Friday, November 23, 2007

Don't Ever Say...:

I'm not willing to let the other side have its say. Chess master Kristo Miettinen reacts to my essay on American political theology reproduced by the Cato Institute. He sent me this via email. I'll respond later.

Hi Jon!

OK, here we go. I didn't put much time into looking up references, as I suspect that you know the quotables better than I do, even those supporting the points I'm trying to make. But if there is a specific point I make that you think is unsupportable, I'll go see what I can find.

I’m going to start my reply at the end of your essay, because understanding where you miss what to me is a relevant point at the end may indicate how you neglect the things along the way that I would draw your attention to.

At your conclusion, you confront “traditional believers” (among whom I count myself) with two choices: (a) America is a republican democracy, and therefore should not be a Christian nation; (b) America is a Christian nation, and therefore should not be a republican democracy (you cast this option in the future tense, anticipating a revolution). You miss the two other logical options expressible in the form of material implication: (c) America is a republican democracy, and therefore should be a Christian nation; (d) America is a Christian nation, and therefore should be a republican democracy.

By omitting options (c) and (d) you not only overlook healthy choices for America today, you also (in my view) overlook the two dominant two views of the (pre) Revolutionary generation. Option (c) is characteristic of the “left-wing” revolutionaries like Jefferson, with his public obeisance despite private reservations; Option (d) is characteristic of the “right-wing” revolutionaries with their reservations about how far to push their religious agenda whenever they found themselves in charge. Options (a) and (b) were strictly minority views then, however popular (a) may be today.

To understand the interplay between the four options, you could return to Tocqueville. One way to summarize his observations on America (not the only one by any means) is that he marveled at how Americans could find democracy and Christianity inseparable, while continental Europeans found them irreconcilable. Americans were divided between (c) and (d), and therefore agreed upon the practical questions of what to do: promote Christianity (as it was then understood in America) and build a republican democracy. The French were divided between (a) and (b), and therefore suffered one revolution (against divine-right monarchy, or political Christianity as it was then understood in France), and were on the eve of another revolution.

To understand how Americans and French could not perceive the same choices despite (I would argue) fairly compatible notions of democracy and republicanism, I think it is necessary to understand the radical exceptionalism of American Christianity then (and to a lesser degree still today). America is not an orthodox Christian nation, though Christianity in America (as distinct from America itself) has become more orthodox over the past 400 years. But America began, in no small part, as a haven for religious misfits, a place where those who were persecuted in Europe could come to be free, and also where in pre-Revolutionary times they themselves could persecute the orthodox, or at least make them uncomfortable enough to keep their orthodoxy low-key. As a simple sign of this I would offer the complete absence of bishops (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Lutheran) on American soil until after the revolution, despite large enough populations in episcopally organized denominations to warrant ecclesiastical oversight. Clericalism was just not comme il faut, despite ecclesiology being one aspect (the others being Christology, mystagogy, and anthropology) of what Pelikan calls “The Orthodox Consensus” (Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)”, Chicago UP 1971, p. 332). By the most traditional standards, orthodoxy in American Christianity is a strictly post-revolutionary phenomenon.

American Christianity was bible-based in a way far more radical than European Protestantism has ever been. American Christians had further developed their originally European schismatic sects, and invented wholly new American denominations, based on extensive bible study with minimal clerical supervision, resulting in theological disputes in America that had no parallels in Europe. Whereas American Christianity today has come much further into alignment with traditional European Christianity, the disputes of pre-revolutionary America are difficult for us to appreciate, and the inapplicability of our adjectives (like “Christian” or “orthodox” as we today understand those terms) is difficult for many to accept. Furthermore, the American Christian roots of political ideas that would not seem Christian in a European context become hard for us to recognize.

The key to American Christian exceptionalism (including its political dimensions) lies precisely in those heated disputes that make so little sense to us today. And the big ones, as far as the earliest American colonial experience goes, were disputes over covenant theology. Roger Williams, the left-wing radical of his day, established what would become the right-wing position of later generations: in order to convert people to Christianity in a way that established a binding covenant with God (thereby effecting salvation), it was necessary that they be totally free and sovereign to enter the covenant in the first place. Without freedom first, there could be no conversion to Christ. In order to evangelize effectively, America needed to be a democratic republic.

I have digressed, but covenant theology is relevant to my main comment on your essay, namely that you uncritically accept the etiological (rather than ex post facto explicatory) relevance of Hobbes and Locke to American political thought. To what extent they really were relevant is difficult to ascertain today, since the very generation whom we might claim were imbibing Locke (and perhaps Hobbes through him) were also the ones actively engaging in historical revisionism, rewriting American history in Lockean terms. To take a simple example, consider what we today call the “Mayflower compact”, a Lockean (or Rousseauan) term unknown in America before 1793 (earlier references are to a covenant, or a combination). The revolutionary generation was engaging in some jingoistic chest-thumping, poking a stick in the eye of European intellectuals both by declaring that what was mere theory in Europe was reality in America, and also by claiming priority: the Mayflower covenant predates both Locke and Hobbes, so that renaming it in Lockean terms drives home the point that we not only implemented the ideas here first, we actually invented the ideas too.

This is the point: the revolutionary generation is guilty of historical revisionism in favor of reinterpreting pre-Lockean events in Lockean terms, and therefore is not trustworthy in claiming Lockean influence upon themselves. On the other hand, Lockean ideas by other names were manifestly ubiquitous in America from the beginning (there were hundreds of American collective covenants following the Mayflower), and therefore Lockean influence is both unnecessary and unable to explain what was a natural American development of English Puritan/Scots Presbyterian covenant theology. Williams is a bridge figure here: his Providence covenant corresponded to Puritan forms was but not in their theological tradition.

Incidentally, erasing the memory of Puritan/Presbyterian covenant theology through Lockean revisionism would have been politically desirable for the revolutionary generation, who had little nostalgia for Winthrop, the Bay colony, and the religious oppression that it stood for. The oppression of the Bay colony was rooted precisely in their view of covenant theology (differing from Williams’), namely that God covenanted with communities rather than with individuals, and that therefore it was necessary for salvation first to form groups eligible for divine covenant (hence the communal covenants binding members to each other), and then for the groups to maintain collective purity (hence the oppression). By reinterpreting the collective-covenant elements of American history in Lockean terms, the founders got a twofer: respectability abroad (or else one-upsmanship and a sharp stick in the eye to Europe), and erasure of a bad memory at home.

All of which is to suggest that modern historians may be the ones duped, and the founders (JQ Adams at the helm in the case of the Mayflower) the ones doing the duping. In the alternative, of course, modern historians may not be duped, but may find the founders’ reinterpretations expedient.

To your claim that “the God to whom the founders appealed – the individual rights granting nature’s God – arguably was not the biblical or Christian God” I have this query: how many, among the founders, ignored the bible in seeking God? After all, even the squishy theist Jefferson was obsessed with the biblical accounts of Christ (you may be able to find the references faster than I can, but TJ was reputed to study his highly heterodox biblical compilation every night). And if you acknowledge that a biblical God was the majority (if not consensus) view, then in what sense are we not talking about a Christian God, keeping in mind as we must that Christianity in America was, then especially but largely even today, bible-based rather than creedal, and also that the bible in question was not the Tanakh or Qu’ran but the good old KJV.

I agree with you that America has a political theology. I just think that you are working too hard to avoid admitting that whatever it is today, in the founders' time it was Christianity, albeit of a uniquely American bibliocentric denominationally fragmented and generally unorthodox form; it was at best tolerant of orthodoxy, hesitantly at first, more confidently later.

Odds and ends at the end: to the extent that anyone was outraged when my man GWB acknowledged that Muslims worship the same God as we do, they weren’t confused about “America’s civic religion”, they were confused about Islam and its relation to Christianity (Luther went so far as to consider Mohammed a Christian heretic). GWB was right even in the strictly Christian sense; his critics were wrong in any sense. Whether the consensus of founders would have extended the same acknowledgment to Hindus is another matter; whether they knew enough about Hinduism to really have an informed opinion on the matter is also questionable.

Of course, none of this is relevant to what, if any, interpretation we give today (possibly differing from the founders) to what I in the opening labeled option (c), which would seem perfectly compatible with having pulpit fellowship in our political institutions extended to all faiths, even atheists, though in the case of an atheist chaplain we might have to have a separate discussion on the necessity of such a chaplain having a moral perspective, since we haven’t yet discussed why the left-wing founders thought that Christianity was necessary for a democratic republic. They inferred the need for Christianity from the need for moral order, and we might therefore under option (c) today admit into the ecumenical “civic religion” any faith system that has a moral dimension conducive to civil society. Satan worshippers need not apply, even today.

You would seem to imply that Barton and his crew opt for what I call option (b), and therefore plot revolution. Now I’m a conceited Christian conservative, and therefore cannot imagine that the vast right-wing conspiracy could be planning such a thing without recruiting me at an early stage, but I just took advantage of ridiculously low online used-book prices to order Barton’s older book (the one with the Henry citation that so steams you). I will wear my Reagan/Bush secret society decoder ring while I read it, to make sure I get every revolutionary nuance, and report back on what I find.



Ron said...

Thanks, Jon, for posting this. In Kristo's lengthy statement, I don't see any real definition of what a Christian really is, and who is to be considered the "gatekeeper" to distinguish the "real Christians" from the imposters/pretenders. It would, for example, be helpful to know if Kristo is talking about Christianity of "spirit" or "letter"--the first being far more inclusive and mutualistic in tone and application than the latter.

A "Christian in spirit" would by no means be inconsistent with the ideals of the Founders, as they themselves indicated on numerous occasions. A "Christianity of the letter," however, is a much trickier animal, since by its very creedal nature is rigid and difficult to reconcile with the (essential) nondogmatic, freedom-embracing and ongoing, living experiment we call democracy. Jon, as always, I enjoy your insights in this department.

Jonathan said...

My pleasure Ron. And I always enjoy your feedback.