Monday, June 26, 2006

Theistic Rationalist Thesis:

Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis from Claremont Graduate University entitled The Political Theology of the American Founding came in the mail the other day. I'm reading it very slowly, savoring parts of it (I am also teaching 12 credits this summer, plus doing corporate training. Hey, I thought college professors were supposed to get the summers off!).

The thesis was completed in 2004. It's nice to see how much of my independent research I've done on this blog over the past two years confirms Frazer's thesis and vice versa. The Thesis, by the way, (found in this article) is briefly this: While there may have been a few strict Deists (meaning those who believed in a non-interventionist God, categorically rejected all revelation in favor reason, etc.) and more than a few orthodox Christians among the Founders, the key Founders -- those most responsible for the ideas upon which we declared independence and constructed the Constitution (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Wilson, G. Morris, and a few others) -- were neither, but rather somewhere in between. And while they may not have believed in the exact same things on religion, these key Founders were by in large agreed on certain basic tenets, which tenets put them outside both the "strict Deist" and "orthodox Christian" boxes.

His research also contributes a new term to the discourse. While this belief system has been recognized and given different names by various scholars and the Founders themselves, most of those terms are in some way inadequate, so Frazer suggests a new term: "Theistic Rationalist." (Some of the terms used to describe this system have been liberal Christianity, Warm-Deism, Christian-Deism, Unitarianism. Before I read Frazer's thesis I used the term "Deistic-Unitarian.")

One of the confusing things about Founding times and public utterances on religion is understanding the historical context. They were coming out of and still living in a time where unenlightened practices still existed deeply entrenched in our nation's traditions; yet, they declared independence and constructed the Constitution drawing predominately on enlightenment principles, which were relatively novel and still controversial in many social circles. And thus a conflict existed between their liberal ideals and their illiberal practices. The anecdote that perfectly highlights the context is that one key tenet of theistic rationalism is that Jesus was not God, but rather a great moral teacher. Yet, some states still imposed religious tests forbidding one from holding office if one explicitly denied the Trinity! Jefferson and Adams sometimes viciously attacked the Trinity. But most of those references are drawn from their personal letters and if made public probably would have ruined their public reputations. Thomas Paine wore his unorthodoxy on his sleeve and was publicly ruined for it. In one of Ben Franklin's letters to a prominent orthodox Christian, he denies the Trinity, but must do so politely (and then ask that the contents of the letter remain secret) else his public reputation be ruined.

Yet, these Founders also thought such historical context to be absolutely tyrannical and violative of the natural rights of conscience. And they hoped that by founding America on the light of reason, theological Unitarianism would eventually displace Trinitarianism. Though it didn't happen exactly as Jefferson so predicted, we did see Unitarian Congregations, for instance John Adams's, start to replace the formerly Puritan Congregations during the Founding era.

When these key Founders publicly spoke, they parsed their words very carefully as not to offend the orthodox Christian sentiments of the public, but also not contradict their theistic rationalist beliefs.

One drawback then, to this whole issue is, because of the context, many Founders -- for instance Washington, Madison, and others -- didn't leave "beyond a shadow of a doubt" evidence as to what they really believed (the smoking gun quotations that can be readily provided for the likes of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin).

You do have to do a bit of putting pieces together and even reading between the lines with some of these Founders. Frazer draws on the work of some Straussians. Though Frazer doesn't make the controversial huge leaps that some of the Straussians do (like Hobbes and Locke were secret Atheists; or that Locke secretly tried to destroy revealed Christianity with his coded arguments). Just little ones.

For instance, one of the tenets of theistic rationalism is that it denies eternal damnation and believes that basically all religions, Christian and non-Christian, are valid ways to God. Certainly Adams and Jefferson, in their letters, explicitly assert this.

What about Washington? One piece of evidence Frazer draws from is Washington's Farewell Address (which the Christian Nation crowd, viewing it from a different perspective, often cites to prove Washington a Christian, when Washington never says anything about Christianity or the Bible, but rather generically references the term "religion"). Washington asserts in the 1796 address, "let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion." (This quotation, the Christian Nation crowd then said means "It's impossible to govern without God and the Bible." And that loaded paraphrased interpretation then got passed around by David Barton and William Federer as though Washington actually said it.)

The part of the Address that Frazer focuses on is Washington's assertion that "[w]ith slight shades of difference, you have the same religion." Now, even though the overwhelming majority of the populace were members of some Christian Church, Washington does not 1) specifically identify "religion" with "Christianity" and 2) though a minority, plenty of non-Christians -- Deist, Unitarians, Jews and others -- also existed in the population as well. And a reasonable textual reading of this line would seem to include them as well (indeed, other than invoking the notion of a warm-intervening Providence, Washington almost never spoke in exclusivist terms on religious matters).

Frazer provides much more than that (for instance, Washington once identified the notion of "God" with the Cherokee's "Great Spirit"). However, when you are dealing with someone who held his religion card as close to him as Washington did, you inevitably have to parse worse and put some pieces of the puzzle together (as long as one does so in a reasonable manner).

Another fact Frazer draws on to prove Washington was a theological Unitarian with Universalist beliefs was Washington's intimate involvement with the Freemasons. Contrary to the claims of the "Christian Nation" crowd, Washington was intimately not nominally associated with the Freemasons (he himself was a Master Mason) and often referred to God in Free-Masonic terms, as the "Great Architect of the Universe."

And the Freemasons, in their official tenets, are theologically Unitarian (they don't believe Jesus was God), and Universalistic in their belief that more or less all religions are valid ways to God. In short, there is a major inconsistency between the inclusive tenets of Freemasonry and the exclusive tenets of orthodox Christianity.

But as I said, Frazer offers much more than this on Washington and the others. One of the drawbacks though is because of the context of the time -- the hold that orthodox Christianity had over many social institutions -- there will always be *some* grounds for doubts on Washington, Madison and a few others, given the lack of *smoking gun* evidence on some exact beliefs which were very controversial for the time (indeed, they were termed "infidel principles" by the orthodox Christians, and it was well known that many if not most of the elite and educated Virginia Anglicans/Episcopalians, like Jefferson, Madison and Washington, privately held to such "infidel principles").


Tom Van Dyke said...

The Founders' hostility to and restrictions on law and government assumes a society that orders itself.

The post-revolution, pre-Constitution United States was working OK, in an informal sort of way. Most folks were on the same page. Even after the ratification of the Constitution and his 8-year presidency, Washington said in 1796:

With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes...

That was not so much a "religion" or even a state as much as a society.

When law subsumes "society" then all we have is law, which as you know as a Juris Doctor (that means Jon is a lawyer) is always insufficient, as it's only an approximation of reality.

To see life only in legal terms is to miss the whole thing. It's just a prism, and a flawed one:

Law cannot say what is good, only proscribe against what seems to be bad.

This is my problem with "positive liberty." The Founders had so many assumptions that their society was built on over 1000s of years that they scarcely knew how it got there.

They called it "Providence," for lack of a better term.

We mess with it all at our own peril.

Me, I don't think anyone wants gay marriage, including most gays. It's a torch that's lit, perhaps in the name of equality or freedom or whatever, but likely more in the name of co-opting the legal system to force societal acceptance.

But we have no idea what it'll burn. Let the breeders breed, as they inevitably will. Perhaps they'll start keeping their young hoodlums and hoodlumesses off the street, in the home, in the name of marriage, family, religion, or whatever it takes.

That's what "society" really needs. It's on its last legs, man, if you haven't noticed. Gay folk will be OK---they've been getting by without marriage for thousands of years now. The breeders, not so well, lately.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't have a problem with much of what you write. Although, I know a lot of gays who do want and would benefit by gay marriage.

Where I do most vehemently disagree is where you state "society" is on its last legs. Looking at the social indicators, I just don't see the evidence for this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think it's catching its breath in the US. But I don't want to come off as demagogic---I'm also contemplating Western Europe, which I see as a sort of crystal ball into our future. It's becoming a continental Oakland---there's no there there.

PubliusPoster said...


I too am ordering Dr. Frazer's thesis. I am curious to read more about what you think of it. I studied under Frazer in college and am curious to see what he says in his thesis.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Based on what I'm reading so far, it's really good stuff.

He's the one guy who really gets to the heart of the matter regarding what the key Founders really believed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Reader Rich Knapp passes this comment along (he tried to post it but ran into technical difficulties w/ blogger):

First let me congratulate Dr. Greg Frazer for successfully completing his graduate program. My comments are in response to the comments on Jon’s site. I say this as I have not read Greg’s paper and therefore it would not be appropriate to try to critique it. My comments are in reaction to some of the ideas contained in Jon’s page and should not be taken personally.

I have a few thoughts. To begin with, I find the term ‘orthodox Christian’ to be a straw dog. The Congregationists and the Presbyterians were at odds with the Episcopalians. All three mistrusted the Catholics. And, nobody liked the Anabaptists. While they all believed in the Trintiy, they had little else in common. They believed in different sacraments, in what a sacrament was, in the proper mode of baptism, what constituted authority, in forms of church governance, in the hierarchy of church structure. The Trinity is about the only thing they had in common. There was one other doctrine which united them. That was the mission of Christ. This would be a better touchstone for orthodoxy than the trinity. After all, they all recognized themselves as Christians not Trinitarians.

Let’s take a look at Unitarianism. The latest attack on the doctrine of the Trinity began prior to the Protestant revolt. In the 15th century. Lorenzo Valla had put forth the charge that the Nicene Creed was a forgery. Erasmus also cast doubts on the doctrine of the Trinity. As the Protestant revolt go underway, several creeds took Valla’s and Erasmas’ thoughts on the Trinity and adopted them into their doctrinal beliefs. While different in other aspects of church doctrine, because of their anti-Trinitarianism they all became known under the general title Unitarians.

There seems to be a number of Unitarians. There are Biblical Unitarians, Rational Unitarians, Unitarian Universalism, and Evangelical Unitarianism. It is Biblical Unitarians that we should begin with. These Unitarians view God as a single entity, The Father. Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God but not God himself. Man can only be saved through Jesus Christ. This was the Unitarian views of the followers of Socinus. Their members grew primarily in Poland. That is until the Church drove them out. Some went to Transylvania and some to England. It was from England that Socinianism was introduced to the new states in America around 1790. This doctrine found a home among Congregationist congregations.

In the middle of the 17th-century, a huge religious revival called the Great Awakening broke out in the colonies. As a backlash to this great emotional tumult, groups of Congregationalists began to take a more rational approach to studying the bible. One results was to downplay the Trinity. Thus Socinianism (Biblical Unitarianism) found a home among the Congregationists. Certain Congregational churches in a given city were given over for the preaching by Biblical Unitarian ministers. Thus Congregational communities were split into conservative Congregationalist and liberal Congregationalist. Biblical Unitarians didn’t split off from the Congregational Church until 1819. What led to the split was Rev. Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” The new church was called The American Unitarian Association. While it continued to become more rational, in a conference in 1865 they adopted a distinctly Christian platform, affirming that its members were "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ". In 1961 the American Unitarian Association united with the Universalist Church of America to become Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It is this organization which ceased to consider themselves solely Christian. However, Biblical Unitarians continue to exist even today and consider themselves Christians:

The purpose of this is to show that while a number of our founding fathers adhered to Unitarianism, the belief in this doctrine did not stop them from being Christians. It makes more sense to define those who are Christian in terms of whether or not they accept Jesus Christ as the messiah. Biblical Unitarians certainly did. It is logical therefore to consider Biblical Unitarians Christians. Therefore, any attempt to classify any of our founding fathers as non-Christian on the basis of their association with the Unitarians is simply historically inaccurate.

I certainly cannot cover all the founding fathers and their religious beliefs and wouldn’t if I could. However, a couple of quotes from Thomas Jefferson are interesting.

"Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted." --Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:283

This describes quite well the position of Biblical Unitarianism. And it is a reaction to the great turmoil of the religious revivalists. This was the reaction of many Presbyterian and Congregationalists as a result of the emotional fervor revivalism. The comments also states that the principles upon which the government was founded are in agreement with both religious principles and principles of reason.

Now I submit to you that the religion he is talking about is the Christian religion. There were a few deists and Jews but overwhelmingly America was composed of Christians (that would include Biblical Unitarians). It would only be reasonable to think that the religious principles Jefferson knew were Christian principles. This would accord with the second statement I present.

"The Christian religion, …, , and brought to the original purity, and simplicity of it's benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Moses Robinson, 1801. ME 10:237

Here he comes right out and state that the principles of Christian religion are in accord with the principles upon which this country was founded. If you notice I took out a portion of the quote. I did this so that his meaning might be perfectly clear. Here is what I took out. “when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it.” His problem was never with Christianity but rather with the clergy. Again and again he speaks out against the clergy. He had no problems with Christian principles. I think if we could ask him if the country was founded upon Christian principles he would say of course, Christian principles and the principles of reason.

You see, with reason and religion you get Washington and stable government. With reason contra religion you get Robespierre and the Reign of Terror.

Anonymous said...

As typically happens with those who throw quotes around, Rich Knapp fails to disclose (or didn't look up) the entire quotation from TJ's letter to Mr. Wendover. The sentence actually begins "I feel my portion of indebtment to the reverend author, for the distinguished learning, the logic and the eloquence with which he has proved (emphasis mine) that religion, as well as reason..." It's not TJ's belief, but rather a platitude given to a preacher who holds the "religion" point of view as opposed to Jefferson's "reason" point of view. This can be clearly seen as the letter continues:
"These are my views on this question. They are in opposition to those of the highly respected and able preacher (emphasis mine), and are, therefore, the more doubtingly offered." Jefferson is merely affecting some humility here.

This seems to happen a lot with Jefferson, most notably those who like to quote TJ as saying "I am a Christian, in the truest sense of the word," and then conveniently fail to continue the quote where he clarifies that he means the philosophy of Jesus the man, not the divinity of Jesus the god.

And I'm sure (in regards to the second quote) that I don't have to point out that acknowledging accord does not mean acceptance or endorsement, any more than an athiest, who acknowledges his agreemnent with a few moral principles found in a number of cultures/religions (say, "don't murder," or "don't steal") acknowledges the truth or legitimacy of those religions, or endorses their dissemination.

Besides, while TJ does criticize the clergy, he is also (again) stressing a belief in a philisophical Jesus, rather than a divine one, hence the "original purity, and simplicity of its benevolent institutor."

I would also take issue with the suggestion that TJ has to be speaking of the Christian religion. Time and time again he endorses the notion of many religions, as he feels difference of opinion is what leads to truth. Note this quote:

"Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth"

Still think he would agree that the country was founded on Christian priciples? Well, he might, but he would be defining Christianity in an extremely limited sense and not in any way that we think of it today. And he certainly did not think of Jesus as divine, and therefore can not be considered a biblical unitarian. If you want to associate him with any unitarian sect, he's much more like the unitarian universalists, although even that's a bit of a stretch, as their beliefs are so varied.

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