Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Scalia, Monotheism, and Deistic-Unitarianism:

Justice Scalia, in his dissent in MCCREARY implies that "monotheism" has some type of constitutional privilege over non-monotheistic religions, at least in the context of government endorsement of monotheistic, over non-monotheistic religions.

Besides appealing to the demonstrably false principle that the government cannot favor religion over irreligion, today's opinion suggests that the posting of the Ten Commandments violates the principle that the government cannot favor one religion over another....That is indeed a valid principle where public aid or assistance to religion is concerned...or where the free exercise of religion is at issue...but it necessarily applies in a more limited sense to public acknowledgment of the Creator.

If religion in the public forum had to be entirely nondenominational, there could be no religion in the public forum at all. One cannot say the word "God," or "the Almighty," one cannot offer public supplication or thanksgiving, without contradicting the beliefs of some people that there are many gods, or that God or the gods pay no attention to human affairs. With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation's historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists. The Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by George Washington at the instance of the First Congress was scrupulously nondenominational, but it was monotheistic.

Let me try to explain what I think is going on in Scalia's head. He is willing to entertain the notion that the Establishment Clause does more than forbid a national Church, that government may indeed be forbidden from favoring one sect over another in its mere acknowledgements, and he is looking to the historical record for evidence. What he finds is that all of the first four Presidents, like the Declaration of Independence, commonly invoked God in their public pronouncements. But he also finds that their invocations were "scrupulously nondenominational," so much so that they hardly can be termed "Christian" or even "Judeo-Christian." As Scalia notes, "This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not)" and,

All of the actions of Washington and the First Congress upon which I have relied, virtually all Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout our history, and all the other examples of our Government's favoring religion that I have cited, have invoked God, but not Jesus Christ.

Scalia instead dubs him "the God of monotheism." And further notes, "The three most popular religions in the United States, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- which combined account for 97.7% of all believers -- are monotheistic."

So Scalia doesn't really answer whether it is constitutional for government to endorse in its mere acknowledgements, one Christian sect over another, Christianity over Judaism, or Christianity and Judaism over Islam...but instead he concludes, based on the historical practice of the first four Presidents, it is constitutional to endorse "monotheism" over "non-monotheism." Monotheism therefore is a Lowest Common Denominator between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation's historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Scalia then connects such "monotheism" with the Ten Commandments themselves.

All of them, moreover (Islam included), believe that the Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses, and are divine prescriptions for a virtuous life....Publicly honoring the Ten Commandments is thus indistinguishable, insofar as discriminating against other religions is concerned, from publicly honoring God.

Here is the fatal flaw in Scalia's argument. He fails to include "another" monotheistic tradition within the Lowest Common Denominator, arguably the most important tradition for purposes of this discussion because it happens to be the personal religion of the first four presidents he mentioned: Deistic-unitarianism (or "theistic rationalism"). And the deistic-unitarians did not believe that "the Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses." Nor did they ever say so in their public invocations of God.

These Founders did believe in a God, in fact believed that Reason discovered God exists and grants man unalienable rights. But Reason, not Revelation is where the Truth is to be found. And these Founders disbelieved a great deal of Revelation which they regarded as either unreasonable or unproven. And Moses divinely receiving those Commands was one of those Truths about which our Founders were highly dubious.

For instance, here is Jefferson in an 1824 letter to Adams:

Where did we get the ten commandments? [The Bible] itself tells us they were written by the finger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses; it specified those on the second set of tables in different form and substance, but still without saying how the other were recovered. But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the other texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from the cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.

There is nothing in the writings, or public acknowledgements of any of the other three Presidents that contradict Jefferson's sentiments here. They were all men of Reason. Therefore, if we include the deistic-unitarians in the Lowest Common Denominator of Monotheism, we would have to exclude the notion that the Ten Commandments were divinely given by God.

What we would be left with in our Lowest Common Denominator is this: There is a God; He grants us unalienable rights; He is concerned about human beings and will intervene, especially if we don't respect the unalienable rights of others and nothing more. None of the above four Presidents ever more specifically defined the attributes of God when publicly acknowledging Him.

In other words, the religion that founds our public order is the natural religion of the Founders; "Nature" meaning what is knowable through Reason, not Revelation. This vague natural religion is our civic religion; Revealed religion is to be consigned to the private sphere of society (as Harvey Mansfield, Michael Zuckert and Walter Berns argue that our Founders, after Locke, intended).

Here is another problem for the "Christian Nation" crowd: If we define the attributes of "Nature's God's" too specifically, their consciences will be the next --after the atheists and polytheists -- to be gored. For instance, in his 1813 letter that I am fond of quoting, written in the context of Britain's repeal of a law that made it a crime to deny the Trinity, John Adams writes this to the militant anti-Trinitarian, Thomas Jefferson:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature's God, that two and two are equal to four....This revelation had made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one....Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.

What Adams is saying here is quite profound: The same theory -- "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" -- which gives us our principles upon which we erected our government also reveals Nature's God to be unitarian!!! I could offer quotes that demonstrate the unitarianism of Jefferson and Franklin as well. And they together made up a majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence. We could say that the Declaration of Independence refutes Trinitarian Christianity. But there's a problem isn't there? There were many Trinitarian Christians in the nation who supported the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and Constitution. And they didn't understand Nature's God this way.

The problem is easy avoided by being vague and refusing to identify the attributes of God when publicly invoking Him any more than 1) He exists, 2) He created us and grants us rights, and 3) will Intervene to do Justice. There is no good reason to believe that He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Reason never "discovered" or "confirmed" that.


bls said...

Doesn't Scalia argue against "separation of Church and State" on the grounds that the words do not appear in the Constitution itself? And isn't it true that Jefferson DID write and speak about such a "wall of separation"?

How then can Scalia invoke the first four Presidents in this instance? Also, how could it possibly matter which religions are currently "popular"?

Len said...


Don't know if it is pertinent to your post, but I seem to recall a Jefferson quote where he expresses his fervent wish that within a generation or so all Americans would be Unitarians.

So from here on out I'm telling my religious wingnut acquaintances. that the United States is not a Christian nation, but a Unitarian nation.

Anonymous said...

Calling christianity monotheism is falling for the mumbo-jumbo that christians use to try to explain away the fact that theirs is actually a tritheistic religion.

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