John Locke frees God

Peter Lawler has written an interesting essay on the way American self-understanding is shaped by Lockean individualism and a sort of Augustinian Christian alienation from the world.  He makes the strongest case that can be made (which still isn’t very strong) that Locke and Christianity are in practical harmony, but sometimes he tries too hard:

The most noble Lockean interpretation of the Constitution of 1787′s silence on God is that it’s anti-civil theological. It can be criticized for not placing our country “under God,” or for liberating political will from divine limits—for turning man into God. Or it can be praised for limiting the realm of political will, for freeing creatures and Creator from political domination for being who they truly are.

The Founders are even more wonderful than we had been told.  Not only did they bring freedom to a world languishing in tyranny–they’ve freed God Almighty Himself!  I wonder what our Lord will do now that He’s been freed of the shackles of having a public cult devoted to Him.

Even putting aside this literalistic reading, the claim Lawler makes is rather perverse.  Christians feel alienated from the world because of the Fall; therefore we must cultivate this alienation by having the State refuse to recognize God’s authority.  And by refusing to recognize the truth of Christianity, the State recognizes the truth of Christianity, because the truth of Christianity is alienation, and the more alienated Christians feel from the political order, the more Christian it must be!

There are other things to object to in the essay–the way it characterizes civic republicanism as reducing individuals to fodder for the State is unfair–but there are also things to agree with in it.  In particular, Lawler deserves credit for acknowledging that a restructuring of the public order in a purely Lockean direction would be a very bad thing.

5 Responses

  1. Guys like Lawler are really irritating. His whole thesis is that the American Founders did “better then they knew.” For reactionaries such as ourselves Lockeanism is the true enemy the “original liberalism”made all the more dangerous by the fact that many American “conservatives” see Locke as some sort of great traditionalist, who’s philosophy was simply reiteration of Thomism in an Anglo context.

    Bonald, a post dedicated to a point by point contrast between the Aristotlean/Thomisitic/De Maistre view of society versus the Lockean would be awesome. It would also do a lot of good in shutting up some of these “chirping sectaries.”

  2. I have written an extensive criticism of Peter Lawlers thinking on my blog just now. I consider him to be at the end of the day very nearly one of those you call pseudo conservatives.

  3. While the article is far from perfect and puts alot of tenuous lipstick on a pig, your characterization of it is disingenuous. This is as good a time as any to ask a representative of the theocratic reactionary mind a question: have you never seen this movie before? That is, the union of spiritual authority with physical, secular power? It seems to me you make the same mistake that those that fetishize democracy make: thinking that government is not legitimate unless it is controlled by YOUR representative of the ultimate good. I am not a libertarian by any stretch, and I am whole-heartedly in agreement with you about most things (recent follower), but I do think that, in this world, government is a necessary evil, and this idea that government should be some transcendent entity dedicated to the propagation of virtue is pernicious. (Obviously, as presently constituted, it is dedicated to the propagation of vice, which I also oppose.) It is an instrument for maintaining order, nothing more. It will be as imperfect as the entity that controls it, but more importantly controlling it (having the ability to coerce others) affects those that control it negatively.

    Jesus words on the state and (implicitly) God’s hidden-ness both indicate to me that belief and a virtuous life must both be chosen, never coerced, in order to be pleasing to God. From an empirical standpoint, the union mentioned above resulted in the debasement of the Church (at least a chunk of the hierarchy) by attracting base men lusting for power to spiritual leadership positions. Once that happens there is no succor from tyranny. Jesus promises regarding His Church and the nature of truth should remove any doubt about it. Whatever is true can take care of itself, in the Church and the hearts of the faithful, through the continuing efforts of the Holy Spirit in both.

  4. Hello Gabe Ruth,

    I don’t fault liberals for trying to enforce their idea of the good. I don’t see how they could do anything else. The only question is which beliefs are going to be enforced as the public orthodoxy. It’s important that they be true and virtue-formative ones.

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