Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

More commencement follies

I’m interested in readers’ comments about this speech and the ensuing brouhaha. Note that the speech was given at a Catholic institution by a graduating senior, chosen by students and faculty as an embodiment of the institution’s ideals and character.

At Dickinson College, the commencement speaker was alumnus John E. Jones, III (’77), the judge in the Dover Intelligent Design case. Here’s some of what he had to say in Carlisle this past Saturday:

As has been often written, our Founding Fathers were children of The Enlightenment. So influenced, they possessed a great confidence in an individual’s ability to understand the world and its most fundamental laws through the exercise of his or her reason. And that reason was best developed, they clearly believed, by a broad based liberal arts education that caused its recipients to engage the world by constantly questioning and persuading others.

Ironically, but perhaps fittingly for my purposes today, we see the Founders’ ideals quite clearly, among many places, in the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This of course was the clause that I determined the school board had violated in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. While legal scholars will continue to debate the appropriate application of that clause to particular facts in individual cases, this much is very clear. The Founders believed that true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in a Bible, but was to be found through free, rational inquiry. At bottom then, this core set of beliefs led the Founders, who constantly engaged and questioned things, to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state.

As I hope that you can see, these precepts and beliefs, grounded in my liberal arts education, guide me each day as a federal trial judge. I am daily exposed to many disciplines, I must learn and relearn things constantly, and I am at risk of deciding a case incorrectly if I accept that which is presented to me at face value.

And so what are the lessons for you in all of this? You are not children of The Enlightenment, but you are now the product of the closest we can come to approximating that---recipients of a strong liberal arts education. So allow me to then suggest these lessons. First, the fundamental idea behind what you have now accomplished is that you are leaving here with all of the tools, but you must use them wisely. The love of learning that I hope has been instilled in you, the tendency to question all that is around you, and the ability to engage the world, all of these things must not be left on this beautiful campus as you depart this weekend. These traits, now inculcated, must endure and be cultivated. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, throughout his life, accumulated a library of almost ten thousand books. George Washington died with nearly a thousand volumes in his collection. These gentlemen read voraciously, including daily newspapers and periodicals.

I find myself in agreement with Judge Jones on at least this: "the practice of law ought to rest on a foundation of liberal learning" (which is what I said he appeared to lack in his Kitzmiller opinion).

I would say that his liberal education left him a dogmatic rationalist (mistakenly attributing that stance as well to all the founders and assuming that it alone animated the Establishment Clause), but there’s also this:

Joseph Campbell was a lifelong student and teacher of the human spirit and mythology. Some of you may have studied him. He said something that I read once and never forgot. It has guided me in my life, and I would suggest that it should guide yours. Campbell said this: "I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time--namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be."

When he reaches for spiritual depth, he gets Joseph Campbell and following one’s bliss!!!! So he’s not simply a dogmatic rationalist. He’s aware, however dimly, of the limits of rationalism, but its aridity (at least as he experiences it) has left him nowhere interesting or profound to turn. This is unfortunate, given Dickinson’s roots.

Update: Christianity Today notes that Jones’s views are contrary to those of John Dickinson, his alma mater’s namesake, which of course isn’t sufficient to refute his view of religion, but may be adequate further to question his view of history. A belated hat tip to Rob Vischer.

Discussions - 10 Comments

So the Establishment Clause was set up to ensure that no one set up a "national religion" because those who set it up (the founders) thought that "true religion" was found only through rational inquiry? An Establishment by any other name...?

Michael has a good point. But the judge’s argument that the founding conception of religious liberty was based on the untruth of Biblical religion is not that uncommon. There are some who think that the State of Nature was intended to replace the Book of Genesis as an account of human origins. I would follow my bliss if it would just reveal itself to me.

As I recall, the Locke-Madison view is that religious doctrines are matters of opinion. This view does not entail the rejection of Biblical religion as untrue.

I wonder whether Jones studied at Dickinson with George Friedman, whose name may mean something to those who have been around as long as I have.

Steve, Well, that true: But the judge’s point is the foundation of the opinion about religious opinion. An alternative is we are given the natural capacity to know or at least pursue with some success the truth about God and the good. (Are you the guy who used to teach at Fordham?)

Peter,
Is yours an alternative, or just a deeper statement of the same? In that pursuit, human fallibility is unlikely to produce the same answers, if reason is uncoerced. I have followed the ID-Darwinism debate fairly carefully. Joe K has posted a lot of things now which need careful reading. I can’t tell exactly what’s bothering him. For myself, three things: (1) I don’t think ID is science, (2) many Darwinian spokesmen - Dennett above all -- don’t understand the limits of science, and (3) the debate about Darwin and teleology is a good thing to have, about modern science in general, which is why I like Kass on the subject.
And yes, ’tis I who spent some happy years at Fordham. I think you and I met once or twice at Liberty Fund gatherings.

Steve,
On the three points we agree:
1. ID isn’t science. Its power is in its criticisms of the evolutionists’ attempt to give a homogeneous and materialistic account of everything. But there are better ways of showing that belief that the world was created is not contrary to what we know through reason. (It’s not confirmed by it, either, of course.)
2. I think evolution happened but more or less came or began to come to an end with the (somewhat mysterious) emergence of the beast with speech (who affects all other beings--even the microbes, see Tom Wolfe’s Jefferson Lecture). So the theory of evolution can’t account for what’s distinctively human about the human beast. So Dennett’s account of religion is ridiculous.
3. Kass’s criticisms of evolutionism are powerful. Evolution can’t explain even the playful etc. behavior of the higher non-human species. But I don’t think that the teleological account of the emergence of the human from the subhuman is completely convincing.

I’m all for science, just not scientism, understood in the way Peter phrased it above. I don’t think I.D. is religion, even if many of those who come to it are moved by religious motives, and object to it’s being characterized as such by dogmatic Darwinists. In other words, my big point, such as it is, is to object to the attempt by dogmatic Darwinists to impose their orthodoxy (in some respects as much of a faith as the positions they’re quick to criticize) in the public schools.

I don’t think it’s unconst. to teach ID as an alternative to Darwin, but there are more effective apporaches. What I’d do is read Mansfield’s MANLINESS on what’s wrong with Darwin and add Tom Wolfe and Walker Percy, not to mention Leon Kass. I have no objection to Darwin in biology class, but "evolutionism" or a sociobiological account of everything we think and do is just ridiculous, even in the soft forms presented by Pinker, Fukuyama, Arnhart etc. Mansfield and Wolfe don’t object to Darwin on Biblical grounds at all, and Kass only in part. The best Thomistic mocking of evolutionism is Percy’s LOST IN THE COSMOS, which is not at all about intelligent design. In sny case, he and Mansfield, for example, explain that Darwin proper understood presupposes intelligible design. The only thing our evangelicals want is for kids not to be given the impression that believing the world is created is contrary to reason or everything we can see with our own eyes.

As for the St. Thomas speech: It’s a private Catholic college. Students and parents who don’t like that a commencement speaker would address the teachings of the Catholic Church ought to find another school to attend. Don’t boo or curse a speaker who addresses those teachings.

As for the administrators at St. Thomas, they need to grow a backbone. So people were offended by the student’s speech. Stand up for Church teaching, administrators.

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