Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bruce Frohnen on Walter Berns on America's Political Theology

This article from 2006 is actually about much more. But I focus on what I put in the title. Walter Berns, a Straussian, is one of the folks who turned me on to studying America's political theology in detail. Many of the key passages in Berns' book Making Patriots are discussed here.

Before I get into Frohnen's discussion, I will report what I see as the weakest part of Berns' thesis. As I quoted in this article I wrote for Liberty Magazine (that was published a number of years after I submitted it to them), Berns posits "Nature's God" was non-interventionist. Reading the works, indeed the personal letters where they were free to speak their mind, of the three heterodox thinkers responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams -- we see each believed in an active personal God.

On the other hand, a more challenging thesis is how compatible the rights grating God of Nature is with the God of Christianity or Judaism, etc. As Berns wrote:
We were the first nation to declare its independence by appealing not to the past but to the newly discovered “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and this had (and has) consequences for patriotism. Whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob imposed duties on all men (see Exodus 20:1-17), “Nature’s God” endowed all men with rights; and, whereas the God of the New Testament commanded all men to love God and their neighbors as themselves (see Matthew 22:37-40), Nature’s God created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself and, as “America’s philosopher” said (see John Locke, Treatises II, sec. 6), take care of others only “when his own preservation comes not in competition.” And so long as he remains in the state of nature, he has the right to do what he is naturally inclined to do, and what he is naturally inclined to do is not to take care of others. To say the least, he is not naturally inclined to be a patriotic citizen.15
Indeed, again quoting Berns, "where does the Bible speak of unalienable or natural rights, or of the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?"*

The notion of natural rights was discovered in "nature" through "reason," not from the texts on the Bible. And Christendom had a fairly long tradition of incorporating essences founded in nature through reason, as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle. Still, Berns' thesis is that what was now being incorporated through "reason" was not "traditional" or "old" (as Aristotle was), but rather something "new." 

Frohnen, moderately critical or Berns' thesis, agrees somewhat:
Even when Aquinas (following Augustine) stated that an unjust law seems like no law at all, he did not then recommend revolt in all instances, instead advising submission where too much unrest would flow from opposition. The fragility of social order, and the dangers of disorder, demand caution in seeking reformed institutions or policies.
*The purpose of this post is simply to highlight some of the key issues. For an extensive analysis, you will have to read Frohnen's entire article. However, I will put one of Frohnen's footnotes under the microscope and quibble with it. It's footnote 18 and it relates to Berns' assertion quoted above on the right not to worship:
I would note, here, Berns’s insertion of the “right” “not to worship as one pleases,” which is found nowhere in the Declaration or elsewhere in our tradition. 
It's true the Declaration never explicitly invokes "liberty of conscience." But it does explicitly invoke an unalienable right to "liberty." As Berns notes in the book, of all the rights that "liberty" might encompass, conscience, as it was understood,  was without question (that is, not subject to argument) the most "unalienable." So yes, "liberty of conscience" is part of the Declaration's teachings.

And Jefferson, in a public writing (indeed, one that got him in trouble with the then forces of religious correctness), "Notes on the State of Virginia," describing the radical unalienability of conscience stated:
But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This is what Berns refers to when he noted natural rights doctrine necessarily teaches a right not to worship as one pleases. 

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