For a few days we’ve been discussing the faiths of the founding fathers. I’m still on that subject, but today’s post will probably upset the “other side”–those who have been with me so far.
Even thought the leading founding fathers (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison) were not orthodox Christians, they were theists. I believe (based on much reading and studying of their writings including their private letters) that they all believed that belief in God (sorry for all the “believes”) is necessary for a functioning social order.
They (and all the founders of the American republic [I don’t put Paine in that camp as he was not directly involved in writing, debating or voting for any of the founding documents]) believed that ethics, including politics, depends on transcendence. They would have been horrified and shocked at the depth of modern secularism. And I think they would have rejected the very idea of total separation between state and religion.
Sure, they believed in and strongly advocated freedom of religion. And I have no doubt they would have extended that to atheists. On the other hand, I think if you had asked them if they thought an atheist would make a good president, Supreme Court justice, congressman, they would have said no (assuming they understood by “atheism” not deism but outright denial of the existence of God or anything like God).
I agree with them that a well functioning social order depends on a shared moral vision and that a shared moral vision depends on belief in something or someone transcendent to nature. The reason is what I have said here before many time–you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.”
I always find it amusing and bewildering when atheists argue that nature itself produces prescriptive altruism. It certainly does not. It may very well be that altruism is built into our genetic code. If it is, that does not say anything about whether a person OUGHT to be altruistic. All you can say to someone who chooses not to be altruistic is: “You’re going against your own genetic inheritance.” Their correct answer would be “So what?”
Arguing that we OUGHT to be kind, compassionate, cooperative, caring for the common good, etc., etc. on the basis that MOST people have a gene that inclines toward that is like arguing that people ought to be heterosexual because MOST people’s genes incline them that way. Most atheists I know who use the “altruistic gene” argument would not go there.
The plain fact is that, to date, no atheist (or other person) has demonstrated here or anywhere that you can derive an OUGHT from an IS. All they do is come here (and elsewhere) and bluff and bluster about recent scientific research that supposedly proves organisms are naturally altruistic. EVEN if that is true (which I don’t think has been proven) it doesn’t say ANYTHING about what OUGHT to be the case in human behavior. It may say something about what is normal, but it doesn’t say anything about what is right.
Back to my subject here. I fear that any social order that attempts to be entirely secular is doomed to fail as a functioning social order. It has no grounding for its shared value system. There is nothing and no one to appeal to above the law (as determined by legislatures and courts). As certain postmodern philosophers have rightly pointed out (I’m thinking of Caputo, for one), law and justice are not the same. At best “law” can only approximate justice.
But, of course, that is only the case IF there really is some being who embodies justice. Otherwise, justice is just an impossible ideal subject to shifting perceptions of it.
Kantians of all kinds will, of course, object and argue that there is some kind of absolute moral imperative independent of transcendence. Even Kant, however, found it necessary, at the end of the day, to posit life after death with rewards and punishments to make his rational, categorical imperative “work.” Even he knew that virtue is not its own reward.
So what should America’s shared value system and transcendent grounding for it be? I would argue it should be (and was implicitly until fairly recently, beginning with the Warren Court in the 1960s) Christian theism. That is not the same as “orthodox Christianity.” It is simply belief in a personal God who is the source of absolutes of right and wrong.
So why didn’t the framers of the U.S. Constitution see fit to mention God? I believe in two explanations. First, they did not anticipate the rise of atheism and secularism. Those seemed beyond comprehension to them (except as individual beliefs of a few skeptics). Second, they did not know how to bring God into the picture while moving toward separation of church and state. Any mention of God would, they feared, raise the specter of favoring a particular organized religion or denomination. I believe that, had they foreseen the rise of public atheism and secularism, they would have put God in the Constitution.
Now, how does what I’ve said here relate to separation of church and state? I am a strong believer in separation of church and state as anyone who knows me or has read this blog faithfully knows. I absolutely reject any government favoritism toward any particular organized religion and any special influence of any organized religion on government. I also reject any religious tests for public office OTHER than belief in God. (We already have that in an unofficial way as public officials are asked to put their hands on a Bible and solemnly swear “so help me God.”)
AA and the Boy Scouts are right–belief in God (even as just a “Higher Power”) is necessary for adherence to absolutes of right and wrong. Without God (or something very much like God) moral relativism is inevitable. Modern secularists are living off the left overs of Judaism and Christianity. Consistent ones know very well that moral anarchy is inevitable, that might makes right (sans God).
I expect a barrage of objections. Just keep them civil and give your reasons in a calm, respectful manner as you would if you were in my living room or office.