Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Jefferson and Modern Nihilism

While looking for a Jefferson quote, I happened upon this website. Note the name: "nobeliefs.com." I suppose they are unfamiliar with the Sage of Monticello’s comment: "I consider belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition." Jefferson, of course, believed that a "Wall of Separation" was a reasonable way to disestablish religion in America precisely because he believed that the teachings of natural law were intelligible, and therefore could be comprehended by reason. He left speculative opinions outside the wall, for people to entertain in private. Nowadays, we have many Americans who believe in the wall of separation, but no longer believe in natural law. The result is what one would expect.

Discussions - 16 Comments

In order to believe in something it must be capable of being clearly understood(or perhaps belief is at odds with knowledge). The idea of a seperation between church and state is rather clear. Some would complicate it, but essentially such obfuscations are apparent or at least appear to be so to a sufficient extent so as to be the basis for conflicting and competing factions. In my view Natural Law is best expressed by the Melian Dialogues. The strong do as they please the weak suffer what they must, and everyone seeking power accuses his opponent of perfidy. All men have ten tongues and one deceit, and as such those who ascribe to the no belief school aren't traveling lines of thought much different from the learned scepticism of a David Hume. The strong are capable of believing or appearing to belive in more, since trust is in populist slang proportional to how far someone can be thrown.

I was not sure what you implied in your last line, 'the result is what one might expect.' Many Americans no longer believe in natural law because they have about two centuries of good reasons for not believing it to be true or justified. It is no longer an intelligible proposition, but of course remains incubated in the academy by many who hold to it as an extension of their religious beliefs. Fair enough, as long as it is kept there. The Jeffersonian idea must now be understood along post-modern lines and in functional terms. State structures must now be kept separate from whatever corrupt metaphysical conceits that either stroll down the lane masquerading as religious profundity, or power groups cloaked in secrecy, such as the Council for National Policy types. 'What one might now expect' is for what remains of Jeffersonian language to serve as a buffer against the nihilism of Hagee's Jerusalem Countdown.

Well said Stertinius. That is a good case in point of what Natural Law is. Natural Law is the force what makes Stertinius feel threatened enough by Hagee to claim that he is a Nihilist. Reciprocally it is what makes Hagee feel threatned and attack groups that he deems antagonistic to his most cherished beliefs. Natural Law holds that when two people with opposing worldviews collide where there is no legal framework for adjudicating disagreements they will set upon each other in a battle to the death, that nevertheless need not terminate in death. Outside the imaginary state of Nature they agree not to kill each other and resort instead to insults and lesser provocations such as promising to vote for Obama or McCain respectfully.

I'll take another pass at explaining it. Jefferson held that the wall of separation was a good idea because he believed that moral truth was a matter of common sense. Nowadays our intellectuals believe in the wall of separation, but they are also moral relativists.

John. Is the wall of separation as clear as you think? What's your definition of a religion? You say "corrupt metaphysical conceits." That's not terribly clear to me. On the other hand, you seem to agree with Jefferson: common sense can allow us to distinguish a corupt metaphysical conceit from a good one.

Obviously none of the authors of the comments above had any idea of the real meaning of misused metaphor - Wall of Separation bewteen Church and State. Let me enlighten all of you which might encourage one or all of you to read up on it and see that the interpretation of that metaphor was clearly misused in the Supreme Court Case Everson vs. Board of Eduction (New Jersey) 1947. The presidential election that took place between Jefferson and John Admans was bitterly fought, nasty event. Jefferson's religion or supposedly lack thereof, was a critical issue in the campaign. When news of Jefferson's election spread across the country, housewives were burying their bibles because they expected to have their bibles confiscated by the new Administration. Also fueling this fear was Jefferson support of the French Revolution. Jefferson however was supported by the Baptists in New England who were considered outsiders. The Danbury Baptists Ministers penned a fan letter to Jefferson (you need to read this letter in order to understand the events taking place) where they celebrated Jefferson's zealous advocacy for religions freedom (google the inscription on Jefferson's tomb) and they chastised those who condemned Jefferson. Jefferson graciously responded - you need to read the whole letter - in where he stated the following:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ?make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,? thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.


This Danbury letter is thought of as a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state. It was not - it was a political statement written to reassure the Baptist that Jefferson was indeed a friend of religion (again read the inscription on Jefferson' tomb) and to STRIKE BACK at Adam's and his Federalists. Furthermore, one must understand the history of the Consitution in order to understand that this misused metaphor has nothing do the First Amendment - Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise therof - Jefferson had nothing to do with the framing of the Consitution. He did not attend the Constitutional Convention where Madison, et all wrote the 1st Amendment. Jefferson was in Franc as the Ambassador from the United States. Why the Supreme Court in Everson vs. the Board of Education used this phrase to decide a Supremen Court case that involved religion could only be explained by the fact that the Justice who wrote the opinion - Hugo Black - was a member of the KKK. People nowadays only connected the KKK with hating blacks. This is wrong. The KKK hated blacks, Jews, and really hated Catholics. The Everson Case involved children attending Catholic schools and using public transportation to get to the Catholic School. Hugo Black never referred to any writings by Madison - the true author of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because there was nothing there supporting Black's desire to re-write the first amendment to support his decision in favor of Everson. Black completely disregarded the origin of Jefferson's wall of separation of Church and State and did what is now become the first of "legistating from the bench".

Mr. Adams says: Jefferson held that the wall of separation was a good idea because he believed that moral truth was a matter of common sense. Nowadays our intellectuals believe in the wall of separation, but they are also moral relativists. Stertinius says:moral truth is not a matter of common sense. It was once 'common sense' that the earth was flat. It was once 'common sense' that slaves had no souls. The phrase 'common sense' often (but not always) masks corrupt metaphysical conceits, as do state-of-nature fictions. All the more reason to build up the wall of separation, or at least a mechanism of power-diffusion whereby such conceits can be 'spun-off' before they become too concentrated and elective wars result.

Can a polity function absent an underlying moral consensus? Are moral ideas religious by nature? Is the "wall of separation" the same thing as disestablishment? Why does arts funding not violate the separation of church and state? Is the culture war that we have in our country partly the result of certain religious ideas being labeled as "not religion" and therefore okay, even as other religious ideas are pushed out of the public square?

Another history lesson. If we just studied enough of the history of the shining moment, we could fathom Jefferson's real intent, which could then be brought forth to today. That might be useful to that fellow looking for things to talk about at his academic conference, presumably because he could not think of anything himself. But such thinking is helpless before conditions as they obtain today, conditions for which neither Jefferson, nor anyone in his century, had the language or conceptual grid to describe. The 'wall' metaphor is not misused, to then be corrected by restoration of some original meaning; rather conditions are such that the phenomenon in question cannot, and never could, be conceived in terms of 'walls' at all. One must think of these things in terms of modulating apparatuses of control and hybrid dimensions of subjectivity. What Jefferson 'originally' meant by it is of limited relevance. 'Publicola's' point came close to the truth: what constitutes the 'religious' and the 'social' today are processes or movements that have nothing to do with spatial or even geographical relations.

Stertinius: Now you seem to agree with the original post. When people begin to think that disestablishment requires "nobelief" there is a problem.

What Jefferson really meant by it is of little relevance? Right. Then someone quick tell the ACLU that the Wall of Separation is of little relevance so that the will stop wasting my tax money on stupid lawsuits. Let Michael Newdow know too so that he stops suing the crap out of every school in California for saying the Pledge of Alligence. I sure Thomas Jefferson would agree whole-heartedly with you as you seen to be completely enlightened about what Jefferson meant.. Please do us a favor. Read a history book. Understand what the founding Fathers of this country were all about and how the Constitution was framed. And the History Book by Howard Zinn does count.

If things of the past are soo long distant that they in no way can ever conform to the present, then why do we cling to a document that is clearly of the distant past?

How long must that past be before it becomes too distant to relate to the present?

And, if such things are really true, then how can humanity have any real stability in anything, be it customs, law, or government?

Last, couldn't such arguments be the basis of continual revolutions in not just government, but in cultural and societal norms that mean only the present thougts dominate?

The assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition is not belief; it is knowledge. Jefferson's problem was that he thought religious belief was superstition, with no support of reason. Further, he was an epicurean materialist. Furthermore, Lincoln suppressed his disdain for Jefferson in order to save naturral law from the incoherencies of the Declaration. Richard Adams needs to read Philip Hamburger's book on the subject and take seriously J's opinions on the French Revolution. Jefferson was more a contemporary academic liberal than an ancient.

Robert Jeffrey, the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition is belief, but it is not faith. Maybe I don't read Jefferson properly, and that Hamburger book is actually in the pile on my bedside table, barely opened yet. My reading of Jefferson is that he found belief reasonable, if it was based on reason, but not faith, which is NEVER reasonable. Faith builds its own reasonable constructs, but it is not reasonable beginning point when we live in a material world. It is inescapable for me, and I think for you, but we have to forgive Jefferson and others when they just don't have it.

Jefferson cannot be looked at as a contemporary academic liberal, because his presuppositions were not informed by the intervening philosophical precepts. I don't think you can reduce his thinking as you do. It is not reasonable.

Rob is trying to make us think. According to Rorty, Jefferson attempted wholly to privatize or "strictly separate" religion to reduce it to a private fantasy with no public weight. Jefferaon also caricatured all of medieval Christianity as "monkish ignorance and superstition," which seems a bit intolerant. He also looked forward to the day when all young men would be Unitarians--that is, freed from thrall of distinctively Christian superstition not only publicly but privately. Jefferson also said in his most philosophic private letters that he was an Epicurean--not that there's anything wrong with that. And Jefferson was pretty promiscuously open to the latest trends in French thought, as Jim Ceaser complains, and we way too open to the violence of the French Revolution, as John Adams, for one, complained. Mr. Jefferson was a great and exceptionally learned man, but along with the virtues, he sometimes had some of the vices of intellectuals.

Rob did make me think, which is why I responded. I don't agree with Rorty about Jefferson, except insofar as Jefferson did not understand faith. I do think Jefferson was sometimes given to whims and fads of thought and was willing to embrace the logical extreme of any one of his principles as intellectuals are often foolishly wont to do. He'd follow Locke's proposition on right to property to its logical extreme, except wherein it might impact his own property and then he would moderate himself. He was certainly capable of unreasonable belief, but his definition of belief is not wrong.

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