Saturday, June 15, 2019

Smithsonian: "Why No One Can Agree on What George Washington Thought About the Relationship Between Church and State"

By a professor at Stanford. A taste:
Historians were not deaf to Washington’s religious references. While the clergy and the scientists saw them as evidence of Washington’s devotion, the historians stressed the president’s precision in crafting a vocabulary that would unite the dizzying array of Protestant denominations in post-revolutionary America without alienating the small but important groups of Catholics, Jews, and freethinkers dotting the American landscape. It was precisely because he understood that Americans did not believe the same thing that Washington was scrupulous in choosing words that would be acceptable to a wide spectrum of religious groups.

In his own time, Washington’s reluctance to show his doctrinal cards dismayed his Christian co-religionists. Members of the first Presbytery of the Eastward (comprised of Presbyterian churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) complained to the president that the Constitution failed to mention the cardinal tenets of Christian faith: “We should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ,” they wrote. Washington dodged the criticism by assuring the Presbyterians that the “path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”  
Similarly, a week before his 1789 proclamation, Washington responded to a letter from Reverend Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College from 1774-1780. Langdon had implored Washington to “let all men know that you are not ashamed to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Once again, instead of affirming Christian tenets, Washington wrote back offering thanks to the generic “Author of the Universe.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Christianity & Religious Liberty

This new book Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, looks to be a must read. I disagree with the subtitle of the American Conservative review article that doesn't credit "The Enlightenment." Yes, there were sources of religious liberty that preceded the Enlightenment. But it was during the Enlightenment when such became normative. A taste from the article:
This tension reached a climax during the Reformation and post-Reformation era. Wilken includes chapters on Lutheran Germany, Calvinist and Zwinglian Switzerland, and on Catholic-Protestant battles in France, the Netherlands, and England. Readers may be surprised to learn how often it was not just Protestants but also Catholics who turned to liberty in defense of their religious beliefs. Nuns in Germany, clergyman in Switzerland, Benedictine abbots in France, and papist lawyers in England all appealed to their consciences in the face of Protestant persecution. Indeed, while Reformation history is full of Catholic oppression of Protestants, it is equally full of Protestants oppressing, persecuting, and even forbidding Catholic worship. 
It is ultimately the Englishmen—Roger Williams, John Owen, William Penn, and John Locke—to whom America and the West are indebted for their conception of religious freedom. Williams argued that liberty of conscience applied to all men equally, including dissenting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even the hated Catholics. He also “severed the link between the two tables of the law,” meaning that he rejected any role for the state in the affairs of the church and vice versa. Owen, in turn, interpreted Tertullian’s earlier cited argument to mean that “liberty of conscience is a natural right” rather than one created and protected by the state. Penn, meanwhile, argued that this liberty of conscience necessarily extended to public worship. Locke, finally, incorporated some of these elements, but went even further by arguing that religious communities are fundamentally voluntary societies composed of individuals possessing “free and spontaneous” rights.
For instance the Calvinist covenanters like Samuel Rutherford and John Knox who were "good" on resistance to tyrants in the face of Romans 13 were still defending Calvin having Servetus put to death for denying the Trinity. By the time of the American Founding, John Witherspoon and his Presbyterians had accepted liberty of conscience as an unalienable right.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Free Chapter on Gregg Frazer's First Book

Gregg Frazer's "thesis" on the political theology of the American founding, in my opinion, took the level of scholarly analysis to a "higher level." His book has its strengths and weaknesses. But it's certainly a must read for anyone who wants to seriously study the issue.

I just noticed that University of Kansas Press now features a free chapter of the book in PDF form. Check it out.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Law & Liberty Site: "John Locke and Political Hebraism"

By one DAVID CONWAY. Check it out here. A taste:
The Paradox of Locke’s Sources  
Of course, Hebrew Scripture forms but a part of Christian Scripture, so that Locke would not but have taken the Old Testament to be every bit as divinely revealed as the New Testament. However, it is still puzzling just why he should have drawn so much more heavily on Old Testament sources than he did on New Testament ones, especially in respect of illustrating quite universally applicable theses about the law of nature. ...
But there seems an answer to the puzzle:
At the time of the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which James ll was deposed in favor of Mary, his Protestant daughter, and her Protestant Dutch husband William (who also happened to be the son of the deposed king’s deceased elder sister), the chief theoretical apostle of the divine right of kings had been the royalist Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653). Filmer had defended the doctrine in his essay Patriarcha, which was published posthumously in 1679 at the time of the Exclusion Crisis, in which a vain parliamentary attempt was made to prevent James’s succeeding his elder brother, Charles. 
In 1688, Locke and his fellow Whigs who sought to sideline James, were particularly exercised to do so by the birth, earlier that year, of James’s son, which would have ensured a Catholic succession. Since Filmer had justified the doctrine of divine right by appealing to Old Testament stories about God’s granting Adam dominion over other creatures, Locke had no alternative but to take on Filmer at the hermeneutical task of Biblical exegesis. ...
Locke discussed the Old Testament so much by necessity to answer Filmer's claims which centered on the Old Testament. 

Andrew Seidel Publishes Book on "Christian Nation" Controversy

A hard hit from the secular left. Read about it here. A taste from an interview:
The second part of your book is "The United States versus the Bible." One chapter is titled "Biblical Obedience or American Freedom." Could you talk about this opposition in attitudes and philosophy?  
Sure. This also plays a lot into the Declaration of Independence itself, which was this document which was rebelling against this king, who was the defender of the faith. Even though the divine right of kings was gone by that time, he certainly believed himself to be instilled in that position by God.

The Bible demands obedience. The Bible is very, very clear on this point, many times over. The Judeo-Christian God demands obedience. And not just to himself, but also to the rulers that are on earth. Romans 13 is all about obedience to the earthly rulers. So here you have a country that was built on rebellion, versus a book that is all about obedience, and the two are in fundamental conflict. That's an important point that I try to make throughout the whole book. If you really pay attention to Judeo-Christian principles, and what those principles are — throughout the Bible, throughout the Ten Commandments — and look at the principles America holds dear and was founded on, the two are really diametrically opposed to each other. They’re in fundamental conflict. It does make it fair to say that these principles are un-American.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tillman Cites Ezra Stiles on Deism

Over at The New Reform Club, Seth Barrett Tillman quotes from a decade or so old article where he scrutinized the claims of prominent law professor Geoff Stone. One thing that interests me about it is a quotation from Ezra Stiles, a notable "orthodox" Protestant figure from America's founding era, President of Yale, who took on the "deism" of his day.

Then, books on deism existed in the libraries of prominent colleges like Yale and Harvard. The ideas were spreading and the then "orthodox" leaders of those prominent educational institutions had to react to a such system that conflicted with "orthodoxy."

How did the "religiously correct" orthodox Protestants deal with the problem of their libraries having books on deism which influenced students in undesirable ways? That's the controversy. Below is what Stiles said:
It is true with this Liberty [of accepting deistical books into religiously-affiliated university libraries] Error may be introduced; but turn the Tables [and see that] the propagation of Truth may be extinguished [if you do otherwise]. Deism has got such Head in this Age of Licentious Liberty, that it would be in vain to try to stop it by hiding the Deistical Writings: and the only Way left to conquer & demolish it, is to come forth into the open Field & Dispute this matter on even Footing—the Evidences of Revelation in my opinion are nearly as demonstrative as Newton’s Principia, & these are the Weapons to be used . . . . Truth & this alone being our Aim in fact, open, frank & generous we shall avoid the very appearance of Evil.
Stiles was a good classically liberal Whig. He might have handled the circumstances with more liberality than say, Timothy Dwight, the President of Yale who succeeded Stiles. Stiles was, if I'm not mistaken, more sympathetic to Jefferson's and Madison's Democratic-Republican party than the Federalists. In fact, Stiles was a Francophile who supported some of the excesses of the French Revolutionaries.

Stiles was actually one of the "orthodox" figures that heterodox men like Ben Franklin felt somewhat comfortable sharing their religious heterodoxy with. The same can't be said of Timothy Dwight who was less liberal than Stiles.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Thoughtful Responses to a Piece I Wrote

So over at the Law and Liberty site, friend Mark David Hall has a piece that reviews Steven K. Green's new book, "The Third Disestablishment." Prof. Green is more of a "strict separationist" than Hall, and the two have previously debated on multiple occasions.

I entered the comments and ended up posting a link to a piece of mine published in 2012 entitled "Liberty For All" and received two thoughtful, lengthy responses. The first is from EK who writes:
That was a nice piece of writing. I don’t agree with much of it because I think your understandings of who the Puritans were and what the Bay Colony was all about are inaccurate but it was a nice piece of writing. I’m reminded of a pathologist examining a tissue sample looking for and so finding and describing signs of disease but silent on signs of health because. . . well . . . pathologists are paid to look for disease.   
A few years ago I began looking for the sources of the republicanism and self-government that is said to be fundamental to the American experience. I think I can safely say that reading American history should begin in 1534 with the dissolution of the monasteries and the Act of Supremacy and that our history should be read forward from that point and not backwards from the present.  
American history actually began in 1620 when Coke, after having been humiliated by James I, entered Parliament, aligned himself with the Puritan faction and began attacking Stuart notions of the divine right of kings and broad assertions of the royal prerogative. This culminated in the Petition of Right Parliament of 1628-9. The Massachusetts Bay Charter was also issued in 1628-9 and the Petition of Right is last constitutional document we share with the British.  
What the Winthrop migration did was to establish a republic where ultimate sovereignty was placed in God, not the king, and where the voters were sovereign. In 1630, the franchise to vote was limited to members of congregations but, in the case were almost all of the settlers soon became members of a congregation, this was not restrictive but rather the broadest possible extension of the franchise since it was not based on property or civil status. Six years later, Thomas Hooker and John Haynes took the more conventional approach and limited the franchise in the Connecticut Colony to 40 shilling free holders. Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont followed Connecticut. Nevertheless, throughout American history this difference in the franchise does not seem to have made much difference at all in New England history.  
Special circumstances allowed the colonization to succeeded. The settlers were a stratified sample of English middle-class religious enthusiasts who shared a common culture and common vision for the future. They arrived in a land that had been depopulated in the 1610s and where the surviving Massasoits were in imminent danger of annihilation from unaffected tribes to the north, south and west. The surviving Algonquins from the Massachusetts Bay to the Connecticut River viewed cooperation with the Winthrop party as the best way to prevent further depredations and incursions from the Abenakis to the north, the Mokawks to the west and the Naragansitts, Pequods and Wampanoags to the south. The Puritans’ attitude towards the Massasoits and their affiliated clans in south-central New England was paternalistic and, to an extent, condescending but it was never intentionally cruel or exploitative. It appears that ultimately the Puritans’ Indian allies were not extirpated but rather assimilated.  
Read this way, the Puritans are not dour religious ideologues and bigots dressed in sad colors who spend all their time quoting scripture, hanging witches and Quakers and branding nice young girls with scarlet “A’s”. They become radical constitutional democratic-republicans who overthrew kings, established popular sovereignty, representative government and set men free. To an unhealthy extent the good the Puritans did was buried with them but that which was not so good has lived on and become a cartoon of evil.
And Standing Fast replied:
Jonathan Rowe: I read your article. I thought you started out really well. But, kind of got bogged down later on. I would like to address several points you made that I disagree with:

The concept of unalienable rights does not come from the Enlightenment, but derives from traditional teachings on the Ten Commandments and Cicero’s writings. Although they come from two different traditions, the principles are not incompatible. The teaching on the Ten Commandments says they were given by the Power that created the Universe whose authority supersedes any and all earthly powers. And from these commandments it is possible to infer precisely what these rights are and that they are given by God. As God is the Author of Life, Liberty and the Laws which govern the Universe, including mankind, we can say that they are unalienable. Cicero refers to a Divine power whose authority is also supreme and whose word is Law. He wrote that in order to be just, man’s laws must be consistent with God’s law.

These ideas came together in the Early Christian Church. To understand this tradition, it is necessary to study the ancient documents of the pagan world, the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, Greek and Roman law, The Holy Bible, The Code of English Common Law, Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation and Resistance Movement, the Mayflower Compact, the English Civil War, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the English Bill of Rights, the confessions of the various denominations & sects of Protestants, and America’s founding documents. After which you can begin reading the writings of the individuals who played a part in the establishment of this tradition, and be able to place them in the context of what they knew. That way, the development of these ideas is much easier to track. Who knew what and when did they know it?

Roger Williams’ religion places him outside of the Puritan fold, although for awhile he was a member of this sect. He started out as a communicating member of the Church Of England, was later ordained in the Anglican Church (Protestant in that the Pope was not the head of the church, but theology was Roman Catholic), then joined the Puritans (Low-Church Anglicans because they followed Protestant Reformed tradition and refused to use the Book of Common Prayer but believed the monarch should be the head of the church), then he joined the Separatists (exiled Puritans who did not believe the monarch should be the head of the church), then joined the Baptists (exiles and independents who came out of the Reformed and other Protestant traditions but did not believe civil government should have any power over matters of Conscience), left the Baptists because he disagreed with them on important points of theology, doctrine and church practice. More than any other individual on either side of the water, he championed Liberty of Conscience and Separation of Church & State. His influence has been under-rated by historians because they read what his enemies wrote without understanding what the arguments were about.

John Locke was influenced by Williams, Milton, Penn, Coke and others. And he, in turn, influenced Trenchard & Gordon. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Witherspoon, Thomas Paine, and the rest of the 18th Century American Political Philosophers. But, they were also influenced by people who neither knew Locke nor agreed with him.
My brief response, not meant to be comprehensive, but rather open the discussion that can proceed in the comments, follows: My main disagreement with EK is that while I try to contrast Roger Williams with the Puritans of Massachusetts who banished him as representing different visions -- Williams as an innovative hero on matters of religious liberty, with the Puritans as villains here -- EK seeks to collapse the distinction and make Williams sound not as good as he has been made out to be, and the Puritans, not as bad.

I agree more with Standing Fast on Roger Williams' innovative role as a religious liberty hero, but disagree on other things. First, while Cicero was a purported influence on the Declaration of Independence (by Thomas Jefferson himself) I'd like to see more evidence that Cicero's notion of "nature" included something like the unalienable rights of conscience (religious liberty) that Jefferson and others championed.

And the notion that the Ten Commandments are the source of "unalienable rights" is not just disputed, but arguably the opposite of what's accurate.  I spill much ink in my article explaining the tension between the First Commandment and the notion of unalienable rights of conscience that give men a right to worship no God or twenty gods, axiomatic to the unalienable rights of conscience.

This has to be answered with more than a mere assertion that the Ten Commandments are the source of "unalienable rights."

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Jefferson's Libertarian Maxim

In his only published book, "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1784), Thomas Jefferson noted:
"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
In my opinion, this is a great maxim to live by. Jefferson originally said this in the context of religious liberty; but libertarians like myself tend to generalize it to apply to everything.

What is interesting is that some of Jefferson's religiously orthodox enemies thought this a very dangerous sentiment. On a number of different grounds, spiritual and temporal.

On temporal grounds, one of the critics reasoned if people thought there was no God, they wouldn't just break your leg, but your neck.

I think that's quite melodramatic and mistaken. But even Jefferson thought that belief in a Providence who administers rewards and punishments was not just true but useful for civilizing man.