President Obama's view of history is common among progressives, but dangerously wrong.
Listening to the President’s farewell address was a surreal experience. His perceptions are so skewed that analyzing his remarks comprehensively would be like starting at the beginning of a long buffet and then listing the ingredients of every dish. At least extemporaneously, it is an overwhelming task.
One thing he said about the American founding was especially troubling. Mr. Obama traced “the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders” to the Enlightenment. It was that movement, which he defined as “a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression” and build a world order based on “the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.”
This spin is common in the leftist canon, but it is historical revisionism of the highest rank.
Errors of the Enlightenment
It is true that Thomas Jefferson, among others, was inspired by the “Age of Reason.” The belief that man can simply think his way through all his problems with rational dispassion and thereby arrive at wise conclusions is a conceit long disproven by the ugliness of history. Racism, fascism, communism, statism, socialism: If reason was supreme, these disastrous and often vicious forays into evil, not to mention stupidity, would have never left the drawing board of the asylums in which they first were considered.
The Enlightenment made no provision for human nature, believing that man could be perfected if only he was reshaped by the policies and law handed-down from the wisest of the elite. The Founders of our country were frightened by this notion, grounding their understanding of man on a biblical worldview that saw man as noble, made in the image and likeness of God, yet fallen, living permanently east of Eden and unable to again re-enter it.
As the late Christopher Lasch wrote more than 25 years ago, “the ideology of progress reveals its kinship with a nostalgic dream of a lost Eden.” With the right social construction — the benign “anointed,” to use Thomas Sowell’s telling phrase, governing with kind but firm direction of the dumb masses — man’s perfectible nature could be remolded into the likeness of Adam before he ate of the tree. And this could be done without God’s help, thank you.
Man is depraved; reason alone cannot achieve good judgment or inspire good conduct.
This view was anathema to those who crafted our Republic. Their view is elegantly summarized by James Madison in Federalist 51: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
Man is depraved; reason alone cannot achieve good judgment or inspire good conduct. Yet he has the capacity for virtue, for moral behavior grounded in inner moral governance, which makes him able, in company with other virtuous fellow citizens, to govern himself politically.
James Hutson, Chief the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, in his 1998 work, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, called this “the founder generation’s syllogism, which occurs repeatedly in every form of discourse from 1776 onward: virtue and morality are necessary for free, republican government; religion is necessary for virtue and morality; religion is, therefore, necessary for republican government.”
It’s sheer fancy to say the Enlightenment allowed America to reject “fascism and tyranny in the Great Depression” and support “the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.” All of these things are reasonable, certainly, but they were not based on faith in secular “progress.” Such faith is a form of historicism, the belief that history is on an unthwartable trajectory, as if it is a deity unto itself whose will cannot be daunted. Progress must happen: This is a religious assertion emanating from a man-centered, non-theistic view of the universe. It is also what President Obama strongly implied last night.
This faith is essential to the approach of the Left to governance. Indeed, without “this special belief in progress,” writes Douglas Charles Rossinow, “much of liberal and left politics in America would have made no sense and perhaps would not have existed.”
The Founders’ Reliance on Divine Providence
The Founders entertained no such belief. “If it had not been for the justice of our cause, and the consequent interposition of Providence, in which we had faith, we must have been ruined,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a 1784 letter to a friend. In other words, there is nothing inevitable about the course of history. Only God’s superintendence and intervention is sure.
And contrary to the notion that human rights are grounded in Enlightenment reason, the founders anchored our rights in God. As a 21 year-old Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1775, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
This belief — that our rights come from the hand of our Creator — was affirmed by the President earlier in his speech when he quoted from the Declaration of Independence. How, then, can Mr. Obama trace them to a decidedly different philosophical genealogy? Does he really believe that “reason” inspires life-sacrificing commitment to the rights he cites?
Americans believe in human dignity because of they still sense that man is unique in the world, not simply a more advanced biological organism but a being made a little lower than the angels. This is confirmed by the not-yet-wholly-disregarded belief that we relate to God in a unique way.
American University historian Daniel Dreisbach, author of the just-published Reading the Bible with the Founders, says that “the founding generation looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a new political society. Many saw in Scripture political and legal models — such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law — that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.”
Americans believe in human dignity because of their intuitive understanding that man is unique in the world.
The wisdom of the Bible and the clarity of natural law gave the founding generation the guidance they needed to frame a government suitable for an imperfectible but dignified humanity characterized by moral self-restraint and “a firm reliance on Divine Providence.”
The shout of defiance in the President’s farewell address, that man can be made perfect through human cooperation with the “arc of history,” runs counter to the philosophy of the founding of our country and the text of the Constitution.