Sunday, June 28, 2009

Were the Majority of America's Founding Population "Orthodox Christians" or Something Else (Deist, Unitarian, Theistic Rationalist):

The answer is there is no clear cut answer; we probably will never know. When I wrote my "briefly noted" article for First Things on James H. Hutson's quote book on the Founding & Religion I stated:

While all the Founders believed in a powerful Providence, there was a split between those who affirmed the tenets of traditional orthodox Christianity and those who subscribed to an Enlightenment-influenced "theistic rationalism." While orthodox Christianity dominated the views of the population at large and probably a statistical majority of those who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution, an unconventional Unitarian theology seemed to engage the minds of certain key Founders—among them, those who played the most prominent roles in declaring independence and drafting the Constitution.

Were I to write another piece on the matter, I might use less strong words than "orthodox Christianity dominated the views of the population at large...." It's possible that most of the population were "orthodox Christians." It's likely that most were somewhat affiliated with a Christian system that professed "orthodoxy" and they didn't challenge said theological tenets. The more I think about it, however, the more I doubt that a statistical majority of Americans during the Founding era actually believed in things like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and the infallibility of the Bible (i.e., "orthodoxy"). They might have; however, the record is just not clear that they did. The record IS clear that almost everyone from that era believed in Providence.

One notable study from that era showed that ONLY 17% were members of a church. That Founding era Americans were more likely to be in Taverns on Saturday nights than in Church pews on Sunday mornings. Other evidence shows that this may be a low ball. However the bottom line is that we just don't know whether a statistical majority of Founding era Americans accepted such theological tenets as Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, etc.

John Derbyshire once notably said something like "the lazy Christian mind is reflexively Deist." Indeed, evangelicals should understand this given that their faith stresses the "narrow gate." Roger Williams, a fervent evangelical-fundamentalist, interestingly enough, understood this dynamic and used it as a cornerstone for arguing in favor of separation of Church and State and religious liberty. Williams argued the inevitable not only existence but perhaps statistical majority of the "unregenerate" in any given population of "professing Christians" makes the idea of a "Christian Nation" blasphemous.

“Deism” as a significant theological conversation ended at the end of America's Founding era. However as a theological “reality” — something in which nominal Christians believe — I think various kinds of deism and unitarianism are not only alive and well today, but probably have always been, again perhaps always dominated "Christendom."

As Jefferson himself put it:

I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all;…

– Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813.

Forms of Deism and Unitarianism tried to give an intellectual account of this reflexive, default position into which nominal Christians fall. I can’t tell you how many professing Christians I speak with today — folks who haven’t spent too much time thinking about these issues — who believe God exists, that He wants humans to do good to other humans, that good people get into Heaven — but also that have no strong belief on matters like Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and infallibility of the Bible. A little while ago a Christian source did a story on this calling it a “new” religion of younger Americans. I noted that there was nothing “new” about this creed. Since the time of the American Founding it has arguably been the dominant creed, the “broad” gate, as opposed to the evangelicals’ “narrow” gate.

Why is this relevant: In arguing over America's Founding political theology, I oft-hear that we shouldn't focus on a "top down" view of things (i.e., the Christian-Deists/Unitarians/Theistic Rationalists elite "key Founders") but rather a "bottom up" view of things (i.e., the "orthodox" masses). Well, it's not clear that a statistical majority of Americans during the Founding era really were "orthodox Christians," but rather were nominal Christians who, if they really "candidly examine[d] themselves" would profess a creed something closer to Jefferson, Priestley, the "key Founders" than orthodox Christianity.
How I Like To Remember Michael Jackson:

Through Eddie Murphy; I'm not much of a fan of MJ's music. Yes, he could sing; but I like harder stuff. I love Stevie Wonder. The two have similar voices. The difference in their styles is key.

Anyway I know my friend Ed Brayton disagrees on Eddie Murphy's stand up comedic genius. I see it here:

Chauncy on Edwards:

One of the things that stunned me reading David Barton's article on Romans 13 was that he mistakenly believed Jonathan Mayhew (a principle ideological proponent of the American Revolution) was part of Jonathan Edward's "Great Awakening" movement, when the opposite is true; Mayhew was a chief theological opponent of Edward's "evangelical" like Christianity. Keep that in perspective when Barton rattles off names of people "responsible" for American independence: John Adams, Samuel Cooper, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and George Whitefield. Barton says they are all "Christians," and indeed they all thought of themselves as "Christians." However, with the exception of Whitefield, they were all theological unitarians, whose "Christianity" (if it's even fair to term their theological system "Christian" since it denies the Trinity; most evangelicals don't think it is) was a different animal than that of the "orthodox."

This is big; if one wants to fully understand the political-theological driver behind the American Founding, one must understand this theological system and how it differed from both Deism and orthodox Christianity. These elite figures played extremely important roles in positing the "revolutionary" ideas that trickled their way down to the masses.

With that, check out this book of the correspondence of Richard Price, another key influence on the American Founding and expositor of a "rational Christianity" that was theologically unitarian and opposed to evangelical "fatalism." The correspondence sheds light on ideas going on in the minds of the elite who drove the American Founding:

The Doctrine of Fatalism, asserted and maintained in a book printed by Mr. Edwards, a minister in New-England, and reprinted in London a few years ago, has, by the assistance of some who were friends to these sentiments, unhappily taken a large spread, especially in the Colony of Connecticutt. The book I herewith send you (which is the only one I have as yet been able to procure) contains the whole of what the Propagators of Fatalism have to say in its defence, as it is the product of all their heads put together.1 I believe you never saw the Supreme Being, in any book, so explicitly and directly made the author and planner of moral evil. 'Tis to me astonishing that any man who professes a regard to the Deity, as these men do, should be able to speak of him as so ordering and disposing things as that moral evil should certainly be introduced into the world, and that it is desireable it should be, and for the greater good too, though great numbers on account of it shall suffer everlasting punishment. Nothing, as I imagine, could be said worse of the Prince of the power of the Air. I should be glad to have your th[oug]ts, when at leisure, upon this performance, especially that part of it which relates to the introduction of sin into the world, by the ordering and disposal of God, and for the good of the creation. This performance is supposed by too many to contain the truth, and to exhibit it in an unanswerable way.

The "Mr. Edwards" was the "Jonathan Edwards" of Great Awakening fame.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Good Article on the "Deism" & the American Founding:

This article from Colonial Williamsburg shows that while deism was influential on the American Founding, there is much more to the story. Some highlights:

Because deism was never a formal sect and had no hierarchy to fix its principles, each adherent could bend it to individual liking, often moving it along traditional Christianity continuum as one manipulates a pointer along a slide rule. On one end of the scale, Washington could be ranked as a deist who attended church services, was a vestryman, quoted the Bible, commended religion, and prayed. At the other end stood Thomas Paine, who recorded his disdain for Christianity in The Age of Reason. In his view, God never communicated with men, Christianity was a fable, and miracles were fictions. Nonetheless, he said he was not an atheist. In a letter to Samuel Adams, Paine wrote that he penned The Age of Reason to keep the French from “running headlong into Atheism” during their revolution, and to ensure that they would hew to “the first article . . . of every man’s Creed who has any creed at all—‘I believe in God.’”


Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe said, “Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson all attended church services frequently to the end of their lives. They gave money to church building funds of several denominations, and attended Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Unitarian houses of worship. Most made no secret of their conviction that regular religious practice was necessary to public virtue upon which the survival of the republic depended.”

Franklin, whose life almost spanned the eighteenth century, mutated from defining himself as a deist to saying that deism had “perverted” his friends. In his forties, Franklin commended “the excellency of the Christian religion above all others ancient and modern.” As a senior citizen at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he suggested in vain that the participants pray for God’s guidance. “The longer I live,” he said, “the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs the affairs of men.” The same Jefferson who clipped the miracles from the New Testament also said, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which” Jesus “wanted anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

....Rowe said that “the appeal of moderate deism for Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and others was that it allowed for belief in a God who deserved to be worshipped by human beings but was not dependent upon biblical revelation, prophecy, and miracles as matters of faith. I say ‘moderate deism’ because none of these men completely abandoned the religious lessons upon which they were raised. They could be very critical of organized religion and theological twists and turns precisely because, in their view, these man-made institutions had corrupted the simple message of Jesus and obscured the best way to follow his teachings.”...


To some modern historians, “deism” is too simple a term to describe the complexity of the belief system of some Americans in the 1700s. The Reverend Thomas Buckley, SJ, professor of American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, said that belief is more complex than saying a person shrugged off Christianity and put on deism: “Too many historians keep calling the ‘founding fathers’ Deists. Even Thomas Jefferson on his worst days was not one of their ranks.” A better term than deist for most of them, Buckley said, is “rationalistic Christian.” Agreement on that point comes from Dreisbach, who said he thinks “there were relatively few Deists in America. There were a few elites who gravitated to a form of theistic rationalism, but we’re talking about a relatively few, albeit influential, elites.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Holmes on Unitarianism and Jefferson:

See David Holmes, professor of religion and history at William & Mary, lecture on the history of unitarianism, and Jefferson's relationship with said creed. Very enlightening and apt to my studies on America's Founding political theology.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hale v. Everett:

You can read the entire decision of Hale v. Everett here.

It's an interesting case; parts of it are extremely disturbing. It reminds me of Harry V. Jaffa's dictum that we have to view the American Founding thru the lens of its ideals, not compromises with those ideals or else we get a "pro-slavery" Founding and originalism loses its moral authority. Yes, that gets us "out" of slavery but also "in" to other places. Using Jaffa's method, this case gets thrown into the ashcan of history.

This case, decided in 1868, has to do with a Society of Unitarian Christians, formed years back. New Hampshire had a "Protestant Establishment" complete with a religious test that excluded non-Protestants from public office. A minority within the Church didn't like the new minister, who was more or less a deist. He claimed that he was a "Protestant" and defined said creed by anti-Catholicism. The NH Supreme Court agreed that anti-Roman-Catholicism was indeed one element "Protestantism," but something more. They also struggle over whether Unitarianism is a sect of "Protestant Christianity." Philip Hamburger notes something similar in Separation of Church & State that anti-Roman Catholic bigotry was one thing that united both the Calvinists and the Unitarians in the North East. Hamburger also shows that many anti-Roman Catholic bigots became champions of the principle of Separation, once Catholics started getting their hands on government aid. True, but there is also a long ugly history of anti-Roman Catholicism with INTEGRATION of Church and State in America, as this very opinion demonstrates. Jews, Roman Catholics and others couldn't serve as politicians in New Hampshire. That, it seems to me, is far worse than anything Everson ever brought us. That's why I argue the "religious equality" value needs to be the driver for the Establishment Clause. And even if the EC is unincorporated and neutered, let the Equal Protection Clause do the work. Religious equality means, at least, government non-discrimination for all religions and lack thereof.

James Madison was right when he argued government needs to stay as far away from involving itself in doctrinal issues.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

New Article From David Barton on Romans 13:

David Barton posted an article in May 2009 on Romans 13 and rebellion. I think I can take credit for the online chatter that led to Barton's article. Barton's article makes some good and interesting points, but also a few major errors.

As we read the article and think about the issue I think we should keep in mind saying the Declaration of Independence was done on behalf of "Christian principles," is not unlike saying the Civil War was fought on behalf of "Christian principles." Both sides in both wars were predominately demographically professing "Christians." And both sides could quote the Bible and traditions in Christianity for their respective positions. Even today many "Christian Nationalists" are neo-Confederates (unlike Barton).

Barton starts out by quoting some of today's orthodox evangelical leaders who reject the Christian Nation thesis by holding to the traditional view of Romans 13.

First John MacArthur:

People have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. . . . But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1-7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers. 1

Next, Oklahoma church leader Albert Soto:

The Colonists’ act of rebellion flies in the face of [Romans 13:1,2]. Did they overlook this verse? No, these were not men ignorant of Scripture. In fact, they used Scripture to support their cause in the most devious of ways. The deception that prevailed during this period of history was immense. God and Scripture was the vehicle of mobilization that unified the cause, gave it credence, and allowed the Deist leaders at the top to move the masses toward rebellion. Scripture was the Forefathers’ most useful tool of propaganda. 2

And then Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary:

Deistic and Unitarian tendencies in regards to religion. . . . were of such strength that even orthodox Christians were swept up into rebellion against their governing authorities. . . . Those Christians who supported physical resistance against the tyranny of Britain generally turned to Enlightenment rhetoric for validation, propped up by poor exegesis and application of the Bible.

Barton accurately notes "the topic of civil disobedience and resistance to governing authorities had been a subject of serious theological inquiries for centuries before the Enlightenment." But he mistakenly claims for his side a number of pre-Enlightenment theologians who addressed the issue of Romans 13 and rebellion:

This was especially true during the Reformation, when the subject was directly addressed by theologians such as Frenchman John Calvin, 4 German Martin Luther, 5 Swiss Reformation leader Huldreich Zwingli, 6 and numerous others. 7


The Quakers and Anglicans adopted the position set forth by King James I (and subsequently embraced by Dr. Cornett, Rev. MacArthur, and others of today’s critics), but the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and most other denominations of that day adopted the theological viewpoint presented by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Rutherford, Poynet, Mornay, Languet, Johnson, and other theologians across the centuries.

While I can't speak for all of the above named figures (many of them who did indeed argue that men had a right to resist tyranny or the "licentiousness of kings" based on some "living" arguably warped notion of Calvin's interposition) a number of the figures, most notably Calvin himself and Luther were squarely on the other side and held NO right to rebellion against tyrants. Calvin and Luther, were they alive, and applying their understanding of Romans 13 would have sided with the British.

Barton also elides the fact that, though there was a pre-Enlightenment tradition of resisting civil magistrates (ala Rutherford), it was in fact Enlightenment sources (many of them deists and unitarian) that most influenced the American Revolution. Indeed Barton is unaware that Jonathan Mayhew was a unitarian Enlightenment preacher!

Reflective of the Founding Father’s belief that they were not rebelling against God or resisting ordained government but only tyranny was the fact that the first national motto proposed for America in August 1776 was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” 17 – a summation of the famous 1750 sermon 18 preached by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew (a principle figure in the Great Awakening).

Mayhew was actually a principle theological ENEMY of Jonathan Edwards' "Great Awakening."

There's a lot more to Barton's article, which perhaps I or others will get to later.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hart on GW & Religion:

See my American Creation co-blogger Brad Hart opine on George Washington & Religion on YouTube. As you will see, we are quite likeminded on the matter!

Odds & Ends:

First you can listen to Ed Brayton interviewing me on his AM public radio show Declaring Independence, where we talk about the FFs and religion. I've done a number of these radio shows and can attest it's an entirely different experience than blogging/writing. I have a friend who is a much more accomplished writer than I who simply won't do these live speaking things because of a bad experience. Even being the call in guest on an AM radio show has its particular dynamics to learn (which I'm still learning!). For instance, it's likely that they won't hear you as clearly as you might think (and not as clearly as the host). So you need ESPECIALLY to slow down and clearly enunciate every word, even to the point of speaking with an affect.

This interview was done on a stressful day at work; one nice thing about Ed interviewing me was that when I had a few brain farts and misspoke -- Ed knows the record so well that he immediately corrected me. For instance, I knew that Madison, Hamilton and Jay were the three authors of the Federalist Papers and meant to name them; but I mistakenly said "Jefferson" instead of "Madison"; a less well informed host wouldn't have caught that. Overall I think I did okay but forgot to take my xanax before the interview.

On the show we invoked Dr. Gregg Frazer and how evangelicals who largely make up the "Christian America" crowd have a tight definition of "Christianity." Gregg's message to them is if we define "Christian" this way, the key FFs weren't Christian and America's Founding political theology was not "Christianity." But Gregg's thesis goes beyond simply the evangelical definition of "Christianity" which might exclude Roman Catholicism, but rather defines "Christianity" by its historic orthodoxy (i.e., the Nicene Creed) which includes, among others Roman Catholics, Anglicans, etc. All of the official Churches in 18th Century America save the Quakers adhered to this lowest common denominator understanding of "Christianity." BUT, by these standards America's key Founding Fathers and its political theology were not provably "Christian."

The irony is, this is not necessarily a "loss" for orthodoxy, but a victory. This definition concedes "Trinitarian orthodoxy" as the authentic historical understanding of the faith. A victory for orthodoxy in this regard, however, requires sacrificing American political theology as authentically Christian. Consequently a more broadly defined, ecumenical, perhaps theologically liberal bar lowering for "what is Christianity?" arguably leads to the conclusion that America did have a "Christian" Founding.

One of my American Creation co-bloggers, Eric Alan Isaacson, a prominent attorney and a Unitarian Universalist, gave his understanding of "what is Christianity" in a comment at Positive Liberty, responding to my contention that Mormons might not be "Christians" as so historically defined:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the “Holy Land.” Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the “Holy Bible.”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

So ultimately whether the key FFs were "Christian" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" boils down to how one approaches the issue, how one defines "Christianity." One could say America's key Founders were "Christians" and America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" in a broader unitarian sense of the term.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations, Part I:

I am going to reproduce Rev. Charles Chauncy's "The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations" in portions. I am also going to edit the lowercase "s" because in the original style they look more like "f." This helps sheds light on Dr. Gregg Frazer's assertion that ministers like Chauncy, while they held reason and revelation largely agreed, resolved apparent differences between them in favor of reason, not revelation. Hence reason trumps revelation. That's not what Chauncy and others necessarily claimed to do (he's claiming to derive his authority from the Bible's text). But, I want us to ask whether that is in fact what Chauncy DID. What follows is the three and a half pages. The original can be read in its entirety here.



AS the First Cause of all things is infinitely benevolent, 'tis not easy to conceive, that he should bring mankind into existence, unless he intended to make them finally happy. And if this was his intention, it cannot well be supposed, as he is infinitely intelligent and wise, that he should be unable to project, or carry into execution, a scheme that would be effectual to secure, sooner or later, the certain accomplishment of it. Should it be suggested. Free agents, as men are allowed to be, must be left to their own choice, in consequence whereof blame can be reflected justly no where but upon themselves, if, when happiness is put into their own power, they chuse to pursue those courses which will end in misery: The answer is obvious, Their Creator, being perfectly benevolent, would be disposed to prevent their making, or, at least, their finally persisting in, such wrong choices; and, being infinitely intelligent and wise, would use suitable, and yet effectual, methods, in order to attain this end. Should it be said further. Such free agents as men are may oppose all the methods that can be used with them, in consistency with liberty, and persist in wrong pursuits, in consequence of wrong determinations, to the rendering themselves finally unhappy: The reply is, This is sooner said than proved. Who will undertake to make it evident, that infinite wisdom, excited by infinite benevolence, is incapable of devising expedients, whereby moral agents, without any violence offered to their liberty, may certainly be led, if not at first, yet after various repeated trials, into such determinations, and consequent actions, as would finally prepare them for happiness? It would be hard to suppose, that infinite wisdom should finally be outdone by the obstinacy and folly of any free agents whatsoever. If this might really be the case, how can it be thought, with respect to such free agents, that they should ever have been produced by an infinitely benevolent cause? If the only good God knew (as he must have known, if he is infinitely intelligent), that some free agents would make themselves unhappy, notwithstanding the utmost efforts of his wisdom to prevent it, why did he create them? To give them existence, knowing, at the same time, that they would render themselves finally miserable, by abusing their moral powers, in opposition to all that he could do to prevent it, is scarcely reconcilable with supremely and absolutely perfect benevolence; which, in this case, one would be ready to think, must have withheld the gift of existence.

But however uncertain the final state of men may be, upon the principles of mere reason, the matter is sufficiently cleared up in the revelations of scripture. For we are here informed, not only that men were originally made for happiness, but that they shall certainly attain to the enjoyment of it, in the final issue of things. The salvation of the whole human kind is indeed the great thing aimed at, in the scheme, the bible has opened to our view, as now in prosecution, by the benevolent Deity, under the management of that glorious personage, Jesus Christ; who, we are there assured, will go on prosecuting this design, till all the individuals of the human race that ever had, now have, or ever will have, existence, shall be fixed in the possession of complete and everlasting happiness.

This, I am sensible, is very contrary to the common opinion, which supposes that the greatest part of mankind will be finally miserable, notwithstanding the appointment of Jesus Christ to the office of a Saviour, and all that God has either yet done, or will hereafter do, under his ministration, in order to prevent it. Nay, it is the opinion of some, that the elect (a very small number comparatively considered) are the only ones, the benevolent Deity has concerned himself for, so as effectually to secure their salvation; having left all others, whom he might as well have saved, had he so pleaded, to bring upon themselves remediless and eternal ruin, for the praise of the glory of his justice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

McGrath on "Christian Nation Irony":

James F. McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, Indianapolis, nails the problem with the "Christian Nation" thesis as articulated by Barton, Marshall, Federer, et al.:

It seems unlikely that at any point in the past the vast majority of inhabitants of the United States were devout Christians with a personal faith, as opposed to nominal Christians for whom their Christianity consisted largely of a "tribal identity" including churchgoing and assenting to some doctrinal beliefs and moral precepts.

Does it not seem ironic, then, that the notion of American having once been a "Christian nation", and nostalgia for that bygone golden age, is found largely among Evangelicals, those very Christians who emphasize the need for a personal faith, and the inadequacy of a Christianity that consists merely of church attendance, denominational affiliation, or even moral living?

Am I missing something? Why would the very Christians who deny the adequacy of such nominal Christianity today, depict its heyday as a sort of golden age for American Christianity?

That's the problem: There was no Golden Age. Arguably the evangelical view of the Bible teaches there never will be a Golden Age until Christ returns as their faith is a "narrow path." Roger Williams, ironically, understood this and in doing so was one of the first Christian political leaders to reject the "Christian Nation" thesis and, consequently, promote "religious liberty."

Williams was clear, it is only by rejecting that a nation is "Christian" in a civil, governmental, covenant sense (in the sense that the Puritans like John Winthrop articulated and tried to put into action) that government could recognize religious liberty. And key to Williams' assertion was the inevitable existence of large numbers (perhaps, probably a strong majority!) of "unregenerate" (i.e., nominal Christians) existing in any nation, even those whose population consider themselves "Christian." The inevitable existence of large numbers of unregenerate everywhere before Christ's return makes the idea of a "Christian Nation" blasphemous.
Dave Swindle:

I'm really happy to see an old Internet friend (it's strange how many of my online friends I've never personally met) Dave Swindle, doing well years after I first encountered him. As a freethinking libertarian, I tend to have appreciators of my work from all over the ideological spectrum. When I encountered him, Swindle was a man of a Left and an ideological enemy of David Horowitz. He now seems to have moved from Left to Right (with the help of David Horowitz). I've stayed a libertarian. But I think his kind of conservatism is still the kind I can appreciate and vice versa. He's still a fan of Andrew Sullivan (as am I). And he's not a religious fanatic or a gay basher (i.e., the kind of conservatism for which I have a strong distaste, especially of the "Christian Nationalist" bent).

What I found interesting in his interview with Frontpagemag was about Swindle's return to Christianity. He was a traditional evangelical, then became an occultist. And now is a theologically liberal (or "freethinking") Christian:

FP: Are you still a Christian? Tell us how your spiritual journey has evolved during your political transition.

Swindle: It depends on who we let define what it means to be a Christian. If one must believe in things like the Virgin Birth, the talking snake, and the inerrancy of the Bible then I'm not a Christian. But if we define "Christian" more broadly as I do, and we understand Christianity as a love for the ideas and example of Christ, then I'm very much still a Christian. I still read the Bible, consider its teaching, and seek to emulate Christ's call to live a life of absolute love for humanity. I want to internalize the spirit and metaphors of Christianity while discarding its archaic, and often downright destructive dogmas. (I hold this exact same attitude about the Left by the way. "Progressive dreams pursued through conservative means" remains one of my mantras.)

This dynamic is oft-ignored. We tend to think of politically conservative Christians as theological conservatives and politically liberal Christians as theological liberals. And that's often the case. But not always. Bill O'Reilly for instance, is a theological liberal or moderate Roman Catholic. Jimmy Carter was arguably more theologically orthodox than Ronald Reagan.


Here is a piece written by Swindle in the old days that references a blog post of mine (one of my first Andrew Sullivan links) about Alan Keyes' lesbian daughter. And here is a current work of his -- a review of Christopher Buckley's newest book about losing his famous parents, featured in The American Thinker.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Charles Chauncy on Reason, Revelation and Doctrine:

The Rev. Charles Chauncy was one of the most influential preachers of the revolutionary era. He was an explicit theological enemy of Jonathan Edward's "Great Awakening." Contrary to what you might have heard, arguably it was ANTI-Great Awakening thought that theologically drove the American Revolution. You can read one of Chauncy's most notable pro-revolutionary sermons here.

Chauncy claimed he could use Sola Scriptura to prove the falsity of the doctrines of original sin, the trinity and eternal damnation. That puts him in the "heretic," arguably "not Christian" box, from the perspective of the "orthodox." Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis has a lengthy write up on Chauncy that concludes his theology was "not Christian."

Chauncy's method was interesting. He embraced "reason" along with "revelation." Indeed he criticized the "Great Awakeners" for not being "reasonable" enough when he noted:

But in nothing does the enthusiasm of these persons discover itself more, than in the disregard they express to the dictates of reason.

He claimed he could show from the Bible alone that it did not teach the aforementioned orthodox doctrines. Chauncy would admit, though, that it was his own "reasoned interpretation" of the Bible that rejected these doctrines.

And this nuance sheds light on a dispute about Gregg Frazer's thesis occurring in the commentary at American Creation. Gregg's thesis argued the key Founders and patriotic preachers believed that, though reason and revelation generally agreed with one another and that some, much, but not all of the Bible was legitimately revealed, when the two appeared to conflict they resolved the conflict in favor of reason, not revelation. Hence reason trumped revelation. You certainly get this from Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin. But, as my friend Tom Van Dyke argues, those three said these things privately and regarding the others, especially in their public addresses, you don't see them claiming the Bible is fallible, that reason trumps its errors, etc.

Van Dyke is right in the sense that publicly the key FFs and the patriotic preachers like Chauncy, Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West and many others, didn't go around calling the Bible errant and saying that human reason trumps it. It might not be what they SAID; but it's arguably what they DID. And like the key Founders, it's perhaps/probably what the patriotic preachers PRIVATELY thought.

On the surface they appeared to preach that reason and revelation agreed, that we must have a "reasoned" interpretation of the Bible because they same God who authored the Bible also authored NATURE (what man discovered from reason alone). But when the two appeared to conflict, they followed nature and made the Bible "fit" with the findings of man's reason.

I think one could argue that this is exactly how Chauncy, Mayhew and West all handled the Trinity, Eternal Damnation and Romans 13. Man's REASON, discovering NATURE, found (among other things) that 1) God is unitary, not Triune, 2) a benevolent God would not damn anyone to Hell for eternity, and 3) men have a right to rebel against tyrants. With that already settled, they went back and made their scriptural case for all three positions.

You can read Chauncy doing this in his classic The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations which was his purported biblical case against eternal damnation. Perhaps in a later post we will read from its quotations and discuss whether it really is the Bible that teaches against eternal damnation or "reason" superseding certain parts of the Bible to get to that result.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Use of Reason In America's Founding Era Political Pulpits:

I want to point out something else about the dialog that is occuring in the American creation comments section among me, Tom Van Dyke and Gregg Frazer. We are walking in the shoes of larger figures. Gregg and I are more influenced by the followers of Leo Strauss, especially the East Coast Straussians, like Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle and Walter Berns. Though Gregg and I play a bit more cautious with "reading in" secret atheism to Locke. Gregg's thesis, after all, states theistic rationalism NOT atheistic rationalism is the political theology of America.

Tom, on the other hand is more influenced by figures like Eric Voegelin and Brian Teirney. The Strauss-Zuckert-Pangle view sees American political theology as something more modern. The Voegelin-Teirney view sees American political theology as something that fits more within the classical-Christian natural law.

A big issue of contention is how compatible are Aristotelian notions of natural law with the Bible/Christianity. If one's religious tradition -- Protestant Sola Scriptura -- cares little for natural law as a supplement to the Bible, indeed if one, like Francis Schaeffer sees a danger in it, then the American Founding political theology, properly understood, should not speak to you.

And ironically the Christian America crowd tends to be Sola-Scriptura Protestants who care little for the natural law discovered by reason. This is one reason why they misunderstand "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" for what's shorthand for the Bible. There is very little exegesis on David Barton's Wallbuilders on natural law, how it has its antecedents in Aristotle, was incorporated into Christdendom by Aquinas and then incorporated into Protestantism by thinkers like Hooker, and that fundamentally it is what man discovers from reason, even if ultimately it must conform to what's written in the Bible.

But that -- whether natural law discovered by reason -- really is suited to conform to what's written in the Bible is also central to this debate. Aquinas used natural law as a supplement to the Bible and said he made it conform to scripture. However, some more modern natural lawyers (like Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, some of the patriotic preachers) used the Bible as a supplement to man's reason, and ultimately had man's natural reason supersede scripture (especially Romans 13).

So these are the central points in the dialog, when the Founders invoked a God given substantive natural law as discovered by reason, 1) was it something more classical-Christian or more modern? And 2) is the classical concept of natural law as a supplement to the Bible necessary or even consistent with biblical Christianity or a perversion of Christianity by Aquinas?

As Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, “Aristotle…was used as an authority almost on a level with the Church Fathers and was assimilated to them. This was, of course, an abuse of Aristotle, who thought that authority is the contrary of philosophy….The essence of philosophy is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason.” pp. 252-3.

And with that I am going to reproduce some of Gregg Frazer's summary of the very natural law/natural rights oriented political sermons of the American Founding. Most of those political sermons can be found here:

...[T]here are two ways of looking at the question of "reason over revelation"....

One is the idea that one's reason should take priority over the CONCEPT of revelation.

The other is that one's reason should take priority over the CONTENT of revelation.

It is my contention that we find both of these in the key Founders and in the preachers who supplied them with theological cover for the Revolution.

A few examples of reason over the CONCEPT of revelation:
a) Jefferson tells his nephew: "Your own reason is the ONLY oracle given you by heaven" and "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal EVERY fact, EVERY opinion."
b) Adams said that he would believe what his reason told him over DIRECT REVELATION from God and that when reason is clear, "no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it."
c) Samuel Cooke said that men "can be subjected to NO human restrictions which are not founded in reason" [inc. those given by revelation] and he equated "the voice of nature" with "the voice of God [revelation]."
d) Samuel West said: "whatever right reason requires as necessary to be done is AS MUCH the will and law of God AS THOUGH IT WERE ENJOINED US BY AN IMMEDIATE REVELATION FROM HEAVEN."
e) John Tucker said of his view of government: "It is the voice of reason, which may be said to be the voice of God [revelation]."
f) Gad Hitchcock denuded Romans 13 of its supernaturally revealed status by referring to the passage as Paul's "rational point of view."
g) Samuel Cooper made conformity to reason the test of the validity of Scripture. He went on to say that his were "the principles ... which reason and scripture will forever sanctify;" but his references were to Sidney, Locke, and the atheist Voltaire -- not to Moses, Paul, and Jesus.

And, of course, Jefferson famously took a pair of scissors to the New Testament and removed whole sections which he, by his reason, had determined were not revelation at all and referred to the rest of the New Testament other than the Gospels as a "dunghill."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

How America Is and Is NOT a "Protestant Nation":

A later post will discuss how America is and is not a Catholic Nation.

My friends Gregg Frazer and Tom Van Dyke (and some others) are heatedly debating in the comments section at American Creation how to properly understand American political theology. In a nutshell Gregg has termed American political theology "theistic rationalism," and Tom doesn't like the way that term fails to incorporate "Judeo-Christianity." Gregg's thesis argues "Protestant Christianity" makes up one of three components of "theistic rationalism," (the others being Deism and natural religion) but "theistic rationalism" is still not "Christianity." It is also not "Deism," but something in between Christianity and Deism.

So this post explains how America could be accurately termed a "Protestant Nation," but not necessarily a "Christian Nation," and why it might be right to recognize America's Protestant political theological roots, without terming those roots "Christian."

Terms -- what they mean, and how the user and the listener understand them -- might confuse, if not properly explicated, but rather used in vague generalities. The American Founders, by the way, tended purposefully to not explicate theological terms in their public God talk (and private correspondence with non-theologically like minded figures), because, as non-orthodox theists, they differed, theologically, PROFOUNDLY and irreconcilably with the "orthodox" whose "consent" to their liberal democratic-republican project they needed to procure. Washington for instance, invariably spoke in vague theological terms when he addressed the orthodox ministers who adored him and whom he respected.

And that confusion -- where the "orthodox" think the Founders meant what they wanted them to mean, but didn't -- persists to this day (in large part because of the key Founders' clever way of operating and the hagiographic remake of the FFs by pietist myth-makers like Mason Weems -- figures like David Barton and Peter Marshall are the Parson Weemses of the present era).

For instance, one of the "Christian Nation" crowd's favorite quotations is from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 28 June, 1813:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were...the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence.

Now, without understanding the CONTEXT of said quotation one might conclude "Christianity" meant things like infallibility of the Bible, original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation. But, one would be wrong as both Jefferson and Adams (especially in that year 1813 when their heterodoxy was most pronounced!) rejected every one of those tenets. And the context of said letter suggests Adams meant clearly some *other* theological system:

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants,2 Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” [Protestants who believe in nothing---JR.] Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Not just theological unitarians and universalists, but even deists and atheists, Adams states were united under this "Christian" theological system. What Adams means by "Christianity" here seems not unlike his definition to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820 where he wrote:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

In other words, if an atheist was a good person, he was a "Christian." This is not what the followers of David Barton, Peter Marshall and others think when they hear that quote plucked from context. Likewise when they hear or argue America was founded to be a "Christian Nation," "Judeo-Christian Nation," or "Protestant Christian Nation" they likely understand or mean something else.

To them "Protestant Christianity" means Sola-Scriptura, the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God, and orthodox doctrines from original sin, to the Trinity to eternal damnation. In this sense Protestant Christianity is that lowest common denominator between Luther and Calvin. [For evidence of this, see the comments section of this post, which includes a comment by John Lofton.]

But this is precisely NOT how America was founded as a "Protestant Nation" in a political-theological sense. Rather, America's Protestant political-theological foundations relate to the following: The word "Protestant" literally means to "protest," or "dissent." As it applies to political-theology, American Protestantism means a private right to religious conscience. In this sense the individual not only has a private right to decide for himself on matters of Trinity and eternal damnation, but also which parts of the Bible are valid.

In this sense, America was founded, politically, to be a "Protestant Nation," with Thomas Jefferson the quintessential American (political) Protestant. Jefferson certainly thought of himself as a "Protestant Christian," and was a lifelong member of the Anglican-Episcopal club. He also devoutly believed in an active personal God. However, his "Protestantism" led him to reject, not just (his words) "[t]he immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.," but also large parts of the Bible as valid revelation.

So, as Jefferson illustrates, it's possible to be a Protestant, an Anglican, but arguably not a "Christian." One could argue Jefferson's rejection of the infallibility of the Bible did in his "Christianity." But even if we accept Sola-Scriptura, American political Protestantism still might not qualify as "Christian."

Case in point, another monumental influence on the American Founding politics: Rev. Charles Chauncy. As historian and President of Wakeforest University Nathan Hatch described Chauncy:

Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston’s First Church for sixty years (1727-1787), is the most prominent example of an exclusive appeal to Biblical authority in order to unravel theological orthodoxy. Chauncy was persuaded to emphasize Bible study by reading the works of English divines, such as Samuel Clarke’s The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712) and John Taylor’s The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (London, 1740). Both authors used a “free, impartial and diligent” method of examining Scripture to JETTISON, respectively, the doctrines of the Trinity and of Original Sin. [8]

During the 1750s, after the Great Awakening, Charles Chauncy spent seven years engaged in the approach to Bible study expounded by these English authors. In the spring of 1754 he wrote to a friend,

“I have made the Scriptures my sole study for about two years; and I think I have attained to a clearer understanding of them than I ever had before.”

His studies led him to draft a lengthy manuscript in which he REJECTED the idea of eternal punishment and embraced universalism....He explained to Ezra Stiles, “The whole is written from the Scripture account of the thing and not from any human scheme.” This unorthodox biblicist would have been gratified indeed by the reaction of one minister who, finding the book’s arguments convincing, wrote,

“He has placed many texts and passages of Scripture in a light altogether new to me, and I cannot help thinking his system not only rational, but Scriptural.” [9]

So as it turns out, America's Protestant political-theological foundations mean a fundamental right to private judgment in matters of religious conscience. This political theology teaches the right to religious judgment is so private and individualized, that matters such as original sin, trinity, eternal damnation, and which parts of the Bible are valid are consigned to the realm of the private conscience and are driven from politics; they play no part in America's political-theological foundation.

The question then remains is such a Protestant system that posits Providence and a special place for Jesus, but refuses to take a position on original sin, the Trinity, Jesus as the only way to God, eternal damnation, and the infallibility of the Bible, "Christian"?

How we answer the question determines whether America's Founding political theology is aptly termed "Christian" or not. If not, we could say America had a "Protestant" but not a "Christian" founding.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama and Civil Religion:

President Obama's speech in Cairo is making news. He, notably, reaches out to Islam and at the same time cites the Founding Fathers and Islam's rightful place at the table in America. And he's right; America was founded to be religiously pluralistic. Islam, along with Christianity, Judaism, and religious free thinking, are all American as George Washington and apple pie.

From his speech:

I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.

It was nice to see the President cite the Treaty of Tripoli, which also stated that the United States government is not in any sense founded on the "Christian Religion."

I think the President's address sends the right message to the Muslim world. Though, I'll also credit G.W. Bush for trying to do the same thing. Bush took pains to note that our war was not with Islam but with a radical strain within Islam, that Islam, properly understood, is a "religion of peace," and that Muslims worship the same God Jews and Christians do. And a great deal of Bush's conservative Christian base balked at his message. President Obama, like Bush before him, simulaneously reached out to moderate Muslims and attempted to implicitly nudge the Islamic religion towards a more benign and enlightened direction. The difference is, for complicated reasons I don't need to get into, Obama is in a better position to deliver this message to the Islamic world than Bush.

And both Obama AND Bush delivered this message in large part because the American Presidency and its civil religion, established by George Washington and the other Founding Presidents, demanded it. I sometimes get criticized for focusing on the "key Founders" (a handful of men as seen on US currency) to explain American Founding politics. However, when it comes to explaining the PRESIDENCY, I'm on strongest ground in focusing on four or five men, because they were literally only four or five men. From Washington to Monroe none was identifiably orthodox Trinitarian Christian, and all, with rare exception, took pains to systematically avoid speaking in orthodox Trinitarian terms, or otherwise intimating that Christ was the only way to God. Their theism transcended so called "Judeo-Christian" politics; indeed they put Jews in the same box as Muslims as all believers in "true religion."

It may be naive for Bush and Obama to speak as though Islam is a religion of peace or that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. But, let us remember, that theological naivete was, by precedent, built into the American Presidency by Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Obama and Bush walk in their shoes when they state such things as Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

As John Adams put it:

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

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

Or as Thomas Jefferson put it:

“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....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.”

– Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809

In discussing the controversy over funding the Christian religion in the state of Virginia, George Washington put Muslims in the same box as the Jews when he noted he had no problem with with government funding of the Christian religion, provided Jews and Muslims, or other non-Christians were exempted or accomodated from having their tax dollars support a religion in which they did not believe:

...I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief.

-- George Washington to George Mason, October 3, 1785.

Moreover, Washington twice spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing Native Americans, once going so far as to pray in the name of the "Great Spirit." From a strict orthodox perspective, this is worse than praying to "Allah" because at least Allah claims to be the God of Abraham, while the Great Spirit makes no such claim.

And Madison and Jefferson too spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing American Indians who showed no desire to convert to Christianity.

When I discuss this dynamic with folks skeptical of my thesis, they oft-react, "the FFs were just acting as most politicians do today." Indeed, the FF Presidents did speak like Presidents Bush and Obama when they pretend or really believe that most or all religions worship the same God. But the American FF Presidents were the ones who started it! Before the American Founders, heads of state were almost always officially connected to various churches and were oft-both heads of church AND state. The American Founding Presidents created the tradition of Presidents who could at once invoke God, but also do so in a such an ecumenical, pluralistic way that they appeared to be all things to all people, even to those outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Theological Universalism During the American Founding:

I came across this on google books that discusses the universal salvation v. eternal damnation controversy, written in 1848. It references universalists, both unitarian and trinitarian, during the American Founding era.

A taste:

In the United States, it is well known there have been many believers in Universal Salvation, aside from the Universalist denomination. Some of the most eminent men in the days of our Revolution, adopted that sentiment. Among them may be enumerated Gen. Green, who appointed Rev. John Murray, the first preacher of Universalism in America, as Chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade. Some of the orthodox clergymen remonstrated against this appointment. But Gen. Washington confirmed it, and in General Orders, directed that Mr. Murray "be respected accordingly!" Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a warm and open Universalist; as was also his friend, the eminent Dr. Redman, of Philadelphia. Of the celebrated Dr. Franklin, his daughter, Mrs. Black, writes as follows: "In his opinion, no system of faith in the christian world, was so well calculated to promote the interests of society, as the doctrine which showed "a God reconciling a lapsed world to himself." Belonging to the orthodox clergy, of about the same period, were Dr Charles Chauncey, of Boston, Dr. John Tyler, of Norwic' Conn., and Dr. Joseph Huntington, of Coventry, Conn., who we all believers and defenders of Universal Salvation.

Here are the general orders where Washington defends John Murray. Here is a post where I reproduce where Washington praised a Universalist Church, indeed, John Murray's particular church (a church that the uber-orthodox considered "infidel"). Here is the letter on google books, with Washington's address reproduced below:


I thank you cordially for the congratulations, which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society. It is, moreover, my earnest desire, that all the members of every association or community, throughout the United States, may make such use of the auspicious years of peace, liberty, and free inquiry, with which they are now favored, as they shall hereafter find occasion to rejoice for having done.

With great satisfaction I embrace this opportunity to express my acknowledgments for the interest my affectionate fellow-citizens have taken in my recovery from a late dangerous indisposition; and I assure you, Gentlemen, that, in mentioning my obligations for the effusions of your benevolent wishes in my behalf, I feel animated with new zeal, that my conduct may ever be worthy of your favorable opinion, as well as such as shall, m every respect, best comport with the character of an intelligent and accountable being.