Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Adams and the "Awful Blasphemy" Quote:

I got an email from Joe Talmadge, a physicist at UW-Madison on the context of the following letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson which features the "awful blasphemy" quote that is sometimes/often repeated.

Recently I came across this quote from John Adams and I am genuinely puzzled as to what it means.

It's from Adams' letter to Jefferson, January 22, 1825.

"Your university is a noble employment in your old age and your ardor for its success does you honor but I do not approve of your sending to Europe for tutors and professors. I do believe there are sufficient scholars in America to fill your professorships and tutorships with more active ingenuity and independent minds than you can bring from Europe. The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices both ecclesiastical and temporal which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."

I know who Herschel and Newton are, but I am puzzled what Adams is driving at. Here are a few questions:

1- What "great Principle" is Adams talking about?
2- How would Adams characterize Newton's and Hershel's universe?
3- I presume that "this little ball" is the Earth. How did this "great Principle" come down to the Earth.
4- Why in the world would it be "spit upon by Jews"? How would Adams characterize Jewish theology?
5- What prejudices does Adams perceive of Europeans, that they are so tainted with?
6- Am I wrong in perceiving that Adams is sympathetic with Newton and Hershel?
Then why would Europeans be so opposed to their ideas? Why would American scholars be more sympathetic?
7- What "awful blasphemy" is Adams talking about?
8- What is "liberal science"? As opposed to ....?

I'm not sure how to answer all 8 questions (perhaps I'll let my readers do some of the work for me). However, I always assumed the "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, because many other scholars read the passage that way. And apparently (?) Adams is worried that the Europeans Jefferson is trying to recruit will be too orthodox? I would have thought Adams -- a more moderate unitarian than Jefferson -- might be worried that Jefferson's European recruits would be too deistic. But it seems Adams is going in the other direction.

I don't know anything about Hershel but Adams and company loved Issac Newton (one of the first Enlightenment figures) and the rational scientific unitarian Christianity that Newton stood for.

The reader followed up with two other messages:

What I find puzzling is that if "awful blasphemy" refers to the Trinity, then it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the sentence before it. To me it appears he is contrasting the boundless universe of Newton and Herschel to a worldview that focuses only on what is happening on the Earth. Maybe I'm just not seeing how the Trinity folds into this. And why would Jews spit on this view? Did Jews of his time have a more expansive view of the universe? I can't imagine so. If the blasphemy was about the Trinity, then yes, Jews wouldn't agree with a Trinitarian view of religion. But they would reject all of Christian doctrine anyway --- why just pick on the Trinity? The whole thing is quite puzzling to me.


Going back to the quote, "They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world."

William Herschel
was a brilliant astronomer and musician. But he had his quirks. One of them was his belief that the universe was full of life -- that life existed even on the surface of the sun.

Could Adams be possibly saying that Europeans believe that in this great and infinite universe brimming with life everywhere, god, the great principle which made all this, picked of all places this little speck of dust, Earth, that lies in the great vastness, to send his son to be spit upon by Jews? The blasphemy is the concept that god would pick this one spot to show up in mortal form. And until this blasphemy is removed, the progress of science will be hindered.

I admit that this is far-fetched, doesn't accord with anything else I know of Adams, but yet it seems to be an explanation that makes sense (to me) based on what I'm reading. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Honestly I don't know other than it seems J. Adams is ranting about disagreements he had with orthodox Christians in Europe. Doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and Eternal Damnation really rubbed Adams the wrong way.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

JDs and Government:

I have a JD (and an MBA and LL.M., all from Temple). That's the degree you get when you graduate from a "school of law," necessary to become a licensed attorney in the United States.

America produces lots of JDs. Arguably too many. For the average JD graduate in America, it's not easy to find a good paying (i.e., six figures or something close) law practice job.

There are other things one can do with a JD. Though, like getting a good job as an attorney, none is easy to attain. You can, like me, teach at the college level. And, for full time tenure track positions (positions that actually pay $$ off of which you can live) these jobs are harder to secure and pay less than successful law practice positions. (And at my college -- though this is not the case all colleges -- a JD is for pay and promotion a terminal degree, equivalent to a PhD). Some notable writers on political and other matters are JDs. Further, a JD may qualify you for various public and private human resources management type positions.

Or you can become a politician. Now, there are no official academic credentials required of politicians. You are either elected or appointed. And plenty are not JDs. Though JDs seem to be the vastly overrepresented credential among elected officials at most if not all levels of government.

It seems that half of the modern Presidents were JDs (Obama, Clinton, Ford, Nixon, with LBJ being a law school drop out). The other half not (GW and GHW Bush, Reagan, Carter, LBJ being a law school drop out).

The last six governors of New York were JDs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) with Nelson Rockefeller the last governor of NY to not have a JD.

Do readers know of any good articles or studies on the matter (how many politicians have JDs?).
Slavery and the Christian Nation Thesis:

Chattel Slavery presents a damned if you do damned if you don't dilemma for the Christian Nation thesis.

I've read the texts that deal with slavery in the Bible and I have concluded that the Bible does not abolish chattel slavery. When confronted with proof-texts like Colossians 3:22 -- "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord." -- I am unconvinced by the responses that such really wasn't chattel slavery, but something else. They strike me as "weasel out" responses.

And Colossians 3:22 isn't the only place the Bible seems to indicate it's "okay" with slavery. I don't read the Bible as commanding slavery. But rather, not abolishing it, that is permitting it.

The anti-liberationist view of orthodox Christianity does provide a rational response. Look, life is a vapor and what matters is where you spend eternity. If you are a slave and a Christian and your master is unsaved, in terms of cosmic reality, you are in a FAR better position than him.

The anti-slavery biblical position strikes me as a liberationist reading of the Bible. And I see biblical liberationism using more of a "loose" hermeneutic (that is, not the proof texting, the Bible is the inerrant infallible Word of God hermeneutic).

Benjamin Rush is a good example of an orthodox Christian Founding Father who was a biblical liberationalist. Not only did Rush believe Christianity, properly understood, abolished slavery and commanded republicanism, but also that the Bible taught universal salvation and abolished the death penalty in the New Testament.

But...there are uber-orthodox, proof texter types who do believe the Bible does not support slavery. Gregg Frazer (of John MacArthur's church and university) is one. Now one could argue, in this modern age where the question of slavery is "settled," they are trying to do PR work for the Bible/orthodox Christianity.

Yet, not all of the anti-slavery biblicists from the Founding era were Benjamin Rush types or unitarians. In fact, some very notable anti-slavery activists of that era were uber-orthodox.

Tom Van Dyke points me to a resource of biblical arguments historically used against slavery.

And that brings us to the damned if you do damned if you don't aspect of slavery and the Christian Nation thesis. The Founding Fathers -- not all but a good number of notables -- owned slaves. And the Founding made concessions with slavery. If permitting slavery is an authentic "Christian principle," then so much for "Christian principles."

And if it's not, then that's one glaring aspect of the American Founding that contradicts "Christian principles."

In fact, one of the uber-orthodox Calvinist covenanter types -- Rev. James Renwick Willson -- who decried the godlessness of the US Constitution and the infidelity of America's Founding Fathers, was an anti-slavery activist. And he used the fact that the Founding Fathers practiced and made concessions with slavery as a key argument for why America didn't have a "Christian" Founding.

As he wrote, in 1832:

6. Millions of men are held in bondage, under the most solemn sanction of the United States Constitution. Slaves had been introduced into the colony of Virginia, by a Dutch slave trader, many years before the commencement of the Revolution. The planters of the southern colonies, had formed the habit of executing their labor by slaves. Many, indeed a great majority of the people of the northern and middle states, were always adverse to Negro slavery. The members of the convention from the north were opposed, generally, to the slave trade. Yet some of the Boston and Rhode Island merchants had embarked a large capital in this traffic. The members from the south refused to accede to the formation of a permanent bond of union, unless their right both to hold slaves and to import them, was guaranteed by the constitution. Perhaps no topic excited in the convention a deeper interest than this one. Notwithstanding all that had been taught in the Declaration of Independence, all the treasure that had been expended, and all the blood that had been shed in the cause of freedom, yet the convention did guarantee the right of importing slaves, from the time of the adoption of the constitution until the 1st of January, 1808—a period of twenty years, three months, and thirteen days. I am thus particular, for every one of these days and even the hours must be accounted for to Messiah the Prince, "who came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."

The constitution says:—"The migration, or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808." Art. I, Sec. IV, Specification I. The Convention blushed to name the Negro slaves and the slave trade, and used a circumlocution, as if a figure of speech would conceal that iniquity for which conscience was chiding them, when the article was penned and ratified. It will not avail to say, that the deed was merely passing it by. It was much more. The slave ships, with cargoes of African slaves, were as much under the protection of the American stars and stripes, as the flannel of Britain, or the bar iron of Sweden. It was a national slave trade.

As this species of property was acquired, under the sanction of the constitution, so it is retained under a solemn national guaranty. The United States are the slave holders, as well as the several states, and the individual masters. "Direct taxes," says the constitution, "shall be apportioned among the several states, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined, by adding to the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of all other persons." U. S. Con. Art. 1. Sec. II. Specification II. These "other persons" are slaves, an abominable term, which they were as before ashamed to employ, while they sanctioned the evil. These slaves are then taxable property, by the letter and spirit of the constitution. So the article is expounded by Federalist, written by Messrs. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, and by all writers on the national jurisprudence, who are quoted as the best authority. "The federal constitution, therefore decides, with great propriety, on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and property." Imported under the protection of the American flag, and secured to their owners by the plighted faith of the nation, as property, they are now held by the nation, as a part of its wealth; "when," to use the words of Mr. Jay in The Federalist, "a tariff of contribution is to be adjusted." Fed. No. LV, p. 296.

This doctrine is more distinctly laid down in other parts of the Constitution. "The United States shall protect each of them (the states) against domestic violence." Art. IV, Sec. IV. "Domestic violence" is a phrase, which, in this connection can neither be misunderstood, nor explained away. Since the slaves are taxed as the property of the nation, the constitution pledges the power of the U. States to sustain the master against any violent measures that the slave may employ to recover his freedom.

Again, "No person held to service or labor, in one state, under the laws thereof; escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due." U. S. Con., Art. I., Sec. IV. If the slave escapes from the state where he is enslaved, to another, where there are no slaves; that other is bound by the Constitution to deliver him up to the master who claims him.

Slavery indeed, is made one of the pillars of the government. "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, three-fifths of all other persons." Hence, the holding of Africans in bondage, is made one of the pillars, on which the fabric of American freedom is made to rest; thus committing the twofold evil of making slavery essential to the constitution, and of violating the holy and benign doctrine of representation, which is the palladium of religious and civil liberty.

That slave property is guaranteed by the constitution, has been solemnly decided by the representatives of the nation, in many legislative acts. After protracted argument, in Congress, on the question of admitting Missouri, with her slave holding constitution, into the Union, it was decided in favor of her admission, on the ground that slaves are held under constitutional guaranty.

Congress has passed many laws, on the subject of slavery. By one act, the United States courts are vested with jurisdiction, in questions arising under the slave trade. By another, the mode is prescribed in which runaway-slaves shall be reclaimed and restored to their masters in the non-slave-holding states. By the several acts of Congress, fixing the ratio for representation, the doctrine and the practice of slavery are recognized (See Gorden’s and Brown’s Digests of the laws of the United States.). Many laws passed for the government of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, before they became states; all of the Floridas, and District of Columbia, now under territorial regime, respect slaves.[4]

In all the territories, the United States government is the slave-holder; for the political sovereignty of the territory, is vested in no intermediate authority. All the slave laws of the District of Columbia are enacted by the federal legislature. No jurist in the nation has ever presumed to maintain, however adverse many of them are to slavery, that these legislative acts of Congress are unconstitutional.

In addition to all this mass of evidence, it may be added, that numerous cases have been, and are every year decided in the courts, in applying these acts; and every judge holds himself bound, by his oath of office, to apply the laws against the African slave, whenever any question arises, on the right of tenure between him and his master.

The late insurrection of the slaves in North Carolina and Virginia, has been quelled by the United States troops, ordered out by the President, as executor of the laws of the United States. So then, we have; 1st, the convention that framed the Constitution, embodying slavery in several parts of the fundamental law of the commonwealth. 2. The federal legislature enacting laws, under the provisions of the constitution. 3. The judiciary applying the law in adjudications of slave questions. 4. The chief executive magistrate enforcing slavery by the army of the United States.

Slavery is interwoven with the whole web and texture of the federal government. All this is in direct opposition to the 4th amendment to the constitution, which provides, that:—

"No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." By what "due process of law" has the African been deprived of his liberty? Was it a "due process of law" to make war on the unoffending tribes of Africa, waste and destroy whole populous nations, and seize, bind in chains, and sell to the southern planters, a shipload of MEN? In 1830, there were in the United States 2,010,575 Africans, deprived of their liberty, by no other process of law, than that of wasting and destroying countries; and of binding and selling the unoffending children of poverty.

The United States legislature has passed sentence on their own doings. By a law passed since 1808, the slave trade is declared to be piracy.

In the whole annals of legislation, where shall we find any thing analogous to this? After prosecuting this trade nationally, for twenty years, three months, and thirteen days, Congress declares the doings of slave traders piracy; though they had traded under the protection of the national flag. What are we to infer, respecting him who holds property which he acknowledges to have been acquired by piracy? But there has been no national acknowledgment of the sin against God and man—no asking of pardon from God—no restitution. It is not wonderful that the United States Senator from Rhode Island, who had amassed a large estate by trading in slaves, always voted in the negative on the passage of the piracy bill through the Senate. We may well believe, that he saw before his mind’s eye, the pirate’s gibbet.

On the subject of the evil thus sanctioned by the highest human authority in this nation, Mr. Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, pp. 240-1, makes the following, among other very impressive observations:—"The whole commerce, between master and slave, is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other."—"The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals, undepraved by such circumstances."—"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"—"That they are to be violated but with his wrath?" The following sentiment, though a thousand times quoted, will bear to be many times yet repeated:—"Indeed, I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just; and that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among probable events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference. The Almighty has no attribute which can take part with us in such a contest."—"With what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other?" Twelve states do all this now, solemnly, deliberately, and under the forms of law. The convention that framed the National Constitution have done this. The United States Congress, Senate, and Executive, have been doing this, for more than forty-four years. They have thus dishonored Messiah the Prince, who is the friend of liberty; for he came to "proclaim Liberty to the captive, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."

These moral evils embodied in the doctrines of the fundamental law of the empire, have produced practical results, over which every true disciple of Christ, and Christian patriot, will mourn.

Right after that Rev. Willson explains why the "key Founders" were not Christians but infidels, not more than "unitarians."

1st. Ungodly men have occupied, and do now occupy, many of the official stations, in the government.[5] The clause of the Constitution, barring all moral qualifications, has not been a dead letter. There have been seven Presidents of the United States—and of each of them it may be said, as Jehovah says of the kings of Israel, after the revolt of the ten tribes, "He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord."

Washington was raised up, in the providence of God, like Cyrus of Persia, and qualified for great achievements.—He was an able captain, and an instrument of much temporal good, as a statesman. Few, if any, prominent men, in any nation, have been endowed by the common gifts of the Spirit, with more ennobling qualities than the first President of this nation. His fame fills the civilized world. It is to the honor of the Protestant Religion, that this country produced such a man. What was Bolivar compared with Washington? All this praise may be awarded to one who, like the amiable young man in the gospel, "went away from Jesus sorrowful, because he had great possessions."

There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life.[6] In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God. General eulogy, by a Weems, or a Ramsey, will not satisfy an enlightened enquirer. The faith of the real believer in the word of God, is a principle so powerfully operative, that you cannot conceal "its light under a bushel." "It works by love." "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." Is it probable that he was a true believer in Jesus Christ and his Bible, when in times so trying, and in a Christian nation, he wrote thousands of letters, and yet never uttered a word, from which it can be fairly inferred that he was a believer? Who ever questioned whether Theodosius or Charlemagne believed the Bible? "He that is not against us is for us." And it is as true, that he who is not for us, is against us.
Hawking Vets Sci Fi Narrative as Possible Reality:

The article doesn't say this but that's what I take from it.

Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

And that was the plot of how many Sci Fi movies and books?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

What Am I a Potted Plant? Do I Qualify?

Probably not.

Paul Caron did a law prof. blog ranking. He listed the criteria:

These rankings cover only those blogs edited by law professors. Other law-related blogs edited by practitioners, librarians, non-law school academics, and journalists are not included on this list: e.g., Above the Law, How Appealing, Law Librarian Blog, Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

Well I do teach law at the community college level. I don't think that "counts" on Caron's list. But if it did, if you examine Positive Liberty's sitemeter, we'd be somewhere in the top 25-30.

We'd be about as important as Mirror of Justice, the Catholic law prof blog, that includes, among others, Robert P. George of Princeton, Rick Garnett of Notre Dame, Michael Perry of Emory, and Gregory Alexander of Cornell.
Our First Liberation Theologists:

They probably weren't "the" first; but they were our (that is America's) first.

This collection of "Political Sermons of the American Founding," Ellis Sandoz, ed. provides extremely informative material that illustrates the political-theological dimension of the American Founding.

The collection includes not just the most notable "Whig" sermons, but also some "Tory" loyalists.

I've long studies this dynamic and am known for seeming to endorse an understanding of "Christianity" that is anti-liberationist.

As it were, the "liberty" the Bible speaks of is entirely spiritual (freedom from sin or its consequences) not political at all. Jesus didn't overturn one social institution, not political tyranny, not divine right of kings, not chattel slavery.

And Christianity, properly understood, is entirely compatible chattel slavery and demands believers submit to government period, even if said government is a pagan tyranny as was Nero's, arguably the ruler Paul told believers to submit to in Romans 13.

Now I am not a "Christian." So it's really not up to me to personally endorse any version of the faith or say who gets to be a Christian. For my own personal reasons, anyone who calls himself a "Christian" gets to be one, even if he is an atheist. Jefferson thought himself a Christian and certainly passes my very easy to pass test for what is a "Christian."

But my own personal reasons are just that. There are competing definitions of what Christianity means. And some take their faith more seriously and define it more narrowly.

The Church itself, since at least 325 AD, has carefully guarded orthodoxy and put heretics in not a good place. There is interesting debate on whether heretics merit the label "Christian." I've uncovered quite a bit from orthodox believers who answer that question negatively. There's more to come.

Perhaps heretics merit the label "Christian" as an adjective, but not as a noun. Arians and Socinians, (or to use more current examples Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses) as it were, are not "Christians," but believe in a "Christian-heresy."

But to bring us back to Sandoz's collection, historically up throughout the Protestant Reformation, the understanding of Christianity and liberation that I outlined above (I would argue) prevailed. That is, the "orthodox" guardians of the faith did not endorse the notions that the Bible teaches political liberty rights, a right to revolt against tyrants, any more than it teaches Arianism or Socinianism.

But if you look for *thought* that predates the Enlightenment that questioned the prevailing orthodoxy, you'll almost certainly find it. Indeed, "Christian" figures from the Enlightenment tended to embrace Arianism, something that goes back to 325 AD. Ditto with theological universalism (universal salvation, something in which a number of notable early church fathers believed).

It was after Henry the VIII, Luther and Calvin (all of whom, by the way, were with the Roman Catholic Church in endorsing the notion that men do not have God given rights to political and religious liberty, to revolt against tyrants, etc.) -- after much schismatism -- did authorities question their traditional understanding of the Bible and political liberty.

An interlocutor, trying to find official Catholic sources for the idea of resisting tyranny (I'm sure there is much "lower" Roman Catholic chatter, but we were trying to find top down authoritative sources), pointed me to POPE PIUS V'S BULL AGAINST ELIZABETH (1570).

Well, it doesn't say anything about believers having a God given right to resist tyranny, tyrants losing their Romans 13 status as "rulers," or "rulers" somehow having to pass a test of "godliness" or justice in order to qualify as "rulers." But it does speak of "usurpation."

And indeed, were there not a "usurpation" of power by Henry the VIII, the Church wouldn't have dealt with the circumstance in England POPE PIUS V'S BULL discusses.

But it was during that period -- after Henry the VIII, Luther and Calvin -- problems with persecution within Christendom (Catholic persecuting Protestants, vice-versa and Protestants persecuting each other) lead to more "liberation" talk. So much so that said talk became a "meme" within Christendom. And it was mainly those on the receiving end who did the loudest talking.

And Sandoz's collection features when the Christian liberation talk reached fever pitch.

The million $$ question, though, is: Is it sound theology? On a personal level, as a non-Christian, I really don't have an answer.

But I can make an analogy: I see the pro-liberty sermons in Sandoz's collection as classically liberal liberation theology. And that kind of liberation theology is about as authentically Christian and hermeneutically sound as modern collectivist liberation theology.

[The most notable anti-liberationist present day evangelical preacher is, of course, John MacArthur. You can hear him discuss the liberation theology of the emergent church here. The funny thing is every single criticism of MacArthur towards them could be raised against the Patriotic Preachers featured in Sandoz's collection.]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Stone on the Texas Education Controversy:

I missed this last month when he wrote it. A distinguished professor of law at University of Chicago, Stone is, like it or not, one of the most important law professors in the nation if not the world.

A taste:

... [A] coterie of Christian evangelicals ... are attempting to infiltrate our educational system in order to brainwash the youth of America. They are in Texas.

For reasons peculiar to the textbook industry and the Texas educational system, the Texas Board of Education has enormous influence on the content of textbooks used throughout the United States. Conservatives and Christian evangelicals have taken over the Texas Board of Education and they are right now in the process of rewriting the American history our children will learn.

Among the propositions the Texas Board of Education is attempting to impose upon the next generation of Americans is that the United States was founded as "a Christian nation." What follows from this, of course, is that our Constitution and laws must be understood through the prism of this perspective. Although evangelicals have been pushing this line for two centuries, it is simply, factually, and historically false. But the members of the Texas Board of Education, who are not themselves historians, nonetheless persist in this effort to propagandize the youth of America. This is dangerous. It must be contested.

Christianity played a central role in the promulgation of early colonial legal codes. The Bible was the rock and foundation of early colonial law, and the Puritans, in particular, injected a fierce religious fervor into their laws. In 1636, for example, only sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they adopted the "judicials of Moses," which provided that any person "shall be put to death" who "shall have or worship any other God, but the Lord God." Similarly, the 1656 "Lawes of Government" of New Haven colony expressly declared that "the Supreme power of making Lawes belongs to God only" and that "Civill courts are the Ministers of God."

By the late seventeenth century, however, the strict religious foundations of colonial law had crumbled. With the influx of large numbers of immigrants from widely diverse religious, ethnic and social backgrounds, the old Puritan beliefs and institutions faded, and as the new Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, the "pursuit of happiness," and the power of reason spread through the New World, traditional sources of authority were increasingly called into question.

With fresh energy and bold new ideas, eighteenth-century Americans sought to achieve a profound transformation in their society, their government, their politics, and their religion. The great American experiment was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment. In an Enlightened Age, -- an age dedicated to reason rather than revelation -- even the authority of Christianity was open to challenge.

The Framers of the American system of government were often quite critical of what they saw as Christianity's excesses and superstitions. They fervently believed that people should be free to seek truth through the use of reason and they concluded that a secular state, establishing no religion but tolerating all, best served that end.

Unlike the later French Revolution, the American Revolution was not a revolution against Christianity itself. But as men of the Enlightenment, most of the Framers did not put much stock in traditional Christianity. As broad-minded intellectuals and skeptics, they viewed much of religious doctrine as divisive, dangerous and irrational, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of conventional Christianity.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Balkin @ Princeton:

If I have time on Wed. maybe I can fit this into my very busy schedule.


Jack Balkin, creator of the well-known blog Balkinization (, will speak on “Fidelity and Flux: How We Build Our Constitution” at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 28, in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall, on the Princeton University campus.

The lecture, to be deliverd as the Sixth Annual Donald S. Bernstein '75 Lecture, is free and open to the public and is sponsored by Princeton University's Program in Law and Public Affairs.

“When we interpret the U.S. Constitution, the opposition between originalism and living constitutionalism is a false dichotomy; understanding why the best versions of these positions are compatible helps us understand how legitimate constitutional change occurs over time,” said Balkin, the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. “Constitutional fidelity is grounded on faith: faith in the constitutional project, and faith that the constitutional system as a whole is worthy of our respect or will come to be so over time, even if important aspects today are imperfect and unjust. Interpretive fidelity requires faith in the redeemability of the Constitution over time.”

Dale Coulter on the Founders' Non-Sectarianism:

He is a professor of divinity at Regent University. Yet, I have a hard time finding anything to disagree with in the following assertion of his:

At their best, the founders conceived of a separation in which no sectarian position gained the upper hand, and that is what has resulted. In a living, breathing body politic this means that all sectarian positions must have their say. The govt. does not endorse any single one because it implicitly endorses all of them, including the atheist, precisely by endorsing religious liberty or liberty of conscience, and grounding that liberty in human nature itself, which precedes any social compact. The atheist has to make room for a Muslim in the same way that a Baptist has to make room for a Catholic, etc. This means that the atheist must put up with religious language or activities as part of govt. events in the same way that Catholics have to put up with Baptists praying the inaugural prayer, etc., etc.
Competing Traditions & Abstract Ideals that Trump Dominant Historical Practice:

"A federal judge in Wisconsin declared Thursday that the US law authorizing a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional," the Christian Science Monitor reports. Eugene Volokh discussed it here. And Joe Carter/First Things discussed it here.

Francis Beckwith commented there:

... What is interesting about Crabb’s opinion is that it treats anti-establishment as a highly abstract principle about which history has no bearing. It would be like interpreting the public park prohibition–”No vehicles allowed”–as including Big Wheels and baby carriages without any reference to common practice or the meaning understood by the city council that passed the ordinance.

Ahistorical jurisprudence is an oxymoron.

Well, I don't quite see it that way. And I don't see the Michael Newdow types as flying in from Mars and arguing principles that have nothing to do with the Founding. To the contrary, Newdow quotes the Founders (accurately and in the proper spirit) quite a bit.

Bear with me one bit for why.

I noted in the comments sometimes the broadly abstracted ideals of the Founding era must trump dominant historical practice.

If we interpret what the Founders SAID in their broad rhetoric through what they DID, in practice, one could rightly argue what America was all about is granting equal liberty rights to white propertied Protestant males.

That's what Barry Shain (paleoconservative) argues along with the anti-American Left.

It's impossible for the American Founding to take the moral high ground if America was all about privileging white propertied Protestant males. And the only way out of that dilemma is to abstract ideals from the Founding that sometimes trump dominant historical practice.

Professor Dale Coulter interestingly noted there was much anti-slavery rhetoric during the American Founding and that anti-slavery sentiment and practice was a viable competing tradition, along with pro-slavery sentiment and practice.

Therefore we use our reason and other supplementary principles to decide among competing historical traditions.

Likewise with religion, there were competing traditions during the American Founding. One tradition held only certain kinds of belief are entitled to full liberty and equality rights (I'm hesitant to say "Protestant only" because each state had its own varied way of deciding who got what rights). The other held religious rights applied universally to all citizens.

That brings us to what Michael Newdow argues: “Hey we atheists are citizens too, entitled to equal respect.”

And I agree with them in that regard. However, I just don’t agree that government words really harm them in such a tangible way that it necessarily rises to the level of an individual constitutional right to be free from hearing or seeing government messages that make them feel like unequal citizens.

But without question, much of Newdow's rhetoric resonates with much of what was said during the Founding era, especially James Madison whom Newdow often quotes.

And I'm glad to see Professor Coulter agreed, in principle, with the latter, broader more generous tradition of the American Founding that holds everyone's conscience, including that of the atheist deserves equal respect.

The harder questions are how to get there in a 1) constitutional and 2) policy sense (the two aren't always supposed to be the same).

Do we need a naked public square where the state is always silent on religious beliefs? Or perhaps a more open pluralistic public square where the state, in its public supplications, sometimes says things that you or I agree with, sometimes not?

I'm willing to endorse the latter position as long as its understood that if the pious Christians get the state chaplain microphone, sometimes the Hindus and the atheists get it too.

And I think that pluralism perfectly "fits" with the ideals of the American Founding.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kick-Ass Disturbs Roger Ebert:

I find it strange because Ebert, as a reviewer, is not one to get disturbed. Or perhaps, Ebert prefers disturbing elements in movies to be shown for what they are and not whitewashed into "fun." (Which would explain Ebert's praise for among other very disturbing films, Good-fellas, A Clockwork Orange, and Pulp Fiction.)

Long story short: Ebert doesn't like a profane 11 year old girl killing bad guys and nearly getting killed herself.

Interestingly this is "Robin" (from Batman and Robin).

Alan Moore has noted Watchmen took (disturbing) elements that were always implicit and hiding underneath the surface of comic books (even when they appeared goody two shoes) and made them explicit.

In the TV shoes and movies, Robin was always played by someone over 18. In the comic books, the various Robins have been well under aged.

Frank Miller once noted if Batman were real, he'd be brought up on, among other things, endangering the welfare of a child charges.

And back in 1988 the Jason Todd Robin was brutally beaten to death by the Joker.

None of the live "Robins" in the big or small screen have well portrayed Robin. It will be interesting to see how the new Dark Knight franchise handles Robin, if at all.

But the animated Batman has already gone there. And, yes, it was arguably disturbing. But perhaps Ebert would like it because it's not a fun, comedic whitewash.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Jesus, Cato, & Caesar:

Well, I've facilitated discussions on Romans 13 and the American Founding that have almost beaten the horse to death. I've little dealt with Mark 12:17, where Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. ..."

Let's do so now. The passage, like many of Jesus' sayings, has specific and broader meanings. In the specific sense, Jesus recognized Caesar's temporal governmental authority over Him and His followers. In a broader sense, believers are to be subject to the civil government, pay their taxes and so on. And because the civil government Jesus recognized was that of pagan imperial Rome, logic instructs Jesus advanced institutional separation of church and state, where Christians can live under a "state" that is a pagan and un-godly entity as was Caesar's.

This parallels Romans 13 as I understand it. Most biblical scholars agree that the higher power St. Paul instructed believers to submit to -- in the literal instance, the specific example ordained by God -- was the pagan psychopath Nero.

In a symbolic sense, that would set a very low standard for "rulers" to meet in order to properly maintain their Romans 13 power.

Now, I've heard some orthodox believers argue Paul really wasn't telling believers to submit to Nero but rather to some ideal "godly" government because he said "rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil," and that they are "minister[s] of God to thee for good." As such, Nero or any tyrannical ruler wouldn't qualify.

But, when one puts Romans 13 together with Mark 12:17 that interpretation seems less biblically sound. In the latter, Jesus recognizes the civil legitimacy of an imperial pagan entity, arguably a tyranny. (By this time Rome ceased being a "republic" and was now an "empire.")

When the American Founders posited the notion "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," because they operated in a general Christian context, they had to deal with the Bible.

That notion is not "biblical." Whether it's "anti-biblical" (something the Bible forbids) or "a-biblical" (something the Bible doesn't teach, but doesn't necessarily forbid) is debatable. What's not debatable, in my very learned opinion, is the notion "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God," however nice it sounds, is NOT what the Bible teaches.

With Romans 13, while most of the "key Founders" ignored it (it ended up, with all of Paul's words, on Jefferson's cutting room floor), to satisfy the public (who may have been more concerned with the Bible) ministers like Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West offered "reasoned" explanations for why Romans 13, properly understood, didn't forbid revolt against tyranny.

But the Founders still had Jesus to deal with on government. And, unfortunately for them, Jesus' words offered no satisfaction for their plans on how to deal with tyrannical rulers. Indeed Gouvernor Morris lamented to George Washington the insufficiency of Jesus' words in this respect.

However, Jesus did inspire them. Whether they were orthodox Christians, Arians or Socinians, they thought Jesus the "best person," regardless of whether He (or he) was 2nd person in the Trinity or simply a man on a mission from God to save us through his (not His) perfect moral example. Jesus always did the right thing. So on how to conduct your personal affairs, follow Jesus.

George Washington's 1783 Circular to the States (not written by GW, but given under his imprimatur) "dispose[d] us ... to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation."

But there was a figure (how much of his example was actual history, how much literary embellishment, I do not know) who, unlike Jesus, did rebel against tyranny. In fact, a contemporary of Jesus, he rebelled against the same tyranny to which Jesus submitted: Cato the Younger. He purportedly committed suicide (not a very Christian act) rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar. He was, as it were, the last of the Roman republicans, after Rome transformed into an empire.

It was Joseph Addison's tragedy Cato that inspired the American Founders. Washington had this play performed for his "Christian" troops to inspire them.

Of course, if Jesus's words offered support for what Washington and the others did against the British they would have been used. But, alas, they didn't. So the Roman Stoic Cato filled in.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Family Guy on Mustaches:

So much truth to this clip.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Stephen Heersink, 1953-2009:

I never got on his bad side; but a lot of my co-blogger friends did. He was a spirited character! From Wayne Dynes:

Stephen Heersink was born in Central California on February 21, 1953 to a family of Dutch Calvinists. Recognizing that this background was somewhat narrow, in his senior year in college he sought instruction in Roman Catholic Scholasticism at a seminary in Berkeley. While resolutely secular in his mature views, Stephen knew a lot about the history of Christianity. In this way he was able to offer useful pointers concerning my ongoing manuscript on the Abrahamic religions.

At UC Berkeley and Mills College Stephen deeply immersed himself in analytic philosophy. While we disagreed on the value of that discipline, we both acknowledged a profound indebtedness to Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. A little later Stephen became a successful banker (a position from which he had retired). This background lent his analyses of the current economic crisis particular authority.

He was, of course, an unyielding defender of gay rights. It is appropriate, then, that his last posting was to felicitate the first gay marriages to achieve legal status in Latin America--in southern Argentina.
Catholics, Perspectives & the Founding:

Anti-Roman Catholic bigotry tied the "Protestant Christians" in America during the Founding era and for some time thereafter. This passage by the "Protestant Christian" Jonathan Mayhew in 1759 on Roman Catholicism & Quebec is instructive of the anti-Roman Catholic zeitgeist:

Dost thou not know, that those who fight for a Tyrant, will not fight like free-born Britons ? Perhaps thou thinketh thyself again at Ticonderoga—But dost thou not see, who it is at the head of that little veteran army, by his presence infusing courage enough into each breast, to make every man a hero ? Or, perhaps, thou thinkest thy relicks, thy crosses, and thy saints, either St. Peter, or thy great Lady, whom thou profanely stilest "The mother God," will now befriend, and make thee victorious. But remember, that little host now in array against thee, worship the God that made the heavens, earth, and seas, with all that they contain; the Lord of hosts is his name! His is the glory and the victory ; and know, that the event of this battle shall be accordingly! Cross thyself speedily, if thou thinkest it will be of any advantage to thee! Mercy to thy soul, notwithstanding violated faith at Lake George, once St. Sacrament! But alas! be assured, that yonder gloomy wood on thy right, affords not laurels, but cypress for thy brows!

I put "Protestant Christian" in quotation marks when describing Mayhew because he was a unitarian, that is someone who thought himself a "Christian" but was unorthodox.

It's ironic that orthodox Trinitarian Protestants might have found common ground with unitarians of the Founding era through anti-Roman Catholic bigotry. Given their shared common ground in historic orthodox Trinitarianism, arguably Trinitarian Protestants and Roman Catholics have more in common with one another, theologically, than either do with the "unitarianism" of Mayhew and many of America's key Founders and the other philosophers and divines who influenced them.

Yet, to many Catholics, Protestants like Mayhew and Trinitarian Calvinists are indeed in the same box: They are unorthodox heretics, deviating from the one true Church's official teachings.

In fact, I came across one such Roman Catholic, a very intelligent and accomplished American attorney, recently. He wrote:

For Catholic purposes, “orthodox” means accepting all of the Church’s teachings. One can accept the Nicene Creed but still be a heretic. ... But even assuming [Calvin accepted the Nicene Creed], it’s not enough, since he also (as I recall) denied the doctrine of free will, the communion of saints, and the sacrifice present in the Mass, which are fairly important doctrines. You and the modern theologians (whom I assume are Protestants) are free to use the term “orthodox Christianity” to include “views formally condemned by the Church as heretical and therefore not orthodox,” but that’s not the sense in which I’m using it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Volokh on Republic v. Democracy:

Eugene Volokh has an outstanding post that argues, correctly I might add, that the concepts of "republic" and "democracy" are not mutually exclusive. The United States, as founded, is aptly termed both a republic AND a democracy. It is not a "direct" or a "pure" democracy, rather a representative-democracy. Terms like that, representative-republic, democratic-republic, are six and one half dozen of the other.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Donate To This If You Can:

I didn't know the victims. But someone in the victims' family works with me. This is a worthy cause. Donate to it if you can.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Joseph Priestley Kills His Cat:

PETA isn't going to like this one. Joseph Priestley experimented with, shocked and killed a cat, all for scientific progress:

... Since I wrote to him, I discharged 37 Square feet of coated glass through the head and tail of a CAT three or four years old. She was instantly seized with universal convulsions, then lay as dead a few seconds....

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Fischer on America's non-Christian Founding:

Claude S. Fischer, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley has a new book out where he makes his case for America's non-Christian Founding.

He writes a small post on his thesis at the Immanent Frame.

A taste:

The impression of great piety among the settlers is a common view of the past, probably rooted in the outsize role that the Puritans play in our mental pictures of Early America. The Puritans, however, were an odd lot in America—the exception, not the rule. (They are a prominent exception, thanks to the cultural power of their New England descendants and the voluminous records they left. One historian has complained that we “know more about the Puritans than any sane person should want to know.”)

Over the wider American landscape, however, colonists were notably “unchurched” and “un-Christian.” Scattered around in separate households (unlike the Puritans who concentrated in villages), most Americans had no church to go to and little connection to what we would call organized religion. Even where there were churches to attend, many went either irregularly or simply because the church was one of the rare places—along with the tavern—to see people in a sparsely-developed society.

Stepahnie Wolf, in her study of Revolutionary-era Germantown, Pennsylvania, estimated that only about half of the residents attended church, and that is probably a high watermark, since the community was urban and well-off, and the period was one of religious enthusiasm.

Such waves of enthusiasm (“Awakenings”) in some places and at some times rallied some people to faith, but the clergy generally despaired of the heathens who had settled the new continent. One minister trying to save souls in the American heartland in the early 1800s wrote that “. . . there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ . . . the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.”

Most early Americans were not believers in the sense that affirming Christians are today. They were likelier to understand spells, potions, and omens than theological doctrines. Almanacs sold briskly in part because they provided guides to the occult. It took a lot of hard missionary work to displace magic with Christ.

As John Fea points out, his thesis isn't exactly novel.

Of course such an argument is not a new. Jon Butler made it in Awash in a Sea of Faith. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and others have made it as well. The Founding was not a Christian event, but clearly America had become a "Christian nation" or "evangelical empire" or "a spiritual hothouse" by the early 19th century.

Regarding the argument, I'd like to see more sociological data and analysis on Church membership and attendance. It may well be that mid to late 18th Century Americans were a distinctly un-churched people, full of nominal Christians. Or, these figures may be lowballs.

I have concluded that the "Christian Nation" thesis as the evangelicals tend to promote it is bunk. Evangelicals have a tight definition for what it means to be a "Christian" (not just orthodox, but "born again," regenerate), and there is not a shred of evidence that virtually all of the Founders and populace save a handful were "Christians" in this sense. In fact, there's no evidence that a simple majority of the FFs or the populace were "Christians" in this sense. Plenty of orthodox Anglicans, for instance, would not meet this standard (neither would Roman Catholics, who are also orthodox, but much fewer in number than Anglicans in 18th Century America).

And evangelicals, especially, should understand this as they teach the narrow gate.

Were a majority of the population/FFs "orthodox" in a way that not just evangelicals, but also Roman Catholics, Anglicans could pass (for instance, following Gregg Frazer's 10 point test for late 18th Century Christianity, or perhaps an even broader sense that requires simple belief in Nicene orthodoxy, not necessarily in doctrines like original sin or eternal damnation)?

Perhaps. But there are still reasons to doubt. This kind of orthodoxy dominated religious institutions by tradition and entrenchment. But, as noted, a great deal of FFs and members of the populace were affiliated with said churches in a formal or nominal sense without believing in their official doctrines like the Trinity or that the biblical canon is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.