Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Van Dyke on the Declaration:

Tom Van Dyke, who blogs with some heavy hitters at The Reform Club, leaves a comment on my blog about the Declaration of Independence's "Civil Religion." He notes he's become "quite unsentimental about the Founding" and indeed his post illustrates some of the critiques of the founding that come from both the left and the right. The right, when they critique the founding -- indeed, those rightist intellectuals who actually understand that some founding principles are the furthest thing from their social conservatism -- tend to be more critical of the Declaration than the Constitution, because the former contains more of the philosophical "liberalism" against which they stand. I've reproduced his comment below:

I'm not sure the laws of nature and of nature's God are pluralistic. To the contrary, and by definition.

The Founders (and we really must include the Signers as well as the Framers to paint a picture of the theologico-philosophical landscape of the Founding) recognized certain basic principles on which they largely agreed, and that formed the American "civil religion."

The rest, they either ignored or postponed (i.e., slavery). But without that underlayment of shared values, I don't see how they could have got past the Articles of Confereration.

But I do think you're on to something here: I don't know a lot about Murray Rothbard, but I gather he was an atheist/Thomist, that is, a natural law advocate who rejected the Bible. Not too different than the Jeffersons and Madisons, altho their embrace of Providence would go further than Rothbard.

And the more I learn about Jefferson and the fundamentally autocratic nature of the Founding, the more I'm prepared to dismiss the D of I formulation as mere self-serving claptrap and the less I can view it as fundamental or even relevant to the Constitution. Rights were guaranteed only to those who could stand as an obstacle to a United States (free white males), and the social contract that is the constitution reflects this. I've become quite unsentimental about the Founding (and not in small part because of the delving that your blog drives me to).

The issue of slavery is instructive here, I think: each state had its own mores and conventions that made its society cohesive; some were more religiously oriented than others, and some held slaves. They did not and would not sign over that internal cohesion to the mores of a federal government. They ended up fighting a war over that question. (Some 140 years later, it appears that per the emancipation of black folk, one hopes, that war is just now drawing to a conclusion.)

On what I think is your true agenda in this entire inquiry, the justification of gay marriage (perhaps I'm wrong, Jon), I think perhaps your historical precedent is to be found after the Civil War, which spelled the end of federalism. I do not think that the Founders' "civil religion" would in any way countenance gay marriage, as opposition to such things would have fallen into that non-Biblical "civil religion," which was not merely a set of principles, but a series of shared prejudices and conventions as well.

On the other hand, perhaps you're coming around to what I perceive is a growing view among gay marriage advocates, that the war for it should be fought state-by-state, swaying the sentiments of the denizens thereof. It does seem more practical to change the minds of 2 or 10 or 50 million people at a time, rather than go for the kit-and-kaboodle of 300 million.

Perhaps, unlike the civil rights movement, whose greatest opposition came from quite legitimate legalistic arguments of "states' rights", federalism is the best way to your goal, if Mr. Lincoln didn't kill it.

The pluralism per federalism you might (correctly) see as the avenue for gay marriage was, in my view, not a product of sufferance or fallibilism or any principle whatsoever, but of expedience. But that's OK---altho the equation of race and gay issues has proven to be a loser, the issue can be won person by person and state by state---not on the ground of "facts," but of values, which is a perfectly legitimate battleground.

I should have clarified what I meant by "pluralism." Founding era liberalism is indeed, I think "pluralistic," but at a secondary level. The principles behind the Declaration -- unalienable rights to liberty and equality and legitimacy of government via the social contract, democratic vetting, and of course, securing unalienable rights -- are indeed, not pluralistic; they are primary, fundamental, non-negotiable. If you don't accept these ideals -- as a militant Islamist would not -- you ought to rightly feel anathematized by our system. But once those basic ideals are accepted, liberal democracy leaves a lot of room for different peoples and lifestyles, who can come together on those ideals. As our Founders put it, "out of many, one." That's what I meant by the pluralism of liberal democracy. E. Pluribus Unum. We must not confuse "pluralism" with "relativism." Pluralists yes, relativists, no.

And our Founders believed that you need not be a "Christian" or a "Judeo-Christian" to be a good liberal democrat. They believed that more or less all world religions contained the same basic Truth as Christianity and were thus valid ways to God. This, I think, illustrates the pluralism to which I referred. And Dr. Kuznicki, in his original post, accurately noted such pluralism when he wrote:

Nature's God was present wherever religionists of any faith showed decency and kindness toward their fellow man; nature's God was absent when the faithful were cruel, intolerant, or uncharitable. Nature's God demanded that every one of us come to Him on our own terms, not under threat of compulsion. Why not? Because it is impossible to imagine a God who wanted compelled, inauthentic, grudgingly given prayers.

As the founders meant it, nature's God can be the deity of anyone who believes in God. Even atheists can believe that human nature, stripped of the deity, still demands a sincere conscience, free of all compulsion, as the foundation of any legitimate faith, or civil society, or government. Even atheists can believe, as it were, in nature's God. It's the one thing we all can agree on, because sincere dialogue, with no imposture or compulsion, is the prerequisite to any good spiritual aim we might have, and because a religion based on force cannot possibly be a good one.


Karen McL said...

Since ya dont Have a T-Day post...

Happy Thanksgiving Wishes.


Anonymous said...

Regarding one of those people who seems earnest but misguided, and then some: Leonid needs to read some of your, and other positive liberty author's, posts.

""The laws and practices of religion, namely Christianity, are relentlessly scrutinized and dissected by a humanistic politically correct dogma. In this process has anyone stopped to consider God as a living being, with desires, feelings and rights Himself?
May I humbly suggest the founding fathers of our great nation did just that. That the power and wisdom behind the First Amendment, the establishment clause, was not based on political realities but on an advanced knowledge of the living God. Seeing beyond their religious differences and facing common struggles, they recognized the living God present in all men and sought not to allow humanistic powers to corrupt or restrain this spirit of freedom whose origin was not in question. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;".""

It gets much worse, including the suggestion that the church, and its agents, can cure homosexuality etc.

Jonathan said...

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks anon. I'll check it out.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Why, I'm honored by the feature, Jon. My intention was to pose the issue in terms of natural law, not religion (particularly scripture).

We touched on it just the other day at The Reform Club blog, and my response to one of our contributors' posts pointed to the fact that the Dalai Lama, without resort to revelation, agrees with the pope on many matters based on moral reasoning in an Aristotelian/Thomist teleology sort of way.

Is the perception of a natural law consistent with "civil religion?" I think it is, and I think the Founders did, too.

In the end, as Montesquieu observes, a nation and a society is based on shared mores. How those mores are derived is really not relevant.

(Per your response, surely you'd agree "democratic vetting" and "securing unalienable rights" are often at odds, and that our social contract is largely a negotiation between the two.)

(And a Happy Turkey Day to you, Jon, and to all. "Give me tryptophan or give me death!"

Leonid480 said...

The documents at the founding of our great country were created to represent the whole continental congress and the authors were selected on their own merit of ideas, but also they were entrusted to represent the ideas of the entire congress. Without considering the entire body of representatives, I believe the conclusions are inaccurate.
Also, the States had endorsed or established religions. The concept of a civil religion has no merit. Just as McCain wants the whole abortion debate to be shifted to the States, the founders saw a limited federal government with the least interference possible in peoples lives.