Monday, October 29, 2007

Founding Era Terminology: Nature.

Founding era documents often invoke the concept of "Nature" (as in natural law and natural rights or the laws of Nature and Nature's God). To properly understand its usage, one must know how the Founding era defined "Nature." Put simply enough Nature = Reason. This is how the most learned modern scholarly authorities understand the concept. For instance, in Novus Ordo Seclorum, conservative historian Forrest McDonald -- who read every single document from the Founding era -- stated the Founding era defined "natural" as “discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by God.” (p. xi.) Or as John Locke put it in his Second Treatise on Government: “The State of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and that law....”

God may have played a role in "giving" the natural law. But nonetheless, when dealing with the rubric of "Nature," the means of discovery is man's reason. What God revealed through Nature, man's reason discovered. Or as John Adams put it:

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.

So in essence, Nature was a mechanism by which men could discover eternal, objective, immutable truths, without appealing to revelation. This doesn't mean the rubrics of nature and reason were necessarily opposed to orthodox Christianity. Some orthodox Christians believed the natural law gave an extra-biblical "confirmation" of what the scriptures already revealed. However, the concept of nature-reason had pagan origins (Aristotle) and because it was not in principle dependent on the Bible, such concept could be used, and indeed was used to attack traditional Christian orthodoxy. Deists, who disbelieved in revelation entirely, appealed "solely" to the laws of Nature and Nature's God for their understanding of Truth. And the theistic rationalists -- America's key Founders -- believed God primarily revealed Himself through Nature, partially inspired the Bible, and thus, man's reason determined which parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed.

Because of the potential conflict between reason and revelation, political philosophers who impacted America's Founding often explicated their proper roles. Most of them claimed reason and revelation by in large agreed. Orthodox Christians like Aquinas made clear that the Bible was infallible and that reason supported revelation. As noted above, the deists and theistic rationalists disagreed. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin [and probably Washington, Madison, and many other Founders] believed Scripture was a secondary revelation, designed to support the findings of man's reason. As Franklin put it:

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

Those who desire a more traditional Christian interpretation of America's Founding invariably turn to Blackstone's explication where he defined the natural law as what man discovered by his reason, distinguished between the law of nature and the revealed law, then ultimately combined them and gives "revelation" the trump.

Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law; because one is the law of nature, expressly declared to be so by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never by put in any competition together.

Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.

A few points in response. First, America's Founders did not view Blackstone's work as sacrosanct. Indeed, Blackstone was a Tory who believed in almost an absolute right of Parliament or the King to govern as they wished and his principles lent far more support to the British than the Americans in the Revolution. As such, Founders like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and others often directed harsh words against Blackstone's theories. Yet, they did have a qualified appreciation for his work. As rationalists who drew from a variety intellectual sources and synthesized them, America's Founders took from Blackstone what they thought useful and discarded the rest. And when appealing to God in the Declaration of Independence, they could have, after Blackstone appealed to "the law of nature and the law of revelation" [my emphasis]. But they didn't. They only appealed to the law of nature and of "Nature's God," both of which refer to what man's reason discovers, not what is written in the Bible. And this shouldn't surprise us given that the author of the Declaration and a majority of its drafting board [Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams] were rationalists who, unlike Blackstone, believed man's reason superseded biblical revelation.

By appealing to reason and not Scripture, the Declaration drew a very low lowest common denominator among deists, theistic rationalists/unitarians, and orthodox Christians. One can argue the appeal to reason in the Declaration makes God unnecessary. Man's reason might not be able to confirm God, but it can still discover immutable principles of human nature. And this is exactly what some modern atheistic natural law thinkers posit -- from Ayn Rand to Daniel Dennett. As Timothy Sandefur explains it:

[T]he simplistic account of law that goes by the ridiculous euphemism “realism” is absolutely inadequate, and...natural law theory does carry weight, if we will not overload it with supernaturalism and appeals to elaborate mystical structures. Many alleged natural law writers base their arguments on such things, and of course that renders their systems subjective, or runs the risk of doing just what the Pragmatist critics claimed: of misinterpreting what is really just conventional as eternal and natural. But there are certain universal factors in human life—things like “limited resources”—which are dictated by nature, and these give rise to universal rules of conduct that exist in societies, not as a matter of mere convention.


For an Objectivist like myself...natural rooted not in any mystical order of the universe, but in the teleology which human nature itself reveals. The positivist argues that morality and law are based solely on convention, and are wholly subjective, and that any attempt to base rules on human nature is flawed because evolution and other modern sciences have demonstrated that human nature is malleable. The pseudo-natural law theorist, on the other hand, argues that human nature is not malleable, it is eternal, part of an unchanging universal order—and this is one reason he tends to shy away from, or even become an outright critic of, evolution. But there is “a third category of statements: those the truth of which is contingent on human beings and the world they live in retaining the salient characteristics which they have.” Natural law politics can, therefore, rest on an account of human nature, even if that nature is the product of a long-term process of evolution that is still going on.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Proto-Unitarian Founding Fathers:

Last week my Dad and I saw Gordon Wood speak at the James Madison Program at Princeton University on the Founding Fathers.

Of course I paid close attention to his comments on the religion of the Founders when that question was asked. He avoided the term "Deist" -- a term he had once used -- and instead opted for "proto-unitarian." This shows he's paying attention to the evolving understanding in scholarship that shows the key Founders were not strict Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. The term "unitarian" has to be qualified because it is associated with a particular Church of which only John Adams (and his son) were members. And even with Adams' Church, though it preached unitarianism as of 1750, it didn't officially become "Unitarian" until the 19th Century. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were all theological unitarians who were formally members of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, which held to a Trinitarian creed. Besides theological unitarianism, these Founders also believed in theological universalism, syncretism, rationalism. So if we want a common term to describe the religious beliefs of the 5 key founders -- the first four presidents and Ben Franklin -- "proto-unitarian" might do, as well as some others, for instance "theistic rationalism."

There is no doubt that Jefferson was such a "unitarian," as he embraced the label and called himself one. I haven't found quotations from Washington or Madison where they call themselves "unitarian," however they never personally confessed Trinitarian Christianity, and otherwise systematically used generic philosophical terms for God (i.e., nothing identifiably Trinitarian).

[Note: Some will take issue at this last sentence because Washington, as a condition of becoming a vestrymen and godfather, took Trinitarian oaths. Jefferson likewise took those oaths when becoming a vestryman, but refused to be a godfather; the oaths could be viewed as perfunctory. The pietists argue if one takes an oath to which something one doesn't believe, one is a hypocrite. That's their judgment. Washington's refusal to take communion, which I discuss below, violated those very oaths.]

The context of the time was they were leaving an era where folks could suffer criminal penalties, sometimes death, for denying the Trinity. In their era, some states still imposed legal penalties for such, but otherwise denying the Trinity could greatly damage one's public reputation, which, as "men of honor," they strongly guarded. Ultimately, they wanted men to be able to express freely without fear of legal or social punishment what the orthodox termed “infidelity” or “heresy" (because they believed the unitarian "heresies" were right, the Trinity erroneous). And by the 19th Century, at least in the North East, "Unitarianism" became a socially acceptable form of liberal Protestant Christianity.

In the 18th Century, Deism and theological unitarianism were popular, not among the masses, but among elite educated Whigs (similar to the way in which 1960s' counterculture thought was unpopular among the masses, but popular in various college and youth circles. Think of Joseph Priestly as sort of the Founders' Abbie Hoffman).

For these reasons, I believe when prominent 18th Century figures systematically used generic philosophical terms for God and avoided using explicitly Trinitarian terms (as social forces dictated they should) this strongly suggests disbelief in Trinitarianism.

Other clues show Washington and Madison to be theological unitarians like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. A notable 19th Century gentleman George Ticknor dined with James Madison and reported the following:

[Madison] talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.

Washington systematically refused to take communion in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. This has lead modern scholars to term him a "Deist." Indeed, Washington's own minister, Dr. James Abercrombie, reportedly termed Washington a "Deist" because he refused to take communion. Then Abercrombie slightly backtracked and instead noted:

“I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace.”

Peter Lillback, in his 1200 page book which attempts to prove Washington was orthodox Christian, argues since Washington could not have been a "Deist" (based on evidence showing Washington believed in an intervening God, prayer, and otherwise contradicted strict Deist thought) there must be some other explanation. Lillback then fabricates some political explanation that still manages to categorize Washington as an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian." In other words, Lillback knocks down a strict Deist strawman, avoids the most common sense reason for why Washington didn't commune, and then constructs, on mere speculation, a complicated political explanation just so he can place Washington in the "orthodox Christian" box.

The most common sense explanation for why Washington didn't commune was that he disbelieved in what it represented: Christ's Atonement. And logic also dictates if one doesn't believe in the Atonement, one also doesn't believe in the Trinity and Incarnation. And one need not be a "strict Deist" to disbelieve in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Indeed, the other key Founders -- Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison -- following Joseph Priestly believed in this system of "proto-unitarianism" that denied the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, yet still believed in an active personal God, prayer, the legitimacy of some revelation, and often presented itself under the label of "Christianity," not "Deism."

Finally, just because I stress certain "key" Founders as believing in this system doesn't mean other lesser Founders did not. You can add one more name to the "proto-unitarians": John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States. And indeed, Marshall likewise was an Anglican/Episcopalian who systematically avoided communion. And here is his daughter's testimony for why he did this:

The reason why he never communed was, that he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society. He told her he believed in the truth of the Christian Revelation, but not in the divinity of Christ; therefore he could not commune in the Episcopal Church.

So it was not just the "strict Deists" in the Trinitarian Churches who refused to commune, but also the "unitarians" some of who, like Marshall could be quite "biblical," believing in the "Christian Revelation," others like Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, rationalists who elevated reason over revelation. And because this "unitarianism" often presented itself under the auspices of "Christianity," key contemporaneous testimony that Washington and other Founders were "Christians" is not inconsistent with the notion that they were such "proto-unitarians." Indeed, John Marshall himself was one such testifier of Washington's Christianity as was Jared Sparks. And both were "unitarians" who disbelieved in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, but still understood themselves to be "Christians." In all likelihood, so was George Washington.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Even Better News:

This week saw the birth of my parents' first grandchild, my nephew, James F. Rowe III.

Here is Mom and [her grand]Baby:

And here are the three James F. Rowes:

Good News:

A blurb taken from my First Things Briefly Noted book review on James H. Hutson's The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations is now featured on the back cover of the newly released softcover edition. I'd like to thank Princeton University Press and First Things Magazine for the honor. Check it out at a Barnes and Noble or Borders near you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bad Arguments Against ENDA:

With Bush's threatened veto of a federal sexual orientation antidiscrimination bill, you knew you could count on the antigay right to come forth with bad arguments against it. There are good arguments, I think, against antidiscrimination laws that apply to the private sector in general. The best argument I could imagine against adding sexual orientation is we shouldn't expand what is already a set of liberty infringing litigation encouraging laws. However, the antigay right tends to argue the indefensible: the laws are just fine, those groups already protected deserve to be there, sexual orientation doesn't.

Take for instance, this article by Harry Jackson:

Let me give you a list of five of the most important reasons we are against this legislation.

1. ENDA would overturn the historical basis of protected class status by adding “actual or perceived sexual orientation.” While every other federally-protected class embodies three standards: an obvious, immutable characteristic; a history of discrimination evidenced by economic disenfranchisement; and political powerlessness, “sexual orientation” falls under none of these criteria. It is an insult to African Americans to grant special protections for “sexual orientation.”

He bombs with his first reason. I don't know what planet he is living on. Federal law currently protects not just race, but ethnic origin, color, gender, religion, age, disability and pregnancy. Religion is obviously not immutable, otherwise there would be no reason to proselytize. Neither are pregnancy or age, the latter of which is in a constant state of flux. And because people tend to amass more wealth as they age, older folks are richer than younger.

Gays don't need to make a near perfect analogy to blacks for "sexual orientation" to "qualify" as a protected class. Can anyone with a straight face assert the aged or disabled have suffered more oppression from society than have gays? We could just as easily assert "It is an insult to gays to grant special protections for the aged [which is defined as people over 40] and disabled" while not protecting them. The way current anti-discrimination laws are structured, one cannot plausible argue the list makes sense as it is and sexual orientation does not qualify according to its criteria.

Next we have Peter LaBarbera who inaptly appeals to America's founders:

"Homosexuality is not a 'civil right,' it is a human wrong – one that is redeemable as proven by thousands of contented former homosexuals and ex-lesbians. Our Founding Fathers, infused with a biblical view of fallen man, created limited government that sought to restrain the sinful outworking of men's hearts … The law once punished sin (e.g., sodomy and anti-abortion laws), so it is preposterous to say that homosexuality affirming laws are necessary to uphold basic 'constitutional rights,'" LaBarbera said.

America's key founders while certainly not "pro-gay" by any stretch of the imagination, were not "infused with a biblical view of fallen man," and their creation of limited government was not to seek "to restrain the sinful outworking of men's hearts." The problems with LaBarbera's assertion:

First, it seems to me that limited government would not suffice to restrain a nature that was so fallen. The law of Moses, for instance, was the antithesis of a "limited government" that granted political liberty, because it regulated virtually every aspect of an individual's life! Limited government arguably implies confidence in man's nature -- in man's ability to rule himself.

Second, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, outright rejected original sin, and Washington, Adams, Madison, and Franklin rejected Calvin's view of total human depravity and viewed man's nature as partially fallen, capable of great good or great evil.

Third, their attitude on the fallibility of the Bible was a cafeteria rationalism that thought man's reason could "edit" those parts of scripture they deemed "irrational." This, it seems to me, is exactly what pro-gay theologians do when they try to scrub out the antigay passages from scripture.

Finally, these founders did grant, as a basic civil right, the right to violate not just the Bible, but the very First Commandment of the Ten Commandments. Every single one of those 5 key founders (as well as many other non-key founders) believed in granting the full rights of conscience to non-Christian worshippers. When you have an unalienable right to worship false gods, as America's founders believed, you have a natural right to do what scripture forbids. Therefore, how America's founders believed the Bible should relate to America's civil laws proves nothing against sexual orientation's status in antidiscrimination codes.
David Barton's Myths Strike Mike Huckabee:

Huckabee claimed that the majority of the signers of the Declaration were clergymen. This site notes:

Only one of the 56 was an active clergyman, and that was John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). A few more of the signers were former clergymen, though it's a little unclear just how many. The conservative Heritage Foundation said two other signers were former clergymen. The religion web site said four signers of the declaration were current or former full-time preachers. But everyone agrees only Witherspoon was an active minister when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

The site notes the reason for the confusion:

One issue that may contribute to the confusion about which signers had a history in the clergy is that during the time the Declaration was written, people who studied at universities often received doctorates of divinity, a common degree designation, even if they were not working clergy, said Mary Jenkins of the Independence National Historical Park.

Barton is the one who most notably asserts something along the lines of 27 signers of the Declaration of Independence had "seminary" degrees. The reality is, they had degrees from places like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton which were originally founded with orthodox Christian missions.

Something the Christian Nation crowd doesn't tell us about these "Christian" colleges is during the time the founders (and the ministers they followed) were educated, those colleges became hotbeds of "infidelity" and even the seminary schools trained their ministers in "infidel" principles. The result was Harvard trained ministers like Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West, and Charles Chauncy embraced theological unitarianism, universalism and rationalism and, in so doing, arguably ceased being "Christian," (or at least "Christian" as defined by its historic orthodoxy). These men also delivered the most notable and influential pro-revolutionary sermons from the pulpit. And even Witherspoon, who was an orthodox Christian, when he argued for Revolution from the pulpit, left his orthodox Christianity at the church door and instead turned to Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment and rationalism, because the Bible/orthodox Christianity could not provide a sufficient basis to justify revolt while those a-biblical sources could and did.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Godly Republic:

John Dilulio, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has a new book out called Godly Republic. I was leafing through it at the book store; it looks interesting and makes some valuable points. I find much common ground with his understanding, but also disagree with parts of it. He lauds Jon Meacham's book which rejects both the "secular state" and "Christian Nation" paradigms in favor of a more balanced middle way which Meacham terms "public religion," and Dilulio terms "Godly republic." He admits his analysis tilts to the right of Meacham's. My position is closer to Meacham's. I note, though Meacham disagrees with the term (because the concept was first put forth by Rousseau, who had less than pure motives for it) what he and Dilulio argue for is the founders' notion of "civil religion," which is not Christianity, but inclusive of it and other non-Christian theistic faiths.

Dilulio notes that this system is public endorsement of religious pluralism under God and that such pluralism extends beyond "Christian" religious systems, indeed even beyond "Judeo-Christianity," (he explicitly includes Islam). He wrongly, in my opinion, concludes this public God to be the God of Abraham. Allah, who is part of this public religion, claims to be the God of Abraham, but many orthodox Christians disagree. Further, the key founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin -- explicitly held other non-Judeo-Christian belief systems like Native American spirituality, pagan-Greco-Romanism, and Hinduism also part of the generic Providence worshipping public religion. And finally, the key founders believed only "parts" of the Bible were legitimately revealed. So their monotheistic God was perhaps the God of Abraham -- the God of Bible -- but with a meaningful caveat: Those parts of scripture which show what they deemed God's "irrational" attributes -- His wrath, jealously, excessive punishments and outlandish miracles -- were edited so that only God's "rational" attributes -- His benevolence, wisdom, goodness and power -- remained.

Ben Franklin sums up the lowest-common-denominator of America's public religion:

That there is one God, who made all things.
That he governs the world by his providence.
That he ought to be worshipped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.
But that the most acceptable service to God is doing good to man.
That the soul is immortal.
And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.

This is similar to what Avery Cardinal Dulles termed The Deist Minimum but perhaps better is understood as a "theist" minimum. Deists, as I understand their views, would agree with those 6-points, but ridicule and evidence hostility towards religious claims that go beyond them. (Some of the stricter Deists might have a problem with point 3.) Christians, on the other hand, would also agree with those 6-points, but would also note such creed to be woefully deficient in that it leaves out accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and His Atonement as essential for salvation (indeed, this might cause Christians to have problems with point 4; Christians believe doing good for fellow man is laudable, but arguably it is not "the most acceptable service to God" -- accepting Jesus is). Theological unitarians/rational theists, on the other hand, strive to be friendly towards all religions -- orthodox or heterodox, Christian or not -- that (more or less) accept these 6-points. Indeed, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were so friendly towards various exotic world religions that they included systems like Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, and pagan-Greco-Romanism, as accepting the 6-point essentials of "sound religion," when one could plausibly argue they do not quite.

Atheists and agnostics are perhaps anathematized by this formula. And my personal position is they should be viewed as equal citizens with religious folk. The founders believed atheists should have full civil rights. I would go further and try to guarantee atheists or agnostics not feel anathematized by government endorsed religious messages. But this is where I differ with America's founders.
Classical Liberal Humanism:

The US Constitution is a humanist document, though I wouldn't term it a "secular humanist" document because that term is too loaded (and the categorization would be arguably inaccurate). It is however, a classically liberal humanist document. My learned coblogger's post asks "[w]hat...would a Christian government have looked like at the time the Constitution was ratified?" and compares early colonial Maryland, the laws of England, and the suggestions of John Locke to the words America's founders actually put into their Constitution. Dr. Kuznicki rightly concludes the founders' approach to be the most secular and liberal of the four. Jason reproduces the following from the US Constitution as relevant passages:

First, the test clause:

"…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Now, the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

And now the relevant section of the Fourteenth Amendment:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

He could have also reproduced the Constitution's humanistic preamble. This is exactly what Dr. David Mazel did where he compared the US Constitution's preamble with that of an earlier colonial document whose preamble (unlike the Constitution's) clearly establishes the government as on a "Christian" mission. As Mazel wrote:

I always address the “Is America a Christian nation?” question early in my American literature classes. Instead of asking them simply to answer the question, I ask my students what “Christian nation” might mean, and which of the meanings might make sense when applied to the United States.

Does it mean “Most Americans are Christians?” Then perhaps America is a Christian nation. But then, what does it mean to be “Christian”? Do most Americans (or the nation as a whole in, say, its foreign policy) exemplify the pacifism and anti-materialism of the Sermon on the Mount? Of course not.

Or does “Christian nation” mean a nation founded upon Christian principles and toward Christian ends? This is the point at which I have the students read and compare the wording of two charters, the Mayflower Compact and the U.S. Constitution:

The Mayflower Compact (1620)–”In the name of God, amen. We, whose names are underwritten . . . having undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the Ends aforesaid.”

The Preamble to the United States Constitution (1787)–”We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (I also throw in Article VI, Clause 3: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”)

The first gives us a crystal-clear example of how a charter is worded by people deliberately founding a Christian polity. We are told directly that the colony is being “undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.” The Founding Fathers could have used similar wording, but didn’t. The rationales for creating the Union is purely secular: insuring tranquility, providing for defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty.

Certainly the United States is not a Christian nation in the sense in whic Plymouth was a Christian colony. Still, some students typically insist that it is a Christian nation in some other sense, in a way that falls short of the Plymouth standard yet means more than the mere demographic fact that most Americans identify themselves as Christians. Funny thing–they can never seem to figure out what sense that is, though.
Does Fred Phelps Have the Charles Manson Gene?

Are Fred Phelps and Charles Manson long lost brothers? They both share the same attribute which I define as a certain self assertive lunacy that can be quite entertaining to watch, yet you constantly have to remind yourself of how sick they are so as not to get too caught up in the entertainment of their demented clownishness.

And here is Manson with the same sick self-assertiveness.

They both sing too. Here is Manson singing and ranting:

And here are the Westboro Baptist Church. They are a little more refined in their harmonies.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cato Reproduces My Essay:

I'd like to thank the editors at Cato Unbound for reproducing my essay reacting to their symposium on political theology and America.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Good History v. Bad History:

As an armchair historian, I am of two minds on history and ideology. On the one hand I recognize history isn't quite like science or economics (where there clearly are right and wrong answers in black and white); yet on the other, facts are facts. And therefore there is good history and bad history. The biggest problem with the Christian Nation idea is that it is bad history. Therefore, even though the narrative is meant to appeal to conservative evangelicals and Catholics, many of them reject it simply because it's bad history. Indeed, some of the most effective debunking of the Christian Nation idea has come from such conservative evangelicals and Catholics like Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Mardsen, and Robert Kraynak.

I was pleasantly surprised to find another thoughtful site featuring a conservative Christian who rejects the Christian America idea. And one that understands the central role theological unitarianism played in forming the American creed and how such creed is in tension with traditional Christianity:

Even as Puritanism was waning and several reactions were forming against its rather austere authoritarianism, yet there was a hunger for authentic, heartfelt biblical spirituality early in the 17th century that found its expression in the First Great Awakening. Many have heard of Jonathan Edwards and, possibly, the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Fewer are familiar with the large Christian rallies (drawing tens of thousands) led by Englishman, George Whitefield (pronounced Whit-field), in the northern colonies.

What is for sure is that, for the first time in America, public preaching was appealing not just to the mind, but to the emotions as well. Benjamin Franklin was quite intrigued by the ministry of Whitefield and became his publisher and friend, though Franklin never converted to Christianity himself.

The backlash against such open religious emotionalism began with a pastor in Boston named Charles Chauncy. Grandson and namesake of the second president of Puritan-established Harvard College, Chauncy was outspoken in his opposition to the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards defended his views (as well as his wife’s physiological, Quaker-like reactions to the moving of the Spirit) in Religious Affections, but Chauncy’s opposition took hold in the Boston area and throughout New England. Edwards would later lose his pastorate (becoming the president of Princeton College); Chauncy would retain his for 60 years until his death.

The cerebral and rationalistic elements of Puritanism had survived the First Great Awakening, but those were about to morph into something else altogether—Unitarianism.

Unitarianism was not born in America. It has deep historic roots, going all the way back to the Arian controversy in the 4th century of Christianity. Suffice it to say that modern books, like The DaVinci Code, are little more than popular revivalism (along with some historical revisionism) of the teaching of Bishop Arius (of Alexandria, Egypt) that Jesus was a great human teacher, but not divine.

Unitarianism also has a rich historical heritage in various parts of post-enlightenment Europe. But it is in America that the most famous martyr of John Calvin’s Geneva, Michael Servetus, gets his ultimate ironic revenge as his theological descendents eventually take over Harvard, the crown jewel of the Calvin-aspiring Puritans.

While wars seem to have a way of killing religious revivals (the First Great Awakening with the Revolution; the Second Great Awakening [I see the urban "businessmen's prayer revival" of 1857-1860 as late Second Awakening rather than 'Third Great Awakening'] with the Civil War), usually such revivals are on their last legs when finally killed. And so it was with the Revolutionary War. While the supporters of the Revolution came from various religious and civic factions, one notes that Unitarians such as Chauncy retained the Puritan animosity toward the British throne, much more so than the American Episcopalians.

Even as anti-Puritanical, American Unitarianism is forming, yet it partners with the more direct descendants of Puritanism (Congregationalists and Presbyterians) in united opposition against England.

Eric Hoffer was right. Common enemies unite people more tightly than positive common commitments. Maybe that’s why so many of our presidents take us to war.

After the Revolution, Chauncy began to preach universalism (the teaching that all paths lead to heaven), presaging the eventual merger of Unitarianism and Universalism.

So, why is this so important?

Well, it seems to me that one can make a strong case that Unitarianism largely defines the American ethos. In fact, Forrest Church, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, has made exactly that argument in The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe there is an abundance of evidence to support his rather compelling theory, from the universalism of Oprah Winfrey to the ubiquitous op-ed cartoons that put virtually all famous entertainers in heaven (regardless of their personal faith or how they treated real people in their lives). Check out this recent universalistic cartoon from Opus.

Also, it seems to me that while one might be able to briefly mention “God,” in polite company, but when one uses the name of “Jesus,” suddenly everyone gets nervous. When a politician utters the word “God,” it is often heard by evangelicals to mean the Christian God, but that is just our naivete showing. It is a much more fungible word than evangelicals would like to admit.

What should that mean to an informed evangelical? It means that expressions like “…under God,” and “In God We Trust,” have almost no real meaning, and the current attacks on such expressions in the courts by atheists mean almost nothing. Some want to remove the fig leaf; some want to fight to their dying breath to keep the fig leaf in place.

To those of us who reject the half-true/half-false history of evangelical influencers, such as David Barton (to whom we shall return before this gets as long as War and Peace:)), an informed reaction might be, “Oh well.”

The author is Paul Grabill Lead Pastor, State College Assembly of God, State College, PA, USA. I didn't reproduce any of his hyperlinks in the passage. So check out the original post for them. Here is their statement of faith. In reading it you see it is orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. The problem with understanding America's key founding fathers and the ministers they followed to be "Christian" (even though they more likely called themselves "Christians," not "Deists") is that they rejected most if not all of what orthodox churches like the State Assemblies of God list in their statement of beliefs.

Grabill's post mentions Charles Chauncy as one of the Congregational ministers who preached founding era unitarian-universalism (notice the small case) under the auspices of "Christianity." Others included Samuel West, Simeon Howard, Jonathan Mayhew, folks who happened to be most notable pro-Revolutionary preachers. They were explicit theological enemies of Jonathan Edwards and his "Great Awakening." Thus the notion, posited by the Christian America crowd, that the Great Awakening was the driving force behind America's Revolution is an historical canard.

Check out David Barton's speech endorsing Sam Brownback. Out of the first half dozen names he mentions as figures most responsible for America's Revolution -- all "Christians" according to Barton -- they include John Adams, Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy. Those three were theological unitarians, universalists and rationalists who took a cafeteria approach to the Bible and rejected almost everything orthodox Christianity of the founding era and of today stood for. So Barton is either a) misleading folks into believing that "Christians" like John Adams et al. were evangelical orthodox Christians like himself or b) expanding the meaning of "Christianity" to include anyone who calls himself a "Christian," the theological unitarians, universalists and rationalists of the founding era, or the Oprah Winfreys and Phil Donahues of the present era. In that case Barton would be whoring the purity of the orthodox Christian religion for political purposes.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

CATO's Symposium on Political Theology:

Cato Unbound features a symposium on religion and politics that centers around Mark Lilla's new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West.

Lilla's lead essay, summarizing the thesis to his book, provocatively asserts that liberal democracy or republican government is founded on atheistic or Hobbesian premises. Hence American government was founded to be "post-Christian," and the American founding otherwise lacks a political theology. As Lilla puts it:

As we know, this crisis of Western Christendom prepared the way for modern political thought, and eventually for modern liberal democracy. And it seems to follow from this fact that modern liberal democracy, with its distinctive ideas and institutions, is a post-Christian phenomenon. I want to insist on this formulation as a way of stressing the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties – and therefore the uniqueness of the philosophical response to the civilizational crisis those problems triggered. Though the principles of modern liberal democracy are not conceptually dependent on the truth of Christianity, they are genetically dependent on the problems Christianity posed and failed to solve. Being mindful of this should help us to understand the strengths of our tradition of political thought, and perhaps also its limitations.

Its strengths have to do with the art of separation it developed in the wake of the wars of religion. And the most important figure here is Hobbes. Hobbes’s great achievement in Leviathan was to have changed the subject of European political thought from theology to anthropology – specifically, the anthropology of the religious passions. All political theology interprets a set of revealed divine commands and applies them to social life. Hobbes ignored the substance of all such commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believe God revealed them. If we can think about that, he reasoned, we can begin to understand why religious convictions so often lead to political conflicts, and then perhaps how to contain the potential for violence. Hobbes planted a seed, a thought that it might be possible to build legitimate political institutions without grounding them on divine revelation. His new thinking would begin with obvious, observable facts about human nature – like the omnipresence of fear – rather than with a fanciful picture of the nexus between God, man, and world. The hope was that we would develop a new habit, so that whenever we talked about the basic principles of political life we would simply let God be. Hobbes’s wager was that such a habit, once formed, would withstand the onslaught of any political revelation.

This was the Great Separation.

Lilla's premise that Hobbes founded liberal democracy derives from the Straussian school of thought, is quite contentious, and raises a series of important questions. First, did Hobbes really influence America's founding? Philip Jenkins says no:

Professor Lilla suggests that, following the Wars of Religion, Christian Europe experienced a Great Separation between “political form and divine revelation,” a movement towards privatized religious experience that effectively marked the end of political theology. He connects this trend with the innovative work of Thomas Hobbes, though as any historian of England would have told him, very few people actually cited Hobbes in political discourse for the century or so after his death, and his impact on toleration debates was nil. When he was quoted, it was in the context of contract theory, not religious toleration.

However, few disagree on John Locke's centrality to America's founding thought, though academics disagree on how to properly interpret Locke. Lilla following Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and Leo Strauss himself believes Locke was imbibed in Hobbes. Hence America channeled Hobbes through Locke. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind:

[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. (p. 165).

Why do the Straussians believe Locke was imbibed in Hobbes? Didn't Locke "justly decry" Hobbes' name and instead appeal to the traditional natural law thinker Richard Hooker? Hobbes, not Hooker, initiated the notions of the social contract and state of nature. Thus, when Locke put forth his innovative ideas regarding these concepts, he posited Hobbesian ideas.

But didn't Locke place God as central to his theory? Didn't, according to Locke, God grant men the "inalienable natural rights, that...belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society." From reading the text of Locke's writings, yes. The Straussians believe, however, that since Locke was selling Hobbes' atheistic notions, dressing such up in religious language -- i.e., "god given unalienable rights" -- didn't change their atheistic character. Locke was a secret atheist.

Indeed, Allan Bloom notes the Hobbesian-Lockean transformation of language ran so deep that Christian ministers unwittingly became dupes of these atheist philosophers:

When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had. (Ibid pp. 141-2).

And indeed, America's founders themselves may have been duped. As Thomas West summarizes Allan Bloom:

As for politics, says Bloom, America was founded on modern principles of liberty and equality that we got from Hobbes and Locke. Liberty turned out to mean freedom from all self-restraint, and equality turned out to mean the destruction of all differences of rank and even of nature. Our Founders may have acted, or have pretended to act, "with a firm reliance on divine providence" (Declaration of Independence) but their natural-rights philosophy, says Bloom, came from the atheists Hobbes and Locke. (Bloom hedges on whether the Founders were self-conscious atheists or merely the dupes of clever and lying philosophers.)

I write all of this because I think some of Lilla's premises need to be explicated in further detail. What I have summarized is the standard story of how Thomas Hobbes founded liberal democracy and hence the United States, what Lilla posits. My own view is I cannot endorse the notion of a secret atheist Hobbesian-Locke because Locke never claimed to be an atheist. True, in the past, philosophers did write "esoteric" messages and had good reason to do so. Before church and state were separated and the unalienable rights of conscience were recognized, philosophers could be executed for speaking their minds. See Servetus; see Socrates.

Still on a matter whose history is as disputed as how to properly understand religion and politics, we must take people's words at face value. When I read Locke I read someone who appealed to God, and made Him central to politics, yet also posited his own variation of Hobbesian ideas (the state of nature and social contract) which were not at all biblical. Locke's writings reveal him to be an Arian (thus a Christian heretic) who rejected certain tenets central to orthodox Christianity like original sin.

America's founders likewise, following Locke, were devout theists and gave God a prominent role in politics. See for instance, the Declaration of Independence. However, the God to whom America's founders appealed -- the individual rights granting Nature's God -- arguably was not the Biblical or Christian God. For one, the Biblical God does not grant men unalienable individual rights, certainly not a right to political liberty while the God of the American founding did. Further, on matters of religious toleration, the God of the American founding was not a "jealous" God but granted men an unalienable right to worship, in Jefferson's words no God or twenty gods.

In studying their public and private writings in detail I have concluded that America's principle founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) were not closet atheists but really did believe in this rational, benevolent, unitarian deity who fit their republican ideals much better than the Biblical God could. The inescapable conclusion is that America does have a political theology; it is just not Christianity. (For more on America's founding creed, see this article.) Nature's God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man's reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.

The political-theological problem America's founders thus faced is they needed to and did appeal to a God that orthodox Christians did not worship. Such Christianity was socially and institutionally entrenched at the state level during America's founding era. Though, some studies have shown huge portions of the American populace during the founding era were nominal or unchurched Christians. When the first four Presidents invoked this God in their public supplications, they systematically used generic or philosophical terms for God so as not to contradict either their heterodox opinions on God or the orthodox opinions of the masses (or least the churches to which the masses belonged). In doing so, they established America's civil religion.

Since the time of America's founding a tension existed between the non-Christian premises that silently underlay America's civil religion, and the Christianity that dominated American demographics. That tension still exists. One opiate politically conservative traditional Christians oft-use to ease the tension is the myth of the Christian Nation where America's civil religion is conflated with traditional Christianity. Damon Linker writes of this when he notes:

According to this theological interpretation, the American constitutional framers were religious believers out to create a political system based on the Christian idea of equal human dignity. The appeal to God in the Declaration of Independence, the theological rhetoric invoked by presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, religiously inspired popular crusades from abolitionism to the civil rights and pro-life movements of recent decades—these and many other examples stand as indisputable evidence for millions of believers that the United States, along with its democratic habits and institutions, is a fundamentally Christian nation.

Myths often play important roles in the founding of various peoples and this myth was active during the founding era (see for instance, Parson Mason Weems' revising George Washington's personal religious creed and turning him into a traditionally minded devout Christian, which he wasn't) and is still, despite the thorough debunking serious historians have given it, active today.

Still the tension between America's non-Christian, generally theistic civil religion, and orthodox Christianity does not so easily resolve and will continue to cause problems for the millions of orthodox believers Damon Linker notes are "perfectly comfortable making theological assumption about the political foundations of the nation, its principles, and its institutions." The problem for those traditional believers is their theological assumptions often are not in line with the political theology of America's founding.

Two notable recent instances of such problems include the outrage orthodox Christians expressed when George Bush, purportedly an evangelical believer, suggested Muslims worship the same God that Christians worship. On traditional theological grounds, Bush's Christian critics are right -- Muslims and Christians don't worship the same God. However, America's civil religion holds that men of all faiths worship the generic "Providence" or "Nature's God." As Presidents, Washington, Jefferson and Madison went so far as to pray to the Native Americans' pagan "Great Spirit" god by name, a god who unlike Allah, doesn't even purport to be the God of Abraham. Bush's notion may not be an authentically Christian belief, but it is an authentically American belief.

The second recent example occurred when a Hindu Chaplain was invited to pray for the US Senate which so outraged orthodox believers that a few of them interrupted this public supplication to a "false God." And again, America's principle founders, given they believed most religions worshipped the same God, would have had no problem with this. John Adams himself writing to Thomas Jefferson expressed the belief that Hindus worship the same God he did.

As someone who sees danger in excessive religious passions in politics, I often stress, in my writings, this tension between America's founding and traditional Christianity. I hope that millions who believe in the Christian nation myth will understand America was founded to be more pluralistic and less authentically Christian than they have been mislead to believe by the clownish figures who specialize in propagating the myth. Such traditional believers, more aware of the tension, may resolve it by either a) accepting the non-Christian character of America's founding institutions, and stop trying to transform the republic into something it never was -- a "Christian Nation," or b) questioning the legitimacy of liberal democracy/republican government itself and attempting to overthrow it. As an optimist, I hope they choose the former.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Final Thoughts from Knapton and Frazer:

Rich Knapton replied to Gregg Frazer and Frazer responded here. What I find strange about Knapton's argument: I understand the criticism that I or Dr. Frazer overly focus on certain "key founders," and I understand the criticism that Washington and Madison and some others didn't quite detail their creed specifically enough which ought to leave some doubt as to their orthodoxy or lack thereof. But Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, in no uncertain terms explained exactly what they believed. There is no doubt as to what Jefferson and Adams, writing in the early 19th Century believed because they went on at ponderous length detailing their creed. And they clearly disbelieved in the Trinity and believed God primarily revealed Himself through Nature, that the Bible was fallible and that man's reason thus supersedes revelation as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Knapton doesn't just deny Adams was such a "man of reason," but denies Jefferson was as well! As Dr. Frazer quotes Jefferson who clearly reveals himself to be such a man of reason:

"We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for other what they had not understood themselves. … I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” He claimed that it was easy to make such determinations because “there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds.” He abstracted “whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus.” He relied on the “style and spirit” of the writings to determine what was “genuine, and his own.” When he found “passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence,” he judged them to be legitimate words of Jesus.


It doesn't get any clearer than that and attempting to explain this away will only make the explainer look bad.

One other point needs to be noted. Orthodox Christianity believes itself to be the only valid path to God and other religions false. Jefferson, Adams and the other theistic rationalists didn't believe this, rather they thought, contra orthodox Christian teachings, all religions valid paths to God. That doesn't mean they thought all religions "equal." Appreciate the distinction: To the key founders the "end" of religion was virtue. As Franklin once put it if the "ends" (virtue) are met, the "means" (which religion you are) ultimately don't matter (because you still reach the top of the mountain even if you don't get there the quickest way), we could see how they could believe all religions valid. However, Franklin and the other key founders also stressed Jesus' moral teachings the best the world had seen. So if the "end" of religion is morality and if Jesus was the greatest moral teacher, then we could see how they would think Christianity "better" or "best" as compared to a number of other valid theologies (i.e., the quickest way up the mountain). Hence, most or all religions are valid, though they are not all necessarily equal.

And indeed when you look at the language Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison use when praising Christianity, they almost never suggests, as orthodox Christianity dictates, that Christianity is the only path to God, but invariably use comparative terms like "better" or "best" to describe Christianity. Mr. Knapton seems to recognize this when he writes:

9. Valid and equal. What I was doing was not changing his thought but, rather, providing an additional thought. Let me give an example. (man I feel like I’m teach grammar school) Thomas Jefferson may have thought that all moral codes to valid. However, he did not think they were all equal. He believed the Christian moral code to be superior to the others.

However, what he doesn't recognize is that this isn't orthodox Christianity. Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams might give Christianity an "A" as a religion, Judaism a "B+," and Islam and Native American Spirituality "Bs." An "A" is the best grade, but all of these grades pass. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, gives Christianity an A and all other religions Fs!

And a final note, I would add this syncretism that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin believed in is far more heterodox than the theological universalism that Benjamin Rush adopted later on in his life. Rush, a Trinitarian, following John Murray, became a Universalist believing all would be saved. But he remained a Trinitarian and otherwise orthodox in his theology. As I understand his creed, he still believed non-Christian theologies were false (and hence would "fail" them) but that all would be saved through the universality of Christ's atonement. The Bible discusses every knee eventually bowing for Christ. And ultimately, Murray, Rush, and the other Universalists so believed the Bible taught non-Christians ultimately would be saved by through Christ, even if, I suppose, their conversion happened after death.
Did Roy Moore Violate the Bible?

In refusing to submit to a lawful, federal judicial order. According to Romans 13, arguably he did. I sent a little email to Joseph Farah along those lines and he published it in today's letters section of WND.

Unbiblical Founding Fathers

Judge Roy Moore's actions in disobeying a federal judicial order was, according to the Bible, sinful. Romans 13 demands submission to governing legal authorities. You and Moore are confused because you think that somehow if America's Founders did it (i.e., revolt), it must have been biblical. America's principle Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin) – though they may be categorized as "Christians" in some broader, more liberal sense of the term – were not biblical, orthodox Christians. They were rationalists who took a cafeteria approach to the Bible and theological unitarians and universalists to boot.

Jon Rowe

Some of my previous analysis on this issue (Romans 13 and obedience to government) may not have been clear enough in that I didn't distinguish between obedience to government and submission to government. The Bible doesn't, I think, forbid civil disobedience (obviously if government commands you to disobey God or sin, a believer wouldn't have to comply). It does, however, demand you submit to the lawful authorities (whomever they may be), and accept the legal consequences of your disobedience -- even if it means getting thrown to the Lions or in Jesus' case, crucified. Revolt, as I read the text, is forbidden.

That's not just the way I interpret the Bible. It's also the way Calvin, Christian Tory ministers during the founding era, and virtually every Christian thinker until the 1600s interpreted the Bible and Romans 13. "The people," according to this traditional understanding of Scripture, have as much "right" to decide their leaders as they do to decide their parents.

The most I'd be willing to concede is Romans 13 and Titus iii can be explained away in context and don't stand in the way for a believer to support revolt. However, the Bible still nowhere authorizes revolt and the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence, though obviously theistic, are nonetheless wholly alien to the Bible. As Robert Kraynak once put it: "[M]odern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be."

More to the point on whether Roy Moore violated Romans 13, Justice Scalia, from his reasoning in this article (discussing the death penalty and conscience), agrees with my analysis. He would note if Moore had a problem following the ruling, he could have resigned his position. Scalia probably thinks Moore's actions in displaying his statue of the Ten Commandments were constitutional. But would also note the proper way to handle that is follow the legal process: If you don't like a lower federal court's ruling, appeal it to a higher court, eventually to the Supreme Court, and you may be able to get relief there. If the buck stops at a lower federal court that declares your display unconstitutional, Scalia would note a believer should either follow the order or resign.

Ultimately Moore was properly removed for his lawless actions.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Benedict Arnold of the Civil Religion:

The Christian Nation crowd loves to laud the Reverend Jacob Duché because he gave the first prayer for the Continental Congress, on September 7, 1774. However, they rarely discuss that Duché turned out to be a traitor to America during the Revolutionary War. He was, as this article I discussed put it, the Benedict Arnold of civil religion.

Less well-known are the resolutions adopted by the Continental Congress throughout the Revolutionary War, setting aside particular days for “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.” One such resolution, issued in 1777 and distributed throughout the churches of the land, called on all Americans to “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins … and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” Several themes emerge here: awareness of sin, dependence on God’s providence, the urge to stay faithful, the belief that God had a special relationship with America, and even the explicit invocation of Christ. And the first Congress seems to have practiced what it preached. After convening in 1774, the Continental Congress immediately selected a chaplain to open its sessions in prayer. The Rev. Jacob Duche’, an Anglican priest from Philadelphia, served as the first Congressional chaplain from 1774 until 1777. His term “ended” not because he retired but because he defected to the British—the Benedict Arnold of civil religion, perhaps.

Here is Duché's letter to George Washington imploring him to lay down his arms and surrender to the British.

Monday, October 08, 2007

America's Civil Religion is Not Christianity:

Jim Babka sent me a great article from an orthodox Christian source that well understands America's Civil Religion is not Biblical Christianity. Writing about the tension between America's civil religion and orthodox Christianity is one of my specialities. In my last post I noted President Bush's notion that all religions worship the same God "may not be an authentically Christian belief, but it is an authentically American belief." This article explains the tension in detail:

What is civil religion? According to historian (and Christian) Wilfred McClay, civil religion is “that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the political and social institutions of the United States.” More problematically, civil religion is the misidentification of the nation of the United States with the covenant people of God. It is the casual assumption that America enjoys a special role in redemptive history. It is the confusion of the office of the political leader with the office of the spiritual leader. It is the frequent presumption of divine blessings without submission to divine judgment. It is the sublimation of Christian distinctives to a generic amalgam that conflates many faiths into a common national identity. It is as old as America itself. And it is not biblical Christianity.

This is the first and by far most vital distinction to keep in mind. Though civil religion may at times draw on biblical resources, though it may on occasion employ Christian imagery, though it may appeal to many professing Christians, it differs from biblical Christianity in fundamental ways. Christianity holds that the people of God are all those who, irrespective of tribe or tongue, have repented of their sins, trusted wholly in Christ’s substitutionary death for their forgiveness, been reconciled to God through his redeeming grace, and joined in the life of the church. Civil religion instead often holds that God’s people are those who dwell in a particular nation-state and faithfully uphold their civic duties. Christianity holds that man’s chief end is, in the words of the Westminster Confession, to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Civil religion, at its worst, holds that God’s chief end is to preserve and bless the nation-state. Christianity is worship of the one true God. Civil religion, at its most pernicious, is idolatry.

My own reason for debunking the Christian Nation thesis is I think sectarian religious passions in politics are dangerous, I want to quell that zeal, and see religious conservatives adopt a more live and let live attitude on cultural issues.

Many conservative theologians however, likewise have good reason to debunk the Christian Nation thesis because embrace of it can lead to the whoring of the Christian religion for political purposes. Many of the ideas of founding era republicanism, for instance, most of what's contained in the Declaration of Independence, are wholly alien to the Bible (the ideas are not necessarily inconsistent with the Bible, but certainly not derived from the good book). When you try to give the Bible "credit" for an extra-biblical idea, then clearly you "import" non-biblical ideas into your sacred text, something the Bible categorically forbids! And this is exactly what pro-patriotic preachers from the founding era (many of them, but not all, theological unitarians and universalists) did whenever they promoted (which they often did) Locke's concept of "state of nature" from the pulpit.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Somber Sunday Night/Monday Morning Music:

I found clips of a concert The Band gave in 1983. Robbie Robertson had left by this time; but as you can see, they don't need no stinkin' Robbie. Here is the late Richard Manuel singing Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released, a much covered tune, but no one, including Dylan does it like Manuel.

And here is the late Rick Danko singing It Makes No Difference.

Bush Agrees with Founders Not Fellow Evangelicals:

On whether all religions worship the same God. Evangelicals are angry that President Bush once again affirmed that all religions pray to the same God.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, was quoted in the Baptist Press as saying the president "is simply mistaken."

According to a Washington Post account, Land said in an interview: "We should always remember that he is commander in chief, not theologian in chief. The Bible is clear on this: The one and true god is Jehovah, and his only begotten son is Jesus Christ."

The Rev. Ted Haggard, then-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, also contradicted the president in a press statement. "The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health," said Haggard. "The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them. Muhammad's central message was submission; Jesus' central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities."

In November 2006, Haggard was forced to resign from NAE following allegations of drug use and sex with a homosexual prostitute.

Gary Bauer, former presidential candidate and president of American Values, said Bush's comment was "not helpful to the president. Since everybody agrees he's not a theologian, he would be much better advised to punt when he gets that kind of question."

Bush's notion may not be an authentically Christian belief, but it is an authentically American belief. After all America's key founders -- the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin, and a few other leading lights -- believed exactly this. As Presidents, Washington, Jefferson and Madison (perhaps Adams, I haven't found his quotations yet) prayed to the Native American's pagan "Great Spirit" God. At least Allah claims to be the God of Abraham. The Great Spirit makes no such claim!

I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great spirit to preserve them.

-- George Washington, August 29, 1796

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Frazer Replies to Knapton II:

Gregg Frazer has replied to Richard Knapton's latest reply. For context, it would help to first read Knapton's reply, then my reply to Knapton, and then Frazer's reply below:

I apologize, again, for responding tardily, but this is the first bloc of time I've had.

First of all, Mr. Knapton, my name is "Frazer."

Second, Mr. Knapton is the first person I've encountered who denies real significance and influence to deism in 18th-century America. In fact, the standard view among scholars is that most of the Founders -- including Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington -- were deists. I'm sure that Jonathan Edwards, who wrote about the danger of deism and John Leland, who wrote a two-volume work on deism in 1764 and Elihu Palmer, who wrote the "bible" of deism in 1801 would all be shocked. As would Peter Gay, Kerry Walters, E.Graham Waring, and other scholars who have written sizable works on its influence.

Third, if, as he says, Mr. Knapton's reference to Locke was not presented as proof to contradict my statement, then he offered no proof and my statement stands.

Fourth, I have not heard of “copy and past.” I have, however, heard of copy and paste -- but my dissertation is in WordPerfect format, so copy and paste will not work in this context.

Fifth, I, too, really dislike "cherry picking" and that is not what I did in presenting the quotes from Adams. The significance I gave to the quotes is precisely what the context demands, although Mr. Knapton's interpretation is quite creative. The point of the letter is to address the BASIS for the beliefs of the various groups. The portion left out in Mr. Knapton's transcription is very illuminating (and important). After identifying the BASIS for the beliefs of the first set of groups ("real or pretended revelation") , Adams addresses a belief of some Greeks [where Mr. Knapton simply puts "About the Greeks"]. There Adams says "On what prophecies they found their belief, I know not" [emphasis, again, on the BASIS for their beliefs]. He then identifies the BASIS for his belief and that of Jefferson IN COMPARISON TO that of the others and proclaims that he and Jefferson's "faith may be supposed by more rational arguments than ANY [my emphasis] of the former." The Christian belief which he mentioned [along with all of the others -- including the Greeks] is, of course, based on revelation. So, he is affirming that his belief places rationality above revelation (of various types -- including the Bible).

I did not launch into this discussion the first time because I thought the quotes clear enough to stand on their own.

Concerning the second quote: since Jonathan Rowe has commented (keenly) on Mr. Knapton's curious, but creative interpretation, I won't add anything except to wonder why one who purports to really dislike cherry picking left out the final sentence of the paragraph in his transcription. There, after saying nice things about the Bible and Christ, he says: "Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta [sic]?" The Shastra is a Hindu text! Also, he does not say that his philosophy is "derived from the Bible" -- he says that it "contains more" of his philosophy than all other books. And, in saying that he will further investigate the parts of the Bible which "seem not to be reconciled with his philosophy," he reveals that he does not accept them on the basis of being revelation, but must "investigate" them to see if they can be made to fit within his philosophy -- in other words, his reason trumps revelation.

Finally on this point, I have a PhD in political philosophy and my understanding of Locke was good enough to get me through PhD qualifying exams and several courses with nationally-recognized scholars. The fact that my "understanding" of Locke is different than that of Mr. Knapton perhaps says more about Mr. Knapton's "understanding" than mine.

Sixth, if Mr. Knapton was not suggesting that my term is illegitimate because it didn't exist at the time and was stating, instead, that the concept "simply has no foundation," then we have another case of Mr. Knapton simply declaring my arguments invalid without offering any proof for his claims. I have 440 pages of evidence from the Founders and 18th-century American preachers -- he has offered no evidence except thoughts of English empiricists, his creative interpretation of one of them [Locke], and his assurance that the American Founders believed everything that those British philosophers said. I'll take what the Founders actually said they believed over what Mr. Knapton simply claims they believed and I'll let the observant reader decide for him/her self.

Seventh, Jonathan addressed the "reason" question, so I won't bother except to remind Mr. Knapton and interested readers that there is a distinction between what I, as an evangelical Christian, believe and what the Founders believed. I place revelation above reason and I do not "want to use the term as a magic wand by which whatever you touch truth is revealed." The Founders used it as a basis for discovering and determining truth. If Mr. Knapton has a problem with that idea, he should take it up with the Founders -- not me.

Eighth, in my "vain-glorious rush for acceptance," I was using sarcasm. I apologize if it was not biting enough to be recognized.

Ninth, Mr. Knapton suggests that I need glasses because he says that he did not make a particular claim about what I had said. First, I have glasses already. Second, I referred to HIS comments about my statement in which he changed a key word in the point I made and replaced it with another word IN HIS COMMENTARY ON IT. A little "cut and paste" will show that he did what I said he did: my statement was: “Because virtually all religions promote morality, they believed that most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God.” His commentary was: "However, they did not see all religious moral codes equal." So, I accused him of defeating a straw man argument because he attacked the idea that the Founders saw "all religious moral codes EQUAL [my emphasis]," but I did not make that argument. I made the argument that they believed that MOST religious traditions are VALID and lead to the same God [my emphases]. So, he changed MOST to ALL and VALID to EQUAL -- and, therefore, did not address my actual point, but rather one of his construction. I did not engage in "miss-quoting" -- or misquoting.

Tenth, contrary to Mr. Knapton's assertion, I do not assume for myself the right to decide who is a Christian and who is not. In fact, to avoid any such notion, I use the creeds, catechisms, and confessions ascribed to by the actual churches in America in the 18th century. As to Arianism, it was not declared heretical by the Catholic Church (in today's sense of the term), but by the ONLY church at the time (before the Protestant Reformation) -- a quite different church than that of the Middle Ages and one that has always been recognized as legitimate by Protestants. Furthermore, IN THE 18TH CENTURY (which is the period we're talking about), BOTH PROTESTANTS AND CATHOLICS CONSIDERED ARIANISM HERETICAL and recognized the Trinity and deity of Christ as A (not THE) central belief of Christianity.

Mr. Knapton then accuses me of saying that the Trinity is "the central tenant of the Christian faith." First, I said nothing about tenants (people who rent property), I talked about tenets (fundamental beliefs). Second, I did NOT say (again) what Mr. Knapton indicates that I said. I said that the Trinity is A central tenet -- I did not say that it is THE central tenet. For those who want to look it up, here's another "cut and paste": [most people can skip the following bracketed part]

[Eighth, Mr. Knapton accuses me of “unintended sophistry” in pointing out that the theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God and he suggests that there was “a strain of Christian thought” which taught that Jesus was subordinate to God. Methinks the sophistry is one the other foot, however. Mr. Knapton refers, apparently, to the Arian or Socinian heresies, which the church had declared to be heresies — and not Christian doctrine — centuries before. On page 10 of my dissertation, I have a chart which outlines the basic core beliefs of the Christian denominations in 18th century America as expressed in their own creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Every Christian denomination in 18th century America affirmed the deity of Christ and the Trinity as basic core Christian beliefs. Mr. Knapton’s suggestion might appeal to groups which came along later and who CLAIMED to be Christians, such as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses; but it doesn’t stand up to 18th century scrutiny. There were, of course, those who denied the deity of Christ and the Trinity (including the theistic rationalists), but they were considered “infidels” by 18th-century Christians.

If Mr. Knapton thinks that Christianity is “all about” Jesus being the savior of the world independent of His being God, then he and I have very different conceptions of what Christianity is “all about” — but, more importantly, he has a very different view than those we are discussing: 18th century American Christians.]

Note that I called the Trinity and the deity of Christ "basic core Christian beliefs" [plural], but did not in any way suggest or indicate that they were THE central beliefs -- but, rather, 2 of the 10.

Furthermore, I would not approach a Buddhist priest for a definition of Christianity -- apparently another difference between Mr. Knapton and myself. And Christians were called "Christians" because it means "little Christs," which is what Christians were recognized as aspiring to be -- followers of Christ (who, by the way, THEY understood to be God). Arianism didn't come along until the 4th century, so there was no reason to highlight the Trinity above other fundamental doctrines. Mr. Knapton's Christianity 101 course is quite different from my (an evangelical Christian) Christianity 101 and also quite different (and this is the point where this discussion is concerned) from the Christianity 101 course of 18th-century Americans.

Eleventh, Mr. Knapton then assured us again that deism and natural religion "died" in the "first half of the 18th-century" (no evidence, just his assurance) and that the idea that God PRIMARILY revealed Himself through nature died at the same time -- with no evidence to support such an astonishing claim -- just his affirmation.

Twelfth, regarding what Jefferson said about his approach to the Bible: I started to write a lengthy refutation of Mr. Knapton's argument on this point, but I'll just leave it to those who can read the earlier quotes from Jefferson making reason the sole judge with a fair and open mind and the following additional Jefferson quotes: "man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous," and "gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck" and "No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards RATIONAL Christianity." [my emphasis]

FINALLY, Mr. Knapton sums things up by suggesting that we've "learned" 6 things, but they're not very revealing and suggest that we've wasted a lot of time -- if, indeed, that's all we've "learned."

#1 [deism not significant] is a mere assertion on his part for which he gives no evidence and which flies in the face of the views of 18th-century contemporaries and modern scholarship.

#2 [cherry-picking charge] has been demonstrated in this entry to be false.

#3 [concept of theistic rationalism didn't exist] is another of his assertions without evidence and is circular logic -- using as evidence what you're trying to prove.

#4 [reason not magic wand] is meant as a shot at me, but misses the mark because I don't believe it to begin with -- and is irrelevant to the discussion because no one believes or believed it the way it's written.

#5 [I'm not doctor of divinity] is quite true -- but entirely irrelevant and, to my knowledge, no one has claimed the contrary. So, we've "learned" something that no one had an interest in learning and that many already knew.

#6 [Jefferson's motivation/method] is Mr. Knapton's conclusion which he arrived at (apparently) by completely ignoring the extensive evidence presented from Jefferson's own words concerning the role of reason in determining and evaluating potential revelation. His "un-rationalistic" remark also indicates that Mr. Knapton is under the false impression that there is only one kind/type of rationalism -- a misconception which has been dealt with in previous threads of this discussion. One can't help but wonder how Jefferson came to a "belief" that John 1 was mistranslated, since no sect was teaching such a "belief" and since, according to his own account, he made that determination himself based on his own personal analysis and would have been offended if someone suggested it were merely a "belief" and not a result of rational processes.

I submit that only Mr. Knapton has "learned" his six lessons.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Pangle on Locke:

Last night Thomas Pangle gave the 4th Annual Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture on America's Founding Principles at the James Madison Program at Princeton. I missed it because I was teaching, but my dad saw and enjoyed it. Pangle has done some interesting research on John Locke. On page 132 of The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, Pangle observes what's key about Locke's teachings is his concept of "the state of nature," as described in his Second Treatise on Government. And such concept is entirely alien to the Bible or the way traditional Christianity had been understood until Locke's time. Rather, Hobbes had just recently coined the concept. It's true that Locke invokes the state of nature to argue against Hobbes; but he does so using a Hobbsean, not a biblical or classical concept! Likewise when Rousseau hit the scene, he argued against both Hobbes and Locke, but again did so using the rubric of "the state of nature." This a-biblical (perhaps anti-biblical) "state of nature" was thus a common ground to which these three Enlightenment philosophers held; they just differed on how to properly understand the concept.

Locke did invoke the "Judicious Hooker" for authority. And Hooker was the Anglican heir to Thomas Aquinas (the man who synthesized Christianity and classical political philosophy). However, as Pangle notes, there is nothing in Hooker's (or Aquinas' or the Bible's) teachings that looks anything like the state of nature Locke describes in his Second Treatise. Ultimately, Pangle concludes that Locke invoked Hooker to "establish his credentials." During a time when one could be executed for heresy, it's not surprising that Locke would attempt to cover his heretical butt with Christian bona fides.