Monday, July 04, 2005

Thinking about the Declaration:

On this Independence Day, let us think about the Declaration of Independence and take it seriously. By that I mean, ask, is the Declaration a mere statement of political rhetoric used to justify one nation breaking away from another, or is it a statement of Truth? Was our nation founded in 1787 or in 1776? Is the Declaration of Independence the organic law of the United States? And if so, what does that mean in terms of this nation's Foundational underpinnings?

One of the best articles I've come across posted today on the Declaration is this one by Michael Berliner. If the Declaration is the Foundational Truth of America, then it is clear what America was founded on: Man's Reason. From the article:

To the Founding Fathers, there was no authority higher than the individual mind, not King George, not God, not society. Reason, wrote Ethan Allen, is "the only oracle of man," and Thomas Jefferson advised us to "fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God." That is the meaning of independence: trust in your own judgment, in reason; do not sacrifice your mind to the state, the church, the race, the nation, or your neighbors.

The implications of this are numerous: The post-modern Left, which after Nietzsche (who ironically was part of the Right), has thrown out Reason completely, leading to the positivistic conclusion that the Declaration "is not law" because natural law doesn't exist. The "Christian Nation" right denies that we were founded on Reason, but rather erroneously (and laughably) argues that Declaration and the Constitution were taken right out of the pages of the Bible.

Some on the social right (the East Coast Straussians) realize that the Declaration is, as Robert Bork puts it, "an Enlightenment document" (and "Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment") and for this reason they admonish their fellow social conservatives to be less fervent in their embrace of the Declaration; the Declaration, they argue, at best contains, "half-Truths."

And there are others on the "social right" who recognize the Declaration as a document of Man's Reason and the Enlightenment, but argue that Reason and Revelation, properly understood, are by-in-large compatible and complimentary. In other words, religious conservatives should in no way feel threatened by Man's Reason as a Foundational element of America.

However, something has to rule -- and the American Founding, properly understood, elevates Man's Reason over Revelation and consigns Revealed Religion to the private sphere. Many religious conservatives simply won't accept that our government was Founded on Man's Reason and that, not Revelation, is what rules us publicly.

Claremont attempts to be conciliatory between Reason and Revelation, and sometimes, I think erroneously tries to elevate "Revelation" to a higher status than where it properly belongs (which is subservient to Reason).

For instance, in this great debate between Claremont's John Eastman and Dr. Paul Finkleman, Eastman asserts:

The notion that Jefferson believed that "moral truths" are "created by the will of the people" is really preposterous, and flatly inconsistent with Jefferson's claim that such truths are "self-evident"—knowable both by human reason (by which we access the "Laws of Nature") and revealed religion ("Nature's God").

No! Both "the Laws of Nature" and "Nature's God" are appeals to Man's Reason. The Declaration doesn't invoke Revelation at all (if it did, where are the Chapters and Verses of Scripture?). The term "Nature" has many different meanings and thus may confuse. During the Founding, when "Nature" was invoked in a political sense, it meant, according to Forrest McDonald, -- arguably the leading Historian on such terminology matters, and a political conservative -- "discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by God." As such, "Nature's God" is, according to Claremont's own Thomas West, "God insofar as we can discern his existence through our reason unassisted by faith."


Eh Nonymous said...

Excellent post.

I agree, and I'm not even self-identified as libertarian.

#1: The human rights discoverable by reason, and by compassion, are the proper study of law. #2, The laws of God, as revealed to humans in the past, may inform our study of #1; it cannot possibly be proven, or even persuasively argued, unless the audience is a member of that sect, or a compatible one.

Since we've got a plural nation, even if many of us are sectarian, we've got to stick with the highest common denominator. Bush, and all Presidents back to Adams, have aspired to that highest denominator: speaking to "all" of us, using reason and hope and prayer and faith and compassion. It's not poisonous to have faith, it's only poisonous to elevate faith above the demands of reason.

Faith must be allowed; reason must be the touchstone of government and laws nevertheless.

Jason Kuznicki said...

I disagree somewhat with your last paragraph, and agree with Dr. Finkleman insofar as the "will of the people" in the Rousseauan sense did not necessarily constitute an appeal to reason. Quite often it was an appeal to emotionalism and mass sentiment rather than to reason.

Jonathan said...


You may be right in actuality (in actuality, the "self-evident Truths" of the Declaration may be myths to which we cling), but doctrinally, weren't they asserting what were supposed to be object Truths, discoverable by Reason, and applicable universally, everywhere to all people?