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“Leviathan by proxy,” how the size/power of the federal government expands without expanding

11 Feb


Professor John Dilulio explains how the federal government has expanded without expanding the size of its personnel.  That is, it has expanded its size and scope and power through proxies (non-profits, contractors, state/local agencies).  Doing this allows the supporters of centralization to mask the true extent of that centralization over time (the federal bureaucracy stays small but the number of federal proxies explode).  Here’s a podcast with Dilulio on that topic (based on his new book):

“The most important test of 2016 may be the Thomas Jefferson Primary”

6 Feb

Russell Moore on the centrality of religious liberty in the 2016 election for evangelicals:

the most important test of 2016 may be the Thomas Jefferson Primary —the race to see which candidates offer a clear, coherent vision of religious liberty when the very idea is contested in American politics.

Jefferson won over the Baptists and evangelicals without pretending to be one of them. After all, he was derided as an infidel by his critics. Jefferson and the Baptists came to religious liberty from two very different starting points. He based it on an Enlightenment understanding of natural rights. They based it on a gospel in which consciences must be free if they are to stand in judgment on the Last Day. The Founding-era evangelicals, such as fiery Virginia Baptist revivalist John Leland, didn’t care about motives, but about who would work to secure freedom. That’s a good model for the next election.

Read the whole column here

An atheist explains the different political theologies he sees in Christianity and Islam (does it explain violence and oppression?)

28 Jan

From Robert Tracinski in The Federalist:

The Charlie Hebdo massacre once again has politicians and the media dancing around the question of whether there might be something a little bit special about this one particular religion, Islam, that causes its adherents to go around killing people.

It is not considered acceptable in polite company to entertain this possibility. Instead, it is necessary to insist, as a New York Times article does, that “Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions.” This, mind you, was in an article on how Muslims in the Middle East are agonizing over the violent legacy of their religion.

It is obviously true that all major religions have had violent periods, or periods in which the religion has coexisted with violence. Even those mellow pacifist Buddhists. These days, especially the Buddhists, who are currently fomenting a pogrom against a Muslim minority in Burma.

But in today’s context, it’s absurd to equate Islam and Christianity. Pointing to the Spanish Inquisition tends to undermine the point rather than confirm it: if you have to look back three hundred years to find atrocities, it’s because there are so few of them today. The mass crimes committed under the name of Islam, by contrast, are fresh and openly boasted about.

As an atheist, I have no god in this fight, so to speak. I don’t think the differences between religions make one more valid than another. But as the Charlie Hedbo attack reminds us, there is a big practical difference between them. In fact, the best argument against the equivalence of Christianity and Islam is that no one acts even remotely as if this were true. We feel free to criticize and offend Christians without a second thought—thanks, guys, for being so cool about that—but antagonizing Muslims takes courage. More courage than a lot of secular types in the West can usually muster.

So it’s a matter of some practical urgency to figure out: what is the difference? What are its root causes?

As I see it, the main danger posed by any religion to its dissenters and unbelievers lies in the rejection of reason, which cuts off the possibility of discussion and debate, leaving coercion as an acceptable substitute. I’m with Voltaire on that one: “If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities.” But all religions are different and have different doctrines which are shaped over their history—and as we shall see, that includes different views on precisely such core issues as the role of reason and persuasion.

I should preface this by saying that I am no expert on theology, particularly Muslim theology. Yet there are a number of big, widely documented differences between Christianity and Islam that can be seen in the traditions established by their history and in the actual content of their religious doctrines.

The life of Christ versus the life of Mohammed.

Mohammed was a conqueror who gained worldly political power in his lifetime and used it to persecute opponents and impose his religion. He also fully enjoyed the worldly perks of being a tyrant, including multiple wives. Jesus, by contrast, was basically a pacifist whose whole purpose on earth was to allow himself to be tortured to death.

He even explicitly forbade his followers to use force to defend him. Here’s John, Chapter 18: “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear…. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

This does not imply that all Christians ought to be pacifists. But it certainly sets a tone for the religion. The life of the founder of a religion is held up to his followers as a model for how they should live their own lives. The life of Mohammed tells the Muslim that he should expect to rule, whereas the life of Christ tells the Christian he should expect to sacrifice and serve. Which leads us to a deeper doctrinal difference.

“What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
In Matthew, Chapter 25, Christ tells his followers what will happen during the final judgment, when he separates the righteous from the wicked.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Similarly, there is an episode during the Last Supper when the apostles are squabbling about which of them is greatest. Christ intervenes and tells them that the greatest is he who serves others the most.

And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
This is a very profound idea that goes against the grain of most of human history. I’m a big fan of the Classical world, but the pagans still regarded it as normal, right, and natural that the physically strong set the terms for everyone else. Thucydides famously summed it up in the Melian Dialogue: “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Thucydides was clearly critical of that view, but the Classical world didn’t have a clear alternative. As far as I know, Christ was the first to insist that even the lowest, least significant person has value and that we will be judged by how we treat him.

The distinctive idea here is not a belief in self-sacrifice—Islam, with its emphasis on the glory of dying in battle, has that idea in abundance. Nor is it the idea of a duty to serve others—Communist regimes were built on the idea that the individual exists only to serve the collective. Instead, it is the idea that each individual has a supreme and sacred value. Even Ayn Rand declared this to be the idea from Christianity that most impressed her.

Islam has no corresponding idea. The news is constantly bringing us a story of some imam somewhere declaring it consistent with Islam for a man to beat his wife, and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria has provided us current examples of Islam sanctioning slavery, including the capture and systematic rape of sex slaves. This is a religion that is still very much in the “rights of the conqueror” mode, in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Again, this goes back to the beginning. Consider the story, from one of the earliest Arab biographies of Mohammed, of Asma bint Marwan, an Arab poet in Medinah who spoke out against the rise of Mohammed. According to legend, he asked his followers, “Who will rid me of the daughter of Marwan?” (His version of Henry II’s “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”) One of them took it on himself to sneak into her house and murder her in her sleep. There are questions about the authenticity of the story, but the fact that it was widely believed and reported indicates the example Mohammed set.

To be sure, this brutal attitude is partly because of the backwardness of some of the quasi-feudal societies that are majority-Muslim, where divisions of tribe and caste still dominate. But then again, Islam hasn’t done much to elevate those societies, despite having more than a thousand years to do so.

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On Worldviews (and the myth of the “freethinker”)

22 Jan

From Dr. James Anderson:

On Worldviews


Abortion. Euthanasia. Pornography. Same-sex marriage. Transgender rights. Embryonic research. Genetic enhancement. Christians surveying the cultural landscape in the West have a clear sense that things are headed in a destructive direction. While most believers can easily identify the symptoms of decline, few feel competent to diagnose and address the root causes. There are many complex factors behind these developments, but one invaluable tool for better understanding and engaging with our culture is the concept of worldview. The sociological quakes and moral fissures we observe in our day are largely due to what we might call “cultural plate tectonics”: shifts in underlying worldviews and the collisions between them.

What is a worldview? As the word itself suggests, a worldview is an overall view of the world. It’s not a physical view of the world, but rather a philosophical view, an all-encompassing perspective on everything that exists and matters to us.

A person’s worldview represents his most fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the universe he inhabits. It reflects how he would answer all the “big questions” of human existence: fundamental questions about who and what we are, where we came from, why we’re here, where (if anywhere) we’re headed, the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of the afterlife, and what counts as a good life here and now. Few people think through these issues in any depth, and fewer still have firm answers to such questions, but a person’s worldview will at least incline him toward certain kinds of answers and away from others.

Worldviews shape and inform our experiences of the world around us. Like spectacles with colored lenses, they affect what we see and how we see it. Depending on the “color” of the lenses, some things may be seen more easily, or conversely, they may be de-emphasized or distorted—indeed, some things may not be seen at all.

Worldviews also largely determine people’s opinions on matters of ethics and politics. What a person thinks about abortion, euthanasia, same-sex relationships, environmental ethics, economic policy, public education, and so on will depend on his underlying worldview more than anything else.

As such, worldviews play a central and defining role in our lives. They shape what we believe and what we’re willing to believe, how we interpret our experiences, how we behave in response to those experiences, and how we relate to others. Our thoughts and our actions are conditioned by our worldviews.

Worldviews operate at both the individual level and the societal level. Rarely will two people have exactly the same worldview, but they may share the same basic type of worldview. Moreover, within any society, certain worldview types will be represented more prominently than others, and will therefore exert greater influence on the culture of that society. Western civilization since around the fourth century has been dominated by a Christian worldview, even though there have been individuals and groups who have challenged it. But in the last couple of centuries, for reasons ranging from the technological to the theological, the Christian worldview has lost its dominance, and competing worldviews have become far more prominent. These non-Christian worldviews include:

  • Naturalism: there is no God; humans are just highly evolved animals; the universe is a closed physical system.
  • Postmodernism: there are no objective truths and moral standards; “reality” is ultimately a human social construction.
  • Pantheism: God is the totality of reality; thus, we are all divine by nature.
  • Pluralism: the different world religions represent equally valid perspectives on the ultimate reality; there are many valid paths to salvation.
  • Islam: there is only one God, and He has no son; God has revealed His will for all people through His final prophet, Muhammad, and His eternal word, the Qur’an.
  • Moralistic therapeutic deism: God just wants us to be happy and nice to other people; He intervenes in our affairs only when we call on Him to help us out.

Each of these worldviews has profound implications for how people think about themselves, what behaviors they consider right or wrong, and how they orient their lives. It is therefore crucial that Christians be able to engage with unbelief at the worldview level. Christians need to understand not only what it means to have a biblical worldview, but also why they should hold fast to that worldview and apply it to all of life. They should be able to identify the major non-Christian worldviews that vie for dominance in our society, to understand where they fundamentally differ from the Christian worldview, and to make a well-reasoned case that the Christian worldview alone is true, good, and beautiful.

The challenge is greater than ever. But we shouldn’t be discouraged, because the opportunities and resources available to us are also greater now than they have ever been. In the last half-century or so there has been a remarkable renaissance in Christian philosophy and apologetics, much of which has focused on developing and defending a biblical worldview. Whatever God calls His people to do, He equips them to do (see Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:20-21). The problem is not that the church is under-equipped, but that she has yet to make full use of what Christ has provided for her.

“I am not Charlie Hebdo” – David Brooks

9 Jan

From David Brooks:

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

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The Political Philosophy of John Calvin by James Bruce

30 Dec

From Dr. James Bruce:

John Calvin

What is Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics? One obvious answer is that Calvin doesn’t have one. On this view, modern political thought begins by rejecting revelation (Christian or otherwise) and embracing reason. Calvin doesn’t contribute anything, according to this position; on the contrary, if anything, Calvin is an obstacle to be overcome! So studying Calvin is, for the political philosopher, just a waste of time, or, to put it more gently, studying Calvin may be interesting for any number of reasons, but politics is not one of them. Others take the exact opposite approach. On this view, to know Calvin is to know modernity. What was planted as a Reformation sprouted as the Glorious Revolution and grew into the American Founding. The views run the gamut, from one extreme to the other, because there are also any number of mediating positions that say that Calvin’s theology plays a role, but by no means the only role, in the development of what we have come to call modern politics.

But it’s even more complicated, because people don’t just disagree about the relationship between Calvin’s theology and modern politics; they also disagree about the particulars of each. And, to put it mildly, the interpretive challenges are absolutely enormous. What, after all, is modernity? It is notoriously difficult to define. Take a handful of examples: Let’s say that a confidence in reason constitutes modernity. If so, then David Hume isn’t modern, which seems odd. Perhaps it’s our strict separation of church and state. If so, then Massachusetts, which had tax-supported churches, wasn’t modern until 1833. A confidence in the free market? Marx isn’t modern. A rejection of revealed religion? Then Roger Sherman and some of the other Founders weren’t modern. Atheism? Descartes wasn’t modern. Etc.

And, of course, interpreters of Calvin spend no small amount of time disagreeing with each other over Calvin’s views on almost everything. If one believed everything written about him, then Calvin was a Renaissance humanist and a Protestant scholastic; a nominalist and a realist; a voluntarist and an intellectualist; a theological systematizer and an antisystematic biblicist; a lover of liberty and a burner of heretics.

We must acknowledge, too, that we are not disinterested participants in these debates. If we are (for want of a better word) secularists, then we want Calvin’s contribution to be nonexistent or unnecessary. Calvin played either no role or his role was limited, saying in theological language what someone else said without it. If, by contrast, we are (for want of a better word) religious, then we may want a louder voice for religion in the public square. We may be predisposed to find in Calvin something unique and special that is relevant for us today. Even here, though, things get complicated: If we are Reformed, we may hope for some kind of endorsement of Reformed theology due to the attractiveness of the American Founding. If we are Roman Catholic, we may want to say that Calvin is distinctively modern and that’s why Calvin is awful.

With these kinds of interpretive problems before us, Ralph C. Hancock is to be congratulated simply for, as the English say, having a go at it in his book Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, recently republished by St. Augustine’s Press. Taking Calvin and making him a political philosopher is like taking Isaac Newton and making him a theologian—it can be done, certainly, but it is a delicate surgery nonetheless.

To the question—what’s Calvin’s relationship to the foundations of modern politics?—Hancock takes a view somewhere between the two extremes. That seems to be the most reasonable approach, but Hancock pursues this middle road in an unexpected way. To see why Hancock’s approach is so unique, consider a more obvious way to relate Calvin to modern politics: First, one could say, Calvin espoused a particular view of modern politics; then that theologically drenched view lost the talk of God so prevalent in Calvin’s own thought, and, finally—voilà!—a secular, modern politics was born.

Now that’s not Hancock’s view. Instead, according to Hancock, Calvin has a theological motivation for his modern, more secular, political views. That’s what’s really interesting about Hancock’s interpretation of Calvin: According to Hancock, modern politics does not necessarily arise from a rejection of Calvin’s theology; instead, it is Calvin’s own theology that leads us to an antispeculative, genuinely modern approach to the world. To make his case, Hancock tries to show, in part one of the book, that Calvin focuses our attention away from otherworldly affairs in order to have a practical, but spiritual, concern for this life. In part two, Hancock offers further evidence for the claims in part one by connecting his interpretation of Calvin to broader theological themes in Calvin’s thought.

If I have understood him correctly, Hancock wants to say that Calvin’s practical political philosophy is about the same as a Machiavelli or a Hobbes, but with one crucial, and superior, feature. Calvin exclusively has an optimism or a hope for the modern enterprise. Calvinist optimism arises from the sovereignty of God and God’s superintending providence over everything, including human activity. Toward the end of Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics, Hancock writes that, if his interpretation of Calvin is correct, then we ought to be as sensitive to the Christian tradition in Machiavelli and Hobbes as we are sensitive to Enlightenment thought in the Puritans (186).

Hancock is at his best in his Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics when he tries to bring his one particular view of Calvin into conversation with twentieth-century political philosophers and historians of political philosophy. For example, Hancock argues, by taking Leo Strauss’s interpretation of modernity as a starting point, that Calvinism should be studied more carefully than it is in fact studied: “On Strauss’s own interpretation of the meaning of modernity, Calvinism appears to deserve more attention than it has generally received from students of political philosophy, a different kind of attention than that given it by historians of political thought . . .” (186). It’s a clever move.

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Federalism still gets in Obama’s way. Darn framers.

3 Dec

From Dr. Lee Cheek:

When questioned recently about the administration’s Ebola response, President Obama’s exasperated White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, proclaimed to a reporter: “I guess you can take that up with James Madison.” Earnest, in his attempt to express the evolving nature of governance in a federated republic, correctly affirmed Madison’s central role in the debate, and directed the thoughtful citizen to appreciate original understandings of power.

In order to gain a grasp of American federalism, many factors must be considered. Some of these vital concerns include the structure of the political system; the original intentions of some Framers of the Constitution; and the citizenry’s prevailing understanding of the political order during the Early Republic. All of these issues have encouraged a diversity of opinions regarding the fundamental nature of the Union.

Mr. Earnest was correct to note unresolved tensions within American political life, and these tensions may in fact be of a salutatory nature for many reasons. Today, even as we face what Russell Kirk and others have called the behemoth state, the necessary limits on national political power should not be neglected or the consequences of such desuetude will only worsen.

In returning to views of the Founding, as Earnest recommends, we recall the concerns that arose in many quarters during the Constitutional Convention and ratification process. The Antifederalists, especially, feared that an overbearing national government would assume the authority of the states. Article Two of the Articles of Confederation had contained explicit provisions for protecting states, initiating a system whereby “each state retains its sovereignty.”

Various early state constitutions included provisions outlining the primacy of states in the confederal arrangement, often at the expense of a unified political order. The most popular form of amendment requested during the state ratification conventions and proposed to the First Congress concerned a reserved powers clause. The defenders of the Constitution argued, however, that such a provision was unnecessary.

Earnest was also correct to locate much of the interpretation of American federalism—as well as the confusion—with Madison. In fact, we have all too few genuine attempts to sort out the confusion. Madison, or “Little Jemmy” as he was known by his close associates, suggested in Federalist 39 that each state was “a sovereign body” only “bound by its voluntary act” of ratification. Other Federalists, including James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall at the Virginia ratifying convention, held that such a proposal was already present in the Constitution and that the new government would only have the powers delegated to it.

Opposition to and suspicion of the proposed Constitution on the grounds that it would infringe upon the privileged status of the states was widespread. The defenders of state authority viewed the states as the repository of reserved power, and many believed that states were invested with an equal, and perhaps superior, capacity to judge infractions by the federal government.

The most significant assurances to this effect came in the Virginia ratifying convention from George Nicholas and Edmund Randolph. As the spokesmen for the committee that reported the instrument of ratification, they noted that the Constitution would only have the powers “expressly” delegated to it.[1] If Federalists disagreed with the stress on state authority, they generally viewed a reserved power clause as innocuous, and Madison included such a provision among the amendments he introduced in 1789.

While much debate has ensued, usually at the expense of state authority, it is good to see a prominent acknowledgment of the role that Madison and his writings have assumed in this constitutional dialogue, and of the need to revisit these old yet vital understandings of the nature of power. Perhaps Earnest’s colleagues in the Obama White House will take note.

[1] See Kevin R. C. Gutzman’s definitive study, Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2007), for more analysis of the Virginia ratification debate.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Dean of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at East Georgia State College. Dr. Cheek’s latest book is Patrick Henry-Onslow: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013), and he is currently writing a new study of the origins of the American political system, The Founding of the American Republic (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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