Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mormonism Isn't Orthodox, But The Founding Presidents Weren't Orthodox Either

[Note: I originally intended for this to be published at a notable right of center blog where I have an opportunity; but their vibe is currently too pro-Perry, anti-Romney for this. Rather than worry about getting it placed somewhere else, I'm just running it here.]

Conservative evangelicals Bryan Fischer and the Reverend Robert Jeffress recently controversially suggested that Mormonism is not Christianity, but rather a false cult, and that "Christians" should factor that in when deciding for whom to vote for public office.

Fischer and Jeffress stress Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution restricts government only from imposing formal religious tests. The point is true enough. Voters can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reasons, even very bad ones.

However, in a nation founded on ecumenical and non-sectarian religious principles, imposing a strictly orthodox private religious test seems a bad idea. But both Fischer and Jeffress appeal to the American Founding for their stance.

Their appeal is inapt. Attempting to justify his position, Jeffress referenced John Jay who wrote in 1816:
Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
Hmm... Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, claims to be a "Christian" and accepts Jesus as the divine, resurrected Savior of mankind. So what is the problem? Space forbids me to detail all of the problems evangelicals have with Mormonism. But, at base, Mormonism denies historic orthodoxy as found in doctrines like the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds; to disbelieve in orthodox Trinitarianism, as it were, is to disbelieve in "Mere Christianity" as CS Lewis termed it. After the late Walter Martin, conservative evangelicals often term non-Trinitarian religionists, like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others, as "cults."

Though the term "cults" was not used during the American Founding era to describe non-Trinitarians, the "orthodox" then (especially clergy) did regard these "heretics" as not "Christian."

But whatever John Jay meant in the aforementioned quotation, America was not founded so that orthodox evangelical voters could put Presidential candidates through their strict private religious tests. (Ironically, Jay himself may not have passed the orthodox Trinitarian test for "mere Christianity" as evidence shows he doubted the content contained in his own church's Trinitarian creeds.)

Or, if it were, the experiment failed from the start; the early American Presidents were not "orthodox."

Most know that Thomas Jefferson, who served two terms as third President, was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. He did, interestingly, think of himself as a "Christian" while denying every single tenet of historic orthodoxy.

Fewer know that John Adams too, failed, and to quote history professor John Fea's masterful new book on the Christian Nation controversy, "fail[ed] miserably" the test for Christian orthodoxy. Adams, who identified as a "unitarian" his entire adult life, bitterly mocked the doctrines of the Trinity, which he termed a "sacerdotal imposture[]," and the Incarnation, which he said "stupified the Christian World."

And it's not as though George Washington and James Madison, respectively, the first and fourth American Presidents, the "father of America" and the "architect of the Constitution," were paragons of Christian orthodoxy. While not as overtly unitarian as the second and third American Presidents, Washington and Madison, from their own words, offer little to demonstrate their belief in Christian orthodoxy.

Indeed, Washington's own orthodox minister, the Reverend James Abercrombie, claimed Washington's systematic avoidance of communion meant he was not a "real Christian" because his actions "disregard[ed] an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace."

And well respected orthodox Episcopalian, William Meade, third Bishop of Virginia, well acquainted with Madison, claimed the fourth President's "political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change" his youthful, conventionally religious spirit, "subjected him to the general suspicion of it." (One prominent unitarian contemporary of James Madison, George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library, claims Madison personally professed unitarianism to him during a dinner conversation.)

In all likelihood, the first American President who might pass Fischer and Jeffress's orthodox test for Christianity was seventh President Andrew Jackson!

The early American Presidents were not perfect, but they well led the newly formed nation. Their example shows little connection between belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and Presidential leadership acumen.

Please keep that in mind when considering how Mitt Romney's Mormonism might impact his qualifications for the American Presidency.


Ree said...

As far as I can tell from the short snippet you link to, it seems to me that the "sacerdotal Imposture" he refers to is in regard to the doctrine of the Theotokos (and specifically the its interpretation as "Mother of God"), and not a reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. Granted, that doesn't negate the heretical nature of John Adams Unitarian views, but without better proof than you've provided, it does indicate that this wasn't what he was referencing here, and if so, this would seem to indicate the same kind of carelessness and misrepresentation of sources that you so often attribute to your opponents when trying to discredit everything they say.

In any case, I'm not sure why you think you can determine for people whose worldview is so thoroughly in opposition to your own what factors we should consider in choosing our leaders. We weren't the ones entrusted to vote for our first six presidents, and even if we had been, we'd have been living in a different time in history with different threats to our freedom to consider. Rather, here we are in the early part of the 21st century, in a particular political climate, with particular candidates to choose from, and from that position, we make our choices. Of course, if our choices were limited to such, most Christians would rather be governed by "a wise Turk than a foolish Christian." But if we're offered a field of candidates in which some level of wisdom in governance is at least as likely to be found in an orthodox candidate as in a heretical one (and in our view, holding to orthodoxy over heresy is at least one indicator of wisdom), then certainly we'll take that into consideration when we vote.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ree [From WMB?]:

Regarding the Trinity point, I think there is more than one way to read the context. The way I see it J. Adams associated the concept of Trinitarianism itself with Roman Catholic dogma and superstition. As the unitarians like Adams saw it, the reformers didn't go far enough in purging Roman Catholic corruption. And Trinitarianism itself was one of those CHIEF corruptions.

If you look at the quote above in the Hutson book Adams suggests the Trinity is as ridiculous as a Quaternity with Mary as one of the Persons in the Godhead.

Ree said...

Yeah, that's me. NJL mentioned your name the other day and it made me curious what you're up to these days, so I did a quick search and found this blog.

Anyway, although Adams may have mocked Trinitarianism elsewhere as harshly as he does "Mother of God" here, clearly this quote is an explicit reference to Marian doctrine. Certainly "God the first second or third" seems like an obvious allusion to the Trinity, but "the Doctrine" he explains is the teaching that Mary is "the Mother of God." His oddly worded Trinitarian reference is cited as the basis of the doctrine he refers to as a "sacerdotal Imposture.", but not "the Doctrine" itself.

(As an aside, I'd love to see John Adams' source for believing that the vote at Nicea was almost equal for a quaternity as for a Trinity. And more than that, in any of the writings of the church fathers that I'm aware of, discussion of a quaternity was post-Nicea, and was in reference to the division of Christ's human and divine natures. In that case, they argue, Christ would be two, making the Godhead a quaternity. And this was used as an reductio ad absurdum argument to show the self-evident foolishness of dividing Christ's two natures. An actual quaternity of the Godhead, I'm pretty sure, was not an argument that any churchman actually made. It looks like Adams played as fast and loose with his sources as others do with him. Maybe even more so, although perhaps he can be partially excused because he didn't have the internet at his disposal.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Honestly I think the context of Adams' quaternity quotation was he making a joke about how absurd he thought the Trinity was.

I'm not sure if he were even trying to peddle a fact.

From my understanding of the Council of Nicea controversy, there was no Trinity/Quaternity vote, rather it was a vote against Arianism with which Adams sympathized. (Adams was a unitarian, but I can't tell whether an Arian or a Socinian.)

I have another quotation where Adams says because man's reason (the first revelation that God gives to man) proves one can't be three, he wouldn't believe in the doctrine of the Trinity if God Himself revealed it to him with Moses in Mt. Sinai:

"We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten J\us out of our Witts [sic]; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary

"Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai and admitted to behold, the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three, one: We might not have had courage to deny it. But We could not have believed it. The thunders and Lightenings [sic] and Earthquakes and the transcendant [sic] Splendors and Glories, might have overwhelmed Us with terror and Amazement: but we could not have believed the doctrine. ..."

Ree said...

You're right about the point at issue at Nicea--It was to address the Arian heresy. It certainly had nothing to do with a quaternity in the Godhead. There was never any such concept, at least not one that was taken seriously, at Nicea or elsewhere. Perhaps Adams was making a joke in that quote, or perhaps he really believed such nonsense (it sounds like the kind of thing a Dan Brown might come up with), but the fact that your guess is as good as mine just goes to show the slipperiness of citing quotations without a context. And a whole book of such quotations (such as the one you link to) is really not a source that has any place in a serious discussion.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You are nit picking. The quote book was published by Princeton U. Press and has been used in various scholarly discussions on the matter.

As someone who is meticulously learned on how the key FFs viewed these theological doctrines, I see the context of Adams' overall comments on the Trinity as bitterly sarcastic rejection of the doctrine.

Though if you do want to see the entire letter from which J. Adams' Trinity quote was drawn I blogged about it here:

I reproduced the link from American Creation because this site is really just an archive. More people read AC and it gets good commentary. It's the very antithesis of a "preaching to the crowd" kind of commentary and I believe, the critical arguments in which we engage are better than any academic peer review process.

And let me note you are spot on with the DaVinci Code comment: JA was arguably the first DaVinci code crank.