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A Conflict of Visions
By Robert Maynard, Williston, Vermont
Click here for youtube video segment 7A, 7B, 7C, 7D, 7E

A City on a Hill

We have been discussing the vision that was behind America's founding. From the very beginning Americans strove to share that vision with the world. Here are a few samples of the thought of early Americans on this matter:

In a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop entitled "City upon a Hill," he reminded his Congregation that:

"...for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants..."

Later, during the period in which our Constitution was in preparation, John Adams stated:

"The people of America have now the best opportunity and greatest trust in their hands that Providence has ever committed to so small a number."

In Federalist Paper number 1, Alexander Hamilton had this to say:

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

What were the results from sharing the principles that inspired our founding?

Following the American Revolution, its example and the principles at its foundation expressed in the Declaration of Independence inspired a renewed interest in the principles of liberty in Europe during the 19th Century. A European thinker who embarked on a political pilgrimage to America to view first hand this experiment in ordered liberty was the French historian Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote in his now famous work Democracy in America: "The civilization of New England has been like a beacon lit on a hill, which, after it has diffused its warmth immediately around it, also tinges the distant horizon with its glow..."

Of course that distant horizon was Europe, where those who found themselves yearning to follow that beacon on a hill started a global abolitionist movement which succeeded in ridding much of the world of slavery and inspiring movements for national independence among people who were living under oppression. From Europe these ideas spread out even to the non-western world.

It wasn't until 1865 that slavery was abolished in the United States, making those states truly united at last. It was in the same year that France chose to acknowledge America's role in inspiring that movement toward global liberty with the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

The "Unconstrained Vision"

At the almost same time that people over in Europe were becoming enamored with the ideas that provided an underpinning for our experiment in ordered liberty, would be social engineers here in America were looking to the central planning theories of European thinkers. It was there that the seeds were planted for a vision that is relatively novel in historical terms. This vision has been referred to as the "Unconstrained Vision" in Dr. Thomas Sowell's book "A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles." Understanding this conflict is the key to understanding many of the political struggles taken place on both the domestic front here in America and in our foreign affairs as well.

This brings us to the question of why this rival vision to the Judeo-Christian vision is referred to as the "Unconstrained Vision" and what is novel about it. In his book "The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace," classical scholar Donald Kagan points out that "It is a special characteristic of the modern Western world, as opposed to other civilizations and the pre-modern Western world, to believe that human beings can change and control even human nature to improve the condition of life" Dr. Kagan attributes this view to the great leap forward in technology that accompanied the start of the modern age. Just as advances in the physical sciences allowed the best and the brightest to rationally engineer progress in the world of technology, we should be able to socially engineer progress in the human community as well. This notion gave way to the concept of social engineering by means of central planning on the part of the best and the brightest.

The notion that the unconstrained vision arose as a response to the great leap forward in technological progress is true to an extent, but I believe somewhat incomplete. The huge leap forward in science and technology that the Western world pioneered itself can be seen as the result of a particular worldview. Father Stanley Jakia, a prize-winning historian of science with doctorates in theology and physics, has advanced the notion that it was the Judeo-Christian worldview that aided the development of science.

Thomas Chahill goes one step farther in "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels," by stating that the worldview stemming from the Genesis account paved the way for the idea of progress itself and the whole Western way of thinking.

He points out that the notion which was predominant prior to the biblical account in Genesis was that of an eternally existing cosmos ruled by the impersonal laws of growth and decay. Humans were seen as mere cogs in a vast impersonal cosmic entity totally incapable of having any impact on our fates. The Genesis account denies that the cosmos is eternal, but came into existence as an act of free will by a personal creator and that we were created in the image of that creator. This gives mere human beings vastly more significance in the grand scheme of things than the ancient pagan view.

The individual human being can transcend the limits of his condition and enter into a personal relationship with the very creator of the cosmos. Furthermore, the cosmos was created in an orderly and rational way and we are capable of discovering the principles of order that are the basis of its existence. The Bible is full of injunctions on what we should and should not do and the consequences of following or ignoring such injunctions. The implications of such passages are staggering when compared to the pagan worldview of all actions being determined by fate. Human actions have an immense significance.

Frank Meyer summarized the Pagan view in his essay on Western Civilization:

"For the first twenty-five hundred years of recorded history men lived in civilizations of similar styles, a style for which the Egyptian may stand as the type. These cosmological civilizations conceived of existence so tightly unified and compactly fashioned that there was no room for distinction and contrast between the individual person and the social order, between the cosmos and human order, between heaven and earth, between what is and what ought to be. God and king, the rhythms of nature and the occupations of men, social custom and the moral imperative, were felt not as paired opposites but as integral unities. The life of men in these civilizations, in good times and bad, in happiness and unhappiness, proceeded in harmony and accord with nature, which knows no separation between what is and what ought to be, no tension between order and freedom, no striving of the person for individuation or the complement of that striving, the inner personal clash between the aspirations of the naked self and the moral responsibilities impressed by the very constitution of being."

The transformation brought about by the western view was described by Mr. Meyer in the same essay:

"It shattered the age-old identity of the historic and the cosmic. It burst asunder the unity of what ought to be and what is. It faced individual men for the first time with the necessity of deep-going moral choice. In a word, it destroyed the unity of what is done by human beings and what they should do to reach the heights their nature opens to them. And, in doing so, this understanding created, for the first time, the conditions for individuation, for the emergence of the person as the center of human existence, by separating the immanent from the transcendent, the immemorial mode of living from its previous identity with the very constitution of being. The arrangements of society were dissociated from the sanction of ultimate cosmic necessity; they were desanctified and left open to the judgment of human beings. But that transcendent sanction remained the basis of the judgment of human life. The transcendent was not destroyed; it was reaffirmed in terms more profound and awesome than ever. The earthly immanent and the transcendent heavenly remained, but how were they to be related each to each?"

While this view "desanctified" the cosmos and other aspects of the created order, it sanctified the relationship that individual human beings were able to enter into with their creator:

"The nexus, the connecting link between the transcendent and the immanent, between the eternal and the historical, could be no other than the human person. Living in both worlds, subjected by the demands of his nature to transcendent value and at the same time maker of history and master of society, he was suddenly (suddenly as historical process goes) revealed to himself as a creature whose fate it was to bridge this newly yawning gulf."

Bridging the Gulf

The gulf surely was yawning as man came to wrestle with the tension between the vision of the human person created in the image of a holy God and the reality of our own corrupt nature.

The Apostle Paul wrestles with this tension in the book of Romans:

"For I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?"

Later on in chapter Romans 8:1–11, Paul seems to indicate that holiness is a possibility and talks about the "Spirit-filled life." It is quite clear that this is not something which we can achieve on our own power, but requires a rebirth and the creation of a "New Being." The process of creating a new being is referred to in the Bible as "sanctification" and the early Puritans referred to it as "regeneration." While this process begins in this life, it is completed in the after life.

Furthermore, the social order cannot be perfected apart from the complete sanctification of the individual persons making up that order. This constraint on what was seen as possible in regards to the social order is why the Judeo-Christian-based vision behind our founding is sometimes referred to as the "Constrained Vision." While there are no constraints on what is possible through God in a relationship with him, there are constraints on what can be achieved via social organization. The constraints are particularly relevant in relationship to the role of government. The corruption of our nature makes it dangerous to trust too much political power in an institution which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

While confronting this tension leads some to seek sanctification and regeneration in a relationship with God, others have sought short cuts, as Frank Meyer points out in his essay:

"But at these heights of understanding another problem arose, one I have referred to above when discussing the Hellenic experience and have called the problem of Utopianism. A clear vision of the naked confrontation of individual men with transcendence created a yawning gap in human consciousness. It was something of the effect of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the one hand stood the perfection of transcendence, and on the other the imperfection of human existence. The temptation was enormous to close that intolerable gap, to grasp that understood transcendent perfection and by sheer human will to make it live on earth, to impose it on other human beings — by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary."

Here we have the inner drive behind the unconstrained vision, the quest to create a utopian society.

John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America

The December 31st 2009 edition of the National Review contains an article entitled: "John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America". The article details what started off as an intellectual movement aimed at correcting the imperfections in American society following the Civil War:

It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or "social reorganization" on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, "positive" role for the state.

The December 31st 2009 edition of the National Review contains an article by Tiffany Jones Miller, entitled: "John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America". What started off as an intellectual movement aimed at correcting the imperfections in American society following the Civil expanded its influence into other areas of society War, as Jones states:

"It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or "social reorganization" on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, "positive" role for the state."


As the progressives' influence in the academy increased, and growing numbers of their students sallied forth into all aspects of endeavor, this intellectual transformation gradually began to reshape the broader American mind, and, in time, American political practice. "A new regime in thought," as Eldon Eisenach writes, "began to become a new regime in power."

Jones contends that of the many intellectuals involved in the movement, none were as influential as John Dewey:

Over the course of his subsequent half-century career, Dewey taught mainly at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, where he held appointments in both philosophy and education, and published over 40 books and several hundred articles. In 1914, moreover, Dewey became a regular contributor to Herbert Croly's New Republic, the flagship journal of progressivism; he also played a more or less important role in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Federation of Teachers. During the New Deal, Dewey and his students helped shape the character of various programs, including the fine-arts program of the Works Progress Administration and the flagrantly socialist community-building program undertaken by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Dewey's social theory continued to influence major political events even after his death in 1952. President Johnson not only delivered many speeches (including his signature Great Society address) that read, as James Ceaser has aptly noted, like "a grammar school version of some of John Dewey's writings," but professed his admiration for "Dr. Johnny."

At its core the Progressive vision involved a rejection of America's founding vision and a redefinition of the notion of freedom which included the government playing an active role in promoting freedom. As Jones put it:

The cornerstone of this theory — the principle from which "Dr. Johnny's" diagnosis of America's shortcomings, and his prescription for its reform, proceeds — is a new, "positive" conception of human freedom.

The Progressive vision sees a gulf between our nature as "social" beings and the anti-social and selfish nature of individuals. The "freedom" they promote is the freedom to realize our full human potential as social beings. Instead of seeking to bridge the gulf between the ideal fulfillment of human nature in sanctification, or regeneration, they seek to bridge this gulf by "socialization." This idea of humans being freed to realize their potential as a social being via socialization is at the heart of "Socialism" and is where the term is derived from. Socialism is an "ism," a complete worldview, not just an economic theory related to the government ownership of property. The premise of this worldview is that selfish individuals can be socialized and their selfish nature changed by a process of social engineering that will result in a utopian society. The older definition of freedom as related to individual liberty and a restriction on government is seen as a detriment to the goals of a centrally-managed and socially-engineered society.

The Natural Law based notion of freedom is seen as "negative" because, as it relates to government, it only spells out what government cannot do to you. The "positive" conception of human freedom spells out what government must do for you. Our Declaration of Independence lists certain "unalienable" rights that we are endowed with by our creator. The word unalienable literally means "incapable of being repudiated or transferred to another." This is so because they are not something granted to us by government, but are endowed in our very nature by our creator.

Because these rights are part of our very nature, such as the right to life, government can only secure them. This distinction is an important one. If our rights were something given to us by government, then the government has the right to take them away as well. Under such an understanding of rights, there is no way they can be considered secure. Furthermore, for something to be provided to us, resources to pay for that something must first be taken from someone else, since government produces no resources of its own. For this reason, the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution are referred to as negative rights.

Progressives see this as a flawed approach and have suggested that we need to introduce the notion of positive rights in order to truly realize the ideal of human freedom. But recall, while they are using the same term "freedom," progressives defined freedom very differently from its understanding at the founding of America.

Personalism vs. Collectivism

What some have referred to as American individualism may be more accurately referred to a personalism. Personalism starts out by affirming the dignity of the human person as a being created in God's image and realizes that individual human persons seek fulfillment in relationships with God and their fellow human beings.

The Progressive vision starts with the society and tries to socialize individuals so that they will fit neatly into the larger collective. In his book "Hope for the Wicked," Ted Flynn quotes philosopher George S. Morris, who was John Dewey's teacher at John Hoptkins University:

" was not meant to be child-centered, but rather State-centered. For Hegel, the child has no value as an individual except as he or she performs a function of society."

This was the foundation for the Progressive Education movement, which Dewey was so influential in creating. In early America the purpose of education was seen as the realization of excellence academically, morally, etc. This older notion was seen as incompatible with the goals of the Progressive Education movement and came under attack. As Mr. Flynn points out, Dewey believed that children do not go to school to develop individual talents, but are prepared as "units of an organic society."

Dewey himself expressed these sentiments in an 1899 address to educators in which he stated:

"You can't make socialist out of individualists. Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is independent.."

As has we have learned, America's founding principles were rooted in the Judeo-Christian based Natural Law tradition, which affirmed certain "self-evident" truths. These truths were immutable "first principles" that resulted in the acceptance of a personal Creator. Ultimately, in order to overturn the Natural Law tradition that our society was based on, one must reject the cornerstone of that tradition. Dewey did so in a piece entitled "The Price of Liberty."

"There is no god and there is no soul. Hence no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is dead and buried. There is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes."

Of course the natural question to ask is: If there are no permanent moral absolutes, on what basis do we insist on the notion of justice? This is a question that Socrates and Plato built a whole system of philosophy on. At the heart of Socratic thought was an attempt to refute the moral relativism of a group known as the "Sophists." They were traveling intellectuals who had studied the thought of various City States in the Greek world at the time. Many had come to the conclusion that morality was relative and that there was no absolute standard of justice. In book one of Plato's Republic, a Sophist named Thrasymachus argued over the nature of justice with Socrates. Based on the theory that there is no standard of justice beyond human convention, he asserted that: "Justice is the Advantage of the Stronger." In other words, "might makes right."

Dewey was not the only Western intellectual who saw the Judeo-Christian worldview as standing in the way of their utopia. This notion goes back at least as far as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Godfather of modern liberalism, in his treatise The Social Contract:

"Several peoples, however, even in Europe and its neighborhood, have desired without success to preserve or restore the old system: but the spirit of Christianity has everywhere prevailed. The sacred cult has always remained or again become independent of the Sovereign, and there has been no necessary link between it and the body of the State. Mahomet held very sane views, and linked his political system well together; and, as long as the form of his government continued under the caliphs who succeeded him, that government was indeed one, and so far good."

Rousseau was not happy because Christianity developed a view in which religion was "independent of the Sovereign, and there has been no necessary link between it and the body of the State." Religion having an independent status from the State, thus limiting the role of the State, is foundational to our notions of individual liberty and the separation of Church and State. The "old system" that the spirit of Christianity prevailed over was the Pagan system where the State itself was seen as divine and all aspects of life came under a single sovereignty. Like the pagan’s "old system", , Mohammad also set up a religious system with both state and religion under a single sovereignty. Thus sovereignty was not limited because it there was no division amongst competing entities.

Utopian visionaries cannot tolerate the notion of divided sovereignty, which is not only the basis of our separation of Church and State, but the idea of federalism as well. Utopians view centralizing power as necessary, to be used by the "best and the brightest" as a tool to socially engineer the perfect society.

By contrast, the Judeo-Christian perspective views centralized power in general, and centralized political power in particular, as dangerous. Power should be divided up as much as possible to prevent tyranny and lesser forms of human oppression. Such divisions of power are between the State and Civil Society (voluntary associations), between the various branches of government and between the different levels of government (Local, State and Federal). Power within Civil Society is regulated my moral persuasion and divided up by competition among the various groups for people's voluntary support. Because Civil Society is based on moral persuasion (voluntary cooperation) rather than force, it is self-regulating.

As citizens of a free society it is important that we understand the degree to which some of the political debate is a reflection of the conflict between these two visions. At its best, political debate should raise the question of the role of the various sectors of society and whether we are expanding the role of one sector of our society at the expense of another. In discussing a political issue we must always consider what the wisest role of government should be.

© Robert Maynard

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