Monday, May 31, 2004

Randall Terry Responds (or Founders, Philosophers, and the Trinity):

Randall Terry responded to my post. Here is his email in full:

Your read of history is political.

Almost all of the signers were Trinitarians (except Ben Franklin). Almost all were from an Anglican (Reformed Catholic) background.

To say that the God they were referring to was not the God of the Old and New Testament is a laughable, absurd that could only be constructed in recent times.

The most frequently quoted book in revolutionary literature was Deuteronomy.

The Phrase "the laws of Nature and Natures God" I.e., [sic] revealed Law and Natural Law, shows where they were at. Natural Law is a long and old body of thought from Catholic Philosohpers [sic] (and protestant as well) that speaks of the law written on all mens [sic] the Judeo Christian God...the only God.

I have another piece coming out soon, called "CLoning [sic] Thomas Jefferson, and ignoring Dean Addell"

Look for it, you may learn something. You could also get the book, "Defending the Declaration" by Gary Amos. It is a very scholorly [sic] look at the Declaration from the eyes and writings of those who lived then...not now.

Thanks, and Christ's peace be with you,


I won’t reply here to every point he made because most what I disagree with in this reply is already answered in my original post. I will take aim at just a few of his many errors.

First, the claim that “[a]lmost all of the signers [of the Declaration of Independence] were Trinitarians (except Ben Franklin).” Many men signed the Declaration and I certainly don’t know the religious orientation of all of them, but the most important person behind the Declaration—its author Thomas Jefferson—not only did not believe in the concept of the Trinity, but referred to it as “insane.” The other men on the drafting committee included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert. R. Livingston. Our second President, John Adams, was a Unitarian. Unitarianism’s defining feature is that it rejects the Trinity. And of course, Ben Franklin’s deism is well known (and acknowledged by Terry). Alan Dershowitz writes, “The religious views of Sherman and Livingston are less well known, though it seems likely that the former was a traditional Christian, while the latter was closer to Jefferson and had expressed religious views that have been characterized as ‘daring to the point of impiety.’” America Declares Independence, at 70.

One point I often hear apologists for the “Christian nation” idea make (after M.E. Bradford) is that there were only a handful of avowed deists at the time of the founding, the rest professed some type of orthodox Christianity. This is a distortion because, while the overwhelming majority of the founders may have been Christian in *some* sense, a great deal of our most important “Christian” founders were anything but the Jerry Falwell, et al. “born-again” fundamentalist types. Let us not forget, men like Bill Clinton and Howard Dean also are “Christians” in some sense.

And rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity is a good way to measure who is or is not an “orthodox” Christian (most born-again types that I know tell me that if you reject the Trinity, you are not a real Christian).

Let’s see how our first four presidents stack up relating to their views on the Trinity. Both Adams and Jefferson, our 2nd & 3rd respectively, clearly rejected the Trinity.

George Washington’s exact religious views are, in my opinion, not fully settled. One reason why this is so, is because he tended to be very silent about them. His silence is telling: Most “born-again” evangelizers are anything but silent about their religion (just look at how Terry ended his email to me -- any evidence of George Washington ending his letters with things like "Christ's peace be with you"?) Silence, in these matters, is more of a tell-tale feature of someone who either has something to hide, or something that he doesn’t want to wear on his sleeve. And many deists back in the day could not wear their “deism” or any kind of “non-orthodoxy” on their sleeves back then—especially the politicians. Jefferson was positively vilified by the forces of “religious correctness” for his non-orthodoxy. He was called, among other things, a “French infidel” and a “howling atheist.” A prominent reverend campaigning against Jefferson’s presidency stated that if Jefferson were elected, it would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen the bonds of society.” It thus becomes understandable why if Washington were a deist, as a man of great prudence, he would be silent about it.

So was Washington a deist? One of America’s most distinguished historians of religion, Edwin Gaustad, labeled Washington “a cool deist.” Washington, like many of the “Christian” founders, was well versed in Enlightenment teachings and commonly used Enlightenment terminology in his words. Washington, like Ben Franklin and other deists, characteristically referred to God as the “Grand Architect of the Universe,” and in other ways that could lead one to conclude that he was a deist. See Kramnick & Moore’s, The Godless Constitution, p. 101. In the New York Times, Kenneth Davis writes that, although George Washington attended religious services in the Episcopalian Church, he often left church before Holy Communion which is something that orthodox Anglicans did not do. Davis also thinks that Washington was a deist. I have not yet seen the evidence sufficient to unequivocally categorize him as a deist. But the evidence of his Trinitarianism is sorely lacking.

James Madison, our fourth President, may have been the first one to believe in the Trinity. His religious views appeared to be more conventional than say, Jefferson’s. But Madison was, like Jefferson, a strict adherent to the doctrines of secular government and separating Church & State, believing that the “purities” of both should never be mixed with one another. Now Madison didn’t always live up to this ideal as President. But when, for reasons of expediency, Madison could not keep with his ideals, he realized that this was a failure. For instance, under intense political pressure during the War of 1812, Madison, “recommended, rather than decreed, that religious denominations and societies ‘so disposed’ appeal to God for assistance in the war. There was no suggestion that failure to comply involved any public penalty.” The Godless Constitution, at 106. But Madison later regretted this decision. “In 1832, at the age of eighty-one, Madison conceded that it might not be easy to keep clear the line between religious and civil authority; he himself had problems with his war proclamation, he noted. All the more reason, then, he advised future generations, to take the strictest reading of the separation of church and state, 'an entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever.'" Id.

Madison believed the way he did because he—like Jefferson and others—was a strict disciple of the Enlightenment liberals, particularly Locke—who gave us the “theoretical” or “epistemological” understanding as to why religion belonged in the realm of the “private” or “opinion” as opposed to the realm of “public” or “truth.” Locke and the other Enlightenment philosophers denied the Trinity (this shouldn’t surprise us—the philosophers believed first and foremost that Truth is ascertainable by Man’s Reason, whatever doesn’t comport with Reason cannot be the Truth, and the religious doctrines were true only insofar as they were reasonable. The Trinity was a doctrine that the philosophers had a big problem with on the grounds that it was not reasonable. Hence, Jefferson’s categorizing it as “insane.”) But the teachings of the Enlightenment philosophers were so appealing that even orthodox (Trinitarian) Christians eventually came to accept the Truth of their teachings, even going so far as incorporating Hobbsean—Lockean theory into their sermons.

For instance, John Witherspoon, a founder and former President of Princeton University, is often referred to as a “Calvinist” because he was a Presbyterian minister (and Calvin was the founder of Presbyterianism). He certainly believed in the Trinity. Witherspoon nonetheless was a Lockean. As Walter Berns writes, “Witherspoon could speak unreservedly of ‘natural liberty’ and ‘natural rights’; and of the ‘state of nature’ and like Locke…of its ‘inconveniences,’ inconveniences that caused men to leave it for the ‘social state.’ But in the same lecture he could admonish his listeners and readers to accept ‘Christ Jesus as he is offered in the gospel,’ for ‘except that a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ In a word, Witherspoon saw no conflict between the new political philosophy and the old religion, which is to say between the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and what he understood as orthodox Christianity.” Making Patriots, p. 42. But Berns writes elsewhere that Locke’s state of nature teaching is wholly alien to the Bible. Thus, Enlightenment theory is not a Biblical ideology. At best, it’s perhaps (or not) compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it’s certainly not compatible with an understanding of orthodox Christianity that seeks to use the state to enforce the tenants of orthodox Christianity.

In sum, if our first President even to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity (and I'm still not fully sure that Madison did -- men imbibed in Elightenment theory as Madison was were likely to be highly skeptical of this doctrine) was a militant advocate of the separation of Church & State, this tells us that America was not founded by a bunch of Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells. I could write more. I want to talk about Roger Williams and the rationale put forth by orthodox Protestants for secular government. But that will have to come later. I’ve written enough already.


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