Jon Rowe has a fascinating post at Positive Liberty about John Witherspoon, one of our more neglected founding fathers. As Jon notes, Witherspoon is interesting because he was a very orthodox Christian but also an outspoken proponent of the Enlightenment philosophy that undergirds our liberal democratic system. Though Witherspoon was a Calvinist, he broke with Calvin clearly on the subject of the rightful authority of civil government. Jon includes the following quote that illuminates the issue, from Walter Berns’ book Making Patriots:
From Berns: “Like Jefferson and Madison, [Witherspoon] had obviously read Locke with care and was persuaded by him of the importance of liberty of conscience — which put him at odds with the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin. (For Calvin, liberty of conscience meant just that, and no more than that. If someone gave voice to his conscience, thus being heard or read by others, he might rightly be punished. So it was that, as the effective governor of his city of Geneva, Calvin had one of his anti-Trinitarian critics put to death.)”
I also like this statement from Rowe, which I think really highlights the truth about America’s founding:
Witherspoon’s importance to our founding seems to be that he acted as sort of a “mediator” between the Enlightenment philosophers and Christian theology, and led Christians to believe that Enlightenment philosophy was perhaps more compatible with their orthodox Christianity than perhaps it really was. The philosophers who articulated “Natural Right” were either non-Christians or non-Trinitarian heretic Christians. “Nature’s God” who, according to the philosophers, grants us inalienable rights certainly wasn’t the God of orthodox Christianity. And the notion that Jehovah or Jesus grants us inalienable rights is “wrong as a matter of doctrine — where does the Bible speak of unalienable natural rights, or the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?”
The last bit there, in quotations, is from Berns’ book. The importance of this idea is clear to me. Contrary to the simpleminded blatherings of so many on both sides – those who think the founders were all Jerry Falwell clones an those who think they were all deists – our founding was really the result of both the cooperation and the tension between orthodox Christians and those more profoundly affected by Enlightenment philosophy. That’s why the Declaration of Independence speaks of “Nature’s God”, because it was a term that could appeal to both sides of that divide; each could read into it their own conception of God, different as they were. Witherspoon’s importance is indeed the result of his having acted as a bridge between the two groups. He provided a middle ground on which they could agree enough to allow for compromise and unity.
After the Constitution was set in place, the old divisions would reappear again and there would always be a tension between them, as there is to this day. But as the Straussians like to say (accurately, in this case), our nation has been profoundly influenced by both Athens and Jerusalem. It is the tension between the two that, paradoxically, appears to hold us together to some degree. It’s also the source of today’s culture wars, which are the old battles from our founding continued in modern day form.