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A Secular Argument for Religion in the Public Square

Politics and religion should not be kept separate not because of what politics can do for religion but because of what religion can do for politics.  The need for religious based political arguments comes from the structural defects of modern  politics—defects that can be ameliorated by drawing on religious sentiments. A basic problem with otherwise well functioning democratic politics is that special interests, such as trade unions and trade associations, are motivated to get benefits for themselves from the state while the great mass of citizens, like taxpayers and consumers, are not so motivated. As a result, we see too little lobbying to prevent the exactions of special interests or at times too little pressure for the state to produce public goods, like the defense of basic human rights, that will redound to the benefit of all.

The reason that special interests are full of passionate intensity and the rest of us lack tenacity in politics is simple: ignorance is sensible, indeed wholly rational, when it comes to politics. The chance of one’s making a difference in a local election by voting, let alone in a national election, approximate one’s chances of getting hit by lightning on the way to the polls. Of course, some people follow politics closely, such as others follow sports or movie stars. But political junkies are relatively few. It has been well observed politics has aspects of show business for ugly people, and most people unsurprisingly prefer entertainment by the beautiful.

The problem of political ignorance has only been exacerbated by technology. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas drew vast and very attentive crowds from far and wide for their famous debates, but there was no cable TV in 1858. The proliferation of avocational possibilities today mean that the motivation for public engagement is even weaker than before.

Religious sentiments can counter this tendency, precisely because religious attachments are not wholly rational and calculating. Indeed, many modern scientists think that religion was an evolutionary adaption that has helped humans survive in large groups when ties of kin can no longer sustain the self-sacrifice necessary to produce the most primordial public good of any society—the self-defense against hostile raiders from without. These sentiments also help people adhere to social norms when fellow group members are not looking: the golden rule at the heart of many religions thus prevents people from seizing golden opportunities that will help them at the expense of everyone else. Thus, ironically, secularists who seek to banish religion from politics fail to understand the essential lessons of Darwinism for society—that our human nature, including our religious impulses, is adapted for our survival.

The history of democratic politics provides evidence of the power of religion to sustain public regarding causes that individuals acting from rational calculation cannot alone support from the movement for abolition of slavery to that for voting rights for women to the civil rights movements of the 1960s. These movements were not accidentally suffused by religious sentiment. Faith in God ties people of varying incomes, ethnic groups, and interests together and propelled them toward common justice.

In my next post, I will discuss how constitutional norms can limit any downsides of religious participation in politics.

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on February 16, 2018 at 10:50:29 am

John McGinnis makes the thought-provoking statement that "secularists who seek to banish religion from politics fail to understand the essential lessons of Darwinism for society—that our human nature, including our religious impulses, are adapted for our survival."

And as Darwinism shambles into the room, perhaps some clarification is in order. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin embraced the idea of evolution, which was “in the air” at the time. However, the theory didn’t have an explanatory mechanism, which Charles Darwin provided with “natural selection” – essentially the deification of random chance. Is that how the universe works? Plato had an alternative – "intelligent design" – but perhaps this isn’t the place to discuss that.

Darwin’s proposed mechanism eventually jumped the species gap (to borrow a metaphor from pathology) and became an academically respectable doctrine, and then evolved (devolved?) into a pseudo-religious dogma for modern liberals who don’t know much about science.

To say that the religion and morality evolved as adaptations would seem to be arguing beyond the available facts (although perhaps Marvin Harris's "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches" could be pressed into service in support of such an argument). One doesn’t have to posit adaptation as the source of the golden rule, for example. A plausible alternative, entrenched in the natural law tradition at the root of western civilization, is the view that habitual benevolence is an innate potential of human nature, a potential that has unfolded and strengthened culturally over time (and regressed, too, as with the Social Darwinist Nazis -- um, a lethal mutation? -- and their sympathizers in the notorious Anglo-American Eugenics movement, which was academically respectable in its day). So perhaps it is best to take the "lessons of Darwinism for society" with a grain of salt.

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John Schmeeckle
on February 16, 2018 at 12:14:19 pm

"Darwin’s proposed mechanism eventually jumped the species gap..."

It didn't just jump a species gap, it jumper entire geologic periods as in Cambrian explosion.
But hey, any good religion must have some *mysteries*.

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gabe
on February 17, 2018 at 10:26:47 am

Sociobiologists like the Bible. They particularly like the passages in the Old New Testaments discussing the covenant that say God's Word is written in the hearts and on the minds of men. Certainly our understanding of God and our moral codes have developed (changed? evolved?) over time or else there would have been no New Testament and no Reformation.

A good sociobiologist might then ask is there a selection advantage associated with keeping the covenant? Have there been developments, changes or evolutions in our understanding of the covenant? What changes have been associated with a selection advantage and which have been selected against?

There is a feeling amongst sociobiologist that our brains or our minds are continuing to evolve quite rapidly.

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EK
on February 17, 2018 at 10:34:00 am

McGinnis argues that religion can have adaptive qualities for promoting cohesion in societies that exceed the level of the tribe. In support of this thesis, he cites the fact that religion seems to be found in nigh all societies. This strikes me as a reasonable hypothesis.

John Schmeeckle offers an alternative hypothesis that “habitual benevolence is an innate potential of human nature….” This strikes me as fairly self-evident. Can we find any example of people acting with benevolence? Then obviously people have the potential for doing so. Can we find examples of people acting with malice? Then obviously people have that potential, too. Given both of these potentials, we might expect to find benevolence and malice exercised at random.

Yet we tend to find a modicum of benevolence exercised toward family members and, beyond that, to fellow countrymen. To explain that, we need to postulate more than mere “potential.” We need to explain why societies skew toward the benevolent (at least for their own members). McGinnis’s thesis provides that explanation.

Arguably, the Eugenics movement helps illustrate McGinnis’s point: This was a movement designed on the basis of an intellectual theory to advance the species—but it had to be implemented against innocent, generally powerless, fellow members of society who may have lacked other distinguishing characteristics. Eventually the public rebelled against this practice.

The Nazis arguably reflected a different dynamic. Arguably the Nazis needed financial resources, and one way to get them was to demonize some minority and confiscate that minority’s assets. (Compare to Henry VIII and the assets of the Catholic Church). Note also the extraordinary duress of the Great Depression, and the known tendency for people to exhibit less compassion when they regard themselves as being victimized. In this context, Nazis were able to emphasize the different-ness of Jews and gypsies sufficiently well to overcome much public aversion to their policies. (Compare to US acceptance of Japanese internment.) Finally, note that even the Nazis knew that they would have to keep their extermination camps secret; even a well-primed public would rebel if they knew about that.

Thus, I can reconcile the examples of Nazis and eugenics with McGinnis’s thesis.

But clearly these examples also illustrate the challenge of McGinnis’s reliance on “religion” generically. McGinnis refers to religion as a tool that promotes social cohesion. But, as the Nazis demonstrate, religion can also be used as a basis for undue discrimination.

Moreover, and more simply, history is awash in examples of religious elites extracting benefits for themselves at the expense of the rest of society. Israel has compulsory religious service—a policy clearly designed for the individual to sacrifice for the benefit of the group. But a large religious minority has lobbied to be exempt from this requirement—and prevailed. This looks, on its face, like a clear example of religion undermining social cohesion.

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nobody.really
on February 17, 2018 at 11:30:04 am

1) "Israel has compulsory religious service—" - Did you mean to say, "compulsory MILITARY service"? Quite different!

2) "This looks, on its face, like a clear example of religion undermining social cohesion."

would it not be better to say that religion (or any moral / philosophical system, for that matter) has the potential for both cohesion and discrimination?

For an interesting little side journey, check out the Nazi Messiah, i.e., how the Nazi's co-opted the Protestant churches in Germany, appointed their own clergy, etc, replaced religious iconography with Swastikas, etc.

Then again, check out what the French king did to the Templars AND their wealth.

Point being: Often while it may appear that "history is awash in examples of religious elites extracting benefits for themselves at the expense of the rest of society", it is actually the result of some Monarch, State functionary advancing his / her own agenda at the expense of both the people and the church.

Think primogeniture in Medieval England and the "option" for later born children to gain status and power ONLY by having their Princely parent secure a Bishopric for them. Should this fellow have been a bishop? Should one blame the Church for his avarice? - or the Crown?

A little bit of both, I suppose.

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gabe
on February 17, 2018 at 12:36:44 pm

Oops, forgot this:

Nobody articulates (and quite well as usual) some of the adverse consequences of either religious discord and hegemony, either generated from within (religious leaders) or without (monarchs / political leaders) that history has provided us. Additional examples abound of the interplay (conflations, perhaps) between religion and power, i.e., Islam, of which it may be said gained ascendancy by distribution of the fruits of its brigandry.

Yet we all seem to miss another consequence of religious sensibilities / teachings. It is the "invisible hand' of religious indoctrination; that latent sense / disposition that tempers our behavior when others are not likely to detect our "transgression(s)". Simply put: The Golden rule, common to all religions, operates as a subtle brake upon our less benign impulses, may deter / defer us from "sin" (religious sense) or otherwise unsocial behavior.

Consider, a group of *engaged* (or is that "enraged) student protesters: Would such a group, if cognizant of the typical moral strictures recommended / enforced by religion be more or less likely to temper their behavior?
Would a young child hungry for a candy bar, be more or less likely to "pocket" the confection when no one was looking?
Would the politico be more or less likely to offer some quid for the lobbyists quo? Would he / she *temper* their avarice if such a sensibility / moral appreciation were present?

I think if we concentrate ONLY on Power Politics / Power Dynamics, we may miss the obvious: That religion in the public square ought not to consider only the effects (or lack thereof) on the powerful but rather on the whole populace.

The powerful, like the poor, will always be with us. doubtless, they will remain either as virtuous or as crass and avaricious as they have always been and will employ and / or deploy religious sensibilities / teachings as it suits their purposes. The question then is: What of the remainder? What moderates their behavior? What moral / religious strictures will enable them to continue some modicum of reasonable human interchange?

And nope, I ain't suggesting Marx (Karl, that is, not Groucho) and his silly opiate thing; rather, i am simply suggesting that "cohesion" must, of necessity, involve some measure of social comity, whether sincerely (and dearly) held or merely as a result of a) fear of divine retribution or b) belief that "[goodliness] is next to Godliness" (boy, talk about butchering a phrase.

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gabe
on February 17, 2018 at 16:17:40 pm

In answer to nobody.really says, perhaps some clarification is in order, to make sure that we aren't talking past each other.

By "habitual benevolence" I meant active concern for the well-being of our fellow humans -- not limited by family or community associations.

The question here, as I saw it, was whether this capacity for habitual benevolence ("love of our fellow-men" -- as Cicero's phrase is translated -- being a fundamental element of the preeminent virtue of justice) is an innate potential, existing from the dawn of humanity, or whether it was an evolutionary adaptation. It seemed to me that McGinnis embraced the "evolutionary adaptation" view without any supporting evidence or discussion of the alternative.

By the way, your assumption that the capacity for habitual benevolence is obvious is open to question. John Locke famously denied this, claiming that even a mother's love for her children is motivated by calculated self-interest. (?!?)(Locke never had any children.)

And that issue relates immediately to this forum's ongoing discussion of originalism. What was the context, the intellectual milieu, surrounding the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? It seems common among originalists to assume that John Locke's thought was central to the mindset of the time, and I think that is a serious mistake. See (for example) https://www.academia.edu/29164747/The_Declaration_of_Independence_without_Locke_A_Rebuttal_of_Michael_Zuckerts_Natural_Rights_Republic_

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John Schmeeckle
on February 17, 2018 at 18:08:46 pm

The Ultimatum Game is an exercise conducted in experimental economics. In this game, one person (“the proposer”) is offered receives a sum of money on the condition that he and another anonymous person (“the responder”) agree on how the money should be divided between them. The proposer can make only one offer. (E.g. “I’ll keep 70%; you get 30%. Deal?”) If the responder accepts, they each get their respective share. If the responder rejects, they each get nothing. Both the proposer and the responder know all the rules before they make their proposal/response.

Some studies indicate that in market societies, responders regularly reject offers of much less than 50% and—perhaps as a result—proposers rarely offer much less than 50%. But in more traditional societies (such as, for example, the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon), responders regularly accept offers as low as 15%, and proposers offer correspondingly stingy divisions of the pie.

If we make the hypothesis that the manner in which people behave toward strangers is driven by “human nature,” then we’d need to account for this disparity in behavior between market and traditional societies.

If we accept McGinnis’s thesis, then we have a bit of an explanation: People who grow up in traditional societies rarely encounter people who are not members of their clan. To the extent that they have norms around such interactions, those norms may be to exploit strangers ruthlessly. This doesn’t mean that members of traditional societies are selfish; to the contrary, they may have little private property, and share almost everything they have with their clan. But in order to be loyal to their clan, they learn to exploit every opportunity to maximize the resources available to their clan. Thus, they grow up extending as little benefit to strangers as possible—and expecting the same in return.

In market societies, in contrast, people regularly interact with strangers. People may find themselves at the mercy of strangers, and find strangers at their mercy, in the course of a typical day. Within such a context, people may come to extend compassion to strangers, and to expect similar treatment in return.

Based on these and similar studies, Prof. P.J. Hill remarked, "I see the [ultimatum] game as simply providing counter evidence to the general presumption that participation in a market economy (capitalism) makes a person more selfish." No, people in market societies aren't inherently more virtuous than people in traditional societies. They just have grown up in a context in which it is reasonable to expect compassion to be reciprocated, and have learned to behave accordingly. So in the Ultimatum Game, when these people receive offers of 15% of a windfall profit, they indignantly reject it. They hurt themselves (after all, 15% is still more than 0) but they gain the opportunity to punish someone who deviates from societal norms of fairness and reciprocity—and apparently people value the opportunity to reinforce social norms quite highly.

In short, this data suggests that people adapt to the incentives of their respective environments—just as McGinnis hypothesizes.

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nobody.really
on February 17, 2018 at 22:56:22 pm

The originalism we attest to occurred during May, 1787 until June 21, 1788, when the people’s delegates in nine state ratification conventions ratified the preamble and the draft constitution, establishing the USA. A tenth state joined the USA before the first Congress was seated for ten states on March 4, 1789. Ideas outside this time-envelop were not subjugated to the debates by the signers (2/3 of twelve states’ delegates) and the 1/3 dissenters at the Philadelphia convention plus the ratifiers and therefore do not qualify as original statutory justice. Attempts to impose on the signers expressions from the declaration of war against England are sophistry, some in sympathy with the dissenters.

The separation of church from state that was offered by the signers was undone by the First Congress by May, 1789, when they erroneously hired factional-Protestant ministers to represent legislative divinity on par with the English Parliament’s self-appointed legislative divinity.

Each human being has the authority to control his or her life-time of energy. It is not a right, granted by God or a government but rather is an evolving human characteristic. The person may attempt to subjugate his or her authority, but neither God nor government either accepts or usurps the responsibility for the person’s behavior.
Most cultures impose on the individual the erroneous civil morality that he or she needs a higher power in order to control behavior within civic justice. Therefore, rare and fortunate is the individual who accepts his or her human authority to behave and to develop fidelity to the-objective-truth. This fidelity is comprehensive and extends to all human connections.

In a civic culture, most people intend fidelity to the-objective-truth and stay informed as civic morality is discovered. For example, the Christian guided by 1700 years of passages in the Holy Bible that support the slave-master relationship reforms immediately on hearing Frederick Douglas’s idea that slavery is OK for everyone but me. But not Bible interpreter Robert E. Lee, who reasoned that abolitionists were evil in their opposition to God’s plan: see leefamilyarchive.org/9-family-papers/339-robert-e-lee-to-mary-anna-randolph-custis-lee-1856-december-27 from “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa” to “Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course.” Lee, by responding to the-objective-truth rather than religion could have sold everything and moved to a non-slave state five years before President Lincoln asked him to lead the army for the USA.

Professor McGinnis and the commenters so far have not addressed the question. Does God represent the-objective-truth or does the-objective-truth represent God? (Plato had Socrates ask that question as “the good,” which involves values, whereas the-objective-truth simply is, and humankind’s role is to benefit from discovery.)

It is not surprising that this forum, till now, did not quote the late Antonin Scalia on separation of church and state. I only comprehend that he though justice is a developing, human responsibility and salvation is for the afterdeath. See homespunvine.com/lecture-justice-antonin-scalia-on-capitalism-socialism-and-christian-virtue/.

America cannot achieve what it can be until a civic people separate church from state, so that dissidents may reform by statutory justice according to the-objective-truth rather than by coercion or force according to God.

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Phillip Beaver
on February 17, 2018 at 22:59:41 pm

Sorry: "he though justice" should be "he thought justice."

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Phillip Beaver
on February 18, 2018 at 11:11:52 am

nobody:

Well argued.

A question:

Given that most "market" societies evolved out of a Western, Judeo-Christian foundation, to what extent must we consider the concomitant *influence* upon "ultimate game' behavior of that specific Judeo-Christian grounding. simply put, did the "Golden rule", taught to Western societies (not perfect, of course) have an equal or contributing influence upon the behavior. Thus, is McGinnis also correct in advancing the argument that religion, or at least a religious sensibility, ought to permeate the public square?

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gabe
on February 18, 2018 at 13:17:33 pm

Touche, gabe! I've trotted out this same argument for years. I've never heard such a cogent rebuttal before. (Honestly, I have a hard time believing that all the posts that purport to be authored by "gabe" come from the same person.)

But I'd qualify your remark. Perhaps John Schmeeckle, with his emphasis of natural law theories that arguably underpin a lot of Western thought, will find support in this rebuttal.

As I understand it, people who do the Ultimatum Game in Japan act in a comparable manner as other people in market economies. They might not be suffused with underlying assumptions of natural law. Or they might; the Christian church has been in Japan for a while and quite influential among the upwardly mobile youth. Anyway, much to chew on.

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nobody.really
on February 18, 2018 at 16:15:07 pm

nobody:

I am who I say I am and only I am me - BUT i was born in June- so there is that whole Gemini / schizo thing, I suppose.

As to Japan and Christianity - let us just say this;

There is a great deal of congruence between Natural Law and Judeo-Christian moral teachings. In fact, I would suppose that they are so intertwined as to defy "unpacking."

seeya

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gabe
on February 18, 2018 at 18:51:42 pm

Gee, several comments worth noticing.

EK, regarding the law of nature being written in the hearts of men, that's Paul's Letter to the Romans, 2:14 and 15. King James Version: "For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another." Please keep in mind that this quote is an important element of the natural-law foundation of English jurisprudence as understood by the American Founders, paraphrased in St. Germain's "Doctor and Student" and cited and quoted in Coke's report on the all-important Calvin's Case.

nobody.really says advances the hypothesis (using the Ultimatum Game as an illustration) that "the manner in which people behave toward strangers is driven by 'human nature.' I think that it is better to say that it is driven by cultural conditioning. I think it is fair to say that it is a part of human nature that we are all susceptible to cultural conditioning, which enables large groups to function cohesively. We also have the capability (more rarely seen) to transcend cultural conditioning, and of those who exhibit that capability, some (such as Jesus Christ or John Locke or Albert Einstein) manage to lead groups into a new paradigm that might or might not eventually become dominant for a while and/or last as a sub-culture within a larger society.

gabe: I'm inclined to question the premise that "most 'market' societies evolved out of a Western, Judeo-Christian foundation." You could check the wikipedia entries for "bazaar" and "souq," for example.

Back to nobody, who really said: "Arguably the Nazis needed financial resources, and one way to get them was to demonize some minority and confiscate that minority’s assets." This ignores the fact that Hitler's hostility toward Judaism (as the "bacillus" that spread the disease of Christianity) goes back before he rose to power, recorded in Mein Kampf in the 1920s. Furthermore, the Nazi regime calculated, when they began starving the civilian economy for their military buildup in the early 1930s, that they would run out of resources by the end of the decade, which would force them to invade and plunder other countries (so-called "primitive accumulation," to borrow a delightful phrase from Marxist economics) to keep things going. In other words, it was written into the game plan from the beginning, and the invasion of the Slavic east (and extermination of its population) to provide more "lebensraum" (living space) for the Master Race (what a delightfully Darwinian concept) also appeared earlier in Mein Kampf.

And once again to gabe, regarding the congruence between Ciceronian natural law and Christianity: it seems to be quite a coincidence (or not?) that Cicero (who died before Jesus Christ was born) underscored the importance of piety and benevolence, which later became the two great commandments of Jesus Christ. But please keep in mind that Jesus Christ drew on the Old Testament for both of his two commandments. Obviously the first one is the first of the Ten Commandments. Regarding Jesus's second great commandment, quoting from Leviticus 19:18: "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus, of course, universalized the idea of "neighbor" with the parable of the Good Samaritan, reinforced by the episode with the Roman centurion.

And for those who might wonder where I'm coming from: I was raised in a strict Catholic family, but discovered at the age of 12 that I had no Catholic "faith." My older brother became an evangelical Christian missionary, and he spent a summer practicing on me as he was getting started (which I survived with my skepticism intact; my later spiritual journey is a different story). I began learning at a young age how to handle strongly-worded religious opinions backed by appeals to reason. Please understand that I am not putting down any variant of Christianity -- Catholic, Pentacostal, Amish or Mormon -- I think that there is something of intrinsic value there, and I welcome John McGinnis's initiative in starting this conversation, which seems to have veered off track a bit.

My understanding is that orthodox Christianity, as it jumped the "culture gap" from a Hebrew background to a Greco-Roman background, embraced a triangle of interrelated doctrines that do not appear in the recorded words of Jesus Christ (per the Gospels) and that weren't part of the original Jewish Christian movement. These three are:
1) Original sin.
2) The Virgin Birth.
3) Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross as atonement for our sins.

My argument in a nutshell: If you take away any one of these three doctrinal innovations, the other two become meaningless. Does this argument hold up? I've been inviting rebuttals for years, but so far it's still standing.

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John Schmeeckle
on February 19, 2018 at 10:22:27 am

"God's Word is written . . . (etc.)" is also in Hebrews and Jeremiah. They are key texts in all Reformed covenant theologies derived from the English Puritan movement of the 17th C such as the Presbyterians and the Independent Congregational, Baptist, Unitarian and Quaker churches. Amongst the English reformed churches, only the Presbyterians maintained an orthodoxy enforced by both church government and civil law.

Consistant with this, original sin is usually replaced by predestination, the virgin birth is usually denied and, on the third point, the sacrifice on the cross, there have been equivocations.

In 1648 one of the named grantees in the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1628, William Pynchon, wrote a religious tract that questioned whether Christ could suffer as a human if he were also God. The Presbyterian leaning divines in Boston and Cambridge condemned the publication and ordered it burned by the public hangman. The matter went to the Great and General Court which found against Pynchon but over the dissent of six deputies who rejected the innovation in the law of 1646 that gave the General Court jurisdiction over matters of heresy. Following Roger Williams and anticipating Cromwell, the dissenters argued for a latitudinarian approach to such matters.

The vote of the majority in the General Court had as much to do with politics as religion. The Presbyterians were ascendent in Parliament between 1643-48. The colony was still small and threatened by the Dutch to the south, the French to the north, the outcome of the English Civil Wars was still unknown and the Indians were everywhere; so religious dissent was an unwelcome distraction.

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EK
on February 19, 2018 at 18:03:13 pm

Hmmm!

One item:

to my mind, there is a difference between a "street" market ( souq / bazaar) and a *market* economy (such as evolved out of Europe and its Western traditions.

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gabe

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