Sunday, May 26, 2019

Free at Last

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

-          Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster; most famously performed by Janis Joplin

In Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation of religion in America, he described it as “the first of their political institutions.”  There is little of this visible in the situation today:

Values and moral commitments that were then widely shared no longer are.  This is the outcome of a long historical process, and it also lies at the root of some widely acknowledged frustrations in American public life and political culture today, difficulties that have never been more apparent than since the election of November 2016.

Gregory sees the fragmentation of Protestantism as a significant contributor to the secularization and fragmentation of American society.  The Bible – a complex collection of ancient texts – is interpreted in many different ways, and Protestants lack any shared authority to settle disputes.

Darwin is introduced as the figure in history that also defines the split in liberal vs. fundamentalist Protestants.  This is reasonable if one is considering the Bible as literal regarding creation.  But Gregory then offers that these two camps – defined this way – “typically hold rival political, social, and moral views….”

The context of Gregory’s discussion is the division in America that was made most visible in the 2016 election.  It isn’t clear to me that the division is along the lines that Gregory offers, that one’s view on creation (Young Earth vs. Old Earth) was the defining characteristic of those who voted for Trump vs. Clinton, respectively.

According to Gregory, this division (Young Earth fundamentalists vs. Old Earth liberals) is explanatory regarding views toward abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and many other social issues.

As a result, Protestantism can no longer inform American society in any coherent way.

This much is true, but the way Gregory defines the split seems too convenient and simplistic – it sounds very liberal and Enlightened (as opposed to conservative and deplorable): the dummies (Young Earth) voted for Trump, the intelligent (Old Earth) voted for Clinton; the dummies have the wrong view on many social issues, the intelligent have this right.

In fact, Gregory skips over the Enlightenment entirely, yet it seems to me that the divisions we see in society today are reflected more in rival views of the long-term effects of Enlightenment, as it was here that God was removed fully and finally from public life.  Of course, one can trace a string from the Enlightenment back to the Reformation; Gregory doesn’t do this.

I don’t write this to suggest that it takes away from my view of Gregory’s historical analysis; I just think he makes a strong political point in his closing chapter without meaningful factual basis or evidence.

Returning to Gregory: secularization was further driven by the influx of non-Protestants (Catholics and Jews) at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.  These eventually would be in a position to object to Protestant views and values reflected in laws, schools, and many institutions. 

Yet it seems to me that the die was already cast by then – the Civil War happened already and Protestants did a good job of arguing both sides of slavery and war.  I don’t discount the impact of introducing even more diverse voices (and the diversity, such as it is defined popularly, today is infinitely more stifling), but I return to the thought that a discussion of the impact of the Enlightenment is more explanatory than an influx of Catholics and Jews.

Gregory describes the legacy of state support for churches in Europe, making it “almost impossible for members of the clergy to stand apart from the imperialism and military involvements of their respective countries.”  It seems to me that, at least in the US, the state has figured out how to accomplish pretty much the same thing.  In fact, much of the strongest support for the military and interventionism will be found in Protestant churches.

Once Christianity was put under the control of the king (desired by Luther) as a result of the Reformation, it was certain to be made a tool of the state.  Religion no longer informs the state; the state informs religion.

Religion no longer informs society either; it is an individual, internal matter.  What has replaced Christianity in this secularized society?  More stuff:

To judge by most people’s actions today, they believe that the goods life is the good life, and they devote themselves to this whether or not they also believe in God or engage in worship or prayer.

Throughout the West, consumption of goods and pursuit of enjoyment has replaced religion. 

This would have horrified – if perhaps not surprised – Luther and Calvin and other sixteenth century Protestant reformers.

What the Dutch identified as the method by which they could get past religious division, the British extended and the Americans perfected.  Trade brings on peace: there are many who believe this, including many libertarians.  But it seems to me that something more is necessary.

The decades before World War One in Europe epitomized the realization of this liberal view.  If one wants to read the dictionary definition of classical liberalism and liberty applied, one would find this era.  Yet extended peace was not the result.  Europe consumed itself.

Five hundred years after Luther kicked off the Reformation, he was celebrated as ushering in modern liberalism and modern freedom.  Luther wouldn’t be happy to be the poster boy of this modern religion.  Yet one can trace a thread from Luther through the wars of state consolidation, to the Enlightenment and ending with this liberalism and modern freedom.  Luther wouldn’t be happy, but not all consequences are intended.  And as I have previously noted, something like the Reformation was going to happen, with or without Luther.

When consumption is the new religion, the shopping center (or Amazon) is the new church; when the pursuit of enjoyment is one’s highest calling, fantasy football (or other fantasies) is not far behind.  Regular church attendance has “plummeted” in the 1960s and stayed low ever since.  It doesn’t help that Christian voices are offering multiple and conflicting messages – offering the perception that anything goes and nothing can be known as objective truth, hence attendance isn’t necessary.

At the heart of recent developments lies [societies’] failure to offer anything besides consumerism to take the place of religion as a shared basis for the organization, values, and priorities of human life.

Beyond consumerism, there is little that ties together Christians today.  As this is what also is what ties society together, Christianity has little to offer to inform and influence society. 

“Reason alone” has not led people to agree about morality or meaning any more than “scripture alone” did.

I think of some of the popular libertarian slogans and banners: Reason: Free Minds and Free Markets; “anything peaceful”.  These aren’t sufficient if one is after liberty.


Freedom as understood by Luther, as well as by other Protestant and Catholic reformers of the sixteenth century, was based on a radically different understanding of what human beings are, what the point of human life is, and how one ought to live.  No wonder it seems so alien today to most Westerners.

Today, “religious persons” are divided on issues such as abortion, immigration, national identity, economic inequality and gun control.  The question: on what basis will these divisions be resolved?

Aristotle offered an answer, one that rings true to me.  Thomas Aquinas extended this into what the Catholic tradition offers as Natural Law.  Luther addressed this directly, in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology:

He condemns theologians’ reliance on Aristotelian categories.  “No one can become a theologian,” Luther argues, “unless he becomes one without Aristotle.”  Indeed, “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.”

Luther rejected Aristotelian–Thomistic Natural Law; in my opinion, this was a mistake.  I come to the intersection of Natural Law, Christianity, and libertarianism.  Sustainable liberty will be found in a society that properly reflects these views in its culture and norms – and in its laws and formal punishment, as informed by the non-aggression principle.

I should stop here, because now we enter into a theological discussion….


John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.


  1. “'Reason alone' has not led people to agree about morality or meaning any more than 'scripture alone' did."

    Author Ross Douthat appeared on *Real Time with Bill Maher* (yeah, I know) in 2012 to discuss the role of religion in modern life. In the course of their discussion, Douthat pointed out that the very idea of "universal human rights" is a metaphysical concept and, in some sense, religious.

    Maher dismissed Douthat's observation. "Rights," he countered, "are pretty much common sense."

    I suggest Maher invite Cato's Tom Palmer, the Mises Institute's Walter Block, and internet commentator Stefan Molyneux on his show. All four have called themselves libertarian. All four are unbelievers. All four gush common sense. Maher and his panelists should come to substantial agreement on that lofty "universal human rights" subject, no?

    Normally, you couldn't pay me to watch that supercilious twit. But I would pay to watch that exchange.

    "All human conflict is ultimately theological."
    ~Henry Edward Manning

    1. Tony, it is an interesting thought. Libertarians embrace the non-aggression principle - a very simple concept to grasp, not at all complicated like an entire moral system or anything.

      Yet the debates between and among libertarians - who each believe that they are conforming to this principle - are as violent (verbally, of course) as any on any topic.

  2. I am a bit torn on the discussion of Christians basing their thoughts on Plato and Aristotle.

    One of the great tragedies in Christianity was when Origen convinced the church to use Greek interpretational techniques when approaching the Scriptures. Instead of a historical, grammatical approach Origen used the Greek philosophers method of strict allegory. The key was always to look under the actual words for a deeper, hidden spiritual meaning. Gnostics used the same approach much later. After Origen, this became the predominate method up until the Reformation. Even the Reformers didn't completely change. They still interpreted certain parts of the Bible differently than other. They in general interpreted the gospels and Paul's letters historically and grammatically. But with the Old Testament and apocalyptic passages they still interpreted using allegory.

    Part of Luther's revolution was his change in interpretational method. In that he was right to get rid of the Greek approach.

    I still like Aristotle's 4 causes and how those thoughts are valuable ways to think through the purpose of life and its nature. I like natural law. I think that idea is very biblical. God created nature and humanity is a part of nature not outside of it, therefore just as there are natural laws for physics there are natural laws for human interaction. I liken natural law to much of what I read of praxeology in Human Action.

    But those things are a bit separate from Scripture and Greek interpretation of their myths has no place in how we interpret the Bible. God after all in Isaiah 1 says "let us reason together". It means to analyze, test, and ultimately judge an idea.

    I think Luther might have identified a big problem in the church as Greek thought and thrown out everything that could be categorized as "Greek", while not recognizing that Aristotle and Plato and Aquinas made some legitimate observations about reality. He was a blunt weapon for sure.

    1. I had many reasons to include the Epilogue. One was that all things were made were from Him, and He was there from the beginning - and philosophers such as Aristotle were also looking for Him without considering or understanding that this is what they were doing.

      There are other reasons - and specifically I am thinking in the context of Aristotle's four causes - but these get more theological.

      To the extent I understand Aristotle, and to the extent I understand Luther (both very superficially), I can understand why Luther might have to discount (or discard) the four causes. But maybe I am reading both men wrong.

  3. Perhaps the problem is humility, which I define as teach-ability: that is, the ability to learn from any source, even your enemies.

    It bothers me when a person finds it necessary to reject ALL the teachings of a given individual. As humans, we are going to hold some correct beliefs and some beliefs that are incorrect.

    Let us do our best to hold to the true and eschew the false, regardless of the source.

    1. Woody, it amazes me how often one can come across this type of thinking: "You know, he believes such-and-such. How can you pay attention to anything the guy says?"

      In other words, one should only value opinions from those with whom he can agree 100% - in other words, one can only value one's own opinions.