Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Kenny Pearce on Deism

I have not heard of this scholar before. But he comes to similar conclusions on the definition and understanding of "deism" as Joseph Waligore.

He properly gets the "nuances." 

The relation of deism to Christianity is far more complicated. In the first place, nearly all of the English deists claimed that deism was true Christianity. I've been focusing mostly on the English deists because I know more about them than the French ones, but French deists seem to be more likely to portray deism as an alternative to Christianity. I suspect, however, that this difference may turn out to be merely verbal: by 'Christianity' the English deists mean the authentic teaching of the historical Jesus, while the French deists mean Roman Catholicism. Many French deists also claim that the historical Jesus held views similar to theirs, and the English deists are of course just as anti-Catholic as anyone. The fact that English deists generally see themselves as the real Christians causes a lot of confusion to people who wonder whether particular historical figures (e.g., American founders) were deists or Christians.
In the second place, it can be seen from the above that there is good reason to classify deism as a form of radical Protestantism.

Friday, February 23, 2024

America: The Revived Roman Republic

Biblical conspiracy theorists hypothesize about the identity of the "revived Roman Empire" who will host the Antichrist during end times or something like that. 

I'm not getting into that.

Many different currents flowed into the ideological stream of the American Founding. The Greco-Roman current is unquestionably one of them. Though much emphasis needs to be added to the Roman part, especially the Stoic philosophy of those noble ancients.

Though I haven't read the book yet, Jeffrey Rosen's new book seems like one that will shed some much needed light on this particular dynamic. 

Set all of the conspiracy nonsense aside, one thing America's Founders explicitly seemed intent on was "reviving" not the evil Roman Empire of Caesar's tyranny, but rather that of the noble Stoic Roman Republicans whom those tyrannical Caesars wiped out.

But yes, understandably, for their time, what America's Founders did was "new" and thus in some meaningful way "different" than the ancient system that so inspired them.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part II

See Part I here.

More from Sen. Hawley:
God gave rulers authority to command and coerce, but only insofar as they protected the liberties of the people. God instructed the people, in turn, to obey “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), but only insofar as the rulers honored their liberties. Winthrop envisioned a covenant made with God: Only a godly nation would win God’s favor and prosper under his direction of human affairs. But the political covenant was also—and this is crucial—an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. Should the authorities break the terms of God’s delegation of governance and assault the people’s freedoms, then the people had a right to defend themselves, even to rebel.

I emphasized what is in bold. This is an extremely loaded and contentious understanding of Romans 13. Great Britain, against whom America rebelled was every bit as "Christian" and "biblically informed" as America was and their political pulpits didn't understand Romans 13 with these qualifications. Arguably their understanding was the more "fundamentalist" in terms of a "literal" reading of the verse and chapter.

More from Hawley:

It is a small step from covenants to constitutions, and if this rehearsal of the evolution of early modern political thought brings to mind John Locke, it should. Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists and converted it (sometimes dubiously) to his own use. Thus, whether from the Puritan settlers or from the Calvinist-influenced Locke, covenant has long been in the American bloodstream. ...

There is precisely zero evidence that Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists. The American Founding had many different currents that flowed into its stream and the "Calvinist resisters" (as I like to call them) were certainly one of them. Locke was a much stronger current and he has nothing to do with them. There is a provable connection between Locke and Hobbes (and the Anglican divine Richard Hooker). 

Locke's teachings complete with the "state of nature/social contract and rights" (what he got from Hobbes) did find their way into the founding era "political sermons." But whether such teachings are in according with traditional Christianity is entirely debatable. 

More from Hawley:

I have attempted only the barest sketch of the Bible’s influence on America’s most enduring ideals. Others have traced the argument in greater detail. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism demonstrates the Christian taproot of Western rights. In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Eric Nelson identifies the biblical ground of our political institutions. There is real value in getting this history right, because it tells us what sort of society America has truly been. ...

I'm not familiar with Siedentop's work (though I hope one day to be), but am intimately familiar with Nelson's. Yes it's a work that all interested in this topic should check out. I'm not sure whether Hawley fully understands or accurately represents it in his brief mention. Nelson's thesis does not focus on America but rather prior European (it's in the title of the book!) writers (many of whom indeed did influence America's founders). And he connects their thought to all of the nations (mainly Western) that comprise "modernity." 

Nelson's work focuses on one group of thinkers -- the "republicans" -- in contrast to the "liberals." Madison's excerpt from Federalist 10 that I featured in Part I well represents the "liberal" perspective. And Madison's liberal view is in tension with the "Hebraic republican" view.

The bottom line is this: Madison didn't believe in limits on the accumulation of and the consequent redistribution of wealth. But the Hebraic republicans did. Indeed someone from the "Christian Left" who believe in such would find much ammo for their perspective in Nelson's book. 

Something else notable about the Hebraic republicans featured in Nelson's book is the content of their theology. I'm no theologian, so I'm not one to judge. But for those looking for "sound  theology" you really need to question their hermeneutics and exegesis. In short, they argued that the Old Testament taught "republican" form of government that demanded redistribution of wealth in the form of "agrarian laws." (They thought the way the OT dealt with debt and the Jubilee was an agrarian law.)

The way I see it, the concepts of "republican" government and "agrarian" laws have nothing to do with the Old Testament. But these thinkers (James Harrington of "Oceana" fame is one of the most notable) argued otherwise. I see them as grafting on post-hoc these Greco-Roman principles to the Old Testament.

Also note when the authors of the Federalist Papers discussed the concept of republican government precisely NONE of the Hebraic republican rhetoric was invoked. It was mostly Greco-Roman metaphor (just look that their surnames like Publius). 

A final point of analysis. More from Hawley:

... But the nation’s ideals, social institutions, and habits have all been Christianly shaped. And this is a good thing, maybe especially for Americans who are not Christians. Precisely because of the Christian influence, American society has protected the liberty of all to speak, to worship, to assemble and petition, to share in self-rule.

A little while ago, Hawley stepped in it by spreading a phony quotation attributed to Patrick Henry:

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” 

The actual quotation came from 1956 in a magazine called The Virginian. It was from an article about Patrick Henry. It is good that Hawley doesn't repeat the error in this article. Though I do note that Hawley's sentiment seems influenced by the commentary from The Virginian. (No, it's not plagiarism; I'm just noting the apparent influence.) 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part I

He wrote this for First Things, a respected scholarly journal. Let me note up front I'm not interested in fighting political-cultural war battles over the "Christian Nation" issue. Plenty of folks on "the other side" have given Hawley hell over his positions here. Though, Hawley does posit his position in the context of fighting a political-culture war over this issue for his side. 

With that, I will make some observations on the soundness of his historical claims with a focus on his political-theology. 

Let's start with this passage from the good Senator:
... The Founders read Roman historians, yes. Some were influenced by Enlightenment philosophies. But the Bible has been the main source of our national ideals. From the age of the New England Puritans to the Great Awakening that prepared the ground for revolution, Scripture has molded our common life from the first. Consider: Our ideal of the individual has Christian roots. So too does our constitutionalism. Our great traditions of progressive reform were animated by an ardent Christian spirit—as was conservative resistance to their excesses. Even in our most bitter conflicts, Christian culture has been America’s common ground.

The term "national ideals" is amorphous political speak. I think where his claim is at its strongest is that Christianity was important at the cultural, local, decentralized level. Where it's at its weakest is that the ideas are responsible for the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. One thing I do appreciate about the claim is that it (properly) intimates there are various ways of understanding the faith. A "Christian Left" for the progressives and a "Christian Right" who resist.

But what we will then see is that his idealized politics ends up "coloring" his theological understanding of Christianity, in "questionable" ways. His history likewise is cherry picked and idealized. 

Next passage:

Conservatives have their own version of the secular myth, one that usually comes with appeals to the market or James Madison or both. Some conservatives—the neoliberal types—argue that free-market exchange supplies all the common meaning we will ever need. We can unite in the cause of moneymaking, they say. But you don’t need a society for that. Corporations and trading zones will suffice. Other conservatives look to the Constitution for salvation, as if that document were a perpetual motion machine that can operate on its own, no common affections or moral purpose needed. Set faction against faction and the republic will endure forever! But Madison never said any such thing. He presumed a baseline of shared culture, language, and moral outlook—a very robust baseline, by modern standards. The truth is that no constitution, however well designed, can unite a people who do not hold a common conception of the good. No system of checks and balances can replace a common moral vision. 

I will let people read Madison's Federalist 10 to which was above alluded. Hawley puts words into Madison's mouth he never said, but on "set[ting] faction against faction," THIS is what Madison said:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

This does resonate with the notion of setting factions against one another in a pluralistic, commercial republic. So maybe the conservative (or "neoliberal") "secular myth" has something to it at least with regards to Madison. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Romans prized property rights—for certain people—and the Greeks and Romans both praised the liberty of the citizen to share in ruling the city, but the advent of individual liberty accompanied by personal rights awaited the New Testament’s announcement of freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” the apostle Paul announced. This was deeply personal freedom of a radically new kind.

I think it's a fair point to credit Christianity for laying a fertile ground for the concept of individual, which as Hawley accurately notes, "[t]he West would spend centuries working out its implications," but it's simply mistaken or bad theology to attempt to credit Paul in these passages for preaching political liberty. That would come much, much later. The "centuries." Paul noted this in the context of also telling slaves to obey their masters, after all.

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Ten Commandments (for example) are moral duties, to be sure, but they also adumbrate individual rights. They define the obligations of individuals, which entail the political freedoms individuals must enjoy in order to meet them. Over time, Christian theorists would come to see that God’s injunctions require the rights to worship, to marry, to pursue an honest profession, and to live generally in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

The term "over time" is what saves this passage. Yes, it took a long time. Any honest reading of the Ten Commandments though, reveals a tension with these freedoms, even if they are ultimately reconcilable from a Christian and biblical perspective. America's Founders were clear that the "rights to worship" applied universally, not just to Christians. This includes the inalienable right to break them by worshipping what some might see as false gods. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

Then there is constitutionalism, another Christian contribution to our nation’s identity. On board the Arbella as it was sailing for a new world, John Winthrop told his fellow colonists that they were making a covenant with God; they would be a “city upon a hill,” a light to all the world, a community committed to God’s law. Winthrop came by the idea of covenant naturally. Christians had been reading it in their Bibles for centuries. God made a covenant with Noah, and then with Abraham, and then with Moses and David after them. The God of the Bible was a covenant-making God. By the 1600s, Christian theorists had come to explain God’s purposes for government in terms of covenant.

I'm of the mind that America was "founded" in 1776, not 1619. The period to which Hawley refers was when America was actually Great Britain. These covenants were also done prior Britain's own Glorious Revolution (which led them in a more democratic-republican direction) and were explicitly done under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, one thing against which America especially rebelled. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

How Dr. Waligore Categorizes Different Theologies

This post is intended to be a brief overview of Dr. Joseph Waligore's new book on deism. I plan on having much more to say, but in this post, I try to hit some main points.

Waligore observes and constructs a number of different theological categories in his analysis to compare and contrast with the theology of deism. "Christianity" generally requires belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and authority of the entire Bible (it's mainly Protestant Christianity that is being analyzed, so it would be the 66 book Protestant canon). 

There is one kind of "traditional Christianity" that, for lack of better words, is neither "freethinking" nor "ecumenical" on doctrine and dogma. Even though many more than two traditions within Christianity could be invoked to serve this purpose, it's mainly Calvinism and High Church Anglicanism that serve as useful guideposts in his book. (Though other forms, like Arminianism are also analyzed.)

Waligore observes the voyage of (Protestant) Christianity to Deism, by noting two OTHER Christian traditions that in the 17th Century started to engage in "doctrinal freethinking" for lack of a better term. The Cambridge Platonists and the Latitudinarians (the name refers to "latitude" on matters of doctrine). Though the reason why they merit the label "Christian" is again, they tended to endorse orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and the authority of the entire Bible.

One potential point of criticism is as much as we want figures to neatly fit into different "boxes" that we construct for a better, more accurate understanding, is that people often don't neatly fit into those boxes. For instance, Samuel Clarke gets put in the "Latitudinarian" not "Unitarian" box; though arguably he could fit into either one. The boxes tend to bleed into one another. 

But the pages I included in the photos on the Cambridge Platonists illustrate such freethinking (many of them seemed to flirt with some kind of modified universalism, and belief that human souls pre-existed and exercised their will prior to their physical birth, among other things). Yet, they remain "Christian" because, again, they claimed their heterodox ideas didn't contradict either the Bible or the doctrines of the Church of England.

By the time we get to the Unitarians, they lose the label "Christian" because of their disbelief in the Trinity. But Waligore stresses that they tended to have more respect for the entire Bible than the deists did. 

And that sets the stage for an intense, meticulous analysis of the various forms of deism. And the chief message of this book is that while there are certain points that can be drawn to form a "deist" creed, belief in a non-intervening watchmaker God was actually a minority belief among the deists. Deism came in many varieties and most of them believed in a Providential God. And for those who did believe in Providence, they much more freely "picked and chose" what parts of the Bible they thought legitimately revealed and which parts they thought not. 

Waligore also stresses that while the deists in general venerated man's reason as a discerner of truth, the notion that God was ultimately benevolent was the primary lens through which they viewed theology. Anything part of traditional Christianity or any other creed that they deemed made God look less than perfectly benevolent was cast aside.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Dr. Joseph Waligore's New Book on Deism


I've been absent from blogging for a few months because of a busy work-life (better to be busy than not!), but I've been planning on writing a great deal on this book by Dr. Joseph Waligore, in part because he closely reads our American Creation blog and our research has influenced the contents of this book.

I plan on having a lot more to say on the contents of this book; but it is a true "game changer" on how to understand the definition of "deism." Now, the current scholarly consensus defines deism as belief in 1. a non-intervening cold, distant watchmaker God who; 2. issues no special revelation, performs no miracles, doesn't communicate to man and consequently to whom praying would be a waste of time.

Waligore demonstrates that this definition is mistaken. Now, it's possible that because of how terms are understood in academic and other discourse, that we are "stuck" with this definition for now. However, keep in mind then that many of the historical figures whom we associate with "deism" from Washington, Franklin and Jefferson to Robespierre and many other figures of the French Revolution were not "deists." We need either a different term, or we need to qualify the term "deist" with an adjective like "warm deist," "providential deist," "Christian-Deist" etc., etc. 

Friday, April 21, 2023

The American and French Revolutions: Locke, Calvin and Hobbes

A short time ago I briefly engaged an author who wrote a book on Christianity and the American Founding that purported to "defend" America in a "trial" sense of the term. I only engaged him on one point. It was about Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and their respective understandings of "the state of nature." We didn't even get to Rousseau, rather it was just the relationship between Hobbes and Locke. 

I kept the conversation brief because I didn't feel like going down the Straussian rabbit hole with him (other people are doing that with him). And he was just trying to "shoo away" a fly. He said something to me like (me paraphrasing from memory, not necessarily an exact quote) "Locke's state of nature had nothing to do with Hobbes'." Yes, the A has nothing to do with B is an effective arguing technique. But in his case, it's simply not true. The concept of "the state of nature" itself, regardless of whether Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau's all differ on it, connects them to one another. This was the "low but solid" modern ground on which the three of them argued and differed and on which modern liberal democracies were built. As of course, Leo Strauss observed. 

I have noticed a tendency among social and religious conservatives who wish to defend America's Founding as "Christian" to overly attempt to distinguish America's Revolution and Founding from the French Revolution. Yes, the two events differed in meaningful ways. But also yes, the two events were connected at a deep level. They were viewed by America's founders as "sister events,"  at least at the very beginning before things started to go terribly wrong in France. France after all was key in securing America's victory from Great Britain. 

John Locke greatly influenced America's Founding. But, there were other influences as well. John Locke and the America's Revolution influenced the French Revolution. But there were other influences as well. Influences that didn't take hold in America (Rousseau). 

But let's turn our focus onto Locke, because he influenced BOTH the American AND French Revolutions. As noted above there is an "inside baseball" debate about how much Locke was "esoterically" influenced by Hobbes. We all agree that 
America followed Locke and its Founders had nothing positive to say about Hobbes. 

But this is what I don't get about the conservatives who wish to separate Locke from Hobbes (and Hobbes, by the way, claimed to be a "Christian" too, just as Locke did): 
Locke's understanding about human nature (with his Tabula Rasa and "state of nature" teachings) seemed really naïve and Hobbes' much closer to the reality of what it looked like in caveman times when the Alpha males brutally ruled over the tribes. And that's where we humans derive our DNA.

But here is where America perhaps made better use of Locke than France did. As noted, Locke was not the only influence on America. Locke influenced both the Declaration of Independence AND US Constitution, but significantly influenced the Declaration more. 

On the US Constitution, James Madison made CLEAR in Federalist 55 that "there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."

Note, even though there was a strong "Calvinist" component (with the other components) to the American Founding, this does NOT, in my opinion, reflect John Calvin's "Totally Depravity" of human nature. But rather a "Partial Depravity." 

France (and Jefferson would go for this) left this out of the equation and took the Tabula Rasa from Locke.