Last week, Law and Liberty (presumably not by chance) posted a polemic by one of its star contributors, David Tucker, slamming various dignitaries associated with the Claremont Institute for signing a document published by the Edmund Burke Foundation. According to Tucker, who seeks to be a Jaffaite of the purest water, the Claremont signatories are betraying the legacy of their mentor, who would have frowned on any association with Burkean nationalists.
“From Jaffa’s perspective,” Tucker writes, “the proper question is not whether nationalism is part of the traditional conservatism but whether national conservatism is compatible with the principles of the Declaration. Nothing American, Jaffa held, could be at its best, unless it is derived from the Declaration.”
Tucker then goes on a fishing expedition looking for assertions in the Burke Foundation’s “Statement of Principles” that clash with what Tucker considers the authorized understanding of the Declaration. He is especially bothered by the honor that one signatory, Scott Yenor, wishes to confer on Protestantism as the quintessential American religion. Yenor’s desire to give special recognition to Protestantism as our unofficial national religion supposedly violates the principle of equality taught by the Declaration. Moreover, according to Tucker, “Historically—traditionally—in the United States and elsewhere, the Bible and Christianity have been taken to be compatible with racial discrimination and even slavery.”
We are therefore required to put away the Bible as a source of moral inspiration. If the Bible and Christianity could be cited to justify an unequal treatment of human beings, then we must turn to the Declaration and its natural rights thinking as our highest political guides. Moreover, “there is nothing good that national conservatism aims to achieve that cannot be achieved through the prudent application of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
Before I try to engage this mystifying text, I should point out that I was not asked to sign the statement against which Tucker declaims; nor am I as invested in natural right thinking as the fellows of the Claremont Institute. I am providing my thoughts as a critical reader who was taken aback by some of Tucker’s sweeping assertions.
First, it is impossible for me to understand how the acceptance of the natural right proposition that all men (and presumably women) have an equal right to freedom would require total religious neutrality. There were established churches after the creation of the American republic in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and other states that also had state constitutions affirming their citizens’ basic liberties. Such an arrangement was only judged to be unconstitutional long afterwards, when the Supreme Court began imposing on states under the 14th Amendment the prohibition against church establishment that had been originally applied to Congress. Virginia maintained an established Anglican Church until 1786—to which residents paid onerous taxes. Although that institution was disestablished when the Baptists and Presbyterians came to outnumber Virginia’s Anglicans and after Thomas Jefferson drew up a famous bill for disestablishing the state church, Virginians hardly lived in a secular state afterwards.
Jefferson’s bill of disestablishment provided for public celebration of Christian holidays and other conspicuous nods to Protestant Christianity. At the gathering that voted to disestablish the Anglicans, moreover, it was made clear that religious neutrality did not mean that non-Western religions were to be placed on the same footing as Christianity. Admittedly a state church which imposed severe disabilities on nonmembers, as did the Church of England into the 19th century or the Anglican Church in Virginia before its disestablishment, might properly be seen as oppressive. But what Yenor is proposing is far more modest, namely, that Protestantism be seen at the public level as providing a family model for Americans. I’ve no idea how this is workable in today’s America, but it’s by no means clear that Yenor is launching a frontal attack on natural right.
It might surprise Tucker to learn that devout Christians who read the Bible every day, like John Wesley and the Methodist denomination he founded, were often passionately against slavery. So were those Tories and High Anglicans William Wilberforce and Samuel Johnson, who gave no indication of having been influenced by the American Declaration. Edmund Burke, whom Tucker despises as an ideological heresiarch, drew up plans for freeing slaves in the British West Indies in his Sketch of the Negro Code (1792). The same document, which was drafted at the request of the British Home Secretary, proposed both ending the slave trade and abolishing slavery. Burke developed these thoughts without sharing Tucker’s concept of natural right. Significantly, Tucker’s authoritative political thinker, Professor Jaffa, thought the principles in the Declaration were rooted in, among other sources, the Bible, and so argued there was no reason to pit these texts against each other. Indeed, one can find numerous passages in Jaffa’s work proclaiming the Bible as a source of moral truth.
At least intermittently, Tucker seems to be saying that there should be no higher loyalties holding together Americans or others seeking political freedom than our “founding principles.” But this should not be mistaken for good will toward foreigners. Tucker is all too happy to unload his scorn on “the polyglot group of international elites” who attended gatherings of the Burke foundation. An unbecoming arrogance pervades this statement, namely, a contempt for non-Americans who are concerned with preserving their own national identities.