When U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped down from office in November 2004, he wrote a “Letter to the American People” which was intended, appropriately enough, given the occasion, as a statement of thanksgiving, “I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the people and institutions that made my service possible.” Ashcroft first thanks the American people, then President Bush, members of the cabinet, and colleagues in the Justice Department. Lastly, Ashcroft thanks God, adding that “it would be the height of arrogance” for him to presume that he has achieved his successes on his own.
Anyone familiar with classical culture, or Western Civilization, should recognize Ashcroft’s letter as an expression of what has traditionally been called pietas. This is a virtue which consists in the habit of tracing back blessings not merely to immediate causes but also to “people and institutions” that are regarded as more remotely responsible, including one’s ancestors, one’s fatherland, and God (or the gods). On the classical understanding, pietas is appropriately shown not merely by individuals but also by society, insofar as society, too, as a whole benefits from the provisions of ancestors or gods. A public official would almost be obliged to display the virtue, especially in a setting the very point of which was to assign proper credit, on pain of appearing “arrogant.”
TOSSING OUT PIETY
But Heather Mac Donald is bothered by Ashcroft’s remarks. Of course, first she has to distort them. What Ashcroft said is that God’s assistance is a condition of American security. What Mac Donald takes him to be asserting is the whacky view that God alone protects America: “Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God’s solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.” That sort of religious “triumphalism,” she says, is offensive to atheist conservatives and would prudently be avoided by conservative politicians.
But the relevant prudential question, as regards intra-conservative politics, is really this: Should conservative politicians avoid appropriate expressions of pietas because such remarks will inevitably be construed as “whacky” by a handful of conservatives who have the religious sensibility of a Voltaire? Admittedly a more serious practical question is whether they should do so because the poorly-educated media will also interpret their remarks in that manner.
If we follow Mac Donald and abjure future expressions of pietas, why not do so also for the past? If Ashcroft’s remarks were whacky, then so is Lincoln’s proclamation of a national Day of Thanksgiving. So are nearly all speeches of American leaders, in peace and in war, until 1960 or so. The phrases “under God” and “in God we trust,” clearly, are offensively triumphalistic. And even so common a practice as grace before meals becomes suspect. (“Dad, are you suggesting that a Divine Being cooked this meal?”)
Whatever this outlook is, it’s not conservative. Conservatism aims to overcome ruptures between ancient and modern, and it presumes, as against clever objections, that there is an implicit “logic” in common human practices such as giving thanks to God.
Mac Donald misconstrues the president also. She interprets the president’s references to God in connection with American foreign policy as if he were consulting soothsayers or horoscopes. She writes: “Our Republican president says that he bases ‘a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions’ on his belief in ‘the Almighty’ and in the Almighty’s ‘great gifts’ to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement?” Not that Mac Donald tries to make anything of it. She immediately launches into a discourse on the problem of evil and the difficulty of making any definite claims about God’s will as shown in particular events.
But the president was appealing to God’s will in connection with the interpretation of human nature, not particular events. What the president said was this: “I believe there’s an Almighty, and secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody’s soul, regardless of what you look like or where you live, to be free. I believe liberty is universal. I believe people want to be free. And I know that democracies do not war with each other.” This can be faulted, if at all, only because it is not strong enough. One might have preferred: “It is a self-evident truth that God exists and that He has endowed all human beings, including Iraqis and Muslims, with an innate desire for self-government and to live at peace with other nations.” But in any case what the president was asserting, clearly, is that he is conducting American foreign policy on the premise that Hobbes and cultural relativists, among others, are wrong, whereas Locke, Jefferson, and Aquinas are fundamentally right.
But Mac Donald cannot make anything of this, and, because she cannot, then, she thinks, the president should not speak in this way. Of course, if remarks such as the president’s should be avoided as we look into the future, then shouldn’t declarations such as Jefferson’s be avoided with embarrassment as we look back into the past? After all, what is one to make of such a statement as that “all men are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights”? As for conservatism, for my part I can see little that is conservative in an attitude which would bowdlerize the Declaration and Lincoln’s “maxims of democracy” for fear of offending Enlightenment philosophes.
PROVIDENCE OR CHANCE?
Mac Donald’s mockery of common religious sensibilities, in my view, is so unfeeling as to border on the inhuman. She ridicules the woman in the Pennsylvania mining town of Quecreek who put a placard in the window of her diner, “Thank you God, 9 for 9,” when all the miners were safely recovered after three days trapped underground in the famous 2002 disaster. The woman was being arbitrary and irrational, according to Mac Donald: “When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: ‘For God’s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?’” While the miners were trapped, the entire town gathered under the leadership of the eight pastors of the various churches there, and prayed and sang hymns constantly for the safety of the miners. The woman with the placard no doubt was part of this and wanted to express her conviction that the men were saved, in part, in response to prayer.
The mining families of Quecreek would need no lecture from Mac Donald on the importance of human skill and ingenuity in the rescue of those men. They know all about the high-tech bits, “superdrills,” compressed air lines, and communications cables that were necessary to save the miners. But they also are as familiar as anyone with the limits of that technology, and the way in which ingenuity in difficult circumstances depends upon happy accident in order to succeed. They know the odds, and if they say it was a “miracle” — that is, near to impossible — that, among other things, the very first bore hole struck the spot 240 feet down where the men were trapped, they know what they are talking about. And who can say that that accident was merely an accident?
To reject as nonsense the belief that a God might alter what happens in response to prayer is not a conservative attitude, as it is at odds with a near universal belief of humankind, and it would naturally alienate the person who adopted it from much of human history, including Patton’s prayers for good weather at Bastogne, or Lincoln’s national prayers during the civil war.
Mac Donald is obliged to argue that the beliefs of theists are contradictory and irrational, because otherwise her argument has no purchase. If she wanted to say that atheist conservatives should be embraced by fellow conservatives, or atheist Republicans by fellow Republicans, no one would quarrel with her. We’re all well used to coalition building, and no one is proposing even an informal religious test for inclusion in either of those groups. But she wants to claim more than this, namely, that theists should stop speaking as theists, and to give this claim any weight, she has to represent public expressions of theism as irrational.
But I wonder if it isn’t Mac Donald’s view that is irrational. I don’t mean merely that her apparent inability to construe correctly what religious people believe is already some evidence of the unreasonability of her position. Nor do I mean, what others might suspect, that ultimately it’s not possible for her to justify her own convictions concerning a rational “order” which has a “transparency to all rational minds,” if materialism and physicalism are true. I mean additionally that the demands she places upon theism are themselves irrational and that one shouldn’t reasonably expect them to be satisfiable.
On Mac Donald’s view, the existence of any evil, harm, or infirmity, which is of the sort that an earthly father would act to remedy in his child, if he could, shows that it is impossible that God exists. Imagine a Garden-of-Eden like utopia, which human beings inhabit without woe for a thousand years: if one person somewhere catches cold, then, on MacDonald’s criterion, a perfectly good God cannot exist. He has the power to prevent that cold; a human father would keep his child from catching cold if he could; and a perfectly good God would love us even more than a human father does. According to MacDonald, we should know that God does not exist by page three of the Bible, when Cain kills Abel: What human father would stand idly by while one of his sons murdered the other? And no one could ever die if God existed, since no human father would wish his child’s death.
It would be silly to undertake a discussion of the problem of evil here. There are more than enough reasons, at least, to make the dispute a close one. Free will cannot exist, truly, without implying the possibility of evil. Some goods (such as the ability to feel pleasure) necessarily carry with them the possibility of evil (such as the ability to experience pain). It seems correct that, as Socrates and Jesus taught, evil is located principally in what we do, not what happens to us. And a philosopher might hold, not only a Christian, that some aspect of us is immaterial, so that what at first looks like death, is death of the body only, whereas something else — a mind or soul — survives and has another destiny, perhaps eternal. Taken together, these considerations suggest that what is at issue is not whether the evil we see is consistent with the existence of a perfectly good God, but rather whether the “price” of the evil in the world is justified by the good that accompanies or may be brought out of it.
But it can be emphasized that, here too, MacDonald’s position on the problem of evil is not a conservative one. She thinks that the world is the sort of place that should be thought to be the creation of a “capricious, ironic, absent-minded [and] depraved” being. She must think the same, then, of human nature and human beings, which are part of this world. But the conservative outlook is profoundly different and informed by a sense of what, in a theological interpretation, is called “original sin” — that we see around us the wreck of something that originally and in intention was good; that our inclinations, then, start off well but can easily be corrupted; and that human government, accordingly, works best when it is designed with such subjects in mind, allowing scope for natural idealism and hope, but keeping in place checks against our tendencies to excess and corruption.
Far from being surprised by evil as something unaccountable, conservatism acknowledges and indeed broods over it; yet it does so with the firm conviction in an original and ultimate good, which is why it persistently looks for some way to recognize that, “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
A Voltaire will no doubt continue to cavil. A theist will allow him that, and perhaps even smile when he insists that he is being thoroughly rational, whereas theists are entangled in nonsensical contradictions. But in just the same way as a theist will let him speak like Voltaire, if he wishes, so he should allow theists to speak, if they wish, like Jefferson or Lincoln.
– Michael Pakaluk is a professor of philosophy at Clark University. His most recent book is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005).