Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Novak Responds to Allen:

Michael Novak responded to Brooke Allen's contribution to the Encyclopedia Britannica blog on the Founders and Religion. He writes:

Her thesis is that the major founders were not Christians but skeptics. Her method is to pick only six of them for closer study (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Washington and Hamilton), all of whom, she judges, fit her thesis.

But the first two of these six are identified by nearly everybody, including me, as outliers who stand at the leftmost extreme of the founders – outliers, skeptics indeed, barely if at all Christian. The next two, Madison and Adams, at least by their public actions during their terms in office (whatever their post-presidential, private lives), show clear signals of Christian conviction and/or accommodation. Their case is more complex than Ms Allen faces. Consider simply Article III of the new Massachusetts Constitution drafted and defended by John Adams, mandating state support for religious schools throughout the commonwealth.

Concerning the last two, Hamilton and Washington, there is a preponderance of evidence on the side of the influence of Christian faith upon their practice as public servants. As Washington’s speechwriter, for instance, Hamilton wrote some of the most vividly biblical addresses and public proclamations that General and (later) President Washington ever delivered. Similarly, no one who actually analyzes the public speeches and proclamations of the latter can plausibly make the case that Washington was merely a deist. The evidence of his emphasis upon a biblical God who forgives sins, who guides events and who as a matter of undeniable experience intervened often on the American side (the side of liberty) during the War of Independence, a Creator who is owed not only private worship, but also a whole nation’s worship and gratitude — and several other such biblical motifs – is simply far too strong.

In other words, Ms. Allen makes matters too easy for herself by cherry-picking her founders – and even then, in four out of six cases, she fails to convince.

First, Allen's method is not "cherry picking." In studying this issue, I've long noted there are certain "key Founders" upon whom we tend to focus. I usually cap it at the top five: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. The reason why these five are so important is that they are 1) the first four Presidents, 2) the author of the Declaration (Jefferson), 3) the majority of the drafting board of the Declaration (Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin), and the prime architect of the Constitution (Madison). Washington, Madison, and Franklin also played leading roles at the Constitutional Convention. In addition to these five, Dr. Gregg Frazer in his thesis adds Hamilton, G. Morris, and Wilson, who also played leading roles at the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton and Madison both wrote most of the essays in the Federalist Papers as well, with Jay only contributing a few. So even though these may be only eight, the overwhelming majority of the ideas upon which the Founders declared independence and framed the constitution derive back to them.

And the "preponderance of the evidence" demonstrates none of them to be "Christian" in any sense different than Franklin or Jefferson may have been "Christian."

I would caution Novak against relying on scholarly consensus when he writes -- "But [Jefferson and Franklin] are identified by nearly everybody, including me, as outliers who stand at the leftmost extreme of the founders...." Scholarly consensus, until recently, held Washington was a Deist.

Jefferson was certainly the most prolific in his commentaries and criticisms of certain doctrines of Christianity. If, because of the way in which they disbelieved in certain orthodox doctrines, Novak wants to define Jefferson and Franklin as "skeptics indeed, barely if at all Christian," fine. But little if anything Franklin or Jefferson said when describing their personal beliefs conflicted with the express beliefs of those other four key Founders about whom Allen wrote. If one equates belief in an active personal God with belief in a "Biblical God," well Jefferson and Franklin repeatedly noted they believed in an active personal God, one who interposes himself in the affairs of man and to whom men ought to pray. Jefferson claimed to "adore" such a God.

Jefferson, Franklin and the others were not anti-religious. They were, however, heterodox in that they rejected certain key doctrines of orthodox Christianity (most notably, the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Plenary Inspiration of Scripture). And they were "rationalists" in the sense that they elevated man's reason over revelation believing all truth had to meet the test of reason. Parts of the Bible did (those parts were genuine); parts didn't (those were not).

Nothing Adams, Madison, or Washington ever said on their personal belief in God contradicted the tenets of the theistic rationalism in which Jefferson and Franklin believed. Indeed, Adams far more bitterly attacked the doctrines of Christianity's orthodoxy than Franklin ever did. And whereas Washington is not on record criticizing the Trinity and other doctrines of orthodoxy as Jefferson and Adams are, there is no record of Washington ever defending or stating he believed in the Trinity or other doctrines of orthodoxy either. The way in which he avoided speaking in overtly Trinitarian terms is one key factor which leads scholars to conclude he was a Deist or at least not an orthodox Christian.

While these five were almost entirely agreed in their personal creed, they did split on the proper relationship between Church and State. However, Novak, wrongly, in my opinion, refers to Madison as an accommodationist. Madison was as much of a "separationist" as Jefferson, with Adams and Washington, "accommodationists."

Finally, a note on Hamilton. Brooke Allen is right that he did not become a Christian until towards the end of his life, after he did his work "Founding" the nation. While I disagree that the other five Founders lied or manipulated the masses, pretending to be more pious than they really were (they did, however, have to walk on eggshells, choose their words carefully, and talk in generalities), Hamilton, unfortunately, did fit the charge of someone willing to manipulate religious sensibilities and pretend to be more "Christian" than he really was.

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