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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