Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Founders’ noble lie

Two questions:

  1. For whom did the Founders intend the Constitution, and to whom did they devolve the rights to self-determination and self-government?
  2. If a people have no temptation to steal, do they need a law against stealing?

The better a people are, the less domineering a regime they need over them to keep them civil. The fate of limited government rests on how well the people govern themselves. Given our fallenness, something besides man himself and the law is necessary: a will submissive to the revelation of truth in Jesus.

The secular bargain starts at removing the ultimate stakes, the battle for souls, from the public sphere. Then the sole obsession of civil society becomes producing the effects of a circumcised heart in people without converting them, in the forms of good character, virtues, and civic-minded works. Secularism asks for the fruits without planting the seeds.

Many of the Founders were deists, or “the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues,” in Thomas Paine’s words. They saw the political utility of people holding to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, while for themselves they assumed the task of willing themselves to virtue and righteousness. Put bluntly, many of them considered the gospel of Jesus a noble lie, intended for the ungovernable masses.

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure.” –Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Ezra Stiles

Franklin, like aristocratic deists of his time (and like atheists/agnostics of our time) sought self-perfection through the will. His conceit was that he could achieve this on his own. Unfortunately, his personal failures didn’t reveal the truth of the scriptures to him. He wrote this at 20 years old:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another.

So, despite being a great man, Franklin was not accounted righteous by his faith, but held to the standard of his self-convicting conscience.

There is much of goodness that we can perceive on our own. Our individual knowledge of it varies by degrees. But the body nor the mind—nor even the mind of a genius like Franklin—can overcome the pull of flesh. Running from sin, as he tried to do, doesn’t work because there is no running from the flesh. Sin possesses us, and it is only Jesus who can push it out.

In faith we can attain the righteousness of moral perfection, but in matters of the soul it is best not to legislate, as the history of theocracies is replete with horror. Hence, the establishment clause. However, it is easier to legislate for a people whose wills you know belong to Him, knowing they won’t turn their liberty into license. For few non-believers are as well-bred and cultivated as Franklin. For a people easily given over to their passions, a thorough, totalitarian system is necessary to hold off descent into a Hobbesian state of nature.

P.S.: Paine, an early supporter of the French Revolution, and who wrote “my own mind is my own church,” saw firsthand the consequences of man assuming all divine authority over himself.

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