Sunday, May 22, 2016

Christianity Wthout Orthodoxy: William Livingston Might Hold the Key

To unlocking a certain strain of the "Christian" political theology of the American Founding.

While William Livingston was associated with a number of different denominations, he described himself as "more than half a Quaker." He did a satire on the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican church which amounts to an attack on orthodoxy, creeds and clericalism. He also slammed the Athanasian creed which led me to conclude Livingston was a unitarian. But that might have been a bridge too far on my part.

Rather it's more of a reductio ad absurdum of the individualism of biblical Protestantism that leaves it up to him to decide on what the faith means. The concept of Priesthood of all believers. But unlike many evangelical Protestants of today who pick an understanding and then claim all true believers will understand "this" is what the Bible means, and then they endlessly squabble, Livingston understood his approach would naturally lead to dispute and he embraced that reality.

He didn't care what other people believed on the "finer" points of Christianity. That is, he didn't care about "orthodoxy." No need to squabble.

It also "fits" with the individualistic nature of Enlightenment liberalism. Garry Wills' book that dealt with the matter had many inadequacies. But one strength was it noted Quakerism and unitarianism as the kinds of faiths that "fit" the age of Enlightenment which birthed the American Founding.

At least "fit" from the from the perspective of prevailing intellectual thought, ideals, and so on. There were plenty of unthinking masses who belonged to churches with not just orthodox creeds, but orthodox ministers who may have defended them.

Livington, for instance, became associated with the Presbyterians. But it would be a mistake to conclude he was a TULIP Calvinist who defended the creeds and confessions of that church. In fact, he rejected all of it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sandefur: "The Greeks and America's Founding Fathers"

From Timothy Sandefur here. I know the Founders tended to speak highly of Aristotle. And also that the Stoic Roman influence was much stronger than the Greek. But still, it is interesting to understand the qualified extent of the Greek influence.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

James Lindley Wilson: "The Declaration of Independence isn’t egalitarian enough"

From Crooked Timber's symposium on Danielle Allen's book here. A taste:
... How confident should we be that the signers’ treatment of one another as equal co-creators of their common life implies any commitment to more universal equality?

One reason I have little confidence in that regard is that, as we all know and as Allen repeatedly acknowledges, many people within the territory of the nascent United States were excluded from the practice of declaring independence, and—to judge from that practice and subsequent political and social practices—from the ideals registered in the Declaration. Black Americans (free and slave), women, Native Americans, and the poorest white men were not included in the process of establishing the Continental Congress, the collective writing of the Declaration, or the implementation of liberal rights and political “equality.” My point in reminding us of this fact is not to condemn the drafters of the Declaration for acting wrongly in engaging in such exclusion (though wrong it was), nor to deny them credit for the political good they did do, through the Declaration and otherwise. The point is that their endorsement, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of the exclusion must shape our interpretation of the ideals expressed and embodied in the Declaration itself.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bonnie Kristian on Trump and American Civil Religion

At the American Conservative here. A taste:
... How is this happening? How is the heir of the Moral Majority endorsing a twice-divorced former strip club owner? How is Trump so appealing to what is supposed to be a Christian nation?
 
And it is in precisely that last phrase—“Christian nation”—the answer may be found: America’s entrenched, pseudo-Christian civil religion is the primary culprit here. President Trump is the due result of our theologically vacant imperial cult, which in the guise of orthodoxy worships only the power of the state.

[...]

...  This sort of ultimatum is right at home in a civil religion that facilitates unthinking Christian loyalty to the state by means of a clever syncretism: If America is “under God”—if the United States becomes the “city on a hill”—we needn’t worry about obeying God rather than men. It’s all one and the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph is idolatrously mutated into an American tribal deity.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Legal Insurrection Quotes Allan Bloom on America

Just two days ago here. A taste, quoting Bloom:
Contrary to much contemporary wisdom, the United States has one of the longest uninterrupted political traditions of any nation in the world. What is more, that tradition is unambiguous; its meaning is articulated in simple, rational speech that is immediately comprehensible and powerfully persuasive to all normal human beings. America tells one story: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality. From its first settlers and its political foundings on, there has been no dispute that freedom and equality are the essence of justice for us. No one serious or notable has stood outside this consensus…All significant political disputes have been about the meaning of freedom and equality, not about their rightness…
But the unity, grandeur and attendant folklore of the founding heritage was attacked from so many directions in the last half-century that it gradually disappeared from daily life and from textbooks. It all began to seem like Washington and the cherry tree—not the sort of thing to teach children seriously…The leading ideas of the Declaration began to be understood as eighteenth-century myths or ideologies. Historicism, in Carl Becker’s version (The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, 1922) both cast doubt on the truth of the natural rights teaching and optimistically promised that it would provide a substitute. Similarly Dewey’s pragmatism—the method of science as the method of democracy, individual growth without limits, especially natural limits—saw the past as radically imperfect and regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present. Then there was Marxist debunking of the Charles Beard variety, trying to demonstrate that there was no public spirit, only private concern for property, in the Founding Fathers, thus weakening our convictions of the truth or superiority of American principles and our heroes (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, 1913). Then the Southern historians and writers avenged the victory of the antislavery Union by providing low motives for the North (incorporating European critiques of commerce and technology) and idealizing the South’s way of life. Finally, in curious harmony with the Southerners, the radicals in the civil rights movement succeeded in promoting a popular conviction that the Founding was, and the American principles are, racist…
Students now arrive at the university ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it.
The ellipses [...] are from Legal Insurrection, not mine. 

Monday, May 02, 2016

Sully is Back

Check it out here. I'm not posting this because of the political points he's trying to score (that's why you won't see them excerpted); rather for Dr. Sullivan's understanding of Plato. A taste:
As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”

This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment. ...
Now, this is a particular understanding of Plato. It's Sullivan saying what Plato means. Sullivan, of course studied Plato in graduate school with Harvey Mansfield (at Harvard) and what Sullivan writes above is an understanding that comes from that -- the Straussian -- school. As in, this is what Plato was really (esoterically) trying to get at.

Such a reading is quite contentious. It may be correct. But it's not without its controversy. From an article in the Boston Globe:
Thomas Fleming, editor of the ... journal Chronicles [notes]:''Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don't appear to hold to. One of Allan Bloom's students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is just absurd. Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe.''
I'm feeling the "Plato was an American-style democrat" notion in Sullivan's piece. Here is one place where Sullivan I think gets Plato and America partially wrong:
Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.
The second sentence is accurate. The first sentence needs to be unpacked. Did the Founding Fathers read Plato?  Sure. But it's almost certainly not the case that they understood him the way Sullivan and the Straussians do. We could substitute "Plato" for "Hobbes." As in "[p]art of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Hobbes." 

The Founding Fathers tended to cite both Plato and Hobbes negatively. They cited Locke positively; they cited a great deal of Ancient Roman Stoic types positively. And even though the Ancient Greek influence on the American Founding was not nearly as evident as the Ancient Roman influence, they tended to cite Aristotle positively.

The Straussians have notably posited that Locke's teachings were esoterically Hobbesian. So if Hobbes influenced the American Founding it was because his teachings were smuggled in by Locke. 

Likewise if Plato had any kind of influence on the American Founding it was because some other ancient philosopher whom they respected -- i.e., Aristotle, Socrates -- smuggled Plato's message in as well.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Crooked Timber Symposium on Danielle Allen's Book

I am remiss to say that I missed this last year when it was done. But we can all enjoy it now. At American Creation look for more excerpts from the individual contributors' posts.
The seminar on Danielle Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which is available from Powells, Amazon and Barnes and Noble is now concluded. The entire seminar can be found at this link. ...