Monday, October 26, 2009

John Adams Addresses A Nation of Christians & more on what is "Christianity"?:

For perspective, my American Creation co-blogger Tom Van Dyke reproduced a public address John Adams made as President. Adams said in 1797:

"I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect."


This hits upon an important point; the "key Founding Fathers," in their public addresses, especially as their role as the first four Presidents of the United States, did their best not to ruffle the feathers of "the orthodox" or any powerful, socially viable branch of Christianity. Indeed the internal theory of their Founding politics demanded "consent" of the governed, many (perhaps the majority) of whom were "orthodox."

Jefferson too. In his second inaugural he stated:

I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.


I think this and John Adams' above sentiments were sincere; however both are consistent with unitarianism or what has been termed "theistic rationalism." These same first four Presidents could turn around while addressing unconverted Native Americans and speak as though their "Great Spirit" God was the same one that Jews, Christians, Muslims and Unitarians worshipped.

If there is an incompatibility between orthodox Christianity and the American Founding Presidential political theology, it's that the latter is too ecumenical. Orthodox Christianity is not eccumenical; it believes Christ the only way to God. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics can gather together over their shared belief in Nicene orthodoxy; but the America's Founding political theology went further.

I noted this on an evangelical thread (I choose this thread because the smartest, most well educated evangelicals tend to comment there AND the blog has high standards for civility) where I pose a question that most folks there have trouble answering. I noted the "key Founders" tended to present their theological opinions under the auspices of "Christianity" and greatly respected CERTAIN tenets about "Christianity." But...the million $$ question:

“What is Christianity without original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible?” Whatever it calls itself, is it still "Christianity" or some "other" theological system?

I don't think there is a clear cut answer; the answer depends on one's premises or definitions.

The irony is -- and I'm all about playing up delicious philosophic irony -- those who most loudly and popularly defend the "Christian Nation" idea have a tight definition of "Christianity" and are likeliest to term such a theology as "not Christian." In other words, they evaluate what is a "Christian" as it relates to "their beliefs on doctrines of salvation." Gregg Frazer doesn't even do this when he constructs a definition of late 18th Century "Christianity" that excludes what the first four Presidents believed. Gregg forms a 10 point lowest common denominator among the creeds of the largest "Christian" sects in 18th Century America. And this includes Roman Catholics and Anglicans who would not pass the "born again"/salvation standard of evangelicals.

In other words, while it's still a tight test, Dr. Frazer's is a rung lower (or broader) than the evangelical/salvation test for Christianity.

This is a point evangelicals need to understand. When they hear folks like David Barton claim George Washington was a "Christian," they hear in their minds a "born again" or "regenerate" Christian.

Some folks believe this to the point of delusion. I was shocked once debating a seemingly intelligent evangelical blogger who claimed that while St. Augustine probably wasn't a "Christian," George Washington was. What nonsense.

Again -- delicious irony -- the "Protestant Christianity" of orthodox evangelicals of both today and the Founding era is, despite whatever differences they might have, theologically CLOSER to Roman Catholicism than what George Washington or John Locke PROVABLY believed. After all, Roman Catholics believe in the Nicene Creed, some might even say, they WROTE the creed and constructed the biblical canon. And neither Washington nor Locke provably believed "in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, the atonement, or justification by faith." Roman Catholics believe in all of these things.

My million dollar question remains. I'm interested in the different answers and defenses thereto.

3 comments:

polymathis said...

"This is a point evangelicals need to understand. When they hear folks like David Barton claim George Washington was a "Christian," they hear in their minds a "born again" or "regenerate" Christian."

Thank you for pointing out what evangelical leaders should have known. The problem is that too many such leaders depend upon secondary sources or poor scholarship.

"What is Christianity without original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible?” Whatever it calls itself, is it still "Christianity" or some "other" theological system?"

"I don't think there is a clear cut answer; the answer depends on one's premises or definitions."

This is a question evangelicals need to answer given that more of them (see Barna studies) show that they are becoming broader theologically.

You already answered your own question. I would agree but prefer to nuance it. There are at least (?) three definitions: legal, historical and confessional (last two maybe the same...). I prefer the Confessional definitions of the Reformation and the Six Ecumenical Creeds.

It avoids subjective/individual definitions by using more objective/public definitions.

Thank you for pointing out the implicit cultural religious environment and how these Founders dealt with it. They certainly spoke the language of Christianity all the while using their own private definitions.

Our Founding Truth said...

The million dollar question? I believe my second to last post answers your question. The key to Christian Orthodoxy is tied to James 3:23.

The Scriptures are VERY clear on the essentials you mentioned, not contradictory as 18th century unitarians make them out to be. For example, the unitarians, instead of understanding the text in a consistent manner, reject the blatant references to Jesus' Deity, exposing contradictions within the text.

St. Augustine spoke about the New Birth. Usually, if someone is clueless about the New Birth, they haven't received it.

If James Madison is near representative of his community, the great majority of framers were calvinists.

That the framers changed their theological views has been vastly overlooked by the scholarly community.

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