Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Chronically Mistaken Take on Human History

Way back some 40+ years ago, when i was a graduate student, I recall someone making a comment about a particular Supreme Court Justice that he was "the stupidest Justice on the Supreme Court." In response, the late Walter Murphy (Princeton University's McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence) wisely observed that, while that might well be so, "the stupidest Justice on the Supreme Court" would certainly still be among the smartest 1% of American lawyers. I thought of that today when I came across an account of something Justice Antonin Scalia is alleged to have said the other day. 

I have seldom agreed with Justice Scalia, but neither would I ever doubt that he too is certainly "among the smartest 1% of American lawyers." So imagine my surprise when i read that he allegedly told a gathering at a Catholic high school near New Orleans last Saturday that "one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we [the United States] have done him honor." His principal point seems to have been that the many public references to God in our civic life are a positive part of our culture and in no way contrary to the constitution, and that trend in recent decades to twist the 1st Amendment so as to expel religion from our public life is, as he calls it, "absurd,".

Now that legal point is one that I would certainly agree with him on. And I think it always bears repeating - in support of the historical reality that the 1st Amendment was in no way intended to prescribe a secular society - that the 1st Amendment was never intended to apply to the states but only to the federal government, at a time when some states still maintained an established Church. That the federal government may not establish any particular religion and that all states have subsequently opted against religious establishment has been, I believe, a good thing for our country. But likewise good has been the very vibrant presence of religion in the American public square for most our country's history.

All that having been said, however, I am amazed not by Scalia's legal reasoning but by his religious reasoning. In ancient Roman religion and no doubt in other civically oriented religious traditions, it was widely believed that faithfully correct, cultic observance would result in the gods' looking favorably on society and granting it prosperity and political success. But didn't Saint Augustine write his monumental De Civitate Dei precisely as a Christian rebuttal to that as a false interpretation of history?

Admittedly, the Old Testament sometimes presents a sacral view of history in which what happens to Israel is often seen as God's judgment upon Israel's fidelity to the covenant or her lack thereof. Even so, the eschatological orientation of the later Old Testament (not to mention the book of Job) would seem to reflect a more nuanced sense of the relationship between religious fidelity and temporal success. As far as I know, the only ecclesially sanctioned interpretation of non-biblical history according to which God apparently favored one side over the other would be the unique case of Joan of Arc's mission to save France during the Hundred years War. And, even then, there is no evidence that the French were more faithful to God than the English, no reason to suggest that God was explicitly rewarding the French for their fidelity. 

It is, I think, the apparent absurdity of most of human history that is most obviously evident, Particular historical outcomes - among them the rise and fall of empires and the transitory prosperity and political success of the United States - are not to be taken as anticipations of the General Judgment. There is a reason, after all, why the General Judgment takes place only at the end of all of human history! Until then, Macbeth came closer to the truth when he famously observed that human history is more like "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Act V, Scene 5). Indeed, as one reviewer wrote just this past year: "Any attempt to draw lessons and to issue 'warnings' from any historical event is a perilous venture. In view of this record, such lessons and warnings drawn from history usually are more revealing of the mind and current agenda of the admonisher than a sober and objective reflection about the past” (Christopher R. Browning, “A New Vision of the Holocaust,” NYR of Books, October 8, 2015, p. 43.)

So, yes, by all means we should foster religion's presence in our civic life, in "the public square" and resist those who seek to expel religion and secularize our society. But, no, however blessed our land may be  in many ways, I do not believe that God has been so good to us in the United States because as a nation "we have done him honor."

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