Thursday, May 19, 2022

Cambridge Article on Ben Franklin and The Reasonableness of Christianity

This very dense article by one Kevin Slack is found here. There are many good things in this article, most of which I've already seen; but it did manage to deliver something I hadn't noticed before and which I haven't seen either from most contemporary scholars of Ben Franklin and religion.

Apparently Franklin was involved in a liturgy project with one David Williams. From the article:

As a member of the Thirteen Club, Franklin helped David Williams construct A Liturgy on the Universal Principles of Religion and Morality in 1773–1774.Footnote258 Franklin told Williams that he “never passed a Church, during Public Service, without regretting that he could not join it honestly and cordially,” and he wished to revive a “rational form of devotion,” like that of Shaftesbury's deism, for freethinkers.Footnote259 Church attendance had declined, and there was no alternative to the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer or Dissenter enthusiasm.Footnote260 He “thought it a reproach to Philosophy that it had not a Liturgy and that it skulked from the public Profession of its Principles,” and he lamented the loss of “that pleasure, which all virtuous minds have in a public acknowledgement of their duties.”Footnote261 A liturgy was needed to preach the general principles of a common creed: “All disputed opinions should be excluded public-worship; and that all honest, pious men, Calvinists, Arians, Socinians, Jews, Turks, and Infidels, might and ought to worship God together in spirit and in truth.”Footnote262 Thus the liturgy invited the many of all faiths to join in a common creed constructed for a select “Party of Virtue.”Footnote263

The bold face is mine and it's an exact quotation from their project.

One reason why this piece of evidence may have flown under the radar of many scholars is that the evidence of Franklin's involvement in the project comes mainly from David Williams and not Franklin. However, I have found one letter of Franklin's to Williams and two letters (one and two) from Williams to Franklin.

The letters discuss their project. But in any event what was quoted above in bold reflects as far as I can tell Ben Franklin's adult opinions on both public (political) and private (personal) theology. And it's fairly close to Jefferson's and J. Adams' and thus explains the generic, "non-disputed" God language of the Declaration of Independence. 




Saturday, April 16, 2022

Hamburger: "Separation of Church and State: A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle"

For some time I have featured the work of Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger's "Separation of Church and State" with critical commentary. I just hope my criticisms are fair. 

The chapter to that book entitled A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle is available online in its entirety so readers can decide for themselves if I'm being fair. I stand by my assessment; Hamburger is a brilliant scholar who meticulously documents the record, but at times weaves an utterly contentious narrative while doing so. 

For instance, the "Anti-Catholic" and "American" principle Hamburger documents is, as I see it, simply Protestant anti-Roman Catholic animus, that has been present since day one of the Reformation. Hamburger seems to argue in the chapter that the "liberals" are to blame for it and somehow got the theologically orthodox, conservative Protestants to go along for the ride in 19th Century America; but I don't think so. The creedally orthodox, Trinitarian Protestants have as much of a history of anti-Roman Catholic animus as the "liberals" in America and Europe since, again, day one of the Reformation.

The "liberals" as Hamburger describes them, and as I have noted before, were either theologically unitarian or doctrinally lax in the anti-creedal, anti-clerical sense. This theologically liberal Protestantism was also arguably key to the political theology of the American Founding. Arguably, it owns a great deal of the "spirit" of the 18th Century American Founding, not just the 19th century which is the focus of Hamburger's chapter. 

I've also featured the work of Dr. Gregg Frazer whose thesis describes the political theology of the American Founding as not "Christianity" or "Deism" but some kind of hybrid which he terms "theistic rationalism." One could argue that this "theistic rationalism" is actually a late 18th century version of "liberal Protestant Christianity" of the unitarian variant. Very similar to the "theologically liberal" American theologians of the 19th Century whom Hamburger tars with "animus." (Note, the 18th Century American Founders who adhered to this theology like John Adams and others also possessed such anti-RC animus.) 

The legendary 19th Century Unitarian figure William Channing features prominently in Hamburger's chapter as a notable expositor of this kind of "theological liberalism." But one need not even be identifiably self consciously theologically unitarian in order to qualify as an adherent to this kind of theological liberalism. Rather, one would need to be a self consciously anti-creedal and anti-clerical Protestant. Certainly, William Livingston and John Dickinson (basically 1/2 Quaker Whigs who didn't care for creeds or clergy) would also qualify in addition to the "key Founders" that Gregg Frazer identifies (the first four American Presidents, Ben Franklin, etc.). As would the Quakers and perhaps some Baptists who also eschewed creeds. Again, lots of important figures and forces of the 18th Century American Founding. 

Below is an interesting passage from page 13 of Hamburger's above linked article.
In addition, some Enlightenment Protestants attempted to reconcile religion and reason by accentuating what could be inferred from reason and by reducing religion to what was reasonable. Associating reason with the purity of their own faith, Protestants condemned Catholicism as not only unfree but also irrational and superstitious-thereby joining earlier Protestants who classed it with the mummery and horrors of paganism.

This completely resonates with the political-theological zeitgeist of the American Founding (or at least notable elements therein like the aforementioned "key Founders," Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Brits. Joseph Priestley and Richard Price). But in this chapter, Hamburger apparently tries to tar it as a "bad guy" position by connecting it to animus and eventually the KKK. 

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Article by Philip Hamburger on Justice Barrett

Philip Hamburger's book "Separation of Church and State" turns 20 years old in 2022. Hamburger is a brilliant scholar and Ivy League Professor of Law (Columbia), and as such his work is always well worth engaging. 

But over the years that I've engaged with this work in particular, I've noted how, as meticulously researched as the book is, it makes very contentious, even if interesting arguments. In 2020, writing in Newsweek, Hamburger summarizes his book in the context of an op-ed about Justice Amy Barrett's then confirmation hearings. 

I strongly recommend people read the article for a summary of the book and if further interested in the history of legal church/state relations in America, read his book

His book gores certain oxen and vindicates others. If one is a fan of Justice Hugo Black's opinion in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), one's ox is going to be gored. On the other hand, if one is a Roman Catholic seeking a lower or non-existent "wall of separation" complete with a largely accurate history of how certain forces in America have subjected Catholics to animus, the ox vindicated.

What I find very ironic about Hamburger's "narrative," is that while he notes that America's national government forbids an official establishment of religion (or "law respecting an establishment of religion"), he also concedes America did have a kind of "de facto" Protestant Christian establishment.

But -- perhaps this is a message he didn't intend to impart to religiously conservative Protestants who might be sympathetic to his anti-Everson position -- he makes that de facto establishment look very bad in how they used their political power over church-state relations. He basically tars "Protestant Christian America" with animus or bigotry. 

Now, perhaps "Protestant Christian America" is guilty of such bigotry. World history is replete with examples of sectarian mistreatment among social groups taking place within national boundaries in a variety of different contexts. The problem, as I see it in Hamburger's particular claim, is that such simply isn't relevant to how the Establishment Clause ought to operate today or whether the Everson case was rightly decided. 

There were two poles to the theological-political wings of Protestantism in America: the Right wing, who were more traditionally orthodox (either Calvinistic or some other kind of non-Calvinistic, evangelical types) and the Left who were either Unitarian or doctrinally lax. Often it's hard to tell the difference between the two, because they were all "Protestant Christians" and in many cases they may have attended the same churches. Hamburger clearly goes after the "liberals" more so. One chapter to his book is entitled, "A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle." 

But both wings of Protestantism had one thing in common that arguably united them: anti-Roman Catholic animus. According to Hamburger's narrative, it is this Protestant Christian American anti-Roman Catholic animus that motivates calls for "Separation of Church and State." And all of this then becomes connected to the KKK. 

Indeed, Prof. Hamburger reminds us that "Americans United For Separation of Church and State" was previously "Protestants and Others United for the Separation of Church and State" and that the KKK supported all of this. 

Then, the historical villainy that Hamburger so meticulously documents becomes epitomized in a single figure: Justice Hugo Black, author of the Everson opinion. Justice Black was born in Alabama in 1886 and was raised and educated as a Baptist. Somewhere along the way he joins the KKK, has a distinguished political career, ends up on the Supreme Court of the United States and according to his biographer, older, sometimes attended services, with his wife, at the local Unitarian Universalist Church.

On the Court, he votes both FOR Brown v. Board of Education (1954) AND Everson. Justice Black's "liberalism" in life and on the Court -- however "Protestant" it was -- was hardly "Klanish." Even though the facts Prof. Hamburger reports are largely accurate; I see this as the weakest part of his book.

As my friend the late Ed Brayton noted, it's poisoning the well or the genetic fallacy. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Hamilton Cited Blackstone For The Opposite Position

"Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

"This is what is called the law of nature, 'which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.' Blackstone."
Very few people who read this appreciate the irony that Hamilton was citing Blackstone for the opposite conclusions to which Blackstone endorsed: Absolute Parliamentary Supremacy.
When inquiring on the "Christian nation" debate, I've seen some Christian nationalists try to dig further into that quotation from Blackstone and note how Blackstone, writing further, elevated revealed law (revelation) over natural law (reason). The problem for the Christian nation proposition is that Hamilton doesn't invoke revealed law in The Farmer Refuted, but only natural law. And he does so in a way to reach the opposite position that Blackstone did or would have reached on the American Revolution.
Blackstone died in 1780 after the American Revolution began. I know he was a Tory who taught absolute Parliamentary supremacy. Though I haven't yet come across any quotations of his where he directly addressed the American Revolution. I know when in Parliament, he voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act that was directed against the Americans.
Blackstone may have been an orthodox Anglican -- though I don't see him as a very zealous one. Though I have concluded that when Hamilton wrote The Farmer Refuted, he was a theist, though not an orthodox Christian. He became orthodox later on in life shortly before he died. But in any event, Hamilton is citing theistic natural law, not the Bible or revealed law against "The Farmer," who was a Bishop of impeccable (Anglican) orthodoxy: Samuel Seabury.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Liberalism v. Republicanism and the American Founding

On page 161 of "The Closing of the American Mind," Allan Bloom wrote: 

More serious for us are the arguments of the revolutionaries who accepted our principles of freedom and equality. Many believed that we had not thought through these cherished ideals. Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire property. Should shrewdness at acquisition be better rewarded than moral goodness? Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals? 

As interesting and important as Allan Bloom and the other Straussians are, they do tend to have their blinders. They write like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau -- their shared ground, and their disagreements -- are the only important philosophers who impacted modern liberal democracy. But there were others. 

So when Bloom asks -- "Can equality really only mean equal opportunity for unequal talents to acquire private property?" -- he was referring to the Lockean-Madisonian "liberal" vision that prevailed during the American founding. And Bloom ascribes the sentiment -- "Can private property and equality sit so easily together when even Plato required communism among equals?" -- to Rousseau who indeed adhered to such a critique of Locke's notion of property.

But Rousseau was not the first. In fact, this dialog had been taking place prior to Rousseau where various notable European "civic republicans" (many of them British) made the case for economic leveling often using biblical arguments.

Eric Nelson wrote an entire book about those "civic republicans" and their Hebraic arguments. Of the many things of interest that Nelson notes is that James Harrington -- one of the key Hebraic republican figures -- made not only biblical arguments but also more secular Platonic ones. It could be that the later more philosophical type figures ran with the secular arguments, not the biblical ones. 

As Nelson ended the relevant chapter in his book on page 87:

But for most, the Biblical warrant for agrarian laws disappeared from view, leaving only the Platonizing edifice Harrington had built on top of it. Redistribution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find a home in republican political theory, not because it had been authorized by the divine landlord of the earth, but because it was thought to secure the rule of a naturally superior elite. For contemporary republicans, this must seem a deeply unsettling provenance.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Rousseau and the Hebrew Republic

This passage from Gregg Frazer's thesis made an impression on me when I first read it. He discusses some of the sermons from America's founding era that argued on behalf of the patriots' cause. These particular sermons preached the Bible taught "republicanism." (When "republicanism" arguably is entirely a creation of ancient Greco-Romanism.)

The sermons seem to depict God's role as something similar to Rousseau's legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon's sermon] "for their happiness" rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignty determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau's legislator).
This was on page 393-94 of his thesis and then was adapted in his fine book and featured on pages 100-01. The conclusion that Dr. Frazer draws is that this notion that the Hebrew's had a "republic" is a more modern Enlightenment notion than a traditionally orthodox biblical understanding. Certainly, attaching Rousseau's name in a comparison illustrates this point.

Though Samuel Langdon, whose sermon was entitled "The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States," and was an American minister during the Founding era, actually drew from a prior European tradition. One you can read about in Eric Nelson's also fine book on the matter. 

What does this have to do with Rousseau? Arguably something meaningful. The Hebraic republicans about whom Nelson writes -- beginning with Petrus Cunaeus and also finding expression in figures America's founders more explicitly cited like James Harrington -- argued that the Hebrew Republic had an agrarian law that limited wealth and demanded redistribution. 

Whether the early exponents of the "Hebrew Republic" were traditional Christians or more philosophically minded thinkers using Christian theology as a fig leaf is debatable; but they ended up influencing later figures who tend to be understood as more modern philosophical types. Including Montesquieu, Rousseau and Thomas Paine.  

As Dr. Nelson writes on page 86 of his aforementioned book:

It is a measure of Harrington’s remarkable influence that, from 1660 onwards, agrarian laws would remain permanently at the center of republican political thought.  Writers from Montesquieu to Rousseau, and from Jefferson to Tocqueville, would regard it as axiomatic that republics ought to legislate limits on private ownership in order to realize a particular vision of civic life.  Before Cunaeus and Harrington, European political theory had been dominated by the unequal contest between two views of property: one which saw the protection of private property as the central obligation of the state, and another which saw the abolition of private property as the ultimate salvation of mankind.  Cunaeus’s innocuous semantic move in 1617 had opened up a “third way”—one which remains central to modern political thought and practice.  

I can't do justice to Nelson's entire book here. He mentions that Harrington put forth both a biblical and a more secular Platonic justification for Agrarian limits on wealth and consequent redistribution. It could be that the later more secular thinkers who argued for economic leveling picked up the more Platonic and left behind the biblical. 

But even someone like Thomas Paine, who by the way, I think is more clearly in the "agrarian-redistribution" camp than Jefferson, would use these biblical arguments and was clearly influenced by them. 

I could be wrong about Jefferson; if I understand Madison's Federalists 10 correctly, it rejects this "republican agrarian" vision of property in favor of something more "liberal" (for the era). Jefferson may very well have signed onto Madison's vision here. (But how to properly understand Federalist 10 will be a topic for another post.)

But I hope I demonstrated in this post how someone like Rousseau didn't just invent his egalitarian speak for the modern era. The conversation had been taking place for some time. And the thinkers who preceded Rousseau attempted to make serious biblical, "republican" arguments for the economic leveling by ascribing to the Hebraic republic an agrarian law.

(Personally, I don't find the argument convincing; I don't think the Ancient Israelites had either a "republic" or that the "Jubilee" constituted an "agrarian law" that should be models for later subsequent republics. But that's neither here nor there.)

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Did Ben Franklin Believe in ... "Purgatory"?

This article from 2014 by John Fea (note I am quoted here) features one of the more interesting quotations from Ben Franklin, who was neither an orthodox Trinitarian Christian or a strict deist, but something in between. 

Let me say first, "purgatory" as used here is a shorthand for the notion that there is some kind of temporary purging or post death preparation of the soul before it enters the eternal bliss of heaven. However, others associate it with the Roman Catholic Church's exact dogma where that Church holds a "super treasury of merit," etc. 

I was reminded of this when discussing the issue with an Eastern Orthodox believer who is very anti-Roman Catholic and he rejected "purgatory," bitterly mocking it. But then he admitted his church/he believes in such a place of post death preparation of the soul before it enters heaven; but he would never call it "purgatory" which he associates with the Roman dogma (like them holding the keys to a "super treasury of merit") that he hates. 

But from a letter from Benjamin Franklin to “Mrs. Partridge” on the death of one Ben Kent. The letter is dated November 25, 1788: 
You tell me our poor friend Ben Kent is gone, I hope to the regions of the blessed; or at least to some place where souls are prepared for those regions! I found my hope on this, that though not so orthodox as you and I, he was an honest man, and had his virtues. If he had any hypocrisy, it was of that inverted kind, with which a man is not so bad as he seems to be. And with regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together, in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content with their own salvation. Yours, &c. B. Franklin.