Friday, April 27, 2007

Michael Novak Replies to Me:

I want to thank Michael Novak for devoting an entire post to my comments at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. To make sure that I am not misunderstood, I need to clarify some of my assertions. Novak begins:

In his intelligent replies to Ms. Allen and me, Mr. Jonathan Rowe raises many good points. But his vision of Christianity matches up neither with the Anglican nor the evangelical tradition. Rowe holds that “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,” and that the three distinctive tenets “which distinguish Christianity from all the other world religions” are “things like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement.”

But the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality. More important are repentance, and a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord. Meanwhile, most of the American Founding Fathers would have recited the Nicene Creed with some regularity at Anglican services. The tenets of that creed include many more items than Mr. Rowe’s three. Such abstract terms as “Trinity” and “Atonement” do not appear in it.

First, I argued that the key Founders (not me personally) believed “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,...” Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, in no uncertain terms, made it clear they believed this. And while there are ambiguities in exactly what Washington and Madison believed (requiring some detective work, putting the pieces of the puzzle together), I believe Madison and Washington were likewise agreed. So when Mr. Novak writes, "the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality," indeed, I am trying to show how the key Founders' creed differed from Christianity as historically defined by its orthodoxy. Likewise though the Nicene Creed includes more tenets than just the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, it is nonetheless *the* quintessential statement of Christianity's Trinitarian orthodoxy. And, I would argue, many of those Anglican Founding Fathers did not believe in the tenets that their Church preached.

Let us not forget Jefferson was, like Washington, a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian and a vestryman in the Church as well. Jefferson clearly rejected the creeds of orthodoxy which his Church preached. And though Madison -- another Virginia Anglican/Episcopalian -- revealed far less in his writings about what he really believed, the available evidence I've been able to uncover strongly points towards his belief in the same unitarian doctrines in which Jefferson believed. David L. Holmes' fine book on the religion of the Founding Fathers reproduces the evidence on Madison's heterodoxy as does this paper available online by James H. Hutson.

Washington, even more reticent to give the specific details of his creed than Madison, often praised the Christian religion by name. But he invariably did so in the context of equating (or seeming to equate) Christianity with virtue itself and never with Christianity's historic tenets of orthodoxy (e.g., the Nicene Creed). It was Ben Franklin who once said, "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means." If Washington equated Christianity with virtue, by following Franklin's logic, other religions which produce virtue would be valid like Christianity. In his famous Farewell Address, Washington noted the most important aspect about "religion" is the morality it produces (as opposed to the souls it saves). And Washington specifically chose to use the term "religion" absent the qualifier "Christian" there, which again hints towards a belief that all world religions, so long as they produce morality, are sound and can support republican governments.

As I noted in my original comment, if Christianity had any advantage over the other world religions, to our Founders, it was because Jesus of Nazareth, as a man, was arguably the greatest moral teacher the world had seen. Indeed, what Mr. Novak reproduces from Jefferson perfectly confirms my contention:

“I have made a wee little book…which I call the philosophy of Jesus…a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He saw in his selection, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Yet, according to Jefferson et al., the other world religions, because they taught the same morality as Christianity were also "sound." As Jefferson wrote in his 1809 letter to James Fishback:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society....It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.

So, because they all taught the same basic moral principles, all world religions, in Jefferson's eyes, were valid, with Christianity having a slight plus, only because of the superiority of Jesus' moral teachings, not Jesus' claims of Godhood, Atonement, and the only way to salvation, things which Jefferson did not personally believe (indeed, Jefferson didn't believe that Jesus claimed such either, but rather that His words were corrupted by His followers).

I strongly disagree with Mr. Novak's assertion that the Founders believed "the characteristics of Christianity and Judaism...make them distinctively fit for free republics." Nothing in my meticulous study of the key Founding Fathers shows they believed Judaism and Christianity were exclusively "fit" for free republics. Indeed, they've said much to the opposite. Consider, John Adams in a published book he wrote to defend the US Constitution said:

ZALEUCUS was of Locris in Italy, not far distant from Sybaris. He was a disciple of Pythagoras, of noble birth, and admirable morals. Having acquired the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens, they chose him for their legislator....In this preamble he declares, that all those who shall inhabit the city, ought, above all things, to be persuaded that there is a God; and if they elevate their eyes and thoughts towards the heavens, they will be convinced, that the disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the order which reigns in all nature, are not the work of men, nor of chance; that therefore they ought to adore the gods, as the authors of all which life presents us of good and beautiful; that they should hold their souls pure from every vice, because the gods accept neither the prayers, offerings, or sacrifices of the wicked, and are pleased only with the just and beneficent actions of virtuous men....This preamble, instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration.

Zaleucus' laws were supposedly revealed by Athena 600, BC! Lycurgus, whose laws Adams also praised, similarly had pagan origins. Indeed, Adams and the other key Founders drew such an equivalence between Christianity and the other world religions, that they often referred to such pagan systems as "Christian." In his Dec. 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson, Adams wrote, “The Preamble to the Laws of Zaleucus…is as orthodox Christian Theology as Priestlys.” Joseph Priestly was Adams’ and Jefferson’s spiritual mentor and pioneered the "Christianity" (if it's fair to term it such) in which Jefferson and Adams personally believed. Thus when Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813 --

The general principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty…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.

-- he was not making an exclusivist claim about traditional Christianity. Indeed, what Mr. Novak failed to reproduced from that same letter reveals just how unorthodox Adams' sentiments were. Adams further explained those "general principles of Christianity":

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.

Finding “general principles of Christianity” in the teachings of Enlightenment philosophers, like Locke, Newton? Perhaps. But also in the works of French philosophes, Rousseau, and Voltaire? And the atheist Hume?

I agree with Mr. Novak that the Founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, supported the people's commitment to their Christian religion. But only because Christianity was "the people's" religion. As I wrote in my original post, if the people were so disposed, Jefferson, Adams, and the other early Presidents could just have easily marched their horses to a Mosque or a Greco-Roman temple of pagan worship.

Consider, Franklin, that supposed "Deist," actively supported Christian Churches. Yet, his support for Christianity in particular stemmed from his support for "religion" in general. And that support, in principle, extended to Islam, if the citizens were so inclined. In his autobiography he wrote:

Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

Finally, regarding Mr. Novak's claim that (perhaps regardless of what the Founders themselves believed) Judaism and Christianity are special over other world religions because they emphasize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," and that "[f]or Christians and Jews, freedom is at the heart of the matter," this is a particular understanding of Christianity that didn't begin to emerge until around the 17th Century. For a thousand and some hundred years, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) theologians who knew the Bible as well as anyone did not interpret the good book in this manner. Augustine...Aquinas...Luther...Calvin? None of these men believed in "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Indeed, Samuel Rutherford, Calvinist author of "Lex Rex," which supposedly influenced our Revolution, said the following about the execution of Michael Servetus:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).

Michael Servetus was, if readers aren't aware, a theological unitarian whom John Calvin saw put to death for publicly denying the Trinity.

The Christian religion indeed marvelously transformed to recognize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," with both Protestant dissidents and Enlightenment rationalists contributing to this great epistemological effort. Each of the key Founders over whom we argue believed Christianity must conform to the teachings of Enlightenment. To them, enlightened Christianity truly was a religion of "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Given that they saw validity in the world's other religious systems, they probably would have had no problem with the flourishing of exotic non-Judeo-Christian religions in America provided those religions likewise conformed to the tenets of enlightened liberality.


Ron said...

I enjoyed your response, Jon! That's also my understanding of the practical aspects of religion that were most important to the Founders. I would underscore that the founding premises and priorities--as evidenced by the several charters and major supporting texts--reflect far more of a "liberal, rational and catholic" approach to religion than an orthodox, dogmatic one. (Again, I will argue that its closest organized reflection--if we can call it organized--was the then-emerging Unitarian movement, which William Ellery Channing referred to as "free, rational and catholic" Christianity.)

Given the root-definitions of the such terms as liberal (e.g. liberative), and catholic (e.g. universalistic), it's not much of a leap to say that they are pretty much identical to the "free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." I would argue that the major difference between this kind of "free society" model and those of orthodox dogma is that the "community" sought by the former--and by the Founders--was one of "unity" more than of "uniformity." Time and again, in the writings of Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and even was the fractious elements of religious orthodoxy that concerned them the most. Washington, Franklin, the fr Orthodox religion is ultimately more concerned with uniformity.

To the Founders, such schismatic behavior was a serious danger and "evil" to be dreaded and transcended, and there seems to me little doubt that the "morality imperative" they shared rejected any tendencies (however well meaning) toward imposed or coerced uniformity of belief. (Madison, in particular, showed his concern for the protection of minority interests--within the larger context of an assumed larger, unimposed unity--and for jealously guarding against any and all experiments on our personal liberties in every generation.)

Again, I would suggest that it's highly inaccurate to equate any particular kind of religious orthodoxy with the "free and broadly catholic" founding premises of the nation.

Ron said...

I noticed a line or two that should have been omitted in my previous post. At the end of the second paragraph, beginning with "Washington, Franklin, the fr. Orthodox..." Sorry for that!


Jonathan said...

Thanks Ron.

Great comments as usual.