08 July 2012

Kirk Cameron's Monumental Part 3: Foundations of Law, Theonomy, Social Consensus/Contract and The Problem of Democracy

In addition to questions concerning 'rights' and the 'state' and how these concepts are read (by many Christians) back into the Bible, there is the whole question of democracy itself. America is of course a Republic, which by definition has a public or democratic element, and yet foundationally rests in the notion of rule by law. There are many forms of Republicanism, but in the United States we have specifically a form of Democratic Republicanism.
So though we're ruled by law, our legislators (our lawmakers, law proposers, law givers) are selected democratically. These legislators have a dual obligation. They are to forge laws compliant with the 'static' foundational document of the Republic (the Constitution) but they also are to represent the 'dynamic' needs of their constituents, dynamic in that they (the needs of society) change with the cultural and historical context.

When the Constitution no longer complies with the present reality, or needs modification or elaboration due to circumstance, there is a process by which it can be changed...an amendment. So far the US Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, (once to repeal a previous amendment) which of course demonstrates even the 'static' aspect of the Republic is not cast in concrete. Though not easily modified, it can be changed by democratic process. That in itself is a statement about the Founder's understanding of law and its source.
Theonomy in its extremist form acknowledges this problem, that American civil law is specifically 'not' rooted in Eternal law, revealed in or by Scripture. They would change this, but of course in doing so would undo the work of the Founders and establish a different polity.
Though I have no patriotic concerns to speak of, many of these groups market themselves in this way (by appealing to American patriotic sensibilities) and gain considerable followings. Overthrowing the Founder's understanding of law and essentially creating a new country makes for a strange patriotism. Many join with them hoping to restore America or something along those lines. Little do they realize they're being deceived. The partisans of Theonomy would not restore, but replace. Their doctrines applied to the United States are not reformatory but revolutionary. Revolution is usually not considered to be patriotic! It's something to keep in mind when you read of their desire to 'restore' America to supposed Biblical foundations and other such marketing lines.
The idea of democracy, that laws find their source or foundation in social contract or the will of people is completely unpalatable and incompatible with their thesis.
Evangelicals always wish to emphasize the Declaration's language concerning certain 'inalienable rights' coming from the Creator. See, they insist, this is religious language. It's true, Jefferson believed in God, and while many involved in the founding were Christians, the religious sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence are only in general terms, in no way specifically referencing Christianity.
Well, it was a Christian context many would argue. True, but if the argument is correct...that these were Christian sentiments reflecting a Christian worldview...then Jefferson sure chose some pretty odd terms and phrases to use and refrained from using some even more obvious ones.
The 'Creator' is not elaborated upon, other than by appealing to Nature. And if... power comes from consent of the governed, then the inalienable rights are not determined by Eternal Law revealed in the Word of Special Revelation (which would specifically Christian), but by some form of Natural Law applicable to any of the First Adam's seed, in other words to all men.
Functionally this can be compatible with a Christian understanding. As Christians we go much further in our understanding of right and wrong, the laws by which we (as Christians) operate. But the language here is in broad, very general, non-revelatory terms. This is why many people focus on the Deism of Jefferson and others involved in formation of the Republic. Because this language and the associated concepts they're talking about are in perfect harmony with the Deism (and Freemasonry for that matter) many if not most of these men held to.
Regardless of who the Founders were as individuals it must be said again, the founding documents do not appeal to Divine Special Revelation, but 'self-evident' laws of nature. Again, a Christian can be content with this for a Babylon-state construction. But if you're trying to make an neo-Israel a supposed Christian state, then this would be totally unacceptable and the Theonomists will be quick to tell you that. That's no basis for a godly society.
Cameron in this film seems to side with the Theonomic understanding. This is problematic both historically and contemporaneously. I contend if more people in Christian circles understood what's happening and being said, they wouldn't be so quick to support these people.
Some would argue this is America's strength, a Republic that embraces a certain level of legal dynamism. It possesses a law-based system that has some flexibility. Americans often tout the fact that the US Constitution is the oldest in use in the world. This is true, but it could be equally argued that what kept it alive is the fact that is has an amendment process. It has survived because it can change and also the fact that it is less than specific in many key areas has probably helped.
Although the strains and limitations of the political system outlined in the Constitution are becoming more patent, Americans, in particular those on the Right, revere the Constitution as deutero-canonical, nearly Divine in origin, and are unable to do what many countries do...occasionally tear it up and start over, and re-write their constitution to reflect the present situation.
Such an act, metaphorically tearing up a constitution is at its root, democratic. American Republicanism is rooted to the idea of a past social contract...'when' the laws were put together and insists on imposing a historical form on the present. They want the development and modification to stop...but why should it? It's not designed that way.
Cameron and others like him want to argue the United States was built upon a cultural and historical legal foundation all stemming from the law of God....which of course is unchangeable. This is their argument to counter the legal and social changes of our day. I'm arguing the language of the source documents as well as the system itself militate against this.
In addition and of far greater importance is that fact that Theologically this narrative in untenable.
To me the whole argument begins and ends with the Bible. Even if the Founders were establishing a Christian nation, they would have been wrong to do so. For there's no such thing, the Church being the only Christian/Covenanted/Holy entity on earth. But since that's not good enough for many, I'm content to look at the historical and legal arguments. And what do we find? These don't support their arguments either. They would do better to be candid and just admit that if given the chance they would completely overthrow and replace the United States with an entirely different polity. Maybe that's fine to some people. I wish they would just be honest about it.
In terms of history and marketing their vision, this is their real dilemma....they don't believe in Democracy. This is somewhat problematic if you're trying to push the Americanist narrative! As I indicated, the diehard Theonomists will come right out and admit this. I appreciate their honesty, even though they're elusive about what their vision would mean for society, the nation, and for competing Christian theologies.
Many others who don't go quite so far in embracing Theonomy will try and retain the concept of Democracy either due to intellectual inconsistency or an emotional investment and the powerful cultural connotations.
But they have a dilemma, because Democracy means...the law is not based on an eternal absolute....like the Mosaic Law or even the Bible in some kind of general sense. If there's a cultural consensus, people may democratically reflect some kind of quasi-Biblical form of the law. But it's not rooted or founded upon the law as an eternal foundation. At that point it's about a social consensus which is expressed democratically.
Some in the Christian Right realize this, acknowledge it and are content with it. But it hardly makes for an airtight ideological system which is why it's unacceptable to many in more Theonomic influenced circles. If the law is simply a reflection of a Christian dominated society, when that society changes...there's nothing to stop the law from changing with it.
This is pertinent because Cameron is interacting specifically with the more Theonomic end of the spectrum. I don't recall anyone in the film arguing from the standpoint of a Christian Republic meaning...a democratic reflection of a Christian cultural consensus.
Historically in the post-Puritan period and certainly in the post-Constitutional period this (the consensus argument) was the only sense 'Christian Nation' can be applied to America or the United States.
The post-Constitutional result for say much of the 19th century may have looked roughly like a kind of loose 'Christian' culture. But Theonomy will insist this is built on sand (subject to change) unless consciously established on Scripture. The reality is 19th century America wasn't really functioning that way... viewing law through a Theonomic grid. Theonomists admit this and point out that's why it's falling apart today. It rested on cultural consensus which is a rejection of the Theonomic thesis and places a nation or culture in danger of being subjected to cultural trends and as I said above... inevitable legal modification.
So Cameron tries to dance between these two points. I'm not even sure if he's conscious of it. On the one hand many of these people wish to 'look back' on when the nation was 'Christian' and yet many also realize it wasn't really 'Christian' enough and that if things are going to be redone, they must be done differently.


Jim C. said...

Let me see if I understand this. On the one hand, Congress enacts legislation on the basis of the constitution, which is a static document. On the other hand, they do so on the basis of the changing needs and circumstances of the democratic majority, implementing and repealing amendments to the constitution if necessary.

Therefore the constitution is both static and dynamic.

Are amendments added/subtracted the same way any other laws are passed or does the process require a referendum?

On a related note, if the legal precedent for repealing amendments already exists - specifically in the case of Prohibition - then theoretically any of the amendments, including the right to free speech, association, religion, to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, etc. can be repealed as well if Congress sees fit to do so under whatever the prevailing circumstances might be. Am I right in pointing this out?

You mention how theonomists hijack history and reinterpret it to suit their political agenda and were they ever to actually gain power then it seems to me that repealing any constitutional amendment that conflicted with their agenda would be key in solidifying their authority. Any other extreme political faction would do the same.

Jim C.

Cal said...


It's also funny how diehard Constitutionalists will quote Jefferson when the man believed each new generation should tear up the prior's constitution and start fresh.

You're right also that it helped that the ambiguous language helped keep things smooth. It is easy to run over the Constitution easily that way but it keeps the form intact.

Also, I'm so unsure of how many of the founders were actually Christian. I use to be with David Barton on this before I actually became a Christian.

From the South you have the Anglican/Constantinian-lite nominal attachment. There was such a furor when Jefferson unhinged the Virginian Anglican church from the state and cut their privileges.

Then in the North you have the Unitarians continuing on their Puritan tradition of a different kind of Constantinianism.

Of all the founders, the only one I can say was a tender-hearted Christ-follower was Benjamin Rush. And he was a universalist!

Jim C:

Theoretically, but essentially impossible. The amendment business is extremely difficult, even on issues that a majority would agree on. Amendments are based on how the States vote. I can't imagine any State government existing if they even considered casting a vote to amend the constitution to remove any of the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments).

The theonomists probably would retain the form. It would be a bit ironic but I would think they would try and amend the Constitution to add Moses and then make an amendment to make remove the ability to make amendments! Or enforce something like Honduras where any attempt to change the constitution ends with automatic loss of office. Works well for the oligarchy there.

Protoprotestant said...

Jim...I think Cal summed it up pretty well. And yes, they'll change it. The US Taxpayers Party which later became the Constitution Party...that's what they want to do...change the Constitution.
In the end...I think it's all about power. It always is. Arguing over interpretations, wording, history...it's all window dressing. A means to an end. In the end...they'll do whatever it takes.
The Amendment process is really difficult. You might recall the ERA back in the 70's and early 80's. They needed 38 states to ratify and fell 3 short and thus even after an extension it failed.
I agree that if anyone tried to throw out one, some, or all of the Bill of Rights...it would be shot down. But theoretically it could be done.
It's much easier to just find ways around them...overlapping obligations, emergency powers etc.... The Patriot Act should have been declared unconstitutional. It has effectively removed the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th amendments or established a precedent in doing so. And other recent court decisions have begun to chip away at the 1st.
To me, the Constitution is effectively dead...it has been for a long time. But...it's still there and in the conversation. I wonder if at some point Conservatives will refer to portions of it as 'quaint' in the way Atty Gen. Gonzales did a few years back. I guess they already did when it comes to the 8th amendment.
I think any faction that wants power will employ the rhetoric they think will help them gain validity. The Constitution is a football, not a foundation.
Cal is right, an oligarchy can do whatever it needs to do to retain an illusion of legitimacy.
Seems to me we're already there. Even as polarized as the parties are, the mainstream...which would include both Bush and Obama and certainly Romney just keep plugging away. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The real rule of the country is not in the hands of the president anyway.

Jim C. said...

Hey Proto,

Actually I had to search Wikipedia to see what the ERA (equal rights amendment) was all about; namely, equal rights for women. I don't recall ever learning about that and I didn't realize it was an issue by that point...I thought that women already enjoyed the same rights as men based on the already-existing provisions in the Bill of Rights.

I also appreciate Cal informing me that amending the constitution is based on the favorable majority of state legislatures as opposed to simply a majority in Congress (you can correct me if I've misunderstood the process again). That would certainly be a daunting undertaking. It helps to explain why it has occurred so seldom in American history.

Of course I agree that America is not immune to politicians hungry for power and willing to do anything to get it but it seems like the legal system that exists - with especial regard to the separation of powers - has thus far proven to be the most successful in preventing the emergence of any kind of dictatorship. I'm sure countless times in the past, academics, pundits and experts of all stripes have predicted the degeneration of America into a police state but it has yet to really happen based on what I've seen. Sure, there have been sporadic abuses of power here and there, sometimes in greater frequency than others, but nothing on a total, national scale such as what existed in Germany and Russia - and like you said, the US would spin apart like a centrifuge before anything like that could happen.

Jim C.