Monday, September 21, 2020

Allan Bloom on Locke's State of Nature

I continue my series on Allan Bloom articulating the "state of nature" from which liberalism emerged with his analysis of John Locke. This passage is from pages 163-165 of The Closing of the American Mind

From his reflection on the state of nature, Locke drew the formula of Enlightenment, with its particular combination of natural and political science. Its starting point is the untrammeled use of reason. In this he simply follows the oldest opinions of the philosophers. Freedom for man consists in ordering his life according to what he can see for himself through his most distinctive faculty, liberated from the force of tyrants and the authority of lies, i.e., myths. Through unaided reason, man as man, as opposed to the man of this place or time, nation or religion, can know the causes of things, can know nature for himself. Autonomy does not mean, as is now generally thought, the fateful, groundless decision in the void, but governing oneself according to the real. There must be an outside for the inside to have meaning. 

So thought Locke and his philosophic predecessors and successors. What distinguished Enlightenment from earlier philosophy was its intention to extend to all men what had been the preserve of only a few: the life lived according to reason. It was not "idealism" or "optimism" that motivated these philosophers but a new science, a "method," and allied with them, a new political science. A clear and distinct mathematical science of the movement of bodies, discovered by the use of a simple method readily understood by ordinary men, could make the knowledge of nature accessible to them, if not provide them with the genius to discover that knowledge. The various mythic or poetic views of the whole that set the horizons for the nations of man, and within which the philosophers had always lived alone and misunderstood, would be dispensed with, and the fundamental difference in perspective between scientist and nonscientist overcome. Further, if man himself is taken out of the shadows of the kingdom of darkness and examined in the light of science, he sees that by nature he belongs to the realm of bodies in motion, and that he, like all other bodies, wishes to preserve his motion, that is, his life. Every man has a powerful fear of death, that corresponds to the way of nature. Critical, scientific, methodical examination of the other ends prescribed for man can show that they belong to the realm of the imagination, of false opinion, or derive from this primary end. Such critical examination, of which all men are capable if given guidance by philosophers, and which is supported by powerful inclinations in all men, results in a salutary unity of purpose and a useful simplification of the human problem: vulnerable man must seek the means to his preservation. Since this is what all men really want, whatever arrangements help them get food, clothing, shelter, health and, above all, protection from one another will, if they are properly educated, win their consent and their loyalty.

Once the world has been purged of ghosts or spirits, it reveals to us that the critical problem is scarcity. Nature is a stepmother who has left us unprovided for. But this means we need have no gratitude. When we revered nature, we were poor. Since there was not enough, we had to take from one another; and as a result of this competition, there was inevitably war, the greatest threat to life. But if, instead of fighting one another, we band together and make war on our stepmother, who keeps her riches from us, we can at the same time provide for ourselves and end our strife. The conquest of nature, which is made possible by the insight of science and by the power it produces, is the key to the political. The old commandment that we love our brothers made impossible demands on us, demands against nature, while doing nothing to provide for real needs. What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope and charity, but self-interested rational labor. The man who contributes most to relieving human misery is the one who produces most, and the surest way of getting him to do so is not by exhorting him, but by rewarding him most handsomely to sacrifice present pleasure for the sake of future benefit, or to assure avoidance of pain through the power so gained. From the point of view of man's well-being and security, what is needed is not men who practice the Christian virtues or those of Aristotle, but rational (capable of calculating their interest) and industrious men. Their opposite numbers are not the vicious, wicked or sinful, but the quarrelsome and the idle. This may include priests and nobles as well as those who most obviously spring to mind. 

Here Bloom sees Locke as a modern whose teachings are in tension with classical (Aristotle et al.) and Christian sources. This is an esoteric reading of Locke. Locke did not exoterically present himself as such a troublemaker.  But in reality, he couldn't. Philosophers could be killed for rocking the boat in such a way back then. 

Bloom, rightly in my view, connects Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as operating on a common ground: the concept of "the state of nature," social contract and rights, each with his own distinct view of that phenomenon.  Bloom also accurately notes England and America followed Locke, not the other two. Where Bloom is most controversial is with the esoteric reading. Locke presented his ideas in a Christian context, seemingly compatible with the the traditional order. But interestingly, so did Hobbes and Rousseau. All three operated in similar ways presenting their ideas under the auspices of Christianity. 

More on that later. 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Allan Bloom on States of Nature

I'm continuing the discussion from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and how it dealt with the founders of liberalism. What they deem modern politics. Politically, Bloom traces it to the English, American and French Revolutions, in that order. 

But here is where the analysis gets interesting in a very provocative and contentious way.  From pages 162-63:

What was acted out in the American and French Revolutions had been thought out beforehand in the writings of Locke and Rousseau, the scenarists for the drama of modern politics. These Columbuses of the mind—Thomas Hobbes led the way, but Locke and Rousseau followed and were considered more reliable reporters—explored the newly discovered territory called the state of nature, where our forefathers all once dwelled, and brought the important news that by nature all men are free and equal, and that they have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. This is the kind of information that causes revolutions because it pulls the magic carpet out from under the feet of kings and nobles. Locke and Rousseau agreed on these basics, which became the firm foundation of modern politics. Where they disagreed, the major conflicts within modernity were to occur. Locke was the great practical success; the new English and American regimes founded themselves according to his instructions. Rousseau, probably the greatest literary success of all time, inspired all the later attempts in thought and deed, private and public, to alter, correct or escape from the fatality of Locke's complete victory. 

It is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature. We are like aristocrats who do not care to know that our ancestors were once savages who, motivated only by fear of death and scarcity, killed one another in quarrels over acorns. But we continue to live off the capital passed on to us by these rejected predecessors. Everyone believes in freedom and equality and the rights consequent to them. These were, however, brought to civil society from the state of nature; in the absence of any other ground for them, they must be just as mythical as the tale of the state of nature told by the unreliable travelers. Instructed by the new natural science that provided their compass, they went to the origin and not to the end, as did the older political philosophers. Socrates imagined a shining city in speech; Hobbes discovered an isolated individual whose life was "mean, nasty, brutish and short." This opens up a very different perspective on what one wants and hopes for from politics. Prudence points not toward regimes dedicated to the cultivation of rare and difficult, if not impossible, virtues, but toward a good police force to protect men from one another and allow them to preserve themselves as well as possible. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society's purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature's imperfection causes war. 

The reports from the state of nature mixed bad news and good news. Perhaps the most important discovery was that there was no Garden of Eden; the Eldorado of the spirit turned out to be both desert and jungle. Man was not provided for at the beginning, and his current state is not a result of his sin, but of nature's miserliness. He is on his own. God neither looks after him nor punishes him. Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must care for himself without the hope that good men have always had: that there is a price to be paid for crime, that the wicked will suffer. But it is also a great liberation—from God's tutelage, from the claims of kings, nobles and priests, and from guilt or bad conscience. The greatest hopes are dashed, but some of the worst terrors and inner enslavements are dispelled. 

Unprotectedness, nakedness, unsuccored suffering and the awfulness of death are the prospects that man without illusions must face. But, looking at things from the point of view of already established society, man can be proud of himself. He has progressed, and by his own efforts. He can think well of himself. And now, possessing the truth, he can be even freer to be himself and improve his situation. He can freely make governments that, untrammeled by mythical duties and titles to rule, serve his interests. The explorations of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau of the origins made possible a new beginning in theory, a project for the reconstruction of politics, just as the exploration and discovery of the New World promised a new beginning in practice. The two new beginnings coincided and produced, among other wonders, the United States.  

Much can be said about the above passage, but I will keep my comments brief. Bloom assumes that Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were the architects of the English, American and French Revolutions.  I won't dispute that, but some do. He also assumes they were either atheists or strict deists and the political philosophy that undergirds their thought, either atheistic or deistic. I am not convinced. 

In order to draw this conclusion one must read those three philosophers esoterically and, to be honest, it's not possible to know for sure; we can only speculate.  So we must draw more modest conclusions. All three philosophers claimed to be "Christians" of some sort. This was in an era when not publicly affirming such could get you at worst executed. They all posited novel ideas, in particular their common ground of "the state of nature." 

And each had his own different view of "the state of nature." Straussians like Bloom believe, and I agree, that the "state of nature" was intended to replace the biblical creation story. Or at least offer a parallel. Is it an either/or? Years ago discussing this with interlocutors, we agreed that the "state of nature" was analogous to Darwin's theory of evolution. Some folks believe evolution contradicts the Christian faith; other reconcile them.

Interestingly, Locke's "state of nature" teachings were featured in revolutionary pulpits. America's founders attempted to reconcile different ideologies that supposedly contradict one another. Well, the preachers that were on their side and vice versa did the same when they tried to Christianize the "state of nature." 

Also interesting is Bloom's observance that "[i]t is now fashionable to deny that there ever was a state of nature." Bloom was an atheist who believed in Darwin's evolution. Even though the "state of nature" offered a competing creation narrative with the biblical creation story, taken literally, as detailed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, the "state of nature" is as unlikely to have actually occurred as the literal details of the Garden of Eden.

So perhaps the state of nature was meant to be understood metaphorically. Likewise, with the Garden of Eden. Science tells us that Darwin's evolution likely best explains the origin of life. And as noted above, some believe the Christian faith can be reconciled with evolution; others not. If we wished to reconcile the aforementioned Enlightenment "state of nature" teachings with evolution, Hobbes' account (alas) comes closest to what life actually was like there. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

More From Allan Bloom on Revolutions in Modernity

What we saw last post is Allan Bloom asserting "modernity" began with three revolutions: English, American and French. I want to continue with this section of "The Closing of the American Mind," this time on pages 160-61:

Americans found little to charm them in the ancien regime in France. Its throne and altar were the very reality of, respectively, the unjust inequality and the prejudice that the American regime was intended to replace in the world. America, they believed, would succeed in its project with relative ease because we began here with the equality of conditions. Americans did not have to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it. But the need to do all this, plus the presence of the Parisian mob, which could not accept the rule of law, prevented the French from attaining the reasonable consensus required for orderly democratic government. 

But another view of these events dominated public discussion on the Continent. To some Europeans, the Americans represented an intolerable narrowing of the human horizon, and the price paid for their decent order and prosperity was too high. The French aristocracy had a nobility, brilliance and taste that contrasted sharply with the pettiness and grayness of liberal society's commercial life and motives. The loss of what that aristocracy represented would impoverish the world. More important, the religion that was dismantled could be thought to express the depth and seriousness of life. If the noble and the sacred cannot find serious expression in democracy, its choiceworthiness becomes questionable. These are the arguments, the special pleading of the reactionaries, the disinherited of the ancien regime.

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property? Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? Communism or socialism never really made much headway against the respect for private property in the United States. Locke's definition of property suited, and still suits, our tempers perfectly, and Rousseau's critique of it made almost no impression here, although it was and remains very potent in Europe. And freedom for us meant merely acting as one pleases, restricted only by the minimum demands of social existence. We had not adequately understood what really setting laws for ourselves required, nor had we gone beyond the merely negative freedom of satisfying brutish impulsion. As for religion, the domesticated churches in America preserved the superstition of Christianity, overcoming of which was perhaps the key to liberating man. Should a good regime be atheistic, or should it have a civil religion? And, finally, what in the world can we do with the Napoleonic —heroic ambition and military glory—other than ignore or debunk it? 

Such were the questions raised on the slaughter-bench of History by the French Revolution, questions that we were not eager to hear. ...

So we see that "modernity" was brought to the world by means of revolutions fought for similar ideals (though not the exact same and in this case the devil may be in the details), first in Great Britain, then America, then in France. 

I agree with Bloom that America was lucky that it didn't have "to kill a king, displace an aristocracy that would stay around and cause trouble, or disestablish a church and perhaps abolish it" and that was a large part of why America more successfully implemented the principles of liberal democracy than France did.

Though as Gregg Frazer has noted, the Loyalists in America weren't exactly treated with kid gloves. And as I have noted, the Anglican establishment at the state level was defenestrated. By this time, Americans were already highly suspicious of the Anglican establishment across the ocean. We could only imagine what would have occurred if the Church of England was uniformly established in the American colonies at the time of the American revolution. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Allan Bloom on the Big Three Liberal Revolutions

I strongly recommend Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" and Leo Strauss' "Natural Right and History," not necessarily because I endorse everything in them; there is much in both books with which to disagree. Sometimes strongly.

Rather it's the way Strauss and his followers, especially Bloom attempt to penetrate the past great thinkers and historical events. The seriousness; the intensity. They truly give you a "grand tour" if you can stick around and follow them until the end.

And the part of the tour which explores the American founding is as contentious as it is illuminating. Below, I'm going to reproduce an excerpt from "The Closing of the American Mind" where Bloom deals with the big three revolutions of liberal democracy: English, American, and French. 

Bloom popularly appealed to a "conservative" (right of center) audience; but I think the book's appeal transcends politics. On the section I will reproduce, instead of writing something that would tickle the ears of the conservatives, where the American revolution was "good" and the French was "bad," etc., he gives us a different honest, interesting, informed take.

Bloom does not see "revolutions" -- any of them -- as either conservative or "Christian"* events. The three revolutions each were unique and could be viewed as sui generis. Or we could view them, as Bloom does, as part a larger connected history.

From pages 158-59:

Modernity is constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed, and made possible by a new science of nature that masters and conquers nature, providing prosperity and health. This was a self-conscious philosophical project, the greatest transformation of man's relations with his fellows and with nature ever effected. The American Revolution instituted this system of government for Americans, who in general were satisfied with the result and had a pretty clear view of what they had done. The questions of political principle and of right had been solved once and for all. No further revolution would be necessary, if revolution means changing of the fundamental principles of legitimacy, in accordance with reason and the natural order of things, and requiring armed combat against those who adhere to old orders and their unjust forms of rule. Revolution, a new word in the political vocabulary, which first referred to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, made in the name of very much the same principles as ours, is akin to the movement of the sun from night to day.

The French Revolution, called a new dawn by Kant, was a much greater event than the American Revolution in the eyes of the world at that time because it concerned one of the two great powers in it, the veritable school of Europe, with one of the oldest and most civilized peoples. It was fought and won for freedom and equality, as were the English and American revolutions. It would seem to have completed the irresistible triumph of modern philosophy's project and to give a final proof of the theodicy of liberty and equality. But, unlike its predecessors, it gave birth to a dazzling array of interpretations and set off reactions in all directions that have not yet exhausted the impulse it lent to them. The Right—in its only serious meaning, the party opposed to equality (not economic equality but equality of rights)—at first wanted to undo the Revolution in the name of Throne and Altar, and this reaction probably breathed its last only with Francisco Franco in 1975. Another form of the Right, as it were a progressive Right, wanted to create and impose a new kind of inequality, a new European or German aristocracy, on the world, and it was blasted out of existence in Berlin in 1945. The Left, which intended to complete the Revolution by abolishing private property, is still quite alive but has never succeeded in doing so in those nations, particularly France, most influenced by the French Revolution. It was the Center, the bourgeois solution, which in the long run won out, but after so many regrets and so many disappointed aspirations, in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as it had in England and the United States. The last really great bourgeois-haters died at about the same time: Sartre, De Gaulle, and Heidegger. (Americans are not sufficiently aware that hatred of the bourgeois is at least as much a thing of the Right as of the Left.) One can expect a certain literary afterglow, since bourgeois-baiting is almost a reflex among writers and is unlearned with great difficulty, as was proved when so many kept at it even though there were Nazis and Communists around who might have merited their attention. In order to keep that flame alive, many literary persons interpreted Hitler as a bourgeois phenomenon, an interpretation that they have made stick by force of repetition.

Bloom has other variations on this theme in other parts of the book which I hope to reproduce and discuss sometime in the future. 

*Meaning traditional orthodox Christianity. There are plenty of varieties of Christianity. Bloom would probably argue that what's known as "liberation theology" is the theological heir to revolutions. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Virginia Constitution, "lack" of religious tests, TJ, & heresy

 I, for a long while, was under the initial impression that the 1776 Virginia Constitution can be seen as an exception when it came to the imposition of religious test oaths for public office. The following snippet had led me (and many others) in that direction:

The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide, Part 56 by John J. Dinan

Section 7. Oath Or Affirmation

All officers elected or appointed under or pursuant to this Constitution shall, before they enter on the performance of their public duties, severally take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation:

   "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as ______________ according to the best of my ability (so help me God)."

Although the current oath has been uncontroversial, previous oaths have generated significant controversy. The 1864 Constitution was the first to require officeholders to take an oath [my italics] and the purpose was to ensure that officeholders were not supporters of the Confederacy. Then, the 1867-68 Convention approved a "test-oath" that would have prevented a significant number of past supporters of the Confederacy from holding state office. Both of these oaths approved by the 1867-68 Convention provoked significant controversy, whether at the time or in coming years. [end excerpt]

A little research shows that my initial impression was wrong. As can be readily seen, the Virginia Constitution doesn't lack religious test oath legislation.  See Founders Online here, and here, and again here, which show, early on (~1779), a list of various test oaths for state office.

In Virginia, even when an oath-taker held religious scruples that person still had to “repeat the formulary, which in his opinion, is or ought to be observed on such occasions, according to the religion in which such person professeth to believe, … .” While apparently quite tolerant this particular clause put a person like Thomas Jefferson in an awkward position.

Thomas Jefferson, an unorthodox Christian, was elected Virginia Governor on June 1, 1779. According to common law & Virginia statute TJ should have served from jail. At least, that’s how Frederick Jonassen (So Help Me ?, pg. 329, footnote 148; also Bradley) put it:

Until 1786, a non-Christian in Virginia would have to keep his religious opinions to himself because of a statute that made it a criminal offence to publically utter a non-Christian view."' <148>

148 - It is not clear how these provisions were enforced, whether through religious tests or otherwise. And a “professed atheist, polytheist, or unorthodox Christian” in Virginia presumably “would have had to serve from jail, because both by common law and statute Virginia criminalized at least the public utterance of such views. Note as well that Anglicanism was "established" or preferred even to other Protestant sects in Virginia until 1786.51

Gerard V. Bradley, The No Religious Test Clause and the Constitution of Religious Liberty: A Machine That Has Gone of Itself, p. 683; 51 - Isaac, Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists' Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775, 31 WM. & MARY L. REV. 345-68 (1974); 52 - S. BOLTON, SOUTHERN ANGLICANISM 5 (1982). 

Written in 1781 and 1782, Jefferson assessed the state of religious rights in Virginia after the 1776 Constitution in his Notes on the State of Virginia Query #17 (published 1785):



The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free; but when they proceeded to form on that declaration the ordinance of government, instead of taking up every principle declared in the bill of rights, and guarding it by legislative sanction, they passed over that which asserted our religious rights, leaving them as they found them.

The same convention, however, when they met as a member of the general assembly in October 1776, repealed all acts of parliament which had rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exercising any mode of worship; and suspended the laws giving salaries to the clergy, which suspension was made perpetual in October 1779. Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wiped away, we remain at present under those only imposed by the common law, or by our own acts of assembly. At the common law, heresy was a capital offence, punishable by burning. Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canonical scriptures, or by one of the four first general councils, or by some other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express and plain words of the scriptures. Heresy, thus circumscribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October 1777, c. 17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring, that the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De haeretico comburendo. By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands [my italics].

This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.  The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Hall on Rakove at Christianity Today

Mark David Hall has an article out at Christianity Today that reviews the new work by Jack Rakove on religious liberty and the American founding. A taste:

The Boundaries of Toleration

Historically, religious toleration has been the exception rather than the rule. But early modern thinkers such as John Milton and John Locke argued in favor of tolerating dissenters, and in 1689 England’s Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which offered limited protections to non-Anglican Protestants. Rakove states that the act “did not legally bind Americans,” but he suggests that it did “influence their behavior.” However, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were already doing a superior job protecting religious liberty, and many American colonies soon joined them in surpassing their mother country. (I do not mean to imply that religious liberty was always and everywhere advancing in British North America. For instance, in 1692, following the Glorious Revolution, Maryland repealed its groundbreaking 1649 toleration act.)

In the Anglo-American world, the boundaries of religious toleration were regularly tested by members of the Society of Friends—better known as Quakers. Among other peculiarities, Friends decline to swear oaths, a practice Rakove attributes to the Fourth Commandment. I suspect he means either the Second or Third Commandment’s admonition not to “take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7, ESV). (Different traditions number the commandments differently.) But even citing Exodus is incorrect—Quakers refuse to swear oaths because they take literally biblical passages such as Matthew 5:34–37, where Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all. … All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (NIV). Furthermore, Quakers are pacifists and so refuse to serve in the military. They were routinely jailed because they acted on these convictions.

In 1696, Parliament passed a law permitting Quakers in England to affirm rather than swear some oaths. However, they were not allowed to be witnesses in criminal cases or hold civic offices—disabilities that remained until 1826 and 1832, respectively. Yet as early as 1647, Rhode Island permitted them to affirm rather than swear. Many American colonies followed this example and, in addition, exempted them from militia duty. The United States Constitution bans religious tests for office and permits anyone to affirm rather than swear oaths, which enabled Quakers to serve in the national government 44 years before they could do so in England. Rakove almost completely ignores these important advances for religious liberty in America.

Hall clearly endorses religious exemptions more so than Rakove does. That's the point of the review. However, figuring out how the founding fathers/First Amendment ought to apply is complex. Like Hall, I tend to generously support religious exemptions. Though I think Justice Scalia in Employment Division v. Smith got it right that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment doesn't require such. 

That is, to the extent that these exemptions are legitimate, they are as creatures of legislatures and state constitutions. 

Further, scholars such as Marci Hamilton, Philip Hamburger and Phillip Munoz have demonstrated that such is the correct originalist understanding of religious liberty. True, America's founders did support giving exceptions and accommodations from the secular law that might burden religious practice. But did so more as a privilege that could be taken away.

(I understand this point is quite contentious in some scholarly circles; but at the moment I would kick the can to the above mentioned three scholars and can link to some of their arguments in the comment section if any readers so desire.) 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Robert Reilly’s New Book

Robert R. Reilly has written a book -- "America on Trial" -- that seeks to defend the American founding from the perspective of traditional Catholicism. Long story short, some notable traditional Catholics (Patrick Deneen et al.) have argued to the contrary.

I hope to have much more to say on this book in the future; I haven't gotten it yet but am well familiar with what it argues, having read many of Reilly's articles and other commentary about his book, for instance the symposium on Reilly's book at Catholic World Report. It's a great symposium that features analysis that is pro, con and in between.

Daniel J. Mahoney's article is my favorite and it's in the "in between" box. What I see as key from his article:
Still, the Founders bought into what the great southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy called a “mishmash anthropology.” No moral relativists, they nonetheless adopted the idiom of the “state of nature” which was intended by its great proponents to be a substitute account of human origins from the old one, so strikingly provided in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. Such an account is remarkably “conventionalist,” in that it takes its bearings from solitary or semi-solitary individuals in the state of nature who are in no way political animals by nature. And Locke, a most canny writer, presented arguments in his Second Treatise of Government for human beings being both the product of Divine workmanship and beings who own themselves. Human beings have duties in the state of nature (contra Hobbes) but only when these are not at odds with the overwhelming imperative of self-preservation. For Locke, God and nature are not particularly provident, 9/10, nay 999/1000, Locke says, of what human beings have is the product of human industriousness. In numerous and subtle ways, Locke undermines the multiple reasons why human beings ought to be grateful to a loving and Provident God and a beneficent natural order.
I don't like the term "mishmash" because it suggests incoherence. Rather, I prefer "synthesis." In good faith, America's founders, good Whigs they, attempted to "harmonize" (see Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).

We can discuss whether Locke's teachings were properly "Christianized"* with tips of the hat to the Anglican Thomist, Richard Hooker. Yes, Locke's ideas were presented, often from pulpits, in a manner that suggested compatibility with traditional Christianity and the natural law (Aristotle-Thomism-Hooker); but also often included the "state of nature/social contracts and rights" speak that is, as Leo Strauss put it, "wholly alien" to not only the Bible but also the traditional natural law.

Allan Bloom, one of Strauss' disciples, has an instructive quotation:
When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. ("The Closing of the American Mind," 41-2). 
Note that it was not Hobbes who was cited from the pulpits, but either Locke explicitly, or Locke's ideas on the state of nature/social contract and rights, without attribution. Bloom, like Strauss before him and Deenen and others, operate under the assumption that Locke was "Hobbesian." We need not operate under this assumption, but rather simply note Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all shared the common ground of the construct of the "state of nature/social contract and rights," and each had his own particular spin on that construct. It was, for lack of a better term, the "common parlance" among them. This construct was, however, first initiated by Hobbes.

*Meaning the traditional or orthodox practice of the faith.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Meyerson Deconstructs Washington's Presidential Oath Story

On June 30th Steven Green took his turn at the current round of discussions at the Cato Institute, and opined that a “religionist interpretation of the foundingfrom those like Mark Hall and his colleagues (namely Daniel Dreisbach) offer conclusions with which he disagrees.

I fully agree. By way of explanation, let’s start off where Michael Meyerson, in his book, Endowed by Our Creator, deconstructs Washington's Presidential "So help me God" oath story:

Given this evidence of [Washington’s inaugural address that fully illustrates his] religious conviction, it is curious that so much emphasis has been placed on the uncertain story of Washington’s oath. It is discomforting to hear Justice Scalia treat a story of uncertain validity as historical fact. In an attempt to prove religion has never been “strictly excluded from the public forum,” Scalia asserted: “George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, par 1, cl.7, of the Constitution, the concluding words, ‘so help me God.’” Such an assertion weakens the largely accurate point he is trying to prove; if the factual predicate of his argument is doubtful, the persuasiveness of his reasoning is weakened.

Part of the appeal of Washington’s oath story is that it permits advocates to quote Washington using the word “God.” In most of his public addresses as president, Washington, instead used expressions as “Providence,” “Heaven,” “Director of Human Events,” and the “Grand Architect.” Any argument based on Washington’s use of religious language becomes more persuasive to modern ears if  the more familiar word “God” can be attributed to him.

The oath story also permits partisans to link religious statements made by modern presidents with the utterance made by Washington. One commentator has written: “The hand of the past is palpable on every occasion of the taking of the presidential oath; every president has followed the lead of George Washington in adding the words, ‘so help me God’ after the formal, prescribed constitutional oath.” This statement is entirely without factual foundation; neither John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison uttered the phrase. The first eyewitness documentation of any president saying “so help me God" is Chester Arthur in 1881. The power of [religionist] history, however, would be considerably diminished if one were reduced to claiming the tradition dates to Chester Arthur.

Now, when it comes to Mark Hall & Daniel Dreisbach, Washington’s presidential oath story illustrates Meyerson’s point.

When Hall says “it is eminently reasonable to infer from the lack of records that he [Washington] added those words [SHMG].” I ask, who, but a religious enthusiast is listening to that claim?

Dreisbach, in concert with Hall, observes that “these additional words [SHMG] have become so engrafted into presidential tradition that one commentator has argued, somewhat fancifully, that “in a real sense, then we have a religious oath of office as a result of a constitutional amendment adopted through the precedent-setting action of the first chief executive.” (See James E. Pfander, 1999, pg 551; also Espinosa, 2009, pg 57.)

The difference between Pfander and Dreisbach is that Pfander, back in 1999, could unwittingly claim “'So help me God' has become a regular feature of the event ever since” [Washington’s first inauguration], and Pfander, therefore, had no qualms about introducing the notion that this supposed regular occurrence had, in effect, produced a “constitutional amendment.”

In contrast, Dreisbach (2017) is quite aware that “in recent years, commentators have questioned whether Washington, in fact, uttered the phrase So help me God, or whether the words are erroneously attributed to the first president long after the event,” [since] “ this part of the narrative lacks contemporaneous confirmation.” Nonetheless, Dreisbach, even if somewhat fancifully, has no problem giving bandwidth to a religiously framed "So  help me God" constitutional amendment.

Addendum: Mark Hall in the Conclusion section (page 152) of his myth busting book (hard bound edition), goes even further than Pfander’s understanding of SHMG having been a “regular feature” during the presidential oath, where he plugs the fanciful notion that “from an originalist perspective, the Establishment Clause provides no bar to exempting religious minorities from general laws, including “so help me God[my italics] in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mark David Hall has a new installment at this month's Cato Unbound. Check it out. A taste:

Mark David Hall has a new installment at this month's Cato Unbound. Check it out. A taste:
Professor Allen writes: “Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists … [b]ut once again, ‘the founders’ and ‘the American people’ are not at all the same thing.” It is certainly true that not all founders were Calvinists, but many of them were, and they drew from a tradition of political reflection that encouraged them to actively resist tyrants. 
Let’s begin by considering just one Reformed founder, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman. Sherman was the only statesman to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the Constitution (1787). He served longer in the Continental and Confederation Congresses than all but four men, and he was regularly appointed to key committees, including those charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison and, according to David Brian Robertson, the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman … may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”[i] He was also a representative and senator in the new republic where he played a major role in drafting the Bill of Rights. And unlike many of the more “Enlightened” founders favored by Professor Allen, Sherman never owned a slave, and he co-authored a law that put slavery in Connecticut on the path to extinction.[ii]
American patriots drew from a rich and deep tradition of Calvinist thought concerning when tyrants may be justly resisted. ...

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Green: More Than an Academic Debate

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Steven Green's follow up entitled "More Than an Academic Debate" after his initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Green's latest:
I want to step back from this discussion to ask the more fundamental question of why this debate is so important to a segment of the U.S. population. A common response is that professional historians, many of whom have secularist leanings, have given Christianity, and its impact on our nation’s history, a short shrift, either marginalizing it or portraying it in negative terms. As a result, there is a desire to “set the record straight”—as if there is an identifiably “correct” interpretation of history that should then be embedded in perpetuity. That said, Professor Hall and his cohort of like-minded scholars have contributed to the discipline by expanding our understanding of our past and by challenging oversimplified assumptions about the nation’s founders. I chiefly disagree with the conclusions he draws.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A New Book-oath on ‘A People’s History’ Has Come to Town

Thanks to a January 6, 2020, The American Spectator article, The Zinn Education Project: Teaching Trump-Hate and Other Dogma - A decade after his death Howard Zinn lives on, propagandizing America’s youth, by Mary Grabar, I’ve learned that two recently elected officials at the very local level have had the audacity to replace the customary Bible with Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of theUnited States.

Here’s the scoop:

Zinn’s book has attained the status of a holy book. In April [9, 2019] JoBeth Hamon used it in place of the customary Bible in her swearing-in to the Oklahoma City Council. 

In Fairfax County, Virginia, a wealthy D.C. suburb and one of the largest school districts in the nation, “Rachna Sizemore Heizer … swore the oath of office while holding a copy of . . . Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States,” according to a December 20 [2019 Fairfax County Times] article celebrating the new “historically diverse” school board, part of the transformation of this community and 32 others toward racial “equitythrough groups funded by Soros, and others.

Not surprisingly, Fairfax County students will soon have one day off for protesting. The Zinn Education Project will provide plenty of resources, from abolishing Columbus Day to protesting climate change.

Mary Grabar made a special effort to scold JoBeth Hamon in the 9/17/20119 Epoch Times article, Bible Replaced by Marxist Book in Taking Oath of Office. Here’s a snippet from the beginning of her commentary:

When Oklahoma City Council member Jobeth Hamon was sworn in early this year [April 9,2019 to take her seat], she chose to use a copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’ History of the United States,”

While there’s no law or  policy that requires the use of a Bible for swearing-in ceremonies, Hamon upset traditions going back to ninth-century England.

Mary Grabar is right about mandatory Bible (loyalty test) oaths having a long tradition going back to ninth-century England, but she should take into consideration what Tucker Lieberman explained in his 1/11/2017 blog post, The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles:

When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. [Melissa] Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."

Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

So despite Mary Grabar's lamentations, and by virtue of the Constitution, there's apparently no guarantee that the long established tradition built on the Bible will be sufficient to discourage further encounters with a Marxist book, "A People's History of the United States."

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Brooke Allen: "The Founders Read the Bible. But They Also Read David Hume"

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Brooke Allen's response after Mark David Hall's initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Allen:
Steven Green writes with great common sense and a refreshing absence of ideology. He makes a very important point: that the founders, like the rest of the American public, were “religiously literate,” steeped in biblical lore and language. The Bible and the stories in it were the common possession of pretty much the entire American public to a degree that is hardly comprehensible today. Biblical analogy was the most obvious method for eighteenth-century politicians to communicate with the people, and as Dr. Green points out, they all did it, even those who had private doubts: thus, George Washington’s fondness for Micah’s image of the vine and the fig tree tells us nothing about Washington’s personal beliefs but a great deal about his ability to communicate in a manner that would move his audience. In today’s culture such a rhetorical reliance on scripture would be impossible, not only because secularists would take exception but because large swathes of the public, including (especially?) highly educated people, have little to no knowledge of the Bible. A modern politician is far more likely to draw analogies from football or baseball, or from some very familiar cultural product like Star Wars or Harry Potter, than from scripture. Insofar as we have a common culture anymore, sports and entertainment are the things that constitute it. 
Dr. Green is also right, I think, when he states that the fact that “religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create,” and that “Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas” were also highly significant to the founders and their theories of government. And he does well to remind us that it is very, very difficult to “fit” individual founders into any modern religious category, and probably pointless to try.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Steven Green: "The Religious Beliefs of the Founders Don’t Always Fit in Present-Day Categories"

In the conversation at this month's Cato Unbound, the following is Steven Green's response after Mark David Hall's initial response to the interlocutors involved in the discussion. A taste from Professor Green:
I agree with most of Professor Kidd’s observations. As I suggested in my essay, we should resist forcing twenty-first century categorizations about belief onto those leaders of the founding generation who were, by all accounts, complex individuals. The presence of Christianity (Protestantism) in the founding culture was ubiquitous, so commentators should resist attempts to segregate its religious aspects from its secular ones. All of the founders were religiously literate—something that stands in stark contrast to many political leaders today—and were comfortable discussing religious ideas. But they were also synthesizers of Enlightenment rationalism and Whig political theories. Professor Kidd and I agree that “deism” was a broad and ill-defined perspective, at least its American variant. That’s why I prefer—like Professor Kidd—to consider figures like Washington and Jefferson theistic rationalists. But they were not conventional Christians.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Mark Hall Singles Out Michael Meyerson as a Separationist

Earlier this year Jon Rowe told American Creation readers that Mark Hall has written a new book,  "Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth." After some delay, I have started reading Mark’s book that attempts to separate “modern myth from historical truth.”

When reading page 111, I found this line, “ Separationaists often think it significant that there is no contemporary account of Washington saying ‘So help me God’ when he took the oath of office. <71>  
By flipping to page 199 I learned that Mark has singled out Michael Meyerson as a separationist:  <71> See, for instance, Michael I. Meyerson, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Liberty in America . . . , 181-82.

I went ahead and tried to find out why Mark Hall has thought it necessary to single out Meyerson as a “separationist.” When I read the designated pages the only answer I could come up with is that Meyerson is similarly trying to separate modern myth from historical truth, much like Peter Henriques has done in his 1/11/2009 HNN article, So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded.

I don’t know why Meyerson is being identified as a separationist by Mark Hall, but the following snippet taken from a 4/14/2014 Baptist Standard article, Revisionists get church & state wrong, law professor (Michael Meyerson) says, by Ken Camp & Daniel Wallace, should shed some light on the issue:

Equilibrium to avoid partisanship

The founders sought to strike equilibrium on the issue and compromised to produce a solution that avoided partisanship.
“They understood the complexity of this issue better than we do,” Meyerson said. “They understood the solution had to be nuanced and had to be complicated—not beyond understanding, but not a simple ‘never or always.’ And that’s what they worked on—that compromise.”
Founders of the nation agreed on a respectful vision that religion is scarred with unbelievable evil, yet also graced with equally unbelievable good, he noted. Their goal was to formulate a standard on the issue of church and state relations that united the nation, rather than creating a mandate that brought division.
“They wanted to separate church and state but not necessarily God and state,” he said. “They were most afraid of sectarianism, but they never intended to eliminate all discussion of God and religion from the public sphere.”

Sunday, June 28, 2020

John Wycliffe: Founding Father of Resistance Theory

To study Western culture and history is to witness the evolution of the concept of liberty as it shifted from the hands of a few elite into the public domain.  Of all the contributing influences that helped to steer the idea of liberty from the few to the many, Christianity is, without question, the predominant fuel that sustained the fires of change over the centuries.  This progression was not without its difficulties, since Christianity was also wielded as a weapon of mass distraction by the nobility ranks of Medieval Europe who meant to twist the message of Christ to bend the knee of all subjects to their will.  One predominant example of this subjugation was the way in which Paul’s admonition to the Romans was afforded significant (or even histrionic) significance in what the Medieval world would call the Divine Right of Kings.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation...For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.[1]

One would be hard pressed to find a set of verses in all Christian scripture that have caused more anxiety and debate than these few words from Paul.  For centuries they came to dominate much of the public discourse on the question of how a “good Christian” should submit to authority, and when “righteous rebellion” to God’s chosen leaders was warranted.  In modern times, historians have attempted to explain when and how the earliest advocates for what is sometimes called “resistance theory” (the justification needed to oppose God’s chosen leaders on earth) burst onto the scene.  Some scholars have posited that Protestant reformers of the 16th century deserve credit for the creation of resistance theory.[2]  And while it is true that the generation of the Reformation merits recognition for their contributions to the development of resistance theory, the seeds of opposition, which quickly grew in the rich soil of earlier centuries, is where the birth of opposition to authority, and the beginnings of popular liberty, had their inception.  Arguably the most vocal, persuasive, and intelligent voice of this opposition was that of John Wycliffe, a 14th century theologian and Oxford professor, whose teachings became well known throughout much of Europe.  As a spokesman of opposition, Wycliffe served to be more than a mere foreshadowing of later Protestant expressions of resistance to authority, but instead became the founding father of resistance theory itself, creating the very road map by which subsequent generations would also construct their justification for dissent to God’s supposed leaders on earth.   
To better appreciate the magnitude of Wycliffe’s contributions to resistance theory one must first understand the tremendous authority enjoyed by kings and popes of the Medieval world.  Divine Right Kingship was not some passing fad that simply faded with time but rather was the bedrock for organizing the whole of society.  As one historian of Divine Right Kingship put it:

That the ideal State is the kingdom of God upon earth, and that no other can be an object of veneration to a Christian, is the notion that lies at the heart of Medieval Europe…the Pope, as most plainly the depositary of Divine Authority, afterwards the Emperor, as called to his office by God’s election and appointment, claims to be the true and supreme head of the Christian commonwealth, by Divine Right of the Lord of the world.[3]    

God’s division of responsibility between Pope and King meant that matters both spiritual and temporal had been given their divine sanction.  For the common Christian, this meant that both religious and governmental superiors exercised substantial influence on a laity now made fully dependent upon their will and pleasure.[4]
It does not come as a surprise to discover that this system of government was not without its flaws.  On an almost regular basis, kings attempted to subvert the authority of popes, while popes “were driven to minimize the prerogatives of the Emperor and to recognize in his less instead of more authority.”[5]  These blemishes did not go unnoticed by those with eyes to see.  Giles of Rome, an influential 13th century friar and philosopher, took note of the natural conflict that arose between popes and kings in the many inevitable battles for supremacy that were common in the Middle Ages when he wrote, “For we can clearly show from the order of the universe that the Church is placed above the nations and kingdoms.”  Giles then references the ever-present Romans 13 to demonstrate the church’s superiority to kings: “it is clear from what the Apostle says at Romans 13, who, when he had first said there is no power except of God, immediately afterwards added, ‘and the powers that be are ordained of God.’”[6]  Another 13th century theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham (famous for his methodological principle known as Occam’s Razor), suggested that it was the right and the duty of both popes and parishioners to know where their authority (or submission to authority) ended:

Subjects also should know what and how much power the pope has over them, because, as Gregory says, “subjects should be urged not to be more subject than is useful.”  But they cannot be on guard against excessive subjection unless they know what and how much power their superior has over them.  Further, to neglect the right of the community counts as a vice: for if to neglect a common possession is a natural vise, then it is certain that to neglect common rights is a vice, since a natural vice must be regarded as a vice.  But what is not known is neglected.  The pope’s subjects must therefore know the common rights of subjects.  But they cannot know this unless they know how much power the pope has, and how much he does not have, over them.[7]  

What these, and many other, references clearly demonstrate is that an active, vocal voice of opposition was expressing legitimate concerns on matters of authority.  These early seeds of resistance theory found fertile ground, but still needed the watering and nourishing that was soon to come. 
                The world into which John Wycliffe emerged is often misunderstood and underappreciated by scholars.  As Wycliffe Biographer Stephen Lahey put it, “What looked like a degenerate, inbred version of high medieval theology to scholars as recently as the mid-twentieth century now seems a century rich in innovation, particularly the theological arguments that raged before the Reformation.”[8]  Wycliffe is of particular significance because he took the already existing concerns regarding authority of his day, and turned them into a movement bent on opposition to that authority (the birth of resistance theory).  Wycliffe’s studies of the Christian scriptures, along with his assessment of the church in his day, convinced him that the “powerful and wealthy Church over which the bishops and Pope presided” was a flawed institution, undeserving of allegiance but rather a mere “institution that should be tested rigorously against the record of God’s purposes in the scriptures.”[9]
Wycliffe’s attack on the Church was not merely a critique of its institutions or practices but was a direct assault at the authority figures who dominated its ranks.  In Wycliffe’s mind, these bishops, priests, monks and even popes performed all their works “merely for outward show; and because of the hidden malice within their hearts, they not only hurt themselves to a considerable extent, bit also other people.”[10]  Wycliffe pulled no punches, labeling church leaders as “heretics” who “sacrifice into idols…even more than the sacrifices of the priests of Baal” whose form of worship “give their attention to ritual, flattery, detraction and falsehood, rejecting scripture and neglecting to rebuke sin.”[11]
Wycliffe’s critique of authority was not reserved exclusively for the church.  In his letter to King Richard, II, Wycliffe asserted the rights of all Christians to follow the dictates of their conscience on matters of religion, even if it meant leaving the Church “without hinderance or bodily pain” because “The rule of Christ…is most perfect, to be kept for state of living in this world; and each rule, of what kin, private sect, or singular religion, made of sinful men, is less perfect, than the rule of Christ, of his endless wisdom, and his endless charity, to mankind; therefore, it is lawful to each man or person of this singular religion and profession, to leave it cleave fast to the rule of Jesus Christ, as more perfect.”[12]  It is worthy to note that instead of supporting the Apostle Paul’s command to “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,” Wycliffe suggests that it is a Christian’s first duty to shake off “sinful” and “less perfect” men and institutions in favor of allegiance to Jesus Christ’s “more perfect” way.  Or as Wycliffe himself put it:

Also friars say, that if a man be once professed to their religion, he may never leave it, and be saved; though he be never so unable thereto, for all the time of his life; and they will need him to live in such a state ever more, to which God makes him ever unable; and so need him to be damned. Alas! out on such heresy, that man’s ordinance is holden to be stronger than is the ordinance of God. For if a man enter into the new religion against man’s ordinance, he may lawfully forsake it; but if he enter against God’s ordinance, when God makes him unable thereto, he shall not be suffered by Antichrist’s power to leave it.[13] 

In Wycliffe’s mind, a Christian’s first devotion was to his own conscience, linked to God, therein creating a new soul, saved by God’s grace and fully capable of making his own way in life, free from the weapons of mass distraction that were the church, its practices and its priests. 
Wycliffe’s message resonated deeply and spread quickly.  His followers, known as Lollards, became every bit as convinced as Wycliffe himself, effectively becoming missionaries for the new gospel of liberation.  The message became increasingly popular and eventually “brought a new and dangerous edges to this sort of charismatic religious culture” that was sweeping across England.[14]  The message carried by Lollards presented a clear opposition to the authority of the Church, which quickly sought to suppress the heresy.  The result was the trial and execution of Lollard sympathizers who left valuable accounts of their fierce opposition to the church and its leadership.[15] 
Contrary to what many notable historians have suggested, the Lollard movement and message did not die off with the death of Wycliffe or the many executions for heresy.  Dr. Fiona Somerset’s excellent work on the matter of Lollard influence post-Wycliffe demonstrates that the movement continued far into the decades leading up to the Protestant Reformation.  She writes:

The corpus of extant manuscripts produced somewhere between roughly 1375 and 1530 and containing materials translated, composed, or adapted by Lollard writers is very large.  After an initial phase of rapid and apparently highly coordinated production, Lollard writings continued to be copied, recopied, adapted, and further developed in a wide range of manuscript contexts, and for a variety of readers, across the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries…No religious movement persecuted as a heresy anywhere else in the history of Christianity has left behind a textual recording of anything like this in order of magnitude.[16] 

In addition, the fact that England already seemed to embrace a spirit of reform before the Reformation indicates that the fires of popular dissent were already spreading before Luther or Calvin ever came on the scene.  As one historian has noted, “The ingredients of early Protestantism proved already numerous in the reign of Henry VIII, yet among them Lutheranism may scarcely be regarded as predominant and Calvinism as yet remained almost negligible…we may now confidently ascribe a role of some importance on the popular level to the still vital force of Lollardy.”[17] 
The life and works of John Wycliffe are too often limited by modern historians.  He may receive praise for his work in translating the Bible into Middle English or given kudos for being a foreshadowing of Luther and other Reformers, but rarely is he given credit for his greatest accomplishment: father of resistance theory.  Wycliffe and his fellow Lollards were not some opening act for the later Protestant Reformer’s main stage show, nor did they simply plant seeds that Calvin and others would later grow and harvest.  Wycliffe and the Lollards literally built the foundations, walls, and roof of the resistance theory house.  Calvin and his followers certainly deserve recognition for adding drapes and interior decorating, but they did not construct the house that so many wish to deed to the Reformers.  Through his bold and vocal opposition to the authority figures of his day, John Wycliffe provided the very first template for resistance theory, which gave succeeding generations all the guidance needed to help place the idea of liberty into the hands of the people instead of the hands of the elite. 


[1] Romans 13:1-2.  The Holy Bible: The King James Version (World Wide Bible Assoc.: 2019).

[2] Mark David Hall and Sarah Morgan Smith.  “Whose Rebellion?: Reformed Resistance Theory in   America” (Parts I and II). Faculty Publications - Department of History, Politics, and International Studies. 85.  Hall and Smith argue that the Reformed Calvinist tradition is where the nucleus of resistance theory is to be found, and that the teachings of Calvinism granted Christianity with all the authority they would need to justify opposition to their rulers.  Hall and Smith take this argument all the way to the American Revolution, suggesting that some of America’s earliest founders were both influenced by Calvinist teachings and found in the Reformed tradition all the needed ammunition to oppose King George, III.

[3] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (Cambridge, 1914).  Pp. 40.

[4] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale University Press, 2005).  Pp. 53-55.

[5] J.N. Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, 44.

[6] Giles of Rome, On Ecclesiastical Power: A Medieval Theory of World Government.  Trans. By R.W. Dyson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).  Pp.19. 

[7] William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government.  Ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade, trans. John Kilcullen (Cambridge University Press, 1992).  Pp. 9.

[8] Stephen E. Lahey, John Wycliffe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 42.

[9] Diarmaid MacCullough, The Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 2005). Pp. 35.

[10] John Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe, Book III.  Trans. Rev. Robert Vaughan (London: Blackburn and Pardon Hatton Garden, 1845).  Online Library of Liberty.  Pp. 202.

[11] Ibid, 202-203.

[12] Ibid, 259-260.

[13] Ibid, 222.

[14] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 376.

[15] John A. Arnold, “Voicing Dissent: Heresy Trials in Later Medieval England.”  Past & Present, Volume 245, Issue 1, November 2019, Pages 3–37,  Arnold’s work “examines the evidence from the entire range of surviving Lollard trials, and argues that we can see consciously ‘dissenting’ speech alongside the standard theological positions associated with (and perhaps imposed upon) Lollardy.”

[16] Fiona Somerset, Feeling Like Saints: Lollard Writings After Wyclif (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Pp. 2.

[17] Dickens, A.G., ed. Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1982).  Pp. 8.