Friday, February 20, 2009

Founding Era Republican Enlightenment Clergy & Theology, Part III

This post focuses on the notion oft-repeated in Founding era political pulpits that the Ancient Israelites had a "republic." The Biblical record does not teach this. Such a notion is wholly a product of Enlightenment rationalism, not of historic orthodox biblical Christianity. And that's because the concept of liberal democratic theory-republicanism is chiefly a product of Enlightenment (not the Bible). Liberal democratic theory-republicanism holds universal rights are discovered through reason. It wasn't just the deists, but also unitarians and orthodox Christians who embraced this. As such, if the Bible is true (which many of them believe it was) its truth had to conform to liberal democratic theory-republicanism. Hence a major rewriting of the Bible took place in the political pulpits of the Founding era. In fact, I would argue the embracing of Locke's state of nature theory, combined with excessively using natural law reasoning and arguing the Ancient Israelites had a "republic" were all part of an ideological movement that terminated in the French Revolution. Indeed, as I have shown in pasts posts, many of these ministers and theologians believed the French Revolution would user in a millenial republic of liberty, equality and fraternity that fully vindicated the universal rights of man.

And with that, let us turn to Samuel Langdon's "The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the United States." (Langdon was the President of Harvard from 1774-80.) I am going to bold everything that is not biblical in Langdon's revisionist sermon.

As to every thing excellent in their constitution of government, except what was peculiar to them as a nation separated to God from the rest of mankind, the Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages; and from them we may learn what will exalt our character, and what will depress and bring us to ruin.

Let us therefore look over their constitution and laws, enquire into their practice, and observe how their prosperity and fame depended on their strict observance of the divine commands both as to their government and religion.

They had both a civil and military establishment under divine direction, and a complete body of judicial laws drawn up and delivered to them by Moses in God’s name. They had also a form of religious worship, by the same authority, minutely prescribed, designed to preserve among them the knowledge of the great Creator of the Universe, and teach them to love and serve him; while idolatry prevailed through the rest of the world: and this religion contained not only a public ritual, but a perfect, though very concise, system of morals, comprehended in ten commands, which require the perfection of godliness, benevolence, and rectitude of conduct.


But the great thing wanting was a permanent constitution, which might keep the people peaceable and obedient while in the desert, and after they had gained possession of the promised land. Therefore, upon the complaint of Moses that the burden of government was too heavy for him, God commanded him to bring seventy men, chosen from among the elders and officers, and present them at the tabernacle; and there he endued them with the same spirit which was in Moses, that they might bear the burden with him. Thus a senate was evidently constituted, as necessary for the future government of the nation, under a chief commander. And as to the choice of this senate, doubtless the people were consulted, who appear to have had a voice in all public affairs from time to time, the whole congregation being called together on all important occasions: the government therefore was a proper republic.

And beside this general establishment, every tribe had elders and a prince according to the patriarchal order, with which Moses did not interfere; and these had an acknowledged right to meet and consult together, and with the consent of the congregation do whatever was necessary to preserve good order, and promote the common interest of the tribe. So that the government of each tribe was very similar to the general government. There was a president and senate at the head of each, and the people assembled and gave their voice in all great matters: for in those ages the people in all republics were entirely unacquainted with the way of appointing delegates to act for them, which is a very excellent modern improvement in the management of republics.

Moreover, to compleat the establishment of civil government, courts were to be appointed in every walled city, after their settlement in Canaan, and elders most distinguished for wisdom and integrity were to be made judges, ready always to sit and decide the common controversies within their respective jurisdictions. The people had a right likewise to appoint such other officers as they might think necessary for the more effectual execution of justice....

But from these courts an appeal was allowed in weighty causes to higher courts appointed over the whole tribe, and in very great and difficult cases to the supreme authority of the general senate and chief magistrate.

A government, thus settled on republican principles, required laws; without which it must have degenerated immediately into aristocracy, or absolute monarchy. But God did not leave a people, wholly unskilled in legislation, to make laws for themselves: he took this important matter wholly into his own hands, and beside the moral laws if the two tables, which directed their conduct as individuals, gave them by Moses a complete code of judicial laws.

Langdon's injecting words and concepts into the biblical record reminds me of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a cult leader I used to watch for fun, who mixed all world religions into a New Age synthesis with ultra right wing politics. As someone who believed in the Truth of both Hinduism and Christianity, Ms. Prophet said Jesus said in John 8:7 "Let he who is without KARMA cast the first stone." Langdon does something similar with the Ancient Israelites and republicanism.

As Dr. Gregg Frazer reacts:

The sermons seem to depict God's role as something similar to Rousseau's legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon's sermon] "for their happiness" rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignty determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau's legislator).

-- Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.

As for the actual politics of the Ancient Israelites, Dr. Frazer notes:

First, as [Robert] Kraynak pointed out, “the biblical covenant is undemocratic: God is not bound by the covenant and keeps His promises solely out of His own divine self-limitation.” Second, “(t)he element of voluntary consent is missing from the covenant with Israel….There is nothing voluntary or consensual about the biblical covenant; and the most severe punishments are threatened by God for disobedience.” Third, “insofar as the covenant with Israel sanctions specific forms of government, the main ones are illiberal and undemocratic;” including patriarchy, theocracy, and kingships established by divine right. Fourth, “the 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.” Fifth, “the 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.” The history of Israel, therefore, had to be radically rewritten to provide support for the demands of political liberty and for republican self-government.

-- Ibid, pp. 18-19, quoting Robert Kraynak, "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy," pp. 46-49.

1 comment:

aglu said...

"The history of Israel, therefore, had to be radically rewritten"
And Israel to agree with it?