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Religion and the Declaration of Independence

Updated on July 29, 2014
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The Foundational Theory of the American System and Religion

Whether the framers of the American system of government were themselves, each one or some of them, religiously devout or, perhaps, unorthodox or Deistic, or even secretly agnostic or ahteistic is not relevant when it comes to examining the foundational theories on which the American system of government - today triumphant and ambitiously expanding. The underlying theoretical construct is social-contractarian, as it well known. Regardless of what the Founders thought, or anyone thinks for that matter, this is the theory and is to be taken as given and also, as we say, as being "closed" under logical consequence: whatever can be derived validly from the theory is also considered to be coming along for the ride, as it were, whether it was meant to be there or not. When a theory X is in the basement of a political system, so to speak, this is it: we can't say, "oops, we didn't know this wasn't here." At best, we are left without a working theory, if we expel the undesirables, or, at worst, we are stuck with a theory that is unacceptable. The average person, lost in daily concerns, tends to denigrate the significance of theories but think of a theory as description, justification, brochure for instructions and advertisement - all wrapped up in the package. An idealized view of theory would exercise charity in a certain sense: the best possible theory, within the category of theories that apply, should be taken as the foundational theory. Even so, questions arise about how much can be considered as expendable: suppose that we have an inconsistency that can be remedied by taking out one of the two offending sentences (X and not-X, which generate the contradiction); yet, what if both sentences are indispensable for the theoretical foundation? Then, we have an "explosive" - an inconsistent - theory in the basement!

An early student and proponent of the social-contractarian view, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, noticed that, quite clearly, social contract theories can stand entirely without any reference to God or to other religious elements. Mortified that he might be taken as an atheist, Grotius was exceeding circumspect about how to put this, in a famous introduction to his best known work. He put it along the following lines - to paraphrase: if we were to say something that cannot be said without saying something blasphemous and insidious, ... - and then he goes on to drop the bomb.

Let us understand what this means. If you take out all references to God and other religious items, the theory does not miss anything that it needs to work as a theoretical construct. Sagacious people have known this for a while - well, Grotius was studied extensively - but making this plain may offend the cultural propensities of Americans in favor of religion and, from a pragmatic point of view, it goes against all those claims one may want to raise about God having something to do with it all. (If one subscribes to the view that God has everything to do with everything, then, of course, it follows that God has very much something to do with this. Nevertheless, this is a trivial statement and, as such, it does not contribute anything: we are back where we started. This is a subtle point even for serious students: when something is said to have universal relevance, it is trivialized - it doesn't count, not because we have showed the claim to be false but because it cannot contribute to the differentiations we count on to make sense of things. It is like someone living in an all- and always-red room who cannot use redness meaningfully - since everything is red! The problem is perceptual too but notice that it is also logical.)

A term in a theory can be considered rhetorical if it doesn't do any real work - if you can have exactly the same theory still by omitting it. Religious references are like that in those foudnational documents of the American system. I am not saying that the Founders did or didn't believe in the religion; and I am not saying that religion is or isn't true: only that religious premises are doing no work whatsoever in the foundational documents; the social-contractarian theory does not need them. It is important to know, for better or worse, that this theory is secular. John Locke himself, for instance, was apparently a religious man but his social-contract theory stands exactly as it is without any premises from religious sources. This was important, actually, to Enlightenment views and, more generally, to modernity.

Remember, this does not argue that there is something wrong with the religion: only that it has been cast aside for purposes of this theoretical construct. Now, we can still ask a question like: is the religion consistent with this theory? Tough question...

Does it Matter that the Theory of the American System is Secular?

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Is Social Contract Theory Consistent with Religion?

Obviously, it depends on which religion we are talking about. Enlightenment thinkers often expressed grave reservations toward Christianity - and, of course, Islam - in decided preference for the more civic-minded religions of classical antiquity. The Deistic view, which famously dates to this period, envisions an aloof and disinterested deity who, after constructing an intricate and self-regulating universe, let things run themselves. The background of civic-minded hostility to Christianity and the other monotheistic religions dates back to the eruption of such religions into the Greco-Roman world. The claim that there is one God, who is also affiliated uniquely with a specific body of people, would come across as anti-social and destructive of public-spirited interests. Early Christian churches confirmed this view by remaining closeted and insular, adamant that the Second Coming is around the corner and disavowing social obligations toward a state, Rome, which they considered to be a prostituted "Babylon." When Christian believers refused to salute the flag, as it were (meaning to call the Roman Emperor "divine" which had a civic honorific meaning), they came across as enemies of the state. Early Roman aversion became horror when the Christian advocates seemed to lack common sense - they would not be deterred from their actions even if they were threatened with death. The scenes of Christians thrown to the lions has been often rehashed. A movement can actually benefit in its progress when the blood of "martyrs" is added - and, in this respect, the prosecuting Roman Emperors not only received everlasting infamy for their actions but they also appear to have blundered tactically from their own point of view.

A civil religion would be one that embraces the bbody politic and discharges certain important functions in tightening the community. In an individualistic system, this is less important but no system can withstand complete fragmentation down to self-interested individuals: this poses a threat, rather forgotten today, and the countervailing force of civic-minded allegiances (including patriotism) is needed. It is questionable that a monotheistic religion can provide this allegiance, if that religion retains its pure and initial form that is. Monotheism bulldozes over any pretense of individual communities setting up an all-powerful ruler over everyone else. Notice, however, that Christianity has evolved as a social "meme" so that it has morphed into "nationalistist" and "patriotic" religion which, as such, can work conducively to national entities (and this started a long time ago, with the Byzantine Empire and, later, with Russian Orthodox and Pan-Slavic views, to mention some examples, before the emergence of a Christian America.)

Another view of Christianity that can be advanced is that, as otherworldy religion, this is a non-political and strictly transcendental worldview. "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God" is a famous scriptural sentence that is adduced in making this case. Nevertheless, this statement is forbddingly vague and cannot serve as grounds for practical instruction in concrete contexts. Moreover, not being able to rule out the possibility that there are conficts or tensions between religious mandates and what the country needs, the adage also fails to specify what is to be done in such cases.

The issue as to consistency between the contractarian view and religion depends considerably on what the religion is or has become. But we can pose this question, again, at the foundations: is the religious view of humanity and of human values consistent with the views of humanity and of values taken by the social-contractarian theory?

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The View of Human Values in Social Contract and in Religion

If we keep shifting the variant of "religion" we could surely come to a point that there is consistency. Yet, in so doing, the religious package itself would at some point (it might be difficult to say exactly when) would become unrecognizable! (Recall also that two statements X and Y are inconsistent with each other when they cannot both be possibly true together; for theories, take the conjunction of all the statements of both theories and ask again if they can all be true together when the two theories are added to each other: if not, the two theories are mutually inconsistent.)

Here are some inconsistencies between the patent religious view in Christianity and the social-contractarian assumptions about human nature and values.

  1. Social contract theories view human nature as material, all the way down mechanistic: everlasting motion and characteristic organic activity, ceasing only at death, is what defines a human animal. The Christian view takes post-lapsarian human nature (human nature after the original sin) to be something like this, indeed, but postulates that the essence of humanity consists in a higher "Adam" who was liberated and can be redeemed and restored by Christ's sacrifice.
  2. Social contract theories posit as the most fundamental relevant moral value the "natural" claim to self-preservation which, in the absense of an agreed-upon organized political system, means that one has an initial moral claim to anything that is needed for survival or self-preservation. Christianity, in its initial version, denigrates the demands of the body and rejects emphatically the claim that the mortal body - itself a horrific reminiscence of the corrupting lapse of Adam and Eve - is ultimately what defines humanity. The moral claim to what is needed for self-preservation is rejected by Christianity: indeed, one could say that this rejection is central to the Christian ethos: Christian Charitable Love (for which a new term needed to be coined, Agape) consists precisely in relinquishing one's natural self-loving attachments in favor of supporting the needs of others - to the point of self-sacrifice which is promised to nfind meet rewards in an afterlife. Christianity is indeed supererogatory in its moral view ("supererogation" in ethics means "asking for too much, for a saintly and self-sacrificial ethos in place of what counts as morally obligatory). This initial version of Christianity is not easily recognized anymore but we are examining here foundational incompatibilities between the two views. It is not the contract view that has adjusted, of course, but the religious view. The contributions of the Protestant revolution in this respect are telling because, like contract theories, the emergence of Protestantism also coincided with the appearance of mercantile ethos, markets, emphasis on socio-economic individualism, and so on.

John Calvin of Geneva.
John Calvin of Geneva. | Source

Calvinistic Influence on the American Foundation

It would be remiss not to mention the influence of Calvinistic theology on the thinking that often underpins assumptions made by the framers of the American system of government. Social-contractarian philosophy is fundamentally secular. Its assumptions about human nature do not accord with the views of early Christianity in many respects. Instead of ecumenical salvation through a community - the Ekklesia or Church - the contractarian view posits unreconstructed individuality as the lowest common denominator of valuable human activity: this trick engineers the claim that the proper carrier of moral claims (rights) is "naturally" the individual. In addition, an egalitarian view is needed and that is supplied by means of certain arguments. The egalitarian turn is needed against alternatives that, although finding the locus of rights in the individual, may argue that it is the exceptional individual who "naturally" possesses those rights or moral claims; the criterion for an exceptional human nature could range from what is known in the classics as Caliclean hedonism (see Plato's dialogue Gorgias) to some meritocratic or aristocratic view. Yet, the contractarian theory silences those views by pointing out that in the primordial state of the nature - in the jungle that precedes organized and institutional social existence - the preservation of anyone, no matter how exceptional by other criteria - is equally vulnerable and held at supreme risk. The powerful can be ambushed by the weaker; the bright can be brutalized by sheer force; the efficient cannot have ample scope for their talents; and so on... This works because - we should note - a shift has been imposed on value itself: what is considered valuable is the common denominator of the material body understood in terms of its biophysiological imperatives and needs. Assume, for instance, that we posit as highest value artistic accomplishment to obtain a perfectionist ethic - which is dramatically different from the contractarian view of course. Then, we can begin to draw conclusions like "the creation of a superb work of art morally justifies the suffering of as many people as it takes, perhaps including the artist himself or herself." Under this normative assumption, the state of nature we find in the contractarian theory comes across as rather irrelevant for purposes of setting and settling issues about values - including moral claims. A more radical critique that can be made is that the contractarian view gets it wrong: the life presented in the state of nature construct is brutish (which is admitted in contractarian theories, but with different conclusions drawn): it reflects the life of lower animals, not of human beings, and as such has no place in the mix form which we seek to extract value-related conclusions.

Now that we have an even better understanding of the alchemy of assumptions about human nature and about values in the contractarian theories, we can again appreciate the distance of this theory from the original Christian vision. There is, however, a twist made possible by the development of Christian theologies themselves. This brings us to Calvinistic theology. We saw above that the dismal character of the contractarian theory's state of nature can be made to fit the theological claims about the dismal sin that precipitated Adam and Eve's eviction from the paradisiac state. This theological assumption, again, is NOT needed by the contractarian theory- it is not doing any real work in the theoretical construction. But the emphasis of the contractarian theory on the relevance of the animalistic limitations of humans can be reinforced, perversely, by a theology like Calvin's, which stresses the morally repugnant aspects of sinful, post-lapsarian humanity.

Evidence of the jaundiced view of the framers of the American system of government - their proto-Calvinist pessimism about human nature - can be found in the logic behind the mechanical system of checks and balances. It is not to be assumed that there are "better angels" in human nature (as Lincoln would put it eloquently later.) At the very least, cautious prudence suggests that we do make the most pessimistic assumption possible. Assuming, then, that human vices rule and reign, the trick is to find mechanical arrangements to install and institutionalize, so that when the vices work against each other, and against other people's similar vices, to produce a good result at the common level. For instance, a member of one branch of government is not to be trusted to contribute to the common good by virtue of his moral qualities but by means of the vice of ambition - or of the vice of jealousy of what other branches of government might be doing as they seek to aggrandize themselves more and more. Because of this arrangement, vice watches out like ferocious beast against other vices and keeps them in check. The Founders were proud of this architectonic thought (architectonic because it uses what could be destructive natural forces in such a way that a balanced and stable building emerges in the whole.) This line of thinking is unmistakably reminiscent of Adam Smith's similar rationale in support of the market mechanism which is also said to be balancing out self-interested behaviors (with strict self-interest understood as a vice, mind you) to produce an harmonious whole that is promoting of the common good (keeping prices at check, ensuring supply of goods that do not kill....)


© 2014 Odysseus Makridis

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