Sunday, August 11, 2019

Dougherty on Locke

Michael Brendan Dougherty has some interesting thoughts on among other things John Locke at National Review here. I'm more sympathetic to the Lockean liberal tradition than he is; but I think he accurately describes some of the "issues" Locke poses for those committed to more traditional conservatism.
Locke describes natural rights this way: “Men being by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent.” But men do not meet each other as free, equal, and independent in the real world. They must be brought to a state of freedom, equality, and independence. 
John Locke also turned to scripture, but for different reasons. Some readers find in Locke a liberal theorist more compatible with inherited Christian understandings of society. Unlike Thomas Hobbes before him or John Stuart Mill later, he seems to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. He even affirms belief in the Resurrection. But Locke’s reading of the Bible is a curious one. God’s sovereignty is established because for Locke human beings are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker — all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business — they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.” Instead of being made in the image and likeness of a Heavenly Father, we have the Divine Whig, a property owner whose unchallengeable judgments are to remain undisturbed. Locke would have, instead of right living and worship, human strife ended by the flowering of a civil society “the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.”   
Locke recognized that this society needed to be held together by morality, but his elaboration on Christian teaching degrades the status of individual churches in favor of a mere Christian morality. Liberalism was not just a political project but a theological one. And, across his essays A Letter concerning Toleration and The Reasonableness of Christianity and his commentaries on the Pauline epistles, Locke takes up the task to diminish the controversies between Protestant sects with his own position that the only doctrine to believe is that Christ is the Messiah — all other titles for Christ are reduced to this in his reading. And the only thing to be done is to live according to the moral precepts derived from reason or taught commonly in scripture. “The preaching of our Savior and his apostles has sufficiently taught us what is necessary to be proposed to every man, to make him a Christian,” he writes. “He that believes him to be the promised Messiah, takes Jesus for his King, and repenting of his former sins, sincerely resolves to live, for the future in obedience to his laws, is a subject of his kingdom, is a Christian.” 
In Locke’s reading, the miracle stories and the histories are not expositions and revelations of the character of God but rather over-awing demonstrations of power to the vulgar masses who cannot, like a philosopher, divine morality from pure reason. “It is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts upon its true foundation with a clear and convincing light,” Locke writes. “And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties and require their obedience, than to leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them.” 
Locke’s entire approach to scripture is to reduce the doctrinal controversies among Christians to mere “speculative opinions and divine worship” on one side, whereas moral teaching and his minimal creed are the parts that matter to supporting public morality and the life of the state. For Locke, immorality is a more grave offense against his true, “reasonable” Church, than “any conscientious Dissent from Ecclesiastical Decisions, or Separation from Publick Worship, whilst accompanied with Innocency of Life.” Consequently, his form of toleration excludes Catholics, not because their nations had not proven themselves bastions of liberty but because Catholic morality could not be separated from the teaching authority of the Church itself — namely, its ecclesiastical claim to define matters of faith and morals. 
But the link between morality and authority is a feature not only of Catholicism. Most Christians understand that morality depends on doctrine and cannot be separated from it. And therefore tolerance, but not for Catholics, becomes generalized: tolerance, but not for “the intolerant.” Not for those who would impose on others “a concept of existence” and “speculative opinions.” It’s important to note that this generalization was predicted at the time by Locke’s contemporaries. In a heated attack on Reasonableness, Anglican divine John Edwards criticized Locke for his minimalism. “This Gentleman and his fellows are resolved to be Unitarians,” Edwards wrote. “They are for One Article of Faith, as well as One Person in the Godhead,” and when Christianity is “thus brought down to One Single Article, it will soon be reduced to none: the Unit will dwindle into a Cypher.” And yet we must make laws that point to and implicate truths. Lincoln sought to “impose a concept of existence” on his hearers and on his nation: that Negroes were men. Laws will reflect theological commitments about the world, even if they pretend not to do so. The purpose of classical conservatism is to be clear-eyed and wise about this point, to engage in the world in an undeluded way. Liberal arrangements may be tolerable and even well suited toward a people, but conservatives will not presume that that is owing to the nature of man. The presumption that men are “free, equal and independent” by nature is wrong. They can be made so by the nurture of family, community, nation, and faith. 
The Bible’s political lessons offer almost nothing to support John Locke’s natural individualism, but there may be a scriptural type useful for understanding or at least seeing liberalism’s predicament, the contradiction born in John Locke’s theology ...: the idea that there can be a common morality with no common creed, a common law without a common life. ...
We see above is an accurate description of Locke's theology peppered with Dougherty's more conservative critical analysis. But Locke was indeed central to the American founding in certain ways. Statistically, his sentiments were cited more during the revolutionary period than that of the framing and ratifying of the Constitution.

And ironically Locke was often cited from the pulpit along with the Bible in sermons. So even if the Bible doesn't offer support to Locke's ideas, ministers were still promoting them.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Fea on Pastors Preaching Politics

Dr. John Fea has another good post here about pastors involved politics. A taste:
400 evangelical pastors are heading to Liberty University this week to participate in an event sponsored by the American Renewal Project.  The goal of the closed meeting is to mobilize pastors for the 2020 election.  Speakers at the event include former Virginia congressman (now Liberty professor) David Brat, Christian nationalist David Barton, and Christian Broadcasting Network political analyst David Brody.  (I am guessing that they are not mobilizing pastors to vote for a Democrat :-)) 
The American Renewal Project is run by David Lane, a Christian Right politico who wants pastors to preach political sermons, run for political office, and use their ecclesiastical authority to convince parishioners to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. We wrote about him here and here. 
Lane and other Christian nationalists and court evangelicals believe that they are a modern-day “Black Robe Brigade,” a name given to revolutionary-era pastors who supported American independence in 1776. 
The appeal to the Black Robe Brigade reveals a fundamental problem with these kind of history-based Christian Right arguments.  Lane, David Barton, and others give a moral authority to the past that is almost idolatrous.  In other words, if pastors used their pulpits to promote a political agenda in 1776, then they must have been right.  If it happened in the eighteenth-century it is somehow immune from any moral or theological reflection today.  Thomas Jefferson said that our rights come from God, so Christian nationalists conclude, with little theological reflection on whether or not Jefferson was correct, that our rights indeed come from God.  This leads them to make all kinds of wackadoodle arguments that the amendments related to quartering soldiers, trial by jury,  excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment are somehow rooted in biblical teaching.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Hall on Seidel

At the Law and Liberty site, Mark David Hall takes on Andrew Seidel and his new work that attempts to debunk the Christian Nation thesis. A taste:
Misstatements of Fact 
Founding Myth is littered with historical inaccuracies. Every writer slips occasionally, but the large number of errors in this work call into question the author’s commitment to providing an accurate account of the founding era. This is particularly significant for a constitutional attorney who believes history is, at least upon occasion, relevant for interpreting the First Amendment. 
Seidel’s historical errors sometimes cut against his own argument. For instance, he asserts that “every colony had an established church.” By most counts, only nine of the original thirteen colonies had establishments; Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware did not. Some separationists point to these colonies, especially Rhode Island, as being ahead of their time with respect to church-state relations. Seidel offers no explanation as to why he considers them to have establishments. 
Separationists are often interested in debates over religious establishments in only one state: Virginia. Seidel focuses on these as well, especially on the general assessment bill supported by Patrick Henry that would have provided state support to ministers from different denominations. The bill did not say how much support would be given, but Seidel refers to it as “Henry’s proposed three-penny tax.” He is presumably conflating the proposal with Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, which included a three penny tax on tea (to which Madison refers in his Memorial and Remonstrance). 
Madison’s Memorial had some influence in Virginia, but not as much as an evangelical petition that received three times as many signatures. But whatever impact it had, it did not convince “the people of Virginia to vote against the bill giving financial support to Christian ministers,” as Seidel asserts. In December of 1784, the Virginia legislature postponed action on the general assessment bill until the fall of 1785, but a final vote was never taken on it. Instead, the legislature passed Jefferson’s famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, but it did so in 1786, not 1785 as Seidel claims.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Franklin on Works Based Justification

After meticulously reading and rereading certain parts of the historical record, some things just slip by you, and then one day, you notice them. I just noticed something on Ben Franklin's writings that I missed before.

Fellow unitarians John Adams and Thomas Jefferson held that men were "justified" by their works, not by faith alone, grace alone (the Protestant "solas"). Franklin seems to agree; but he was also clear in some letters that he didn't think he personally merited Heaven by his good own works. But he expected Heaven nonetheless.

Still good works seemed a necessary, indeed central component to Franklin's justification scheme. In 1735 and in a satirical tone, Franklin writes at length in his "Dialog Between Two Presbyterians" on how good works, not a particular faith is the sine qua non of true religion.
Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one.
There are a few things about this passage might lead us to question whether Franklin personally believed in the sentiments. One, it has a satirical tone. And two, Franklin wrote as an advocate for another person (for one Hemphill, a minister who was being defrocked for heterodoxy).

As to the first, just because something is satire doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't convey one's true beliefs. To the contrary, what is distinctive about satire is its method. Satire is oft-meant to contain a deadly serious truth message in its teeth.

As to the second, what I discovered, and as we will see below, is that years later, Franklin, in his personal letters, repeats almost verbatim these sentiments. This suggests the sentiments in the aforementioned Dialog did indeed reflect Franklin's personal convictions.

Let me repeat, Franklin in his letters also claimed he didn't think his own "good works" merited Heaven, but he expected to get to Heaven nonetheless. It's a "works" plus scheme. Good works plus the fruit of God the Father's mysterious benevolence.

I think Dr. Gregg Frazer noted that because Franklin, unlike Jefferson and J. Adams, rejected "works alone" in favor of a works plus faith justification scheme, that made the "Protestant" Franklin's creed look ironically similar to that of Roman Catholics. However, Franklin's notion of good works and Jesus' role arguably would be even too "works oriented" for Roman Catholics.

It's hard to pin Franklin down on exactly what he thought of Jesus. We know Franklin thought, at the very least, Jesus the greatest moral teacher. But what else? I see Franklin believing Jesus to be a "savior" through perfect moral example. That is, I don't see good evidence that Franklin believed in anything resembling a traditional notion of the atonement.

So in 1735, in the Dialog, Franklin writes:
Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means. What think you of these Sayings of Christ, when he was reproached for conversing chiefly with gross Sinners, The whole, says he, need not a Physician, but they that are sick; and, I come not to call the Righteous, but Sinners, to Repentance: Does not this imply, that there were good Men, who, without Faith in him, were in a State of Salvation?
Bold face mine.

These are the sentiments that get repeated in years later in personal letters. Jesus' role here is to save man by modeling perfect morality. But if you already had your moral affairs in order, you actually didn't need to follow Jesus. This is where I think even the "works based" Roman Catholics would balk.

I noted the quotation below previously, but I didn't connect it with the "Dialog" of 1735. Franklin wrote in 1753 and again in 1790, of Jesus:
He profess’d that he came not to call the Righteous but Sinners to Repentance; which imply’d his modest Opinion that there were some in his Time so good that they need not hear even him for Improvement;...
In short, Jesus' role as savior is as the greatest moral teacher, the perfecter of morality. As a means, not an end.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Fea's Latest on Christian Nationalism

Check it out here. A taste:
If you want a recent glimpse of Christian nationalism at work, read the following transcript from David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” radio program.  As many of you know, Barton is a self-professed dominionist and GOP politician who uses the past to promote his Christian nationalist agenda.  He knows a lot of facts about American history, but he does not think historically about these facts.  In other words, he is oblivious to context, change over time, contingency, causation, and the complexity of the human experience.  Despite the fact that his work as a historian has been discredited, he still has a large following and his disciples include GOP lawmakers and most of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals.  Those who still follow him believe that his critics–many of them evangelical Christian historians–have been overly influenced by secular ideology.
The only disagreement I have with Dr. Fea is that in his post while analyzing the transcript he tries to make sense of a David Barton word salad where arguably no sense is to be made of it.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sekulow, et al. on Story's Unitarian Political Theology

Jay Alan Sekulow is currently one of the most important attorneys in nation (he's one of POTUS's key personal attorneys). In 2005, along with Jeremy Tedesco he wrote a law review article which essentially argues Joseph Story's Unitarian political theology drove the decision of Vidal v. Girard's Executors. A taste:
Joseph Story himself defined and defended his Unitarian beliefs in an 1824 letter to Attorney William Williams. In this letter, Story discussed the Unitarian beliefs that he developed:
The Unitarians are universally steadfast, sincere, and earnest Christians. They all believe in the divine mission of Christ, the credibility and authenticity of the Bible, the miracles wrought by our Saviour and his apostles, and the efficacy of his precepts to lead men to salvation. They consider the Scriptures the true rule of faith, and the sure foundation of immortality.
In his letter to Williams, Justice Story also clearly and unequivocally pointed to the primary theological difference between Unitarians and other Christian denominations: "In truth, they principally differ from other Christians in disbelieving the Trinity, for they think Christ was not God, but in Scripture language 'the Son of God.""
William Story later described his father's conversion at Harvard as being inspired, in part, by the beauty of the Cambridge countryside as opposed to the "sterile rocks and moaning sea of Marblehead."' Walking through the "flower-strewn fields, his heart assumed its natural hue of cheerfulness, and he no longer believed in the total depravity of man." Seeing the goodness of God displayed in creation, Story became convinced of divine beneficence. "And from being a Calvinist, he became a Unitarian."

Story's new religion seemingly recognized that no teaching could be heretical. He rejected any notion of bigotry or even proselytism. Instead, he
gladly allowed every one freedom of belief, and claimed only that it should be a genuine conviction and not a mere theologic opinion, considering the true faith of every man to be the necessary exponent of his nature, and honoring a religious life more than a formal creed. He admitted within the pale of salvation Mahommedan and Christian, Catholic and Infidel. He believed that whatever is sincere and honest is recognized of God; - that as the views of any sect are but human opinion, susceptible of error on every side, it behooves all men to be on their guard against arrogance of belief; and that in the sight of God it is not the truth or falsity of our views, but the spirit in which we believe, which alone is of vital consequence.
Keep the above in mind when we hear, as was referenced in the article, that Story believed Christianity was part of the common law. The above is what Christianity meant to Story. Sekulow et al. then demonstrates how Story's personal theology drove his legal opinions.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hamburger on Liberalism as Armed Doctrine

Check out the podcast from the Law & Liberty site. Here is Hamburger's book.

My brief thoughts:

I don't always agree with Professor Hamburger, but he's always worth reading.

One of the things that strikes me while listening to the podcast is what Hamburger refers to as "theological liberalism" has some meaningful connection with the concept of "primitive Christianity." And that term was invoked quite a bit during America's founding era.

A lot of academics and ordinary folks are under the misconception that 18th Cen. "theological liberalism" must mean something like strict deism. It's actually a much broader concept. The Unitarianism for instance of William Channing (who was an Arian) who Hamburger mentions in the podcast is a more typical theology.

Hamburger then notes much of theological liberalism defined itself in opposition to ecclesiastical authority, with the Roman Catholic Church being arguably the greatest "offender" against which to guard.

However, ecclesiastical, clerical and creedal orthodox Protestantism is also viewed with suspicion. High Church Anglicanism, which is Tory, is probably the 2nd biggest religious threat to the theological liberalism of the American founding.

But other kinds of Protestantism too would qualify. The idea of "primitive Christianity" is that Christianity was pure before an organized, ecclesiastical hierarchy took over and corrupted the faith sometime early on (like in the 4th Century).

Yes, Catholicism would be the main target. However it's not ONLY Catholicism; it's also many different kinds of Protestantism as well. Arguably it's all of orthodox creedal Protestantism that offends as well. This is why the theological liberals tended to like the Quakers, even if the liberals were Whigs and disagreed with the Quakers' refusal to take up arms.