Sunday, April 29, 2007

Founding Ideals, a Bait and Switch?

Commenter John left the following response to my post on Michael Novak's response to me:

[Rowe:] They wanted our nation to be religious, and probably preferred the Christian religion dominate, but would have had no problem with the flourishing of exotic non-Judeo-Christian religions

I assume you are using “they” to refer to the “key founders”. If so this may be correct, but I doubt the validity of the “key founders” formulation. The Revoultion was fought and the Article’s and Constitution ratified by a much broader base of people than four or five people whom you select as key founders.

The State Constitutions adapted by many States explicitly singled out Christianity for protection, and made it a requirement for office in some cases.

Maryland Constitution; “That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty,”

Delaware: “Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath, or affirmation, if conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath, to wit: ” I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”

Pennsylvania: “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. ”

I’ll stop there rather than fill this comment section. You can certainly pick out certain individuals from the era who felt differently, but it seems pretty clear that the mass of Americans at the time were quite religious, and that they were religious in an explicitly Christian sense, not in considering Christianity one good religion among many.

As I noted in my reply, I agree there was a difference between what the “key Founders” thought and the masses. However, I dispute that this formulation is not valid. Indeed, I try to stress this tension as a particular not too well understood nuance of our Founding — that the ideas upon which we were founded, at the outer level were consistent with the traditional beliefs of the masses; but at the inner, specific level, they were very heterodox and controversial beliefs, not consistent with the dominant view in traditional orthodox Christian cicles. The Founding itself left much up to the states where illiberal traditions were allowed to continue. The few things that the federal government had power over represented a compromise between our heterodox key Founders and the orthodoxy which ruled the masses. (I should note that some studies have shown many of the founding era masses to be unchurched or otherwise nominal Christians; however, orthodox Christianity was firmly entrenched institutionally at the state level in said era.)

But the tension between the liberal Whig ideals of the Founding and traditional illiberal practices, like imposing religious tests which seek to use the state to protect the Christian religion, existed and over time tended to be resolved in the direction of those liberal ideals (especially after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment).

This can lead to a criticism that the masses were the victims of a “bait and switch,” that the Founders got them to sign onto a “project” without fully understanding its implications. Indeed, that’s exactly what Michael Zuckert of Notre Dame argues (and he is not alone -- Robert Kraynak, Thomas Pangle and Gary North all hold similar positions. North, a Christian Reconstructionist, argues such in the context of calling for an overthrow of the US Constitution and a return to the “theocracies” of the colonial order; he is thus viewed as a crank with little academic authority; Zuckert, Pangle, and Kraynak, however, have well deserved academic reputations).

Regarding whom the key Founders were, they included, at the very least, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Those five happen to be the first four Presidents, the majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Declaration, and the prime architect of the Constitution. Dr. Gregg Frazer also puts in his Ph.D. thesis G. Morris, Hamilton, and Wilson as of like mind with the other five. Those additional three also played leading roles, along with Madison and Washington, at the Constitutional Convention. And Hamilton and Madison wrote almost all of the Federalist Papers (with John Jay contributing only a handful). As Brooke Allen points out, these men are also the Founders on our currency. There is thus nothing “cherry picking” about focusing in on these 5-8 Founders; they were the “key Founders," primarily responsible for the ideas upon which we declared independence, constructed the Constitution, and then governed the newly formed nation.

As far as those religious tests in the state constitutions, our key Founders could not pass many of them. THAT should tell us something about the profound difference between our liberal Founding ideals as expressed by Whig thought and the compromises with those ideals. I blogged about Ben Franklin’s problem with PA’s religious test here. Among other things, he noted he had a problem with the test because he couldn’t pass it! Then, he became effective governor of PA and helped to get rid of it.

The Founders' liberal enlightened thought profoundly transformed our nation; many back then would have had big problems with those Founders if they really understood what the key Founders personally believed and did not support non-orthodox Christians in office. Currently, if any national politician called for the return of religious tests like those above featured, they'd likely lose all political credibility. Gary North and his fellow recons do so openly and are written off as cranks. Some on the right wing of the religious right, D. James Kennedy and David Barton for instance, may believe similarly, but can be quite coy and seemingly inconsistent on the matter. A typical Republican religious conservative reacts much like Michael Novak -- he is not in favor of implementing formal religious tests at any level of government and believes in granting full formal religious rights for all faiths generally (though he may not be above trying to use the state to privilege Christianity or Judaism and Christianity; such privileges, though, are likely to involve mere religious acknowledgements and not tangible $$ issues) and attempts to credit the Christian religion itself for being uniquely tolerant of other religions. Though, as this post on Samuel Rutherford should remind us, the notion that traditional Christianity is consistent with granting other religions full rights to worship and speak their mind is of relatively recent invention and was quite controversial when such ideas were first introduced. The successful transformation of Christianity into a more tolerant religion was truly remarkable indeed and represents the success of our key Founders' hope that the Christian religion further reform and enlighten.
Pastore Won't Let Up:

His last anti-Mormon column provoked a slew of angry reactions from Mormon readers on Townhall. This one is even harsher.

Mormonism has almost nothing in common with Christianity. Mormonism is polytheistic, it denies original sin, it teaches that both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit have physical bodies, that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary, that Jesus was the spirit-brother of Lucifer, that Jesus was a polygamist, that Jesus traveled to the Americas during His three days in the tomb, and that every Mormon male will one day become a God ruling over his own planet, accompanied by multiple wives, just as the God of this Earth, named Elohim – who was once a man – has done here.

Each of these claims are rooted in primary source documents of the Mormon church (see my Cults Study Guide .pdf available free here.) Another good link to start an examination of Mormon theology is here.

However, you will not find this information located on the “Basic Beliefs” page of the official L.D.S. website (here). It is the “meat” you will learn once you’re able to digest the “milk” of basic Mormon theology. There is a lot of Christian terminology on the official website, but upon examination, you come to understand that though the terms are familiar, the meanings of those terms are foreign and heretical.

For now, in the spirit of clarity and to honor brevity, a simple overview of the birth of Mormonism must suffice.

In 1820, a 14 year old farm boy named Joseph Smith went to the woods to pray about the religious turmoil going on around his hometown of Palmyra, New York. Revivals had broken out, and young Joseph didn’t know which of the denominations to join. So, he prayed for guidance. God the Father and Jesus appeared to him in bodily form, and he was told, “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History, 1:19).

Joseph claims he was told all Christianity was heretical, and that he would be correcting eighteen centuries of error.

The Mormon message is clear: historic Christianity false, Joseph Smith’s visions true.

Three years later, on September 21, 1823, in another vision, the angel Moroni appeared and told him of an ancient book written on golden plates buried nearby in Hill Cumorah. He was shown the location, but was prohibited from taking the plates. Moroni told him the plates recorded the history of an ancient American civilization written in Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics – an utterly unique language for which there is no evidence – and that he was to translate them with the aid of two magical seer stones called the Urim and Thummim. Moroni had been given the plates by his father Mormon, and Moroni had buried them prior to his death in the final great battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites that took place near Cumorah in 385AD. After 1,400 years, Moroni – now an angel – had returned to direct Joseph Smith to the plates.

In 1827, Smith was finally allowed to take the plates just long enough to finish the translation before they were to be returned to Moroni. In May 1829, while Smith and Oliver Cowdery were praying in a forest near Bainbridge, Pennsylvania, John the Baptist appeared and conferred the Aaronic priesthood to them. Later, Peter, James, and John appeared and conferred upon them the Melchizedekian priesthood. The translation was completed in three years, and the Book of Mormon was published in March, 1830. On April 6, 1830, Smith and five others formed The Church of Christ in Fayette, New York. After two name changes over the next four years, they settled on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormonism is not Christian, from its birth it has been anti-Christian.

The first Christians believed they had met the promised Jewish Messiah in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. It is both correct and proper to say Christianity is the completion of Judaism.

However, Joseph Smith considered both Judaism and Christianity not incomplete but false, choosing instead to write his own versions of the Old and New Testaments while also adding additional holy texts. Had he not claimed to be the “corrected” version of Christianity, Mormonism would be a false religion. Yet, by claiming to be the “true” Christianity, he created the archetypical “cult of Christianity.”
Sunday Music:

This is one of my favorite Bad Company tunes and wish it would get more airplay, as opposed to the half dozen other ones that are played to death. The following is not an official video, but one of those "YouTube" creations which features the recorded album version.

And this is a live version from Bad Company in 2002 which shows that Paul Rodgers has still got it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Michael Novak Replies to Me:

I want to thank Michael Novak for devoting an entire post to my comments at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. To make sure that I am not misunderstood, I need to clarify some of my assertions. Novak begins:

In his intelligent replies to Ms. Allen and me, Mr. Jonathan Rowe raises many good points. But his vision of Christianity matches up neither with the Anglican nor the evangelical tradition. Rowe holds that “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,” and that the three distinctive tenets “which distinguish Christianity from all the other world religions” are “things like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement.”

But the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality. More important are repentance, and a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord. Meanwhile, most of the American Founding Fathers would have recited the Nicene Creed with some regularity at Anglican services. The tenets of that creed include many more items than Mr. Rowe’s three. Such abstract terms as “Trinity” and “Atonement” do not appear in it.

First, I argued that the key Founders (not me personally) believed “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,...” Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, in no uncertain terms, made it clear they believed this. And while there are ambiguities in exactly what Washington and Madison believed (requiring some detective work, putting the pieces of the puzzle together), I believe Madison and Washington were likewise agreed. So when Mr. Novak writes, "the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality," indeed, I am trying to show how the key Founders' creed differed from Christianity as historically defined by its orthodoxy. Likewise though the Nicene Creed includes more tenets than just the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, it is nonetheless *the* quintessential statement of Christianity's Trinitarian orthodoxy. And, I would argue, many of those Anglican Founding Fathers did not believe in the tenets that their Church preached.

Let us not forget Jefferson was, like Washington, a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian and a vestryman in the Church as well. Jefferson clearly rejected the creeds of orthodoxy which his Church preached. And though Madison -- another Virginia Anglican/Episcopalian -- revealed far less in his writings about what he really believed, the available evidence I've been able to uncover strongly points towards his belief in the same unitarian doctrines in which Jefferson believed. David L. Holmes' fine book on the religion of the Founding Fathers reproduces the evidence on Madison's heterodoxy as does this paper available online by James H. Hutson.

Washington, even more reticent to give the specific details of his creed than Madison, often praised the Christian religion by name. But he invariably did so in the context of equating (or seeming to equate) Christianity with virtue itself and never with Christianity's historic tenets of orthodoxy (e.g., the Nicene Creed). It was Ben Franklin who once said, "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means." If Washington equated Christianity with virtue, by following Franklin's logic, other religions which produce virtue would be valid like Christianity. In his famous Farewell Address, Washington noted the most important aspect about "religion" is the morality it produces (as opposed to the souls it saves). And Washington specifically chose to use the term "religion" absent the qualifier "Christian" there, which again hints towards a belief that all world religions, so long as they produce morality, are sound and can support republican governments.

As I noted in my original comment, if Christianity had any advantage over the other world religions, to our Founders, it was because Jesus of Nazareth, as a man, was arguably the greatest moral teacher the world had seen. Indeed, what Mr. Novak reproduces from Jefferson perfectly confirms my contention:

“I have made a wee little book…which I call the philosophy of Jesus…a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He saw in his selection, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Yet, according to Jefferson et al., the other world religions, because they taught the same morality as Christianity were also "sound." As Jefferson wrote in his 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....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.

So, because they all taught the same basic moral principles, all world religions, in Jefferson's eyes, were valid, with Christianity having a slight plus, only because of the superiority of Jesus' moral teachings, not Jesus' claims of Godhood, Atonement, and the only way to salvation, things which Jefferson did not personally believe (indeed, Jefferson didn't believe that Jesus claimed such either, but rather that His words were corrupted by His followers).

I strongly disagree with Mr. Novak's assertion that the Founders believed "the characteristics of Christianity and Judaism...make them distinctively fit for free republics." Nothing in my meticulous study of the key Founding Fathers shows they believed Judaism and Christianity were exclusively "fit" for free republics. Indeed, they've said much to the opposite. Consider, John Adams in a published book he wrote to defend the US Constitution said:

ZALEUCUS was of Locris in Italy, not far distant from Sybaris. He was a disciple of Pythagoras, of noble birth, and admirable morals. Having acquired the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens, they chose him for their legislator....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....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.

Zaleucus' laws were supposedly revealed by Athena 600, BC! Lycurgus, whose laws Adams also praised, similarly had pagan origins. Indeed, Adams and the other key Founders drew such an equivalence between Christianity and the other world religions, that they often referred to such pagan systems as "Christian." In his Dec. 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson, Adams wrote, “The Preamble to the Laws of Zaleucus…is as orthodox Christian Theology as Priestlys.” Joseph Priestly was Adams’ and Jefferson’s spiritual mentor and pioneered the "Christianity" (if it's fair to term it such) in which Jefferson and Adams personally believed. Thus when Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813 --

The general principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty…Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.

-- he was not making an exclusivist claim about traditional Christianity. Indeed, what Mr. Novak failed to reproduced from that same letter reveals just how unorthodox Adams' sentiments were. Adams further explained those "general principles of Christianity":

I could therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present Information, that I believed they would never make Discoveries in contradiction to these general Principles. In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.

Finding “general principles of Christianity” in the teachings of Enlightenment philosophers, like Locke, Newton? Perhaps. But also in the works of French philosophes, Rousseau, and Voltaire? And the atheist Hume?

I agree with Mr. Novak that the Founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, supported the people's commitment to their Christian religion. But only because Christianity was "the people's" religion. As I wrote in my original post, if the people were so disposed, Jefferson, Adams, and the other early Presidents could just have easily marched their horses to a Mosque or a Greco-Roman temple of pagan worship.

Consider, Franklin, that supposed "Deist," actively supported Christian Churches. Yet, his support for Christianity in particular stemmed from his support for "religion" in general. And that support, in principle, extended to Islam, if the citizens were so inclined. In his autobiography he wrote:

Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

Finally, regarding Mr. Novak's claim that (perhaps regardless of what the Founders themselves believed) Judaism and Christianity are special over other world religions because they emphasize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," and that "[f]or Christians and Jews, freedom is at the heart of the matter," this is a particular understanding of Christianity that didn't begin to emerge until around the 17th Century. For a thousand and some hundred years, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) theologians who knew the Bible as well as anyone did not interpret the good book in this manner. Augustine...Aquinas...Luther...Calvin? None of these men believed in "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Indeed, Samuel Rutherford, Calvinist author of "Lex Rex," which supposedly influenced our Revolution, said the following about the execution of Michael Servetus:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).

Michael Servetus was, if readers aren't aware, a theological unitarian whom John Calvin saw put to death for publicly denying the Trinity.

The Christian religion indeed marvelously transformed to recognize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," with both Protestant dissidents and Enlightenment rationalists contributing to this great epistemological effort. Each of the key Founders over whom we argue believed Christianity must conform to the teachings of Enlightenment. To them, enlightened Christianity truly was a religion of "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Given that they saw validity in the world's other religious systems, they probably would have had no problem with the flourishing of exotic non-Judeo-Christian religions in America provided those religions likewise conformed to the tenets of enlightened liberality.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Novak Replies to Allen:

Michael Novak has replied to Brooke Allen's latest on the Founders and Religion. He writes:

Ms. Allen tells us that she had grown up being taught (even at the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s University”) that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation.” Much to her surprise, she later encountered many passages in biographies about the Founders that testified to their trust in reason, not revelation, and to their roots in “the Enlightenment,” not in Judaism or Christianity. Her passion now is to tell the world of her discovery. America, she writes, is an Enlightenment nation, not a Christian nation. The “moral minority,” she holds, saw this from the beginning.

My own experience, interestingly enough, was almost precisely the opposite. I grew up as a Roman Catholic — that is, neither mainline Protestant nor evangelical Protestant. When I began to read more widely in the records of the founding I was quite surprised with how saturated with Christian concepts the American “philosophy” is. My Catholic teachers (several key ones educated in Europe) tended to dismiss the American founding as excessively individualistic, materialistic, Masonic, and deist. They did not consider it worthy of holding a significant place in serious Christian reflection.

I have to agree with Novak here. I think the academy heavily weighs on the side of the secular left's view of history. However, millions of folks in religious conservative circles have their own sources outside of the academy which challenge the academy's narrative. Sources like Wallbuilders, Center for Reclaiming America, American Vision. Writers like D. James Kennedy, David Barton, John Eidsmoe, Roy Moore, Gary Amos. They may not be, for the most part, respected in the academy. But in terms of sheer numbers of people who buy into their ideas, their influence is strong. These writers are influential in places like Regent or Liberty University, which I don't consider to be "serious" places in the academy. However, George Bush apparently does. So Ms. Allen is correct that these notions are taken very seriously in the White House.

Novak goes on:

Slowly, I came to see how thoroughly wrong they were. David Gelernter writes in his brilliant new book, Americanism, of a similar discovery on his own part, from the point of view of Judaism. America, he discovered, is a biblical nation, a biblical republic, and its basic tenets (“We hold these truths”) are matters of faith, not reason, prospective rather than descriptive. While one does not have to hold either Jewish or Christian faith to accept these tenets, sheer honesty compels one to observe how thoroughly biblical they are. Their inner music — what gives their words “resonance” and makes these tenets seem like common sense — is beautifully biblical, and makes the words ring with self-evidence.

This is, in my opinion just wrong. The basic tenets of the Declaration -- the self evident truths -- may be matters of faith, though Jefferson et al. explicitly believed they could be discovered from unaided reason; they do not, however, derive from the Bible. Let's read from the Declaration, shall we:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

To be frank, I don't see how any honest person can refer to these ideas as Biblical; they are a-Biblical. However, they are not necessarily anti-Biblical. That is, though these ideas clearly come from sources other than the Bible, they don't necessarily conflit with the Bible. Let's look at the reasons why the Declaration is not Biblical:

1) The Bible says nothing of unalienable natural rights especially an unalienable right to political liberty or to pursue happiness;

2) The Bible does not refer to God as "Nature's God";

3) The term Nature itself, in this context, means what can be discovered from Reason as opposed to revealed in the Bible;

4) The Declaration does not quote the Bible;

5) Jefferson didn't think he derived these ideas from the Bible. He listed the sources and they were "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. ..."

6) The entire thrust of the Declaration was to establish a right to revolt against Great Britain. And the Bible nowhere recognizes a right to revolt against government. See Romans 13. Now, it could be argued, as some Protestant dissidents did, that such texts do not forbid revolt against governments in all circumstances. But Romans 13 in particular and the Bible in general nonetheless nowhere recognize a right to revolt. The argument put forth by the Protestant dissidents was akin to saying even though the First Amendment says we have free speech, properly understood, that text doesn't forbid government punishing speech in all circumstances. Perhaps. The First Amendment, nonetheless, never explicitly authorizes censorship, but seems to say the opposite. Government's authority to censor must come from elsewhere, not the First Amendment. Thus, when the Declaration states --

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness....

-- it may be possible to reconcile this with one's understanding of the Bible. But nowhere is such sentiment found within the Bible's text. If the Declaration's ideas were "created," taken as a matter of faith, as opposed to "discovered" by reason, they were created as part of the Enlightenment zeitgeist set in a Protestant dissident context. These are, at their heart, ideas which originated in the late 17th and 18th Centuries, not from the Biblical era or the text of the Bible itself.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Misreading Rock Lyrics:

Some elitists scoff at the notion that any serious poetry can be found in rock lyrics. Well, some, arguably most rock lyrics are bad. But given the quantity of rock music, even if say 5% is good, there are a lot of "diamonds" in the "dunghill," as Jefferson would put it.

That doesn't mean that the average listener appreciates the message (or even knows the right lyrics!).

Especially with songs about America, American listeners are probably likely to assume an "up with America" message when a typical rock artist who may be cut from bohemian cloth, is likely not to impart that message. Most notably, Ronald Reagan misunderstood Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" which is not an "up with America" song. Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World folks may wrongly assume has pro-America lyrics but does not.

Black Sabbath's War Pigs has profoundly anti-war lyrics, yet many of the young metal-heads listening to the music are likely to take it as a pro-war song. During the first gulf war, the young rebels in the audience would scream things like "yeah, fuck Iraq!" and Ozzy would be like, "that's not what the song is about." Indeed, Zakk Wylde -- Ozzy's guitarist -- comes from that New Jersey metal-head blue collar, sort of northern redneck, culture (in PA, it's the Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) and is pro-war, unlike that old hippie Ozzy (isn't it cool that rockers in the same band can reasonably disagree on politics).

Kansas' "Song for America" likewise has "down with America" lyrics (but set to an upbeat tune). As a longtime fan, I've noticed many fans don't get the lyrics and the band, during the live shows, plays along and pretends it's a patriotic song! The following YouTube clip of the entire song perfectly illustrates this. The entire song is played to the picture of a waiving American flag. If you've never heard the song, it's one of the best composed, best sung progressive rock tunes, up there with the best of Yes, Genesis, and Rush.

The lyrics are reproduced below. They were written in the early 1970s and the writer, Kerry Livgren, was no doubt inspired by the hippie movement, whose critique of America and "back to nature" sentiments trace back to Rousseau. The lyrics in the song are reminiscent of Rousseau's critique of Locke.

Virgin land of forest green, dark and stormy plains, here all life abounds
Sunlit valley, mountain fields, unseen in the rain, here all life abounds
No man rules this land, no human hand has soiled this paradise
Waiting patiently, so much to see, so rich in Earth's delights

Painted desert, sequined sky, stars that fill the night, here all life abounds
Rivers flowing to the sea, sunshine pure and bright, here all life abounds
No man rules this land, no human hand has soiled this paradise
Waiting patiently, so much to see, so rich in Earth's delights

So the maiden lies in waiting, for the sails to reach the shore
Land of beauty and abundance, innocent, you opened wide your door
Wanderers found the waiting treasure, full of gifts beyond their measure
Milk and honey for our pleasure.....

Across the sea there came a multitude, sailing ships upon the wave
Filled with visions of Utopia, and the freedom that they crave
Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder
Chop the forest, plow it under.....

Highways scar the mountainsides, buildings to the sky, people all around
Houses stand in endless rows, sea to shining sea, people all around
So we rule this land, and here we stand upon our paradise,
Dreaming of a place, our weary race is ready to arise

This is certainly not in praise of America's manifest destiny!
Babka Defends Rutherford:

Jim Babka emailed me this.


The system keeps telling me I have the wrong password, so I cannot reply to the Samuel Rutherford post. Here's what I would've submitted:

Now Jon, I'd be tempted to take this personal if I didn't know better. ;-)

Of course, I'm no revisionist, concurring with your general opinion of the Founders' religious beliefs. But to your point...

Yes, shame on Rutherford. But the Founders permitted slavery -- some even owned them. Shame on them too.

Rutherford's beliefs were not yet evolved. Neither were our Founders.

Thank God for evolution.

The shame of one terrible line doesn't change the influence that Rutherford had. Lex Rex was seminal and revolutionary. Someone in the 21st century finding a paragraph not to their liking it doesn't make it any less important, and, dare I say it, even any less "influential."


There was nothing personal. I wasn't really thinking of Jim who previously on these threads asserted Rutherford's influence. I was thinking more of the Christian Nationalists (here and here) who attempt to, what I think, overstate Rutherford's influence in order to credit Christianity with founding ideals.

I seriously doubt Rutherford at all influenced Locke. But his justification for the perhaps Biblical case for revolt probably impacted colonist of a Calvinist bent and made them more amenable to Revolution. On matters of religion and the rights of conscience, I think, given he apparently didn't believe in the rights of conscience at all, we can entirely discount his influence on the notion of "unalienable rights," which was 180 degrees from Jefferson's, Madison's and the Declaration's.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Justice Thomas' Originalism:

Many folks who read my blogs think I'm a leftist. I've often described my jurisprudence as somewhere between those two members of the Catholic majority on SCOTUS, Justice Thomas' and Justice Kennedy's. (Am I still a leftist?) Jonathan Adler at Volokh points to some book reviews about a new one on Justice Thomas. This excerpt shows the personal side of Justice Thomas and details, what I think, is a remarkable investment Thomas has taken in the life of his grand-nephew, whose fathers (Thomas' nephew) is in prison for dealing crack.

This review by Kenji Yoshino, of Yale, has a brief paragraph which focuses on Thomas' originalism:

Merida and Fletcher also fail to grapple adequately with the justice's jurisprudential methodology. Thomas is the court's most ferocious originalist, believing that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly according to the intent of its framers. But what does it mean for Thomas to interpret the Constitution according to the intent of those who would have considered him to be chattel?

I know that op-ed/book review space is short in the NYT. If this passage means to inform that the book should have detailed Thomas' answers to this dilemma, I agree. If, on the other hand, Yoshino is trying to jab at Thomas' originalism, he should know that Thomas has indeed grappled with this question and resolves it by adopting an originalist approach that entirely distinguishes his from that of Scalia's, Bork's and the other hard core originalists'. Thomas incorporates the Declaration of Independence's natural law/natural rights as part of constitutional law. Indeed, he justifies this approach almost entirely on the grounds that such is needed to get us out of slavery. (Plus, it is sound originalism -- what the Founders believed in!) Indeed, Thomas has been influenced by Harry V. Jaffa's and the Claremont Institute's argument.

So then, if the results are so desirable -- we get an anti-slavery Founding -- why then haven't Scalia, Bork, et al. endorsed such? Not only have they not endorsed the notion, they've bitterly attacked it! See this debate between Jaffa and Bork where Bork describes Jaffa's approach:

Written in dyspeptic prose, Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution is one of the least coherent, least consequential, and most disingenuous pieces of constitutional theorizing on record: incoherent because Mr. Jaffa offers conclusions that cannot possibly be tortured out of constitutional text, history, or structure; inconsequential because, so far as is apparent, his argument has applicability only to one pre-Civil War case; disingenuous because he misrepresents not only that case but the Constitution itself. This may sound unduly harsh. I have tried to show that it is only duly harsh.

Yet, at the heart of Bork's distaste for the Declaration is his knowledge of the results which could yield were such to be embraced as part of constitutional law. The Constitution says nothing about men having an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Here is Lino Graglia on the matter:

THE Constitution incorporates natural law because, according to Jaffa, it incorporates the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, he thinks, constitutes "a compressed summary" and "perfection" of natural law, and the embodiment of "the ethical core of the Judaeo-Christian tradition" as well. The Declaration, however, consists largely of a lengthy indictment of King George III. It is hardly the sort of thing you would expect to find in a nation's constitution. What it is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution -- that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on -- being in defiance of authority -- revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest.


Although he refers constantly to the principles of natural law, Jaffa never undertakes to list these principles or even define or describe them except by reference to the few phrases quoted above. To a lawyer, at least, this is highly unsatisfactory. If by law Jaffa means lawyers' law, as he seems to -- law enforceable against individuals by the power of the state -- his principles must meet the minimum requirements of such law. Legal rules must be stated in such form as to provide meaningful guidance to those to whom they apply and limit the discretion of those who must apply them. Nothing could be clearer, it seems to me, than that the quoted phrases from the Declaration do not do this. The last thing an opponent of judicial activism should want, I would think, is to authorize a Brennan, Douglas, or Blackmun to determine the content of "certain unalienable rights." Of course, the Justices have already undertaken to do this on their own, discovering such new "fundamental" constitutional rights as a right of "privacy," which somehow includes a right to an abortion.

THAT incorporating the Declaration and therefore "natural law" into the Constitution is a formula for judicial activism seems so clear to me that I have trouble understanding how it can be less than clear to anyone else.

So here we begin to recognize that the Declaration's natural law may get us out of a pro-slavery Founding, but into some results which social conservatives consider problematic. Indeed, Jaffa's famous line on the matter is that the Founding must be viewed through the lens of its ideals, not its compromises with those ideals. Here is how Robert Locke, an originalist of the Borkian variety, dealt with Jaffa's equation:

To argue that the essence of the Constitution lies in "the ideals of the Constitution, not its compromises," as Straussian scholar Henry [sic] Jaffa has done, is precisely the opposite of the truth. The compromises are of the essence of the thing, and these compromises deliberately and ruthlessly subvert attempts to abstract "propositions" out of it. The founders were perfectly well aware of the trouble abstract ideology can cause: in the 18th century, it produced the French Revolution; in the 20th, judicial activism.

Jaffa's response to this sentiment helps us understand what the fuss is all about. After all, we have a 13th and 14th Amendment. Slavery is unconstitutional according to even the most positivist reading of the document!

Without the distinction between the principles of the Constitution and the compromises of the Constitution no moral case for originalism is possible, nor is any case possible against the living constitution.

This is important: The moral integrity, not of the post-14th Amended Constitution, but the original Constitution of 1787 must be, according to Jaffa, established, otherwise invoking a Jefferson, Madison, Adams or Washington in the debate yields no moral authority. Robert Locke informs, indeed, he embraces, what the original Constitution might stand for, absent its grounding in the ideals of the Declaration:

Crucial facts about what America was founded on are deliberately hushed up by both liberals and conservatives and admitted only by the non-respectable Left and the non-respectable Right. Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. The Constitution, as originally written, holds that our ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid.

I agree with Jaffa that there is no way that these compromises can be defended as morally legitimate. Yet, I also agree with Jaffa's critics that a natural rights/ideals interpretation of the Constitution opens the door to results with which social conservatives would not agree.

The solution for the Jaffaites is to adopt a particular philosophical version of the natural law -- Thomism. And, under the rubrics of "Nature" and "Reason" (which are, after all, what America was founded on), synthesize Aquinas' natural law with Locke's/Jefferson's/Madison's natural rights.

Some problems for Jaffa's theory: It's not at all clear that, even though both appeal to the rubrics of nature and reason, Aquinas' natural law is the same thing as the Founders' natural rights. For one, Aquinas never spoke of unalienable natural rights, or grounded such theory in an a-biblical "state of nature" as Locke did. Secondly, the Founders themselves never cited Aquinas and could be quite hostile to Roman Catholicism, because of the Church's poor track record on rights. It would be quite ironic -- and a surprise to them! -- if these Founders who came from a Protestant context, really relied on a natural law theory with Roman Catholic origins. To further compound the irony, the Roman Catholic Church in its official dogma was quite late to sign onto the notion of liberal democracy and religious rights. Yet, to challenge Leo Strauss' notion that Locke and our Founders appealed to an a-biblical, non-Christian natural law source, that's exactly what cutting edge scholars on the matter have argued! Tom Van Dyke informs me that Brian Tierney of Cornell has most notably put forth this case. Van Dyke commented:

The quick and dirty answer is that they didn't know the source of their ideas. Aquinas>Vitorio>Saurez>Grotius, the lattermost being a respectable Protestant, and with whom they were quite well acquainted.

I have not yet dug up the scholarly record to comment on the soundness of Tierny's case. I remain skeptical. If Thomas could convince a majority of the Justices to incorporate the Declaration's natural law into constitutional law, unless they were all sympathetic to Aquinas' approach, the results which Bork, Graglia et al. fear might occur. The Founders clearly did believe that constitutional law should be grounded in a higher law, ascertainable from reason. So such ought to be viewed as a respectable originalist theory. And even the strictest positivist ought to realize that the Constitution needs a theoretical approach to ground it. Richard Posner thus surprisingly has a qualified sympathy for natural law, in order to "fill in the gaps" when needed. He writes:

I have a qualified sympathy for the idea of natural law. If a novel case arises--one that cannot be decided by subsumption under clear statutory or constitutional language or precedent--the judge will have to look elsewhere, and if one wants to call the elsewhere "natural law" I have no strong objection, as long as it is understood not to be Thomas Aquinas's concept of natural law. The vaguer, less consistent, more anachronistic, more gap-ridden, and more absurd the orthodox materials of judicial decision (constitutional and statutory text, precedent, etc.) are, the more the judges will be on their own in deciding cases. And that is the situation in which American judges, especially appellate judges, often find themselves. Whether they draw on economic theory or political principles, or on some inarticulate notion of what is fair or right, to decide cases in the broad open area of American law, they will be going outside the positive law in any useful sense of that term--and, as I say, if you want to call where they are going natural law, that is all right with me.

I agree. And would finish that whatever the origins of our Founders' conception of natural rights (Locke? Hobbes? Grotius->Aquinas->Aristotle?) the buck should stop with them. That is, the theory articulated by Jefferson, Madison, Wilson, Hamilton, et al. which is a tweaked Lockean/state of nature theory, is where we would begin. A final irony then: Thomas may be viewed as the most "conservative," that is hardest originalist jurist on the Court. Yet, his method of incorporating the Declaration's natural law, taken to its logical implications, likely would yield results with which social conservatives would disagree.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Presbyterian "Tone" and the Founding:

The Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, the most intolerant of all sects; the most tyrannical and ambitious, ready at the word of the lawgiver, if such a word could now be obtained, to put their torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle, Calvin, consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not subscribe to the proposition of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to the Calvinistic creed! They pant to re-establish by law that holy inquisition which they can now only infuse into public opinion.

-- Thomas Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820

One reason I think the famous sermon given by a Rev. Wil[l]son in 1831 terming all of our Presidents from Washington to Jackson "unitarians" and "infidels," and thundering that God was voted out of the Constitution was probably given by the Presbyterian James Remnick Willson and not the Episcopalian Bird Wilson is because of its harsh and biting tone. Sure there were Episcopalians who could be judgmental and a few of them threw around the "i" word (infidel); such was far more characteristic, however, of Calvinist/Presbyterians. Indeed, it was a Presbyterian denomination, after all, which, like Patrick Henry, "smelt a rat," refused to accept the US Constitution. (Though, Henry, an Episcopalian, was probably more concerned with the federal government having too much power; these Presbyterians, from what I've been able to glean, would have had no problem with a more powerful central government so long as it imposed a religious test and covenanted with the Triune God of the Bible). And the Revered Willson was a member of that Presbyterian Church.

In his sermons, the Reverend Willson "judges" George Washington as not a real Christian. In his most notorious one, he stated:

There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life.[6] In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God.

Some orthodox "non-Presbyterian" ministers also thought Washington wasn't Christian. Most notable is the Rev. James Abercrombie, Washington's own minister in Philadelphia who reprimanded Washington for refusing to take communion. But most orthodox Christian ministers of the founding era, perhaps wishful thinking, probably thought Washington was a real Christian. Even Bishop White, who gave key testimony that Washington didn't commune (and Rev. Abercrombie's boss), refused to "judge" Washington as a "Deist" and basically said he didn't know what to make of it; though he didn't have evidence of any smoking gun statements which would prove Washington a believer in Christianity. His exact words:

"I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance upon Christian worship, in connection with the general reserve of his character."

Peter A. Lillback exaggerates and claims that practically all of the orthodox Christian ministers of the Founding era thought Washington was a real Christian. More realistically, perhaps a majority of orthodox Christian ministers thought Washington a real Christian; though many had their doubts. Some corresponded with Washington to try and "feel him out." And yes, the ministers most likely to doubt Washington's belief in real Christianity were...the Presbyterians.

This should help explain the context behind Jefferson's famous lines doubting Washington's belief in Christianity:

Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

"Asa Green" was the Rev. Ashbel Green, the President of Princeton after John Witherspoon, a Congressional Chaplain, and frequent dinner quest of and correspondent with George Washington. So he knew Washington well. Ashbel Green led a group of Presbyterian Clergy who tried to pin Washington down to put his religious cards on the table. The "cunning old fox" wouldn't play ball. And that led them to judge him as a "deist" or not "real Christian." Rev. Willson also discussed the incident:

When the several classes of citizens, were addressing Washington, on his retirement from office, the clergy, who doubted his Christianity, resolved to frame an address, so that he could not evade, in his reply, an expression of his faith, if he were really a believer. He did, however, evade it, and the impression left on the mind of one of the clergy, at least, was that he was a Deist.

And the following from a letter from Hon. A.B. Bradford, a prominent clergyman in the Presbyterian church, confirms what Jefferson and Willson stated:

"I knew Dr. Wilson personally, and have entertained him at my house, on which occasion he said in my hearing what my relative, the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green of Philadelphia, frequently told me in his study, viz., that during the time that Congress sat in that city the clergy, suspecting from good evidence that Washington was not a believer in the Bible as a revelation from heaven, laid a plan to extort from him a confession, either pro or con, but that the plan failed. Dr. Green was chaplain to Congress during all the time of its sitting in Philadelphia; dined with the President on special invitation nearly every week; was well acquainted with him, and after he had been dead and gone many years, often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."

In a Chicago Tribune article by B.F. Underwood, Bradford was also quoted as follows:

"It was during his [Dr. Green's] long residence in Philadelphia that I became intimately acquainted with him as a relative, student of theology at Princeton, and a member of the same Presbytery to which he belonged. Many an hour during my student and clergyman days did I spend with him in his study at No. 150 Pine street, Philadelphia, listening to his interesting and instructive conversation on Revolutionary times and incidents. I recollect well that during one of these interviews in his study I inquired of him what were the real opinions Washington entertained on the subject of religion. He promptly answered pretty nearly in the language which Jefferson says Dr. Rush used. He explained more at length the plan laid by the clergy of Philadelphia at the close of Washington's administration as President to get his views of religion for the sake of the good influence they supposed they would have in counteracting the Infidelity of Paine and the rest of the Revolutionary patriots, military and civil. But I well remember the smile on his face and the twinkle of his black eye when he said: 'The old fox was too cunning for Us.' He affirmed, in concluding his narrative, that from his long and intimate acquaintance with Washington he knew it to be the case that while he respectfully conformed to the religious customs of society by generally going to church on Sundays, he had no belief at all in the divine origin of the Bible, or the Jewish-Christian religion."

Now, these ministers may not have been right, or perhaps overstated their claim (I for one think that Washington probably believed at least some of the Bible was divinely inspired; though, like Jefferson, Franklin and the others, he probably didn't believe the whole thing was). But this shows at the very least that prominent Presbyterians, some who, like Ashbel Green knew him quite well, doubted Washington's belief in orthodox Christianity.

Finally, some orthodox Christians thought Washington's death reason to doubt his Christianity. His death was entirely stoic. He asked for no ministers and said no prayers. His final words were "tis well." The Rev. Samuel Miller, a founding era figure, thus commented: "How was it possible...for a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, to die without one expression of distinctive belief, or Christian hope?"

And yes, Rev. Miller was...a Presbyterian. (Though, Miller wasn't all that bad. He was one of the few prominent Presbyterians to endorse Jefferson's Presidency.)
Samuel Rutherford, an Historical Disgrace:

From the man who wrote "Lex Rex":

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."—Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).

Shame on Samuel Rutherford and shame on those revisionist historians who try to credit him with Locke's ideas or otherwise assert that he influenced our Founding.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Dominionist Chairs History Department at Liberty University:

Folks on the religious right who defend themselves against the secular left's attack mantra, "the dominionists are coming!" -- the theme of many current books and articles -- are quick to point out that typical evangelical conservatives are not Dominionists/Reconstructionists, most of them have never heard of RJ Rushdoony, and that virtually all of Rushdoony's followers have left the Republican Party and vote for the Constitution Party candidates.

Well yes and no. The dominionists are the far right wing of the religious right. As with the far left wing of the Left -- the "Progressives," the folks who write in "The Nation" magazine -- some of them are still connected with the Democratic Party; some find the DP too "conservative" and vote Green. Likewise, some dominionists are still connected with Republican politics; some find the Republicans too "liberal" and vote Constitution or Reform. D. James Kennedy's group, I think, aptly qualifies as "dominionist" and they are far more concerned with Republican politics than with 3rd party. Likewise David Barton and Wallbuilders, also "dominionists" are intimately connected with the Republicans.

At Falwell's Liberty University, a university at the heart of the religious right, it turns out that the Chair of the History Department -- Dr. Roger Schultz -- is a follower of, or at least appears intimately connected with Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists. Indeed, I found a new article of his, which praises Rushdoony, featured in the new edition of Rushdoony's Faith for All of Life, published by the Chalcedon Foundation. And the footnotes reveal that he has written for the Chalcedon Report and The Journal of Christian Reconstruction.

He's also a Reformed Presbyterian, and their theology tends to be "dominionist" and covenantial. Interestingly, my recent research shows that many prominent Reformed Presbyterians were anti-US Constitution because of its godlessness, lack of religious test, lack of covenant with the Triune God of the Bible, and "infidels" who played leading roles in getting it passed. Somewhere along the way, the Reconstructionists convinced themselves that we really did have a covenant Christian Founding. But not all of them. Gary North seems to be the only honest one of them who hasn't engaged in historical revisionism.

And speaking of which, that's the topic of this article. It really has an amusing premise: The Marxists are right. Since all history is really ideological, "Christian Historians" are justified in engaging in their revisionism. Or as he puts it:

Historians do have presuppositions. Some will candidly acknowledge the framework that informs their research and colors their perspective. Historians readily note the philosophical and cultural commitments of other historians. Some have researched the cycles of historical interpretation and the shifting topical approaches in textbooks.22 Everyone approaches the past with basic assumptions and judgments.

But the Christian historian is unique. He readily admits that he views history from the lens of faith. He can be clear about his presuppositions, the commitments of his worldview, and the scriptural source of his standards of justice and truth. He believes that there is a sovereign God who rules over nations and their destinies (Acts 17:26). He believes that all history works toward God’s foreordained ends and that history culminates at the judgment seat of Christ (Acts 17:31). He believes that history is meaningful because it is ordained by God for His purposes and His glory.

Here is how he deals with those who debunk the "Christian Nation" thesis:

Over the past quarter century, Christians have become more active, writing about the past and reclaiming their history. The Internet has made primary sources widely accessible. Homeschooling has allowed students to learn history without a secularist cant. Excellent resources are now available.


Secularists now disparage Christian historians as “revisionists.” Christians rewrite history, secularists charge, to sacralize the past, bolster “American exceptionalism,” and promote a Christian “city on a hill.”

Yet, as he must deal with, it's not just "secularists" who debunk the "Christian Nation" thesis.

Evangelicals on the left have also attacked America’s Christian history. In 1983, three leading historians collaborated on The Search for Christian America. They argued that “early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctively or even predominately Christian.” They further argued that “the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept, which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society.” Eager to separate themselves from the Christian Right (the Reagan administration, the Moral Majority, and Jerry Falwell), the evangelical-lefties became vocal advocates of an unChristian America.15

They were especially hard on John Witherspoon, who was something of a hero to the Christian Right. Because Witherspoon was a Christian patriot, unChristian America historians berated him as a hyper-patriot whose political zeal eclipsed his interest in the gospel.16 “In his zeal for American rights Witherspoon was making the new American nation a supreme value in violation of the Christian’s obligation to put first the Kingdom of God. He allowed self-righteousness to triumph over charity.”17

I never knew that Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, the authors of The Search For Christian America, were leftists (they are not; and they also happen to be the three most prominent evangelical scholars in the nation).

And I want to stress as I did in this past post, many conservative Christian scholars teaching at conservative Christian schools engage in superb scholarship, well worth reading, and don't otherwise engage in such propagandistic revisionism as Mr. Butler apparently does. Indeed, they have done, I have found, some of the best work on the history of religion and the US Founding. Some notable ones include Dr. Gregg Frazer of The Masters College, Dr. Gary Scott Smith, Chair of the History Dept. at Grove City College (author of this new book) and Dr. Robert Kraynak, of Colgate University.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Correction in the Historic Record Needed on Bird Wilson

If you google for "Bird Wilson" my blogpost on him should come up on the first page. He was indeed the son of Founder James Wilson, an Episcopalian minister, and the biographer of Bishop White, the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania ("Memoir of Bishop White"). Bird Wilson would be, and to most historians perhaps is, a footnote in history. Bird Wilson plays a minor role in the controversy over the religion of the key Founding Fathers. In particular, on the matter of George Washington not taking communion, Bishop White, one of Washington's Bishops, gave key testimony that Washington didn't commune, some of which was reported through Bird Wilson. For instance,

"Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary war, and afterwards while President of the United States, he never was a communicant in them" (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 188).

Bird Wilson was also purported to have given a sermon in Albany in 1831, on the religion of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson which concluded "among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." The following, further, was preached in that sermon:

When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it.... There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity.... Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).

After the sermon was published in the Daily Advertiser, freethinker and Utopian Robert Dale Owen, personally visited the Reverend to dialogue on the matter of Washington's religious views. It was during this discussion that Owen testified in a letter to Amos Gilbert dated November 13, 1831:

I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not.... I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, "Washington was a man," etc. and ending, "absented himself altogether from the church." "I endorse," said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, "every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was--for I well remember the very words--`Sir, Washington was a Deist.'"

The fact that Washington didn't commune in Philadelphia under Dr. Abercrombie and Bishop White is not in dispute. However, the minister who gave the fiery sermon terming all of the Presidents thus far elected "unitarians" and "infidels" was not, (or likely not) Bird Wilson but rather James Renwick Willson.

I was first alerted to this by a Brown doctoral candidate in history, James Kabala, in a comment on my blog:

I'm a historian currently working on church-state relations in the early republic who stumbled across this blog. The sermon you attribute to Bird Wilson, an Episcopalian, was actually delivered by James Renwick Willson, a Reformed Presbyterian or Covenanter and no relation to the Founding Father James Wilson. I've seen this error in books by a number of authors and have been trying to trace it back to its origins; I've traced it as far back as Paul Boller's book on Washington's religion, but the source he cites is not at my university's library. Willson's sermon was still largely accurate, but it lacks the authority of being by James Wilson's son.

I've been emailing him back and forth over the past few days and we have tried to get to the bottom of the matter. John E. Remsburg's book Six Historic Americans seems to be the origin of the error, though Remsburg doesn't technically make the error. If you read Remsburg carefully he treats "The Rev. Dr. Wilson" and "Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D." as two different people, but does not make this clear enough. And he misspells James Renwick Willson's last name with only one l, further adding to the confusion. And to confuse even more, ironically both "Rev. Wilson" and "Rev. Willson" were domiciled in Albany!

The first scholar, relying on Remsburg's work to confuse the two "Wilsons" into one was Franklin Steiner, where he writes:

Here is honest, straightforward talk, both on the part of Washington and the clergyman. 'What is more, it is confirmed by others. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, the biographer of Bishop White, in his sermon on the "Religion of the Presidents," says....Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany 'Daily Advertiser,' in 1831. Mr. Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, was attracted by it, and went to Albany to interview Dr. Wilson, and gives the substance of the interview in a letter, written on November 13, 1831, which was published in New York two weeks later....

From there relying on Steiner's work, Paul F. Boller, in George Washington and Religion continues to treat James Renwick Willson's work as thought it were Bird Wilson's. And from Boller, various George Washington scholars on both sides of the culture war debate over just how "Christian" Washington was have attributed to Bird Wilson words which probably came from James Renwick Willson. They include David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Farell Till, Brooke Allen, Michael and Jana Novak, and Peter Lillback.

I know all of this Wilson v. Willson stuff is confusing. This email that James Kabala sent me helps to clarify:

Steiner seems to be our culprit (or at least, the farthest back we can definitively trace this mistake at the present time; perhaps he himself was drawing on someone else). The Rev. Dr. Wilson who wrote a biography of Bishop White was, I assume, Bird Wilson. The Rev. Dr. Wilson [sic; should be Willson] who spoke with Robert Dale Owen was undoubtedly James Renwick Willson; the dialogue between the two men as quoted by Steiner is quoted verbatim from the Free Enquirer of December 3, 1831. The misspelling as "Wilson" occurred in that original article and is the likely source of much later trouble. This mistake is relatively inconsequential in the long run, since we know from other sources that Washington was undoubtedly a non-communicant and probably a Deist (or "theistic rationalist"), but it is remarkable how an error can spread from book to book without ever being caught. It will make me even more vigilant to make sure my own work is free from such errors!

Regarding the sermon in the Daily Advertiser, the primary source is not available online (nor in most libraries either!). However, one of Willson's sermons with almost identical sentiments is available here. The sermon in question was titled, PRINCE MESSIAH’S CLAIMS TO DOMINION OVER ALL GOVERNMENTS: AND THE DISREGARD OF HIS AUTHORITY BY THE UNITED STATES, IN THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, and as the site says, because of the way in which he criticized the Presidents, he was denounced.

The whole thing makes for an interesting read. Here are some excerpts:

There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life.[6] In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God. General eulogy, by a Weems, or a Ramsey, will not satisfy an enlightened enquirer. The faith of the real believer in the word of God, is a principle so powerfully operative, that you cannot conceal "its light under a bushel." "It works by love." "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." Is it probable that he was a true believer in Jesus Christ and his Bible, when in times so trying, and in a Christian nation, he wrote thousands of letters, and yet never uttered a word, from which it can be fairly inferred that he was a believer? Who ever questioned whether Theodosius or Charlemagne believed the Bible? "He that is not against us is for us." And it is as true, that he who is not for us, is against us.


He was President of the convention, that voted the name of the living God out of the Constitution. His influence was great among the members of that body. Had he taken part with Dr. Franklin, in the attempt to have an acknowledgment of God inserted in the Constitution, they could hardly have failed of success. The conviction forces itself upon us, that that act of national impiety, was done with the approbation of Washington. It is to his everlasting dishonor, that he is not known to have opposed that insult offered to the Lord God, who had made him so great and successful a captain.

While President, in Philadelphia, his habit was to arise and leave the church, when the Sacrament of the Supper was dispensed. After the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie had preached a faithful sermon against the evil example thus set by the President of the United States; Gen. Washington remarked, that he would not set such an example for the future; and from that time, he did not attend church on the Sabbath, in which the Lord’s Supper was dispensed.

When the several classes of citizens, were addressing Washington, on his retirement from office, the clergy, who doubted his Christianity, resolved to frame an address, so that he could not evade, in his reply, an expression of his faith, if he were really a believer. He did, however, evade it, and the impression left on the mind of one of the clergy, at least, was that he was a Deist.

Mr. Jefferson, affirms that Washington was a Deist. To be ashamed of Christ, which no one can reasonably doubt he was, is infidel. He did not set an example of godliness, before the nation, over which in the Providence of God, he was made President.

The Cabinet which Gen. Washington chose, indicates that he was not a fearer of the Lord. Mr. Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, was an unchaste man, and died by a duel. Mr. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was an avowed infidel, who mocked at every thing sacred. You know men by their society. Among the members of the first Cabinet of the Federal Executive, vital godliness would have been mocked at as fanaticism. Which of the heads of departments prayed in his family daily? Which of them sanctified the Lord’s day, by abstaining from worldly conversation, company, and business? The practical piety of the Bible, as exhibited in [Thomas] Boston’s Fourfold State, [Jonathan] Edwards on [Religious] Affections, and [Alexander] McLeod on True Godliness, had she been introduced to the inmates of Washington’s Palace, would have been derided as a fanatic.

And here Rev. Willson uses the "God was voted out" of the US Constitution language:

Besides, there is some reason to believe, that the people were not so bad as a few practical atheists, into whose hands the management of the national affairs fell, immediately after the revolution. These men voted God out of the Constitution, and discarded all moral qualifications for office. But the people, pending the election of Mr. Jefferson to the office of President, adopted a test. The opponents of that gentleman, insisted that he was an infidel, and therefore not to be honored with the highest office in the gift of the people. His friends admitted the doctrine that a deist ought not to be President; but denied the charge against Mr. Jefferson. His Notes on Virginia, are essentially deistical. But comparatively few had read them. The people, many thousands of Christians, did not believe the charge, and thinking it a slander of his political enemies, they voted for him. Had the people known his malevolent opposition to the Bible, truth, church and worship, of God as it is now known, the writer believes that he never would have been President of the United States. That very contest rendered Deism forever unpopular in this nation.

And in the footnotes, Willson relays that it was he who had been in correspondence with Washington's minister, Dr. Abercrombie.

Since the above was written, the author has heard some facts respecting Washington’s last days at Mount Vernon, which give reason to hope, that he became, at least a speculative believer in revealed religion, after he withdrew from the cares of empire, and found time for investigation and devotion. We are sure the first President did not acknowledge Prince Messiah. Dr. Abercrombie said to, the writer—"Sir, General Washington was a Deist."

In another sermon, Rev. Willson repeats similar sentiments:

Never in any form, since the United States became an independent nation, has it acknowledged the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, nor professed subjection to his law. The convention that ratified and unanimously signed the present Federal Constitution, could not have meant to do so, as is demonstrated by many solid arguments. 1. The question was debated, and a very large majority refused to insert any acknowledgment of God, or of the religion of his Son. 2. Had this not been done, the members were men of too much discernment, to have overlooked, through inattention, a matter of so great magnitude. If they intended to acknowledge Christ, it would have been in such terms, as to admit of no doubt. 3. There were many deists in the convention, such as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Thomas Mifflin, Governor Morris, and James Madison. Governor Morris and Thomas Jefferson, affirm that General Washington was also a deist.[1] Yet all these infidels signed the constitution. Would they have done so in the presence of those who knew them to be opposed to revealed religion had the instrument been christian. 4. Could the Presidents of the United States, three of whom, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, were certainly infidels, numerous members of congress, Governors of States, and many other officers of the General and State governments, have sworn to the Federal Constitution, had it been understood to recognize the headship of Messiah, whom they held to be an impostor? 5. It has never been the understanding of the nation that the constitution acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ, or professes subjection to his laws. All infidels have sworn to the support of that instrument, and no one has ever thought of charging them with inconsistency. 6. The present President of the United States, in his message to congress, at the opening of the extra session of 1837, says: "The will of a majority of the people is the supreme law, in all things that come within the jurisdiction of the Federal government." In all the opposition to his administration, this sentiment has never been called in question. The politicians of the nation, would generally reject with detestation, the doctrine, that the constitution binds to the acknowledgment of the Bible as the supreme rule of legislation in this commonwealth. 7. All these arguments are sealed, by the following provision. "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."[2] This prohibits the passage of any law excluding gamblers, whoremongers, slaveholders, profane swearers, sabbath violaters, gross idolators, blasphemers of the divinity of Christ, deists or atheists, from access to the highest honours of the land, for to exclude any of these, would be to require a religious test. A man might be convicted of any and even of all these sins, and yet be eligible to any office. Here is a flat contradiction to the Bible. "He that ruleth over men must be just ruling in the fear of God." 2 Sam. 23:3. If the constitution acknowledged Christ, the christian religion, or Jehovah, in any article directly or indirectly, it would thereby establish a religious test, as no deist or atheist could swear to its support. This sweeping clause is found in the conclusion of a section declaring, "that all executive and judicial officers both of the United States and of the several States shall be bound, by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution." It has been plead[ed] that this provision acknowledges the christian religion . But how vainly? Heathens swear oaths. An atheist might come into office by an affirmation. The concluding sentence forbidding all religious tests, shews how anxious the framers were to avoid even a seeming acknowledgment of God or his holy religion.

As noted, this is not verbatim of the actual sermon "The Religion of the Presidents" printed in the Albany Daily Advertiser. That is a primary source available in few libraries. Ultimately someone, probably James Kabala, will get his or her hands on it and settle this issue. But the sentiments are so similar, it's almost certain that the Rev. terming the Founders "infidels," that none of the Presidents from Washington Jackson were professors of religion beyond Unitarianism, that the record shows Washington was a Deist and nothing more, and stating that God was voted out of the US Constitution, was Rev. James Renwick Willson, not Bird Wilson. Bird Wilson was "esteemed." James Renwick Willson after delivering this sermon attacking the Presidents and the US Founding was burned in effigy. Bird Wilson's father, James, whose work Bird catalogued in detail, was likely not an orthodox Christian, but rather adhered to the same system of "theistic rationalism" that the key Founders (early Presidents) did. Thus, Bird would be attacking his own father as an "infidel." Not likely.

Finally, note that Rev. Willson was an early prominent member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Covenanted and they were notable dissidents on the US Constitution. They believed its lack of supplication to God, absence of a religious test, and absence of explicit covenant with the Triune God of the Bible made it a document, at the very least, inconsistent with their view of covenant theology and civil government. (At the worst it is an anti-Christian, infidel document). This is the very group to whom Gary North dedicates his ebook. And though North doesn't cite Rev. Willson, many of Willson's same arguments against the US Constitution are fleshed out in detail in North's book.

Rev. Willson was a true "dominionist," and he should remind the Reconstructionists that a dominionist theology is inconsistent with the US Constitution. (On a personal note, he was a mean looking dude as well!)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Allen Responds To Novak:

On Encyclopedia Britannica blogs, Brooke Allen has responded to Michael Novak's recent response to her on religion and the Founding Fathers. I want to thank her for mentioning me by name and discussing one of my comments. I was going to turn this comment I made on Novak's response into a blogpost. I might as well discuss it now. Here is a passage from Allen's post:

I thought that blogger Jon Rowe, in his response to “Christian Stoics and Skeptical Christians,” made an excellent point. “Let me point something else out—what I think is a non-sequitur—which I’ve noticed folks who argue from Mr. Novak’s side often engage in,” he says. “The argument goes something like this: Analyze a particular phrase uttered from a Founder; find some way in which that phrase traces back to the Bible; and then conclude this warrants placing the Founder in the ‘orthodox / Christian / religious’ box or what have you.” This is absolutely true. All of us have been indelibly stamped by the Bible, whether we are believers or not. This was much more true in the 18th century; the Founders all grew up in an intensely biblical culture. As Rowe points out, even the violently anti-Christian and anti-clerical Thomas Paine made biblical allusions.

As I noted in the original comment, whatever the Biblical allusions Washington may have made, Franklin and Jefferson -- whom Novak identifies as "outliers, skeptics indeed, barely if at all Christian” -- knew the Bible probably better than Washington and alluded to it as much as he did.

As also noted, the Bible, especially as a piece of literature, has dramatically impacted Western Civilization. I’ve described, on my blogs, (after Camille Paglia) Western Culture itself as a unique synthesis of Paganism (Greco-Romanism) and Piety(Judeo-Christianity). Indeed Christmas and Easter, both of which have pagan and traditional religious elements, perfect illustrate such dynamic. We can endlessly analyze how various parts of our culture trace back in some way to our religious (for instance, the way we date our time) or pagan (the names of the days of the week, months of the year, or planets in our solar system) roots.

To give a personal anecdote, I once debated, in an Internet forum, some cultural issue, where I was on the more secular liberal side. I think it had to do with gay rights. When saying good bye to a fellow debater on my side, I replied “keep fighting the good fight.” Someone on the opposing side, a traditional Christian who really didn’t like me that much, became angry that I said this because that phrase traces back to the Bible.

Indeed, when I teach at my secular community college, I notice myself making Biblical allusions all the time. The Bible has so dramatically impacted our language that common people make Biblical allusions all the time without being aware of their so doing. This is especially the case for more literate, well-educated folks (who arguably tend to be less religious than average).

Lincoln too, certainly no orthodox Christian, notably used Biblical allusions (e.g. "A house divided against itself cannot stand"). Though it may be an interesting literary study to analyze a Founders' or anyone's words and see how certain phrases trace back to the Bible, how certain phrases trace back to Shakespeare, etc. etc., such tells us absolutely nothing about the orthodoxy of their personal religious beliefs.