The Real Intellectual at Beck University

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John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, religion, and politics. He holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin, where his major field was American intellectual history. Mr. Willingham can be reached at john.texport.willingham@gmail.com.

To begin with, James R. Stoner, Jr., is a genuine academician, a full professor and chair of the political science department at Louisiana State University.  He has a PhD from Harvard.  He was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities by George W. Bush in 2002.

And he is a man who should not be underestimated because of his affiliation with Glenn Beck, at whose “university” he is, officially, “Professor of Charity.”

In his publications, he has contested Abraham Lincoln’s egalitarian reading of the Declaration of Independence, deplored the ascendancy of liberal pragmatism, and emphasized the common law as a repository of traditions favorable to marriage and the family, property rights, and religion.  Much of his academic work is in opposition to the late political philosopher John Rawls, widely known for his books A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

With strong academic credentials and serious publications, Stoner stands in contrast to the Professor of Faith, David Barton, well-known as the founder of WallBuilders, a Texas organization devoted to advancing a version of American history that finds Christian and biblical influences in unlikely places.  Barton has a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University.  He was the American history “expert” advisor to social conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education during their recent, highly controversial revision of the state’s social studies standards.

The third member of Beck’s faculty is David L. Buckner, president of Bottom Line Training and Consulting, Inc., and an adjunct faculty member at NYU and Columbia.  Buckner is Professor of Hope.

Given Stoner’s much more substantial academic achievements, his lectures may be the most interesting to watch (the first is scheduled for July 21).  But even more interesting is this question:  why would an established, professional academician like Stoner agree to participate in what would appear to be a sham academic exercise?

Stoner has said that he is “someone who wants to teach” and so welcomes the opportunity to reach Beck’s audience.  Though he is the Professor of Charity, he has indicated that he will lecture on federalism, the separation of powers, and individual rights.  How might Stoner integrate John Winthrop’s famous address “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered aboard the ship Arbella, in 1630, into his Beck lecture?

Winthrop told his followers that:

“…man as he was enabled so withal is commanded to love his neighbor as himself.  Upon this ground stand all the precepts of the moral law, which concerns our dealings with men.  To apply this to the works of mercy, this law requires two things.  First, that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress.  Secondly, that he perform this out of the same affection which makes him careful of his own goods, according to the words of our Savior (from Matthew7:12), whatsoever ye would that men should do to you.”

We should not be surprised if Stoner finds a way to affirm the importance of the religious convictions expressed by the prominent Puritan while avoiding the egalitarian implications of the New Testament.

Returning to the motives Stoner may have for participating in Beck’s “university,” one can see in Stoner’s work an urgent sense that the liberal, pragmatic, and egalitarian views propounded by John Rawls and others have distorted foundational principles, diluted or proscribed the debate in which those principles could be reasserted, and resulted in laws and regulations that ignore those same principles.

One likely motive is that Stoner now believes that the academy is so invested in the views that he deplores that he and other conservative intellectuals must reinvigorate the “public square” to create the change they desire.

In a 2007 article in the conservative journal First Things, Stoner opens with this sentence:  “Who stripped the public square and left it naked?”  His answer is that the secularization of the public square “resulted from prior secularization of the university.”  The title of the article is “Theology as Knowledge,” and in it he laments that theology is no longer a contending branch of knowledge, on the order of the natural sciences, social sciences, or philosophy, but now is regarded as “merely an elaboration of belief.”

Because of theology’s reduction in status, students no longer see religion as informing their knowledge in other areas.  Put simply, theology and religion are no longer determinative in the academy.  Darwinism has infected the natural sciences, and pragmatism has vitiated the other disciplines.  Worse, considered as a belief, theology and religion are now consigned to the emotional sphere, where they are disabled in what should be their noble intellectual contest against secularism for primacy in foundational thought.

The opposition of social conservatives to abortion or gay marriage, for example, is regarded as a collection of outbursts lacking a strong rational basis.  Stoner writes that Rawls and his followers “know, I think, that they will never actually suppress the voice of faith in everyday politics, but they mean to exclude it from the higher reaches of the law, from journalism and the media, from professional and corporate networks, and the like.”

In his 2009 article “Politics and Science,” Stoner again opens dramatically:  “The ‘rightful place’ of science is not as obvious as the President thinks.”  Stoner writes that

[f]or our purposes here what is essential is to note that modern science has nothing, or almost nothing, to say about the human good.”  This deficiency, in his view, results in a void when the “good” needs definition, because faith, religion, and theology are no longer in a position to contend seriously or find comprehensive union with science.  He does not seem inclined to credit the concerns that many bioethicists and philosophers have with modernity.

Stoner’s Aristotelian affinities are clear when he concludes that “genuine knowledge is needed to establish that the ‘rightful place’ of science in its modern form is not above the people and their faith and their Constitution, but in their service, for the questions of substances and ends retain authority over instrumental questions. [Emphasis added.]

In his book Common Law Liberty (2003), Stoner uses the term “elemental constancy” to denote genuine or substantialist knowledge, which should be influential or determinative.  Professor Wayne D. Moore of Virginia Tech writes that Common Law Liberty closes by “criticizingDarwinian theories of evolution, suggesting instead a religious perspective according to which ‘the things that are unwritten and maybe even incapable of being written might yet prove to be, if not always the most urgent, in the long run, the most important things.’”

Stoner challenges the origins of American egalitarianism in his sometimes murky 2005 article “Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”  He argues that the Declaration clearly advocated political liberty, and that even though it justified a rebellion, the rebellion was mainly about the restoration of common law rights of self-governance, protection of private property, and safety embedded in the (unwritten) English constitution.

As to the principle of equality in the Declaration, he writes that

[w]hether or not that principle and the other purported truths that accompany it are true, they would seem in fact to be the first principles of our regime.”

“While loyalty to the original Constitution is often dismissed as hopelessly anachronistic or conservative,” he continues, “loyalty to the Declaration might seem to have the opposite consequence:  to mandate support of those movements that seek to extend the reach of equality in America.  Abraham Lincoln seems to have thought so.  He wrote that the assertion of human equality in the Declaration provides “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

Stoner affirms, however, that “it still ought to be legitimate to ask whether the Declaration today commits Americans to a particular program of development.”  By a  particular program of development, Stoner means a pragmatic and egalitarian approach to constitutional interpretation and legislative action.

His answer is that the Declaration does not bind us to “the most radical reading of its most abstract truth [that all men are created equal],” and as “there is room in the American polity for one who believes in rights but not in the Creator who endows us with them, so there ought to be room for one who thinks that rights derive from duties to just such a Creator, or even to a nature that distinguishes better from worse.”

He writes that “it seems to me that the common law constitutionalism sketched at the center of the Declaration defines the form and the limits of political liberty as it was understood by those who made the revolution and preserves an influence in the American regime that should be called Aristotelian.”  That influence is the “genuine knowledge” or the “elemental constancy” or the “substantial” truth of Christianity.

Now we return to Charity.  If equality is not foundational and Christianity is the context, what form should charity take?  Will Stoner echo Tocqueville and argue that charity should neither be a right nor an entitlement, but, rather, should arise from a “reasoned virtue, not a weak and unreflecting inclination”?

It is necessary to do what is most useful to the receiver, to do what best serves the welfare of the majority, not what rescues the few.  In practice this means that charity should never be made a right, to which the ‘needy’ are entitled, but should instead always be considered to be a gracious gesture on the part of society.  This is necessary because rights must be based on the idea of equality of individuals, while a ‘right to charity’ would be based on the inferiority of certain individuals.  When I assert a right to speak, or to own property, or to worship my God, I am stating that I am the equal of any man and so am entitled to be treated equally under the law.  But to assert a claim upon my fellow men for assistance is to assert my own inferiority and my dependence upon them. This would degrade, rather than uplift, the supplicant. [Emphasis added.]

Stoner, in his writings, has argued that equal “rights” involving political liberty (voting, property rights, holding public office, etc.) are justifiable and worthy when they are granted to certain groups, such as women and African Americans, previously denied those political rights.  He likely agrees with Tocqueville that, contrary to the effects of “entitled” charity, such political rights do not morally “degrade” the beneficiary, and are therefore more virtuous than any state provision of charity.

How will Stoner balance the Christian charity, including economic charity, of Winthrop’s “Model” with the condemnation of such charity by Tocqueville?  Will he argue that private economic charity retains its moral basis while state charity in the form of entitlement programs is degrading, or in any case useless?  Stoner’s previous writings about universal health care are reasonable, but what will his position be now that he is on Glenn Beck’s “faculty”?  Recall that Beck has accused the Obama administration of “taking charity and rotting it from the inside.”

Indeed, how will Professor James R. Stoner, Jr., a principled scholar who has written useful and erudite works about the essential importance of principle, fare when he is the one who is naked in the public square?  Let us hope that he emerges intact; the theological foundations that he champions may not prevail, but the real university that honors real debate could use his voice in the argument about what should.

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Nat Bates - 7/26/2010

In other words, stop listening to people like Beck who are simply manipulating you to support the System uncritically and actually listen to God in your own heart!

Nat Bates - 7/26/2010

As to the principle of equality in the Declaration, he writes that

[w]hether or not that principle and the other purported truths that accompany it are true, they would seem in fact to be the first principles of our regime.”

<end quote>

Whether or not it is true? Really? Are we to be philosophically agnostic about the idea of human equality as found in the Declaration, and then hypocritically to call ourselves patriots?

I wish that Christians in America would wake up, stop worshipping the Golden Calf idolatry, and understand what "the Divine Image" really means!

Arnold Shcherban - 7/25/2010

Nonsense of a purest breed!
"Society or government" cannot give (or don't actually give) charity?!
What about all social programs, especially for the needy members of society, the governments of basically all well developed countries in the world (including this country) provide on a continuous basis?
Is it not a charity? Why? 'cause a government uses public funds to pay for them? Are individuals any different? Aren't they get their money
from the public funds as well, i.e. from the US Treasury, using ideas, laws, and regulations created/established by the same society or government and/or using the profits created for them by other folks?
One has to have zero notion of societal-governmental structures and workings or a clown of individualism to state in his sober mind that only individuals CARE about other individuals. Aren't society and government consist of individuals?
And who murders "individuals"? Other individuals or a society?
To summarize: Mr. Wintersteen (as well, as a while ago and continuing to do so without stop Glenn Beck) has made a joke out of himself.

Lawrence Leo Wintersteen - 7/24/2010

It seems a very "common" thing to denigrate Glenn Beck and his attempts to bring-to-light some of the seemingly important parts of our heritage and history that have been glossed over or deliberately ignored by our educational system. I would think that the author would support rather than sneer at the enthusiasm for historic education that Glenn Beck has engendered in our fellow countrymen.
The one point that I strongly disagree with the author on is charity. Society as a whole or government cannot give charity because it has to do with the desire to help or caring for those in need.
Individuals have the capacity to care society doesn't.Giving in this way comes from the heart reaching out to give a hand up to another who is in need.
Government and society can dictate, but they can't care.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/24/2010

You may be right that same-sex marriage is more popular than unpopular with general audiences, though I think Beck's audience would be heavily opposed. From a showman's perspective, the beauty of abortion and same-sex marriage is that no one out there in TV-land is so ignorant he does not have an opinion about them, and many have strong opinions. It is easier to "hook" a large audience with subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage, thanwith the perfidy of Alger Hiss, the greatness of Robert E. Lee, the horror of Bernardine Dohrn, or many other things about which the public knows virtually nothing, and will hear virtually nothing from the followers of Barack Obama.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/24/2010

How much intellect one needs to declare
"Religious faith is synonymous with Knowledge"? This is called ideological fanaticism, not intellect.

John Willingham - 7/24/2010

Thank you for your comment. While I am not in agreement with most of Prof. Stoner's views, I thought that they were worthy of attention by those who are curious about the direction of conservative political discourse.

Richard F. Mehlinger - 7/24/2010

I will admit that I cannot stand Glenn Beck (my conservatism runs towards that of David Cameron's Tory Party), but Prof. Stoner sounds like a fascinating intellectual, albeit one I would likely disagree with on a great deal. Thanks for this profile--I'll have to take a look at some of his writings.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/23/2010

Hi Lawrence, it's been a while.

Stoner does seem like an interesting scholar. One of the quotations does encapsulate much of the substance current tension in American politics:

"“there is room in the American polity for one who believes in rights but not in the Creator who endows us with them, so there ought to be room for one who thinks that rights derive from duties to just such a Creator, or even to a nature that distinguishes better from worse”"

I do have a quibble with your comment. Same sex marriage may be "unpopular" as an institution, but it is not unpopular as a behavior. There is now general support in the United States for recognizing monogamous same-sex relationships in some legal manner.

And that's logical from the standpoint of conservative American values. It encourages monogamy.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/22/2010

I think Prof. Stoner explained himself pretty well when he said he wanted to teach to Beck's large audience.

Watching Beck is not one of my habits, but when surfing around the TV I have stayed there for six or eight minutes a few times. I don't think Beck feels he is teaching religion any more than Rush Linbaugh does... His religious references are chosen more to make his enormous audience feel at home than to proselytize them. He does, to be sure, use references to unpopular behavior like same-sex marriage, and public funding for abortion, to both attract and hold audiences. Many people never tire of hearing those things denounced, but that does not equate to promoting religion.

The secret of Beck's success is that he preaches many details of basic American history which are either misrepresented or no longer taught in the public schools. That is probably Stoner's intention, as well. Such material will ring a bell with many listeners, who say to themselves, "Ho, that's what grandfather used to say!" Much of Beck's audience feels cheated by many of the instructors and books at the schools it attended, and now is eager to learn the truth about the American past, which is, after all, much more glorious than the leftists ever let on.