Essentials of Worldview Analysis - Lesson 3

American Political Philosophy

his lesson will help you gain an understanding of the philosophy of history and its role in the foundation of the Christian faith. You will also learn about American political philosophy and the ideologies of political liberalism, conservatism, and the state within American political thinking. By exploring the historical development and key principles of these ideologies, you will gain insight into the ongoing struggle between freedom and virtue, as well as the importance of objective moral laws and liberty in shaping political thought.

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Worldview Analysis
Lesson 3
Watching Now
American Political Philosophy

American Political Philosophy


I. Introduction to American Political Philosophy

A. Conservative American Philosophy

B. 19th century liberalism


II. The State and Statism

  • In this lesson, Dr. Nash introduces the idea of World View Thinking. You will explore the Philosophy of History, Collingwood's theory of history, and Bultmann and his historical idealism leading to understanding of how historical events are integral to the Christian faith.
  • In this lesson, we continue with Bultman's view of history and his idea of myth, gnosticism, and demythologizing. Dr. Nash concludes with a discussion of historical knowledge and interpersonal knowledge, and models of faith.
  • Delve into the philosophy of history's significance for the Christian faith and American political philosophy, exploring the struggle between freedom and virtue in political liberalism, conservatism, and the state.

A seminary-level version of this class is available in our Institute Program.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Essentials of Worldview Analysis


American Political Philosophy

Lesson Transcript

[00:00:01] The following lecture is provided by biblical training. The speaker is Dr. Ronald Nash. More information is available at WW w dot Biblical training dot org. Now, once again, we spent a lot of time looking at what is called the philosophy of history. One does not need to offer an apology for doing that, because whatever may be the case with Protestant liberalism or liberal Roman Catholic theology, the Christian faith is an indispensable foundation for Christian faith. And the important historical events that make up the foundation of the Christian faith are events that actually happened in history. And again, just to remind you, if that's necessary, I was justified in spending this much time with the philosophy of history, because it was an important part of the course that somehow did not get on the longer tape. Now, what we're going to do in this last session is give you one more example of how careful thinking about the content of the Christian worldview can illuminate important human thinking that is often surrendered to secularists. All right. I'm going to give you an introduction to political philosophy, or at least American political philosophy, and we'll do it briefly because we're running out of time. But I'm going to talk to you about the difference between political liberalism, political conservatism, and the state within American political thinking. You will never be able to determine which is my position. All right. Yeah. Yeah, I bet. But let's get started. Disagreements over social, political and economic theory divide Christians into several competing ideologies. To date, the most prominent of these ideologies among American Christians are liberalism and conservatism. Both words are difficult to define. One reason for this difficulty is the fact that the same words have been used to refer to significantly different belief systems in different centuries and in different nations.


[00:02:48] Most students of social philosophy recognize that the classical liberalism of the 19th century and contemporary liberalism are two quite different movements. But not everyone can pinpoint the precise differences. Many people also sense that profound differences exist between contemporary American conservatism and what used to be called conservatism in the 19th century. While contemporary American conservatism is an admittedly diverse movement with several major branches, it nonetheless has a mainstream that can be identified. One way to get at the essence of this mainstream is to examine the relationship between 19th century conservatism and the classical liberalism of that century. In a sense, both of these older movements constitute smaller branches of contemporary conservative thought. That is, there are some American conservatives. Senator Barry Goldwater used to be regarded as one example who are really classical liberals. Other American conservatives like Russell Kirk, are more at home with the traditional 19th century conservatism of Edmund Burke. But between the basically libertarian convictions of people like Goldwater, at least during an earlier stage of Goldwater's life and the traditionalism of thinkers like Kirk. On the other, there is a conservative mainstream that attempts to fuze the Libertarians concern for freedom, with the traditionalists interest in tradition and social order. To a great extent, the 19th century struggle between conservative social thought and classical liberalism was a conflict between those traditionalists who stressed objective values and order, and the liberals who emphasized freedom and the importance of the individual. Surprisingly, a great many contemporary social theorists still cling to the dichotomy of freedom or virtue. Many who believe that the preservation of social order requires the observance of unchanging moral laws tend to view any emphasis on liberty as a threat. Many friends of freedom see any defense of moral order as an equally grave threat to their cause.


[00:05:15] 19th century conservatism deserves both praise and blame praise for its clear affirmation that no society can survive if it repudiates the objective moral laws that provide the structure of social order and blame for its frequent indifference to the cause of liberty. The situation was reversed in 19th century liberalism, while liberalism's commitment to freedom was admirable. Its defense of liberty was inadequate. Most 19th century liberals tried to defend freedom on utilitarian grounds, which meant that the case for liberty depended entirely on freedoms, producing consequences of a certain kind, such as happiness for the greatest number of people. The utilitarian defense of liberty was weak, since it would only work for those who shared the Liberals preferences for the ends of individual human beings over the ends of society, grounding the case for liberty on nothing more substantial than human preference left open the possibility that Utilitarians could disavow freedom should they become persuaded that their preferred ends could be attained more successfully through coercive measures. In fact, this was precisely the direction taken by the thought of John Stuart Mill. As Frank Meyer urged, there must be a stronger case for freedom. And here's my quote from Frank Meyer. Freedom as an essential right of man is founded not upon preferences, but upon the nature of man and the very constitution of being. Freedom is inalienable and infeasible as a right, not for any reasons of utility, but because it is the true condition of man's created. Being in the argument with collectivism. Utilitarian reason can always be answered with alternative utilitarian reasons. The final struggle with collectivism can only be waged in terms of an understanding with the nature of man. Frank Meyer Very interesting person. Frank Meyer came to see that freedom should not be viewed simply as a means to preferred ends.


[00:07:45] He believed that freedom must be grounded on a Christian view of being and man man's essential freedom and his right to exercise that freedom are his by virtue of his creation in God's image, to be truly human, to be most expressive of all, the potential at being a carrier of the divine image implies requires that human beings be free. They must be able to choose. And when the state deprives humans of their liberty, they lose an essential part of their humanness. So as noted, the first error of 19th century liberalism was its failure to ground human freedom in the nature of man's created being the classical liberal. Second mistake was the fear of acknowledging an objective and transcendent ground of value. Because utilitarianism was incompatible with unchanging moral ends, classical liberalism lacked an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person and was left without any foundation for its defense of the person as primary and political and social matters. As M Staton, Evans observes, quote, If there is no value system with which we may rebuke the pretensions of despots, what is to prevent the rule of force in the world If there are no objective standards of right and wrong, why object to tyranny? To quote Frank Meier again, the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man, which is the foundation of Western civilization, is always and everywhere. What conservatives seek to conserve that understanding accepts the existence of absolute truth and good, and at the same time recognizes that men are created with the free will to accept or reject that truth. And good conservatism therefore demands both the struggle to vindicate truth and good and the establishment of conditions in which the free will of individual persons can be effectively exercised.


[00:10:00] End quote. Frank Meyer then agrees with Christian theism that freedom can only be defended in a context where men acknowledge the existence of objective and unchanging moral laws. Meyer's use of the conservative label to identify his position may puzzle readers accustomed to equating conservatism with the authoritarian traditionalism of the 19th century conservatives or with the 20th century disciples of Edmund Burke and the view of Meyer and many others. Contemporary American conservatism should not be confused with 19th century traditionalism, or, for that matter, with classical liberalism. Meyer believed that there is a center, a consensus, a mainstream of conservatism in America that is, in fact a fusion of two streams of thought. The classical liberals respect for the liberty of the individual person and the traditional conservatives respect for objective and unchanging moral values. As Meyer wrote and I quote, I believe those two streams of thought, although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, can in reality be united with a single broad conservative political theory, since they have their roots in a common tradition and are arrayed against a common enemy. Moreover, conservatives like Meyer believe their fusion of libertarianism and traditionalist concerns faithfully reflects the view of the Founding Fathers. Conservatives believe that the Constitution's program of protecting individual freedom in an ordered society governed by a limited state was the closest that human beings have come to establishing a policy which gives the possibility of maintaining at one and the same time individual liberty, underlying norms of law and necessary public order. In a different book. Frank Meyer drew the following conclusions. Quote, The American conservative has indeed a special heritage. The discussions and achievements of the founders of the American Constitution, Madison preeminently men who established the highest political form the West has yet created to express the tension of transcendent truth and human freedom.


[00:12:33] The political structure they left us has its contradictions, no doubt, but they reflect the imperfect state of man and the tension within which he must live if he is to be true to his nature, striving towards transcendent ends and freedom. End of quote. One can hardly be a conservative without something to conserve or defend. For the contemporary American conservative, that which he seeks to conserve is nothing less than the system of government. That is the legacy of the American founding fathers inherent in that system and articulated in such works as the Federalist Papers. Our convictions about man and society that the Conservative believes constitute the foundations of his own political theory. For example, conservatives believe that one of their fundamental differences with liberalism is their opposition to what they see as a pervasive streak of utopianism and liberal social thought. Conservatives think that liberals consistently overestimated mankind's propensities for good, and thus became infatuated with the basic error of utopianism, namely the perfectibility of man and the possibility of a perfect society. As the conservative sees it, the 20th century liberal is bewitched by the delusion that man is not really inherently evil. Liberals think that when a man errs, when a human being errs, it is only because he has been corrupted by society. According to this view, the liberal view. The major hindrances to the attainment of a good society are human ignorance and inadequate social institutions. Evil is a result either of improper conditions in human environment or of human ignorance, which is again the responsibility of society. Since it is supposed to alleviate this ignorance through education, conservatives will have none of this utopianism. While conservatives are no less interested in improving man's condition and his social institutions, they reject absolutely.


[00:14:51] In the words of Frank Meier, the idea that society or men generally are perfect evil. In particular, they are perennially suspicious of the utopian approach that attempts to design society and the lives of human beings, whether in the light of abstract rationalist ideas or operational engineering concepts. They therefore reject the entire liberal mystique of planning, which, no matter how humanitarian, the motives of the planners perforce treats human beings as faceless units to be arranged and disposed according to a design conceived by the planner. End of quote. It was because the framers of the Constitution believed that human nature could not be trusted, that they created a complicated and cumbersome system of government in which various checks and balances served to make the attainment of absolute power by any one man or group of men extremely difficult to expect self-denial from men. John Adams wrote, When they have a majority in their favor and consequently power to gratify themselves is to disbelieve all history and universal experience. It is to disbelieve revelation in the Word of God, which informs us the heart is deceitful in all things and desperately wicked. How, then, given this more biblical and realistic view of human nature, can a free and orderly republic be maintained? John Adams answer was a series of checks and balances. Quote The essence of a free government consists in an effectual control of rivalries, end quote. Unchecked government is to be rejected regardless of whether it is the government of a king, an aristocracy, or an unrestrained majority. Even though government is necessary to control human passions and selfishness. Government can itself become a menace should it grow too strong. As James Madison observed in the Federalist Papers, number 51 quote. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices as checks and balances should be necessary to control the abuses of government.


[00:17:12] But what is government itself? But the greatest of all, reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern, men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. But of course, men are not angels. And since a government must be established, it must be a government which cannot abuse its authority. In the words of James Madison, you must first enable the government to control the governed and in the next place oblige it to control itself. 19th century liberals like John Stuart Mill believed government should be limited because men are essentially good. American conservatives believe that government should be limited because men are evil. The conservative individualist is concerned to find a political system in which bad men can do the least amount of harm. Political conservatives are sometimes known as individualists. This ambiguous label is best understood as an opposition to all forms of political collectivism. The. Fundamental error of collectivism is to assume that society is some kind of living organism and then treat this organism as the end or standard which decides all moral and political policy. In his concern for social wholes, the collective as too readily allows the importance of the individual to be subordinated to the well-being of some larger group. Political conservatives and liberals in America also hold contrasting attitudes towards the state and statism because their different stances on this issue constitute perhaps the most important distinction between contemporary American conservatives and liberals. The rest of this discussion will be devoted to an analysis of the issue. Two preliminary questions must be answered. One. What do we mean by the word state? And two. What is statism? The state is simply another word for the group of individuals which actually runs the nation, makes its laws, issues its commands, punishes those regarded in violation of the rules and acquires the money required to run the machinery of the state.


[00:19:39] Great harm can result from confusing the state with the totality of the people. The state is not identical with all the people. It is a separate group of people who possess a monopoly of legal coercive power. A state is not just an organized group of people located within some specified territorial boundary, always within each of these geographical groupings. The actual orders are issued by a much smaller group that makes the laws and forces the others to obey. The group that rules may be one person or many. Its power will be sustained and enhanced by the support of a group of loyal followers. But the state itself is identical with the person or group that holds the power. The state differs from society in at least one important respect. Society is marked by the voluntary character of its associations, whereas the state is always characterized by its use of force, by its unwillingness to depend upon the voluntary support of the people. Compulsion, while found in many societies, is not an essential feature of the kind of companionship found in a society. The associations that characterize the state, however, are not voluntary. The basic difference between a society and the state is the indispensable place of force and power in the latter. The state always supports such claims to the obedience of its followers through its use of force. Wherever the state exists, one will necessarily find coercion. Given man's propensity to expand his power and abuse his authority, history contains repeated examples of how states have confiscated power away from society. Our name for this inordinate expansion of the state's power is statism. Statism and anti statism are not easy terms to define. Neither is a simple or fixed position. One approach to clarifying the meaning of the two words is to imagine a continuum with statism on one end, an anti statism on the other.


[00:22:03] Help. Let me help you visualize this continuum. First of all, let's imagine or draw actually draw a straight line. And at the left end of the line, we'll write in the numbers zero. And at the right end of the line, we'll write in the number 100. At the end of the line where we have the number zero will write the word anti statism. And near the end of the line where we have the number 100, we'll write the name statism. Now underneath the line, going from left to right, going from 0 to 100. We're going to sort of mark off divisions on the line that we can do because our line is a continuum. So underneath the number zero, we're going to write the word anarchism. Which will mean total repudiation of the state. An anarchist is a person who believes there is no moral justification for any government whatsoever. At the extreme right end of our little continuum, we will write the word totalitarianism. We all know what that means. And then between anarchism and totalitarianism underneath the line, we'll write first the minimal state. That is where a government is believed to be legitimate. It will nonetheless be a minimal government, a minimal state. And next to that, a maximal state, a much bigger form of government. All right. With that chart at least fixed in your mind or actually drawn on a piece of paper, the more extreme statism becomes, the more it approximates the evils of totalitarianism. Radical statists tend to view the state as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieving the ends of individual human beings. Frequently extreme statists I passed to tise what is nothing more than a set of relationships among many individual human beings into an existing being or organism that seems to have its own life, its own moral duties and rights.


[00:24:23] Statists like Hegel, the German philosopher, went so far as to deify the state in its fascist forms. Statism asserts the individual is nothing while the state is everything. While Karl Marx may have long for an eventual non statist socialism, the Marxist nations of today cling to a totalitarian state socialism that is every bit as destructive of individual liberty as the statism of the fascist. Referring back to the diagram given earlier and the continuum it pictures between statism and anti statism. It seems fair to regard American liberalism as a type of humanitarian statism. Humanitarian refers to liberalism's intended ends, while status identifies the dominant features of the means it uses to reach those ends. In other words, contemporary American liberals believe their goal is improving the lot of the majority of people in the society. Or at least that's what they claim. But they also believe the best means to achieve that end is granting the state the power necessary to bring about their objective. Frankly, I think that is too optimistic an assessment of liberal statism. But we'll leave that for today. Statism attracts converts for a variety of reasons. Some people simply lust for power and statism provides the quickest and most convenient route to the attainment of power. But many have turned to statism on allegedly humanitarian grounds. Contemporary political liberalism is simply the most influential manifestation of the humanitarian form of statism in our generation, in our lifetime. The liberal approach to social justice is a logical extension of the primacy it gives the state. The contemporary liberal state is contends that the freedom of many Americans is threatened because of the state's inability or refusal to become more active. Moreover, the Liberal claims many people need deliverance from the debilitating effects of poverty, ignorance and the corrupting influence of big business.


[00:26:51] Heaven forbid that liberal statists would ever worry about the corrupting influence of big government. Only a powerful and hopefully benevolent state can provide this needed protection and can furnish a framework within which genuine freedom can thrive. As some liberal writers see it, true freedom involves more than being free from constraints and coercion. True freedom also requires the ability or the power to do or to be certain things. And so the Liberal believes the state must take action in order to enhance positive freedom. Millions of Americans are supposed to be living in literal bondage. Not because America is a police state or because assorted coercive powers restrain them in some way, but simply because there are many things they are powerless to do or have. This is the way liberals think. For anyone who believes this. It is a short step to the conclusion that the state must step in and help these people, because only then can they become truly free. A similar bias in favor of the state infuses much liberal thinking about justice. Once justice is understood in its distributive sense as related to the way goods and burdens are distributed within a society, the entrance of the state into such considerations is inevitable. Clearly, statism is a powerful force in much current U.S. political thought, and one of its more important justifications is the claim that the demands of justice naturally support and indeed require statist action. In his desire to achieve his social goals by the quickest possible means, the contemporary liberal concentrates as much power as possible in the one institution able to override all obstacles, and that is the state. Given the recent dominance of liberalism in the political life of America and given its reliance upon statist solutions to state and political problems, it is only natural that social justice has come to be viewed as inseparable from statist action.


[00:29:10] However, the Liberal construed as the problems of his nation, however compassionate and altruistic his professed goals, he believes those objectives can only be obtained through the instrument of statist power. Now, the contemporary conservative believes he has a more realistic view of human nature and thus recognizes more clearly than the liberal. The dangers involved investing so much power in the hands of the state. The conservative believes in the importance of justice, although he most certainly understands it differently. As we shall see. He also shares a differing concept of liberty, believing that human beings are most free when they are not subject to the will and coercion of others. For the conservative, the quest for a good society depends on a proper balance among a number of competing values, among which are freedom, justice and order. The attitude toward the state most compatible with conservative values is a form of minimal statism. The conservative is not an anarchist. He recognizes the need for a limited government. It is important to distinguish two quite different kinds of anti statism. Radical anti statism is opposed to any and every state a. Tax the state per se. Many anti statists in this first sense openly embrace or at least look longingly on anarchism. Even when a radical anti status concludes that he cannot accept anarchism, he accepts the legitimacy of a minimal or limited state. Begrudgingly, minimal anti statism is not opposed to the state per se. Its attacks are directed against a particular kind of state. That is the state that refuses to observe the rule of law, but attempts to usurp more and more power away from societies that continue to expand its coercive powers at the expense of societal relationships. Moderate anti statists oppose those states that seek to attack or undermine the voluntary communal dimensions of an individual's life that usurp the functions of voluntary human associations.


[00:31:33] Moderate anti statists are supportive of governments that recognize the point at which their power is limited by the social sphere, which of course includes both the family and the church. The minimal state recommended by contemporary conservatives is not the Nightwatchman state of 19th century classical liberalism. The classical liberal state had only three basic functions the protection of its citizens from the threat of foreign invasion, the protection of the rights of its citizens from violence or fraud or other wrongful interference, and the provision of a recognized authority with sufficient force to judge in conflicts between rights of individuals. These are all necessary functions of any state, but the minimal state of the contemporary conservative has functions that go beyond national defense and the provision of law and order. Since laws must be changed to fit changing conditions. There must be a way in which the rules by which society operates can be changed. There must be some way of settling disagreements over the meaning of the rules. It is important to notice the additional roles that strong anti statists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman are willing to assign to the minimal state. Such a minimal state would recognize and respect the fact that its power must not negate the important role that voluntary communities play with regard to individuals. Now, I've basically run out of time. If you want to know more about the philosophy of government that I have begun to spell out here, you can learn about it from my book, Social Justice and the Christian Church. The book is published by AARP Press. Otherwise known as Academic Renewal Press in Lima, Ohio. You can either go to the home page of Academic Renewal Press, or you can go to such Internet sellers as Amazon.com.


[00:33:40] Basically, my introduction, my summation of the advanced world View course is now complete. I've done as much as I can do in the time allotted to me. I hope many of you will take advantage of the availability of a longer course and that you'll listen to it, but you'll read the books and that perhaps some day we'll have a chance to meet face to face and we can talk about some of these issues in person. Thank you for listening to this lecture. Brought to you by biblical training, dawg. Feel free to make copies of this lecture to give to others, but please do not charge for these copies or alter the content in any way without permission. We invite you to visit our website at W WW dot Biblical training dawg. There you will find the finest in evangelical teaching for use in the home and the church. And it is absolutely free. Our curriculum includes classes for new believers, lay education classes, and seminary level classes taught by some of the finest seminary teachers drawn from a wide range of evangelical traditions. Our mailing address is Post Office Box 28428. Spokane, Washington 99228 USA.