So I’m almost done a chapter honoring the Zuckerts. It’s mainly about the Puritans, Marilynne Robinson, and stuff. But I’m bogged down in a last-minute intro. This is the first half, unproofed etc. Let me know what you think:

Better than anyone else, Michael Zuckert has displayed our country as a “the natural rights republic,” as the country most securely rooted in the secular, universalistic, and individualistic principles of John Locke. That’s not to say, of course, that Zuckert is some kind of libertarian new atheist in favor of dispensing with religion altogether. Because the argument that support the true principles of government, as Locke says, can be known only be a few, they must be believed by the many in any well-functioning free and democratic “regime.” In Zuckert’s particularly astute interpretation of our Declaration of Independence, what’s most important, politically, is that all citizens hold the truth of the Declaration to be self-evident, but they need not grasp their “cognitive status.”

So Zuckert’s model American Christian preachers are the “Lockean Puritans” of the eighteenth century, who transformed the Puritanical view of Christianity to harmonize it with natural rights political doctrine—political life oriented around the self-interested individual and not republican or Christian idealism. He recommends those preachers, in effect, as following the example of Locke himself, as reconfiguring biblical doctrine in light of what we can know about ourselves through unassisted reason. They taught people to believe in the revolutionary doctrine of natural rights as flowing what they believe to be true about the will of the Creator.

When American works best, Zuckert claims, our devotion to our natural rights republic receives “salutary aid from deep-flowing religious impulses.” SALUTARY, of course, is to be distinguished from TRUE. Religious impulses and their theological articulation add nothing real—or at least politically relevant—to what we can know about who we are. America works best, in other words, when religious and secular, individualistic impulses are arguments work “tensionlessly”—or don’t compromise our basically secular devotion. When they are in “disharmony and tension,” as they often seem to be today, America becomes disoriented and needlessly contentious.
The American “unique amalgam” is “so constructed” that both its indispensable religious and republican features operate in a way that doesn’t compromise its Lockean core. Christianity, so understood, ought to be our “civil theology”—or a way of getting God or the gods behind our “regime.” That’s why Zuckert emphatically dissents from Tocqueville’s view that we Americans owe anything fundamental or deeply true to the Puritans. When he quotes what Tocqueville says about the Puritans with approval, it’s the part when the Frenchman condemns their “ridiculous and tyrannical” laws. That just and severe criticism, in Zuckert’s view, occurs in the midst of Tocqueville’s abundant and unjustified praise of their political project on behalf of equality and liberty. Zuckert’s bottom line here is that the Puritans had a “presumption against liberty,” and that religious or Christian presumption explains why “their legislation has earned the censure of mankind as Puritanical.” For Zuckert, the individualistic liberal, there’s nothing positive about being a Puritan. That’s why, of course, we can easily say that part of his polemical intention is to read anything distinctively Puritanical from our authoritative political tradition, from the core beliefs that identify us all as Americans.

Zuckert presents Thomas Pangle’s views of our natural rights republic’s discontinuity with anything deeply Christian as even more extreme or less nuanced than his own—and not, of course, without reason. But even Pangle admits, Zuckert reports, that “the belief in the sanctity of all human beings as such” that somehow grounds natural rights philosophy “would seem to a legacy of the biblical social and political tradition rather than a classical one.” That would seem to mean, from Pangle’s view, that the insight into the unique irreplacability of every human person is biblical—and so not reasonable. For Pangle far more than Zuckert, it would be historicism to believe that anything that essential or foundational could not be known to Plato (and Aristotle). It’s true enough that the rights-oriented view of the sanctity of human life is one largely purged of biblical premises—but not of all of them. For Pangle, those who speak of the sacredness or infinite worth of the free individual are to some extent unreasonably parasitical on the Bible, and certainly that’s Leo Strauss’ view.

The Lockean Zuckert, surely no historicist, sometimes emphasizes how much Locke discovered that Plato and Aristotle didn’t know. And Locke, he properly reminds us, holds that “[t]he Bible in fact depicts the fundamentals of the human experience far better and to a far higher degree than any other premodern awareness”—including, of course, that of premodern or “pre-Cartesian” philosophy. From the Cartesian view of Locke and Zuckert, “the scriptural understanding is unique and ultimately ‘truer’ . . . than pre-critical modes of awareness because, it, as opposed to those others, understands and has assimilated human freedom.”

Locke, like the Bible, “seems man differentia in terms of freedom.” And at least it’s unclear whether Descartes and Locke could have grasped that true insight without knowledge of the Bible. According to Locke, it’s freely creating man who created the freely creating God—or the opposite of what the Bible tells us. God is created in man’s image. Man, alone among the creatures, is partly free from not only nature. To say otherwise, Zuckert says in criticism of the Darwinian Larry Arnhart, is to succumb to “biologism.” Locke, in that respect, might be understood to be closer to Hegel or Heidegger than to Aristotle, and to side with the Christians against the classical thinkers concerning free personal identity. From that view, even philosophy is not learning how to die; it’s not forgetting about one’s personal needs or personal contingency and mortality.

Jefferson himself claims to have become serenely philosophical enough to have gotten over himself—to live beyond any hope or fear—but to that extent he called himself an Epicurean. He was with Locke on government and Bacon on natural science (and so in those two respects a Cartesian), but with the ancients in some sense when it came to his own deepest self-understanding. Jefferson, despite his proto-Darwinian praise of the teaching of Jesus as the perfect articulation of the instinctual moral sense, seems less Christian, in one way at least, than Locke.

Locke, it’s true, does not understand the person to be as free as a Christian does—as someone who believes that one’s personal identity is secured forever by a personal Creator. For Locke, we, in our freedom, have to secure ourselves as well we can on our own, but personal identity finally is obliterated by natural necessity. But there’s no Darwinian or probably even Aristotelian way of explaining our personal identity and our singular and at best ambiguously natural longings—including, of course, the pursuit of happiness that only quite temporarily culminates in happiness itself.

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Articles by Peter Lawler

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