Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Church and State"

Reason, we're often told, is something opposed to religion, and therefore anything which falls beneath the banner of the latter has no place in public discourse and should remain an object of purely private interest. Secularists tell us this, atheists tell us this, and sometimes even people of faith tell us this -- there's to be no establishment of religion after all, which seems a reasonable compromise. This formula, however, contains a now subtle but historically glaring fallacy, which is simply the assumption that religion is solely a matter of faith to the exclusion of reason.

When Thomas Jefferson spoke - and in a public capacity - about things like liberty as the "gift of God", was he, to his mind, speaking in the language of faith? Absolutely not. He was, instead, making a philosophical point. To Thomas Jefferson, to Thomas Paine, to Benjamin Franklin, etc., philosophy was a mode of rational inquiry, and reason applied to the data of the senses concluded in a "Law of Nature and of Nature's God."

Consult, for example, the diatribe against faith called the Age of Reason and you'll find its author, Thomas Paine, making a distinction that in fact Christendom used to make - and Catholics still do. Giving a commentary in the First Part of his book on a passage from the book of Job, Paine makes the point that reason can discover God's existence, but is incapable of revealing the whole of His attributes. In this all but forgotten distinction, the first "object" (God's existence) falls under the heading of natural theology, a subject of rational inquiry - reason; the second (God's attributes) under revealed theology, as articles believed by faith - the Incarnation and the Trinity are instances of the second. This distinction, however, seems to have vanished from our discourse; thus we now have gross misunderstanding, propagandist redefinitions, and, frankly, the wrongful tipping of the scales in disfavor of religion - wrongful at least to the extent a religion is natural.

This faded distinction applies also to ethics and to a particular view of man's nature. Why, for instance, won't schools teach the cardinal (natural) virtues? The supernatural virtues of faith, hope and love certainly fall to a given student's church to inculcate, but temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence are well within the purview of natural reason, thus of a teachable universal ethic. No less important, the Western conception of man's nature, the view that man is a "rational animal" - the only view upon which to predicate the conviction that "all men are created equal" - seems a curiously antiquated notion. Though this view may supplement the Christian view that man, through adoption, can become divinized, it also sets him apart at a philosophical level from mere animal impulses, granting him some degree of freedom and dignity from mere material causation; that fact is not an article of faith, it's potential compatibility with a given religion should not make a difference.

However, to some people compatibilities, which are favorable to religion, do make a difference. From ethics to a particular view of man's nature to the existence of God, secularists, atheists, and even some Christians have pulled out their broad brush; they've broad brushed all talk of God and morality with the colors of faith. Thus, in effect, they've camouflaged the fact that some religions claim to be grounded in reason, upon certain rational pillars; and camouflaged, moreover, the fact that these same rational pillars were established as the very bulwark of a free Republic, the blessings of which, at least to this day, we as a nation have inherited.

Pull out your copy of the Declaration of Independence -- our Founders used the golden pillars of natural theology, natural ethics, and a rational view of man's nature to erect a philosophy of freedom. We have great precedent, therefore, for reclaiming these preambles to freedom in the public domain, even if they happen to be preambles to faith in the private.