The Use of Reason In America’s Founding Era Political Pulpits

[This was originally from the Summer of 2009.]

I want to point out something else about the dialog that is occurring in the American creation comments section among me, Tom Van Dyke and Gregg Frazer. We are walking in the shoes of larger figures. Gregg and I are more influenced by the followers of Leo Strauss, especially the East Coast Straussians, like Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle and Walter Berns. Though Gregg and I play a bit more cautious with “reading in” secret atheism to Locke. Gregg’s thesis, after all, states theistic rationalism NOT atheistic rationalism is the political theology of America.

Tom, on the other hand is more influenced by figures like Eric Voegelin and Brian Teirney. The Strauss-Zuckert-Pangle view sees American political theology as something more modern. The Voegelin-Teirney view sees American political theology as something that fits more within the classical-Christian natural law.

A big issue of contention is how compatible are Aristotelian notions of natural law with the Bible/Christianity. If one’s religious tradition — Protestant Sola Scriptura — cares little for natural law as a supplement to the Bible, indeed if one, like Francis Schaeffer sees a danger in it, then the American Founding political theology, properly understood, should not speak to you.

And ironically the Christian America crowd tends to be Sola-Scriptura Protestants who care little for the natural law discovered by reason. This is one reason why they misunderstand “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God” for what’s shorthand for the Bible. There is very little exegesis on David Barton’s Wallbuilders on natural law, how it has its antecedents in Aristotle, was incorporated into Christdendom by Aquinas and then incorporated into Protestantism by thinkers like Hooker, and that fundamentally it is what man discovers from reason, even if ultimately it must conform to what’s written in the Bible.

But that — whether natural law discovered by reason — really is suited to conform to what’s written in the Bible is also central to this debate. Aquinas used natural law as a supplement to the Bible and said he made it conform to scripture. However, some more modern natural lawyers (like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, some of the patriotic preachers) used the Bible as a supplement to man’s reason, and ultimately had man’s natural reason supersede scripture (especially Romans 13).

So these are the central points in the dialog, when the Founders invoked a God given substantive natural law as discovered by reason, 1) was it something more classical-Christian or more modern? And 2) is the classical concept of natural law as a supplement to the Bible necessary or even consistent with biblical Christianity or a perversion of Christianity by Aquinas?

As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “Aristotle…was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy….The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.” pp. 252-3.

And with that I am going to reproduce some of Gregg Frazer’s summary of the very natural law/natural rights oriented political sermons of the American Founding. Most of those political sermons can be found here:

…[T]here are two ways of looking at the question of “reason over revelation”….

One is the idea that one’s reason should take priority over the CONCEPT of revelation.

The other is that one’s reason should take priority over the CONTENT of revelation.

It is my contention that we find both of these in the key Founders and in the preachers who supplied them with theological cover for the Revolution.

A few examples of reason over the CONCEPT of revelation:
a) Jefferson tells his nephew: “Your own reason is the ONLY oracle given you by heaven” and “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal EVERY fact, EVERY opinion.”
b) Adams said that he would believe what his reason told him over DIRECT REVELATION from God and that when reason is clear, “no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it.”
c) Samuel Cooke said that men “can be subjected to NO human restrictions which are not founded in reason” [inc. those given by revelation] and he equated “the voice of nature” with “the voice of God [revelation].”
d) Samuel West said: “whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is AS MUCH the will and law of God AS THOUGH IT WERE ENJOINED US BY AN IMMEDIATE REVELATION FROM HEAVEN.”
e) John Tucker said of his view of government: “It is the voice of reason, which may be said to be the voice of God [revelation].”
f) Gad Hitchcock denuded Romans 13 of its supernaturally revealed status by referring to the passage as Paul’s “rational point of view.”
g) Samuel Cooper made conformity to reason the test of the validity of Scripture. He went on to say that his were “the principles … which reason and scripture will forever sanctify;” but his references were to Sidney, Locke, and the atheist Voltaire — not to Moses, Paul, and Jesus.

And, of course, Jefferson famously took a pair of scissors to the New Testament and removed whole sections which he, by his reason, had determined were not revelation at all and referred to the rest of the New Testament other than the Gospels as a “dunghill.”

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18 Responses to The Use of Reason In America’s Founding Era Political Pulpits

  1. tom van dyke says:

    Cicero is key.

    Jefferson is not. 😉

  2. “However, some more modern natural lawyers (like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, some of the patriotic preachers) used the Bible as a supplement to man’s reason, and ultimately had man’s natural reason supersede scripture (especially Romans 13).”

    They did not use it to supercede scripture. They used a reasoned interpretation to supersede a Tory interpretation. We have to get this right Jon. It is key.

    “1) was it something more classical-Christian or more modern? And 2) is the classical concept of natural law as a supplement to the Bible necessary or even consistent with biblical Christianity or a perversion of Christianity by Aquinas?”

    Two outstanding questions.

    “As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “Aristotle…was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy….The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.” pp. 252-3.”

    I would like to see what this is based on. He was no Averrorist. He for sure did not believe that some men were by nature slaves like Aristotle did.

    As far as what Greg wrote most of them said that right reason was equal to revelation. That is not trumping anything. He has a real problem with natural law Jon that needs to be made clear when you use him. The key is that they did not condone using natural law to get around Romans 13 like you state. They just had a different interpretation like Mayhew did.

    I repeat:

    They did not use it to supercede scripture. They used a reasoned interpretation to supersede a Tory interpretation. We have to get this right Jon. It is key.

  3. From Tom’s Link:

    “1. “Someone who kills a tyrant in order to liberate his country is to be praised and rewarded.”

    2. “Tyrannical government is unjust . . . . Therefore the overthrow of this kind of government does not have the character of sedition. . . . Rather it is the tyrant who is guilty of sedition.”

    3. “No one is obliged to obey someone whom it is legitimate and even praiseworthy to kill . . . . Therefore no one is obliged to obey a tyrant.”

    4. “Whoever seizes power by violence does not become a true ruler and lord, and therefore it is permissible when the possibility exists for someone to reject that rulership.”

    Now suppose you were to ask the average professor of political theory: What is the earliest century in which these revolutionary statements might have been considered mainstream and even accepted conventional wisdom? My guess is the most common answers you would get would be the 17th and 18th centuries, on grounds that rebellion against tyrants was rejected by mainstream political thought until John Locke in the late 17th century – the only difficulty being to decide at what point Locke’s radical idea of a right to rebellion could be considered “mainstream” and “accepted conventional wisdom.”

    In fact, all four quotations come from Thomas Aquinas writing in the 13th century”

    Holy Crap Jon this is about as clear as it gets! 2 an 4 explain his way around Romans 13 just as I guessed it would be in the comments section of your last post. Is it your contention that he used reason to trump revelation? If not then why did Mayhew have to? Take away the sotierological red herring and open up the years of study to the totality of Christian thought and Frazer’s thesis dies a harsh death.

  4. From Tom’s Link:

    “The philosophy of rebellion against tyrants that gained such wide influence in Christian political thought after the late 17th century represented no break from the previous 17 centuries of Christian doctrine. It was innovative in the sense that it was more highly developed, but the development was entirely organic. The basic building blocks of the argument remained surprisingly unchanged from their origins in Cicero through their appropriation by Augustine, further integration into Christian thought by Aquinas, and ultimately their much fuller development by Locke. The entire field of political theory, and especially scholars of Christian arguments for rebellion against tyrants, need to recover an awareness of and engagement with this 2,000-year history of Christian Ciceronianism.”

    This about sums it up does it not? It is amazing to me how even brilliant people miss this in History. I would have never known had I not read Amos book. More tragically, the two essays that have most impacted our foreign policy post-Cold War seem to be heavily dependent on a view of History that ignores a lot of this stuff. Strauss sure seems to.

    Government based on justice not power right on. At the root is giving people a CHOICE. This is the “Christian History” that is going to give the Religious Right heartburn. Seems that Aquinas was a lot more libertarian than most would think.

    Jon,

    If you want to beat the Religious Right do it on their turf. They cannot mess with Aquinas and choice. Using a dude that does not believe we have a choice will never get it done. Right mission wrong tools.

  5. Tom,

    You gotta do a post on that link. If you do not want to I will but I think you should do it.

  6. Tom,

    I fully understand the nuances and personally agree with him. Deposing a tyrant was and should be a last resort. Anarchy is as bad if not worse than tyranny.

  7. tom van dyke says:

    And besides the obvious, that chaos sucks, it’s rooted in Aristotle’s view that man, by nature, is a social animal. Violently overthrowing a tyrant is something humans have historically dealt with not all that much fuss. Bye, Caligula, hello Claudius.

    Violently overthrowing the social order is the real sedition in the Aristotelian view, and the difference between the American and French revolutions. The metric system isn’t worth killing for, fer crissakes.

  8. Pinky says:

    .
    By this, This is one reason why they misunderstand “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ for what’s shorthand for the Bible., do you mean that misunderstand is to be used as mistake?

  9. There is use of this phrase all the way back to canon law in which the latter part of LONANG is the Bible. This has been buried too in modern academia as well.

    Jon,

    You dismissed the statements of Aquinas and said there must be more. These statements prove there was more and it is devastating to your thesis. Are you going to respond?

  10. Pinky says:

    .
    So, the questions we have here are about what Pangle calls, The Crisis of Modern Rationalism?
    .
    Am I understanding the gist correctly?
    .

  11. Seems that way Phil.

  12. Pinky says:

    .
    Well, in that case, it seems the argument involved is–at least in part–about whether or not our present society is to be defined as liberal republican or as based on the Founding as defined by Christian biblicism.
    .
    Is that correct. If not, what is the argument here?
    .

  13. tom van dyke says:

    the Founding as defined by Christian biblicism

    No, Christian Ciceronianism, in this case. Reducing Christian thought to merely the Bible is the theological hermeneutic of fundamentalists and is inappropriate for historians.

    However, some secularists happily co-opt fundamentalist theology in order to erase Christianity from the Founding and claim it for the Enlightenment. That is the issue here.

  14. Pinky says:

    .
    So, then, will you be outlining the issue as you see it so those who haven’t read your take will be able to get a handle on what you’re talking about?
    .

  15. tom van dyke says:

    Pinky, you’ve been reading American Creation for over a year. Enough people seem to understand the general thrust that I don’t think it’s a lack of clarity on the contributors’ part, who fall on both sides of the issue.

    For anyone still reading this, it occurred to me that Robert Kraynak [whose thesis is similar to Gregg Frazer’s in alleging the Christianity of the Founding era was inauthentic] might not like Vatican II very much.

    Bingo, more Catholic than the pope:

    http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Who+Is+My+Neighbor%3F+Personalism+and+the+Foundations+of+Human…-a0186271091

    For the most part, Williams presents a line of reasoning very similar to the argument that I made the last time I taught my university’s 400-level philosophy course on Catholic Social Thought. In that course, I used Robert Kraynak’s book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, to set up the problem of the semester. Kraynak offers a serious challenge to Catholic social thought and personalism.

    [To] Kraynak, the emphasis in personalism on the dignity of the human person, specifically when it is coupled with the language of rights, actually has the effect of weakening Christianity and sapping its spiritual energy. Kraynak believes that, in adopting the language of rights, both Vatican II Noun 1. Vatican II – the Vatican Council in 1962-1965 that abandoned the universal Latin liturgy and acknowledged ecumenism and made other reforms…

  16. “So, then, will you be outlining the issue as you see it so those who haven’t read your take will be able to get a handle on what you’re talking about?”

    He has numerous times at AC. Those that read this here and do not get it should go there for clarity.

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