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. 

Sunday, April 02, 2023

The Bogus Patrick Henry Quotation

First off, I'd like to thank "Rational Rant" for alerting me to this. I've long known that the below mentioned Patrick Henry quotation is fake; but only recently figured out the origin.

I know that in the past I may have been overly harshly critical of folks making "Christian nation" claims. I'm consciously trying to tone done my rhetoric and be more civil because I don't like how divided the country is and "Christian nationalism" is part of that division.

With that, Patrick Henry has been purported to say:
“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.”
Now, first, there's no evidence Henry said such a thing. Second, there's good reason to believe Henry during the time of the purported quotation would NEVER have said such a thing. (He didn't think the US was a "great nation" to begin with, as opposed to a confederation of independent states.)
And third, we don't just have absence of evidence, we know who said it and it wasn't Henry. The words come from the author of a 1956 linked article. There is a real quotation from Henry's Will that demonstrates his fervent Christianity.
Some sloppy "historian" along the way quoted the author of the article, as Patrick Henry's exact words. Henry's words are there, from his Will. They quoted the wrong words.
David Barton has called these and other quotations "unconfirmed." But they are bogus. Or at least this one is.
There is a President of a college whom I often disagree with, but whom I consider to be a reputable scholar of the history of theology. And in 2022, he spread this fake Patrick Henry quote.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Denominational Affiliation Tells Us Little

I recently was involved in a discussion where, alas, the name of David Barton came up. At this point, I think Barton is a distraction from the issues that interest us on religion and the American Founding. I prefer not to talk about him but move on to better things. If he writes another baboon like "The Jefferson Lies," I will cover it. But otherwise I'm no longer interested.

But I do want to note something I think important. Gregg Frazer wrote a critique of Barton's "America's Godly Heritage" found here. Let me quote from it:

Let us begin with monumental unsupported assumptions presented as fact. The video begins with the claim that 52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were “orthodox, evangelical Christians.” Barton does not supply any source or basis for this astounding claim, but I strongly suspect that the source is M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company. It is, to my knowledge, the only “study” that attempts such a determination and that produces 52 as a result. The extent of Bradford’s evidence is simply a list of the denominational affiliations of the 55 delegates. Mere affiliation with a denomination is, of course, no evidence whatever of “orthodox, evangelical” Christianity. This is particularly true since, in order to get to 52, one must include the two Roman Catholics. If mere denominational affiliation is proof of orthodox Christianity, one must also wonder why Barton is concerned today, since 86% of today’s Congress is affiliated with Protestant or Catholic denominations (compared with just 75% of the national population). Today’s Congress is apparently more “Christian” than the American public.

Frazer's point speaks for itself; but let's also note who the three supposed "deists" were: James Wilson, Ben Franklin, and Hugh Williamson. Now, none of these three "fit" the definition of "deist" that most scholars posit. Though, all three perhaps were heterodox "Christian-Deists"/unitarians/theistic rationalists of some sort. Mark David Hall convincingly argues Wilson's views were in accord with orthodox Christianity (but personally I don't see the smoking gun evidence that Wilson was an orthodox Christian).

But the larger point I wish to make is Bradford's notion is largely worthless. Denominational affiliation proves very little. Thomas Jefferson who rejected every single doctrine of Christian orthodoxy was not only affiliated with the Anglicans-Episcopalians, but was at one point a vestryman in said church. Moreover, all 55 of the delegates arguably could be proven to have such affiliations. 

Look, this is an intense debate subject to the most rigorous of scrutiny. And "both sides" equally share a burden of coming forth with smoking gun evidence to demonstrate their contentions. We've put "the key Founders" under the microscope and have found evidence of the heterodoxy of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. And also good reason to believe Madison, Washington and Hamilton (before his end of life conversion) were not orthodox Trinitarians either. Further, we've found evidence of orthodoxy for such figures as Sherman, Jay, and many others.

But, there are plenty of lesser figures whom we simply haven't looked at in such intense detail. And it's wrong to assume one way or the other that they were orthodox Christians or some kind of unorthodox deists. Again denominational connection proves very little. Take for instance, George Clymer (who died in my zip code, lol)

Admittedly, I haven't studied the man in much detail. But this is taken from a site that seems sympathetic to the "Christian America" perspective. Let me quote it (and note, I haven't verified these details):

Religious Affiliation: Quaker, Episcopalian ?

Summary of Religious Views:

Clymer's father was Anglican. His mother had been raised as a Quaker, but she was rejected from that faith for marrying a non-Quaker. Because both his parents died when he was very young, Clymer was raised by Quaker relatives, but it appears that he did not become a Quaker himself, since his wife was disowned by the Quakers for marrying him. In general, religion seems not to have played much of a role in Clymer's adult life. At his request, Clymer's body was interred in a Quaker burial ground.

This doesn't sound like much of an "orthodox evangelical Christian" to me. But we do see the nominal connection to the Quakers and Anglicans. 

Friday, February 03, 2023

Rubin on George Washington's Approach To the "Christian Nation" Question

Writing at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin has an article entitled, "Think America Is A ‘Christian Nation’? George Washington Didn’t." 

I saw this from Dean Paul Caron's site. Quoting Rubin from Caron's site: 

The Jewish community in the United States is as old as its democracy. In August 1790, George Washington sent a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., thanking them for their well wishes.

He wrote: “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He added, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

To a people long denied citizenship in the Old World, kept as a people apart from Christian neighbors, Washington was explaining something quite revolutionary: The United States does not simply forbear Jews; Jews are part of the United States. As the Touro Synagogue in Newport explains on its website: “The letter reassured those who had fled religious tyranny that life in the new nation would be different, that religious ‘toleration’ would give way to religious liberty, and that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief.” ...

Those who view the United States as a “White Christian nation” would do well to ponder Washington’s letter. Its closing passage, which speaks in terms familiar to the people of the Torah, stands as an eloquent rebuke to that notion: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The Founding Fathers are often criticized (or excused) on matters of race and gender as men trapped in the blinkered vision of the past. But in this case, the most esteemed American of his time plainly saw beyond the common prejudices of his era. For that reason, he earned a special place in the hearts of American Jews. ... We Jews will remain part of the American experience so long as Americans of whatever faith or no faith heed Washington’s admonition.

Let me add, that some may claim, okay let's use "Judeo-Christian" instead of "Christian." But I have evidence that Washington viewed Islam as a legitimate monotheistic, non-Christian religion along with Judaism.

One thing is for sure, George Washington was "pro-religion" in a general sense. And he meant some kind of generic monotheism that transcended Christianity or even Judaism and Christianity.
(Washington himself was nominally Anglican and believed in a warm Providence. Plenty of terms have been used attempting to capture his personal creed, which seems a bit mysterious. But "warm deist," "Christian-Deist," and even more modern terms like "morally therapeutic deist" and "theistic rationalist" all seem applicable.)
To Washington, when he lauded "religion," he did not necessarily mean someone's "pet" version of "Christianity," which is the error that many Christian Nationalists make when they quote him.
If I were to describe Washington's creed in a way that was unique to him and him only it would be as some kind of noble pagan, a revived modern for the late 18th Century Roman Stoic like Cincinnatus or Cato, like here.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Samuel Seabury Leverages The Church of England into Communion With American Episcopalians

If it's fair to even call it "communion."

If we want to understand the political theology of the American founding and its attendant religious liberty and establishment issues, we need to understand the dynamic of how The Church of England (Anglicans) dealt with the separation.

The "official rules" of the Church of England held that the Monarch was head of both Church and State. The top clerical official is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who "reports" to the Monarch. If one did not affirm the Monarch's rightful place as leader of the Church, one could face severe legal penalties from both the civil magistrate as well as Church canons, up to and including excommunication

I've noted before the irony that so many of America's leading Founding Fathers were Anglicans, and what they technically did was rebel against the head of their Church. If they were "Anglican fundamentalist" (high church types who followed every single rule of the C of E down to the letter), they would have been Tories and submitted to the King, because that's what the Church officially taught. 

But even in Mother England, high church Anglicanism of the "fundamentalist" variety wasn't the only game in town in the C of E, even if perhaps it prevailed. Even King George III, about whose personal religious convictions I'm not exactly sure, I seriously doubt was an "Anglican fundamentalist" (even though that theology benefited his self interest). I'm assuming "the Christian King" was some kind of orthodox Trinitarian Anglican (?); but the attitude of the Monarchy towards America, up until things got heated with their dispute seemed to be one of (as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it in an entirely different context) "benign neglect." 

The variety of Anglicanism that appealed to the Whig Patriots of the American founding was that of "low church latitudinarianism." Latitudinarianism literally means "doctrinal latitude." Now, most of these latitudinarians were probably "orthodox" on the Trinity and related doctrines; but not all of them. Or at least, their "doctrinal latitude" made room for more deistic and unitarian minded theists to feel comfortable in the Church.

If one wants a name of a latitudinarian figure that America's founders greatly respected, look up Bishop Benjamin Hoadly

Over in America during the revolution, Bishop William White was concerned that the conflict would fracture the Church. And his concerns were valid. As a matter of technicality, the Church of England only had jurisdiction in England. If America is no longer England, then the Church of England no longer exists there, even if the buildings and believers remain. Many of the believers left. The revolution indeed gutted the C of E in America. 

But when America successfully rebelled, the C of E in America, by necessity had to "start over." The Anglican hierarchy in England no longer had any power or jurisdiction over America. Ultimately what ended up happening was because Bishops White and Samuel Seabury (and other Anglican power players in America) were committed to historic Anglican orthodoxy, what emerged in American Episcopalianism was something traditional and orthodox.

It didn't have to be that way though. In New England, one of the Anglican Churches, King's Chapel went unitarian after the split. Indeed, if Bishop James Madison whom many suspected was heterodox, got his druthers and was in charge of rewriting the rules for Southern Anglicans and got his cousin and namesake and Thomas Jefferson to assist, we could have had a Unitarian Episcopalian system there too.

But what of the issue of "communion" among American and English Anglicans, post revolution? The first American Bishop was Samuel Seabury, a Tory loyalist and "The Farmer" whom Alexander Hamilton purported to "refute." He was jailed during the revolution for his loyalism. But after America won, he wished to remain and help rebuild the C of E in America, now as The Protestant Episcopal Church. 

Seabury traveled to Great Britain to get consecrated by the C of E. But he ran into a problem. The then extant rules officially demanded he take an oath of loyalty to the crown. Seabury wisely refused because he knew that wouldn't fly in America. But he got consecrated anyway by the Scottish Episcopal Church, composed of non-juring Bishops who "borrowed" from the Church of England's theology, but without recognizing any of their authority. 

So at that time, Seabury was America's first and only existing Bishop and was in communion with a church that was in schism with the Church of England. This turned out to be a wise and strong move on Seabury's part. Great Britain ended up changing its rules to accommodate America's new situation. They apparently did NOT want American Episcopalians to be in communion only with the schismatic Jacobite Church.

So they relented and consecrated the next three American Bishops, William White, Samuel Provost and James Madison. In the Church of England. And I'm assuming without the "loyalty to the crown" oaths. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

John Adams' FU Letter to Jedidiah Morse

This is another post of mine from 2008 on John Adams' response to one Jedidiah Morse on the concept  of Unitarianism. 

Adams was a fervent theological unitarian who militantly and bitterly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1815, he gets a letter from one Jedidiah Morse who attacked unitarianism, which was then growing in popularity.

Adams responded with an FU letter featured that you can read in its entirety here. To his credit, Adams tries to occupy a reasonable middle ground between the Trinitarian Calvinist fundamentalist "orthodoxy" Morse was trying to enforce and the more radical philosophical deism that was in the "air" of that era.

When Adams uses the term "Athanasianism," he refers to the traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy of St. Athanasius who defended the Nicaean creed in 325AD against Arius (Adams was on Arius' side). Athanasius also later first (meaning he literally was the first early church father or figure to do so) articulated the 27 books of the New Testament as an exclusive list in 367 AD (something Adams mistakenly thought was done in Nicaea; and Adams didn't have any kind of confidence in the biblical canon partly because of such).

But on to Adams' quotation:
... More than fifty years ago, I read Dr. Clarke, Emlyn, and Dr. Waterland: do you expect, my dear doctor, to teach me any thing new in favour of Athanasianism? — There is, my dear Doctor, at present existing in the world a Church Philosophick. as subtle, as learned, as hypocritical, as the Holy Roman Catholick, Apostolick, and Ecumenical Church. The Philosophical Church was originally English. Voltaire learned it from Lord Herbert, Hobbes, Morgan, Collins, Shaftsbury, Bolingbroke, &c. &c. &c. You may depend upon it, your exertions will promote the Church Philosophick, more than the Church Athanasian or Presbyterian. This and the coming age will not be ruled by inquisitions or Jesuits. The restoration of Napoleon has been caused by the resuscitation of inquisitors and Jesuits.

I am and wish to be 
Your friend, 
Quincy, May 15th, 1815.

Friday, November 04, 2022

Revisiting George Washington and Richard Price

I wrote this in 2008. It's not bad. Though, I think I could have written a stronger piece. The point I take from intensely studying George Washington's personal and political theology is that, aside from certain minimal points on which we all should agree, Washington leaves a bit of mystery because of his silence on the matter.

The minimal points are as follows: 1. devout belief in a warm Providence; 2. the importance of "religion" (generally defined) in helping to promote the morality of a virtuous citizenry on which republics depend; and 3. because "Christianity" is a "religion," a general endorsement of "Christianity" without necessarily endorsing orthodox Christianity's narrow claims. 

I do NOT see Washington as a Trinity and Incarnation believing "orthodox Christian," but rather something else. But I would agree that there are ambiguities in the record (and, to me, they seem purposeful on Washington's part).

But it's in trying to "fill in" these gaps -- the "detective work" -- that leads to a temptation: To incorporate the words of other people and institutions and put them in Washington's mouth or at least into his personal convictions. So, Washington was an Anglican; and Anglicanism has spilled a lot of words on what it stands for. Let us then assume that this is what Washington believed. OR, Washington was a collector of sermons; let us then assume he believed in all the content of the sermons he collected. OR, Washington corresponded with various religious figures and organizations of his day and said nice things to them; let us then assume he agreed with them on all of their doctrinal points.

All of those assumptions I described above are problematic. 

As I noted in my above mentioned 2008 post, one of the theologians that was the subject of Washington's brief correspondence was the legendary British Arian Richard Price. Price gave an "address" -- perhaps it could be classified as a "sermon" because Price was among other things, a minister -- entitled "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution." 

Price was a theologically liberal, rationalistic Arian. I use the terms "liberal" and "rationalistic" because Price actually uses those terms to describe his creed in this address:

It is indeed only a rational and liberal religion, a religion founded on just notions of the Deity as a being who regards equally every sincere worshipper, and by whom all are alike favoured as far as they act up to the light they enjoy, a religion which consists in the imitation of the moral perfections of an almighty but benevolent governor of nature, who directs for the best all events, in confidence in the care of his providence, in resignation to his will, and in the faithful discharge of every duty of piety and morality from a regard to his authority and the apprehension of a future righteous retribution. It is only this religion (the inspiring principle of every thing fair and worthy and joyful and which in truth is nothing but the love of God and man and virtue warming the heart and directing the conduct) — it is only this kind of religion that can bless the world or be an advantage to society. This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to promote. But it is a religion that the powers of the world know little of and which will always be best promoted by being left free and open.

I cannot help adding here that such in particular is the Christian religion. ...

Now, Price's personal "Christian" convictions were, as noted above, Arian (the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, is NOT God the Son, but rather a created being who is higher than the highest angel, but not fully God Himself). Though, Price's address doesn't stress the Arianism (as I initially first thought when reading it). 

Price does say the following: 

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains. 

Again, Price was an Arian; the Athanasian Creed was a Trinitarian one that has "clauses" that "damn" people (like Price himself) for not believing in the Trinitarianism expressed there. However, other Trinitarian creeds, most notably the Nicene, were more central. Theologically unitarian Founding Fathers and their influences like Price often did use the term "Athanasian" as a shorthand for "Trinitarianism" (mainly because of St. Athanasius' role in defending the Trinity during the Council of Nicaea).  

But in rereading Price's address, it seems more of an attack on that particular part of the Athanasian creed than promotion of theological unitarianism. Though, Price does describe the "latitudinarian" landscape of the Church of England at his time and how unitarians and other dissenters like himself "fit in" there:

The Church Establishment in England is one of the mildest and best sort. But even here what a snare has it been to integrity? And what a check to free enquiry? What dispositions favourable to despotism has it fostered? What a turn to pride and narrowness and domination has it given the clerical character? What struggles has it produced in its members to accommodate their opinions to the subscriptions and tests which it imposes? What a perversion of learning has it occasioned to defend obsolete creeds and absurdities? What a burthen is it on the consciences of some of its best clergy who, in consequence of being bound down to a system they do not approve, and having no support except that which they derive from conforming to it, find themselves under the hard necessity of either prevaricating or starving? No one doubts but that the English clergy in general could with more truth declare that they do not, than that they do, given their unfeigned assent to all and everything contained in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer; and yet, with a solemn declaration to this purpose, are they obliged to enter upon an office which above all offices requires those who exercise it to be examples of simplicity and sincerity. Who can help execrating the cause of such an evil?

Bold face is mine.  

"Latitudinarianism" means "doctrinal latitude." Not all latitudinarians were unitarian; but as I understand the record, some/many were. People part of the Church of England in Richard Price's day -- including ministers -- didn't necessarily buy into everything the Church "officially" taught. 

Well, what does this have to do with George Washington? 

For one, Washington endorsed Price's address. As he wrote to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785:

Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, "To the free and United States of America," which I have seen and read with much pleasure.

Now, I agree it's a bridge too far to treat this like a "smoking gun" that proves Washington agreed with every word of this address. 

But this is generally how Washington corresponded with various religious figures of his day who sent him items for his perusal. He gave polite, perfunctory "thank yous" and imprimaturs. But the different individuals and groups who sought his approval, which he most often gave, taught contradictory things on "doctrinal" matters and the like. 

So, it's also a mistake to cherry pick from the polite correspondence Washington had with more orthodox theologians and groups and assume that Washington personally shared their beliefs. Likewise, because Washington was affiliated with the Anglican Church, it's a mistake to assume he believed in all of their doctrines. If Washington were an Anglican fundamentalist, he'd be a Tory. And as we've seen above from Price's testimony, plenty of Anglicans, including ministers from that area "dissented" from or otherwise rejected "official" doctrine like that found in the 
Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer.

As I look at the "big picture" I see Washington's personal creed as closer to Price's than that of the more traditional orthodox types of his day; however, even there, we have uncertainty. Washington could have been even further from conventional Christianity than Price was. He could have been more Socinian and Deistic (though, as noted above Washington clearly believed in a warm Providence).