Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ben Franklin on PA's Religious Test:

Pennsylvania's religious test in its Constitution written in 1776 illustrates why I am suspicious of viewing the Founding (as it regards religion, but other important issues as well) through the lens of federalism. The original Constitution was extremely limited in power and left the states lots of room to engage in practices entirely contrary to Founding ideals -- the worst practice, of course, being slavery.

The Founders separated Church and State at the federal level: The unamended Constitution abolished federal religious tests and left religion entirely unempowered in a Constitution of limited enumerated powers. The amended Constitution prohibited a federal establishment and guaranteed against federal free exercise violations (things that most agreed the federal government didn't even have the enumerated power to do under the unamended Constitution). But they left the states free to violate free exercise, erect establishments and pass religious tests. While a few notable founders (Washington and Adams) thought a mild establishment didn't violate "the rights of conscience" (while Jefferson and Madison thought all establishment did), all notable Founders agreed that free exercise ought to apply universally (to religions, whether Christian or not) and that all such religious tests violated the rights of conscience. States, alas, under the original power scheme, were permitted to violate the rights of conscience. But make no mistake, when states did these things like passing a religious test for holding public office, our Founders viewed this as violating the natural rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

Enter PA's original Constitution which Ben Franklin helped pen. The Constitution contained the following religious test:

And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

Yet, Franklin, who helped pen that document, despised such test. As he wrote in a letter to John Calder:

I agreed with you in Sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpower'd by Numbers, and fearing might in future times be grafted on [it, I Pre]vailed to have the additional Clause that no [further or more ex]tended Profession of Faith should ever [be exacted. I ob]serv'd to you, too, that the Evil of it was [the less, as no In]habitant, nor any Officer of Government except the Members of Assembly, were oblig'd to make that Declaration. So much for that Letter. To which I may now add, that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib'd to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.

Franklin clearly had good reason to be against the religious test. He admits in this private letter that he doesn't believe the Bible, in its entirely, was given by divine inspiration, thus would be barred from holding office under it. In 1786, he became governor of PA where he helped repeal such test.

Benjamin Rush -- originally an orthodox Christian, but later converted to universalism, believing all will eventually be saved -- likewise despised PA's religious test. Here are excerpts from two of his letters to English Whig Richard Price (who in turn greatly influenced our key Founders).

In the first, Rush calls such a test "a stain from the American Revolution."

[15 Oct. 1785]

I took the liberty of publishing, with your name, your excellent letter on the test law of Pennsylvania. It has already had a great effect on the minds of many people, and I doubt not will contribute more than anything to repeal that law. Dr. Franklin, who has succeeded Mr. Dickinson as our governor, has expressed his surprise at the continuance of such a law since the peace, and we hope will add the weight of his name to yours to remove such a stain from the American Revolution.

And here he notes that such test was eventually repealed:

[22 Apr. 1786]

I am very happy in being able to inform you that the test law was so far repealed a few weeks ago in Pennsylvania as to confer equal privileges upon every citizen of the state. The success of the friends of humanity in this business should encourage them to persevere in their attempts to enlighten and reform the world. Your letter to me upon the subject of that unjust law was the instrument that cut its last sinew.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes's death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had.

-- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 141-42

Jay Rogers, the Christian Reconstructionist from my previous posts, and I have been cordially exchanging emails. His info seems to confirm what I already knew: except for Gary North, all of the other major figures in that movement argue that "theonomy" is completely in line with Founding principles and they otherwise swallow hard the "Christian America" thesis.

I find this ironic because I always considered CRs to be the most "literal" of the fundamentalists who argue for the "purest" reading of the Bible, even willing to defend those "scary" verses that other evangelicals argue are no longer relevant in today's day and age. (And yes, I know I have conservative evangelical and Catholic readers who think the CRs' reading of the Bible to be unsound).

As I've learned in the email exchange, their embrace of the "Christian Nation" thesis arguably has diluted the "purity" of their reading of the Bible. Mark Noll, the premier evangelical scholar once noted, similar to the above quotation by Bloom, "In 1700 religion had been an 'exporter' of ideas and behavior patterns to American society; by 1800 it was an 'importer.'" Reconstructionists and Christian America advocates argue that even men of the Enlightenment like Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by the "Biblical worldview." And while that is true to some qualified extent, the converse, suggested by Bloom and Noll, is likewise true: that even "men of the Bible" -- the orthodox Christians -- were influenced by "Enlightenment" ideas.

Contra the claim that it was the "Great Awakening" that sparked off the American Revolution, the leading clergy preaching "patriotic" sermons -- Mayhew, Chauncey, Gay, and West -- were theological opponents of Edwards and his Great Awakening. Arguably, as theological unitarians, they weren't "Christians" at all. By 1776 unitarianism, universalism, and Arminianism were already firmly entrenched in the New England Clergy. And Calvin's influence had begun to wane. These "enlightened" preachers, like our key Founders, elevated man's reason over revelation and otherwise took a cafeteria approach to the Bible, especially when they argued, contra Romans 13, for a right to revolt.

One orthodox Christian committed to defending the notion that a right to revolt is "Biblical" told me that even if Mayhew et al. weren't "Biblical" in their unitarianism, their sermons on the right to revolt were (hence, Mayhew and company were "Biblical" in their worldview). I argued, again, we could view the issue conversely. Calvinism and Christian orthodoxy, though on the wane in New England by 1776, certainly weren't dead. And some/many notable patriotic Whig preachers were traditional orthodox Christians and Calvinists. Ezra Stiles comes to mind. Samuel Langdon (I'm still reading up on him) was also a notable patriotic preacher and I think an orthodox Christian. Yet, Stiles and Langdon likewise "imported" Enlightenment philosophy not only into their patriotic preaching but into their readings of the Bible itself.

Mr. Rogers, while attempting to argue that the Founders modeled our government on Biblical principles, seems to endorse wholesale the contents of Samuel Langdon's sermon entitled THE REPUBLIC OF THE ISRAELITES AN EXAMPLE TO THE AMERICAN STATES. From the title alone we should see a problem with the soundness of Langdon's sermon as the Ancient Israelites did not have a Republic. This sermon, while sounding very nice, constitutes a mythic account of the Ancient Iraelites, not at all supported by the text of the Bible. In short, even orthodox Christians could, like the unitarians whose specialty was an unorthodox/cafeteria biblical hermeneutic, play "fast and loose" with biblical texts to fit their Whig-republican propaganda. Nothing in the Bible suggests that the Israelites as "a people" consented to the Kings or elders that God unilaterally put in charge to rule over them. Though, this is exactly what patriotic preachers like Langdon argued.

As I noted to Mr. Rogers, of course, in a nation with many orthodox Christians and where the Bible was important, and given the natural religious impulse in man, the revolutionaries would argue that God/the Bible was on their side. The anti-revolutionary Tories also had preachers on their side and without question their "literal" interpretation of the Bible was as sound if not sounder than the Whig/republican interpretation.

Arguably, this importing of "a-Biblical" Enlightenment philosophy into the Bible constituted an "abuse" of the Bible. And one would think that Christians devoted to a "pure" reading of the Bible would reject it.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Since You've Been Gone:

No, not that terrible pop-song by the American Idol what's her name, but the one that rocks done by Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. What's notable about this video is how Graham Bonnet is a great rock/metal singer without at all fitting the image (and unfortunately when we are talking about making it big with multi million dollar record contracts, that is something that can kill your chances). He looks like Jim Carey up there. If a rock musician is unattractive or otherwise doesn't fit the "image" they are supposed to, that probably means they are good because they have to make it in spite of all that.

I think because of the popularity of the American Idol song with the same name that some DJ has done a dance remix of this classic Rainbow song.

Here is Bonnet playing this tune with guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen who was in Bonnet's band Alcatraz. I always thought Malmsteen worked better in this band type of environment where he wasn't in charge and solely responsible for writing all the lyrics and melodies. While his solo stuff has some cool instrumental tunes like Blackstar, he also has many songs with God-awful lyrics and badly written attempts at commercial-like metal songs.
Coffee is for Closers:

While I am not too keen on the anti-capitalist politics of this move, Glengarry Glen Ross has great acting. Alec Baldwin (just the man to play this character) is surprisingly good here.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Christian Recon Responds:

Jay Rogers, the producer of the Reconstructionist video featured in my last post, has responded.

He appears to argue that the Recons are a bit kinder and gentler than we give them credit for.

It's interesting. None of the "Christian Reconstructionists" interviewed in the God's Law and Society video told us that they held the view that God requires the execution of these capital offenders mentioned here [homosexuals, adulterers, recalcitrant children, and those who openly worship "false gods"]. Steve Schlissel explains that even in Old Testament times, with the exception of murder, these were probably the worst case offenders that received the death penalty. We see in several passages in 1 and 2 Kings that homosexual temple prostitutes were banished rather than executed. King David was pardoned by God himself. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. And so on.

What we do believe is that God's Law is just. If God commands execution for a capital crime, then it is a just punishment. We can't be squeamish about these Old Testament capital laws. This is what our God commanded.

Now whether our society today ought to enforce these laws "lock, stock and tablets" is another argument. There has been a change under the New Covenant regarding certain Old Covenant Laws. Every theonomist we interviewed agreed with this idea. I have always found it strange that people who are opposed to Christian Reconstruction always jump to the claim that we want to stone incorrigible children. No Reconstructionist has argued that we ought to do that.

Honestly I haven't researched their writings in meticulous detail, but from what I understand, they do support execution for these things because the Bible in the OT does. See this article by Walter Olson on the matter.

And from what I've watched in the clips, while they don't out and out say, yes, we will stone these folks to death, it nonetheless seems implicit in their remarks. For instance, watch this clip by Andrew Sandlin where he notes that folks who believe in false gods would have the "liberty" to worship in their homes but not in public. I'd like to get him on record stating, here's how we would punish them and no we wouldn't stone them to death as the Bible commands.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Christian Recon TV:

Or why I believe Islam is compatible with liberal democracy. You can view some of the famous Christian Reconstructionists (RJ Rushdoony, Andrew Sandlin, George Grant, etc.) advocating their theocratic vision of government on this YouTube channel. In their first best world, Old Testament style punishments would be imposed on, among others, adulterers, homosexuals, recalcitrant children, and those who proselytize for the worship of "false gods." They are really not too far off from the Islamic Mullahs.

You often hear forces from the extreme right arguing that Islam is not compatible with liberal democracy, that the version we see coming from Bin Laden et al. represents true Islam, a "demonic" false religion. (Note: President Bush does not take this position and has argued that Islam, properly understood, is a religion of peace, entirely compatible with liberal democratic norms. Indeed, such a premise seems almost necessary to support his Iraqi War project. Many anti-Islamic Christian rightists like Falwell and Robertson, actually support the war in Iraq. You have to wonder why they support trying to bring democracy to Iraq if Islam by its very nature is incompatible with liberal democracy.)

These Christian Reconstructionists, like many of Muslim fundamentalists, are not stupid people; these spokesman are well-educated, well-spoken and quite Biblically literate. They simply differ in their "literal" interpretation of the Bible with those other Protestant fundamentalists who have made their peace with liberal democracy and interpret the Bible to no longer require the execution of homosexuals, adulterers, recalcitrant children, and those who openly worship "false gods."

Watching these folks and their scary arguments and reflecting upon how the Christian Bible and religion still nonetheless became compatible with the liberal democratic order our Founding Fathers gave us makes me believe that the Koran and Islamic religion likewise can be "interpreted" in a way compatible with liberal democracy. (Whether trying to bring liberal democracy by force to Muslim populations unreceptive to its ideals is another issue entirely). And finally, I might add, our key Founders seemed to believe that all world religions, including Islam, taught the same truth as Christianity, were valid ways to God, and provided the moral support that republican governments needed.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Worshipping Zeus:

Apparently some folks are still doing this and Anthony Paul Mator at WorldMagBlog has some strong comments about the Pagan Deity:

When well-educated Greeks gather at ancient temple ruins to worship the pagan god Zeus, one may well ask why anyone would exchange the loving, self-sacrificial Christ for a malicious demigod who married his sister, raped women, and was more like a sinful human being than a transcendental authority....Let's be frank. This religious cult knows full well that Zeus does not exist, and that is why they love him. The allure of the ancient demigods is that they were created by man in man's image, and now we can re-create mighty Zeus to fit our secular humanist lifestyles. May the torches ever blaze before the temple of autonomous Greek culture.

One of my fascinating discoveries while researching the Founding Fathers on religion, particularly John Adams, was that he believed such Pagan Greco-Roman worship was more or less the same thing as Christianity. As he wrote in his Dec. 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson, "The Preamble to the Laws of as orthodox Christian Theology as Priestlys." Joseph Priestly was, as we know, Adams' and Jefferson's spiritual mentor. And the "laws of Zaleucus" were a set of laws revealed by Athena 600 years BC. In that same letter, he calls a Hindu treatise -- the Shastra -- "orthodox" and "profound" and terms the Christian Trinity a "fabrication."

The entire letter is worth a read. It's not linked online but can be viewed on pages 409-13 of The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Cappon edition.

What's also interesting is that in the very same letter Adams also states:

“I have examined all, as well as my narrow Sphere, my streightened means and my busy Life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the World.”

And the Christian Nation crowd loves to quote just that one passages, but not the rest of the letter where Adams reveals what he really means in context, which is that he is a syncretic unitarian.

Update, Tom Van Dyke emails with Adams' Defence of the Constitutions: Vol. I, Letter LI. In this chapter Adams describes ZALEUCUS and the preamble to his code. While he doesn't explicitly equate this code with Christianity, the argument is implicit in the following excerpt.

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. Having thus, in the beginning of his laws, fixed the attention of his fellow-citizens upon piety and wisdom, he ordains, above all things, that there should never be among them any irreconcilable enmity; but, on the contrary, that those animosities which might arise among them, should be only a passage to a sure and sincere reconciliation; and that he who would not submit himself to these sentiments, should be regarded as a savage in a civilized community. The chiefs of his republics ought not to govern with arrogance nor pride; nor should the magistrates be guided in their judgments by hatred nor by friendship.

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.

Hopefully, this should help put to rest the notion that when Founders like Washington and Adams talked up "religion" in a generic sense, they meant the Christian religion only. Nope, Pagan Greco-Roman laws, even a code that was supposedly revealed by Athena 600 years BC likewise qualified as sound "religion" which provided the necessary moral support that all republics need.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truth Will Set You Free?

Not according to the Straussians. Instead of blithely dismissing their notion, I think it deserves to be taken seriously. Contra Shadia Drury, the (mainly East Coast) Straussians didn't believe that the truth was a pearl too precious for the swine masses, but rather likened the truth to a dangerous fire, one to which only philosophers could secretly tend. And the truth, in many respects, far from being beautiful, at times is horrifically unpleasant. Only philosophers, whose love of discovering truth outweighs the horror that truth often brings, could really handle the truth. This is one reason why as atheists and nihilists themselves, they despised the left-wing modern philosophers who brought relativism, and hence nihilism to the masses because they didn't bring the entire picture; to make the truth of relativism go down easier, they fed the masses nihilism without the abyss. So the Straussians tend to focus disproportionately on the abyss and its horrific implications to "scare" most folks away from that truth. Those who understand the implications of the abyss and can gaze into it without flinching, they are the true philosophers, fit for membership in their club, with its "esoteric secrets."

Okay, that's my understanding of Straussianism in one paragraph. This should help explain why they were not always up front about their atheism. Strauss no doubt was a fervent atheist; but as far as I know, he never publicly so admitted. And Allan Bloom, in his 382 page book, The Closing of the American Mind, doesn't admit his atheism/nihilism until page 278. And even then, he does so very cautiously. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow's roman a clef/biography of Bloom, he has Bloom stating "no true philosopher can believe in God." No doubt this is what Bloom, and Strauss (whom Bellow names "Davarr" -- Hebrew for "Word") believed. But, to avoid misunderstanding them, this is what they privately believed, and thought that only a small select few in a healthy society should know.

Here is one paleoconservative's reaction, one who believes in both God and a transcendent moral order, to Bloom's "letting the cat out of the bag" on page 278.

I don't know that I've retained much of the main part of the book, except for the stunning realization, at p. 278 (a page number engraved in my memory), where Bloom lets on that he does not really believe in the traditional American democracy and culture that he has been defending for the last 200 pages. He says instead that such common and traditional beliefs are merely the "gods of the city," social myths which intellectuals such as Bloom pretend to believe in in order to secure a safe and comfortable existence for themselves.

Again, instead of scoffing at such a notion, let's turn to page 278 (277 to be exact) and see why Bloom believes as he does:

[Philosophers] observed that the most powerful passion of most men is fear of death. Very few men are capable of coming to terms with their own extinction. It is not so much stupidity that closes men to philosophy but love of their own, particularly love of their own lives, but also love of their own children and their own cities. It is the hardest task of all to face the lack of cosmic support for what we care about. Socrates, therefore, defines the task of philosophy as "learning how to die."..."As are the generation of leaves, so are the generations of men," -- a somber lesson that is only compensated for by the intense pleasure accompanying insight. Without that pleasure, which so few have, it would be intolerable. The philosopher, to the extent that he really only enjoys thinking and loves the true, cannot be disabused. He cherishes no illusion that can crumble. If he is comic, at least he is absolutely immune to tragedy. Nonphilosophic men love the truth only as long as it does not conflict with what they cherish -- self, family, country, fame, love. When it does conflict, they hate the truth and regard as a monster the man who does not care for these noble things, who proves they are ephemeral and treats them as such. The gods are the guarantors of the unity of nature and convention dear to most men, which philosophy can only dissolve. The enmity between science and mankind at large is, therefore, not an accident.

-- pp. 277-78. One of the most profound passages in Closing where Bloom sort of comes out as a "closet atheist/nihilist," while explaining why philosophers must remain in the closet.

Saul Bellow's account of Bloom in Ravelstein is interesting because it further shows how a philosopher who really doesn't believe in the truth of the city gods lives his life. Though he publicly defended "family values," Bloom was a pleasure seeking gay man, who saw nothing wrong with living his life the way he did. Bellow also reports when Bloom was dying he faced death without hope and without fear which is exactly how a true philosopher is supposed to. Bellow apparently didn't buy Bloom's argument. He made in clear in Ravelstein that he believed in God (though in an unorthodox manner). And suspected that many atheist philosophers in their closets believed in God as well, but just "talked tough."

Now the scoffing may begin.

Friday, January 19, 2007

John Adams Quotation of the Week:

"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

-- John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

This should put to rest the notion that the Founders, even after bad experiences with the Muslim Barbary Pirates, viewed Islam as an enemy, when in fact they believed Muslims worshipped the same God they did. But as theological universalists, Adams and company, from what I have researched, believed that Hindus, Native Americans, and Pagan Greco-Romans (and let us not forget Deists and Unitarians) all worshipped the same "Providence of the first Cause" too. So keep in mind when they used the term "religion" in a generic sense (as when Adams said "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Or when Washington said "Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports...And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.") all of these world religions, in their mind, fit the bill.

On a related note, regarding monotheism and drawing lowest common denominators, it's clear that our Founders were radically inclusive for their day and ours in their religious universalism. It's possible to narrow the claim and state that while Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God -- the God of Abraham, some Founders clearly erred in adding Hindus, Native Americans, and Greco-Romanism into their LCD, because they follow non-Abrahamic religions. It's also possible to argue, as folks like Joe Carter do, that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship different gods with incompatible attributes. One cannot, however, coherently argue (some try!) that while Jews and Christians worship the same God, Muslims worship a different one. They either all worship the same or different gods.

And our key Founders believed they all worshipped the same God.
Originalism, Consent, and Legitimacy:

Over at Volokh, Ilya Somin has a post on originalism and an interesting discussion has ensued on whether which if any of the particular varieties of originalism are legitimate. Someone mentioned the "contract" analogy, which makes sense because, after all, the Declaration and Constitution are "social contract" documents. However, mere consent is insufficient for establishing the legitimacy of the original Constitution.

Don't get me wrong, consent is necessary for the legitimacy of a) the ratification the original Constitution as well as any amendments thereto AND b) the election of any representatives who presently sit in power. But it is not enough to argue that the Constitution as ratified in 1791 binds us today merely because a particular majority of folks consented to it back then.

For one, no one alive today assented to the original Constitution or most of its amendments. I cannot bind you into a contract for which you never assented. Randy Barnett clearly lays this out in his book. No one is bound to a contract ratified by a dead guy or a bunch of dead guys hundreds of years ago. The original meaning of the Constitution can only legitimately bind if read through the lens of a presumption of liberty. In that respect, no one's rights are violated by living under our Constitutional order.

As mentioned, there are varieties of originalism, varieties of textualism, and even possible differing outcomes in "original meaning originalism," which is the only viable theory of originalism. Original meaning originalism still needs a further jurisprudential theory to undergird it. And that is the presumption of liberty/natural rights -- that government's ONLY legitimate functions are to protect rights of life, liberty, and property, which are "unalienable," that is antecedent to majority rule. The majority does not have the legitimate power to abridge my right to liberty (so long as I'm not violating anyone else's) and I never consented to live under a system where they did have that right.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I now have the privilege of being published in a periodical that has featured the writings of, among others, a current Supreme Court Justice. You'd never guess the periodical, so I might as well be "out with it." It's First Things. No they haven't changed my libertarian politics. After one of my posts on the Founders and religion, I received an unsolicited email from one of their editors to write a "Briefly Noted" review of James H. Hutson's "The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations." I submitted it a while ago and they just published it in their January 2007 issue. My very small piece is not online yet, but if/when it is, I'll link to it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hitchens on the Jefferson-Koran Issue:

A more balanced take from someone who is equally skeptical of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism:

Jefferson did not demand regime change of the Barbary states, only policy change. And as far as I can find, he avoided any comment on the religious dimension of the war. But then, he avoided public comment on faith whenever possible. It was not until long after his death that we became able to read most of his scornful writings on revelation and redemption (recently cited with great clarity by Brooke Allen in her book Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers). And it was not until long after his death that The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was publishable. Sometimes known as "the Jefferson Bible" for short, this consists of the four gospels of the New Testament as redacted by our third president with (literally) a razor blade in his hand. With this blade, he excised every verse dealing with virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and other puerile superstition, thus leaving him (and us) with a very much shorter book. In 1904 (those were the days), the Jefferson Bible was printed by order of Congress, and for many years was presented to all newly elected members of that body. Here's a tradition worth reviving: Why not ask all new members of Congress to swear on that?

And here's a tradition worth inaugurating: The Quran repeats and plagiarizes many passages of the New Testament, including some of the most fantastic and mythical ones. Is it not time to apply the razor and produce a reasonable Quran as well? What could be more inclusive? What could be a better application of Jeffersonian original intent?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

How Not to Argue Against the "Christian Nation" Crowd:

The way Chris Hedges does in his book, "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." The New York Times gave it a poor review (ironic, in that he used to report for them), and so did the Baltimore Sun, because it simply goes too far and overstates its case (and plays into the hands of the reactionaries, who now term books like Hedges' "hate literature" against Christians).

And while the so called "war on Christians" theme is generally bunk, given Hedges' prescription (which by the way, will never happen), Christianists would have a valid complaint of persecution. From the Baltimore Sun review:

Nevertheless, Hedges concludes that the Christian right "should no longer be tolerated," because it "would destroy the tolerance that makes an open society possible." What does he think should be done? He endorses the view that "any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law," and therefore we should treat "incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal." Thus he rejects the First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and religion, and court rulings that permit prosecution for speech only if there is an imminent threat to particular individuals.

Emotional overreaction seems to have ruined what could otherwise have been a thoughtful, informative book. So what caused Hedges to overreact? Things like the following. From the same article:

Hedges also goes to the National Religious Broadcasters' annual convention, where 5,500 Christian TV and radio folk gather in Anaheim. And he joins a five-day "Evangelism Explosion" seminar in Florida to learn tactics for converting people to the Christian right's version of Christ. That conference is run by D. James Kennedy, whose The Coral Ridge Hour is seen weekly on more than 600 TV stations. There, he and 60 other people learn the sales pitch and how to fake friendship for the potential convert. Then they talk about sin. The aspiring evangelists also are told that "eternal life cannot be achieved through good deeds or even a good life," that there is no escape from sin, that belief in Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

But the key message Hedges and the others are taught to deliver is that conversion obliterates "our fear of death, not only for ourselves, but the fear we have of losing those we love" - for example, children or spouses fighting in Iraq. This, Hedges argues, is "not only dishonest but cruel," because the fear of death cannot be banished.

This message is also dangerous, Hedges writes, because the goal of the Christian right is "not simply conversion but also eventual recruitment into a political movement to create a Christian nation," where constitutional freedoms would be replaced by biblical law, as interpreted by evangelical leaders. Kennedy has been clear about this goal: "As the vice regents of God," the Florida-based minister has written, "we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government," as well as "our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors. ... "

I don't know how far Robertson or Falwell would go, but I do know from constant monitoring of D. James Kennedy that he is one of the so called "dominionists." He even has his "Center for Reclaiming America" which purports to take back America from those who stole it from the Christianists. The problem is Kennedy's historical claims are fraudulent. They have (and contra Hedges, ought to have) every right to engage in political activism; but if conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists understood history, not the revisionist twaddle Kennedy et al. feed them, perhaps they would be less zealous about trying to reclaim something they never owned. (And many conservative evangelicals do indeed understand Kennedy is full of it on this matter.)

Just today I watched Kennedy give one of his revisionist lectures to his Center for Reclaiming America. And off the top of my head I recall the following errors:

1) Equating America's Founding with Columbus and the earlier colonial orders, as opposed to what when down between 1776-1787.

2) To prove America was "founded" by Christians for Christians, offering the following phony quotation by Patrick Henry, which seems on point:

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!

The problem is Patrick Henry never said it. Perhaps Kennedy never got the memo from David Barton, the person primarily responsible for spreading that and other "unconfirmed quotations" as he euphemistically termed them. And by the way, on this year's broadcasts, Kennedy has cited almost all those quotations.

3) Asserting that Jefferson, while President of the United States insisted on having the Bible used as a textbook in the DC public schools, which is another David Barton myth. As the late Leonard Levy put it, "In matters of education, however, Jefferson was a complete secularist, never deviating in any significant degree."

4) Claiming that Jefferson and Franklin were practically the only two "non-born again evangelical Christians" among our Founding Fathers, which again, is utter nonsense. At the very least we know that Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton (before his conversion towards the end of his life), James Wilson, Thomas Paine, and Ethan Allen, were not orthodox Christians, certainly not "born again evangelical Christians."

Get well Jim Kennedy. As long as you keep shoveling it, I will have a job to do here.
Linked by TheNewsWalk:

Thanks to Tom Van Dyke of formerly The Reform Club for the link and kind words. Check out their fine blog which features some heavy hitters on the right side of the blogsphere.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Military Chaplain Case:

This case has garnered much attention in Christian right circles (but not much elsewhere). WND reports that the Chaplain was just dismissed. The controversy seems to be that the Navy wanted him to pray inclusive non-denominational prayers, but he insisted on praying in Jesus name. The Navy's rationale was that some service members to whose needs he administered weren't Christian, hence a non-denominational prayer would be more inclusive. The chaplain asserted his free-exercise rights to pray in Jesus name. And I understand, an establishment clause claim is being advanced as well. John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute has gotten involved and stated: "I think the Supreme Court's going to have to look at the idea of can the government in any of its forms tell people how to pray, set up a basic religion and say you can only do it this way,"...

Moreover, Rutherford notes: "What we have here is the government's attempt to override the Constitution and the laws of the land by a directive that clearly interferes with military chaplains' free exercise and free speech rights, as well as those of their congregants."

Though this case involves a potential complicated mix of free exercise, free speech and establishment clause claims, it seems cut and dried to me: The military is absolutely right. Chaplains qua chaplains have no free exercise rights or free speech rights and do their job completely at the behest of government. You either do your job as the government wants you to or you don't do your job at all. For a chaplain to assert he has the right to dictate his own prayers is not unlike Tony Snow asserting he has a right to free speech while acting as the President's Press Secretary. Snow absolutely has a private right to free speech and such private rights spill over to protect his government job, but only in a limited sense, via Connick v. Meyers and the Pickering balancing test. But when he speaks as Bush's Press Secretary, he tells the press what Bush wants him to or he finds another job.

What further complicates the matter is that, according to Supreme Court precedent, government is not entirely free to make any religious acknowledgements it wants. Sometimes when government endorses one religious point of view to the exclusion of others the Court holds government violates the establishment clause. Other religious acknowledgements are constitutionally permitted. And the Supreme Court has not done a good job at coherently drawing that line.

But, to the extent that government is constitutionally permitted to make religious acknowledgements, the right belongs solely to the government, and not the government employee or actor making the acknowledgement.

It's usually conservatives who argue that government shouldn't be forbidden at all from making religious acknowledgements. But that just gives government more leeway to tell its actors "how to pray...and say you can only do it this way." Imagine, if you will, the state of Utah with its high Mormon population (but its fair share of religious minorities), to be inclusive, hires a Protestant Chaplain for its legislature to pray non-denominational prayers, agreeable to the tenets of as many of the state's sects as possible. And the Chaplain gets up there and makes explicit Protestant prayers which alienate the consciences of the Mormon majority. Would the state not have the right to fire the Chaplain? Or could he assert a free exercise/free speech claim?

One other comment on Whitehead's/Rutherford's claim. They write:

"The Navy's ongoing practice of promoting the one non-sectarian, Unitarian, Pluralistic religion and discouraging public expression of diverse faiths and religions violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because, among other things, the only purpose or the primary purpose is to promote the one non-sectarian, Unitarian, Pluralistic religion over all other religions and it constitutes government preference for certain specific religious tenets and modes of worship over other religious tenets and modes of worship," the lawsuit says.

What's ironic about this comment is, not only is government controlling the content of its religious acknowledgements constitutionally permitted, but specifically, government attempting to send an inclusive non-denominational theistic message is as American as apple pie; it is exactly what Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison did when they, as Presidents, made their public religious supplications. Justice Scalia keenly recognized this in his very interesting dissent in McCreary, where he wrote of these Founders' God talk: "This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not)" and,

All of the actions of Washington and the First Congress upon which I have relied, virtually all Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout our history, and all the other examples of our Government's favoring religion that I have cited, have invoked God, but not Jesus Christ.

Finally, if we follow Rutherford's logic to its ultimate conclusion that government, when it makes religious acknowledgements, can not tell its actors "how to pray...and say you can only do it this way," then we are ultimately driven to two possible outcomes: government actors, not their superiors, can say/pray whatever they want with impunity which would, in our example, allow the Protestant minister to pray explicitly anti-Mormon prayers as Utah state government's chaplain. Or, government could never make religious acknowledgements at all, because in so doing would be akin to government "set[ting] up a basic religion" which would render even military chaplains unconstitutional. This, in turn, results in an even further version of "strict separation" of Church and State than what Michael Newdow and Barry Lynn desire.

Somehow, I get the feeling, if the Navy were demanding that its chaplains pray in Jesus name, Whitehead/Rutherford wouldn't have taken the case.

Update: I was double checking to make sure my assertions were warranted and I found this interesting law review article on the subject. It turns out that many cases are currently in litigation. And a few have been recently decided by lower federal courts.

This area of law is quite muddy and complex. As one judge hearing one of the cases put it, these cases literally involve four constitutional principles -- free exercise, free speech, establishment, and equal protection -- at an intersection. In one area, however, caselaw has held that chaplains clearly do have free speech/free exercise rights and that's when they minister to voluntary faith group worship. This makes sense. Because servicemen live their private lives on military bases and because they retain their free exercise rights, some chaplains will have to play the role that ministers would ordinarily play in civilian life. So if the military has X evangelical Protestant soldiers who desire such a minister for private worship, the military must do its best to meet their needs and such a chaplain has free speech/exercise rights to do his job. [That way, a Catholic superior couldn't barge in and meddle with the Protestant's messages; and, from reading the article, this is exactly the sort of thing that has occurred.]

But that is still different from the case at hand where the minister in question did not act in a quasi-private capacity, but rather spoke for the entire Navy. The caselaw, as I understand, has not recognized a free exercise/speech right in that circumstance, nor should it.
The Godless Constitution:

I read the original version while on loan from a library a few years ago (see my original review). I had no idea that the authors, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, reissued the book in 2005 with a new chapter on George W. Bush. I bought the paperback edition and am rereading parts of it.

It's a good book, though I think the authors, two very distinguished scholars, made a mistake by doing away with the normal footnoting method (just gives fodder to critics).

I've learned that the Founding, like most historical events, can be looked at from different perspectives, and the perspective advanced in this book is certainly valid. And such is, even before the First Amendment, the Constitution, for its time, was a remarkably secular document. With a Constitution of strictly limited enumerated powers, religion is nowhere empowered. Article VI's "no religious test" clause radically broke with the tradition in the colonies of requiring belief in the Biblical God for holding public office (and various other rights and privileges). And, most notably, God was not mentioned at all in the Constitution, whereas the colonies had a tradition of covenanting with the Biblical God.

Only one serious scholar in the academy of which I am aware (Donald Lutz) argues that the Constitution is largely a product of this earlier tradition of "covenanting." While covenant theology may have had some qualified influence on our Founding, that the Constitution forgets to covenant with the God of the Bible or any God, and doesn't mention Him at all (other than in the customary way of stating the date), makes Lutz's assertion downright baffling.

However, another perspective, contra Kramnick and Moore, is likewise valid and that is the perspective of federalism. The Constitution may have been a "Godless" document, but it was also a document which left the federal government very few powers over any area of life, including religion, while leaving much in the hands of state and local governments. And as originally conceived, state and local governments had great power to endorse and establish religion. Though, by 1833, the last establishment in Massachusetts had been abolished (and without the need for a civil war or constitutional amendment). Daniel Dreisbach defends the federalist perspective against Kramnick and Moore here.

Finally, there is a great line in The Godless Constitution which perfectly captures my libertarian (as opposed to leftist) idea of secular neutrality: "[T]he authors will be happy when religion has the same rights in the public sphere as General Motors, no more and no less." p. 15. This suggests that equality/neutrality/non-discrimination -- as opposed to driving religion from the public square -- should be the real driving force behind the secularism as Founders like Jefferson and Madison understood it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Distorting Jefferson's Thoughts on Islam:

What WorldNutDaily and a few others are doing.

It's certainly true that Jefferson and the United States had problems with Muslim terrorists of their day -- pirates. And it may be true (I haven't yet confirmed it) as WND asserts,

The Continental Congress then met in 1784 to talk about treaties with leaders of the region, and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were appointed to oversee the work.

"Tribute" and "ransoms" first were paid to the Muslim slavers, and Adams argued that was the cheapest way to get commerce moving, Sampley wrote. But Jefferson was opposed, proposing a settlement of the issue "through the medium of war."

Sampley writes that two years later, when Jefferson was ambassador to France, and Adams was ambassador to Britain, they met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the ambassador to Britain from the "Dey of Algiers."

Seeking a peace treaty, based on Congress' vote to pay tribute, the two Americans asked Dey's ambassador why Muslims had so much hostility towards America. They later reported to Congress the ambassador told them Islam "was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise."

But it is most certainly not true that those three Founders took the quoted ambassador's comments as representing authentic Islam. That's the spin that WND following Gary Demar gives this history:

"So what did Jefferson learn from the Quran? …Unless a nation submitted to Islam, whether it was the aggressor or not, that nation was by definition at war with Islam. It's no wonder that Jefferson studied the Quran. He realized that if Americans ever capitulated, the Muslims would be singing 'From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of A-mer-i-ca,'" DeMar concluded.

I've studied Jefferson's (and Adams' and Franklin's) writings on religion in detail, and I can attest that they registered no such complaint about Islam. In fact, they didn't often talk about Islam, but when they did we get the impression that they believed such a system was exactly like Christianity: it contained seeds of truth and a whole lot of corruption. These three Founders were, like or not, theological universalists who believed that all world religions of which they were aware (including Islam) were, at heart, valid paths to God. Perhaps it was this underlying premise (which many theologians think absolutely erroneous) that blinded them from seeing the "truth" about Islam, but it is what they believed.

The following is one of the few times in Jefferson's personal letters where he discusses Islam and he views its violence and corruption as being on par with Christianity's. From his September 27, 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. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words 'this do in remembrance of me' cost the Christian world! We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus; but we schismatize and lose ourselves in subtleties about his nature, his conception maculate or immaculate, whether he was a god or not a god, whether his votaries are to be initiated by simple aspersion, by immersion, or without water; whether his priests must be robed in white, in black, or not robed at all; whether we are to use our own reason, or the reason of others, in the opinions we form, or as to the evidence we are to believe. It is on questions of this, and still less importance, that such oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren. It is time then to become sensible how insoluble these questions are by minds like ours, how unimportant, and how mischievous; and to consign them to the sleep of death, never to be awakened from it. ... We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. 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.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Crooks and Liars Link:

This is a first for me. Ed Brayton emails that they are one of the top ten blogs on the Internet. Crooks and Liars linked to my post on George Washington and Religion (via Positive Liberty).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

John Daker:

What a voice!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Boller, Lillback, George Washington & Religion:

Paul Boller's magnificent work of scholarship "George Washington & Religion" can be accessed here. This is not a free site. But if you are associated with a college or a research institution, you may have privileges. Boller's book is out of print and the cheapest you can find it on Amazon is $75.

A couple things about the book. Boller concludes that Washington was not a Christian, but some kind of Deist. His money quote is:

[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.

Though, Boller explicitly notes that Washington was not a Deist in the sense of believing in a cold distant watchmaker God; rather Washington's God intervened. A problem though, with categorizing Washington as a "Deist" is that too many folks define Deism as belief in a non-intervening God and such a categorization, without immediate caveat, likely misleads. So the religious conservatives who don't want to believe that Washington's Providence was non-interventionist have a valid complaint.

Enter Peter A. Lillback. Like Michael and Jana Novak, he too has authored a recent book which attempts to show that Washington was Christian not Deist. But Lillback explicitly makes Boller an enemy (the Novaks don't), the one responsible for what he considers the error that Washington was Deist and not Christian.

In fact, most modern works which explain Washington's religion do in some way trace back to Boller. But this isn't because of anything nefarious; it's just Boller's work is damn good. And it's not just secularists or liberals. Conservatives like Richard Brookhiser, James Hutson, Gregg Frazer, and others rely on Boller's work, which meticulously examines the primary sources.

Note: I haven't read Lillback's book. And, at 1200 pages, I'm not planning on buying it. If someone wants to send it to me for free, or if a publication wants me to review it like I did the Novaks' then I'll read it. [NOTE: I HAVE SUBSEQUENTLY BOUGHT AND READ LILLBACK'S ENTIRE BOOK.]

From what I have read and heard from Lillback -- a number of articles and seen and heard him on various media -- I get the impression that his book attempts to "spin" or explain away the historical record which shows Washington wasn't an orthodox Christian, in mindnumbingly pedantic detail. Note to Mr. Lillback: quantity doesn't equal quality.

Here is one of Lillback's articles which I've read. Let me deal with some of it.

This article shows that Lillback engages in what is commonly termed "law office" scholarship; focus only on those facts which seem to support your side and ignore or otherwise come forth with clever ways of explaining away what contradicts your case.

First, towards the very end, Lillback reveals why it's important to prove Washington was Christian not Deist and thus shows his level of "objectivity": "Where a nation begins largely determines the course it treads. If our Founding Father was a deist, we should certainly be secularists today."

Next: What Washington called himself. Lillback correctly notes that Washington never called himself a "deist" (neither did Jefferson, Adams, or Madison). Washington, as far as we knew, never called himself a "Christian either." But Lillback apparently finds a letter where Washington signs it "on my honor and the faith of a Christian."

The problem: This letter, if genuine (I haven't been able to locate it in Washington's papers, which are archived online), is the only instance of the kind. One must examine in overall context, systematic behavior. And Washington systematically did not refer to himself as a "Christian" (or a Deist). More often, he talked of Christians in the third person, as though he weren't part of that group.

The following statement of his is typical: "I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception."

Or: "I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their [my emphasis] religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society."

And, I might add, both Adams and Jefferson commonly referred to themselves as "Christian." My thesis is that Washington believed in the same system they did -- which Adams termed "liberal unitarian Christianity," but arguably, because it rejects all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity, isn't Christianity at all.

Regarding Washington's refusal to take communion, Lillback writes:

When he finished his oath of office at his first inaugural, he added the words, "So help me God," and bent down to kiss the Bible. Then he led the crowd across the street to St. Paul's Chapel for a two-hour service. Alexander Hamilton's wife said she was at Washington's side when he took Communion that day.

[Note: Whether Washington ever said "so help me God," is uncertain, and kissing the Bible is a Freemasonic ritual; indeed the Bible he kissed was a Masonic Bible].

Now, apparently in one letter written in old age, Eliza Hamilton "remembers" taking communion with Washington (elsewhere Lillback offers testimony of an instance of Washington communing in a non-Episcopal-Anglican Church). Contrast that with testimony from three of Washington's own ministers, who observed his behavior for YEARS, and testified that Washington never communed. Likewise Washington's step-granddaughter, in a letter trying to defend his Christianity, testified that while Martha communed, George didn't. From an "overall" perspective that puts things in context, the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Washington never communed.

I have also heard it said that Washington didn't commune because we were at war with Great Britain and the Anglican Church was too connected against whom America rebelled. That absolutely fails to explain why Washington didn't commune his entire adult life, even after the Revolution was over and the Anglican Church became the Protestant Episcopalian Church.

The relevance of his not being a communicant? As his own minister, Dr. Abercrombie said: "I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

Regarding Washington never mentioning the words "Jesus Christ," Lillback's explanation is that he didn't say those words because he held them in reverence; but that elsewhere he refers to Jesus as the "Divine Author of our blessed religion." The problem: Again, looking at the "big picture," records indicate Washington only mentioned the words "Jesus Christ" once. And only spoke of Jesus one other time as the "Divine Author of our blessed religion." Other than that, Washington never spoke of Jesus at all!

Regarding Washington's terminology for God, Lillback writes:

Washington's titles for God, such as "Great author of the Universe," were not deist titles. These were the titles of honor used for deity by the preachers of his day. He also used several biblical titles for God. These included: Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Lord, God of Armies, Lord of Hosts, Almighty, Redeemer, Creator, Maker, Lord of Nations and Father.

First, Washington never spoke of God as Redeemer; that is an error. And arguably he didn't speak of God as Jesus Christ either. The one instance of him using that name was as follows: "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are." This is not an explicit endorsement of Trinitarianism. And even the term "Divine Author of our blessed religion" is consistent with Arianism, a very popular form of unitarianism in the day which views Jesus as a divinely created being inferior to God the father.

Scholars also doubt whether those two references (again, the only two that exist!) to Jesus convey Washington's true beliefs, because the original documents were not written in his own hand, but were signed by him (aids probably prepared them).

Regarding the other ways of referring to God, Lillback baldly asserts that this is how Chrisitans referred to God, not Deists. Well, at best for his side, we could say that Washington referenced God in generic terms, which deists, unitarians and Christians could use. The way he spoke of God was entirely consistent with how Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison spoke of God. He did not speak in explicitly Trinitarian terms, but rather in the language of generic monotheism.

Finally, regarding Washington's use of the term "Jehovah." Washington was not indicating that he believed exclusively in the "Biblical" or "Judeo-Christian" God. Rather, when Jefferson, Washington, and the other key framers addressed a particular community, they customarily referred to God in terms used by the addressees. The only time Washington ever referred to God as "Jehovah" was in one address to Jews. Likewise, when Washington addressed his fellow Freemasons, he referred to God as "The Great Architect of the Universe." And when addressing the Cherokee Indians, Washington referred to God as "The Great Spirit" exactly as they did. In fact, Washington crossed out the word "God" in one of his speeches prepared for the Indians and substituted "the Great Spirit." When Madison and Jefferson addressed the American Indians, they too systematically referred to God as "the Great Spirit."

Lillback aims his book at a scholarly audience. He wants the community to take him seriously, similar to how Gordon Wood commented on the Novaks' work. I haven't seen Lillback's book in bookstores. And his co-author, Jerry Newcombe, has co-authored notoriously revisionist books with D. James Kennedy.

I have seen a few conservatives in respectable positions in the academy say positive things about this book. Of course, it's selling well in "Christian Nation" circles. Whether it will be taken seriously by the scholarly community, only time will tell.

The success of both the Novaks' and Lillback's books shows that people are interested in this subject. I have no idea why Boller's great book is out of print.

My prescription would be for Boller, who is still alive but getting on in years, to reissue his book with a new chapter responding to recent works of scholarship which challenge his thesis.
Carter on the Christian Nation:

I agree with almost everything Joe Carter writes in this post about the "Christian Nation" thesis. He relies on David L. Holmes' fine book -- The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Replacing one Misunderstanding with Another:

Dennis Prager and those on the religious right may have some valid complaints about the current historical understanding in the academy weighing too heavily on the "secular" and "deist" side of America's Founding. However, it does him/them no good to attempt to replace one misunderstanding with another. And this is exactly what he does in this column. He writes:

In fact, the Founders regarded America as a Second Israel, in Abraham Lincoln's words, the "Almost Chosen" People. This self-identification was so deep that Thomas Jefferson, today often described as not even a Christian, wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt at the splitting of the sea. Just as the Jews left Egypt, Americans left Europe.

There has been a concerted, and successful, attempt over the last generations to depict America as always having been a secular country and many of its Founders as deists, a term misleadingly defined as irreligious people who believed in an impersonal god.

It is also argued that the values that animated the founding of America were the values of the secular Enlightenment, not those of the Bible -- even for most of the Founders who were religious Christians.

This new version of American history reminds me of the old Soviet dissident joke: "In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it's the past that is always changing."

Once almost universally acknowledged to be founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the average college graduate is now ignorant of the religious bases of this society, and certain that it was founded to be, and has always been, a secular society that happens to have many individual Christians living in it.

This country was founded overwhelmingly by men and women steeped in the Bible. Their moral values emanated from the Bible, and they regarded liberty as possible only if understood as given by God. That is why the Liberty Bell's inscription is from the Old Testament, and why Thomas Jefferson, the allegedly non-religious deist, wrote (as carved into the Jefferson Memorial): "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

The evidence is overwhelming that the Founders were religious people who wanted a religious country that enshrined liberty for all its citizens, including those of different religions and those of no faith. But our educational institutions, especially the universities, are populated almost exclusively by secular individuals and books who seek to cast America's past and present in their image.

A few comments. First regarding Jefferson's (and many other Whigs') use of Ancient Israel. They in no way needed to use the Bible to argue for political and economic liberty because the Bible is wholly unconcerned with these matters. Such were relatively novel concepts which Jefferson and company helped to pioneer. From my past post quoting Dr. Robert Kraynak's work in Dr. Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis:

"[T]he Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses....[T]he content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors rather than establishing protections for personal freedom." Finally, the combination of judicial, civil, ceremonial, and dietary laws imposed on the people "regulate all aspects of religious, personal, and social life."

Rather, Jefferson et al. needed to get the Christian masses to sign on to their revolutionary cause. And in doing so, Jefferson and his fellow Whigs radically rewrote the history of Ancient Jews. Arguably, this was an abuse of the Bible, intimating that passages having to do with spiritual liberty were really about political and economic liberty!

Second, it was never universally acknowledged that the United States was "founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures." After the Constitution was written without mentioning God in its text, fundamentalist preachers of the day thundered that we would see God's wrath for leaving Him out of the document. When Jefferson was running for President many of these same men thundered America would be ruled by an absolute Enlightenment infidel and further predicted God's wrath. George Washington's own ministers accused him of being a deist. The Christian ministers knew well that the elite Whigs from which our Founders were drawn were teaming with "infidels" -- that is deists and unitarians. Indeed, the universities and even seminaries and pulpits of Churches professing orthodoxy had been infiltrated by such "infidels." Consider what Bishop Meade, a Founding era figure said of the College of William and Mary during that era:

The intimacy produced between infidel France and our own country, by the union of our arms against the common foe, was most baneful in its influence with our citizens generally, and on none more than those of Virginia. The grain of mustard-seed which was planted at Williamsburg, about the middle of the century, had taken root there and sprung up and spread its branches over the whole State.

Or what Bird Wilson (James' son) said about the Founders in 1831: "[A]mong all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).

Third Prager's use of the term "Judeo-Christian" is anachronistic. The Founders themselves never used such a term. And though it does have some useful meaning -- for instance, Christianity grew out of and has its roots in Judaism -- the way Prager uses it -- to build a Lowest Common Denominator between conservative Christians and Jews in the Old Testament -- would be totally alien to them. The key Founders were actually far more influenced by the New Testment than the Old because Jesus' character seemed to them to be far more benevolent than the wrathful, jealous God of the Old Testament. And reason told them God's main attribute was His benevolence.

These Founders were no doubt influenced by the Bible, as well as by the Pagan Greco-Roman characters. But the key Founders predominantly were men of the Enlightenment who used man's reason to take from the Bible what they thought valid or "reasonable" and discard the rest. They believed in an active personal God and were thus "religious"; but to ignore this Enlightenment element -- the reliance on man's reason over revelation, the rejection of orthodoxy and embrace of what Founding era orthodox Christians termed "infidel" principles -- as Prager and the religious right do, leaves out a major element of their history. Without the full story, Prager's followers are just ignorant.
Ellison to Use Jefferson's Koran:

This is interesting news.

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he'd take his oath of office on the Koran -- especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

Yet the holy book at tomorrow's ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We've learned that the new congressman -- in a savvy bit of political symbolism -- will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

From what I've been able to gather, Jefferson and the other key Founders believed the Muslim religion contained the same basic Truth as Christianity and was thus a valid way to God. Why? Because it taught, in Franklin's words:

I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can 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.
Unitarian Whigs:

It may surprise you to know that John Milton was not a Christian, but a heretic. That is, if one defines "Christianity" as Trinitarian and accepting of the Nicene Creed. I've been doing some research on Milton, and the consensus seems to be that Milton (like Isaac Newton and many others) was an Arian, which is a form of theological unitarianism which views Jesus as a divine but created being, inferior to God the father.

America was born of theological dissent. As I noted in my past post, the dissident Whig tradition in England arguably most greatly impacted our founders in the ideological sense. And they were disproportionately made up of theological unitarians which was the ultimate form of theological dissent in a nation, England, that officially established Trinitarian Christianity. Indeed, they had a law which made it a crime to deny publicly the Trinity, which was finally removed the books in 1813, the subject of this letter by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, two fervent unitarians, where Adams goes so far to say that had God Himself revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to Adams on Mt. Sinai with Moses, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proved that one was not three period.

Ben Franklin in expressing his unitariasm also testifies that many of those Whig dissident thinkers were unitarians. Franklin writes to Ezra Stiles, as President of Yale, a very prominent orthodox Christian (Franklin's tone is very polite; he practically walks on egg shells):

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can 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 dogmatise 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 probably it 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 Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure.

So Franklin says that like "most of the present Dissenters in England" he doubts Jesus' divinity. Those dissenters were the English Whigs, in whose writings the key Founders were imbibed. Franklin and the other key Founders carried on correspondence with many of the dissenters alive during their era, including Joseph Priestly, Richard Price, and James Burgh. In fact, Franklin, Priestly, Price and Burgh were part of a club called the "Honest Whigs."

Likewise, when Franklin writes that Jesus' religion "has received various corrupting Changes," that phrase has a specific meaning. Fellow Whig Joseph Priestly coined the phrase "the corruptions of Christianity," and they included "a trinity of persons in the godhead, original sin, arbitrary predestination, atonement for the sins of men by the death of Christ, and ... the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the scriptures." In other words, Franklin like Priestly rejected all of the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

Finally, let's read again the tenets of Franklin's creed. My research shows that this is exactly what Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Madison also believed:

I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can 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 are, according to Franklin (and the others), "the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion." And by this they included, not just the Christian sects, but "all sound Religion." The world religions with which they were familiar included, at the very least, Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), Judaism, Deism, Unitarianism, Islam, Hinduism, and Native American spirituality. Also Pagan Greco-Romanism qualified as "sound religion." So when the Founders believed all these world religions contained the same Truth as Christianity and were thus valid ways to God, it is the above passage which is the "Truth" of Christianity they thought valid. What comes from the creeds -- the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the plenary inspiration of the scriptures, etc. -- in other words what distinguishes Christianity from the other world religions, was not "Truth" but "corruption."

The Trinity is only bearable according to Franklin (but not Adams and Jefferson who thought it to be absolutely pernicious) because Christians nonetheless believed in those tenets which all sound religions believe. And that, to Franklin, was what really mattered.

Finally, in his letter to Stiles Franklin asks in his PS:

(I confide, that you will not expose me to Criticism and Censure by publishing any part of this Communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious Sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me insupportable and even absurd. All Sects here, and we have a great Variety, have experienced my Good will in assisting them with Subscriptions for building their new Places of Worship, and as I have never opposed any of their Doctrines I hope to go out of the World in Peace with them all.)

Because of the legal and social entrenchment that orthodox Christianity had not just in England but also in the colonies and then the newly formed United States (at the state level), one could still have one's reputation ruined if one wore one's infidelity on one's sleeve (as Thomas Paine did). Therefore prudent public figures kept religious secrets. Madison and Washington did not reveal as many of the specifics of their beliefs as Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson did. But they did hold religious secrets. And the evidence otherwise demonstrates that Washington and Madison believed in these same unitarian principles which Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The British Whig Tradition:

For 2007, expect me to further research the radical British Whigs of the English Civil War and Commonwealth period and pay special attention to how they viewed Church/State matters and to their personal religious beliefs. The most prominent historians in the academy, notably Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood argue this group most greatly influenced our Founders. Bailyn notes that Founding principles synthesized four or five different school of thought: Biblical/Christian (especially New England Covenant theology), Pagan/Greco Roman, Common Law/Rights of Englishmen, and Enlightenment/natural rights of man. Arguably the British Whig principles were part of the broader Enlightenment tradition. Though some of them did predate the Enlightenment. So perhaps they deserve their own fifth and distinct category (Bailyn hedges between these four and five categories). But it was this last category or two categories -- Enlightenment and English Whiggery -- that dominated and was the lens through which all sources were viewed.

The English Whigs were not part of the common law tradition, because (as I understand) common law was 1) much older, and 2) incorporated a Blackstonian Tory approach to absolute parliamentary sovereignty that was incompatible with such Whig radicalism. Blackstone said of Parliament:

It can, in short, do every thing that is not naturally impossible; and therefore some have not scrupled to call it's power, by a figure rather too bold, the omnipotence of parliament. True it is, that what they do, no authority upon earth can undo.

As Gary North writes, "Blackstone was wrong: beginning eleven years later, the American colonies undid a lot of what Parliament had done."

These Whig thinkers were more likely to invoke the natural rights of man, not simply the common law rights of Englishmen and hence fit better within the Enlightenment tradition. However, as noted, some of them predated the Enlightenment -- for instance, John Milton. See this article noting Milton's pro-liberty influence and connecting it to Milton's Puritan Christianity. Though these Whigs weren't entirely monolithic in their thinking, from what I've been able to observe (and what I am going to try to document) a disproportionate number of them asserted the primacy of natural religion over revealed religion and denied the Trinity. And they were more likely to use terms like Separation of Church and State and, as libertarians, were on the cutting edge of religious liberty issues.

Most of them like John Locke arguably belong to both the "Enlightenment" and "Whig" categories.

Anyway, besides Locke and Milton, they include: Joseph Priestly, Richard Price, James Burgh, Algernon Sidney, Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, Viscount Bolingbroke, Shaftsbury, Benjamin Hoadly, and John Cartwright. There are others as well. Priestly and Burgh actually used the term "Separation of Church and State" before Jefferson. Indeed, even though Roger Williams, founder the Rhode Island colony, coined the term, it's unlikely that Jefferson learned the phrase from or had even read Williams. Jefferson likely learned it from James Burgh. See also this link from Kenneth R. Gregg on Burgh and Separation.
George Washington's Mythological Angelic Vision:

Debunked by Boston1775 (a great historical blog) here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Should I be embarrassed to admit...?

...that I think Christopher Cross rocks.

Down By the River:

There is only one genius in CSNY and I think we know who he is. The following, though, is my favorite song without him:

Why the Founders Needed to Replace the Biblical God with a Different One:

Conversing with Tom Van Dyke about my last post, I asserted that the Founders' God was not the wrathful God of the Bible, or at least that was one of the biblical attributes of God (along with His jealously) that man's reason told the Founders to edit, leaving those passages in the Bible which illustrate God's love and benevolence (the founders tended to describe God as a being of "infinite wisdom, goodness, and power") to remain. Van Dyke challenged this noting that Jefferson, in "Notes on the State of Virginia" wrote the following which shows Jefferson believed in God's wrath:

"And can the liberties of a nation be ever thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are of the gift of God?

"That they [God-given rights] are not to be violated but with his [God's] wrath?

"Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!

"The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us [America/slavers] in such a contest.

Well it figures that if God grants men unalienable liberty and equality rights that the one time He may be wrathful and interventionist is when we violate those rights in our fellow man. Otherwise what meaning does "unalienable" have if the victims have no chance of such rights being enforced by He who decreed them. The problem is the Bible nowhere says that man has unalienable liberty and equality rights. Indeed nowhere does it state that God will bring down His wrath for practicing slavery as the God of the Bible seems quite content with the existence of that institution. The Bible does say, however, that God, in his jealousy, gets angry and wrathful when you worship other gods. And here is how Jefferson in that same book deals with that issue:

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

That was the offending passage that lead the fundamentalists of the day to brand Jefferson an infidel and a deist.

Van Dyke also writes: "And of course the undoubtedly brilliant Dr. Kraynak is correct in noting the biblical covenant is undemocratic: so are the laws of nature and nature's God." Well, our Founders didn't establish democracy meaning majority rule but liberal democracy, meaning that some rights exist antecedent to majority rule. Notably "liberty" and "equality" rights. But how do such rights become "unalienable," or trumps on majority voting power: They need to be tied to God (or at least doing so helps to finalize the ultimate "trump" or non-negotiability of such rights). That's where the "laws of nature and nature's God" come in.

Van Dyke also linked to an excellent review of Kraynak's book where Kraynak is quoted: "Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be." Indeed God plays an important role in the Declaration of Independence; He is necessary for making rights "unalienable." But as we have seen, the Biblical God is not the best one to play such a role. So instead the Founders substituted Him with a more "liberal democratic" God. As Dr. Gregg Frazer put it in his Ph.D. thesis, "[f]or the theistic rationalists, the Christian God -- the God of the Bible -- was inadequate for their political needs. To meet their needs, they constructed a god and a belief system more to their liking."