Thursday, January 17, 2019

Kidd on GW's Faith

From this post in 2017, Thomas Kidd examines "Ron Chernow’s extraordinary 2010 biography of Washington" and makes some observations about George Washington's faith. A taste:
For his own part, Washington’s Anglican faith was moderate and utterly reserved. That is how we should account for Washington’s irregular church attendance and his failure to take communion, Chernow explains. He never liked to make a public show of his own faith. This is also the reason why Chernow doubts that Washington was ever seen praying as depicted in the popular painting “George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge.”
“The reason to doubt the story’s veracity is not Washington’s lack of faith,” Chernow writes, “but the typically private nature of his devotions.” Chernow’s portrayal of Washington’s near-secretive faith seems quite plausible, although it would still not account for Washington’s strange decision hardly ever to utter or write the name of Jesus Christ in his thousands of surviving letters and public statements.
Yes this is true. In the perhaps 20,000 pages of words that George Washington left us, the name "Jesus Christ" is mentioned only once by name and one other time by example. Both in public addresses written by aides, but given under Washington's hand. In none of Washington's private letters is the name or example of Jesus Christ invoked. Though more generic God words are replete throughout Washington's recorded public and private words.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

What Was Unique About the American Founding and Religion

The American founding had a number of novel things to it. Though it wasn't entirely novel. For instance, the American Revolution wasn't quite as novel as say, the French Revolution which it inspired. On religion (correct me if I am mistaken), every single modern Western European nation state at the time was in some way formally connected to an official Christian sect.

At the state level, America post founding still retained some "state established" churches, which were on their way out.

But at the federal level, there was nothing. George Washington, America's first President, was like many founders, formally/nominally affiliated with the Anglican then Episcopalian Church. "The Church of England" against which America had then separated.

When Washington spoke to the different religious "factions," he had a method of seeming to be all things to all people. For instance, recent events remind of us of Islam's place in the mind of America's founders. With the assistance of his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, Washington delivered remarks to Morocco where he claimed to "adore" (his word) the same God as the Muslim leader.

Now, one could write this off as something "diplomatic." Perhaps it was. It's certainly the kind of sentiment today that leaders in pluralistic societies use. But back then, before America, every single head of state was connected to an official church. And it was expected that in their public utterances, they would endorse that particular brand of faith. Not generic, bridge building, monotheism.

That's something that arguably Washington and the other early American Presidents invented. And perhaps they were so effective at it because such a sentiment mirrored their privately held religious convictions which focused more on commonly held doctrines of monotheism and virtue, while if not downplaying, outright removing other more divisive sectarian "doctrine."

Friday, January 04, 2019

Jefferson's Koran

So Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) will be sworn in using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran. There is a myth going around that Jefferson owned a copy of that book because he wanted to better understand the enemy.

The problem with this claim is that it is not true. I've studied the Founding record meticulously and found NO evidence that Jefferson was interested in the Koran because he saw Islam as an ENEMY faith or to better understand a threat.

That's not to say that certain Islamic forces didn't cause threats and other problems for Jefferson and other Founders. The best someone like Robert Spencer could argue is that the Founding Fathers were naive for NOT concluding Islam qua Islam was a threat.

Read the Treaty of Tripoli where the Founders conceded the American government was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion and as such they sought peaceful relations with Muslims.

Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin and Washington all thought Jews, Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. The Founding Fathers arguably saw Roman Catholicism as more of a threat than Islam. And they were far more concerned with the persecution and bloodshed that in-fights among Christian sects had been causing than from Islam.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Waligore on Unitarians

Dr. Joseph Waligore is working on a new book that will tackle, among other things, some of the unitarians who influenced the American founding and who otherwise were influential in Great Britain during the times that interest the American Creation blog.

In the comments section he gave us a little taste:
The best known of the liberal Dissenters were the Unitarians, Christians who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and often thought Jesus was merely human. Many scholars of American religious history, such as Gregg L. Frazer and Paul Conklin, assert that the religious beliefs of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson mean they were Unitarians. Furthermore these scholars assert these presidents’ mentor was Joseph Priestley, the most important Unitarian theologian. Chapter seven explains in detail how Jefferson and Adams shared the English deists’ emphasis on God’s goodness and total fairness. The scholars who think Priestley was Jefferson and Adams’ mentor also think Priestley shared their emphasis on God’s total goodness. Frazer declares that Priestley stressed God “was, fundamentally, benevolent, . . . [he] rejected biblical accounts of God’s wrath and vengeance.” What Frazer and other scholars do not understand is how much Priestley was situated in the tradition of the liberal Dissenters, and shared their beliefs about the Bible, particularly their belief in the accuracy of the Old Testament. The scholars of American religious history share religion scholar Bruce K. Waltke’s mistaken idea of Priestley’s view of biblical authority. Waltke, in his book on Old Testament theology, claimed Priestley, like French skeptics such as Diderot and Voltaire, had a liberal outlook on the authority of the Bible. According to Waltke, liberals put reason above revelation and so detract from the authority of the Bible by making reason the foundation of theological reflection. For Waltke, this means liberals approach the Bible with the same skepticism they apply to other ancient Near Eastern myths. Waltke asserts liberals consider the Bible stories as the product of human mythopoetic imagination, and so he thought liberals gave no more credence to the Bible’s account of God’s intervention in human affairs than they do to other Near Eastern myths. 

Waltke is claiming that anyone who believes in reason must treat the Bible as a myth. But Priestley shared with other liberal Dissenters a belief that reason supported the authority of the Old Testament. Priestley’s views will be discussed in detail in chapter seven when his views are compared to those of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s. Priestley’s beliefs on biblical authority were very similar to those of John Taylor, another prominent liberal Dissenter. Taylor was a minister and scholar who eventually taught at Warrington Academy, the most eminent Dissenter college. In fact, when Taylor died in 1761, Priestley replaced him as professor at the academy.

Taylor believed the Bible was not the fully inspired Word of God. However, he thought the historical parts of the Bible were written by men fully acquainted with the facts; meaning that he accepted the Old Testament accounts as true historical facts of what actually happened before Jesus was born. Taylor believed in the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Flood, and the destruction of the Tower of Babel. To explain how Moses could have a reliable account of far earlier events without being inspired by God, Taylor pointed to the biblical claim that Hebrew patriarchs lived for many hundreds of years. So while there were 1,656 years from the creation to Noah’s Flood, Taylor believed Methuselah lived with Adam for 243 years and received from him an accurate account of creation and the Fall. Methuselah then passed that knowledge on to Noah who also lived many hundreds of years. Eventually other long-lived patriarchs passed the knowledge to each other until it was given to Moses. Taylor reasoned that three people, Methuselah, Shem, and Jacob “were sufficient to hand down the Knowledge and Worship of the true God, from Adam to the time when the Children of Israel went down into Egypt, that is, through the Space of 2238 Years.” Taylor reasoned God let these patriarchs live so long precisely because there was no other way to accurately pass down this knowledge before the invention of writing. 

With this belief about the reliability of the Old Testament, Taylor believed a race of impious giants once lived on Earth, as well as the whole world was once covered by Noah’s Flood. More pertinently, he also believed God ordered the total extermination of Israel’s neighbors, the Canaanites, cursed whole peoples, and chastised whole nations with plagues, fires, and locusts. The other liberal Dissenters, including the Unitarians, also believed the Old Testament God performed these actions.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Lester Kinsolving, RIP

Here at American Creation we spend a lot of time examining religious boxes. How do they define and how ought a particular historical figure be placed? Into what box do they fit?

Someone like Lester Kinsolving demonstrates that people often don't fit so neatly into these boxes. Kinsolving, RIP was, politically, a right wing crack pot (sorry Brian, if you get to take a shot at AOC, I get to take a shot at Kinsolving).

He was also an Episcopalian priest and a devoted theological universalist in the tradition of Benjamin Rush, John Murray and Elhanan Winchester.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Frazer on Locke v. Reformed Resisters as a Source

Gregg Frazer who has a new book out has been graciously participating in the comments at American Creation. I found this comment the most illuminating on a dispute that we have been engaged in for probably over a decade now.
"The facts" are that beginning with Elisha Williams in 1744, American preachers cited "the celebrated Lock," and Locke as "the noble Assertor of the Liberties of humane Nature." Peter Whitney cited "the great Mr. Locke" for his ideas; Samuel West (in his sermon that is second to that of Mayhew in terms of influence) identified "Mr. Locke" as the source of his ideas. Samuel Cooper said that the "principles and arguments" he was using were "grounded" in "the immortal writings" of Locke. John Tucker had an extensive quote from "Lock on civil Government" in the crucial part of his best-known sermon. 
[C]an [anyone] identify a single Patriot sermon that cites Calvin or Beza or "justifications of political resistance found within Reformed Protestantism." [A]s always, I'm open to such evidence. In Donald Lutz's acclaimed study of the influences on American Revolutionary thought, there is not a single Reformer in the list, but Locke is 3rd in terms of citations. Dreisbach's chapter on the Revolutionary sermons spends 18 pages on the 16th & 17th century Reformed guys and then 6 pages on actual American preachers -- almost exclusively Mayhew. He includes no citations by Patriot preachers of any of the Reformers he had introduced as the fundamental influences. Dreisbach is, of course, right that Mayhew does not cite Locke AND that he doesn't cite the Reformed guys either.  
So, whose arguments/principles are reflected in Mayhew's sermon? 
Mayhew's entire argument fits and flows perfectly from Lockean presuppositions and principles, but it includes elements completely foreign to the Reformers. Most notable of these is emphasis on a state of nature -- an idea anathema to Reformers who believed in the biblical record of the beginning of man and society as recorded in Genesis. 
Mayhew -- and the other Patriot preachers -- did not speak of "covenants" as did Knox et al, but rather of "contracts." They did not speak of "lesser magistrates" or of "interposition" or any of Beza's creative notions. Their arguments went right down the line of Lockean thought -- which is why Tucker seamlessly included extensive quotes from Locke in the middle of his sermon. Additionally, for his part, Calvin explicitly rejected any notion of rebellion -- as did Luther. So two of the most important and prominent voices of the Reformation were not even available to those who might have wanted to make Reformed arguments.  
Again, as I note in my first book ..., this is a primary reason that Mayhew's sermon was so influential. Those raised in Reformed churches and taught by Calvin to be subject to authority -- even tyrannical authority -- found in Mayhew a plausible excuse to rebel against an authority they found inconvenient or disagreeable. Mayhew's sermon was groundbreaking because it was new to those people -- not because it rehashed what they had already been taught. 
....
I think it's true that reformed resistance under law may well have softened up the congregants in America, making them more amenable to the arguments of Locke. But when we examine the sermons, it's Locke and not Rutherford et al. And, in a nuanced sense, Locke teaches something different from Beza et al. The difference between resistance under law and revolution.

Parts of the Declaration of Independence speak in the language of resistance under law; these are the parts where the Patriots made the claim that what Great Britain was doing violated British law. Other parts of the Declaration are revolutionary; those are the Lockean parts.

This is somewhat complicated. Locke was cited in sermons. These sermons understandably also cited the Bible. In Lutz's above mentioned study, Locke was cited during the period of time when the Bible was constantly being cited (the revolutionary period, the DOI). The later period when the Constitution was being framed and ratified, Lutz notes the biblical references dry up and it was more Enlightenment and other sources.

Yet I've also seen it argued (I think from Robert Kraynak) that references to Locke also start to dry up during the period of the Constitution's framing and ratifying. That those Enlightenment sources are non-Lockean. More Montesquieu than Locke.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

St. George Tucker and the Theology of the Common Law

Legendary scholar Walter Berns had the following to say about the notion that "Christianity" was part of the "common law." As he wrote in Making Patriots:
Liberty of conscience was widely accepted at the time of the Founding, but this did not prevent some jurists and legislatures from insisting, at least for a while (and given our principles it could be only for a while), that Christianity was part of the law, meaning the common law. So it had been in England, and so, it was assumed by some (but not Jefferson), it would continue to be in America. But there was no disagreement about the place of the common law. Indeed one of the first things done by the states after independence was to declare (here in the words of the New Jersey constitution of 1776) that “the common law of England, as well as so much of the statute law, as have been heretofore practiced in this Colony, shall remain in force, until they shall be altered by a future law of the Legislature; such parts only excepted, as are repugnant to the rights and privileges contained in this Charter [or constitution].” 
But if the “rights and privileges” contained in the various state charters or constitutions included the right of liberty of conscience, and if, in turn, this right required, in Madison’s words, “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters,” what did it mean to say that Christianity was part of the common law? Very little, as it turned out; and it turned out as it had to turn out. Consider, for example, the case of blasphemy in America…. pp. 32-33.
Berns then went on to note that to the extent that blasphemy prosecutions survived for a short period of time in the early American republic, it was redefined as something akin to a secular breach of the peace, with blasphemy now stripped of its religious character.

Berns' recitation of the above quoted part of the 1776 New Jersey constitution also illustrates the proper place the common law of England had in the newly founded America, in terms of its priority as a source of law: And that is, common law is below state statutory law. Later court decisions -- notably Erie v. Tompkins -- would hold that there is no such thing as general federal common law, consigning such common law to the state level entirely.

Still, we debate whether some kind of "organic" law exists in the brooding omnipresence in the sky up there, that could potentially inform all sources of law (from higher to lower). That such organic law, if needed, could serve potentially as the ultimate trump existing above the highest source of constitutional positive law.

That's where such a theory becomes controversial. If the uncodified, "brooding omnipresence" is consigned to a place where a state statute can trump it, such seems more contained, hence less controversial. If, on the other hand, it's justiciable by the Supreme Court (and American courts in general) and exists at a place higher than the US Constitution, such a powerful thing in the hands of judges becomes understandably more controversial.

What prevails among the experts in academia, government and the practice of law is legal positivism. Such teaches that "higher law," if it exists at all, is nothing judges may consult in their legal decision making outside of the existing positive law.

I think of someone like the late Justice Scalia, who was a devout Roman Catholic, believing in the natural law as his church taught it. But, he argued, such had no business informing judicial decision making. Rather, it was something legislators could consult in the realm of conscience (the executive could consult such as well when deciding for instance, whether to veto a law).

Just as the other non-judicial branches could, as they exercised their political power, consult whatever kind of specific revelation they wanted: Catholic, Protestant,  Mormon, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic, etc. Or whatever kind of ethical or political theory they fancied: Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Rawlsianism, etc.

After meticulously studying, for many years, the concept of this organic law of the brooding omnipresence as it was understood by America's founders, I have concluded the Christian religion, special revelation, etc. is not the source of such, even though such did often claim to have theistic underpinnings (i.e., the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God").

Yet, we still have this notion coming from Blackstone himself that "Christianity is part of the common law." As noted above by Professor Berns, Jefferson disputed such a notion. But what might we make of such a notion, if applicable to the newly minted America of the late 18th and early 19th Century?

American founder and preeminent legal authority St. George Tucker (of Virginia) provided the answer as to what he understood the theology of the common law to be. I just completed a series where I reproduced Tucker's lengthy discussion on religion and politics, contained in Philip B. Kurland's "The Founders' Constitution" under the title of "St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries." In 1:App. 296--97, 2:App. 3--11 of said document, Tucker discusses, at length, his opinions relating to religion and government.

In this 1803 document, Tucker invokes the then existing state laws of Virginia and the US Constitution. He also includes a tremendous amount of words from (the Arian) Richard Price's "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution and the Means of Making It a Benefit to the World" where Price explicates his Enlightenment ideal of religion and politics. This ideal is not wholly secular, but rather seems informed by an Enlightenment faith more "fit" for that era.

Here is a quotation from such (Tucker quoting Price) that encapsulates such zeitgeist:
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. ... This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to support. 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.
One might ask, why did Tucker reproduce Price's thoughts on religion and politics in a document meant to capture Blackstone's authoritative teachings on the common law? The answer relates to purpose of Tucker's Blackstone project. Tucker meant more than just to reiterate Blackstone's teachings, but to transform and correct them for America.

 The following article by law professor Kurt Lash uncovers such purpose:
[T]he same generation that adopted the Constitution also challenged the uncritical acceptance of English common law. ...  
For example, St. George Tucker’s 1803 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries was a hugely successful and influential effort to “translate” the rules of English common law so that they made better sense for a people whose legal system presumed the ultimate sovereignty of the people themselves.31 The United States was not just a new and independent legal entity, the country and its citizens had operationalized a new legal theory. The status of the government and the role of its courts were different on American soil, rendering problematic any wholesale adoption of Blackstonian common law. As historian Davison Douglas writes:  
"While serving as a law professor at The College of William and Mary during the 1790s, Tucker had his students read Blackstone, but he supplemented that reading with lectures in which he analyzed the ways that law in the United States—and specifically Virginia—had departed from English legal principles as a result of the American Revolution, the Virginia Constitution, and the United States Constitution. These lectures were “the first systematic effort by any figure in American law to describe the contours of the new system created by the amended Constitution.” Drawing extensively on his William and Mary lectures, Tucker’s Blackstone included eight hundred pages of essays on a variety of legal and political topics and more than one thousand footnotes in which Tucker examined Blackstone in light of American and Virginian law. Tucker worried about the effect Blackstone’s Tory sensibilities might have on his students. He thus emphasized to his students that the American Revolution and its aftermath had produced a revolution “not only in the principles of our government,” but in a variety of legal principles, such as the law of inheritance, that reflected the new nation’s republican values and that rendered Blackstone an unreliable guide to certain aspects of American law."
St. George Tucker’s “translation” of Blackstone found an eager audience. Again, according to Douglas, 
"Tucker’s Blackstone, the first major legal treatise on American law, was one of the most influential legal works of the early nineteenth century and the most comprehensive treatise on American constitutional law until around 1820. Not surprisingly, it was also one of the legal texts most frequently cited by the United States Supreme Court and relied upon by lawyers appearing before the Court during the first few decades of the nineteenth century."33
So I'm guessing that all of the material on religion and government complete with Richard Price's ideal kind of theology was Tucker's answer to Blackstone's claim that "Christianity is part of the common law."