Sunday, September 20, 2015

Exchange: Locke and Load

The Founder of British Empiricism. Portrait by Sir Godfrey Knellor, 1697, via.
Another day, another comment war. This one at Crooks & Liars involving Dr. Ben Carson's assertion that the religion of Islam is incompatible with the US Constitution and a callow conservative who goes by Alex—sounds like he's about 20, but he uses Forbes Magazine as a source of scholarship on political philosophy, regarding it as "pretty objective", so he might well be 80.
DR. BEN CARSON: Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the constitution, no problem.

CHUCK TODD: So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the constitution?

DR. BEN CARSON: No, I don't, I do not.

CHUCK TODD: So you--

DR. BEN CARSON: I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.

CHUCK TODD: And would you ever consider voting for a Muslim for Congress?

DR. BEN CARSON: Congress is a different story, but it depends on who that Muslim is and what their policies are, just as it depends on what anybody else says, you know. (transcript from Real Clear Politics)
Note how assiduously Alex works to turn the his opponents' argument from a complaint on Dr. Carson's ignorance of the Establishment Clause (and the Religious Test clause of Article VI) to a ridiculous gripe about Dr. Carson's right to vote for any asshole he wants to vote for.

That's not against the Constitution. The Constitution requires the government to allow people of any religious beliefs to run for office. It does not require voters to disregard candidates' beliefs when they make the decision whether or not to vote for them. Carson is a Christian, and he doesn't think we should elect someone for President who isn't a Christian. There's nothing wrong with that. There's also nothing wrong with an atheist thinking that the nation shouldn't elect someone who believes in a supernatural being.

But in claiming Islam is "incompatible with the Constitution" he's making an unsustainable false argument and supporting a religious test.

No, he isn't. He's simply justifying his own reasoning why he wouldn't vote for a Muslim for President. He is in no way saying a Muslim should not be allowed to run for office. As free Americans, we're perfectly within our rights to apply whatever religious tests we like for a candidate as it pertains to making up our own mind whether to vote for that person. If our test is whether or not that person's religious beliefs line up with our Constitution, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That's well within our rights.

He's absolutely free to do it, just as he's free to vote for the person with the blondest hair. He's just deeply wrong.

It all comes down to opinion, and that's what he was asked to give. He seems to believe that a person's religious beliefs can affect his choices. I can't disprove that.

I wouldn't vote for Carson, in part because of beliefs he holds that go along with being a Seventh-Day Adventist, I get that. His reason for rejecting a Muslim president is not about any Muslim beliefs but his own belief about the US Constitution:
our founders were Christians. There were some Jews involved, as well; so we are a Judeo-Christian nation.
It's not so much about Article VI as about the First Amendment. He is legally qualified to be president but his misunderstanding is dangerous.

It's not accurate to say that all of the founders were Christian. Some were, some were not. The more accurate statement that can be made is that Biblical law was used as a litmus test for defining our government's laws. I read this article a while back and found it to be pretty objective:

It's not accurate for Carson to say that all the founders were Christian, but it's worse than inaccurate for him to draw the inference that if they were that would make the US a "Judeo-Christian nation". Our country is not an [any religion]-ist nation. It does not have any particular official religion or group of religions, as the First Amendment guarantees.
There was a long period when a number of state constitutions had religious tests for officeholders, because the Bill of Rights was thought to apply only to the federal government, but that ended in 1925.
Where's the support in the Forbes article for your assertion that "biblical law was used as a litmus test" for anything? I can't find it.

That wording was my own and based just on recollection. I believe I drew it from this:
"John Locke, whose influence was indisputable, clarified that natural rights need to “be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God.” And that legislation must be “without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.”

Interestingly enough, that quote from Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689, chapter 11) is in fact not Locke's words, but quoted by Locke in a footnote: for Richard Hooker's Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1594-97).
Hooker, writing on church government ("ecclesiastical polity"), mentions God and Scripture; Locke in his own text, adapting Hooker's general principles of a government of laws-not-men to the issue of civil government, does not mention God or Scripture at all, but refers to "promulgated standing laws, and known authorized judges". The Founders agreed with Locke that the history of legal precedent, "promulgated laws", should stand as the legal foundation of the new Republic, Hooker's biblical authority had nothing to do with it.
People who quote the passage as if Locke rather than Hooker wrote it are presenting a distorted image of how Locke influenced the founders. A more useful Locke piece would be the Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) in which he aimed to "distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion" and advocated a proliferation of different religious beliefs--though not going so far as to include atheism or Roman Catholicism as within the range of tolerability; he may eventually have changed his mind about the atheists, but the Catholics remained beyond his pale.
His influence on the authors of the Constitution doesn't mean they were against Catholics too: it means what they accepted, once again, was Locke's general principle that church and government have separate functions and must be considered separate institutions and not interfere with each other. 

This is why Hooker's use of the Bible, useful for church government, would not be useful for civil government, and why the Founders took Locke's position to the radical, but logical conclusion of turning his administrative separation of church and state into a full-scale and irrevocable divorce. Too bad Carson and other American theocrats can't understand that but run around cherry-picking footnotes in order to contradict it.

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