A Godless constitution 4

Liberty and Tyranny  by  Mark R Levin (Threshold Editions, New York, 2009) is an excellent book; we welcome it; we agree with most of  what Levin has to say.

However, on one point we take issue with him. He writes (pages 33-34):

The question must be asked and answered: Is it possible for the Conservative to be a Secularist?

Of course we firmly answer YES, because that is what we are.

He goes on: 

There are conservatives who self-identify as secularists, whether or not they believe in God or take a religion, and it is not for others to deny them their personal beliefs. However, it must be observed that the Declaration is at opposite with the Secularist. Therefore, the Conservative would be no less challenged than any other to make coherent that which is irreconcilable.

Leaving aside his implication that unless one believes in God one cannot be a true Conservative, let’s examine his conviction that non-belief is ‘irreconcilable’ with approval of the Declaration of  Independence. 

The Declaration refers to God four  times.

1. In the first paragraph it says that ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God‘ entitle a people to a separate and equal station with another people. It would make no difference to the meaning and import of this part of the Declaration if the four words ‘and of Nature’s God ‘ were omitted. 

2. It asserts that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by  their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ etc.   We agree with the ‘rights’ to live, be free, and pursue happiness. The word ‘rights’, however, muddies the waters somewhat as a right has to be granted in law, and if no earthly law can be said to have endowed mankind with these ‘rights’, then the only source imaginable  to keep the sense of the word is some Transcendent Legislator in the sky. At least the authors kept the list of such God-endowed ‘rights’ wisely short. To make a list of all things that should be allowed to men would be an infinite labour to achieve the impossible. Better to list the things men may not do – and keep it as short as necessity allows. Which is why we prefer to say that everyone should be free to (eg) live and pursue happiness. But to come back to the wording of the Declaration, its meaning would be exactly the same if instead of  ‘are endowed by their Creator with’, the authors had used the single word ‘have’.

3. In the final paragraph, the ‘Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do’ etc.  Here the Transcendent Legislator is also the Transcendent Judge of rectitude, but as it is ‘by Authority of the good People of these Colonies’ that independence is being declared, He is not required to say a word and can let His approval be assumed by the authors. Again, if the phrase about God were omitted, the Declaration, its meaning, import, and power would in no way be altered.

4.  In the last sentence, the authors mutually pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to support the Declaration. That is to say, they each guarantee to defend it whatever it takes. They also put in that they rely firmly ‘on the protection of Divine Providence‘. But they are far too sensible to rely on it exclusively. If that phrase , and the word ‘sacred’, were omitted, their pledge would remain just as valid, and their commitment would be no less strong.

So while it may be the case that a Conservative must agree with the values and purpose of the Declaration, Levin’s case is not proved that you can only agree with the Declaration if you believe in a supernatural master of the universe.  

Levin goes on (page 34) to quote George Washington as saying:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable results … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” [Levin’s ellipsis]

It seems that he interprets the last sentence to imply that Washington did NOT think morality could be maintained without religion. To us it seems clear that Washington DID think it possible to be moral without being religious (as we believe we are). To  Washington this was a concession or ‘indulgence’ that he granted ‘with caution’ because (probably) he didn’t want anyone to think he shared that view. But that doesn’t cancel his acknowledgment of the possibility.  

Finally, Levin should be reminded that the Constitution of the United States does not mention God. Not once. And it is the Constitution that a Conservative must stand by. One definition of an American Conservative could be ‘a strict constitutionalist’.  

Posted under Atheism, Commentary, Conservatism, Reviews, United States by Jillian Becker on Sunday, May 24, 2009

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This post has 4 comments.

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  • Proxywar

    I do not deny that there were Christian men among the Founders. For instance, Congress removed Thomas Jefferson's words that condemned the practice of slavery in the colonies, they also altered his wording regarding equal rights. His original wording was: “All men are created equal and independent. From that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Congress changed that phrase, increasing its religious overtones: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” However, we are not governed by the Declaration of Independence, it's an historical document, not a constitutional one.

    If the Christian Right Extremists wish to return this country to its beginnings, so be it… because it was a climate of Freethought. The Founders were students of the European Enlightenment. Half a century after the establishment of the United States, clergymen complained that no president up to that date had been a Christian. In a sermon that was reported in newspapers, Episcopal minister Bird Wilson of Albany, New York, protested in October 1831: “Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism.” The attitude of the age was one of enlightened reason, tolerance, and free thought. The Founding Fathers would turn in their graves if the Christian Extremists had their way with this country. Consider this: If indeed the members of the First Continental Congress were all bible-believing, “God-fearing” men, would there ever have been a revolution at all?

    “For rebellion as is the sin of witchcraft.” 1 Samuel, 15:23

    Would they have initiated a rebellion if indeed they thought it was equal to witchcraft (a crime punishable by death)? But that's only the tip of the iceberg. The New Testament gives clear instructions to Christians on how to behave when ruled under a monarchy, as were the Founders.

    1 Peter 2:13: “For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”

    Paul wrote in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resist authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

    The Founders clearly did not heed what was written in the bible. If they were in fact “good” Christians, there would never have been an American Revolution. Compare the above passages with the Declaration of Independence:

    “…when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce (the people) under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…”

    Anyone who can think for themselves can see that the Founders were not Christians.

  • chris

    There is one primary morality, not all people conform to it. There is a more “common” morality besides under which more people are. The primary contains the common. The rule of law is an attempt to enforce the common . . .such as don’t vandalize, don’t steal, don’t murder. But this law, called common law, can’t become to powerful in political scope and force, because then the powers meant for good can easily fall into the most dangerous hands. This is why a government must have “common decency” but also “limited power and scope”. But if any religion should somehow find this very common law offensive it will not be a Christian one or a Hindu one nessisarily. In any case the philsophy of the consistution must be upheld, even if offensive to the religions of pedophiles or terrorists or hedonists. Its the only way to hold a truly law abiding society together. Liberals and terrorists are the criminal mind attempting to gain power over the law abiding. . . the lawless vs. the lawfull. Lets take a lesson from this 9/11. The lesson is that if the common decency on which the constitution is based is offensive to your religion . . . to bad . . the constitution must be upheld. No matter who you are . . . no more hate crimes, no fairness doctrin, no banning any kind of prayer, no speach rules, no murder, to abortion, no stealing, no vandalism, no tyranny, no polygamy . . . in other words COMMON SENSE MORALITY as far as the law can do something about it . . but no further. Can we be in agreement on this? Can we jion together on this? Can we unite against the criminal mind?

    • Proxywar

      “no banning any kind of prayer”

      I disagree.

      The Constitution does not specifically mention “separation of powers” or “the right to a fair trial” either, but who would deny the Constitutional status of those concepts? “Church-state separation” is a metaphor for what certainly was and is the spirit of the First Amendment's religion clauses – government is to be neutral toward religion to the end of ensuring religious liberty.

      Moreover, Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association. An reading of the entire letter belies any suggestion that Thomas Jefferson thought it was “one directional.” There is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that that is the case. Indeed, to the degree that Jefferson's notion was one-directional, most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa. Christian Right Extremists also ignore Roger William's reference 150 years earlier to the “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of church and the wilderness of the world.” It is clear that Williams, a Baptist pioneer, saw the advantage to the church of a clear boundary erected between itself and the state. More than that, he thought this wall was mandated by the very principles of Christianity. To that end, he wrote:

      “All civil states with officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are… essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship … An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”

      Thus, Williams and Jefferson understood the benefits to both the church and state of keeping those two entities separate and distinct.

  • chris

    hello there, its interesting to find an “atheist” conservative. Frankly, if we had more pro life and conservative muslims, budhists, atheists ect our country would not be on the brink of disaster right now. But Ive realized that some philosophies are by their very nature unconsitutional. A christian or budhist ot atheist may be ok with the consitution, but Im not sure about hard line muslims . . . considering what happened with 9/11.