Thursday, April 20, 2006

Book Recommendation:

Well, I haven't read the whole thing, but from what I have read of it, this looks to be a very good book on the founders and religion: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L. Holmes (a professor at the College of William and Mary).

In one passage, the author writes:

But if census takers trained in Christian theology had set up broad categories in 1790 labeled "Atheism," "Deism and Unitarianism," "Orthodox Protestantism," "Orthodox Roman Catholicism," and "Other," and if they had interviewed Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, they would undoubtedly have placed every one of these six founding fathers in some way under the category of "Deism and Unitarianism." pp 50-51.


The author apparently isn't aware of Gregg Frazer's thesis or the term "Theistic Rationalist," to describe the Founders' religious beliefs; but the facts uncovered in this book line up neatly with Frazer's argument.

And for those who believe America is a "Providential" nation, one chosen by God Himself as something *special,* who look back especially to the Founding era with sacred reverence, one has to ask why God chose to give these theological unitarians who disbelieved in eternal damnation such a *special* place in America's history as the first five Presidents and key leaders in Declaring Independence and constructing the Constitution. Perhaps, in doing so, God is sending a theological message.

6 comments:

The Gay Species said...

The little I know or care about the Founders' religious dispositions seem to correlate with Holmes' position. Frazer's thesis is absolute nonsense and entirely untenable.

I realize a strain of thought known as "originalism" that is the mainstay of controversy, and it is controversial for all the right reasons. It's absolutely incoherent, and even if it weren't, it is absoultely meaningless. There's simply no way we 21st C. thinkers can get "into the head" of 18th C. thinkers. Yes, we can understand their historical context, barely, and evaluate their arguments and positions, precisely. But the "water under the proverbial bridge" is past reclaiming, and it's time to focus on our present-day issues, than get into the quagmire of "original intent." The intentional fallacy isn't exactly a fallacy, but it does strain credulity to think we have access to "original meaning." After "context," there isn't much "there" there.

Even if we could ascertain "original intent," what would that prove? Nothing more than 18th C. thinking about 18th C. problems. While many of those same problems persist, their contexts definitely have not. So, we're ultimately applying 21st C. concepts to 18th C. solutions that may or may not have been understood as a feature then as it is presently understood. Obviously a major "disconnect."

Let's take an "obvious" example: "Democracy" means governance by the people, and apparently that is what is meant by our Founders, right? Well, wrong. Our Founders excluded women and all "Americans of African descent." With over half of humanity excluded, how could anyone possibly describe "their" notion of democracy as anything like "ours?" Excluding women and blacks is hardly trivial, and claiming the "left overs" as a plebicite is just a tad bit disengenuous. "THAT" democracy and "ours" bears little resemblance. Indeed, it's beyond imagining what in the world "they" meant by democracy, if they could exclude more than half of the population! That is more than a "disconnect," it's using two totally different descriptions of the word "democracy." "Their" definition is unmistakably an "abuse," because no one could describe something as "democratic," and at the same time exclude half+ of humanity! So, where does "their" definition of democracy fit "ours?" It does not! Not even close.

So, those bent on "original intent" will have to exclude half of humanity as "their" context to understand "the" Founders' original intent. Why would this make any sense to anyone? It's a betrayal of any reasonable meaning of the word "democracy," and applying "their" definition of democracy to present-day exigencies makes a mockery of everyone's present-day understanding of democracy. Who in the real world wants to "go there?"

Mutatis mutandis, "religion" and all its derivatives as applied to the 18th C. Founders cannot possibly entail the "same" religious sentiment that is ostensibly used today. The Christian and Islamic Fundamentalists perpetuate this categorical mistake of thinking they have an understanding of "original intent," when even their "context" does not mesh with the earlier meanings of those who used the very same wording. Context varies everything, and without context, nothing is coherent. We, in the 21st C. believe we understand the original meanings of the Founders, when obviously our use and their use could not be more different. If anyone in the 21st C. claimed that "democracy" means today what it meant to the Founders, they'd be pilloried, and rightly so. That is why Fundamentalists of all stripes are intolerable, because they presume "their" understanding and context matches the "originals," when it is patently clear that the two different centuries use words very differently. Imagine both Lenin and Benedict XVI claiming, "to each according to his need." Well, they have! After all, it's in the Bible!!! But clearly Lenin's use and Benedict's use differ by reason of context. Communism and Catholicism could not be more inimical! And while both use the same language, they obviously mean different things. One is appealing to Marx, the other to Acts 4:35. Yes, you Christian Fundamentalists, early Christianity was communalist and distributivist, yet this reality completely escapes you!

Just like today's originalists, today's Fundamentalists (whether Christian or Islamic) pick and choose their wording, and even more importantly, they pick and choose their context. How convenient, but utterly insincere! And if sincere, how utterly inauthentic! Another loss of the dice (which early Christians, by the way, used to determine who would be apostles; Acts 1:26. The early Christians were paramount gamblers, but heaven forbid we use lotteries today to pick our religious leaders, even if it is divinely appointed in scripture. My crap shoot tells me they have it all wrong, and I'm quite sure I'm right. My throw of the die tells me that "they" have it fundamentally wrong. How? Because they are selective in their texts, and they ignore the context of the times. It's not unlike them to misunderstand "sodomite" as "homosexuals," when the linguistic use and context picks out "male prostitutes." Yes, male prostitutes can be homosexual, but not all homosexuals are male prostitutes! My, what a revelation. Only if one takes linguistic "use" and "context" into play. So the damnation of all homosexuals to hell is a tad bit of an overstatement, but no less significant than the significance of using craps to choose religious leaders, apostles no less!

Obviously, "original intent" is a variant of fundamentalism, and fundamentalism finds expression in "original content," both, no less, to be disregarded, because of it. Applying yesteryear's standards to today's problems are not without their challenges, but yesteryear's solutions need to begin with similar understandings, which fundamentalists lack entirely. That pesky feature known as "context" misleads them every time. No wonder Frazer could make such preposterous claims, because he lacks a common language, and he distorts any sense of a common context. He isn't mildly off course, he's totally off it. He could not make such absurd claims without a fundamentalist disconnect. But having found a equivocation of use and context, he himself equivocates their application. The result is nonsense, but given that believers will want to see what they want to see, belief is the excuse to reject reason, and reason rejected because it requires "use" and "context." But even IF we could get to a consensus of use and context, that would entail consistency, and consistency is the hobgoblin of fundamentalism. Oh, the webs we weave!

Jonathan said...

What exactly was it about Frazer's thesis that you think is nonsense? The way I read it, his theory lines up neatly with Holmes's, with the major difference being semantical terms.

Frazer's argument is simply this:

The key Founders -- not all of them, but those "Whig" Founders that come to mind when you mention the word "Founders" -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and a few others -- had theological beliefs that strikingly paralleled one anothers' on the basics (even if they differed somewhat on the finer details).

And that this belief system arguably is neither "Christian" nor "Deist." It's not "Christian" because the belief system is theologically Unitarian and elevates Man's Reason over Revelation and the traditional Christian doctrines. And it's not "Deist" because the Deists are supposed to believe in a cold, non-intervening Providence; but all of these Founders believed in a Warm Deity who intervened (save Paine, who probably was a "strict Deist" in this sense). So he picks a new term, "Theistic Rationalist," which aptly describes this belief system (but the Founders didn't call themselves that).

The term that Frazer uses -- Theistic Rationalist -- is really (in my opinion) the only controversial part of his thesis. My research has independently confirmed everything else for which he argues.

Here's my thoughts contra Frazer: If we read the terms "Christian" or "Deists" in a narrow sense, which many do, he is right. Most of the conservative Christians today will flat out tell you that a theological Unitarian is not a "Christian." And if that's the case, then the key Founders were not Christians.

But if we read the terms "Christian" and "Deist" in a broader sense, then arguably these Founders were both Christians and Deists. In a broad sense, a "Deist" is a monotheist who follows Reason over Revelation (doesn't necessarily reject all Revelation out of hand, just follows Reason as the ultimate arbiter of Truth). In a broad sense, a "Christian" is anyone connected in any way to a Christian Church even if he rejects many traditional Christian doctrines (ala the so called "Cafeteria Christians") or anyone who embraces the label "Christian." All these Founders save Ben Franklin were members of Christian Churches.

The Founders whom Frazer invokes at times, labeled themselves all three words, "Christians," "Unitarians," and "Deists." They didn't use the term Theistic Rationalist.

The word "Unitarian" is probably what the Founders would have called themselves. However, if you state: "These Founders were Unitarians," some dumbass like David Barton (I saw a special of his where he did this), will confuse that word with the Unitarian Congregational Church, of which only John Adams was a member.

But when I read Holmes stating:

"[I]f they had interviewed Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, they would undoubtedly have placed every one of these six founding fathers in some way under the category of 'Deism and Unitarianism'...."

I think this parallels exactly what Frazer argues save for the label "Theistic Rationalist."

The Gay Species said...

Christianity is fundamentally both an Abrahamic and Christological religion, based on divine revelation, and the transcendent reality of the Trinity by definition. Unitarians are a monotheistic religion in which God is perceived or conceived by the senses and/or thought that has neither Abrahamic or Christological roots, nor any sense of "revelation" in the historic sense; it may be either transcendental or immanent or both. Deists are primarily pantheists, without any aspect of revelation, other than what can be culled from nature or thought. The Deists' God is entirely immanent and entirely lacking transcendence.

None of these religious perspectives can be called "Rationalist" in any plausble sense. I have no conception of what a Theistic Rationalist might be. But Holmes is correct in identifying the Founders as either Unitarians or Deists, which are fundamentally alike, but definitely were not Christian or Abrahamic, which are entirely different.

In Christianity the Three Divine Persons in One God is revealed through the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God. In the other two Theisms, God is "revealed" only in the sense of perception or conception, while Christianity's God is transcendently inaccessible and "known" only by divine revelation, principally through the incarnation of the Divine-Human Person of Jesus.

Frazer asserts that the Founders were "both" Christian and Deists, at least in some "broad" sense. That cannot possibly be, because the two are mutually-exclusive. Supernatural revelation of the transcendental God is at the core of Christianity, and perceptive/conceptual naturalism and immanentism are at the core of Unitarians and Deism. This does not prevent one group from borrowing ideas from the other, but the nature of the two religious perspectives is at complete odds.

It is entirely incoherent to claim anyone could possibly be BOTH Christian and Unitarian/Deists at the same time.
in Unitarianism/Deism.

Jonathan said...

-- Frazer asserts that the Founders were "both" Christian and Deists, at least in some "broad" sense. That cannot possibly be, because the two are mutually-exclusive. --

No I assert that perhaps they could be both Christian and Deists. For instance, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were all Episcopals (members of a "Christian" Church); thus, despite their heterodox Unitarian beliefs could be categorized as "Christians" in some sense (but not the "narrow" sense of Trinitarian, Orthodox Christianity).

Frazers' argument is that the Founders were NEITHER Christian (because they weren't Trinitarian and rejected traditional Christian orthodoxies) NOR Deists (because they invoked a warm intervening Providence, something Deists aren't supposed to do).

Even Jefferson and Franklin, the two most likely conceded as "Deists," invoked a warm intervening Providence. Personally, I think the word "Unitarian" best describes what these Founders thought themselves to be. Except, Adams was the only member who was a Unitarian Congregant. The rest were simply theological Unitarians who belonged to a variety of Christian Churches. I think for that reason, Frazer looks for a better descriptive term than "Unitarian." And he chooses "Theistic Rationalist" -- they are "Rationalists" because these Founders viewed Reason as the ultimate standard for evaluating what was true in not just everyday reality, but in theological matters as well.

The Gay Species said...

Deism, as I understand it and as it is defined, is belief in "God" by rational thought or by experience or both, but outside of revelation (as it is commonly understood). As mentioned earlier, it is usually immanent and rarely transcendental, which is also descriptive of pantheism. But that does not exclude perception of God as "Creator" or "Providence" or "Immanence" or other designators, so I'm not sure what Frazer thinks excludes those Founders who used such terminology tout court. The sense of "warm Deity" is incoherent by any standard. Even the Christian God does not fit that description.

I could imagine someone being "philosophically" a Deist and "theologically" a Christian, even though the two are incompatible. But since when have religionists been coherent? But, in order to obtain a broad consensus, I could imagine someone espousing one conception in one context and the other conception in another context, but one could not hold both simultaneously. I assumed Frazer was trying to maintain this incompatibility, but you're claiming their belief in a "warm Deity" eliminates them from either category. Again, I have no possible idea what a "warm Deity" is meant to suggest, since I'm new to this expression. On its face, it's incoherent. And it's special use would have to get past what possible sense "warm" as attributable to a Deity could in any sense mean.

Jonathan said...

"Warm" simply means "intervening" or one that takes an interest in the affairs of man. The problem with the Founders were "Deist" claim is that many of the "Deists" like Jefferson and Franklin explicitly spoke of an interventionist God. Paine perhaps was the "strict Deist" of the bunch, whose God was a cold-distant, non-interventionist God.