Saturday, May 05, 2007

Final Thoughts From Novak and Allen:

On Britannica Blog, Michael Novak and Brooke Allen have posted their final thoughts.

Novak discusses one of Jefferson's paradoxes which I think needs to be better understood: Jefferson bitterly attacked certain doctrines of orthodoxy Christianity and viewed human rationality as central for determining the truth. He thus offers many quotations friendly to a modern secularist point of view. Yet, he also firmly believed in God. And, as Novak stresses, as President, Jefferson marched his horses to Christian worship every week. Novak offers an anecdote from the library of Congress dealing with Jefferson's public worship:

President Jefferson was on his way to church of a Sunday morning with his large red prayer book under his arm when a friend querying him after their mutual good morning said which way are you walking Mr. Jefferson. To which he replied to Church Sir. You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it. Sir said Mr. J. No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir. –Rev. Ethan Allen

I've seen James Hutson discuss this before. It seems to be a second hand account. Its words are probably stronger than Jefferson would have used. And like Hamilton's supposed explanation that God was left out of the US Constitution because America didn't need "foreign aid," or more arrogantly, "we forgot," this story may be "apocryphal."

Though, I do believe that Jefferson (like Washington, Adams, Madison, Franklin and the other key Founders) 1) supported religion in general and thought a society was better off with it than without it, and 2) thought, though most if not all world religions were valid because they taught the same basic morality as Christianity, the Christian religion was in some sense better. Yet, Jefferson rejected certain aspects of the Christian religion.

Both Novak and Allen seem to think that there is a disconnect between Jefferson's example of public worship and some of the more unorthodox attacks on those aspects of the Christian religion. I am going to argue not as much of a disconnect as we might think exists. First, what was it about the Christian religion that Jefferson rejected? He listed them in his letter to William Short,

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

In short, Jefferson rejected all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity. Yet, as Novak pointed out, Jefferson made his own edited Bible, in part, because he believed Jesus was such a great moral teacher. Jesus' teachings were, according to Jefferson, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

I don't see why it should be so difficult to put these pieces of Jefferson's thoughts together and use such to view the context of his attending Christian Church services as President. His attendance should be viewed as an endorsement of what Jefferson valued in Christian religion: its general theism and Jesus' moral teachings. And his attendance ought not be viewed as an endorsement of those aspects of the Christian religion in which he didn't believe:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

Jefferson did rant a few times in his private letters that certain doctrines like the Trinity were so irrational that it would be better to believe in no God at all (he actually said it would be better to be an atheist than believe in Calvin's God). But given that he did publicly support churches which preached Trinitarianism, his view on supporting churches which teach some things in which he didn't believe was probably similar to Franklin's, in his famous letter to Ezra Stiles:

I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we 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 dogmatize 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 it probably 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 unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.

In other words, things like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Original Sin, the Virgin Birth, may be, according to Jefferson, irrational and untrue; but because it is so important for people to believe that there is a God, that He ought to be worshipped, and He wants His children to be just and good and will mete out justice in the afterlife, as long as that is being preached in churches and believed by "the people," the good of the Christian religion, on balance, outweighs the "bad" of doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement being preached.

And in these sentiments I believe Jefferson was virtually like minded with Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Madison. Jefferson was not an outlier in his personal religious beliefs. I am puzzled when Novak writes: "I admit that Jefferson, in his private life, is perhaps the least orthodox Christian among the hundred top Founding Fathers." Is he aware of Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen? Were they not in the top hundred Founding Fathers? They were far more deistic than Jefferson. Jefferson and Madison might have been slight outliers in their belief, along with the orthodox Christian dissenters, in strong separation of church and state. But on their religious creed, the key Founders were of one mind. Jefferson's and Adams' correspondence show that while they may have disagreed on proper establishment policy, on the nature of God, they agreed on the central tenets.

Finally, I ask, though they were formally affiliated with Christian Churches and sometimes called themselves "Christian," if they, after their spiritual mentor Joseph Priestly, rejected the central tenets of orthodox Christianity -- at times Jefferson and Adams bitterly mocked the Nicene Creed, a hallmark statement Christianity's Trinitarian orthodoxy -- is it proper to term these key Founders "Christian"? Arguably it is not. Though, their thoughts don't fit neatly into the "deist" box either. That's why I think, to diffuse this culture war issue -- were they deists or were they Christians? -- a new term should be used to describe the beliefs of those key Founders about whom Brooke Allen writes. The term I endorse is "theistic rationalists."

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