Saturday, February 27, 2016

Anthony J. Minna: "Why God is in the Declaration but not the Constitution"

From the Journal of the American Revolution here. A taste:
The Declaration contains several other references to a higher power. The introduction states that the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle the American people to a separate and equal station among the powers of the earth. In the conclusion, Congress appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rectitude of its intentions and professes its “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” In each case, reference to a deity serves to validate the assertion of independence.
The genius of the Declaration is the inclusive way the divine is given expression. The appellations of God are generic. Adherents of traditional theistic sects can read the words “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Supreme Judge,” and understand them to mean the god they worship. The claims made on numerous Christian websites attest to this. Yet opponents of dogma read those same words and see an embracive, non-sectarian concept of divinity. This is no small testimony to the wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers. All Americans could support the Revolution and independence. All can regard their rights as unalienable, their liberty as inviolable.
Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution contains no reference to God. ...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Foreign Policy: "America Was Founded on Secrets and Lies"

This is an interesting article. Some of it true. Most of it taken out of context. And some of which I've never heard before.

For instance:
James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, had served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and was well aware of his boss’s appreciation for the unseemly necessities of foreign relations, although he seemed to have somewhat less enthusiasm for scheming than Jefferson. In 1805, Secretary of State Madison procured a prostitute using money from the secret service fund in order to enhance the visit of a foreign envoy from Tunisia — the fund being designed in part to facilitate “foreign intercourse.” ...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A School I Do Not Recommend

The David Barton School of Political Science that will open in Fall 2016. John Fea has the details here. Though there is something the school could do that might make me change my mind. They need to endow a Chris Rodda chair of criticism in the school. That would be a step in the right direction. Perhaps Glenn Beck can fund such a chair.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Daniel Dreishbach on GW's approach to Religion

This is a little late for Presidents' Day. Daniel Dreisbach wrote this last year (2015).

I want to focus on a dynamic that often gets missed in this "Christian" v. "Secular" America argument. What was unique to the American Founding. And particularly to George Washington as the chief Founder of the new nation.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but in forming a new nation that would have no established church at the national level, Washington and America started an entirely new precedent in "liberal democracy" of the head of state no longer being any kind of official "protector of the faith."

The other nations in Christendom all had state established churches where their political leaders as heads of state had to at the very least play a figurehead role defending the "true" expression of the faith. Now, the leader may not have done that job well, but it was still part of the job. So Henry the VIII had, at one time, the job as protecting the Roman Catholic faith. He was so bad at the job that it led to a creation of a new Church which he might be more qualified to serve as figurehead protector of.

George Washington was first in NOT playing that role. Therefore he had to be ecumenical and pluralistic. If one in his personal convictions is indifferent towards doctrine, it helps to play that (new) role.

We see this prominently on display in the addresses Dr. Dreisbach reproduces.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Thomas Jefferson Really Did Cut From the Bible That Which He didn't Believe

Warren Throckmorton, once again, gives us the details. Thomas Jefferson, like Jesse Lee Peterson (the interviewer) didn't believe in the Trinity. Jefferson unlike Peterson, cut that from which the Bible he didn't believe.

When so asked David Barton could have answered honestly. But, alas, he didn't. Jefferson thought St. Paul was a big phony. I wonder how you get an uncut Bible, while believing this.

When presented with the question, Barton went on the classic "red herring" expedition with something about Native Americans and Christianity.

But let me note, Jefferson like George Washington, thought it might be better for Native Americans to convert to "Christianity" for entirely utilitarian (the parlance of America's Founding might use terms like "useful" or "civilization") reasons.

This theory holds Jesus was the greatest moral teacher the world has ever known (something Jefferson believed; though it's not clear Washington believed even this). It would be better, then, if Native Americans converted to Christianity for this reason, not because Christianity is true, their religion is false.

In fact, both Jefferson and Washington referred to the Native Americans' God as "The Great Spirit." This is similar to today's controversy among Christians whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians do.

Jefferson and Washington both held, yes, Jews, Christians, Muslims and unconverted Native Americans all worship the same God. Likewise there is nothing in the recorded words of either of them that suggest Christianity is true, the other religions false (otherwise, therefore, Native Americans need to convert away from their "false" religion). Rather, only that Jesus' moral teachings were superior. Or that Christianity would better help the Natives assimilate into American civilization.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Justice Scalia, RIP

I will greatly miss reading his brilliant dissents, even if I often disagreed with them. Let me challenge Tom Van Dyke's post here on what I see as a bit of a conundrum with Scalia. Quoting Scalia:
 "If there was any thought absolutely foreign to the founders of our country, surely it was the notion that we Americans should be governed the way that Europeans are - and nothing has changed."
Yet, as Scalia concedes the Founders were more than willing to cite one form of foreign law, and that was the British Common Law which was predicated on notions of 1. the brooding omnipresence in the sky and 2. the doctrine of Stare Decisis, both of which Scalia, for the most part, rejects.

When I say "for the most part" I mean as it relates to Stare Decisis. As far as I can tell, Justice Scalia rejects Stare Decisis when none of the other (even very conservative Justices) do. Thus, when Scalia writes a majority or a dissent that has any other of the Justices joining him, he can't say "let's dump Stare Decisis." He can only do such when he writes a sole dissent.

But as far as I can tell from his books and articles (where he speaks on behalf of he himself only), that's what he would do in his first best world. The most Scalia can do when he writes an opinion with others joining him is downplay as oppose to categorically reject Stare Decisis.

But if Justice Scalia's first best judicial world were adopted then America would look, juridically speaking, from a procedural perspective, a lot more like those "other" European nations who are not "common law nations." (Having a "common law" legal heritage means you either are 1. Great Britain, or 2. a former British colony. Given how big the British Empire once was, this encompasses many nations.)

The other European "civil law" systems (and their former colonies) do not use Stare Decisis, but rely more on laws or codes passed by democratic majorities, not judicial precedent.

Justice Scalia wanted America's judicial system to look more "European" in that sense.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

George Washington's Defense of the Godless Constitution

One thing to keep in mind on the debate over the US Constitution's Godlessness, is that, however we understand the controversy, it wasn't "made up" by two Cornell professors.

In fact, I was reminded of George Washington's response to a group of Presbyterians who were concerned about the omission of a reference to the Christian religion in the US Constitution. Washington attempted to alleviate their concern writing:
The tribute of thanksgiving, which you offer to the gracious FATHER OF LIGHTS, for his inspiration of our publick councils with wisdom and firmness to complete the National Constitution, is worthy of men, who, devoted to the pious purposes of religion, desire their accomplishment by such means as advance the temporal happiness of their fellow men. And, here, I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe, that the path of true piety is so plain, as to require but little POLITICAL direction.
To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation respecting religion from the Magna Charta of our country. To the guidance of the Ministers of the Gospel, this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed. It will be your care to instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious: And in the progress of morality and science, to which our Government will give every furtherance, we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion, and the completion of our happiness.
I pray the munificent Rewarder of virtue, that your agency in this work, may receive its compensation here and hereafter.
This same group of people -- the religiously correct "orthodox" -- also bothered William Livingston about the explicit lack of Christianity as the foundation for American law in the Articles of Confederation (which unlike the Constitution, isn't a Godless document, but rather, like the Declaration of Independence, appeals to God in a more generic sense).

As Livingston wrote:
[A]nd to have made the 'law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,' would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute....

To the effect ... that of promoting purity of manners, all legislators and magistrates are bound by a superior obligation to that of any vote or compact of their own; and the inseparable connexion between the morals of the people and the good of society will compel them to pay due attention to external regularity and decorum; but true piety again has never been agreed upon by mankind, and I should not be willing that any human tribunal should settle its definition for me.
The tone of the two statesmen are different. But the effect is the same. Government (at least the Federal one) is going to be hands off on religion; the religious ball rather is in the court of voluntary, private entities.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Boudinot to Samuel Bayard, a Second Time Today

I am going to copy and paste some of the 1796 letter from Elias Boudinot to Samuel Bayard that Bill Fortenberry tipped me off to. As Boudinot wrote:
It is a most remarkable event and one that soon cannot be forgotten, that in the year 1796, on the first disputed election for a President of the United States, the State of Pennsylvania who values herself on her attachment to the christian character should give 13 votes out of 15 for a President & Vice President who are open & professed Deists at the same time, it will also be remembered that in the house of Representatives in the Congress of the United States Dr Priestly had 27 votes for their Chaplain. These facts are too remarkable to escape the Pen of our future Historians & I confess they give such substantial evidence of our degenerating from the zeal of our forefathers, who first settled this wilderness, that those who retain any of their spirit have their fears greatly alarmed for the consequences.
The bold face is mine. What I put in bold reminds me of what the two Cornell scholars stressed in "The Godless Constitution."  Now, neither Thomas Jefferson nor Joseph Priestley were "Godless." (The same can be said of Thomas Paine.) But the authors of that book noted how the orthodox forces of "religious correctness" lamenting both God's absence in the US Constitution as well as the rise of heterodox men like Jefferson offended Providence and insulted the real "Christian" heritage of the planting period.

Christian Nationalists like David Barton on the other hand claim virtually all of America's Founders were "Christians" with a bare number of "Deists" here and there and that there was no "disconnect" between the political theology of America's colonial Planting and its Founding from 1776-1800 or so.

As the theory Barton rejects as "revisionist" goes, the colonial Planting involved orthodox covenants, done under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and British colonial law. The Founding broke with such, not only with Divine Right of Kings and British colonial law, but the notion that governments should covenant with orthodox Trinitarian theology. Instead, we got a Godless Constitution and Article VI's "No Religious Test" Clause.

Rather, Barton claims it was liberal "revisionist" historians of the modern era who made up this understanding.

Boudinot in the above quotation seems to not only observe the disconnect, but also predicts how those future historians (Barton's "liberal revisionists") will have "substantial evidence" on their side regarding the difference between the Planting and the Founding.

Boudinot: Joseph Priestley got 27 House Votes to be a Chaplain

Learn something new every day. On social media Bill Fortenberry challenged John Fea about a quotation in his article that had Elias Boudinot lamenting that during the 1796 election, Pennsylvania saw 13 out of 15 votes cast for "open & professed Deists" Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

[Update as it turns out, I misread the conversation. Bill Fortenberry wanted John Fea to cite his sources. Fortenberry uncovered the letter with the "professed Deists" quotation.]

An additional piece of information I had not known about was the House of Representatives in Congress at the time gave 27 votes to Joseph Priestley to be their Chaplain. I wonder how many votes in total there were then? You can read the letter here.

We know there were a handful of "key Founders" who offer smoking gun quotations or other evidence that suggests they weren't "orthodox Trinitarian Christians." And there are another handful who like Boudinot have quotations and so on suggesting they were orthodox (ironically, the candidate the "orthodox" forces of religious correctness supported in 1796 turned out to be a flaming unitarian himself).

It's a non-sequitur to conclude, as some have, that except for a small handful of "Deists" (or people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, whatever we call them), virtually all the rest were devout orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

No, rather, just about all of them, including Jefferson and Franklin, were in some way connected to churches that had an orthodox Trinitarian creed. But you could be a member of or in some way connected to such a church without believing in its official doctrines. Indeed, reformations happen and churches change. Some of the heterodox members might have distanced themselves from their orthodox Church because they didn't appreciate the orthodoxy. Others, on the other hand, may have stayed close to their church and tried to change it in the unitarian and/or universalist direction.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Hutson on Stewart

James H. Hutson on Matthew Stewart's book at Claremont Review of Books here. A taste:
How does Stewart go about proving this remarkable thesis? To show that Locke was an atheist, coached in the dark side by Spinoza, Stewart relies on an unpublished manuscript, “Apple and Worm,” sent to Stewart by an admirer in the Netherlands. There is a leaven of Gnosticism here as Stewart relies on secret wisdom conveyed by a secret text—a kind of Gospel of Thomas or a Second Treatise to the Great Seth. For scholars, such a secret document cannot, of course, have any credibility; they must rely on such evidence as Stewart publicly offers to prove a connection between Locke and Spinoza. Some of it is of the following variety: Locke lived in Amsterdam a few years after Spinoza’s death; or sentiments from Spinoza’s writings appear to agree with sentiments found at various places in Locke’s works, e.g., that the ancient Hebrews ascribed ordinary events to the intervention of God, that rebellion against tyrants was a natural right, and that the rule of law was necessary for the public good. Stewart then assumes that this limited commonality of ideas proves that Locke subscribed to all of Spinoza’s sentiments, including his religious ones.


There is a rich literature offering a variety of interpretations of Locke and different assessments of his relation to the American Founding. Stewart’s book has not benefited from it. He appears to believe that every mainstream scholar is a fraud. His favorite expression is “the common view gets the actual history of ideas almost exactly backwards” or “the common view” about the Enlightenment “amounts to a falsification of the history of ideas.” Page after page contains explanations of the folly of the “common view” or the “common conception.” Here, again, we encounter a whiff of Gnosticism which, according to Tobias Churton, holds that the received view conceals the truth and that a text has an “outer sense” for “ordinary” people and an “inner sense whose dimensions of meaning may be endless.” This attitude seems to have contributed to Stewart’s creation of a parallel universe in which atheists hijacked the American Revolution and “the contradictory impulses” of American religion today “belatedly converged along the path that begins with Spinoza and Jefferson.”

Fea: "Still Misleading America About Thomas Jefferson"

John Fea takes down David Barton here. A taste:
But no one drew the ire of the founders of the ABS more than Thomas Jefferson. When the primary author of the Declaration of Independence defeated John Adams in the presidential election of 1800 his followers described the victory as a natural extension of the American Revolution. The tyranny of the Federalist Party (of whom Boudinot, Jay, and most of the ABS founders were members) was over. The Federalist attempt at using Christianity as a means of keeping moral order in the country would now give way to a new age of liberty and religious skepticism.
Jefferson embodied everything that the ABS opposed. He rejected traditional Christian beliefs such as the deity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. He did not believe that the Bible was inspired by God. He despised Calvinists of both the Congregational and Presbyterian variety. He supported the French Revolution, an uprising associated in the Federalist mind with atheism and the destruction of organized religion. He opposed established Christianity and called for the separation of church and state. And he believed that Christians were on the wrong side of history. As Jefferson famously wrote to his friend Dr. Thomas Cooper in 1822, “Unitarianism…will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”
Update: Raw Story picked up Fea's article.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Why Does Satan Have the Best Music?

I just noticed Peter Lillback wrote a song about George Washington & Christianity embedded below:

Compare that to Michael Newdow's tune on GW & SHMG. Sorry but Newdow's is better. Much better.

Paul Boller, RIP

He died in 2014. Blog brother Ray Soller tipped me off to this. I wrote Boller a note about Peter Lillback and Boller replied. If I can find the letter I might post the image.

Boller wrote a book which became the standard bearer on George Washington and religion that argued GW was *some* kind of Deist. The book doesn't argue GW was a Deist of the absentee landlord type. But perhaps Boller's book does deserve some blame for later scholars who mistakenly conclude GW was.

Lillback's book, self published (nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it was badly in need of an editor) attacks Boller in a mean spirited tone. Lillback's book is not without its virtues. It really does make a great reference for George Washington's quotations. And it does "step up" the game in terms of meticulously examining the scholarly record.

I was surprised by the polemical tone of Lillback's book because when I have seen him speak via video clips he comes across as a kind and gentle man with a very civil tone.

And I suppose, fighting fire with fire, I adopted the same harsh tone in my criticisms of Lillback.

I didn't want and do not want people to think Lillback's over 1000 page book gets the last word or demolishes Boller. He claims to have demolished the thesis that Washington was a "Deist." And if we define Deism as absentee landlord deity-ism, a creed that is bitterly dismissive of all revealed religions, then Lillback did indeed do this.

However, Lillback and those of his worldview have high standards for what it means to be a "Christian." This is why Lillback was desperate to prove GW an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian."

That's where he shoots too far. We might term GW a "theistic rationalist," a "Christian-Deist." Or perhaps a "Christian" in the very ecumenical, latitudinarian wing of the Anglican Church which downplays doctrine and really doesn't care too much about notions like the Trinity.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Jesus' Role in Christian-Deism

As Dr. Joseph Waligore has pointed out, there were three notable figures from England who called themselves "Christian Deists": 1. Thomas Morgan; 2. Thomas Amory; and 3. Matthew Tindal.

They disregarded orthodox doctrines like the Trinity and the Atonement but still saw a special place for Jesus as Messiah.

We argue over which terms are proper. Sometimes it makes sense to attach a term to a movement that the thinkers did not use. For instance, the early "Thomists" or "Calvinistis" probably didn't use those terms to describe themselves (though such terms are entirely apt). However, the above three thinkers did accepted the label of "Christian-Deist."

Others, however with parallel views might not have self consciously understood themselves as "Christian-Deists"; but it still might make sense to attach such label to them. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, considered himself a "Christian" and a "Unitarian." He, like Franklin, tended to qualify his preferred version of "Christianity" with the adjective "rational" ("rational Christianity").

Jefferson did not, I don't think, consider himself a "Deist" and the only time of which I am aware he used that term, what he meant by it was the belief in one God. Hence Jefferson called the Old Testament Jews "Deists" because they believed in one God.

But in terms of openness to the supernatural doctrines of traditional Christianity (i.e., miracles) Jefferson was arguably less of a "Christian" than Morgan, Amory or Tindal were. Still, the label "Christian-Deist" may "fit" with Jefferson. (Or maybe Jefferson wasn't "Christian" enough, even though he understood himself to be one.)

The question then for whether it's appropriate to label the "key Founders" to be "Christian-Deists" is whether their beliefs mesh with the "Christian-Deism" as articulated by the above three: Morgan, Amory and Tindal.

With Ben Franklin, if we take what he detailed in the Samuel Hemphill affair as reflecting his personal creed, I think the answer is yes.

How this relates to Jesus. The "Christian-Deists" saw Jesus as Messiah, but in an unorthodox way. They were probably influenced by John Locke in this regard. As I understand it they didn't worry about the Trinity or other orthodox doctrines. Rather, they understood there is a natural law determinable by reason. And some brilliant philosophers (Aristotle?) can get the results without Jesus, but with much intricate intellectual work.

In fact Franklin explicitly notes in A Defense of Mr. Hemphill's Observations that before the coming of Jesus, "many would be able to save themselves by a good Use of their Reason and the Light of Nature."

I guess this depends on what it means by "many." That is, because man's reason is flawed such that your average Joe Sixpack can't properly understand Aristotle and hence, many also won't be able to save themselves by trying to live according to such principles.

Jesus perfectly lived out and captured these principles in such a way that ordinary people could understand and follow. This is what the Christian-Deist concept of Christianity republishing the law of nature refers to. In fact, John Locke has a line about Jesus' teachings being so clear that "ignorant fisherman" could follow them. So Jesus saves by perfecting and modeling virtue and teaching it in such a way that everyone could follow and hence yields a net increase in moral practice.