Guest post by James S. Valliant
Dear Mr. Glenn Beck,
As a fierce defender of the American Founding Fathers and the free market, as well as an atheist, I listened intently to your discussion of "faith" and the founding of America, April 8, 2010, on the Fox News Channel. Despite my views on religion, I have become a regular viewer because, in my estimation, the history lessons you deliver every night are enormously valuable.
However, today's discussion not only left me unpersuaded of your case, but also profoundly disturbed for the future of American Ideals. If men like you, i.e., the defenders of America's Founding Fathers, have no better an appreciation of the Founders' achievement than you displayed today, then we have a far more troubling problem than a bunch of Leftists who simply ignore the Constitution to create their vision of a socialist America.
Let me take a minute to explain why.
Politics is a field of study like any other and, like any science, it transcends race and religion. Just as there is no "pagan -Greek" physics, "Christian-English" physics or "Jewish" physics, only the contributions of Archimedes, Newton and Einstein, so the concept of individual rights is non-sectarian in this respect, as well. All human beings possess inalienable "rights"—whether they know it or not, and whether they are Christians, Jews or ancient pagans.
More than this, in order to understand and support the concept of individual rights as embodied in America's Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, one does not need to assent to any particular faith, or, indeed, to any faith whatever—i.e., one need not be a Christian or a Jew to grasp and to agree with the American Bill of Rights. Rights are a natural fact and, thus, can be discovered through observation and reason, and no aspect of distinctively Jewish or Christian belief is required to grasp their reality and importance.
John Locke, the well-known political philosopher who argued the case for natural rights that would inspire America's Founding Fathers, did argue from the Bible and from Mosaic Law in claiming that individuals have rights recognized by their Creator, to be sure, but this was not the case for which he would become internationally famous. No, in order to have had the influence he did, Locke's case had to be qualitatively superior to the claims of European kings who also claimed a divine origin for their "rights" (as tyrants).
Locke, and Thomas Jefferson after him, would have had no stronger, and certainly no more "scientific" a claim to rights had Biblical exegesis been the extent of his reasoning. But Locke also argued that the hand and mind of God could be seen in the very nature of humanity itself. Humans are—observably—creatures of reason and choice, and possessed of differing moral statures. As a species, Locke argued, we survive by "mixing" our "labor" with the "soil" to create the material goods we require to live. It is from these facts of human choice, human reason and the requirements of his existence, according to Locke, that one can see that rights are a wholly natural thing—that whether created by God or not, humans are so constituted as to require a respect for their rights: that is, if they are to survive and flourish.
It is this, the natural element in the case for natural law and natural rights, that makes Locke's argument for rights superior to previous supernatural claims of the "Divine Right of Kings." The conservatives' idea that rights "come from God" places the concept in as unscientific, as nebulous, and as arbitrary a position as Louis XIV's claim to being God's choice to rule France. (Not to mention the fact that Louis may also have had the better claim in a strictly Biblical sense.)
Yet, conservative Christians and Jews in America today, such as yourself, claim that rights can only be understood as a unique gift of Jehovah, the Judeo-Christian deity without realizing how dramatically you undermine the Founders' original case in the process. You take "rights" to be a special, mystical endowment like a coat of magical paint God happened to apply to us during creation, and not a scientifically demonstrable fact applicable to all men, and provable to any honest and rational man, regardless of his cultural origins.
Moreover yours is neither Locke's argument nor the Framers'. When they spoke of persons being "endowed by their creator" they meant, in effect, "beings of such a nature," and it is to that natural
condition to which they referred. The belief in God which most men shared at the time was mere overlay.
Just as Newton's physics was, for Newton, a revelation into the mind of the Creator, but something that would stand or fall on its own evidentiary merits in the minds of men who did not necessarily share his religion, so it was with Locke and the Founders: the idea of rights can and must be established on purely natural grounds, they held, through observation and logic, and be provable to the heathen as well as to the Christian in just the same fashion that Newton could establish the truth of his physics to an atheist.
Let's recall the story of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler in this context. A devout if unorthodox Christian, he sought to read the mind of God by reading the stars. He believed that if the orbits of the five observable planets could be lined up with the five "regular" solids of geometry, he could prove that a divine order had set them in motion, and that Creator was a skilled mathematician who left us geometric clues to his existence. Of course, the orbits of the planets do not line up to the regular geometric solids. (As it turned out, there are even more than five planets.)
What made Kepler a hero of reason and science was his willingness to set aside his Platonic vision of an Ordered Universe in the face of evidence gained from telescopes belonging to men like Tycho Brahe. The facts, not his own dearly-held suppositions about the "mind of God," must dictate our conclusions, Kepler knew, and, in the end, he produced an accurate description of the laws of planetary motion.
Whatever "order" to the cosmos there was, he realized, it could be discovered only through observation and sound mathematics. Like the Protestants reading the text of the Bible for themselves in this new era of reason, so the Age of Science saw brave men reading the universe for themselves for the first time, as well, and to the same end: to read the mind of God not through ancient text but through observation of the natural world. For such a man, Christian though he was, the test of truth was the test of reason, and previous "authority" could hold no weight.
So it was with Locke. Christian though he was, he believed that the natural argument was essential to his case.
Yet, contemporary political conservatives in America like yourself seem determined to drain all of the natural reasoning and natural law out of the Founders' case for natural rights.
If the United States was built on distinctively Judeo-Christian principles, as you contend, then the Bill of Rights is no sounder an assertion than had been the claims of Louis XIV to rule France. But, if the science of human nature serves as our guide, then our conclusions will be ecumenically applicable and understandable.
Before mentioning rights as divine endowments, the Declaration makes reference to equality before the law as being the upshot of "the laws of nature and of nature's God." This is crucial, and often misread. According to Jefferson, the laws of nature themselves establish the vision of rights he laid out. Whether or not the laws of nature may be found in the Bible, and on this point the Declaration is silent, the concept of rights can be found in the "the laws of nature." To know God's will, in other words, one needs science, not just ancient text. Notice, too, the assumption that the laws of nature and God's laws must perfectly correspond to one another, and that observations of human nature, therefore, have greater merit than arguments like King Louis' purely Biblical case. It is observable fact, not Biblical text, upon which the Declaration builds its case, and it is not the God of the Bible, but the "God" of the natural world detailed by science, i.e., "nature's God," to which Jefferson appeals.
This is why the Bible was not used as a guide in the framing of the U. S. Constitution. In establishing a "republic," the Framers explicitly used pre-Christian models from pagan Rome as their principal inspiration. There would be no "parliament," but a "senate" and popular assembly, and two executive officers, one of whom possessed a "veto" power over legislation... and even much of the ancient, pagan nomenclature was adopted. No concept of individual liberty, no principle of "freedom of speech," much less one of "freedom of religion"(!) is to be found in the Bible at all. No limits on republican power can be found there because no concept of a "republic" is to be found in the ancient text in the first place, populated as it is with Divinely Chosen or hereditary Kings—even hereditary "messiahs."
Most of America's Founding Fathers were Christians, of course—although men like Jefferson and Franklin cannot be meaningfully described as "Christians"—and the Christian Framers saw their political views as being consistent with their religious views. However, the political philosophy upon which America was founded was based squarely on naturalistic reasoning and ancient, pagan precedents. Such reasoning and such precedents make America the distinctive and outstanding achievement of the Enlightenment and of secular, scientific reasoning—not Christianity. This same Christianity had had the better part of two thousand years to make itself felt politically with no outcome similar to the American Constitution.
You contend that the three pillars of America's foundation are "faith, hope and charity." However, all three of these "virtues" can be practiced by advocates of royal, theocratic or totalitarian governments, just as they were originally articulated by men who had absolutely no concept of limited government.
No nebulous "hope" in a better life-to-come informed the American Revolution, but a worldly demand for a better life right here and now. It was not the concept of "charity" which had been piously practiced by Christian monks throughout the Dark Ages which inspired the Founders, but the concept of worldly property rights and the pursuit of one's own earthly happiness, i.e., a form of ethical egoism, which lit their fuses. It was not "faith" but naturalistic reasoning, as we have seen, that served as the Founders' guide.
As our Islamic foes understand seemingly better than you, America has been the very symbol of worldly ambition, material success, the piling up of the "treasures" of this earth and the selfish pursuit of profit. This focus on the natural and the worldly explains why America has achieved such prosperity, just as the contrasting supernatural focus of the Christian Dark Ages characterizes its superstition and resulting misery.
The American revolutionaries ignored Christ's command to "render unto Caesar," refusing to pay even the modest tax from a king far less tyrannical than Caesar. They also ignored St. Paul's command to obey the governmental authorities placed over them. They ignored the Bible's plea for peace and the advice to "turn the other cheek" to coercive agents of the state. They were rebels akin to the Jewish zealots of Jesus's own time, the zealots of whom Christ was so critical.
No, it is not "faith, hope and charity" that uniquely distinguish even the American Christian, but reason, action and wealth-production that signal the distinctively American approach to their faith—with Reverend Ike advising his parishioners that "the best way to help the poor is not to be one of them," and Christian evangelists who argue for the "divine right to prosperity," notions so strangely out of step with the other-worldliness commended by the Sermon on the Mount.
If your purpose is to convince us that Christians have a special claim to the universal truths embodied by the American Constitution, then you are simply mistaken.
But if your goal is to persuade all Americans, not just Christians, of the virtues of the American Constitution, the free market, individual rights and individual liberty, then you must abandon the sectarian arguments which serve only to associate American liberty with mystical faith.
James S. Valliant firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally posted at SOLO, where already a great debate has ensued in the comments . .