Friday, February 23, 2007

Christopher Hitchens Does it Again:

Christopher Hitchens tries to claim another Founding Father as an atheist. First he did this with Jefferson. Now Franklin. Hitchens' review of Brooke Allen's book isn't all bad. And Allen's book is well written and researched even if it does have a few moderate gaffes (which one day, maybe I'll discuss). Here is the offending passage:

Of Franklin it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger's excellent recent study Benjamin Franklin Unmasked being the best reference here), but the master tacticians of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were somewhat more opaque about their beliefs.

Compare that with Franklin's own words, shortly before his death:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure.

I wonder if Hitchens believes that Franklin and others were some kind of Straussians -- atheists who repeatedly lied about believing in God in their public and private statements.

Note also, when Franklin says that Jesus' teachings have "received various corrupting Changes," that term has specific meaning. It was coined by Franklin's friend Joseph Priestly and those corruptions were the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Plenary Inspiration of Scripture. These were central creeds of orthodox Christian Churches in which almost all founding fathers were raised and to which most -- like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington -- belonged in adult life. Religious conservatives are apt to note Washington et al. regulary attended the Anglican/Episcopal Church where he/they would hear orthodox doctrines -- the Trinity, Incarnation, the Atonement, etc. -- being preached. If he didn't believe these things, the argument goes, why would he subject himself to hearing this? Well, Jefferson and Madison, both, without question, theological unitarians, likewise attended the Anglican/Episcopal Church in whose orthodox doctrines they did not believe.

Franklin here resolves this paradox: It's because the orthodox Trinitarian Churches, like "all sound Religion," even the non-Judeo-Christian ones, teach that there is "one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this." As long as this theistic minimum is met, it matters not that church members are taught to believe in such harmless irrationalities as the Trinity, Incarnation, and the Atonement.

While Adams and Jefferson can be quite harsh on such "corruptions of Christianity" in their letters -- indeed Jefferson in a fit of anger once wrote it would be better to be an atheist than believe in Calvin's God -- judging by Jefferson's behavior going to and never formally renouncing his membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, he too probably would rather see people believe in irrational Trinitarianism than in no God at all.

I have not seen in any of Washington's letters the rants against Trinitarianism that we see in Jefferson's and Adams'. Though he never endorses Trinitarianism or speaks in Trinitarian terms. Like Franklin, he probably dismissed the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement as harmless irrationalities.


Leo said...

Hitchens is probably recreating his heroes in his image.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As are many Christians. It's only human.

If a fellow of Hitchens' breathtaking erudition can err so, we must make allowances for David Barton's errors as well. He was pretty much an amateur with little in the way of academic rigor when he lit on the fact that 20th century revisionism had turned the Founders into modern-day anti-theists.

Most of Barton's errors came from using 19th century texts as source material. Unfortunately, a similar revisionism took place then, Christianizing the Founders with many phony stories and quotes. (Washington wasn't an orthodox Christian, and he didn't chop down no cherry tree, either.) To Barton's credit, he's been issuing corrections about that stuff, as he's gotten deeper into his studies.

Which leaves us with you, Jon, whose scrupulous fairness and conscientious digging into the true source material, the original 18th century texts, deserves the thanks of all. It's indeed amazing that a 200+ year old question is still so unsettled, and the clarity you bring to this issue is of the highest of value, and the republic remains in your debt.

dave hausser said...

the jerry weinberger cited by hitchens is a famous straussian professor at michigan state and makes an argument in his book that franklin (certainly not a straussian!) did practice careful writing and was influenced by xenophon in his moralism. with your interest in the subject, it would be a good book for you to check out.

Leo said...

Mr. Van Dyke, I could not agree with you more. It is good to see that David Barton is correcting his errors but I can assure you as one who walks in the circles that Barton targets - the damage is deep and will not be easily undone. It will be interesting to see if the World view weekends that he participates in will change to accommodate the correct history.

Jonathan said...


Ed Brayton, whose site gets tons of hits, is on this. He too makes the comparison between Hitchens and Barton.

arcadia said...

The best anyone can get of this is that Franklin was a Deist. His acknowledgement of Jesus is devoid of divinity.

Comparison can be made to Tom Paine in "The Age of Reason"

"I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond
this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties
consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our
fellow-creatures happy."

Both of these men clearly reject Christianity. And as was Paine, Franklin would most likely have been regarded as an "atheist".

Tom Van Dyke said...

True dat, Leo. Telling people the truth doesn't pay as well as telling them what they want to hear.