Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Does it Really Matter if Washington Took Communion or Not?

The following was left by D.G. in the comments section of one of Jon Rowe's previous posts on Lilliback and "Sacred Fire" that seems to echo the question that Brad Hart recently asked in his post about Gordon Wood:

"Not to take issue with my friends, Mark David Hall or David Hall (should they form band, Hall & Hall?), I'm not sure what the point of this work of historical excavation. So, what if the American Revolution was Calvinist? What does that prove? That somehow America was Christian, or that liberals or secularists have no legitimate place in the U.S.? Or does it mean, as Barry Shain might argue, American liberalism is different from its 20th century version? I have no trouble telling the difference between John Adams and FDR. Do I need to know the Calvinist resistance literature to spot that difference?

This is what I don't get. There seems to be an agenda -- that if we get the founding right with its respect for religion, then we'll get X right today. What is the X?"
What we get wrong about the founding is highlighted in this statement from Ed Brayton yesterday at Dispatches From the Culture Wars:

"There isn't a single provision in the Bill of Rights that has any concept even remotely analogous in the Bible. The Bible does not say a word about political liberty or political rights."
Ed stated this in the context of Cynthia Dunbar's clever use of a prayer offered by Chief Justice Earl Warren that implied that the Bill of Rights came from the Bible. Ed is correct in that the Bill of Rights is not found in the Bible. What he ignores is that the chief concept that Western Christian thought ties inalienable rights to, imago dei, is in the Bible.
 I keep bringing these continued statements up because they help frame the most relevant battle going on in the culture wars of today.

This battle seems to be over what ideas were foundational to the creation of the most free and prosperous nation in the history of the world and where these ideas came from? Jack Goldstone, in his enlightening essay How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity, lays down the gauntlet here in a Brayton-like manner with a quote from Joseph Priestley:

"Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy. . . the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive."

Goldstone then added the following analysis:

"This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past. Instead the new engineering culture proclaimed that an earthly paradise lay in man’s future, and that it would be brought about by mankind’s own progress in developing and applying new scientific knowledge rather than by divine redemption."

He then went on to say what was perhaps the chief catalyst in the acceptance and spread of this new engineering culture:

"What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers, the prohibition of diverse religious beliefs in any one society, the elevation of the rights and needs of political and social status elites above those of ordinary inhabitants — in order to develop and implement the idea of society as a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state. Yet this was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries."
In short, Goldstone argues that our prosperity the last 200 or so years resulted from the idea of "free individuals sovereign over a limited state" and a repudiation of the "central elements" of European history and culture: "the absolute authority of hereditary rulers."

What he ignores is other European ideas that were foundational to the development of the idea of "free individuals sovereign" that he credits with being the chief catalyst to "the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries." Ideas that were central to streams of Western Christian thought. These are the ideas of men like Aquinas, Bellarmine, Hooker, Rutherford and others before them.

These ideas led to the Magna Carta, constitutional government in Aragon and other Mediterranean nations, The School of Salamanca, the protests of Las Casas over the treatment of the Aztecs, and the English Civil Wars against despotism. Things that are not taught in school today and are generally unknown to or ignored by most cultural warriors.

When we put the American Creation into the larger context of the history of ideas and bring to light the often ignored history of Europe we begin to see a different picture than the one Gladstone and Brayton paint. One that needs to be revisited as we move from one era of human history to another. Lest we remove the moorings from the foundation and see the entire building fall as we cut ties with the Judeo-Christian aspects of our intellectual roots.

So I ask this:

In the light of all I just stated, does it really matter whether George Washington took communion or not?

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