Tuesday, November 01, 2005

John Knox and Christian Resistance

I've had cause recently to ponder the question of the authentic Western Tradition and where this concept of freedom was warped, and it seems to keep coming back to John Knox. It seems that even most of the Reformers, and even many of Knox's own heirs, still took account of authority as something superintended directly by God as part of his creation, a blessing rather than a yoke, to be resisted only in extremis. Reading Lex Rex and its strident condemnation of St. Robert Bellarmine (who was himself probably the most authentic witness of the Christian tradition on this point), it's hard to see how these separate ideas of freedom can be matched. The notion of freedom as a good in and of itself, apart from the telos of man and the opportunity to exercise virtue, simply isn't Christian, whether in the Neoplatonic East or the Stoic West. The hostility toward "Constantinism" is perhaps the best example of this sort of thinking; it has anarchy at its base, freedom as a good in itself apart from being ordered to any end.

There's a Manichaean aspect here as well. The traditional idea of Christian freedom stems from the idea that all men have equal capacity for virtue, meaning that it makes sense to appeal to a universal idea of human dignity, because it is truly the fault of evildoers in doing evil against their own nature in the image of God. Knox, by contrast, appears to view government as a necessary evil, necessitated by necessarily evil men. This unhealthy concept of the human will (and its analog in God's will) simply doesn't provide an adequate Christian justification for the dignity of man, something that is necessarily essential for any government to avoid a sheer "will-to-power" concept involving strife among factions or tyranny of the majority.

Many people have argued for the powerful influence of Scottish philosophy on American government as a sign of its superiority, but I strongly disagree. In the original form of American federal government, the representation of people qua STATES, independent sovereigns having nearly unlimited power within a "republican form of government" (U.S. Const., Art. IV, s. 4), put a high premium on the virtue of self-governance in the classical city-state model. To the extent the Madisonian ideal was enshrined, it was as a stricture primarily on the power of the federal government as against the states, but state governments retained tremendous power, reflecting the enormous faith in the virtue of local republican government. That is, at least, until President Lincoln reversed it, not coincidentally using the same sort of romantic "civic religion" language used to great effect in the Declaration of Independence (but, significantly, not included in the Constitution) to rationalize protecting individuals from state sovereignty. Up until that point, there was a balancing factor against this Knoxite concept of freedom as an innate good and government as a necessary evil.

It seems to me that Pope Pius IX and other Catholics at the time were rightly suspicious about the connection between this concept of democracy and liberalism more broadly, even while perceiving that slavery was a serious evil. Indeed, it is exactly the subversion of states' rights that has led to the abomination of Roe v. Wade and abortion on demand, the paradigm case of the sick depravity that "freedom" has become. The federal courts' assault on states rights in the Lochner era, using their ill-gotten power from the Civil War in defense of the (uncoincidentally) Scottish notion of laissez-faire capitalism, led to frustration that was ultimately exploited by the feds to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, just one more example of how anti-republican populism and suspicion of state government forced people to yield state sovereignty to the tyranny of a liberal majority. A similar thread of populism led to the Seventeenth Amendment, which effectively destroyed whatever balance there was in the federal system. On the whole, Knox's project of setting individual freedom against the republican state, far from being the cornerstone of American government, has been responsible for just about every unmitigated disaster in the history of American government. So long as Knox's ideas were matched with a healthy dose of state sovereignty, rooted in the good old-fashioned Western concept of civic virtues and responsibility in self-government, there wasn't a problem. But once Knox's thoughtless idea of freedom overrode those safeguards, America's decline was swift.