The Declaration of Independence as a Calvinist Tract

It would be quite an anachronism if the authors of the Declaration of Independence had not thought in terms inherited from Christianity

As part of a seminar the website Crooked Timber is conducting on Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Sam Goldman put up this post discussing Professor Allen’s interpretation of the theistic language in that 1776 document.  While Professor Allen concedes that a theistic reading of the Declaration is plausible, she argues that it is not necessary to arrive at agreement with the document’s central claims.

Mr Goldman is unconvinced of this, arguing that, while “Nature’s God” as described in the Declaration is not necessarily the Christian God, “the Declaration loses much of its original meaning if you leave God out.”  He spends several paragraphs discussing the sort of God the Declaration requires, showing that, for example, Spinoza’s pantheistic view might suffice to make sense of the bare language of the document, but that other evidence suggests that it would have repelled its authors, and that it would also defeat some aspects of Professor Allen’s interpretation.

I responded to Mr Goldman’s post.  I did not assert that the Declaration is necessarily a specifically Christian document, but that whatever God its authors had in mind was one who interacted with humans in much the same way as did the God Jean Calvin described in his theology.  Indeed, the reception of the Declaration in the civic life of the USA shows the influence of Calvinism on the American religious imagination.  I wrote:

“The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.” And also their idea that justice is reducible to rights, while rights themselves are not functions of specific social institutions, but are given to us by God for no particular reason that history can discern, are received by us without our doing anything to claim them, and are retained by us throughout all time no matter how many centuries may pass without our exercising them, defending them, or knowing that they exist.

The Declaration may not mention the resurrection or Jesus “or other specifically Christian doctrines,” but in these three aspects it is, I think, obvious that the God of the Declaration relates to humanity in just the way that the God of Calvin does. Unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the persistence of the saints are three of the five petals of the Calvinist TULIP, and the Declaration’s view of rights as our history-free endowment implies a barely secularized version of all three.

The other two petals of the acronym, total depravity and limited atonement, are not far to find either. Both the king, in the comprehensive corruption that the list of grievances reveals, and the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” show what humans are like when the Nature’s God does not so enlighten their understanding that the extraordinary claims of the opening paragraph become “self-evident.”

Even the very strange fact that the Declaration, which is a press release, became the occasion for the USA’s chief patriotic holiday shows the Calvinist influence. Not only do Calvinists tend to have rather a high respect for the market, so that an event in the marketing of the Revolution could become the paramount symbol of the Revolution, but also Calvinism’s emphasis on Biblical exegesis and the liturgy of the word prepared the Calvinist mind to look for the climactic moment of the Revolution, not in a battle or a treaty or in any other event where people gather and physical objects move between them, but in a presentation of abstract ideas to which people listen in silence.

This last point, that a particular configuration of the religious imagination is required to make a press release a fit object for national veneration, was in fact my initial response to the piece, as memorialized on Twitter:

A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

Secular Calvinism?

Adherents of the political tendency known as libertarianism often defend their positions with appeals to economic theory.  They do not often show a high regard for the concerns of environmentalism.  So when a libertarian think tank publishes a book that equates the academic discipline of economics with the environmentalist movement, one may well take notice. 

In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert H. Nelson of the Independent Institute argues that the forms of academic economics that have influenced policymaking in the US in recent decades, like the forms of environmentalist thought that have begun to play a role in public affairs, are secularized versions of Calvinism.  How so?  To quote the Independent Institute’s summary:

The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena today—the New Holy Wars—are crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankind’s impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.

Nelson is himself an economics Ph.D, having received that degree from Princeton University in 1971.  If one of the tenets of the religion of economics is that economics is not a religion, that would make him a wayward priest.  The summary goes on:

Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.”

That’s an interesting claim, and a list of very diverse people.  Nelson seems to focus on the USA, but it would be interesting to contrast the environmentalisms that have taken hold in countries with histories of Calvinism with the environmentalisms that have taken hold where Calvinism was never ascendant.  Onward:

Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient,” writes Robert Nelson.

Coming from a libertarian economist, the statement that “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient” is as amazing as Luther’s Ninety Five Theses were coming from a Roman Catholic priest in 1520. 

The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.

To the extent that this is true, I suspect it is not because of the intellectual forebears of contemporary environmentalists, but because those environmentalists have come to Africa as agents of Western bureaucracies.  As such, they have been constrained to act and think in the terms those bureaucracies made available to them, terms which often have little connection to the social and ecological realities of Africa. 

There is another, shorter, summary on the same page:

“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.

“If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the ‘spiritual values’ of economics versus the ‘spiritual values’ of environmentalism,” writes Nelson in his introduction. “For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.”

In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs down—or unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.

In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.

Some readers of this blog have expressed interest in “political theology,” the idea that there are no truly political belief systems, but that all political theories are simply theological doctrines in disguise.  This notion is often associated with the German legal scholar (and onetime NaziCarl Schmitt (1888-1985.)  Say what you will about Schmitt’s detestable activities from 1933 to 1937, he made a powerful case for political theology.  Nor did he originate the notion; it can be traced back to Cicero’s Laws (especially book 1, chapter 8), and back of Cicero to the Stoics, with the idea that a certain memory of the Divine lingers in the human mind and that the various legal codes and religious practices of the world result from the attempts of various peoples to translate  that memory into a guide for action.  If there is truth in political theology, then we would expect both economics and environmental theories to be driven by unacknowledged theological commitments.

Terry Eagleton’s “Reflections on the God Debate”

eagleton bookVia 3quarksdaily, an interview in which Terry Eagleton discusses his book, first published this March, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.  In his introduction, the interviewer quotes Eagleton as saying that the “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap.”  In the interview, he enlarges on this point, claiming that Dawkins and his ilk reduce religions to sets of propositions and behave as if arguments for and against these propositions were grounds for accepting or rejecting religions.  So far from being new, this approach represents positivism at its most naive.  They ask only, “What do the believers say about their creeds?,” never “What do believers accomplish by saying what they do about their creeds?”  For Eagleton, the life of the religion is in the relationship between beliefs and actions, and it is a ruinous mistake to treat a system of religious beliefs in the same abstract way that we would treat the propositions in a geometric proof.  Indeed, this is the same mistake fundamentalists make:

NS: You say he emphasizes a “propositional” account of religious faith above a “performative” one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.


A provocation from Mencius Moldbug

Lefalcon seems to be interested in “political theology,” the notion that all political ideologies are really religious doctrines in disguise.  Below, Mencius Moldbug of the “Unqualified Reservations” blog tries to identify the religious doctrine behind the liberal internationalism that animates supporters of things like NATO, the UN, etc.

If you don’t want to follow the link, I’ll put the key paragraphs after the jump: