By DAVID BEILSTEIN
OVER at Old Life Theological Society, Dr Darryl G Hart—visiting professor of History at Hillsdale College—asked a pertinent rhetorical question,
Should Muslims Try to Legislate Their Morality?
Dr Hart then asks why it is, exactly, that evangelicals fear the legislation of religious morality based upon Sharia Law by Muslims, but not from evangelicalism itself?
Dr Hart writes,
“On the ordinary playing field of fairness and equality under before the law, the notion that Muslims and Jews and Roman Catholics should not try to legislate their morality but evangelicals may is nonsensical.
“The only way that premise behind the Allies’ question makes sense is if you think either that only the true religion may be legislated (say hello to 1650 Europe and goodbye to 1776 Philadelphia), or that the United States belong to the people who first settled it (say hello to Peter Marshall and David Barton and goodbye to David Hackett Fischer). To say Christians should not try to legislate their morality (if the followers of other religions may not) is not to affirm civil society without religion, as the social glue will be easy.
Current debates about marriage are indicative of the problems that the American founding set into motion. But neither is was life in Christendom easy for Muslims, Jews, and Protestants. So Americans tried to separate religious considerations as much as possible from civil society in establishing a constitutional republic. That led to a secular society, a novos ordo seclorum (new order for the ages).”
Lots to unpack here. But before we begin…I have to say it: When was the last time a mainstream conservative candidate, one running for high elected office, ever uttered such a comprehensive and coherent exposition about the kind of republic the founders constructed?
I can think of a whole bunch of paleocon and libertarian pundits who have articulated as much—but only one strong politician comes to mind consistently: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who went through this during his marathon filibuster speech.
In contrast to D.G. Hart’s acuity, cultural conservatives have run a populist charade for twenty-years on the idea that America is a Christian nation—lapping up evangelical votes, and distancing themselves policy-wise and constitutionally-wise, from the aims of all good American conservative ideas. The idea of a separation of Church and state—indeed, the entire notion of a secular age, has been roundly critised by many in the so-called conservative movement because they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Far too many have a flat-earth conception of the founders and their political philosophy. Few could deal with the solidly robust “secular” statements made by James Madison—who wanted religion as far away from civil government as he could get it.
In our day, this would presume some kind of religious indifference or bias on Madison’s part. But the issue is more complicated. Madison said and wrote what he did in order to try and protect the civil and religious authority from corruption. He understood both realms were legitimate, and authoritative, and were not at odds—they weren’t in some form of competition. But if one conflates religion and politics—as too many cultural conservatives do—one needs religion and politics mixed. (Say hello to the religious right).
Such a demand does not limit government. It expands it. Look around.
Conservatism of the last twenty-years became a identity politics shell-game, more based upon the all encompassing ethos of the Wilsonian progressive mind—not of the limited government conservative, who sees civil authority with specific duties it ought to be limited to and broken up into competing and self-checking branches of government.
The government many conservatives desire MUST become the State. Such an ideological compromise cannot be reformed into a constitutional edifice, for at crucial levels it rejects the self-limiting nature of government (a classical liberal model) in favor of a civil authority, which through coercion, molds and legislates specific kinds of citizens, which necessitates the architecture of the State.
With such a schema, one gets the America we currently reside in. One, I’m afraid, where constitutional republicanism has transformed into the all-powerful State, and become intrusive in every facet of American life.
Some will kvetch over my invective. Good. But if I am wrong, why has the conservative movement of late modernity (with high rates of electoral success over the last twenty years), grown government almost as monstrously large and over-bearing as progressive leftist civil servants?
Those who nitpick over paleo-conservative and libertarian criticism aimed at social conservatives, and their social/moralistic agendas, get tense at this point. Their pulse rises, and their underwear knots. But said cultural utopians can never point to significant reduction of government acreage and intrusion. Worse. These Clara Bells pass as many laws as Fabian/socialistic leftists, wildly assuming government is redemptive in nature through gaseous bromides—erecting crucial areas of philosophical inconsistency with the nature, and the character, of constitutional conservatism.
Too often evangelicals believe Biblical revelation, but don’t properly comprehend its contextual basis—and just as importantly, it’s audience. The Christian nation Scripture speaks of is the ministerial authority of the Church, and the political order Scripture reveals is one of heavenly centricity, and not of men or by the whims men build things.
To confuse this crucial issue, glimpsing at the historical record, is a recipe for tyranny almost as much as communistic and fascistic redemptive creeds do. Both Christianity as what men and women do, as opposed to what the triune God of Holy Scripture does—and communistic and fascistic ideologies, are a theologia of glory—they kindle the idea of men and women building what they themselves cannot build.
Dr Hart continues,
“But its [Founders classical liberal philosophy] explicit aim was not to deny God’s dominion but to make room for people from diverse faiths (or no faith) to try to live together (and please remember that even the Puritans did not welcome Baptists or Presbyterians). Legislating one religious group’s morality upsets the original agreement. Why Christians still don’t see this hurts my head the way drinking a curry squishee too fast does.”
An apt point, which Dr Hart goes to great lengths to clarify, writing,
“We the people are sovereign through our representatives. This constitutional republic was established as a rebuttal to “final authorities” who dominated people and abused power.”
I will take slight issue with Dr Hart’s use of the word, rebuttal—though I strongly concur with his overall point.
I do not think constitutional republicanism is about rebutting final authorities, but instead removes the ability of civil authority to rule based upon final authorities, but uniquely penultimate, external authority.
In a word, the founders did not say a host of personal and individual behaviour was right (or moral) just because the government would not enforce, let’s say, the 10 commandments prohibition against fornication. Conversely, the founding father’s concluded such heavenly ordained statues were outside of civil government’s jurisdiction—not that such a jurisdiction did not exist. This was not an agnostic giveaway, but a bulwark against corrupt religion and tyrannical power over individual life.
In example, the contextual framework under consideration in the 18th century would have been that fornication is to be enforced on members of Churchly communions in an ecclesial orders—not by civil authority. The order that civil authority upholds is one preserving and protecting inalienable rights and constitutional rights—not what is ultimately wrong or right.
Further, the idea men and women can satisfy the law of God is not a Christian concept, and tears asunder the law-gospel hermeneutic implicit in Holy Scripture’s composition. The law of God is not a basis for modern nation states, but the mirror by which men and women see their sin and misery—pointing toward the eternal Son of God, the Jewish Messiah—who as God and man; as two distinct natures in one person, now and forever—has reconciled ungodly men and women to Himself.
One struggles to read St Paul thoroughly—and the New Testament writers more broadly—and not see this picture painted beautifully and dramatically through Christ’s incarnation—to His passion, and His resurrection and ascension. The City of God is partaken of by simultaneously Just and Sinner saints in baptism and the bread and wine of communion rather than in the penultimate political order of Republicans and Democrats—or any other such notions—which as Dr Hart aptly maintains, is part and parcel to this novos ordo seclorum—one passing, and temporal.