Monday, March 18, 2002
Another thought on the subject of Beinart's piece. Is there a difference between Abraham Lincoln and Marcus Aurelius? Between Benjamin Franklin and Aristotle? What I'm getting at is: is there a difference between a deist and a virtuous pagan?
Christians of Bush's stripe are skeptical of the virtuous pagans and the deists they misunderstand. But do liberals of Beinart's stripe understand them any better? The virtuous pagans, after all, have no notion of rights at all, which are rather dear things to liberals. The liberty of the ancients would not look much like liberty to us moderns. Liberty to the ancients meant self-government both individual and collective; it meant personal virtue and responsibility to the group. Our modern idea of freedom of religion is utterly incompatible with this ancient liberty, in the same way that any freedom that divides the community is so incompatible. The compassionate-conservatives may distrust the pagans' virtue, and in this they may be wrong, but they are not wrong to sense that they do not provide a valid alternative foundation for a liberal order.
And what of the deists? While the deists do not exactly have a religion, they stand on the shoulders of religious notions that, in many cases, are precisely what the Bush-style conservatives are promoting as our universal, natural religion. Their belief in conscious design and the intelligibility of the universe would have made sense to the virtuous pagans. Their belief in Providence, less so. Their belief in individualism, even less. While the deists were, in many cases, quite contemptuous of the Bible, it is hard to see historically how you could have deism without Protestantism. Deism for the American Protestants of the 18th century was like Socialism for Jews of the late 19th and early 20th century: it was the perfect religion for people who had thrown off their particular religion. And it could not really replicate itself.
Beinart understands that the founders of our country were not orthodox believers, and that this has something to do with why they were able to bring forth such a miraculous Constitution. This is something important that the compassionate-conservatives are missing. But what Beinart has left out is: how does what the founders believed get passed down, without becoming a religion in its own right?