Monday, February 15, 2010

Letter from Michael Makovi to Dan McLeroy

Our friend Michael Makovi took the opportunity of my previous post on Mr. Dan McLeroy of the Texas school board. To be clear, as someone who teaches history, I do not support the secular narrative of modernity and much of my efforts in teaching modern history are to debunk this view. I particularly support Makovi's argument about the role of civil liberties at different levels of government. I have used a similar argument about a sliding scale of civil liberties before. In essence I become less Libertarian the further down I go in government. For example while I support the legalization of drugs and prostitution, I would support the right of individual neighborhoods to ban such activity. In fact I would wish to live in such a neighborhood. I am willing to allow Kiryat Joel and New Square to run their own little "Jewish Calvinist Geneva's" and even to ban television and English newspapers.

Mr. McLeroy,

I read with interest the article "How Christian Were the Founders?" in the New York Times. As an Orthodox Jew, I largely agree with the general tenor of your opinions. I wish to make a few remarks, however, quibbling on some of what you and your colleagues say and hold.

I. Distinction Between Facts and Opinions

First, I believe we have to make a distinction between teaching history and teaching opinions. It is one thing to teach the unbiased and objective fact THAT the Framers and Founders were religious. It is an objective fact that the king of England viewed the Revolutionary War as a Presbyterian Revolution; it is an objective fact that New England Congregationalist sermons advocating revolution against Britain, printed as pamphlets, outnumbered all other publications in America, religious or otherwise, four-to-one. It is also an objective fact that the principles of federalism and democracy were derived by John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger and others from the Bible, and that John Locke adopted these concepts and secularized them, and that Calvin and Locke together inspired the American Revolution. (See the cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America".)

Everything I've just said is objective fact. However, while it is indisputable THAT Locke relied on Calvin, it is something wholly else to say that WE must rely on Calvin ourselves, or even Locke for that matter. Similarly, while it is an indisputable fact that Benjamin Franklin criticized Thomas Paine's denial of individual Divine Providence, it is something wholly else to argue that WE must agree with Franklin over Paine.

My point is that we must be careful to teach indisputable historical facts, and eschew offering our own opinions of what individuals ought to believe. I believe that public schools must teach the Christian past of America, not because I am myself a Christian (on the contrary, I am in fact an Orthodox Jew), but rather, because it is simply an unassailable historical fact that America has a Christian past. Let the public schools teach objective facts, and let students choose for themselves what to believe. If students wish to become Christians, that is their prerogative. But if students such as myself will choose otherwise (I have and will remain a Jew), that is in turn their prerogative.

Similarly, then, I would oppose teaching creationism in biology class. This is not because I, as an Orthodox Jew, disagree with creationism; I do in fact, on quite religious grounds, reject creationism and instead embrace evolution, but that is not the point. Rather, I oppose teaching creationism in biology class because creationism is a religious belief, not a scientific one. If you wish you teach the scientific objections to evolution, then that certainly is admissible in a biology class. But to teach religious principles in a science class is inexcusable. Rather, religious principles should be taught in a philosophy class. And even that, students should be taught the fact THAT many religious Christians advocate creationism. Creationism can be taught very accurately and faithfully, but it should be taught as a belief that some hold, not as a belief that one must hold. Similarly, Judaism and Christianity can be taught in dispassionate objection fashions, with students being told what these two religions say, without students being told to take any particular stance. The data will be provided to students but the conclusions will be their own. I, for example, am perfectly aware of what scientists say about evolution, and what creationists say in reply. Having all the relevant data at my disposal, I have chosen to stake my claim with evolution, on both scientific and religious grounds. (Again, my embrace of evolution is quite religious in nature. See, for example, Rabbi Chanan Morrison, "Noah: The Age of the Universe." Rabbi Morrison follows the approach of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kook, one of the greatest rabbis of recent times, and revered by both the American Modern Orthodox as well as by the Israeli far-right nationalist "settlers". Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of 19th-century Germany, arguably THE father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, has a similar approach.)

Therefore, the proper understanding of the First Amendment depends on societal consensus. If the society is wholly and entirely Christian, then the separation of church and state will mean only that the government cannot coerce one particular Christian church; neither Catholicism nor Protestantism may be supported by the government. However, Judaism might be seen as entirely beyond the pale, and subject to coercion and punishment. That is, religious tolerance is relative; one may tolerate other Christians but not non-Christians.

Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri of 13th-century Provence, France, is famous for tolerating Christians and Muslims and saying that in Jewish law, a Christian or Muslim is like a Jew, and that the commandment to love one's neighbor as himself includes them. But even Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri declared that atheists could NOT be tolerated, because in his view, anyone who denied reward and punishment was liable to murder and steal and commit crimes against society. Today, however, things might be different, and one might rightly follow the general direction of Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri, and based on his own logic, extend his tolerance to include even atheists, as long as they respect the rights of their fellow men and do not commit anti-social crimes. So the separation of church and state is relative, and must be reconsidered anew in every time and place.

II. A Nuanced Understanding of Just What Democracy and Federalism Are

Second, I believe we need to have a nuanced understanding of just what democracy and federalism are. If we search for the roots of democracy, we find them in John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger and the like, responding to Catholic monarchs and their violation of Protestant sensibilities. We find that all the major ideas of the Calvinists were adopted by John Locke, and that Calvin and Locke together influenced the American revolutionaries. Thus, the cartoon "An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America" could depict revolutionaries holding the books of Locke and Sidney and hurling Calvin at a Brit.

What, then, is the difference between Calvin and Locke? The chief difference, I believe, is that whereas the Calvinists and Puritans were quite confident in their own religious beliefs, by contrast, Locke wrote a treatise on religious toleration. It has been put that Samuel Rutherford wrote the greatest work in favor of civil liberties and the greatest work in favor of religious intolerance. The difference between Calvin and Locke is not in their political ideas of how the government ought to uphold rights and liberties. Rather, they disagreed on just what those liberties and rights were.

In premodern Jewish societies, for example, religiosity was taken for granted, and so murder and Shabbat violation were equally heinous, and were equally violations of morality and crimes against society. However, Orthodox Jewish authorities have recognized that nowadays, most Jews are lamentably - but through no fault of their own - ignorant of Judaism, and so one cannot view Shabbat violation the same way anymore. The non-religious will simply not view efforts at curtailing their religious liberties the same way as they once would. The Orthodox authorities will still wholeheartedly advocate Shabbat observance, but they will not longer coerce it. On the other hand, however, everyone still agrees that murder is heinous, and so everyone will agree that murderers must be punished.

I have made this argument a few times; see, for example, my

My point is that democracy and federalism has NO substantive contents or beliefs. All democracy states is that the government can coerce observance of fundamentals of morality but that it cannot coerce anything else. But just what are the fundamentals of morality? For Calvin, this included every little tit and tittle of belief or practice of Calvinism, and so Calvinists could oppress Catholics just as Catholics had oppressed Protestants. But for Locke, the fundamentals of morality had to be reduced to some sort of lowest-common-denominator, viz. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property". Any society can have whatever list of morals it desires.

Thus, one can have a Jewish democracy or a Hindu democracy or a secular democracy no less than one may have a Christian democracy. The innovation of democracy is that there is rule of law, that the government has the obligation to uphold rights and liberties and laws, and that the government is subject to the same laws as the citizens. Furthermore, on any issue which is not clearly spelled out (for example, the Bible says nothing about proper taxation rates), the will of the people prevails. But this is very subjective; one society will have a different conception of morality than another.

Therefore, for example: a Biblical Jewish theocracy might enforce Shabbat observance, while a contemporary Jewish theocracy would not. However, both Biblical and contemporary Jewish theocracies might ban Christian missionary activities in Israel, since Israelis today, even secular ones, are in general agreement that missionizing in Israel is unacceptable. If, please G-d, a religious revival in Israel occurs, then perhaps Shabbat observance will again become the norm, and it will once again become the government's prerogative to enforce.

Christians today are perfectly entitled to present their views in the public sphere, and let their ideas be weighed in the marketplace of ideas. If, for example, Christians can convince America that abortion is murder, then abortion can become illegal and punishable. But if Americans reject that abortion is such a moral fundamental, then the Christians will lose their case.

This brings us to another point of American history: if I understand the argument of Professor Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought, then we must realize the following: government coercion becomes more conscionable the smaller the given society is. That is, it is more justifiable for a CITY to coerce than for a STATE, and more justifiable for a STATE to coerce than a NATION. The smaller the entity, the more government coercion and societal moral censure begin to become indistinguishable. If an entire city is staunchly Protestant, then it is very justifiable for the city to force Protestantism on its inhabitants. Government coercion and general non-coercive societal moral censure become one and the same. But as the society becomes larger, i.e. when we deal with states and even more with nations, then this becomes less clear. Perhaps one state is Calvinist and another is Catholic, for example. Government coercion becomes exposed and susceptible to the argument that the government is far-away in Rome, judging those alien to it. Why should someone in California be beholden to the views of someone in Washington? In a smaller society, one may leave and relocate if he is displeased. If you live in Meah Shearim, an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, then you cannot blame your neighbors when they try to coerce you to observe Jewish law; after all, you chose to live in that neighborhood!

But if someone in Meah Shearim tries to force Jewish law onto someone in Tel Aviv (which is mostly secular), then this is evil. John Locke's concept of the consent of the government, especially tacit consent, becomes more real and authentic with smaller communities than with extended nations or empires. If I understand Professor Shain, then he has made this argument, but in any case, I independently made the same argument myself before I ever saw Shain; see my article, "Religious Coercion, or On John Locke and the Kehilla's Right to Assess Tzedaqa."

To return to the First Amendment: the First Amendment's separation of church and state must be understood as applying to different societies in different ways. Until the 14th Amendment was passed, the Bill of Rights applied only to the national government, but not to state governments. Thus, the Federal government could not respect any religions, but individual states could respect any given religion they wanted to. I think the principle is that the smaller the society in question, the greater its ability to coerce residents. In a small town, a fantastic and incredible amount of coercion is conscionable.

My point in saying all this, is to prove the following: it is one thing for you to advocate Christianity and Christian beliefs and principles, but it is something wholly else for you to force them on someone else. For you to coerce others to believe in Christianity, you must grapple with two factors:

1) The general status quo today; the more people agree with you, the more you can coerce the minority, but the more people disagree with you, the more you must acknowledge and respect their convictions and resort to persuasion rather than to coercion;

2) The fact that coercion is more valid in smaller communities than in larger ones. The towns of New England were extremely religious, and Protestantism was taken for granted in them as a basic fact of morality and proper society. But these towns did not try to coerce people in other states to believe like them. They instead used persuasion, not coercion.

As I said, this forces us to reconsider the First Amendment in two ways:

1) The separation of church and state depends on just exactly what "church" means to that time and place. In the 18th-century, perhaps this separation put all Christian churches on an equal level but condemned non-Christians as beyond the pale. Today, things might be different.

2) The First Amendment applied to the Federal government, but not to the states. The smaller the society in question, the more it can coerce citizens, and the more liberty can become positive and not merely negative.

Therefore, while it is an unassailable fact that America's roots are Christian, it is something wholly else to claim that therefore, America should be Christian today. You should teach students only the objective historical facts, and nothing more. Let me give an analogy: On Wikipedia, one may not give his own personal views, but one can certainly objectively describe another's views. Therefore: I may NOT,on Wikipedia, record Jewish beliefs as the truth. However, I may write that according to such-and-such a book by so-and-so the rabbi, such-and-such is what Judaism says the truth is. Therefore: the proper course, I believe, is to teach students only the objective historical facts. (I am speaking of public schools; private schools may teach whatever they want, since there is Locke-ian consent of the governed. If you don't like what the school teaches, you may leave.) Once everyone is armed with the historical facts, they may make whatever decisions they desire. If the American people then choose to make America into a Christian society, then that is their prerogative.

As an aside, I believe that everything I've written has proven that democracy and theocracy do not contract at all. As I said, democracy is a METHOD of enforcing morality, but it contains no concepts of morality itself, except for the beliefs that the government is accountable to the people and that all people are equal. Other than this, democracy is a METHOD of governance, but is utterly devoid of any actual philosophical or moral beliefs. Thus, you can have a Christian democracy, a Jewish democracy, or a secular democracy, for example.

By the way: the Declaration of Independence says far more than just "the laws of Nature and Nature's God". The last paragraph of the Declaration discusses Divine Providence, and as Professor Jeffry Morrison (Assistant Professor of Government, Regent University; Faculty, James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, Washington, D.C.) shows in his essay, "Political Theology in the Declaration of
Independence," that the last paragraphs of the Declaration is perfectly consonant with Calvinism. According to Morrison, the first paragraph of the Declaration appealed to deists, but the last paragraph appealed to very religious Calvinists.

Thank you, and sincerely,
Michael Makovi
Formerly of Silver Spring, MD
Now a student of Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tiqwa (literally: "The
IDF-Affiliated Orthodox-Jewish Theological-Seminary of Petah Tiqwa") in Petah Tiqwa, Israel


Mikewind Dale said...

Thanks for this honor!

By the way, there's a formatting error re: "Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence"

You say, I have used a similar argument about a sliding scale of civil liberties before. In essence I become less Libertarian the further down I go in government. For example while I support the legalization of drugs and prostitution, I would support the right of individual neighborhoods to ban such activity. In fact I would wish to live in such a neighborhood. I am willing to allow Kiryat Joel and New Square to run their own little "Jewish Calvinist Geneva's" and even to ban television and English newspapers.

It's nice to see that others have thought the same, and that I'm not crazy. ;)

As I elaborate in my "Religious Coercion, or On John Locke and the Kehilla's Right to Assess Tzedaqa", there are a few reasons, I believe, why we can be less libertarian in smaller communities, and why justice can become less negative and more positive:
(1) You can leave a community easier than you can leave a nation, thus allowing for an assumption of tacit consent.
(2) The community is more immanent and tangible; you're actually getting substantive and measurable benefits from living in the community, and so it's more possible to assess your payment in return. By contrast, it's more difficult to assess how much a vast faraway national government is contributing to me, and how much I should pay in terms of liberties in return. Furthermore, in the small community, you're more able to interact with neighbors and leaders and influence policy. In a self-contained Jewish community, for example, you actually know the rabbi himself who's deciding religious law, and there's real accountability.

So it's a simple question of Locke-ian consent-of-the-governed. In a vast nation, it's difficult to assume that the citizens all consent to the government's policies, and so the government must be as limited as possible, so as to offer the least possible opportunities for citizens to object to its policies. But in a smaller community, it is easier to assume consent of the governed, and so coercion is more conscionable.

I tried arguing with an Israeli today, but I wasn't able to disabuse him of the notion that the minority is obligated to obey the majority. Sigh...

Izgad said...

Took care of it.

R' Daniel said...

I agree- secular liberals are trying to sanitize our nation's history by purging it of its Judeo-Christian moral roots. The truth is that the people who founded this country and who settled here since the 1600's were either Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, and this continued well into the 1950's and early 60's, when liberalized immigration laws permitted for the influx of Asians and others, and when atheism, new spiritual movements, and other alternative religious expressions began to develop. Our country's roots are truly rooted in the Tanakh. One would be surprised to know that the Puritans and even today's evangelicals do not generally cite any NT passages in their articulation of social views because the bulk of the NT does not really articulate any moral positions. These Christians always cited passages from Leviticus and what not to support their moral agendas, and the Puritans even wanted Hebrew to be America's official language. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, cite very often the words of Oto HaIsh since these teachings stress more of what suits their agenda (abrogation of the Torah's injunctions against toeva and abortion, an emphasis on peace, socialism, etc.)

Mikewind Dale said...

At first, I read "Oto HaIsh" as "Otto Halsh", and I tried thinking, "Who is this German?". Lol

no one said...

great post