Monday, June 06, 2005

Sullivan & Classical Secularism:

More great stuff on secularism from Andrew Sullivan:

One reason secularism is now threatened is because the left has abused it. I have no problem, for example, with public displays of Christian symbols in a secular society. I find the desire to root out such things as excessively persnickety. I've long been a defender of free speech and association for people with whom I disagree. (My conservative critics on the subject of homosexuality, for example, rarely point out that I oppose all hate crime laws, have opposed laws forbidding workplace discrimination, and supported the right of both the Boy Scouts and the St Patrick's Day parade for discriminating against gays as private associations.) Moreover, when Christians form a majority, it's understandable that much public symbolism will be redolent of Christian imagery and language. Secularists who want to stamp this stuff out seem to me to be lacking in the virtue of moderation - and they have helped spawn the intolerance that now flows back from the other side. At the same time, it's silly for fundamentalists to say that they are being persecuted merely because others are treated equally in the public square. It is ludicrous for Rick Santorum to say, as he did recently, that my being allowed to marry my partner is somehow an attack on his marriage. A secular and tolerant society does not regard the rights of minorities as somehow only achievable at someone else's expense. We are bigger than that. What is particularly remarkable is that when we are constructing a democracy abroad, say in Iraq, no one disputes the notion that it would be better for Iraq to have a secular constitution rather than a religious one. Yet these same people, when it comes to domestic politics and constitutionalism, want to insist that the American constitution is somehow a religious document.


You know, words like "liberal," "conservative," "Christian," "secularist" all have potentially many different meanings. I believe that secularism and the separation of church and state (as a metaphor) are central tenets of Western liberal societies. But this doesn't mean that I support removing every vestige of Christian symbolism from the public square or changing the names of cities like "Los Angeles" or "Corpus Christi" or even removing words like "under God" from the pledge.

And just as there is a modern (leftist) version of liberalism that contrasts with the classical (more libertarian) form, there is also a classical version of secularism that differs from the more modern version that would remove things like "under God" from our currency.

The classical version of secularism is found in the writings of Madison & Jefferson -- like Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, his Detached Memoranda, and Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.

What's ironic about these pieces of "secularist scripture" (as Susan Jacoby puts it) is that they, like the Declaration of Independence, actually invoke "God." Jefferson's Virginia Statute begins, "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free..." and the Memorial and Remonstrance states "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe..." which leads some critics to say: "Aha, this isn't secularism, this is 'Christian Nation' talk!" Not exactly.

First of all, this is classical secularism, not the modern version that would never invoke the supernatural. Second, the heart of classical secularism is not stripping all references to the supernatural from the public square but rather government neutrality. Neutrality between, not just the Christian sects, but all religions and between belief and non-belief. Men have unalienable free and equal rights of conscience. And these rights are universally applicable. Jefferson held that the natural right norms in his statute applied equally to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

Third -- when the Founders did invoke God in their documents and their speeches -- they exercised great prudence in how they identified "God" and "religion." Both were almost always referred to in vague and undefined ways. While they often invoked a "Divine Providence," they also systematically refused to identify God in Trinitarian terms and rarely if ever invoked "Jesus Christ" or quoted verses and chapters of scripture.

And Jefferson and Madison both gave reasons why it was important to be so vague. If God were referred to in explicitly Trinitarian Christian terms, then the populace might get the impression that only such Christians have religious rights. Here is Jefferson.

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.


And Madison:

In the course of the opposition to [Jefferson's VA] bill in the House of Delegates, which was warm & strenuous from some of the minority, an experiment was made on the reverence entertained for the name & sactity of the Saviour, by proposing to insert the words "Jesus Christ" after the words "our lord" in the preamble, the object of which, would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only. The amendment was discussed, and rejected by a vote of agst (See letter of J. M. to Mr Jefferson dated ) The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world.


These Founders also had a self-interest in seeing that non-orthodox Christians had full and equal rights of citizenship: Jefferson and Madison -- as well as Washington, Adams, Franklin, Paine and others -- were not orthodox Trinitarian Christians, and as such in many states they would be subject to legal penalties, including being barred from holding public office -- because of their religious beliefs.

Whenever our Founders connected "rights" to their metaphysical religious beliefs, they always invoked their "natural religion" as opposed to "revealed religion." ("Natural" meaning what is discoverable by Reason, as opposed to Revealed in the Bible). Through unaided Reason, "natural" religion tells us that God created man with unalienable rights. It does not tell us that God is Christ or even that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. It's possible that "Nature's God" and the Trinitarian God of the Bible are one and the same. Or "Nature's God" may be some non-orthodox, non-miracle performing God. By purposefully being vague our Founders left that answer to the private conscience of the citizens. To a Trinitarian, his God grants unalienable rights. To a Deist, it was his God who granted rights, and on and on.

Finally, it is wrong to say that our Founders just opened their Bibles and "discovered" that God grants men unalienable rights because nowhere in the Bible does it say that He grants men "unalienable rights," especially not the "liberty to worship as one pleases" (and the Bible frequently implies otherwise). So whereas the God of the Bible is a Jealous God who, in His First Command, forbids the worship of any other Gods but He, and elsewhere commands the community to immediately execute those who would tempt them to worship false Gods, Nature's God grants men an unalienable right to worship no God or Twenty Gods.

Rather, the challenge was to get orthodox Christians to interpret their Bible to be compatible with this Enlightenment discovery. And even before the Enlightenment, dissident Protestants like Roger Williams had begun to make similar arguments. You can see how Madison, in his above quote, encouraged such Biblical interpretations that were compatible with the notion of a "rights-granting" God.

The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world.

15 comments:

Ridge said...

Jon-

Thank you for this short essay. From my reading I would agree with your sentiments. As a current citizen of Virginia, I wonder at my fellows like Rev. Farwell, Rev. Robertson, etc... who assume the mantel of righteous patriotism but ignore the letter and spirit of the real Patriots and what they achieved. Also, as Virginians, they (and others) should be reminded of the Virginia Bill of Rights; written 1776 by the current conservative patron saint- George Mason.

“16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.”

“forbearance, love, and charity”….attitudes sorely lacking in the present religious environment.

Yours-
Ridge

ceberle said...

The history is interesting, but not decisive -- not for those of us living long after our founders have passed. So, even if *they* intended to get orthodox Christians to interpret the Bible to be compatible with "the Enlightenment" (whatever that is), the question for us is whether *we* should. That depends a lot on what "the Enlightenment" amounts to. That's hardly self-evident, or insofar as "the Enlighenment" has content, it's not clear that that content is plausible. I'd be interested in what you mean by that.

For example, I'm interested in knowing what sort of Enlightenment rationale you have that provides adequate justification for the sorts of rights claims to which our forefathers were so attached. Is the appeal to some sort of vague deity as a basis for establishing rights consistent with "the Enlightenment"?

I doubt that there is an adequate "enlightenment" rationale: rights claims depend depend for their justification on some claim that (roughly) all human beings have equal dignity, or are equally sacred, or suchlike, and it's difficult to espy a plausible secular rationale for that claim. (For a very nice, but unfortunately only suggestive, treatment of the issue, there's Jeremy Waldron's recent book, "God, Locke and Equality.) Depending on what you mean by "the Enlightenment," perhaps that means, if true, that there is no adequate "Enlightenment" justification for that claim.

Jonathan said...

-- For example, I'm interested in knowing what sort of Enlightenment rationale you have that provides adequate justification for the sorts of rights claims to which our forefathers were so attached. Is the appeal to some sort of vague deity as a basis for establishing rights consistent with "the Enlightenment"? --

This is an extremely profound point. I don't think I can do it justice.

Enlightenment, if I were to define it, means what man can know as man through Reason, unaided by Revelation or Clerical authority.

The early Enlightenment philosophers, Locke for instance, "discovered" through Reason, that God grants men unalienable rights.

Here is Susan Jacoby on the Enlightenment underpinnings of America:

"What did distinguish the most important revolutionary leaders was a particularly adaptable combination of political and religious beliefs, constantly subject to revision in an era when modern views of nature, science, and man's place in the universe were beginning to take shape. These views included skepticism vis-a-vis the more rigid and authoritarian religious sects of their day; the conviction rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that if God exists, he created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world...civil government was based not on the laws of God, as promulgated by self-appointed earthly spokesman, but on the rights of man."

I think Allan Bloom would agree completely with this understanding, but he spent a good deal of time in "The Closing of the American Mind" dealing with the implications of this.

For instance, like all "sciences," political science (the "new science of man") would change as reason discovered more about the ultimate nature of reality (what Jacoby said about views being "constantly subject to revision"). And just as Einstein's understanding of science replaced what Newton knew, Reason would update the science of man beyond what Locke et al. knew.

So what happens when Reason discovers that God doesn't exist?

This was the point that Bloom (after Nietzsche) stressed. It was our Enlightenment Founding that ultimately killed God and left us open to relativism.

All I can say is that the Bible alone, as I understand it, isn't sufficient to establish that God grants men unalienable rights of liberty and equality, regardless of what Jeremy Waldron argues (I haven't read his book, but I did see him debate Michael Zuckert on this very issue at Princeton University).

I was particularly unimpressed to hear Waldron's response to a query that if Christianity preaches universal human equality how come "Christians" didn't "discover" this in their Bible's until around 1600 years after the NT was written (when the institution was first questioned by the Quakers). He basically denied historical reality.

I'm not certain if I can "prove" as a matter of mathematical certainty that God grants men unalienable rights. But the Bible is just as unprovable.

(Although some thinkers, Harry Jaffa for instance, do argue that unaided reason demonstrates the existence of such rights theory as much as 2+2 = 4. And Jaffa has even argued that such theory is NOT dependent upon the existence of God. Moreover some of his followers have squared this theory with evolutionary Darwinism. Contact Timothy Sandefur if you'd like to know more on this).

I do laud such rights theory and believe that it is a very "solid" basis upon which to build public orders (certainly much solider than relativism).

If all moral truths are, as Eugene Volokh argues, "unproven and unprovable" I think that the Declaration is a good place to start as an unquestioned arguendo assumption.

David Swindle said...

Hey hey, you made it on Andrew Sullivan's blog, not too shabby: "MORE ON SECULARISM: An interesting elaboration from Revolutionary America over at Jon Rowe's blog." http://www.andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2005_06_05_dish_archive.html#111808888961349766

David said...

The United States was founded during the debate between the larger community that held Jesus Christ as a factual power in the universe and a new but growing minority, mostly men, who assumed much credit given to Jesus was glorification and religous symbolism. They assumed (Rightly) that if the new republic thrived a few centuries, Natural Law would suppliment religious law. The hedged their bets by not attaching the republic to specific religious belief or symbols. Today we are much further along in this process. The Bush Era is a predictable nativist reaction to the dramatic social transformation of the 20th century. The scuffle over religion in US politics will fade as a younger, less bitter generation assumes power in a few years. LBJ warned the south would turn away from the Democrats for a generation because of Civil Rights. They did, but that time is ending. Current intensity of religion is fueled by opportunistic magazines, millennium fever, and a large boomer generation geting gray. It's important to see trends and events as they actually are and not get into a fit. America needs religion as a way to define values, but angry religion never sells. This to will pass. I assue you that fifty years from now, the Bush Administration will be dismissed as extremist not by the Democrats. but by a new and less bitter generation of Republicans.

Anonymous said...

We are all subject to what we know. What we know is conditioned by the culture in which we live. Just as history books are written by the victors so are the textbooks. Using a liberal definition of Founder's would give us, probably, less than 300 people. Would it cripple our understanding fatally were we to excise both Madison's and Jefferson's writings and instead examine the other 298's views? We all know better than to trust history books commissioned by Stalin. The views of those who voted FOR the languages contained in our Founding Documents need to be considered since their votes were equal to the votes of any others. Too, the views of those who voted AGAINST might have application since their views were honestly held.

Will Malven said...

Jon,
A nicely reasoned piece, with which, it may suprise you to know, I pretty much agree. As one who is not a "Trinitarian," I find little to disagree with, except as you suggest that "Reason [might]discovers that God doesn't exist." I reject the possibility because Faith is inherently un-reason-able. In most religion, one cannot "reason" his way to God, it is because of that "illogical" leap of faith, the "reliance on that which cannot be seen" that one comes to God. Therefore I would say that Reason cannot "kill" God because Reason cannot understand God.

To David, I say, don't be too sure. Remember that God was declared "dead" by the New York Times in '64 or '65. Faith in His existence seems awfully vital for a dead Supreme Being. It was during that "large boomer generation" that this occurred, and it was that self same boomer generation which turned it's back on that which secularism offered and back to the faith of its parents.

All in all a nice piece, Jon.

Will

Jonathan said...

Thanks Will.

Jonathan said...

-- I was particularly unimpressed to hear Waldron's response to a query that if Christianity preaches universal human equality how come "Christians" didn't "discover" this in their Bible's until around 1600 years after the NT was written (when the institution was first questioned by the Quakers). He basically denied historical reality. --

Yikes. Rereading this, of course I meant how come Christians didn't discover that slavery violated their religion until around 1600 years after the NT was written. That's the "institution" that the Quakers questioned to which I refer.

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