Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Madisonian thoughts on religion in America today

James Madison--er, Peter Lawler--offers reflections on religion and politics in America today, with special reference to the case of Mike Huckabee, whose "evangelical identity politics" is, Peter argues, not really factious. Indeed, his generous appeals are actually in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s lots to think about in this characteristically excellent and provocative piece.    

Discussions - 4 Comments

A very fine piece. I agree that Huckabee's religious appeals are not dangerous to our Constitution or to our politics. But if Huckabee wants his appeal to stretch beyond those who already agree with him, he should consider reading more Lincoln (as in the Temperance Address) for tone and grounding himself in Madison as Peter does here. I don't know what to say about the evolution question he raises at the end. What Peter says seems like a good start . . . but it's only a start. Next article?

Peter, it was a persuasive and I think correct discussion of the interaction between religion and politics. You should link to it on the blog, unless of course I missed it earlier.

My question relates to the this:

It’s a common but fundamental error to believe that religion in America is to be judged as primarily an instrument for securing rights. The liberty our Constitution secures is only good in view of its purposes. We’re free from political domination to be friends, family members, citizens, and creatures or members of religious communities. Our free exercise of religion is for religion, and our "rights of conscience" can’t be exercised effectively or truly in lonely isolation. Our nation is characterized by religious diversity, or not by a homogeneous indifference to religion. And our belief in the equality of all human beings under God is an indispensable limit to the excesses of "progressivism," a limit to what we believe can or should be achieved by egalitarian political reform. Our genuinely Christian belief has spared us extreme efforts, at least, to obliterate the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man.

Yet you above say: It’s very doubtful that men and women without any personal faith at all can really devote themselves to the proposition that all men are created equal. I am interested to hear how you explain this possible contradiction. Saying that it requires faith to really believe in equality seems to say that a purpose or use of religion is freedom and of course many founders believed this and Romney had this in his speech. However the end of liberty you say is not the primary purpose of religion. While true that religion is probably more about justice and salvation than liberty, it seems from a political viewpoint (Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, maybe even the more devout Adams) religion's main public purpose was to secure our liberties.

I think this interaction between liberty and religion leads to a chicken and the egg question. Does our natural liberty and equality give rise to our religion, or does our religious faith give rise to natural equality? It is tempting to have it both ways, but I'm not sure that is possible. Could you explain more of what you meant?

Peter--a terrific piece. What do you think accounts for the fact that Huckabee "doesn't have what it takes" in this reagrd--is it that he hasn't reflected deeply enough upon the reasonableness of his faith and its place within American democracy? Or is his failing primarily that he doesn't have the rhetorical aptitude to advance what Julie has referred to as a "political ecumenism"? It was provocative that you briefly described it as a lack of confidence---but in who or what precisely? Is it a lack of confidence in his own ability, in the synthesis of faith and reason, or (as I'm inclined to suspect) in the American public, religious and otherwise? Much of Huckabee's evangelical victimology seems sincere versus merely strategic: for him to make the Thomistic case he has to have faith in the American people to be reasonable enough to receive it (to be less than fully Lockean).

In the absence of further clarification, except for Julie's reference to Lincoln, it seems to me that the question of whether liberty can be secured without individual faith is unsolved. We know that many founders believed that atheists could not be members of a society based on a social compact because they had no one to answer to for their sins. This implies that liberty needs religion in order to perpetuate.

However, for Christians, Lincoln, and probably America, a nation that seeks to found itself on principles must have religious faith. Unless there is a God who made us we would be like animals-not equal and hence not free. However, merely because we have rationality that seems to function different from lions, we have not proved that natural equality exists. For Christians-Lincoln comes close to this in the Temperance Address-men are equal "for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." Sin is in fact what makes men all equal because we are all equally sinners. Any person who does not believe in sin or believes that men are or even can be angels upsets natural equality. If a man thinks that he is good, then he can easily take the next step and consider himself better than someone else. Religion gives rise to liberty for the very reason that it teaches and provides the foundation for our equality. So I would say that liberty cannot exist without religion, and while "securing our rights" is not perhaps its highest good, our rights would never have been secured without religion.

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