Saturday, January 10, 2009

Different Ways of Defining Christianity:

One interesting nuance I've discovered when researching the FFs & religion issue is how many of the supposed "Deists" -- like Jefferson and Franklin -- arguably thought of themselves as "Christians" in an identificatory sense. The non-Christian deists like Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen and Elihu Palmer wanted nothing to do with the Christian label, any part of the Bible or Jesus.

This dynamic confuses both sides of the culture war debate -- the secular left & religious right who want to argue for a "secular" or a "Christian" founding, respectively. If we set the bar low enough, arguably Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Wilson,...all the FFs except for the handful of non-Christian Deists would qualify as "Christian." You would need a repudiation of the "Christian" label not to be a Christian, according to this standard.

However, if you set the bar high enough, very few Founders -- even those who believed in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine -- would qualify as "Christian." For instance Roman Catholics believe in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine; but to many evangelicals, they are not "real Christians." The biggest problem I have with David Barton is that his main audience seems to be "born again" or evangelical Christians who set that high bar.

WorldNetDaily has an article by Michael Youssef that perfectly illustrates this theological dynamic. Youssef reacts to recent polls where 37 percent of self proclaimed evangelicals noted they didn't "believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation."

He notes:

This would be like announcing that 37 percent of all Americans do not believe that there are 50 states. Or half of the British people denying that the English language is their language. You get the point of the ludicrousness of the use of the term "evangelical."


Perhaps it is easier to understand who is not an evangelical.

Anyone who places tradition, experience, or rationalism above the authority of the Scripture ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who places human needs, or reason, above the authority of the Scripture ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who claims credit for his or her salvation, or works to earn it ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who places "moralism," which is the de-emphasizing of the sinfulness of sin, above justification by faith alone ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who perceives the Cross as a mere example of love and not as the only cure for sin and means of salvation ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who minimizes the fact that God poured His wrath on His Son on the Cross so that only whosoever believes in Him shall be saved ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who views that act of God's pouring His wrath upon His Son on the Cross as "cosmic child abuse" ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who sees no need for personal conversion by repentance and faith for receiving eternal life ... is no evangelical.

Anyone who does not believe that once they are saved they will always be saved through the sustaining power, discipline and chastening by the Holy Spirit ... is no evangelical.

If you have concluded that all of these evangelical qualifications are defining a true Christian – you would be correct. For a true evangelical is a true Christian. The opposite, therefore, is true. If you do not believe these foundational truths, no matter what you call yourself, you are no true Christian.

If that's what he believes, fine. However, when folks like this think about America's "Christian" foundations, they should understand most Founding Fathers (I'm arguing beyond the "key Founding Fathers") were in that very position of thinking and calling themselves Christians but not being "true Christians." The Trinitarian Benjamin Rush who believed in universal salvation certainly flunked this standard. Indeed, many of the orthodox Trinitarian Christians of the Anglican/Episcopalian bent (I believe the largest Church of the Founders) probably flunked this standard. And even Alexander Hamilton who towards the end of his life appeared to convert to a form of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity that saw the Lord's Supper (as opposed to Christ alone) a central sacrament probably never met this standard.

In my last post I showed how Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Wilson, and Hamilton often qualified their invocation of religion, Christianity and scripture with such adjectives as rational, reasonable, benign, benevolent, mild, tolerating, liberal, and unitarian. No evangelical would use those terms to describe their religion. Thus they flunk the Christian standard.

However, for historic purposes, this standard is too high. But for evangelicals who would like to believe in the "Christian Nation" idea, it's important to remind them of this dynamic: The Founders, even the many of whom were Trinitarians, were nonetheless not "real Christians" as you understand that term.

I think a more reasonable, defensible standard is orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, or the Nicene Creed. Every single established Church except the Quakers adhered to an orthodox Trinitarian creed. That would include not just evangelicals/reformed Protestants, but also Roman Catholics, and non-evangelical Trinitarians like the Anglicans-Episcopalians as "Christians." But even that standard is outright flunked by Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin and is not clearly passed by Washington, Madison, Wilson, G. Morris, and Hamilton until the very end of his life. There still is a bit of mystery with that last bunch, I would admit. Though their systematic silence on orthodox doctrines during an era when one's reputation could damaged for openly criticizing the Trinity points strongly towards closeted unitarianism.

We could lower the bar even further and permit anyone who calls himself a Christian to be a Christian even if he rejects every single tenet of orthodoxy, as Jefferson did in his letter to William Short, October 31, 1819, where he listed and rejected the following:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

If you can disbelieve in those things and still be a "Christian" because you call yourself one, then I agree that almost all of the Founders were "Christians" and America had a "Christian" Founding.

The problem is evangelicals who largely comprise the "Christian America" crowd utterly reject that definition of "Christianity" as sufficient. If like Mr. Youssef they care so much about preserving the cause of what they see as *real,* *saving* Christianity, they should reject the idea of a "Christian" Founding.

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