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.