[This was originally written in 2007.]
Jim Babka, who does Yeoman’s work fighting for liberty as head of Downsize DC, left a few comments on my post about the concept of the State of Nature. I intended to make two quick points responding to his first post, but I went on a bit of a digression. My response clarifies what I mean when I use the term “a-biblical” to describe Locke’s concept of the State of Nature and I shed some light on why socially conservative Republican Straussian philosophers like Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, Thomas Pangle, and Robert Kraynak believe we should strictly construe the Constitution without viewing man as a being endowed with unalienable natural rights in a Lockean (or Jeffersonian-Madisonian) sense. I’m going to reproduce Jim’s first comment and then my response.
Jon, Part I
It is not necessary to make Locke’s approach a-Biblical or anti-Biblical to make the point that the State of Nature should be a libertarian state.
In fact, Locke wasn’t a libertarian, at least in the modern sense. Going one step further, this notion of liberty as not “license” is sophistry. We’ve since learned Locke was wrong about that, though many continue his error.
Liberty encourages personal responsibility.
Liberty is also permission to fail without government sanction for so doing.
One can do drugs, engage in promiscuous sex, or advocate gluttony by example. And if one does so, only nature has the right to impose a penalty — not the State. That’s a necessary part of liberty.
Locke built his formulation, starting with Adam in the Garden. In this “brief” piece, that was the part you chose to cut from the quote. I would go so far as to suggest that Adam was essential, from Locke’s perspective and time, to his case.
But the Biblical allusions remained in those parts you did quote and they are repetitive to the point that one must want to miss them. And as if that’s not enough, his favorite source to quote is Hooker — an Anglican theologian.
Locke, like his friend Newton, was, apparently, a “fundamentalist Unitarian” — something entirely different than the Unitarians of today. Further, Locke insisted that atheists were not fit to serve in government and couldn’t be trusted. Reason was not his god. Reason, for a natural theologian, was a special tool God had given humans. And it had been given to all men, not just kings. This made man “equal.”
This was revolutionary and very much countered Hobbes.
But it’s Frazer’s words, as quoted in your piece, that bother me most. His account of Eden must be a personal axe to grind. I read the same Bible yet don’t see what he sees. I see the first humans left with Free Will. And unless I take a hyper-literalist view of the story of The Fall, then I see precisely what Locke saw — natural consequences in the face of disobedience to natural law.
But even if I do take a literalist view, could an all-powerful, omniscient God have been caught off-guard? When I ask Evangelicals, was God caught by surprise when Adam and Eve took a bite of the apple? Can you imagine God saying, “Oops, I didn’t see that coming?” Not one Evangelical I’ve spoken with has answered differently.
Since God didn’t prevent this action in advance, He must’ve been willing to accord humanity Free Will.
And so, the question becomes, if it was good enough for God, why not for you? …and for your government? This is, in discussion with a Christian, a persuasive argument for individual liberty as the created state of man.
Similarly, Romans 13 is a favored hobby horse for you to prove that there’s no way the Founders were real Christians because the Bible opposes liberty. And you raise this specter, again, in this piece.
I may not agree with every point of this entire series I’m about to recommend, but I think blogger Steve Scott’s commentary on Romans 13 is more accurate than the view you, and apparently Frazer, have of that passage. I encourage you to check it out.
But my most important point — the reason I write — is that it is correct to label the Founders as outside of orthodox Christianity — the very place Barton, et al, place him. But it is not correct to make them a-Biblical. Theistic rationalism is accurate, as far as it goes. But very clearly, Locke was quite Biblical. And equally clear, Locke was influential on the Founders.
No one is wrong on purpose. Each is convinced of the rightness of his position, and thus advocates it. Locke, his contemporary Newton, and the Arians/Socians/Unitarians that followed, were, in their own minds, advocates of “true Christianity.” David Barton and his ilk certainly haven’t cornered the market in what it means to be a Christian.
It is perfectly consistent for a Christian to favor classic liberalism. A Christian who does so is not contradicting scripture in so doing. Rather, they are, IMHO, honoring the Creator’s intent in “loving their neighbor,” by embracing this high view of man.
I want to respond this in more detail, but off the bat let me make two quick points.
First, re: Frazer, Locke, and Eden, this isn’t, I don’t believe anything personal on his part. In reading his Ph.D., and in knowing about Claremont Graduate College where Straussian thought is popular, he relies on the interpretation of a number of Straussian scholars to reach his conclusion. He’s also read the originals (Locke and the Bible) and agrees with various scholars like Walter Berns, Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle, and Leo Strauss himself on Locke’s a-biblical understanding of the state of nature.
I do too. Though, I try to be more cautious than some of the above named Straussians in my argumentation (Frazer argues cautiously in his thesis as well). They have a tendency to read in things that aren’t there, as part of their belief that philosophers encoded esoteric messages in their texts. And they are justified in doing this to some extent. Locke et al. were not free to speak their minds. Challenging orthodox opinions could get you criminally punished, even executed (see Servetus and many others like him). There was no free speech back then. That’s why these Enlightenment philosophers argued for the concept!
Still, in a debate like this where there is much controversy about what the Founders and the philosophers they followed really believed, I think it’s best to take people at their word.
And when I take Locke at his word, I see his vision of the state of nature as “a-biblical” — a modified version of Hobbes’ (whose state of nature, ironically, is closer to the traditional orthodox Christian notion of original sin and mans’ depravity than Locke’s).
Let me carefully explain what I mean by “a-biblical.” I don’t necessarily mean contrary to or inconsistent with the Bible. If I did I would have used the words “anti-biblical.” Indeed, some of those Straussians like Berns and especially Pangle do indeed believe Locke’s state of nature and his book “The Reasonableness of Christianity” were “anti-biblical.”
One day I should feature some of Pangle’s more provocative quotations on Locke which make assertions that go much farther than I ever would.
“A-biblical” means not derived from the Bible, but not necessarily inconsistent with the Bible. A good Christian can believe in something that is “a-biblical”; he just shouldn’t try to credit the Bible or his faith with the concept. Similarly, I’m willing to categorize the right to revolt, a la Romans 13 as “a-biblical,” not necessarily “anti-biblical” (though I think the Christian Tories’ understanding of Romans 13 which viewed America’s Revolution as a biblically unjustified act — hence “anti-biblical” — to be reasonable as well).
Think of republican government as our Founders envisioned it like an automobile. The car is not an “inherently” Christian idea. It was not made for Christians, by Christians, for the purpose of getting to church easier. It’s an “a-biblical” invention. But, it’s legitimate for Christians to use automobiles precisely for that purpose! Perhaps it’s also legitimate for conservative evangelicals and Catholics to use republican government to promote their values as well. One could reasonably argue that the original meaning of the Constitution never was intended to prevent, as the ACLU believes, government and religion to connect in that sense. That’s I think, ultimately how Berns, Pangle, Kraynak and the other socially conservative Straussians who argue “The Spirit of Modern Republicanism” (a title to one of Pangle’s books) is a-biblical or anti-biblical believe we should interpret the Constitution. That’s also why, they believe, we shouldn’t interpret the Constitution with the view that man is a creature endowed with unalienable natural rights, because that might prevent conservative citizens from being able to use the organs of the state to enforce traditional morality.
But, as you and I would both agree, the state need not be used for that purpose for the Christian religion to flourish. And invariably, such “morals” legislation do more harm than good.