Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Novak Replies to Allen:

Michael Novak has replied to Brooke Allen's latest on the Founders and Religion. He writes:

Ms. Allen tells us that she had grown up being taught (even at the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s University”) that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation.” Much to her surprise, she later encountered many passages in biographies about the Founders that testified to their trust in reason, not revelation, and to their roots in “the Enlightenment,” not in Judaism or Christianity. Her passion now is to tell the world of her discovery. America, she writes, is an Enlightenment nation, not a Christian nation. The “moral minority,” she holds, saw this from the beginning.

My own experience, interestingly enough, was almost precisely the opposite. I grew up as a Roman Catholic — that is, neither mainline Protestant nor evangelical Protestant. When I began to read more widely in the records of the founding I was quite surprised with how saturated with Christian concepts the American “philosophy” is. My Catholic teachers (several key ones educated in Europe) tended to dismiss the American founding as excessively individualistic, materialistic, Masonic, and deist. They did not consider it worthy of holding a significant place in serious Christian reflection.

I have to agree with Novak here. I think the academy heavily weighs on the side of the secular left's view of history. However, millions of folks in religious conservative circles have their own sources outside of the academy which challenge the academy's narrative. Sources like Wallbuilders, Center for Reclaiming America, American Vision. Writers like D. James Kennedy, David Barton, John Eidsmoe, Roy Moore, Gary Amos. They may not be, for the most part, respected in the academy. But in terms of sheer numbers of people who buy into their ideas, their influence is strong. These writers are influential in places like Regent or Liberty University, which I don't consider to be "serious" places in the academy. However, George Bush apparently does. So Ms. Allen is correct that these notions are taken very seriously in the White House.

Novak goes on:

Slowly, I came to see how thoroughly wrong they were. David Gelernter writes in his brilliant new book, Americanism, of a similar discovery on his own part, from the point of view of Judaism. America, he discovered, is a biblical nation, a biblical republic, and its basic tenets (“We hold these truths”) are matters of faith, not reason, prospective rather than descriptive. While one does not have to hold either Jewish or Christian faith to accept these tenets, sheer honesty compels one to observe how thoroughly biblical they are. Their inner music — what gives their words “resonance” and makes these tenets seem like common sense — is beautifully biblical, and makes the words ring with self-evidence.

This is, in my opinion just wrong. The basic tenets of the Declaration -- the self evident truths -- may be matters of faith, though Jefferson et al. explicitly believed they could be discovered from unaided reason; they do not, however, derive from the Bible. Let's read from the Declaration, shall we:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

To be frank, I don't see how any honest person can refer to these ideas as Biblical; they are a-Biblical. However, they are not necessarily anti-Biblical. That is, though these ideas clearly come from sources other than the Bible, they don't necessarily conflit with the Bible. Let's look at the reasons why the Declaration is not Biblical:

1) The Bible says nothing of unalienable natural rights especially an unalienable right to political liberty or to pursue happiness;

2) The Bible does not refer to God as "Nature's God";

3) The term Nature itself, in this context, means what can be discovered from Reason as opposed to revealed in the Bible;

4) The Declaration does not quote the Bible;

5) Jefferson didn't think he derived these ideas from the Bible. He listed the sources and they were "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. ..."

6) The entire thrust of the Declaration was to establish a right to revolt against Great Britain. And the Bible nowhere recognizes a right to revolt against government. See Romans 13. Now, it could be argued, as some Protestant dissidents did, that such texts do not forbid revolt against governments in all circumstances. But Romans 13 in particular and the Bible in general nonetheless nowhere recognize a right to revolt. The argument put forth by the Protestant dissidents was akin to saying even though the First Amendment says we have free speech, properly understood, that text doesn't forbid government punishing speech in all circumstances. Perhaps. The First Amendment, nonetheless, never explicitly authorizes censorship, but seems to say the opposite. Government's authority to censor must come from elsewhere, not the First Amendment. Thus, when the Declaration states --

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness....

-- it may be possible to reconcile this with one's understanding of the Bible. But nowhere is such sentiment found within the Bible's text. If the Declaration's ideas were "created," taken as a matter of faith, as opposed to "discovered" by reason, they were created as part of the Enlightenment zeitgeist set in a Protestant dissident context. These are, at their heart, ideas which originated in the late 17th and 18th Centuries, not from the Biblical era or the text of the Bible itself.