If You Thought King James’ English Was Tough, What about Thomas Jefferson’s?

This is a few days late, but pairs well with the recent post about a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. H. L. Mencken believed the Declaration of Independence was showing signs of inaccessibility:

The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

With such remoteness in view, between 1776 and 1920 English, Mencken offered the following remedy (only the first two paragraphs):

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled…

Another Problem with W-w

At a time when Europeans and their former colonial outposts are reflecting on the nation state, political union, and the shelf-life of post-World War II peace-keeping institutions, the celebration of U.S. independence was another chance to ponder the merits of political autonomy and state sovereignty. But notice the way that some Christians decided to frame the matter:

Those of us who identify as Christians should never fear admitting the truth, even when it means letting go of the myth of a “Christian America.” And those of us who identify as both Christian and social conservative should not fear that admitting this particular truth means abandoning what we believe the “We hold these truths” line to mean. Unlike with the Constitution, the “original intent” of the authors shouldn’t necessarily be our guide. If it really is a truth—and a “self-evident” one—it is only because it was revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

In an age when even many Christians are hostile to religiously informed public philosophy, it’s understandable that social conservatives would turn to the past for examples and look to the founding documents for affirmation. But such an effort is likely to be as unproductive as it is unpersuasive.

If Christians wish to build a polis informed by Christian convictions, if we want the truths we hold to be seen once again as “literally true,” we must look to the future, thick with possibility, rather than to the thin material left over from the religious sentiments of our Founding Fathers.

Really? The best Christians can do is ask once again what kind of believers the founders were or whether the Declaration’s self-evident truths are compatible with special revelation?

Compare this to Noah Millman’s thought experiment. Imagine if the Declaration left out self-evident truths:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Which leads Millman to make this point:

One people is oppressed by another, suffering a long chain of abuses. Eventually, the abuses can no longer be tolerated. They constitute a tyranny, and they oblige the oppressed people to throw off the tyrant’s yoke.

That’s not a new story – nor is it a story that requires a new political theory to justify rebellion. The Dutch Revolt required no such theory. Neither did Tyrone’s Rebellion. Why, then, did America’s founders find it necessary to introduce such a theory into the document justifying our own rebellion against the crown?

It’s hard to believe that this philosophical language was introduced to win the support of the France’s absolute monarchy. The philosophes might have applauded, but Louis XVI would surely have preferred to back a rebellion that cast no particular doubt on the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy to one that did. It is even harder to believe that the language was intended to justify a revolution in the domestic arrangements of the colonies. The Declaration was a document intended to be something that the colonies – from slaveholding South Carolina to loyally-inclined Pennsylvania – could assent to unanimously. An alarmingly revolutionary doctrine would surely be the last thing the Congress would have wished to include.

Was it revolutionary, though, to American ears? Quite likely not. In fact, the most stirring portion of the Declaration, the words that have had profound implications for American and world history, may have been so much boilerplate. Americans from Virginia to Vermont, with long experience with self-government, casually assumed Lockean premises about where government legitimately derived and what was its legitimate purpose. Including these words in the document justifying American independence may not have established an American creed so much as they reiterated the largely unexamined premises that many Americans already assumed.

Whether you agree with Millman or not (and the whole piece is a plausible case for American exceptionalism), you have to admit that his take is much more interesting than Joe Carter’s. The latter feels compelled to squeeze a political statement into a theological mold. Millman simply imagines the political stakes. No religious references. And in so doing, the Declaration takes on even more significance than when Christians try to find America’s eternal meaning (or not).

If U.S. Christians thought about politics politically rather than religiously, they might not look so odd to their neighbors.

Independence Day Blues

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, arguably. So Father Dwight tries to instruct us on the proper meaning of happiness (which is not as bad as trying to find the true meaning of hedonism, but it still doesn’t go well). Of the four levels of happiness, the ultimate is the “transcendental”:

This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.

As I say, it doesn’t go well since at the end of the article Father Dwight, a regular apologist for Roman Catholicism who points out the foibles and liabilities of his former Protestant communion, tries to make his pitch for happiness sound generically religious. This is how we are supposed to pursue this ultimate form of happiness:

. . . conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.

What about the sacraments, what about the death of Christ, what about sin and purgatory? “Religious belief” will do? Leo XIII would be appalled, but then he was the pope who condemned Americanism, a mild heresy that seems to be more prevalent now than it was 120 years ago.

The worry, though, has less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic differences than it does with the conflation of “religion” and conservatism. That mix has produced a civil religion that leads many American believers to be very happy about the United States and its mission — except when they turn to despair because its officials have abandoned its religious ideals. Richard Gamble has a good antidote to such civil religion by showing (from a few years ago but recently republished) that even the sainted Abraham Lincoln was guilty of this dangerous conflation of piety and politics:

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state, but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and to transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

The link between Gamble’s piece on Lincoln and Father Dwight’s on the Declaration is that both — aside from being alumi of Bob Jones University — are addressing, the former explicitly and the latter only implicitly, civil religion. Gamble is on the lookout. Father Dwight promotes it.

So what is the remedy? Maybe it is to abandon happiness. Life is hard, we seek to serve God in our callings, we die, and our remains await the resurrection. In other words, we await a better country. If we look for happiness in this one, we will “like” Father Dwight’s post and let President Lincoln inspire us.

So maybe the true conservative is the unhappy American. You may see him tonight at the fireworks display. He won’t be smiling. He’ll be fearful because of all the noise and explosions.

We Need A Declaration of Institutional Independence

A new book, The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell (which I haven’t read but is reviewed in Christianity Today), argues that social conservatism (i.e., the Religious Right) is “the application of natural law to politics — the self-evident truths of the Declaration — rather than as a political manifestation of religious revelation.” Bell apparently argues this way in order to counter the trend of evangelicals increasingly moving left. According to Andrew Walker, the reviewer, “Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis insist that younger evangelicals have moved beyond abortion and gay marriage to matters of immigration and economic justice. Many mainstream Republicans complain that social conservatives hold the party hostage to a divisive agenda. Happy to court social conservative votes, they sweep social conservative causes under the political rug once victory has been attained.” Bell’s book, then, appears to be a way of rallying evangelicals to remain conservative. His reading of the Declaration of Independence, the British Enlightenment, and American politics all point to evangelical convictions as basic to the United States’ character.

The problem with this way of looking at the American Founding (and in particular, the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution) is that the appeal to fundamental natural rights — as in all men are created equal — has been the way to run rough shod over all sorts of lesser human authorities and institutions. In the antebellum era, appeals to natural rights could be used against states’ rights in order to assert one national norm and go around the powers of local governments. But this has played out in more extravagant ways in the twentieth century, with the rights of individuals trumping the authority of local school boards, in some cases churches, and community standards. In other words, the appeal to the rights of individuals is hardly conservative. It is the way to liberate individuals from parental, ecclesial, academic, and community authorities. And who benefits from this? Individuals, of course. But also the federal government, the institution capable of bestowing such individual benefits. Pitting individual liberty against governmental regulation is not a conservative argument. In fact, the rise of big government goes hand in hand with the liberation of individuals. The authorities to suffer in all of this power shifting are the mediating structures, those institutions closest to persons which have a much greater stake (than judges in Washington, D.C.) in the well-being of their members.

For this reason, if Bell’s book gains traction among evangelicals it will further direct born-again Protestants from any sustained consideration of genuine American conservatism, the kind that takes seriously not some abstract rights of individuals in some nether world, state of nature, but the real laws and institutional arrangements that informed decisions to form a federated republic under the norms prescribed in a national constitution.

This is why it would be much better if evangelicals would turn to writers like Noah Millman, who blogs over at the American Conservative, and understands well the radicalism inherent in appeals to abstract ideals of individual liberty. In a post about the impossibility of religious liberty, he writes:

Winnifred Sullivan’s book argues, in a nutshell, that religious freedom, for individuals, means freedom from religious authority as well as freedom from governmental restriction on religious practice. So, you can’t ask a Catholic prelate whether this or that practice that the law would prohibit (say, putting statues on angels on graves, which is the main example in her book) is actually a formal part of Catholic religious practice, because the prelate has no standing, in a secular court, to rule on the question. If the grieving family feel that it’s an essential that Dad get guarded by a statue of an angel, then that’s their religious practice by definition, and if you want true freedom of religion you have to protect it. But this way, needless to say, lies chaos. Hence the impossibility of religious freedom.

In encourage people to read the book; a one-paragraph summary doesn’t do justice to the argument.

What I’ve argued in the past is that, regardless of where Constitutional doctrine winds up, we should strive to maximize (within reason) the zone of autonomy for religious institutions, because we should view that autonomy as a positive good, not as an absolute “right.” Hegemonic liberalism should be humble enough to accept that it doesn’t know the only ways of knowing, and that there is value, therefore, in having robust voices that claim other modes of knowledge – religious voices being preeminent examples.

Which is why I’ve argued simultaneously that I think the Constitutional objections to the HHS mandate don’t convince me, but that the mandate was a mistake – not a political mistake (it may or may not have been that as well) but a substantive policy mistake. Not because Catholics can’t freely practice their religion if the HHS mandate exists (they clearly can – indeed, it’s really easy to construct workarounds that don’t directly implicate the employer in providing the coverage, in which case I don’t see what the religious objection might be) but because we actively do want the Catholic Church out there living, in its institutions, a worldview with which the majority of the country disagrees, precisely because it has a long and profound history and the majority of the country disagrees with it. This is the kind of situation where “diversity is strength” has some actual meaning in the political ecology.

Important to note is the contrast Millman makes between individual and institutional freedoms. I agree with him that a true diversity would encourage greater resilience for church authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy and I would hope that such encouragement would extend to the assemblies and synods of Reformed and Presbyterian communions. But what is striking is that the protection of religious liberties for individuals is a very different matter than such protection for religious institutions.

The reason that evangelicals do not see this distinction, or use it in their political reflections, I suppose, is that their religious devotion is largely personal and individual — the believer’s experience — and not institutional or under the oversight and norms of an ecclesiastical body. It is no wonder, then, that evangelicals, long on individualism and short on ecclesiology, will try to find roots for social conservatism in a document that has no legal standing in America’s laws and that celebrates the individual (at least for a few lines).

Two Kingdoms, Two Liberties

And now for a different English perspective on political independence. This one comes from the men whom many conservative Presbyterians believe to be the “founding fathers” of Presbyterianism — namely, the Westminster Divines (not to be confused with the divines who teach at Westminster Seminary California). As near as I can tell, without yet sufficient funds to purchase James Dennison’s massive compilation of Reformed creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith is one of the rare Reformed creeds to devote a chapter to liberty (I’m still looking for the chapter on union). And what is striking about their teaching about liberty is how far removed it is from the way many Christians in the United States conflate religious and political freedoms.

Here is the Divines’ statement on Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

According to this teaching, British tyrants, loyalists who ran for cover to Canada, and American patriots to the extent that they trusted in Christ enjoyed the same liberty no matter where they stood on the matter of political independence.

In fact, the Divines go on to teach that Christian liberty has nothing to do with forms of political authority.

. . . because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. (20.4)

That doubleness of mind — affirming both spiritual liberty and political submission — is one of the better expressions of two kingdom theology to exist. Of course, it is a hard truth to assimilate if one is committed to the singleness of mind that goes with pietistic notions of Christ’s Lordship. Saying that someone is free while also enslaved or oppressed appears to be illogical — sort of like saying someone is both a sinner and a saint. But it is a truth capable of affirmation if you don’t calculate the progress of the spiritual kingdom according to the arrangements of this world’s kingdoms.

The Queen's Speech

During the events surrounding the United States’ bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth took participated in a ceremony held in my beloved Philadelphia, the nation’s first capital. The Queen presented a Bicentennial Bell to the United States, with the help of strong assistants (likely overpaid and under worked members of one of the city’s unions). Her remarks were remarkable for their graciousness and wisdom, especially considering that soldiers and citizens on both sides of the revolutionary war died. The text of the speech (below) is also preserved at the wall of the bell tower in Old City Philadelphia, at the southeast corner of 3rd and Chestnut Streets. It is not a bad way to reflect on the significance of July 4th.

Remarks Of Queen Elizabeth II At The Presentation Of The Bicentennial Bell, July 6, 1976

I speak to you as the direct descendant of King George III. He was the last Crowned Sovereign to rule in this country, and it is therefore with a particular personal interest that I view those events which took place 200 years ago.

It seems to me that Independence Day, the Fourth of July, should be celebrated as much in Britain as in America. Not in rejoicing at the separation of the American Colonies from the British Crown but in sincere gratitude to the Founding Fathers of this great Republic for having taught Britain a very valuable lesson.

We lost the American colonies because we lacked that statesmanship “to know the right time, and the manner of yielding, what is impossible to keep.”

But the lesson was learned. In the next century and a half we kept more closely to the principles of Magna Carta which have been the common heritage of both our countries.

We learned to respect the right of others to govern themselves in their own ways. This was the outcome of experience learned the hard way in 1776. Without that great act in the cause of liberty performed in Independence Hall two hundred years ago, we could never have transformed an Empire into a Commonwealth!

Ultimately peace brought a renewal of friendship which has continued and grown over the years and has played a vital part in world affairs. Together we have fought in two world wars in the defence of our common heritage of freedom. Together we have striven to keep the peace so dearly won. Together, as friends and allies, we can face the uncertainties of the future, and this is something for which we in Britain can also celebrate the Fourth of July.

This morning I saw the famous Liberty Bell. It came here over 200 years ago when Philadelphia, after London, was the largest English speaking city in the world. It was cast to commemorate the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, but is better known for its association with the Declaration of Independence.

Today, to mark the 200th anniversary of that declaration, it gives me the greatest pleasure, on behalf of the British people, to present a new bell to the people of the United States of America. It comes from the same foundry as the Liberty Bell, but written on the side of the Bicentennial Bell are the words “Let Freedom Ring”.

It is a message in which both our people can join and which I hope will be heard around the world for centuries to come.