Saturday, April 04, 2009

Understanding the Hybrid Religion of the Key Founders:

At American Creation, my friend and co-blogger Tom Van Dyke in a comment questions whether those Founding Fathers who don't "fit" within the "orthodox Christian" or "strict Deist" box should be relegated to the "theistic rationalist" box that Dr. Gregg Frazer has described. As TVD notes:

Neither does a lack of orthodoxy mean that you're a "theistic rationalist." That's like saying if it's not a cat, it must be dog.


Hamilton is a complete unknown and it's completely unsupportable to claim him for unorthodoxy, and if Madison leaned Unitarian, it must be kept in mind that the unitarians' objection to the Trinity was based on a dissenting interpretation of the Bible, not a rejection of it.

My response is that there was a continuum of beliefs. If folks were not orthodox Christians, we don't then look to left field for explanation and say, well maybe they were "Hindoos." What Dr. Frazer's describes as "theistic rationalism" fits nicely to the left of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity and to the right of strict deism. Therefore if they weren't orthodox Christians or strict deists, it's likely that they fit somewhere in between and believed in this hybrid creed that could be termed theistic rationalism, Christian-Deism, or unitarianism.

Perhaps we need to better understand how on almost all central points that define "orthodox Christianity" v. "strict deism," (which tended to take polar opposite positions) what Dr. Frazer describes as "theistic rationalism" takes a middle ground approach. Thus, if someone doesn't fit within the "orthodox Christian" or "strict deist" box, it's reasonable to put them in the "theistic rationalist" box, even without "smoking gun" quotations to prove the FF believed in all points of "theistic rationalism." Those smoking gun quotations are there with Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. They are less so with figures like Washington, Madison and Hamilton. But, again, I think it's entirely reasonable to conclude the latter three were "probably" what Dr. Frazer terms "theistic rationalists," or if you don't like that term, "Christian-Deists," or "unitarians."

And with that, let us turn to Dr. Frazer's paper entitled Gouverneur Morris, Theistic Rationalist to better understand the paradigm.

First, what is "orthodox Christianity," what some argue the only proper understanding of "historic Christianity"?

In the eighteenth century, all of the major Christian sects in America officially espoused a certain set of beliefs. Various sects added to this core of fundamental beliefs, but none subtracted from it. So, in eighteenth-century America, those who did not hold these core beliefs were not considered Christians. The fundamentals of Christianity were common knowledge to contemporaries of the period. Despite disputes over church polity and sacramental issues which resulted in a number of sects, the period saw remarkable unanimity regarding central doctrines. According to the creeds, confessions, catechisms, and articles of faith of the major denominations in America during the period, all of them shared common belief in: the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, a God active in human affairs, original sin, the Virgin Birth, the atoning work of Christ in satisfaction for man’s sins, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, eternal punishment for sin, justification by faith, and the authority of the Scriptures.32 Even the Catholic Church, though irreconcilably separated from the Protestant churches, embraced all of these fundamental doctrines, which is further evidence of the consensus concerning the substance of Christianity. (p. 11).

Next, what is strict deism?

Natural religion was a system of thought centered on the belief that reliable information about God is best discovered and understood by examining the evidence of nature and the laws of nature that nature’s God established. Deism was the primary expression of natural religion in the eighteenth century. The critical elements of eighteenth-century deist belief were the effective absence of God and the denial of any written revelation from God.30 These two elements clearly separated theistic rationalists from deists. In addition, deism was in many ways as much a critique of Christianity as a religion of its own. Deist thought rejected virtually every tenet and fundamental of Christianity and deists were generally critical of Christianity’s central figure: Jesus.31 In short, deists wanted nothing to do with Christianity or its Christ. While theistic rationalists shared some ideas with deists, they had a much greater regard for Christianity and for Jesus than did most deists. (pp. 10-11.)

Now, what was the hybrid religion? From Dr. Frazer's Claremont article:

Although affiliated with various denominations, the major founders did not typically hold to the beliefs officially espoused by their denominations. Similarly, while Franklin and Jefferson are regularly listed as deists, they did not believe in the fundamental tenets of deism. The key founders shared a common belief which might be called theistic rationalism. Theistic rationalism was a hybrid, mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element. Accordingly, the founders believed in a benevolent, active, and unitary God who intervenes in human affairs. Consequently, they believed that prayers are heard and effectual. They believed that the key factor in serving God is living a good and moral life, that promotion of morality is central to the value of religion, and that the morality engendered by religion is indispensable to society. Because virtually all religions promote morality, they believed that most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God.

Though theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God, they considered him a great moral teacher and held a higher view of him than did deists. They believed in a personal after-life in which the wicked will be temporarily punished and the good experience happiness forever. Although they believed that God primarily revealed himself through nature, they believed that some written revelation was legitimate. Finally, while they believed that reason and revelation generally agree with each other, theistic rationalists believed that revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God.

Now, let us examine how "theistic rationalism" is a hybrid, or in between "orthodox Christianity" and "strict Deism." First, on the Providence of God, the theistic rationalists sided with the orthodox Christians and believed in an active personal God.

On the other nine tenets of "orthodox Christianity" --

the Trinity, the deity of Jesus,...original sin, the Virgin Birth, the atoning work of Christ in satisfaction for man’s sins, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, eternal punishment for sin, justification by faith, and the authority of the Scriptures

-- the theistic rationalists sided with the deists and did not believe (or at least evidence belief) in them, with the exception that some theistic rationalists believed in the resurrection, though not of an Incarnate God.

Regarding the "authority" of scripture, the theistic rationalists took the classic middle ground position. Orthodox Christians believed the Bible was the inerrant, infallible Word of God, the strict Deist didn't believe ANY written revelation, and the middle position was belief that some of the Christian Bible was legitimately revealed by God, some was not. That begs the question on how to tell what was legimate revelation, and the answer is reason determines what God revealed in the Bible.

Further on Jesus, strict Deism views Jesus as either a fraud or at best (as Thomas Paine believed) a nice guy (a "benevolent" man). The theistic rationalists viewed Jesus as a great, indeed the greatest moral teacher man had ever seen. Some went so far as to view Jesus as a "savior" or "messiah" because of his perfect moral teachings (NOT because of His infinite atonement).

So when I see a Founder who didn't quite appear orthodox but also didn't seem to be a strict deist, I see it as entirely reasonable to conclude, as I do with Hamilton (before his deathbed) that he was what Dr. Frazer terms a "theistic rationalist." Again, if one doesn't like that term, then pick something else. Instead of arguing over the right term, it's more important to understand what it is that the Founder believed or likely believed.

With Alexander Hamilton in particular, no smoking gun evidence exists that shows he was an orthodox Christian till his deathbed. That he never joined a church and his clumsy understanding of the act of taking communion for which he begged at his deathbed evidences that he was an extremely immature orthodox Christian at death.

Regarding his supposedly conventional or "orthodox" youth, the only evidence that exists is one or two people witnessed him praying (something theistic rationalists did, btw) and therefore thought he was a conventional Christian.

According to scholars Douglass Adair and Marvin Harvey, from 1777 to 1792 there are only two letters where Hamilton mentions God at all. One of them was to John Laurens in Dec. 1779, describing what he looked for in a wife: “As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint.”

That is theistic rationalism. Belief in an active Providence is necessary, everything else --

the Trinity, the deity of Jesus,...original sin, the Virgin Birth, the atoning work of Christ in satisfaction for man’s sins, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, eternal punishment for sin, justification by faith, and the authority of the Scriptures

-- are unimporant dogmas. Indeed it was this radical non-sectarianism, so radical that it transcended orthodox Trinitarian dogma, that was the "sine qua non" of "theistic rationalism."

As Hamilton put it elsewhere using the pagan surname PHOCION:

There is a bigotry in politics as well as in religions, equally pernicious in both. The zealots, of either description, are ignorant of the advantage of a spirit of toleration. It was a long time before the kingdoms of Europe were convinced of the folly of persecution with respect to those who were schismatics from the established church....Time and experience have taught a different lesson: and there is not an enlightened nation which does not now acknowledge the force of this truth, that whatever speculative notions of religion may be entertained, men will not, on that account, be enemies to a government that affords them protection and security. The same spirit of toleration in politics, and for the same reasons, has made great progress among mankind, of which the history of most modern revolutions is a proof. Unhappily for this State, there are some among us -who possess too much influence; that have motives of personal ambition and interest to shut their minds against the entrance of that moderation which the real welfare of the community teaches. [Bold mine.]

"Bigotry in religion" equates with attachment to sectarian dogma. Hamilton argues against such bigotry and for enlightenment and "moderation." In his letter to Laurens, Hamilton equates "moderation" with simple God belief period. Again, I realize these aren't smoking guns, but they give the overall tenor of someone who believed in an active personal God and that's it, none of the other tenets of orthodox Christianity. Thus, I think it's completely reasonable to categorize Hamilton before his deathbed as a probable "theistic rationalist," not an orthodox Christian.

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