Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fear God. Honor the King.

I find that I write better in correspondence than I do when I simply try to generate thoughts. That having been said, I'm posting a few bits and pieces from an email exchange I've recently been having with my friend Robert. In the following missive I attempt to explain my discomfort with the triumphalist narrative of American history which tries to vindicate and justify every aspect of our national past via a sort of apologia Americanae.

I'd much rather sing, "America! America! / God mend thine ev'ry flaw, / Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law."

God mend thine every what?! Everyone knows that God's job is blessing America whenever the president tells Him to. What is this "flaw" nonsense and this "self-control" rubbish? Sheesh. The nerve of some people...

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Dear Robert,

It's difficult, isn't it? That's all I'm trying to say: it isn't so simple and so clear a matter as any of us would like to think. Were injustices perpetrated against the colonists? Yes. Did these warrant redress? Certainly. But a right to revolution? That is an invention of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, specifically drawn from the thought of John Locke. I have a hard time reconciling the vast majority of Lockean thought with Christianity; he is, in fact, the "bad guy" par excellence when it comes to dismantling community, tradition, and duty for the sake of "individual rights."

I just don't really believe that it ever became necessary "in the course of human events." That is a huge assumption, known in formal logic as a tautology, or "begging the question." "When in the Course of human events," the Declaration begins,

it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

In place of that statement, I would posit that a question was in order -- indeed, is always in order: "When in the Course of human events is it ever necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another?" And how about, "Do the Laws of Nature (whatever they may be) really entitle a people to a station that is separate from and equal to their governing authority?" Just think about the implications of this statement. This is to stand the entire notion of government on its head! Take it to its logical extension, and you have anarchy. Again, the premises that we are working with here are deeply flawed assumptions about the human condition lifted straight out of the pages of John Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government.

"Transport me back to their day, and I may have been a 'patriot' rather than a 'loyalist.' I suppose that would make me a sinner. But I think it would have been choosing the lesser of two evils. There is a war. I will choose to side with the men opposing the tyranny rather than enforcing it."

My friend, every man at that time was a sinner, but not simply because he was loyal to the crown or fought against it with the colonists. That wouldn't have been what made you a sinner, had you been living in that time. Who of us knows what we "would have done"? It's impossible to say. And by what criteria can we say that to fight against the crown was clearly the lesser of two evils? Having studied the Founding period at great length while at Hillsdale (the American Founding was my emphasis) and since graduating, I really don't think I can even say that George III was a tyrant. But what if he had been a tyrant -- really, truly, and demonstrably so? Even then, what basis does the Christian have for overthrowing tyrants? Why is it that St. Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, exhorts the believers there not to overthrow but to submit to one of the most infamous tyrants in history, that deranged persecutor of Christians, the emperor Nero? A radical position, indeed!

And what of the loyalists? Are we really to fault them for remaining loyal to the crown? Are we to say that they were not patriots? Are we to say that they were evil, on the "wrong side of history"? Un-Christian? See, this is one of the myriad problems with the myth of American exceptionalism: it asks us to judge men by an invented ethical standard that has nothing to do with God's Law. And what does God's Law, preached here by St. Peter, have to say?

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (I Peter ii, 13-17).
Fear God. Honor the king. Powerful injunctions, these.

I will not disparage the courage of the men who fought for their homes, their families, and their English rights against the British soldiers. But neither will I reserve the term "patriot" for them alone. I can only surmise that it was on account of a holy fear of God and a pious sense of honor for their king, George III, that the Tories, the so-called "loyalists", did not condone their fellow colonists' rebellion. George III was by no means exceptionally bad as a king. I mean, he was sort of bad. He had his faults. But anyone who has studied English history knows that he was not really that far out of the main. People say, "He wasn't even British! He was German!" That's a lame criticism -- even the British aren't British! They were (and are) a polyglot of Celtic, Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Germanic, and French from the very beginning! You want to know who the closest people are to "real British"? The Irish and the Welsh. Count how many Irish or Welsh monarchs the British have had. I can count them on, hands.

But I digress...

Many, many men of the founding generation inveighed against the injustices perpetrated by the crown even to the point of taking up arms against the king's soldiers, but for a redress of grievances, not for independence. At the time of the revolution, about a third of the colonists were squarely in favor of independence, about a third were loyal, and about a third were torn or ambivalent. (John Dickinson refused to vote for independence or sign the Declaration; however, he fought for it, nonetheless.) Musters of armed men protesting on behalf of their ancestral rights and privileges against their barons and lords were utterly common throughout English history, up until and even after the rebellion of the colonies. It was an English tradition! (It's also one that the still-very-British Americans kept up after their vaunted independence was achieved -- can you say "Whiskey Rebellion"? But by then there was a new central power holding sway, albeit not a king; suffice it to say, though, that this later populist uprising didn't fare very well, even though their grievances were practically identical to those of the colonists in 1776. And then there's the small matter of the War of Northern Agression four-score years later...)

Armed and boisterous protesting was one thing. But rebellion and declared independence by the dubious fiat of British subjects, on behalf of their "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? My friend, we only glory in it because we won. History is a tale written by victors, with the victors' principles of selection and arrangement deciding what story is traditioned to posterity.

The problem with settling on one or another particular event in history and calling it "providential" is that it suggests that other historical moments were not providential, or were less providential. If that's the case, what are the criteria for deciding? How can we know these criteria? America's history is not coterminous with the sacred historical narratives of the Old and New Testaments, whose sacredness is known, and, well...documented in the Scriptures! We have no reason to suggest or believe that America has been the recipient of God's special providence more than any other country. Can't we just love our country as she is? Or can we only love her if she's categorically better, truer, and more beautiful than everyone else?

Hmmmm. Well, last I checked, it was the Church which had been clothed with Christ's righteousness, sanctified, and set apart as His Bride and Beloved, and it was the Church which was and is God's Israel. Not Rome in all of its glory. Not the British Empire in all of its pomp. Not the state of Israel born in 1948 in all of its...Zionism. Not the United States of America in all of its Yankee ingenuity and rugged individualism. Not any nation or state.

So what do we do? Do we go back to Britain? Well, no. Obviously not. As I mentioned above, Britain's government is no more legitimate. No government is perfectly legitimate. If we all just "went back," it would start an infinite regression all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But the fact that we cannot "go back" to some pristine state in no way means that we must instead delude ourselves with a romanticized narrative which seeks to justify America in toto -- or any nation, for that matter -- at every step along the way of her tumultuous history. We dare not look to any secular history for surety, for a tale of righteousness and virtue to which we can lay claim to as some kind of national birthright.

Where, then, do we look?

"If then you have been raised with Christ," St. Paul says, "seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians iii, 1-3). It's not hidden in America, as great as America is. It's hidden with Christ in God. It's at right angles to this earthly plane, farther up, farther in, where the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. It is the communion with God Himself which we have been caught up into already here on earth through the Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ and the ministry of his mystical body, the Church. Though this life may be lived out in America, with all of this land's blessings, it may just as blessedly be lived out somewhere else.

I'm going to stop now, because I feel like I'm getting on a bit of a soapbox, and I don't want you to feel like you're on the business-end of a tirade. This just happens to be something that I have a lot of opinions on, which is probably all the more reason for me to keep a lid on it. Once again, I would love to hear what you think.



  1. Thanks for writing this. I tend to agree with your sentiments "the myriad problems with the myth of American exceptionalism: it asks us to judge men by an invented ethical standard that has nothing to do with God's Law."

    That is such an uncommon view these days.

  2. Great thoughts, Trent. I'm just wondering how big of a problem you think this is. Perhaps we are running in widely different circles, but I really don't know many of the "America is God's country," folk these days. It seems the public awareness is very much the opposite. I mean, don't you think most current history is written from a populist standpoint?
    My research in writing my senior paper was actually mainly about historiography trends with a focus on one particular historian. And I found that the hardcore consensus historians are quite out of style. So, I wonder if there will be more of a popular emphasis on "white/American/wealthy/male/pick your dominant group" bashing than a belief that America is the new Israel?
    I mean, whether it's a big problem or a little problem, I think your point is made very well. And I definitely agree.

  3. "Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good."

    That seems to be the crux of the matter.

    If Peter were writing in an age of modern constitutionalism might he have written, "Therefore submit yourselves to very ordinance for the Lord's sake, whether to the recognized laws of nature, or to the supreme law of the realm, or to good governors." If the law, natural, positive, and embodied through representatives, has replaced the the governmental structures of the past, shouldn't the sources of authority alter as well? As radical as Peter's comments remain, they don't quite go to the root, but demonstrate the marks of a particular political-intellectual context.

    To some extent, defending order two thousand years ago meant preserving the community, whereas defending order today means defending the individual, which secondarily preserves the community. The Christian who opposed Emperor Nero in the first century would distract men from Christ; the Christian who failed to resist King George, though not half a Nero, would understandably cause men to hate Christ. Christian politics can sometimes, or in some epochs, require letting one's own blood run, and other times demand shedding the blood of others. Peter didn't want passivity; he wanted believers to be good citizens in order that good citizens become believers. What did it mean to be a good citizen in 1776? Revolution. And, did being a good citizen interfere with one's duties as a good man/believer? No.

    In short, natural rights are a game changer. God save the law!

  4. There are so many begged questions in your comment, "His Rotundity", that I don't even know where to begin. So I won't. Instead of answering them myself, which at this point would be fairly redundant (it actually seems like you didn't even read my post), I'd like to give you the chance to make actual arguments on behalf of the following (massive) assumptions:

    1. That "the law" has replaced the "governmental structures of the past." I don't even know what you mean by this.

    2. That defending order "today" means "defending the individual, which secondarily preserves the community." Perhaps things have changed since last I checked, people weren't reproducing asexually. That having been said, from the moment of conception man's existence as a person (not an "individual", which is an anthropological fiction) derives from and relies upon community and his membership therein.

    3. That the Christian who failed to resist King George would understandably cause men to hate Christ. I cannot wait to hear you explain this. Seriously.

    4. That there is or even can be such a thing as "Christian politics."

    5. That natural rights exist.

    You've come to this discussion rather untucked, my anonymous rotund friend. I wouldn't mind having a debate, but I'm going to need some more substantial arguments first.

    Furthermore, I'd like to go on the record as saying that commenting anonymously is a bit cowardly. You ought to put your name by your thoughts, or at least link to your blog.

  5. 1. Admittedly sloppy, but I'm simply saying that we live in a world in which even the king is a first among equals. That took a long time for the King of England to acknowledge. We have respected procedures for dealing with most every event. Thankfully, the procures include voting out the President instead of killing the King.

    2. I have to disagree. The State of Nature does not require historical verities. This is where a good many political theorists must depart from those who look to history for their answers. There can be little doubt that the modern defense of liberty is built around defending human dignity and the rights of individuals. Contributors have joined the ranks for other reasons, but the individual is the nexus of debate. Locke will do his very best assure you that this doctrine will not result in anarchy, as you stated before.

    3. By "understandably" I do not mean "justifiably." Imagine if all the leading Christians had failed to joined the Revolution. There is little likelihood the Revolution would have begun anyway, but if it did, how would defenders of freedom look upon Christians? Christ would be something of a byword in America. I definitely do not want to stretch this argument too far, but I think its worth considering. In our country, Christianity and the vigorous defense of freedom linked hands from the very beginning. That must be providential!

    4. You just quoted Peter to make a statement on how Christians should respond to the political authorities; is that not Christian, or is it not political? Generally speaking, I don't believe in a "Christian politics" either, but you raised an instance in which the Bible speaks forcefully about how men should relate to their respective regimes.

    5. If you are saying you do not believe in natural rights, fine. If you are saying I cannot assume the existent of natural rights in a political discussion, then you've made my whole argument impossible. By 1776 the founders did believe in natural rights. They fought a war for them. Some learned men like Dickinson may have thought in your terms, but few others did.

    As far as being somewhat cowardly, I've wondered that myself. It's one thing to audibly say the type of things we are writing, or to put in print one's position on some timely subject. But deeper comments like these follow you for the rest of your life. I know that God keeps a file, but imagine I someday seek a public position. Do I want my fellow citizens to hold the same file? In the past, letters were at least protected by the discretion of the interlocutor. The internet doesn't know discretion. I'll think about it though.