Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Biblical Covenant is Undemocratic:

Robert P. Kraynak's Christian Faith and Modern Democracy is another book (there are many) written by a conservative Christian (he's a Catholic) that debunks the "Christian Nation" thesis.

Dr. Gregg Frazer heavily relies on this work in his Ph.D. thesis. Kraynak's work is important in illustrating the context which neither the Christian right nor the secular left well understand. Though the Bible was not cited in our Founding documents (Declaration, Constitution, and Federalist Papers), many orthodox Christians existed in the population and the American Revolution was a common subject in the pulpits. Indeed pamphlets reproducing such sermons abounded back then. Yet, much about our Revolution could seem to conflict with the Bible and the traditional understanding of Christianity. Most notably, Romans 13 where Paul tells believers in no uncertain terms to obey the civil rulers. And not just "Godly" rulers -- the ruler to whom Paul refers was the Pagan psychopath Nero. Thus, propagandistic arguments had to be made arguing that the principles of the Revolution really were consistent with the Bible and Christianity. Hence, many citations to the Bible and Christianity arguing their compatibility with the principles of the Revolution, the Constitution, and Republicanism. But in making this case, the history of Israel especially had to be radically rewritten. And this is why the "Christian Nation" crowd can offer quotations, taken out of context, which seem to show that the Founders based their claims on liberty on the Bible.

For a recent example, Don Feder writes:

Our form of government is based on the Bible. At the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument (1843), Daniel Webster declared that the Bible "is also a book which teaches man his own individual responsibility, and his equality with his fellow-man."


The Bible contains the seeds of our current conception of equality under the law and human rights. (The American Revolution was preached from colonial pulpits. The anti-slavery movement started in the churches of New England.) That's why the Western world pioneered the abolition of slavery. That's why the Islamic world still has it.

And the Christian Nation crowd loves to point out how the Liberty Bell quotes Leviticus.

But they fail to understand a) that the people often making the claims were not Christians and rejected much written in the Bible and contained in orthodox Christianity, and b) that the Bible in general and those quotations in particular, understood in context, arguably don't specifically support the Declaration, the Constitution, or founding republican ideals. In short, one could argue that the patriotic preachers and republican Whigs actually abused the Bible in service of their cause, because hey, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Kraynak's book is one of the few places that well-understands this historical context. The following quotes from Dr. Frazer's thesis quoting Kraynak's book:

First, as Kraynak pointed out, "the biblical covenant is undemocratic: God is not bound by the covenant and keeps His promises solely out of His own divine self-limitation." Second, "(t)he element of voluntary consent is missing from the covenant with Israel....There is nothing voluntary or consensual about the biblical covenant; and the most severe punishments are threatened by God for disobedience." Third, "insofar as the covenant with Israel sanctions specific forms of government, the main ones are illiberal and undemocratic;" including patriarchy, theocracy, and kingships established by divine right. Fourth, "the Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses." Fifth, "the content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors rather than establishing protections for personal freedom." Finally, the combination of judicial, civil, ceremonial, and dietary laws imposed on the people "regulate all aspects of religious, personal, and social life." The history of Israel, therefore, had to be radically rewritten to provide support for the demands of political liberty and for republican self-government.

-- Kraynak, 46-49 quoted in Frazer, "The Political Theology of the American Founding," Ph.D. dissertation, 18-19.

So when, for instance, John Adams stated about the Bible, "It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it," keep what you have just read in mind as well as how Adams' theology -- his unitarianism, universalism, and rejection of Biblical inerrancy -- otherwise conflicted with orthodox Christianity.

The colonies did indeed invoke the Biblical Covenant when founded in an earlier era. But since that concept didn't work for the "Novus Ordo Seclorum," such was replaced by the Lockean social contract. This isn't to say that covenant theology and colonial charters had nothing to do with our Founding from 1776-1789. Those colonial charters were to some extent, experiments with self government and did anticipate some of the ideas of our national founding. Even Bernard Bailyn recognizes that Biblical principles/Covenant theology were one of the sources from which our Founders drew when positing the principles of the Declaration/Constitution. However, as men of the Enlightenment, our Founders approached the colonial charters and the Bible in a cafeteria manner, picking and choosing what they thought "rational" and discarding the rest. So when it came time to pick and choose from "covenant theology," they left out the very heart -- the covenants themselves (neither the Constitution, nor the Declaration or Federalist Papers contain or call for the Biblical Covenant!) -- and replaced them the with the social contract and Art. VI of the Constitution's "no religious test" clause.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course, Kraynak, a classmate of Bill Kristol's and a fellow student of Harvey Mansfield's, is a Straussian with a distinctively Catholic twist (if not bent). He favors a Christian monarchy as the best form of gov't.

Danger, Will Robinson. (Funny how these guys all end up in the same orbits, int it?)

If Kraynak misunderstands Aquinas as he's accused of here (as I believe Strauss does as well), then he is likely barking up the wrong tree.

(He is useful however, in alleging that modern Christians are tainted with Kantianism, which may explain some of their confusion.)

You write elsewhere

Still the Founders did invoke Locke and other philosophers who inherited a Anglican natural law tradition from Richard Hooker, which ultimately traces back to Aquinas and Aristotle.

which still leaves us back at the starting line. Aquinas, altho he does not explicitly delineate human rights as we know them today, pulls an intrinsic human dignity for man from the bible, and is quite sanguine with overthrowing tyrants, who by definition contravene the natural law. We cannot bifurcate these traditions from the Founders' influences, despite their protestations.

(Adams and Jefferson's postpresidential huffing and puffing reminds me of a later-in-life interview with George Harrison I read, where he cited every musical influence he ever had except for John & Paul, from whom he learned everything worthwhile he knew except noodling a bit on the sitar.)

Jonathan said...

Interesting comment Tom. Of course, Dr. Frazer's Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University and his article on theistic rationalism was published on the Claremont Institute's website. His thesis cites, among others, Thomas Pangle, Michael Zuckert, Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa (as well as many non-Straussians).

I wouldn't call Frazer a "Straussian," rather "Straussian influenced." But then again, I'm Straussian influenced, but not a Strassian.

Re their influence from the Bible/Christianity. Well, parts of it for sure. But this is sort of a half-full half empty analysis. All of the nice parts of the Bible about God's love and benevolence fit well into their political theology. All of the mean wrathful stuff doesn't.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"And can the liberties of a nation be ever thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are of the gift of God?

"That they [God-given rights] are not to be violated but with his [God's] wrath?

"Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!

"The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us [America/slavers] in such a contest.

"We have in history but one picture of a similar enterprise [mass Emancipation], and there [Exodus] we see it was necessary not only to open the sea by a miracle, for them to pass, but more necessary to close it again to prevent their return.*

"I think a change already perceptible, since the origin [1776] of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust; his condition mollifying; the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of Heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed in the order of events, to be with the consent of tbeir masters, rather than by their extirpation."

T. Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 298 [1787], i.e., before he became irrelevant. If that's not a conception of the wrathful stuff, I dunno what is, Jon, and totally consistent with the Old Testament G-d sending Israel into captivity after their initial victories, when they in their turn became unrighteous.

The men of the Founding were up to their ears (and deeper!) in biblical sensibilities, so much so that it was a given, like the fish who says "Water? What water?"

Tom Van Dyke said...

And of course the undoubtedly brilliant Dr. Kraynak is correct in noting the biblical covenant is undemocratic: so are the laws of nature and nature's God.

(Although the modernist, who holds man as the measure of all things, maintains that they they are open to a vote...)

Jonathan said...

Well Tom, it figures that if God grants men unalienble liberty and equality rights that He might get mad and intervene if we abridge those rights of our fellow man. The problem is that the Bible doesn't say that God grants men such rights; indeed nowhere does it state that God will bring down His wrath for practicing slavery as the God of the Bible seems quite content with the existence of that institution. It does say, however, that God gets angry and wrathful when you worship other gods. And here is how Jefferson in that same book deals with that issue:

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

That was the offending passage that lead the fundamentalists of the day to brand Jefferson an infidel and a deist.

"And of course the undoubtedly brilliant Dr. Kraynak is correct in noting the biblical covenant is undemocratic: so are the laws of nature and nature's God."

The laws of nature and nature's God are what make freedom and equality "unalienable." They aren't democratic, but they are "liberal," meaning God is necessary to make such rights antecedent to majority rule. Great article that you linked, btw. This conversation makes this line especially apt:

"Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be."

That's why the Founders substituted their theistic rationalist God for the God of the Bible, because the former better suited the needs of liberal democracy.