Sunday, August 8, 2010

Noll on Zuckert and “Christian America”

Another repost at The One Best Way here.

Another money quote:

Zuckert argues Locke’s influence transformed both politics and the Christian religion itself during the 18th Century. “Rational Christianity” (what Gregg Frazer terms “theistic rationalism”) is what Christianity turned into after first Locke and then Jefferson, Adams et al. transformed it into something more politically useful for the age of republicanism or classical liberalism. Whether what the Founders understood as “rational Christianity” is properly termed “Christianity” at all is debatable. To America’s key Founders, such “Christianity” often embraced theological heresies.

Noll notes that “republicanism” often presented itself with “Christianity” as though the two went together (hence the kernel of truth to the “Christian America” claim). However, Noll notes the genesis of republican ideas were outside of traditional Christian teachings. Hence a great “importing” of a-biblical, non-traditional teachings into Christianity during the 18th Century.

Some of my co-bloggers note, perhaps correctly, that rational Christianity didn't "import" anything new. The "rational Christians" may well have rediscovered or reinvigorated old Christian "heresies" like Arianism, Socinianism, Universalism, etc.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Noll hides behind Zuckert's reasoning here. I do not agree with it, and neither does my main main Thomas G. West.

King of Ireland said...

West seems to deny that Locke based rights on imago dei. Am I reading him right in what you linked?

King of Ireland said...

Whether they were soteriological heretics or not is not really relevant to the fact that most of their political theology was nothing new. The latter point is the one that proves Kraynak, Frazer and Strauss all wrong.

Tom Van Dyke said...

West seems to deny that Locke based rights on imago Dei. Am I reading him right in what you linked?

I dunno. Joe. Imago Dei is your thing. I only think it's in the mix.

Remember here that scholars discuss Locke-as-Locke, not the Locke the Founders perceived when they name-dropped him.

Zuckert's is the "tall weeds" of scholarly analysis. Neither am I saying that Zuckert is necessarily wrong about the "real" Locke.

I simply question the appropriateness of Noll using Zuckert here, since I dispute that the Founders themselves saw Locke as radical and post-Christian, as the Straussian [among others] Locke is. This would be seeing history through 21st century eyes, not the Founders as they understood themselves, and how they understood Locke.

Noll uses Zuckert to claim Locke as a "modern," outside Christian Thought. However, West disagrees:

My suggestion, then, is that Lockean natural law has a "utilitarian" foundation. The laws of nature are rules of convenience that are useful to human happiness. In this respect, Locke is still in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Hobbes, and most other major philosophers preceding Kant. Locke shares what Kant called the "eudaimonism" of that tradition, which Kant rejected, followed by Hegel and Marx. ("Eudaimonism" is "happinessism"—the view that the ultimate ground of morality and political right is human well-being.) That is, in this fundamental respect, Locke is closer to the classics, who also grounded natural right in a "utilitarian" way. In the end, according to this tradition, what is right is right because it is useful for human well being.
Even if Zuckert's is the "real" Locke, look at Hamilton in
The Farmer Refuted." His Locke is definitely West's, seeing Locke as one of many thinkers in the established natural law tradition.

Further, once Hamilton---via Blackstone---drags in God, natural law has divine force anyway.

"This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original." Blackstone."

This is what I mean about history avoiding some of these scholarly tall weeds, not remaining ignorant, but keeping the focus on history.


First, regarding the divine law, in his excellent chapter on The Reasonableness of Christianity, Zuckert shows that in Locke's presentation, Christianity requires us to obey, to the best of our ability, the law of nature. What Christianity adds to the merely rational account of the law of nature is the idea of divine rewards and punishments. As Locke writes in the Essay, "the true ground of morality . . . can only be the will and law of a God who sees men in the dark, [and] has in his hand rewards and punishments." Otherwise, Locke argues, the law of nature will not be effective. In other words, if people can be persuaded to believe in a religion of this sort, they will be more likely to follow the law of nature. Locke faults the ancient philosophers for failing to take sufficient note of the need for a religion that teaches men to be moral by promises of reward and threats of punishment.

King of Ireland said...

"This is what I mean about history avoiding some of these scholarly tall weeds, not remaining ignorant, but keeping the focus on history. "

Tough balance and an important one in that the tall weeds, properly understood help frame the historical discussion. Especially when the topic is the history of ideas.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sure. Go for it. I just submit that the Founders' Locke is more important than Zuckert's.

And a note that many people and even historians don't care about the ideas so much. They like the battles and intrigues and stuff. So for them, Zuckert is tall weeds and bigtime.

It's when a more popular historian like Mark Noll brings him in as an expert witness that it's good to be able to point out where those tall weeds are.

Tom Van Dyke said...

From my pal David Gordon, 2003:

"Though he opposed Strauss, Rothbard paid generous tribute to his insights: Strauss’s "virtue is that he is in the forefront of the fight to restore and resurrect political philosophy from the interment given it by modern positivists and adherents of scientism – in short, that he wants to restore values and political ethics to the study of politics."(All quotations are from unpublished letters by Rothbard, written in 1960.)

Rothbard found Strauss effective in his criticism of assorted relativists and historicists: "Strauss begins [an essay on relativism] with the almost incredibly confused and overrated Isaiah Berlin, and has no trouble demolishing Berlin and exposing his confusions – Berlin trying to be at the same time an exponent of ‘positive freedom’, ‘negative freedom’, absolutism and relativism." Strauss shows that, "in denying the possibility of rational ends [as relativists do] rational means are not on a very secure basis either."

Strauss has demolished relativism; but what does he propose to put in its place? The version of natural law that Strauss supports fails to extricate us fully from relativism. "Strauss, while favoring what he considers to be the classical and Christian concepts of natural law, is bitterly opposed to the 17th–18th Century conceptions of Locke and the rationalists, particularly to their ‘abstract’, ‘deductive’ championing of the rights of the individual: liberty, property, etc." Strauss’s own arguments against the relativists show that we must have an ethics based on reason, but the version of natural law he favors does not meet this requirement.

As Strauss sees matters, classical and Christian natural law did not impose strict and absolute limits on state power; instead, all is left to the prudential judgment of the wise statesman. From this contention, Rothbard vigorously dissents. "In this [Straussian] reading, Hobbes and Locke are the great villains in the alleged perversion of natural law. To my mind, the ‘perversion’ was a healthy sharpening and development of the concept." In Rothbard’s view, medieval natural law thinkers fully recognized that individuals have rights. Incidentally, the foremost work of contemporary scholarship on this issue, Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights, vindicates Rothbard’s side of the dispute."