April 5, 2004

"BECAUSE LOVED BY HIM" (via Robert Duquette):

Under God and Over: WHAT AMERICA CAN LEARN FROM ITS ATHEISTS. (Leon Wieseltier, 04.05.04, New Republic)

It was the first time that William Rehnquist ever put me in mind of Søren Kierkegaard. As I watched the Supreme Court discuss God with Michael A. Newdow, the atheist from California who was defending his victory in a lower court that had concurred with his view that the words "under God" should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance because it is a religious expression, and was therefore responding to the Bush administration's petition to protect the theism in the Pledge, I remembered a shrewd and highly un-American observation that was included among the aphorisms in Either/Or: "The melancholy have the best sense of the comic, the opulent often the best sense of the rustic, the dissolute often the best sense of the moral, and the doubter often the best sense of the religious." The discussion that morning fully vindicated the majesty of the chamber, as legal themes gave way to metaphysical themes and philosophy bewitched the assembly. But something strange happened. Almost as soon as philosophy was invited, it was disinvited. It seemed to make everybody anxious, except the respondent. I had come to witness a disputation between religion's enemies and religion's friends. What I saw instead, with the exception of a single comment by Justice Souter, was a disputation between religion's enemies, liberal and conservative. And this confirmed me in my conviction that the surest way to steal the meaning, and therefore the power, from religion is to deliver it to politics, to enslave it to public life. [...]

The American revolutionaries appealed not only to God, but also to reason; and their appeal to reason was animated by more than their feeling that reason was divine. It is historical and intellectual nonsense to believe that the concept of the sovereignty of the individual rests exclusively, or even mainly, upon religious foundations. Modernity was not merely the most recent era in the history of religion. The American order was a new idea, not a new version of an old idea. Moreover, a ceremony is not a museum. There are many notions that filled the heads of our eighteenth-century heroes that we do not reproduce in our civic life. Our reverence toward the Founders, which is eternally justified by what they wrought, is not a curatorial attitude. This is the case also with regard to their religious convictions. They were, many of them, Deists--which is to say, the United States was created in the very short period in history when it was theologically respectable to believe in a God that never intervenes in the world that He (the pronoun is ridiculous) created. In the matter of our religious origins, then, we were freakishly fortunate. No theology more convenient for a secular democracy ever existed. But there are no Deists in America anymore. This is why it was exceedingly odd to hear the controversial words in the Pledge described at the Court with Eugene Rostow's phrase "ceremonial deism." Ceremonial theism, perhaps; but that is a more highly charged activity. If there were still Deists in America, we would enjoy more cultural peace. Why do the God-inebriated opponents of the separation of church and state in America, the righteous citizens who see God's hand in everything that Fox News reports, insult the Founders by revising and even rejecting their God?

It's fruitless to argue about what the Founder's believed, since folks simply dismiss the explicitly Christian, demonstrably not merely Deist, things they themselves said and wrote. One despairs when such an intelligent essayist simply ignores the Declaration of Independence in order to aver that: "It is historical and intellectual nonsense to believe that the concept of the sovereignty of the individual rests exclusively, or even mainly, upon religious foundations." Feel free to scan the following passage from start to finish in search of evidence that anything but religion undergirds individual sovereignty:
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. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Not so much as the hint of an appeal to reason is there?

Two further examples will suffice to demonstrate the point beyond the shadow of honest doubt. Here's George Washington's First Inaugural, the first official governmental utterance of the Republic, by the gentleman who presided over the writing of the Constitution:

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow- citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.

So much for Mr. Wieseltier's Deity that doesn't intervene, eh?

Meanwhile, here's Thomas Jefferson's Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, on setting up the state college of which he was most proud:

In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing, with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the Legislature in favor of freedom of religion, manifested on former occasions, we have proposed no professor of divinity; and the rather as the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics; to which adding the developments of these moral obligations, of those in which all sects agree, with a knowledge of the languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, a basis will be formed common to all sects. Proceeding thus far without offense to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets.

Obviously if he was comfortable with state professors teaching the existence of God and the morality that flows from this fact he'd not likely have been much troubled by students acknowledging that God exists.

But we need never arrive at the disputatious point that Mr. Wieseltier is wrong about the Founders' personal religious beliefs, because he's substantially more wrong about America as it exists today. It is in fact precisely because the religious lost their struggle to keep Church and State separate that they must now fight to imbue the state with religious purpose. That sounds odd, eh? Self-contradictory even? Well, it is. But, it is also true.

It would have been preferable to maintain a Republic in which the central government was rather minimalist and it was states--free even to impose religious tithes--that performed the functions of government that affect daily life. Even these state governments though were rather minimalist affairs because it was understood that society was more important than the state and a better milieu in which to deal with social questions. But, as the Anti-Federalists foresaw, it is the nature of the central state to aggrandize power to itself. As its critics predicted, it is likewise the nature of democracy for the majority to demand of the state that it transfer the wealth of the few to the many. Combine the appetite of the state for power and of the people for services and you have a system in which all, or many, of the services and functions that civil society generally and religions specifically once fulfilled are taken over by the government. Soon, you're being taxed to pay for public schools, so that you'll have difficulty affording parochial schools; taxed to pay for welfare services, so you'll be hard-pressed to tithe; you're required to get a license from the government to show you're married, despite the religious nature of the institution; etc.; etc.; etc.. And so the state keeps crowding in upon the church, taking over religion's traditional roles and seeking to usurp its authority. Caesar never says render unto God.

So, if religion and the religious are to defend themselves, it becomes necessary to co-opt the state and divert it back towards religious purposes. This may be done by such measures as requiring public schools to include some teachings with religious content, or at least not to contradict religion. Even better, it may be done by requiring the state to allow parents to choose their children's schools. It may be done by allowing religious institutions to perform the welfare services that the state is dunning all of us for. It may be done by taking back the definition of marriage from the state. Or, even better, by doing away with the state's role in licensing marriage altogether. It may be done by restoring to the law a religious understanding of the sanctity of human life, and so forth. But these solutions must obviously depend on one of two alternatives: either government must support religion or else government must give up powers it had taken away from religion.

Then comes the sublimely dishonest moment when a Mr. Wieseltier writes that
it is the religious who have suddenly launched an assault on the hitherto pristine separation of church and state and seek, out of the blue, to make religion subservient to the state, presumably not realizing the damage they're doing. This is the sense in which the modern Left has become profoundly reactionary. During its seventy years in power (1930-2000), the Democratic Party grew the federal government in ways that were antithetical to the ideals of the Republic: building a welfare state; systematically regulating business; dictating policy to the individual states; etc. and so on. This endeavor was uniformly disastrous and by the 70's--with recession, stagflation, moral malaise, and various setbacks in the Cold War--the Right began to revive and regain power. We are therefore confronted with a bit of a paradox. Today it is progressive who wish things to stand still and conservatives who are committed to wholesale change. That the change conservatives seek to bring about is retrograde, a return to the past, matters little to those eager to fling about charges of hypocrisy. So those who would restore religion and the social sphere to the center of American life--as was envisioned in the Founding and as prevailed in America for centuries--are charged with being "religion's enemies" and disloyal to the Founders.

But here's the test--was the separation of Church and State as it was enacted in the Constitution our ideal? Very well, let us take from the State every power and authority that it did not enjoy in 1796, when Washington delivered his Farewell. Let men once again be forced to turn to their families, neighbors, local churches and organizations, and local governments when they face life's difficulties. Then let us freeze the frame and demand that no one tamper with the perfection of the Republic. Deal?

C. S. Lewis in the Public Square (Richard John Neuhaus, December 1998, First Things)

The phrase "public square" evokes images of the political arena with its partisan games and intense debates over public policy. Lewis did occasionally, very occasionally, address what are ordinarily called political issues. One thinks of his reflections on the Second World War, on pacifism and belligerency, on laws regarding obscenity, and on the nature of criminal punishment. But, for the most part, Lewis is understandably viewed as a determinedly apolitical, even private, man. Indeed, in many ways he took his stand, and encouraged others to take their stand, over against politics--especially politics as dominated by the machinations of the modern State. He was on the side of reason, myth, splendor, and virtue, in the hope that such vital elements of life might "still trickle down to irrigate the dust-bowl of modern economic Statecraft." This might be called the C. S. Lewis trickle-down theory of politics.

His skepticism with respect to the modern State was emphatic:

Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . . be treated as an enemy [by the State]. Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it gives the individual a standing ground against the State.

As in Augustine's two cities--the civitas terrena and the civitas dei--Lewis insisted on clear distinctions, and was not intimidated by the risk that distinctions may turn into antinomies. Of course the City of God is not immediately available to us, and we have to make do with the earthly cities we have. Like Augustine who preferred the ancient Romans to those of his own day, Lewis recognized the need to make comparative judgments between political regimes, but insisted we should do so without delusions. "The practical problem of Christian politics," he wrote, "is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish."

The kind of people we are is more important than what we can do to improve the world; indeed, being the kind of people we should and can be is the best, and sometimes the only, way to improve the world. Society is ever so much more important than the State, and mores more important than laws: "The law must rise to our standards when we improve and sink to them when we decay." Better, therefore, to attend to standards than to laws. This overlooks, we may observe, the ways in which laws influence standards, but it reflects Lewis' studied skepticism toward the search for political or legal fixes for human problems. His disdain for the public excitements generated by what he derisively referred to as "the news" is well known. Amidst the incessant declarations of public crises about this, that, and the other thing, C. S. Lewis looks very much like an "escapist." After all, he spent a large part of his life writing fairy tales for children, didn't he?

Nevertheless, there is something to be said regarding "C. S. Lewis in the Public Square." Lewis was anything but the isolated and privatized individualist whom the Greeks called an "idiot." If we do not think of Lewis' work as public, it is probably because of our shriveled definition of "public" that equates "public" with the "political," and further equates the political with the governmental. Lewis was a public man. For even the most reclusive author, to publish is to go public. The recluse or the "idiot" publishes what is private, which is a form of exhibitionism. Lewis frequently published what is personal, always in the expectation that it would engage the like experience of other persons who are, broadly speaking, the public. Lewis wrote in the service of public conversation. Throughout his writings, one detects between the lines the inquiry posed to his readers, "Is it not true? Do you not find it to be so?"

His effort was to engage, inform, and elevate what is today called "public discourse," although I doubt he ever used the term. He was, I think, inclined to assume that his experience was the common experience. In this sense, although he cherished excellence, he was not an elitist. Anything but. One might even risk calling him a populist. Whether it was "mere" Christianity or "mere" sex or the "mere" companionship of friends, his purpose was to elicit what is already there, if only we would open our eyes to see it--the wonder disguised in the "mere." In this he was at one with Chesterton, who declared that the only sin is to call a green leaf gray. Epiphanies did not await the occurrence of something extraordinary or out of the way. They are to be discovered in the ordinary, and ordinary people are capable of that discovery.

To elicit what is already there, and bring it to fuller and finer expression. I was recently reading Edward Norman's magnificent history of Christian architecture, The House of God, and came across this: "The other religions of the ancient world had incorporated some sense of God's presence but it remained latent and descriptive. Christ came among men with a simple ministry of teaching whose main purpose was to confirm that the kinds of ways in which God had been understood in Natural religion, and the very language used to express those insights, were broadly right. Yet he came also--and this was the unique gift of Revealed religion--to redeem men and the world which was their home. . . . Hence the Incarnation. God literally became a man in order that the human categories of spirituality could be recognized as truly divine, and not the mere invention of a frightened race seeking some means of converting a miserable and ephemeral existence into a dignified and permanent purchase upon the existence of the universe." I expect Lewis would approve of that way of putting the matter.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2004 9:30 PM

Well, actually I do see an apppeal to reason, in the phrase "just powers from the consent of the governed."

Nothing Christian about that, and the church at the time and since has always opposed it.

The church believed in consecrated kings and did the consecrating, and it told the underlings that their consent was not wanted.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 5, 2004 11:45 PM

Geez, if that's your level of reading comprehension it's no wonder you're so confused. Governments require consent because the rights of men are God given. Sadly your secular view can impose no such constraint--rights come from the state itself

Posted by: oj at April 5, 2004 11:56 PM

Just got pointed over here; while I'm no fan of Mr. Newdow's, I'd be interested in your pointing out just what, exactly in the Founder's quotes above contradicts the assumption that they (or some of them) were Deists as opposed to Christians?


Posted by: Armed Liberal at April 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Here is the best paragraph from the article:

"There is no greater insult to religion than to expel strictness of thought from it. Yet such an expulsion is one of the traits of contemporary American religion, as the discussion at the Supreme Court demonstrated. Religion in America is more and more relaxed and "customized," a jolly affair of hallowed self-affirmation, a religion of a holy whatever. Speaking about God is prized over thinking about God. Say "under God" even if you don't mean under God. And if you mean under God, don't be tricked into giving an account of what you mean by it. Before too long you have arrived at a sacralized cynicism: In his intervention at the Court, Justice Stevens recalled a devastating point from the fascinating brief submitted in support of Newdow by 32 Christian and Jewish clergy, which asserted that "if the briefs of the school district and the United States are to be taken seriously," that is, if the words in the Pledge do not allude to God, "then every day they ask schoolchildren to violate [the] commandment" that "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain." Remember, those are not the Ten Suggestions. It is a very strange creed indeed that asks its votaries not to reflect too much about itself."

The author is correct when he states that athiests are among the few people who take the question of god seriously. Religion has failed to secure its authority by philosophical argument, but nevertheless thrives under our individualistic, gnostic culture. It is ironic that athiests are accused of thinking too much of themselves, while in reality we disbelieve because we think too little of ourselves - at least in our powers of gnosticism. This is why we will never be a majority in this country.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 6, 2004 12:06 AM


Mr. Wieseltier's definition:

"They were, many of them, Deists--which is to say, the United States was created in the very short period in history when it was theologically respectable to believe in a God that never intervenes in the world that He (the pronoun is ridiculous) created"

is irreconcilable with a belief in God's agency and providence in American affairs.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2004 12:07 AM


You, like Mr. Wiesletier, are reading entirely too much into mere legalisms. Of course "Under God" means under God. That you can't say that in Court for fear of running afoul of precedent speaks ill of our law, not of our beliefs.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2004 12:15 AM

How do those who claim the American Revolution was essentially a secular, reasoned affair explain the dramatic differences with the French Revolution? Isn't it a little bit of a stretch to argue that proponents of secular rationalism wanted to create a conservative, pious society of limited government. In the 18th entury, belief in reason and agnosticism was characterized by a belief in man's perfectability and the dream of constructing Utopias if only the shackles of religion and custom were shattered. So how come there was so much musing by the Founders about man's dangerous nature and the need to check government power?

Posted by: Peter B at April 6, 2004 7:00 AM


Why so little reference to God and religion in the Constitution?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 6, 2004 7:24 AM


Because, as the Declaration says, any system of government which vindicates these God given rights is sufficient. Thus the Framers explicitly stated what a worthwhile constitutional regime would have to do:

"form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity"

Note that our liberty is a blessing from God and precedes the state.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2004 8:49 AM

Support for the position of the radical secularists has always been on shaky ground. The assumptions of those instrumental to founding the government after successfully completing the revolution were obviously fairly traditional theistic assumptions. Most states had established churches of course while none would be supported nationally. Washington's letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport spells out clearly that respect for all traditional religions was to be the norm. The idea that atheism and materialism were to be the officially sanctioned federal position would have been seen as nonsense and dangerous to ordered liberty. What is not spoken about within the federal constitution is adressed within nearly every state constitution, the Declaration as well as the Northwest Ordinance. Ignoring the simple historical reality of the founding period in order to support offically sanstioned agnosticism as the basis of the liberties we take for granted is almost laughable if it weren't so potentially destructive.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at April 6, 2004 9:45 AM

There were many conventional Christians among the Framers, though you've never heard of them. Who today quotes Luther Martin?

The Famous Framers had a tough struggle to fight off the ones who shared Orrin's simplistic views. But they did, and Article VI is their proudest monument, possibly the most significant statement ever of individual AND political freedom.

Anyhow, the Framers were neither all one nor all the other. They favored a mixed society with a purely secular Constitution.

Whatever their personal relations with the deity were, they had had plenty of experience with organized churches and did not trust them and made sure they were excluded from interfering in matters of state.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 6, 2004 1:24 PM


Finally. You can make the same distinction as the framers, i.e., between adherence to a particular sect and belief in God. Good for you.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at April 6, 2004 1:50 PM


I feel like I've achieved something, at long last.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2004 2:26 PM

For those wondering, this is Article VI --

All debts contracted and engagements entered into, before the adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 6, 2004 2:52 PM

I never doubted it. Isaac Newton is the classic example, isn't he?

5 million words debating with himself about the Trinity. That's belief in god but not in religion.

Makes you wonder if he could have made a success in secular affairs if he hadn't distracted himself.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 6, 2004 5:17 PM


The interesting thing is that his problems were scientific, not religious. His work with metals used in alchemy is believed to have affected his brain.

Posted by: oj at April 6, 2004 7:40 PM

His anguish over the Trinity preceded his work in chemistry. He suffered with it all his life.

It does show why we will never have a society without religion.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 7, 2004 1:18 AM


Note that our liberty stems from the fact that it works better than any alternative.

Because if it didn't we wouldn't have any to talk about.

No matter what God thinks.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 7, 2004 2:36 PM


You're tip-toeing towards an insight: Note that our significantly restrained liberty works better than greater freedom. God's right.

Posted by: oj at April 7, 2004 3:42 PM

Universal freedom is by definition constrained.

As for working better than anything else tried, including everything religion has come up with on its own, why and what are two entirely different things.

If the Declaration had left out the whole "... endowed by their Creator ..." the what end of it would have worked just as well.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 8, 2004 7:56 AM


That's silly. The French (among others) have proven you wrong. A moving consensus regarding the relationship between citizen and state or the limits imposed by acknowleding a higher power is the difference. The American version has it's roots in the christian understnding regarding the dignity of the individual. The French revolution was rooted in "reason". One worked, one was a failure. Why?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at April 8, 2004 10:24 AM

Interesting; my understanding of Deism had alsways been one that focussed on a direct relationship with a Divine Providence, but left out the whole church thing. I'll do some homework and see what comes up; I'll put up a followup comment.


Posted by: Armed Liberal at April 8, 2004 1:34 PM


The definition he used seems to be a watchmaker one--Deus set the whole thing in motion but then withdrew from the scene. Washington, Jefferson, etc., are suggesting that God actually intervened to assist America--that's a pretty personal deity.

Posted by: oj at April 8, 2004 2:33 PM