Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Replacing one Misunderstanding with Another:

Dennis Prager and those on the religious right may have some valid complaints about the current historical understanding in the academy weighing too heavily on the "secular" and "deist" side of America's Founding. However, it does him/them no good to attempt to replace one misunderstanding with another. And this is exactly what he does in this column. He writes:

In fact, the Founders regarded America as a Second Israel, in Abraham Lincoln's words, the "Almost Chosen" People. This self-identification was so deep that Thomas Jefferson, today often described as not even a Christian, wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt at the splitting of the sea. Just as the Jews left Egypt, Americans left Europe.

There has been a concerted, and successful, attempt over the last generations to depict America as always having been a secular country and many of its Founders as deists, a term misleadingly defined as irreligious people who believed in an impersonal god.

It is also argued that the values that animated the founding of America were the values of the secular Enlightenment, not those of the Bible -- even for most of the Founders who were religious Christians.

This new version of American history reminds me of the old Soviet dissident joke: "In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it's the past that is always changing."

Once almost universally acknowledged to be founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the average college graduate is now ignorant of the religious bases of this society, and certain that it was founded to be, and has always been, a secular society that happens to have many individual Christians living in it.

This country was founded overwhelmingly by men and women steeped in the Bible. Their moral values emanated from the Bible, and they regarded liberty as possible only if understood as given by God. That is why the Liberty Bell's inscription is from the Old Testament, and why Thomas Jefferson, the allegedly non-religious deist, wrote (as carved into the Jefferson Memorial): "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

The evidence is overwhelming that the Founders were religious people who wanted a religious country that enshrined liberty for all its citizens, including those of different religions and those of no faith. But our educational institutions, especially the universities, are populated almost exclusively by secular individuals and books who seek to cast America's past and present in their image.

A few comments. First regarding Jefferson's (and many other Whigs') use of Ancient Israel. They in no way needed to use the Bible to argue for political and economic liberty because the Bible is wholly unconcerned with these matters. Such were relatively novel concepts which Jefferson and company helped to pioneer. From my past post quoting Dr. Robert Kraynak's work in Dr. Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis:

"[T]he 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....[T]he 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."

Rather, Jefferson et al. needed to get the Christian masses to sign on to their revolutionary cause. And in doing so, Jefferson and his fellow Whigs radically rewrote the history of Ancient Jews. Arguably, this was an abuse of the Bible, intimating that passages having to do with spiritual liberty were really about political and economic liberty!

Second, it was never universally acknowledged that the United States was "founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures." After the Constitution was written without mentioning God in its text, fundamentalist preachers of the day thundered that we would see God's wrath for leaving Him out of the document. When Jefferson was running for President many of these same men thundered America would be ruled by an absolute Enlightenment infidel and further predicted God's wrath. George Washington's own ministers accused him of being a deist. The Christian ministers knew well that the elite Whigs from which our Founders were drawn were teaming with "infidels" -- that is deists and unitarians. Indeed, the universities and even seminaries and pulpits of Churches professing orthodoxy had been infiltrated by such "infidels." Consider what Bishop Meade, a Founding era figure said of the College of William and Mary during that era:

The intimacy produced between infidel France and our own country, by the union of our arms against the common foe, was most baneful in its influence with our citizens generally, and on none more than those of Virginia. The grain of mustard-seed which was planted at Williamsburg, about the middle of the century, had taken root there and sprung up and spread its branches over the whole State.

Or what Bird Wilson (James' son) said about the Founders in 1831: "[A]mong all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).

Third Prager's use of the term "Judeo-Christian" is anachronistic. The Founders themselves never used such a term. And though it does have some useful meaning -- for instance, Christianity grew out of and has its roots in Judaism -- the way Prager uses it -- to build a Lowest Common Denominator between conservative Christians and Jews in the Old Testament -- would be totally alien to them. The key Founders were actually far more influenced by the New Testment than the Old because Jesus' character seemed to them to be far more benevolent than the wrathful, jealous God of the Old Testament. And reason told them God's main attribute was His benevolence.

These Founders were no doubt influenced by the Bible, as well as by the Pagan Greco-Roman characters. But the key Founders predominantly were men of the Enlightenment who used man's reason to take from the Bible what they thought valid or "reasonable" and discard the rest. They believed in an active personal God and were thus "religious"; but to ignore this Enlightenment element -- the reliance on man's reason over revelation, the rejection of orthodoxy and embrace of what Founding era orthodox Christians termed "infidel" principles -- as Prager and the religious right do, leaves out a major element of their history. Without the full story, Prager's followers are just ignorant.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Where is the principle of unalienable rights proceeding from a Creator to be found in the Enlightenment? (Or Islam, for that matter?)

One might turn to fundamentalism regarding the Bible at this select turn, however, there were some 1700 years of Christian philosophy in the intervening years between the Bible and the Founding.

Aquinas had some 500 years to penetrate the Western consciousness, and there is evidence that Jefferson had at least indirect access to (St.) Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621):

From an essay interesting in its own right:

Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Bellarmine: “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).

Aquinas: “Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).

Prager, having (wisely) backed off his initial salvo, says nothing suspect here.

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see..."

That would be Ben Franklin, of course. He goes on to question the divinity of Jesus, but that's OK; as a Jew, so does Dennis Prager. Neither of these fine Americans makes a theological argument. (But Jefferson does, hehe. How unEnlightened of him.)

Jonathan said...

That's interesting Tom; I'm surely will read up on Aquinas.

I will say this. The whole notion of inalieanble individual rights was part of the Enlightenment project. And many, probalby most men of the Enlightenment believed such rights are God given. Most of them, even radicals like Voltaire, believed in God and hence had no problem believing God grants such rights that could pull the rug from underneath the Divine Rule of Kings. The French's Declaration of the Rights of Man likewise invokes the Supreme Being as the guarantor of liberty and equality rights.

From reading Allan Bloom, I understand that no one talked about individual political rights until Hobbes came along. And it was Locke who gave the notion of "rights" their greatest respectability by tying them to God and thus making the idea more pallitable to Christian audiences.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Rowe, please allow me to take a moment to express my appreciation of our colluquy, best defined as a joint inquiry and not an exchange of monologues, conducted publicly. Sort of like Plato's dialogues, without all the clever editing. Socrates would approve, I think.

Everything I have learned on this subject has been as a result of hanging out here on your blog and accepting its challenges.

Leo Strauss' (no religionist he) seminal work, Natural Right and History makes an exception for Roman Catholic social science* in the ways of the world in its introduction, and it's here that I have discovered why. Aquinas, Suarez and Bellarmine, all of whom predated Locke and the American founding, have astounded me in their prescience in predicting the philosophy (and in Jefferson's case, theology) that created these here United States of America.

Either the Founders knew their echoes or reinvented them. In either case, it's enough to send a fellow back to church, I mean. Weird.

*NRH, p.2---"The majority among the learned who still adhere to the principles of the Declaration of Independence interpret these principles not as expressions of natural right but as an ideal, if not an ideology or myth. Present-day American social science, as far as it is not Roman Catholic social science, is dedicated to the proposition that all men are endowed by the evolutionary process or by mysterious fate with many kinds of urges and aspirations, but certainly with no natural right."

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, Jon, I did a little work on the apish [1791] French Rights of Man: they squirrelled out the D of I's "unalienable" and "Creator" with "droits imprescriptibles de l’homme," whatever that means.

The two documents are remarkably similar in form, yet for this reason, are completely different in essence.

Which might explain why the US had a "Founding" and France had a Reign of Terror, promptly followed by an emperor, you know, that Napoleon guy.

Jonathan said...

My pleasure Tom. It could be that the Founders and Aquinas, Suarez and Bellarmine have similar ideas because Locke inherited the natural law through Hooker, which traces back to Aquinas and company. But I really haven't read up enough on Aquinas and company yet.

But then again, there is the whole "state of nature" thing that is, in Strauss' words "wholly alien to the Bible," and which concept was first put forth by Hobbes.

Re France, their Revolution could have gone haywire because they had a monarchy to unseat and an established Church to disestablish and we didn't. We just had to send the Brit's home.

Likewise, America didn't wipe out tradition and begin everything new according to our ideals. Rather, we declared independence according to our ideals and left most of the existing order in place. But that left the door open for society to slowly/gradually march in the directon of liberty and equality, which is what we have been doing since 1776.

That's another thing I learned from Bloom. It's just that he and the other East Coast Straussians (and Robert Bork) saw this as a problem and I really don't. I mean, to the extent that equality or radical egalitarianism has gutted property rights and impinges on liberty, I don't support that. But as long as liberty and property can keep equality in check, I support continually expanding liberty and equality rights.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Working backward, JR---it has occurred to me of late (and of course to greater minds before thee and me, like Leo Strauss) that liberty and equality are far from synonymous: indeed they may necessarily be in conflict. But not relevant here.

That, despite or because it was gifted with a conservative as opposed to a Jacobin founding, America has slowly/gradually marched in the directon of [fill in the blank] is indisputable, I think, which is why I find Lincoln's vision of America more congenial (and relevant) to your agenda. I just ran across something that asserted a Lincoln confidant's testimony that Lincoln despised Jefferson. (I do not assert this is true, but it makes sense to me. I don't like him very much either except for a single sentence he wrote in a weak and frustrated moment.)

The "state of nature" thing we should explore on our own, without the assistance of Prof. Strauss. You will find Aquinas a Christian monarchist, but then again, you'll also find the thinker putatively most quoted by the Founders (not Locke), Montesquieu, was too.

What Montesquieu would say, without examining religion or its claims on universal truth, is that governments must reflect the mores of the societies they propose to govern, or else all cohesion is lost. He was no theoretician, but even if he were, that proposition would pass theoretical muster.

Indeed, all that papist/monarchist nonsense might indeed have been better for mankind if it hadn't lost its temporal clout---Pope Eugene IV proscribed racial slavery in 1435. You could look it up, but I took the liberty of doing it for you. :-)