An Attempt at Neutrality

There was one modern state in which republicanism was neither revolutionary nor inherently antireligious.  This was the United States of America.

The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland

There was this idea of popular sovereignty – yes, in a republican form, but underlying this was the vote.  Strickland offers that this idea had its roots in the congregationalist polity of churches during colonial times.

This tradition was brought to North America by the Puritans in the early 17th century, a tradition that wanted to move away from the earlier tradition of a hierarchy with a bishop at the top.  Institutions such as Harvard University, Bowdoin College and Yale University, were founded to train Congregational clergy.

…by embracing a postmillennial view of history…[Jonathan] Edwards and other evangelicals stimulated hopes that a broadly equitable society could be created.

Which inevitably leads to Murray Rothbard, who has commented on these post-millennial pietist Protestants:

From the 1830s until after World War I, northern, “Yankee,” mainstream Protestants (with the exception of old-style Calvinists and high-church Lutherans) were captured by an aggressive and militant post-millennial pietism whose objective was to use government to stamp out “sin” (especially liquor and the Catholic Church), and who made the lives of Catholic and German Lutheran immigrants miserable and put them under constant attack for nearly a century.

Further, from chapter four of his book, The Progressive Era, Rothbard writes:

Briefly, the [Professor Paul] Kleppner thesis holds that “Pietist” religious groups tended (a) to favor statism, both in the personal and the economic spheres, and (b) therefore consistently supported the Republicans as the statist party, while the Liturgicals, consisting largely of Catholics and conservative Lutherans (a) favored liberty, both in the personal and economic spheres, and (b) therefore supported the Democrats as the Libertarian party.

Returning to Strickland, the view of these Protestants dovetailed nicely with the views of the anti-evangelical philosophes – in their case, the world will see progress to the extent it sheds the idea of original sin and fallen man: man can achieve perfection, but only when he removes God from the picture.

All of which sets as foundation the founding of this American republic.  Many of the founders were “deists” who held a neutral, if not contemptible view of traditional Christianity.  Nevertheless, this did not result in the bloodletting to be found in France.  There was freedom of religion to be found from the beginning.

But this says nothing of the attitude of many of the founders.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, would oppose the influence of Christian clergy at every turn:

For him, history “furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”

At the end of his life, he would compose the “Jefferson Bible,” doing away with such details as Jesus being the Son of God, the Virgin Birth, and the miracles.  Jesus was just another in a long line of Jewish rabbis who preached a morality of love and humility.  When persecuted, He, like Socrates, would choose to die a noble death.  That was the end of the story…no Resurrection.

There was Thomas Paine, who would defend French Republicanism against the writing of Edmund Burke.  Exceeding even Voltaire, he would write that…

…the historical faith of Christendom is nothing but “a fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance, is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.”

In any case, the government that resulted from the convention in 1787 would be thoroughly republican without being anti-Christian.  There was no state religion, nothing approaching the Holy Roman Empire, and certainly nothing like Orthodox Byzantium.

Where anti-Christian France was failing, the neutral but the Christian United States was thriving.  This attracted the interest of Alexis de Tocqueville.  In 1831 he would travel to America, and he would find that Christianity strengthened, and not weakened, this modern polity.

“Never before have I been so conscious of the influence of religion on the social and political state of a people since my arrival in America.”

More than political values, religion created social obligations that anchored otherwise individualist tendencies.  For de Tocqueville, individual liberty was dangerous to the community.  It could too easily degenerate into competitiveness or indifference, dissolving the moral bonds of society.

Philosophers of the nineteenth century struggled with the question:

How could the freedoms of a liberal democracy be so trained as to maintain a commitment to the common good?

This question, and the answer to it, is precisely why I wrote the book, The Search for Liberty.  The answer is to live according to the natural law ethic.  Much broader than natural rights, natural law offers a complete ethical system.  Natural law compels me to act charitably toward my neighbor; yet my neighbor has no natural right to force me toward his charity.

As Strickland paraphrases de Tocqueville, when liberty is disciplined by Christianity – valuing social obligations and personal restraint – republicanism could flourish.  Social obligations and personal restraint – not by force, not legislated by the state, but willingly taken on via living according to the natural law ethic.

De Tocqueville was not optimistic about this prospect in America.  With the almost unlimited economic opportunities, he found a relentless spirit of enterprise, one preoccupied with materialistic desires.

In this way, democracy became a substitute for heavenly immanence.  It became a kind of religion.  And once it did so, public opinion threatened to become a tyranny comparable to the religious regimes of the Puritans or Louis XIV.

Conclusion

The pseudo “heavenly immanence” of democracy is, no doubt and as offered by Hans Hoppe, the god that failed.  Materialistic desires, when placed in the position of highest value, has led to cronyism and corruption: he who dies with the most toys wins, no matter the means.

Absent a society that lives according to a natural law ethic, all attempts at liberty are doomed to fail.

Returning to Rothbard:

What I have been trying to say is that Mises’s utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic—an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual—grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man’s nature.

And:

…only forms of natural or higher law theory can provide a radical base outside of the existing system from which to challenge the status quo.

Epilogue

Ira Katz once asked the question: Is it inherent in the nature of free market capitalism for the wealthiest individuals and/or corporations to capture government power?

My short answer: “yes.”  Liberty is not built on value-free economics; free markets are not sustained in a value-free society.  There is no “value-free” anything.  Liberty is built on a specific ethic, and that ethic is natural law.

For those interested in my long answer, here you go:

–          One Answer to An Important Social / Political / Economic Question of Our Time

–          Free Market Capitalism as the Highest Value (Part Two)

–          The Way Out and the Way To (Part Three)

–          Virtuous Governance

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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