Monday, July 24, 2006

Rebroadcasting Propaganda:

Coral Ridge rebroadcast last year's propaganda special attempting to prove we were founded (in a public sense) as a "Christian Nation." Here is how I dealt with it last year (which also links to other posts which address Kennedy's spurious claims).

One thing I missed in last year's discussion: It noted how Ben Franklin proposed a prayer at the constitutional convention. Franklin was a theist who believed in an interventionist God, but otherwise rejected the key tenets of orthodox Christianity. Coral Ridge said that was the "turning" point in the convention (I guess they assumed the conventioneers actually prayed), that after the event, the convention went from the brink of failure to success. Which is utter nonsense: The convention did not pray; they rejected Franklin's call to prayer.

One more word about the whole "covenants" thing. Usually, there is a kernel of truth in urban myths. The special argued that the Declaration and Constitution were based on earlier documents -- "covenants" with the Christian God. What's truly remarkable about this claim is that neither the Declaration or the Constitution contain covenants to God. The kernel of truth is perhaps earlier covenant documents influenced our Founding insofar as those covenants were experiments with self-government. But what is distinctive about the Declaration and the Constitution is that they do not covenant, but rather replace covenants with the social contract. So the Declaration and Constitution are like earlier Christian covenants, except with the heart ripped out of the earlier documents: The covenants with God.

My own opinion on the ideological origins of the US Constitution, similar to what Bernard Bailyn has argued, is that the Founders drew from a variety of intellectual sources and synthesized them, including 1) Christian-Biblical principles, 2) Pagan Greco-Roman principles, 3) traditional common law or "rights of Englishmen" principles, and 4) modern Enlightenment principles or "the rights of man." Now, the Founders probably thought that these sources by-in-large agreed on most matters. Yet, when a conflict occurred, something had to dominate. And it was not the Bible or "Christian principles." Rather, it was Enlightenment principles which trumped and Man's Reason was the ultimate lens through which all of the sources were to be viewed.


The Gay Species said...

It's the conclusion that is important: "it was Enlightenment principles which trumped and Man's Reason was the ultimate lens through which all of the sources were to be viewed."

Franklin himself probably epitomizes the word "contradiction" as a "form of life." I'm not sure that makes him interesting, but it does admit the differences between his "public persona" and his "personal persona." Not that people don't have "public masks," it's that BF made an art of eluding determination of which was "public."

BF was a Deist, which in my lexicon differs from Theist. A distinction, I admit, without much difference. But his Deist creed might elucidate (from his "Autobiography," Part III):

--That there is one God who made all things. (Trinitarianism is eliminated).
--That he governs the world by his Providence. (which makes him author of good and evil).
--That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer, & Thanksgiving (the closest he gets to the Book of Common Prayer)
--But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man (a synthesis of Socrates and Jesus, but "faith" is important to Jesus, while "love" more important to Paul, neither of which BF touches)
--That the soul is immortal (entirely Platonic; Christians believe in "the resurrection of the body" not "immortality of the soul")
--And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice either here or hereafter ("virtue" and "vice" are Greek, not biblical, words. "Sin" is the only operative word in Judeo-Christianity)

As I said, Theist is probably too strong a claim (despite the marginality of difference). Deist is clearly superior. "Christian" is entirely impossible, for the "obvious" reasons, although BF remained a Puritan throughout.

There is strong evidence that BF was one of 9 Freemasons to sign the Constitution, a possible relevance.

But the Founders, despite and regardless of their religious perspectives, never "thought" of the new nation in religious terms (except to allow the free exercise of, and to prohibit all establishment). Tolerance to practice one's religion, while simultaneously proscribing establishment of any and all religion, is a hallmark of liberalism, the antithesis of evangelical neo-conservatism. The DofI's appeal to a "creator" (unspecified) is a clever appeal to authority, and then denying the authority by lack of specification.

Which returns me to your conclusion. As well as I understand Christianity, I cannot fathom how a biblical fundamentalist thinks. I'm quite convinced that "think" and biblical fundamentalism are mutually-exclusive possibilities. Historical Christianity perceived America as a threat to its sovereignty, which I do understand, but now biblical fundamentalists find "evidence" of America being a "Christian nation." It's not that this hypothesis is a "stretch," the preponderance of "counter-evidence" does not permit the hypothosis.

But what counts as "evidence" in my world and what counts as "evidence" in their world are worlds apart. Which, unfortunately, makes the "parallel universe" heuristic more actual than I care to imagine.

Jonathan said...

Gay Species:

I think your understanding of Franklin's belief is spot on. However, the problem with calling Franklin a "Deist" is that that term has come to mean one who believes in an impersonal Watchmaker who doesn't intervene in man's affairs. And Franklin clearly believed in a God who intervened. Now, it may be true that the word "Deist" during the Founding era had a broader meaning and could have encompassed Franklin's (and Washington's and the other key Founders') belief in an active, intervening Providence. But in today's debate, the word "Deist" really isn't useful for describing the beliefs of Franklin et al. because many will immediately associate that word with a non-intervening God. And I think it's important to note that the key Founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin -- believed in an active, intervening God, but still nonetheless rejected the key tenets (the creeds and theological doctrines) of orthodox Christianity.

Consider Franklin's statements at the Constitutional convention.

"To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?

"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"

The Gay Species said...

Again, I'm not sure there's much of a distinction with difference between a Deist and Theist, and I'm even less convinced the Providence is the deciding factor, or that Providence entails or implies an "interventionist" deity, or that an "interventionist" deity is "the" marker. I usually ascribe "theism" to those who discern a divine "persona" in a very theological context (with or without anthropological considerations). Again, the nuance is too subtle for it to make that much of a difference. I suspect, however, you are pushing deism into the territory of pantheism, where it may overlap, but remains distinct. In my understanding, Spinoza is the "first" public pantheist (although hardly the last), and his pantheism admitted an "interventionist" deity, however much circumscribed.

All this irrelevant cavil aside, it is rhetoric that rescued the States, and only by its clever, if not deliberately equivocal use, could such disparate parties reach a "consensus." For example, the appeal to authority in the Declaration to a "creator" was as artful as it was artfully dropped from any further consideration. But appealing to "consensus" was an even further stretch, which would have caused the parties to erupt in laughter, if not outright ridicule. When reasonable minds cannot agree, rhetoric almost always reaches into other spheres to "find" an anchor that no one believes, but at least pacifies. The genius of citing "creator" and not "God" should never be lost. As Puritans, "God" would have been the obvious rhetorical device, but the Founders knew that was not the association they desired at all, which would introduce internecene disputes. However benign the word might seem today, its Puritan associations required "further" distance. The supreme irony is that while God entails creator, creator does not entail God, perhaps too subtle in a post-Christian world, but all too obvious in a Puritan world. So, the "authority" is less than God, but at least a "creator," and since the Framers were themselves creators, the double entrende could not have been lost on them, even if has faded from our current sensibilities. The Puritan inheritance, regardless of subsequent divergence, would ordinarily have sought a "common" authority that Puritanism offers, and that would be "God." But they deliberately avoided the obvious choice for reasons that should be obvious.

In other words, it is entirely plausible, and I believe more than probable, that the Framers were not appealing to a deity at all, but to themselves collectively as the "creator." And what better appeal to authority than to appeal to oneselves? Moreover, in this context, it is no longer a fallacy, but a truism. Moreover, it would not offend religious sensibilites about idolatry or whose deity was the "God" they claimed. They avoided the entire mess by one of the most artful rhetorical devices in human history. Instead of laughter and ridicule, smiles prevailed -- and perhaps smug self-satisfaction. Frankly, they deserved it. Their artful dodge had dodged people ever since.

Brian Tubbs said...

"the Gay Species" writes:

"In other words, it is entirely plausible, and I believe more than probable, that the Framers were not appealing to a deity at all, but to themselves collectively as the 'creator.'"

Upon what do you base this interpretation of their rhetoric?

It seems very inconsistent with President Washinton's Thanksgiving Proclamation, in which he declares:

"WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour..."

Here is a link to the full text...

I don't think he's referring to himself here, or even to a collective consciousness of some abstract kind. He's talking about a very real authoritative God - one entirely consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

-Brian Tubbs