Sunday, June 29, 2008

Psychological Suffering:

Most folks understand that homosexually oriented people are more likely to be depressed at some point in their lives. Different sides in the culture war interpret the phenomenon differently (obviously). Gays and their allies say it's because of societal mistreatment. The religious right and their anti-gay allies try to blame gays themselves, citing social science that shows the same higher rates of depression in modern gay friendly Scandinavian countries, places that longer than most have had gay friendly cultural environments. Hence chosen homosexual practices must cause the psychological trauma, not hostile antigay environments.

Mistreatment is relevant to "sexual orientation as a legitimate civil rights category." Such is a traditional criteria for enhanced "civil rights" protection; we protect things like race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, etc. in large part because of a history of mistreating these various social groups. No one doubts why "race" should have such protection. But there is controversy regarding "sexual orientation." And social conservatives often play "race" against "sexual orientation," trying to rile up blacks to indignation about gays having the "gall" to make civil rights arguments.

While I caution the pro-gay side against trying to make too close an analogy to race, I also remind folks that we do not live in a world where race is the only recognized "civil rights" category. If it were, then perhaps gays would have no business trying to make civil rights arguments. Rather we live in a world where it's race, gender, ethnic origin, religion, age, disability and many other categories that receive "civil rights" protection.

Yes, gays, like every other social group, haven't suffered slavery or Jim Crow as blacks have. But, that doesn't mean gays haven't suffered. In one of my most widely read posts I noted:

Homosexuals historically have been subject to sodomy laws which led to imprisonment or worse, being banned from government jobs, institutionalization with a whole slew of sadistic treatments like electroshock therapy, reputation ruining, all which have led to at worst suicides like that of World War II hero Alan Turing. In short, if mistreatment is a criterion for being a civil rights victim, homosexuals easily pass that test.

I write all this as a preface to what I see as a profound example of what's probably a typical example of human suffering related to homosexuality. It comes from an unlikely source. Ryan T. Anderson of First Things writes about a friend struggling with his homosexual orientation, yet at the same time who wants to remain "chaste," true to the Roman Catholic Church's teachings, perhaps one day live a normal functional heterosexual life. Anderson writes this with the opposite worldview that I argue for here and tries to score the opposite "political points" that I would. I want to ignore all that and instead focus on the human suffering, the real psychological trauma about which his friend testifies:

He came out to me in an email. I've known him for years, long enough that I can't remember when we first met....Over the past three years, "Chris" (let's call him) has experienced a pronounced attraction to other males-for one old friend from high school in particular....

Chris' situation is sad, but it seems to be moving somewhere. He told me how he had cried daily for the first two years of his same-sex attractions, knowing that he was becoming someone he didn't want to be.

Mind you, this isn't, from the information we've received a person who has chosen to act on his homosexual orientation (also keep in mind that both Anderson and his friend are relatively young, in their early 20s). But someone who is merely struggling with an unchosen sexual orientation. Indeed, someone who is attempting to "do the right thing" according to his own religiously conservative conscience:

A crush, maybe, or an infatuation. Whatever it was, he knew it wasn't healthy. And though he had never acted on the attraction, he explained, it led to fantasies and lusts he didn't want. So he made a resolution never to embrace them as essential to his identity or accept them as permanent or untreatable-a resolution he has kept practically alone, without the support of community, family, or friends. Over the course of many phone calls and emails, he shared with me his reflections on what he thought had created his problem of same-sex attractions.

I don't want to politicize this moving article too much. I just want readers to appreciate the following facts: 1) This is someone who presumably never chose to do what religious conservatives consider "immoral," that is engage in homosexual behavior (indeed, he appears to be one such conservative); but also 2) someone whose suffering over his blameless, unchosen sexual orientation led him to CRY daily for over two years.

I think we all know what it's like to be sad; but crying daily for two years...just stop and reflect on that. That illustrates the psychological trauma from which homosexually oriented people suffer simply because of their blameless, unchosen orientation.

Hopefully this sheds light on why younger homosexually oriented folks more likely attempt suicide. And also consider the many who may take their lives without revealing why they suffer. Indeed Anderson notes

[o]ther than his confessor and therapist, I'm the only person who knows. His parents would be devastated-his mother wondering whether she had caused it, his father fearing he had failed his son. His roommates and friends wouldn't know how to take it.

How many young people actually do take their lives because of their unwanted, unchosen, sexual orientation? We may never know.

However we properly resolve this divisive culture war issue, just stop and realize that many people really do suffer profoundly for their unchosen, blameless sexual orientation.
Fea on The Light and the Glory:

After my last post on Peter Marshall, coauthor of "The Light and the Glory," John Fea informs me of his article on the 30th anniversary of the book. Check it out. It's a great article and offers a cautionary note to Christians historians. Here is a taste:

For example, Marshall and Manuel interpret the fog that rose in the East River on the morning of August 30, 1776, as God’s direct intervention to aid George Washington’s midnight retreat from the British assault on the Continental Army’s position on Brooklyn Heights. They describe the fog’s rising as “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.” They believe this because Washington, members of his staff, and many Continental soldiers described this event in terms of God’s special protection of the army.

Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether an English Christian would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Peter Marshall, Christian Nationalist:

Previously I discussed the Reverend Peter Marshall's work here. Rev. Marshall is a fairly big figure in "Christian America" circles. From what I know of his work, it's pretty shoddy. He wrote a classic in that idiom entitled "The Light and the Glory." Here is how Dr. Gregg Frazer describes that work in his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University:

It became the classic text of that camp. Its historiography is abominable; it is a collection of speculations, suppositions, personal musings, and “insights” with little or no proof or documentation for extraordinary claims. p. 38.

In my earlier post, I noted Marshall, and his coauthor David Manuel are working on a revised version of this book, to be published sometime in 2009. Somewhat to their credit, they are attempting to improve their level of scholarship. Relying on Peter Lillback's work on George Washington, Marshall notes they will no longer endorse George Washington's spurious "Daily Sacrifice" Prayerbook (of which by the way Pat Robertson's CBN apparently endorses the validity).

Good for them, but apparently you can't teach an old dog new tricks. The year is 2008, 8 years after David Barton wrote his article, "Unconfirmed Quotations," cautioning his followers to no longer spread these bogus utterance of America's Founders, and Marshall still features the following on his website:

For example, Patrick Henry, a great Founding Father, and one of the strongest evangelical Christians of his time, said that "It can not be too often repeated, or too strongly emphasized that America was not founded by religionists nor on any religion, but by Christians on the Gospel of Jesus Christ." This is a statement that never shows up in the history books that are read by the vast majority of American schoolchildren.

You don't see it in the schoolbooks because Patrick Henry never uttered it. And it's not as though Marshall is unfamiliar with Barton or Wallbuilders. Indeed, they recently did a series together still showing on TBN entitled "Under God," which from the episodes I have seen repeated all of the Christian Nationalist revisionist talking points.

But, for all I know, given that I've never read "The Light and the Glory," which was originally published in 1977, before Barton made his mark, it could be the source of some of Barton's "unconfirmed quotations."

One reason why these "unconfirmed quotations" don't seem to die is that they sound so on point. When Christian Nationalists look for quotations to support their claim, those are the ones that first stand out. But they represent neither what the Founders said, nor what they stood for. Most of the accurate quotations that Christian Nationalists then offer distort their context or meaning. For instance, Marshall offers what follows from John Adams in misleading or misunderstood context:

John Adams, our second President and a true son of the Puritans, spoke for all the Founding Fathers when he spoke these words to the Massachusetts Militia in 1798: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Marshall fails to note that Adams was a fervent theological unitarian who in his private letters uttered blasphemous sentiments on the Trinity for which his Puritan ancestors would have executed him (literally, they had laws on the books demanding the death penalty for such "high handed blasphemie").

Further, when Adams stated "religion" and "morality" he meant exactly what he said: "religion" in general, not "Christianity" -- certainly not orthodox Trinitarian Christianity in which Adams didn't believe and whose doctrines he often bitterly mocked -- in particular. Marshall and the "Christian Nation" crowd make the error of reading not just "Christianity" but "orthodox" or what they would regard as "true biblical Christianity" into Adams' generic endorsement of "religion" as a source for public "morality." What follows is one of many of Adams' quotations that show when he said "religion" in a generic sense, he meant "religion" not necessarily "Christianity":

It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.

– John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

Even when John Adams praised "Christianity" in particular, it was done through the lens of his heterodox unitarian creed, and resulted in sentiments that evangelicals like Marshall would consider "heresy" and not "real Christianity" at all, if they truly understood or honestly dealt with what Adams and the other key Founders really posited. The following is one of John Adams' quotations the Christian America crowd often spreads, which, again, on the surface sounds like it supports their claim, but whose context belies it:

The general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were...the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28th, 1813

Now, if one didn't understand the context one might think Adams were referring to those principles in the creeds that united the orthodox Churches, what evangelicals and Roman Catholics consider "real Christianity." Things like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible. But you would be wrong. Adams explains just who is included in that "lowest-common-denominator" of "general principles of Christianity," in the rest of his letter that the Christian America crowd doesn't reveal:

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and "Protestans qui ne croyent rien ["Protestants who believe nothing"]." Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.

Not only Universalists who denied eternal damnation but Arians, Socinians and Priestleyans [the later term referring to Adams', Jefferson's, and Franklin's religious mentor, British Unitarian Whig Joseph Priestley] all of whom were unitarians, denying the Trinity and other fundamental doctrines of orthodoxy. But it gets worse! Deists, Atheists, and Protestants who believe nothing are likewise included in Adams' lowest common denominator of "Christian principles."

And to make matters even worse, Adams appeals to the authority of some radically anti-Christian Enlightenment philosophers:

In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.

Whatever theological system Adams was referring to, it's certainly not what Peter Marshall, David Barton and the rest of the "Christian America" crowd would consider "real Christianity."
Classic Episode of Diff'rent Strokes:

And yes, that is the guy from WKRP in Cincinnati, the late great Gordon Jump.

I hate to admit that when I was younger I watched waaaaaay too much TV which helps me especially appreciate Family Guy, the creator of which Seth MacFarlane is likewise my age and watched way too many episodes of shows like this when he was growing up (and often incorporates those references into his show). Fortuitously, given that "Family Guy" is one of the most popular programs of my students, it helps me form a meaningful connection when I do my best to "edutain" them. In education, never underestimate the value of a good Simpsons or Family Guy example.

Calvin & Divine Rule of Kings:

I wanted to comment on Jason Kuznicki's post on the Acton Institute's The Birth of Freedom whose screening we both saw. His post brings to mind George Willis Cooke's observations:

The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.

As Kuznicki correctly points out, Calvin was not a social contractarian, and his teachings on government were nothing like the democratic-republican ideas that America's Founders established:

According to Calvin, magistrates get their authority from God, and not — as the Levellers would have had it — by an agreement of the people. Hobbes sided with the agreement of the people, although he did attach, shall we say, some rather stringent terms to it. This — agreement versus divine institution — is the whole of the difference between social contract theory and what came before it.

Insofar as Calvin ever considered a state of nature, he viewed it not as full of danger (like Hobbes), nor as imperfect and needing improvement (like Locke), nor even as subject to natural transformation into a governed state (like Nozick). He viewed it as profane, because it was not sufficiently subject to God’s authority. He compared it to rats in straw. (And yet don’t rats enjoy living in straw? Why should we presume that this is such a bad thing for them? Doesn’t the metaphor deconstruct itself?)

Indeed, it’s hard to find something less like a Lockean social contract than the following passage from Calvin:...

Kuznicki then quotes from Calvin, an excerpt of which follows:

For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.

History gets interesting, though, when we recognize that some later "Calvinists" made arguments for "resisting the King," that somewhat paralleled what the American Founders would even later do in the American Revolution, and that a strong Calvinist component in the American population supported revolt against Great Britain. Still, Calvin was not a liberal democrat or social contractarian, but if anything represented "the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings," the exact opposite of the position America's Founders took.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Religion in American History Blog:

I'd like to thank Dr. John Fea of Messiah College and the Religion in American History blog for his kind words on my blog research and plugging American Creation. If I may return the favor, Religion in American History is a great, informative blog, one I regularly check. Fea writes:

One of their contributors, Jon Rowe, is the most dogged critic of the Christian America thesis I have ever run across and I have learned much from reading his own blog over the last few years.

As some of you know, I am writing a popular book for the church tentatively titled "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Primer for Christians," so needless to say I will be checking American Creation often.

I look forward to reading his book. As for my being the most dogged critic of the Christian America thesis, I think perhaps that title belongs to Chris Rodda. Though I am dogged and indeed, probably overly engage in shrill rhetoric when mentioning the names of David Barton, William Federer, and D. James Kennedy -- the "Christian America" villains -- I try to replace the "Christian America" thesis with a nuanced and balanced view that appreciates the role religion in public life had at the time of the American Founding. A warm, benign theism, invariably spoken in generic philosophical terms that connected Christianity with non-biblical religions, a "Nature's God" that grants men unalienable rights.

Where we run into a problem is when public supplications to God conflict with the equally valid Founding principle that all citizens, including atheists or polytheists ought to be treated as equals. It's equality, not separation, that often leads to the muting of publicly endorsed "God-talk." Even John Adams, a very religious man, but a heterodox unitarian said:

“Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his Opinions. Let him have a care of his Practices.”

–- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, June 16, 1816.

Whether an atheist simply hearing (or seeing) publicly sponsored God-talk that makes him feel like a second class citizen is a "constitutionally actionable" harm I am not convinced and I think reasonable people can and should debate the issue. But the point that needs to be stressed is equal rights for everybody in regard to religion is a foundational American ideal.

As to whether I/we should continue to use harsh rhetoric when dealing with the aforementioned Christian America figures, that's a current matter of debate at American Creation. I think Rev. Brian Tubbs is probably right that the gentlemanly thing to do is engage in civil, scholarly debate, not always be in shrill rhetorical attack mode. Though with Barton and Kennedy, sometimes it's difficult to resist temptation.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Night Music:

Neil Young -- one of my music idols -- and his relatively new song "When God Made Me." This could serve as an anthem for theological liberalism or a warm theistic universalism:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Acton Institute's "The Birth of Freedom":

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of seeing the premiere of the Acton Institute's "The Birth of Freedom," in Washington, DC accompanied by my friend and co-blogger Jason Kuznicki and friend David Boaz.

I give it a mixed review. The production values were great. My biggest problem was with the content. And given I have very strong opinions on the subject matter, it should surprise no one that I might have issues with it.

First, in fairness, the special was only an hour and therefore time constraints prevented them from including everything they could have, everything I thought they would. I expected to respond to a different documentary. There were stronger arguments, I thought, they could have made.

The basic thesis of the movie was to show how religion (particularly Christianity) was greatly responsible for notions of human rights, particularly the classic liberty and equality rights of liberal democracy, and the consequent abolition of slavery, and formation of modern "republican" government.

The Institute features many notable scholars and academics in the Roman Catholic tradition (though the documentary had non-Catholics as well). And those scholars, for the most part, do very valuable work (Rodney Stark and Robert P. George, probably the two most notable). Contrast this to D. James Kennedy's "Christian Nation" propaganda specials, which likewise featured some prominent scholars (like Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, Donald Lutz, and Mary Thompson) but intermingled them with hucksters like David Barton, Peter Marshall and William Federer, all filtered through D. James Kennedy's extremely un-academic, distorted lens. The "Christian America" thesis, within the academic community, rightly has a reputation for being very un-scholarly, but still greatly appeals to quite sizable conservative evangelical circles.

The Acton Institute, on the other hand, uses sound scholarship, attempting to engage academia on their grounds. Mark Noll wrote a book on how evangelicals let their scholarly standards slide, how Roman Catholic intellectuals -- like those featured in First Things Magazine -- better maintain those standards. The Acton Institute follows in the "First Things" tradition of high scholarly standards.

Though more academically authentic, the Acton Institute's special to me still projected an air of superficiality. But again, perhaps this is because they only had one hour. Perhaps they have plans to market this documentary to a "mass audience" who tend not to care about scholarly footnotes.

As for the show's content, John Locke was mentioned (of course, given his centrality to the Founding, he'd have to be). And I expected them to follow the chain of tradition that traces Locke to Aquinas and then to Aristotle: Locke appealed to "the judicious Hooker" who was the Anglican heir to the Christian natural law tradition of Thomas Aquinas to which the Roman Catholic Church still adheres. And of course, Aquinas' method of appealing to "nature" and "reason" traces to Aristotle. So in Locke, it could be argued that we see the synthesized classical-Christian natural law tradition. Along the way, they could have noted Grotius and Suárez as key expositors of the traditional natural law from which John Locke drew. And of course, that case can be answered -- it could be argued that Locke was not as "authentically Christian" as some understand him to be. But I'm not going to answer that case here, because the program didn't argue it (as you would think Roman Catholic intellectuals would!).

Rather, they turned to John Witte of Emory School of Law who simply asserted that Locke drew from the Calvinist-Protestant tradition and that social contractarianism was developed in Calvin's Christendom. Now, I'm sure that Witte can make a respectable scholarly case for his thesis, but I was utterly unsatisfied by his bare assertion. When one posits novel, revisionist theses (and that's what the tenor of this special attempted -- to "revise" the current record in academia that is too slanted towards secularism), one has the burden of providing compelling evidence (i.e., I want to see the footnotes) to support the claims. Again, perhaps that evidence exists, but a one hour special full of "sound bites" might not have been the proper place to present all of it.

My understanding of Locke is that he was not at all a Calvinist, that there is no evidence that ties Locke to Calvin, other than a Calvinist component in Locke's late 17th Century British cultural environment. Some try to connect Locke to Calvin through Samuel Rutherford of Lex Rex fame. But Locke never cited Rutherford. And the program didn't even claim this.

The program also, surprisingly, avoided the scholarship of Brian Tierney, of Cornell, who traces Locke's ideas to various Roman Catholic natural law sources. As Rick Garnett put it, summarizing this body of scholarship: Arguments similar to those put forth by Locke "were advanced regularly by recusant Catholics in England, in the late 16th and very early 17th centuries." Again, this is a contentious scholarly claim and much work needs to be done in order to convince the academy of its veracity. But the program barely touched it, other than some brief assertions that human rights were developed in the Catholic Middle Ages.

The program addressed the issue of slavery and noted how the Christian West was the first to abolish slavery, a fact that academia mostly ignores. This, of course, is true.

Though, experts on slavery, most notably David Brion Davis, note it was the Quakers, in the early 1600s who first questioned the morality of the universal institution of slavery. Dr. Stark advances a novel claim that the Christian West actually abolished slavery much earlier in the Catholic dominated "Middle Ages," but that slavery somehow made a comeback for "economic" not theological reasons. The program highlighted Stark's novel assertion, without any scholarly explication, and totally avoided the Quakers' key role in 17th Century in getting the ball rolling which finally led to abolition in the West. Rather it picked up on William Wilberforce's later crusade. Perhaps that was because Wilberforce was an evangelical while the Quakers were theological liberals. In any event, even if medieval Catholics first advanced moral objections to slavery, given slavery's persistence in the West and universality until the 18th Century, it is not at all clear that these early objections to slavery were anything but aberrations in the Christian West, which traditionally justified chattel slavery on biblical and philosophical grounds. Again, the program didn't touch this historical nuance.

The program also, typical of the Christian right, bashed the French Revolution and tried to connect it with modern secular leftism. They contrasted the traditional religious beauty of the cathedral at Notre Dame with some sterile monument made to the French Revolution. As one of the first question askers, I noted that they drew a false dichotomy between America's and France's Revolutions. Sure there were differences between the two (obviously -- the two events turned out quite differently) but both appealed, at base, to the same ideals, the same Enlightenment principles of a generically defined Supreme Being who grants men unalienable rights to Liberty and Equality. I noted, these ideals, though "religious" or "theistic" were hardly "biblical." I further noted that most of the American population including George Washington and many traditional Christians supported and viewed the French Revolution as a parallel ideological event to the American -- twin republics founded on "liberty" -- and only after the fact did most folks realize the subtle but profound philosophical differences between the two. That France had an aristocracy to unseat and a national Church to disestablish most likely caused the different outcomes of the two revolutions. The response -- as expected -- was the French Revolution was more influenced by Rousseau/the French Enlightenment, the American, more by the conservative or moderate Scottish Enlightenment. I don't disagree, but that doesn't change the fact that the two events, at base, appealed to the same Enlightenment ideals of a generically God-granted rights to political liberty and equality.

Finally, the program concluded, somewhat disappointingly, by simply giving Robbie George a soapbox for numerous minutes to bemoan modern secularism and relativism -- how that is a terrible place to rest notions of human rights.

Where I agree with the program's assertions: The notion that men have unalienable God-given rights to liberty and equality is a very "solid" place to rest human rights. And the Western tradition of "rights," especially as articulated by America's Founders, was done in a context of a complementary, warm public religion, not a cold anti-religious secularism.

Still the notion of unalienable liberty and equality rights will always exist in great tension with traditional biblical religious principles. The biblical authenticity of "unalienable rights" to "liberty" and "equality" is highly suspect. As Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind,:

From the earliest beginnings of liberal thought there was a tendency in the direction of indiscriminate freedom. Hobbes and Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife....In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious belief, party by assigning -- as a result of a great epistemological effort -- religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. Such rights are not matters of opinion. No weakness of conviction was desired here. All to the contrary, the sphere of rights was to be the arena of moral passion in a democracy. p. 28.

And I would note, perhaps contra Bloom, that the sphere of Liberty and Equality rights ought to be the arena of moral passion. But how do we "know" that men have a "right" to Liberty and Equality? The answer: Because God grants them such rights. The problem is such rights are not really found within the text of the Bible, and only evolved over much time in Christendom, and tended to be articulated by heretical philosophers. A "selective" reading of the Bible can vet such rights; but traditional biblical readings may hold the contrary. Jefferson held that men had an unalienable "right" to worship no God or twenty gods. Jefferson's and Madison's (he helped pass it) landmark statute on religious liberty in Virginia -- one based on "natural right" -- held such rights extended to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

In other words God grants men an unalienable right to break the very First Command (as well as other parts of the Decalogue and Bible) something that Hindus, Muslims, and others do simply by practicing their creed. The Bible nowhere speaks of "unalienable rights," certainly not of a God given right to worship as one pleases and many of its texts intimate the opposite.

The Bible also nowhere abolishes slavery, but arguably intimates its legitimacy. Whenever the term "liberty" is used, the Bible invariably refers to "spiritual" liberty, or freedom from sin, not political liberty. Therefore, as Robert Kraynak notes, the Apostle "Paul could say (without contradicting himself) 'for freedom Christ has set us free ... do not submit to the yoke of slavery' (Gal. 5:1) and 'slaves, obey ... your earthly masters' (Col. 3:22)." One could be both a chattel slave and "free" in Christ at the same time.

The tension between traditional religious notions and modern politics is called the "political-theological problem," a problem the program did not address. Those, like the Acton Institute, who attempt to tie notions of human rights to their theology either explicitly or implicitly argue the following: "Since our theology gives you human rights in the first place, you only have the right to do what this system holds to be moral." Regarding morality derived from the Bible alone, such a thesis is utterly inconsistent with the idea of universal religious freedom as championed by America's Founders. That principle holds men have an unalienable right to do not just what the Bible forbids in the First Commandment but that for which the Bible proscribes the death penalty. (See Deuteronomy 13).

Natural law scholars hold something more consistent with America's Founding principles -- that you only have the natural right to do what is consistent with the natural law. This is, I understand, Robbie George's position. Worshipping "false gods" might violate the Bible but doesn't violate the natural law. Hence it's not a problem to say men have a natural right to worship as they please. However, this system can be extremely archaic and unsatisfying when it comes to, among other things, sex -- that Elephant in the room. The traditional natural law holds masturbation, even in the privacy of one's home, to be "unnatural" and hence there can be no "natural right" to it. Ditto with contracepted sex, even between married couples.

Somehow, I think the natural right to political and personal liberty is more meaningful than that. After all, the text of America's Declaration of Independence does not suggest such a narrow dynamic but rather broadly proclaims that men have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I Want To Enjoy My Death:

This morbid thought comes to mind from reading a post on about Tim Russert's death. The post was referred to me by PositiveLiberty co-blogger Jim Babka whose dealings with "Meet the Press" the post discusses. As Johnny Kramer's LRC article notes:

[Russert] was cut down far too soon by the same insidious, previously-asymptomatic, sudden cardiac death that was at least similar to what also claimed, among others, Bing Crosby in 1977; our own Murray Rothbard in 1995; and John Ritter in 2003. According to coverage of Russert’s passing, three-hundred thousand Americans suffer sudden cardiac death each year, taken from their loved ones with no warning and no previous signs or symptoms.

While it’s a terrible shock for the family and friends, apparently it’s an ideal way to go for the person who dies. On the June 16 episode of CNN’s Larry King Live, Dr. Mehmet Oz, New York cardiac thoracic surgeon, responded to the question of whether Russert suffered with, "I suspect he did not have much pain because as soon as you develop fibrillation, within seconds you pass out. From that perspective, it's the way I'd like to pass away, but I would rather do it when I'm 90."

No one wants to die a painful death and certainly an instantaneous death is preferable to that. However, from what I understand (and informed readers, please correct me if I am wrong), the actual experience of the brain "shutting down" (you know you hear the stories about your life flashing before your eyes) is supposed to be one of the pleasantest experiences a human can have. When dying people make that sound -- the "death rattle" -- I'd imagine is when that shutting down process is occurring.

Dying an instantaneous may deprive one of truly enjoying their death. Though as noted, it's certainly preferable to dying a violent painful death.

Don't think I have a death fixation when reading this. Like the doctor I don't want my death to occur until much later in life. But I'm even more optimistic and hope to have 100 good years. Everything after that would be gravy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

George Washington & The French Revolution:

Apparently, like most Americans of the Founding era, he vigorously supported it (though obviously not its excesses). France was a key ally of America's in the Revolutionary War and their Revolution, at the time, was viewed by most as an extension of the American Revolution. "Liberty, Equality & Fraternity" were viewed as American as apple pie. Jefferson, in France at the time, helped write their Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, intuitively, contained ideas strikingly similar to those in America's Declaration of Independence. In short: In the ideal, both the American and French Revolutions were based on the same Enlightenment principles. And traditional orthodox Christians supported the principles or ideals of both revolutions (though obviously such Christians did not or would not have approved of how the French ended up treating traditional Christianity). Further, a key player in the Revolution, Marquis de Lafayette, was one of George Washington's closest friends.

Right now when composing this post, I've yet to read the following article from JSTOR entitled George Washington and the French Revolution. I can't access it for free from home but will do so the next day I go in to work (I'm still working every day though; I'm a college prof; it's the summer and I'm teaching online courses until the Summer B session).

Rather, I've just stumbled upon a letter George Washington wrote to the French Minister January 1, 1796, what I'm basing my claim on. I'm going to reproduce it in whole and then comment on it:

Born, Sir, in a land of liberty; having early learned its value; having engaged in a perilous conflict to defend it; having, in a word, devoted the best years of my life to secure its permanent establishment in my own country; my anxious recollections, my sympathetic feelings, and my best wishes are irresistibly excited, whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of Freedom. But above all, the events of the French Revolution have produced the deepest solicitude, as well as the highest admiration. To call your nation brave, were to pronounce but common praise. Wonderful people! Ages to come will read with astonishment the history of your brilliant exploits! I rejoice, that the period of your toils and of your immense sacrifices, is approaching. I rejoice that the interesting revolutionary movements of so many years have issued in the formation of a constitution designed to give permanency to the great object for which you have contended. I rejoice that liberty, which you have so long embraced with enthusiasm, liberty, of which you have been the invincible defenders, now finds an asylum in the bosom of a regularly organized government; a government, which, being formed to secure the happiness of the French people, corresponds with the ardent wishes of my heart, while it gratifies the pride of every citizen of the United States, by its resemblance to their own. On these glorious events, accept, Sir, my sincere congratulations.

In delivering to you these sentiments, I express not my own feelings only, but those of my fellow citizens, in relation to the commencement, the progress, and the issue of the French revolution: and they will cordially join with me in purest wishes to the Supreme Being, that the citizens of our sister republic, our magnanimous allies, may soon enjoy in peace, that liberty which they have purchased at so great a price, and all the happiness which liberty can bestow.

I receive Sir, with lively sensibility, the symbol of the triumphs and of the enfranchisement of your nation, the colours of France, which you have now presented to the United States. The transaction will be announced to Congress; and the colours will be deposited with the archives of the United States, which are at once the evidences and the memorials of their freedom and independence. May these be perpetual! and may the friendship of the two republics be commensurate with their existence.

This letter clearly shows how Americans viewed the French Revolution as a continuation of the American: Sister republics founded on "liberty." One thing that strikes me about this letter is its date: January 1, 1796. By that time the French Revolution had gone seriously haywire and they had already terribly mistreated Washington's dear Lafayette.

One pattern I've noticed with Washington (frustration for those of us trying to determine his exact opinions on things) is that he constantly tries to be all things to all people and has kind words to say for all sorts of various incompatible religious and philosophical systems. Except of course, for British Toryism. And notice his use of the term "Supreme Being" was exactly as the French referred to God in all three [one, two, & three] of their Declarations of the Rights of Man, another pattern of Washington's -- using the same "God-words" that the recipients of his correspondence used. Except, when speaking to orthodox Trinitarian Christians, with whom he often corresponded and to whom he was quite friendly and approving, he never spoke in Trinitarian terms, but rather used generic God words.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Were David And Jonathan Homosexually Unionized?

That's David and Jonathan from the Bible. I think John Boswell first posited this notion. I bring this up because I noticed this claim advanced in the landmark wedding ceremony of the male priests who married in Anglican church's first gay wedding:

Mr Dudley blessed the union with the words: "As David and Jonathan's souls were knit together, so these men may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made."

From what I know of Boswell's work, I am not too impressed with most of his claims. As I understand his thesis in short: The Bible is a progay book and its antigay passages can be scrubbed away with proper understanding of the context. In reading what the Bible says in Leviticus and what the apostle Paul says elsewhere, I am not convinced. And neither is Wayne Dynes, the most distinguished gay historian who demurred from Boswell's thesis.

However one area where I think Boswell gets it dead on right is the story of Sodom & Gomorrah. He leaves himself open to criticism by describing the sin of Sodom as "inhospitality," clearly not the best word. But he was right insofar as a plain literal reading of the text indicates what these men did was try to gang rape two angels, that this was not ordinary consensual homosexuality. If "inhospitality" equates with the "inhospitality" shown to a fresh faced prison inmate who is gang raped as an initiation, then maybe that term is not improper. But that's not what "inhospitality" means to most folks. Also keep in mind that the Bible's text says the whole town was involved in this, and, were that so, how could the town repopulate itself it all were homosexual? Also keep in mind that the Bible's text says the whole town was involved in this, and, were that so, how could the town repopulate itself if all were homosexual? Also human nature shows that only somewhere between 3-5% of any given population are going to be exclusively or predominantly homosexual. Thus, if the whole town was involved it had to be mostly "heterosexual" men. But then again, I'm starting to deal with real world facts, and if any of the tales of the Bible seem so utterly and self-evidently unreal, it's that one.

John Corvino, not someone who wants to scrub the Bible of its antigay passages, writes a good column that pretty much parallels my point on Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible is not pro-gay; but based on a literal, plain reading of the text, Sodom and Gomorrah by no means identifiably speaks of the kind of ordinary consensual homosexuality associated with places like San Francisco, CA. Rather it condemns the attempted brutal gang rape of strangers. And as I understand the act of homosexual prison rape, this is not at all an act that most of the time predominantly homosexual men perpetrate. Rather it's an act of violence that most of the time heterosexual men commit.

Though I agree it is wrong to try and gang rape strangers, the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah embeds this moral message in an extremely strange and as noted above self-evidently unbelievable factual context. For more on the utter bizarreness of that biblical tale, see Dr. Corvino's column.

If Boswell is right regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, it's relevant in that the term "sodomite" has historically been used to tar homosexuals. If "sodomite," properly understood, means any person -- probably a heterosexual -- who forcibly tries to have oral or anal sex with another person of either the same or opposite sex, then we should systematically purge such a term from our language when speaking of homosexuals. Indeed, even though "sodomy laws" as they existed on the books, could have, in theory, applied to ordinary homosexual acts, in America at least they were invariably used to prosecute non-consensual behavior.

But back to David & Jonathan, I am not convinced of their homosexual covenant. The following is the standard Protestant fundamentalist response well articulated by John MacArthur, though I almost entirely disagree with his worldview on these issues. It's kind of entertaining to listen to him "freak out" a little over the opposing arguments. I think his straight forward reading of the Bible is correct on what the Bible actually says except when he gets to Sodom and Gomorrah where he clearly fumbles. He notes Boswell's case that the story really isn't about ordinary homosexuality but gang rape and can't seem to answer it except note ordinary homosexuality is what Bible scholars have traditionally always associated with Sodom and Gomorrah.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Music:

Steve Morse Jammin'. One of the coolest rock-fusion virtuoso guitarists on the planet.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Recent Pics:

From left to right: Me, my Dad, my older brother Jamie, and family friend Louis "Bill" Schack -- next door neighbor while growing up and Jamie's best man & vice versa. Would you believe we are all attorneys?

This one is priceless. Bill's youngest daughter with my nephew James F. Rowe III.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday Night Music:

I understand this song has become very popular through one of the "Guitar Hero" games. It's Through the Fire and Flames by Dragon Force. When I first heard this song on the radio, my first reaction was "who is that?" The song is notable in that the music is virtuostic "shred" metal; but the song is really good -- a rare combination. I like Dream Theater. But they need to work on writing songs this good.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Oaths as the Smoking Gun in GW & Religion:

I'm glad to see American Creation coblogger Roger Saunders dissent on the position that Brad Hart and I have been pushing there -- that George Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. The purpose of this blog is to engender civilized debate on these issues, not to push one particular point of view. And Washington's religious creed is disputed for good reason: Washington systematically spoke of a warm intervening Providence and used many honorific, diverse philosophical titles for God. But he never explicitly revealed his exact religious opinions on matters like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible, etc. Therefore it's possible for many of us to "read in" a more specific creed to Washington's rather generic God template (keeping in mind, it is beyond dispute that Washington's God was an active personal God, not a distant non-intervening Watchmaker).

In making an argument for Washington's specific religious creed, one searches for "smoking guns" or "key evidence" to "settle" the issue. I've concluded there are no smoking guns in Washington's case, but rather pieces of a puzzle. Saunders invokes the same "smoking gun" that Peter Lillback and Michael and Jana Novak invoke, and that is when Washington became a vestryman and then a Godfather in the Anglican Church he took a set of oaths to God that he believed in the orthodox Trinitarian doctrines of said Church.

Now, Mr. Hart and I, following the most distinguished scholars in the historical academy, argue that Washington probably didn't believe in those Trinitarian doctrines, which touches upon a bit of controversy: many "key" Founding Fathers were affiliated with Trinitarian Churches (all of the established churches in the Founding era were Trinitarian until the 1780s, when the first church officially proclaimed itself "Unitarian" even though ministers had preached unitarianism since long before) but didn't believe in those doctrines which their church confessed.

Those who are particularly disturbed by this nuance and wish to downplay it often say something like, "if they were members of churches in whose doctrines they didn't believe, then they were hypocrites." Indeed, both the Novaks and Lillback make this argument with Washington. And in 1831 Origen Bacheler, in a classic "Christian v. Freethinker" argument over America's Founders religion, said the following about John Adams:

As John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite; in which case, he would be perfectly welcome to him.

But we now know that not only was John Adams a theological unitarian since 1750, but his own minister in the New England Congregational Church preached unitarianism from the pulpit as of that date.

I don't feel the need to address the "hypocrisy" claim; I see it as a way of trying to paint scholars into a corner where they will be afraid to uncover facts about the Founders that may disturb some folks. Given the Founding Fathers owned slaves and many secular scholars routinely trash them as racist, sexist, classist, etc., I don't think the charge of "hypocrite oath breaker" is going to scare off secular historians from drawing certain conclusions about the Founders' orthodoxy.

[This is, I understand, a larger theme that plays out in the historical community: History as hagiography v. the modern tendency to "deconstruct" sacred historical cows. One of the best episodes of The Simpsons with guest Donald Sutherland satirized this theme.]

I simply stress John Adams, Jefferson and many other elite Founders were affiliated with Trinitarian Churches in whose doctrines they didn't believe to show that it was not uncommon then. For many "key Founders," it was par for the course and thus shouldn't be inconceivable that this also applied to Washington.

Regarding those "oaths," let's examine them:

I, A B, do declare that I will be conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England, as by law established.,

Saunders' post reproduces a longer one:

I, AB, as I do acknowledge myself a true son of the Church of England, so do I believe the articles of faith therein professed, and do oblige myself to be conformable to the doctrine and discipline therein taught and established; and that, as Vestryman of this Parish, I will well and truly perform my duty therein, being directed by the laws and customs of this country, and the canons of the Church of England, so far as they will suit our present capacity; and this I shall sincerely do, according to the best of my knowledge, skill, cunning, without fear, favor, or partiality; so help me God.

George Washington signed the vestryman oath for Fairfax Parish in Alexandria on August 19, 1765 according to PICTORIAL FIELD BOOK OF THE REVOLUTION. VOLUME II, by BENSON J. LOSSING, 1850, Chapter 8, Footnote 30.

The most important of the many doctrines taught by the Church of England are found in the 39 Articles of Religion as they existed when the oaths were taken. In a past post I focused on Article XXV: Of the Sacraments to show these articles command believers to take communion and systematically refusing such arguably violates those oaths.

But there is perhaps an even bigger issue to confront: Vestryman oaths, on the whole, pledge the oath taker not simply to orthodox Trinitarian Christianity but high Church Anglicanism and are extremely Toryish. Bishop Meade in Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, Volume II, pp. 41-42 details the oath of allegiance Vestrymen in VA had to take:

"I. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King George the Second, so help me God."


"II. Oath of Allegiance.

"I, A. B., do truly and sincerely acknowledge and promise, testify and declare, in my conscience, before God and the world, that our sovereign Lord, King George the Second, is lawful and rightful King of this realm and all other his Majesty's dominions and countries hereunto belonging...."

Peter Lillback to his credit, gives this information in the footnotes on pp. 1043 of "George Washington's Sacred Fire"; however, he completely misses the issue that these oaths are part of a covenant to the divine right of King George II to rule not just England but America (I know we were under a new King when rebellion actually took place; I'm not sure if that works as a "loophole"). Again, this was Tory, high church Anglican doctrine to which Washington pledged an oath before God. And indeed, many American Anglican colonists remained Tory loyalists precisely because they took similar oaths and believed they had a Christian duty to remain loyal to the King. If we take these oaths too literally, we might be forced to conclude that Washington violated his vestryman oaths by not just engaging in but leading a rebellion against said King to whom he pledged loyalty.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Primary Sources on GW & Religion:

Christian America apologist blogger "Hercules Mulligan" reproduces from google books key testimony on the debate regarding George Washington's religion. I linked to those same primary sources here. He reproduces the very long debates between freethinker Robert Dale Owen and conservative Christian Origen Bacheler. The information produced in these debates ended up playing a key role in establishing that Washington was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian but "something else." I entirely disagree with the blogger's analysis and won't reproduce all of it, but instead will reproduce the primary sources. Let me briefly respond to his analysis before I do. He notes Dr. Abercrombie's (George Washington's own minister) case against Washington's orthodox Christianity turns on the fact that GW systematically avoided communion, but points out that taking communion is not one of the essentials of "real Christianity." The blogger essentially states that communion is irrelevant to "Christ only" Protestant Christianity, which the blogger assumes arguendo is the only "real" form of "Christianity." As he writes:

Abercrombie gave the usual Anglican explanation: you can't have God's grace imparted to you without the communion, and since Washington was not a communicant, he didn't have God's grace. However, a biblical understanding of the matter does not support Abercrombie's (or the theological Anglican) opinion. The Bible says that grace comes only through faith in Jesus Christ (see, for instance, Paul's epistles). Therefore, I believe that Abercrombie's conclusion is inaccurate.

Therefore, since he sees no evidence that GW rejected Christianity in the "Christ only" sense, GW remains a "real Christian" in his eyes. What the blogger fails to address is that little if *any* evidence establishes GW as a "Christian" in the traditional orthodox sense apart from his being a devout Anglican/Episcopalian! (The syllogism is as follows: 1. Anglicans believe in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine; 2. GW was a devoted Anglican; therefore 3. GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.) Devout Anglicans, however, according to their doctrine, expressed their faith in the Atonement by engaging in communion. Those who systematically rejected communion in the Founding era usually did so because they rejected what communion symbolized: "Christ's Atonement." Therefore, GW's systematic avoidance of communion almost certainly signified either or both of the following: 1. that GW disbelieved in the Atonement; and/or 2. that GW was a nominal Anglican. If GW was a "nominal Anglican" who nonetheless believed in the fundamentals of "orthodox Christianity," the burden is on the blogger to so demonstrate entirely without any appeal to GW's affiliation with and consequently his belief in the doctrines of the Anglican/Episcopal Church! The problem is he can't because Washington never explicitly endorsed belief in doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, etc. His supposed belief in such doctrines is invariably tied to his being a devout Anglican/Episcopalian. And his systematic avoidance of communion in said church belies his being a "devout" as opposed to "nominal" Anglican/Episcopalian.

Anyway the following is key testimony in the primary sources from Robert Dale Owen, Origen Bacheler, Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, and James Renwick Willson (who is referred to as "Rev." or "Dr." "Wilson").

... The sentence from Weems' Life of Washington, produced by Mr. Owen is shown by its style to have been only designed as a sally of fancy. A wonderful reason this, for rejecting as false the grave, historical part of the account. As to Jefferson's testimony touching the skepticism of Washington, he has given none such: he did none pretend to be the author of it; nor did Morris pretend that Washington told him he did not believe in Christianity. And the statement of Jefferson, that Washington in his public documents spake favourably of Christianity but once, I have amply refuted, by extracts from the documents themselves. That the Rev. Mr. Jackson, more than thirty years after the death of Washington, has not chanced to find any of the few surviving scattered individuals who communed with him, (if indeed any are still living,) is about as strong evidence of his skepticism, as that he did not deliver a long Christian valedictory in his dying hour, when he could hardly articulate a syllable on account of his quincy. I have proved positively that he was a professor of religion; that he was a communicant; that he was in the habit of secret prayer, &c. &c.: and I have now only to add, that if he cannot be proved to have been a believer in Christianity, no man can.

I do not perceive the irrationality of the question proposed by Ethan Allen's daughter to her father. She very naturally concluded that if he would give his real opinion at such a time, and if that opinion was, that infidelity would not do to die by, it would be a reason why it should not be confided in at all, and would likewise show that the reasons which her father had urged in its behalf were unsound even in his own estimation. It was therefore the highest rationality, to put this question precisely under the circumstances that she did.

Jefferson might construe that into skepticism which perhaps another would not. As John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite; in which case, he would be perfectly welcome to him. Considering, however, the mistakes to which Jefferson was liable, and the testimony furnished in Rev. Mr. Whitney's letter, I rest very easy on this point.

Franklin's case will do very well without further defence, while his epitaph remains, and his condemnation of his youthful skepticism retains a place in his memoirs.

My opponent has made a rather slim work, in his attempt to substantiate his assertion, that three quarters in our revolutionary struggle were sceptics. Ethan Allen was not a leader, unless there were a great many leaders; for he was only a colonel. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry, three of the most conspicuous leaders, were decided friends of Christianity. This will not be disputed. Washington and John Adams were communicants in churches. Franklin shows himself to have been a believer in the Bible. And there were many other distinguished leaders, such as Laurens, Gates, Greene, Putnam, Montgomery, Warren, &c., &c., none of whom has my opponent even attempted to prove have been sceptics. What then becomes of his assertion? ... ORIGEN BACHELER.

... R. D. O.

Albany, November 12, 1831.

P.S. I am now enabled to furnish two further documents relative to the private opinions of distinguished republicans. One is, an extract from a sermon delivered on the 23rd October last by Rev. Dr. Wilson, a clergyman of Albany, and reputed to be a man of as much zeal and learning as any in the city; a sermon, I may incidentally remark, in which Dr. W. says, in speaking of the framing of the Constitution of the United States, that "the proceedings as published by Thompson, the secretary, show, that the question was gravely debated in Congress whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it;" that "the men whose arguments swayed to vote God out of the Constitution, to declare that there should be no religious test, and that Congress should make no law to establish religion, were atheists in principle; that among our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than unitarianism;* that among all of the governors of Pennsylvania and New-York only two of the former and one of the latter were professors of religion. &c." In this sermon, as reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city (of the 29th October last) occurs the following paragraph:

"Washington was a man of valour and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man, but he was not a professor of religion, at least not till after he was president. When the Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the episcopal church. the rector, Dr. Abercrombie, has told me, that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord's supper was to be administered, Washington's custom was to rise, just before the ceremony commenced, and to walk out of the church. This became a subject of remark among the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the president. Washington was heard afterwards to remark, that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and that he would henceforth neither trouble the doctor nor his congregation on such occasions. And ever after that, upon communion days, he absented himself altogether from the church."

As this important paragraph, being only from a newspaper report of a sermon, could hardly be considered authentic, I myself called, accompanied by a gentleman of this city, on Dr. Wilson, this afternoon. After giving my name, and stating the object of my visit, I read to the doctor, at his request, the above paragraph. When I had completed, he said: "I endorse every word of that." He further added: "As I conceive that truth is truth, whether it makes for or against us, I will not conceal from you any information on this subject, even such as I have not yet given to the public. At the close of our conversation on the subject, Dr. Abercrombie's emphatic expression was, for I well remember the very words, 'Sir, Washington was a deist!'" "Now," continued Dr. Wilson, "I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges himself as a professor of Christianity. I think any man who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a deist, and nothing more. I do not take upon myself to say positively that he was, but that is my opinion."

Dr. Abercrombie, the associate of Bishop White in the pastoral care of Christ's Church in Philadelphia, is now alive, to corroborate the statement of his brother clergyman. So much for WASHINGTON, of whom you say, if he cannot be proved a Christian, no human being can.


The admissions of opponents are, as you once reminded me, "so much pure gold." I therefore the more willingly adduce so unquestionable authority. R. D. O.

*John Adams and his son, he thinks, were unitarians; in inquired himself, he said, of Madison what were his opinions on religion, and Madison "evaded any expression whatever of his religious faith;" of Monroe's opinions, he says, he knows little, except that he never heard of any religious profession from him; and Jackson, he believes, though not a regular professor either, is the most religious president we have ever had.

O. B. ...

"With regard to the Postscript of Mr. Owen from Albany, I have to observe, that I have dispatch three letters to the Rev. Dr. Wilson, requesting him to give the names of those atheists whose arguments swayed the Convention that formed the Constitution of the United States to vote the name of God out of it; but no answer have I succeeded in getting from him. This assertion of the doctor must therefore pass for an unsustained one. Indeed, in the very next breath, in the sermon under consideration, he contradicts it by saying, that some of the men were deists. So much for his testimony on that point. Besides, the fact that a religious test is excluded from the Constitution, is no proof that its framers were not even Christians. I have received a letter from Rev. Dr. Abercrombie; but as he wishes not to appear before the public in print, I shall not insert it. I will only say, that he denies all recollection of having told Rev. Dr. Wilson that Washington was a deist, and says it was evidence he was a professing Christian, though he did not commune in his church. The following additional testimony relative to the religious character of Washington I have received from Rev. Mr. Jackson of Alexandria:

Alexandria, Nov. 22, 1831

'I have heard my grandfather, the Rev. Lee Massey, who was a rector of Pohick Church, near Mount Vernon, say, that General Washington was a communicant in his church. The above information was given in answer to a question after returning from Pohick Church, where I occupied the general's pew. The substance of the grandfather's reply was, that he (the general) was a communicant, and that a better Christian never lived or died. MARGARET M. GREER


Your letter found me in the bustle of changing my residence. I have however given it my attention. The above certificate is the best information I can at present obtain, and ought to be sufficient. Mrs. Greer is a very respectable lady, and may be depended upon. A daughter of the Rev. Mr. Massey is expected in town, from whome I have the hope of obtaining some of General Washington's letters.

The parish of Pohick has not had a rector, I believe, since the general's death. He afterwards attended in Alexandria. This accounts for the church not giving the evidence which you desire.

I beg you will make use of me again, should the case require.

Yours very respectfully,


[To] Mr. Origen Bacheler, New-York.

Alexandria, Dec. 7, 1831.


I am sorry, after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something decisive in reference to General Washington's church membership. The branch of the family from whom I hoped to obtain information, are yet absent from Mount Vernon on account of sickness, and I now begin to think it doubtful whether they will be there this winter. Nor can I find any old person who ever communed with him, though not one expresses any doubt on the subject. It may seem strange that none can certify the fact; but it is not difficult to account for, when we remember, that the parish to which he belonged has not had a rector for, perhaps, thirty years; that the number of the communicants in the episcopal churches after the revolution was very small, and those probably, in general, persons advanced in years; and further, that none of the church records can be found. All these circumstances render it exceedingly difficult to obtain such testimony as is desirable. Universal tradition in the families of those whose parents or friends were acquainted with the general, is, that he was a regular communicant.

I may say again, that all his relations in this part of the country are decidedly of opinion that he was a professed and real Christian, and in full standing as a member of the protestant episcopal church. I regret that the pains I have taken to gain satisfactory evidence have not been more successful, though I think it ought and will be deemed sufficient by all but such as are determined to believe, that they have the sanction of his great name on the side of infidelity.

Wishing you may be more successful in some other quarter,

With respect yours,


[To] Mr. Origen Bacheler, New-York.

" ... In view of the foregoing, the reader will see what dependence is to be placed on the pretensions and assertions of sceptics with regard to the religious opinions of our other distinguished men. Could the inquiry be made, we have now fair grounds for concluding, that it would result in their cases as it has resulted in those now under consideration. I have but to add by way of conclusion, that it appears by the Evangelist, that Rev. Dr. Wilson is an opposer of revivals in religion. This circumstance will have its proper weight with the public, whenever they think of his concessions to Mr. Owen.


The blogger did edit with ellipses: "...". However, his edits were on point. The final primary source to reproduce is Dr. Abercrombie's (Washington's minister!) letter where he states because GW avoided communion, he wasn't a "real Christian." The original can be found here.

[O]n Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to sate the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the public, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never become a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sundays, tho', at other times, constant attending in the morning.

Of the assertion made by Dr. Wilson in the conclusion of a paragraph of your letter, I cannot say I have not the least recollection of such a conversation, but had I made use of the expression stated, it could not have extended father than the expression of private individual opinion. That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, 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. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

I am, Sir,


James Abercrombie

If I can comment on the overall tone of the exchange: Many of the folks who want to claim Washington as a "Christian" express their hope to do so because they don't want him to be categorized as an "infidel." This illustrates the social prejudice of the early 19th Century: America's key Founders were secret unitarians and that doctrine, according to Founding era cultural prejudice, was viewed as a softer form of "infidelity." However, as has been shown, many of these "Christian" key Founders did indeed believe in softer, "unitarian" infidel principles. For instance, the conservative Christian in the debate, Origin Bacheler, notes, "John Adams and his son, he thinks, were unitarians," and "[a]s John Adams was a member of a congregational church, he was either a believer in Christianity or a hypocrite. Should Mr. Owen therefore succeed in proving him to have been a skeptic, he will in so doing likewise prove him to have been a hypocrite." But we know that the "Christian" John Adams was, like Jefferson, a self-defined "unitarian" who rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, and eternal damnation. If this means Adams was a "skeptic" and not a "Christian" then Owen was right on Adams. According to this standard which deems hypocrisy as being affiliated with a church in whose doctrines one doesn't believe, if Washington didn't believe in the Anglican's doctrine on communion, as Hercules Mulligan intimates, then Washington was a "hypocrite" as well.

But, in any respect, the evidence that Washington was an "orthodox Trinitarian Christian" is utterly lacking, and Washington's words and deeds, rather strongly point in the direction of his belief in a different system.
"Unitarianism" v. "unitarianism":

I agree with my American Creation coblogger Brad Hart's post on "unitarianism" as the descriptive religion of America's key Founders (it was the political theology of the American Founding). He is absolutely right that an "enlightened" preacher like Charles Chauncy, who was both a theological unitarian and a universalist, spoke more to America's key Founders than did Jonathan Edwards, the prototypical Calvinist orthodox Christian theologian of that era.

However I must caution Hart about using the capital "U" when he speaks of "Unitarianism." (I know spell check tells you to capitalize it.) When we call America's key Founders -- Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, & Franklin -- "Unitarians" and capitalize the "U," invariably some critic will take that out of context and note these Founders weren't members of "Unitarian" Churches. Washington, Jefferson and Madison were all likely "unitarians" in their theology, but none was a member of a "Unitarian" Church; all were affiliated with the Anglican/Episcopal Church.

Even John Adams, who was a "Congregationalist," testified his own church preached "unitarianism" as of 1750 and that he was one since that time. But I don't believe they were an official "Unitarian" Church until the early 19th Century.

Gary North notes this difference between unitarianism and Unitarianism in his Ebook. They were "unitarians," not necessarily "Unitarians." Likewise what Dr. Gregg Frazer terms "theistic rationalism" has unitarianism as an element (along with theism, Arminianism, universalim, syncretism, and rationalism; and by the way, this system with those elements was likely to present itself under the auspices of "rational Christianity" or "unitarian Christianity"; indeed Charles Chauncy presented himself as a "Christian minister" in a Congregational Church). That might be one reason why "theistic rationalism" is preferable to "unitarianism." But I use both terms interchangeably and sometimes write to purposefully alert the audience that the two terms are interchangeable; at least they are not inconsistent with one another, similar to how one can be a "Calvinist" and an "orthodox Christian" at the same time. Or how one can be a "Thomist" and a "Roman Catholic."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Notable News:

Talk2Action asked me to post to their front page my post on Gary North's E-Book. The front page has included such notables as Barry Lynn, Susan Jacoby, Sarah Posner, Max Blumenthal, Frank Schaeffer, and of course my friend Ed Brayton.

They are more secular left-progressive in their politics; I am more a soft-secular minded libertarian. However, we agree on the need to combat Christian Nationalist historical revisionism and if I post more in the future there, it will be about that.

Monday, June 09, 2008

More on "Christian America" as a Social Myth and Historical Standards:

I want to thank historian/blogger Clayton Cramer for getting the word out to his very traditionalist conservative readers on the "unconfirmed quotations" of the Founding Fathers in the primary sources. I noted in my last post I think the kernel of truth that David Barton et al. get at is if you go back one hundred and some odd years ago a lot of folks really did believe in the Christian America myth. Many do today, but they don't write respectable works of history or schoolbooks. This is one of Barton's talking points: School books in the 1800s used to teach ideas like mine but we don't do that anymore and we should.

I've debated a number of these Christian America apologists who really believe that in the 1800s and early 1900s history was more "accurate" and the secularists of the 20th Century have "stolen" history from them. This is a ridiculous claim. History, if anything, is far more accurate in the modern era. History, like medicine, is an evolving science that depends on increasing information. We know much more now, in a purely factual sense, than we did one hundred years ago.

The following anecdote should illustrate just how superior history is now than to the 1800s. For instance, the following is a fragment of a PROPOSED ADDRESS TO CONGRESS that I've seen some folks offer for evidence of Washington's orthodox Christianity (if you read further you see GW mentioning "The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God"). Washington never used this address and as a "fragment," it's an incomplete document. But read the editor's explanation for why this document may only exist in fragmentary form:

Note: This document now exists in fragmentary form only. The first pages are missing. Apparently intended as Washington's inaugural address, or as his first annual message to Congress, it was discarded and not used. Jared Sparks, finding that the document had no official existence, did as be had done in other instances (specifically the Washington "Diaries"), split up the document and presented pages and cuttings of pages to his friends. The complete manuscript was more than 62 pages in length, Washington having numbered each page himself. It was most carefully written and evidently was considered of importance at the time it was inscribed. Some of the widely separated pages bear Sparks's initialed statement that this is Washington's handwriting, and on the margin of page 33 Sparks has written "Washington's handwriting, but not his composition. J. S." Comment is needless. It is extremely doubtful that the complete document can ever be recovered.

Jared Sparks was the President of Harvard and a very distinguished historian and intellectual for his day. But could you imagine a present day historian doing something so utterly incompetent? I suppose historians today do do things that are this bad. But when found out they are rightly disciplined. Clayton Cramer himself helped to bring down an Emory historian for his incompetence or downright fraudulence. I don't think Sparks' behavior caused any controversy because it was probably par for the course in the early 19th Century.

Likewise Parson Weems, a well respected biographer of George Washington in his day, made stories up out of whole-cloth about GW, most famously the cherry tree myth, but also stories about Washington's supposed piety.

We see this pandering to the Christian America social myth with American Vision (and other sources like Townhall and WorldNetDaily) selling a book from 1864 entitled "The Christian Life & Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States." You don't need to buy it from them; you can download it for free.

As could be expected from any history book written in 1864, it's riddled with factual errors. In five minutes of perusing I noticed the book begins with one of those "unconfirmed quotations," and recites Parson Weems' fraudulent account of George Washington's death. This may have been acceptable according to 1864 standards of historiography, but not present day standards. If you read the book with a grain of salt and not judge it by present day standards, it could be a fun and informative read. But if Christian America apologists think this book, standing alone, will win them a factual or historical argument, they are in for a rude awakening.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Gary North's Ebook:

Every year, out of tradition, I do a post promoting the following E-Book by Gary North entitled "Conspiracy In Philadelphia."

North is a Christian Reconstructionist in whose first best world, the civil law would impose Old Testament style punishments. This is obviously totally anathema to me. However, the book itself is well researched and argued with impressive historiography. You might expect such a book to rely only on extremist sources (and indeed, there are citations to RJ Rushdoony, et al., but usually to argue against their claim that the US Constitution is consistent with Christian Reconstructionism). In addition to primary sources, North relies on the work of the most well respected members of the historical community -- Bailyn, Wood, Mcdonald, Gaustad, Boller, Koch, Adair, & Rakove to name a few.

The thesis of the book is that the key US Founders -- the ones who pushed through the ideas upon which America declared independence and then constructed the Constitution -- were secret theological unitarians, whose heterodox religious creed inspired them to found American government upon the notion of religious neutrality and consequently break the tradition of covenanting with the Triune Christian God. His book focuses on Article VI Clause 3 of the US Constitution ("no religious tests") as the device for achieving "secular government."

From what I have researched, North is correct in his essential claim. Other scholars have noted something similar. For instance, in this post I noted Thomas Pangle and Cushing Stout, whose work North cites, concluding that there is a connection between the US Constitution's benign approach to religion and the key Founders' enlightened and benign personal religious creed. Indeed, one could argue, as does Dr. Gregg Frazer, that the Founders' unitarianism or theistic rationalism was the "political theology" of the American Founding.

Ideas have consequences and it was these heterodox unitarian ideas, not orthodox Christianity, that drove the US Founding's approach to religion and government. However, such heterodoxy or heresy wasn't a popular creed, but rather was disproportionately believed in by the elite Whigs. Whatever the religion of a majority of the US population (either nominal Protestant Christianity, which itself can tend towards "Deism," or orthodox Protestant Christianity) orthodox Churches held a great deal of institutional power. With such power, they had to essentially "consent" to the elite Whig's new plan on government. And they did. But not all of them. For instance, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) to whom North dedicates his book. From the very beginning they "smelled a rat in Philadelphia."

So the notion that there was a secret coup, a "bait and switch" as Michael Zuckert put it, to "sell" a Christian audience non-authentically Christian ideas is not new. James Renwick Willson was one of those covenanters who in 1832 made arguments very similar to North's. And he was burned in effigy for this sermon which called all of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson "infidels" and not more than "unitarians." I think Willson got at the truth, but did so by shattering a sacred cow -- a social myth. The kernel of truth that David Barton et al. have is that many folks in the 19th Century did believe in the "Christian America" social myth as a cultural prejudice. And many of their bogus, unconfirmed quotations source back to 19th Century places that pushed this social myth.

Now the non-respectable has become the respectable and secular scholars more or less agree with the claims of James Renwick Willson and Gary North that America didn't have an authentically "orthodox Christian" Founding.

Anyway the following are some of North's amusing reactions. He reacts to the US Constitution the way a hard core theocrat should.

On Jefferson's and Adams' personal religious beliefs:

In their old age, Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship in a long correspondence that lasted for more than a decade. Their letters reveal that they were almost totally agreed on religion. They hated Christianity, especially Calvinism....After surveying their letters, Cushing Strout concludes: “Whatever their political differences, Jefferson and Adams were virtually at one in their religion.” Strout identifies the creed of this religion: unitarianism. pp. 140-41.

On James Madison:

James Madison was a covenant-breaking genius, and the heart and soul of his genius was his commitment to religious neutralism. He devised a Constitution that for two centuries has fooled even the most perceptive Christian social philosophers of each generation into thinking that Madison was not what he was: a unitarian theocrat whose goal was to snuff out the civil influence of the trinitarian churches whenever they did not support his brainchild. For two centuries, his demonic plan has worked. pp. 374-75.

On George Washington and his avoidance of communion:

Here was the strange situation: George Washington was formally a communicant church member who systematically refused to take communion. The institutional problem here was the unwillingness of church authorities to apply formal church sanctions. Any church member who refuses to take communion has thereby excommunicated himself. A refusal to take communion or a prohibition against one’s taking communion is what excommunication means. Self-excommunication is excommunication, just as surely as suicide is first-degree murder. Nevertheless, the churches to which Washington belonged did not take official action against him by either requiring him to take communion or by publicly excommunicating him. It was this disciplinary failure on the part of these churches that led to the public legitimizing of Washington as a Christian. This failure later indirectly legitimized the Constitution that he conspired to impose on the nation. Without Washington’s support of the actions of the Convention, the Constitution would never have been ratified. But Washington was deemed either too powerful or too sacrosanct to bring under church discipline. pp. 160-61.