Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Pietists Strike Back:

This guy's response, arguing George Washington was an orthodox Christian, in case you couldn’t tell, is directed at me. No need to answer every point. The overwhelming majority of professional historians, regardless of political orientation or worldview, agree with my conclusions not his. See for instance David L. Holmes of William & Mary and his excellent study, "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers," or the leading conservative evangelical historian Gary Scott Smith, chair of the history dept. at Grove City College, and his excellent book "Faith and the Presidency." Both books, by the way are published by Oxford University Press.

The pietists' "revisionist" claim that George Washington was an orthodox Christian therefore is the one that bears the burden of proof, one they have yet to meet. All they can show for certain is that Washington was a devout theist, one who believed in an active personal God. Washington's reticence to explicate his personal creed on matters of religion left enough of a generically theistic template that the pietists -- even when they weren't making things up out of whole cloth like Parson Mason Locke Weems, an inveterate liar -- could "read in" whatever they desire, which is what this blogger does.

The blogger mentions the "argument from silence." Though the historical record shows Washington affirmed the doctrine of an overruling Providence, he never commented, from what has been so far uncovered, on specifics of orthodox Christianity, whether he believed or disbelieved in doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc. If I can't prove, from silence, that Washington denied these doctrines, the blogger can't prove from silence that he affirmed them. The closest thing to a "smoking gun" the pietists argue on this matter was that GW was an Anglican/Episcopalian which Church affirmed those doctrines, and that GW, indeed, took oaths affirming Anglican/Episcopal doctrines when becoming a Godfather and a Vestryman. I've already shown that GW's systematic refusal to take communion, by itself, broke those vows/oaths. And some of the most notable key Founders were nominally members of orthodox Churches, viewed Church attendance as a "social duty," but disbelieved in the doctrines of their orthodox Churches. Here is how the blogger responds:

And as to Washington "breaking his vestryman oath," let me remind everyone that Washington was not a vestryman all of his life -- Johnson's book mentions this fact. Therefore, Washington was not bound for life to the oath. And since the testimonies of Abercrombie, White, and Custis were of events after Washington when Washington was no longer a vestryman, his lack of attendance at communion services cannot be said to have been a violation of his oath. Also, the Article which states that those who do not take the sacrament are void of faith, rest their authority on St. Augustine, and not on Scripture. The Bible never commands one to take communion, or that those who do not, do not have real Christian faith. "But is not the authority of St. Augustine still great in Christianity?" No; in fact, it should have been the other way around. Augustine was probably not a Christian, and much less a saint. He believed that the communion was so holy, that one did not need to be born again in order to have salvation; one only needed to take the Eucharist. This is totally contrary to the Scripture which says "You must be born again," but does not say "You must take the Lord's Supper."

Here is the problem. The pietists' argument for GW's Christianity goes something like this:

1) GW was a devout Anglican/Episcopal;
2) That church worshipped orthodox doctrine;
3) GW took oaths to those doctrines when becoming a Godfather and Vestryman;
4) Hence GW was an orthodox Christian.

In other words, GW's alleged belief in orthodox Christianity is connected, via a train of logic that Peter Lillback, Michael Novak and Mary Thompson (the only notable scholars arguing for GW's orthodox Christianity) put forth, to his being a devoted Anglican/Episcopalian. And showing that GW disregarded those oaths by avoiding communion illustrates that he was a nominal, not a devout Anglican/Episcopalian. He still could have been a non-denominational orthodox Christian -- a "born-again" Christian if you will. But there is not a scintilla of evidence in the historical record for this. GW never once used the term "born-again" to describe himself or ever evinced a "born-again" experience.

This is relevant because the blogger apparently has a stricter standard for "what is a real Christian" than I do. I've gotten some heat from both liberal and conservative readers for a strict understanding of the term "Christian" to mean one who ascribes to the traditional orthodox Trinitarian understanding of Christianity. Accordingly, this results in a lowest-common-denominator among Roman Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism and the Orthodox Church, notably belief in the Nicene, Apostles' and other creeds to which they all assent.

We could use a broader understanding of Christianity that includes Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, theological Unitarians, and other cafeteria believers who otherwise identify as "Christian" but might not believe with certainty in all of the orthodox doctrines. I opt for a fairly strict understanding of Christianity that excludes those groups as well as America's key Founders. But, I do not include being "born-again" as a element for real Christianity. And neither did the Anglican/Episcopal Church. Some Protestant churches, not Washington's, may have held being "born-again" as essential. The Anglican/Episcopal Church held communion in higher regard than those other Protestant Churches because they split from Roman Catholicism, not through Luther, but Henry the VIII, such that Anglicans/Episcopalians were closer in their rituals to Roman Catholics than were the other Protestant Churches.

But the bottom line is no evidence shows Washington to be "born-again"; he never claimed it; nor did his Church to which he supposedly devoutly belonged teach such as essential. And any conclusion that excludes St. Augustine from "Christianity" but includes Washington on the basis of Washington believing in something he never claimed is laughable to say the least.

In fact, Washington hardly ever claimed to be a "Christian" at all. The "Deist" Jefferson claimed to be a "Christian" more times than Washington did. You have to look at the big picture. In over 20,000 pages of Washington's known writings he only describes himself as a "Christian" in one letter in 1763 where he uttered “on my honor and the faith of a Christian.” More often, GW spoke of "the Christians" in the third person as though he weren't part of that group. For instance, in his letter to Sir Edward Newenham on Oct. 20, 1792, Washington wrote:

Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes, that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society [my emphasis].

Writing to Newenham on June 22, 1792 Washington expressed similar sentiments. Note how in the previous and following letters, Washington connects America's Founding principles with the Enlightenment and liberality:

I regret exceedingly that the disputes between the protestants and Roman Catholics should be carried to the serious alarming height mentioned in your letters. Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause; and I was not without hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy of the present age would have put an effectual stop to contentions of this kind.

Washington only ever once was recorded as uttering the name "Jesus Christ" (in an address to Delaware Indians) and one other time of the person of Jesus, not by name, but by example (in his Circular to the States). Neither was written in Washington's own hand. And in none of GW's personal writings does he mention the name or the person of Jesus Christ. Compare that to the hundreds of times Washington used the term "Providence" or other generic titles for God.

Washington's enlightened approach to Christianity tended to view Christianity as mere virtue and sought to extract from it what was useful. When one carefully examines Washington's praise for "Christianity" (or "religion" in general) one sees he invariably did so in the context of praising the useful effects of religion and never so much intimated that Jesus is the only way to God or belief in such is necessary to save one's soul. America's key Founders believed to be Christian was to be good and moral, conduct or works were more important than faith or specific belief, and most or all religions were valid ways to God. As such, these Founders sometimes referred to non-Christian religions as "Christian." (According to John Adams, pagan-Greco-Romanism and Hinduism taught Christian principles!)

If Christianity had any edge over non-Christian religions it was because of the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth's moral teachings, not His exclusive claim as the only way to God as the second person in the Trinity. All religions could be "valid" with Christianity preferable for its better moral teachings. Again, this arguably is not "real Christianity," but it is what Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison and Washington believed (in the case of the latter two, very likely believed, the former three, what they certainly believed).

For instance, George Washington could, at once when speaking to unconverted American Indians refer to God exactly as they did using title "The Great Spirit," suggesting their pagan religion was a valid way to God. Yet still, without contradiction, approve "of converting the Indians to Christianity and consequently to civilization." His approach was civil, not a word about the need to save the Indians' souls, but the need to civilize the Indians for the benefit of American society.

The key Founders explicitly noted the test of religion was that it produced virtue, not orthodox doctrine, and as such they elevated works over faith as essential for salvation:

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

"No point of Faith is so plain, as that Morality is our Duty; for all Sides agree in that. A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.

"...the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery mongers, but good men, good magestrates and good Subjects...."

-- John Adams, Dairy, Feb. 18, 1756

Further, these Founders believed non-Christian religions, if they produced virtue, were valid ways to God:

"Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one....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."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them.

-- Benjamin Franklin to Ezra Stiles, March 9. 1790.

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

I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.

-- John Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.

Keeping this perspective in mind, when one then examines every time Washington praised "Christianity" or "religion," one sees GW, like these three other Founders connects true religion with virtue or beneficial societal effects, and one unmistakably concludes Washington's praise for religion better resonates with theistic rationalism, not orthodox Christianity. For instance, as Washington wrote to a group of Presbyterians:

While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon Heaven as the source of all public and private blessings; I will observe that the general prevalence of piety; philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy seems, in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and conforming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories and protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.

I desire you to accept my acknowledgments for your laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good Citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government. [My emphasis]

As Franklin noted above, all religion need teach to produce the needed virtue was the existence of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments. The theistic rationalists believed good people were rewarded immediately with Heaven, the bad temporarily punished eventually redeemed. As Washington put it, speaking of the death of a relative: “She is now no more! But she must be happy, because her virtue has a claim to it.” Finally, here is Washington praising a Universalist Church, one that in its official doctrines denied eternal damnation, as one that provided necessary supports for American civil institutions:


I thank you cordially for the congratulations, which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.

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