Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Unitarian in Politics?

Hamilton, like Madison, Washington and other notable key American founders, for most of his life, especially when he did his work founding America, systematically spoke in generic, philosophical terms about God. I haven't found any "smoking gun" quotations of his that explicitly deny the tenets of orthodox Christianity as I have with Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. However, Hamilton, likewise never affirmed those tenets (or joined a Christian Church) until the very end of his life after his son was killed in a duel. He was actually refused communion at his deathbed because he lacked an established track record of a Christian faith.

So why would Madison, Washington, Hamilton, G. Morris and a few others constantly speak, publicly, about God in a generic sense, and leave no evidence in their private letters of orthodox Trinitarian faith? Few appreciate the context that reveals the answer. Orthodox Trinitarianism had been legally established at the state level when America was British Colonies, and as such possessed social and institutional power. If you weren't orthodox Trinitarian, you were an "infidel." Yet, the elite Whigs who founded America were disproportionately imbibed in these "infidel" principles (deism, unitarianism, Arminianism, and universalism). In the late 18th Century, one could not wear his infidelity on his sleeve. By founding America on the unalienable rights of conscience, America's founders hoped folks (like them) could be open heretics and infidels. As Jefferson put it in 1822, "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian." Though he was wrong in his prediction, by this time Harvard had become Unitarian, and Unitarians had transformed, at the social level, from non-Christian "infidels" as they were viewed in the 18th Century, to some respectable form of liberal Protestant Christianity, as they were thought of in New England in the 19th Century. Today, Arminianism ceases to be viewed as heresy altogether in many, but not all, orthodox Christian circles.

As it were, I believe Washington, Madison, G. Morris, James Wilson, and Hamilton (before his end of life conversion to orthodox Trinitarianism) secretly held to these theologically unitarian-rationalist principles. They couldn't be open about it because had they been, their public reputations, which they guarded with their lives, would have been damaged.

In doing research I found a 1791 letter from Fisher Ames to Alexander Hamilton where Ames states, "I know that you are as much an Unitarian in politics as I am...." The context is the discussion of a national bank, not religion. I am struck as to what it means to be a "Unitarian in politics" said in the context of not discussing religion. The best answer I can give is that the founders thought of themselves as "liberals," not like today's leftist liberals, but classical liberals. And as such, they tended to be theological liberals as well (again, not quite like today's theological liberals, but 18th Century theological liberals). Deism, unitarianism, universalism, Arminianism, and rationalism were the "liberal" religious tenets of the day. Calvinism was the antithesis of 18th Century religious liberalism.

If the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers had any kind of undergirding theology which animated them, it was not orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, but the above mentioned theologically liberal creeds. What Gregg Frazer terms "theistic rationalism," or what America's founders might have termed "Unitarianism," or "Christianity," "pure" and "uncorrupted" (uncorrupted by its tenets of orthodoxy that is). Unitarianism or theistic rationalism was, as such, the political theology of the US Founding. That's perhaps why unitarians Hamilton and Ames could view themselves as "unitarians" or "liberals" in politics as well as in religion. They went together hand in hand.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Conditions of Orthodoxy at Founding Era Colleges:

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other colleges were founded in the 17th and early 18th centuries, when America was a bunch of British Colonies and before Church and State were separated, with explicitly orthodox Christian "missions." Most realize that something changed along the way, but few understand when and how it happened. The institutional changes occurred primarily during the 19th Century. After all, during the founding era, Timothy Dwight -- a fire and brimstone fundamentalist preacher -- was President of Yale. Yet, it was during this time -- early to mid 18th Century -- that such colleges became hotbeds of infidelity, in other words, when the seeds of change were planted. And Harvard, institutionally, officially became "infidel" around the turn of the 19th Century.

"Infidelity" -- that is, non-orthodoxy, or deism, unitarianism, Arminianism, and universalism -- was a dissident movement in 18th Century America [some of these were harder forms of infidelity, some softer; my contention is America's key founders -- the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin and a few other leading lights, were soft infidels]. However, so was Whiggery a dissident movement in England. American Whigs, as such, were disproportionately imbibed in these "infidel" principles, which never captured the minds of the masses, but did capture the minds of the elite, educated men who gave America the principles upon which it declared independence and constructed the Constitution.

Bishop Meade, a founding era figure, testified on the deplorable conditions of orthodoxy in 18th Century Virginia, especially at the College of William and Mary.

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, —the stock still enlarging and strengthening itself there, and the roots shooting deeper into the soil. At the end of the century the College of William and Mary was regarded as the hotbed of infidelity and of the wild politics of France. Strong as the Virginia feeling was in favour of the Alma Mater of their parents, the Northern Colleges were filled with the sons of Virginia's best men.

Likewise Timothy Dwight had problems with "infidelity" at Yale. As this book notes:

We are now entering upon a very interesting period in the life of Dr. Dwight. Owing to a variety of causes which it is not necessary to enumerate, the state of Yale College at the time of his accession to the office of President, was in many respects unhappy. Destitute in a great degree of public or private patronage, its numbers were reduced, its discipline was relaxed, a looseness of moral and religious sentiment had become fashionable, and its reputation had been for some time on the decline through the community. One of the greatest evils under which it suffered, was an extensive prevalence of infidelity among the students. This pernicious spirit had been derived from the circumstances of the country at the close of the preceding war. As was natural, it found easy access to the minds of a collection of youths, who were fascinated with ideas of mental as well as political independence, and who were easily induced to shake off what they considered the shackles of habit and superstition. The degree to which it prevailed may be conjectured from the following fact. A considerable proportion of the class which he first taught, had assumed the names of the principal English and French infidels, and were more familiarly known by them than by their own. Under circumstances like these, he entered upon the duties of his office as PRESIDENT OF YALE COLLEGE.

Or as a more modern source (and one sympathetic to Dwight's creed) puts it:

When Dwight arrived at Yale, the moral and scholarly atmosphere of the school was, to say the least, in a valley. Membership in the college church hovered near, well, near zero. Most undergraduates avowed themselves skeptics. One of the students of that day later wrote, ``intemperance, profanity, and gambling were common; yea, and also licentiousness.'' Some of the students had taken to calling each other not by their given names, but rather by the names of Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot, and of other French and English infidels. The campus supported not one but two societies dedicated to the reading and distribution of literature by deist Tom Paine. One might think that in such an atmosphere of "reason" and of worship of the exalted human nature order and self-discipline might have also been prominent on campus. As with the French revolution, however, such talk in its practical application degenerated into pleasure seeking, and gratification of the true nature of humanity. Once, near the end of his term, when the previous president of Yale had brought a visitor to the chapel for an assembly, he, being late, found the students yelling, whooping, carousing, and generally out of control. The president forced his way to the podium and wore himself out shouting and pounding on the stage with his cane until the cane splintered. It was some time before order was restored.

One reason Yale may have been so sympathetic to infidelity prior to Dwight's Presidency was the previous President (Dwight became President in 1795) was Ezra Stiles. Now, Stiles too was an orthodox Christian. He was also a patriot preacher (preached pro-revolutionary sermons from the pulpit), a fervent Whig, and himself imbibed in enlightenment dogma. He was precisely the type of "Christian" susceptible to the theistic rationalism that captured the minds of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and many others, though he never (as far as I know) became one. Stiles did, however, support the French Revolution.

Dwight, because of his talent, apparently succeeded in quelling the infidel temptation at Yale. But at Harvard, infidelity triumphed. George Whitfield, of Great Awakening fame, observed, in 1740, how infidelity infiltrated Harvard. As Samuel Morison put it in a study of Harvard:

Harvard College and the Congregational Church were broadening down from primitive Calvinism to eighteenth-century theism or Unitarianism. This peaceful process was rudely interrupted by an evangelical revival known as the Great Awakening. The preliminary rumblings of that movement in the Connecticut Valley did not disturb Cambridge; but in September, 1740, the whirlwind revivalist George Whitefield arrived in Boston, addressed fifteen thousand people on Boston Common, and on the twenty-fourth preached to students and townspeople in Cambridge meetinghouse. Harvard men were divided in opinion as to the wisdom and value of this first of modern revivals…. Conservatives who deplored the liberal tendencies of the age were delighted at the straight hell-and damnation Calvinism that Whitefield preached…. Whitefield was entertained by President Holyoke, and listened to with eager attention by the students; but he found little to praise at Harvard, where…the state of “piety and true godliness” was not much better than at Oxford and Cambridge. “Tutors neglect to pray with, and examine the hearts of, their pupils,” who read “bad books” such as the works of Tillotson and Clarke. Whitefield observed that “Many Scholars appeared to be in great concern as to their souls.”24

As Josiah Quincy recounts the incident:

The controversy with Whitefield was the last of a tic theological character in which the governors of the New England College directly engaged. As doctrinal disputes grew more intense and critical, they stood aloof, realizing the wisdom of conducting the seminary exclusively as a literary, rather than as a theological institution. At this period the high Calvinistic doctrines prevailed throughout New England, but chiefly predominated in the interior of Massachusetts, and in the Colony of Connecticut. In Boston and its vicinity, and along the seaboard of Massachusetts, clergymen of great talent and religious zeal openly avowed doctrines which were variously denounced by the Calvinistic party as Arminianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Socinianism, and Deism. The most eminent of these clergymen were alumni of Harvard, active friends and advocates of the institution, and in habits of intimacy and professional intercourse with its governors. Their religious views indeed received no public countenance from the College; but circumstances gave color for reports which were assiduously circulated throughout New England, that the influences of the institution were not unfavorable to the extension of such doctrines. The College became, in consequence, an object of severe scrutiny and some reproach, not the less severe from the fact that one or more members of the Corporation were among the most zealous of the Calvinistic sect. The attack made by Whitefield on the College was in coincidence with these reports.

These men, Harvard alum preaching "Arminianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Socinianism, and Deism" from the pulpit, disproportionately were patriot Whig preachers arguing on behalf of Revolution -- notable among them, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, Simeon Howard, and Samuel West. The orthodox failed to root out infidelity from Harvard. In 1747, they unsuccessfully attempted to boycott unitarian Jonathan Mayhew's ordination. And by 1805 Unitarian Henry Ware was elected to head Harvard's Divinity studies. Starting with John Thornton Kirkland, "[f]rom 1810 until 1933 all of the presidents of Harvard University were Unitarians."

Many of the men studying in the founding era seminaries and preaching pro-revolutionary sermons from the pulpit, though they quoted the Bible, intermixed it with a-biblical enlightenment rationalism and elevated reason and natural theology over revelation. Leading lights like Mayhew, Chauncy, West, Howard, and many others including America's key founding fathers, as theological unitarians and universalists arguably weren't "Christians" (at least not as evangelicals or Catholics understand the term). Keep that in mind next time proponents of the Christian America thesis note the involvement of ministers or figures with "seminary" degrees who played key roles in America's founding.

Friday, September 28, 2007

On the other hand...:

If I want to recognize a kernel of truth the promoters of America's "spiritual heritage" tours have, it is, America, during its founding, embraced "religion" in the general sense and thought such provided "republics" with indispensable support. America's "organic law" is thus more religion friendly than a strict secularist ideal would allow for. However, whenever you start mixing religion and government, political/theological problems inevitably emerge. Key to founding thought was that all men of all religions had equal rights of conscience. Thus, whatever privileges government grants, it must grant equally without regard to religion. You want to fund private religious schools with tax dollars, then Islamic schools are equally entitled to such aid, as long as they meet the secular criteria.

George Washington struggled with the political theological problem when he fought for John Murray -- a universalist who denied the existence of eternal damnation -- to be a chaplain, over the protests of the more orthodox chaplains. [Benjamin Rush likewise converted to this creed of Trinitarian Universalism.]

Washington's own view of the afterlife is hard to pin down. He certainly believed in it, but often expressed opinions about such in non-traditional Christian terms. For instance, in one letter he cites a pagan source -- Cicero -- as authority for existence of the afterlife.

But with Cicero in speaking respecting his belief of the immortality of the Soul, I will say, if I am in a grateful delusion, it is an innocent one, and I am willing to remain under its influence.

This is not exactly how an orthodox Christian would put it. Personally I believe that Washington, like the other key founders probably believed that good people by their works merit Heaven immediately upon death, the bad, temporarily punished, eventually redeemed. Washington's writings give no hint that he believed in eternal damnation. Or if he did, he certainly had a cavalier attitude towards the concept. The orthodox who posited the notion of eternal damnation tended to think it very important that folks believe it and termed theological universalism "infidelity." For instance, Bishop Meade, an Episcopalian and an orthodox Christian, stated: “I have other reasons for knowing that infidelity, under the specious garb of Universalism, was then finding its way into the pulpit.”

Evangelicals today seem to have the same attitude. Evangelical minister Carlton Pearson denied eternal damnation and lost his entire ministry after being labeled a "heretic." George Washington on the other hand, praised a church that preached this very "heresy." Washington made it clear that whatever it was he valued about religion, the “infidel” Universalists had it. That's one reason why I think Washington himself disbelieved eternal damnation.
Gingrich Spreads Barton's Phony Quotations:

Newt Gingrich on this link spreads one of David Barton's phony quotations. His page says:

Washington’s personal journal provides more evidence of his deep faith:

"It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being."

Sorry, Washington never said this and these utterances and not found anywhere in the primary source record. They are part of David Barton's phony quotations, which he admonished his followers to no longer pass. Maybe if he didn't try to euphemize them with the label "unconfirmed," fewer folks would still be passing them.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Knapton Responds to Frazer:

Richard Knapton responds to Gregg Frazer's response to him. Knapton's response seems confused. I won't tackle all of it, just one misunderstanding that he is trying to posit.

I've highlighted the relevant parts of his post to which I respond:

Ah yes, deism and natural religion. At the turn of the 18th-century a small group of thinkers, including the Earl of Shaftsbury, began writing about how natural philosophy (science) could be used to investigate the nature and workings of God. This was coined natural religion. Their approach was to replace Christianity with natural religion. It pretty much petered out around the middle of the 18th-century. It’s demise was helped out in no small measure by the writings of Joseph Butler and David Hume. Hume attacked the idea of using rational or empirical methods (science) to investigate religion.


Theistic rationalism is a term for which there is no conceptual correspondence in the time period Dr Fraser is writing. Along with the demise of deistic rationalism was rationalism itself. The empiricist (Locke, Berkely, Hume) had shown that truth cannot be discovered on the basis of reason alone. Information must first be established based on experiment and observation prior to the use of reason. The concept of theistic rationalism, which is supposed to have risen out of the ashes of deistic rationalism, has simply no foundation. Rationalism had lost out to empiricism.


This use of the term ‘reason’ is a bit sloppy. Let’s bring some rigor to the subject. I obtained my definition of reason from “A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names” Reason: The intellectual ability to apprehend [understand] the truth cognitively, either immediately in intuition, or by means of a process of inference. Inference: The relationship that holds between the premises and the conclusion of a logical argument, or the process of drawing a conclusion from premises that support it deductively or inductively.

Thus reason is a process by which truth is revealed. Revelation is an event by which truth is revealed. You can oppose an event to another event. Or, you can oppose a process by another process. But you cannot oppose a processes to an event. They are not the same type of thing. Not can a process determine what is legitimate. Reasoning requires a first principle which can only be accepted as true. It cannot be rationally determined. Since reasoning is a dialectical process, one begins with a first principle and a comparison happens between it and opposing ideas with a view to resolving the opposition. What is critical here is first principles. With any process the quality of what goes in determines the quality of what comes out (garbage in – garbage out). Dr Fraser, on the other hand, seems to want to use the term as a magic wand by which whatever you touch truth is revealed.


1 Deism and natural religion died out around the middle of 18th century. Natural religion was a spent force.


3. “Theistic rationalism”, as a concept, doesn’t seem to exist in the second half of the 18th century. Also, it is not likely that “theistic rationalism” rose from the ashes of “deistic rationalism.”

4. Reason is not a magic wand that whatever it touches turns to the truth.

Knapton's major factual premises are, as an historical matter, wrong. Hume, an atheist, may well have "attacked the idea of using rational or empirical methods (science) to investigate religion." But the fact is Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and many other notable founders as well as many divines and philosophers of the age believed that man's reason discovers substantive truth including, and importantly religious truths. [Hume, in fact, attacked other ideas which America's founders held central, for instance Locke's notion of the state of nature, which was one of the most central tenets of America's founding thought].

Reason may well be a "process" and indeed, our modern minds may believe, after Hume, that reason needs first facts from which to proceed and can discover no substantive moral, religious or philosophical truths of its own. But America's key founders believed Nature (with a capital "N"), not the Bible, was the substance from which man's reason discovers moral, philosophical, and religious truth. Indeed, by looking to Nature, man's reason could discover substantive truth wholly UNAIDED by scripture. The Deists argued that the none of the Bible was inspired and man, using reason, could look to nature ONLY. Orthodox Christians believed that God primarily revealed Himself through scripture, and that whatever truths reason discovers on its own, revelation trumps reason. The theistic rationalists like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and others believed God primarily revealed Himself through Nature, only partially inspired the Bible and as such reason was the ultimate arbiter for discovering substantive truth, including what is legitimate revelation from God.

There may well be epistemological "problems" with this theology. And indeed, I know that Dr. Frazer, as an orthodox evangelical Christian, doesn't personally agree with it. Let's not forget that first and foremost we are trying to determine what Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams believed, not whether they were right. Indeed, if one proceeds with a religious belief that, for instance, because America's founding was divinely inspired, the key founders had to have been real Christians and right on theological matters, one's understanding of the matter is likely to be clouded, especially if the facts don't neatly line up with one's preexisting beliefs.

Anyway, here is some of the evidence that at the very least Adams, Jefferson and Franklin believed God revealed Himself primarily through Nature, only partially inspired the Bible and thus man's reason supersedes revelation as the ultimate determiner of Truth.

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.

Writing in 1735, Ben Franklin made clear that "natural religion" -- what man discovers through reason -- was in fact the first revelation of God to man. And that revealed religion -- what's written in the Bible -- is secondary and functions to support the findings of reason.

Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures...What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it's natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.

Notice how Franklin positions scripture as secondary revelation, with "reason" or "the light of nature" as the primary revelation God gave man:

Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov'd from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill's asserting,

Article I.

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

Also note how Franklin terms his beliefs, "Christianity." As Dr. Frazer has noted, what he terms "theistic rationalism" often presented itself under the auspices of "Christianity." But key tenets of such belief system -- that Jesus wasn't God, that God primarily revealed Himself through Nature (discovered by man's reason) and secondarily through a partially inspired Bible, and that other non-Christian religions are valid -- arguably disqualifies it from the label "Christian."

As to the Bible being only partially inspired, Franklin made clear this is what he believed when he said,

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.

Many notable divines preached these principles from the pulpit during the founding era including Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West, and Ebenezer Gay. I blogged about one of West's sermons, preached in 1776. West notes, by looking solely at Nature, reason discovers substantive God given rules and elevates those discoveries to the same level as the Bible.

Now, whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is as much the will and law of God as though it were enjoined us by an immediate revelation from heaven, or commanded in the sacred Scriptures.

He then treads dangerously on denying the infallibility of the Bible and elevating reason over revelation:

A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself,--a thing in the strictest sense impossible, for that which implies contradiction is not an object of the divine power.

Here we actually see West setting up one substantive system of rules -- those discovered from reason -- against another -- those contained in Bible. And he states, in the event of a conflict, reason trumps. This is important because West "discovers" a substantive right to revolt, not from the Bible (because one isn't contained therein) but, following Locke, from "reason" or the natural law.

West actually has to deal with those parts of scripture which seem to forbid a right to revolt, and he does so like a true cafeteria Christian, explaining away parts of the Bible he finds "inconvenient." On Romans 13, West ends up concluding "that the apostle Paul, instead of being a friend to tyranny and arbitrary government, turns out to be a strong advocate for the just rights of mankind...." Or in other words, Paul really meant we do have a right to revolt against the magistrate, the opposite of what he said. Do keep in mind that the ruler to whom Paul told believers to obey was not some "godly" ruler, but the pagan psychopath Nero. West addresses that point:

I know it is said that the magistrates were, at the time when the apostle wrote, heathens, and that Nero, that monster of tyranny, was then Emperor of Rome; that therefore the apostle, by enjoining submission to the powers that then were, does require unlimited obedience to be yielded to the worst of tyrants. Now, not to insist upon what has been often observed, viz., that this epistle was written most probably about the beginning of Nero's reign, at which time he was a very humane and merciful prince, did everything that was generous and benevolent to the public, and showed every act of mercy and tenderness to particulars, and therefore might at that time justly deserve the character of the minister of God for good to the people,-- I say, waiving this, we will suppose that this epistle was written after that Nero was become a monster of tyranny and wickedness; it will by no means follow from thence that the apostle meant to enjoin unlimited subjection to such an authority, or that he intended to affirm that such a cruel, despotic authority was the ordinance of God. The plain, obvious sense of his words, as we have already seen, forbids such a construction to be put upon them, for they plainly imply a strong abhorrence and disapprobation of such a character, and clearly prove that Nero, so far forth as he was a tyrant, could not be the minister of God, nor have a right to claim submission from the people; so that this ought, perhaps, rather to be viewed as a severe satire upon Nero, than as enjoining any submission to him.

The first point -- the epistle was written during the beginning of Nero's reign when he was "nicer," not towards the end when he was a tyrant -- strikes me as invoking hair splitting context to reach a desired result, not unlike the way some gay Christians and Jews, who claim the Bible really isn't against homosexuality, conclude things like the Bible permits gay men to have oral sex because that is not "lying with a man," or that even if they did "lie with mankind," and commit an "abomination," that term means "ritual impurity," and is more like eating shellfish or the mixing of fabrics.

The second point -- if Paul said this when Nero was indeed acting tyrannical, he must not have meant it! -- shows West's willingness to disregard scripture that disagrees with reason.

Finally, as noted, West, like America's founders and many other pro-revolutionary preachers followed Locke. And Mr. Knapton misunderstands Locke's teachings. Locke did indeed conclude that "reason" discovers substantive truth, including substantive religious truth. Indeed Locke based his entire substantive theory of "the state of nature" (which theory was both wholly extra-biblical, and key to American founding philosophy) on "the law of nature" which Locke equated with reason. In his Two Treatises, Locke informs “The State of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and that law....”
Noah Webster Calls the United States an "Empire of Reason":

Noah Webster is one of the "Christian Nation" crowd's favorite founders to quote, because in the 19th Century, many of his words seem to support their ideal. Yet, as Tom Peters noted on this page, almost all of those quotations come from after 1808 when "Webster underwent a profound religious conversion that changed both his politics and his religious outlook." He "bec[a]me[] skeptical of democracy, distrustful of government, and far more sympathetic to an alliance between church and state."

Before that time, most importantly when the US Constitution was being framed and ratified, he supported separation of church and state along the lines of Madison's and Jefferson's understanding of the concept.

I've never studied Webster's religious beliefs in detail. I know that in the 1800s when he was saying the things that David Barton et al. like to quote, he was a devout orthodox Christian. Perhaps his political change of mind was precipitated by a bona fide religious change of mind and before that he was, like America's key founders, a theistic rationalist.

Besides the writers of Federalist Papers, a number of notable founders, including Webster, explicated their understand of the meaning of the Constitution's text, and the Liberty Fund reproduces much of these writings. The evidence from these contemporaneous sources shows the Bible/Christian principles were little on the mind of the men who framed the Constitution at the time of the framing. I wouldn't sweep too far and assert the Bible/Christianity had no influence. The founders operated in a culture where churches played an important role and where the Bible/the Christian religion shaped morals, language, and literature for one thousand and several hundred odd years. Simply, I assert the founders did not view themselves as inspired Christians, looking primarily to the Bible to construct a "Christian Nation." This is an historical fiction, not taken very seriously in the academy, but damaging the minds of many in the home schooled crowd.

Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn in his masterful study of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution identifies the following principle philosophical sources of America's founding (note, he stresses these as sources of America's Revolution, and though some differences may exist between the thought that produced the Revolution and that which produced the US Constitution, I have concluded that Bailyn's analysis generally applies to America's founding overall, that indeed it perfectly encapsulates American-Whig-republican thought of that era): 1) Biblical/Christian principles; 2) Classical/Greco-Roman principles; 3) English common law principles; 4) Enlightenment rationalist principles; and these 4 seemingly disparate strands of thought were synthesized in a vast body of preexisting literature by 5) British Whig-dissenters like Milton, Sidney and Locke from the earlier era, and Priestly, Price and Burgh who were contemporaries of America's founders. These British Whigs and America's founders were Enlightenment thinkers and as such they viewed Enlightenment rationalism or "man's reason" as the ultimate lens (or ultimate trump) through which all principles were to be viewed.

Now, this thought did have theological implications, and almost all of the thinkers were theists of some sort. However, the theology that best complemented the synthesis was not orthodox Christianity, but theistic rationalism. That's why Gregg Frazer refers to it as The Political Theology of America's Founding (the title to his Ph.D. thesis).

In any event, the following from Noah Webster pontificating on the principles of the US Constitution perfectly illustrates Bailyn's analysis. He refers to the Constitution as establishing an "Empire of Reason." It doesn't get any clearer than that that Webster believed Enlightenment or man's reason provided the ultimate foundation for the new United States of America. Webster views Judeo-Christianity as just another ideological source from which man's reason can pick the "rational" parts, and places Moses along side a pantheon of pagan law givers like Fohi, Confucius, Solon, Lycurgus, Numa, Mango Capac, Zamolxis and Odin. The entire thing is well worth reading. The following is just the introduction:

Of all the memorable eras that have marked the progress of men from the savage state to the refinements of luxury, that which has combined them into society, under a wise system of government, and given form to a nation, has ever been recorded and celebrated as the most important. Legislators have ever been deemed the greatest benefactors of mankind—respected when living, and often deified after their death. Hence the fame of Fohi and Confucius—of Moses, Solon and Lycurgus—of Romulus and Numa—of Alfred, Peter the Great, and Mango Capac; whose names will be celebrated through all ages, for framing and improving constitutions of government, which introduced order into society and secured the benefits of law to millions of the human race.

This western world now beholds an era important beyond conception, and which posterity will number with the age of Czar of Muscovy, and with the promulgation of the Jewish laws at Mount Sinai. The names of those men who have digested a system of constitutions for the American empire, will be enrolled with those of Zamolxis and Odin, and celebrated by posterity with the honors which less enlightened nations have paid to the fabled demi-gods of antiquity.

But the origin of the AMERICAN REPUBLIC is distinguished by peculiar circumstances. Other nations have been driven together by fear and necessity—the governments have generally been the result of a single man’s observations; or the offspring of particular interests. IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected—the legislators of antiquity are consulted—as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Cramer on Sodomy Laws:

Clayton Cramer seems particularly irritated at one small passage in the Lawrence v. Texas decision that asserted:

At the outset it should be noted that there is no long-standing history in this country of laws directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter. Beginning in colonial times there were prohibitions of sodomy derived from the English criminal laws passed in the first instance by the Reformation Parliament of 1533. The English prohibition was understood to include relations between men and women as well as relations between men and men. ... Nineteenth-century commentators similarly read American sodomy,buggery,and crime-against-nature statutes as criminalizing certain relations between men and women and between men and men.... The absence of legal prohibitions focusing on homosexual conduct may be explained in part by noting that according to some scholars the concept of the homosexual as a distinct category of person did not emerge until the late 19th century.... Thus early American sodomy laws were not directed at homosexuals as such but instead sought to prohibit non-procreative sexual activity more generally. This does not suggest approval of homosexual conduct. It does tend to show that this particular form of conduct was not thought of as a separate category from like conduct between heterosexual persons.

The policy of punishing consenting adults for private acts was not much discussed in the early legal literature. We can infer that one reason for this was the very private nature of the conduct. Despite the absence of prosecutions,there may have been periods in which there was public criticism of homosexuals as such and an insistence that the criminal laws be enforced to discourage their practices. But far from possessing “ancient roots,” Bowers, 478 U.S.,at 192, American laws targeting same-sex couples did not develop until the last third of the 20th century.

Cramer admits that this passage aptly describes a number of important historic sodomy laws, but complains that it sweeps too broadly -- indeed there were some historic sodomy laws that targeted homosexual behavior only. As far as I can tell, sodomy laws were a hodgepodge; some targeted only anal sex, some both oral and anal sex; some applied to homosexual and heterosexual contact, some only homosexual; some lumped in bestiality and any non-procreative sex; some statutes, you really couldn't tell what exactly was being prohibited and you probably have to dig into the courts' applications and interpretations of them to find out.

One pattern I observe is that sodomy laws premised on "nature" were the ones that swept with a broad brush and targeted all non-procreative acts, including heterosexual and homosexual oral and anal sex, bestiality and perhaps contraception, all under the rubric of "sodomy." Most (all?) colonial laws that targeted homosexual behavior only (many of them specially male homosexual behavior) were copied directly from the Bible often the Old Testament, and complete with capital punishments and citations to verses and chapters.

For instance, this Connecticut statute published in a 1656 law book reads:

If any man lyeth with mankinde, as a man lyeth with a woman, both of them have Committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death. Levit. 20. 13.

Perhaps Cramer misses the forrest for the trees here. America no longer copies directly from the Bible and writes such text into law. There is a word for this: theocracy, something Cramer claims not to support. In fact, this statute, and a few others like it, were written over a hundred years before America's founding. And it was during America's founding that, following the Enlightenment, trends changed, laws started to "enlighten" and "reform" and lawmakers realized that maybe it's not a good idea to just try and write the Bible wholesale into the civil law, but rather look for secular "reasons" (they didn't use the word "secular" but did use the term "reason") to justify the existence of any civil law. As such "reason" could perhaps justify the existence of the sodomy laws that target all non-procreative behavior (personally I don't believe it does), the exact kind Justice Kennedy in Lawrence v. Texas speaks of that don't distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual "sodomy." But "reason" does not justify writing parts of Leviticus into the civil law complete with verses and chapters of scripture and leaving it at that.

For instance, in the very same Connecticut statute to which Cramer appeals, we see:

If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the Lord God, he shall be put to death (Duet. 13.6 and 17.2, Ex. 22.20).


If any person shall blaspheme the name of God the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous or high-handed blasphemy, or shall curse in the like manner, he shall be put to death. Lev. 24.15, 16.

This is precisely the sorts of laws from which America's founders were trying to get away. In fact, they held men had an unalienable natural right to worship false gods. And the right to speak freely and exercise one's religion probably makes all blasphemy laws, except perhaps those that protect against breaches of the peace only (and as such would have to protect whatever the dominant religion of the public be, not just Christianity) unconstitutional or otherwise violative of natural right.

You have to wonder, in fact, whether Jefferson and Adams, for their harsh criticisms of the Trinity and other doctrines of orthodox Christianity, would be executed under these laws.

"The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage."

-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.


"An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all of the Corruptions of Christianity."

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816.

That sure sounds like some "presumptuous or high-handed blasphemy" to me.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Check out number 8 on the list of facts about Virginia Postrel. :(
Channing at Sparks' Ordination:

William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks on "Unitarian Christianity." Sparks served as President of Harvard from 1849 to 1853 and was a distinguished biographer of among others, George Washington. Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1805. "From 1810 until 1933 all of the presidents of Harvard University were Unitarians."

My understanding of the history: In the 18th Century theological unitarianism was not considered real Christianity but "heresy" or "infidelity." Yet, such heresy was quite popular in educated 18th Century circles (and among America's key founders). This heresy was even being preached from the pulpit of New England's "Puritan" Congregational Churches. Eventually, in the 19th Century many of these New England Churches officially became Unitarian, and with Harvard officially adopting Unitarianism, and with the "rights of conscience" more firmly established in American law and culture, individuals felt freer to speak their mind and publicly assert what was once infidelity as a valid form of "Protestant Christianity."

Indeed, Philip Hamburger, in Separation of Church and State, notes one way in which Unitarians and Calvinists deflected their theological dispute was to come together, albeit for different reasons, to combat Roman Catholicism. It was liberal (Unitarian) and conservative (Calvinist) Protestants united against Roman Catholicism, which Hamburger argues eventually became Protestants United for Separation of Church and State (with underlying anti-Roman Catholic motives), which eventually became Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The question, though, is what was being called liberal Protestant Christianity (Unitarianism), though it might have been "Protestant," was it truly Christian? Ironically, whatever the theological disputes between traditionally minded Catholics and Protestants, arguably their theologies were closer to one another's, than either were to "Unitarian Christianity," which rejected core doctrines of traditional Christianity.

For instance, at Sparks' ordination Channing states the following on the Trinity:

We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other's society. They perform different parts in man's redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed. It is difference of properties, and acts, and consciousness, which leads us to the belief of different intelligent beings, and, if this mark fails us, our whole knowledge fall; we have no proof, that all the agents and persons in the universe are not one and the same mind. When we attempt to conceive of three Gods, we can do nothing more than represent to ourselves three agents, distinguished from each other by similar marks and peculiarities to those which separate the persons of the Trinity; and when common Christians hear these persons spoken of as conversing with each other, loving each other, and performing different acts, how can they help regarding them as different beings, different minds?

We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. "To us," as to the Apostle and the primitive Christians, "there is one God, even the Father." With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished, that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God. We hear our Saviour continually appropriating this character to the Father. We find the Father continually distinguished from Jesus by this title. "God sent his Son." "God anointed Jesus." Now, how singular and inexplicable is this phraseology, which fills the New Testament, if this title belong equally to Jesus, and if a principal object of this book is to reveal him as God, as partaking equally with the Father in supreme divinity! We challenge our opponents to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons, where it is not limited to one person, and where, unless turned from its usual sense by the connexion, it does not mean the Father. Can stronger proof be given, that the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead is not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?


So entirely do the Scriptures abstain from stating the Trinity, that when our opponents would insert it into their creeds and doxologies, they are compelled to leave the Bible, and to invent forms of words altogether unsanctioned by Scriptural phraseology. That a doctrine so strange, so liable to misapprehension, so fundamental as this is said to be, and requiring such careful exposition, should be left so undefined and unprotected, to be made out by inference, and to be hunted through distant and detached parts of Scripture, this is a difficulty, which, we think, no ingenuity can explain.


We also think, that the doctrine of the Trinity injures devotion, not only by joining to the Father other objects of worship, but by taking from the Father the supreme affection, which is his due, and transferring it to the Son.

After denying the Trinity and Incarnation, Channing then denies Christ's Atonement:

We farther agree in rejecting, as unscriptural and absurd, the explanation given by the popular system, of the manner in which Christ's death procures forgiveness for men. This system used to teach as its fundamental principle, that man, having sinned against an infinite Being, has contracted infinite guilt, and is consequently exposed to an infinite penalty. We believe, however, that this reasoning, if reasoning it may be called, which overlooks the obvious maxim, that the guilt of a being must be proportioned to his nature and powers, has fallen into disuse. Still the system teaches, that sin, of whatever degree, exposes to endless punishment, and that the whole human race, being infallibly involved by their nature in sin, owe this awful penalty to the justice of their Creator. It teaches, that this penalty cannot be remitted, in consistency with the honor of the divine law, unless a substitute be found to endure it or to suffer an equivalent. It also teaches, that, from the nature of the case, no substitute is adequate to this work, save the infinite God himself; and accordingly, God, in his second person, took on him human nature, that he might pay to his own justice the debt of punishment incurred by men, and might thus reconcile forgiveness with the claims and threatenings of his law. Such is the prevalent system. Now, to us, this doctrine seems to carry on its front strong marks of absurdity; and we maintain that Christianity ought not to be encumbered with it, unless it be laid down in the New Testament fully and expressly. We ask our adversaries, then, to point to some plain passages where it is taught. We ask for one text, in which we are told, that God took human nature that he might make an infinite satisfaction to his own justice; for one text, which tells us, that human guilt requires an infinite substitute; that Christ's sufferings owe their efficacy to their being borne by an infinite being; or that his divine nature gives infinite value to the sufferings of the human. Not ONE WORD of this description can we find in the Scriptures; not a text, which even hints at these strange doctrines. They are altogether, we believe, the fictions of theologians. Christianity is in no degree responsible for them. We are astonished at their prevalence. What can be plainer, than that God cannot, in any sense, be a sufferer, or bear a penalty in the room of his creatures? How dishonorable to him is the supposition, that his justice is now so severe, as to exact infinite punishment for the sins of frail and feeble men, and now so easy and yielding, as to accept the limited pains of Christ's human soul, as a full equivalent for the endless woes due from the world? How plain is it also, according to this doctrine, that God, instead of being plenteous in forgiveness, never forgives; for it seems absurd to speak of men as forgiven, when their whole punishment, or an equivalent to it, is borne by a substitute? A scheme more fitted to obscure the brightness of Christianity and the mercy of God, or less suited to give comfort to a guilty and troubled mind, could not, we think, be easily framed.

We believe, too, that this system is unfavorable to the character. It naturally leads men to think, that Christ came to change God's mind rather than their own; that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness; and that a large part of religion consists in disparaging good works and human virtue, for the purpose of magnifying the value of Christ's vicarious sufferings. In this way, a sense of the infinite importance and indispensable necessity of personal improvement is weakened, and high-sounding praises of Christ's cross seem often to be substituted for obedience to his precepts. For ourselves, we have not so learned Jesus. Whilst we gratefully acknowledge, that he came to rescue us from punishment, we believe, that he was sent on a still nobler errand, namely, to deliver us from sin itself, and to form us to a sublime and heavenly virtue. We regard him as a Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician, and guide of the dark, diseased, and wandering mind. No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that over the character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity. Without this, pardon, were it possible, would be of little value. Why pluck the sinner from hell, if a hell be left to burn in his own breast? Why raise him to heaven, if he remain a stranger to its sanctity and love? With these impressions, we are accustomed to value the Gospel chiefly as it abounds in effectual aids, motives, excitements to a generous and divine virtue. In this virtue, as in a common centre, we see all its doctrines, precepts, promises meet; and we believe, that faith in this religion is of no worth, and contributes nothing to salvation, any farther than as it uses these doctrines, precepts, promises, and the whole life, character, sufferings, and triumphs of Jesus, as the means of purifying the mind, of changing it into the likeness of his celestial excellence.

Unitarianism seems as far removed from traditional orthodox Christianity as is Mormonism. To tie this back to America's founders and religion, in a big tent sense that includes trinitarians, unitarians, universalists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, cafeteria Christians, rationalistic Christians influenced by deism, the religion of the key founders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, could be considered "Christian." But in a narrow sense that strictly defines Christianity according to its trinitarian orthodoxy, the beliefs of the key founders as well as Channing, Sparks and the 19th Century "liberal Protestants," were not "Christian."

Sparks is also notable because he, as Washington's biographer, and relying on the testimony of Washington's step-granddaughter/adopted daughter Nelly Custis argued on behalf of GW's "Christianity." Well, what did Sparks consider qualified as "Christianity," and what was he arguing GW was not? It's entirely possible that Sparks meant Washington was neither an atheist nor a strict deist, but a "Christian" in some broader sense, indeed the way he Sparks was. Arguably these broader forms of "Christianity" are not real Christianity, just as the broader forms of "Deism" that accept an active personal God and an intervening Providence are not real Deism.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Confusion or Deception:

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

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.”

Likewise Gregg Frazer discusses the very same quotation and noted:

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

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

Frazer also stated:

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

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

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

For instance,

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

If only Henry said it.

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

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

This preamble, instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration. [My emphasis.]

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Frazer Responds to Van Dyke:

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Adams identifying the principles of the Founding as "Christian," the key to that is to understand what Adams meant by the term in that context. In that statement [June 28, 1813 letter to Jefferson], he included "Deists and Atheists, and Protestants 'qui ne croyent rien' (who believe nothing!)" among those educated in "the general principles of Christianity" -- which he equated with "the general principles of English and American liberty." He went on to argue that the general principles were "the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united." So, for Adams, the general principles of Christianity were something to which deists, atheists, and those who believe nothing at all subscribed. He then claimed that he could "fill sheets of quotations" in favor of these principles with statements from a number of well-known sources, including two notorious atheists: Hume and Voltaire. This is clearly not Christianity -- whatever term Adams may use for it.

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

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

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

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More on Proper Label for Key Founders' Beliefs:

Tom Van Dyke leaves a thoughtful comment regarding what label best describes key founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, et al. -- "Christian-Deism," or "Theistic Rationalism," or, others may add, perhaps something else (theological, small u unitarianism, as compared to the "Unitarianism" of the 19th Century Congregational Churches). I think all three labels, arguably could suffice for this system that is neither strict deism, nor orthodox Christianity, but somewhere in between with rationalism as the trumping element.

On "Christian-Deism" in particular, I have noted before that broadly defined the key Founders' creed can qualify as both "Christianity" and "Deism." Indeed, the biggest critique I have of Paul Boller's book on Washington's faith is that he defines Christianity narrowly, Deism broadly, and hence proceeds to place Washington in the "Deist," box. Likewise Michael and Jana Novak define Deism narrowly, Christianity broadly, and proceed to place Washington in the "Christian" box. Peter A. Lillback likewise defines Deism narrowly but attempts to prove Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, but fails to do so. David L. Holmes' terming Washington a "Christian-Deist" is at least fairer than than defining one box broadly, the other narrowly and proceeding to place the founder in whichever box conveniently fits the scholar's secular leftist or religious rightist bias.

The problem with defining "Christianity" or "Deism" broadly is such runs the risk of such a broad understanding that the terms lose their meanings. Indeed, Van Dyke notes that I once noted Jefferson once defined Deism as "the belief of one only God" when referring to the "Deism" of the Jews. That's not a very meaningful definition of Deism. As such Christianity, Judaism, Islam, all qualify as "Deist" religions. What Jefferson defined as Deism in his letter to Benjamin Rush we would better understand as generic theism.

Van Dyke also noted that Jefferson called himself a "Christian." And again, Jefferson could be termed such if we define Christianity broadly. However, Jefferson -- "the Christian" -- rejected the following doctrines:

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

In defining Christianity so broadly, where do we draw the line? Jefferson rejected just about every doctrine of orthodox Christianity. If that doesn't separate him from the label "Christian," what does? Indeed, in their writings, Jefferson and Adams likewise seemed to define "Christianity" as "generic theism" as well. As Adams put it to Jefferson Oct. 4, 1813, finding "Christianity" in Zeus worship and all of the world's pagan religions:

θέμίς was the Goddess of honesty, Justice, Decency, and right; the Wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations and Counsells. She commanded all Mortals to pray to Jupiter, for all lawful Benefits and Blessings.

Now, is not this, (so far forth) the Essence of Christian devotion? Is not this Christian Piety? Is it not an Acknonowledgement [sic] of the existence of a Supream Being? of his universal Providence? of a righteous Administration of the Government of the Universe? And what can Jews, Christians, or Mahometans do more?


Moses says, Genesis. I. 27. ["]God created man in his own image.” What then is the difference between Cleanthes and Moses? Are not the Being and Attributes of the Supream Being: The Resemblance, the Image the Shadow of God in the Intelligence, and the moral qualities of Man, and the Lawfulness and duty of Prayer, as clear[l]y asserted by Cleanthes as by Moses? And did not the Chaldeans, the Egyptians the Persians the Indians, the Chinese, believe all this, as well as the Jews and Greeks?…I believe Cleanthes to be as good a Christian as Priestley.

Certainly concepts like Deism, Unitarianism, and Universalism derived from the "Christian" tradition. Broadly speaking, therefore, "Christianity" could include these concepts. But then we are left with Christianity, Deism, Unitarianism, Universalism, etc. etc. all meaning the same thing -- "generic theism." And, ironically, that's exactly how Jefferson, Adams, and the other key founders (the "theistic rationalists") would define things.

For instance, in one of Adams' most notable quotations the "Christian Nation" crowd misuses, he writes to Thomas Jefferson on June 28,1813:

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.”

Adams then more specifically defines those "general principles of Christianity":

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien ["Protestants who believe nothing"]." Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.

This is not a statement of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, but of theistic rationalism. As Dr. Frazer put it:

This was clearly not the Christianity of the orthodox, who did not believe that deists, atheists, and those who believe nothing were united with true Christians on any principles of Christianity!
I Accept:

Alan Keyes is runing for President and Ed Brayton promises to provide the commentary:

I hereby pledge to report every stupid, counter-factual or crazy thing Keyes says during the campaign until he inevitably withdraws due to lack of funds and single-digit polling numbers. Keyes is like the Jerry Quarry of electoral politics (is there anyone here who gets that reference?); his job is to look like a credible opponent prior to getting beaten like an ugly stepchild. If I should die before completing that duty, I ask that Jon Rowe continue my important work.

In the event of Brayton's passing, I will carry on the torch!
Joe Zawinul, RIP:

Sad news for the jazz-fusion world. Zawinul, to me, represented how jazz music ought to be played -- jazz that doesn't swing, but rocks.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Notable Comments:

Check out these thought provoking comments on Positive Liberty, by two learned scholars. First Dr. Gregg Frazer defends his terming the key founders' creed "theistic rationalism," and answers why this system which is somewhere between Christianity and Deism, with "rationalism" as the trumping element, is not properly termed "Christian-Deism."

Also check out Eric Alan Isaacson (who is participating in this very important conference on securities law) ask whether Jesus himself was a Unitarian, and discuss how Joseph Priestly's Unitarianism made his creed friendlier to Islam.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Jared Sparks on Locke's Arianism:

I regularly check googlebooks for new additions of obscure works which heretofore you'd never be able to access unless you traveled to the libraries (for instance Harvard's or Princeton's) where they are located. Alas, works that aren't in the public domain are only previewed; but there are many great originals from hundreds of years ago which have been digitized in full.

Most scholars who have looked into the matter conclude that Locke, like Milton, Newton, Clarke and many other British divines, was an Arian heretic. One reason why scholarly "work" has to be done to conclude this is (many people don't realize) before the Enlightenment, religious heretics didn't have the right to speak their mind and could be legally punished at worst executed (like Servetus) for publicly proclaiming their heresy. It's not as though Locke could just announce to the world "I don't believe in the Trinity"; he would be executed as was Servetus. Indeed, one prime reason why these enlightened philosophers did their epistemological work to bring freedom of conscience to Western thought was so folks like them could be open heretics.

Jared Sparks, distinguished biographer of George Washington and other Founders, President of Harvard, and a notable Unitarian theologian of the Founding era, wrote a book, published in 1823, comparing Unitarian and Trinitarian theology. On pp. 375-83, He convincingly argues for Locke's Arianism.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Frazer Responds to Knapton:

Gregg Frazer emailed me his response to Richard Knapton's criticisms of Frazer's Claremont article on theistic rationalism based on his Ph.D. thesis on the matter. The response is reproduced below. Let me take this moment to note that though I am the main presence on the Internet that endorses Frazer's thesis -- and clearly I'm a small player in the scholarly world -- two giants in scholarship have endorsed Frazer's work by name: One is historian Peter Henriques of George Mason University, a secular scholar, author of Realistic Visionary -- a biography of George Washington -- and one of Washington's most well-respected scholars. The other is Gary Scott Smith, chair of the History Department at Grove City College and one of the most distinguished evangelical historians in the nation.

Frazer's response follows:

This is the first chance I've had to respond to Mr. Knapton. I apologize for entering "the fray" so late.

First, as Jonathan has pointed out, there was not room in my Claremont article -- which was, primarily, a book review of another man's work -- to present all of the evidence that Mr. Knapton says that I do not give. It is all there (in spades) in my 440-page dissertation, however. If he is really interested in the evidence, I encourage Mr. Knapton to read the dissertation.

Second, I define "natural religion" as: "a system of thought centered on the belief that reliable information about God and about what he wills is best discovered and understood by examining the evidence of nature and the laws of nature, which he established. While they were not synonymous, the primary expression of natural religion in the 18th century was deism." Surely Mr. Knapton does not deny that deism or natural religion so defined existed in the 18th century -- in the colonies.

Third, Mr. Knapton asserts that my statement: "Revelation was designed to complement reason" is "flat out incorrect." To prove his claim, he quotes from a man who never lived in America and who died seventy years before the period about which I am speaking. Mr. Knapton does not quote any American, much less any American Founder. Believe it or not, the American Founders did not subscribe to everything that Locke said and did not share his view of what counted as legitimate revelation from God.

If Mr. Knapton wants all of the dozens of examples I've given to support my claim, he can get my dissertation -- I certainly do not have the time or inclination to retype them all here. Hopefully, a couple of examples will suffice for those with an open mind. John Adams, in criticizing the belief of "hundreds of millions of Christians" in Christ's millennial kingdom, says: "All these hopes are founded on real or pretended revelation. ... Our faith [speaking to Jefferson] may be supposed by more rational arguments than any of the former." [Sep. 24, 1821 letter to TJ] Adams also said: "Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. When this revelation is clear and certain, by intuition or necessary inductions, no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it." [Dec. 25, 1813 letter to TJ]

It couldn't get much clearer than that!

Fourth, Mr. Knapton suggests that I came up with the term "theistic rationalism" and that, therefore, it did not exist as a concept. This is a specious argument. When Calvin was alive, preaching, and writing, no one referred to his theology as "Calvinism," that is a term which was coined later to refer to his body of beliefs. "Amillennialism" was not used as a term in Augustine's day (it was coined hundreds of years later to describe the beliefs held by Augustine and others ) -- but no theologian or historian would deny that Augustine was amillennial. Examples abound because it is quite common for terms to be coined to sum up or represent movements and/or belief systems. That is what I've done and the fact that no one used the term does not change the fact that they held the beliefs. Without such terms, we would have to list all beliefs which are part of a system every time we tried to talk about the system!

Fifth, regarding the relationship between reason and revelation, Mr. Knapton is quite correct in pointing out that "from the time of Thomas Aquinas Christianity and reason had gone hand in hand." If Mr. Knapton had read my dissertation, he would have seen that I specifically discussed Aquinas and the emphasis on reason in Christianity. The difference between the Thomistic approach and that of the theistic rationalists, however, is what one does when reason and revelation point to different conclusions. For Aquinas, revelation trumps reason at such points; for the theistic rationalists, reason trumps revelation -- indeed, reason determines what counts as legitimate revelation from God.

As Daniel observed, Jefferson's emasculation of the Gospels is indeed a classic example of deciding what is not (to Jefferson's eyes) rational and physically removing it with scissors. Mr. Knapton suggests that Jefferson did not excise verses on the basis of apparent conflict with reason, but that he chose only to include the teachings of Jesus in his "version" of the Gospels. That is simply not true. "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" [title is significant, too] begins with a historical account of SOME of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus (minus those which are supernatural/miraculous) -- Jesus did no teaching before being born or as an infant. It ends with the death and burial of Jesus (minus the supernatural/miraculous elements) -- Jesus did no teaching after dying or while He was being buried.

Furthermore -- and here's the critical part -- Jefferson also excised parts of the TEACHING of Jesus; namely, those passages in which Jesus clearly claimed to be God!!! If he was simply trying to faithfully present the teachings of Jesus without the surrounding material, why did he include some of the surrounding material and NOT include all of the teaching???

Finally (on this point), we don't have to speculate about what Jefferson intended to do -- he talked about it and explained his purpose and method. I invite Mr. Knapton to investigate what he said.

Sixth, Mr. Knapton quoted one paragraph of mine and noted that 90% of the colonial population would agree with that particular belief of the theistic rationalists. I want to thank him for confirming my point in that section. I was attempting to show that theistic rationalism was distinct from deism and that Protestant Christianity was one of the three contributing elements to it.

Seventh, Mr. Knapton quotes my statement that the theistic rationalists believed that "most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God" and then observes that "they did not see all religious moral codes as equal." I did not say that they saw them all as EQUAL, I said that they saw them as VALID. So, he once again did a fine job of defeating a straw man argument.

Eighth, Mr. Knapton accuses me of "unintended sophistry" in pointing out that the theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God and he suggests that there was "a strain of Christian thought" which taught that Jesus was subordinate to God. Methinks the sophistry is one the other foot, however. Mr. Knapton refers, apparently, to the Arian or Socinian heresies, which the church had declared to be heresies -- and not Christian doctrine -- centuries before. On page 10 of my dissertation, I have a chart which outlines the basic core beliefs of the Christian denominations in 18th century America as expressed in their own creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Every Christian denomination in 18th century America affirmed the deity of Christ and the Trinity as basic core Christian beliefs. Mr. Knapton's suggestion might appeal to groups which came along later and who CLAIMED to be Christians, such as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses; but it doesn't stand up to 18th century scrutiny. There were, of course, those who denied the deity of Christ and the Trinity (including the theistic rationalists), but they were considered "infidels" by 18th-century Christians.

If Mr. Knapton thinks that Christianity is "all about" Jesus being the savior of the world independent of His being God, then he and I have very different conceptions of what Christianity is "all about" -- but, more importantly, he has a very different view than those we are discussing: 18th century American Christians.

Ninth, Mr. Knapton again conveniently changed what I said by dropping a critical word when he pointed out that standard Christian thought believes that "God reveals himself through nature." What I said was that the theistic rationalists believed that "God PRIMARILY revealed himself through nature," which is, of course, entirely different!!! That is not "standard Christian thought," except, perhaps, in Mr. Knapton's version of Christianity. Standard Christian thought is that God PRIMARILY reveals Himself in Scripture (revelation) and secondarily through nature.

Tenth, again, I could retype numerous quotes illustrating the fact that the theistic rationalists believed that only some revelation is legitimate. For example, I refer, again, to the example of Jefferson's scissors, but also to his referring to the rest of the New Testament (other than the Gospels) as a "dunghill" (which was his favorite summation of them, repeated many times). Or his characterization of the non-Gospel authors as "pseudo-evangelists" who "pretended to inspiration." He told Miles King that "your reason alone" is competent to judge whether revelation is legitimate and that "our reason at last must ultimately decide, as it is the only oracle which God has given us to determine between what really comes from him and the phantasms of a disordered or deluded imagination." [Sep. 26, 1814 letter to King] Adams said of the biblical record of the Fall of man in Genesis that it "is either an allegory, or founded on uncertain tradition, that it is an hypothesis to account for the origin of evil, adopted by Moses, which by no means accounts for the facts." [Feb. 1814 letter to TJ]

The rest of Mr. Knapton's contribution is, apparently, criticism of Jonathan's arguments -- not mine -- so I will leave that to Jonathan to answer.

I urge Mr. Knapton to do me the courtesy of reading my dissertation containing my entire argument and the evidence for it before dismissing it and/or criticizing the lack of evidence found in a few paragraphs of a book review.
The Founders' Original Problems with Islam Didn't Prejudice Them:

Chuck Norris' recent column for WorldNetDaily brings to mind an irony: Folks hostile to Islam, have, of late, pointed out America's problems with Islam are nothing new and point back to America's founding era where the Barbary pirates, notably during the Adams and Jefferson Administrations, targeted European and American ships for looting and enslavement. As the story goes, the Muslim pirates felt the Americans' and Europeans' Christian or non-Muslim religion justified the attacks. I've scoured the Founders' writings on Islam, and despite those problems, it did not lead Jefferson or Adams (or any of the other notable founders for that matter) to conclude there was anything in principle wrong with the Islamic religion. On the contrary, from what I've been able to glean, Adams and Jefferson thought Islam analogous to Christianity: It was a religion that was at heart true (because it, like most other religions, taught there is an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments) but had been corrupted by dogma.

Here is Adams, well after retiring from the Presidency on Islam:

“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

And here is Jefferson who draws an equivalence between the bloodshed in Christianity and Islam while noting all religions (presumably including Islam) are valid:

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 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.

-- Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809.

Finally, here is an informative page from James H. Hutson and the Library of Congress noting how much public opinion of Islam during the founding era was positive.