Friday, June 09, 2006

What Would the Founders Do about God?

My Dad and I saw Richard Brookhiser speak at the Barnes & Nobles at the Princeton Market Faire (just up the road from where I teach). And I finally got Brookhiser's book which he autographed.

Brookhiser is definitely one of the fairest reporters on the Founding. He acted as "press secretary" for the Founders who were hiding away at an undisclosed location.

A number of questions on religion came up, one of which was asked by me. I asked why did Washington systematically refuse to take communion at his church? Brookhiser honestly answered that no one really knows why, all we can do is speculate.

He did note, correctly, that Washington kept his "religious card" closely guarded, that he went out of his way to take the specific details of his religious beliefs to his grave. We do know that Washington believed in a warm-intervening Providence whose Hand helped America win the Revolution. Beyond that we can only speculate as to what Washington, in private, really believed.

Brookhiser noted that perhaps it was because Washington knew he was so well respected and important an historical figure, that prudence dictated he didn't dare endorse a particular version of God that would alienate any meaningful sector of the troops he commanded, the other Founders he led, or the population at large he governed. In other words, when Washington invoked God, he was a, forgive the phrase, "uniter, not a divider."

And this is something else Brookhiser noted (and which I've discovered in my research), when Washington and the other key Founder Presidents invoked God, they did so as consensus builders. They drew a lowest-common-denominator which could unite the mixed bag of religious views among the Founders and the population at large. And in doing so, they established the so called "civil religion" of America.

The Founders believed that America was a nation "Under God." However, contrary to the claims of the Christian Nationalists, the civil religion is not a lowest-common-denominator form of "Christianity" or even "Judeo-Christianity." The term "Judeo-Christian" is useful in some respect, but can be abused or invoked as an anachronism. The term didn't exist during the Founding era and today is often used as a way for Christian conservatives to try to build common ground with religiously and socially conservative Jews.

But one thing is for sure, our Founders when they invoked God, weren't trying to build a lowest-common-denominator between Christians and Jews. Were that true, America would have been founded on the Old Testament, and not the New. Although the Founders believed that Jews were entitled to their full unalienable rights of conscience, few (any?) of the Founders were Jews themselves and Jews otherwise represented a very small percentage of the population.

[Check out my post on Justice Scalia's opinion in the Ten Commandments case. Scalia explores these very same consensus building "lowest-common-denominator" issues of the civil religion. And for a while he proceeds quite on track. But then he derails when he absurdly concludes that the Old Testament to which Jews, Muslims, and Christians all believe was indeed the lowest common denominator! Scalia needs to argue this in order to include the Ten Commandments in the civil religion. Yet, clearly they aren't. As Kip Esquire comically notes, "I have never once in my life met someone who introduced himself as a 'practicing Judeo-Christian,' or as a 'practicing Bible-of-the-God-of-Abraham Monotheist'[]."]

So what is the lowest-common-denominator of the civil religion? It's not between the different Christian sects, between Judaism and Christianity, or between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In fact it's not a civil religion based on revelation only. But rather between reason and revelation. If I could put forth three different boxes of religious views of the few hundred men who made up the "Founding Fathers" they would be orthodox Christian, Deist, and Theistic Rationalist. Note, this third box which may be the most important box of all, has been given many names. "Theistic Rationalist" is a term coined by one Dr. Gregg Frazer, professor at the Master's College. That system of belief has been called, "liberal Christianity," "warm Deism," "Christian-Deism," "Unitarianism," I've called it "deistic-Unitarian." Whatever label is proper, it was the creed of the Key Founders, the ones most responsible for positing the principles upon which America declared independence and constructed the Constitution. It is not "Deist" because such a system posits a warm intervening Providence. And it is not "Christian" because such a system is theologically Unitarian, not Trinitarian.

Certainly, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and likely Washington, (and some others) would fall within this theological box. So when these "Theistic Rationalist" Presidents (the first 5) made their public supplications to God, they had to at once not contradict their own personal beliefs or the beliefs of the many orthodox Christians in the population. Briefly, the theistic rationalists were theological Unitarians who believed in a warm-intervening Providence, but disbelieved in eternal damnation, believed in some, but not the inerrancy of Scripture, disbelieved many of the miracles and prophesies recorded in the Bible which seemed to contradict the laws of nature and science, and they elevated man's reason over revelation as the ultimate evaluator of Truth.

And so they drew a lowest-common-denominator between this belief system and orthodox Christianity. And that lowest-common-denominator is as follows: There is an intervening Providence who takes an interest in man's affairs, grants men rights, and will reward good and punish evil. That is the theological solid ground which founds our public order. But beyond those few and simple details, few if anything can be added. We cannot say, for instance, that this God gave us the Ten Commandments, because that is part of scripture of which the theistic rationalists were highly dubious. And this is where the Christian Right today are absolutely operating outside of the tradition of our early Founding Father Presidents. They were purposefully vague and gave few details as to whom God really was so as to be inclusive as possible.

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