Prof. Jared Farley, whose work I discussed here, left a comment on that thread.
Hi. This is Jared Farley from the exchange above. I've been reading through some of the stuff here and on Positive Liberty (very interesting) and I was wondering about how you define and differentiate between several terms you use: proto-Unitarian, Unitarian, Christian Deist & Theistic-Rationalist. (I know all of this stuff is confusing, as I have been trying to figure it all out myself, but I would like to learn more about your use of these terms.) Thanks.
This is a very good question. In my answer I am going to note many things that Prof. Farley already knows (I can tell by reading his work that he knows quite a bit about the historical record on the Founding & Religion). I am going to include these facts and arguments for the sake of a more general reading audience.
Those terms about which Prof. Farley asks are all different ways of describing pretty much the same thing -- the religious creed in which many key Founding Fathers (the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin and others) believed (or probably believed) that was neither strict Deism nor orthodox Christianity, but something in between.
All of those terms have their relative strengths and weaknesses and each views this hybrid creed through a different descriptive perspective. AND, importantly, the terms are not mutually exclusive. For instance one can be both a "Roman Catholic" and a "Thomist" without contradiction. Or one can be an "orthodox Christian" and a "Calvinist" without contradiction and so on and so forth. So when we say someone is a "theistic rationalist" and a "unitarian" we do not contradict ourselves.
The only time I used "proto-Unitarian" was after I saw Gordon Wood speak at Princeton where he used it. I think of those above mentioned Founders as small u "unitarians." I feel comfortable labeling Jefferson and J. Adams "unitarians" because they called themselves unitarians and otherwise rejected the Trinity (which in its strictest sense is all "unitarian" means).
However the capital U in Unitarianism connotes being a member of a Unitarian Church which Jefferson never was (he was a lifelong Anglican-Episcopalian). And with J. Adams, even though he claims to have been a theological unitarian since 1750 -- indeed he claims his own ministers in the Congregational Church were unitarians as of 1750 -- his Congregational Church didn't become "Unitarian" until sometime in the early 19th Century.
George Washington is not on record as calling himself either a deist or a unitarian, and rarely called himself a "Christian" either. Peter Lillback's 1200 page book can cite only one letter where Washington identifies as a Christian. The letter was to ROBERT STEWART April 27, 1763, where Washington uses the phrase "upon my honr and the faith of a Christian." There are also a few examples in the record of GW speaking to Christians in a "we" sense, and others where he speaks about "Christians" as though he were not a member of that group. But in any event, all of the other "key Founders" (J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin) thought of themselves as "Christians" in *some* sense.
Washington never affirmed the Trinity or orthodox doctrines in his public and private writings. They reveal him to be a man of "religion," "prayer," and "Providence," not an orthodox Christian. I think the term "theistic rationalist" or "Christian-Deist" aptly describes his faith. I think "unitarian" might also as well. Dr. Farley's writings discuss Washington's systematic avoidance of communion and how that points strongly to Washington disbelieving in what the act symbolically represents: Christ's atonement. (That was the explanation John Marshall's family gave for why he refused communion in the same Episcopal-Anglican system to which GW, TJ, JM and many other "key Founders" belonged.) Though the strongest criticism against terming Washington a "unitarian" is that 1) he didn't call himself one, 2) I haven't found any smoking guns of GW affirming or denying the Trinity with his words, and 3) GW was not a member of the Unitarian Church.
Likewise James Madison rarely referred to himself as a "Christian" and is not on record calling himself a deist or a unitarian. Though, George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library (himself a Unitarian) testified that
[Madison] talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.
Like Washington, Madison was extremely vague in putting his specific religious cards on the table, but instead preferred to speak of "Providence" in naturalistic and rationalistic terms. That's why Dr. Gregg Frazer terms them "theistic rationalists." They were "theists" who believed in an active personal God, not "deists" who believed in an distant watchmaker.
Dr. Frazer also claims that they believed man's reason superseded a partially inspired Bible and in fact determined what parts of the Bible constituted valid revelation. This is his specific definition of the type of "rationalism" in which they believed. And certainly with Jefferson, J. Adams and a few others, one can make such a case. However, a few readers and co-bloggers are skeptical and demand more evidence -- more "smoking guns" -- to show that figures like Washington and Madison believed man's reason superseded a partially inspired, fallible Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth or determined what was valid revelation.
There is however, a more general way in which they were "rationalists," and that is that they thought very highly of man's reason and believed reason could discover divine truths and consequently oft-spoke of God in naturalistic-rationalistic terms. Indeed, these key Founders invariably spoke of God using naturalistic or philosophical terms rather than using biblical terms. In his letter to TO FREDERICK BEASLEY on Nov. 20, 1825, Madison, when asked to put his theological cards on the table, speaks entirely in naturalistic-rationalistic terms and ingores Christ and the Bible. Also notable is that Madison appeals not to John Witherspoon for theological authority, but to Samuel Clarke another "Christian rationalist" who was a unitarian of the Arian bent and a minister in the Anglican Church. As Madison wrote:
I have duly recd the copy of your little tract on the proofs of the Being & Attributes of God. To do full justice to it, would require not only a more critical attention than I have been able to bestow on it, but a resort to the celebrated work of Dr. Clarke,...
The reasoning that could satisfy such a mind as that of Clarke, ought certainly not to be slighted in the discussion. And the belief in a God All Powerful wise & good, is so essential to the moral order of the World & to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters & capacities to be impressed with it.
But whatever effect may be produced on some minds by the more abstract train of ideas which you so strongly support, it will probably always be found that the course of reasoning from the effect to the cause, “from Nature to Nature’s God,” Will be the more universal & more persuasive application.
The finiteness of the human understanding betrays itself on all subjects, but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity. What may safely be said seems to be, that the infinity of time & space forces itself on our conception, a limitation of either being inconceivable; that the mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect, which augments, instead of avoiding the difficulty; and that it finds more facility in assenting to the self-existence of an invisible cause possessing infinite power, wisdom & goodness, than to the self-existence of the universe, visibly destitute of those attributes, and which may be the effect of them. In this comparative facility of conception & belief, all philosophical Reasoning on the subject must perhaps terminate. But that I may not get farther beyond my depth, and without the resources which bear you up in fathoming efforts, I hasten to thank you for the favour which has made me your debtor, and to assure you of my esteem.
So regardless of whether Madison believed man's reason supersedes revelation as the ultimate arbiter of truth or believed the Bible inspired at all, he was clearly a "rationalist" in his theological thinking.
The term "theistic rationalist" also had advantages for folks who hold to an "orthodox Christian" point of view. Accordingly, if one rejects the Trinity, one is not a Christian. So look for another term and don't use "Christian" -- which defines specially and particularly -- in that term. This is also why the "orthodox" don't like the term "Christian-Deism" which conflates what they see as two mutually exclusive concepts -- a contradiction in terms. However, "Christian-Deism" is valuable in that it accurately describes how the religion of those key Founding Fathers was not "Christianity" or "Deism" but something in between and a hybrid of the two.