Friday, May 28, 2004

An honest theocrat:

No, Randall Terry is not the honest theocrat to whom I refer. In fact he is typical among the religious right who misunderstand the philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence, hence America’s founding. In this article where Terry continues to discuss the problem that he has with his homosexual son, Terry invokes the Declaration to argue that Biblical Christianity alone serves as the basis for not only private morality but also the “rights” that pubic policy must recognize:

But if there is a God who makes the rules, then He has imposed His morals on all of us, and we are obliged to obey and defend those ethics in the public square.

The Declaration of Independence declares that our rights come from God. It also declares that Laws come from God, and that God is the Supreme Judge of the Universe. We do not get to pick our rights, nor the laws that govern our behavior, nor the standards by which judgments are to be made by us and the Almighty concerning the behavior of men and nations.

Rights, Laws, and Judgments come from our Maker – not us, not the state. It can never be a "right" to have a homosexual marriage, any more than it can be a "right" to murder our offspring, because God did not give us those rights, and they violate the rules He made.


What Terry doesn’t understand is that the “Creator” who grants us rights under the Declaration, as Walter Berns writes, “is ‘Nature’s God,’ not…the God of the Bible, whom today 43 percent of Americans…claim regularly to worship on the Sabbath. Nature’s God issues no commands, no one can fall from his grace, and, therefore, no one has reason to pray to him asking for his forgiveness; he makes no promises. On the contrary, he endowed us with ‘certain unalienable Rights,’ then left us alone, and with the knowledge, or at least the confidence, that he will never interfere in our affairs.” Berns, Making Patriots, page 32.

I understand how religious conservatives, or anyone who has not carefully studied the philosophy behind the Declaration, conclude that the “Creator” mentioned in the Declaration is the God of the Bible. It makes it far easier for orthodox Christian to accept the very un-(orthodox) Christian “rights-oriented” philosophy of our founding if they believe that the Biblical God in fact grants us rights. But this belief is “wrong as a matter of doctrine—where does the Bible speak of unalienable natural rights…?” Id. at p. 42. Ultimately, this misunderstanding may have been key in selling the notion of unalienable rights to a (soon to be) nation (technically we were a bunch of colonies) where orthodox Christians comprised a fairly significant portion of the population and where institutional religious forces held a great deal of power.

Terry, based on his fairly strong knowledge of the history of religious thought, nonetheless makes an error (a very interesting one) when he writes:

I contend that we must speak of the Almighty in the tones and the language of America's founders. Read the Declaration of Independence again. When they discussed God and Truth in reference to public policy, they sounded very catholic (universal) in their references to God, not like fundamentalists quoting chapter and verse from the Bible.


If Terry were familiar with many of the things that the founders had to say about Catholicism he would realize that the last thing they wished to do while writing the Declaration was sound like Catholics. But here is why Terry makes this error: Catholics have their “natural law” tradition, via Aquinas, where rules of morality are "discovered" using man’s Reason alone. Man as man, looking to nature, through reason alone, discovers not only what is, but what ought to be. Aquinas of course was simply incorporating the teachings of Aristotle (some say it was a “misincorporation” or a “bastardization” of Aristotle) into the Church's teachings. And ultimately, Aquinas concluded that the natural law justified all of the Catholic Church’s dogma.

Our founders—or I should say that the Enlightenment liberals whom our founders followed—also turned to “nature” or to “Man’s Reason unaided by Biblical Revelation” to come forth with the principles of natural and political right which our nation is founded on. And the intellectual ancestry behind our founding philosophy, like the Catholic Church’s natural law teachings, ultimately traces back to Ancient Greece for its origins. The two, as Randy Barnett puts it, “shar[e] a common intellectual ancestry and methodology….” The "methodology" that Enlightenment natural right and Catholic natural law share is that both theories are organized under the rubrics of “nature” and “reason.” Thus, it can be very easy to conflate these two very different philosophies, using these two terms. (This is something that the Claremont Institute specialized in.)

But what was unique about Enlightenment philosophy, especially Locke’s (whose ideas Jefferson lifted in writing the Declaration), was that it intended to break with both the Christian and classical understandings of nature (with their emphasis on “public virtue,” on “duties” as opposed to “rights”). As scholars Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore write, “Two thousand years of thinking about politics in the West is overturned in Locke’s writings, as the liberal state repudiates the classical and Christian vision of politics.” The Godless Constitution, p. 73

Finally we get to our honest theocrat. Thomas Fleming of Chronicles Magazine is not only an orthodox Christian, but is a conservative of the most extreme nature: a neo-confederate paleo-conservative. As such, I disagree with him on many, many policy issues. But he understands America’s founding in a way that the Christian Right revisionists who argue that our founding and its documents are based on “Biblical Christianity” do not. Sometimes we get refreshing honesty from those folks who are so extreme they are willing to buck any kind of convention, even in their own circles.

Regarding America’s “Christian” founding, Fleming writes:

It is a pretty fiction, and one that I would like to believe. The American founding is a complex story, and there were many Christians among the leaders in the seceding states. However, neither the leaders of the Revolution nor the principal authors of the Constitution were, for the most part, devout and orthodox Christians. Most of them were, like their counterparts in 18th-century England, deists and Unitarians. Washington and Jefferson were nominal Anglicans; Adams, a Unitarian Congregationalist; Franklin, a hedonist and mocker; Tom Paine, an open atheist. They had all been inducted into freemasonry, which, even in its most benign form, is incompatible with orthodox Christianity.


Moreover, Fleming (like Robert Bork) realizes that the Declaration of Independence does not reflect an orthodox Christian worldview and it would be wise for such Christians to downplay this document’s historical significance:

If Dred Scott is a slender reed for conservatives to rely on, the Declaration of Independence is a morass. Whatever Mr. Jefferson and his colleagues thought they were doing (other than restating Enlightenment platitudes that have nothing to do with Christianity), they were not writing the fundamental law of a nation that did not yet exist. If they had been intending to establish Christianity at the center of the American system, they would have used Christian language instead of such deistic phrases as “Nature’s god.” Although some conservatives have made valiant efforts to give the Declaration a harmless reading, Harry Jaffa and other leftists have ensured that the Declaration is read today as a revolutionary manifesto for natural rights that transcend the pettifogging restrictions of the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment, guaranteeing the rights of the states.


Thank you, Mr. Fleming. More honesty among religious conservatives like this is welcome.

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