Sam Goldman’s analysis of my treatment of religion in the Declaration is the most astute I’ve seen to date. Consequently, his criticism is also the most subtle. He rightly recognizes that the core of my argument is that the Declaration can be the object of an overlapping consensus in which citizens endorse the same basic laws or principles for different reasons. He then raises questions about the value of the secular component of that overlapping consensus, which is to throw doubt on the value of overlapping consensus as such when it comes to matters of religion.
As Goldman acknowledges, the religious language in the Declaration is compromise language. It studiously avoids commitment to any particular theological doctrine or sectarian view and made it possible for deists like Franklin and Jefferson to affirm the same document as a Puritan like Roger Sherman. In its religious language, the Declaration signals not only the profound need in democracies for compromise but more specifically the central importance of compromise around religion. The compromise that I identify as possible—between the faithful and the secular—goes beyond that effected in 1776 among Christians, deists, and closet atheists. I do not, however, believe that it goes much beyond it—so stark already were the disagreements that characterized the religious views of the men of 1776. My reading probes the contours of the space provided by the Declaration for religious compromise, and tests that space for capaciousness.
Goldman has three basic criticisms of my argument:
- In analyzing the idea of God that underwrites the argument of the Declaration, I overweight Jefferson’s contributions to the text and don’t place enough emphasis on the additional religious language added by Adams, Franklin, and the Continental Congress; were I to do so, it would be harder for me to offer a secular alternative to the warrant provided for beliefs in basic rights and equality by the ideas of the Supreme Judge of the World and Divine Providence.
- While people can accept the Declaration’s claims about rights for secular reasons, they are foolish to do so since the prudential argument for the source of rights (that a failure to acknowledge them introduces conditions of war into human relations) cannot protect the idea of rights in the face of successful oppression achieved at seemingly little cost to the oppressor.
- Those who take rights seriously for secular reasons are less likely than those who take rights seriously for religious reasons to act in the ways necessary to secure rights; that is, they are less likely to make sacrifices and wage war. In other words, a secular basis for belief in rights cannot adequately motivate people. By stripping necessary political motivation out of the document, my reading neutralizes the value of the text for “the darkest moments of the nation’s history.”
Let me take each of these challenges in turn.
Although late in my book I do address Congress’s invocation of the “Supreme Judge of the World,” it is true that I restrict my early reading of the role of Nature’s God as an anchor for the argument about rights to the vocabulary immediately appearing in the relevant passage about rights. And this is mainly Jeffersonian vocabulary. Yet Goldman is right to identify the God of Exodus as evocatively present in the symbolic texture of the American Revolution generally, and in the Declaration too.
In Common Sense Thomas Paine analogized King George III to the Egyptian Pharaoh, a theme that ministers seem to have picked up in the spring of 1776. For instance, on May 17, 1776, the weekend after John Adams successfully secured a Congressional resolution to the effect that all the colonies should write constitutions for themselves, he went to hear one Mr. Duffil preach. Here is how he reported back to Abigail:
I have this Morning heard Mr. Duffil upon the Signs of the Times. He run a Parrallell between the Case of Israel and that of America and between the Conduct of Pharaoh and that of George. Jealousy that the Israelites would throw off the Government of Egypt made him issue his Edict that the Midwives should cast the Children into the River, and the other Edict that the Men should make a large Revenue of Brick without Straw. He concluded that the Course of Events, indicated strongly the Design of Providence that We should be seperated from G. Britain, &c.
Is it not a Saying of Moses, who am I, that I should go in and out before this great People? When I consider the great Events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental of touching some Springs, and turning some small Wheels, which have had and will have such Effects, I feel an Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described.
Goldman is right that a careful reading of the Declaration ought to draw closer connections than mine does between the religious language of the Declaration’s opening and of its closing. Yet Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston and even Congress did not draw the connection as closely as Duffil appears to have done. They did not directly link the idea of “the course of events” to providence, but only at a remove. Again, that space is meaningful, a sign of capaciousness in the architecture of justification used to forge solidarity among those with strong differences in matters of religion. Secularists too, in my view, can fit into that space.
But are secularists foolish to accept the idea of basic rights on a prudential basis? I think not. Oppression may be far more costly than Goldman acknowledges. Here, as in his point about motivation, Goldman’s claims are empirical, and I’m not sure we have an adequately researched basis for deciding the question. Still there are some indicators. Alan Taylor’s recent Pulitzer-Prize winning history, Internal Enemy, carefully details the toll taken on white Southerners by their fear of slave uprisings. This is not to say that the costs of slavery borne by the slavers in any way equate to, or balance out those borne by the enslaved. It is only to note oppression’s costs, and if those exist then the prudential argument for the reason to respect rights holds.
So can a secularist commitment to rights—whether its basis is prudential or something else— motivate people to the radical action necessary for social movements or war? Goldman writes: “People generally don’t fight for ‘commitments’ and ‘grounds.’ For better or for worse, they do fight for what they believe God demands.” As with the previous challenge, I’m not sure Goldman’s baldly asserted empirical claim is enough to resolve the question. One can also tell a story about motivation in terms of not morality but ethics, in terms, that is, of the desire to be the kind of person one admires. This motivational structure may also provide a basis for what moralists would dub as “self-sacrificing” choices. Of course, if those choices make you the kind of person you want to be, they’re not ultimately “self-sacrificing.” This is how the shift from “morality” to “ethics” changes the focus. (On this, see James Doyle, “‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ and modern moral philosophy.”) Finally, a third story about motivation can be told in terms of solidarity and its rewards. Both Goldman and I would have to do more work to determine which motivational story best captures contemporary human experience or whether, perhaps, all can work simultaneously.
There is, though, also one final point to make, which relates to the achievement of overlapping consensus. By exploring the Declaration for capaciousness, and arguing that both believers and non-believers have grounds to accept its arguments, I aim to safeguard a political world populated by a diversity of types of motivation, not only the theological or moral, but also the ethical and solidaristic. Although I ask the question of whether God can be left out of the Declaration, I don’t ask the question of whether God can be left out of politics, because I’m pretty sure this is unlikely to occur. There is, in other words, little likelihood that the sorts of motivational resources Goldman hopes for will disappear from our political life. The more pressing question, I think, is whether those who “fight for what they believe God demands” can work in solidarity with those whose motivations flow from other sources. Achieving this requires, I think, respect for the value of overlapping consensus.
Response to Henry Farrell, James Lindley Wilson, Cristina Beltrán, and James Miller
All three of the comments by Farrell, Wilson, and Beltran allude in one way or another to that element of my argument which is hardest to swallow: its celebration of compromise. Beltran puts the issue most pointedly:
The author’s discussion of group writing suggests one powerful opportunity for sitting with the Declaration’s contradictions and tragedy. Noting that Jefferson’s original draft was edited not only by a five-member committee but by Congress, Allen describes the process by which the founders deleted all references to slavery while adding numerous references to God. Despite the result — which, arguably, contributed to generations of violence and human devastation —Allen nevertheless characterizes this process as the “art of democratic writing,” a practice that while maddening is “necessary for justice.”
I admit that such celebratory language leaves me perplexed. While group writing may be a democratic art — a messy but important practice that abets compromise — such compromises carry a price. What is democratic, after all, may not be just. And it’s here that, as a reader, I wanted Allen to resist a rush to romance and instead linger over the political implications of group writing.
Beltran and the other commentators rightly challenge me to have more to say about the obvious costs of compromise, and I will do my best.
We are used to thinking of the U.S. Constitution as a document built on the sand of compromise; so too was the Declaration, with the two biggest compromises having to do with religion and slavery. I’ve discussed the compromises on religion in my response to Goldman. As for the compromise on the subject of slavery, it consisted of the decision to leave “property” off of the list of basic rights and of the decision to cut a passage condemning the slave trade’s violation of the “sacred rights of life and liberty” of Africans. The text contains no compromises related to patriarchy or the genocidal treatment of native Americans. Here the men of 1776 were closer to being of one mind (which means, of course, that the problem may not be compromise….and therefore may not be emergent from democratic theory as such.)
But how is it that I can justify celebrating compromises that secured the political power necessary to complete, in essence, the genocide of native Americans? And how is it that I can justify celebrating compromise in a text where one of the leading examples is a compromise over slavery? Don’t we universally take this as the leading example of the injustice of compromise? Indeed we do and rightly so.
The challenge presented to us by the Declaration is that it contains a democratic theory that we can consider, abstracted from particular contexts. Democratic political institutions can’t survive without forms of moderation that give opposing factions real reasons to hang on to the shared set of political institutions. Yet no democratic theory ever operates outside of particular contexts, so in judging the operations of the theory we have to consider the effects it brings about in specific material circumstances. In 1776, the democratic theory of the Declaration simultaneously brought about equality/liberation and domination/genocide. Compromise was central to its achievement of both ends. The question, then, is whether the machinery of democracy is invalidated as a set of working mechanisms for achieving political equality within a given group because of the ends to which it is set. I think not. One can celebrate the discovery about political machinery, condemn the ends to which the discovery was put, and take responsibility for figuring out how to connect the machinery to a different set of ends.
This brings us to the most difficult aspect of this question about compromise. Many have suggested that the machinery of democracy invented in 1776 cannot be decoupled from the ends to which it was directed, that the machinery itself simply is machinery of domination. Again, compromise is a fundamental problem. Does it not, by definition, import injustice into politics? This would be a matter of logical necessity in any case where the compromise brokers an agreement between a just view and an unjust one, preserving essential features of the unjust view. If the machinery of democracy is to be tethered to good ends, it cannot be the case that we begin by assuming that any and every compromise is worthy. There must be limits to compromise. And there must be an answer to the question of what to do when compromise is impossible. I take it that theories of revolution serve in part to identify the limits beyond which compromise is inappropriate. In other words, any argument in favor of compromise needs to be yoked to a theory of revolution, as is the case in the Declaration.
Yet it is also the case that political judgments are often far more indeterminate than in the limit case identified above that would trigger consideration of revolution. Not all compromises are worthy, but there are many more good ones than we commonly believe these days. Still, because of the indeterminacy that will often characterize the justice claims on two sides of a political argument, it must be the case that errors will creep into our common decisions. In addition to limits on compromise, there must be an expectation that as our errors become evident to us, we will have the capacity to change direction. Not only a full-fledged theory of revolution, but also fallibilism and corrigibilism must travel alongside the commitment to compromise.
Indeed, in our contemporary circumstances, the entire argument about the value of compromise in democracy depends on the existence of political institutions and public spheres that are functional at some minimal level, in the sense either of already providing egalitarian political empowerment, or of being clearly reformable, given effort, in that direction. When political institutions are not functional at this minimal threshold, a theory of moderation—that is, of commitment to political institutions sustained by compromise—requires us to “alter and abolish” those status quo political institutions in order to institute new government that does provide that functionality. As I have said, accepting the positive value of compromise requires also embracing a theory of revolution.
Of course, the Declaration of Independence, masterwork of compromise, also contains its own theory of revolution. I’ve already spent some time dwelling on the expression of that theory in the second sentence about self-evident truths. The Declaration continues from that point thus:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.—Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
When, after a long train of abuses, a string of truth-telling actions, we finally recognize that someone else is our enemy, a yoke of necessity, as the ancient Greeks would say, falls upon us. Then the instinct to survive, welling up from deep within, demands a change. Not too soon. Just in time. Just before it is too late. Knowing, then, if it is time for revolution depends on a long pre-existing effort to alter existing institutional forms. The seriousness of any revolutionary undertaking requires that the causes be weighty and long-lived. Only such causes can justify radical action. A theory of revolution, then, in turn, first requires a theory of civic agency, and that brings us back to my response not only to Lebron but also to Winant. I can accept and celebrate the abstract democratic theory embodied in the Declaration, despite its patently unjust workings at the end of the 18th and early 19th century, because the Declaration also articulates a theory of revolution. But this makes me responsible in our own time and place not only for a theory of civic agency, but also for its actual cultivation.
Democracy somehow occurs in a zone of compromises, limited mainly by the willingness of its participants to make the case that the time for revolution has come, based on a long history of oppression and unrequited efforts to seek redress. Democracy has a revolutionary flame burning constantly, if quietly, in its heart. Farrell indicates that in the Ireland in which he grew up the rigors of revolutionary politics were softened by “gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history.” He confesses that he finds strange the American habit of relying on old texts for that softening. Winant explained this reliance thus: “The appeal of grounding confrontational egalitarian politics in the national past has always been that it makes social conflict seem more palatable and less dangerous by linking it to inherited traditions.” This is surely right. The reliance on old texts provides solace to those who have benefitted thus far from the compromises. But what about the broken-hearted? For them, the solace must come, as for Lebron, from the theory of revolution.
But let me conclude then by addressing Wilson’s question of how to go beyond the Declaration, for there is no question of stopping at the point of inspiration. As Farrell says, the Declaration is not some “kind of ersatz holy writ.” Wilson asks whether we need to change the ideals of the Declaration or to expand more-or-less appropriate norms to a wider population. This is not quite the right set of questions, for it loses track of the crucial distinction posited by the Declaration between the principles that constitute the foundation for the political order and the choices made about how to organize the powers of government. The right ideals do not necessarily in themselves get you the right organizational form for government. I would say that the men of 1776 got further in the direction of endorsable principles than they did in the direction of endorsable organizational form.
Yet there is work to do not only on the organization of political form but also on the principles, and it is worth our while to separate out the to-do lists. With regard to principles, I take the five facets of equality articulated or embodied in the Declaration to be a reasonable starting point for a more fully developed account of political equality. With its theories of revolution and of a constitutional separation of powers (in the list of grievances), the Declaration does anchor an account of political equality: the grievances insist on the reservation of political power to the people and this refutes Wilson’s suggestion that the text is compatible with aristocratic liberalism. That account of political equality in the Declaration is, however, only imperfectly tethered to an idea of universal human moral equality. The issues that Wilson casts as matters to be addressed under the heading of “inclusion” in fact have to do with the philosophical work that would be necessary to achieve an indissoluble bond between moral and political equality while simultaneously also securing the inviolability of political equality as a basic right. As Philip Pettit argues in his recent book, Just Freedom, the new ascendancy of universal human moral equality from the middle of the 19th century onward was in fact accompanied by a weakening of commitments to political equality.
Alongside this work at the level of principle, there is also work to do at the level of organizational form or policy. Miller asks, “What is to be done?” As my responses to previous commentators have indicated, I take the first step to be efforts to revive civic agency, and to build on the revival of participatory politics that we are currently witnessing. But there is also the question of in what direction. I, for one, am focused on the following compass points:
- Overturn the status quo legal structure of the U.S. drug economy; develop effective reintegration programs for the formerly incarcerated (more,more);
- Rebuild economic strength at the lower levels of the income distribution by focusing on re-organization of regional and municipal distributional structures (tax, funding, housing policy, transportation policy, etc.) (more, more, more, more, more, more,more);
- Improve access to high quality education for those at lower levels in the income distribution by building on state-level constitutional rights to education in order to pursue funding equity as well as universal Pre-K 9 (see work by Michael Rebell and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity); by pursuing mixed-income housing; and by supporting socio-economic mixing in schools (see work by Edward Rothstein and others); by allocating spots at elite colleges via a geographical lottery at the level of zip code; and by shifting to a three-year model for college education (more on funding equity, more on Residential and schooling desegregation, more on geographic lottery, more on three years for college
- Educate in K-12 not only for college and career readiness but also for participatory, or civic, readiness; aim to close the “participation” gap between those with and those without college educations.
I’m sure this should be a longer list, but for this civic agent there is value in focus.
 Our Declaration, p. 101.