Monday, April 16, 2007

Allen Responds To Novak:

On Encyclopedia Britannica blogs, Brooke Allen has responded to Michael Novak's recent response to her on religion and the Founding Fathers. I want to thank her for mentioning me by name and discussing one of my comments. I was going to turn this comment I made on Novak's response into a blogpost. I might as well discuss it now. Here is a passage from Allen's post:

I thought that blogger Jon Rowe, in his response to “Christian Stoics and Skeptical Christians,” made an excellent point. “Let me point something else out—what I think is a non-sequitur—which I’ve noticed folks who argue from Mr. Novak’s side often engage in,” he says. “The argument goes something like this: Analyze a particular phrase uttered from a Founder; find some way in which that phrase traces back to the Bible; and then conclude this warrants placing the Founder in the ‘orthodox / Christian / religious’ box or what have you.” This is absolutely true. All of us have been indelibly stamped by the Bible, whether we are believers or not. This was much more true in the 18th century; the Founders all grew up in an intensely biblical culture. As Rowe points out, even the violently anti-Christian and anti-clerical Thomas Paine made biblical allusions.


As I noted in the original comment, whatever the Biblical allusions Washington may have made, Franklin and Jefferson -- whom Novak identifies as "outliers, skeptics indeed, barely if at all Christian” -- knew the Bible probably better than Washington and alluded to it as much as he did.

As also noted, the Bible, especially as a piece of literature, has dramatically impacted Western Civilization. I’ve described, on my blogs, (after Camille Paglia) Western Culture itself as a unique synthesis of Paganism (Greco-Romanism) and Piety(Judeo-Christianity). Indeed Christmas and Easter, both of which have pagan and traditional religious elements, perfect illustrate such dynamic. We can endlessly analyze how various parts of our culture trace back in some way to our religious (for instance, the way we date our time) or pagan (the names of the days of the week, months of the year, or planets in our solar system) roots.

To give a personal anecdote, I once debated, in an Internet forum, some cultural issue, where I was on the more secular liberal side. I think it had to do with gay rights. When saying good bye to a fellow debater on my side, I replied “keep fighting the good fight.” Someone on the opposing side, a traditional Christian who really didn’t like me that much, became angry that I said this because that phrase traces back to the Bible.

Indeed, when I teach at my secular community college, I notice myself making Biblical allusions all the time. The Bible has so dramatically impacted our language that common people make Biblical allusions all the time without being aware of their so doing. This is especially the case for more literate, well-educated folks (who arguably tend to be less religious than average).

Lincoln too, certainly no orthodox Christian, notably used Biblical allusions (e.g. "A house divided against itself cannot stand"). Though it may be an interesting literary study to analyze a Founders' or anyone's words and see how certain phrases trace back to the Bible, how certain phrases trace back to Shakespeare, etc. etc., such tells us absolutely nothing about the orthodoxy of their personal religious beliefs.

5 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, thanks for the link to Ms. Allen's blog. Predictably, I offered a demurral there, and please forgive me for posting in here in toto (arf!) rather than edit it for relevance:


It is perhaps too facile to attribute the Founders' use of Biblical allusions as simply respect for them as literature. As we can read in John Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (and Jefferson himself adored "Mr." Locke), even if its theological claims are discarded, the Bible was seen as a philosophical (and only therefore a moral) authority.

"Or whatever else was the cause, 'tis plain in fact, that human reason unassisted, failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never, from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the law of Nature. And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the new testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by Our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen." Locke, ibid.

There is ample evidence of Jefferson's hostility to Christian theology (the existence of the Jefferson Bible, shearing the New Testament of miracles and Jesus' largely Johnannine claims of divinity, is no well-kept secret), but little in the way of objection to Christian moral philosophy. "Principles," if you will.

And so, Ms. Allen, I struggle with bits of your nomenclature. Christian "principles" are not synonymous with Christian "dogma." To make them so elides Mr. Novak's central premise, that there were uniquely Christian principles involved in the Founding and Framing, namely equality, not a small amount of brotherhood, and the primacy of the individual conscience.

I'm also confused at your description of the Constitution as an (apparently oxymoronic) "secular Christian document." I do not know what this means. "Non-sectarian" would seem a more precise term, and would also describe America at its founding, where the House and Supreme Court were used for religious, albeit non-sectarian, services.

A separation of church and state ("church" as in the Church of England, or the papacy), certainly, but not of religion and state.

Mr. Novak aptly and irrevocably injects the word "accomodation" (of religious expression) into the discussion, and it must be henceforth acknowledged in any search for the truth of things at that time. I don't see how it can be argued, in light of its using public buildings for religious purposes, that the nascent American state didn't "accomodate" religion rather than separate it, or serve as refutation of any argument that the US was founded as a "secular" state, in any sense of the word that we understand in the 21st century.

And it's arguable as to which political party today is the home of "common sense," since moral reasoning seems to be part of man's makeup, and it has been Christian tradition at least since Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century that moral reason and conscience are not contradicted by the Scriptures, only enhanced. The theological elements of the Scriptures must indeed contradict earthbound "common sense," or else they wouldn't be theology, but the underlying moral philosophy does not, as Locke indeed argues.

As for George Washington (and this would be largely an academic exercise), it might fairly be said that he was a deeply pious man, far more so than many of his peers. That he couldn't bring himself to faith in some of Christianity's theological claims did not mean he rejected them outright, as Jefferson and John Adams so vociferously did (confidentially, and in their dotage.)

(And as academically admirable as is spreading the word of their anti-Christian sentiments, that Jefferson and Adams expanded on the subject only after they'd left public life yet still preferred things to be kept quiet calls their relevance to the current crisis into serious question.)

I support any objection to the current (and 19th century) revisionism that asserts the United States was founded as a "Christian nation," and the invaluable contributions of both your work and my friend Jonathan Rowe's. But I also must object to the proposition that America was not founded on Christian principles, or to any charge that to assert the contrary (as you do with President Bush) is "disingenuous."

There is much more truthseeking to be done on this matter, and reasonable persons can of course disagree about the intellectual and political landscape of 200 years ago. For my part, like Mr. Novak, I cite the history of ideas and the Christian contribution to the philosophy of freedom, freedom of conscience, and the dignity of the individual human person.

As for the status of the Bible as a founding document of America's moral philosophy and not just a cultural touchstone like Shakespeare, I defer to Jefferson's dear Mr. Locke.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for this. They have to approve your comment which I'm sure they will.

Allen may have made a typo when she described the Constitution as a "secular Christian document." I thought she'd just describe it as a "secular document."

Re the "principles," I don't think it's an either or scenario (i.e., Founding principles which gave rise to the Declaration, Constitution, and Federalist Papers either were or weren't "Christian Principles.") As you know I'm with Bernard Bailyn on this. The Founders synthesized a variety of ideological sources which included 1) Christian/The Bible; 2) Pagan/Greco-Roman, 3) Rights of Englishmen/Common Law, and 4) Rights of Man/Enlightenment/Man's Reason, with 4) -- Enlightenment -- dominating and serving as the ultimate ideological lens through which all principles would be viewed. AND, let us not forget, the Founders didn't formulate this synthesis. Rather English Whig dissidents did. The Founders inherited an already existing rich body of writings containing these ideas, ranging from Milton, Locke and Sidney in the older era, to Priestly, Burgh, and Price, in theirs.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite right, it's not "either/or." It might seem to beg the question to say America was founded on Christian principles, but neither would it be objectionable to say it was founded on Enlightenment principles.

Which is why Novak titled his bok "On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding," something that it appears neither of us would find inaccurate.

As for just what the Enlightenment contributed and what Christian moral philosophy did, that can remain on the table. Upon further review, I myself have found less of relevance in the Enlightenment and more in the Christian tradition than I thought I would.

I trace, as Novak does, the principles of freedom and human rights to pre-Enlightenment, Christian sources. As for the Greco-Roman tradition, I'm sure it figures in there somewheres, but I think we would not say with any degree of accuracy that the Founding was based on those principles.

Jonathan said...

I'm not sure if I would call it "On Two Wings"; rather I might term it "On Four or Five Wings."

Re the sources of humans rights, liberty, and equality, I don't see them in the text of the Bible. As far as the pre-Enlightenment sources are concerned, I've never studied the work of Tierny or Stark in detail (two of whom I think most notably make that case). But the Founders themselves thought such principles were "self-evident" -- ascertainable from reason -- and thus didn't tie them to any particular Christian source. They did get many of their ideas from Locke. And with Locke there is a huge debate in the academy as to whether it was the Christian or the Enlightenment component of his thinking that was responsible for the grounding of his revolutionary ideas on liberty, equality, conscience, and property. I have a moderate Straussian view on the matter that what was distinctive about Locke was his a-biblical "state of nature" ideas which originated with Hobbes. Though Locke did put forth theistic or religious premises that were far more consistent with orthodox Christianity than Hobbes. In other words, he helped to "sell" ideas which originated with Hobbes to a largely Christian audiences and so tweaked Hobbes' ideas along the way. And Locke's ideas further evolved in an even more liberal direction in the hands of Jefferson, Madison, et al.

There may well have been explicitly Christian philosophers who anticipated these ideas. But the Founders didn't believe that's where they got such notions from. Correct me if I am wrong, Tierny states such ideas were worked out in canon law? And you argue Aquinas anticipated some of these notions? That they may have Roman Catholic origins, might explain a blindness on the part of our Founders who came from a Protestant context, in refusing to recognize these RC sources. Indeed, they could be quite hostile to Roman Catholicism given the Church's poor official track record on liberty, equality, and rights.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The quick and dirty answer is that they didn't know the source of their ideas. Aquinas>Vitorio>Saurez>Grotius, the lattermost being a respectable Protestant, and with whom they were quite well acquainted.