Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reading to the end

Last weekend’s activities gave me another opportunity to ruminate about our country’s founding. I came across an interview with Lawler on the topic. Here is one way of reading our Declaration:

One way of looking at it is [as] a Lockean document, an
Enlightenment document, and a document of individualism, and the Declaration is
kind of a time bomb which over the decades transforms all of American life. And
so the history of America is a kind of creeping and a sort of creepy
individualism which is reflected in the Supreme Court opinions Planned
Parenthood v. Casey and Lawrence v. Texas and all that, which say that the
Constitution demands that every feature of life be reformed with the idea of the
contract between two individuals in mind. So Lawrence v. Texas
implies that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional requirement,
because anything two individuals decide to do has dignity and comes from
autonomy and all that.
It is this reading, put forward by Louis Hartz, which is popular today. Russell Kirk, horrified by the implications of this view, downplayed the role of the Declaration in our American Political Tradition (one wonders how he spent his 4th of July). But there is another reading of the Declaration which could salvage it:

But the other view of the Declaration would be the Declaration was a legislative
compromise. The view of Jefferson was changed by the view of Congress. Nature’s
God, the God of Locke, was moderated with the addition of the Providential and
judgment God at the end of the Declaration. So if you take the Protestant
Christianity of some of the Founders and compromise it with the kind of Lockean
Deism, covert atheism, of some of the Founders, the compromise between the two
kind of accidentally produces Thomism. So there’s not one Thomist American
Founder, it goes without saying. They’re either a Deist or a Calvinist. But the
compromise between the two produces something that looks a lot like Thomism.

The Declaration’s opening, written by Jefferson, contains Deist language like “nature’s God.” The Creator, in this understanding, might endow us with “inalienable rights” but he leaves us to fend for ourselves, uninterested in how things will turn out. The famous analogy is a Clockmaker who winds up the clock and then lets it go.

The Declaration’s closing, which was added by Congress, clearly counteracts this Deist tendency. The Founders appeal to the “Supreme Judge” for the rectitude of their intentions and on “Divine Providence” for support of their cause. God is more than an Unmoved Mover here. He is personally involved in human history. My only revision of Lawler’s view is what we should mean by Thomism. What Lawler means by Thomism is the recognition that there is objective truth which we can know through unaided reason. What I would mean by the Declaration reflecting Thomism is it is open to Aquinas’s ‘thick’ conception of natural law as opposed to Locke’s ‘thin’ conception. Aquinas believes the natural law is a participation in the eternal law, which is God’s providence or plan for the universe. Human government is just a subset of divine government. Locke’s account of natural law drops any discussion of eternal law which is why his understanding of God is Deist. The Declaration’s closing paragraph is compatible with Aquinas’s account, but not Locke's.

The ‘legislative compromise’ reading of the Declaration holds great promise and hopefully it will become the more popular reading. If only more people would read to the end.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this. Thanks for talking up legislative compromise.