Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Confusion or Deception:

I discussed the following quotation from John Adams [letter to Thomas Jefferson June 28, 1813] and noted it was one that the “Christian Nation” crowd most often misuses or misunderstands:

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…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.”


Likewise Gregg Frazer discusses the very same quotation and noted:

[F]or Adams, the general principles of Christianity were something to which deists, atheists, and those who believe nothing at all subscribed. He then claimed that he could “fill sheets of quotations” in favor of these principles with statements from a number of well-known sources, including two notorious atheists: Hume and Voltaire. This is clearly not Christianity — whatever term Adams may use for it.


[Minor quibble: My understanding of Voltaire was that he was a strict deist -- though his beliefs still strongly conflicted with traditional Christianity.]

Frazer also stated:

A great danger (or intellectual dishonesty, if the one doing it knows the difference) in the Christian America camp is their propensity to quote Founders using terms which meant something very different to those Founders than they mean to the average person today. This is a significant source of confusion. When Jefferson said, “I am a Christian” — what did HE mean by that? When Adams referred to “Christian” principles at the heart of the Founding — what did HE mean by that? If one takes the terms at face value (out of context), one becomes deceived or one deceives.


For an amusing piece of either confusion or deception [my opinion is it's confusion after being deceived by David Barton] check out Chuck Norris' recent column where he attempts to prove America was founded as a "Christian Nation" by explaining away the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli which stated in no uncertain terms that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

In an attempt to find countering quotations, Norris trots out the very one by Adams featured at the top of my post. There are actually very few apt quotations from America's founders that state the Christian religion only is somehow foundational to America's government, and its founding documents. The ones that seemed most apt turned out to be phony, or as David Barton puts it, "unconfirmed."

For instance,

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!


If only Henry said it.

We do see a lot of talk about the importance of religion and morality to good governance. And certainly "Christianity" is a "religion," and therefore the founders had a friendlier attitude towards public expression of faith or the intermixture of religion and government than today's strict secularist ideal would allow for.

But, when the founders spoke of "religion and morality" in a general sense, that's exactly what they meant, "religion" in general, not Christianity in particular. Any of the world religions, they believed, could function to support republican government. As Adams put it, in a book publicly published in 1787-88, speaking of a set of laws supposedly revealed by Athena 600BC:

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. [My emphasis.]


Though I think a kernel of truth that the Christian Nation crowd might have...: As Tom Van Dyke points out, the masses -- at least the propertied Protestant white males who ratified the Constitution -- signed on to the founders' government project. And they would not have agreed to a set of principles that were anti-biblical or would otherwise subvert their traditional religion. As such, the founders had to draw a lowest-common-denominator between their heterodox views and the orthodox views which dominated the masses. So, the founders tended to speak about God in generic philosophical language and talk of "religion" in general not "the Christian religion" in particular.

Now, many in the masses when they heard "religion" probably thought the "Christian religion." But that's still not what the founders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin meant. They meant at least Christianity, Judaism, Deism, Unitarianism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, pagan Greco-Romanism, and many other "religions."

The founders chose their words carefully. When they invoked or otherwise granted rights to "religion," they made sure they specified "religion" and not the "Christian religion." There is thus no sound textual basis to read in a word (Christian) and hence a principle (only the Christian religion has rights or should be promoted) that the founders did not use or stand for.

Though, in granting rights to and invoking the importance of "religion" generally, and in systematically using generic, philosophical, as opposed to exclusively scriptural language (though they did pick and choose from the Bible when they wanted), I think one can argue there was a bit of "talking past one another" done between the heterodox founders who gave us the system of modern republican government and the orthodox Christian forces in the masses who agreed to it.

2 comments:

Our Founding Truth said...

Mr. Frazer, it seems Mr. Knapton has temporarily left the building, however, it is much appreciated if you could answer my questions.

Mr. Rowe says:

I discussed the following quotation from John Adams [letter to Thomas Jefferson June 28, 1813] and noted it was one that the “Christian Nation” crowd most often misuses or misunderstands:

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…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.”

Likewise Gregg Frazer discusses the very same quotation and noted:

[F]or Adams, the general principles of Christianity were something to which deists, atheists, and those who believe nothing at all subscribed. He then claimed that he could “fill sheets of quotations” in favor of these principles with statements from a number of well-known sources, including two notorious atheists: Hume and Voltaire. This is clearly not Christianity — whatever term Adams may use for it.

It seems that quote is irrelevant, as it was after Adams' tenure in office, I can find no evidence Adams denied the supernatural, or Priestley's unitarianism prior to his departure from the executive in 1800. That man's reason is fully Yahweh's will is not incompatible with Orthodox Christianity.

To me, it seems the Christian nation crowd is on firm ground; the Constitution is to be silent on religion, being fully left to the states. The people of the states formed Christian states, thus a Christian nation:

Constitution of the State of North Carolina (1776), stated: There shall be no establishment of any one religious church or denomination in this State in preference to any other. Article XXXII That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State. (until 1876)

Constitution of the State of Maryland (August 14, 1776), stated: Article XXXV That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this State and such oath of office, as shall be directed by this Convention, or the Legislature of this State, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.” That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God is such a manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; wherefore no person ought by any law to be molested… on account of his religious practice; unless, under the color [pretense] of religion, any man shall disturb the good order, peace or safety of the State, or shall infringe the laws of morality… yet the Legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax, for the support of the Christian religion. (until 1851) [pp.420-421]

Constitution of the State of New Hampshire (1784,1792), required senators and representatives to be of the: Protestant religion. (in force until 1877)The Constitution stipulated: Article I, Section VI. And every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves quietly, and as good citizens of the state, shall be equally under the protection of the laws. And no subordination of any one sect of denomination to another, shall ever be established by law. [p.469]

You should also agree, the Tripoli Treaty is referring to the Federal Govt. which has nothing to do with Christianity, or any religion, said which is left to the states.
"the GOVERNMENT of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

You should also agree, ratifiers of statutes are more "key" than those who draft them.

Faith of the Free said...

When Jefferson spoke of "Christian principles," he meant exactly that...not doctrines but general principles. In many, many of his writings we can see what those principles were--and which, according to him were as easily distinguishable from the cheap imitations as "diamonds in a dunghill." As a Unitarian Universalist, I'm very comfortable with that particular distinction, and with his "question with boldness even the existence of a God" attitude toward integrity in matters of faith and conscience...but not so much with any of that "Christian nation" silliness.