Sunday, November 30, 2008

Theologian Who Eats Up David Barton's Work & The Proper Historical Definition of "Christianity":

Kristo Miettinen and I still are not seeing eye to eye on the "Christian Nation" issue. He left a particularly prickly comment in response to my last post which I in turn answered in the comments at American Creation. But there are a few things I'd like to answer on the front page. He writes:

First of all, you do realize, don't you, that for the historical question that we are discussing, it is not the opinion of "orthodox Christian theologians" that matters, but rather the standard appropriate for historians of Christianity....You aspire to be a historian (or at least to write a book on history), so it's time to stop playing silly games with sectarian definitions and start thinking like a historian. Except that as soon as you do, your position collapses. In order to defend the position you are wedded to, you have to cling to an unhistorical definition of "Christianity", and furthermore you have to pretend, against contrary evidence, that your opponents (like Barton) cling to that same unhistorical definition, when in fact they don't (for historical purposes).

Honestly, it seems he doesn't know David Barton very well; Barton gives history an utter political and theological reading. If there is one historian who does NOT try to separate the political and theological from history, it's David Barton. Note, I'll be fair to Barton and also remark that lots of leftist historians who occupy prestigious positions in the academy engage in the same politicized readings of history (the Howard Zinn types).

But more importantly for the sake of THIS discussion, Barton's primary target audiences do NOT separate the theological and political from the historical and I see no effort on Barton's behalf to "educate" them that when we discuss "who is a Christian?" for historical purposes, we necessarily mean anything different than what your pastor defines as "Christianity." Indeed, one day they are hearing assertions from their pastor like "Mormons are not Christian" and the Davinci Code peddles blasphemous "non-Christian" positions because it denied the Trinity. And the next day they hear David Barton preach that almost all of our Founders were "Christians" and America was founded on "Christian principles."

Here is an example of a typical David Barton promoter: Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, a megachurch whose national broadcast reaches millions. Here is a report from one of Jeffress' Baptists critics:

Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, preached a passionate sermon entitled "America is a Christian Nation" yesterday. The sermon was full of sound and fury signifying nothing except that the pastor is completely misguided regarding the meaning of the First Amendment to Constitution of the United States.

The source of Jeffress misguidance was cited early on in his sermon. He credits David Barton who spoke at his church not long ago.

Hmmm. Now lets see how Mr. Jeffress defines "Christianity." Here is an article on how Dr. Jeffress told Christians NOT to vote for Mitt Romney because he wasn't a "Christian" but a "Mormon."

A prominent Dallas minister told his congregation that if they wanted to elect a Christian to the White House, Republican Mitt Romney wasn't qualified.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, said Mormonism is a false religion and that Mr. Romney was not a Christian.

"Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise," Dr. Jeffress said in a sermon on Sept. 30. "Even though he talks about Jesus as his Lord and savior, he is not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Mormonism is a cult."

Now as I showed in my last post, the reason why orthodox Christians like Dr. Jeffress term Mormonism NOT Christianity (even though Mormons call themselves "Christian") is because it flunks the test for historic Christianity as set out in the Nicene and Apostles' creed. Does it stretch the imagination to conclude when Dr. Jeffress' hundreds of thousands of followers hear him preach "America was founded to be a Christian Nation" and "almost all of the Founders were Christian" that they understand "Christianity" to mean the strict orthodox Trinitarian standard that excludes Mormonism (and consequently excludes the "Christianity" of J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Price and the other non-Trinitarian Founding Fathers and philosophers who influenced them)?

Dr. Jeffress is just one megachurch that promotes Barton's work and the "Christian Nation" thesis in this manner. There are many others, notably the late D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Hour. When you start adding up the numbers that these megachurches reach you see how Barton -- a figure that the respected historical academy ignores or laughs off -- reaches millions and, from what I've heard, makes quite a nice living (probably from speaking fees), probably far more than the respected historians in the academy whom he accuses of being "revisionists" and who in turn laugh him off or ignore him.

The next point of Mr. Miettinen's with which I disagree is that somehow "historians" would necessarily conclude that his understanding of "Christianity" is the "proper" one. Note: I think his "broad" definition of "Christianity" is defensible on historical grounds; however it's nonetheless a matter of reasonable dispute on those grounds. Certainly many orthodox Trinitarian Christians who are also historians might feel like they'd have to "bite their tongue" if forced to concede that Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Arians and Socinians were "Christians" for "historical" purposes, but not for their personal "theological" purposes.

But, it's not just "personal theology" that leads historians who happen to be orthodox Trinitarian Christians to define "Christianity" exclusively with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. Take for instance, Dr. Gregg Frazer, who heads historical and political studies at The Master's College and has served as somewhat of a mentor on this issue for me. Though he personally is an orthodox Trinitarian Christian of the evangelical/fundamentalist bent, he bases his claim that for late 18th Century historical purposes, "Christianity" equates with orthodox Trinitarian doctrine on the fact that every single established Christian Church in late 18th Century America (save the Quakers) officially adhered to orthodox Trinitarian confessions and creeds. See page 10 of his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University.

And if it's so "obvious" that for "historical" purposes this understanding of "Christianity" is incorrect, then why did a dissertation committee consisting of very distinguished scholars, Drs. Joseph Bessette, Charles Kesler, and Ralph Rossum, of Claremont Graduate University grant Frazer his "Doctor of Philosophy" in political philosophy based on this thesis? Further, if this understanding of "historical Christianity" is incorrect why did Oxford University Press publish Dr. Gary Scott Smith's book "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" which explicitly relies on Dr. Frazer's thesis and concludes the key American Founders were neither "Deists" nor "Christians" but "theistic rationalists." Now, Smith, like Frazer, is an evangelical and chairs the history department at Grove City College, an evangelical institution. But prominent secular historians have also endorsed Dr. Frazer's understanding of "theistic rationalism." For instance, Dr. Peter Henriques of George Mason University, "a member of both the editorial board for the George Washington Papers and of the Mount Vernon committee of George Washington Scholars." His book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (University of Virginia Press) likewise endorses Dr. Frazer's work and categorizes Washington's religious creed as "theistic rationalist" as opposed to "Deist" or "Christian."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Contemporary Orthodox Theologians Who Deny Non-Orthodoxy As Christianity:

I was beginning to think it self evident that most orthodox Christian theologians define non-orthodoxy as "non-Christianity," but apparently this thesis needs a defense. My co-blogger at American Creation, Kristo Miettinen, a theologically and politically conservative orthodox Christian of the Lutheran bent, challenges me on my assertion. He writes:

You talk about "conservative theologically orthodox Christians of the Protestant, Roman Catholic, or capital O Orthodox Christian faith" as though I wasn't one. If you want to debate the (rabid radical) religious right, I'm right here in front of you. You speak of "conservative Christian audiences which eat up [David Barton's] work"; as for myself, I'll not go that far, but let's say I'm a conservative Christian who appreciates his work (such of it as I have read - about half of [Myth of Separation]). BTW thanks for introducing me to Barton. And I mean that sincerely; this is why I want you to cite the right wing nutjobs that you claim to be rebutting, I have a genuine interest in reading them, if they really exist.

Okay. Mr. Miettinen wants to know of theologically-politically conservative Christians who define "Christianity" with orthodox Christian doctrine and define unorthodox groups like the Mormons "outside" of the definition of Christianity. I should note off bat that Dr. Gregg Frazer is one such conservative evangelical whose PhD thesis argues these Protestant figures from America's Founding era were not "Christian" but something else (even though they tended to think of themselves as "rational Christians" or "unitarian Christians"). He showed on page 10 of his PhD thesis that all of the established Churches in late 18th Century America (except for the Quakers) held to orthodox Trinitarian confessions and creeds. They included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglican/Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. And as such it's "reasonable" for late 18th Century America purposes to define "Christianity" with orthodox doctrine.

But in any event here are some notable modern day theologians and figures who likewise define "Christianity" as synonymous with orthodox doctrine. Yes, Virginia, they do exist. And exist in abundance! What I reproduce will be very "Mormon heavy" in the sense that the test of "Christianity" = "orthodox doctrine" = the "Nicene Creed" is most likely to be flunked in contemporary America by the Mormons.

First Joe Carter, one of the most well respective conservative evangelicals in today's blogsphere:

If you tell me that you’re a "Christian" I take that to mean that you subscribe to a common set of doctrines outlined in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both of these creeds are ecumenical Christian statements of faith accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and almost all branches of Protestantism. They outline what it means to be a "mere" Christian.

Next, Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things Magazine, for the Roman Catholic take:

Christianity and the History of Christians

Beyond these doctrinal matters, as inestimably important as they are, one must ask what it means to be Christian if one rejects the two thousand year history of what in fact is Christianity. Christianity is inescapably doctrinal but it is more than doctrines. Were it only a set of doctrines, Christianity would have become another school of philosophy, much like other philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. Christianity is the past and present reality of the society composed of the Christian people. As is said in the Nicene Creed, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." That reality encompasses doctrine, ministry, liturgy, and a rule of life. Christians disagree about precisely where that Church is to be located historically and at present, but almost all agree that it is to be identified with the Great Tradition defined by the apostolic era through at least the first four ecumenical councils, and continuing in diverse forms to the present day. That is the Christianity that LDS teaching rejects and condemns as an abomination and fraud.


Another Religion

Some have suggested that the LDS is a Christian derivative much as Christianity is a Jewish derivative, but that is surely wrong. The claim of Christianity is that its gospel of Jesus Christ is in thorough continuity with the Old Testament and historic Israel, that the Church is the New Israel, which means that it is the fulfillment of the promise that Israel would be "a light to the nations." The Church condemned Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament, and she never presumed to rewrite or correct the Hebrew Scriptures on the basis of a new revelation. On the contrary, she insisted that the entirety of the old covenant bears witness to the new. While it is a Christian derivative, the LDS is, by way of sharpest contrast, in radical discontinuity with historical Christianity. The sacred stories and official teachings of the LDS could hardly be clearer about that. For missionary and public relations purposes, the LDS may present Mormonism as an "add-on," a kind of Christianity-plus, but that is not the official narrative and doctrine.

A closer parallel might be with Islam. Islam is a derivative of Judaism, and Christianity. Like Joseph Smith, Muhammad in the seventh century claimed new revelations and produced in the Qur’an a "corrected" version of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, presumably by divine dictation. Few dispute that Islam is a new and another religion, and Muslims do not claim to be Christian, although they profess a deep devotion to Jesus. Like Joseph Smith and his followers, they do claim to be the true children of Abraham. Christians in dialogue with Islam understand it to be an interreligious, not an ecumenical, dialogue. Ecumenical dialogue is dialogue between Christians. Dialogue with Mormons who represent official LDS teaching is interreligious dialogue.

Next Clayton Cramer who is a notable, smart evangelical conservative and historian of the Second Amendment:

The Nicene Creed

I mentioned a few days ago a controversy brewing concerning the Idaho Prayer Breakfast's invitation of a speaker who is an Iranian convert from Islam to Christianity. In the course of that discussion, I explained that are certain core values that define various faiths, and trying to gloss over those differences is silly. I gave as an example of a core value of Christianity--really, a lowest common denominator definition--the Nicene Creed. At least from my reading, the Nicene Creed is one that the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and nearly all Protestant denominations, accept. (I don't know about the Unitarian-Universalist Church. "Is it true that if you are a Unitarian, bigots burn a question mark on your lawn?")

In the last thirty years, I will admit, you can find some of the more liberal denominations awash in theologians and clergy who deny significant portions of the Nicene Creed. For example, denying "Jesus Christ" was "the only-begotten Son of God" and at least reluctant to admit "He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures...." These are pretty much the exception, and I think you would find that most members of even these liberal denominations, to the extent that they have thought about it, would not take these positions.

One of my readers took exception to my claim about the Nicene Creed being a core definition of Christianity. He pointed out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) do not accept the Nicene Creed, and therefore the Nicene Creed is not the core definition of Christianity. I would say that a more accurate statement is that the Mormon Church, whatever you might want to think or say about it, is not a Christian church in the sense that Christians (and that's pretty much all divisions of Christianity) define it.

I'm not looking to pick a fight with Mormons. I have friends who are Mormons. I have a Mormon neighbor. I can tell you that if my choice is living in a community that is 70% Mormon, or 70% liberals, I would much prefer living in the 70% Mormon community. I can be pretty confident that Mormon parents will not be supplying marijuana, alcohol, or crack to their kids, or to my kids. I can be pretty sure that Mormons aren't going to be showing up at city council hearings demanding that the city license a lap dance joint, or asking the state to recognize gay marriage, or demanding that the government make enforcement of gun control laws a higher priority than rape. If my ten-year-old goes over to a Mormon home, I can be pretty sure that he and his playmates aren't going to find fur-lined handcuffs and pornographic movies in the mother's dresser. And that is what separates Mormons from liberals (at least, the kind that I had to live with as neighbors in Sonoma County).

Still, Mormon theology is different from Christianity, as defined by not only the Nicene Creed, but nineteen centuries of consensus. Let me start out by saying that I have worked with Mormons in the past who really did not understand Mormon theology. One of them had married a Mormon gal, attended Mormon churches, but did not go through the LDS educational system that effectively all Mormon young people attend. (And by the way: I wish that evangelical Protestants were this committed to educating their kids in our religion. They aren't. Not even close.)

Now, if you are LDS, and are comfortable with the LDS theology, fine, I'm not looking to pick a fight. I've had a few too many discussions with Mormon missionaries, and the whole notion that people can become gods, populating their own planets, is well outside Christian belief. If you are comfortable with it, fine, but it is as far outside of Christianity as Islam is outside of Christianity.

Now, I am not just accepting the claims of those Protestants who criticize Mormonism. Mormon missionaries with whom I have talked have made statements that fit exactly into these claims--for example, that God lives on Sirius B. (Sirius B is a star, not a planet.)

One thing that does bother me quite a bit is that the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints presents their basic beliefs in a form that is profoundly mainstream Protestant. Yet, when you read websites defending Mormonism, you start to see that there many of Mormonism's positions are radically different from Christianity--and there has been a long history of Mormonism entertaining or internally debating positions that are, as I said, well outside the mainstream of Christianity....

Next, former baseball star and now conservative Christian columnist Frank Pastore who wrote:

Just as Christians and Jews, by definition, cannot ignore their differences over the resurrec-tion and the New Testament, so too Christians and Mormons cannot ignore the differences be-tween the Bible and the three books of Mormonism: the Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Cove-nants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

Yet many Mormons in recent years have taken to calling themselves Christians, and a grow-ing number of Christians are willing to speak of Mormonism as something akin to another Chris-tian denomination. But, Mormonism is not a Christian denomination, nor is it merely “a non-Christian religion.” To be theologically precise, though perhaps politically incorrect, Mormonism is a cult of Christianity ( — a group that claims to Chris-tian while denying one or more central doctrines of the Christian faith.

The polytheism of Latter Day Saints is a striking contrast to the monotheism of the Bible. The Mormons also deny original sin (central to a Christian understanding of the human condition) and believe that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary. I could go on, but Mormonism has far more that distinguishes it from the historic Christian faith than unites it to Christianity.

Next from "Worldview Weekend" which promotes David Barton's "Christian America" idea more than most any other source I've seen:

And so you see, 45% of Christians know what thousands of the media elite do not: Mormonism is not Christian.

Next, the late Bible Answer Man, Dr. Walter Martin:

Mormon theology is polytheistic, teaching in effect that the universe is inhabited by different gods who procreate spirit children, which are in turn clothed with bodies on different planets, "Elohim" being the god of this planet (Brigham�s teaching that Adam is our heavenly Father is now officially denied by Mormon authorities, but they hold firm to the belief that their God is a resurrected, glorified man). In addition to this, the "inspired" utterances of Joseph Smith reveal that he began as a Unitarian, progressed to tritheism, and graduated into full-fledged polytheism, in direct contradiction to the revelations of the Old and New Testaments as we have observed. The Mormon doctrine of the trinity is a gross misrepresentation of the biblical position, though they attempt to veil their evil doctrine in semi-orthodox terminology. We have already dealt with this problem, but it bears constant repetition lest the Mormon terminology go unchallenged.

On the surface, they appear to be orthodox, but in the light of unimpeachable Mormon sources, Mormons are clearly evading the issue. The truth of the matter is that Mormonism has never historically accepted the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; in fact, they deny it by completely perverting the meaning of the term. The Mormon doctrine that God the Father is a mere man is the root of their polytheism, and forces Mormons to deny not only the Trinity of God as revealed in Scripture, but the immaterial nature of God as pure spirit. Mormons have gone on record and stated that they accept the doctrine of the Trinity, but, as we have seen, it is not the Christian Trinity. God the Father does not have a body of flesh and bones, a fact clearly taught by our Lord (John 4:24, cf. Luke 24:39).

Finally, responding to one of my posts at Positive Liberty, the very bright, young, orthodox Christian missionary, attorney and scholar Joshua Clayborn asks:

I’d be curious to see a legitimate, respected member of the [o]rthodox community that does not consider [o]rthodox to be Christianity.
Joseph Priestley's Biblical Defense of Unitarianism:

Theological unitarians disproportionately influenced the American Founding. Joseph Priestley (co-discoverer of oxygen) was the theological mentor to Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. Madison appealed to the Arian heretic Samuel Clarke (not John Witherspoon) when asked to put his theological cards on the table. Richard Price was especially influential. And of course John Locke and Isaac Newton, figures revered by America's Founders were likely secret unitarians. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson never really gave serious philosophical or biblical rebuttals to the doctrine of the Trinity. They tended to bitterly mock it and related orthodox doctrines, seeing it as a self evident falsehood.

Their theological mentor Joseph Priestley however, did get into the philosophical trenches and argue against the Trinity (and Jefferson & J. Adams tended to simply appeal to his authority). Though Priestley, like America's key Founders, didn't believe the Bible infallible -- indeed he held the "plenary inspiration of the Bible" to be a classic "corruption of Christianity" -- he did make a strong biblical case AGAINST Trinitarianism. You may read it here and here.
I Hate Celebrity Worship:

I hate teenybopperism. I especially hate superficial talent or appreciation of talent based on attractive appearance. This rant was brought to mind from this article on celebrity worship that I saw from Andrew Sullivan's blog. I like to promote more obscure but talented figures, eccentric folks who certainly don't LOOK the part of the celebrities we worship. Not that they necessarily deserve to be worshipped either. For instance Woody Allen comes to mind as a figure I'd like to throw in the teeny boppers' faces, make them look and listen HIM for a few hours. But we know he's a moral creep.

Here are some candidates of figures with real talent who should be admired, because their talent is not superficial as is evidenced by their appearance. Note some of these folks have made it as "big" time celebrities; but they did it the old fashion way, they earned it.

1. Woody Allen (see his classic interview with Billy Graham):

2. Alan Moore

3. Levon Helm

4. Martin Scorsese

5. Neil Young

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Proclamation & Civil Religion:

At American Creation Brad Hart reproduces George Washington's first Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Hart aptly notes that the God words in the address are consistently generic and philosophical -- "inclusive" if you will -- and not specifically orthodox Trinitarian in their character. This was notable and precedent setting. Under the "old" political orders, governments were connected to specific sectarian theologies and it would be expected that political leaders' "God talk" endorsed the official state theology, be it Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Presbyterian or whatnot. Well there was no "official" theology for Washington and company to endorse. But they, through their public God talk established an "unofficial theology" or a "civil religion." And that civil religion specifically avoided invoking orthodox Trinitarian doctrine or Jesus Christ.

Why is this important? David Barton and the other Christian Nationalists are sympathetic to the notion that the organic law of the United States is "Christianity generally." Well that begs the question, what is Christianity? To most evangelicals, Roman Catholics and capital O Orthodox Christians, Christianity is synonymous with orthodoxy (Christ's divine nature as God the Son, second person in the Trinity, the Atonement, etc.) A theological system that rejects these tenets is "not Christianity" whatever it calls itself.

Well, it would follow then, if Washington intended to establish "Christianity generally" -- which defines as orthodox Trinitarian doctrines under which the different Christian sects were united -- as the "civil religion" of America, his public God talk would often be done in the name of the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," the infallibility of the Bible and would cite verses and chapters of scripture as "trumping" authority.

But Washington's public God talk [for instance what was reproduced in his Thanksgiving Proclamation] does none of this. Now, it could be that Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, privately, but publicly didn't want that specific form of Christianity to be the "de facto" civil religion and avoided mentioning these doctrines to make America seem more inclusive and welcoming of diverse faiths. Certainly Presidents who have been orthodox in their personal theology like Jimmy Carter or George Bush opt for this message of public inclusive God talk while remaining privately orthodox.

However, if Washington were privately orthodox, we would expect to see his private writings, especially communication with orthodox figures, peppered with orthodox Trinitarian theology, but we don't. Indeed Brad Hart uses Peter Lillback's research against his thesis that Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. Lillback has two theses, one -- that Washington wasn't a Deist (which he proves) -- and two -- that Washington was orthodox (which he doesn't). Drawing from Lillback's research, Hart reproduces "the actual phrases that Washington used in his 'written prayers' to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:"

"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0

Not once is Washington recorded as praying "in Jesus' name." This is why Christian Nationalists are so desperate to use Washington's spurious "Daily Sacrifice" prayerbook, because that contains orthodox theology.

The profound insight that Dr. Gregg Frazer posits in his PhD thesis is that the private theology of the key Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, etc.] was indeed the public civil religion which they established in their public God talk and was the ideological theology behind the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

U[I]nalienable Rights:

[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. -- Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind," p. 165.

That was Allan Bloom crediting Hobbsean-Lockean Enlightenment with the notion of unalienable rights. The East Coast Straussians, of which Bloom is the most famous figure, view "rights talk" as a fundamentally modern enterprise and a break with classical or Christian "worldviews." A number of notable social conservatives agree with this idea -- for instance, Robert Bork -- and they in turn are likely to endorse a strictly constructed understanding of the US Constitution, with the Declaration of Independence purposefully having no part of constitutional interpretation.

Yet, Allan Bloom's/the East Coast Straussians' view of "rights talk" remains highly debated. This is the subject of many books, not a medium sized blog post. The rest of my post is going to have a narrow focus: Who first coined the phrase "unalienable" or "inalienable rights"? I have found that it was indeed John Locke, as Bloom notes above. This is not the same as the much harder to answer question: Who first posited the concept, without necessarily using the phrase? For instance, Roger Williams' ideas on "liberty of conscience" more or less say the same thing as Locke's, and Williams predated Locke. However Williams didn't use the phrase "u[i]nalienable rights."

The most recent Coral Ridge program featured one Dr. Robert Peters who suggested that Samuel Rutherford and John Knox first put forth the concepts of u[i]nalienable rights even intimating they used that term by name. However, that is not true. They didn't use the term "u[i]nalienable rights." At least not from what I have uncovered.

It's been noted that John Locke borrowed the concept of u[i]nalienable rights from Samuel Rutherford. However, no evidence directly connects Locke to Rutherford. Locke certainly never cited Rutherford. Francis Schaeffer seems to be the source of this myth in the modern age. It's possible that Locke absorbed Rutherford's ideas by osmosis. [They were "in the air" as Tom Van Dyke would put it.] However, Locke's views were similar to Rutherford's only insofar as both posited the legitimacy of resisting Kings under Romans 13. On religious liberty issues, Rutherford and John Knox were both unrepentant theocrats who defended Calvin's execution of Michael Servetus simply for preaching theological unitarianism. You can read of the very disturbing primary sources here. On top features a quotation of Rutherford's:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, "A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience." (1649).

You can read John Knox's disgraceful defense of Servetus' execution here.

It's been brought to my attention that Roman Catholic theologians may have anticipated John Locke's and Algernon Sidney's natural rights ideas that America's Founders used to declare independence (indeed Sidney cites them in his writings). However I still have seen no evidence that these Roman Catholic sources used the term "u[i]nalienable rights."

Why is all of this relevant? For a variety of reasons, folks of different ideologies want to "claim" the Founding. If their heritage gave it us, as the theory goes, they own it and therefore deserve some kind of special recognition or privilege in terms of what America "ought" to be. It's no surprise that on the Calvinist Coral Ridge Hour they tried to credit Calvinist sources, that the Acton Institute, comprised mainly of Roman Catholics, wants to credit Roman Catholic sources for America's Founding ideals, and secularists want to credit the Enlightenment. None of this, of course, "poisons the well," because one of them may be right...or not.

But, in the end we are left with John Locke as the first to coin the phrase "u[i]alienable rights," and without question he is "America's philosopher." And in this "religious heritage" battle over American Founding ideals we are left with a half empty half full figure with Locke. Locke called himself a Christian and believed Jesus was the Messiah and termed Christianity "reasonable." He also excessively used reason/natural law in his philosophical inquiries and posited ideas that arguably conflicted with the traditional Christian view of reality. Finally he was accused of being a theological unitarian in an era when one wasn't free to openly deny the Trinity (see Servetus). And in all likelihood, he was one.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Washington's Farewell Address & the "Christian Nation" Claim:

When I saw the Acton Institutes' "The Birth of Freedom" premiere in Washington, DC, none other than Lou Sheldon -- a notable figure from the religious right -- was present in the audience and read from George Washington's Farewell Address during the Q & A session. I'm sure many of my readers know of the famous passage where Washington said:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports....And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Now, this certainly provides ammo for those who wish to "lower" the wall of separation between Church and State; however, I see it oft-cited in order to prove the "Christian Nation" claim or Washington's orthodox Christianity. And it does neither. Arguably it expresses a heterodox unitarian sentiment.

First Washington's Farewell Address never specifies "Christianity" or "orthodox Christianity" as *the* religion that must support republican government. Although that kind of "religion" certainly would, as Washington's theory goes, suffice. And second its view of religion is entirely instrumental, utilitarian or "civil." What can religion do for government? And here is where we stumble upon the biggest disconnect between orthodox Christianity and George Washington's heterodox sentiments in his Farewell Address.

Orthodox Christians believe that the primary purpose of religion is to save souls, not necessarily make men moral and hence self-governable. And it's through Christ's blood atonement alone that men are saved. It's true that one can believe in both [my religion a) not only saves souls, but also b) provides wonderful civil utility in the way it makes men moral]. However, it seems to me that any serious orthodox Christian who really does believe that men are saved through Christ's blood atonement as the ONLY way to God would prioritize salvation over civil utility. And this is something that Washington NEVER did, even in his correspondence with the orthodox clergy where they seemed to talk past one another. Washington rarely if ever intimated to them that Christ was the only way to God and thanked them for saving men's souls (as you would expect him to do were he an orthodox Christian). Rather he invariably thanked them for making men moral and consequently supporting republican government.

The following from Washington praising Presbyterian Clergy is typical of his sentiment:

While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon Heaven as the source of all public and private blessings; I will observe that the general prevalence of piety; philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy seems, in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and conforming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories and protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.

I desire you to accept my acknowledgments for your laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good Citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government.

Washington's praise for the clergy is all about civil utility. And because of their belief in the civil utility of religion, the key Founders elevated works over faith as more important towards salvation. As the theory goes, "sound" religion, in fact produces the virtue which supports republican government. And they found "sound religion" in, at the very least, Christianity, Deism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, and Pagan Ancient Greco-Roman worship.

Here are some quotations of the Founders expressing this heterodox notion that works are more important than faith:

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

"No point of Faith is so plain, as that Morality is our Duty; for all Sides agree in that. A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.

"Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one....Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."

-- Ibid.

Franklin's logic is quite clear: If non-Christian religions produce virtue in people, then those "good people" are saved via their works. So the primary aim of Christianity and all other religions is to produce good people. Christians might have some special advantage over the other world religions in that Jesus of Nazareth, our key Founders believed, was a great, arguably the greatest moral teacher. Thus, Christians' best hope for salvation was to follow his teachings and example.

Next, J. Adams on the true purpose of Christianity:

"...the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery mongers, but good men, good magestrates and good Subjects...."

-- John Adams, Dairy, Feb. 18, 1756

In this letter to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809, Jefferson connects religion with morality, just as Washington did, but further specifies that all world religions produce such morality:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words 'this do in remembrance of me' cost the Christian world!...We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.

Through this perspective, go back and reread Washington's Farewell Address and see not only does it perfectly fit with the above quoted beliefs of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson (indeed the Address was written by Hamilton, who like them was a theistic rationalist, not a Christian), arguably it resonates more with such heterodox belief system than with orthodox Christianity (even ultimately, it if was consistent with both belief systems). Washington never said one need be Christian in order to be saved but rather that religion is necessary for morality. Washington's Address represented a brilliant use of abstractions where he could express his heterodoxy in a way which seemed consistent with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day, yet still not outright lie.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Carter's Definition of Christianity is Defensible:

Joe Carter is taking heat for a post [with a follow up here] that examines Barack Obama's theological views and determines they are not "Christian" (even though Obama calls them "Christian").

If you tell me that you’re a "Christian" I take that to mean that you subscribe to a common set of doctrines outlined in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Both of these creeds are ecumenical Christian statements of faith accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and almost all branches of Protestantism. They outline what it means to be a "mere" Christian.

Carter then examines why Obama's views flunk the test (see the rest of his original post).

Carter's definition of Christianity is rightly disputed but entirely defensible on historical grounds. It's the very same definition I use when I conclude the key Founding Fathers were not "Christian." And indeed Carter notes John Adams flunked the same standard that Obama flunked. He also notes that Obama's status as a true believer is ultimately irrelevant in terms of ability to be a good President:

But all of this misses the true underlying question: Does it really matter if Obama is an orthodox Christian? If we are talking about the state of his eternal soul, I would answer "yes." If we are talking about his effectiveness as a President, the answer is obviously "no." After all, John Adams was theologically unorthodox and yet a great President while Jimmy Carter was a horrible President while being a completely orthodox believer.

Lest we should be seen as giving Obama a special "in" with the theology of the Founding Fathers, I would note from what I observed, McCain to me didn't appear to be any more orthodox than Obama. Indeed, this nominal Christianity that believes in a Providential God but either rejects or downplays orthodox Trinitarian doctrine arguably fits better with the American Presidency than orthodox Trinitarian Christianity which is too exclusive for not just today's pluralistic society but the one America's Founders established. Indeed it's doubtful that we had an orthodox Trinitarian Christian President until Andrew Jackson.

Finally in this comment, Carter gives a list of historic Churches that define Christianity accordingly:

–The Roman Catholic Church
–The Eastern Orthodox Church
–The Assyrian Church of the East
–The Oriental Orthodox churches
–The Lutheran Church
–The Anglican Communion
–All Presbyterian Churches
–The Methodist Church
–Almost all Reformed churches

This is very similar to a chart that Dr. Gregg Frazer constructs on page 10 of his PhD thesis where he shows ALL of the established Founding Era churches defined Christianity the same way, except one...the Quakers. More on that later, but I would contend that the Founding Fathers' "theistic rationalism" was in a sense like Quakerism without the anti-war teachings.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Music:

Ambrosia -- "Biggest Part Of Me." David Pack's voice is incredible. As one commenter put it: "David Pack has one of the most incredible natural (transitional) falsettos."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Alternate (and arguably valid) Christian Nation theses:

When I argue against the idea of a "Christian Nation" it's usually one particular variant (which happens to be the dominant one in religiously conservative circles) that I tackle (some would say have demolished): It's the David Barton, D. James Kennedy, Peter Marshall version that holds "just about all of the Founders were Christians like I am" and the Founders turned to an infallible Bible/orthodox Christian theology as the prime ideological source for American Founding documents. John Locke, their chief ideological influence, was really a "Christian" (meaning an orthodox Christian) who appealed to an infallible Bible for his politics. Indeed, it was really God that "founded" America (the FFs were just His instruments) on "biblical principles." And consequently, as God's agents, they could do little or no wrong.

What I have described might sound like an exaggeration; but those folks posit such an exaggerated and unreal historical narrative. They use a notoriously revisionist "law office" method and defend their case like the late Johnny Cochran defended OJ Simpson.

The shame of it is that there are other "Christian Nation" or "Judeo-Christian" theses that are intellectual and historically defensible, but don't have the same popular appeal as the "Christian Nation" narrative as told by Barton et al.

At American Creation, Kristo Miettinen makes such a case in a fascinating post. But in doing so, by intellectual necessity, he does not argue that the key Founders were "orthodox Trinitarian Christians" OR that they (and their philosophical mentor John Locke) simply appealed to orthodox Christianity/sola scriptura in establishing American Founding principles, especially those that relate to freedom of conscience. No, actually history is more complicated than that.

A few things stand out in Miettinen's post. First, is that he argues John Locke (arguably the most important ideological figure whom the Founders consciously followed) did not hold to an authentically Christian position:

First, many Christian philosophers (e.g. Locke) have held the philosophical view, rather than the Christian view, of conscience. Locke went so far as to take, regarding conscience and its origins, the Freudian view long before Freud did (that conscience is a result of conditioning, holding us back). But apart from Christian philosophers, Christian theologians have has always wrestled with the problem of errors of conscience. The conscience has, in Christian theology, been viewed both as capable of learning on the one hand, and of wandering into error on the other. This is a far cry from the capriciousness of the free will, but it is still indicative of freedom of a sort for the conscience, and unfortunately it has also always formed the basis for Christian persecution: what is free can be influenced, and coercion is just the influential cousin of persuasion.

Indeed, the Founders engaged in historical and philosophical "revisionism" reading things through a Lockean (or a "Whig") lens:

To take another try, many founders quoted Locke and claimed his influence upon the founding. To be sure, they also often cited general “Christian principles”, but still, mustn’t we give Locke (and others) his due? In short, my answer is “no”. The founders were proven historical revisionists, rewriting American history to weave Locke in, ex post facto, where he didn’t belong, e.g. JQ Adams giving a Lockean twist to the pre-Lockean “Mayflower compact” (i.e. Mayflower covenant) thus: “the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.” Given such willingness to interpret pre-Lockean events in Lockean terms, the founders’ enthusiasm for Locke should be seen as rationalization, not explanation.

Finally when it comes to defining "Christianity" Miettinen appeals to a broad understanding of the concept:

To the common claim that the founders weren’t, by and large, Christian, because they were Unitarians, or whatever, my reply is to defend big-tent interpretations of Christianity, at least when we are acting as students of history, rather than engaging in sectarian squabbles. To the historian, the criteria that delimit Christianity must, of course, be different in detail than the criteria that delimit Buddhism, or Marxism, but they should be similarly loose and inclusive. Just as all Marxists are Marxists to anyone but a devout Marxist, so also anyone who attributes historical singularity to Christ (whether as redeemer of mankind, son of a unitary God, one person of a triune God, a member of the divine troika, seal of the prophets, resurrected worker of miracles, etc.) should be acknowledged, by any historian thinking in his capacity as a historian, to be a Christian, even if the historian happens also to be a strict sectarian Christian who denies the true Christianity of competing sects. By this standard, historically speaking, (whatever I think as an orthodox Lutheran), Arians, Nestorians, Mormons, etc., are all Christians for scholarly purposes of historical analysis.

In order to make a “political-theological” connection between American government and "Christianity," one must define Christianity rather liberally to include all sorts of heretical systems that most religiously conservative orthodox Trinitarian Christians find unacceptable. Indeed, those who assert "Mormonism isn't Christianity" are the very ones most likely to assert "American is a Christian Nation." It's only by incorporating such heretical systems as Mormonism etc. into the definition of "Christianity" that America's founding political institutions can be said to rest on a "Christian" foundation. True, Mormons didn't exist during the Founding era (they came later). But America's key Founders disproportionately believed in the Arian and Socinian heresies [like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, America's key Founders were not orthodox Trinitarians]. Madison was quite clear that civil government had no business whatsoever resolving issues such as whether Arianism, Socinianism, and the like qualified as "Christianity"; indeed this was the secret driver behind his "Memorial and Remonstrance. [And indeed, Madison likely was a theological unitarian himself.]

Besides believing in 1) the unitarian heresies, America's key Founders also believed 2) that the Bible was only partially inspired; 3) that man’s reason (not the Bible) was the ultimate determiner of truth; 4) that most or all religions (including non-biblical ones) were valid ways to God; AND 5) they disbelieved in eternal damnation. If those 5 points can be incorporated into the political understanding of "Christianity" then yes, America can be said to have had an authentically "Christian" Founding.
George Washington Makes Justice Scalia like argument on Slavery (or Vice Versa):

In American liberal democratic (or constitutionally republican) politics, slavery typifies the inherent problem of individual rights v. democratic majority rule. Harry V. Jaffa termed it the "The Crisis of the House Divided." The slavery issue is now settled, but whenever a democratic majority denies individual or minority group rights (for instance, Prop. 8 in California) America has the issue of slavery to invoke. There are individual rights that are antecedent to majority rule; the Declaration of Independence teaches this. Yet, the US Constitution makes a compromise with slavery. Eventually we got a democratically vetted constitutional abolishment of slavery (and even then there are problems with just how "democratic" or "consensual" the Southern states' ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments were).

Comparing any kind of issue, especially same sex marriage, to slavery is a bit over the top. But the point is NOT to make an equivalence, but merely to invoke the principle that our system is predicated on the notion that individual rights or minority rights (as groups of individuals) are antecedent to majority rule. The Claremont Institute trumpets this aspect of Founding era liberalism, though read through the strict lens of an Aristotle-Aquinas natural law that yields desirable socially conservative results. Democratic majorities should not, they argue, determine the issue of abortion or even homosexuality; these things are "pre-political." Just as those in favor of gay rights say even if a majority frowns upon homosexuality, that doesn't matter, Jaffa et al. flip that on its head and assert even if a majority approves homosexuality, that wouldn't matter; and a democratically enacted gay marriage statute nonetheless violates the "higher law" (which by the way, Jaffa argues correctly that the Founders derived from "reason/nature" not the Bible).

Enter Justice Scalia who argues contra Jaffa et al. Scalia puts the focus on democratic majorities/legislatures as the ultimate guarantors of individual rights and "deciders" of public policy issues. As Scalia argues:

It just seems to me incompatible with democratic theory that it's good and right for the state to do something that the majority of the people do not want done. Once you adopt democratic theory, it seems to me, you accept that proposition. If the people, for example, want abortion the state should permit abortion. If the people do not want it, the state should be able to prohibit it.


The whole theory of democracy…is that the majority rules; that is the whole theory of it. You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection.


[Y]ou either agree with democratic theory or you do not. But you cannot have democratic theory and then say, but what about the minority? The minority loses, except to the extent that the majority, in its document of government, has agreed to accord the minority rights.

Here is Jaffa's response:

Justice Scalia says that if the people want abortion, the law should permit it. By the same reasoning, if the people want slavery, or any other form of plunder, there is no principled ground to oppose them (3).

He thinks he nails Scalia with the slavery reductio ad absurdum. Jaffa is famous for arguing that America should be read through the lens of its ideals (which hold slavery violates natural law/natural rights) and not through its compromises with those ideals (the Constitution makes a major compromise with slavery, permitting the practice of slavery to continue, which was necessary for the slave states to ratify the US Constitution).

On policy, I agree with Jaffa. I'm an individual rights loving, liberty loving classical liberal who does NOT sympathize with democratic majorities, especially as they would deny rights to individual or minority groups. But the problem doesn't resolve so easily. What do we do when the positive law, like American Founding era pro-slavery positive law, violates the natural rights in the Declaration of Independence? The solution that many small l liberals (and capital L Liberals) offer is to have countermajoritarian institutions (i.e., courts) strike down those democratically enacted laws. And again, I'm sympathetic.

There is also the even more radical notion of civil disobedience; even if the courts aren't yet on board, simply disobey positive law that violates "higher law." Many abolitionist heroes notably violated the positive law that guaranteed the "rights" of slave owners to their slave "property."

Yet, I've discovered George Washington didn't take Jaffa's approach to the dilemma or that of the abolitionists; Washington's thoughts are consonant with Jaffa's notion of ideals and compromises with ideas. Yet, he resolves the "Crisis" exactly as Justice Scalia would. As we saw above, Jaffa thought he nailed Scalia with a slavery reductio ad absurdum, but in the process he nails George Washington. I don't write this because I approve of Justice Scalia's/George Washington's approach to individual rights/slavery. As noted, I sympathize more with the other view, as I think Jefferson and Madison would too. I simply uncover these facts as an honest historian.

The context of George Washington's letter is a bunch of Quakers have violated American positive law by helping and encouraging slaves to escape. George Washington notes that he believes slavery is wrong and hopes for the day that it is abolished (hence evincing an anti-slavery ideal of the Founding) but notes it's up to LEGISLATURES to decide when that will be and in the meantime the Quakers are wrong to violate pro-slavery positive law. It's ironic that the Quakers followed English positive law when they refused to take up arms against Great Britain and George Washington violated the same by leading an armed insurrection against Great Britain (and of course Washington and the Whigs based their case on the natural law of the Declaration of Independence). Now the shoe is on the other foot and Washington argues for the positive law, the Quakers the "higher law."

As Washington writes To ROBERT MORRIS, April 12, 1786:

Dear Sir: I give you the trouble of this letter at the instance of Mr. Dalby of Alexandria; who is called to Philadelphia to attend what he conceives to be a vexatious lawsuit respecting a slave of his, which a Society of Quakers in the city (formed for such purposes) have attempted to liberate; The merits of this case will no doubt appear upon trial. but from Mr. Dalby's state of the matter, it should seem that this Society is not only acting repugnant to justice so far as its conduct concerns strangers, but, in my opinion extremely impolitickly with respect to the State, the City in particular; and without being able, (but by acts of tyranny and oppression) to accomplish their own ends. He says the conduct of this society is not sanctioned by Law: had the case been otherwise, whatever my opinion of the Law might have been, my respect for the policy of the State would on this occasion have appeared in my silence; because against the penalties of promulgated Laws one may guard; but there is no avoiding the snares of
individuals, or of private societies. And if the practice of this Society of which Mr. Dalby speaks, is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants, will visit the City if they can possibly avoid it; because by so doing they hazard their property; or they must be at the expence (and this will not always succeed) of providing servants of another description for the trip.

I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting. [Rowe: Bold mine.] But when slaves who are happy and contented with their present masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave them; when masters are taken unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other, and when it happens to fall on a man, whose purse will not measure with that of the Society, and he looses his property for want of means to defend it; it is oppression in the latter case, and not humanity in any; because it introduces more evils than it can cure.

I will make no apology for writing to you on this subject; for if Mr. Dalby has not misconceived the matter, an evil exists which requires a remedy; if he has, my intentions have been good, though I may have been too precipitate in this address. Mrs. Washington joins me in every good and kind wish for Mrs. Morris and your family, and I am, &c. 19

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Babka v. Frazer Rerun:

A few years ago I hosted a debate between Jim Babka and Gregg Frazer on my personal blog and Positive Liberty. I'm "rerunning" that debate over at American Creation for the courtesy of those readers who may have missed it the first time. But newer readers of readers of my personal blog and Positive Liberty might be interested in that debate as well. Check it out.

In the latest post Frazer Replies to Babka II Gregg Frazer hits upon something noteworthy. Frazer is a fundamentalist who believes the Bible is the inerrant infallible Word of God. His honest, literal interpretation of the Bible leads him to conclude a) that the concept of political liberty (whether what today's libertarians desire or the "unalienable right to liberty" as invoked in the Declaration of Independence) is not found within the Bible's text, and b) a proper understanding of Romans 13 teaches America's Founders sinned when they revolted against Great Britain when they should have submitted. As Frazer writes:

That view –- based on what Romans 13 actually says -- was the majority view throughout the history of the church up to that point. Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury (for example) were prominent Anglican ministers who argued the traditional literal (and biblical) view of Romans 13 and against revolution.

....Regarding I Samuel 8...the primary point is that Israel rejected God as their king and that any human regime which follows will inherently be inferior. Second, a warning about kings is not equivalent to support for political liberty. Before this time, Israel was ruled by a series of judges and before that by Moses. All of them, like the first two kings to follow, were appointed by God – not expressions of political liberty. The reason rule by the kings would be worse was that they had rejected God – not because they would lose political liberty. They had no less political liberty under the kings than they did under Moses. In fact, they ended up with more “liberty” (in the libertarian sense) under the kings because the kings abandoned the Law of God which regulated every aspect of their lives! As Jonathan Boucher pointed out, God does not express concern about political liberty in the Bible. God is concerned about spiritual liberty – freedom from the bonds of sin.

Frazer's point that Tory preachers Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury followed what the Bible actually says and the Whig preachers followed, not scripture, but Locke's Enlightenment teachings has the effect of ripping the rug out from underneath the "Christian Nation" thesis. The Tory preaches posited "Christian principles"; the Whig preachers posited "Enlightenment principles."

I'll say this: Romans 13 is one of the passages of the Bible whose interpretation can be reasonably disputed. Theologically orthodox Christians who believe the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God, yet who argue the compatibility between the Bible and the Declaration of Independence must at the very least concede the following: That Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury literally interpreted the Bible in good faith and determined the right answer was submit to Great Britain, not rebel. Reasonable people may disagree over how to properly interpret Romans 13. But reasonable people cannot possibly conclude that Boucher and Seabury were not arguing their case for submission to Great Britain/against American rebellion in good conscience from the Bible/Christian principles.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Revival of the Election Sermon?

In a recent post on Founding Era political sermons I wrote:

Those who want to lower the wall of separation between church and state sometimes cite these sermons as ammo; indeed pulpits of the Founding era were quite politicized! One fascinating dynamic they invariably miss (and I invariably stress) is how many of the "Whig" and "republican" ideas peddled in these sermons are foreign to historic biblical Christianity and how often these preachers distorted the biblical record to justify their Whig-republican politics.

Indeed, I just came across a post [hat tip to the Acton Institute] that perfectly illustrates this misunderstanding common among many otherwise informed religious conservatives. From Andover Newton theologian Mark Burrows who writes:

Election Day sermons represent a venerable but long extinct New England tradition. What are they, and might we dare to preach them today? And, if so, how might ministers do this – and still keep their jobs?

In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the “public” discerned its way. These occasions also displayed the gendered nature of authority among elected officials of both church and state: male minister stood before a gathering of male elected officers together with male citizens having the right to vote. These sermons presumed that the “public” of the colony and later nation, while eventually tolerating a minimal pluralism, was understood to be exclusively Christian. Toleration and inclusion were unheard of virtues at this time, at least in the political arena.

The following reproduces an email I sent Mr. Burrows in response:

Hi Mark,


I saw your post on election sermon (linked to by the Acton Institute). I must say I disagree with a core premise of your post. You wrote:

"In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the 'public' discerned its way."

Well yes, that describes *some* of the election sermons in the history of Mass. to which you refer, but by no means all ("most" is debatable). I wonder if you are aware of the history of heterodoxy/unitarianism in your state during this time period and how many of the most notable election sermons, especially those that argued for the American Revolution and republicanism, were given by theological unitarians and were premised on the idea that natural reason was at least on par with if not superior to scripture.

It's true that the population back then was almost all "Christian" in some formal or nominal sense; but as is the case today, it's not at all clear that the majority of folks who identified as "Christians" considered themselves orthodox, trinitarian or "regenerate" as opposed to Christian in some kind of nominal sense. And many of those unitarian preachers (Mayhew, Chauncy, Gay, Howard, West from the early era and Sparks, Channing, and more names that I can list from the 19th Century onward) more or less defined being a "Christian" with mere morality. America's Founders like J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison and others likewise believed in this understanding of Christianity that equated it with mere morality. And this was, I believe, key to making America much more religiously diverse as time progressed. As long as they are good people, they are "Christians" and should have no problem assimilating in America, as it were.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Founding Era Republican Sermons:

Once again I'll turn your attention to Ellis Sandoz's excellent collection of sermons from the Founding era. Those who want to lower the wall of separation between church and state sometimes cite these sermons as ammo; indeed pulpits of the Founding era were quite politicized! One fascinating dynamic they invariably miss (and I invariably stress) is how many of the "Whig" and "republican" ideas peddled in these sermons are foreign to historic biblical Christianity and how often these preachers distorted the biblical record to justify their Whig-republican politics. Mark Noll has noted this great "importing" of ideas into the pulpits of the Founding era. And, interestingly, these a-biblical ideas were synthesized with biblical texts and narratives. This made Christianity and the Bible "speak more" to Founding era republicanism.

This "republican theology," often being preached under the auspices of Christianity, Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism." And many of those preachers, consequently, were not "Christians" as historically defined, but according to Frazer, "theistic rationalists." When preachers embraced Arminianism and then unitarian Christology, they ceased being "Christians" as historically defined. However, some orthodox preachers likewise peddled a-biblical "theistic rationalist" ideas while managing to remain orthodox. Preachers such as Ezra Stiles (President of Yale, 1778 to 1795), Samuel Langdon (President of Harvard, 1774 to 1780), and Bishop James Madison (one of the first Episcopal Bishops in the US and cousin to Founder and President James Madison) were probably orthodox Trinitarian Christians. Yet, when they argued the cause of revolution or republicanism, they turned to this synthesis of a-biblical Whig and rationalist ideas that distorted the biblical record as these foreign ideas were incorporated into the Bible's text. In short, even orthodox Christians posited theistic rationalist principles from the pulpit to justify American Founding ideals.

It's important to note that the theistic rationalists considered themselves "Christians" and the orthodox Christians like Stiles, Langdon and Bishop Madison were friends with theistic rationalists Jefferson, Franklin and Washington and fell ardently into line with their enlightenment rationalist project. As Thomas Jefferson wrote of Bishop James Madison:

For I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison, &c., which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei & Bishop Madison, for they are men of truth.

-- To Dr. Benjamin Rush September 23, 1800.

And about what did this "man of truth," orthodox Christian that he probably was, preach? Sandoz informs us that Madison was "[a] strong advocate of independence, he went so far, we are told, as to speak of the republic—rather than kingdom—of heaven. He served as the captain of a militia company of his students and saw considerable action during the Revolution." Likewise the orthodox Christian Samuel Langdon preached a sermon entitled "THE REPUBLIC OF THE ISRAELITES AN EXAMPLE TO THE AMERICAN STATES." The problem is the Bible teaches the Israelites had a theocracy not a republic and that there is a "kingdom" not a "republic" of Heaven. Indeed, "republicanism" traces entirely to our pagan Greco-Roman heritage. These preachers "read in" republicanism to the biblical record.

Further these "rational Christian" republicans -- unitarian or trinitarian -- were likely enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution, obviously before the mess. As Enos Hitchcock put it in a 1793 sermon entitled "AN ORATION IN COMMEMORATION OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA":

As Americans, we must either renounce that which is our boast and glory, or warmly wish success to the great principles of the French revolution—principles founded on the equal liberty of all men, and the empire of the laws. As rational beings, and as Christians, we should recollect, that from partial evil, it is the glory of the Supreme Ruler to bring forth general good; and that, as inspiration expresseth it, “He makes the wrath of man to praise him; but the remainder of wrath will he restrain.”

The present war in Europe has a further object than the subjugation of France. It is a war of kings and despots, against the dearest rights and the most invaluable privileges of mankind. Should the combined powers succeed against France, and the re-establishment of monarchy there exist among possible events, what security have we, that the same attempt will not be made to restore monarchy in this country? Has not united America led the way? And may she not boast, with an honest pride, of the influence of her example in exciting the attention of many nations to their natural and civil rights? With what freedom of thought—with what enlightened and ardent philanthropy, has she inspired many of the nations of Europe!

So was Hitchcock a Christian? He called himself one and presented his ideas under the auspices of such. But as Sandoz notes, "His theology moved from Arminian to Unitarian over the years,..." He was what Dr. Frazer would term a "theistic rationalist."

Still orthodox Trinitarians like Ezra Stiles likewise supported the French Revolution with rhetoric that mixed biblical texts and a-biblical enlightenment rationalism. Indeed some orthodox Christians joined unitarians Joseph Priestley and Richard Price in their notion that the French Revolution would usher in a "millennial republic." Tunis Wortman was one of Jefferson's "Christian" supporters who tried to argue Jefferson was really a Christian. I don't know exactly Wortman's personal theology (whether it was orthodox), but he was another notable preacher who fervently supported the French Revolution and thought it would usher in a millennial republic. Sandoz notes "[b]y 1801 disillusionment had set in." Stiles died in 1795 without showing signs of disillusionment over his support of the French Revolution.

There were a number of notable orthodox whose theology was more resistant (though not entirely resistant) to the Enlightenment rationalist appeal. Men like Timothy Dwight, William Linn, Jedidiah Morse, John Mitchell Mason and Jonathan Edwards, Jr. They were likely to publicly complain about the US Constitution being a "Godless" document. They tended to be Federalists and most of them "smelled" Jefferson as an infidel. However, they were apparently unaware that John Adams' personal unitarian theology was almost exactly the same as Jefferson's. They viewed such unitarianism as a halfway house to infidelity. And they also tended to engage in wishful thinking that Washington was an orthodox Christian like they were. Respectable scholars such as Michael Zuckert and non-respectable ones like Gary North have noted these orthodox -- who by in large supported the Founders' "republican" project -- arguably were the victims of a "bait and switch." That is they were sold a project that presented itself with Christianity but was really foreign to the historic orthodox practice of the faith.

A sermon by Jonathan Edwards, Jr. son of the Edwards of the Great Awakening fame illustrates the tension between orthodox biblical ideas and the a-biblical enlightenment republican ideas that captured the minds of America's Founders and the preachers in whom they found support. Edwards defends the historic practice of Christianity against paganism and "infidelity." Particularly telling is that Edwards slams the very Greco-Roman paganism for which America's Founders and many of the patriotic preachers had an affinity.

I shall take notice of only one more vice of the antient heathens, that is suicide. This was recommended by many philosophers, as an heroic act of virtue, and was practised by some of the highest fame, as by Zeno the founder of the sect of the Stoics, by Cato of Utica, and by Brutus. No wonder if under such instructors and such examples, suicide was very common among the antients. Beside the wickedness of this in the sight of God, the ruinous tendency of it in a political view is manifest on the slightest reflection. By this one vice not only any man may deprive the state of his aid and throw his family and dependents on the public; but the most important citizens, by throwing away their own lives in the most important and critical moment, may greatly endanger and entirely overthrow the commonwealth. What if our Washington, or the most wise and influential members of our congress, had destroyed themselves in the most critical periods of the late war?

Edwards is apparently unaware that America's Founders modeled themselves after these figures from pagan antiquity and shaped their sense of honor and virtue after them. Edwards' invocation of Washington is particularly inapt. Joseph Addison's Cato was Washington's favorite play; he had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge to rally them. And that play inspired many other Founders, some of whom were orthodox Christians (like Patrick Henry) and some of whom were not. Cato's suicide is central to its message; he's a man who committed suicide rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar.

The prime message of the play was "given me liberty or give me death," certainly the source of Patrick Henry's famous quotation. The question is not whether Washington et al. would have destroyed themselves during critical periods of the war, but if Washington lost the war and faced either British tyranny or the choice of death by suicide, which would he choose? (Of course he would have preferred to have died in battle.) Given the profound influence that play had on Washington, arguably he would have done the very un-Christian thing of take his own life rather than submit to King George III's tyranny just as his hero did. That Jonathan Edward's Jr. doesn't understand this shows that this pagan worldview that shaped the Founders' sense of virtue went over the heads, as it were, of the orthodox who thought republican ideas went hand in hand with orthodox biblical Christianity. This refusal to "see" the pagan worldview of the American Founding's enlightened republican project is also key to perpetuating the "Christian America" myth today.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Is this just a bad pic?

I'm 35. I probably don't look as good as I did when I was 25 (who does?). But, I feel like I'm aging more gracefully than Kate Moss.
Why I dig Howard Stern:

This tape of Stuttering John a.k.a. Jay Leno's announcer, confronting Casey Kasem, a.k.a. Shaggy from Scooby Doo, on Casey's infamous "Dog Death Dedication" tape.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Geoff Stone Law Review Article on Christian Nation:

A short while back I blogged about a live lecture Geoff Stone gave on the Christian Nation question. The lecture is now a law review article. Stone's take is important because as a professor and former Dean of the University of Chicago School of Law, he's one of the most prominent public intellectuals. Indeed, he's certainly one of the most prominent intellectuals ever to tackle this issue in detail. And indeed the major difference between this and the live lecture is we get to examine Stone's footnotes.

What follows is Stone's thesis with which I agree, although I would clarify it's *some/many* modern day evangelicals and other religious conservatives who assert this:

Invoking that past, modern-day Christian evangelicals assert that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but that in recent decades out-of-control secularists have broken faith with our most fundamental traditions.13 Nothing could be further from the truth. Long before the American Revolution, the Puritan vision of a unified and orthodox religious community had proved unattainable.

My biggest criticism is Stone's conclusions are too slanted towards the secular left. If you want to see what America, in principle, in the ideal, was supposed to be all about, you don't turn to Thomas Paine anymore than you turn to Timothy Dwight or Jedidiah Morse. Rather look at those things in which Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin agreed. And there you will find the more moderate Enlightenment American Founding. This passage reflects Stone's over reliance on the more extreme Enlightenment views of Paine:

Under the influence of Enlightenment ideals, the American colonists converted their frustration with overbearing British rule into a bold new conception of freedom, a conception that involved new understandings “of God, man, human rights, the state, and history.”16 With the Declaration of Independence, these new understandings became a “cornerstone of the American political tradition,” a tradition that “was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment.”17

Thomas Paine reminded Americans of the Revolutionary era that they had boldly thrown off the prejudices of the Old Order and had embraced a new, enlightened, more rational conception of man: “We see,” he said, “with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”18 The ignorance and superstition of the Old World, he declared, had finally been expelled, and the “mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”19 The United States was conceived “not in an Age of Faith . . . but in an Age of Reason.”20 The Framers viewed “issues of religion and politics through a prism” that was highly critical of what they saw as Christianity’s historical excesses and superstitions.21

And then, there is the issue of Deism which Stone, after many other established scholars, sees as the dominant religion of the principle Founders. But as I've long noted, there are problems with this paradigm. Though, to his credit, Stone notes the existence of a "hybrid" religion that was not quite strict Deism, not quite orthodox Christianity. As he notes:

Many of our founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Gouverneur Morris, were flat-out deists, and many others, such as John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and George Washington, were at least partial deists who accepted most elements of the deist critique.44

Jefferson and Franklin and probably G. Morris do not belong in the same box with Paine and Allen as the "flat-out deists." They belong in the box with those other mentioned Founders as "partial deists" if it's proper to label them as "deists" at all. Accordingly, they were also "partial Christians" as well.

When Stone explores the religious beliefs of certain "key Founders" in detail, I think he makes a mistake by including Paine. He should have substituted Madison for Paine.

To that end, I would like to explore the beliefs of five key members of the founding generation: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Paine.

Paine had too many problems because of his outspoken public infidelity. Those who cast him off as an outlier have a point. However, the five "key Founders" (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) can hardly be termed "outliers."

In this passage, I think, Stone well understand the Founders' concept of "civil religion":

The vast majority of the founders believed that the principle “be just and good” could play a critical role in nurturing the sort of public-spiritedness they deemed essential to self-governance. And they believed that some version of what Rousseau called “civil religion,” and what Jefferson referred to as “Nature’s God,” would be salutary in fostering the spirit of American republicanism.123 But this was a far cry from endorsing the sanctity of Christian doctrine.124

Stone also, I think well understands Washington's faith, although I would use more cautious language; it's possible to read Washington's personal letters and come to different conclusions.

It is not even clear that Washington considered himself a Christian. Although he maintained a connection with the Anglican Church, this was prudent behavior for a cautious political leader. Washington’s personal papers, however, offer no evidence that he believed in biblical revelation, eternal life, or Jesus’s divinity. In several thousand letters, he never once mentioned Jesus, and the name of Jesus was “notably absent from his will.”131 All in all, Washington’s practice of Christianity has aptly been characterized as “limited and superficial,” at best.132

This isn't the time for an extensive exegesis on Washington's faith; I would note that his letters do show that he believed in the afterlife, but it's not clear whether Washington believed in the personal "eternal life" of the biblical (as opposed to the Greco-Roman) version of the "immortality of the soul." Also, Washington's view on revelation is hard to pin down. From his private writings, it's certainly not clear that he accepted the Bible as the inerrant infallible Word of God. He did make biblical allusions (as just about everyone from that era did and even today still do) and sometimes quoted from the Bible, but never verses and chapters as "authority" to settle the matter as you would expect someone who believed the Bible inerrant and infallible to do. I have concluded that GW probably believed, like the other key Founders that the Bible was a partially inspired book and that reason determined which parts of the Bible were true. This is the "theistic rationalist" position.

And speaking of "theistic rationalism" Stone mentions the term in describing Washington's faith, the hybrid that is not quite strict deism or orthodox Christianity:

Washington has variously and accurately been described as a “cool deist,”134 a “warm deist,”135 a “theistic rationalist,”136 a “Stoic,”137 and a “Christian Deist.”138

Yet, the problematic term "deist" leads Stone to unfairly push Washington to the "secular" side of this false dichotomy, Christianity or deism.

As president, Washington was always careful not to invoke Christianity. His official speeches, orders, and other public communications scrupulously reflected the perspective of a deist. His references to religion omitted references to Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior, and he invariably edited such terms out of his official documents whenever his subordinates tried to insert them. Instead, he used such deistic phrases as “Providence,” the “Supreme Being,” and the “Deity.”139

Like Adams, however, Washington believed that some form of religion was useful both to public morality and republican government. In his Farewell Address, for example, he warned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principle.”140

It's certainly true that Washington's public supplications to God as President were careful to omit explicitly Christian language. However it does not follow that Washington was a "deist." The use of terms like "Providence" and the avoidance of explicitly Christian language like "Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior," was done to unite not divide, to form a lowest common denominator among various orthodox and heterodox theistic belief systems. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Dwight could all unite around the term "Providence."

There is much more. And the footnotes reveal Stone cited many of the sources I've blogged about over the past few years including the works of James H. Hutson, Brooke Allen, David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Mark Noll, Jon Meacham, Gordon Wood, Henry May, Sydney Ahlstrom, Isaac Kramnick, R. Laurence Moore, and many others.

Check out Stone's excellent article.