Monday, June 01, 2015

Exceptional America

I continue my musings over the trail of Christianity in Western culture, now contemplating in what ways America is a Christian nation and whether we are in a decline of some sort at present. Previous posts include:
1. I am quite proud of the United States. I want to remention a couple things I have said in my musings thus far. I believe that Wesleyan-Arminian theology is the best translation of biblical theology into the modern world. I believe that the Enlightenment was, in several key respects, a good thing in the history of humanity. I believe the two fit well together, the best of Christianity wed to the best of human thinking at a particular time in a particular respect.

I can imagine that those comments might make some uncomfortable. On the one hand, I'm affirming the "right things." I'm affirming Wesleyanism. I'm affirming America. But I'm not affirming them in the way people normally affirm them, namely, as some straightforward implementation of a biblical worldview. Still more dangerous, am I suggesting that Western civilization in the Enlightenment actually was superior in some way to other civilizations at that particular point in time?!

2. First, let me affirm strongly that all people are of equal value (a tenet of the New Testament and Western civilization). Let me also quote a line from Men in Black: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals." The point of the quote is that there are plenty of smart individuals out there. But at any given time, the bulk of humanity is basically herd animal.

So there are equally smart people of any race, gender, or status. Always have been. The intellectual capacity of the smartest ancient Egyptian was no wit less than Einstein. To say that there might have been something exceptional about Western civilization in the Enlightenment is not to say that individuals in the Western world were/are smarter or better than individuals elsewhere in space and time. It is not to say that Enlightenment Europe was exceptional in all respects. It is not even to say that Western civilization has continued to be exceptional in these areas...

As an aside, I saw a silly slogan the other day poking fun at the metric system. It basically pointed out that the one country that doesn't use the metric system is the only one that has been to the moon. What is ironic about this quote is that it is some American taking credit for the achievements of scientists, all of whom used the metric system in their calculations to get us to the moon!

In other words, the person who created this meme is not exceptional as an individual (at least not in science) and has no business taking any credit for going to the moon. Being American doesn't make you exceptional even if there would turn out to be something exceptional about America. Indeed, I consider prevalent attitudes like this one more a possible sign of America's decline.

... What I am, gulp, wondering is whether the Enlightenment that took place in Europe in many respects represented a high mark in history up to that point in terms of human rationality. As a consequence, I am suggesting that the Western democracies that issued from that thinking might represent the best form of human government yet in human history. The world has followed suit, of course, to where representational democracies exist all around the world today.

And, yes, I am pondering whether this approach to government, as as a structure for society, is most "Christian" and "biblical," not in that the model comes from Scripture, but that it results most in the kind of society that most loves its neighbor as itself and best models the character of God as love.

3. First, the character of God. The best explanation for the existence of evil that I have heard, while affirming that God is love, is that God enables us to be free to choose between good and evil (see herehere, and here). It is the affirmation that a world in which we are able to choose between good and evil is a better world than one in which we are forced to choose the good. But if God gives us the freedom to choose, some will make the wrong choice, and there will be evil.

This is not only a quintessentially Wesleyan explanation for evil in the light of God's character. It also fits extremely well with the Enlightenment values of freedom and moral responsibility. I believe it fits with the Bible, but it is not precisely an explicit biblical teaching (the other side errs, IMO, by confusing the "that time" of the Bible with the "all time"). It grows out of the biblical affirmation that God is love and that God is sovereign and yet that evil continues to exist.

It does not fit, however, with the Puritan way of viewing the world. The Puritans believed it was beholden on them to make everyone in New England live the right way. Freedom of religious viewpoint was not part of their worldview. The founding fathers rejected this aspect of early America and strongly opposed a state church.

But it was part of the essential DNA of the founding of the United States, and it has become part of the essence of the democracies of the world today. In that sense, those forces in America today that would insist on forcing the culture to be Christian in ways that do not involve the concrete harm of others are actually "unamerican" and, I would argue, based on a mistaken understanding of God.

4. Next, the ethical command to love our neighbor. While we are still working out the kinks, the Constitution was structured to 1) favor the benefit of the majority while 2) considering all individuals to have equal rights under the law. What is this but the optimal working out of the love of neighbor in society?

To be sure, these claims were, in reality, a farce as long as slavery existed. They were a farce for as long as women were not given a voice. Unfortunately, they remain to some extent still aspirational today to the extent that there is so much unfairness. As long as the rich can break the law in ways that the poor cannot, this vision is still unattained. As long as the color of one's skin results in unequal treatment under the law, then the ideal of the Constitution is not yet fully achieved.

The Bill of Rights, in this respect, is incredibly important. It keeps a majority from oppressing a minority. In Egypt, the majority Muslim brotherhood tried to vote out the rights of the minority. The same has been happening in Turkey. The Bill of Rights say that a Christian majority in America would not be allowed to vote America to have Christian laws that are based on specific Christian understandings that are not translatable to universal rights and laws (i.e., that cannot be formulated in terms of concrete harm to others).

This wisdom resulted from the struggles of Europe in the days after the Reformation. The fathers would have no state church in the US. There would be neither Henry VIII or Bloody Mary. There would be no Oliver Cromwell either. There would be no Cotton Mather even. It would be a place where the Quakers and Pilgrims could be different from the Puritans without fear of persecution.

The South got upset in the 1960s when the federal government forced it to allow African-Americans to have the same rights as "whites." But this is the genius of America. The majority cannot abuse the minority. It is not just about majority rule. It is also about minority rights. This is, when it works right, the best structural embodiment of the love of neighbor in history, now adopted by nations all over the world. And the US was the first to implement it structurally. That was exceptional.

5. What is exceptional about this structure, now the structure of governments all over the world, is the goal of the neutrality of government in arbitrating the rights of individuals and groups. What is exceptional in this structure is the goal of the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people--a value set forth by Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s. This goal--the greatest happiness for the greatest number--stood at the base of Adam Smith's capitalism (also set forth in the 1700s). To the extent that capitalism departs from this goal--the greatest happiness for the greatest number--it becomes unamerican and has deviated from its founding purpose.

These are ideas from the Enlightenment. They embody the core absolutes of Scripture, IMO, but these specific structures for society were not developed with such force until the 1700s in England in the flow of the Enlightenment.

All these structures assumed the rule of reason. Of course the Enlightenment overestimated the rationality of people. But the goal was there. Voters and representatives would follow the rules of logic and the inference of evidence in all their conduct.

It was this insistence on objectivity, rationality, and empiricism that drove the scientific revolution. The Industrial Revolution had much about it that was not ideal or Christian, but the blessings of scientific discovery have followed from these twin stars of logic and empiricism.

Because even rational people disagree, the founding fathers implemented Montesquieu's balance of powers. An executive branch would capture the benefits of a monarchy without the unlimited power. A legislative branch would capture the voice of the people--one house would be more populist, the other would represent regions. A judiciary, elected for life, would arbitrate, so that the pressures of culture at moments in history could not overrun the structural rights.

What an ingenious system! It has taken over 200 years to see this structure work out many of the prejudices of the founding fathers themselves. A slave is not 3/5 of a person. A woman can think as well as a man. But what an exceptional experiment America has been, and the best of the world has followed suit.

Perhaps my next post will finally get to the point. In what respects might America then potentially be in decline?

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