Saturday, March 15, 2008

Berns on Witherspoon:

Jim Babka leaves an excellent comment criticizing Walter Berns' position that traditional Christianity is incompatible with the natural rights philosophy of the American Founding. In particular Babka writes:

First, Locke pretty much starts with a man named Adam, living in a garden — THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE. And whether or not Rousseau had influence on our Founders, particularly Jefferson, no one doubts Locke had anything short of tremendous influence.

Second, whether or not our Founders were predominantly Theistic Rationalists, as Jon Rowe keeps illustrating, they still had to sell their idea in an orthodox, Christian milieu. If Natural Rights was so explicitly counter-Biblical, please tell me how a culture that actually owned and read Bibles, stood for rights? …and why Christians, even the most fundamentalist of them, endorse the notion of rights as found in the Declaration of Independence?

The Straussians explain at great length this interesting dynamic of traditional Christians going along with ideas that were not authentically Christian, perhaps anti-biblical. They also explain why Locke, although he dresses his arguments up in biblical language, was not a Christian. They go too far in my opinion. I would agree that Locke was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian and his "state of nature" philosophy was a moderated version of Hobbes' original concept. But, I think that Locke's teachings were compatible with traditional Christianity, even though they clearly do not derive from that system.

I will take Locke at his word: He claimed to be a "Christian" but seemed to disbelieve in original sin and never affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity. His "Reasonableness of Christianity" was accused of peddling Socinian Unitarianism. And this is because in that book Locke sets forth what he sees as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity but leaves out original sin and the Trinity! Scholarly consensus concludes that Locke was a Unitarian most likely of the Arian variety, like his friend Isaac Newton whom Locke encouraged to publish unitarian arguments.

But in any event many Founding era ministers, some of them orthodox Trinitarian like John Witherspoon, and some of them Unitarian like Jonathan Mayhew turned to Locke's ideas to justify rebellion and otherwise explicate what they saw as the purpose of government. The Straussians argue that these ministers were key to getting a Christian populace to go along with ideas that were either a-biblical or anti-biblical. There is also disagreement over whether these "Christian" figures consciously understood that Locke's ideas were not authentically biblical and otherwise broke with the traditional Christian view of man and government.

Way back when I was just a “reader” of Sandefur’s Freespace, I wrote him with Walter Berns’s theory on the matter. Here is what I wrote:

Although [Walter] Berns is generally a social conservative and anti-libertarian, he actually has quite a strong understanding of this nation’s secular foundation. Chapter 2 — “God Before Country” — in Making Patriots provided me with some pretty valuable insights regarding America’s secular founding.

That book also notes that John Witherspoon...was as much of a Lockean as he was a Calvinist.... From Berns: “Like Jefferson and Madison, [Witherspoon] had obviously read Locke with care and was persuaded by him of the importance of liberty of conscience — which put him at odds with the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin. (For Calvin, liberty of conscience meant just that, and no more than that. If someone gave voice to his conscience, thus being heard or read by others, he might rightly be punished. So it was that, as the effective governor of his city of Geneva, Calvin had one of his anti-Trinitarian critics put to death.)” Making Patriots, p. 42.

Witherspoon’s importance to our founding seems to be that he acted as sort of a “mediator” between the Enlightenment philosophers and Christian theology, and led Christians to believe that Enlightenment philosophy was perhaps more compatible with their orthodox Christianity than perhaps it really was. The philosophers who articulated “Natural Right” were either non-Christians or non-Trinitarian heretic Christians. “Nature’s God” who, according to the philosophers, grants us inalienable rights certainly wasn’t the God of orthodox Christianity. And the notion that Jehovah or Jesus grants us inalienable rights is “wrong as a matter of doctrine — where does the Bible speak of unalienable natural rights, or the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?” Id.

However, it made very good political sense for a nation founded on Enlightenment principles, yet populated by many orthodox Christians, to get such Christians to believe in this. And Witherspoon greatly helped in making this a reality (too successful–how many times do we hear today the religious right claim that this nation was founded on Christianity because the Declaration states that our rights come from the “Creator” which they interpret as the God of Biblical Christianity?). “Witherspoon could speak unreservedly of ‘natural liberty’ and ‘natural rights’; and of the ’state of nature’ and like Locke…of its ‘inconveniences,’ inconveniences that caused men to leave it for the ’social state.’ But in the same lecture he could admonish his listeners and readers to accept ‘Christ Jesus as he is offered in the gospel,’ for ‘except that a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ In a word, Witherspoon saw no conflict between the new political philosophy and the old religion, which is to say between the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and what he understood as orthodox Christianity.” Id.

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