Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Our Founders' Religion is More Common Than You Think:

Especially among the young. Those on both sides of the battle over "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" are likely to note that the 18th Century Deism and Unitarianism to which the Founders ascribed are anachronisms, products of that era, dead in ours.

While their specific "Priestlian" beliefs probably aren't held by many folks, many freethinking or unorthodox theists today do believe in something quite similar to what the key Founders believed.

Back then Deism had no official Church. And neither does it today. Unitarianism did take over the Congregational Churches. So when Jefferson wrote, in 1822, "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian," he was certainly being overoptimistic; but Unitarianism had already made a serious mark in New England, and would grow throughout the 19th Century. The Unitarian-Universalists, though around today (indeed, one of the few churches I would consider joining) never became serious players. And theological unitarianism had never overtaken, as an official doctrine, the other orthodox Churches as Jefferson and Adams had hoped it would.

Jefferson was an Episcopalian. And much to his chagrin, that church never replaced Trinitarianism with Unitarianism (though, few realize that, just as with the Congregational Churches in New England, the Anglican/Episcopalian Church had many Unitarians and Deists, many who indeed tried to reform the Church in that direction, but ultimately failed). Today's masses who follow a creed similar to our Founders', like them, are nominally connected to Churches with orthodox creeds. Like our Founders, they are, "cafeteria Christians" of sort. (This is why some scholars use the term "Christian-Deism" to describe the deistic beliefs of our Founders.)

See this article from the Christian Post by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. discussing a survey of younger folks, and notes their creed, in the title, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion." In reading the article, I noted nothing new about this creed, as it looked very similar to what our key Founders believed. Indeed, that this religion was termed a type of "Deism" -- a religion associated with the 18th Century -- contradicts its description as "new." (Mohler though seems to realize this when he writes, "Smith and his colleagues recognize that the deity behind Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is very much like the deistic God of the 18th-century philosophers.")

The article reports:

When Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Those five points are very close to what Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and the other key Founders believed. Indeed, even though Washington and Madison weren't quite as explicit in giving the details of their creed, they both spoke in the language of a "benevolent" Deity who leads people to happiness. Here Mohler identifies ways of telling whether young Church goers have accepted "real Christianity" or this "new form of paganism."

They argue that this distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also "within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions."

How can you tell? "The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward."

Funny, the exact same things -- "The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell..." -- are almost entirely absent from Madison's and Washington's "God talk" and instead replaced by a fundamentally benevolent Almighty Being of infinite "wisdom, goodness, and power," (which is also, by the way, how Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin described God). And this, in turn, is why, even though we don't have "smoking gun" quotations from Washington and Madison that show they rejected orthodoxy like Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson did (and neither did they explicitly affirm orthodoxy), scholars like Paul Boller and David Holmes nonetheless conclude Washington (and Madison) was, like them, a "Deist" of sort.

Now, some significant differences in circumstances exist between our Founders' "deistic" (or "theistic") beliefs, and that of these contemporary young folks. First, our key Founders were obsessed with debunking the Trinity and understanding God on rational terms, and that is entirely absent from this modern belief system (though, they don't claim to believe in or much less understand, the Trinity). More importantly, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others were very familiar with the Bible, and only came to these conclusions after exhaustive study and could rationally explain exactly what their beliefs were and why they rejected orthodox Christianity (don't get Jefferson started on this!). As the article notes, today's younger folks are pretty ignorant of the Bible and have trouble articulating what they really believe in beyond these basics.

But, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, often noted how "Christianity" stripped of all its "corruptions" was "simple" or "basic," something say, simple minded younger persons could understand. Not like the Trinity, which they thought "incomprehensible."

One last thing to note, Albert Mohler, in this context understands that this belief system is "not Christian" and "seriously challenges" Biblical Christianity. Now, if what our key Founders believed likewise conflicts with Biblical Christianity, indeed, if it was a "form of paganism" as Mohler below puts it, contrast his sentiment with contemporary religious conservative scholars like Michael Novak who attempt to reconcile what our Founders believed with historic Christianity, or those who argue that the "Deism" and "Unitarianism" of the 18th Century were really a lot like Biblical Christianity.

We must now look at the United States of America as missiologists once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel. Indeed, our missiological challenge may be even greater than the confrontation with paganism, for we face a succession of generations who have transformed Christianity into something that bears no resemblance to the faith revealed in the Bible. The faith "once delivered to the saints" is no longer even known, not only by American teenagers, but by most of their parents. Millions of Americans believe they are Christians, simply because they have some historic tie to a Christian denomination or identity.

We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity. More urgently, this study should warn us all that our failure to teach this generation of teenagers the realities and convictions of biblical Christianity will mean that their children will know even less and will be even more readily seduced by this new form of paganism. This study offers irrefutable evidence of the challenge we now face. As the motto reminds us, "Knowledge is power."

I think Jefferson and company are in Heaven smiling. Finally, in a way, their heterodox faith has caught on with the masses.

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