Sunday, April 15, 2007

Christianist, Mormons, and Early Presidents:

The theological split between Mormons and conservative Christians may give Mitt Romney some problems securing the GOP's nomination. Check out this column by Christianist Frank Pastore. While he notes he could vote for Romney, he also has to include the following caveat:

Though I could vote for Romney, my ballot should not be seen as an endorsement of Mor-monism. Conservative Mormons are among the finest people I've ever met, and they are critical allies in the culture war. I appreciate their contribution to advancing our shared values. Yet as we make common cause, I should not be asked or feel pressured to compromise, weaken, or di-lute my theology. Allies need not obfuscate distinctives. We can unite politically and socially to advance our cause, but we must not blur the lines between our distinct religions.

Just as Christians and Jews, by definition, cannot ignore their differences over the resurrec-tion and the New Testament, so too Christians and Mormons cannot ignore the differences be-tween the Bible and the three books of Mormonism: the Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Cove-nants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

Yet many Mormons in recent years have taken to calling themselves Christians, and a grow-ing number of Christians are willing to speak of Mormonism as something akin to another Chris-tian denomination. But, Mormonism is not a Christian denomination, nor is it merely "a non-Christian religion." To be theologically precise, though perhaps politically incorrect, Mormonism is a cult of Christianity ( -- a group that claims to Chris-tian while denying one or more central doctrines of the Christian faith.

The polytheism of Latter Day Saints is a striking contrast to the monotheism of the Bible. The Mormons also deny original sin (central to a Christian understanding of the human condition) and believe that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary. I could go on, but Mormonism has far more that distinguishes it from the historic Christian faith than unites it to Christianity.

So, though I am willing to unite with and befriend Mormons in common cause to advance our shared values, I am hoping to be a voice of clarity -- unwilling to allow Mormonism to be mis-taken for orthodox Christianity and unwilling again to disqualify a candidate simply because he is from a faith tradition so different from my own.

Attitudes like that, no doubt, will scare many fundamentalist Christians from voting for Romney. However amusing his article, Pastore makes one glaring historical error, very apt to whether "non-Christians" like the Mormons traditionally have had a place in the White House. He writes:

Historically, our largely Christian country has chosen to elect Christian candidates (not that there have been many non-Christian candidates). In the last two presidential elections, church attendance was the most reliable indicator of voting preferences. It's no coincidence that the Democrats this time around are determined to appear more religious (i.e., more evangelical friendly) in order to win the White House. Yet, if appearing more religious in this majority-Christian nation is an electoral advantage, then being from a faith other than Christianity pre-sents a new set of challenges. And therein lies the problem for the Romney campaign.

The problem for Pastore is if you define the Christian faith so narrowly as to exclude Mormons, you must also exclude our key Founding Fathers, including the first half dozen Presidents or so.

Some orthodox believers in the Founding era were aware of this dynamic. Rev. Wilson notoriously noted in 1831: "[A]mong all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." [Note: Though Till acts as if he is quoting Rev. Wilson directly, it seems he is quoting John E. Remsburg paraphrasing Wilson's sermon. See the primary source, Remsburg's book.]

He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).

A bit of clarification. James Monroe, according to David Holmes, seems to have been, like the other key Founders a "theistic rationalist," which some see as a softer form of deist, or a more liberal, rational form of Christianity (Holmes calls him a Deist; Holmes labels theistic rationalists either "Christian-Deists" or "Unitarians." I get the impression that's exactly the kind of "deist" he argues Monroe was.)

John Q.Adams was born and raised a Unitarian like his father, but sometime during college converted to a more of a Trinitarian Calvinistic form of Christianity. Yet, JQA throughout the rest of his life seemed to vacillate between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism, and I'm pretty sure died a Unitarian.

I have never studied the religion of Andrew Jackson.

Though, most of these early Presidents did have some sort of formal or nominal connection with a church that professed orthodoxy; for instance, Washington, Madison and Jefferson were all Anglican/Episcopalians. However, these early Presidents/key Founders rejected those core teachings of Pastore's understanding of Christianity (and their own Churches') just as much as if not more so than Mormons do.

They weren't "strict deists" as some on the secular left mistakenly believe; their God was an active personal Providence. However, they bitterly rejected the Nicene Creed and core doctrines of orthodoxy which define Christianity for folks like Pastore. Adams and Jefferson were fervent theological unitarians who bitterly attacked the Trinity and its subsidiary doctrines as metaphysical insanities which stupified the minds of Christians.

True, they were publicly silent on their heterodoxy and their Churches, with the exception of Adams', still affirmed orthodoxy. (Even with Adams, though his Church preached unitarianism as of 1750, I'm not sure when his Congregation officially changed its creed to "Unitarianism." It could have been before or after his election to Presidency.)

But we no longer live in the 1700s. That these great leaders were no more "Christian" than Mormons are "Christian" is a fact of our diverse religious heritage which ought to be embraced. If more folks understood these early Presidents and Founders, like the Mormons, were of what folks like Pastore consider "a faith other than Christianity," perhaps the Romney campaign can spin this "challenge" or "problem" into a talking points solution. Or, on the other hand, raising this point might just tick off the Christianists and further alienate Romney. This history, though, as it relates to early Presidents and Founders, is on his side.


Tom Van Dyke said...


Jonathan said...

You don't like that term of art which Sullivan coined?

It basically refers to Christian Nationalists of which Pastore is one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, I don't like it, as it appears to be designed as a pejorative, as in his own words, some equation of Christianity and Islam, if not Islamicism.

I don't know what "Christian nationalist" means. There are a very few who believe in a Christian domination of the political sphere, self-described "Dominionists," so if Sullivan is referring to that, his new term is redundant.

And if Frank Pastore is, in his own words, " disqualify a candidate simply because he is from a faith tradition so different from my own," he's not a Dominionist or much of a "Christianist," and to my mind has been unfairly tagged.

Faith of the Free said...

The Farrell Till quote immediately reminded of Rev. A. Powell Davies' 1949 book "America's Real Religion." Davies was one of the nation's most "listened to" ministers during his time at Washington DC's All Souls Church. He had members of congress and supreme court justices in his congregation, and overflow crowds of thousands lining up to hear his sermons. Politicians reportedly would often "check in" with Davies to get his perspective on issues being considered.

In Davies book "America's Real Religion," the theme is clear and unambiguous--that the United States of America was not founded on either the premises or priorities of a narrow, fundamentalist, orthodox Christianity. In fact, there were few if any of the "founders"--up to, and including Lincoln--who would fit into the dogmatic framework and agenda of modern fundamentalist Christianity. Davies did, however, contend that they were (virtually all), in effect, adherents to a largely unspoken "faith behind freedom," which Davies called "America's Real Religion." That "implied religion" was one which enabled and encouraged freedom and free, open inquiry--even into matters of ultimate truth and meaning.

Davies, a Unitarian minister, did not declare this "American Religion" to be Unitarianism, but he implied that only a faith which is more democracy-friendly than authoritarian, and more driven by freedom and brotherhood than by uniformity of belief would be consistent with it.

Jefferson, privacy-minded as he was, may have been the most vocal "prophet" of this "fatih behind freedom." His words that he had "sworn eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man" are spot-on in its description of this freedom-empowering mode of faith. When he advised nephew Peter Carr to "Question with boldness even the existence of a God," he was endorsing the sacred value of self-honesty--and of even honest doubt--extended even to religion and theology.

So, I'd agree wholeheartedly (from my continuing studies on this subject) with the assertion that the "founders of our nation were nearly all infidels," and would frankly like to see this more widely acknowledged. Instead, what we seem to get most often these days is just the opposite.


Jonathan said...

Great comment Ron.

Fairly soon, there is going to be a minor correction in the historical record re the Rev. Wilson speech. While Rev. Bird Wilson (James' son) did write a biography of Bishop White -- one of Washington's ministers who testifed Washington didn't take communion and was thus probably a "deist" -- and may have commented on Washington's lack of belief in orthodox Christianity, that "fire breathing" sermon which termed all of the Presidents till Jackson "infidels" probably was given by another Rev. Willson (whose name is properly spelled with two ls).

I'm holding off blogging about it in detail because I'm in correspondence with the historian who discovered the error and am waiting to see what he wants to do with the info.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What does "modern fundamentalist Christianity" have to do with anything?

The question isn't the religious beliefs of some key founders, but their (provable) accomodation of the beliefs of others.