Thursday, December 25, 2008

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same:

I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all;...

-- Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813.

At American Creation we are glad to have on board the Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont and author of Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America's Founding Fathers (BlueBridge 2008). In the comments to his first post he discusses Thomas Jefferson's prediction to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822 "that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian." Rev. Kowalski notes Jefferson "was wrong, but what if he had been right?" Well, Jefferson was wrong in one respect: Not "everyone" is a Unitarian in America today or became one when he predicted they would. Also Jefferson might have meant officially "Unitarian" in Church membership (which ironically enough, Jefferson was not, even though he embraced the "unitarian" identity). Jefferson might have meant the Trinitarian Churches (like the Anglican/Episcopal one he was formally affiliated with) would officially adopt Unitarian doctrines, which they have not. The official Unitarian Churches never became dominant in America during the 19th Century and presently are fairly small.

However, in the sense that Jefferson speaks of Priestley asking Christian men to candidly examine what they really believe and discover it really is "unitarianism" after all, I think most self identified "Christians" of today might qualify as would perhaps a majority during the Founding era.

It's doubtful that a majority of the population during the American Founding were members of orthodox Trinitarian Churches, thought of themselves as "regenerate" or "born-again" and devoutly believed in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. In "The Churching Of America, 1776-2005: Winners And Losers In Our Religious Economy," authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, carefully following census data, documented that only 17% of the American population belonged to a church and more folks were taverns on Saturday nights than in churches on Sunday mornings. This data have been disputed and lack of orthodox religiosity is not the only explanation for such low church membership. However the notion that the Christian America apologists spout that huge majorities were evangelical/born-again/orthodox Trinitarian Christians is wishful thinking with little support in the historical record.

The dominant creed of most of today's younger Americans was discussed in this article from the Christian Post by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. It dissected a survey of younger folks, and labeled their creed, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion." In reading the article, I noted nothing new about this creed, as it looked very similar to what America's Founders believed. Indeed, that this religion was termed a type of "Deism" -- a religion associated with the 18th Century -- contradicts its description as "new." And though the survey was of the young, I really didn't see it as differing too much from the nominal Christianity or deism of folks of all ages.

The article reports:

When Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

The more I think about it, the stronger I conclude that what's described above as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," the sub-silencio unitarianism that Jefferson/Priestley alluded to in the above quotation, is actually the dominant belief system of those (not just the "younger") who call themselves "Christians" both today and during the Founding era. Evangelicals especially should understand this as their own religion teaches true Christianity as a "narrow path"!

This struck me especially the other night when I was speaking to a family member by marriage, one whom I don't know too well, a smart, well educated businessman who does quite well for himself and his family and a lifelong member of the "Roman Catholic" club. We discussed my blogs, my interest in religion and our religious beliefs. He believed in God, the afterlife was open to the supernatural and called/thought of himself as a "Christian" and a "Roman Catholic." Yet, when I asked him specifically about the Trinity, eternal damnation, the infallibility of the Bible, and his Church's official teachings, he expressed skepticism, doubt, or disbelief. He seemed fairly socially libertarian on various lifestyle issues.

But the rub is that these people don't think of themselves as "deists," "unitarians," "theistic rationalists" or "heretics," certainly not "infidels!" They think of themselves as "Christians" in some sense. 80% of the American population today presently self define as Christians as did (one survey shows) 98% did during the Founding era.

It's true that Jefferson et al. had to keep their religion on the down low. Washington and Madison were so good at hiding their religious cards that they leave much room today for debating exactly what it was they believed.

I think the major difference between the Founding era and today was that the forces of "religious correctness" (the "orthodox") had a great deal more social and institutional power that forced heterodoxy on the down low. That they had the power to keep the masses in line and the heterodox elite on the down low doesn't necessarily mean they had a nation that was statically majority orthodox in its personal beliefs.

The elite philosophical class of the Founding era, (the "thinkers" like Jefferson, Adams, Paine, etc.) thought long and hard about these theological issues and rejected orthodoxy out of hand, sometimes bitterly so. The common man just didn't seem to care too much. That his minister preached orthodox doctrines in which he might not really believe (or fully understand) didn't much concern him. Author John Derbyshire once noted something along the lines of "the lazy Christian mind is reflexively 'deist.'" (See Michael and Jana Novak's "Washington's God," p. 160. The exact quote is theirs and paraphrases Derbyshire.)

Very few folks during the Founding era (at least openly) like Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen embraced a "non-Christian" form of Deism that rejected going to church, the Christian identity. These "non-Christian Deists" wanted nothing to do with the Christians' Jesus, Church or the Bible. Yet, many back then as today who were formally associated with a Christian Church and a Christian sect in an identificatory sense held to beliefs that the orthodox of today would term "Deism," "heresy," "infidelity" or something else (when trying to come up with the right labels the orthodox tend not to include "Christian" in the label. Hence Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalism," or the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as discussed in the Christian Post). When asked to define the "Deism" that dominated the key Founders, Richard Brookhiser termed it something like "active-Christ form Deism," meaning these "Deists" 1) believed in an active Providence, and 2) at least somewhat regularly worshipped in Christian Churches.

Albert Mohler describes how to tell a "real Christian" from this "other" system:

They argue that this distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also "within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions."

How can you tell? "The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward."

And indeed this exclusivist language of orthodoxy is conspicuously missing from the key Founding Fathers' God talk. They either, like Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin explicitly rejected it, or like Washington, Madison, Wilson, G. Morris, and Hamilton totally ignored it but talked of God and sometimes "Christianity" along more generic lines. As Alexander Hamilton described his own version of this system (and keep in mind Hamilton wasn't even a member of a Church when he made this statement) in 1779 when describing what he looked for in a wife:

In politics I am indifferent what side she may be of. I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint.

But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world, as I have not much of my own, and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry, it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.

A religious "moderate" who believes in God but hates a saint. The language of "Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell" completely absent. I included some of his other thoughts from the letter for context. Hamilton was smart and realized he could convert his wife to his politics, but doesn't seem concerned with converting his wife from a generic "moderate" religion to "real Christianity." He seems more concerned that his wife have a fat pocketbook. He also mentioned something about "Purgatory." The theistic rationalists believed in a Protestant Purgatory where bad folks are temporarily punished, but eventually saved. The orthodox, with rare exception, believe in Hell period. The orthodox evangelicals who want to claim Hamilton as a "Christian" during this era certainly don't believe in "Purgatory."

All that said, the debate continues. Does this widely held, long believed in creed of those who profess to be "Christians" but rejects or ignores "experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell," qualify as "Christianity"? And if not, what then do we term it?

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