Skip to comments.Republicanism and Religion
Posted on 10/07/2003 2:19:34 PM PDT by Vindiciae Contra TyrannoSCOTUS
Despite the Enlightenments concerted project of doing away with the Bible as the basis of political and social order in favor of Reason (Robert C. Bartlett, JOP 63, Feb. 2001, pp.1ff), religion continues to condition politics as an undergirding belief foundation: Men always have God or idols, as Luther said. Our present war on terrorism with its religious dimensions apparent to even the most blinkered secularist is evidence on the point. This phenomenon can be seen in the context of a global revival of traditional religiosity, including Christianity, as a major event of the present sometimes called "the revenge of God" by such scholars as Gilles Kepel, Philip Jenkins, and Samuel Huntington.
Leaving aside the radical Islamists and the contemporary revivals of Christianity and Hinduism for the present occasion, the principal intellectual fruit of Enlightenment rationalisms systematic deformation of reality through rejection of transcendent divine reality was the ascendancy of the reductionist ideologies. These are largely comprehensible as forms of intramundane political religions immanentizing various aspects of the Christian faith so as to form such familiar constructs as Progressivism, Utopianism, Positivism, and Marxian revolutionary activism. These artifacts of the modern egophanic revolt culminate in the radical humanism that proclaims Autonomous Man as the god-men of this or that description and in the totalitarian killers of recent memory. They can be understood partly as manifestations of the recrudescence of apocalypticism and the ancient religiosity called Gnosticism which seeks to replace faith with the certitude of conviction. Eric Voegelins more intricate analysis (New Science of Politics, Chap. 4, Chicago, 1952) was long preceded by that of acute observers of the French Revolution and rise of the Religion of Reason including Edmund Burke (Letters on a Regicide Peace, 1796) and Alexis de Tocqueville, who is especially clear on the point: this civilizational upheaval was a religious movement clothing murderous zealotry and enthusiasm in the serene mantle of instrumental reason and republicanism. Tocqueville saw that its ideal "was not merely a change in the French social system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race. It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and...assumed all the aspects of a religious revival.... It would perhaps be truer to say that it developed into a species of religion, if a singularly imperfect one, since it was without God, without a ritual or promise of a future life. Nevertheless, this strange religion has, like Islam, overrun the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs." (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution [4th ed., 1858], trans. Stuart Gilbert, Anchor Books, 1955, p. 13f.)
Since our primary interest today is in the American experience, let me also remember Tocquevilles stress of the fact that the men and women who colonized America "brought...a Christianity which I can only describe as democratic and republican.... There is not a single religious doctrine hostile to democratic and republican institutions.... It was religion that gave birth to...America. One must never forget that." (DA, ed, Mayer, 1:46f, 288ff; 2:432) How, then, can the religious dimension of modern republicanism best be understood against the backdrop of larger political developments just mentioned? The answer is not simple, and I can attempt only a few suggestions and hints. In giving them I am reminded that, if war is too important to be left to the generals, then history is surely too important to be left to the historiansnot to mention political scientists, many of whom blithely write as though the Enlightenment dogma of their own complacent persuasion has rightly ruled for the past 300 years and never mention except disparagingly religion as having much to do with the rise of modern democratic republicanism! As Perry Miller remarked a generation ago when confronting an attitude he labeled "obtuse secularism" in accounts of the American experience, "A cool rationalism such as Jeffersons might have declared the independence of [Americans in 1776], but it could never have persuaded them to fight for it." There is more to reality and politics, dear Horatio, than your philosophy has dreamt of.
What then? The tangle is dense and the terminology ambiguous at best. Advocates of republicanism in the Anglo-American Whig tradition (to be firmly distinguished from French Jacobinism) assert liberty and justice in resistance against tyranny and arbitrary government and do so in the name of highest truth. In varying degrees they apply Gospel principles to politics: the state was made for man, not men for the state. The imperfect, flawed, sinful being Man, for all his inability, yet remains capable with the aid of divine grace of self-governmenti.e., of living decent lives as individuals; through understanding and free will able to respond to grace and to accept the terms of eternal salvation; and capable with Providential guidance of self-government in both temporal and ecclesiastical affairs in regimes based on consent and churches organized congregationally.
This characteristic attitude has a religious and specifically Protestant Christian root in the conviction that evil in the world must be combated by free men out of the resources of pure conscience, true religion, and reformed institutions of power and authority. The fundamental virtue basic to all others is godliness; and the fundamental source of revealed truth is the Bibleto remember John Milton and the 17th century English experience.
Favored institutional arrangements drew from classical sources, to be sure perhaps from Aristotles description of the mixed regime in Politics even more than from Polybiusbut they drew also from the republic of the Israelites and the rule of seventy Elders recounted in the Old Testament (Numbers 11:17, Deut. 16:18). The mixed constitution delineated by Aristotle is extolled by Thomas Aquinas, in whom Lord Acton finds "the earliest exposition of Whig theory," (Acton, History of Liberty, ed. R. Fears, Liberty Fund edn., N.D., 1:34) and, finding it like the ancient "Gothick polity", also was favored by Algernon Sidney (Discourses, ed. T. West, LF edn., p.166f). English republicanisms brief career followed the Puritan Revolution, civil war, deposition and execution of Charles I for tyranny when England was declared to be "a Commonwealth or Free-State." Oliver Cromwell sought to fill the void left by the regicide with new governing institutions. He saw the situation under Charles I as analogous to the Israelites bondage in Egypt and himself as a latter-day Moses leading a confused and recalcitrant people through the Red Sea into a promised liberty Christ would show them. The failed experiment ended after a decade with the Stuart Restoration; and English republicanism itself is said to have died on the scaffold with Algernon Sidney in 1683only to be resurrected and transformed in America a century afterward. All the old arguments and imagery then were reasserted and fervid sentiments echoed John Miltons convictions that the "whole freedom of man consists in spiritual or civil libertie." "Who can be at rest, who can enjoy any thing in this world with contentment, who hath not libertie to serve God and to save his own soul, according to the best light which God hath planted in him to that purpose, by the reading of his revealed will [in scripture] and the guidance of his holy spirit?" (J. Malcolm, ed., Struggle for Sovereignty, LF, 1999, 1:520.) Political and religious liberty were all of a piece, as Edmund Burke and John Witherspoon stressed a century later, again evoking the Good Old Cause. As the latter said: "There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage. (Witherspoon, Dominion of Providence, 1776, in E. Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons, LF, 1991, p. 549.) No impiety prompted Bishop James Madison occasionally to pray the Lords Prayer using the words "Thy republic come"! Nor did he or the other American Patriots ignore the prayers next clause, lying as it did at the heart of their republicanism: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
That multiple pre-modern sources of political culture were complexly woven into foundation of the American representative republics as the most eligible form of government (even if we call it democracy today) is, of course, beyond doubtmost especially common-law constitutionalism and the Greek and Latin classics, among other neglected sources. But the importance of Bible-reading and the spiritual grounding nurtured by it can scarcely be over-rated. From this perspective it is not the institutional forms that are decisive (if they ever are), and like many before him James Madison regarded them as "auxiliary precautions" of consequence. Decisive from antiquity onward is dedication to salus populi as supreme law and as the requisite animating spirit of the political community and the persons invested with authority. These fundamental matters of community and homonoia can be glimpsed in Federalist No. 2. The imagined hostility between liberal individualism and republican communitarianism can be overdrawn and distorted. At the bottom of republicanism lies a philosophical anthropology of the kind I have incompletely limned, one that exists solely in the hearts and minds of individuals. That anthropology is largely grounded in biblical faith as disclosing hegemonic reality, with its appeal to transcendent truth and eternal Beatitude as humankinds summum bonum and ultimate destiny.
In sum, the principal religious springs of republican politics are: a paradoxical sense of the dignity yet frailty of every human being as potentially imago Dei; individual and political liberty fostered through a rule of law grounded in "the nature and being of man" as "the gift of God and nature" (Sidney, p. 510); government and laws based on consent of the community; and above all resistance to tyranny whether ecclesiastical or political in the name of truth, justice, and righteousness. These key elements were directly and essentially fostered by the prevalent ("dissenting" Burke called it) Christianity of the late 18th century and by a citizenry schooled in them by devoted Bible reading and by the pulpit.
It is worth lingering over the last point as George Trevelyan memorably makes it (History of England, Longmans, 1926, p. 367): "The effect of the continual domestic study of the book upon the national character, imagination and intelligence for nearly three centuries to come [after 1611] was greater than that of any literary movement in our annals, or any religious movement since the coming of St. Augustine....The Bible in English history may be regarded as a Renaissance of Hebrew literature far more widespread and more potent than even the Classical Renaissance which...provided the mental background of the better educated." The path to that stage of liberty was never smooth. Indeed, the rise of Whig liberty, the freedom we cherish, was in no small degree bound up with the efforts of early religious reformers, notably John Wyclif and William Tyndale, to make the text of the Bible available in Englishan eminently democratizing effort expanding the much earlier principle announced in the York Tractates (Anglo-Norman Anonymous c. l100) of the priesthood of all baptized believers (1 Peter 2:9). Such translation into English was despised and derided as heretics spreading pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). Possession of such a Bible was a capital crime after 1401, one harshly punished (as were the translators themselves) by condemnation, excommunication, and burning. Nor should I fail to mention the inordinate importance of Christian egalitarianism in the church-society symbolized by each members equal participation in the one Body of Christ whatever their station or status especially as affirmed in Pauls First Letter to the Corinthians, 12:12. The symbolism already was powerfully deployed in theorizing civil liberty and political order by such major figures as John of Salisbury (d. 1180) and Sir John Fortescue (d. ca. 1479) in their respective contexts. It found new political importance as devotion to hierarchy waned and egalitarianism flourished. Moses was a foundling, David a shepherd boy, the Savior incarnate as a simple carpenter, and His apostles fishermen. Madisons and Jeffersons fiery Baptist constituent the Elder John Leland dismissed the notion that the ordinary man is incapable of judging for himself and asked: "Did many of the rulers believe in Christ when he was upon the earth? Were not the learned clergy (the scribes) his most inveterate enemies? Do not great men differ as much as little men in judgment?... Is the Bible written (like Caligulas laws) so intricate and high, that none but the ... learned ...can read it? Is not the vision written so plain that he that runs may read it?" (Leland, Rights of Conscience Inalienable 1791, in Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons, p. 1090.)
Did the alliance of pulpit and republican politics persist throughout the revolutionary and early national periods or did devotion wane? This is a factual question hotly debated among students of these periods. (See, e.g., J. H. Hutson, ed., Religion and the New Republic, Rowman, 2000.) While the matter cannot be settled here, I think religion remained a formidable factor, one undiminished throughout the periods mentioned. The momentum of revival and spiritual vitality that reshaped America itself beginning with the Great Awakening of 1739 onward, identified especially with John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, continued in a dynamic of ebb and flow into the later period of the Founding. The Revolution itself was preached as a revival and had the astonishing result of succeeding, Perry Miller long ago remarked, and I think he was right. Congress declared at least sixteen national days of prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving between 1776 and 1783; and Presidents Washington and Adams continued the practice under the Constitution. The onset of the so-called Second Awakening is dated from 1790, but in fact seems to have begun earlier. New Side and New Light itinerant preaching stirring personal spiritual experience continued throughout the period, and the political sermons were extraordinary in power and content. Religious services were regularly held in the newly completed Capitol building itself in Washington, in the House and Senate chambers as these became available, and President Jefferson and his cabinet attended, along with the members of Congress and their families, a practice that continued until after the Civil War. The United States Marine Corps band supplied the music for holy service at Jeffersons instigation, we are told. One authority recently concluded that actually there was a Revolutionary revival: "Far from suffering decline, religion experienced vigorous growth and luxuriant development during the Revolutionary period. In a host of ways, both practical and intellectual, the church served as a school for politics." (S. Marini, "Religion, Politics and Ratification" (1994) quoted in E. Sandoz, The Politics of Truth, Missouri, 1999, p. 52.)
Swarms of witnesses might be called in support of the present line of argument, but I mention only three. Thomas Paine in Common Sense (1776) argued the biblical foundations of republican liberty. Thus he wrote: "Near three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government...was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts." (Common Sense...and other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Sidney Hook, NAL, 1969, p. 30.) Benjamin Rush, signatory of the Declaration of Independence, fervently urged in 1786 the schools of Pennsylvania to adopt the Bible as the basic textbook, writing: "The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.... The religion I mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST.... A Christian cannot fail of being a republican." (Quoted from E. Sandoz, A Government of Laws, 2d edn., Missouri, 2001, p. 132.) Lastly we hear the aged John Adams, in his marvelous correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, identifying the two principal springs of their original revolutionary republicanism as Whig Liberty and Christianity. Adams movingly wrote (1813): "Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the existence and attributes of God; and those Principles of Liberty are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System." (Quoted from E. Sandoz, The Politics of Truth, Missouri, 1999, p. 68.)
Conclusion: Girolamo Savonarola and his community re-established the Florentine republic as a "civil and political government," one observed by Machiavelli (D. Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence, Princeton, 1970, p. 308), who partly gained his immortality as theorist of classical republicanism. For his trouble Fra Giralamo and two principal associates were excommunicated and burnt together as heretics in 1498 in the central marketplace of the city where a plaque in the pavement still marks the spot. He was graciously spared the worst torments of this horrendous death by first being strangled, since he was an old friend of Pope Alexander VI, and friends in high places should count for something. In the history of republicanism the Machiavellian Moment might with equal warrant be known as the Savonarolan Moment: modern free popular republican government was off to its rocky start after a scant four years of existence. Savonarolas was preached as a republic of virtue and godliness, one thirsting for revival and aimed at purifying and reforming not only corruption in the church but the evil world itselfthe beginning of an eschatological and holy sacrum imperium with Florence the New Jerusalem of a chosen people, an Elect protected by the Holy Ghost, apocalyptically envisaged as perhaps leading mankinds transition into the Millennium and the final Eighth Day of eternal Sabbath ending history.
American republicanism, in contrast, redefined the meaning of the concept itself. As it came from the hands of the Founders in 1787 and 1791, it took on sobriety and a substantially different aspect: It retained covenantal form as a compound mixed republic, one federally organized, but it became emphatically a republic for sinnersat best hopeful of salvation through faith and divine gracerather than only for the virtuous or perfect (cf. Federalist No. 39, 47-51.). Our statesmen were realists who relied on experience, who understood something about the history of the sophisticated political order to which they were heirs. While they relied on Aristotle and cited Montesquieu, they understood with St. Paul that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and with the Judicious Richard Hooker that laws can rightly be made only by assuming men to be hardly better than beastseven though they are created little lower than the angels and loved of God their Creator. Thus, among other things, the Framers banked the fires of zealotry and political millenarianism in favor of a quasi-Augustinian understanding of the two cities. They humbly bowed before the inscrutable mystery of the human condition with all its suffering and imperfection and accepted watchful waiting for fulfillment of a Providential destiny known only to Godwhose kingdom is not of this world. They embraced freedom of conscience as quintessential liberty for the citizenry. Like all of politics, their solution was a compromise offensive to utopians and flaming idealists. But this may be no detraction from their work, since despite all our national vicissitudes, we still today strive to keep our republicunder the worlds oldest existing Constitution. Nor ought we forget that a sound map of human nature lies at the heart of the Constitution: Since men are not angels and government is, indeed, the greatest of reflections on human nature, merely mortal magistrates, ever riven by superbia, must be artfully restrained by a vast net of adversarial devices if a government of laws is to have any chance of prevailing over human passion. To attain this noble purpose, it was daringly thought, perhaps ambition could effectively counteract ambition and, as one more felix culpa, therewith supply the defect of better motivesmost dramatically through the operations of the central mechanism of checks and balances that displays the genius of our Constitution and serves as the hallmark of the American republican experiment itself.
Nagging questions remain: Can a political order ultimately grounded in mans transcendent relationship to divine Being, memorably proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and solidly undergirded by biblical revelation and philosophy, indefinitely endureresilient though it may bein the face of nihilistic assault of this vital spiritual tension by every means, including by the institutions of liberty themselves? Perhaps these are only growing pains that afflict us. But as we observe the evident intellectual, moral, religious, and social unraveling of the republic, we test our faith that the truth shall prevail and look for hopeful signs on the horizon. We also remember that both faith and philosophy have ever been nurtured by resolute individual resistance to corruption in the saving remnant.
Most of Leff's lecture consisted of a review of all the unsuccessful attempts to establish an objective moral order on a foundation of human construction, i.e., to put something else in God's place as the unevaluated evaluator. The asserted non-supernatural sources of moral authority are many and varied, and each is only temporarily convincing. They include: the command of the sovereign; the majority of the voters; the principle of utility; the Supreme Court's varying interpretations of the Constitution's great but ambiguous phrases; the subtle implications of platitudinous shared values like "equality" or "autonomy"; and even a hypothetical social contract that abstract persons might adopt in the imaginary "original position" described by John Rawls. Every alternative rests ultimately on human authority, because that is what remains when God is removed from the picture. But human authority always becomes inadequate as soon as people learn to challenge its pretensions. Every system fails the test of "the grand sez who."
Leff's lecture made a powerful impression upon a generation of legal scholars because he stated the nature of the impasse so convincingly. Most modernist thinking consists of attempts to evade the impasse with superficial resolutions. Scientific socialism can usher in a secularized Kingdom of Heaven by giving economic power to the proletariat. Criminal tendencies in individuals can be greatly reduced by providing education, psychiatric treatment, and economic opportunity. Public education can produce rational, self-controlled citizens, who can govern themselves through liberal political institutions and free markets. Scientific technology can provide abundance and health, and even eventually improve the human species itself by genetic engineering. Above all, we can still know what the good is, however difficult it may be to achieve it. Modernist philosophy teaches that when we lost God, we lost only a projection of the best that was in ourselves; what was real in that projection therefore remains, and only the illusion is gone.
Arthur Leff had a deeper understanding of what the death of God ultimately means for man. He saw modern intellectual history as a long, losing war against the nihilism implicit in modernism's rejection of the unevaluated evaluator who is the only conceivable source for ultimate premises. Leff rejected the nihilism implicit in modernism, but he also rejected the supernaturalism that he had identified as the only escape from nihilism. Here is how he concluded his 1979 lecture:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves, and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us "good," and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
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No. The ACLU says the First Amendment protects their right (( atheism )) to free speech, which the Second does not protect your right to keep and bear arms.
I was going to say they don't understand the concept that the militia is made up of the very people referenced in the text of the amendment. But they do get this, and very well. They simply know that when the people are completely disarmed, there is no impediment to the ... ACLU becoming --- a latter-day Politburo.
I'm telling you, gather weapons and ammo now while you still can.
50 posted on 03/28/2002 4:02 PM PST by Euro-American Scum fC ...
Here's the ... solution !
Not to be a blacklister, but if you read the Qu'ran, you might be inclined to think differently.
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