March 8, 2005

NATIONAL ENDOWMENT:

‘We Hold These Truths to Be Sacred’: What Thomas Jefferson would say about the Ten Commandments today (Marc Gellman, March 4, 2005, Newsweek)

He might teach the court that there are only three ways human rights are accorded to citizens. Either they are the rational construct of people trying to avoid “the war of each against all” in what Rousseau called the "State of Nature." This way sees civil rights as a rational outgrowth of our fear of those who want to hurt us or steal our iPods. Thomas Hobbes stated the view of human nature underlying such theories of the social contract, homo homini lupis: “Each man is the wolf of his neighbor.” Freedom in this theory is merely protection from the guy down the street. The problems with this theory are severe despite its appealing claim on human reason. In this view, some people can easily be excluded from rights because of some rational argument claiming to prove that it is not rational to protect them. Such perversions of human reason to oppress human beings include denying rights to patients in a vegetative state because they are not conscious; denying the right to live for unwanted fetuses because they are not yet living outside the womb; denying rights to mentally challenged people because they can’t get into Harvard; or to blacks in the antebellum South because they were rationally intended to be property and not people, or denying women the right to vote until 1920 because of the rational fact of their lack of capacity. We must remember that the majority of professors in Nazi Germany supported the Third Reich on rational grounds. The deepest flaw in this view was, ironically, stated by Marx in an 1844 essay against Bruno Bauer who rationally argued that Jews should not be accorded civil rights in Germany. Marx wrote that the flaw in this idea of civil society is that it perniciously teaches us “to see in our fellow man the source of our limitation rather than the source of our fulfillment.” All that reason can produce is the notion that freedom is a good high fence for healthy, smart and politically well-connected people, and this is not good enough.

The second possibility for the origin of our rights is that they are gifts from the state to all or to some selected inhabitants of the state. This view sees rights as like a driver’s license. They are a privilege bestowed by the author of privilege, which is the government. This was not the communist theory, the theory was that the workers ran the state, but it was definitely the communist reality in which the state decided who had rights and that decision did not reach beyond the Politburo. It is also the present view of every dictatorship in the world—and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The third theory of how and why we have rights is the one Jefferson authored, the one I revere, and the one I hope the high court affirms without too many subjunctive clauses. This is the theory that our rights come from God through the state, which is created by the consent of the governed to protect the dignity of all its citizens, who are all made in the image of God. The state, in this view of rights, is always subject to critique based on its success or failure to respect the God-given freedoms of its citizens. This critique is why we can judge the democratically elected Hitler government of Germany as immoral, illegitimate and sinful. We are judged not on the purity of our democratic processes but on the actual result of our efforts to secure freedom for all. What people forget, Jefferson might remind the court if he still had a larynx, is that our rights do not derive from the beliefs of any one religion. They derive from a nonsectarian national religious belief that our rights are secured by our being created in the image of God. Even though all Americans do not believe this, it is the reason why the rights of all Americans are secure. They are beyond the perversions of reason or the vagaries of political power. These rights are not achievements. They are endowments from God. How that God is variously conceived and worshiped by religions, or even if that God is worshipped at all, is of no concern to the state. What is of concern is that neither unaided human reason nor the whims of the government are sufficient to establish and guarantee freedom. Only a national belief that we are created beings can do the job. Now that job is on trial by morons (and I say that without any negative connotation) who want to set adrift our God-given freedoms, represented perfectly but not exclusively by the Ten Commandments.


It is not, of course, the case that everyone who attacks the religious Foundation of the Republic wishes to bring the whole structure down, but it is the case that such would be the result if they were to succeed in their undermining.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2005 11:07 PM
Comments

The secularists wish to deny the theistic foundation of the republic. They are confused libertatrians or diehard statists and they are fighting historical reality. The statists understand what they are doing while the liberatrians are simply misguided. It is troubling that the courts have fallen prey to the program of historical revisionism and outright falsehoods which have been employed by the militants in their program of removing God fromthe public square. They need to learn a bit of tolerance from their Christian neighbors.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at March 9, 2005 7:57 AM

Tom, I'm not so sure that libertarians are misguided.

Jesus reduced the Ten Commandments down to its essence: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

How can anyone have a problem with that? (except for atheists, who are not misguided, but determined to tear down society and recreate it in their image -- current Russia comes to mind as a nice, selfish, atheist model state)

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 9, 2005 9:12 AM

Libertarians adhere to a value-free, relativistic world view where morality is a purely personal issue. The theistic underpinnings of the idea of ordered liberty get in the way. Moral choices must be made and libertarians wish to avoid those choices. The tension is between the God and the state or God and the self.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at March 9, 2005 9:30 AM

Tom, I was not condoning libertarianism. I meant that they are not misguided, as you stated, but that they are actively seeking to undermine society.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 9, 2005 9:47 AM

Randall-

I see what you're saying. Most of the libertarians I know seem too self-involved to be interested in undermining anything other than state marijuana laws.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at March 9, 2005 10:24 AM

They derive from a nonsectarian national religious belief that our rights are secured by our being created in the image of God. Even though all Americans do not believe this, it is the reason why the rights of all Americans are secure. They are beyond the perversions of reason or the vagaries of political power. These rights are not achievements. They are endowments from God. How that God is variously conceived and worshiped by religions, or even if that God is worshipped at all, is of no concern to the state. What is of concern is that neither unaided human reason nor the whims of the government are sufficient to establish and guarantee freedom. Only a national belief that we are created beings can do the job.

This is nonsense. It was proved to be nonsense by the continuation of slavery under the very foundation that was supposed to deny it. There is no other kind of human reason than the unaided kind. The postulate that the rights are endowments of God is just such an act of unaided reason. What unaided reason giveth, undaided reason can take away.

What act of revelation informed Jefferson of this right? Oh right, the revalation of self evidence. Otherwise known as reason. He did not say "We hold these truths to be revealed by God", but to be "SELF evident".

I hate to break it to you, but there is no secure basis for liberty, as long as men are allowed to run things. The best, and only defense is in man's willingness to pay the ultimate price of freedom. Men will have as much freedom as they want and are willing to pay for.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 2:52 PM

Robert:

Very well said.

I might also add the fact that such an arrangement as we have works so much better than all the others tried can't be ignored.

No matter one's notion of a Supreme Being.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at March 9, 2005 3:44 PM

Robert-

What's nomsensical about it? Slavery was a pre-existing institution. The death warrant was signed at the foundation of the republic. It was a foregone conclusion that the institution of slavery could not stand for long. The revolutionary generation understood this quite well.

What revelations supply the basis for your governing philosophy regulating the relationship between man and the state? The reason employed by the founders was aided by 5000 years of Judeo-Christian, Hellenic and Roman culture. "Unaided"? Nonsense.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at March 9, 2005 5:14 PM

Robert:

What truths were self evident?

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 5:25 PM

Tom
The nonsensical part is that many of the signers of the DoI were slaveholders, and saw no conflict between what they wrote and what they did. To make the claim that a national belief that men are created beings secures the freedom of all men pretty much demands that holding such a belief mandates that the holder simultaneously will afford every man the freedom and dignity he deserves. That obviously is not the case. There is no guarantee. There is no secure footing.

How is this belief, that an acknowledgement that God's will is for all men to live with freedom and dignity will somehow guarantee that all men will, different from that of ancient civilizations that the proper performance of rites and offerings and sacrifices to the gods will secure the prosperity of the society, the return of the spring floods or success in wars?

I am speaking of reason unaided by divine revelation. Of course reason is aided by history, experience and tradition. The author is using unaided in the former sense when he says "What is of concern is that neither unaided human reason nor the whims of the government are sufficient to establish and guarantee freedom." There is no need to appeal to God to benefit from the aid provided by history, experience and tradition.

Speaking of the 5000 years of Judeo-Christian, Hellenic and Roman culture, when was it that this tradition put slavery beyond the pale? Only in the last 150 years. Outlawing slavery was a break with this history. The belief that all men being created equally before God means that they must be accorded equal opportunity in this world was a radical notion as far as Christianity was concerned. Medieval Christianity held the belief that men were born into unequal, God-determined stations for a reason, and that it was against God's will to re-arrange the order that He established. Equality before God was for the next world, not this one.

Based on what the Bible says, the medieval world view is no less theologically correct than the Founder's view. You can't build a stable foundation upon the bedrock of the Bible, because you must deal with the shifting sands of interpretation that come between that bedrock and the political structures of any age.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 6:04 PM

Robert:

Blacks weren't humans and therefore did not partake of the Creator's dignity. It was a factual mistake, not a moral one. Similarly, those today who truly think a fetus not human are wrong rather than evil.


Meanwhile, you are, of course, quite wrong about equality. Christianity was radical precisely in that it made all men equal.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 6:34 PM

Even if blacks were not thought to be humans (a factual error of Orrin's, but let it pass), that does not explain Christian enslavement of Greeks for hundreds of years.

Curiously, I find points to agree with in almost every post, including, very unusually, one of Tom's, where he cites the influence of Hellenism and Roman ideas.

Bingo!

We operate today on the basis of a mixed and in many cases mutually contradictory inheritance. God does not enter into itm except as one of several competing ideas.

We have adopted ideas of law that God never had, like juries and fines, which make a mockery of the nitwits who want to post the Ten Commandments everywhere.

We are learning animals, and we learn from everywhere. As Jeff says, we've got a system working pretty well, according to our needs and desires. We made it ourselves, correcting some of the worst stupidities of our ancestors.

God did not tell us how to do it, and he guarantees nothing, certainly not to the Unchosen, which is most of us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 9, 2005 8:05 PM

Ancient slavery was a far different instyitution, not least in that Judeo-Christian morality bound owners in regard to how slaves were treated. That ended with chattel slavery for sub-humans.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 8:40 PM

Blacks weren't humans and therefore did not partake of the Creator's dignity. It was a factual mistake, not a moral one.

So which part of "created in God's image" was so hard to understand?

One might also note the millenia long persecution of Jews.

My theological grounding is a bit weak, OJ. Perhaps you could enlighten me about the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s.

Something to do with Jews--so were Christians wrong before, or are they wrong now? And how did they decide?

God did not tell us how to do it, and he guarantees nothing, certainly not to the Unchosen, which is most of us.

Those are the truest words I have read in a long time.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at March 9, 2005 9:01 PM

Their image was different enough for Darwinists too to think them an inferior group. We were mistaken, but for obvious reasons.

Jews were persecuted for reasons of their beliefs. All societies do that. It's healthy.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 9:09 PM

It is a beautiful essay. I like it. The idea that each of us is created in the Divine image is very powerful and is uniquely Jewish.

OJ: If as you claim the southerners did not believe blacks to be fully human, why did they teach Christianity to their slaves. Wasn't that a fundamental consession that they were fully human?

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 10, 2005 3:20 AM

Robert,

It is a powerful idea, and if it helps people to treat others with respect and dignity, I am all for it.

What I am not for is proclaiming that it is the only idea that can protect our freedoms in society, or that it has some unique power to render society safe from tyranny. That is where one crosses the line between reason and magical thinking.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 10, 2005 1:28 PM

Robert:

Yes, you're uncomfortable, yet it's true.

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2005 1:36 PM

Orrin is just making things up in order to absolve Christianity of its many unforgiveable crimes.

The notion that Americans considered Africans less than human is so ridiculous that I am appalled that even Orrin would use it.

The fight over the 3/5ths census compromise should dispose of that absurdity.

Robert, your question could be revised a bit.

Southerners were conflicted about teaching Christianity to slaves. There were laws against it at times and places.

That it was a subject of debate, though, proves that Orrin is wrong.

There were historical instances in which European Christians treated Africans as less than human, in the intellectual or moral sense.

The Dutch in south Africa allegedly ate Bushmen (tho' not black Africans) under the impression they were not humans. For a short time.

But Orrin is just making stuff up again.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 10, 2005 6:01 PM

The Constitution which classified them as less than fully human is your proof slaveowners thought them fully human? You aren't even trying to make sense anymore.

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2005 6:15 PM

OJ:

So Jews were persecuted because of their beliefs.

Despite being made in God's image.

But now they are not. Despite their beliefs. Or is it now because of them?

Was it healthy then, but not now? Or moral now and not then?

Or maybe the previous sentence is completely backwards.

And Christianity claims to be the sole basis of morality on that mess?

Their image was different enough for Darwinists too to think them an inferior group.

The European enslavement of Africans happened the moment Europeans discovered both Africa, and the rigors of growing sugar in the Caribbean.

Both far preceded Darwin.

But not Christian excuses.

Posted by: Jeff at March 10, 2005 8:47 PM

Jeff:

Yes. It's perfectly healthy for a society to persecute people who don't conform.

And, yes. It was easy to assume blacks weren't human even before Darwin proved it.

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2005 10:31 PM

The Constitution classified Africans as less that full citizens. Women, too.

I dunno whether you think Christians believe women are human or not.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 11, 2005 1:54 PM

Harry:

They certainly weren't viewed as/aren't fully human in moral terms.

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2005 1:58 PM
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