Thursday, August 14, 2008

How America Could Be a "Christian Nation":

In a past post I wrote it's impossible for America to be a "Christian Nation" because you first have to define the term "Christianity," whose definition is disputed, and the doctrine of unalienable rights central to the American Founding forbids government from resolving this issue.

Yet, America does have a theistic or metaphysical underpinning -- see the Declaration of Independence. And America's Founders invoked quite a bit, a generically defined "Providence." In short, America's political theology is a generic Providentialism -- a natural religion discoverable from reason, that is compatible with Christianity and all sorts of heretical non-Christian systems.

When it comes to defining Christianity, to tell you the truth, I can't do it. When debating the Christian Nationalists, I often say America's key Founders (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson and Hamilton) weren't "Christians"; but that's only because I take their understanding of "Christianity" (which they equate with orthodox Trinitarianism) as an assumed premise.

You see, I'm not a Christian, but a detached scholar of Christianity; so I really don't have a dog in the fight over "what is Christianity." I just know if Christianity defines as the "Christian Nation" crowd defines it, America wasn't founded to be a Christian Nation and America's key Founders weren't "Christians."

There are other ways to define and understand the term Christian however. As opposed to the narrow "orthodox" understanding, the "broad" understanding that encompasses all sorts of nominal, theologically liberal, and heretical Christianities. In this broad sense, America's Founders could be considered "Christian" and so could America's Founding political theology.

My friend Eric Alan Isaacson is a prominent attorney and present day member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. He helped author their interfaith, "friend of the court" brief in support of gay marriage in California. In replying to one of my posts where I assumed the "narrow," orthodox understanding of Christianity, he argued for the "broader" understanding, which, if accepted, we could term America's key Founders "Christian" and America a "Christian Nation." Notice his discussion on the Mormons. I think Mormons are a good test case. The Mormon faith is closer to what America's key Founders believed than is the orthodox Christian faith. This is probably because Mormons, looking to America's Founding for inspiration, incorporated some the Founders' eccentric "a-biblical" theological elements. Anyway, Mr. Isaacson's note follows:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

“Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.”

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

“America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the ‘Holy Land.’ Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the ‘Holy Bible.’”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

Now if the "Christian Nationalists" could embrace the above mentioned understanding of the term "Christian," we'd have nothing to argue about.