Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Founders, Religion, and Context:

I've repeatedly shown on this website how when it comes to religion, the "Christian Nation" crowd (David Barton et al.) when they manage to quote the Founders accurately, often grossly distort the context of the quotations in attempting to prove their myth.

Jefferson and Adams, because they called themselves Christian, are particularly easy to quote out of context. I've noted a number of times how the Christian Nation crowd offers the following quotation from Adams, which, when plucked from context, does seem on point for their side: "The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence, were . . . the general principles of Christianity." However, when one reads the rest of Adams's letter to Jefferson from which the quotation is taken, a different meaning emerges:

Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System. I could therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present Information, that I believed they would never make Discoveries in contradiction to these general Principles. In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.

Looking primarily to Enlightenment philosophers, including the works of atheist, Hume, or radical French philosophes, Rousseau and Voltaire, in support of "the general principles of Christianity"? Adams clearly doesn't mean what the Christian Nation crowd wants him to mean.

So in the last few weeks of debating this issue on various threads, and watching Dr. Gregg Frazer debate on this particular thread, I've been struck by how often the other side utterly misunderstands the context in which our Founders spoke, and otherwise tries to split hairs and read things into their words which they did not say or mean. Some of the misunderstanding seems innocent enough. Some of it, however, seems willful or at least willfully viewing this issue with blinders on, refusing to give up on an idea -- that the US Founding was Divinely inspired by your understanding of God -- when the evidence clearly seems to indicate otherwise, or asks more questions than it answers (for instance, if God divinely inspired the Founding and intended America to be a "Shining City on the Hill" founded by Christians for Christians, why did He choose so many theological unitarians-universalists or Infidels to play such prominent, indeed the most important, roles?).

The following is another quotation, taken from Adams's Dec. 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson, the Christian Nation crowd often offers to prove Adams was a "devout Christian":

"I have examined all, as well as my narrow Sphere, my streightened means and my busy Life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the World. It contains more of my little Phylosophy than all the Libraries I have seen: and such Parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little Phylosophy I postpone for future investigation."

Usually the Christian Nation crowd ends the quotation with the sentence which ends "in the World." The next sentence indicates that Adams has a "philosophy" and that parts of his "philosophy," he can't reconcile with the Bible, already giving us a clue that Adams doubts the Bible is inerrant or at least complete.

But when one reads the entire letter and understands it in full context, one sees that Adams's understanding of "Christianity" and the "Bible" appears quite unorthodox. Indeed, nothing about that above quotation, understood in its proper context, contradicts anything I have argued about Adams. Adams's quotation simply means that Reason and Revelation largely agree (a tenet I've long noted about Adams and the other key Founders' religious creed). In that same letter, Adams also clearly asserts that Reason supersedes Revelation, indeed makes Revelation entirely unnecessary and that most (perhaps all) world religions contain the same Truth as Christianity and are thus valid ways to God. Adams's writings, in their entirety, demonstrate that he was a universalist also in the sense that he denied eternal damnation. Plus, he was a theological unitarian who thought the Bible contained errors, amendments and suspected fabrications.

Although Adams's December 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson is not (as far as I am aware) online in full, I blogged about it and made similar points in this past post. But, Dr. Frazer on this thread, recently posted an excellent summary of the entire letter and its context. An excerpt from Dr. Frazer's post thus follows:

Re the Adams Hindu quote: the only way FOR YOU to understand Adams's quote is to "ASSUME" what he clearly did not mean (if one knows the context -- which I do). In context, he has just said: "Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. ... no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it." [the latter refers, of course, to the Bible and its inferiority to philosophy] He goes on to say: "Philosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions" and then talks about the Bible further. About the Bible, he then says: "such parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little philosophy, I postpone for future investigation." He then talks about Joseph Priestley (his spiritual mentor) and about various religious systems he and Priestley have encountered, including Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Plato, the Brahmins, and then the Shastra -- and the quoted commentary on the Shastra. A paragraph later, he says "these doctrines, sublime, if ever there were any sublime, Pythagoras learned in India, and taught them to Zaleucus and his other disciples." Earlier in the same letter, he said: "The preamble to the laws of Zaleucus, which is all that remains, is as orthodox as Christian theology as Priestley's ...." This is critical because Priestley is Adams's (& Jefferson's) spiritual mentor and because the laws of Zaleucus were supposedly handed down to pagans from Athena! SO YOU SEE THAT HE SPECIFICALLY INCLUDED CHRISTIANITY IN THE COMPARISON! Further, if a set of laws supposedly handed down from Athena 600 years before the birth of Christ can be considered "Christian" -- what real meaning does the term have for Adams? See, you have to find out what THEY meant by the terms they used.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Would Adams have been elected president if his private thoughts had been his public position? I have my doubts.

In fact, I'm skeptical he could be elected today...

Jonathan said...

I think you are exactly right, Tom. Some people think Leo Strauss is a "screwball" for "reading things" into the text ancient writings; and I admit, I don't fully endorse his method.

But, before "freedom of conscience" and "speech" were established by our Founders and "liberal democracy," I think Strauss is absolutely right that philosophers and public figures had to "play games" and "speak in code" and "general terms" and otherwise not let you know what they really thought.

But come to think of it, people still sort of do that today. But in different contexts.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yah, I think that's what's been percolating in what's left of my brain. The only thing worse than a living constitution is an esoteric one.