Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Principle and Prudence, Religion and Politics

I realize I have missed the spin cycle on this and it is largely irrelevant, but nevertheless, a comment on the President’s Inaugural Address:

Perhaps the principal reason Jefferson believed so ardently in self-government is that he believed not at all in original sin. He therefore believed in a fundamental sense that freedom could not produce evil. As in other respects, this meant that Jefferson was at odds with traditional Christian teachings, which in varying degrees remained skeptical of natural man. Over time, most Protestant denominations in the United States in effect gave in to or accommodated Jeffersonianism. Holiness movements and the doctrine of sanctification accompanied the development of the view that when man reached moral perfection, then Christ would come again. In this perspective, it made sense to anticipate the end of tyranny on earth and to work ardently for that day, through Abolitionism and other movements of moral improvement. It was this theology and its political manifestations that, or so I was taught, Lincoln dissected and satirized in the Temperance Address. Lincoln did not think that it was possible to end tyranny in our world, that there would actually be a Reign of Reason. What does President Bush, an adherent it appears of the theology descended from holiness and sanctification, think? Clearly, remarks in the speech are intended to show some moderation, but the claims he makes are quite grand. He claims, for example, to know the direction of human history. He does not appear to speak with irony about this. (His new Secretary of State, in an article published before President Bush’s first election, claimed that the United States was on the right side of history.) If this is true, then Bush is really a follower of FDR (Bush spoke of freedom from want and fear) and of LBJ, more than a follower of Lincoln.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Dr. T:

I’m not sure I buy your suggestion that Bush is a premillennarian.

As I see it, his implicit reasoning runs something like this:

Tyranny is evil, on several grounds (bad for people who have to live under it, makes us less safe, etc.)

Therefore, we must fight tyranny as best we can, where and when we can, using prudence to decide about questions of timing, means, methods, priorities, and so on.

Our goal is to eliminate it, of course (which we believe is a righteous goal, and therefore blessed by God, Who as the Bible and our own Declaration of Independence teaches us, is a providential Being).

Note that none of the above commits one to a metaphysical/theological/historicist/Jeffersonian/Rooseveltian belief (assuming you’re right about TJ and FDR) that tyranny will somehow be totally swept from every corner and cranny of human existence, that we must always use violent means to this end, that an Age of Reason will come that eliminates even the possibility of tyranny from the human horizon, etc.

In fine, I think you are putting a construction on Bush’s speech that it does not need to bear and probably was not meant to bear. There are lots of goal-governed human activities wherein one’s often highly complex decisions and actions are decisively shaped by the goal even though one doesn’t realistically expect to come anywhere even close to perfectly or finally achieving the goal (golfers will know what I mean right away).

PJC: You are right that my interpretation of Bush’s speech is not the only plausible one. I agree that it was probably not meant to say what I claim it says. Nor do I think Bush is a premillennarian in any precise doctrinal sense. But I think you underestimate the power of the utopian strain in Jefferson and American Protestantism. The religious and secular expressions of this utopieanism are distinguishable but by now thoroughly intermingled. Fighting a specific tyranny makes sense but presenting that struggle as one that will put an end to tyranny is not prudent. It is not prudent, I think, to exhort people to achieve the inherently unachievable, especially when that teaches them that there are no limits to human power.

By the way, thanks for the civil response to my blog.


No, Dr. T, thank you for another stimulating comment.

We are counseled to perfection (an inherently unachievable goal) all the time--in church, school, sports, Scouts, work, and on and on. I don’t find any of that necessarily imprudent, as long as everybody involved retains the perspective to realize a) that everybody fails at some point along the way to just about any worthwhile goal; b) that "blocking the way to excellence, the gods have put sweat, and a hard road," as one of the Greek poets said; and c) that none of the above is an excuse to quit.

I think that much the same spirit should rule in projects of spreading political excellence (i.e., the virtue of ordered liberty under a rule of laws freely made and equitably enforced).

BTW, I’m in an honest quandary about who is more sacred or secular: The Christians (like myself, w/ my Catholic formation) who have always had the sense that speculating feverishly about the end times or trying to somehow engineer or prepare the Second Coming is pointless and maybe even presumptuous, or the Christians (like premillennarian Protestants) who are passionately apocalpytic. The former, I suppose, have a view of human history that de facto abstracts somewhat from the Second Coming ("no man knows the day or hour") except to say "the readiness is all," which should lend human historical and political life a certain kind of measured "secular" autonomy--does this sense of distance or disjunction between the ordinary round of human history on the one hand and God’s mysterious, sudden, free, unpredictable, and miraculous final intervention in it on the other, constitute a more "sacralized" (transcendence-minded, otherworldly) stance, or is it more "religious" to be like the premillennarians and "sacralize" history in the here and now by viewing it as an arena that must be prepared somehow for Christ before Christ will (or can?) come again?

As I say, I have my own leanings, probably due to early formation, but I’m not at all sure if they make me more "secular" or more "sacral"-minded.

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