Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Current Writers, Part II: George F. Will

This is Part II of  series to show how current writers could be helped by the civic vision of a super majority of citizens, who fulfill “We the People of the United States” as defined by the preamble. I envision people who want to live in peace and cooperative autonomy by discovering ways to accommodate each other--people who each want, in each decade of their life, to live in happiness they perceive while providing the same opportunity for other people.

George F. Will, in “Religion and the American Republic,” (National Affairs, No. 16, Summer 2013) states that 

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics.

The statement unnecessarily pits the mixture of religion and governance versus secular governance. It ignores civic governance—governance by just citizens, which puts religion in its proper place: in privacy among citizens who are interested in religion.

Humankind knows more about improved human character than ever before. Human performance is improving, despite America’s obsession with sex and entertainment, and in civic governance religion is less important than the objective truth. America is on the verge of affirming Abraham Lincoln’s plea in his First Inaugural Address: “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?” Lincoln’s vision can become reality with a super majority of citizens committed to the preamble. I was disappointed that Mr. Will did not even mention the preamble.

I wish I understood Mr. Will’s obscure mention of American history. I suppose the dark and bloody ground of the relationship between religion and American public life,” refers to both the War of Independence and the Civil War. He refers to the Declaration of Independence: “our democracy, which is based on a belief in natural rights, presupposes a religious faith.” He presents his thesis:

I believe that religion has been, and can still be, supremely important and helpful to the flourishing of our democracy. I do not, however, believe it is necessary for good citizenship.
The nature of the division of labor between society and government in America, grounded as [our political community] is in the concept of natural rightsis very much in dispute today. Understanding that dispute can help us better grasp the place of religion in the life of our republic.

It is difficult to discern what kind of government Will is reviewing: a republic or a democracy, as in his arguments about “our republic.” But his focus on the dispute distracts him from the people.

Will creates more uncertainty by reviewing his views of particular founders. About Benjamin Franklin’s religion, Will says, “deism offers no consolation or [enjoinment].” Franklin’s Autobiography portrays Franklin as a self-disciplinarian more than a doctrinarian. George Washington was not religious but expected morality from it. John Adams became Unitarian and Thomas Jefferson, who was utilitarian, predicted everyone would become Unitarian. James Madison did not approve of Congress hiring a chaplain. Protestantism fostered the people against the few.

Will reviewed some pivotal ideas leading to liberal democracy. John Locke thought virtue comes through religion, but disentangled from government. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke of “the liberal expectancy,” that religion and ethnicity would decline in influence with cultural evolution. Machievelli thought human nature is common to all humans and Martin Luther asserted he could not deny what he thought, notwithstanding doctrine. Rene Descartes asserted there is the objective truth. Thomas Hobbes observed some people will forgo thought for comfort--the sense of security, some trading the quest for psychological maturity in life for minimizing risk in afterdeath. James Madison saw in Hobbes’ concept the advantage of Protestant sects keeping check on each other and designed a government predicated on the idea that competition between the sects would prevent a coalition to a majority. He overlooked that they were Christian sects—not the diversity of interests present in 2014.

However, “industriousness, self-control, moderation, and responsibility . . . are virtues that reinforce the rationality essential to human happiness.”

This was a view buttressed by the teaching of Biblical religion that nature is not chaos but rather is the replacement of chaos by an order reflecting the mind and will of the Creator. This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable, and universaland hence the foundation of democratic equality.
A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue.

In this Will has referenced the Declaration of Independence to assert that rights endowed by the Creator limit civic governance. Antinomians are exempt from civic governance. Also, the virtues Will lists come from human evolution, not religious doctrine.In other words, they existed without doctrine.

Then Will, with admitted hyperbole, claims President Woodrow Wilson “ruined the 20th century.” 

Wilson . . . began building what we have today: the modern, administrative, regulatory state, from the supervision of which no corner of life is immune.
Who is to determine what ways might not be "suitable"? The answer must be the state itself . . . leaders to discern the destination toward which history was progressing, and to make government the unfettered abettor of that progress.

Will counters that “Biblical religion is concerned with asserting and defending the dignity of the individual.” The Bible teaches that you must be a disciple of Jesus: What you think/do must conform to Jesus. Thus, neither the Bible nor the state appreciates the individual's view of happiness. It seems to me Will does not understand Christianity's demands on believers, and it makes me wonder how he came to agnosticism or mild atheism. Atheism is a leap of faith I cannot take: my faith is in the objective truth much of which is unknown.

I think Tocqueville foresaw that Protestantism would rob the people of the will to be good--would entice them to wait for "god" (punctuation borrowed from Herb Freiler, April 25, 2014)  to take control. Irving Kristol’s thought, “Nothing is more dehumanizing . . .  than to experience one's life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world,” is equally critical, since Christianity promises that life in this world is a mere penance for the soul’s eternity in heaven. Again, it seems to me Will does not understand "salvation."

Like Mr. Will, I do not want to disparage any religion that helps believers, but unlike him, I do not want religion imposed in my governance and feel that five decades trying to conform to Christianity qualify me to state my civic preference if not demand. What have 226 years under Christian dominance taught the nation, if not that waiting for "god" for civic governance is an eternal watch? The proportion of just citizens who are waiting for the Christian "god" is steadily declining, partially because its bad influences are so obvious to non-theists. Yet the moral triumphs such as ending slavery, ending false discriminations, standing up for justice without demanding war, coming to grips with appreciation of persons more than bodies, and protection of children continue.

Such accomplishments would be achieved faster with emergence of a new majority in America. A majority predicated on fulfillment of the preamble, with its seven goals. The Madisonian idea that humans conduct themselves in nobility, only by force, is shown false by the common American practice of queuing for entrance to stadiums and concerts and airline ticket counters. On every side you turn in these venues you experience patience and good will and often fun--imposed on the people of, by, and for the people. All just people want to do is live their lives in peace according to happiness as they perceive it, not as the government dictates it. The person who wants to focus on virtue can. The person who wants to focus on their afterdeath can. The person who wants to focus on music can. The person who wants to grow character can. The couples who want to commit to each other regardless of their bodies can. Those who want to be Christian or any other lawful religious believer can. Those who want to break the law are controlled and limited. What we need is to drop out of the cycle of the 50% plus one vote oppressing the 50% less one vote, by mutually committing to the preamble as the mediator for mutual accommodation and cooperative autonomy during every decade of each person’s life.

Copyright©2014 by Phillip R. Beaver. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for the publication of all or portions of this paper as long as this complete copyright notice is included.