Friday, June 19, 2009

Odds & Ends:

First you can listen to Ed Brayton interviewing me on his AM public radio show Declaring Independence, where we talk about the FFs and religion. I've done a number of these radio shows and can attest it's an entirely different experience than blogging/writing. I have a friend who is a much more accomplished writer than I who simply won't do these live speaking things because of a bad experience. Even being the call in guest on an AM radio show has its particular dynamics to learn (which I'm still learning!). For instance, it's likely that they won't hear you as clearly as you might think (and not as clearly as the host). So you need ESPECIALLY to slow down and clearly enunciate every word, even to the point of speaking with an affect.

This interview was done on a stressful day at work; one nice thing about Ed interviewing me was that when I had a few brain farts and misspoke -- Ed knows the record so well that he immediately corrected me. For instance, I knew that Madison, Hamilton and Jay were the three authors of the Federalist Papers and meant to name them; but I mistakenly said "Jefferson" instead of "Madison"; a less well informed host wouldn't have caught that. Overall I think I did okay but forgot to take my xanax before the interview.

On the show we invoked Dr. Gregg Frazer and how evangelicals who largely make up the "Christian America" crowd have a tight definition of "Christianity." Gregg's message to them is if we define "Christian" this way, the key FFs weren't Christian and America's Founding political theology was not "Christianity." But Gregg's thesis goes beyond simply the evangelical definition of "Christianity" which might exclude Roman Catholicism, but rather defines "Christianity" by its historic orthodoxy (i.e., the Nicene Creed) which includes, among others Roman Catholics, Anglicans, etc. All of the official Churches in 18th Century America save the Quakers adhered to this lowest common denominator understanding of "Christianity." BUT, by these standards America's key Founding Fathers and its political theology were not provably "Christian."

The irony is, this is not necessarily a "loss" for orthodoxy, but a victory. This definition concedes "Trinitarian orthodoxy" as the authentic historical understanding of the faith. A victory for orthodoxy in this regard, however, requires sacrificing American political theology as authentically Christian. Consequently a more broadly defined, ecumenical, perhaps theologically liberal bar lowering for "what is Christianity?" arguably leads to the conclusion that America did have a "Christian" Founding.

One of my American Creation co-bloggers, Eric Alan Isaacson, a prominent attorney and a Unitarian Universalist, gave his understanding of "what is Christianity" in a comment at Positive Liberty, responding to my contention that Mormons might not be "Christians" as so historically defined:

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

So ultimately whether the key FFs were "Christian" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" boils down to how one approaches the issue, how one defines "Christianity." One could say America's key Founders were "Christians" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" in a broader unitarian sense of the term.

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