Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

God in Contemporary Political Philosophy

Jeff Langan

July 17th, 2003


Following the theme of this conference, I hope to show how, if at all, God fits in the scene of contemporary political philosophy in the United States. I must first admit that as I informally began my inquiry, I did not find many promising leads. When I consulted several advanced scholars in the field, the answer I got was, "there is not much out there." It could be that many scholars have lost a sense of wonder when discussing man, the world, and God in as much as these realities relate to the pursuit of wisdom. It is also true that many contemporary political theorists tend to emphasize debates about the nature, function, and dangers of democracy. Nevertheless, when I began searching, I did find that there are a few strands of contemporary political philosophy that are quite willing to discuss the role of God in political philosophy, without rejecting the problem outright or without putting the problem to the side.

For many, the question of God and political philosophy is of central importance. Ever since Nietzsche's proclamation in the Nineteenth century that "God is dead" at least one segment of political philosophy has attempted to understand this position and deal with its consequences. Nietzsche also thought that once this proposition made its way into political and social life, it would lead to two centuries of violent ideological conflict (C. Zuckert, 1995, 88).

At least three schools of thought on the contemporary scene in the United States have attempted to address the consequences of Nietzsche's claim: the Thomists, the Straussians (Leo Strauss and his students), and the Voegelinians (Eric Voegelin and his students){1}. These schools have done so in the hopes of showing that perhaps Nietzsche's claim is an overstatement or of at least trying to develop a response to Nietzsche's dramatic claim. They have also done so in the hopes of showing that the problem of God and political philosophy is important to the continuing study of politics in as much as it relates to practical questions, how to organize a political community that respects and responds to the fact of religious belief, and more philosophical questions, how religious belief helps or hinders the pursuit of wisdom. Many of these three schools have been very well represented in the philosophy and political science departments at this University. Eric Voegelin taught here. Many of Strauss's students obtained positions teaching political philosophy in the politics department.

In studying the problem as it exists in the context of American public life, the Voegelinians have emphasized that, in many ways, God is very much present and part of American political life and political philosophy. As a starting point, they would point to the signs of God's existence that regularly show themselves in American political and public life (Ellis Sandoz).

A Voegelinian could not help but follow with some interest the debates taking place in Europe over whether to include a reference to God in the European Constitution. From this side of the Atlantic, an observer might ask, what is the ruckus about? At least in popular society and in the political culture of the United States, references to the name of God are not uncommon. Time magazine recently had a large portion of an issue dedicated to the faith of the current president. Just last week, in an address delivered in Senegal on the topic of slavery, the president stated:

"All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purpose of God . Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?" Later in his speech, still echoing the Declaration, he asserts: "the rights of African Americans were not the gift of those in authority. Those rights were granted by the Author of Life and regained by the persistence and courage of African Americans themselves." The idea lurking behind the president's statement is that somehow, God as he is recognized in the Declaration, has a place in American politics. The president still includes a reference to God in the oath that he makes before taking office.

One could contrast this with an event that shocked Canadians in April 2002. A potential candidate for prime minister mentioned God in one of his speeches. This caused quite a stir, as no public figure with aspirations for the post of prime minister had done such a thing in over a decade. In the United States, presidents regularly make references to God in their speeches.

Back to the United States, Congress still has a chaplain. "In God We Trust" appears on our money. At least 80% of Americans still profess a belief in God (Gallup Poll May 2003). An anonymous person or group has rented space on many billboards throughout the country placing messages from God in white letters in a black background. None of these examples are meant to prove much, other than the fact that God appears in our political and social life. A Voegelinian would take this as a starting point to argue that an openness to some transcendent being is necessary for a healthy political order. And so, it is good that reminders of his existence are found in many places. This is a cause of concern to some. To others it is a breath of fresh air.

In short, this brief and incomplete survey has recalled to my mind that scene from the movie The Princess Bride, when the supposed dead prince is brought to an old medicine man and his wife. The wife's reaction to seeing the dead prince echoes Nietzsche's assessment of God in modern life: "He is dead, and we have killed him." She starts wailing. But the old medicine man, played by Billy Crystal, corrects his wife. "He is not dead. He is only mostly dead!"

The purpose of this paper is not to evaluate the status of religious belief in the United States, nor is it to give an account of civil religion, per se, in the United States. Instead, it is to examine whether there is a political philosophy that grounds these popular expressions and the extent to which that political philosophy is open to the conclusions of natural theology. One answer is, there isn't. Another answer could be, there is, but in a superficial or weak way. A third answer could be, there was at one time, but there no longer is. A fourth, there partly is and partly isn't. In this paper, I will argue that there is, and that even if someone were to conclude that there is in a weak way, there are adequate resources within the tradition of American political philosophy to deepen our understanding the relationship or to carry on a more intense dialogue with other philosophers.

Such debate is helped because at least one of America's founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, has a natural theology to it, and its meaning is still central to debates about the meaning of American Democracy. The natural theology of the Declaration might not be as robust as some would hope, but its references to God are the result of the philosophical and practical reflection of the founding fathers on politics.

The statements that they made offer at least a starting point on what people of different faiths and perhaps even philosophers could agree on about God, using the light of their reason. It is also a starting point for a political society to avoid some of the ills that could be associated with a society that makes no references to God in thinking about itself, its citizens, its role in the world, and justice. This is not to say that there are dangers involved. This is also not to say that these assertions of God's existence become concretized or translated into the daily lives of individuals. Allan Wolfe notes that many American Christians profess a belief in God, yet quite easily take up the modes of behavior associated with new age spirituality. Instead, it is to say that such references provide a framework within which we can think about ourselves, our society, the world, and how we relate to them.

To begin, the Declaration has four references to God. First, I will state these references. Then, I will delineate three positions on the Declaration one could find in contemporary discourse.

The references to God in the Declaration identify God as the God of nature, as God the Creator, and as the God of Providence. The first reference is to God as the God of nature. The signers of the Declaration argue that it is necessary to dissolve their political bonds with England and to assume "the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them." Next, they refer to God as the Creator and as He has created men with rights. They assert that "all men are created equal," and that they "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Finally, they refer to the God of Providence. After listing their grievances and their reasons for separating from England, they appeal to the "Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intention," and state their "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." In short, they appeal to the God of nature, God the Creator, and God as providential.

I do not think that it is overly controversial to suggest that the political philosophy, and perhaps the natural theology as well, underlying the Declaration is mostly that of John Locke's. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the document, is well-known for his Lockean tendencies, as are many of the American founders. At the same time, it seems that the third and fourth references to God were not written by Jefferson. They were later added by the Continental Congress (M. Zuckert).

I also do not think that it would be too controversial to suggest that by and large a Christian strand of Lockean political philosophy guided the first developments in American political history and thought. However, perhaps beginning in the late-nineteenth century and certainly by the end of the millennium, the Lockean synthesis came under scrutiny. Some challenges came as the result of attempts to re-cast American liberalism in Hegelian, pragmatic, utilitarian, or Kantian terms, or some combination thereof. Many of these attempts, unwittingly or not and some for different reasons than others, have left God out of the picture of political philosophy. They have done so because in part their overall approach to philosophy involved developing political theories that leave out not only natural theology, but also metaphysics and other branches of philosophy that deal with immaterial substances and final causality. Others confuse metaphysics or natural theology as being the same thing as religious belief or faith. Some have the tendency towards an unhealthy secularism that goes far beyond that envisioned by the founding fathers and so they become overly sensitive when seeing references to God as part of a political philosophy, thinking that this implies an outright necessity to accept Christian belief.

Challengers to the Nineteenth Century synthesis have also arisen from outside of the ranks of the liberals. Some Christians would rather see God completely left out of political philosophy. They believe their faith to be irrational and any philosophy that would try to prove God's existence using reason would be foolish. Perhaps the biggest challenge in academic circles (at least in numbers) has come from the post-modernists. Post-modernists tend to side with the secularists in wanting to keep religious belief, metaphysics, and God out of public discourse. Many have a bone to pick with those who use reason as well. Having said that, there is an anti-secularist camp developing within the ranks of the secularists. This camp criticizes secularist liberals for being too fanatical, too religious, in their attempts to exclude God from public and philosophic discourse. What I would like to do in this part of the paper is to show what stance a post-modern anti- secularist might take towards God, as He is referred to in the Declaration.

Engaging the Declaration

A recent book, Why I am Not a Secularist made a mini-splash among students of politics a few years back. In that and other works, its author claims to follow the tradition of thought founded by Lucretius and continued in modern times by the likes of Spinoza and Nietzsche (Connolly, 2002, 75-76), calling it immanent naturalism. The immanent naturalist would see at least two seemingly contradictory strands in the Declaration. On the one hand, the Declaration gives a pre-eminent place in institution-building, social control, and law-making to those who hold some form of theism. Theists have a tendency to fanaticism in holding to and promoting their position, to the point of excluding other modes of seeing morality. On the other hand, the Declaration allows for secular rights theories. The holders of these rights theories also have fanatical tendencies that lead them to exclude theists or believers on other modes of understanding the universe. The immanent naturalist seeks to engage these theorists so as to allow for more diverse modes of belief in a society, preventing the predominance or triumph of any one way of thinking about morality and politics (Connolly, 2002, 105).

Now, I would like to look at the immanent na uralist position in more detail. When looking at the references to God in the Declaration of Independence, a nontheist would probably make the following points. Clearly, the Declaration does not support one Christian faith. Nevertheless, religious faith has had and continues to have a tremendous influence on society and politics. By referring to God, the Declaration puts forth God as the sign or standard of moral virtue and the condition of legitimate participation in national politics (Connolly 1999, 109-110). Two problems result: the Declaration supports religious faith over nonreligious faith and the Declaration uses either religious faith or an understanding of rationalistic rights as an aid in nation-building.

Finding fault with an aspect of the Declaration its signers were proud of, the immanent naturalist asserts that taking seriously the references to God in the Declaration can render a number of people suspect without enforcing any particular version of Christianity. The founders thought that by referring to the God of nature, they were referring to an understanding of God that all persons could come to using their reason and independent of what their faith might tell them about God, but the references to God in the Declaration ask too much. Most citizens in such a country will opt for a morality that is based on the supersensible realm, and it will put theistic philosophers such as Taylor, Levinas, Ricoeur, MacIntyre, and Sandel at an advantage in debates about the existence of God and the effects that a proof for the existence of God might have on how we think about human nature, society, law and justice.

In addition to giving theists an unfair advantage in public and academic debates, the Declaration uses its religious or supersensible qualities (rights) to foster nation-building. The God of the Declaration is the God of equality and rights, who exercises a providential care for a particular people. This idea of God allows for the emergence of democratic prophets who will build a great nation or who will seek to recover a lost nation if they think it has been harmed or weakened (Connolly, 1999, 112-113). These prophets might use the ideas contained in the Declaration to create institutions and rules governing whether and how people can participate in those institutions (Connolly, 1999, 153-154). From this standpoint, rulers or the culture at large will develop humanly-constructed rules so as to exclude individuals who did not accept the dominant construction.

While this position sees a potential bias in the Declaration against non-Christians, it also sees signs of progress. Over the past century, atheists, agnostics, and secularists have made it possible for many models of morality to have an influence on public life. However, atheists, agnostics, and secularists tend to be just as exclusive and just as intolerant as their religious counterparts. In a situation where both the religious people and the secular people have a tendency to fanaticism, an unhealthy split will develop in society between theism and atheism with each side trying to keep out all competitors that do not conform to its vision of morality and politics.

Immanent naturalism does not want to argue whether or not God exists, at least as it is argued in the current paradigm of theism vs. atheism{2}. It sees an unhealthy religious fanaticism developing among rationalists and secularists that leads them to intolerance towards anybody, religious or non-religious, who might make a claim in public life that does not meet the secularist standard of rationality. In the same way, theists have a tendency towards intolerance towards anybody who does not uphold their religious belief. Rather than let himself be trapped in the paradigm of theism, atheism, or agnosticism, Connolly proposes nontheism. The paradigm of theism versus atheism prevents true critical thinking, refinement, creativity and independent re-thinking of social and political problems. For a secularist to try to contain those who believe in God would be erroneous, just as erroneous as the attempts by theists to exclude atheists from public positions.{3} A better position would be to engage the theist and the atheist position in a reflective way (Connolly, 1999, 2-5).

The task of a modern immanent naturalist is to keep up the agonistic contact in the hopes of developing an alternative spirituality to the nation-building spirituality fostered by the theories that come from the Declaration. The goal of this spirituality is to create a democratic ethos from a creative coalition from diverse places, to create a dense multidimensional pluralism with numerous constituencies: ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, metaphysical faiths, with no constituency making a claim for the center of the coalition (Connolly 112-113).

This conception of politics requires that those engaged in it resist attempts to define politics in terms of nature or of culture. Conceptions of culture, identity, ethics, even correspondence theories of truth contain within them some theological notions. They belie a structure that can be known. Underneath any assertion of a structure that can be known lies an assertion that there is a God who creates that structure. Connolly hopes to challenge, without rejecting, this position. He argues that a nontheist lacks the position above the field to make a judgment one way or the other (Connolly, 2002, 49). His goal will be to show the paradoxes inherent in these positions so that he can engage them with his own paradoxes (Connolly, 2002, 26-28; Connolly 1999, 15-16).

Techniques, not Rules, of Engagement

Since the immanent naturalist rejects nation building and politics on a great scale, he proposes a micropolitical approach for challenging the theism vs. atheism paradigm. Since the supersensible realm is a dangerous fiction, whether it comes in the form of God or abstract rights, the immanent naturalist want to question whether we should conceive of a morality tied to the idea of a law or a Being that is located above the sensible realm. (Connolly, 1999, 169-170).

Since national politics is a construct or a fiction, the goal of the nonsecular nontheist is to develop techniques to be used in personal settings that expose and challenge rival traditions. The term to sum up these techniques is micropolitics. A theory of micropolitics teaches citizens to "work by artful means to magnify, enrich, or modify elements in an affective register not reachable by argument or conscious regulation alone." (Connolly, 2002, 28). It is close to what in the bad old days was called character formation, but it is character formation without an emphasis on doctrine (Connolly, 1999, 26-27). When engaging on the level of the micropolitical, the political actor focuses on nature and the body rather than God and the soul (Connolly, 2002, 84-85). The point is to develop techniques, even to run little nontheistic experiments on oneself and others, in order to convert the body to nontheism. These techniques include words, gestures, images, sounds, rythms, smells, and touches that define perception, thinking, identity, belief, and judgments. They can be applied in family, Church, school, military, talk shows, dramas, work, neighborhood gangs, sports events, charitable organizations, advertising, courtrooms, and police routines (Connolly, 2002, 18-20, 75-76). In each of these social relations, our actions say something about our intellectual and religious attachments. Therefore, immanent naturalists should work on techniques of the body for changing the intellectual and religious attachments of people in all of these situations.

Being Engaged

The techniques of the body are meant to offer a practical way for engaging political actors who might act as if the constructs of the Declaration are true. The purpose of such techniques is to help develop in all citizens a gratitude towards the openness of being. The secularist and the theist constructs have a tendency to prevent true gratitude towards being. The theist sees God as a source of morality and justice. The other, more secular, strand of thought sees in the Declaration a theory of rights or laws of nature above the sensible realm. The few who have insight into these laws would be able to take a stance of superiority towards those who either believe in God or towards immanent naturalists. The immanent naturalist hopes that an attachment to life and to the world and an openness to the possibility of being will develop generosity, forbearance, and responsibility (Connolly, 2002, 85-86). He does this by not committing to the atheist or the theist position, but by touching them without articulating them (Connolly, 2002, 71). He remains open to the quest for wholeness. He leaves open the possibility of converting to theism without insisting on his version of nontheism. He allows for currents of other traditions to influence his gratitude for being without reducing himself to the other traditions (Connolly, 1999, 159-160).

The immanent naturalist sees that nontheism is a dangerous game. He sees that it can lead to a cynical view of the person and the world. Nontheism tends in the direction of apathy, and indifference to the point of creating a complete passivity towards being and life. There is no guarantee that the nontheistic gratitude to the rich abundance of being will continue in the face of injury, loss, violence or brutality. There is also no guarantee that nontheism puts the person at a greater risk of committing evil. It can easily lead to ideological manipulation or to further alienation. (Connolly, 2002, 85-86; C. Zuckert, 1995, 88). One might add, in a world where nontheists cannot recognize the first cause, they are likely to ascribe another cause other than God as the first cause, with the result that they themselves might end up manipulating reality or others in a way that is unjust (Summa Contra Gentiles, II.3).

Immanent naturalism has some good points. It sees the importance of character formation. It also has the advantage of seeing life as a quest. It is willing to introduce a sense of wonder into human inquiry. Nevertheless, it is not willing to concede that anything concrete can come from this sense of wonder. It would always want to question, without accepting, any conclusions that one might make after one finds oneself in a sense of wonder.

Its chief defect is that it is not willing to put its confidence into a goal or standard that reason is meant to pursue. It also has a tendency to put confidence in reason on the same plane as religious belief. When we are engaged in a dispute between people of different beliefs, our only recourse is reason "to which all men are forced to give their assent (SCG, I.2.3)." This does not mean that any thinker who tries to understand the laws of nature and of nature's God has to categorically look down his nose at an immanent naturalist or even a Christian who does not believe that reason can lead us anywhere in our pursuit to understand the human person, politics, and God.

Looking for God is tough, "However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings." Our intellect relates to divine knowledge as the eye of an owl to the sun (SCG, I.11). Nevertheless, it is a worthy pursuit. Even popular songs recognize as much: "Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but Mama, that's where the fun is" (Bruce Springsteen, Blinded by the Light). It seems that not only do humans need to strive. They also need to strive for something or they tends towards despair or presumption (SCG I.5). It makes sense that eliminating the goal would lead those who eliminate the goal in the tendency of apathy, indifference, cynicism, and despair.

The immanent naturalist also wants to emphasize inquiry in the sensible realm. Here, the immanent naturalist might run the risk of mis-characterizing at least Aquinas's understanding of the inquiry by creating too sharp a division between the material and the immaterial or the sensible and the supersensible realm. Aquinas admits that inquiry into the sensible realm is hard, and that inquiry into the supersensible realm is even harder. The level of hardness does not mean that a person should give up the task or that the task is so easy that anybody who cannot successfully carry it out should be looked down on. Aquinas reminds us that we should not expect the task of reasoning about God to be easy. He is open to the possibility that our reason might not be up to the task of inquiring into the intelligible characteristics of the most excellent substance (Summa Contra Gentiles, I.3.4-5).

The arguments of the immanent naturalist, perhaps unwittingly, point to the importance of virtue theory in public life and in academic pursuits. What the immanent naturalist is searching for is understanding, friendship, and the seriousness of respecting individual consciences. For a number of reasons, he thinks that he does not see this in the way that current debates play themselves out in the halls of academe and in the media. One might ask, if the halls of academe are filled more with those who question the existence of God, would the lack of understanding and friendship that they observe be a perception of the customs they have created or those who have been excluded from the real creation of those environments?

In the introduction to one of his books, Connolly speaks of the harrowing experience he had as a young man being confronted by a fundamentalist in a youth camp. This fundamentalist, from Connolly's point of view, coerced him to accept Jesus as his savior. The ethos of engagement seems to want to limit the possibility of such encounters from secularists towards Christians and non-secularists, but it still envisions micropolitics where the immanent naturalist seeks out occasions to challenge theists and secularists. This can take place in Churches, schools, the military and, I would add, dorms and bars. It would be good to think of concrete examples that gives us something to really think about when we think about micropolitics.

How would little moral experiments take place in a dorm or classroom that would lead to a fugitive encounter of being? It seems that one of the dangers of agonistic combat on the micropolitical level is that it risks violating the sanctuary of conscience of each individual. Connolly properly criticizes the person who somehow imposed on his conscience as a young man. It would be unfortunate if micropolitical agonistic deeds were to lead to the same thing happening to the consciences of theists, atheists, agnostics, or even secularists. Each person has a domain of conscience that should not be entered into without the permission of that person. To use any techniques, even artful ones, to enter into that domain seems to go against a basic human instinct. When the immanent naturalist admits that he is playing a dangerous game, he seems to admit that there is a way of thinking about persons that requires some standard for limiting what one can or cannot do.

The point that one can derive from this discussion is that when a society has a conflict between different beliefs that lead to people living their lives in different ways, for the sake of respecting consciences, understanding these different commitments, and fostering friendship among people it is good that we have some standard that limits what a person can or cannot do in his or her political relationships with others. The theory of rights that we find in the Declaration is a good theory for understanding political relationships. We must look more closely at the Declaration to see how that theory relates to the natural theology of the Declaration.

The God of the Declaration

As we saw earlier, the Declaration of Independence has at least three important references to God, the God of nature, God the Creator, and the God of Providence. The contemporary political philosophers who see a natural theology behind these phrases, see the Declaration as under the influence of the political philosophy of John Locke. This political philosophy remains open to a link with natural theology, albeit with difficulties.

When the Declaration refers to the God of Nature, it speaks of God in as much as we can come to know Him through the use of human reason (Zuckert, 2002, 213-214: Jaffa 1987b, 9 quoted in Zentner 33-34). This doctrine is necessary for a country to orient itself politically. It is neither hostile to nor does it reject outright what a citizen might come to believe about God based on his or her faith. Nevertheless, it does not see faith in God as the proper footing for political life (Zuckert, 2002, 215).

The Declaration also speaks of God as Creator. This understanding is important to understand how men relate to God and how they relate to each other. When it says that God is Creator, it establishes that God is the creator of intelligibility. It also establishes a scale of being and that humans have a place on this scale of being. Men are neither gods nor beasts on this scale. They are less than God, but equal to each other (Zuckert, 2002, 213; Zentner quoting Jaffa p.33; Waldron, 2002, 64, 79-80, 81-82). This has consequences for the way we think of rights and the way we think of political rule. Men do not have a right to rule over one another except by the consent of their fellow men. We are all equal, whether a statesman, farmer, or a plumber. The statesman can only rule over the farmer and the plumber if he gains their consent.

Finally, the Declaration speaks of God as providential, and according to our best lights on the question, this understanding of God as providential is accessible to all within the sphere of reason and natural theology. (Zuckert, 2002, 215-216).

In summary, the Declaration has several statements which are the concluding statements of the natural theology of John Locke as expressed by the pen of Thomas Jefferson, with some slight additions of the Continental Congress of 1776. However, there are practical and theoretical difficulties that underlie the natural theology of the Declaration. One big one is how does the theory of rights in the Declaration relate to the natural theology of the Declaration. A further inquiry into Locke's natural theology and his political philosophy reveal these difficulties (Zuckert, 2002, 215-216).

The authors who do comment on the philosophy underlying the Declaration see the difficulties in Locke's thought in two different ways, especially when considering Locke's theory in relation to concepts found in Christian revelation and theology. One line of thought presents Locke as relying on biblical ideas in order to establish the existence of God and the idea of equality. Another line of thought sees Locke's theory of rights as independent of his natural theology because he is not sure that his natural theology holds together.

According to one line of argument, it is necessary to root Locke's theory of equality in a religious foundation. It is not possible to bracket Locke's theology and build a secular conception of equality independent of his theology (Waldron, 2002, 13, 44). The unaided human intellect can establish the existence of God. It can do this because the intellect has the power of abstraction and because it can see the visible marks of a creator in the works of creation. Once it determines that God exists, it can ask if there are rules that follow on His existence. The intellect can relate the idea of God to the idea that there is a law that applies His conduct to the world. The atheist will have difficulty establishing the link between the existence of God and the rules of morality because the atheist will have difficulty identifying and using the power of abstraction. Thus, theological truth helps establish the link between God, the human person, and the rules of morality.

This argument at least relates to the truths we can come to by religious faith or even depends on biblical evidence and the teachings of Christ (Waldron, 2002, 64, 66-67, 80-82, 96-97, 210-211). This theory of God and equality leads to a respect for conscience. Whoever holds it knows that he or she should be careful in how they treat others searching for the plans of Divine Providence. We refrain from hurting or exploiting anybody who is engaged in this mission (Waldron, 2002, 83-84).

The picture of Locke's theory here sees Locke as developing a harmonious synthesis of ancient, medieval, and Enlightenment political theory. It might conflate the difference between natural theology and theology as they were traditionally understood.

A second line of thought attempts to explain the problem of natural theology and rights by showing the unresolved tensions that remain part of Locke's overall theory. This explanation sees Locke holding in tension an unconvincing natural theology with a separate theory of rights that might undermine the unconvincing natural theology. According to this line of thought, it is true that Locke holds up the tradition about God and the natural law. He also remains open to the evidence from the Bible that supports his theory. Nevertheless, he is not sure that traditional natural theology or evidence from the Bible is a sure foundation for the practice of political life. So, he develops a theory of political society that does not depend on these two lines of the tradition. He leaves it to future scholars to determine whether the tension between this theory of political society can be reconciled with the arguments taken from tradition.

To begin, reason can lead us to knowledge of a creating, providential, and legislating God (Zuckert, 2002, 157, 189-192). This proof is possible and from this proof we can deduce the will of God (Zuckert, New Republicanism, 207-212). Once we know that a Creator has created humans, we know that humans belong to their Creator. If they harm or destroy each other they are harming or destroying another's property (Zuckert, 2002, 217-218).

While Locke gave a proof for the existence of a Creator, he was not sure that such a proof offered a sound foundation for political life. Neither Locke nor his contemporaries found his proof for the existence of God (a proof based on intelligent design) completely convincing (Zuckert, 2002, 189-190). Locke knew this and he thought in part that this showed that philosophy has difficulty identifying the laws of nature and the laws of ethics, and so philosophy as a whole will have difficulty convincing men of its ethical principles. In addition, Locke saw that ordinary men do not have the time or perhaps the capacity to follow the demonstrations of philosophers (Zuckert, 2002, 159-160). In addition to having its limits with respect to proving God's existence, Locke lacked confidence in the capacity of reason to know God as a revealer (Zuckert, 2002, 141), his lack of certainty that reason can know God as a legislator, and his realization that the ordinary man has neither the time nor the capacity to follow the demonstrations of philosophers led him to try to develop a different ethics as a foundation of social and political life.

Because Locke was not sure about his proof for the existence of God and its link to morality, he sought a less philosophical way to transform the beliefs held by the dominant world to improve the world in a physical, moral, and political way (Zuckert, 2002, 166). To do this, Locke created a theory of rights that would guide the institutions of a society. This theory relies on a certain understanding of God, with surprising results. Locke initially relies on idea of God as providential. However, he understands the providence of God in quite a different way than the biblical understanding of providence. According to Locke's understanding of providence, the person has a right to use the land to increase his wealth from it. Man desires to increase his land because he seeks his own preservation. The prosperity of the world is not the result of a gift of a providential God, but as the result of human labor, broadly understood. The material of nature is worthless when considered in and of itself. Man by his efforts makes something of value out of it. Man's need forms the real foundation of society (Zuckert, 2002, 143-145).

The natural law does not provide any limits on what humans can do to fulfill their needs. Late in the Second Treatise, Locke repeals all limits on acquisition, implying that humans do not belong to God, but to themselves (Zuckert, 2002, 191-192). They come to discover that they are self-owners through understanding themselves as self-conscious. Over time, the person experiences his intentions and actions as a person. He begins to possess data that indicate his consciousness and of his body. He bases his rights claims in the idea that he owns his body, not in a pre-existing law (Zuckert, 2002, 194-195). This version of Locke, unlike the previous version, does not see natural theology or philosophy as the foundation for a political theory grounding the actions of persons in politics. Instead, it seeks such a foundation in the understanding of the person as a self-preserver, who preserves himself by acquiring property, working that property, and transforming it into wealth that he can use to fulfill his needs. Looking at Locke's thought as a whole, it seems as if Locke proposes a natural theology and remains open to the possibility of truth coming from revealed religion for the purpose of weaning his audience from its attachment to the idea of a transcendent natural law and making them more reliant on a theory of rights for engaging in political life (Zuckert, 2002, 162-164, 189-191).

Both versions of Locke agree that he has a natural theology as part of his overall philosophy. They disagree to what extent Locke sees this natural theology as providing a basis for political society. The Declaration of Independence does not take a stand on the issue. Like Locke, it holds in tension the conclusions one might come to from a research into natural theology with a theory of rights that may or may not be able to stand independent of this natural theology. It has the advantage of remaining open to the possibility of a natural theology that has some link, however indirect, to the other branches of philosophy, including political philosophy.

Looking at the three takes that one could take on the Declaration, the immanent naturalist is suspicious of reason and of religious belief. He is also suspicious of a theory of rights that would exclude a theist or a nontheistic post-modernist from micropolitical discourse. The first Locke conflates religion and reason, but sees a Locke who is open to the influence of Christian belief on society, and that this is very much part of his theory of politics. The second Locke is not sure of the probability of natural theology and metaphysics, so he creates a theory of rights that would provide a new foundation. All three theories should be open to arguments of the existence of God from our natural understanding. Newman's arguments in Grammar of Assent that try to show God's existence from conscience and from the natural knowledge of religion could be put in fruitful dialogue with Lockeans and with post-modernists. Newman saw his own theory as an acceptance of, and response to, Locke on this point. All of these views, perhaps even Newman's, have the difficulty of finding a place for reason as exercised by the philosopher as part of political discourse. Newman's account of belief as it exists in the mind details how a person can go from one belief to the next, but he himself admits that he is leaving aside questions of metaphysics for the sake of showing the rationality of religious belief.


Any approach, however, that casts doubt on the possibility of reason reaching the truth, seems to put philosophy on soft ground. If we were to take this understanding of philosophy and politics as representing all that can be attained in the pursuit of human wisdom, then the possibility of wisdom would be on soft ground. Perhaps it is useful in this regard to distinguish between the role of philosophy, including political philosophy and natural theology, as the pursuit of wisdom, and the role of political theory as establishing a basis for how political institutions will function. The former is more properly the domain of the teacher. The latter is more the domain of the teacher and the practitioner of the art of politics. The teacher of politics, as someone who tries to understand political life in as much as it relates to the other branches of human wisdom, would want to use reason to understand the highest and most divine things and link these teachings to what can be known about sensible reality.

There is also a need for theorists who develop ways of explaining how political societies emerge and of explaining what kinds of human behavior lead to healthy political institutions. This kind of inquiry will be more practical and will perhaps operate on principles less clearly reliant on the conclusions of natural theology or even of political philosophy. This does not mean that no link exists and that, therefore, the philosophical sciences should be excluded from the study of politics. Instead, it means that the halls of academe, and probably not the halls of Congress, are the best place to work out such problems.

Teaching politics in this way can help foster the respect for consciences, friendship, and understanding necessary for a healthy political community. For example, a teacher might explain to his class the various natural theologies connected to the Declaration of Independence. This offers the possibility of theists, atheists, nontheists, secularists, and lapsed theists of having some part in political life independent of what philosophical conclusions they might come to. It provides a standard of action that all can agree on and even sets out the limits that each party should respect when asking another person to consider its view of the world and to act on this view of the world. This teaching might not have much of a direct effect on students when they enter the Halls of the Congress and have to think through the public policy implications of whether to add an amendment to a bill, but each will be able to appeal to some understanding of rights that will lead him or her to respect the outcome and perhaps wait for a later day to seek an outcome more beneficial to his or her understanding of philosophy and society.

In other words, not all teachers can or should present a practical theory of how society functions or a practical theory of how to best understand and use the institutions present in a given society. In part, life itself takes care of that. At least some teachers of politics should present to students a reflection on politics and society that is at a remove from the ups and downs of political life and that is dialogue with the broader questions of human wisdom and the philosophical sciences. Such teaching does not exclude the possibility of creative thinking, but it does create a framework within which students will be able to understand their lives, including their political lives. Understanding the difficulties and attempts that have been made to overcome those difficulties (whether successful or not) can help students acquire a more moderate approach to life once they leave the halls of academe for the harsh realities of the political world. By teaching students that striving for divine things is difficult, and yet, that we should still strive for them can be an excellent safeguard against the kind of presumption, despair, or indifference that increases the possibility of violent ideological conflict or a meaningless life in pursuit of meaningless experiences.

The Declaration of Independence gives a framework for both, a political theory that enables citizens to act in common, and the hunch that helps political philosophers engage in further inquiries on the status of God in political philosophy. In this way, it remains an important document for study in the halls of the classroom and an important document for guiding the political practice of the ordinary man.

{1} Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were both German immigrants to the United States. They both attempted to understand and meet the challenge of modern German philosophy. Both of them, with different results, saw a return to the ancients as a starting point for confronting the modern challenge (See also Fides et Ratio 85). At one point in the 1950's the two carried on an extended correspondence, one of the central themes being the role of faith and reason in political philosophy and the importance of God for political thought. This correspondence was published in Faith and Political Philosophy, ed. by Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, 1993.

{2} The title of a recent book putting forth a debate between John Haldane and ???.

{3} He recalls the difficulties of Bertrand Russell obtaining a position at CUNY in the 1950's.