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Debating America’s Ideological Origins: Part III in Lumish Vs Swindle

A disagreement about the founding fathers and classical liberalism.

Michael Lumish


October 27, 2013 - 11:00 am
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See the previous installments in this ongoing discussion about American values, Left vs. Right, Biblical morality, and New Media activism:

Part 1, by Michael Lumish on October 13: Politics Vs Theology: Beginning A Debate With David Swindle.Why we should not frame political issues as a matter of Good versus Evil.

Part 2, by David Swindle on October 20: Secular Political Ideology Vs. Biblical Moral Values: Continuing a Debate with Michael Lumish. “Why I don’t care much about Left vs. Right anymore. And four more points of disagreement.”


I want to thank you for this exceedingly thoughtful response to my initial inquiry.  You have gone into significant detail in the laying out of your argument and, yet, I know that we are only just beginning to scratch the surface. You have broken your argument down into five parts:

1. Whom should pro-Israel and counter-Jihad activists try to reach?

Our disagreement: I believe it’s important to try and reach all human beings across the planet.

2. Objective Values vs Subjective Values

Our disagreement: I believe in objective moral values, you, as a progressive, still choose to live according to subjective values.

3. What is the difference between values and theology? And how are these applied toward shaping a political worldview?

Our disagreement: We define “theology” differently. I do not view politics through the lens of theology. I      view it through the lens of Good Vs. Evil.

4. Can facts and arguments persuade progressives to join the pro-Israel and Counter-Jihad causes?

Our disagreement: I do not believe the facts of radical Islam’s barbarism and Israel’s moral high ground can persuade anyone committed to their progressive/leftist/Democrat identity.

5. Can the Left and Right be reformed?

Our disagreement: I do not believe either the political Left or Right can be “reformed.”

Prior to your discussion on each of these points, however, you frame your overall position as follows:

My position: with Judeo-Christian values as one’s base then all of the world’s religions become de-fanged and their practices and ideas of potential value can be utilized in conjunction with traditional Jewish and Christian religious practices. For those of a more secular lifestyle, the founders’ philosophy of classical liberalism that forms the foundation of our government is just the political expression of Biblical values.

I would like to begin the discussion at the beginning and since you have given us your baseline, perhaps we can start with that. I must disagree that the founders’ philosophy of classical liberalism derives just from the Bible. The foremost American scholar on the ideologies behind the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States is venerable historian Bernard Bailyn, of Harvard University, who wrote The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

What Bailyn argues is that the ideology behind the Revolution, and behind the Constitution, derives from four sources, only one of which is Judeo-Christian.

There is the Greco-Roman heritage of classical antiquity as understood from the writings of people such as Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero, and Homer.  These writers generally hated and feared the trends in their own times and longed for a return to a better past, a Golden Age wherein people were filled with virtue, simplicity, patriotism, integrity, love of justice and liberty.  They also believed that their current time was best characterized by cynicism, oppression, the threat of tyranny and the corruption of power.  In this way, the sensibilities of the founders were infused with a deep appreciation for classical writings and the politics of Franklin and Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and reflected those writings.

There is also, of course, the juridical tradition of English Common Law as a repository of principles of justice, equity, and human rights.  As I am sure that you are well aware, English Common Law, grounded in Magna Carta, represented a font for the ideals expressed in the Constitution.  In fact, the separation of powers between the three branches of government, and the creation of an elective national assembly, representing the will of the people, trace roots to English Common Law.  It was out of the ongoing tension between the English monarchy and parliament that habeas corpus sprang.

There is also the tradition of Enlightenment Rationalism. We have Voltaire and Rousseau and John Locke. We have the notion of the Social Contract, which stresses that the purpose of government is to promote the common good. We have the recognition that power must be limited and that governments require systems of checks and balances.  We have the understanding that governmental authorities owe their right to govern not from God, but from the people.

And, finally, there is the tradition of New England Puritanism that represented the immediate historical, philosophical, and theological backdrop out of which many of the most significant founders were operating.  Thus, there is no question that the philosophy of classical liberalism owes something to the Bible and to the Judeo-Christian theological tradition.  Western notions of justice ultimately go back to, if not Hammurabi’s Code, then certainly the Ten Commandments.  However, what we have in the west, as I think that we can both agree, is an under-appreciation of the role of the Judeo-Christian tradition within the history of American politics and culture.

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Pox on both houses! I enjoy a good debate. But said enjoyment is a function of agruments for and agianst a clearly marked out theme. It the theme shifts, the debate becomes at best interesting comments of the captains of two different thinking ships as they pass each other in the night, candles being the only light.

Is the debate MERELY historical or is there some principle being considered? The theme changes from debate to debate and the dark night of thinking ships is overwhelmed by dense fog that even puts out the the candles. Maybe the effects of the Oktoberfest here in Germany have left me in a beer drenched stupor and hence my intellectual capacity is retarded? Or, perhaps, Captains Swindle and Lumish are the ones intoxicated? What is THE clear theme of the debate. Can some clarify things for me?

A insignificant confusion: Why has Lumish played up William James? Why not James' friend and eternally debating opponent, Josiah Royce and his "The Problems of Christianity". Royce (the leading exponent of anglo-american idealism -- my type of thiniking) had delightful fun in thematically clear exchanges with James. James, always a step or two away from mental illness, hopped about collecting this or that info and pasting it all together, including in his marvelous "The Variety of Religious Experience". Epistemologically, ALAS, the "pragmatism" of James has led to epistemological relativism or, in the case, of a distant philosophical relative, to Richard Rorty with his cognitive nihilism. Who says James, may end up saying Rorty -- and that is a good theme for a debate --> also a theme that can reveal something, to borrow a term from Pope Benedict XVI, the "dictatorship of relavitism" now so dominant in America.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In the time of our Founding Fathers there was a beautiful convergence of Judeo-Christian Values, Enlightenment reason and the traditions of Greco-Roman and English Common Law. Reason is embedded in the 10 commandments and the golden rule, and holiness is embedded in many of the secular laws of old England, Greece and Rome. This rightful convergence of reason and holiness is perfectly expressed in our Declaration of Independence.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident [Rational], that all men are created equal [Holy], that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights [Holy], that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [Rational], That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness [Rational]. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them 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 [Rational]."

John Locke uderstood this convergence of reason and holiness from a Christian perspective.

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our's.” John Locke

Cicero, not a Jew or a Christian, was atune to the rightful convergence of reason and holiness in regard to man's laws.

"There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man." Cicero
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The problem with your response to 1 and 2 is, for example, the Empire of Japan would've laughed at you and then enslaved you, if not killed you outright. Believe what you want privately while you're building bridges to Burma in Thailand.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think it is mistaken to say that only one stream of Christian thought [Puritan] contributed to the American system. The British Common Law was almost wholly dependent on a Christian culture from its foundations until recently and the Enlightenment also arose within a Christian culture, particularly in Britain where Edmund Burke and Locke among others engaged with current political thought from a serious Christian base. 3 out of 4 is pretty important! Even the Roman models were by then filtered through Christian Europe -from Augustine on, before being used by Napoleon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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