Monday, September 13, 2010

America’s Secular Foundation


Conservatives like to argue that the United States was founded on Christian principles by Christian men. I'm not so sure. The men might have been Christian, but the principles were largely secular, according to Jacque Barzun's understanding of John Locke.

"Locke's reasoning… is entirely secular, a telling point when Reason had come to seem more solid than Revelation. There are references to God in Locke's two treatises, but they are pro forma. Again, it seems stronger to base a reasoning on Nature than on faith when advanced opinion is enthralled by the study of Nature. But the starting point is as shaky in the one case as the other: the picture of wild men, accustomed to grabbing each other's food, shelter, and women, spontaneously getting together to make a contract, is as fanciful as the providential descent of authority from Adam to James II.
For Locke and the English who bargained with the new King, William III, the terms of the social contact were the 13 provisions of the Declaration of Rights. But Locke wanted his essay to be theory, higher ground than local needs, good for all place and times. The universal rights came down to three: life, liberty, and property. This last is based on the notion that when a man has "mixed his labor" with some material thing, he has made the product his unconditionally. As for the authority that shall enforce these rights, it cannot be Hobbes's absolute ruler. Power unlimited is too likely to establish a tyranny, as divine monarchs had not done but attempted to do. Locke vests sovereignty in the people. Since they cannot conveniently exercise it, they choose representatives. Of these, some make the law, others are appointed to execute it." Jacques Barzun – From Dawn to Decadence, page 363

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