Friday, October 14, 2005

The "Christian Nation" crowd and Natural Rights:

In a post entitled Is Evangelism the Last Refuge of Natural Rights? Richard Reeb writes:

The other reason is that, given the rootlessness of modern liberalism (and its close ideological companion, modern conservatism), which has abandoned its roots in the natural rights political philosophy of America's greatest statesmen (the Founders, Marshall, Webster, Clay, Lincoln), about the only Americans who regularly speak the language of the Declaration of Independence are those on the Religious Right (including traditional Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews), and especially evangelicals. The right-to-life movement has pointed its supporters back to the most fundamental and God-given right and thus to "the laws of nature and of nature's God." That's the "judicial philosophy" most needed on the Supreme Court, and indeed in all of American politics, government and journalism. Bush believes he has a known quantity in Harriet Miers and that's why he selected her and is sticking with her. This may be the defining event that the early conservative critics were looking for. It might even be a blessing in disguise that's not very well disguised.

This needs a really big caveat, so I'll do it.

The folks on the religious right who get closest to our natural law/natural rights foundation are Catholic thinkers who understand Thomism and its Aristotelian foundations in nature and reason, in universal knowledge -- self-evident Truths -- that man can know as man (and I'd argue, after Strauss, that they fail to appreciate the distinction between modern natural right [Natural Rights] and traditional natural right [Natural Law]). On the other hand, many fundamentalist Protestants, especially those who claim that America is a "Christian Nation" are utterly confused about what it means that rights are granted by "the laws of nature and of nature's God." They think that phrase is shorthand for the triune God of the Bible grants us rights and that the laws of Nature's God refer to inerrant Scripture.

What being founded on "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" really means is that Man's Reason, not Biblical Revelation, is ultimately what is sovereign when it comes to those Truths that will rule us publicly (as opposed to the Truths that rule our private consciences). Even Nature's God, doctrinally, is not the Biblical God (although He could be) but rather in words of Claremont's own Thomas West (ironically, in a speech he gave to such Protestant Fundamentalists), "God insofar as we can discern his existence through our reason unassisted by faith."

Reason may "discover" that God's attributes perfectly parallel what is taught in Scripture and by the orthodox Churches. Or Reason may discover, as it did for Jefferson, Adams, and most other of our key Founders, all sorts of things about God that contradict the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity, like that He is unitarian, not Trinitarian in nature, that He doesn't send men to Hell for eternity, that He doesn't perform miracles that contradict the laws of Science like walking on water and parting the Red Sea. Hell, Reason couldn't even confirm for Jefferson and Adams that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses!

And indeed, the fact that God grants us "unalienable rights" is nowhere to be found in Scripture, but rather was a "Truth" that was discovered by one man's Reason, John Locke's, around the time of the Enlightenment. As Dr. David Mazel put it responding to one of my posts on this very matter:

One way to make sense of that claim is to say, Yes, America is a Christian nation, but only to the extent that American Christianity has remade itself in the image of the Enlightenment political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke. But to the extent that it has thus remade itself, it is no longer what once passed for Christianity. To survive and eventually flourish under the new intellectual regime, it had to become the incoherent potpourri so familiar to us today--the religion that on the one hand, and only when convenient, speaks the language of natural rights, and on the other hand speaks the language of the Bible.

This is especially so given that the most unalienable of rights granted by Nature's God permits men to do what the God of the Bible expressly forbids in his First Command and elsewhere: worship false Gods or no God at all.


Jim Babka said...

Jon, this entry, particularly your last paragraph really set me to thinking. It forms a very good question, and one that I suspect most Christians don't know how to answer. I like your writing and think you've done much to debunk the likes of David Barton, and that you've done it in a very honest style.

However, in this post, you seem to misunderstand the difference between a church covenant and a civil covenant. One would only know the difference by reading the Bible carefully. As to your question whether the Bible reveals that God has granted man "unalienable rights," what is Acts 4 and 5 but an account of such a "right" — we would obey God not men. As Madison put it in his "Memorial and Remonstrance" what is a duty to God is a "right" against men. And what teaching is at the root of this, but Jesus Christ's who taught that one is to render to the civil ruler what belongs to that realm and to God what belongs to God - the civil ruler has no claim on what belongs to God (Luke 20:25).

And that brings me to the First Commandment. God did not authorize civil rulers to enforce that commandment. In fact, there is no civil sanction for violating it, even in Old Testament Israel! Freedom of religion in the civil context, then, is designed to keep the civil ruler out of God's exclusive jurisdiction. If civil rulers enforce that commandment, then it undermines the very foundation of it - to love God with all thy heart, soul, etc. The law of love is outside the jurisdiction of civil government because it can only be fulfilled by voluntary and unconditional choice, unbacked by civil sanction.

Jonathan said...

That's very nice and is similar to Roger Williams's philosophy, which according to my research, was a novel interpretation of the Bible for his time. Many Protestant Christians, Biblical literalists, had a hard time telling when God's commands related to individual conscience (duty to God) or to society as a whole (duty to the state, properly made into civil law, like Though Shalt Not Kill). David Barton brags about the fact that (anything that comes out of his mouth must be independently confirmed; but I'm pretty sure he's right here) RI was the only one of the colonies that categorized the Ten Commandments into two tables -- one with the duties to God (have no Gods before me, etc.), which weren't incorporated into the civil law, and the others with duties toward society (don't kill, don't steal), which were. The other colonies attempted to incorporate the entire Ten Commandments into the civil law.

And I'd argue that the Enlightenment notion (the Jefferson-Madisonian notion) of individual rights is even broader than simply what you can glean from the Bible. For instance, you say:

"And that brings me to the First Commandment. God did not authorize civil rulers to enforce that commandment. In fact, there is no civil sanction for violating it, even in Old Testament Israel!"

However, in the OT, there are indeed sanctions for idolatry and proselytizing for false Gods which merited stoning to death. According to Madison and Jefferson, these activities are covered under the unalienable rights of conscience