Friday, June 15, 2012

Gregg Frazer Interviewed By TGC

Here. You should read the whole thing. But I like where Dr. Frazer discusses David Holmes' thesis:
As the title of my book suggests, my project was to determine the religious beliefs of the key founders, so I was not very concerned with public activities---except in cases in which an activity would have been unpopular or controversial or somehow gives insight into actual belief.  Consequently, my only interest in church attendance is to show some interest in Christianity and to trace the frequency of church attendance when the public is watching compared to when it is not.

As for the sacraments, I find Washington's steadfast refusal to take communion and Hamilton's intense desire to do so after his conversion to Christ (but not before) to be very informative.

The significance of religious activity and inactivity entirely depends on the nature of the activity and what it reveals about sincerely held belief and not on mere frequency or public recognition.

I consider their use of religious language to be absolutely crucial. There is no other way to get at what they really believed. What language did they use in public versus private?  What terms for God did they use?  Did they use specifically Christian language or generic "religious" language?

A matter of language that is critically important is to determine what they meant by certain terms.  Too often, for example, Christian America advocates simply cite quotes in which founders refer to "Christianity" or "Christian" and leave the false impression with Christian readers/listeners that those words meant the same thing to the founders as they do to them.  But key founders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin meant something very different by those words.  They created their own versions of "Christianity" that bore very little resemblance to its actual or common meaning.  Other words such as "bigot" had very different meanings in the 18th century than they do today and proper understanding requires recognition and explanation of that fact.

A centerpiece of my argument is my conviction that the terms "Christian" and "deist" have been so broadly applied to the founders that they've become virtually meaningless categories.  This is largely due to the fact that those two categories have been the only generally accepted niches, so individuals have been shoehorned into one of those identifications whether they fit or not. I carefully define both terms to provide boundaries that would have been recognized in 18th-century America in order to produce more accuracy---more truth in labeling.

Holmes's conclusions seem to me to illustrate my point perfectly.  While we do not deal with exactly the same people, Holmes covers five of the eight persons I class as "key founders."  In common with virtually everyone (except me), he calls Jefferson and Franklin deists.  Along with many scholars, but not necessarily a majority, he also calls Madison a deist.  But his determinations regarding George Washington and John Adams highlight the "shoehorn" activity mentioned above and particularly point to the need for my work.  He calls Washington a "Deistic Episcopalian" and Adams a "Christian Deist."  In 18th-century terms, these descriptions are nonsensical---and they do not stand up to the evidence.

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