Debating America’s Ideological Origins: Part III in Lumish Vs Swindle
A disagreement about the founding fathers and classical liberalism.
October 27, 2013 - 11:00 am
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.