Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Morality of Devils:

I noted in my last post one of Jefferson's Federalist Clergy Critics -- John Mitchell Mason -- termed a passage from Notes on the State of Virginia as exemplifying "the morality of devils." Since the Liberty Fund reproduces the entire sermon, I thought I'd reproduce a larger passage from which that line was taken, to show its context:

Ponder well this paragraph. Ten thousand impieties and mischiefs lurk in its womb. Mr. Jefferson maintains not only the inviolability of opinion, but of opinion propagated. And that no class or character of abomination might be excluded from the sanctuary of such laws as he wishes to see established, he pleads for the impunity of published error in its most dangerous and execrable form. Polytheism or atheism, “twenty gods or no god,” is perfectly indifferent in Mr. Jefferson’s good citizen. A wretch may trumpet atheism from New Hampshire to Georgia; may laugh at all the realities of futurity; may scoff and teach others to scoff at their accountability; it is no matter, says Mr. Jefferson, “it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” This is nothing less than representing civil society as founded in atheism. For there can be no religion without God. And if it does me or my neighbor no injury, to subvert the very foundation of religion by denying the being of God, then religion is not one of the constituent principles of society, and consequently society is perfect without it; that is, is perfect in atheism. Christians! what think you of this doctrine? Have you so learned Christ or truth? Is atheism indeed no injury to society? Is it no injury to untie all the cords which bind you to the God of heaven, and your deeds to his throne of judgment; which form the strength of personal virtue, give energy to the duties, and infuse sweetness into the charities, of human life? Is it indeed no injury to you, or to those around you, that your neighbor buries his conscience and all his sense of moral obligation in the gulph of atheism? Is it no injury to you, that the oath ceases to be sacred? That the eye of the Omniscient no more pervades the abode of crime? That you have no hold on your dearest friend, farther than the law is able to reach his person? Have you yet to learn that the peace and happiness of society depend upon things which the laws of men can never embrace? And whence, I pray you, are righteous laws to emanate, if rulers, by adopting atheism, be freed from the coercion of future retribution? Would you not rather be scourged with sword and famine and pestilence, than see your country converted into a den of atheism? Yet, says Mr. Jefferson, it is a harmless thing. “It does me no injury; it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” This is perfectly of a piece with his favorite wish to see a government administered without any religious principle among either rulers or ruled. Pardon me, Christian: this is the morality of devils, which would break in an instant every link in the chain of human friendship, and transform the globe into one equal scene of desolation and horror, where fiend would prowl with fiend for plunder and blood—yet atheism “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” I will not abuse you by asking, whether the author of such an opinion can be a Christian? or whether he has any regard for the scriptures which confines all wisdom and blessedness and glory, both personal and social, to the fear and the favor of God?

As noted in the last post, a great irony is that these pious figures who supported Adams presumed he was Christian while Jefferson was not. That misunderstanding lives on today. A careful examination of their correspondence shows that both agreed on their personal religious tenets, neither was a deist or an orthodox Christian, but occupied an in between "unitarian" position. Adams, however, was friendlier to religion and government intermixing.

The two reasons for the misunderstanding, I have concluded, are 1) both Jefferson and Adams at this time refused to publicly exclaim their unitarianism, and 2) the slowness with which information traveled and lack of access to available, complete information in that era.

First, publicly denying the Trinity at that time could have ruined Jefferson's and Adams' political careers. The orthodox took power in Western Civilization soon after Christianity replaced paganism (Christendom settled this issue with the Council of Nicea in 325 AD). During the American Founding, at the state level orthodox Christianity was institutionally established and, as such, it had the power to potentially halt the political success of either figure and almost succeeded with Jefferson. Separating church and state was a gradual process that didn't happen all at once. France tried that and their society went into convulsions. Jefferson and Adams, while Presidents, both systematically used generic language when speaking of God. And Adams, though a lifelong unitarian, gave a Thanksgiving proclamation that sounded almost downright Trinitarian. Though he regretted giving this and almost all other of his references to God were generic.

Second, late 18th Century America, we must remind ourselves, wasn't an era of instantaneous access to information as is America today. For instance, we already know that Barack Obama's minister said controversial things from the pulpit. John Adams testifies that his Congregational Church openly preached unitarianism as of 1750. Yet, I seriously doubt the orthodox were aware of this fact. They probably knew he was affiliated with the Congregational Church, which had Puritan (orthodox Trinitarian) roots. Jefferson's book was one that was widely disseminated, and he got in trouble for a few passages that led ministers to wrongly conclude he was a Deist or an atheist. John Adams too wrote a book that posited pagan Greco-Roman religion as "rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration." If the orthodox carefully examined that book as they did Jefferson's, it seems to me, Adams could have gotten in as much trouble as did Jefferson.

Eventually, in the early 19th Century, unitarianism, still viewed as "heresy" by the orthodox, gained more social respectability and could "come out" so to speak. And it did. It could not have done so if America's Founders did not firmly secure the unalienable rights of conscience, much to the chagrin of orthodox Christians of the dominant established sects who wished to maintain their stranglehold on American governments.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jefferson Was Not An Open Heretic:

Some think open Deism was the driver behind the revolution and the Constitution; it wasn't. Others think almost all of the Founders were orthodox Christians, and the exceptions like Jefferson were open about their Deism; that's not right either. During America's Founding, disbelief in the Trinity could get one in social, perhaps legal trouble with the institutional forces of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. And being an open Deist and mocker of Christianity could ruin one's public reputation: See Thomas Paine.

Even Jefferson was not open about what he believed (or disbelieved) in the Christian system. Rather heretics and infidels who wanted to remain in positions of social power tended to nominally belong to orthodox churches, and, for good reason, keep silent about their infidelity. But sometimes the more philosophically minded ones wrote in code in their public arguments. There is a certain kernel of truth in the Straussian notion of esoteric messages. In Jefferson's case, the charges of Deism leveled against him by the orthodox clergy stemmed almost entirely from his sentiments in his public book "Notes on the State of Virginia" (heretofore referred to as "Notes"). The offending passage follows:

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Orthodox minister John Mason termed this "the morality of devils." The offending passage, in the minds of Mason and others, conclusively demonstrated that Jefferson was an infidel/Deist. However, Jefferson never said in "Notes," "here is what I believe, I am a Deist, I reject the Trinity, etc." All of the smoking gun quotations of Jefferson denying the tenets of orthodox Christianity come from his private letters. Mason and others essentially tried to glean a Straussian, esoteric message from the text. And because Jefferson, in "Notes," never denied Christianity or claimed to be a Deist, a few Christian ministers could come to his defense, for instance Tunis Wortman who wrote the following, responding to Mason:

I have seen nothing to convince me that Mr. Jefferson is a deist. On the contrary from information, at least, as respectable as that of the author of the pitiful pamphlet, which I shall presently condescend to notice, my information is that he is a sincere professor of christianity—though not a noisy one. But, I will candidly confess to you, that if I had ever so sincere a conviction of his infidelity; my prejudices, if you will permit me to call them so, are not so strong as to sacrifice my country to their operation; believing as I do, that public liberty and the constitution, will not be safe under the administration of Mr. Adams or Mr. Pinckney; I cannot see that the christianity of either of them will atone for the loss of my political freedom. There may be some merit in sacrificing every thing to the sign or external symbol of the cross; but it is a merit to which I do not aspire. If the other candidates were republicans, and Mr. Jefferson a deist, then the religion of the former would turn the scale of opinion in their favor; but, I never will be duped by the christianity of any man that meditates the ruin of the constitution. I am not prepared to surrender my liberty civil and religious, the future happiness of my children, the prosperity of my country, the welfare of millions of human beings yet unborn, and every possession and enjoyment that is valuable to men, and patriots, and christians. I know, that my God requires not such a sacrifice; he that would not permit Abraham to give his son Isaac as a burnt offering, demands not that my country should be prostrated on the altars of his religion; the infernal rites of Moloch required human victims, and a priest of Moloch would delight in the sacrifice of hecatombs. But christianity is the religion of grace, & mercy, and justice, and liberty.


In the first place, Mr. Jefferson is supposed to deny the existence of an universal flood, such as Moses describes, and jews and christians equally believe. This is not the fact.

I do aver, that there is not a sentence in the notes upon Virginia, which either expressly, or even by implication denies the existence of such flood. By a recurrence to that work, we will readily perceive that the deluge is a topic collateral to the principal subject of discussion. In answer to questions either actually made, or supposed to have been asked by a learned foreigner, Mr. Jefferson is proceeding to describe the principal productions of his native state; while employed in this task; a remarkable and an interesting phenomenon arrests his attention, that is, the existence of petrified shells, or calcareous substances on the tops, or near the surfaces of the highest mountains. That circumstance “is considered by many both of the learned and the unlearned as proof of an universal deluge.” Mr. Jefferson, on the contrary, is inclined to believe that such fact alone, unsupported by higher authority, would not amount to proof of a deluge.

Only in looking back at Jefferson's life and letters do we know what he really believed: He was not, as the orthodox concluded, an atheist or a strict Deist. He thought himself a unitarian, thought true Christianity was unitarian, not trinitarian, and essentially rejected all of the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, while still believing in a benevolent, active personal God. For all of the drama over Jefferson's religiosity or lack thereof during the Jefferson/Adams election, a great irony is that Jefferson's and Adams' later resumed correspondence shows they were of one mind on God's attributes.

Adams likewise did not publicly proclaim his theological unitarianism; or he too would have been scolded by the orthodox (who supported him against in the election of 1800 against Jefferson). Although somewhat later in life, when Unitarianism was more socially acceptable, he did "come out of the closet," in this regard (see his letter to J. Morse below; earlier on, these Founders would entrust their friends only, often likeminded heretics, with their religious secrets; this certainly was not the case when Adams proudly proclaimed his unitarianism to Morse).

This is one reason why when investigating the religious beliefs of America's Founders, when one sees in their public addresses both systematic refusal to discuss religious specifies, and systematic use of generic philosophical terms for God -- what we see with Washington, Madison, Hamilton, G. Morris, and many others -- this strongly suggests, in my opinion, secret religious heterodoxy.

While they may have kept religious secrets, America's Founders were not silent about founding the nation on enlightenment, reason, and natural rights, notably rights of conscience. Those ideas were openly promoted. Some of these ideas were pregnant with implications, indeed, as the orthodox rightly feared, subversive implications, that would bear themselves out years later. For instance, the notion that men have an unalienable right to worship no God or twenty God means God grants men a right to worship false gods or break the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. Jefferson hoped by Founding America on man's enlightened reason, the Christian religion would rationally reform so that everyone would become unitarians like he and Adams. As he noted in 1822, “there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian,...”

As secret heretics and infidels, the key Founders would personally gain if the rights of conscience and free speech permitted men to openly profess heresy and infidelity. And indeed, this is exactly what happened. A few hundred years earlier, in Calvin's Geneva, Servetus was put to death for publicly denying the Trinity. Joseph Priestley -- popular among elite Whigs, but not at all among the masses -- established one of the first Unitarian Churches in 1796. Harvard bred secret unitarians in the mid 18th Century. John Adams testified that his own Church had preached unitarianism as of 1750. Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1805 when they elected Henry Ware, Hollis Professor of Divinity. Because Unitarianism had "come out of the closet," so to speak, there was some confusion as to its age. Orthodox figure Jedidiah Morse wrote a pamphlet in 1815 attacking the Unitarian heresy and claimed it was only 30 years old. He sent the pamphlet to proud unitarian John Adams who replied with somewhat of an acerbic tone:

I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, “American Unitarianism.” I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.

As Adams noted the rights of conscience also were inconsistent with blasphemy laws. Keep in mind, most originalists believe that the public meaning of the words, not secret private intent of the Framers is dispositive. However, as noted above, the principles contained in those words are pregnant with implications. When one examines the private intent and one sees key Founders repeatedly discussing what they hoped to achieve by publicly founding America on particular principles and then this is exactly what happens, such is telling to say the least.
You Guessed It:

The Westboro Baptist Church will protest Heath Ledger's funeral, chiefly for his role in Brokeback Mountain.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Christian Legal Scholarship:

David Skeel at Penn Law is one of the most notable of a small number of scholars who actively pursue Christian legal scholarship. On a personal note, he was my Business Associations professor at Temple Law, regarded as one of the best professors at the law school, and that's probably why Penn Law recruited him. I didn't know he was a traditional orthodox Christian when teaching at Temple (he may not have been while there?).

He's posted some interesting articles on SSRN, the contents of some of which hope for a Renaissance in Christian legal scholarship. Skeel details the long and interesting history of evangelicals and scholarship and comes to the conclusion, after Mark Noll, that Protestant evangelical scholarship is in need of much improvement.

I can honestly say that, even though I'm not a Christian, I've learned quite a lot from serious Christian scholars. Yes, I'm hard clowns like David Barton and William Federer who have been selling scholarly nonsense to the masses and homeschooled crowd through televangelists. If they weren't so popular in certain circles, I'd be knocking down a strawman, shooting fish in a barrel. There's also much nonsense on the secular side and the academy, on balance, is biased against religiously conservative Christians. I try to be fair to serious Christian scholars. And the high standards that such conservative evangelicals and Catholics are met with (i.e., the suspicion the secular academy directs towards Christian scholarship) will only improve the quality of their work.

Some notables in Christian scholarship include Mark Noll and George Marsden of Notre Dame; Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest; Robert Kraynak of Colgate; Gary Scott Smith, chair of the history dept. at Grove City College, and Gregg Frazer who teaches political science at The Masters College. (There are many others.) All of them are religious conservatives who quite effectively have answered secular left arguments. Yet they answer them with respectable scholarship, not myth that is more useful in riling masses to political activism than it is concerned with elevating the level of scholarly discourse.

Noll's, Hatch's, and Marsden's book The Search For Christian America well answers the secularist claim that America's Founders intended an ACLU style Separation of Church and State. Yet, it also refutes the "Christian America" claim offered by folks like Barton, Federer, Kennedy et al.

Regarding Christian legal scholarship, the late Harold Berman of Harvard was a giant in the field. Today, 10th Circuit Judge Michael McConnell has produced outstanding scholarship. Along with William Stuntz of Harvard, David Skeel continues in the tradition of notable Christian legal scholarship, ala Berman.

As a classical liberal/libertarian, I'm interested in how Christianity may complement but also be in tension with such notions as pluralism and political liberty. The notion of political liberty arose out of religious disputes in the Christian West; so there is a rich tradition of history, philosophy, and politics, in this regard to discover.

Stuntz and Skeel have a paper which discusses the relationship between Christianity and the law which stresses a valuable point, necessary for conservative Christians to accept if they want to live in anything but a theocracy: Though there will be overlap between what the Bible forbids and what the civil law forbids (i.e., the Bible says don't murder, don't steal, ditto with the civil law), because of the differing natures of believers' duties to God (which according to orthodox Christianity, no man but One can meet) and what the civil law can realistically accomplish, by necessity government must permit men to sin or break the moral law in huge areas of life.

Arguments over "legislating morality" are complex. Obviously sane societies consider murder and theft immoral and illegalize those activities. But free societies also ought not attempt to legislate complex moral systems. The point Skeel and Stuntz make is because of the impossibly high demands of Christian morality, the civil law cannot legislate Christian morality in its entirety. The classic example is the Bible says mere lust equates with adultery. Therefore legislating Christian morality would mean we'd have to prosecute Jimmy Carter after he admitted to his "adultery," that is his lusting after other women.

As this relates to America's Founding era and political liberty, before Western Christendom recognized religious liberty and separated church and state, civil governments were explicitly religious entities that attempted to legislate mans' duties to God, the result of which was theocracy, laws on the books which merited execution for among other things, blasphemy, heresy, and worshipping false gods, done under the auspices of writing the Ten Commandments into the civil law. Once the unalienable rights of conscience were recognized, men now had a right to break the first tablet of the Decalogue.

In other words, a Christian who accepts republican government that recognizes political liberty must also accept that such governments may properly enforce only parts of the moral law (i.e., don't steal, don't kill), and likewise will be forbidden from enforcing large parts of the moral law (i.e., don't worship false gods, don't commit adultery, which lust qualifies as). One key role Christian scholars in modern liberal democratic societies have is to explore the proper relationship between Christian morality and the civil law. For those interested, Stuntz's and Skeel's "modest" approach is a good place to begin.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Benjamin Rush, Arminian Universalist:

Founding Father Benjamin Rush sometime in his life converted from Calvinism to Arminianism, and then to theological universalism, believing all would eventually be saved, after a long period of temporary punishment for non-Christians. As he wrote in "Travels through Life," his autobiography:

At Dr. Finley's school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher's controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.

As far as I can tell Rush's universalism was Trinitarian and consequently Christian. That is, it embraced Christ's work on the Cross. Arminianism rejects the "L" in Calvinists' TULIP, which stands for "limited Atonement" or that Christ only died for the elect. Though most Arminians may have retained their belief in eternal damnation, a common Calvinist critique of Arminianism is that if Christ died for all, not just His elect, then logic dictates that everyone indeed would be saved, which is exactly what Rush believed.

America's key Founders [Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin] because they did not believe in Christ's "work" on the cross, arguably don't merit the label "Christian" (even if they understood themselves to be "Christian" in some sense). Here is John Adams, who called himself a "liberal unitarian Christian," on the notion that an infinite God made an infinite Atonement for man's sins.

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

Rush, though a Christian, also flirted with the theistic rationalist belief that all world religions were valid and could therefore support republican government. The content of "sound religion," according to the theistic rationalists, was that it taught a future state of rewards and punishments. And they explicitly included faiths outside the "Judeo-Christian" tradition in this formula. As Rush put it:

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.

Why would one venerate a "false religion" like Islam or Confucianism if they lead folks to perdition? Given that Rush disbelieved in eternal damnation, perhaps he reasoned the social benefits of belief in a false religion that taught the existence of a "Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments" outweighed the cost of temporary punishment in the afterlife.

Rush's comments also illustrate how many folks tried to fuse the Christian religion with the principles of republicanism. As he wrote:

It is foreign to my purpose to hint at the arguments which establish the truth of the Christian revelation. My only business is to declare, that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society, and the safety and well being of civil government. A Christian cannot fail of being a republican. The history of the creation of man, and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament, is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings, and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind. A Christian, I say again, cannot fail of being a republican, for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness, which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of a court. A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teacheth him, that no man "liveth to himself." And lastly, a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teacheth him, in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.

Rush's assertions I think illustrate the danger in government seeking to use religion for civil ends. Such risks corrupting the purity of orthodox religion. We've already seen Rush arguably do this in denying eternal damnation and venerating what orthodox Christians consider "false religions" which lead people to perdition. Clearly, republicanism as articulated by 18th Century American Whigs did not spring from the orthodox Christian religion or the Bible. And attempts to make it seem as though it did, no matter how useful politically, still distorts the traditional Christian religion into something it isn't. See for instance Samuel Langdon's sermon absurdly declaring that the Ancient Jews had a "republic," when in reality, they had a theocracy.

Though perhaps we can salvage Rush's sentiments by noting the compatibility between Christianity and republicanism. The historical record, however, is replete with traditional orthodox Christian who were anything but "republicans."

As Mark Noll et al. have pointed out one, of the worst abuses of the Christian religion by those arguing on behalf of America's Revolution was the way in which the Whigs argued that not only was God on their side, but Tories were not good Christians. I'm sorry, but England at that time was on balance about as "Christian" culturally or demographically as was America, but because they had an established Christian Church was formally a "Christian Nation" in a way that America was not. King George III was referred to as "His Christian Majesty." About 1/3 of the American population, including churches, remained Tory loyalists, on the side of the British. And their scriptural case based on Romans 13 was just as sound as the Whig interpretation, perhaps sounder. Moreover, some of the most notable "Whig preachers" arguing Romans 13 justified political rebellion were theological unitarians and universalists, like Mayhew, Chauncy, West, and Howard who used very unorthodox biblical hermeneutics to argue their points and fused their sermons with non-biblical Lockean state of nature/social contract teachings.

Not that loyalists were without imperfections -- I hate tyrannical government as much as the next guy -- but it insults the many American Christian loyalists, like George Washington's childhood friend Bryan Fairfax, to suggest their loyalty to Britain somehow reflected badly on their Christianity. The historic standards of orthodoxy in which the Christian religion is understood had little if anything to do with the conflict between America and Great Britain in 1776 or the consequent construction of the Constitution. Jesus did not abolish one social institution; not tyrannical government, not slavery, not one. Christians looking to the Bible on matters such as the American Revolution or Civil War have to look elsewhere, otherwise they engage in novel, self-serving, "convenient" readings. And this is what Benjamin Rush did when he attempted to fuse Christianity with republicanism.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Music:

Steppenwolf are one of those two hit wonder bands (I don't even need to mention the two hits), but still produced some notable other tunes about which most folks aren't aware. "Snow Blind Friend," a Hoyt Axton cover, is one of them. Lead singer John Kaye has kind of a cool man in black thing going on. Looks almost like a hippie Johnny Cash, or perhaps a hippie Charles Bronson (speaking of whom AMC has been showing his excellent Death Wish series).

The One Time Washington Mentioned "Christ":

In over 20,000 pages of George Washington's recorded public and private writings and addresses, there is only one recorded mention of the words "Jesus Christ" in an address to Delaware Indians, not written in GW's hand, and in one other address, Washington mentions the person of Christ not by name, but by example. In none of Washington's private letters did he mention Christ by name or by example. Yet, hundreds of times did he use generic titles for God like "Providence." The evidence, therefore, that Washington believed in the "work" of Christ simply is not there. As such, Washington's creed arguably does not merit the label "Christian," but something else.

The one time Washington did mention Christ to Delaware Indians is interesting. The first few times I read this utterance I didn't understand the context. The pietists often present the quotation out of context, suggesting Washington personally tried to convert non-believers to Christ. The reality is, a group of Delaware Indians had already committed themselves to learning "the religion of Jesus Christ" and ways of American life and wished for assistance from Congress. Washington, in an address not written in his hand, point by point restated what the Indians already desired. This was the request Washington received from the Indians:

5th. That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation -- the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far away as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their power.

And here is Washington's reply:

Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethren of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

This is the one line the pietists often repeat to try to prove Washington was Christian:

You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. [My emphasis]

Even reading that one line carefully one sees that Washington was acknowledging that the Indians wished to learn the religion of Jesus Christ, not simply proselytizing out of the blue. Further Washington's explanation to Congress sheds light on the context:

The deputies from the Delaware Nation arrived at Head Quarters two days ago. They presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one. Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived. I hope I may not have deviated from the views of Congress.

Later when addressing Indians who had no desire to convert to Christianity Washington, on two separate occasions, referred to God as "The Great Spirit" exactly as the natives did, suggesting he thought their pagan religion was a valid way to God. At other times, Washington wrote a few letters to evangelizers approving of their efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity and, as he put it, consequently to civilization, expressing a utilitarian concern for the assimilation of Indians and never suggesting that the Indians' pagan religion was "false" or that Christianity was the only way to God.

Washington's approach to religion was that it was useful, even vital for promoting morality that republics need, and as such he was very "religion friendly." Washington was friendly to just about every religion he encountered, including Judaism, Native American spirituality, and orthodox and unorthodox Christian systems. "Sound religion" according to America's key Founders taught a future state of rewards and punishment and produced virtuous people; these Founders did not believe orthodox Trinitarian Christianity was the only way to God, but that most perhaps all world religions were valid. Washington himself clearly believed in an active personal God, but never explicitly professed personal belief in the orthodox Christian system. His God terms were generically theistic (i.e., "Providence") not specifically Christian (i.e., Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Redeemer, etc.). As such Washington is more accurately understood as a "theist" not a "Christian."
Anti-Christian Nation Speak From the Right:

Just a reminder that the notion that I posit on my blogs -- that America is not a "Christian Nation" in a public/civil sense -- is compatible with a variety of different political ideologies, including some very traditionalist conservative ones. At Claremont, Richard Reeb reproduces an email from Bob Sasseen, former president of the University of Dallas, explaining why America's Founding principles rest chiefly on a natural law/natural rights, not a "biblical" foundation (meaning the United States, in principle, was founded more so on reason as opposed to revelation). A quote:

The theology of the Declaration is a natural theology grounded in both the laws of nature and the laws of nature's God. [The latter "laws" could be a reference to Revelation and the laws knowable only by Faith ( e.g., in "The Gospel of Jesus Christ"). But I doubt it. More probably it is a reference to the fact that the natural law is not morally obligatory if not rooted in Divine command (which is law to his creatures), or in what St. Thomas [Aquinas] called "the eternal law."] I believe that the Declaration's principles and argument refute the claims of the Secularists who would kick God out of our politics, laws, and customs. Nor do they support the claims of those Christians who proclaim that our regime is founded on the Gospel or its Christian principles. Compatibility is one thing; identity is another.

Our regime does not recognize a triune God whose essence is love. Our regime is ordered to freedom and justice, not to the advent of the Kingdom of God. Nor does our regime command either love of God or love of neighbor as does the Gospel. Finally, Christ founded a Church, not a polity. Salvation is to be found only in Christ and through Christ. It is not to be found in politics, or through politics, or through the founding or reconstitution of the political and social order. That belief is idolatry.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Irony at WorldNetDaily:

Some folks might be familiar with one David Kupelian, an editor at WorldNetDaily who published a right-wing conspiratorial book entitled "The Marketing of Evil" whose main target audience was the Christian right. Kupelian now pens an article, wondering why so few folks are "real Christians," which peddles his theology. The irony is what he is trying to sell conservative Christians most of them, once they scratched below the surface, would consider a false teaching promoted by a cult.

He’s actually a follower of one Roy Masters, a biblical Arian (denies the Trinity) who quotes from the Gnostic Gospels, and promotes “Christian mysticism” and reliance on a meditation exercise (listen to it here) as essential for salvation.

When Kupelian asserts "be still and know" is what salvation means, that's not only a Roy Masters talking point but also the title to his meditation exercise.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Worst Ron Paul Supporter Ever:

As we now know Ron Paul has the unfortunate attribute of attracting support from unsavory characters. Perhaps the worst of these is one Alan Stang who wrote a book complete with a foreward by the discredited fraud Paul Cameron, arguing that the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations "colluded to make the Republican Party a sodomite organization from the top down.” How he reacts to the New Republic's article:

“Jamie” Kirchick is also a militant faggot and therefore deranged. No doubt this helps explain why his tone is so nasty. Deranged people resent a paragon of wholesome normalcy like Dr. No. And in case you are wondering, it is perfectly okay to reveal that Kirchick is a militant faggot because the man at the New Republic who exposed the “Baghdad Diarist” is a faggot and angry liberaloids in the media used that to discredit him when he spilled the frijoles.

In other news, just anounced that it will carry op-ed articles from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sunday Music:

Keith Emerson's new band. As you can see, ELP does not need to reunite. Emerson sounds as good as ever. The old ELP songs sound great with an added guitar line. The guitarist is not only a great player but also sings the songs better than Greg Lake, whose voice has changed with age, would.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

John Adams on the Unalienable Right to Commit Blasphemy:

I'm going to reproduce the entire letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825:

MY DEAR SIR,—We think ourselves possessed, or at least we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact. There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny, or to doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments. from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself, it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not much better; even in our Massachusetts, which, I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemies upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any arguments for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney's Recherches Nouvelles? Who would run the risk of translating Dapin's? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them; but as long as they continue in force as laws. the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever; but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which, I think, will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated. Adieu.

Adams is quite clear that the unalienable right to liberty of conscience means the right to blaspheme or in particular to doubt the truth of the divine inspiration of the Bible, which Adams himself personally did. When Adams stated the Christian religion "has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which, I think, will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated," an evangelical Protestant might hope he were referring only to Roman Catholicism. But this is wrong. Adams, himself a lifelong, committed theological unitarian believed the entire institution of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity was corrupted. And those "corruptions of Christianity" were defined by Adams' and Jefferson's spiritual mentor, Joseph Priestley, as the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and plenary inspiration of scripture. The Bible itself was "corrupted" and Adams believed man had an unalienable right to use his reason to edit what he saw as "error" from the Bible exactly as Jefferson did. As Adams praised Jefferson for cutting up the Bible in this regard:

“I admire your Employment, in selecting the Philosophy and Divinity of Jesus and seperating it from all intermixtures. If I had Eyes and Nerves, I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.”

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 14, 1813.

How this relates to today's dispute over "originalism." Most constitutional scholars agree that the original public meaning of constitutional words and principles trumps the "original intent" of the Framers. But sometimes those original principles, especially vaguely and broadly defined like "unalienable rights of conscience" are pregnant with implications (yes I know those words are not even in the Constitution, but rather in America's Founding era natural rights documents). When one examines the private intent and one sees key Founders repeatedly discussing what they hoped to achieve by founding America on particular principles (i.e., the rights of conscience means the right to profess openly heresy and blasphemy) and then this is exactly what happens (even though many folks in the populace during the time those principles were enunciated weren't quite on board with the plan), such is telling to say the least.
Jefferson on the Apocalypse/Revelation:

If you thought Jefferson was hard on Calvin, wait to you see how hard he was on St. John.

No man on earth has less taste or talent for criticism than myself, and least and last of all should I undertake to criticize works on the Apocalypse. It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. I was, therefore, well pleased to see, in your first proof sheet, that it was said to be not the production of St. John, but of Cerinthus, a century after the death of that apostle. Yet the change of the author's name does not lessen the extravagances of the composition ; and come they from whomsoever they may, I cannot so far respect them as to consider them as an allegorical narrative of events, past or subsequent. There is not coherence enough in them to countenance any suite of rational ideas. You will judge, therefore, from this how impossible I think it that either your explanation, or that of any man in "the heavens above, or on the earth beneath," can be a correct one. What has no meaning admits no explanation ; and pardon me if I say, with the candor of friendship, that I think your time too valuable, and your understanding of too high an order, to be wasted on these paralogisms. You will perceive, I hope, also, that I do not consider them as revelations of the Supreme Being, whom I would not so far blaspheme as to impute to him a pretension of revelation, couched at the same time in terms which, he would know, were never to be understood by those to whom they were addressed.

-- Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Kansas Concert:

It was free, crowded, rainy, at Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, NJ on July 4, 2007. I was there and the audio is now on guitarist Richard Williams' site. The tune Musicatto from the Steve Morse era was especially notable. Also notable were Icarus -- a great Kerry Livgren tune, and Point of Know Return -- the best song Steve Walsh ever wrote.
John Witherspoon, Philosophical Rationalist:

John Witherspoon was an important Founding Father. He was President of Princeton University, then The College of New Jersey and taught James Madison, and many other Founders. Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister (in fact the only signer of the Declaration who was a minister). Witherspoon indeed remained an orthodox Christian when he preached from the pulpit. Yet, when he taught principles of politics, he left his Calvinism at the door and instead turned to the Scottish Enlightenment.

Witherspoon imparted his political philosophy to his students at Princeton through his Lectures on Moral Philosophy. Those lectures lack orthodox Christian content and are naturalistic and rationalistic in their approach. As it were, likely Witherspoon the naturalist and rationalist, not Witherspoon the Calvinist influenced James Madison et al. As Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden point out in "The Search For Christian America," though Witherspoon, in Scotland, defended orthodoxy against Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Francis Hutcheson, in his Lectures he "turned instinctively to the books of his erstwhile theological opponents, Hume, Hutcheson, and other philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment." pp. 88-89, see also Gregg Frazer, "The Political Theology of the American Founding," PhD Diss., p. 278.

In other words, like the theistic rationalists whom he influenced, Witherspoon attempted to synthesize Christianity with Enlightenment rationalism, but managed to do so while remaining an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. As Dr. Frazer points out, the difference between Witherspoon and the theistic rationalists was that Witherspoon confined his naturalism and rationalism to the realm of politics and morality, not theology. When such naturalism and rationalism was applied more generally to theological matters, it led Madison et al. to abandon orthodox Christianity for theistic rationalism. Ibid. p. 280.

As Witherspoon begins his Lectures:

MORAL Philosophy is that branch of Science which treats of the principles and laws of Duty or Morals. It is called Philosophy, because it is an inquiry into the nature and grounds of moral obligation by reason, as distinct from revelation.

Witherspoon then defends the use of reason in religion, but concludes that if applied properly reason and revelation will always agree:

Hence arises a question, is it lawful, and is it safe or useful, to separate moral philosophy from religion ? It will be said, it is either the same or different from revealed truth; if the same, unnecessary—if different, false and dangerous.


If the Scripture is true, the discoveries of reason cannot be contrary to it; and, therefore, it has nothing to fear from that quarter. And as we are certain it can do no evil, so there is a probability that it may do much good. There may be an illustration and confirmation of the inspired writings, from reason and observation, which will greatly add to their beauty and force.

The noble and eminent improvements in natural philosophy, which have been made since the end of the last century, have been far from hurting the interest of religion; on the contrary, they have greatly promoted it, Why should it not be the same with moral philosophy, which is indeed nothing else but the knowledge of human nature?


I do not know any thing that serves more for the support of religion than to see, from the different and opposite systems of philosophers, that there is nothing certain in their schemes, but what is coincident with the word of God.

Some there are, and perhaps more in the present than any former age, who deny the law of nature, and say, that all such sentiments as have been usually ascribed to the law of nature are from revelation and tradition. We must distinguish here between the light of nature and the law of nature: by the first is to be understood what we can or do discover by our own powers, without revelation or tradition : by the second, that which, when discovered, can be made appear to be agreeable to reason and nature.

So what we've seen is Witherspoon, in these Lectures, elevates the discoveries of reason to the same level as scripture -- infallible, states that reason and revelation will always agree, but proceeds to construct his political teachings on reason alone without citing verses and chapters of scripture at all.

As Noll, Hatch, and Marsden put it:

Witherspoon did not derive his politics from the Bible. He did not think the Christian God had a specific role to play in public life, where the rule of nature prevailed. And he did not worry about assuming an Enlightenment perspective on political matters. Noll, et al., 90-91

Witherspoon's rationalistic perspective certainly profoundly differed from Francis Schaffer's.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jefferson On Calvinism:

Is he being unfair? To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822.

Dear Sir, -- I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.

1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.

2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.

3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself; is the sum of religion.

These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.

1. That there are three Gods.

2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.

3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.

4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.

5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

At the end of the letter, Jefferson predicts, "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I'm Still Waiting for the Second Coming:

Of Ophelia that is.

I thought I'd lighten the mood with all of this serious talk over the Ron Paul controversy.

Maud Hudson makes a much better Yoko Ono. And Garth is looking downright Uncle Jesseish.

Seriously I tell folks a good gauge of whether music is good is if the performers are unattractive, therefore you know they aren't selling any kind of "image." Well, there are some attractive folks who make good music. But, with my favorite groups like Kansas, The Band, you might see a good looking guy, next to an okay looking guy, next to a wild mountain man.

If I could genetically engineer anything out of human nature it would be the "teeny bopper" gene. Seriously, the newest version of this human depravity is something called The Jonas Brothers -- music so terrible it should be illegal.

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.
Atheists & Rights:

"Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his Opinions. Let him have a care of his Practices."

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, June 16, 1816. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 432, Library of Congress, quoted in James H. Hutson, "The Founders on Religion," p. 20.

A reader asked whether any of America's Founders thought atheists ought to have rights. Yes, generally speaking they took Locke's notions of unalienable rights and extended them beyond Locke's initial conception which excluded atheists and Roman Catholics. Men of all religions or no religion at all had a right to freely practice their faith (consistent with the secular law). And unalienable rights further extended to some kind of substantive notion of equality. From my reading of the primary sources, it was an equal right to government benefits or to be free from religious establishments that hurt them in the pocketbook or in some tangible way. For this reason, Madison and Jefferson thought Patrick Henry's Virginia bill to provide financial aid to the "Christian religion" generally violated natural rights. They believed government could not aid one religion over another, or even aid "religion" over secular interests.

However, I endorse the conclusions of Philip Munoz and Justice Thomas that Jefferson and Madison believed if government provided aid on secular grounds (ala vouchers) such a natural right to equality would demand government not exclude religious interests from the secular program.

The other approach Washington, John Adams, and others endorsed held government could aid Christianity only, but because non-Christians by nature had unalienable rights, they were entitled to some kind of accommodation or exemption from programs that used tax dollars to benefit a religion in which they didn't believe.

As Washington put it, discussing the very same Patrick Henry's VA Bill that aided teachers of the "Christian religion":

I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief. As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated, and as it has gone so far, that the Bill could die an easy death;... [My emphasis.]

Thus the general principle is the same: Men of any or no religion have an unalienable right to equality or "equal rights" in regard to religion. How government must act to secure those rights is something over which reasonable minds can differ. Regarding actual aid (meaning government funds) or legal penalties or privileges the answer seems quite simple: Government cannot treat atheists any different than theists or Christians and vice versa.

However, when it comes to government simply speaking or using its words, the matter is a bit more complicated because one can reasonably argue, "where's the harm?" If government says "under God," "under Jesus," "under Allah," "under no God," "under the Flying Green Spaghetti Monster," how do those words hurt such that it rises to the level of a constitutional issue?

When there are no actual religious exercises in which folks are expected to engage like "In God We Trust," I think the doctrine of ceremonial theism ought to trump (akin to government reading out loud the Declaration of Independence). I might even go further and say government can say whatever it wants on religious matters, including for instance Utah stating "we are the Mormon State," or Vermont stating "we deny the Trinity," or Alabama "Jesus is Lord," provided those governments still respect everyone's equal rights. Or it's possible that governments that officially make such sectarian overtures cannot possibly equally respect the rights of those who don't believe in them. But again, I would point out that though America's Founding theology is not Christian or even "biblical," it is generically theistic. If generic theism is sectarian, the Declaration and other natural rights documents make sectarian overtures.

What makes the pledge more difficult is that it involves an actual exercise in which all school children are expected to engage. As it currently stands, a long line of Supreme Court cases, notably West Virginia v. Barnett properly hold that students have a constitutional right not to pledge the flag, which means if an atheist student wants to keep her mouth shut when the class says "under God," sit down and not salute the flag or leave the room altogether she would have that right (this seems closer to the accommodation that George Washington would give).

I remember one Jehovah's Witness in middle school taking advantage of his rights ala Barnett; he sat down during the pledge and did stick out.

Perhaps, for a variety of reasons -- sticking out like a sore thumb, taunts, peer pressure -- that kind of accommodation is not sufficient. One commenter remarked that the "under God" in the pledge is like making atheists sit on the back of the bus. Is their analysis proper, or is this melodrama? My mind isn't made up; though I'm on the fence as a constitutional matter, as a policy matter, I'd remove the "under God" because it's disrespectful towards atheists and polytheists.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Music:

Jeff Beck does the Beatles' "A Day in the Life."

Pledging Allegiance to the Philosophers' God:

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.

The strongest argument for letting the "under God" in the pledge pass constitutional muster is that natural rights Founding era documents invoke such a God, and as such, making a public recitation of the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional would yield perverse results. [And the other side properly notes making a group of people "pledge allegiance" to a God has a coercive element that would be missing from mere government endorsement of the theistic Declaration of Independence.]

This issue is relevant once again. Michael Newdow, now endowed with proper standing, is relitigating the "under God" issue in the pledge, the oral arguments of which have been heard by an appellate panel of the 9th Circuit. I've watched some of those performances and Newdow was excellent as usual. I predict they'll hold as they did; the Supreme Court will grant cert., and assuming we have the same Court, Newdow will lose 5-4.

Kevin Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, made the strongest historical argument contra Newdow et al. And that is the God of natural rights is the God of nature, not the God of the Bible or not necessarily the God of the Bible. America's Founders believed in granting religious freedom for all. And they reasoned, you couldn't have religious freedom if the natural rights source for that unalienable right was a sectarian (i.e., "Christian") deity. Hence the invocation of a generic, non-sectarian deity: Nature's God.

The term "nature" as was used during America's Founding era (and still today) meant discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by scripture and as such, "Nature's God" is God insofar as we can discern His existence and determine His attributes from reason unassisted by revelation. (See the above Adams' quotation.)

It's amusing to see one of Roy Moore's cronies struggle with this conception. He quotes the New York Sun article:

[T]he God in the pledge is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence, but is not the deity in the Bible. “It wasn’t the Christian God. It wasn’t the Jewish God. It was the philosopher’s God,” Mr. Hasson said. He said the “under God” reference refers to a creator early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded “could be known by reason alone.”

And he reacts:

Mr. Hasson has the honor of making an argument that I can unequivocally state I have never heard in any previous Establishment Clause case. He is actually claiming that the God referenced in the Pledge is not the God of the Bible, but rather is some amorphous “philosopher’s God.”

That Mr. Jones has never heard of this argument before simply shows that he hasn't done his homework. He either hasn't studied the historical documents on this issue, or if he has, his analysis is confused by the specious arguments put forth by the likes of Roy Moore.

It would be a mistake, however, to try to exclude the Biblical God from this conception. Rather, a prime reason why America's Founders turned to "nature" and not "scripture" to ground America's public creed was to be inclusive. Natural theology was a lingua franca (a link language) in which orthodox trinitarians, unitarians, theistic rationalists and deists all could speak.

For good place to learn how the Founding era viewed the concept of "natural religion" (that is what man can discern about God's universe through reason unassisted by scripture), google the terms "natural religion" and "Dudleian Lectures." As will be seen, some orthodox trinitarian Christians did promote the concept of "natural religion," for instance Samuel Langdon, John Witherspoon, and many others. But when they indulged in this theology, note, they stayed true to its method, which was, again, what man discovers from reason unassisted by revelation. When orthodox Christians indulged in natural theology, they found reason and revelation perfectly agreed. Deists, on the other hand, found that natural theology didn't at all agree with what is revealed in scripture. And theistic rationalist/unitarians found that sometimes reason and revelation agreed, sometimes they didn't.

But in the end, natural theology is defined as what man discovers from reason, and when it came time to declare independence, America turned to the laws of nature and nature's God, not what is revealed in scripture.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Saturday Night Fun:

Man, Debra Wilson did a great Oprah:


Most of the time I really don't care for Armstrong Williams. But here I absolutely love him:


Christian Nationalist fake history is alive and well in the US Congress of all places. Chris Rodda and Bruce Wilson have the story. I don't totally see eye to eye with Talk2Action. History does show that America's Founders supported what Ben Franklin termed "public religion," which is similar to Rousseau's concept of a civil religion. However if Congress wants to accurately portray the history of religion and the Founding they'd avoid the Christian Nationalist revisionists and stick to reading valid sources like Jon Meacham or Mark Noll.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Dixie Dregs:

Some of the coolest instrumental music on the planet. In this clip guitarist Steve Morse trades twos with violinist Jerry Goodman formerly of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Supernatural Rationalism:

Conrad Wright is one of the sources from which Dr. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis draws and he coined the term "supernatural rationalism" to describe what Dr. Frazer terms "theistic rationalism." This was the theology of America's key Founders and many of the divines preaching on behalf of revolution and republicanism from the pulpit.

Key to this theology was the confidence in man's reason to determine truth and elevating the findings of man's reason to be at least on par with those of biblical revelation, and often surpassing revelation as the ultimate arbiter of truth. But, unlike the deists, the "supernatural rationalists" neither categorically rejected revelation nor eschewed the label "Christian." Many of them did however, reject enough of the tenets of traditional Christianity (most notably the Trinity) that they arguably ceased being "Christian" in any meaningful sense.

This post from Transient and Permanent discusses Wright's thesis in more detail. As the post notes:

Wright calls attention to a middle way between Deism and Christian enthusiasm which appears to have been widespread. In so doing, he not only points out a common attitude but also draws the Deists and revivalistic evangelicals into sharper focus. The supernatural rationalists shared with the Deists an appreciation of reason and natural religion, while they also shared with the evangelicals a belief in the Christian revelation. For them, natural religion serves as the launching point for the special revelation of Jesus Christ, which not only doesn’t oppose reason, it is confirmed because of its accordance with reason. Christianity for them is rational, not mysterious: even miracles are basically the logical actions that an orderly God would take to intelligently demonstrate his intentions to humanity. One could call it a theology that promotes the reasonableness of the miraculous. Christianity thus functions to guide people in a Newtonian, Lockian universe, discernible through the senses and intelligible to the mind that approaches it empirically. Natural religion sets the stage, and revealed religion becomes the star performer.

If I may offer a minor quibble with this analysis: For the theistic rationalists, reason was the star performer. Revelation was designed to complement or support reason not the other way around. Though these "rationalists," while they all gave reason its due accord, probably differed on the exact proper relationship between reason and revelation.

The site reproduces some of Wright's work:

“There were, in short, two kinds of rationalism in religion in the eighteenth century. One was Deism, which maintained that the unassuming intellectual powers of man can discover the essential doctrines of religion: the existence of God, the obligations resting on men of piety towards their Creator and of benevolence towards one another, and a future state of rewards and punishments. For the true deist, these tenets of Natural Religion were enough, without any doctrines of Revealed Religion. The other kind of rationalist agreed with the deist that there is such a thing as Natural Religion, but denied its adequacy, insisting that it must be supplemented with additional doctrines which come to us by a special divine revelation of God’s will. We shall never understand the religion of the Age of Reason until we recognize that, from the point of view of that century, the difference between these two kinds of rationalism was simply tremendous. We have been led to suppose that because both groups believed in Natural Religion, they were, after all, pretty much alike. It is historically much more nearly correct to say that because one group accepted the Christian revelation, while the other did not, the gulf between them was considered to be unbridgeable.”

“[From the point of view of our supernatural rationalist forebears] Revealed Religion is as rational as Natural Religion, not in the sense that its principles are discovered by the bare use of reason, but in the sense that reason accepts them and approves them as soon as they are known.”

“Here, then, are the essential principles of what we have called–for lack of a better name–‘Supernatural Rationalism.’ Like the deists, the supernatural rationalists asserted the validity of Natural Religion, arguing for the existence of God largely in terms of a Creator who set the heavenly bodies moving harmoniously in their orbits. Unlike the deists, they also asserted the validity of Revealed Religion, which may present doctrines that are above reason, but not contrary to it. Like the deists, they assumed that acceptance of the claims of a particular religion to be a divine revelation is solely a matter of historical evidence and logical analysis. Unlike the deists–and skeptics like Hume–they were persuaded by the historical evidence for Christianity, especially the miracles. Other bases for Christian faith were set aside; its claims do not rest on religious experience, or on tradition, or on the authority of the Church, or on the witness of the Spirit, which had once assured the Puritan that the Bible was truly the Word of God.”

Again I would note the reliance on reason led some of these "supernatural rationalists" to conclude that only parts of the Bible were "rational" and thus "divinely inspired" by a benevolent, rational God. And moreover, reason led many of them to deny the tenets of Christianity's historic orthodoxy, i.e. original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, etc.

On miracles, again reason was the test. Only miracles recorded in the Bible that had some kind of rational basis were accepted as valid. Some unitarians like Priestley and Adams accepted the Resurrection, not of an incarnate God who atoned for man's sins ascending to Heaven, but the act of a benevolent God doing for the most moral man (Jesus of Nazareth), what He may one day do for all good men, perhaps for all men.

Ben Franklin, who, like many of these rationalists, denied the trinity, elevated reason over revelation and held certain things in the Bible were impossible to have been given by divine inspiration, nonetheless believed in bodily resurrection. From a self-epitaph he wrote:

The Body of
B. Franklin
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be whlly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and Amended
By the Author.
He was born on January 6, 1706.
Died 17

Franklin also believed in the turning of water into wine at Cana as a "rational" miracle.

It is a mistake, some religious conservatives make, to then note "look at how religious even the Deists Franklin and Jefferson were," and therefore conclude all of the other Founders were traditional Christians. No, Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams all clearly explicated their religious beliefs and all were agreed on these basics. And though Washington, Madison, Wilson, G. Morris and Hamilton (before the end of his life) said and did things that contradicted Thomas Paine style "strict Deism," their words and deeds were entirely consistent with this more moderate hybrid religious system (what Conrad Wright terms "supernatural rationalism") about which Jefferson, Franklin and Adams commonly wrote.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Years Day Fun:

Happy 2008. I love John Stossel. I mean him no disrespect by reproducing this. But this clip amuses me beyond belief. This is back when everyone knew Wrestling was fake but the industry refused to admit it.

David Shultz was sort of a Steve Austin type who didn't know how to turn it off. The following is from the Morton Downey JR show which took place shortly after the Stossel incident. There is one guy -- a former wrestler -- who tries to expose the truth about wrestling and everyone else gangs up on him the climax of which Shultz throws his glass of water in the poor guy's face.

And here, this took place shortly before the Stossel incident (because Shultz was fired from the WWF after he slapped Stossel). Wrestling was always great at exploiting stereotypes and here they exploit the "dumb southern hillbilly" stereotype.