Human Rights & God
Danielle Allen is one of the brightest left of center scholars who takes an interest in and promotes America’s Declaration of Independence. Her father, William B. Allen, is himself a notable right of center public intellectual who has a likewise interest in the Declaration.
In 2014, the Library of Law and Liberty with Paul Seaton writing, reviewed Danielle Allen’s book on the Declaration. The review noted Allen’s secular focus while mentioning the work of Gregg Frazer on the matter:
Like many today, she wants her egalitarianism to rest on a secular foundation. This, one suspects, is the deeper meaning of her oft-used term, “commitment,” which is what human beings do when they cannot affirm a principle on the basis of either faith or reason. Certainly, the naturalistic egalitarian anthropology she teases out of the text is more sketched than demonstrated, and with significant lacunae. For a better treatment of the character of the deity affirmed in the Declaration, one should consult Gregg L. Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (2012) and his useful concept of “theistic rationalism,” halfway between Deism and 18th century Christian orthodoxy. Allen gets close, but her manner of reading precludes her from considering, in a comprehensive view, the Declaration’s teaching about the deity.
At the end of the review at the Library of Law and Liberty, Seaton curiously noted the following:
It remains to better scholarship—informed by historical, philosophical, and exegetical learning—to follow the lead of the partisans and bring this text’s ampler meaning to light for all citizens to consider. They should read Danielle Allen’s egalitarian effort, but others as well, perhaps starting with Michael Zuckert’s philosophically informed “structural” reading in The Natural Rights Republic (1999). And, since both of the aforementioned suffer from a shyness about the issue of the deity in the Declaration, best not to leave out Frazer’s work referenced above. Or just reflect upon whether human equality can have a firm basis other than Biblical religion.
I think it’s a more convincing proposition to argue that “God” is a necessary part of the equation for human equality than “biblical religion.” Yes, it has to be a certain kind of God. To use the absurdest of examples, Cthulhu is hardly a liberal democrat. However, the question then begged is just how the “biblical God” likewise squares with liberal democracy. (I don’t, for the record, think He’s comparable to Cthulhu like Richard Dawkins does.)
A number of notable atheists have made the case that God isn’t a necessary part of the equation for the objective, non-negotiable status of “rights” that are antecedent to the rule of political power. Ayn Rand believed this. As does my blogfather, the fervent atheist Timothy Sandefur. Though not an expert on traditional natural law scholarship, I understand some of those philosophers have held God isn’t necessary to demonstrate the objective, binding reality of the natural law.
Personally, I’m not convinced God is so necessary to undergird the propositions of liberal democracy. However, I do wonder. And I do believe that belief in God as guarantor of said rights provides a firm basis for them, arguably a firmer basis than non-theistic or atheistic philosophy can.
The author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, seemed clearly on the side that God was a necessary part of the equation.
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence invokes God, four times under four different titles. The philosopher who most greatly influenced the metaphysics of the Declaration is, of course, John Locke. And two Locke scholars for whom I have a great deal of respect seem convinced that God is a necessary component to secure liberal democratic human rights. Those two figures are the late Paul Sigmund and the currently living Jeremy Waldron. Both are left of center, politically.
The religiously conservative political scientist Robert Kraynak, as an expert on Locke and the political philosophy of the American founding, grappled with the above noted begged question in his book “Christian Faith and Modern Democracy” and answered it as follows:
“We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.”
When Kraynak invokes “God,” it’s generally the God of orthodox Christianity, more particularly that of Roman Catholicism. Yes, I have long stressed, after Kraynak and others, that the traditional orthodox notions of God are not only not necessary to the human rights granting formula, but that to contrary, the more traditional notions of the deity really aren’t all that “liberal democratic.”
It’s not my position that Thomas Jefferson spoke for all or even most of America’s founders. Rather, that his God “worked,” indeed, worked perfectly in the equation that makes God the necessary guarantor of liberal democratic rights. And Jefferson’s God was devoid of the following features:
The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.
It shouldn’t surprise us then that the Declaration of Independence, though theistic, turns out hardly to be a traditional “Christian” document, arguably not “Christian” at all, but rather something “modern” in the late 18th Century sense of the term. It doesn’t mention Jesus or quote verses and chapter of Scripture. Rather, it mentions a God of some sort in four places, using the titles Creator, Nature’s God, Divine Providence and Supreme Judge of the World.
It is my position, further, that the texts of the Bible and orthodox doctrine qua orthodox doctrine do not speak to unalienable rights — those articulated in the Declaration — that are, by their definition, doctrinally grounded in nature, discovered by reason. There is a need for some kind of additional theory that is largely outside of holy texts of revealed scripture; though certain texts of revealed scripture can be used to incorporate such outside the text teachings and doctrines of the metaphysics of America’s Declaration of Independence (like, for instance, when Thomas Aquinas found a biblical basis to incorporate the extra-biblical rich teachings of Aristotle into Christendom).
I note, after Larry Arnhart, that likewise problematic verses and chapters exist in both the Old Testament and the New. The portions are problematic in that they don’t support and arguably contradict the universal rights dogma of liberal democracy. As Arnhart writes:
… The case of slavery and “universalism” illustrates the problem. … [M]any religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery were able to cite specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God’s image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. Here’s a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the Bible.
Moreover, the “universalism” of the Bible is in doubt. I don’t see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament.
Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity. (See, for example, Tim LaHaye’s popular LEFT BEHIND novels.)
… And, of course, there is a continuing controversy over whether the Christian churches in Europe did enough to oppose Hitler. The German Lutheran Church was inclined to interpret the 13th Chapter of Romans as dictating obedience to the authorities. Martin Luther himself was brutal in his expression of anti-Semitism. …
Thus, the questions remain: Is “God” a necessary component to undergird universal human rights? And if so, what kind of God best serves the purpose and how compatible is the biblical God, and/or God of the various orthodox traditions with said purpose?