Friday, December 10, 2004

Bill Press is right (or what do we mean when we say, “the Founders were deists”?):

One of the saving graces of WorldNet(Nut)Daily is the that, despite having a general crackpot-rightwing (as opposed to “loony-left”) thrust, they maintain a modicum of fairness by running columns by leftists and libertarians, many of them very good.

Bill Press is one of the liberals whose columns they carry. And in this piece about the religious beliefs of our founders, Press is, for the most part, right on:

For starters, the Founding Fathers were not Christians. Most were Deists, who believed in a remote Providence, or "Watchmaker God," who created us, wound us up and left us on our own. From their writings, we know that few of them believed in Christ's divinity and none of them accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.

I’m sure he will be attacked in their letters section (I don’t care about that); it’s likely that WND will feature columns responding to Press, attempting to rebut him. But they will fail (and Ed Brayton, I, and others will be there to refute such attempts). WND in the past has pushed some real phony stuff about our Founders. I can just hear those phony David Barton quotes getting ready to be cited.

But let me comment on Press’s above cited passage. “The Founding Fathers” that Press refers to, I would assume, are those men who were responsible for the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (sometimes that phrase can mean more than one thing—for instance, I don’t think the theocrats running some of the state governments at the time constituted our “Founding Fathers,” and I certainly don't consider the Puritans from Mass. to be "Founders." The men responsible for the Declaration and the Constitution, if anything, attempted to radically break with the Puritan tradition). There were many Founders, and certainly there were orthodox Christians in the bunch (see John Witherspoon). But the most prominent ones were anything but orthodox Christians. Let’s take the first four Presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, and add Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine—and test their beliefs against Press’s claims.

Critics might argue (as have ME Bradford and others) that only Franklin and Paine were avowed Deists, the other four belonged to Christian Churches, and were thus not Deists. He would be right if we define Deism as (1) a strict belief in a remote Watchmaker God, who never interferes, AND (2) self-defining solely as a Deist AND (3) not belonging to any Christian Church. Well under this understanding, Jefferson doesn’t even quality (on each prong): He belonged to an Anglican Church; he, at times, referred to himself as a “Christian” (as well as a “Unitarian”, and a “Deist”) and he often alluded to a God that could interfere with human affairs.

Russell Kirk, on the other hand, gives a broader definition of deism:

Deism was neither a Christian schism nor a systematic philosophy, but rather a way of looking at the human condition; the men called Deists differed among themselves on many points….Deism was an outgrowth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific speculation. The Deist professed belief in a single Supreme Being, but rejected a large part of Christian doctrine. Follow Nature, said the Deists (as the Stoics had said before them), not Revelation: all things must be tested by private rational judgment….

Under this definition, Jefferson certainly qualifies as a deist, as do all of the above men that I cited. This is what is meant when we argue, “the Founders were deists.” I think that Franklin and Paine’s belief could be labeled as capital D Deism, while the rest of the framers should be termed small d deism (note how I have very carefully chosen in this post when to capitalized the “d” when I have used that term).

Any system of categorizing the Founders that puts Jefferson in the “Christian” box, because he 1) belonged to a Christian Church, 2) sometimes labeled himself as such, and 3) believed in a Providence that could perhaps interfere with human affairs, is not a meaningful understanding of Christianity. It’s like putting Phil Donahue in the “Christian” box because he belongs to the Catholic Church and describes himself as “Christian.”

Here is Alan Dershowitz on Jefferson and Christianity:

Jefferson…believed that the New Testament was written by "ignorant, unlettered men" and that much of it consisted of "so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture" that it could aptly be characterized as "dung." He thought even less of the Old Testament, whose vengeful God he deplored and whose draconian laws he rejected. He did not believe that the Ten Commandments, with their inclusion of punishment of children for the sins of their father, came from God, and he characterized the history of the Old Testament as "defective" and "doubtful." As for the supposed miracles of the Bible, he compared them to the false miracles of Greek and Roman mythology. Jefferson rejected the "supernatural" and regarded the concept of the Trinity as "insane." He specifically disagreed with Blackstone’s claim that the "law of Moses" was the basis of English law, characterizing the claim as a "fraud" based on an "awkward monkish fabrication.”
America Declares Independence, Pages 14-15.

In all fairness, Washington, Adams, and Madison probably thought higher of orthodox Christianity than did Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson. But as Press puts it, “From their writings, we know that few of them believed in Christ's divinity and none of them accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.” Let me put it more bluntly, there is no credible evidence that any of the six believed in Christ’s divinity or accepted Jesus as their personal savior. And we do know that Jefferson, Adams, Paine, and Franklin explicitly rejected the Trinity.

Most of these men tended to be silent about their non-orthodoxy and for good reason. Paine, who wasn’t silent, was absolutely vilified for it. Most of Jefferson’s harshest criticisms of Christianity, he was not public about (literally, we had to go into his personal letters to find this stuff); but when he did publicly rock the religious orthodoxy boat, he too was vilified. Madison and Washington kept their mouths shut. They left very little on record—therefore I can’t point to any smoking gun quotes of theirs explicitly rejecting the Trinity—but on the other hand, there is absolutely no evidence of their religious orthodoxy either.

Adams belonged to an unorthodox Church—Unitarian. And although he didn't publicly criticize non-Catholic orthodox Christianity (he, like many of the framers, was practically an anti-Catholic bigot), he did reveal his non-orthodoxy to Jefferson, in their personal letters. And there, in an 1813 letter, remarking on Britain’s repealed of a statute that made it illegal to publicly deny the Trinity, he lets Jefferson know that he too disbelieves in the Trinity. Adams also rejected the doctrine of eternal damnation.


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