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Cutting Ties With the Founders

The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.

Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.

The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.

But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.

But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.

It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.

Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?

What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.

We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.

Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.

The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.

When we enter the polling booth are we still Christians?

In his latest article at the Daily Caller Brian Lee asks whether or not it matters if a president has orthodox Christian faith or not. Lee answers the question by comparing the Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney to America’s first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. His conclusion, on the basis of sound historical scholarship and the rejection of wishful thinking, is that these towering figures, the beloved Founding Fathers, give us plenty of evidence to demonstrate that they were not orthodox Christians. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams explicitly denied cardinal tenants of the Christian faith, while there is no evidence that George Washington ever participated in the Lord’s Supper in his life.

Lee concludes,

[I]n God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?

The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.

That’s a relatively mild point to make, but given how many Christians seem to assume they can only support political causes or candidates that are explicitly Christian, it is a necessary one. If your primary concern in today’s election is to vote for a professing Christian then there is far more evidence in Barack Obama’s favor than there is for Mitt Romney or for Washington, Adams, or Jefferson (if they were alive and running). Yet Lee’s point reminds us that we are not going to the polls to choose the leader of the spiritual kingdom, or even the ultimate Lord of the political kingdom. Rather, we are choosing the President of the United States for the next four years.

Yet Lee’s point is not, and this needs to be emphasized, that we should leave our Christian faith, or the authority of Scripture, outside of the polling booth. He writes,

Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office.

In a previous article, arguing that pastors should not politicize from the pulpit, Lee made this point even more clearly:

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political…. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Lee’s point is crucial. The advocates of the two kingdoms doctrine, from the beginning of its history, have consistently argued that civil magistrates are obligated to rule according to the principles of justice as revealed in natural law and Scripture. Martin Luther, despite caricatures of the Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine that are largely based on a distorted version of the doctrine from the Nazi era, raised the standards for Christian statesmanship so high that he insisted that a Christian prince will be a “rare bird in heaven.”

This might surprise critics of the two kingdoms doctrine, and in fact, it may surprise some of its most vocal proponents, some of whom seem to view the two kingdoms perspective as a “movement” designed to isolate religion and politics from one another rather than as a theological distinction intended to guide and qualify Christian political engagement. The two kingdoms doctrine is not a movement, it is not the possession of a few self-appointed spokesmen (myself included), and it does not require pastors to be silent on what Scripture says that is relevant to politics and civil government, let alone Christians to bracket off their Christian faith when they go to the polling booth.

In fact, despite appearances in some of the polemics that rage across the Internet, I think most Reformed people get this. Most of them embrace the substance of the two kingdoms doctrine as a reminder that the kingdom of God proclaimed in Scripture is never to be confused with cultural and political institutions that nevertheless are ordained by God and hold legitimate claims over Christians in this life. I’ve tried to demonstrate this over the past few months by identifying numerous theologians who invoke the two kingdoms distinction in their writing (i.e., John Bolt, Richard Phillips, Justin Taylor).

(Election Day in Philadelphia, 1815)

This week I received a mailing from a Presbyterian church in Atlanta in which the pastor, who I’m quite confident would not identify himself as part of any sort of “two kingdoms” movement, offered his congregation pastoral advice regarding today’s election. The pastor carefully reminded the congregation that government is ordained by God to rule in accord with justice, but he warned the congregation not to conflate Christ’s spiritual kingdom with the political earthly kingdom. Why not? Because when we conflate the two kingdoms we tend to assume that politicians and states have the obligation of using their coercive power to advance the spiritual cause of the kingdom of God. Worse, we fall into the danger of identifying America as God’s special nation, analogous to Israel. The pastor went on, however, to remind the congregation that Scripture does teach us standards of justice that government is bound to respect and defend, such as the sanctity of life and of the institution of marriage, and that they should keep these standards in mind when voting.

Most Reformed Christians agree with this I think. We might put things somewhat differently, we might highlight different biblical principles of justice, and we might hedge our reminders in more or less qualified language. But nearly all of us agree that pastors should avoid politicking from the pulpit even while they should not refrain from speaking to us the whole counsel of God. They should not extrapolate from Scripture simplistic guidance for contemporary American politics that was never intended by the divine or human authors, but they should call us to put on the mind of Christ, using the wisdom and revelation God has given us as we take our opportunity to help ensure that the government God appointed to punish the evil and reward the good does in fact keep that mandate. They should remind us, in good two kingdoms fashion, to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, that all these other things may be added unto us.

Paternalism or Freedom: How being an American shapes your politics and your Christianity

Calvin’s Geneva had one of the most participatory political systems in 16th Century Europe. A substantive portion of the city’s population was able to vote in civic elections or on substantive policy changes. Elections were meaningful and could bring real change. For instance, it was through victory at the polls in 1555 that Calvin and his followers consolidated their hold over the city in a way that ensured the longstanding legacy of Calvin’s version of the Reformation.

But Geneva was no democracy. The magistrates of the city were responsible to enact and enforce policies that were for the good of the city but not necessarily reflective of anything like a popular will. One of their primary tasks was to guide the city in matters of religion, virtue, education, and health, to ensure that Geneva would be godly and that God would bless it. Within this mindset unconstrained public debate was not considered to be a good thing. Myriads of people were hauled before the Geneva council over the years to be rebuked or punished for their abuse of speech, whether against the city government or against the theology of its famous reformer. Heresy, blasphemy, false worship, and slander were all crimes regularly punished by the state.

From the perspective of virtually all early Reformed thinkers this made plenty of sense. Calvin and his contemporaries did indeed speak in terms of rights, and they had ideas of religious liberty and Christian freedom. But they had no concept of a right to do wrong. Freedom of religion meant the freedom to practice the true religion, while freedom of speech meant at best the freedom to speak in a way that promoted the welfare of the city or of the true religion.

Over the years the Reformed and the Puritans steadily moved closer towards the rights and freedoms we so value today. Puritan New England gradually loosened the ties between church and state, and it was there in Boston that the American Revolution began. But the Puritans and their heirs nevertheless maintained many of the assumptions about politics and freedom that once guided 16th Century Geneva. New England was the bastion of the Federalist Party that conceived of the future of America in terms of the rule of enlightened and virtuous elites chosen freely by a deferential public. This was the party of John Adams, under whom a Federalist Congress sought to curb the freedom of the press through the infamous legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

But post-Revolutionary America was no longer following the ideals of Puritan New England. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson’s election heralded a Republican revolution after the Revolution, a revolution that carried public opinion to its truly eminent place in American society and politics, insisting on political equality carried to its fullest logical extent. Jeffersonian democracy came to define America, sweeping the Federalist party and its outmoded understanding of politics into the dustbin of history.

In his magisterial history of the early American republic, Empire of Liberty, Gordon S Wood describes the way in which the debates about the Sedition Act and the freedom of the press changed America forever.

The Sedition Act of 1793 marked a crucial point in the development of the American idea of public opinion. Its passage provoked a debate that went far beyond the issue of freedom of speech or freedom of the press; it eventually involved the very nature of America’s intellectual life … and in the process it undermined the foundations of the elitist eighteenth century classical world on which the Founders had stood….

In the debate over the sedition law the Republican libertarian theorists … rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that ‘truths’ were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were….

The Federalists were dumfounded. ‘How … could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?’ they asked. ‘How could it be right to do wrong… People needed to know the ‘criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong.'”

The Republicans, Wood points out, rejected the old assumption that the truth was the monopoly of the “educated and aristocratic few.” The elites used knowledge just as easily to manipulate and oppress as to guide and promote, Republicans reasoned, and freedom of speech and opinion was ultimately a far better means of promoting the truth than the restrictions of the past.

In making this argument Republicans frequently pointed to the relatively novel yet highly successful experiment in freedom of religion and religious diversity in the United States. If the Puritans and their Calvinist forbears had emphasized the truths of human depravity and the necessity of magisterial or clerical control over matters of education and opinion, Republican minded Christians were more likely to highlight the importance of freedom for religious liberty and genuine Christianity. If the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was once seen as something the state should use all of its powers to promote in its subjects, now the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was seen as the basis for a free citizenry to give guidance to the state.

Although the Republican vision for America was so successful that virtually no American would question its basic premises today, the old debates endure in more subtle form. Today, ironically, the conservatives are those often thought of as liberals, those who bemoan the decline of the old authoritative media embodied in the Big Three of NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, and those who insist on the promotion and maintenance of a centralized system of public education. The true liberals are those who are conservative on so many other issues, those who applaud the democratization of American media and promote charter schools and vouchers as a way of bringing liberty to public education. At the root of these public debates are continuing conflicts over the appropriate relation between educated, enlightened elites and the broader public.

A similar debate plays out in the church. On the one hand are those who want pastors and clergy to tell their parishioners exactly how to live, what to think, and how to vote. They want pastors to do much  more than simply teach Scripture and allow Christians individually and collectively to work out its implications for all of life. They want a church that carefully molds and enforces Christian public opinion and practice, and Christians who are obedient and mindful of the myriad of agreed-upon rules and commandments. On the other hand are those who wish their pastors would make sure that when they say “Thus sayeth the Lord” they are actually communicating the teaching of Scripture rather than their own “enlightened” opinion. The point of Christian discipleship, these people point out, is to form people who develop and practice wisdom and virtue by putting on the mind of Christ and conforming to the image of their Lord.

Of course, most thoughtful Americans and most thoughtful Christians realize that both ideas, carried to an extreme, are dangerous. Democratic equality and libertarian freedom are full of pitfalls, and it remains unclear whether or not American democracy can survive the people’s tendency to call government to do more for them than it can possibly do. Radical libertarian freedom in the area of sexual morality has spawned a social revolution whose costs are obvious but whose full tragedy remains to be determined.

On the other hand, virtually none of us would tolerate the sort of authoritarianism that was common fare in the churches and states of the past. We recognize that life is truly blessed when we have the freedom and equality to walk in the wisdom and virtue that God has given us, regardless of what our ‘betters’ may think. We are not eager to turn back the clock and abandon American democracy even as we continue to appreciate the decisive importance of solid education and the clear preaching and teaching of the word of Christ.

We are very much American Christians. That has its pitfalls, but in this respect at least, I think, it is a good thing.

Why the Work of David Barton is so Dangerous: The Importance of Credibility

The debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is an old one and it is not likely to go away any time soon. To be sure, most scholars seem to be generally agreed that the American founding was highly influenced by Christianity, indeed, that it is incomprehensible apart from the general Christian world view. But this influence was of a general sort. Most of the leading founding fathers were not orthodox Christians but Unitarians or Deists at best. The Declaration of Independence reflects a version of natural law theory but not of orthodox Christians doctrine regarding the state. The Constitution says virtually nothing about Christianity, and it is noteworthy as the first major constitutional document of the western world that did not recognize an establishment of religion.

Nevertheless among staunch secularists and arch conservative Christians alike the debate rages on. Many of those most interested in the debate aren’t pleased with a nuanced, balanced view of the religious influences on the founding; they are determined to prove that America was decidedly Christian (in the case of the Christian conservatives) or not Christian at all (in the case of the secularists).

As a result, there is still a strong market for books making the strong case one way or another. And a leading author and advocate in the debate is David Barton, the president of the WallBuilders organization. Barton has written much defending the Christian character of the American nation in its founding, most of his work self-published. But recently Barton made a foray into the broader publishing world by publishing his book on the faith of Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Nelson. The result was an outcry from scholars about the unreliability of the book, an outcry that has led to Thomas Nelson pulling the book from publication. As World reports,

Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author with James Robison of Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, spoke alongside Barton at Christian conferences as recently as last month. Richards says in recent months he has grown increasingly troubled about Barton’s writings, so he asked 10 conservative Christian professors to assess Barton’s work.

Their response was negative. Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside “orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.” A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is “unsupportable.” A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that “52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.'” Barton told me he found that number in M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company.

As Barton is finding out, most Americans, even most Christian conservatives, prefer their arguments to be based on truth rather than fiction, even if fiction sometimes seems to make an argument more persuasive. To be sure, there will always be a number of people more interested in having their own beliefs and preferences affirmed than having them challenged with the truth. Conspiracy theories will always abound.

But overall the outcry against Barton’s work receiving mainstream respectability is a good thing. I hope it spurs all of us to a greater commitment to winning over our fellow citizens by ensuring that our public engagement and story-telling is characterized by truth, not simply by a passionate commitment to our own agenda. After all, credibility is arguably the most precious virtue we can possess. Losing it will not do our cause any good.

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