Archive | political philosophy RSS feed for this section

Is America beginning to operate under the “image of liberty”?

29 Sep

From Steven Smith:

As the celebration of Constitution Day attests, Americans still honor our Constitution. But is it alive and well and with us still, actively guiding our decisions and shaping our law? Or is it something that we gratefully acknowledge for its historical significance but then ignore—like the Mayflower Compact, for instance, or maybe the Magna Carta?

It is surely true that we continue to invoke and talk about the Constitution as ifit were our currently governing law. And at least some of what happens in modern governance does seem to conform to what the document prescribes. For example, every state is still represented in Congress by two senators, even though some people think it is unfair that Wyoming and Nevada get as much representation in the Senate as New York and California do. Those senators are directly elected by the people, which is not what the original Constitution provided, but that change was formally and explicitly authorized by the adoption, in the constitutionally prescribed manner, of the Seventeenth Amendment. So, in this case, we seem to be adhering to the Constitution in a plausible, straightforward sense.

In other areas, though, our laws seem only distantly related to, or even incompatible with, what the Constitution prescribes. In these areas, the Constitution exercises a kind of ceremonial or perhaps diversionary function; it provides a venerable facade that covers or disguises the real workings of government. This sort of situation is hardly without precedent; a look back at the disintegration of republicanism in the Roman Empire yields important lessons for contemporary American government.

Read the rest

How comprehensive does God intend gender complementarity to be? Cherney: “Are Women Real?”

16 Sep

Most evangelicals are gender complementarians (equal but different). But some limit that complementarity to the church and home. But how comprehensive does God intend gender complimentarity to be? Thorny issue on which reasonable Christians disagree. Here is one take.

“From Lily Cherney (Are Women Real?):

Growing up as a secular person, as a materialist, I didn’t have any category in my world for the existence of real categories, of “natures.” All was one, or all was bits and pieces, or whatever—it was all just matter in motion. The idea that there is some real thing called human nature, and moreover that it gets even more complicated than that and there is a feminine nature and a masculine nature—those were supernatural ideas, as floridly and extravagantly supernatural as unicorns or resurrections or Narnia. That they also, strangely, matched my actual experience of the world more accurately than the materialist story—that they seemed to come with better evidence—was… spooky.”

Read it all

Nietzche’s restless heart, and ours

15 Sep

From RR Reno (clip):

Nietzsche’s almost unwilling final affirmation of the ascetic impulse echoes St. Augustine’s basic insight into the human condition. Our hearts are restless. The human animal wishes to give itself to something higher. It is a need more basic than our instinctual urges. It is a nature more fundamental than everything our age wishes us to affirm as natural.

Our restless hearts suggest that the real dangers of the present age are not to be found in an open-ended, nihilistic non-judgmentalism that encourages us to imagine our world devoid of compelling truths. Such possibilities are abroad, but, as anyone who has been exposed to our educational establishment knows, it requires the constant infusion of disciplinary energy to keep young people from actually believing something.

Instead, if Nietzsche is right, the danger we face may be idolatry. Deprived of a God worth worshiping, we will find substitutes, even to the point of ­prostrating ourselves before birds or animals or reptiles that our modern minds have transformed from graven images into shrill moral imperatives and brittle political causes.

The last century’s graveyards testify to the reality of this danger. Turned away from something truly greater than ourselves, we do not come to rest in a modest ­loyalty to humanity. Instead, as Nietzsche’s and Augustine’s insights into the human condition warn us, we fall into a devotion to subhuman primal powers that reward our service with debasement.

The Secularization of the Christian Mind

3 Sep

An original goal among the secular social reformers of education was not only to provide public education (uniformity of method) but also secular education (uniformity of secular thought).  That is, they sought to capture the minds of the public school classroom to see to it that the next generation only thinks, explains, analyzes, critiques, understands using secular or naturalistic categories.  Most secular reformers were perfectly content to leave God on the walls of public school classrooms (10 commandments) so long as He was no longer the foundation of the public school classroom (the standard and foundation for knowledge).  I’ve noticed this among students today, even Christian students.  They are thoroughly socialized and secularized to explain all things in the world by interpreting them through purely secular or naturalistic grid.  This is what Nietzsche meant by God is Dead.  Not that no one believes in Him, but that modern man no longer uses Him (revelation) to make the world intelligible any more.

Consider Political Theory.  If you ask students where government gets its power or where government comes from, you will see the evidence of secularization even among the Christians. If they provide any answer at all it will likely be a secular theory of government, not a Christian one.

Theologian Robert Lewis Dabney in presenting the Christian view of human government could not be accused of being unfamiliar with the secular view.

Dabney on the Civil Magistrate:

According to Enlightenment philosophers, “one traces [the powers of the civil magistrate] to a supposed social contract. Men are to be at first apprehended, they say, as insulated individuals, separate human integers, all naturally equal, and each by nature absolutely free, having a natural liberty to exercise his whole will, as a “Lord of Creation.” But the experience of the exposure, inconveniences, and mutual violences of so many independent wills, led them, in time, to be willing to surrender a part of their independence, in order to secure the enjoyment of the rest of their rights. To do this, they are supposed to have conferred, and to have entered into a compact with each other, binding themselves to each other to submit to certain rules and restraints upon their natural rights, and to obey certain ones selected to rule, in order that the power thus delegated to their hands might be used for the protection of the remaining rights of all. Subsequent citizens have given an assent, express or implied, to this compact. The terms of it form the organic law, or constitution of the commonwealth. And the reason why men are bound to obey the legitimate commands of the magistrate is, that they have thus bargained with their fellow-citizens to obey, for the sake of mutual benefits…
The other theory may be called the Christian. It traces civil government to the will and providence of God, who, from the first, created man with social instincts and placed him under social relations (when men were few, the patriarchical, as they increased, the commonwealth). It teaches that some form of social government is as original as man himself. If asked, whence the obligation to obey the civil magistrate, it answers: from the will of God, which is the great source of all obligation. The fact that such obedience is greatly promotive of human convenience, well-being and order, confirms and illustrates the obligation, but did not originate it. Hence, civil government is an ordinance of God; magistrates rule by His providence and by His command, and are His agents and ministers. Obedience to them, in the Lord, is a religious duty, and rebellion against them is not only injustice to our fellow-men, but disobedience to God. This is the theory plainly asserted by Paul in Roman 13, 1 Peter 2…. [However] while we emphatically ascribe the fact of civil government and obligation to obey it, to the will of God, we also assert that in the secondary sense, the government is, potentially, the people. The original source of power, the authority and the obligation to obey it, is God, the human source is not an irresponsible Ruler, but the body of the ruled themselves, that is, the sovereignty, so far as it is human, resides in the people, and is held by the rulers, by delegation from them…
[The secular social contract theory] is atheistic, utterly ignoring man’s relation to his Creator, the right of that Creator to determine under what obligations man shall live; and the great Bible fact, that God has determined he shall live under civic obligations.

From his Systematic Theology (pp. 862-866)

Progressive, Conservative, and Neo-Conservative interpretations of the Declaration of Independence

2 Sep

From Bruce Frohen:

Russell Kirk at his typewriter.

American conservatives must constantly confront the myth that our nation was founded on the basis of a radical ideology, creating the world’s “first new nation.” As with most myths, there is a smattering of truth to the view that the American Revolution was a full-fledged “revolution” in the sense of overturning the old order. The Framers of our Constitution themselves spoke in terms of establishing a “new order of the ages” as stated on the back of the Great Seal of the United States (in Latin, of course—after all, the new order was not yet the uneducated order). More important than the rhetoric, there were certain clearly “new” aspects to the revolution and subsequent Constitution—principally the firm grounding of political legitimacy on the consent of the governed. The theory of consent, as has been shown by historian Brian Tierney, actually goes back to the Christian Middle Ages. But the United States was rare for its era in being a country of substantial size and population founded without recourse to some inherited set of rulers.

Alas, the “modernity” of our revolution has caused some Christian thinkers in particular to question its very legitimacy, deeming it too rooted in individualism, materialism, and a subjective understanding of the good as what happens to satisfy people’s desires of the moment. But there has been another side to this debate. A number of historians have pointed to the influence of conservatives in the American founding era. I am not referring, here, to historians like Russell Kirk who took an explicitly conservative view of the era, emphasizing the contrast between the American Revolution, which brought independence from Great Britain but no great social upheaval or radical changes to our form of government, with the utopian and extremely bloody French Revolution that sought to make society and human nature anew. I refer instead to a varied group of liberal historians who emphasize the caution of at least some American founders, who as it were “hit the brakes” to slow down what might have become a more truly revolutionary movement, perhaps bringing a form of Jacobinism to America before it infected France.

Perhaps conservatives are expected to be grateful to be mentioned at all in relation to the founding era. After all, most historians seem oblivious to their existence. But the dominant historical view of “conservative” founders such as John Dickinson, Gouvernor Morris, and others, makes of them something far less than important thinkers or, in the end, conservatives in any meaningful sense. Essentially, contemporary historians read into the founding era their prejudices about conservatives and conservatism, which is to say, they see both as lacking in serious thought.

Some of these historians, such as Gordon Wood, have decried the conservative tendencies of important revolutionary figures, who in his view turned back the egalitarian republicanism of the revolution in defense of their own power, wealth, and status. Others, including David Lefer, have sought to present figures like John Dickinson as steadying, prudent statesmen who did the nation and the cause of freedom a service by seeing that it did not move too quickly and spin out of control. What each holds in common is a thin view of conservatism according to which that body of thought has no real principles or content, but rather is summed up as a disposition to move slowly in whatever direction events (or liberals) are pushing it.

There is a false choice presented to most students of American history, between reading the American Revolution as a radical event, with all good Americans on the side of progress toward ever greater individual liberty and equality, and rejection of that revolution (and, seemingly, the entire “project” of American self-government) for the same reasons. The notion of conservatives as stand-patters (to use Clinton Rossiter’s somewhat patronizing phrase) opposed to swift change of any kind may make of those conservatives something almost heroic (Lefer) if intrinsically quite limited, or something almost demonic (Wood). But such a view does nothing to change the fundamentally liberal interpretation of America as, from its immaculate conception in the minds of a few philosophically adept statesmen, liberal. Utterly absent from any of these narratives is the possibility of an American conservatism. For how can one “conserve” an intrinsically liberal project other than as a mere, semimindless “stand-patter?”

Read the rest

What of a society as “sexless as the bees”?

24 Aug

From Dr. Susan Hanssen

Alexis de Tocqueville called “the strength of American women” the great secret of the strength of the American republic. Likewise, strong women were the backbone of the Adams family and its contribution to the political integrity of the American republic.

The letters of John and Abigail Adams were first published by their grandson, Charles Francis Adams (President Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain). The diaries and letters of John Quincy Adams’s wife, Louisa, have just been published this year, a project explored by their grandson, Henry Adams. Henry Adams—who called Tocqueville’s Democracy in America the “bible of my own private religion”—worried that American men and women were losing their appreciation for the complementary strengths and gifts of men and women. He thought the best remedy was to hold up for Americans the image of his grandmother.

Part of the charm of John and Abigail Adams’s letters (which are frequently addressed with terms such as “Dear Miss Adorable” and “My Dearest Friend”) is the way that the two weave a life-long conversation about universal human virtue into their ongoing inquiry into their complementary contributions to mothering and fathering their “little flock” of children. Louisa Adams had a hard act to follow in such a renowned mother-in-law, but her journals reveal a woman of profound reflection—on the meaning of piety (filial, patriotic, and religious) and her role as daughter, wife, and mother.

The Only Perfectly Balanced Mind in the Adams Family

Louisa Adams is the only American First Lady to have been born in a foreign country. Her American parents were living in London when she was born, and during the Revolution she was educated in a French convent school. She married John Quincy Adams during his diplomatic work, and the two immediately set off for Prussia, where he was stationed. She had already endured a number of difficult miscarriages and given birth to her three sons—little George Washington, John II, and Charles Francis—before she made her first visit to her “native” land.

She was soon called on to leave her two oldest sons behind and accompany her husband to Russia with her youngest child. In Tsarist Russia, she endured a very personal “winter”: painfully separated from her older children, she lost her only infant daughter, received news of her own mother’s death, and had to travel alone from St. Petersburg to Paris in the midst of the Napoleonic wars.

Late in life, she bitterly reproached herself for having left her oldest sons behind while she accompanied her husband on his diplomatic mission to Russia. Both of those sons were deeply troubled youths, impregnating women before wedlock, and dying young from drink or suicide.

Only the son whom she had kept close to her carried on the family tradition of public service, political integrity, and a lifelong happy marriage with many children. In fact, his sons marveled at Charles Francis Adams as a man “singular for mental poise.” It seemed to them that it was the influence of his mother who had balanced the analytical tendencies of his father, which often led members of the Adams family to deep depression, bitterness, and drink. With a good dose of both mothering and fathering, he struck his sons as “the only perfectly balanced mind that ever existed in the name.”

Sexless as the Bees

When her grandson Henry Adams read Louisa’s diary, he was inspired to compare Russia to Woman, Woman to Russia—the two conservative forces at the beginning of the twentieth century. Russia acted as a conservative political force in Europe comparable to Woman as a conservative social force in America. Perhaps with the help of Russia the threat of an imperial Germany could be contained. Perhaps with the help of Woman the threat of a corroding materialism might be contained.

Each was powerful, but each powerfully directed its forces internally. Russia, he argued, had its axis of rotation around the Church and around agricultural production to feed its enormous population. It had not yet turned its forces toward industrialization and modernization. If Russia’s forces were ever to be ripped from its axis by, let’s say, an atheistic modernizing revolutionary regime, Adams wrote in 1905, it might destroy all of Europe.

But if Woman were to be torn from her axis of rotation around the cradle, it wouldn’t just destroy Europe—it could destroy human society. In his wide-ranging third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams observed:

The woman’s force had counted as inertia of rotation, and her axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family. The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a palæontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at; but it was surely true that, if her force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it. So far as she succeeded, she must become sexless like the bees, and must leave the old energy of inertia to carry on the race.

In this context of a Tocquevillean fear of whether Russian absolutism or American freedom would triumph in the coming century and whether the American triumph would indeed be a victory for liberty or for the incessant pursuit of petty and paltry pleasures that “enervate the soul and noiselessly unbend its springs of action,” Adams held up, at the beginning of The Education, the image of his grandmother.

Education by Grandmothers

Henry Adams recalled his grandmother as the very portrait of religious peace. She was “a peaceful vision of silver gray” presiding over her old president, her china tea set, and her box walks. She was refined, gentle, fragile, delicate, and remote. As a boy, Adams “knew nothing of her interior life” but he sensed that she was “exotic”—that she did not belong wholly to the political world of Boston, with its confidence that a political utopia could be achieved on earth.

After “being beaten about a stormy world” and enduring a life of “severe stress and little pure satisfaction,” it was clear that she placed her hopes in eternity. The political world believed that absolute democracy, state education, and total freedom of speech would usher in the end times of history. The political creed was that “Human nature works for the good and three instruments are all she asks—Suffrage, Common Schools, and the Press.” All doubts of this creed were political heresy.

From his grandmother, Henry Adams gleaned his sense that there were values beyond the negotiable values of politics. Without her, his education would have been all Mars and no Venus—a purely political education with no religion—all war and no contemplation of beauty, all work and no genuine leisure. In the “Boston” chapter of the Education, Adams wrote:

The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics, and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing. So one-sided an education could have been possible in no other country or time, but it became, almost of necessity, the more literary and political. As the children grew up, they exaggerated the literary and the political interests.

Without religion, the poetic imagination became utopian, and the political imagination became utilitarian. Americans worshipped “the Dynamo”—of the physical and mental energy of man—and were utterly lacking the cult of “the Virgin”—the contemplation of the laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and openness to the grace needed to fulfill them.

Louisa Adams always felt herself a fish out of water in a culture that gave more attention to the virtues of equality than to the virtues of piety and pity. She saw her role as wife and mother as that of an educator in the refined art of deference and condescension—the discernment and acknowledgment of realities of inequality, weakness, strength, power and infirmity, and a careful attunement to the unequal duties such differences gave rise to.

She considered a culture that saw nothing but equal duties, equal rights, and relations of convenience and mutual interest as a tyranny against her own nature. “My temper is so harassed and I am I fear so imbued with strange and singular opinions, and surrounded by persons with whom it is decidedly impossible for me to agree,” she exclaimed. “I feel that I have strange exaggerated ideas on most subjects which must be utterly incomprehensible but are utterly impossible for me to eradicate.”

One of her most ineradicable ideas was the sacredness of the bond between parents and children, the most palpable bond of piety and pity. She wrote:

It has been the fashion to say that as Children were not born to please themselves, no real ties bind them to their parents; and that blood relationship, should exact neither affection or gratitude—To my mind there is no truth whatever in such an assertion . . . From the moment of the birth, we incur a vast debt of gratitude which a life cannot repay

. . . There must be a great dereliction in that mind which could for a moment shrink from the acknowledgement of so vast a debt: founded in the weakest of all vanities, self idolatry!

Louisa Adams herself attributed the deepening of her sense of piety and pity to her experience of motherhood. She wrote that her religious opinions and sentiments had “‘grown with my growth, and strengthened with my strength’ though until I became a Mother; perhaps not properly weighed and considered; one more of precept, habit, and example than of meditated reflection.”

Adams worried that as Americans pursued a culture that was “sexless as the bees,” the complementarity that had produced the remarkable personal poise of his father—the balanced judgment, the eye for both contractual duties, and the more delicate bonds of affection—would be lost. To his mind, the proper education of the young American required both father and mother, grandfathers and grandmothers.

Susan Hanssen is an associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.

Copyright © 2015 The Witherspoon Institute, all rights reserved.

Does Christianity, particularly reformed theology, imply a kind of conservative social hierarchy or radical liberal democracy?

24 Jul

A subject of much interest to me.  Reformed folks like to credit Reformational theology with playing a major role in the rationale behind and formation of liberal democracy.  But how far?  Does it promote the great leveling revolutions (Rousseau thought it might) or is it more conservative than that (Burke thought it was).

Good exchange here on the subject:

Reformed Christian ethics has taken a social egalitarian turn. Recently, a few Reformed bloggers have criticized Christians for failing to support the “radical and inclusive social ethics” of the New Testament. Matthew Tuininga, in a couple interesting and well-written posts on the Presbyterian role in racial segregation (see here andhere),[1] has condemned the southern Presbyterians for their “communitarian” social ethics and spiritualized,”neo-platonic” understanding of the Gospel. For them, “the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression.” He writes,

I would submit that the real problem with the way in which southern Presbyterians used the doctrine of the spirituality of the church was not the insistence that the Church should only proclaim what God’s Word teaches. The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society. They did not have trouble admitting that the Old Testament did not say anything specifically about race because that was not the point. The point was that the Old Testament clearly justified an exclusive kind of politics, a politics that highlighted division over unity and judgment over grace.

Now, I do not dispute that the southern Presbyterians sinned in failing to see or act against the injustice of the South’s racial segregation, but I want to point out, however, that Southern Presbyterians were following a racialized (and unjust) version of the standard Christian (catholic) position on social hierarchy. The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy isnatural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

It is important to recognize that Tuininga’s argument does not merely condemn the racialized hierarchical system of the South, but also, and primarily, the idea of social hierarchy in general. In this, he joins Michael Walzer and Nichols Wolterstorff, who both argue not only that Calvinism was politically radical from the beginning and always has been, but also that it, given its theological principles, ought to be radical. Wolterstorff insists that Calvinism was and is a “world-formative” religion. [2]

This post provides evidence from major figures in the Christian tradition that social hierarchy (though not its racialized form) is a standard position in the Christian tradition. To be clear, I am not defending racial segregation or anything of that sort. I am simply pointing out that Tuininga’s rejection of social hierarchy and a “spiritualized” Gospel is a rejection of a standard position in the Christian tradition.

Read the rest

%d bloggers like this: