Theocratic Quips Less Scary Than Advertised

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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55 Responses

  1. Brian Taylor says:

    These quotes don’t scare me in the sense that they represent a plausible (or likely) alternative reality in this country. They scare me because they provide proof that it’s acceptable and even desirable for people to believe these kinds of things in the 21st century. The fact that these statements are calculated to try to win support from Americans who least use their mental faculties shows us the sad truth about a chunk of America.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Brian Taylor says:

      +1.  It’s a mistake to interpret campaign rhetoric literally–it’s a statement about what kind of people you’re trying to appeal to, and what they want.  And what a good chunk of the GOP base wants is to marginalize and discriminate against atheists.  Not the biggest problem in America by a long shot, but worth disagreeing with.Report

  2. North says:

    Gingrich marginalized? Aren’t we talking about the current GOP front runner (Cain’s successor it seems).Report

  3. Tom Van Dyke says:

    Burt, the first quote that ‘scares you” is actually a natural law argument, not a religious-Biblical one.

    But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.

    Same with “God’s law” in this context.  To quote the American Blackstone, Founder James Wilson, America’s first great legal theorist:

    “The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other.”
    James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature

    In other words, you can get to the same place via reason as you can by thumping Bible. [Theoretically.]

    As for God is the source of government, you are correct that that’s the American view. [“Governments are instituted by men…” D of I.]  However, Christian theology can accommodate that, but it’s too lengthy and uninteresting for most people here [see Romans 13, about which there was much debate].  IOW, it need not be a deal-breaker.

    As for yr 3rd selected quote, via natural law, this may not be a deal-breaker either.

    Just for the record.  A lot of what Slate quoted sounds like a foreign language to the 21st century secularist, but was the lingua franca in the Founding era.  Which makes you sort of wonder just whose ignorance is graver.


    • Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Tom – I agree with everything you say here, and yet I think it’s useful to recognize that you are an especially knowledgeable and Big Picture kind of guy.

      Even though you are 100% correct, I would be very surprised to discover that most of the audience these quotes are tailored for have the same depth of knowledge as you, and reach the same conclusions about heir meaning as you.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Tod: explaining something to which many readers are implacably hostile.

        They scare me because they provide proof that it’s acceptable and even desirable for people to believe these kinds of things in the 21st century. 

        I mean, this is the Founding’s political theology, and this product of modern academia doesn’t even recognize it.  Further, he decrees it “unacceptable.” When did we vote on that?

        So let’s turn now to the ignorance of the evangelicals.  “The scandal of the evangelical mind, ” wrote historian Mark Noll in the well-known 1994 book of the same title, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  Since Noll is an evangelical himself, the pill was swallowed.  And neither did Francis Schaeffer help much in the 1960s: his arguments are not wholly coherent or even historically accurate.

        But the thing is, we all [many, most] believe stuff we can’t fully articulate or formally argue.  Even the D of I cheats with “self-evident.”  Well, for the believer, the Bible is self-evidently true, so many evangelical minds felt no need to go any further into “natural law” and non-Biblical argument.

        By the same token, we see that some 30% of Americans sympathize with #Occupy, even though that movement is um, self-evidently incoherent.

        But in either case, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

        [As a side note, Christian “Dominionism” does not seek to impose Christ-law on America; it wants us to choose it voluntarily.  And on the other side, there’s an anti-Religious Right evangelicalism that’s comfortable with the interpretation of Romans 13 that has God ordaining governments and that we should obey them. And not vote GOP—better to stay home.  See Daryl G. Hart, and much of Front Porch Republic.  However, I seldom if ever see them urging “social Gospel” Democrats to butt out of politics, but perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.]Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Did not mean to get you into any mess, even a fine one!Report

        • Brian Taylor in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          I mean, this is the Founding’s political theology, and this product of modern academia doesn’t even recognize it.  Further, he decrees it “unacceptable.” When did we vote on that?

          I would hope that you don’t find it necessary to vote on something like your statement above. I don’t find myself or modern America obliged to live according to the dictates of 18th century beliefs. Some of what the founders held was good and visionary; other things they believed showed them for men of their times.

          Our knowledge and morality have seen significant advances since those days and I’d hope that modern Americans would be in sync with that reality. There is a real problem in modern America with the denial of facts in a certain part of the religious right wing, along with a creepy, paternalistic desire to control the behavior of those with whom they have disagreements. I will not say that the left is entirely free of this kind of thought, but it is especially sickening to see it given such prominence by GOP candidates.Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Brian Taylor says:

            We are free to choose another path, Mr. Taylor.  You miss the irony that you may be imposing yours on an unwilling populace, goose and gander-like, pot & kettle.Report

            • Brian Taylor in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              I haven’t imposed anything on anyone. What I have done is express my disappointment at the fact that some Americans take this kind of rhetoric seriously. I find it disturbing that there are people in this country who only believe in freedom for people they approve of/agree with.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Brian Taylor says:

                Mr. Taylor: Shall Salt Lake City impose its values on San Francisco, or vice-versa?  Neither, we might agree.

                But “they” see you and yours as doing exactly that.  They are not imposing any new cultural hegemony, you are.  They are merely resisting it.Report

              • Brian Taylor in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                I don’t see this in terms of a struggle between cultures or value sets. For me, this is about protecting individual liberties and the realization that the price of freedom is tolerating when people use their freedoms in ways of which you disapprove. The particular set of religious conservatives doesn’t just want the freedom to follow their consciences, they’re seeking to deny the rights of others based on their beliefs by writing their prejudices into law.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Brian Taylor says:

                So, Brian, it’s San Francisco to impose its values on Salt Lake City, then. OK.  Try to forgive them when they resist.Report

              • Brian Taylor in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                I see you’re determined to try to put words into my mouth. As Jesse says below, if abortion, gay marriage, and gay adoption are against your morality, don’t avail yourself of them. What’s not acceptable is to use one’s religious beliefs as a means to bully others out of their rights.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Not words in your mouth, Brian, but accurately describing what you’re trying to do, despite your attempt to reframe the reality.  You are imposing a redefinition of reality, from the existence of an objective morality to a subjective one, by torturing the Constitution and our Founding philosophy of law until it screams “Neutrality!”

                But “neutrality” isn’t morally neutral atall: it’s simply a new morality you are imposing over the old morality, and against these people’s will.

                They resist, as is their right.Report

              • Brian Taylor in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                You’re ascribing motives to me that aren’t there. This is a common tactic used by extreme religious right. The siege mentality raises the stakes in a way that a more accurate description of the situation can’t.

                Attempting to paint the bigots as victims will ultimately fail, but it always seems to be the last refuge for desperate dogmatists eager to deny others their rights.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Well, Brian, I said you were implacable from the first.  But your well-worn argument about “imposing morality” is revealed as a sophistry, and you really have nothing to fall back on except soggy rightstalk and the usual banal “bigot” stuff, rehearsed so many times on the internet.  Our work is finished here. Peace.Report

              • Jeff in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Duh, yeah.  If some locality had values saying that, frex, date rape was OK, I’d impose the hell on those values. 


                Shouldn’t the Libertarian apply the Jefferson quote to determine whose values are to be limited?  Because that leads to San Francisco in a hurry.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Except I’m not imposing values on Salt Lake City. No one has to get an abortion. No one has to marry someone of the same sex. No one has to adopt a child with someone of the same sex.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                They don’t see it that way, they see it as abolishing morality and making right or wrong a matter of subjective opinion.  And since they don’t see it your way, you are imposing another regime on them, against their will.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                I didn’t know I had the power to destroy their own personal morality. Wow, maybe I can shoot lightning bolts too.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Who used the word “personal?”  Not me.  I’m speaking of an aggregate society, whose morality—ethos—is by definition the product of consensus.

                Of course “personal” morality enjoys the freedom of individual conscience.  That is not at issue here.

                Some people think wearing fur is immoral.  Some day, we may ban the wearing of fur.  We impose morality all the time, by consensus. Hell, you can’t even get a decent piece of horsemeat in this country anymore.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                The flip side to that is the Taliban in Afghanistan refusing to let little girls (THE CHILDREN!) learn to read.

                If you believe that rights are seated in the individual, you have one response to this phenomenon.

                If you believe that rights are seated in the society, you have another.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                JB, rightstalk get vacuous in a hurry, esp when taken out of our American context.  We needn’t go to a faraway Muslim society:


                The [Canadian] Supreme Court has ruled that the government may limit free speech in the name of goals such as ending discrimination, ensuring social harmony, or promoting gender equality. It also has ruled that the benefits of limiting hate speech and promoting equality are sufficient to outweigh the freedom of speech clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is the country’s bill of rights incorporated in the country’s constitution. . . .

                Lots for Americans all across the political spectrum not to like.  But the left could take us there just as easily as the right, and re Canada, well, that sure don’t sound like right-wing America.

                Further, we are loath to describe Canada as a tyranny or a violator of human rights.

                But my core point would be that “radical individualism” still isn’t the American conception of rights: We still believe in “society” as an organic entity.  Or at least we did as recently as say, Tocqueville.

                And to close the circle, the Founding conceptions of law and rights per the OP still haven’t been abolished, although I confess they’re on the ropes.  Hence, Gingrich is “fighting” back, trying to avoid a knockout.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                JB, rightstalk get vacuous in a hurry, esp when taken out of our American context.

                If you see rights as culturally-dependent, you have one response to this statement.

                If you see rights as seated in the individual, you have another.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:


                But my core point would be that “radical individualism” still isn’t the American conception of rights: We still believe in “society” as an organic entity.  

                I don’t know whether this means you’ve had a change of heart or that I’ve just misunderstood you all this time. Or is it maybe that we disagree on the meaning of ‘rugged radical indivualism’ and ‘society as an organic entity’. Wasn’t it just yesterday you were running down ‘collectivism’ as a demonstrable evil?

                Or at least we did as recently as say, Tocqueville.

                Yeah. I think that disclaimer points in the direction of a more correct answer here.Report

              • karl in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                So now you’re a moral relativist?  Disagreement without coercion = imposing a regime?

                I think you just like making stuff up to disagree with people you don’t want to agree with — and by doing so you are oppressing me!Report

              • Mr. Stillwater, I’m open to a wide range of polities as valid and legitimate, consent of the governed being primary.  Certainly I have my own preferences about America’s, but in short, I find both Salt Lake City and San Francisco “acceptable” under our constitutional scheme, to each its own.  That’s why I dig federalism.

                I find historian Barry Shain’s The Myth of American Individualism [Google Books preview here] a needed monkey wrench in the wheels of the prevailing wisdom, its thesis is congenial to the Tocqueville. Shain argues that America was a lot more “communitarian” [he uses “communalism”] than many of us get from reading the letters of elites like Jefferson.  In fact, he’s an anti-liberal and a defender of “institutional liberalism” at the Founding at the same time.  The facts is the facts.

                I believe a “nation” is more than just the sum of its laws, and when government works to abolish its ethos, there is nothing to keep it together, nothing to make us respect those laws, or each others’ rights.  “Without a vision, the people perish,” says the Bible, and if we dispense with the Founding vision, I fear we don’t have a sufficiently efficacious substitute.   I don’t think a “nation” can get by just on laws and policy and pretty rightstalk.

                When push comes to shove, well, it always does, doesn’t it?

                [Thx for picking up the Tocqueville part and thereby giving me some benefit of the doubt.]


              • No, Karl, you’re oppressing ME!

                After we allow both sides the “imposing morality” card [and thereby the halo of victimhood], it goes to the “B” word pretty quick.  [“Bigot,” for those who came in late; we’ve only had this discussion 648 times before @ the LoOG.]

                Hey, do you know where a fellow could get some horsemeat? I’ll send you my email address.]Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                TVD, Thanks for elaborating. And I agree with you here, especially the part about consent of the governed. I think that’s necessary, even if it’s constructed. People need to feel that government and larger society aren’t actively opposed to all their core beliefs and desires. Seems like we’ve got a long ways to go to get back where we were. (Hmmm. I’ve got to re-read RTod’s posts about this stuff.)


              • karl in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Okay, maybe I am oppressing you but you oppressed me first.

                As for the ‘morality card’ — sometimes one side does have the higher moral ground (I hope you’ll accept this as a fact and not force me to go all Godwin on your ass).  The trick is to recognize the obvious when it occurs — a difficult trick for the moral relativist.

                As for horsemeat, I see it packaged in Swiss supermarkets along with all the other usual meats (rabbit, too!).  That’s a long way to go for some horse, though.Report

              • And, of course, if you don’t want to be aborted, pick a mother who won’t abort you.Report

              • Liberty60 in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                All laws are based on a morality, a vision of what is right or wrong.

                No one would argue that point.

                What is arguable, is whose morality, and how do the people choose?

                Should the morality of Salt Lake City or San Francisco be enforced?

                What would be so wrong with saying that the issue should be put to a vote, with the results bounded by the Constitution?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Liberty60 says:

                How bout this: Least harm consistent with agreed upon rights?Report

              • Liberty60 in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                So the morality which is enforced by law is whatever the people decide it is, provided it conforms to the limits of the Constitution?

                Because I’m pretty sure thats not what the candidates were talking about.Report

              • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Actually they are, Mr. Liberty, even if they’re underarticulate about it.

                Stillwater—I live for meets of the minds such as this.  That it includes RTodKelly makes it all the more sweet.


    • I have to confess that I wasn’t thinking about natural law versus positivism or legal realism; the issue was of religion rather than morality, particularly in the context of the forum in which these statements were made. It’s a worthy point that many — indeed, most — of the Founders would buy in to the premises of natural law as opposed to competing schools of legal philosophy, and that like most of their contemporaries, they did not overtly question the moral teachings of Christianity and in many cases endorsed those moral teachings (with various and variable qualifications that need not concern us here).

      I’ll even walk that dog a step further than you did, and note that Both Senator Santorum and Congresswoman Bachmann are lawyers themselves, and should be given the benefit of the doubt that they’ve at least had some study in the philosophy of law. May not be true, but I see no reason to assume to the contrary. It’s just possible that they would defend themselves with the same argument you offered here.

      Possible, but unlikely. It’s not the 1780’s and these candidates are not debating the formation of a new Republic in uncharted historical waters amongst their fellow educated elites. Rather, these are populist appeals for a more explicitly religious Republic in the 2010’s and 2020’s. The Founders were not particularly populist (granted the term had not been invented yet). While the Founders were generally favorably-disposed to religion, they also (mostly) understood the difference between accomodating religious life and promoting it. Mr. Santorum in particular here seems to cater to the incorrect notion that if government fails to promote religion, then the government is by definition repressing religion; more elaborately stated, should the government fail to enact religiously-informed morality into the law, a crisis for the faithful is created in the form of a (falsely) mutually exclusive choice of allegiance between faith and civil government.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Burt, I recognized the Founding language immediately and therefore Gingrich, as he has a PhD in history.  Santorum I don’t know very well, but as a Catholic, he might take more easily to natural law arguments; folk Protestantism has been hostile to them because of their Catholic [Aquinas] origin, although that’s changing as we speak.

        I’m not taking the Bachmann bait. She’ll soon return to backbenching, and I stipulate her incoherence. But as above, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.  The side that best articulates its position wins a formal debate, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right. As an attorney, you know the wrong side sometimes [or even often] wins simply because it argues better.

        And right or wrong, I expect you could clean Ms. Bachmann’s clock arguing either side of anything.


  4. Jeff Eaton says:

    “The vision that disturbs me here is that government obtains its legitimacy based upon its divine origins rather than democratic approval.”

    That’s precisely the view that is dominant in many conservative Christian circles. I say that as someone who was part of those groups during the culture wars of the 80s and 90s; I grew up in a Christian family that became politically active, and I grew to be even more “hardcore” than the rest of my family.

    The conservative christian PACs and organizations courted by the candidates you’re quoting genuinely do believe that government’s legitimacy comes from God, and that when government departs from God it is no longer legitimate. That’s explicitly and clearly articulated in a lot of writings by influential authors in that movement. Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto is an excellent example. In it, he explains that Christians have a responsibility to use the mechanisms of democracy to restore government to Godliness before they resort to civil disobedience or violent revolution.

    The number of people who would actually favor doing those things is very small, I think. But the Christian Deconstructionists are a genuinely influential segment of the Fundamentalist and Evangelical camps, especially in the politically mobilized groups. The fact that they are aggressively courted by political candidates is disturbing; the best we can hope for is that they, like most politicians, are lying to a vocal demographic to secure votes. Articulating the dangers of those views, though, is important.Report

  5. Liberty60 says:

    For a religious leftist like me, I don’t know which is more disturbing, that they want to force government to obey their idea of religious doctrine, or that their doctrine is so pinched, hateful and bitter.Report

  6. Mike Schilling says:

    Two of them remembered to be polite and say “Judeo-Christian” (which means, of course, “Christian”).  The last guy might be the most trustworthy; at least he said exactly what he meant.Report

  7. Murali says:

    If governmental legitimacy is handed down from above, then the consent of the governed is irrelevant and legitimate government may run contrary to the will of the citizenry; the use of the law to compel compliance with God’s will becomes the appropriate mission of government.

    One interpretation of the nature of universals is that they are part of God’s unchanging nature. Another way is to say that when we talk about God, what we are really talking about is at least in part, some universals.

    Morality is universal. (or at least the fundamental moral claim purport to be universal) The goodness of God, can therefore thought to merely be a claim about moral truths transcending the contingencies of the universe.

    So lets secularise the above claims. To say that Government is handed down from above really just is to say either one or both of two things.

    1. Government is morally justified.

    2. We have prima-facie reason to  obey the law whatever it turns out to be. This is basically what the divine right of kings was. That one person became king rather than another was just an act of God. (Act of God in the sense that insurance doesnt cover it) The reason we had to obey the king was because the institution of monarchy was justified in order to maintain stability and prevent a war of all against all.

    That descarfies some of it.

    Now I dont think it follows that just because God institutes government that the laws are there necessarily to compel compliance with God’s will. What if its God’s will that governments don’t compell compliance to His will? That’s the essential liberal and libertarian argument isnt it? That governments have a moral imperative to permit its citizenry to be immoral (of course within the boundaries.)


    • Burt Likko in reply to Murali says:

      It may not logically follow that if God institutes government that the government therefore exists to enforce God’s will. But that is how it invariably works out in practice, with the coda that God’s will seems to somehow coincide exactly with the material interests of those elites charged with determining and implementing God’s will.

      So even if you water God down to “good morality,” and assuming that good morality can be objectively ascertained, I still find the departure from some form of consent of the governed as the source of legitimacy to be a significant problem.Report

      • Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:

        The thing is, consent of te governed never exists in practice. A whole bunch of people dont like the laws and perpetually live outside them (you know carreer criminals, mafia etc) They neither live by them nor expect to be protected by them. The fact is that govenment is a coercive institution. Consent of the governed is a myth (probably even more mythical than divine right of kings) It is not necessary to legitimise government and since it is never actually instantiated, is too stringent a requirement if we are to say that any government is actually legitimate.Report

        • Kim in reply to Murali says:

          criminals call 911 all the time. they may live partially outside the law (in an underground economy) but that doesn’t mean taht they don’t live in buildings with fire escapes and slum lords, both of which are well within the legal framework.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Murali says:

          Really? More than 131 million Americans cast votes in the 2008 election for President out of an adult population of about 245 million. These are people who have opted in to the system enough to take the time to vote. I submit that by the act of voting, citizens consent to government by way of participating in it. If they believed the government was illegitimate or that their votes weren’t somehow important, they wouldn’t vote at all.

          The existence of criminals within the citizenry does not obviate the consensus that a substantial majority of the citizenry accepts and consents to the prevailing government. This is so even if majorities (or perhaps vocal pluralities) from time to time chafe against the restrictions which otherwise they accept.Report

          • Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:

            The existence of criminals within the citizenry does not obviate the consensus that a substantial majority of the citizenry accepts and consents to the prevailing government

            Ask the republicans whether they accept and consent to the prevailing government?

            Also, ask the question of democrats when the republicans are in power.

            Also, it is tautological to say that there is a consensus when it comes to the acceptance of government except for all those people who dont agree.Report

          • Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:

             131 million Americans cast votes in the 2008 election for President out of an adult population of about 245 million

            114 million didnt care enough to vote either way. And roughly only 55% of those who did vote voted for obama. Put that as 72 million votes for Obama. First of all, a 53% voluntary participation rate in your political process is indicative that you are far from a consensus even as far as a positive affirmation of your political instituions is concerned. Scondly, a 55% vote, while high by american standards is hardly a consensus on policy. 55% of 53% is  roughly a quarter of the adult population and certainly not even a majority of them le alone representing a cosnensus.Report

      • Shack Toms in reply to Burt Likko says:

        You have hit the nail on the head. Reason is generally not disinterested. People tend to see their own notions of the good as the expression of “Natural Law” and competing notions of the good as contrary to nature.

        Of course, this doesn’t apply only to those with an explicitly religious motivation. A lot of people promote “rational government” to justify thwarting the political consensus for the sake of their own “rational” perspective.

        Just imagine, once we reduce mental states to brain states we will be able to decide the relative degree to which people are affected by their circumstances. Those with twice the normal measured value of “awareness” can justifiably be given two votes in the political process. Or objective measurements of human interests will supplant the need for voting at all.

        The idea that politics is about ideas is not quite right. The ultimate question of politics is the question of sovereignty, the question of “Who decides?” A tyranny is a tyranny precisely to the extent that it is not the “rightful” sovereign who decides.Report