Monday, April 23, 2012

But Can an Atheist Be President?

    In an op-ed piece in today's USA Today ("No 'religious test' in politics" – April 23, 2012) Michael Medved notes, quite correctly, that Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says explicitly "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Mr. Medved pointed out that the language "left so little doubt as to its meaning that not even the most imaginative jurists or politicians have attempted to interpret it away."
    Voters do, of course, have every right to evaluate a candidate for office on the basis of his personal character and integrity, and these are generally tied to a strong sense of morality, and morality, in turn, is often tied to religion. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, put it like this: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." He went on to add, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."
    And yet in actual practice it does not always seem to work out that way. We sometimes encounter dedicated public servants with a strong sense of integrity and yet with an apparent lack of religious attachment. Mr. Medved cites two examples in particular, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
    How can this be? The case of Lincoln is especially intriguing. Lincoln saw the Civil War as a kind of moral crusade, and he often laced his speeches with biblical metaphors. Yet he was never baptized and never joined a church. His theology, as far as we can discern it, was hardly orthodox. While he respected and appreciated religion, for some reason he could not embrace it as his own. How then did he acquire such a strong moral sensitivity? He had a conscience, of course. He also had a religious upbringing and knew the Bible well. What he apparently lacked was "the new birth."
    Yet neither Jefferson nor Lincoln were atheists. They both believed in God. Jefferson could write: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. . ." (Notes on Virginia). And Lincoln could say "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . ." (Second Inaugural). They firmly believed that a moral order exists in the universe, and that that order originated with a wise and beneficent Creator.
    Can our liberties be save in the hands of someone who does not believe in moral absolutes, divine providence, or eternal rewards and punishments?


  1. Bob, I have to say, you've outdone yourself with this post. You write, Yet neither Jefferson nor Lincoln were atheists. They both believed in God.

    And what god would that be? Your god? No. Unequivocally and absolutely not. As would be expected from any politicians elected by the populace at that time, they professed belief in a Maker with creative power.

    After all, it would not be at all unusual for someone lacking modern knowledge to believe in what seemed intuitively true, that something 'caused' all this. This cause went under the name of 'god'. What would be truly extraordinary for us to find in this time period are historical figures of public prominence to believe what seems counter-intuitive, that there was no Maker, no creator that caused all this, that natural processes alone could have brought all into being.

    What we do know is that both of these politicians and big-brained people were concerned with morality yet did not share your belief in Jesus Christ as part of some triumvirate god. Both were well known critics of such narrow belief. What both of these men - like many other deep thinkers - were goes by the proper label of deists.

    Because you cherry pick your quotes, let me cherry pick a few right back at you:

    Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you. (a 1787 letter to his nephew)

    This is the same man who wrote as part of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.

    As for Lincoln, his wife Mary said in 1866 interview with William Herndon that her husband “was not a technical Christian." His friends in New Salem wrote that Lincoln not only doubted the divinity of Jesus, he wrote an essay mocking the idea that Jesus was the son of God. (Lincoln’s friends, anxious to protect his budding political career, reportedly burned the manuscript.) Again, the most apt description of the man's religious beliefs is that of a deist.

    Both of these men were not supporters of your religious beliefs and neither would tolerate your religious beliefs brought into the public domain of governance.

    Our liberties have never been and shall never be safe in the hands of those who mistakenly assume that all must submit to the authority of your kind of tyrannical god because this misguided pious belief is antithetical to the Constitution... a document that lays out in no uncertain terms that legitimate governing authority only comes from the governed, and that matters of religion and state must necessarily be separate if the governed are to have the right to exercise religious freedom.

  2. You are certainly right that neither of these men, and we could add Franklin to the list, were evangelical Christians, and I never said they were. My point is that they believed in a rational and moral order in the universe, and believed that human society should be governed accordingly. Jefferson, in particular, would have relied heavily on the concept of "natural law," which he would have inherited from such earlier thinkers as John Locke and William Blackstone.
    The problem, of course, is that Franklin and Jefferson both lived before Darwin, and Lincoln was probably preoccupied by the looming Civil War to pay much attention to Darwin. Darwin changed everything, and made it nearly impossible for secularists to believe in a static world governed by moral absolutes. The shift in thinking is clearly visible is men like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and John Dewey. I know at one point you asked the question, would Jefferson have still appealed to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" if he were still alive today? It's a hypothetical question of course -- we will never know for sure, but given the scientific interests of both Franklin and Jefferson, they probably would have embraced Darwinism and John Dewey as well.
    I should also add that, strictly speaking, America is not a Christian nation and never can be. Ironically, it could become Islamic or maybe even Jewish, but never Christian. The reason is this: all that Islam really requires is an outward conformity to an external set of rules. It was meant to be a theocratic system. Therefore it would be theoretically possible for the U.S. Congress or Supreme Court to impose Sharia on American society. But they could never impose the Sermon on the Mount on America. It is simply beyond the capability of Congress to create a "pure heart," as required by Jesus. (Actually, I'd like to see them impose a pure heart on themselves, instead of the duplicity we have come to expect from them!)
    So the question comes down to this: is there a transcendent standard of justice to which we can appeal, or are we at the mercy of the tyranny of the majority? What do you think Martin Luther King would have said?

    1. You write that they believed in a rational and moral order in the universe, and believed that human society should be governed accordingly.

      What does this actually mean?

      Well, if by rational order you mean a way for us to understand causal effects in the world, then yes, I think both would agree to that. And it is under this purview that morality falls... but you want it to have its own and separate category. I don't think this is justified at all because there is no evidence to suggest morality is in some way independent of humans and our biology.

      The thing is, before Darwin there was no good and rational explanation for life without a shrug and some banal reference to a creative agency. But we know now that no such agency is necessary... although many people would prefer there to be such an agency and are willing to invest their belief and put aside scepticism to maintain this belief. But every time some causal claim based on this faith in a creative agency comes up against the way nature actually operates, it is the belief that suffers some form of defeat and must retreat in the face of our advancing knowledge. To stop this rout, theistic supporters too often attempt to block, divert, undermine, and reject anything that threatens the belief, all the while hypocritically using the applications and relying on the therapies that come from the advancing knowledge while simultaneously decrying its anti-theistic evils. What too many of these supporters fail to realize is that exactly the same method is used to understand aerodynamics as genetics as evolution. To deny one is to deny them all. The only way theistic beliefs can hold ground in the face of advancing knowledge is to retreat to the same kind of beliefs held by these men: deism far removed in time and distance from any current causal effect in our universe.

      As for any 'transcendent' justice, I think King was quite clear: we must learn to judge others not on the colour of their skin but by the quality of their character. For this development of character the evidence is clear: we need no religious belief.

  3. "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law." - Martin Luther King, Jr. (Letter From Birmingham Jail). Was Thomas Aquinas mistaken? Was Martin Luther King mistaken? Is moral law an illusion?

  4. Well, there goes the Civil Rights Movement!

    1. The key word here is 'rights', Bob, which has nothing to do with biblical morality or some imagined law. Rights are based in human law, and morality enters the fray when we try to determine what are the 'best' rights to have. Reason, and reason alone, helps us to determine the kinds of rights that are the most compelling to endorse. Equality for all citizens without privileging some on the basis of skin pigmentation is what the civil rights in terms of MLK was all about. You confuse your sense of morality - supposedly floating about in some disembodied mind somewhere out there in metaphysical sunshine of the the netherworld - with human values that arise our of common biology.

  5. Ah, but where did we get this notion of "equality"? We are obviously not all alike; some are physically stronger than others, some smarter. The notion of equality implies that there is some kind of human "essence" of which we all partake. It is a metaphysical notion. In Christianity it is based on the idea that we all share a common descent from a remote ancestor who was originally created in the image of God. It is the "image of God" that defines our humanity. An atheist, of course, will have none of this. So then, what exactly are we? On the premise of Darwinism the problem is especially difficult, because presumably we are in a state of evolving into something else. Thus even the concept of a "species" is problematical. A "species" is an arbitrary classification of discrete individuals who are each a transitional form to something else. On this accounting there is no human "essence" that defines us as human beings. This is why Nietzsche dismissed the notions of equality, democracy, and socialism. They are concepts borrowed from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and have no basis in biology.
    And as the Letter from Birmingham Jail shows, in MLK's mind at least, it was all about a transcendent, universal law. He was an ordained Baptist minister and his "Southern Christian Leadership Council" was a classic example of a group of people trying to impose their religious values on the rest of society.

    1. but where did we get this notion of "equality"?

      "From Oogity Boogity!" is not an answer, Bob. It's a diversion.

      Equal rights under the law has nothing to do with any metaphysical 'essence'; it's about equal treatment. This is not a religious concern nor derived from religious scriptural values but stands contrary to them. Thankfully.

  6. But if it should be that people are not alike in actual fact, then why should the be treated alike in practice? The ethical question hinges of the metaphysical one (or scientific one, if you prefer).

  7. But if it should be that people are not alike in actual fact, then why should the be treated alike in practice? The ethical question hinges of the metaphysical one (or scientific one, if you prefer).

    We've been here before, Bob.
    It was not convincing the first time around.
    Nothing much has changed since then.

    (1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
    (2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
    (3) But that’s because they don’t want to admit to being sinners.
    (4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
    (5) Therefore, God exists.