Why no posts

I have been totally consumed by the radio programme I am making — it goes out on the 29th of December and the 1st of January: the details will he “here.”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/analysis It’s about the role played by religion in American self-understanding. 25 minutes should be plenty to cover that, don’t you think?

Actually, I think I have got the message down to one unusable soundbite inspired by “Jamie Zawinski”:http://www.livejournal.com/users/jwz/580312.html . America is inconveivable without God because of Thomas Jefferson, who, at the conception of America, used God as his turkey baster.

Something more straightforward and less offensive will be used for the programme, but the underlying argument is a serious one. America imagines itself as a community of people with rights. Where do these rights come from? Well, from the creator. That’s what it says in the Declaration of Independence. What mattered to Jefferson was to limit the powers of government. The Bill of Rights is therefore a set of political assertions, but they are dressed up to make them seem beyond politics, self-evident truths deriving from human nature. That may be how constitutioins have to function. All political arguments have to stop somewhere. Either way, we reach a situation where to be an American is to be a certain sort of human being, one whose rights are fully recognised (even if everyone has them _in potentia_ ) and this is a centrally important fact about America and Americans. Yet these rights or the power to recognise them were given to America, and to Americans, by the creator. They have to have been. If they don’t come from somewhere outside the political process, they can’t serve their constitutional function. Of course, in reality, they were brought into being, and have been maintained, by power and in the least resort by violence. But the belief that they have an extra-political sanction is necessary for them to perform their political function.

It doesn’t matter, in this context, whether Jefferson himself distinguished between God and Nature, or meant one rather than the other — and he almost certainly didn’t mean the God of the Bible.

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6 Responses to Why no posts

  1. Interesting.

    This is a different twist than I was expecting, but I’m curious to see how convincingly you tie the concept of rights being endowed by God to the basis for the role of religion in America.

    I perceive that it’s based on something else, more like the justifcation we used for being here and taking more, and not so much connected with our ‘inalienable rights’ as most Americans understand the term.

  2. jim says:

    There’s considerable distance between the Declaration and the Bill of Rights (about 13 years and a couple of hundred miles and a whole other cast of characters).

    The rights envisaged in the Declaration and the rights granted in the Bill are two different sets. The inalienable rights endowed by the Creator are quite vague: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (amidst other unenumerated rights). The rights granted by the Bill are quite specific: not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures, against self-incrimination, to keep and bear arms.

    I don’t think anyone at the time conflated the two sets. I very much doubt you can find anyone arguing that the right to keep and bear arms was God-given. I’m sure you can’t find anyone arguing that liberty of conscience was required by the Creator. Could you find anyone arguing that today?

  3. Andrew Conway says:

    If correct, your argument would surely apply not just to the Declaration of Independence, but to any rights-based theory. Yet it doesn’t seem to me that the human-rights lobby, taken as a group, is particularly God-fearing — quite the reverse, in fact, insofar as the idea of human rights tends to go hand-in-hand with a vaguely articulated liberal humanism.

    I must dust off my history-of-political-thought textbooks (mostly unread since university) — but I seem to remember a similar debate in relation to Hobbes. Some scholars have argued that Hobbes’s theory of rights (which, by the way, includes the right to bear arms in self-defence) presupposes the existence of God to set these rights in place. (A Google search for ‘Taylor-Warrender thesis’ should bring up something about this.) As I recall, most scholars nowadays reject this theory — in other words, they argue that it’s possible to have a secular basis for human rights.

    In short, ‘rights = religion” strikes me as one of those convenient simplifications, like “Protestantism = individualism”, which has enough truth in it to make it plausible, but falls apart if you look at it too closely. But when you’ve only got 25 minutes to make your case ..

  4. h. E. Baber says:

    There’s a big intuitive leap here. Legal positivism vs. divinely backed rights is a false dichotomy: you can hold that moral facts, including facts about people’s rights and obligations, are just part of the way the world is independent of any legal system and “beyond politics” without presupposing any “creator” or divine rights-giver. This is probably the position that most philosophers who believe in rights take.

    I am, as I said, skeptical about the suggestion that American religiousity is a consequence of the peculiarities of the American political system or the Founding Fathers’ invocation of any transcendental turkey-baster. Also note that a Bush-appointed Republican judge has ruled that teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools is illegal. And I am betting that after a certain amount of fussing the controversy over evolution will die down because that is not what most socially conservative, “religious” Americans care about. (I’m betting–wait and see) The gut issues are abortion and anything that has to do with sex, anything that seems to undermine the nuclear family or threaten social instability because, as I said, Americans are motivated by fear–of people taking their stuff, doing violence or creating a hedonistic free-for-all. (Hedonistic free-for-alls are great if you’re young and energetic but not so hot if you want a suburban family lifestyle–or are old and fat and ugly).

    Here’s another thought, about the character of the labor movement in the US vs. elsewhere. Overall, the US labor movement was never much influenced by Marxism or anti-religious ideologies, and there wasn’t much sense of being part of an international movement–the Wobblies never really caught on. 100 years ago there was massive immigration and the strategy of many unions was to boost the wages and benefits of indigenous white males by locking out immigrants and blacks–and also women through “protective legislation” that passed as “progressive.” The working class was never secularlized. Moreover populists like William Jennings Bryant, who argued against evolution at the Scopes trial because it smacked of Social Darwinism, were kicking against a secular elite that promoted eugenics (Margaret Sanger was big on this). And that created a different dynamic in the US–the secular elite vs the religious working class.

    Also, looking at it historically, the God-gap between secular Europe and religious America didn’t really become striking until after WWII, did it? Until then, while there were ups and downs, religious participation in both Europe and the US was gently declining. Then some anomalous things happened in the US: in particular, boom in religion and bust in female labor force.

  5. rupert says:

    And we feel as if we’re a community with rights, but while the link between God and state is much more explicit here it has almost nothing to do with our perception of those rights. No written constitution either, but are we any less safe against stuff like the Patriot Act? I don’t feel at a democratic deficit because I live in London rather than Louisiana – rather the opposite, if anything, because we’re rather more free of the neurosis of religion.

    These things are self-evident, as someone somewhere once said. They do not have to be authorised from outside, nor can they be proved. Like mathematical axioms, they have to be declared, then used to construct something useful.


  6. acb says:

    I don’t think that rights must derive from religion, any more than I think that morality must, and there is a _reductio ad absurdum_ of the second position in the programme. But I think it’s plausible that they might, and this plausibility will continue to play a political role.

    More later.

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