I am involved in an interesting debate regarding our founding and religion with paleoconservative intellectual Lawrence Auster.
It started by my replying to what I consider to be a very insulting post by Mr. Auster that argues that a homosexual “cannot be a good citizen in the fullest sense.”
I do have a problem w/ the notion that one cannot be a good citizen as a homosexual. And this is because our founding principles have nothing to do with orthodox Christianity. Our nation was founded on Enlightenment principles of Man’s Reason unaided by Biblical Revelation and these principles relegate religion to the private sphere of society. It is authentically American to view religious morality as a private matter.
Mr. Auster replied (this is an abridged version—go to his post to see the unedited one):
This is Mr. Rowe’s radically secular view of the way he would _like_ our government to be. But it is not in fact the accepted view of the American founding…So Mr. Rowe is falsely presenting his own view of the founding as though it were the general consensus. For him to believe that his own view is the agreed-upon consensus, he would have to be ignorant of everything that conservatives and Christians and even moderate liberals have been saying about the American government for the last 200 years, starting with George Washington’s first inaugural address….
But just to give one quote from Washington’s first inaugural, which, though Mr. Rowe professes to tell us the real meaning of the American founding, he has evidently never read:
”[I]n these honorable qualifications [i.e. the character of the members of Congress] I behold the surest pledges that … the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.… I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between [private] virtue and [public] happiness; between duty and advantage; … since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained … “
That last phrase is the clearest expression of the idea of an intrinsic, transcendent, divine morality that it is man’s duty to follow. Washington began our national government with the unqualified assertion that its political well-being depended on obedience to objective moral truth, a moral truth, which, in the actual American context, not in Mr. Rowe’s fantasy secular America, is closely tied with Protestant Christianity.
To which I replied:
I have a number of problems with Mr. Auster’s analysis. I don’t get from reading Washington’s address that he was declaring that promoting traditional Christian morality is a matter of public policy concern. If Mr. Auster studied the philosophical underpinnings of the Founding (the writings of Enlightenment philosophers, most notably Locke), he would see that religion, under the new order, is a matter of “opinion” and not “Truth” as it was under the old—hence its status in the private sphere of society.
As Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind:
Hobbes & Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs...In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert effort to weaken religious belief, partly by assigning—as a result of a great epistemological effort—religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. p. 28.
One only needs to read VA Statute on Religious Freedom—which Jefferson penned and Madison fought tooth and nail to pass—where religion is exclusively referred to as “opinion” to see this point of view in action.
When Washington speaks to the connection between “happiness” & “virtue,” he seems to be giving advice on how best to achieve what one has the inalienable right to pursue. There can never be a right to “happiness” because this is, for some folks, unattainable. Washington seems to be saying that the happy life is the virtuous life. Let us assume that “virtue” is synonymous with traditional Christian morality (and this is a BIG assumption). Washington did believe that religion & morality go hand in hand and our founders did generally believe a religious citizenry to be superior to an irreligious one. But none of this changes the fact that our Founders separated Church & State and saw “religion” as purely a matter of “opinion” which government had no business touching. If religion is a matter of opinion, if the state has no business interfering with the “consciences” of private citizens, then the state has no business promoting or “touching” this kind of “virtue” in any way.
But the founders were free to give their opinions on how society ought to conduct its private affairs, but they are ultimately, private, not public concerns. This may be why in the Declaration we see the phrase “the right to ‘pursue’ happiness,” which seems to imply the right to get it wrong, to fail, to not live ones life in a way that will not lead to a happy life. Hence, Washington’s advice on how to get it right—even though the state has no business mandating the “virtuous” or the “happy” life for the citizenry.
Therefore, I disagree that Washington posited the idea that men had a public duty to follow “an intrinsic, transcendent, divine morality…objective moral truth [that is, for the most part, the same thing as] Protestant Christianity.” Our founders did indeed appeal to objective transcendent Truths in founding this nation—but they were not “religious” Truths. They could not be, because religion was “discovered” to be a matter of “opinion.”
Instead America was Founded on Enlightenment principles of Man’s Reason, unaided by Biblical Revelation. Even the notion of “Nature’s God,” written in the Declaration is a secular concept because it refers to God only insofar as He is understandable by Man’s Reason alone. These principles are the “Truths” upon which our public institutions are based. And, contrary to the claims of the cultural relativists, they are universal principles applicable to all people, everywhere. If Mr. Auster reads Washington’s words carefully, he will see that Washington uses terms and phrases like “Nature,” “Providence,” “Almighty Being, who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations,” and even “Heaven,” but Washington rarely if ever uses explicitly Christian language when discussing “public” issues. As James Thomas Flexner writes, regarding this very inaugural address, “that he was not just striking a popular attitude as a politician is revealed by the absence of the usual Christian terms: he did not mention Christ or even use the word ‘God.’”
This is because there is no historical evidence that Washington was a Christian, other than in the most nominal sense. His words point more towards a Deist-Unitarian philosophy. As Paul F. Boller writes, “... if to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.” George Washington & Religion, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, p. 90.
Perhaps if Mr. Auster could base his case for the “public” promotion of a virtuous society on secular notions of “Nature” and “Reason,” then a stronger argument could be made—consistent with our founding principles—that the promotion of “virtue” is a matter of “public concern.” (This is the view of the followers of Leo Strauss). Ultimately, I don’t think that a strong case can be made here because the Enlightenment philosophy that founds our nation stresses “rights” over “duties” anyway (at least the term “rights” and not “duties” or “virtue” is what made it into the founding documents). And in order to find concepts of “nature” that support the public promotion of virtue we must go back to the pre-foundational (pre-Hobbsean-Lockean) Christian natural law of Aquinas, or to that of the Ancient Greeks (Aristotelian—Aquinas understanding of nature). And this is NOT the understanding of natural law that founds our nation.