Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Frazer Responds to Van Dyke:

Dr. Gregg Frazer emails the following response to Tom Van Dyke, who is commenting on this post where we continue to discuss the proper terminology for the key founders' religious beliefs and the political theology of America's founding.

Kudos to Mr. Van Dyke for being open to the evidence. That is an all-too-rare quality today. Allow me to present more evidence in response to some of Mr. Van Dyke's comments. Again, I do not have the time or the inclination to retype my dissertation, so my comments will be brief (as possible) and, consequently, not comprehensive.

As for the number of Founders who were theistic rationalists, my study centered on eight men. They were the three most responsible for the Declaration (Jefferson, Adams, & Franklin), the four most responsible for the Constitution and its ratification/explanation (Madison, Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris) and George Washington. All of these were theistic rationalists. Obviously, there may have been many others -- I don't know.

I suggest that their importance and influence goes well beyond their number because they wrote the founding documents. I also argue that theistic rationalism became the basis for American civil religion.

Ben Franklin was briefly a deist as a young man, but specifically rejected deism shortly after. Read, for example, his essay "On the Providence of God in the Government of the World" (1730). As for his being open to the deity of Christ, when he told Ezra Stiles (minister who asked him) that he had "some doubts as to his divinity," that was the polite eighteenth-century way of saying that he didn't believe it.

Mr. Van Dyke is quite correct that several of the theistic rationalists were careful to keep their more unorthodox beliefs secret. Some of the many ways in which those beliefs mattered nonetheless are: they successfully resisted efforts to acknowledge "Jesus Christ" in significant public documents; they were able to write the Declaration in such a way that it appeals (or is comfortable to) persons of all belief systems (and secularists, for that matter); they were able to make religious pronouncements and to acknowledge God's hand publicly; and they were more easily able to guarantee religious freedom because they essentially had no dog in the race (no particular dogma/doctrines to protect/promote). They essentially "established" their own religion by prohibiting establishment!

As for Adams identifying the principles of the Founding as "Christian," the key to that is to understand what Adams meant by the term in that context. In that statement [June 28, 1813 letter to Jefferson], he included "Deists and Atheists, and Protestants 'qui ne croyent rien' (who believe nothing!)" among those educated in "the general principles of Christianity" -- which he equated with "the general principles of English and American liberty." He went on to argue that the general principles were "the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united." So, for 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.

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.

Mr. Van Dyke is correct: the principles could not have been derived in a milieu of theistic rationalism absent Christianity, because, as I've said, Christianity is one of the elements of theistic rationalism. By definition, there can be no theistic rationalism absent Christianity.

Finally, I don't understand your contention, Mr. Van Dyke, that Jefferson's claim to be a Christian was "philosophically accurate." What does that mean? I appreciate the exchange -- I only wish I had more time!

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