Glenn Beck’s Relativist Appeal to the Founders

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I ran across a bizarre, fascinating tidbit from Glenn Beck in which Beck attempts to use moral relativism to defend the Tea Party view that we need to return to the principles of America’s founders. This is an interesting formulation of the position because it is so very different from what we usually see–here we have a conservative invoking moral relativism–and for that reason, I want to analyze it today.

Let’s set the scene. A common view among right-wingers is the thought that the intent or spirit of the founders ought to carry significant weight when making political decisions. A popular counter to this view is the fact that many of the founders were slave-holders. Consequently, the founders are viewed as imperfect and correspondingly their views are open to criticism and revision through the political process. In defending the right-wing view, Beck says the following:

“They were all slaveowners! And so they have no concept; we can’t relate to them and we should dismiss everything.” Well–no. You have to put yourself back into their frame of mind. Just like someday, down the road, people are going to have to recognize people like you and people like me as fighting against murder. Abortion. Okay? You stand against abortion–someday–we’re on the right side of this, Kathie Lee–someday, somebody’s going to look back and say, “They were slaughtering babies in the womb! How can you possibly…?” Can you please recognize that many people knew that it was wrong and stood against it. We’re doing the best we can, and that’s the way they were. They’re doing the best they can.

I used to be on the debate team when I was in high school. One of the things I discovered was that moral relativism was a kind of magic bullet. It seemingly could be used to justify just about anything, and due to a mix of youthful naivete and a desire to win competitions, I employed it often. Throughout history, people generally believe that they are good, yet they have behaved very differently from one another, due to the fact that the social morality, the set of values which their society and culture raises them to uphold and adhere to, changes and morphs in response to internal and external pressures. While it’s true that immoral behaviors can be understood by examining the highly variant social moralities under which different individuals were living, this does not justify those behaviors. Aztec citizens were raised to believe that human sacrifice was good and necessary, and so it’s understandable that they would sacrifice human beings given that belief, but this does not mean that what they did was right or justified. It was motivated by a genuinely held moral belief, but not a true or justifiable one. The same goes for gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome, the Crusades, assorted genocides, all kinds of horrors and atrocities. We can understand how it came to pass that people believed it was okay to do these things, and it may well be true that, in light of their cultural backgrounds, they were doing the best they could, but nonetheless, these behaviors caused unnecessary and unjustifiable harm to morally relevant beings. The fact that many of the founders were slaveholders, racists, sexists, and so on does not in and of itself prove that all of their other views were wrong, but it does prove that it is possible for them to be wrong, and that they should be questioned. Political theory has changed since the 18th century, and it is foolish to throw out two centuries of revisions and challenges to the classical liberalism of Jefferson, Franklin, et al.

But putting aside the problems with relativism for a moment, I’d like to draw attention to the context in which Beck invokes this idea. Beck is making a relativist argument not merely on behalf of the founders, but to draw an equivalence between the founders’ position on slavery and the right’s position on abortion. This equivalence is somewhat misplaced–many of the founders were not abolitionists living in an unfavorable social context but were genuine slaveholders and racists. From Beck’s perspective, these founders are more equivalent to leftists who affirm the value of life while simultaneously supporting abortion rights than they are to the modern conservative movement. This speaks to a larger problem with Beck’s argument–“the founders” are not monolithic. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton will tell you that slavery is wrong, but they’ll also tell you that America needs a strong federal government that intervenes in the economy to support and guide its development. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry will permit slavery, affirm states’ rights, and promote an agrarian society with a small state. Glenn Beck, as an opponent of slavery and of a strong federal government, presumably could not agree with either the federalists or the democratic-republicans in full. So when the right appeals to the founders, which founder do they mean? Clearly no one individual, but some hypothetical, idealized amalgamation of the views the content of which is necessarily arbitrary. If you pick the right founder, you can find a justification for very nearly anything. It very quickly becomes ridiculous–Jefferson even explicitly says that future Americans should not defer to the founders or the democratic process and should instead partake in new violent revolutions:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

It’s been 148 years since the end of the American Civil War, so, by Jefferson’s tally, the tree of liberty is about due for watering. If his more stringent standard of “twenty years” is our guide, we’ve missed the mark rather badly. To say that the founders uniformly had the same view of slavery–or of anything else–that Beck himself has of abortion is to make a false sweeping generalization.

But what is perhaps most grating about Beck’s view is that he is defending the universal value of the moral and political positions taken by the founders by appealing to what is contingent and contextual about them. The founders cannot simultaneously be uniformly worth adhering to and people into whose frame of minds we must be put. The fact that the founders did not have a collective, borg-like hive mind that expressed one consistent opinion makes Beck’s view not merely contradictory, but incongruous. This view held by so many on the right that we need to go back to the ideas of the founders is fundamentally broken not merely because the founders were sometimes wrong, or because they sometimes themselves urge us not to adhere to them, but because the “ideas of the founders” are not a consistent, uniform whole, because the founders strongly disagreed with one another and can provide no more clear guidance about what we ought to do today than the ideas of Barack Obama and Ted Cruz can when taken together. The moral and political issues that divide us today divided the founders–no political group, on the right or left, can credibly claim to know the will of the founders, because “their will” has no singular meaning.

Once we recognize that the founders cannot be used to provide a hard textual justification for any set of political ideas, we are left in the sometimes uncomfortable position of having to justify our political views ourselves. The right seems quite uncomfortable with this prospect, and not merely in terms of adhering to some uniform interpretation of what the founders collectively thought–the right frequently defends its view that politics is inherently a Christian enterprise on the grounds that if it is not guided by adherence to a specific text (e.g. the Bible), it has no basis at all for anything it does. Or, as Sarah Palin put it:

Let’s think this through: Without God as an objective standard, who’s to say what’s wrong and what’s right?

The same set of criticisms could be applied here. Just as the founders do not express a uniform view of what the state should be or do, the Bible does not express a uniform, consistent view of what is right and wrong such that it can be appropriated by any political faction. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned”, yet “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.” While the right takes very seriously the Bible’s attack on homosexuality, it does not take seriously at all the Bible’s attack on usury, or the mandate that animals be sacrificed. Yet the right argues that without the Bible, they would not know what they should believe to be right and wrong? The right has already decided what it believes irrespective of what the Bible or any other text says. This notion that the right’s beliefs come from the collective principles of the founders or from the Bible is a pretense and should be dropped. The right may have good, substantive arguments for what it believes, but when it appeals to these external authorities on narrow interpretations that gloss over contradiction, variation, and nuance, it does itself no favors.