Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Many Orthodox Christians Understand America isn't a "Christian Nation":

As my readers know, I think the Christian Nationalism movement, spearheaded by folks like D. James Kennedy, David Barton, and others, is a dangerous movement with theocratic tendencies. I don't think they represent mainstream Republican or Christian conservative thought. But they do have political influence, as well as millions of followers who believe their distorted and revisionist history.

As I've noted before, my own personal interest, as a libertarian, in debunking the Christian Nation nonsense is simply, if these folks understand they never "owned" our Founding as they have been erroneously taught, they'd be less zealous about trying to "reclaim" it, and consequently adopt a more "live and let live" attitude about government and culture.

When I share my ideas on various threads, sometimes those who believe the "Christian Nation" thesis get angry and attack me. Some of them are quite funny. For instance, one person remarked:

Jon Rowe is a militant secular pagan who specializes in the hapless task of trying to prove that the Founders were deistic-Unitarians. He trolls through correspondence and digs up passages, which, when taken out of context, cast doubt on the Founder's faith. Essentially, he attempts to project his own views on the Founders in a clearly revisionist attempt to distort history. Eighteenth century deism and unitarianism influenced the Founders but with the exception of Paine and Jefferson they retained a mainly devout Christian religion.

Another writes, "Jon: I have absolutely no desire to ever again visit the posts on your blog, because they say the exact things over and over and over and over again. America was founded as a nation based on Christian principles and values, regardless of whether or not you believe that."

However, because I go out of my way to be polite and civil, most people, even if they disagree, are polite and civil in return.

One of the biggest, and most pleasant surprises however, is just how many conservative/orthodox Christians are receptive to what I argue, many of whom never bought into the "Christian Nation" thesis to begin with.

Indeed, one of the most ironic discoveries I've made while researching the nation's ideological origins is some of the most important and cutting edge research that has debunked the "Christian Nation" idea has come not from secularists or liberal Christians like John Shelby Spong, but rather from conservative and orthodox Christians.

It's not just Gary North, who though an extreme Christian Reconstructionist, has an E-book which well understands America's ideological origins. Neither is it only Dr. Gregg Frazer, an orthodox Christian who teaches at a conservative Christian college, and whose work (a comprehensive study of the key Founders' religious beliefs and consequent connection with founding principles which debunks the "Christian America" idea) I have tirelessly trumpeted. It's also Robert Kraynak, a devout conservative Catholic and on whose book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (Notre Dame Press, 2001) Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis heavily relies. It's also Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, whose book The Search for Christian America Frazer's thesis also references. See this bloggers description of the three authors:

These three men are regarded as three of the finest historians on American religious history. And all three of them are evangelical Christians. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College, Hatch is President-Elect and Professor of History at Wake Forest University and former Provost and Director of Graduate Studies in History at Notre Dame, and Marsden is Professor of History at Calvin College.

Jim Babka, whose radio show featured me, generally supports my ideas on religion and the Founding and is himself a devout evangelical Christian. Jeremy Pierce tipped me to this post of Ben Witherington's. Ben is a conservative Christian and positively reviews David L. Holmes's excellent book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers which argues that the key Founding Fathers were not orthodox Christians. Witherington writes:

More tellingly, none of the first five presidents would appear to have been orthodox Christians in any modern sense of the term. Indeed most modern Evangelicals would think of them as like either contemporary nominal or very liberal episcopalians (cf. Bishop Spong), if not actual heretics (e.g. in the case of Jefferson who rejected the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of the Bible as revealed religion and so on)....In short there is no encouragement here either for the secular humanist theory of America's origins or for that matter for the 'our first leaders were mostly orthodox Christians' theory either. Sorry Timothy La Haye, and other Evangelical revisionist historians, but you need fact check as bad as Dan Brown did.

Finally, even conservative Christian home schooled high school and young college students are beginning to reject the "Christian Nation" thesis. See for instance, Virtue Magazine, which has connections to Patrick Henry College, one of the few places where the "Christian Nation" thesis is still viable in the academy. Oh, they have some writers who endorse the myth. See this column (the writer is only 17; that's why I am not going to browbeat her with my research). But they also have this piece by Derek Wallace which debunks a Christian Nation myth about Jefferson. And Wallace is going to initiate a series of articles challenging the Christian Nation thesis. See the first one where he writes:

The purpose of this series will be to examine The Claim in more detail, and the beliefs that often go hand in hand with it. While the ACLU and any number of other people go too far when it comes to removing religious elements from school or public property, we submit that Christian conservatives go too far in the other direction. We also submit that their main justification or defense ("America was founded as a Christian nation") is not necessarily accurate....


The Gay Species said...

I would think that your efforts at intellectual honesty would be self-evident and rewarding, but the equivocators of the Christian Nation (and their ilk) always seem to find exceptions to reason, history, and truth. Frankly, I don't know how they face their own overt dishonesty (with Yahweh searching their hearts and minds), but the evangelical has seemingly always found himself to be an "exception," under a dispensation he alone feels free to abuse, so if reason, history, and truth do not conform to his revisionism, he simply finds new exceptions in which to escape.

Alas, the people of the lie that Scott Peck was so sure of continues to manifest itself under different and exceptionalist ideology. I suppose if Armageddon is at hand, and if ends justify means, what is false witness when truth is so disposable?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, the polemicist maintains his focus on his few enemies instead of his many allies in the search for truth. Disappointing, but in character.

Well done, Jon. I suppose this is the end of your inquiry or the beginning of a continuing, um, crusade. :-)

The fact is that Christian (and we might say Judeo-Christian) principles (as opposed to dogma)were part and parcel of the political philosophy that led the Founders to the Framing. It seems to me that as long as that vast proto-American unwashed who considered themselves Christian (including many Signers) found no conflict with their principles in the Framing, they were quite content to let the Framers hack it all out as honest brokers who had no horse in the dogma race.

After all, they'd fled to America in the first place to get away from the often bloody dogma race. But they shared certain First Principles that allowed them to create a constitution, and form a nation.

(That pesky slavery thing aside. That had to be resolved by the shedding of much blood some 70 years later. It was one of those things.)

Matthew Anderson said...


I'm not sure about Hatch, but Marsden retired from his post at Notre Dame this fall and was replaced by Noll. It doesn't matter, but it was a big blow for Wheaton. Noll has carved out a reputation as the premier evangelical historian...

Jonathan said...


Thanks for the info on those guys. Can't wait to get their book!

Jonathan said...


I'm not so sure I disagree with what you write. I'm not arguing the Founding is anti-Christian (although it is anti certain kinds of Christianity which would seek to use the civil system to impose "Christianity" on the populace). Rather, I'm saying (after these scholars) that the Founding is not necessarily "Christian" (or even "Judeo-Christian"). Founding principles are, however, compatible with certain forms of Christianity.

The Founding actually represented a consensus position between the orthodox Christians on the one hand, and the "infidel" deistic-Unitarians (Theistic Rationalists) on the other.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think we're in agreement, Jon, and I think your last is well-put. On the one lefty blog I deign to haunt, one of the lefties termed the Founding "culturally Judeo-Christian," and I was good with that.

On the other hand, there were certain cultural assumptions and prejudices under which they all proceeded without questions asked, including by the "honest brokers," and we all know what we're talking about here. Uh oh.

The Gay Species said...

The article's "Dr. Gregg Frazer, an orthodox Christian," should be more careful. When it comes to the appellation of "orthodoxy," only the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics (who mutually disagree with the other's appellation) have any claim to that designation. The Reformers and the Evangelical Movement, each in their respective generations, are heretical against the historical reality that predates them.

There is a certain irony in any use of the appellation, because "orthodoxy" was determined by ecumenical councils in their refutations of heresies. So if a believer held a certain belief in 400 that was subsequently determined in 800 to be heretical, was the earlier believer "orthodox" or "heretical?"

The conciliar process proceeds on the assumption that the faithful are orthodox and then are subsequently led astray, which the council identifies as heretical, and instantiates the truth for all time. But pluralistic faith has always been a presumed quality, and within Catholicism, at least, still can be. A community that endorses Augustine, Francis of Asisi, and John of the Cross obviously allows a pluralism of charisms, even if a narrower pluralism in practice, and even a much narrower pluralism in belief. By the Council of Trent, the faith had become quite clear to what is acceptable and unacceptable to the Christian faith.

Even though the Eastern and Latin communions had separated in 1071, and lived almost separate existences for centuries before, the similarities of their faiths and practices are a stark contrast to those following the Reformation. The Evangelical species is so far removed from any historical antecedents, their antinomian tendencies so anathema to the earliest of practices, it is arguable whether they deserve the appellation of "Christian" at all. Notwithstanding that denotation, they are clearly heretics and apostates and anything but "orthodox."

As Karen Armstrong documents of all monotheistic religions, a certain ultramontanism inevitably creeps into all religions, almost always as a reaction against something it disapproves. And if any institution deserves the appellation of "ultramontane," Roman Catholicism cannot be superceded. And yet, at its core, the faith and practices of the early church remain remarkably intact (the same with Orthodoxy), while the Reformed and Evangelical Movements, disconnected from all organic roots, are often no better than tangents, more often significant corruptions, of the earliest faith.

This feature is unremarkable given the different ontologies. The early conception of Church as organ of the Holy Spirit instituted of Jesus as a "new tribe" in the Hebraic lineage is totally absent after the Reformation. Instead, a "tool" of the Church, the Scriptures (which it formed and canonized), becomes a substitute ontology, lacking the organism, continuity, or means of contextualizing the "tool." Rather than the Holy Spirit speaking through the entire Church as the oracle, each believer with a book becomes his own oracle, divining for himself God's Word.

Acts 15, which describes the Council of Jerusalem, is the historical and traditional model of early Christianity, with apostles and bishops determing faith and practice through the inspiration of the Spirit. The Evangelical model has no parallel, rather each individual is the oracle led by any personality he favors. Like the modern shopper, if he does not like the current model, he gets a new one. Whereas the historical and biblical model is that the believer does not get to chose his personalities or his practices or his faith, but that all comes from within, and under, the auspices of the Church. True, the Church is an instrument of the Spirit, established by Jesus, but in the hierarchy of ontologies, it is Spirit->Church->Tradition->Scripture. Somewhere "fidelium consensus" fits in, before or as a part of Tradition. In the primitive model, the Spirit operates on the whole body of believers, not on the individual believer alone. Historically, the "consensus of the faithful" is what established the truth, not each isolated believer.

The rise of the Evangelical model, largely at the expense of the Traditional model, parallels American consumerism and independence, such that one "buy" what one wants, rather than submits to what is determined. Radical liberty is not a Christian value, even if it is an American one. Pluralism, definitely, especially when it comes to practice, but the sort of freedom that is narcissistic and antinomian is as foreign to historic Christianity as Roman Emperors are to our democracy.

One thing is certain, though. Like historical Christianity, Evangelicalism has found its strength in the political realm. Something within Christianity (or religion generally) seems drawn to power and control, especially of others. But unlike the positive developments of religion on politics in the past (and numerous horror stories as well), today's Evangelicalism borders on the fascistic, where in the past it was used to "tame" power and naked agression (see, Armstrong). Again, lacking organic root and tied together by a common biblioidolatry that justifies preexistent prejudices, they've found a way to impose their onw radical dysfunction onto others. The difference between al-Qaeda and biblical fundamentalism is a matter of degree, not of kind, which is why so many people, even normative Christians, find Evangelicals threatening.

The Gay Species said...

On Sept 5 and 6, I have two posts that may be of interest: Having It Yahweh's Way and An Argument Against the Existence of God. Both posts raise issues that most people of faith refuse to consider.

Jonathan said...

I use the term "orthodox Christian" (and it's not just me, it's also scholars like David L. Holmes who wrote "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers") to describe Christians who assent to the traditional doctrines and creeds. I suppose you can view it as sort of a lowest common denominator between traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics (The Trinity, The Incarnation, The Atonement, The Virgin Birth, the primacy of Scripture etc.).

Your research shows that there are many nuances to the development of these faiths. Although, I think it's just a semantical disagreement. To make the point, I could have just as easily said Gregg Frazer is an evangelical Protestant who teaches at college so aligned with that creed (instead of using the term "orthodox Christian").

When I use the term "orthodox" in that way, I am mainly speaking as an outsider observing traditional developments of doctrine. As far as the Scriptures themselves, anti-Trinitarian or universal salvation readings (two very unorthodox positions associated with Founding believers like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin) seem to me to be just as compatible with a literal reading of the Bible as the tradtional positions. But the powers that be in charge of "official doctrines" disagreed, as an historical matter.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I hold no brief for the fundies, but for the record, any attempt to compare them to al-Qaeda is slanderous, and even worse, tiresome.