Sunday, December 06, 2009

False Dichotomies:

At American Creation King of Ireland asks:

Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?


Which Christian ideas, if any, helped try to derail us from progressing toward the modern world?

One of the most difficult things we argue over is what is a "Christian principle"? My co-blogger Tom Van Dyke argues that since the rejection of original sin, trinity, atonement, eternal damnation (i.e., the ideas of Revs. Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy) was done by men in Christendom (indeed rejecting these tenets predates the Enlightenment) these constitute "Christian principles" along with the alternative more traditionally orthodox teachings on the matter.

I'm not accusing TVD or KOI of having committed the following mistake, but it is one that I see both the religious right and secular left make (the religious right, as I observe, makes it more often): Constructing a false dichotomy of viewing Founding era ideology as either "Christian" (or sometimes "Judeo-Christian," which they never properly distinguish from "Christian") or "secular" and then arguing for one of the two positions. The "Christians v. Deists" paradigm is just a variant of this false dichotomy.

Most serious scholars of whatever ideological inclination recognize numerous ideological influences, perhaps as many as 4 or 5 dominant strains. Bernard Bailyn noted 5: Greco-Roman, Common Law, Christianity, Whig, and Enlightenment. The ideological origins of the American Founding represented a synthesis of these five. The ideas are not mutually exclusive; some ideas/thinkers "fit" in more than one box. They bleed into different boxes. And further we rightly argue over what belongs in what box and ultimately which of the five dominated. For instance, Gregg Frazer sees Drs. Mayhew's & Chauncy's rejection of original sin, trinity, atonement, eternal damnation as "Enlightenment." Tom Van Dyke sees these as part of dissenting "Christianity."

Another problem, one I see David Barton and his followers oft-make, is appealing to the Founders' authority. No doubt sometimes the Founders were right, brilliantly so. But not always. For instance, just because Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant guy, vehemently denied the Trinity doesn't mean the Trinity doesn't exist. They tended to claim Christianity, properly understood, went hand in hand with natural rights and republicanism. Yet, I see these ideas coming from sources outside of "Christianity." Republicanism has nothing to do with the Bible and traces to the West's Greco-Roman heritage (though as the FFs articulated "republicanism," it was uniquely 18th Century) .

As men of the Enlightenment the Founders tended to see what was "rational" in all worldly sources. And both republicanism and monotheism were "rational"; hence these things could found in the Bible, the classical world, and so on. John Adams for instance saw monotheistic Providentialism in Hinduism and Zeus worship. Their anti-Catholic blinders led them to almost entirely ignore Thomas Aquinas when they spoke of "Nature"; but they did properly credit Aristotle. Again, he/they may have been wrong on many of these claims.

By presenting republicanism and natural rights as authentically Christian, they could have been (arguably they did) importing ideas foreign to biblical Christianity. By way of example, many leading Whig figures -- Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Ezra Stiles, Bishop James Madison -- also claimed that the ideals of the French Revolution -- a universalism of liberty, equality and fraternity -- went hand in hand with Christianity. Indeed "republicanism," as America's Founders articulated it, had more to do with the ideals of the French Revolution than the Bible.

Indeed, using David Barton's method, one could easily claim the French Revolution on behalf of "Christian principles." Men like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price were not just devout theists, but believed Jesus the Messiah. AND they believed in the millennium. Indeed, they thought that the success of the French Revolution would usher in the return of Christ who would establish a millennial republic of liberty, equality and fraternity across the globe. (Likewise George Bush and his neo-con advisers believed success in Iraq would usher in a liberal democratic domino affect in the Middle East.) Barton might note secular society teaches only Christian fanatics believe in the millennium and the second coming, how Joseph Priestley and Richard Price were even more "Christian" than most of today's evangelicals (as I've heard him claim on Jefferson and Franklin).

But I think we understand the "French Revolution" was not an event of "Christian principles." And arguably neither was the American or the concept of a natural rights republic. This is regardless of what the promoters of said ideas try to pass off as "Christian."

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