Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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NYT on Rick Santorum

This article is long and full of the kind of off-hand political and policy judgments you’d expect from the New York Times, but Santorum’s character and principles do come through.

Update: Jeff Sharlet thinks that the piece was insufficiently critical. I’ll go part of the way with him on his characterization of the Founding (not as Christian as Santorum would have it, nor as "deistic" as Sharlet would), but will quarrel mightily with him on the relationship between absolutes and prudence, not to mention apologetics and the oft-demanded "public reason":

A moral absolute can only derived from an absolute authority, beyond the realm of argument. Santorum "rejects" the very absolutes he claims to uphold by offering reasons -- i.e., the non-absolute work of human minds -- in their behalf. Once Santorum engaged in the debate over gay marriage by suggesting that one reason for opposing it was that it could, in his imagination, lead to bestiality, he abandoned the concept of a moral absolute, a truth so self-evident it requires no explanation.

An absolute authority need not be inexplicable; it can be accompanied, explained, and illustrated by other arguments. And when absolutes are not universally acknowledged, one may have to engage in "apologetics" to procure understanding. What’s more, of course, absolutes, as any good student of St. Thomas Aquinas would acknowledge, still have to be applied to particulars, which requires the fallible application of prudence. God might know what’s right in every instance. Human beings can know the universal rules (natural law), but not necessarily what’s right in any given instance.

Update #2: Get Religion generally agrees with me, arguing that "Sokolove’s tone suggests a certain admiration for — but clearly not agreement with — Santorum’s passion for prolife issues and faith-based assistance to the poor."

Discussions - 3 Comments

Thanks for the comments, Joseph. You’re right to correct me if I suggested that the founders were all deists; I meant to suggest only that the notion that they were all pious Christians, creating a Christian nation (as if none had read Locke) is ahistorical. Many were deists; and many more were privately atheists. The irony of disestablishment is that it might be read as an anti-democratic measure. The founders, elites nearly all, feared the election of uneducated preachers. Many would have trembled over the memory of George Whitefield. They wanted to make sure that elections would not hinge on the veneer of morality combined with the rhetoric of piety. So much for that.

Your second point seems a little contradictory. On the one hand, I didn’t say that a moral absolute requires explication; only that it doesn’t need it. On the other, your point about apologetics reveals more strongly than I could have the shallowness of Santorum’s philosophy. Indeed, Aquinas would say that the particulars must be examined -- in which case, the broad stroke "moral absolutes" -- universal principles, UNIVERSALLY applied -- that Santorum describes don’t exist. That doesn’t mean "moral absolutes" don’t exist (part of the absurdity of Santorum’s argument lies in the fact that we are all moral absolutists), but rather that his articulated conception of them actually undermines the amazing strength of real moral absolutes, the ones that are understood through apologetics and in the particular.

I don’t want to rehearse an argument we’ve already had on this site (see, for example, here, here, and here), but I don’t think the fault line simply runs between heterodox elites and orthodox masses. John Marshall and Patrick Henry are two prominent more or less orthodox believers. And even the heterodox were either chary of making their heterodoxy known (Jefferson comes to mind here) or publicly quite supportive of traditional religion. This is clear from the Northwest Ordinance and from the silence of the First Amendment on state established religions. So while I’m certainly not going to claim that the United States was a univocally "Christian nation," I don’t think the story goes as far in the other direction as Mr. Sharlet does.

On the second point, Mr. Sharlet seems to think that a moral absolute must be self-evident and (apparently) accepted by all, which is not a test of moral absoluteness anyone has ever applied before. Most "moral absolutists" think that their "truths" are in principle capable of being appreciated or accepted by all (they’re not, in other words, private "truths"), but they also recognize that passion, interest, and ignorance might interfere with this appreciation. It may not be sufficient, in other words, simply to announce the truth to win its acceptance. Argument may be necessary to lead people from "where they are" to "where they ought to be." Furthermore, a consistent Thomist might well distinguish between principles of natural law that can be clear to all and human applications that are disputable. "Some things," Aquinas says, "are...derived from the general principles of the natural law by way of conclusion" and others "are derived therefrom by way of determination." There are different levels of clarity, disputability, and determinacy. I’m not prepared to defend Senator Santorum’s positions in detail, but I am prepared to argue that his certainty about some moral truths is not inconsistent with the "variability" or particularity of many others.

Joe, You’re sounding more and more like a hillbilly Thomist, blending things Catholic and Thomistic with things American. And, as you know, that’s a good thing. (It also has its difficulties, but no need to dwell on them now.) In the for-what-it’s-worth department, I thought that Sokolove’s perspective was fair and his "tone" surprisingly respectful.

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