. It is by no means my intention to intimate, for I do not believe, that Unitarians are, as a sect, a set of hypocrites; that they profess one thing, and really believe another. I have no reason to doubt that they are as sincere in their profession of belief, that is, that they as really believe what they profess to believe, as any of us all. But my meaning is, that, while they assume, and insist on retaining the christian name, their creed really does not differ much, in substance, from that of serious Deists.

Now, if this be the case, and if the fact that they are substantially Deists, be, in effect, concealed from popular view by the name which they bear, what is this but being Deists under the christian name, in other words, Deists in disguise? I certainly take no pleasure in using offensive language. On the contrary, I can truly say, that every thing of this kind which I have employed in these Letters has been extorted from me by a painful sense of duty; but my obligation to state that which I deem both true, and highly important to the best interests of mankind, is paramount to all considerations of delicacy or ceremony.

Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part VIII (Final)

By Mark David Hall

The First Amendment

America’s founders differed with respect to whether and/or how civic authorities should support Christianity. On balance, Reformed Christians were more sympathetic to significant state support for religion, as suggested by the survival of establishments in Vermont (1807), Connecticut (1819), New Hampshire (1819), Maine (1820), and Massachusetts (1833). Yet when Supreme Court Justices have turned to founding era history to shine light on the meaning of the religion clauses, they have overwhelmingly relied on the views of two Southern Anglicans—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. This approach is particularly ahistorical as Jefferson was not even involved in crafting or ratifying the First Amendment.

In contrast to Jefferson, Roger Sherman—a latter-day Puritan if there ever was one—was intimately involved in framing the First Amendment. Sherman served on the committee of eleven that compiled the list of rights first debated by the House of Representatives (the only handwritten draft of the Bill of Rights is in his hand), he actively participated in debates over the amendments, and he served on the six-person conference committee that put the Bill of Rights into its final form. On some issues, such as whether amendments should be interspersed throughout the Constitution or attached to the original text, Congress sided with Sherman rather than Madison. Given Sherman’s extensive involvement in drafting the First Amendment and Jefferson’s absence from the country at the time, it is striking that when U.S. Supreme Court justices have used history to help them interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses that they have made 112 distinct references to Jefferson but have mentioned Sherman only 3 times.

James Madison may have been a driving force behind the Bill of Rights, but the document was ultimately a product of a community—a community that included the following members of Reformed churches: Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Langdon, Caleb Strong, Paine Wingate, Philip Schuyler, Abraham Baldwin, Jonathan Elmer, William Paterson, Fisher Ames, Abiel Foster, Benjamin Huntington, James Jackson, Jeremiah Wadsworth, Nicholas Gilman, Egbert Benson, James Schureman, Henry Wynkoop, Daniel Hiester Jr., Daniel Huger, Benjamin Bourne, William Paterson, William Smith, and Hugh Williamson. Certainly these men were not all equally influential, but at least Sherman, Ellsworth, Huntington, Baldwin, Boudinot, Paterson, and Ames played important roles in key committees and/or debates. None of these seven men advocated anything like a wall of separation of between church and state, and they all thought that states and localities state should encourage Christianity. They agreed with their colleagues that the nation should not have an establish church, but even at the national level they supported things like hiring congressional and military chaplains and requesting that President Washington issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation.


Students of the American founding often view the era through the eyes of elites such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. These men were brilliant, well educated, and influential, but they are not are good representatives of the many Americans who were associated with Reformed congregations in the founding era. Franklin and Adams, the only founders in this group who were raised in the Reformed tradition, clearly came to reject the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity—something that was quite rare for any American of that era. Yet even among in this small, unrepresentative group a reasonable argument can be made that at least some of these men (most obviously Adams and Madison) were influenced by Reformed political ideas.

Tracing intellectual influence is a messy business. Different people may express similar ideas for completely different reasons, or they may use similar words but mean different things by them. Even within the realm of Christianity members of different denominations may adhere to similar ideas, so it is problematic to label almost as distinctively Reformed. Yet if we recognize that Calvinists shared a basic set of political ideas, and that a large majority of Americans were raised in this tradition, it is only reasonable consider the impact of this tradition on America’s founders. I suggest above how taking this tradition seriously might help qualify the widespread view that the Declaration, Constitution, and First Amendment are fundamentally secular documents.

Let me reiterate that I am not arguing that America’s constitutional order is simply and solely a product of Reformed political thought. There were clearly other intellectual influences at work in the era, and founders often acted for non-ideological reasons. As well, although the Reformed tradition was dominant in New England, it was less influential in the middle and southern colonies. My point is simply that there are good reasons to believe that many founding era Americans were committed to and influenced by Reformed political thought. If scholars can pull their eyes away from indisputably fascinating men like George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin and consider the many members of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and First Federal Congress who were relatively drab Calvinists, they will gain a fuller and richer understanding of this critical era in American history.


67. It is sometimes asserted that Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty influenced the authors and ratifiers of the First Amendment. I argue that there is little evidence to support this proposition in “Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty, and the Creation of the First Amendment” (mss. in possession of author).

68. Mark David Hall, “Jeffersonian Walls and Madisonian Lines: The Supreme Court’s Use of History in Religion Clause Cases, Oregon Law Review 85 (2006): 568-69. Of course Reformed Christians often opposed established churches if their churches were not established, but even then they seldom supported a strict separation between church and state. See, for instance, Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977).

69. Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience. 426-433, 441-87; Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, 65-100, 248-277 (on Sherman and Ellsworth), Dreisbach and Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (on Baldwin and Boudinot), John E. O’Connor, William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745-1806 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Marc M. Arkin, “Regionalism and the Religion Clauses: The Contribution on Fisher Ames,” Buffalo Law Review 47 (Spring 1999), 763-828. Charlene Bangs Bickford et al., ed. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 11: 1500-01

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Founding Fathers and the Nature of Man: An Appeal for Clarity

In his recent post about the founding and constitution, Dr. Mark David Hall highlighted something that brings some much needed clarity to this blogs running discussions about reason vs. revelation and Christianity vs. Enlightenment. At the heart of the former discussion is whether the founders considered reason, or revelation, a more reliable guide in the affairs of men.  The latter discussion admits that both the Enlightenment and Christian thought were a part of the founding but seeks to understand which was more influential. With that said, Dr. Hall's addition is that the view of man as fallen was the basis of the government that our founders created not the belief in the "perfectibility of man" that is often associated with the Enlightenment. 

In light of Dr. Hall's addition to the discussion I would like to put forth the idea that the discussion of the nature of man is a much clearer context for a discussion on the influences on the founding and the role of Enlightenment and Christian thought than the whole reason vs. revelation debate a-la Leo Strauss.  Here is a quote from a piece by Robert Hunt about Robert Kraynak that should help set the stage for this debate:

"To his credit, Kraynak is by no means sanguine regarding the contemporary effort on the part of many Christians, and especially of Roman Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, to effect a rapprochement between Christianity and liberalism. On the contrary, Kraynak rejects these efforts and provides the reader with a thorough critique of the effort to ground constitutional government in the premises of philosophical liberalism. Understanding that every form of government is grounded in some view of human nature and of the goods that make for human flourishing, he argues that the variety of liberal efforts to ground constitutional government in a Kantianized defense of "moral autonomy" (a la David Richards) or "equal concern and respect" (a la Ronald Dworkin) cannot be sustained."

The part that jumped out to me was when Hunt stated, "every form of government is grounded in some view of human nature and of the goods that make for human flourishing."  Simply put, the foundation of government is a proper view of human nature and a desire to promote human flourishing.  If this is true, and I think history bears this out, then this puts the whole reason vs. revelation discussion in the proper context. Accordingly, I would submit that the end of reason vs. revelation discussion in regards to political theory is to discern the correct view of the nature of man on which to build the foundations of government.   In other words, most of the theology and philosophy on the topic of the foundations of government focuses on this aspect as its end.

Including that of Calvinist Gregg Frazer who is cited quite often on this blog in regards to his claim that most of the "key founders" believed that reason trumps revelation.  What is often ignored is that most of his views on the topic of government are an outgrowth of his view on human nature as being totally depraved.  When one does not properly understand the assumptions that Frazer brings to the table of the reason and revelation debate it is impossible for one to fully understand where he is coming from. This is because his interpretation of the Bible flows from this well and anything that contradicts it from natural law gets labelled reason trumping revelation.  As Tom Van Dyke would put it, he seems to believe that because we are depraved that reason is our enemy not our friend.

Accordingly, I submit that much of the confusion that results when the topic of reason and revelation is discussed on this blog is over what reason and revelation mean to whom and when?  In other words, John Locke seems to think that natural law is reason and Aquinas seems to believe it was general revelation.  But others, like Frazer, believe that all revelation is from the Bible which would seem to contradict them both. Furthermore, I have interjected more than once the question of what all this means to the Tibetan nomad that has never seen the Bible?  Simply put, this is a complex and complicated discussion that I am not sure ever will ever clear things up.

What is much easier to discern is the question of how the founders viewed the nature of man which, as stated above, is the end of the discussions on reason and revelation to begin with.  I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of them believed in some way that man was fallen and chose the American form of government based on that notion.  Here is Dr. Hall on the founders view of human nature and where he believed it was fashioned:

"John Witherspoon’s student James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 that “if men were angles, no government would be necessary.” Almost to a person America’s founders were convinced that humans are self-interested or, in theological language, sinful. Of course one can reach this conclusion for a variety of reasons, but is it not probable that the approximately 75% of Americans connected to Reformed traditions adhered to this idea because they had heard it from the pulpit since childhood? It is true that every major Christian tradition in America in this era agreed that humans are sinful, but few emphasized it as much as the Calvinists who taught the doctrine of total depravity. In contrast, many Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans are basically good, and that through proper education they could be perfected. As Louis Hartz recognized, “Americans refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, [and] replacing it with an unlimited humanism.”

Now there is a lot here that needs to be unpacked, and I am sure we will accomplish that over the next few months, but I just wanted help frame the discussion and then just focus on a few key points with this post.  One is that there is a clear difference between believing in the "perfectibility of man" and that he is fallen.  It is the former that is central to Enlightenment thinking not the latter.  Another important point is that there is a difference in a belief in total depravity and sinful nature for sure but both views on the nature of man have a long tradition in Christian history. At least this much seems clear if our ultimate goal is clarity.

With all that said, I think the other part of the intramural Christian battle about the proper foundations of government over the centuries has been over the whether or not sinful man is capable of flourishing as alluded to in Hunt's quote above.  That is because it is the very idea of human flourishing that troubles some, like Frazer, who believe in the depravity of man. But once again, the view that man is sinful but because he is made in the image of God is still able to flourish is an idea that has a long Christian tradition. Which means that it did not require the founding generation to re-write the Bible to support their ideas as some claim. Nor does this frame of thought require an Enlightenment line of reasoning on the nature of man. In fact, it is absolutely incompatible with the Enlightenment school of thought that rejects the fallen nature of man. 

Which brings us, yet again, to Jack Goldstone's claim that "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" was the foundation of an engineering culture that launched modernity.  If one of the foundations of this "limited state" was belief in the fallen nature of man maybe it is not a question of Christianity vs. Modernity as Kraynak and Frazer seem to frame it but one of Modernity standing on the shoulders of Christianity? 

That becomes very possible when one realizes that not all Christian thought rejects the idea that human beings are capable of flourishing. It just pins that hope on a proper view of man's nature that takes into account BOTH his fallen nature because of sin and his capabilities because he is made in the image of God.  I think this is, more or less, the view of human nature that won out in the founding in regards to political theory.  It is most certainly not part of Enlightenment thought on the "perfectibility of man" that throws God off the bus.

If we want to use the metaphor of Leo Strauss, at very best, one could say that some founders may have emphasized Athens over Jerusalem but we most certainly cannot say that they sought to destroy Jerusalem as the true Enlightenment figures of the French Revolution did.  This is, in fact, abundantly clear.

ht to TVD for the destroying Jerusalem phrase

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Strauss and Reason vs. Revelation

There has been a lot of discussion about Leo Strauss lately in the comments section of this blog so I decided to do a post on a part of this University of Chicago Press excerpt of the book Reading Leo Strauss by Steven B. Smith.  The following jumped out to me because it focuses on the reason vs. revelation debate that is very famililar to this blog:
"The great theme of Strauss’s life work—what he himself referred to as “the theme of my investigations”—is the theologico-political problem, a term he drew from his early studies of Spinoza. At the center of the theologico-political problem is a choice or conflict between two comprehensive and apparently irreconcilable alternatives: revelation and reason, or as he refers to them metaphorically, Jerusalem and Athens. The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is not simply a philosophical or theological problem; it is at heart a political one. It is a matter of authority and who holds ultimate authority. Does final authority rest with the claims of revelation and all that it implies or with one’s autonomous human reason as the most fundamental guide to life?
Yet while Strauss sometimes presents Jerusalem and Athens as two incompatible alternatives between which one must choose, he elsewhere presents them as two limbs of the tree of knowledge that have mutually nourished and sustained one another. It is the dialectical tension between these two that has provided the “core” or “nerve” of the Western political tradition. Indeed, Strauss shows that the theologico-political problem is more than just a function of civilizations touched by the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It extends as far back as Socrates, the first political philosopher, who was sentenced to death by the city of Athens for corrupting the young and disbelieving the gods of the city. From the outset, the claims of philosophy have been at odds with the ancestral laws of the city and its interpreters. The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens was already something that took place, figuratively speaking, within the heart of historical Athens. It is a problem conceivably coeval with humanity itself.
The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens is, however, more than an extended metaphor for the conflicting claims of revelation and reason. Jerusalem meant for Strauss the spiritual and historical homeland of Judaism and the Jewish people. Strauss was a German Jew who grew up during the final years of Wilhelmine Germany and who came to adulthood during the Weimar Republic, before leaving Germany for good at the onset of the Hitler period. His earliest writings dealt almost exclusively with Jewish themes and Zionist theory. He described himself as having been “converted” to political Zionism at the age of seventeen, and he was later able to write that the establishment of the state of Israel procured “a blessing for all Jews everywhere” whether they realized it or not. The Zionism advocated by Strauss was not of the messianic or redemptivist kind. He strongly opposed the view that the establishment of the Jewish state could provide a solution to the Jewish Question. He once enigmatically referred to the Jewish people and their fate as “the living witness for the absence of redemption.” The establishment of the Jewish state was rather a political necessity forced on the Jews not only for the sake of their collective survival, but for the sake of Jewish self-respect.
The question for any student of Strauss’s work is where he stood on the theologico-political problem. Was he a citizen of Jerusalem or Athens? As the studies in this work indicate, there is no simple answer to this question. Strauss taught sacred texts as though they were philosophical works and philosophical works as if they were sacred texts. His careful readings have often been called “Talmudic,” generally by people who know little of Talmud, and sometimes “kabalistic” by those who know even less of Kabala. What is true is that he often saw things that more conventional readers ignored. In an essay on Thucydides he emphasized the role of piety and “the gods,” concluding with the question quid sit deus (what does God mean?). In an article on Genesis he could treat the opening chapters of the Bible as if they were a companion to Aristotle’s Physics.
Strauss taught his readers to listen carefully and to take seriously the claims of Jerusalem, especially at a time when the modern social sciences were treating religion as if it were some atavistic holdover from a dark antedeluvian past. The Enlightenment’s “Napoleonic” attack upon revelation, best expressed in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, was beaten back by successive waves of counter-Enlightenment theology and the call for a return to orthodoxy. The rationalist’s attempt to overthrow faith is self-refuting, as it rests on a faith in reason that reason itself cannot justify. Nietzsche’s announcement of the “death of God” must be considered at best premature. But neither did Strauss’s critique of the Enlightenment lead to an endorsement of Jerusalem. “The victory of orthodoxy through the destruction of rational philosophy was not an unmitigated blessing,” he wrote. The challenge was not to declare a winner in the struggle, but to remain open to the claims of each and the challenge of each."

Interesting thoughts here for sure.

Rev. Samuel Miller: Unitarians Aren't "Christians", Miller's Argument

The last time I posted this, I excerpted the Unitarians' response, not Miller's claim. This time I am going to post parts of Miller's attack. He argues, perhaps with erroneous premises, that the Unitarianism that prevailed in America was, in principle, not much better than Deism. But it helps explain why men who thought of themselves as "Christians" (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin) historically became known as "Deists."

As Miller writes [with paragraph breaks added for clarity]:

One more insurmountable Objection to, the Unitarian system with me, is, that Infidels EVERY WHERE PREFER THIS SYSTEM TO ANY OTHER THAT BEARS THE CHRISTIAN NAME, and feel no reluctance to uniting in worship with its adherents.

It is not an uncommon thing for Unitarians to boast, that avowed Deists, on hearing, or reading the discourses of their distinguished preachers, have greatly admired them; and declared, that if the system exhibited in them were Christianity, they had no longer any difficulty in taking the name of Christian.

I have been credibly informed of repeated instances of this kind in reference to the Rev. Mr. Channing's sermon, preached and published in Baltimore. Unitarians consider this fact as a most potent argument in favour of their creed; as an argument, that it is so rational, and so strongly commends itself to common sense, that even infidels bow to its authority. But is it not a much more direct and powerful proof of something very different; viz. that Unitarianism and Infidelity are so closely allied, that he who embraces the one, has really no good reason for objecting to the other? This, I have no doubt, is the real ground of the fact in question. And, indeed, how can it be otherwise?

The prevalent system of Unitarianism at the present day, not only makes Christ a mere man, and discards the whole doctrine of Redemption; but also, as you have seen, rejects the inspiration of the scriptures; and, in short, presents a system reduced so nearly to a level with the Deistical scheme, and allows so much latitude of belief and of feeling, with regard to what is left, that the Deist must be fastidious indeed, who would feel much repugnance to joining in communion with a Unitarian society.

Dr. Priestley seems to have been very much of this opinion; for, in writing to a Unitarian friend, concerning a gentleman who had been commonly reputed a Deist, he observes— "He is generally considered as an unbeliever: IF SO, HOWEVER, HE CANNOT BE FAR FROM us; and I hope in the way to be not only almost but altogether what we are."*

Mr. Belsham, according to a representation given in a former Letter, explicitly acknowledges, that Unitarianism does not differ, in any important point, from serious Deism; and; in another place, does not hesitate to avow, that he would much rather embrace Deism than Orthodoxy.*

So Infidels themselves view the matter. They have little objection to the prevalent forms of Unitarianism; not because they are willing to approximate to real christianity; but because they see something, under the name of christianity, NEARLY APPROACHING TO THEM.

Kraynak: Christianity vs. Modernity II

By Robert P. Hunt

The following is a short excerpt of this essay:

"In Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World, Robert P. Kraynak challenges many of the assumptions made by both liberal secularists and committed Christians regarding the proper intellectual and moral foundations for constitutional government. He rejects the liberal assumption that some variant of "moral autonomy" can serve as a foundation for contemporary "rights talk," and, more broadly, questions whether the liberal intellectual tradition contains within itself the resources to sustain its own commitment to democratic self-government. And, while he believes that a more full-bodied religious sensibility that goes beyond a form of "Be Nice" Christianity is needed to sustain constitutional government, he wonders whether any principled commitment on the part of Christians to "modern democracy" might not constitute a surrender to liberal modernity. His arguments regarding the inadequacy of liberalism’s view of man and society are forceful and persuasive. Less persuasive is his argument regarding the inherent conflict between Christianity and democracy--especially to someone who, like myself, shares with Kraynak a commitment to the beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism but who, I suspect, parts company with him regarding the intellectual vision and categories that might best inform the effort to sustain a Christian view of man and society.

To his credit, Kraynak is by no means sanguine regarding the contemporary effort on the part of many Christians, and especially of Roman Catholics in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, to effect a rapprochement between Christianity and liberalism. On the contrary, Kraynak rejects these efforts and provides the reader with a thorough critique of the effort to ground constitutional government in the premises of philosophical liberalism. Understanding that every form of government is grounded in some view of human nature and of the goods that make for human flourishing, he argues that the variety of liberal efforts to ground constitutional government in a Kantianized defense of "moral autonomy" (a la David Richards) or "equal concern and respect" (a la Ronald Dworkin) cannot be sustained. These efforts undercut the matrix of institutions, virtues, and convictions that sustain the temporal common good. He endorses a teleological view of human nature, or, as he describes it, a spiritual, political, and social "hierarchy of ends" under which our obligations and rights as human beings are derived from the goods that are the goals of human nature. In so doing, he supplies a scathing critique of the liberal project: of the tendency of secular rationalist liberalism to create a culture of disbelief and of the trajectory of liberal rights talk toward statism rather than toward truly limited, constitutional government. "Unless the rights of persons are clearly specified from the outset as serving the true hierarchy of ends, those rights will be seen in contemporary secular terms and will weaken subsidiarity by increasing demands to expand the centralized bureaucratic state."(bold face is mine)

In the first text in bold face above, we see Kraynak's larger thesis that is premised on his worry that Christians are making unholy alliances with modern liberalism.  In the second bold faced text, we see the roots of his argument that there are higher and lower human beings that appears here.  I also found it interesting that he seems to agree with Dr. Hall that the modern liberal(Enlightenment?) view of man leads to a centralized bureaucratic state.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who Do You Write Like?

OK, this is really cool. Via John Fea's The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, a website called I Write Like. You plug in a piece of your writing and it compares your style to a famous writer's.

I plugged in 3 different things from the comments section, plus one of my formal essays, and it came back the same all four times---Edgar Allan Poe.

Funny thing is, I've never read a lot of Poe, but I remember in about the 6th Grade, they taught us "Poe's Law of Single Effect," that the meaning and sound of each word should propel the story. That sounded like an ace way to write, and I've kept it in mind all these years.

Now if it turns out that half of us write like Edgar Allan Poe, it won't be all that cool. But for now, this is like one of the coolest things in the history of the world.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

In 1781, after roughly eight years of bloody warfare, the infant United States of America appeared to be on the brink of victory. The American victory at Yorktown in the latter part of that year had severely damaged England's desire for a continued conflict with its colonies. In addition, France's involvement in the conflict (which cannot be underestimated as a critical success for the Americans) signified to the British that the American cause for independence was evolving into a virtual world war. Faced with such predicaments, the British were eventually forced to conclude a peace with their former colonies.

Contrary to what many historians believe, the Battle of Yorktown was NOT the coup de grĂ¢ce that so many make it out to be. Before that peace could be negotiated, another two years would pass before both Britain and America would sit down at the bargaining table. During this time, the Continental Congress faced a severe financial crisis, in which they were unable (or possibly not fully willing) to support Washington's army. Though the fighting had all but stopped, Washington was still forced to maintain the Continental Army until the final peace treaty was signed. As a result, the Continental Army suffered greatly in terms of hunger, lack of equipment, fatigue and cold.

In response to these justifiable grievances, several officers withing the Continental Army formed an anonymous pact to overthrow the Continental Congress and establish a new government. This coup was backed by several of Washington's most trusted men, who felt that the cause of liberty was being threatened by the politicians at home.

In the end, Washington was able to put down the rebellion, but it was far from easy. Here is an excellent article from the History Channel Website on how Washington handled what is now known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, which was, in my opinion, Washington's finest hour. As Washington's men conspired to lead their "valiant" charge and seize power for themselves, Washington was preparing his own response:

When word of the letter and its call for an unsanctioned meeting of officers reached him, Washington issued a general order forbidding any unsanctioned meetings and called for a general assembly of officers for March 15. At the meeting, Washington began his speech to the officers by saying, “Gentlemen: By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! How unmilitary! And how subversive of all order and discipline...”

Washington continued by pledging, “to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor.” He added, “Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.”

When he finished, Washington removed a letter from his breast pocket that he had received from a member of the Continental Congress. He hesitated for a moment as he looked down at the letter before fumbling to retrieve a pair of spectacles from his pocket. Before reading the letter, Washington, in an almost apologetic tone said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.” The eyes of most of his audience filled with tears. The content of the letter became irrelevant as the assembled officers realized that Washington had given as much or more in the service of the new nation as any of them. Within minutes, the officers voted unanimously to express confidence in Congress and their country.

In a letter to the Continental Congress dated March 18, 1783, Washington wrote to assure the body that the unrest of officers was over, writing, “The result of the proceedings of the grand convention of the officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of patriotism which could have been given by men who aspired to the distinction of a Patriot army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will increase their title to the gratitude of their country.”

"Debunk U" Study Guide - Lesson 1

By Chris Rodda