Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin's Sloppy Scholarship:

I just discovered that majority of quotations from Palin's "Christian Heritage" resolution are misquotes. The actual underlying quotations do exist. She doesn't cite them exactly as they are in the originals. When scholars want to do this, they have to use ellipses "..." and brackets [] or else they make an error [sic]. Most of Palin's quotes are copying errors.

Let's break down her resolution beginning with the first quotation by Ben Franklin:

WHEREAS, Benjamin Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention stated, "It is impossible to build an empire without our Father's aid. I believe the sacred writings which say that, Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it (Psalm 127:1)."

This misquotes Franklin's speech at the Constitutional Convention [as recorded by James Madison] where he was recording as saying:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel:

Next Palin writes:

WHEREAS, George Washington enunciated, "animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and conducting ourselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, we may enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity."

This misquotes an address Washington gave to Roman Catholics by a few words, notably switching "ourselves" for "themselves." The bold is mine:

And may the members of your society [the Roman Catholics] in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

Next Thomas Jefferson. Palin writes:

WHEREAS, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

This misquotes Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia" where he said:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . . ."

In her defense, though, the words "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" do appear on panel three of the Jefferson Memorial.

Next Madison, Palin writes:

WHEREAS, James Madison, father of the United States Constitution advocated "the diffusion of the light of Christianity in our nation" in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

What the Memorial and Remonstrance actually says:

12. Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind.

The George Mason quotation from the Virginia Declaration of Rights is accurate. And I haven't been able to confirm the Patrick Henry quotation in the original record.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Palin & Christian Heritage:

Barry Lynn and Jay Sekulow are debating the goods at their BeliefNet blog. Here is the exact proclamation:

WHEREAS, the celebration of Christian Heritage Week, October 21-27, 2007, reminds Alaskans of the role Christianity has played in our rich heritage. Many truly great men and women of America, giants in the structuring of American history, were Christians of caliber and integrity who did not hesitate to express their faith. Some of their legacies are evidenced as follows:

WHEREAS, the Preamble to the Constitution of the State of Alaska begins with, "We the people of Alaska, grateful to God and to those who founded our nation and pioneered this great land"

WHEREAS, Benjamin Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention stated, "It is impossible to build an empire without our Father's aid. I believe the sacred writings which say that, Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it (Psalm 127:1)."

WHEREAS, George Washington enunciated, "animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and conducting ourselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, we may enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity."

WHEREAS, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

WHEREAS, James Madison, father of the United States Constitution advocated "the diffusion of the light of Christianity in our nation" in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

WHEREAS, Patrick Henry quoted Proverbs 14:34 for our nation, "Righteousness alone can exalt a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people."

WHEREAS, George Mason, in his Virginia Declaration of Rights, forerunner to our United States Bill of Rights, affirmed, "That it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forebearance, love and charity towards each other."

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Sarah Palin, Governor of the State of Alaska, do hereby proclaim October 21-27, 2007, as Alaska's 9th Annual Christian Heritage Week in Alaska, and encourage all citizens to celebrate this week.

In meticulously researching the beliefs of these Founders I have concluded Henry and Mason were likely orthodox Trinitarian Christians. The other four were likely both unitarian (that is disbelievers in the Trinity) and universalists (that is disbelievers in eternal damnation) in their theology (even though they weren't associated with those Churches which really hadn't yet emerged, in all but a handful of instances). Further they believed the Bible only partially inspired. Such that Franklin et al. could quote the Bible one minute (the parts of it in which he/they believed) and the next minute talk about how "corrupted" the original text was.

My question to Palin would be is their rejection of the Trinity, eternal damnation, and the infallibility of the Bible also to be included in our celebration of America's "Christian Heritage"?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Richard Price's Influence On the American Founding Part II:

In my last post I noted that Price's religious beliefs were one step closer to traditional Christianity than were those of his Socinian friend, Joseph Priestley. Price writes about his religious beliefs in great detail in "Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians" which thanks to google books can be fully accessed. As noted before, eleven delegates to the Constitutional Convention including Franklin, Hamilton and Washington subscribed to the book with Washington ordering four copies.

Though Price seems to exalt "reason" and "nature" he still sees the Bible as the Word of God and believes Jesus as Messiah and in the miracles and prophesies contained therein. Still Price's sentiments conflict with historic orthodox Christianity. In his first Sermon "Of the Security of a Virtuous Course," Price makes a very works-like argument for salvation that would undoubtedly trouble the orthodox:

Christianity informs us, that good men will be raised from death to enjoy a glorious immortality, through that Saviour of the world, who tasted death for every man.

Doesn't orthodox Christianity teach that no man is good (but one)?

Price finds the notion of eternal damnation so disturbing that he hedges on its truth. But he's clear that you avoid the possibility by practicing virtue, and you risk it by practicing wickedness. As he notes:

To act righteously is to act like God. It is to promote the order of his creation....It must, therefore, be the likeliest way to arrive at happiness, and to guard against misery under his government....The Christian religion confirms this expectation in a manner the most awful, by teaching us that the wicked shall be turned into hell, with all that forget God; that they mall be excluded from the society of wise and good beings; and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his payer. It is, at least, possible this may be the truth. The arguments for a righteous government in nature, and for the truth of Christianity, have, at least, force enough to prove that it is not certain but that wickedness will produce the greatest losses and evils in another world; and that, consequently, there is a real and inconceivable danger attending it....

In a later sermon, Price makes an argument for the "essentials" of Christianity that almost perfectly parallels what John Locke taught in "The Reasonableness of Christianity." Basically he draws a lowest common denominator among Socinianism, Arianism, and Trinitarianism [Keep Locke, who influenced Price, in mind when you read this. To Trinitarians, the doctrine is central to Christianity. If one draws essentials of Christianity and leaves out the Trinity, then it's entirely reasonable to assume one is not a Trinitarian as Locke's critics did]:

And my chief intention, in the present discourse, is to attempt this, by shewing you, that Christians, of all parties, however they may censure one another, and whatever opposition there may seem to be in their sentiments, are agreed in all that is essential to Christianity....

In attempting this, I will recite to you those doctrines and facts of Christianity which all Christians believe, and which are so plainly revealed as to exclude the possibility of disputes about them....

In the first place; the Gospel teaches us that there is only one living and true God. This is a fundamental doctrine which the New Testament holds forth to us in almost every page. There is but one being good, says Jesus Christ, that is GOD. There are, says St. Paul, 'Gods many; but to us there is but one God, the Father....

But farther; the Gospel teaches us, with perfect clearness, that this one God is possessed of all possible perfection; that he is infinitely wife, powerful, righteous, and benevolent; that he is the moral Governor of the world, an enemy to all wickedness, and a friend to all goodness; and that he directs all events by his Providence so particularly as that the hairs of our heads are all numbered, and that a sparrow does not fall to the ground without him. It teaches us also to imitate, to serve, and to worship him, and to put our trust in him; and comprehends the whole of our duty in loving him with all our hearts, and in loving our neighbour as ourselves. It declares to us the necessity of repentance and a holy life; a future state of rewards and punishments; and a future period of universal retribution when all mankind mall be judged according to their works.

There are no doubts about any of these particulars among Christians; and they include all that it is most necessary for us to know. But the doctrines which most properly constitute the Gospel are those which relate to Jesus Christ and his mediation. Here, also, there is an agreement with respect to all that can be deemed essential; for there is no sect of Christians who do not believe that Christ was sent of God; that he is the true Messiah; that he worked miracles, and suffered, and died, and rose again from the dead, as related in the four Gospels; that after his resurrection he ascended to heaven, and became possessed of universal dominion, being made head over all things in this world ; and that he will hereafter make a second appearance on this earth, and come from heaven to raise all mankind from death, to judge the world in righteousness, to bestow eternal life on the truly virtuous, and to punish the workers of iniquity.

Now, this is all quite biblical and perhaps qualifies as "Christianity." Yet, upon reading Price's sentiments, traditional Christians might mistakenly impute belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrines to Price as they have done with Locke and other Founding Founders who identify as "Christians" or otherwise praise "Christianity" in their quotations.

Price, remarkably liberal for his time and today, goes on to identify who it is that qualifies as "Christian" under his aforementioned "essentials":

These are the grand facts of Christianity, which Calvinists and Arminians, Trinitarians and Unitarians, Papists and Protestants, Churchmen and Dissenters all equally believe. More especially ; with respect to the purpose of Christ's mission, we all equally hold that he came to call sinners to repentance, to teach us the knowledge of God and our duty, to save us from sin and death, and to publish a covenant of grace, by which all sincere penitents and good men are assured of favour and complete happiness in his future everlasting kingdom.

The latitudinarian notion that Trinitarians, Unitarians and Roman Catholics are all true Christians remains disputed in Christian circles.

Price later explains the differences among Trinitarianism, Socinianism and Arianism and argues for Arianism as the rational and correct understanding of Christianity. This passage on the nature of Jesus Christ perfectly exemplifies Price's "liberal" Christian views that saw Jesus as Messiah and included Socinianism, Arianism and Trinitarianism within the ambit of "Christianity" while criticizing those views with which he disagreed:

Give me but this single truth, that ETERNAL LIFE is the gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour and I shall be perfectly easy with respect to the contrary opinions which are entertained about the dignity of Christ; about his nature, person, and offices; and the manner in which he saves us. Call him, if you please, simply a man endowed with extraordinary powers; or call him a superangelic being, who appeared in human nature for the purpose of accomplishing our salvation; or say (if you can admit a thought so shockingly absurd) that it was the second of three coequal persons in the Godhead, forming one person, with a human soul, that came down from heaven, and suffered and died on the cross: Say that he saves us merely by being a messenger from God to reveal to us eternal life, and to confer it upon us; or say, on the contrary, that he not only reveals to us eternal life, and confers it upon us, but has obtained it for us by offering himself a propitiatory sacrifice on the cross, and making satisfaction to the justice of the Deity for our sins: I shall think such differences of little moment, provided the fact is allowed, that Christ did rise from the dead, and will raise us from the dead; and that all righteous penitents will, through God's grace in him, be accepted and made happy forever.

Note how Price referred to the doctrine of the Trinity as "shockingly absurd" while conceding that Trinitarians are nonetheless genuine Christians. The Trinitarians of his day, and many today do not return Price's favor by considering his Arianism, biblical as it were, "Christian." Rather, such was settled in orthodox Christendom as a soul damning heresy in 325AD. And, today, the orthodox still hold to those standards set out in the Nicene Creed.

Yet, Price's theology and that of other liberal, enlightened Founding era theologians (Priestley, et al.) profoundly influenced the American Founding. Thus when one confronts a quotation from a Founding Father talking up "Christianity," don't assume it necessarily meant "orthodox Trinitarianism." The Founder just as well could be referring to Price's or Priestley's uber-latitudinarian "rational Christianity," whose status as "real Christianity" was disputed then and remains disputed today.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Richard Price's Influence on the American Founding, Part I:

Richard Price, a British Unitarian Whig, profoundly influenced the American Founding. He was like an Arian version of his friend the Socinian Joseph Priestley. Price's religious views were probably one small step closer to traditional Christianity than were Priestley's. However, Price rejected enough of traditional Christianity (notably the Trinity) to make his views quite controversial for the late 18th Century.

Price, like Priestley, corresponded with and was highly respected by many American Founders. Relatedly, over the years I have described a dynamic folks sympathetic to a "Christian America" reading of history skeptically receive: In the late 18th Century virtually all of the established churches adhered to orthodox Trinitarian creeds; yet, many of America's Founders privately disbelieved in the creeds to which their churches held. This made them closeted or semi-closeted unitarian heretics. This was without question the case with J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. And most likely with Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Hamilton, Marshall and many others.

So how was it that these notable Founders came to reject their churches' official orthodox doctrines? They were influenced by heretical unitarian theologians, many of whom were ministers of Christian Churches, and whose ideas powerfully influenced the late 18th century Whig-republican zeitgeist. Richard Price and Joseph Priestley were the two most notable British Whig unitarian theologians who were contemporaries of America's Founders. On the American side, Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy are notable examples. And from the early "Whig" era in Britain, John Locke, Samuel Clarke, and Isaac Newton were at least purportedly closeted unitarian heretic theologians. Given the latter three faced potential execution (like Michael Servetus) for "coming out" they left fewer "smoking guns" to prove their unitarianism (and it was officially a crime to publicly deny the Trinity in Great Britain until 1813). But unitarians from the mid 18th century onward claimed Clarke, Locke, and Newton, and for good reason.

America's Founders viewed these figures -- Locke, Newton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, Mayhew, Chauncy (and others) -- as philosophical giants. And as such, we should understand how, modeling them, so many Founding Fathers came to believe in the unitarian heresies, contrary to the teachings of their churches to which they officially or nominally belonged. These figures were like Abbie Hoffmans of their day -- quite popular in elite circles, less so among the masses. Figures like Mayhew and Chauncy who were more popular among the masses tended not to openly preach about their unitarianism, but didn't lie to their congregants either; they threaded the needle by simply not discussing the Trinity and related doctrines in their sermons. And this was exactly John Locke's strategy. But, rumors (which turned out to be true) abounded.

To illustrate this dynamic, a parishioner once said to a notable Founding era secret unitarian minister: "Dr. Barnard, I never heard you preach a sermon upon the Trinity." And he replied: "And you never will."

Yet, the orthodox who retained much social, institutional, and at the state level legal power viewed unitarianism as a soul damning heresy at best, downright infidelity at worst! Hence, the need to tread carefully when positing unitarian doctrines. Hence some founders like Washington, Madison and Hamilton carefully guarding their religious secrets and leaving little evidence of their religious specifics during an era when public figures were expected to pay homage to Trinitarianism.

Price and Priestley are notable in that they were among the first theological unitarians to come out of the closet publicly and preach the unitarian heresies -- Arianism in Price's case, Socinianism in Priestley's. And they were highly respected by America's Founders for it.

Priestley served as a spiritual mentor to Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin. And his son recounted that that "his lectures were attended by very crowded audiences, including most of the members of the Congress of the United States at that time assembled at Philadelphia, and of the executive offices of the government of the United States.”

– Joseph Priestley, Jr., A Continuation of the Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestley (Written by his Son Joseph Priestley), in John T. Boyer, ed., The Memoirs of Joseph Priestley, at 144 (Washington, D.C.: Barcroft Press, 1964).

Richard Price maintained friendly correspondence and personal interaction with Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Rush and others. Carl B. Cone in an article entitled "Richard Price and the Constitution of the United States" published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Jul., 1948), pp. 726-747, documents Price's profound influence on the American Founding. In particular, pages 732 and 733 chart the Founding Fathers who subscribed to Price's publication entitled "Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians." Among that list are eleven delegates to the Constitutional Convention including Franklin, Hamilton and Washington. Washington, who had nothing but praise for Price's work, ordered 4 copies! Now, this is not to say that every subscriber held to Price's Arian religious views. Rather, simply to show how profoundly influential his heterodox religious views were in elite Founding era circles.

Washington, Hamilton and Franklin, for instance, likely possessed religious views far more heterodox, less traditionally Christian, than Price's Arianism. Washington, for instance, far less often than Price appealed to the Bible as authority (Washington actually was never recorded so doing, though he like everyone else during that era, including Paine, made biblical allusions) and hardly ever discussed Jesus by name or person. Washington's 1783 Circular to the States, not written in his hand (and one of only two times Washington was officially recorded referring to Jesus by name or person), refers to "the Divine Author of our blessed Religion," a reference to Jesus Christ that is consistent with both Trinitarianism and Price's militant Arianism that saw Jesus as a Divine but created and subordinate being. (It may well be consistent with Socinianism that saw Jesus as 100% human, not divine at all, but on a divine mission.)

Indeed Price, the fervent Arian he was, unequivocally supported the sentiments of Washington's 1783 Circular, writing he was "animated more than he can well express by General Washington's excellent circular letter to the united states."

Part II will examine Rev. Price's "Sermons on the Christian doctrine as received by the different denominations of Christians" that Washington was so interested in that he received four copies.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Understanding Locke:

At American Creation, Tom Van Dyke noted the infamous "mystery of life" passage in Supreme Court jurisprudence that irritates Justice Scalia and Judge Bork so much:

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." [Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. at __; quoted in Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 574]

I in turn noted that this passage wasn't all too removed from Locke; Van Dyke disagreed. I've never thought much about the "mystery of life" passage and admit that it's a bit mushy. But if I were to argue how Locke's ideals might support such a worldview, without the mushiness, I'd turn to Locke's self ownership principle.

Harvey Mansfield discusses this dynamic in this article, where he writes:

For Locke, then, the harmonizing of liberty and virtue begins from the harmonizing of liberty and religion. In the face of the apparent fact that the Christian religion tells men how to live, he must show, if he can, that it actually permits them to live in freedom. How does he proceed?

Locke gives two descriptions of the character of men in their fundamental relation to liberty. He says that they are the “workmanship” of God, that men are “his [God’s] property” and so belong to God; but he also says that “every man has a property in his own person.” These appear to be directly contrary because the “workmanship argument” (as it is called by Locke’s interpreters) would make man a slave of God whereas the idea of property in one’s own person sets him free to do with himself what he wishes. Thus Locke says, in accordance with the former, that men have no right to commit suicide (“everyone is bound . . . not to quit his Station wilfully”). But in accordance with the latter, though saying nothing directly about a right of suicide, he pronounces that in the state of nature, man is “absolute lord of his own person and possessions.” Yet Locke does not make a point of the contradiction between these two descriptions. It is rather as if he had forgotten what he said earlier or perhaps lost his train of thought. Yet Locke does not seem to be a woolly-minded fellow, and his reputation shows that both his friends and his enemies take him seriously. His political thought typically contains contradictions, of which this one is perhaps the most important, but he leaves the reader to do the work of establishing the contradictions and working out their implications. In this case and in other cases, Locke does not leave the contradiction as flat as I have reported it; he teases readers with possible routes by which it might be harmonized. But most of all, Locke lets readers do their own harmonizing by allowing them to combine two things they want to believe. Almost all of Locke’s readers would want to believe in the truth of Scripture, and many of them would like to think, or might be persuaded to think, that their belief is compatible with, or even entails, the notion of liberty that Locke sets forth.

The difference between belonging to God and belonging to yourself is not a small one....

Some folks have observed that Mansfield makes too much of the difference, that it is easily reconciled by noting God gives men a "leasehold" or "life-estate" over that which ultimately belongs to Him. Fine. However, even so Locke's ideal still demands that the individual, not the government purporting to "impose morality" have the ultimate Earthly say on how to live his life, in all but a few cases.

By way of analogy, the debate over Romans 13. That passage says:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained [1] of God.


For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Okay, so let's say you have a tyrannical ruler, who is un-godly and doesn't quite seem "not a terror to good works, but to the evil." The context of the passage suggests that Paul was telling believers to submit to Nero. Indeed the dominant interpretation in the history of biblical orthodoxy teaches this. And Nero was indeed a pagan tyrant who ruthlessly persecuted Christians.

This dominant biblical interpretation teaches Nero was indeed a ruler ordained with God given authority. Therefore, the Earthly buck stops with him. Obviously his actions displeased the biblical God. And ultimately it's God's authority alone (not "the people's") to punish Nero for his evil behavior [and indeed Nero met an ultimately demise].

Another interpretation might suggest that since Nero didn't seem to be "not a terror to good works, but to the evil," he wasn't a "ruler." This interpretation has been a minority throughout Christendom, but has become more popular in the age of revolution where Christians attempt to biblically justify revolt against tyrannical leaders. But ultimately the early church fathers, medieval Roman Catholic Church, and first Protestant reformers disagreed with it. Indeed Calvin argued that "we must honour [even] the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him" and "if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid."

Back to Locke. According to him, an individual owns himself, but ultimately belongs to God. So where does the Earthly buck stop? Why, with the individual of course. So if I own myself, I can do whatever I want with my body, as long as it doesn't interfere with your right to do whatever you want with your body. And if I violate the natural law or God's will, it's up to God alone, not you or the collective to punish me for it. And indeed, individuals suffer consequences from drug and alcohol abuse, irresponsible promiscuous sex and the like. Someone who transgresses God's law by drinking too much and dying prematurely of cirrhosis of the liver suffers from violating God's law without the need for human intermediaries to step in on God's behalf to prohibit the behavior because it violates God's law. The individual owns himself, the earthly buck stops with him and, similar to Romans 13 and the tyrannical leader, it's up to God alone to punish him for using his body in a way that might offend Him.

[Note: Yes, of course there is HUGE tension between the traditional understanding of Romans 13 and Locke's self ownership principle. America's Founders, it should be noted, chose to follow Locke.]

So, how does this play out in 20th Century American constitutional jurisprudence [and remember, Locke, for good reason has been termed "America's philosopher"]? Justice Blackmun's dissent in Bowers v. Hardwick (the case holding states could criminalize sodomy, overturned in Lawrence v. Texas) held “the concept of privacy embodies the `moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole.’” In Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork responded: "There are 'moral facts,' but that is certainly not one of them." p. 104.

Well, John Locke is the author of the "moral fact" that an individual belongs to himself.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Music:

The album version of Kansas' "No One Together" from Audiovisions. A tremendously good progressive rock tune.

America's Founding "Values":

It's often said that America was founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. This statement is somewhat fairer and more accurate than "America was founded as a 'Christian Nation.'" However, left alone, it still is not entirely accurate and has the effect of trying to exclude those of us who aren't Bible believing Christians or Jews from America's heritage. On the other hand those who argue America was intended to be a wholly secular Enlightenment nation distort history just as much. The truth is somewhere in between: America was founded on a confluence of three value systems, and as such was founded to be a pluralistic nation within the confines of the American Creed -- the Declaration of Independence (which in turn was constructed from those three value systems).

So what are those three systems? One is indeed biblical Judeo-Christianity. The second is Enlightenment rationalism. And the third is a "noble-paganism," a Stoic sense of virtue that draws its inspiration from Greco-Roman antiquity. As Thomas Jefferson summed up the value synthesis regarding its inspiration on the Declaration of Independence:

All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. ...

In that letter Jefferson also said: "All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects." It was the Whigs who synthesized these value systems into their own "Whig-republican" culture or worldview.

The original proposals for the Great Seal also well illustrate this dynamic. The "Judeo-Christian" promoters, obviously, often stress Franklin's original one:

"Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

"Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

However the Judeo-Christian defenders often ignore the other two pagan proposals. John Adams' allusion to Greco-Roman paganism:

John Adams chose the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

And Thomas Jefferson's mixture of Old Testament Israel with Anglo-Saxon paganism:

Thomas Jefferson also suggested allegorical scenes. For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

Overall I see these proposals as representing an enlightenment rationalist worldview that thought man's reason could pick and choose from the various tales of antiquity, be they biblical or pagan the "rational" parts that supported the Whig-republican worldview. As Noah Webster put it describing how this synthesis impacted the formation of the US Constitution:

IN the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected--the legislators of antiquity [Rowe: Webster names Fohi, Confucius, Solon, Lycurgus, Numa, Mango Capac, Zamolxis and Odin] are consulted--as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, in it an empire of reason.
Comment On John Adams & Rationalism:

Reader Michael Heath sends along the following thoughtful comment to this post:

We could say that the Declaration of Independence refutes Trinitarian Christianity. But there’s a problem isn’t there? There were many Trinitarian Christians in the nation who supported the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and Constitution. And they didn’t understand Nature’s God this way.

To add a couple of quips supportive of the argument that key founders distinguished between nature’s god and the Christian god, consider the following regarding the re-drafting of Jefferson’s first draft of the DofI by the drafting committee, comprised of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston:

1) Jefferson’s first draft included the term, “sacred and undeniable” – here is the original draft: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant (sic), that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

It is believed that Franklin persuaded Jefferson to replace the religious label, “sacred and undeniable” with the reason/science-centric “self-evident”.

2) Jefferson referred to King George III to the “CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain” in a clause regarding slavery, all of which was deleted in the final draft.

These two changes, taken together, further emphasize the god of nature rather than the Christian God at least in terms of what Jefferson believed.

I agree that many of the founders and certainly many of the colonialists who signed on to revolt against Britain would not have subscribed to Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin’s theology and they certainly wouldn’t have gained a consensus regarding his attack on slavery. However, there is a natural progression regarding the framers’ contributions regarding the nature of God from the DofI to what we ended up with in the Constitution.

When I was at Independence Hall this past July, there was a little skit that evening that focused on only one issue, a three man fictionalized play where Franklin convinced Jefferson to remove “sacred and undeniable”, where the actor playing Dr. Franklin made a short, but very eloquent speech on why “self-evident” was so much more fitting relative to their shared religious and political philosophies. There were some very red faces in the audiences; I was beaming.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Arguments From Religious Conviction...Bigotry?

The issue of gay rights leads to the following dialog: If you are against homosexuality you are a bigot (the term is "homophobe"). Response: But my religion tells me the conduct is immoral. It's right there in the Bible or the Catholic Church's official catechism. Dilemma: Are these traditional religious convictions "bigotry"? Or do they give one a pass from "bigotry"?

I'm not going to answer that directly (because the question is, admittedly, a tough one).

Rather, I want to raise an analogy. What about bigotry against Christians? Does it exist? What about anti-Catholic bigotry? Bill Donahue's Catholic League is dedicated to fighting it. John Hagee recently was termed an "anti-Catholic bigot" for terming the Church "the Great Whore" of Babylon. Admittedly Hagee's interpretation of the Book of Revelation is quite novel and theatrical. I want to say "bizarre" but the whole Book of Revelation strikes me as bizarre no matter what one's understanding of it.

Yet, there is a longstanding tradition in Christendom of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches as viewing one another as "apostate." This dynamic was more pronounced before the politically correct era of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together."

Enter John MacArthur about whom I've blogged before. He is in many ways the poster boy for evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. And he is especially notable in that he does not let politics pollute the purity of his understanding of the Bible. His evangelical understanding is also well within the tradition of hundreds of years of reformed Christianity and thousands of years of Christendom. (Perhaps that's the biggest difference between MacArthur and Hagee). Hagee recently seemingly retracted his anti-Catholic sentiments after getting into "trouble" after endorsing John McCain. MacArthur would never do this. He avoids politics, it seems to me, precisely to avoid these kinds of dilemmas.

So I'm going to play a clip of John MacArthur's on the Roman Catholic Church. Note, his criticisms are quite harsh. But again, they are well within the longstanding tradition of reformed evangelical Christianity. Question: Do MacArthur's sentiments qualify as "anti-Catholic bigotry"? Because if they do, I'll simply note, they come from the SAME PLACE (longstanding traditional religious teachings) that both the evangelical and Roman Catholic opposition to homosexuality come from.

Friday, August 22, 2008

George Washington & The Clergy:

This is Chapter 33 in Peter Lillback's 1200 page book on Washington's religion. This chapter illustrates Lillback's repeated use of three logical fallacies in his book. One he draws a false dicotomy between Deism and Christianity; that two, permits him to knock down a strict deist "straw man"; and three Lillback offers evidence from which it does not follow that Washington was an orthodox Christian, which is his thesis.

Washington did read sermons and corresponded with various religious figures, and almost always thanked them for their work in polite, perfunctory ways. Lillback constructs an argument that when Washington says positive things about the work of a particular religious figure, Washington essentially "internalizes" those beliefs. Further, Lillback argues all of these figures/sermons were "orthodox." Hence GW was "orthodox Christian." But, that's not the case. Most were orthodox because most Christian Churches were. Some of the notable orthodox figures for whose work Washington had kind words include William Linn (one of Jefferson's slanderous pious clergy enemies), Jedidah Morse and Timothy Dwight (they were hard core orthodox). Typically such figures or their cohorts would, unrequested, send Washington their sermons and GW would reply with a polite thanks, got it, very nice. The following to Rev. REVEREND ZECHARIAH LEWIS regarding the work of Timothy Dwight (President of Yale, and professed enemy of "infidelity") is typical:

I thank you for sending me Doctr. Dwights Sermons to whom I pray you to present the complimts. of Yr. etc.

Yet, I've stumbled upon a number instances where Washington gives the same perfunctory nods to explicitly UNORTHODOX figures whose work expressed heterodox content.

For instance, Richard Price, a British Whig divine who profoundly influenced the American Founding. He was an open Arian in the late 18th Century. He was sort of an Arian counterpart to his Socinian friend, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, another British Whig divine who profoundly influenced the American Founding.

Washington expressed his approval of Richard Price's work in a letter to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785:

Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, "To the free and United States of America," which I have seen and read with much pleasure.

And you can read the contents of that sermon here. [I blogged about in in detail here.] The sermon professes to be "pro-Christian," and asserts Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior. For instance it holds:

When Christianity, that first and best of all the means of human improvement, was first preached it was charged with turning the world upside down.

Yet, it is also explicitly anti-Trinitarian [again Price was an avowed Arian Unitarian]. Price attacks the "Athanasian creed" which is the quintessential statement of Trinitarianism:

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

The sermon further includes the following pro-unitarian, heterodox sentiments. In the context of arguing religious liberty and equality for all (not just "Christians"), Price asserts:

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

So ultimately what can we conclude regarding Washington's positive thoughts about various sermons when he positively reacts in similar ways to the orthodox ideas of Timothy Dwight on the one hand and heterodox sentiments of Richard Price on the other? This is why I argue it is a non-sequitur for Lillback to conclude all of the nice things Washington said about the orthodox clergy and their sermons prove him an orthodox Christian. No. They merely show that he was more "pro-religion" than a cold Deist like Thomas Paine was.

Finally, there are other examples of Washington praising non-orthodox or heterodox ideas. For instance, here I noted Washington's praise for the Universalist Church who denied eternal damnation/asserted universal salvation. He basically said whatever it was he valued about religion for the way it supported republican government the Universalists had it.

Postscript: In the short future I will show more evidence on Richard Price's influence on Washington and many other Founders, including Alexander Hamilton. I will show Price's influence was especially high when the Constitution was being framed and ratified.
John Adams' Ultimate Statement of Rationalism:

This exists in his 1813 letter, written in the context of Britain's repeal of a law that made it a crime to deny the Trinity, John Adams writes this to the militant anti-Trinitarian, Thomas Jefferson:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfillment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature's God, that two and two are equal to four....This revelation had made it certain that two and one make three, and that one is not three nor can three be one....Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it.

Adams says even if the doctrine of the Trinity were revealed to him with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason proves 1+1+1=3 not 1. That is the penultimate example of reason trumping revelation. [Do you think it's a little bit arrogant too?]

Adams also says the same theory -- "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" -- which gives America its principles upon which it erected its government also reveals Nature's God to be unitarian!!! I could offer quotes that demonstrate the unitarianism of Jefferson and Franklin as well. And they together made up a majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence. We could say that the Declaration of Independence refutes Trinitarian Christianity. But there's a problem isn't there? There were many Trinitarian Christians in the nation who supported the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and Constitution. And they didn't understand Nature's God this way.

The problem is easy avoided by being vague and refusing to identify the attributes of God when publicly invoking Him any more than 1) He exists, 2) He created us and grants us rights, and 3) will Intervene to do Justice. This is what American Civil Religion is all about.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Justice Scalia on American Civil Religion

He well understands the concept until he gets to the Ten Commandments.

Justice Scalia, in his dissent in MCCREARY implies that "monotheism" has some type of constitutional privilege over non-monotheistic religions, at least in the context of government endorsement of monotheistic, over non-monotheistic religions. In that opinion he writes:

Besides appealing to the demonstrably false principle that the government cannot favor religion over irreligion, today's opinion suggests that the posting of the Ten Commandments violates the principle that the government cannot favor one religion over another....That is indeed a valid principle where public aid or assistance to religion is concerned...or where the free exercise of religion is at issue...but it necessarily applies in a more limited sense to public acknowledgment of the Creator.

If religion in the public forum had to be entirely nondenominational, there could be no religion in the public forum at all. One cannot say the word "God," or "the Almighty," one cannot offer public supplication or thanksgiving, without contradicting the beliefs of some people that there are many gods, or that God or the gods pay no attention to human affairs. With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation's historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists. The Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by George Washington at the instance of the First Congress was scrupulously nondenominational, but it was monotheistic.

Let me try to explain what I think is going on in Scalia's head. He is willing to entertain the notion that the Establishment Clause does more than forbid a national Church, that government may indeed be forbidden from favoring one sect over another in its mere acknowledgments, and he is looking to the historical record for evidence. What he finds is that all of the first four Presidents, like the Declaration of Independence, commonly invoked God in their public pronouncements. But he also finds that their invocations were "scrupulously nondenominational," so much so that they hardly can be termed "Christian" or even "Judeo-Christian." As Scalia notes, "This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not)" and,

All of the actions of Washington and the First Congress upon which I have relied, virtually all Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout our history, and all the other examples of our Government's favoring religion that I have cited, have invoked God, but not Jesus Christ.

Scalia instead dubs him "the God of monotheism." And further notes, "[t]he three most popular religions in the United States, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- which combined account for 97.7% of all believers -- are monotheistic."

So Scalia doesn't really answer whether it is constitutional for government to endorse in its mere acknowledgments, one Christian sect over another, Christianity over Judaism, or Christianity and Judaism over Islam...but instead he concludes, based on the historical practice of the first four Presidents, it is constitutional to endorse "monotheism" over "non-monotheism." Monotheism therefore is a Lowest Common Denominator among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

With respect to public acknowledgment of religious belief, it is entirely clear from our Nation's historical practices that the Establishment Clause permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Scalia then connects such "monotheism" with the Ten Commandments themselves.

All of them, moreover (Islam included), believe that the Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses, and are divine prescriptions for a virtuous life....Publicly honoring the Ten Commandments is thus indistinguishable, insofar as discriminating against other religions is concerned, from publicly honoring God.

Here is the fatal flaw in Scalia's argument. He fails to include "another" monotheistic tradition within the Lowest Common Denominator, arguably the most important tradition for purposes of this discussion because it happens to be the personal religion of the first four presidents he mentioned: theistic rationalism. And the theistic rationalists did not necessarily believe that "the Ten Commandments were given by God to Moses." Nor did they ever say so in their public invocations of God.

These Founders did believe in a God, in fact believed that reason discovered God exists and grants men unalienable rights. But reason, not revelation is where ultimate truth is to be found. And these Founders disbelieved a great deal of revelation which they regarded as either unreasonable or unproven. And Moses divinely receiving those Commands was one of those truths about which our Founders were highly dubious.

For instance, here is Jefferson in an 1824 letter to Adams:

Where did we get the ten commandments? [The Bible] itself tells us they were written by the finger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses; it specified those on the second set of tables in different form and substance, but still without saying how the other were recovered. But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the other texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from the cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.

Adams likewise doubted that we had the right version of the Ten Commandments.

When and where originated our Ten Commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during of after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or Amendment might come in there.

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

There is nothing in the private writings or public acknowledgments of the two other Presidents that contradict Jefferson's and Adams' sentiments here. They were all men of reason. Therefore, if we include the creed of the first four Presidents as part of the lowest common denominator of monotheism, we would have to exclude the notion that the Ten Commandments were divinely given by God.

What we would be left with in our LCD is this: There is a God; He grants us unalienable rights; He is concerned about human beings and will intervene, especially if we don't respect the unalienable rights of others and nothing more. The first four Presidents never more specifically defined God's attributes when publicly acknowledging Him.

In other words, a generic natural religion founds America's public order. "Nature" meaning what is knowable through reason, not revelation. Revealed religion is to be consigned to the private sphere of society (as Harvey Mansfield, Michael Zuckert and Walter Berns argue that our Founders, after Locke, intended).

"Natural religion," as it were is the religion of "all good men." And it does not teach that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. Reason never "discovered" or "confirmed" that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Christianity Today Library on American President's Religion:

They relied on the excellent historical work of Gary Scott Smith chair of the history dept. at Grove City College and one of the most prominent evangelical historians. Notice their classification of the first half dozen:

George Washington 1789-97 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
John Adams 1797-1801 Congregationalist; Unitarian
Thomas Jefferson 1801-09 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
James Madison 1809-17 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
James Monroe 1817-25 Episcopalian (deist?)
John Quincy Adams 1825-29 Unitarian
Andrew Jackson 1829-37 Presbyterian

Here is what they put next to the "*":

*The term "deist" is often used for a number of early presidents and founding fathers, though this causes confusion. For some of these founders, historian Gary Scott Smith prefers the term "theistic rationalism," which mixed elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, and relied foremost on reason. Unlike deists, theistic rationalists believed that God was active in the world and that prayer was therefore effectual. They contended that religion's primary role was to promote morality, which was indispensable to society.

What's striking is according to Christian Nationalist standards, the first "Christian" President was probably Andrew Jackson. Traditional Christians define Christianity fairly narrowly according to orthodox Trinitarian doctrines. Because the "theistic rationalists" weren't orthodox Trinitarians -- yet because they also weren't "Deists" -- a new term was needed. Theistic rationalism is similar to John Adams' "Unitarianism" in all but name only. It's basically Christianity stripped of all of its orthodox doctrines such that theism and mere morality remain.

Glad to see there are honest evangelicals who get it. Indeed, they were among the first to get it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Was America Founded On A Christian Heresy?

Arguably yes. A reader of mine once posed that very intriguing question. This relates to my query "what is Christianity?" and my post on political theology that Cato Unbound reproduced. A little while ago I invited chess master Kristo Miettinen to react to my position and he did so here. I'm not going to reproduce his entire note, just what I see as his telling understanding of "Christianity."

Miettinen, from what I can tell is a political conservative and a Christian but a theological moderate, bordering on theological liberalism. This should come as no surprise. There are plenty of politically conservative Christians whose theology is moderate to liberal. Bill O'Reilly for instance. His "Christianity" is clearly cafeteria in its method. He's on record (I saw the show) doubting the divine inspiration of the Old Testament scriptures that condemn homosexuality and stating disbelief in the actual story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt. The late Tony Snow, likewise, when the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up, I remember, confidently asserted they were all in Heaven, even though non-Christians (one was a Hindu) were present among the crew.

Miettinen sees the Founders like Jefferson, Washington, and J. Adams as "Christian." Yet, in reacting to my thoughts on George Bush asserting Muslims worship the same God as Christians, Miettinen doesn't give the usual "conservative Christian" answer (of course they don't). He noted even Martin Luther termed Islam a "Christian heresy." Well okay. If Islam qualifies as "Christian" -- a Christian heresy -- then of course what the key Founders believed also qualifies as "Christian."

Here is the telling part of his note:

I agree with you that America has a political theology. I just think that you are working too hard to avoid admitting that whatever it is today, in the founders’ time it was Christianity, albeit of a uniquely American bibliocentric denominationally fragmented and generally unorthodox form; it was at best tolerant of orthodoxy, hesitantly at first, more confidently later.

Odds and ends at the end: to the extent that anyone was outraged when my man GWB acknowledged that Muslims worship the same God as we do, they weren’t confused about “America’s civic religion”, they were confused about Islam and its relation to Christianity (Luther went so far as to consider Mohammed a Christian heretic). GWB was right even in the strictly Christian sense; his critics were wrong in any sense. Whether the consensus of founders would have extended the same acknowledgment to Hindus is another matter; whether they knew enough about Hinduism to really have an informed opinion on the matter is also questionable.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Right Angle:

I think I've finally found it. Maybe. I don't know. There are absolutely TONS of books out there that address the "Christian Nation"/Religion of the Founders topic. I'm not even going name them. You know of many of them. I'll simply note the best, latest one to come out is Stephen Waldman's. My Dad is always asking me when my book is going to come out. I've always answered that the notion that America is not a Christian Nation/what religion did America's Founders believe in? has been done so many times by so many more prominent folks that it would make no sense for me to write such a book until I've found my novel angle.

Maybe I've found it: A legal perspective on why America is not a "Christian Nation." The hoary Holy Trinity case of 1892 once infamously declared in its dicta that America is a Christian nation. My book would be an originalist, legal perspective on why Holy Trinity's dicta was wrong. The holding of the case is quite narrow and even Justice Scalia, in his book A Matter of Interpretation notes that case as wrongly decided and textbook piss poor legal reasoning. Scalia really didn't address the notion that America is a Christian Nation; he just sneered at it, in an aside. That intimated to me that, even he, one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court wouldn't support the Christian Nation thesis.

The book would be the kind of text that a court, for instance the Supreme Court, could cite as authority, if it ever did have to address the idea of whether the United States is or was founded to be a "Christian Nation."

I know that this is theoretical la la land. I doubt the Supreme Court will ever address the issue and if it does, even the conservatives like Scalia and Thomas probably wouldn't find America to be a "Christian Nation" in a public, civil sense.

But, as a legal claim, it still might be a fun thing to explore. And I'm not aware of any book that quite approaches the Christian Nation question from this angle. Alan Dershowitz's Blasphemy and The Godless Constitution, by Cornell's Kramnick and Moore, both of which I've read, are the closest that come to mind. Those books in many ways only superficially deal with the legal claim. I'd have to make sure I offered something fresh and new. It wouldn't quite be the secular leftist polemics that theirs were. And in a sense I think they overstated their claims, using "law office" history. Mine might be a book that Justices Scalia and Thomas (and the liberals) would find comfortable citing (I doubt the conservatives would with the other two books).

It's just a thought. I've got a book in me on this matter. I'm just waiting till I find my right angle.
How America Could Be a "Christian Nation":

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Jonathan,

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

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

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

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

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

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

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

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

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Elvis Had Never Been...:

STRUNG OUT! his life. Say that about him and he would have pulled your god damned tongue out!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Locke, the Ultimate "Whig":

At American Creation Tom Van Dyke has two must read posts on how to properly understand John Locke. Indeed Thomas Jefferson identified "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. .." as the chief ideological sources behind the Declaration of Independence.

Most of us realize that John Locke's philosophy was central to the US Founding. So we go back and venerate him and turn him into a larger than like figure. The irony that few appreciate is that Locke was anything but venerated by his Christian contemporaries of the day. He published his most notable works anonymously and had to flee England for the Continent because his life was in danger. As such Locke treaded with great caution as he exposited his ideas.

Algernon Sidney, another of Jefferson's Whig sources, wasn't cautious enough. As Van Dyke puts it:

Locke's contemporary, Algernon Sidney, argued along the same lines as Locke, for liberty and against the "divine right of kings." Sidney got his neck stretched by the English crown in 1683 for his outspokenness. Since there was only one witness against Sidney in his A Man for All Seasons-type tribunal but the law required two, the second witness called was Sidney's Discourses upon Government, a book that was much admired by the American Founders, but which proved fatal to its author. Aaaaaaaaaa-ack!

John Locke was not so naïve as poor Algernon Sidney as to the ways of man and his governments. If you want to die in bed, keep a low profile and tell the truth not at the top of your lungs, but sotto voce.

This well illustrates the difference between "common law" principles on the one hand and "Whig" on the other. Common law principles were those common "rights of Englishmen" that were very traditional and had been evolving for hundreds of years. "Whig" principles, on the other hand, were much more radical, revolutionary, dissident, and pro-political liberty. For instance jurist William Blackstone, the most notable "common law" source, was a Tory and against the American side in the Revolution.

Those were two of five sources that Harvard Historian Bernard Bailyn identifies as making up the ideology of the American Founding. The other three were Christian principles, Greco-Roman principles, and Enlightenment principles. Not all of these sources were "mutually exclusive." One could argue that Locke represented "Christian," "Whig," and "Enlightenment" all three at the same time. Enlightenment and Whig were key in my humble opinion.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Aid to Religion & Originalism:

I'm going to come back to yesterday's post on the opinions of Christian Nationalist J. Phillips because Phillips' pithy summary well illustrates the Christian Nationalist view on government aid to religion. As the author wrote: The Founders believed

God exists, we were created by God, the Bible is his word and therefore it should be printed and promoted with government funds and contrary positions are not in accord with the truth....

This is what David Barton et al. leave their followers believing. Importantly, this is what they have them believing the FEDERAL government could do.

"Religion" was originally left to the states. And their approach towards its establishment varied. Jefferson and Madison, in their historic Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom adopted a rule of no direct aid to religion. Indeed the statute (a document they claimed was based on "natural right" like the Declaration of Independence -- no mere statute!) held it was sinful to tax someone to support a religion in which he didn't believe.

George Washington and John Adams on the other hand didn't believe it violated natural right to publicly aid "religion" or even "the Christian religion." However, this was with the caveat that those of non-Christian religions still equally possessed their unalienable rights of conscience. As Washington put it reacting to the controversy in Virginia -- Patrick Henry's plan to publicly aid 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;…

You can see right off the bat how Washington's "accommodationist" position is not in accord with the above quoted Christian Nationalist sentiment. Christian Nationalism holds Christianity is Truth and as such should be publicly supported, other religious opinions entirely disregarded.

Washington, on the other hand, held the opinions of Jews and Muslims -- opinions that reject the "Truth" of Christianity -- have some kind of natural right to "proper relief" such that their tax dollars won't be used to aid a religion (Christianity) in which they don't believe.

Regarding how the federal government could aid religion, ours is a Constitution of limited, enumerated powers. And "religion" -- indeed the "Christian religion" -- is left entirely unendowed. Christian Nationalists have taken a few instances of the federal government involving itself in religious matters -- instances that can be explained in nuanced historical context -- and extrapolate a general norm that the federal government saw itself as having the role of supporting (even with public funds!) Christianity, not contrary claims of truth. In short, Christian Nationalists' distortion of history has lead folks to erroneously believe that the federal government was originally in the business of printing and disseminating Bibles and otherwise supporting Christian only claims of truth.

Chris Rodda has done excellent work exposing the nonsense of these claims. She writes about one of those instances in this post at Talk To Action where I sometimes post as well. She addresses the following Christian Nation assertion that actually found its way into a Congressional Resolution:

"Whereas in 1777, Congress, facing a National shortage of `Bibles for our schools, and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches,' announced that they `desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement' and therefore ordered 20,000 copies of the Bible to be imported `into the different ports of the States of the Union';"

And she responds:

First of all, the first two quotes in this statement, which Mr. Forbes claims were "announced" by Congress, were not the words of Congress, but come from the petition of a group of Philadelphia ministers. Second, Congress did not import any Bibles.

In 1777, three ministers from Philadelphia, Francis Alison, John Ewing, and William Marshall, came up with a plan to alleviate the Bible shortage caused by the inability to import books from England during the Revolutionary War. The ministers' request for help from Congress, and Congress's consideration of the ministers' petition had to do with the problem of price gouging during the war.

The ministers' idea was to import the necessary type and paper, and print an edition of the Bible in Philadelphia. The problem with this plan, however, was that, if the project was financed and controlled by private companies, the Bibles would most likely be bought up and resold at prices that the average American couldn't afford. What the ministers wanted Congress to do was to import the materials and finance the printing, as a loan to be repaid by the sale of the Bibles. As Rev. Alison explained in the petition, if Congress imported the type and paper, and Congress contracted the printer, then Congress could regulate the selling price of the Bibles.(4)

The petition was referred to a committee, which concluded that it would be too costly to import the type and paper, and too risky to import them into Philadelphia, a city likely to be invaded by the British, and proposed the less risky alternative of importing already printed Bibles into different ports from a country other than England. If Congress did this, they would still be able to regulate the selling price and be reimbursed by the sales.

What appears in the Journals of the Continental Congress after the committee's report is the following motion.

"Whereupon, the Congress was moved, to order the Committee of Commerce to import twenty thousand copies of the Bible."(5)

The problem for those who claim or imply, as Mr. Forbes does, that the Bibles were imported is that, although this motion passed, it was not a final vote to import the Bibles. It was a vote to replace the original plan of importing the type and paper with the committee's new proposal of importing already printed Bibles. The vote on this motion was close -- seven states voted yes; six voted no. A second motion was then made to pass an actual resolution to import the Bibles, but this was postponed and never brought up again. No Bibles were imported. This little problem is solved in the religious right history books by either misquoting the motion to turn it into a resolution, or omitting the motion altogether and ending the story with some statement implying that the Bibles were imported.

See also Chapter 1 of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, "Congress and the Bible," at

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Kansas on the 700 Club:

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Kansas. And two of their founding members -- Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope -- became born-again Christians. YouTube has everything. Here is their interview on the 700 Club (the quality is poor). My favorite part is when bassist Dave Hope reveals that in the past year he spent $40,000 on cocaine. And that's $40,000 in 1981 dollars. That alone, to me, well illustrates why some folks turn to religion.

Good discussion on the tension between "Dust in the Wind's" nihilistic lyrics and the tenets of Christianity.

Nixon -- Great Foil For Jokes:

Today is August 9 and my Dad tells me it has some special anniversary for the Nixon Presidency. My Dad -- an old New Deal/Great Society Democrat -- disdained Nixon. We kids, my two brothers and I, objected to a "Mother's Day," a "Father's Day," but no "Kid's Day," so we created one. And my Dad choose August 8th or 9th, I can't remember, because of the Nixon anniversary.

Me -- I object to the Nixon Presidency chiefly for how he meddled with free market economics and I think he makes a great foil for jokes and imitations like Howard Stern's [Fred Norris does a great impression], The Simpson's and Dan Aykroyd's.

Since I've blogged about The Bohemian Grove conspiracy nonsense before, what follows is a funny clip from the Nixon tapes talking about San Fransisco, the Bohemian Grove, and Nixon's distaste for the "god damned faggy" environments of such.

Misunderstanding the Phrase "Religion & Morality":

One J. Phillips writes an article featured in this morning's WorldNetDaily with three quotations from the Founding Fathers -- two from John Adams and one from Patrick Henry. The article typifies how Christian Nationalists misunderstand the Founding Fathers' words. When the Founding Fathers said "religion and morality" they meant "religion and morality," not necessarily orthodox biblical Christianity only. For instance, from those quotations Phillips summarizes the Founding Fathers' position:

When I saw these used recently it struck me that if they are not wrong then their Constitution will not work for those who exist today, because their moral and religious standard (i.e. God exists, we were created by God, the Bible is his word and therefore it should be printed and promoted with government funds and contrary positions are not in accord with the truth) is not our moral and religious standard.

The following is the email I sent to the author:

Mr./Ms. Phillips,

I read your article. While I can't speak for Patrick Henry whom I understand was an orthodox Christian, as an expert on John Adams' religion I can speak for him and you misunderstand his position. For instance, while he did believe:

1. "God exists," and
2. "we were created by God,"

he did not believe:

3. "the Bible is his word and therefore it should be printed and promoted with government funds and contrary positions are not in accord with the truth."

Rather as a theologically unitarian and universalist man he thought most or all religions were valid ways to God and the Bible was only a partially inspired book. Adams didn't have a problem with government support for "religion," but wouldn't limit it exclusively to biblical Christianity.


I've got plenty of quotations from him explaining how "religion and morality" exist within all sorts of pagan non-Christian religious systems, available upon request.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Washington's Prayer Journal, A Fraud:

Sorry, I have to put it so bluntly. No serious historian could accept the validity of George Washington's "The Daily Sacrifice" Prayer Journal. Handwriting experts have proven that the journal was not written in his own hand. And even pietists Peters Lillback and Marshall refuse to endorse it.

Brad Hart pointed to a very valuable source that irrefutably proves the journal a fraud. From that source, Frank E. Grizzard's assessment in an email he sent to Ed Brayton:

"The so-called prayer journal is not in GW's writing, although I'm not sure it's actually a forgery. The manuscript dealer (Burk I think) who first sold it when it came to light in the 19th century printed a facsimile edition in which he admits that the Smithsonian rejected it as a non-GW document, but it did have Washington family provenance, so he said. Thus it apparently was a descendant's. Johnson's version is taken from Burk. The prayers are based on the English prayer book."

-- Frank Grizzard (senior associate editor of the George Washington Papers collection at University of Virginia) [in an email he sent] to Ed Brayton (2004).
Roy Masters v. Walter Martin:

This is interesting. Both are arch-conservative theologians in the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. Martin is an uber-orthodox Christian. And Masters can sound like one but believes in all sorts of things which evangelicals consider cultic and heretical. In other words, Masters' Foundation For Human Understanding is in the same box as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Masters rejects the Trinity and intimates that Trinitarians aren't saved.

Note: I don't follow either of their creeds. Just makes for interesting discussion between historic orthodox Christianity and one of the new fangled forms of exotic religions that has grown out of the Judeo-Christian tradition and gets termed a "cult" for its rejection of orthodoxy. Welcome to American Protestantism.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Frazer Defends MacArthur at WND:

I blogged about Dave Welch's WorldNetDaily article attacking the anti-dominionist position of John MacArthur here. I alerted Dr. Gregg Frazer -- who teaches at the college where MacArthur is president -- to the article and suggested that he submit his reply to WorldNetDaily. Well he did and to their credit, WND published it.

Read the whole thing. There's lots of great stuff in it like the orthodox biblical case for anti-dominionism, how America's Founders arguably violated Romans 13 by rebelling against Great Britain, and how many of the patriotic preachers supporting the American cause were not orthodox Christians and used an unorthodox interpretation of Romans 13 to attempt to justify rebellion against Great Britain. Here is a taste from the article on Jonathan Mayhew, one of the most important pro-revolutionary preachers:

It is also instructive to point out that Mayhew is not exactly the most reliable authority on what the Bible says. His reputation for unorthodoxy was so pronounced that his ordination had to be rescheduled because not enough ministers attended. He was a unitarian (did not believe in the deity of Christ) and a rationalist who believed that reason was the ultimate determiner of what counts as revelation. He specifically denied the doctrines of imputation, justification by faith, the virgin birth and original sin and held an unorthodox view of the atonement. He denied them because he found them to be unreasonable. Doctrines, which he called "niceties of speculation," were not of particular interest to him, though, because he believed that there were many roads to God and that one walked them through works. He listed Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, Sidney and Hoadly among his intellectual influences. His quoted remark in the article that a king can "un-king himself" is completely without biblical foundation. Mayhew's view of Romans 13 had nothing to do with what Paul said and everything to do with what Mayhew found reasonable under the circumstances.