…Or is he just ignorant of the founders’ theological influences?
If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much about the current Presidential race. That’s because I tend to get interested in political races – in a writerly way – only when there is some sort of logical or philosophical issue to discuss, and, let’s face it, this campaign hasn’t exactly been rich in philosophical content. Lately, however, Paul Ryan’s standard stump speech has often included the following sort of statement, which he also has made on the floor of the House:
“Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.”
Ryan is certainly correct that the founders used the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the first paragraph of the Declaration-
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
But it was Ryan’s own emphasis on nature and “nature’s God” that got my attention. In Jefferson’s day, the phrase was strongly associated with the Enlightenment doctrine of Deism. Here’s a brief outline of the view from the (always enlightening) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy-
Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher.
That Jefferson himself was a Deist is pretty clearly stated in a letter he wrote to his friend, William Short-
“…it is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” ["Letter to William Short, 13 April 1820" The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Andrew Lipscomb. Hershey: Pennsylvania State University, 1907. p. 244.]
Now, I’m no historian (and if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know), but I would expect someone in Ryan’s position to be more of one. Could it be that he is unaware of the Deism inherent in the phrase he’s constantly trotting out on the campaign trail? Or, despite his professed Catholicism, could he be a “secret Deist” himself (a possibility that seems far less unlikely – thanks to the lack of any necessary outward manifestations of the theology – than the “Sekrit Muslim” charge made against President Obama)? Deism is not currently widespread, partly because it turns out to be surprisingly hard (impossible?) to prove God’s existence by “the light of reason” alone. So there’s a natural tendency for Deism to evolve or devolve either into Fideism (which rejects the role of rationality in religion in favor of non-rational faith) or Atheism. Ryan’s perhaps inadvertent endorsement of Deism is inconsistent with both Catholicism and Atheism (the view of his intellectual heroine, Ayn Rand). But since logical inconsistency would be more troubling than simple ignorance, perhaps it would be most charitable to charge Ryan only with the latter.