Sunday, November 30, 2008

Theologian Who Eats Up David Barton's Work & The Proper Historical Definition of "Christianity":

Kristo Miettinen and I still are not seeing eye to eye on the "Christian Nation" issue. He left a particularly prickly comment in response to my last post which I in turn answered in the comments at American Creation. But there are a few things I'd like to answer on the front page. He writes:

First of all, you do realize, don't you, that for the historical question that we are discussing, it is not the opinion of "orthodox Christian theologians" that matters, but rather the standard appropriate for historians of Christianity....You aspire to be a historian (or at least to write a book on history), so it's time to stop playing silly games with sectarian definitions and start thinking like a historian. Except that as soon as you do, your position collapses. In order to defend the position you are wedded to, you have to cling to an unhistorical definition of "Christianity", and furthermore you have to pretend, against contrary evidence, that your opponents (like Barton) cling to that same unhistorical definition, when in fact they don't (for historical purposes).

Honestly, it seems he doesn't know David Barton very well; Barton gives history an utter political and theological reading. If there is one historian who does NOT try to separate the political and theological from history, it's David Barton. Note, I'll be fair to Barton and also remark that lots of leftist historians who occupy prestigious positions in the academy engage in the same politicized readings of history (the Howard Zinn types).

But more importantly for the sake of THIS discussion, Barton's primary target audiences do NOT separate the theological and political from the historical and I see no effort on Barton's behalf to "educate" them that when we discuss "who is a Christian?" for historical purposes, we necessarily mean anything different than what your pastor defines as "Christianity." Indeed, one day they are hearing assertions from their pastor like "Mormons are not Christian" and the Davinci Code peddles blasphemous "non-Christian" positions because it denied the Trinity. And the next day they hear David Barton preach that almost all of our Founders were "Christians" and America was founded on "Christian principles."

Here is an example of a typical David Barton promoter: Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, a megachurch whose national broadcast reaches millions. Here is a report from one of Jeffress' Baptists critics:

Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, preached a passionate sermon entitled "America is a Christian Nation" yesterday. The sermon was full of sound and fury signifying nothing except that the pastor is completely misguided regarding the meaning of the First Amendment to Constitution of the United States.

The source of Jeffress misguidance was cited early on in his sermon. He credits David Barton who spoke at his church not long ago.

Hmmm. Now lets see how Mr. Jeffress defines "Christianity." Here is an article on how Dr. Jeffress told Christians NOT to vote for Mitt Romney because he wasn't a "Christian" but a "Mormon."

A prominent Dallas minister told his congregation that if they wanted to elect a Christian to the White House, Republican Mitt Romney wasn't qualified.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said Mormonism is a false religion and that Mr. Romney was not a Christian.

"Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise," Dr. Jeffress said in a sermon on Sept. 30. "Even though he talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult."

Now as I showed in my last post, the reason why orthodox Christians like Dr. Jeffress term Mormonism NOT Christianity (even though Mormons call themselves "Christian") is because it flunks the test for historic Christianity as set out in the Nicene and Apostles' creed. Does it stretch the imagination to conclude when Dr. Jeffress' hundreds of thousands of followers hear him preach "America was founded to be a Christian Nation" and "almost all of the Founders were Christian" that they understand "Christianity" to mean the strict orthodox Trinitarian standard that excludes Mormonism (and consequently excludes the "Christianity" of J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Price and the other non-Trinitarian Founding Fathers and philosophers who influenced them)?

Dr. Jeffress is just one megachurch that promotes Barton's work and the "Christian Nation" thesis in this manner. There are many others, notably the late D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Hour. When you start adding up the numbers that these megachurches reach you see how Barton -- a figure that the respected historical academy ignores or laughs off -- reaches millions and, from what I've heard, makes quite a nice living (probably from speaking fees), probably far more than the respected historians in the academy whom he accuses of being "revisionists" and who in turn laugh him off or ignore him.

The next point of Mr. Miettinen's with which I disagree is that somehow "historians" would necessarily conclude that his understanding of "Christianity" is the "proper" one. Note: I think his "broad" definition of "Christianity" is defensible on historical grounds; however it's nonetheless a matter of reasonable dispute on those grounds. Certainly many orthodox Trinitarian Christians who are also historians might feel like they'd have to "bite their tongue" if forced to concede that Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Arians and Socinians were "Christians" for "historical" purposes, but not for their personal "theological" purposes.

But, it's not just "personal theology" that leads historians who happen to be orthodox Trinitarian Christians to define "Christianity" exclusively with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. Take for instance, Dr. Gregg Frazer, who heads historical and political studies at The Master's College and has served as somewhat of a mentor on this issue for me. Though he personally is an orthodox Trinitarian Christian of the evangelical/fundamentalist bent, he bases his claim that for late 18th Century historical purposes, "Christianity" equates with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine on the fact that every single established Christian Church in late 18th Century America (save the Quakers) officially adhered to orthodox Trinitarian confessions and creeds. See page 10 of his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University.

And if it's so "obvious" that for "historical" purposes this understanding of "Christianity" is incorrect, then why did a dissertation committee consisting of very distinguished scholars, Drs. Joseph Bessette, Charles Kesler, and Ralph Rossum, of Claremont Graduate University grant Frazer his "Doctor of Philosophy" in political philosophy based on this thesis? Further, if this understanding of "historical Christianity" is incorrect why did Oxford University Press publish Dr. Gary Scott Smith's book "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" which explicitly relies on Dr. Frazer's thesis and concludes the key American Founders were neither "Deists" nor "Christians" but "theistic rationalists." Now, Smith, like Frazer, is an evangelical and chairs the history department at Grove City College, an evangelical institution. But prominent secular historians have also endorsed Dr. Frazer's understanding of "theistic rationalism." For instance, Dr. Peter Henriques of George Mason University, "a member of both the editorial board for the George Washington Papers and of the Mount Vernon committee of George Washington Scholars." His book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (University of Virginia Press) likewise endorses Dr. Frazer's work and categorizes Washington's religious creed as "theistic rationalist" as opposed to "Deist" or "Christian."


Kristo Miettinen said...


First, let me do something you never do: I'll quote Barton.

In chapter 2 of MoS, Barton is building his case for the "orthodoxy" of the founders, and he does so mainly by borrowing from Bradford's "A Worthy Company". Whatever we think of Bradford's work, here is what Barton wants out of it: "With no more than five exceptions (and perhaps no more than three), they were orthodox members of one of the established Christian communions... [including] one open Deist - Dr. Franklin..."

As Barton wields the term in the relevant chapter of MoS, he intends orthodoxy to be polyvalent: each denomination defines its own orthodoxy. So, denominations either are or are not Christian, and members are or are not orthodox. In this way, even Franklin counts, because Franklin was an orthodox Deist (Tom disagrees, but I'm just presenting Barton) and Deism (of the sort Franklin participated in) counted as Christian.

Say what you want about how little I know about Barton, but this is not the caricature you would have us believe is the real Barton. This is a nuanced position (I would say too much so), subject to easy criticism, but it is not the position that you claim Barton to hold.

As for the rest of your "target audience" slander, look, Barton writes clearly. He is trying to explain his position, and it is out there for anyone to read. If his "target audience" doesn't get the message, then he's in the same boat as, say, the Pope on most matters.

On historians and Christianity vs. Orthodoxy, I just put up a post on AC.

As for why dissertation committees pass dissertations, really. Don't go there. We both know that the argument from authority is a non-starter to begin with, and using it with a mere dissertation committee as the authority is a double nonstarter.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"[H]e intends orthodoxy to be polyvalent: each denomination defines its own orthodoxy."


This is neither what I nor just about everyone else I've ever seen who has read Barton or Bradford takes "orthodoxy" to mean. They equate "orthodoxy" with creedal confessions that happen to all be based on the Nicene Creed/Trinitarian. Nearly every established Church in late 18th Century America held to an orthodox Trinitarian Creed except the Quakers.

So Barton appeals to Bradford's authority (a logical error as you noted) for the proposition that with 3 to 5 exceptions all of the other Founders were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

I've studied the Bradford claim in detail and all he demonstrates is that the overwhelming majority of Founding Fathers were in some way formally connected to a church that held to an orthodox Trintiarian confession. Some people mistakenly believe that they were all church members who took oaths. But that isn't true. For instance, Hamilton who Bradford categorizes as an Episcopalian/Presbyterians became a born again Christian towards the end of his life and never "joined" either Church. Rather as he lay dying he asked for the Eucharist from both churches (he was refused from one and then given the other).

Virtually all of the key Founders were in some way formally/nominally connected to a Christian church that held to an orthodox Trinitarian confession or creed. This includes Jefferson, Madison, Washington, G. Morris (Anglicans/Episcopalians -- and we know that Jefferson rejected every single orthodox tenet that his church believed in and M&W were utterly mum on whether they were true or not; Roger Sherman whose orthodoxy is not in doubt termed G. Morris an "irreligious and profane man") J. Adams (a Congregationalist and a self proclaimed unitarian since 1750 whose own Congregational Church preached unitarianism as of 1750). Even Franklin was associated with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian Churches in his lifetime. Unitarian preachers Joseph Priestley and Richard Price were ministers in the Presbyterian Church. The New England Congregational Churches (which held to a Trinitarian confession) had more theologically unitarian ministers that I can name. A phenomenon that Barton/Bradford et al. ignore is Church members'/attenders' rampant disbelief in the orthodox doctrines to which their churches formally adhered. The deistic and unitarian minded "Christians" were the ones for instance that left before taking communion because they didn't believe in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement.

In short, Bradford was just wrong to claim that formal/nominal association with a church that adheres to a Trinitarian creed equals those Founders being orthodox Trinitarian. And make no doubt, that is what Bradford claimed.