Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hamburger, Laycock, Hamilton and McConnell at the Constitution Center

To top yesterday's post, below is Philip Hamburger, Douglas Laycock, Marci Hamilton and Michael McConnell speaking at the Constitution Center on religious liberty issues. They are arguably the four leading scholars of religion and the US Constitution.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Hamburger and Laycock on Religious Liberty

Check out Philip Hamburger and Douglas Laycock -- two of the foremost authorities on the matter -- discussing the current state of religious liberty in the United States.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Feser on Problems with Sola Scriptura and the Quakerish Solution

Ed Feser often has interesting and thoughtful things to say. In this post he criticizes the concept of Sola Scriptura from the perspective of traditional Roman Catholicism but with a corresponding analysis of empiricism.
But what does this have to do with sola scriptura? The idea is this. Summarizing an early Jesuit critique of the Protestant doctrine, Feyerabend notes that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, and the like. Let’s elaborate on each and note the parallels with modern empiricism.
First, there is no passage in any book regarded as scriptural that tells you: “Here is a list of the books which constitute scripture.” And even if there were, how would we know that that passage is really part of scripture? For the Catholic, the problem doesn’t arise, because scripture is not the only authoritative source of revealed theological knowledge in the first place. It is rather part of a larger body of authoritative doctrine, which includes tradition and, ultimately, the decrees of an institutional, magisterial Church.
I agree the idea that you simply look something up in the Bible to find answers doesn't work. Protestants I've heard say "Bible interprets Bible." Well Bible interprets Bible to produce all sorts of contradictory understandings.

I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between Sola Scriptura and fideism. I'm something of an expert on the political theology of the American Founding. While there were orthodox Trinitarians, deists, unitarians and folks all over the spectrum among them, the prevailing political theology rejected fideism and incorporated "essences" in nature as a necessary component for proper theological understanding (and it tended to be in nature, not in special revelation where they parked the public issues).

So here is James Wilson on how the Bible though it contains truth is an incomplete book:
But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.
Wilson ends the discussion by asserting "that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense."

The "operations of reason and the moral sense" were to Wilson among other things the teachings of the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment in which he was imbibed. He could incorporate those truths into his theology just as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle.

This is a rejection of fideism. Is it a rejection of Sola Scriptura? Perhaps. Though I have learned that there is a much neglected tradition of the natural law in orthodox Protestantism (it goes without saying that such tradition exists in unorthodox, freethinking Protestantism too).

So if "the Bible alone" is insufficient, there is always the natural law as an added component to achieve a holistic understanding.

But this still does not solve the dilemma posed by Feser. On a personal note -- the approach that I am sympathetic to -- is the most radical Protestant one: The Quakerish approach. And that is to concede everything Feser and critics of Sola Scriptura note and conclude there is no problem. That's because it's up to the individual -- radical priest that she is -- to determine for herself how to understand, including which books are inspired, what they mean, and whether there are errors in them.

Now, it should be done "in good faith" according to the dictates of conscience. And truth is what it is. You don't just get to make stuff up. There are a lot of learned folks out there who will call you out if you do.

But this is how William Livingston, a Quakerish American Founding Father put it in the context of explaining to a then prominent member of the religious right why the Bible/Christian religion would not be part of the organic "higher law" of the Articles of Confederation/the United States:
[A]nd to have made the 'law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,' would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute, as the very first question that would have arisen upon that article would be, whether we were bound by the ceremonial as well as the moral law, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel. Should we confine ourselves to the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the New Testament (which is undoubtedly obligatory upon all Christians), there would still have been endless disputes about the construction of the of these laws. Shall the meaning be ascertained by every individual for himself, or by public authority? If the first, all human laws respecting the subject are merely nugatory; if the latter, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, and enforce their own interpretations with pains and penalties.

For your second article, I think there could be no occasion in the confederacy, provision having been made to prevent all such claim by the particular constitution of each State, and the Congress, as such, having no right to interfere with the internal police of any branch of the league, farther than is stipulated by the confederation.

To the effect of part of your third article, that of promoting purity of manners, all legislators and magistrates are bound by a superior obligation to that of any vote or compact of their own; and the inseparable connexion between the morals of the people and the good of society will compel them to pay due attention to external regularity and decorum; but true piety again has never been agreed upon by mankind, and I should not be willing that any human tribunal should settle its definition for me.
The bold face is mine.

Livingston is sympathetic to the notion that each individual decides for himself how to understand the Christian religion. Therefore any and all human laws that try to properly understand, define or Livingston's actual word "respect[]" Christianity are nugatory.

It's a good argument as to why America was not founded to be a "Christian nation."

Friday, October 23, 2015

DeForrest on Gordon Wood on Freemasonry and the American founding

Check out what Mark DeForrest wrote at The Reform Club here. A taste:
Wood addresses the question in the first part of his book [Empire of Liberty (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)], proposing that Masonry played a dual role as a source of unity in America and as a new religion designed to replace Christianity for those skeptical of Christianity's claims. His take on Masonry is set out on page 51 of the book:
Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for enlightened men suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; with the Revolution, it became a republican one as well. As George Washington said, it was "a lodge for the virtues." As Masonic lodges had always been places where men who differed in everyday affairs -- politically, socially, even religiously -- could "all meet amicably, and converse sociably together." There in the lodges, the Masons told themselves, "we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection." Masonry had always sought unity and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. It traditionally had prided itself on being, as one Mason put it, "the Center of Union and the means of conciliating friendship among men that might otherwise have remained at perpetual distance."

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Gary Scott Smith: "A nation on a hill?"

From the Christian History Institute here. A taste:
When the colonies came together as the United States, the new nation broke with this 1,450-year practice of religious establishment. Not having a king was radical enough, but even more radical was the new nation’s decision not to establish a national church. The First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1789 and ratified in 1791, prohibited Congress from establishing a church and from preventing citizens from worshiping as they pleased.
The decision frightened many. Western societies had long assumed that most residents would act morally only if they were compelled to participate regularly in the church; Thomas Jefferson disagreed, calling America’s arrangement “the fair experiment.” Prominent nineteenth-century jurist Dudley Field called America’s separation of church and state the world’s “greatest achievement . . . in the cause of human progress.”
The founding fathers adopted this arrangement for several reasons. For one thing, they knew that the experiment had already been tried for over a century, and it had not led to the moral collapse many feared. The exiled Roger Williams had permitted freedom of worship in the colony of Rhode Island, which he founded in 1636. So did Quaker William Penn in Pennsylvania, which he established in 1681. And these colonies were thriving.
Moreover, the founders’ Enlightenment convictions led them to make several arguments on behalf of religious liberty. ...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fea: "John Oliver Tackles Fake Founders' Quotes"

Watch Oliver do so at John Fea's blog here.

New Responses to Eric Nelson's "Royalist Revolution"

Here is Eric Nelson's book. Here is a piece by Yoni Appelbaum at The Atlantic. And here is something from The Originalism Blog which links to Tara Helfman's Harvard Law Review article and Dr. Nelson's response on the matter.

The conversation makes one reflect on the transformation of "monarchy" to "democratic-republic" or "liberal democracy" or whatever we term not just America but Great Britain and the rest of the "democratic" world.

Great Britain and other Western European nations presently still have monarchies (and state established churches). We understand their power now is "titular."

But King George III as a monarch wasn't quite the absolutist that monarchs of years past were. At that time the monarchy was more like the Presidency in terms of how it could exercise power. (That's Nelson's thesis.) 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Marginal Revolution: "Thomas Merrill on David Hume’s coalition"

From Tyler Cowen here.

A taste:
American University professor Thomas Merrill writes:
Hume’s message to the “honest gentlemen” is therefore something like this: “you may not understand this curious character the philosopher; you may think him flaky and unhinged; but if you care about establishing a regime dedicated to individual liberty, you need him around. You need not model your life on his; in fact it is better if you do not. But you need to tolerate him and even be open to being guided by him. Especially do you need to heed his negative message of calling into question the political claims advanced by the various forms of superstition on the basis of alleged insights into the ‘original and ultimate principle.’ Think of the philosopher as you might a garbage man: you might not want to do the job yourself, but it is very useful to society that someone does it.”
That is from Merrill’s Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment,...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

AU Interview with Bruce Prescot

I found this interesting. A taste:
Q. You are a Southern Baptist min­ister who now calls himself a “post-denominational Christian.” What specifically about your faith led you to take this case on?
Prescott: I call myself a “post-denominational Christian” because today differences between denominations are insignificant in comparison to the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians within each denomination. In Baptist life only a remnant remain advocates for separation of religion and government. On this issue, I find that I have more in common with progressive-minded people of other denominations, other faiths and people of no faith than I do with most contemporary Baptists.
Few people today know that the earliest Baptists were some of the foremost champions of separation of church and state. Those Baptists championed liberty of conscience, and by that they meant the universal right to self-determination in matters of religious belief and worship. They held that decisions regarding religious life and eternal destiny are intensely personal and require a conscientious commitment by a mature individual. Convictions so central to the integrity of personality and character could not be delegated to others — least of all to the government. In their eyes, genuine faith could not be coerced or handed down like an heirloom. That led them to become advocates for religious liberty for everyone — including pagans, atheists, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths.
I share these convictions of the early Baptists. That is why I opposed placing the Ten Commandments mon­ument at the state capitol in Oklahoma. In that location, the monument symbolizes a union of church and state that is detrimental to both. In effect, it serves notice that the government endorses a certain stream of religion and treats its adherents preferentially. It gives the appearance that persons of no faith and people of other faiths are second-class citizens.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Forte on the Role of Religious Speech in a Republic

From David Forte. Check it out here. A taste:
The words “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” are not mere “ceremonial deism.” This phrase was made up by Eugene Rostow in 1962 when he was dean of Yale Law School, and used calculatingly and wrongly by Justice Brennan in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) to claim that these references to God “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

As Professor Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago Law School noted, “‘Ceremonial Deism’ is an odd name for a ritual affirmation that a Deist would be very reluctant to endorse, since Deists think of God as a rational causal principle but not as a personal judge and father.”
True, but two points. One is the understanding of "Deism" being offered here is that of the impersonal God of "strict Deism." Arguably there are other viable definitions of the term. However to many very learned folks in today's scholarly discourse (such as Nussbaum and Forte) that's what the term has come to mean.

Second, if you look at the utterances from the Founding era that Forte offers to support the claim, they are all, we could say, generically monotheistic: James Madison's "Governor of the Universe"; Thomas Jefferson's liberty securing, gifting "God" of justice; the "Creator" of the Declaration of Independence who endowed men with "unalienable rights"; and George Washington's "Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."

None of these is necessarily the Triune God of orthodox Christianity.  If you read Forte's article in detail, you see he attempts to answer a question posed by Justice Kagan that basically asked (my words, not hers) "what if this Court endorsed Christianity?" It doesn't but it does endorse generic God belief.

"Ceremonial Deism" is a word off putting to many of those who like terms like "so help me God" and "God save ... this Honorable Court."

What about "generic monotheism"?