In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Brad Littlejohn’s article about John Locke and his “appeal to heaven” reference and Mark Tooley’s interview with Allen Guelzo on whether American conservatives should look to Edmund Burke.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow Mark(c)s and fellow editors, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. Today we’ll take a look at two articles from Providence over this past week, the first of which was by Brad Littlejohn on the famous pine tree flag, or appeal to heaven, used by some who fought in America’s revolution by some of those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6. They were claiming that mantle of inheritance, however spuriously, and the flag, and the slogan, and appeal to heaven date to John Locke, the 17th century philosopher whose beliefs inspired to some extent the Founding Fathers, who asserted that when there is no other recourse under tyranny, the people may appeal to heaven for justice and in effect take matters into their own hands. Brad Littlejohn points out that John Locke made this argument in situations where there was no other recourse and where there was not a stability of rule of law. He does not believe that situation exists today in America in the year 2021 and finds it distressing that there are those who do feel as though they can subvert to work around the law in this “Lockean” appeal to heaven. So, Marc LiVecche, what were your thoughts?
LiVecche: Yeah, it’s a great article. I love the old flags. When we first started Providence, there were a number of occasions where we tried to use some of the old sort of American symbolism. So, just as an article of interest, I thought it was fascinating. I’m glad he did the historic research. I learned something I thought that was cool. In the article, Brad Littlejohn points to long traditions within Christian political thought about the permissibility of revolution, right. What do you do when, as a good Christian, you recognize that on the one hand government has been ordained by God and as Christians and as subjects we ought to submit to that authority, and then on the other hand that authority has abdicated all responsibilities known to sovereignty and has become a tyrant? What do you do? And the Christian tradition goes back and forth on this. Various thinkers think various things, going back to Thomas Aquinas. He said that the people can’t revolt, what you ought to do is appeal to lesser magistrates who are invested with some measure of authority. Maybe not the supreme authority, but beneath the supreme authority there’s a congregation of lesser magistrates who collectively could decide that yes, the tyrant needs to be deposed. And absent that, even Thomas Aquinas I think would have something like an appeal to heaven. Not in the second sense that Littlejohn is indicating where you take matters into your own hands, but in the first sense in that you appeal to heaven. And you say okay, now is not the only time in which I shall live, and there will be a time after this time, and I will have justice then. So, it’s a long tradition, and I think Littlejohn did a great job of bringing it up to date and seeing how it worked on January 6. It was absolutely right of course to say that those storming the Capitol with any intention of a genuine insurrection had no grounds, theologically at least, to stand on. So, any appeal to heaven that they are making if it’s in that second sense, from Brad Littlejohn down to Thomas Aquinas, would be the assertion that they have not yet done their homework. They have no rights to do what they’re doing.
Tooley: So, is that an important distinction between John Locke and the English puritans and Thomas Aquinas? The appeal to heaven, for the puritans and John Locke there was a time where it’s no longer just prayer and patience, but you take up arms.
LiVecche: Right. And I think you can find that in certain conditions under very limited specific circumstances. You can find that in some of the greater lights of Christian political thought. But I’m not sure of any occasion where one of the luminaries suggests that the mob can decide “yes it’s time.” There’s always going to be questions over who those lesser magistrates are. The American Revolution, I think we had a set of lesser magistrates who could look at the situation and say given the authority that we do have, we have determined that now is the time to throw off a mantle of tyranny.
Tooley: Mark Melton, at your new suburban home will you be flying the pine tree flag?
Melton: No, I would not be doing that. I actually plan on getting one of the new Mississippi flags hopefully at some point with the new magnolia, so maybe the magnolia flag. Well, yeah, it has some magnolia and some star in there, and so, it’s a lot better than the last flag with the confederate banner, which I would not have flown. But I would not be flying the pine tree flag either. It was an interesting piece that, like LiVecche was saying, like some of the history I wasn’t that familiar with. And also, the fact that Locke was kind of very neatly critiquing some of his opponents who said that there was no appeal to him, you just could pray, and he’s like no, you hadn’t appealed to heaven’s arms. I think that that’s kind of an interesting viewpoint, but in this modern context, it’s very disturbing, as LiVecche was saying.
LiVecche: I think the one thing, and again whenever I say anything like this, I’m afraid that I’m going to be heard as somehow justifying buffalo boy with the horns and painted face, I’m not trying to do that. But Littlejohn also touched on the idea that this appeal to heaven is either made to, the appeal is either made to heaven or to arms, and that people will feel that when they cannot trust in the law, they might feel they have no other choice than to trust in arms. Trial by combat or trial by ordeal. Some of these more graphic ways of adjudicating disputes. The one thing I will say is that, especially in a liberal democracy, both sides or all sides, however many there happen to be, it seems to me we need to recognize that we need to fight one another to contend in this contest of ideas. I mean, with the sober-minded realization that if we fight to the nth degree and take away any opportunity for the other side to trust us and to think that we feel like we are together in this democratic experiment, then we push people in directions that we probably don’t want to push them. Where the desperate will fight back. That’s what the desperate do, and that doesn’t necessarily justify the violence, but it does say, it’s human nature when your back is against the wall and values in your mind are at risk, existentially at risk, my children, my grandchildren, yeah, I’m going to fight. And so, we need to figure out a way to contest our differences in ways that are not existentially threatening or that cannot reasonably be seen as existentially threatening.
Tooley: And of course, much of that depends on perceptions. People may believe they’re existentially threatened when in fact they’re not, but the perceptions prevail. Well, on a somewhat related historical topic, there was an interview this week with the historian Allen Guelzo, now at Princeton University, who provocatively questions whether conservatives should unquestioningly admire and follow the English statesman Edmund Burke, whom he describes as a romanticist who was attached to his particular time and place. Unlike America’s Founding Fathers, who looked to natural law and to universal principles upon which the Declaration of Independence was based, and echoed by Abraham Lincoln and so much else in American history. So, it was a very interesting point, this dichotomy between the Founders and Burke. Marc LiVecche, what were your thoughts? I should point out that Allen Guelzo was an ordained Episcopal clergy, so he also speaks from a theological perspective and pointed out that America’s Founding Fathers, their universality, although mediated through the Enlightenment, was ultimately rooted in the universality of the Gospel in the Christian church. So, Marc LiVecche?
LiVecche: Yeah, fantastic. If we were doing like a Marksism version of America’s Got Talent or The Academy’s Got Talent, I would be giving Guelzo tens for style and delivery and all sorts of things. He is cut from old cloth and he is a fantastic public speaker. So, I commend your interview with him, but I also commend, online you can find a bunch of talks that Guelzo has done on Harry Jaffa on some of Lincoln’s, some of the work he’s done on Lincoln. Guelzo is also a Lincoln acolyte and just absolutely fantastic stuff out there. Your interview, I don’t know Burke well enough to even pretend to contest his thesis. Say this, if his thesis is correct, then it’s a slam dunk. The clause in the American Declaration that all men are created equal, that’s not by chance. And the Founders didn’t think that that was by chance, because we happen to have a set of common laws that allow us to say all men are created equal. That’s a discovery, that’s not a decision. All men are created equal. Full stop. And that is infinitesimally surer ground in which to root human dignity and human responsibility than law. Constantly we find occasions in which the law is simply inadequate to adjudicate moral disputes. So, if he’s right that this is pitting like positive law against natural law, then hands down “Buy American.” And there’s a certain joy in that anyway, right. It is peculiar that American conservatives have to cross the ocean to our English friends in order to find a hero. So, I’m all for “Buy American” in the sense, absolutely. The one quibble I will challenge is, and I don’t know the context in which Burke said this, so I see the argument immediately, but where he’s talking about the sublime and he contests Burke’s definition of the sublime because he says that Burke says the sublime is that which excites pain and danger, the sublime is something that we receive is terrible and that this is the start of the Romantic rebellion. I agree that that type of thinking can be the start of the Romantic rebellion, but there’s also a tradition that I wouldn’t be surprised if Burke is tapping into in which we do recognize the divine or the holy as being terrible, right. You think of the numinous, C.S. Lewis has done some work on the numinous, and this is something that conveys a sense, or a presence, of the holy. And it’s terrifying. He references The Wind in the Willows, the scene where mole and rat are going across the water and they sense the numinous, and I think rat asks mole, “Are you afraid?” And mole says, “No, I’m not afraid.” And then he said something like, “But yes, I am terribly afraid.” If that’s the sublime that Burke is talking about, I’m completely on board, because the terrible, if any of us think that we could stand erect in the presence of God, at least at first glance, I suspect they’re deluding themselves. So, that’s my only quibble with the entire thing, and that’s acknowledging at the forefront that I have no idea what the context that Burke says it. There’s a lot more good that can be said, and if you ask another question I’ll say more. But let’s pass it over to Mark Melton.
Tooley: Mark Melton, Burke versus America’s Founders, whose side are you on?
Melton: I have to go with America. So, I actually read The Reflections on the Revolution in France last year, and it was my first time to really kind of dive into Burke in detail and not just kind of read a quick summary. And there’s a lot of parts of it that I thought there’s no way anyone in America today could repeat what he is saying and expect to get elected to office, because he’s coming from a completely different world. I mean, completely different environment. English Conservatism at that point is pro-monarchy, so in that sense, yeah, I can definitely see where there’s a sharp divide between the American Conservative and kind of this English Conservative Burkean view. But if you kind of read Burke as meaning you don’t go for a radical change, you go for slow, steady change. If you come up to an edifice, you don’t automatically tear it down, you inspect why is that edifice there and why is there a fence here. You don’t just automatically tear it down, you want to understand what you’re doing before you start doing radical change. And so, in that I could see like it’s broad and it’s kind of vague and it can be applied in different ways, but I could see where American Conservatism can look onto that idea. But it’s also not very detailed, like I said. But I think I could see some grounding on that point. But yeah, there’s a lot in Burke that I didn’t quite, I wouldn’t agree with today. I also think he might have misunderstood how bad the situation was in France before the revolution really got going. It’s probably still worth reading, but yeah, the American ideal, I think if you were to say that if Burke would say that America should be true to itself then it should be true to the Declaration of Independence and its founding. And in that sense, I think you can get to some type of American Conservatism, but that again, I mean, I could see where different people are going to read Burke differently.
Tooley: Marc LiVecche, any final thoughts?
LiVecche: I’m curious what you thought. I was trying to read your face and you were keeping your cards kind of close to your chest in your interview. What did you think of the thesis?
Tooley: He persuaded me. I need to read more of Burke, but yes, I do think that’s central to America’s self-identity, the appeal to universal human rights and natural law. And so, I don’t think that Burkean Conservatism is an easy transfer to American Conservatism.
LiVecche: Yeah, that’s right. I agree with that. I think that’s well stated.
Tooley: And certainly appreciated his linking America’s founding to Christian universality.
LiVecche: Well, his disquisition on the blanket coming down with all the unclean food was absolutely fantastic and apparently just flowed freely from his mind. It was a master class and somebody who has the material simply at hand, a true scholar. So much fun.
Tooley: Well, we have a minute or two left. I’ll use that just to tout the biography I reviewed for Providence about Henry Cabot Lodge, perhaps best known and sometimes reviled for his role in the overthrow of South Vietnam’s president in 1963 at the behest of the Kennedy Administration. And I found the story fascinating and delivered in an even-handed fashion. So, there really is no clear villain. It was a very complex situation that requires lots of Christian realism to grapple with, but Diem of course was a legitimate South Vietnamese nationalist, patriot, Roman Catholic, deeply devoted to his country. But after seven, eight years of rule was somewhat detached from reality and essentially was ruling the country through his clan of a family and through the Catholic Church over the Buddhist majority, with predictable reactions from the Buddhist majority. And so, the Kennedy Administration decided he likely would have to go without thinking through what the consequences would be, and tragically he was assassinated during that coup. So, Marc LiVecche, quick thought, would you have defended Diem or participated in his overthrow?
LiVecche: You got me off guard. I have no idea. I would have appealed to heaven. I’ll read the book or I’ll read your review and jump in.
Tooley: Mark Melton, any plans for the weekend that you want to share with the public?
LiVecche: You’re on record now.
Melton: Well, I’ve got a good video game I can play a little bit for a couple hours.
Tooley: Aren’t you busy preparing for your new house?
Melton: Well, it’s not finished yet.
Tooley: Surely in your mind you need to be preparing for what’s going to happen.
Melton: Well, that’s taken up a lot of time lately, so yeah.
Tooley: Mark Melton, Marc LiVecche, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.