A Politician Admitted in 1909 That Some Laws Have Secret Purposes

I have been listening to the audiobook of Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which so far has been interesting. I am aware of the deep injustices against African Americans that existed. But despite being exposed to the history–-and perhaps because I have been around people much of my life who, for ideological reasons, wanted to minimize the level of racial discrimination–-I was not aware of how blatant the voting discrimination was and how protracted the struggle against it has been. So Berman’s book has been a revelation for me.

In the book, Berman mentions a letter that I found appalling. And I thought it would be a good reminder for us today.

Obama Health Care Speech to Joint Session of Congress

Politics has always been divisive. And that means that the partisan spirit leads one to be overly generous to the politicians we support and malicious towards those we oppose.

One way this partisan spirit manifests itself is in how we interpret the motives behind legislation. We are tempted to assume that the politicians we support are being straightforward with their legislative intent. We refuse to think that they would pass a law to achieve some secret motive. During the Bush Administration, the Republicans passed a bill outlawing online gambling. Many Republicans believed the Republican politicians’ claims that it was done to fight against gambling addiction. But this seemed to me at the time misleading, even though I was Republican. It was revealed that the law was pushed by the lobbyists for the casinos as protecting their financial interests. And the law had loopholes allowing online betting on horse races. I guess the Republicans were okay with gambling addicts gambling at home on horse races…just not on poker games.

Not only do we refuse to believe that “our side” would have secret motives behind legislation, we are certain that all the legislation behind the politicians we oppose have secret motives. The healthcare reforms are meant to secretly push us towards socialism. These laws aren’t about religious values but oppressing women. Etc.

But we should be convinced that both sides have secret motives. We should assume that some, maybe many, of the laws that both sides pass have some ulterior motive behind it. And one reason I made a note to look into the letter that Berman mentioned is because it is one of the clearest admissions of ulterior motives behind legislation.

Frederick Bromberg’s Admission of Ulterior Motives

Frederick Bromberg was an attorney and politician from Mobile, Alabama. He served in the Alabama legislature, was elected to the U.S. Congress, and also served as the President of the Alabama Bar Association. In 1909, he wrote an open letter to legislators in Alabama that was published in the Mobile Register (today he would have simply published it to Facebook). Blomberg was “expressing support for a pending bill to amend the Alabama Constitution explicitly to outlaw black office-holding.” This letter is an open admission of the ulterior motives of legislators. The letter was important to a 1980s court decision to change the way voting was done in Mobile since it admitted that some of the city’s voting laws were adopted with the intent to disenfranchise black voters. In fact, I’m going to quote the sections that are quoted in the legal opinion from that case. You can find the entire opinion here. (I’ve emphasized parts of this.)

Respectfully now recall to your mind that portion of my address as present [sic] of the state bar association, a copy of which I sent to you, which refers to the expediency of amending the state constitution so as to exclude negroes from holding elective offices in this state.

You know that it was the effort to obliterate the negro vote in the past which led to all of the methods of fraud perpetrated at the ballot boxes by sworn election officers in order to defeat the negro vote, which demoralized the growing generation of young men, and to cure which was the avowed purpose of the sections in the present state constitution regulating the franchise.

We have always, as you know, falsely pretended that our main purpose was to exclude the ignorant vote, when, in fact, we were trying to exclude, not the ignorant vote, but the negro vote.

The present measures are so framed that if honestly carried out they will not and cannot disfranchise the negro. If not honestly carried out sooner or later, probably sooner, a case will be made up having back of it competent counsel, which will go to the supreme court of the United States, and which will overturn the present methods of applying the registration laws.

The only safety of our people lies in availing themselves of their rights under the constitution of the United States to disqualify the negro from holding any elective office.

[…]

The counties of Dallas, Wilcox, Monroe, Marengo, Perry, Greene, Hale and others, composing the Black Belt of the state, will become increasingly black with increasing years, and the negro with intelligence, and property will demand and insist on his legal rights through the courts. Not only that, but ambitious men amongst them will avail themselves of their superior numbers in said counties to offer themselves as candidates for offices of power and profit. As surely as the war between the free and slave-holding states followed from the existence of slavery, just so surely will race war in this state follow the present condition of our laws; unless the remedial measure suggested above be adopted: the oldest of us will yet live to see my prophecy fulfilled.

At present the masses of the colored race are indifferent to the right to vote and still more indifferent to the right to hold office; by adopting remedial measures now we shall cause no discontent, because of the present apathy of our colored citizens.

This is fully recognized by all statesmen.

Curing Our Partisan Blindness

This should help cure us of our partisan blindness. I know it is a weak inference from one legislator from 150 years ago admitting to ulterior motives to the conclusion that all legislators have ulterior motives in what they do. And I really don’t want to make such an inference. I just think such a stark admission of a secret agenda behind legislation reminds us that it is possible. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle do this. Here is legislator, at the time influential and well-known, who admits to misleading people about the main purpose of the law. He publicly mislead his own supporters. I’m sure many of his supporters would have defended him.

But they were wrong.

And notice that he isn’t simply admitting that he mislead people. He is implicating his other legislators. A group of legislators mislead the public about the purpose of a law they passed.

Just like we deceive ourselves when we assume we are more intelligent than the people of the past, so we deceive ourselves when we think we are more virtuous than people of the past.

We must admit that there is more to the actions of politicians than meets the eye – especially the politicians we wholeheartedly support!

Is God the Author of Sin? An Interesting Argument from Augustine

The Problem

In Book 3 of On the Free Choice of the Will, Augustine tackles a question that has troubled many throughout history: if God is in control of everything, then wouldn’t that make God the author of sin? Most of us have felt the force behind this line of thought. There are Biblical passages that seem to indicate that God was somehow the cause of men’s sinful actions. For example, in Acts 4:27-28, it seems that Pilate and the Jewish leaders are described as only doing what God had “predestined” for them to do. And, again, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph seems to imply that God intended good out of the evils that Joseph’s brothers did.

Are we to understand these passages as teaching that God–somehow!–caused the sins of these people? But doesn’t that make God the author of sin? And for those Christians who hold that God’s will is what has determined everything, then this question is particularly pressing for their theological views. (Though I have included the Acts 4 and Genesis 50 passage to try to draw everyone into this problem. Maybe you don’t think that God’s will determined everything, but you still think that some sinful actions were predetermined by God. So you still have the problem of avoiding how God is the author of sin.)

By Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) – PainterDetails of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Augustine’s Attempt

Augustine has an interesting paragraph in 3.16 of On the Free Choice of the Will. He writes:

“Suppose you decide to blame sin on the Creator. You do clear the sinner, since he was simply following the decrees of his Creator; but if this line of defense succeeds, it turns out that the creature did not sin at all, so there is nothing to blame God for. Let us therefore praise the Creator if we can defend the sinner, and let us praise him if we cannot. For if the sinner is justly defended, he is no sinner; therefore, praise the Creator. And if the sinner cannot be defended, he is a sinner insofar as he turns away from the Creator; therefore, praise the Creator. So I find no way–indeed, I feel certain that there is no way–in which God our Creator can be blamed for our sins….”

Restating What Augustine Was Saying

Augustine, or at least the translation I am using, can be difficult to understand. So just in case you didn’t grasp the argument, I’ll state it more clearly. If you decide that God was the cause of someone’s sin, then this person is not truly responsible for his sin. He was just doing what God planned. In doing this, you shift the responsibility for the sin from the person to God; indeed, you might be blaming God in order to clear the other person of blame. (“It’s not really Pilate’s fault that he ordered Jesus’s death; God made him do it.”) And in doing so, you are claiming that the person did not sin. He carried out an action that he was predestined to do. The blame is with God.

But Augustine wants us to slow down. If we shift the blame to God, what are we blaming on God? You might say, “The person’s sin that God predestined him to do.” To which Augustine would reply, “What sin? Didn’t you conclude that since it was God’s fault and not the person’s fault, then the person didn’t sin?” And like a magician’s mind-bending card trick, we’ve lost track of something moments earlier we were certain was right before us–in plain sight! In shifting the blame for a person’s sinful action to God, the sin disappears.

If the sin isn’t the person’s fault but is God’s fault, then the person is not a sinner. But that means that, though God is responsible for the action-previously-thought-to-be-sinful, the action is not now sinful. So God is not the author of sin: He’s just the author of something we thought was sinful but wasn’t.

Does This Work?

Every time I read this argument, I have the same reaction I have to many of Augustine’s arguments: it’s clever–clearly the result of a mind more fertile than most in human history–but something seems off with it. Again, it seems more like a clever card trick than a substantial argument that removes the philosophical difficulty. I have the lingering feeling that if I just carefully flip through the cards in the deck and check Augustine’s sleeves, the missing card will be discovered. This problem cannot be this easily solved.

And I think I know why Augustine’s argument fails.

But I think you can see why from this parallel example. Imagine a military’s general commanded a soldier to execute an innocent civilian. Imagine also that the soldier has to obey the general’s commands and does not bear any responsibility for actions he does when following commands. Later, in a war crimes tribunal, the general’s attorney argues like this: “If the general did not give the command, then it is the soldier’s fault, not his. So he is free of guilt. But if the general did give the command, then the soldier is not guilty of evildoing. He was just following orders. But if the soldier is not guilty of an evil action, then the general is not guilty, since his order to the soldier did not result in an evil action.”

I think we would all recognize that the general’s defense is not convincing. It should be rejected. But why?

I think it is easiest to see when you look at Augustine’s argument in a more formalized manner. He says:

  1. If God causes a person to sin, then that person did not sin.
  2. If the person does not sin, then God is not guilty of causing a person to sin (since the person didn’t actually sin).
  3. If God is not guilty of causing a person to sin, then he has done nothing wrong when causing the person to do the supposed sin.
  4. Therefore, if God is the cause of actions we initially regarded as sinful, then God is not guilty of anything sinful.

What would we want to reject? I think we would want to reject Premise 3. It is not the case that God has done nothing wrong if the action he causes is not regarded as a sin. It might be that he didn’t cause a sin if a person has to have (libertarian) free will to sin. The person did not have free will but was predestined to do the action by God. So the person is not a sinner and so God isn’t the author of sin

But that does not mean that he hasn’t done anything that is not wrong. For the underlying, objective problem that would lead us to regard the person’s action as a sin (the harm caused to others, disrespecting the person’s value as a human, violating human rights, etc.) still remains. And surely it is wrong to cause someone else to do something with one of these qualities. We might not call what the person did sinful, so we would not accuse the one who caused the action of causing a sin. But we could still consider him sinful (or merely wrong) in causing the action – even though we would not properly say that he caused a sin. He sinned because he did something evil; he didn’t sin because he caused a sin.

Likewise the general in the earlier illustration is guilty of causing an evil to be done; it’s not that he is guilty of making someone else guilty of doing evil (if you think that the soldier was not guilty of evil since he did not have the freedom not to do it).

Conclusion

Augustine’s argument is certainly interesting, but it is not convincing. We should want to shield God from the claim that he is a sinner or causes sin. But Augustine’s way of avoiding that fails. It fails in an interesting way: it denies that God is the author of sin by making him a sinner. That just won’t work. The difficulties that surround human free will, moral responsibility, and God’s responsibility for evil still remain.

How Apologetics Can Diminish Christianity

Photo Credit: AngusInShetland Flickr via Compfight cc

James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, is the most insightful and interesting book I have read in the last few months. And though I don’t consume books at the rate of Kevin DeYoung or Tyler Cowen, I do read a lot of books. So for a book to grab me the way this one did and clearly set itself off from the others says a lot about the book.

This book, as the subtitle betrays, is not a straightforward presentation of Smith’s own views; rather, he writes to explain the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose depth is said to be hidden behind inaccessible prose and terminology. But Smith does a good job (as far as I can tell — I am only familiar with Taylor’s reputation, not his work) of presenting Charles Taylor’s ideas from A Secular Age. And the way that Taylor’s theory explains so much about our society and its relationship to faith. It accounts for dichotomies and conflicts that other, more simple (and less erudite?) accounts cannot account for.

I am in the process of creating a sermon series based on the ideas I have found. I am unsure, but I expect to be working on this series for a few more months before I am ready to preach the sermons from it. But until then, I want to share some of the gems I have found in this book.

Secularism, Christianity, and Apologetics

One aspect of modern Christianity that Smith, channeling Taylor, brings into sharp relief is how thoroughly modern and secular it is. We Christians often pose as if we are the valiant defenders of older values and beliefs that secularism wants to toss aside. But so often we have sublimated much of modernism into our lives and use its assumptions as our starting place.

One area where this is clearly evident is in some areas of Christian apologetics, which positions itself as the core defender of the faith, but so often borrows some secular assumptions and methodologies as its starting place. Of course, reading around in Kierkegaard’s writings about a decade ago alerted me to some of it. But Smith’s work was a good reminder.

A lengthy Quotation From Smith

In a section aptly title, “How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity,” Smith writes:

“Taylor offers an analysis of the apologetic strategy that emerges in the midst of these shifts — not only as a response to them, but already as a reflection of them. In trying to assess just how the modern social imaginary came to permeate a wider culture, Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the ‘eclipses’ we’ve just noted. What he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call this ‘pre-shrunk religion’ [p. 226]). As he notes, ‘the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to a Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian beliefs are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity — as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice.

“When Taylor broached this theme earlier, he specifically noted that the ‘religion’ that is defended by such apologetic strategies has little to do with religion in terms of worship: ‘…Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any essential place for the worship of God, other than through the cultivation of reason and constancy.’ What we see, then, is the ‘relegation of worship as ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant’ (p. 117). This is the scaled-down religion that will be rejected ‘by Wesley from one direction, and later secular humanists from the other’ (p. 226).

“…And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a ‘disengaged stance,’ that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable.” (p. 51-2)

The Problems with the Minimal Defensible Unit

Taylor’s view on this is significant and on target for how apologetics is often attempted. In our attempt to defend our faith, providing a “reason for the hope within” to everyone we encounter, we have sometimes done more damage than good. Because our faith (both in the sense of our personal conviction and in the sense of a set of beliefs) becomes diluted, culled of any aspect we might find difficult to decisively defend.

In effect, much of Christian apologetics is forced to reduce Christianity to its minimal defensible unit (my phrase) in order to, well, defend it to the skeptics around us. But you get a Christianity that is close to losing some of the aspects needed for Christianity. (How many apologists argue for and talk about God in a way that leaves out the triune nature of the Christian God?) And you get a Christianity whose emphases are different from those of historic Christianity. The exciting, life-changing bits of Christianity aren’t the narrow set of historical stories and statements of Jesus whose historicity can be strongly defended. The Christianity that results is often one that our predecessors in the faith would not have recognized.

And so many apologists leave their arguments with a great gap between what they have defended and what historic Christianity. Or, if they do argue for these parts, the quality of the arguments for these tenants is often much lower than the quality of the arguments for more generic teachings. One famous apologist has compelling arguments for the existence of a Creator of some type, but his arguments that this Creator is personal lacks the rigor of the other arguments.

So maybe we should take care not to do apologetics that is cut off from the rich theology of historic Christianity. Though I admit that some of these teachings are not the easiest ones to defend, but, as Taylor notes, ours is not a ‘disengaged stance.’ We believe we cannot know the answer to many of the problems, and some of the reasons and justification for beliefs or commands have not yet been laid bare. But that is the nature of our faith. When we deny this to better answer the skeptic’s questions, we end up pushing aside many aspects of Christianity, losing it in the meantime.

And if we lose Christianity in the process of defending it, what are we really defending?