Wednesday, February 29, 2012

George Marsden and David Barton Recently Worked on a Book Together:

Marsden is one of the co-authors of "The Search For Christian America." The book with Barton is a debate book on Christian America. The book was published in 2011. I'll have to get and read it hopefully soon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Search For Christian America:

I finally got the book. I'm well aware of the arguments as many of the scholars whose works I read and value -- Gregg Frazer, John Fea, Jon Meacham, Steven Waldman, among others -- reference that book and its arguments. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis especially.

I haven't finished the book yet; but from what I've read, I strongly recommend it. But not without qualification. The book's claims deserve to be scrutinized just as the authors scrutinize "Christian America" claims.

The book's thesis as the authors write on page 17:

We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word "Christian" a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return. ...

Their understanding of "Christian" is tightly wound in a theological sense. But the book's chief target is evangelicals who define "Christianity" as something more meaningful than "weak generic" Christendom. As the authors note, "[a]lmost everything in Western culture from the late Roman Empire until about 1800 was 'Christian' in this sense." (p. 30.)

Years ago when I was discussing on my blogs whether the political theology of the American Founding -- although it often presented itself as "rational Christianity" -- deserved the label "Christian," a clever commenter asked whether America was founded on a "Christian heresy."

Although the authors of the book do not believe America's Founding political theology merits the label "Christian," their thesis fits with the "Christian heresy" understanding.

Their thoughts on Winthrop's Massachusetts remind me of the The Simpsons' Founding of the town of Springfield episode that joked the town was founded when "a fiercely determined band of pioneers leaves Maryland after misinterpreting a passage in the bible. Their destination, New Sodom." The Puritians thought Massachusetts was an exalted "New Israel." But the authors claim this a clear case of "mistaken identity" as they put it. (p. 36.) The authors assert Roger Williams' Rhode Island represented the more authentically Christian understanding of government.

But here is where the authors use their authoritative discretion to choose what counts as authentic ideal Christianity, what counts as error. Though, many of the things the authors count as "un-Christian" and consequently put in the "bad" box were arguably part of historic normative Christianity. Religious persecution, chattel slavery, and the deplorable treatment of American Indians are used to solidify the case for an "un-Christian" America. Yet these things were done by Christians in the name of Christianity. Roger Williams who comes out of history smelling better than John Winthrop arguably held more novel and eccentric positions than Winthrop. I'm trying not to "judge," but it seems to me that Winthrop's illiberality was more normatively Christian for the time and context than Williams' liberality that ultimately prevailed in liberal democratic America (and in Western Christendom as a whole).

The authors have been tarred as "liberals" intent on "revising" the record. While I can't say for sure, I don't believe they are either political OR theological liberals. And, in the book, they promote, in addition to Williams, Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins as model biblical thinkers. They were hardly liberals. And even though Williams' politics were radically liberal for his time, his theology that informed his politics was, ironically, fanatically fundamentalist. Indeed it was America's Founders -- from Washington to Jefferson to Hamilton -- who tended to be theological liberals and consequently not authentically Christian enough. Rather they were the humanists of their day. Albeit theistic/religious humanists.

John Witherspoon was an evangelical Christian. But in his personal theology. When it came to politics -- his Lectures on Moral Philosophy -- he was a naturalist and a (Scottish) Enlightenment rationalist, hardly a "model for Christian political thought." (p. 93.)

On the American Revolution, it violated Romans 13 and otherwise "was not a 'just war' as traditionally defined by the Church, and hence ... was not worthy of unqualified Christian support. ... [Further], the patriots were so hypocritical that they forfeited whatever Christian approval their theoretical justifications might otherwise merit." (p. 95.)

The charged "hypocrisy," you could guess, relates to the patriots' practice of slavery and treatment of the Indians.

I know this is contentious stuff! But it's well worth serious consideration.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Humanist on the Jefferson Bible:

Check it out here.

A taste:

Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.

Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ups And Downs For John Fea This Week:

Congratulations to John Fea for being selected as a finalist for the George Washington Book prize. You can read about it here, here, and here.

The down: The Glenn Beck crowd went nuts reacting to this article that (accurately) notes Barack Obama, judged by his words as Presidents, may be one of the most explicitly "Christian" American Presidents. BHO is certainly far more rhetorically Christian than the early Founding American Presidents (certainly more than either Presidents Washington and Madison).

And this crowd especially should be wary of casting the "who is a 'real Christian'?" stone given Beck's Mormonism.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thomas S. Kidd on the Faiths of Lincoln and Washington:

Here. One word: enigmatic.
Another Story on the Jefferson Bible:


Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Should We Understand Violence In The Good Book?

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan. "Patrick Allitt reviews Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses by Philip Jenkins:"

Early figures in Christian history approached the genocidal passages in different ways. Marcion, leader of a highly influential Christian movement of the second century AD, argued that the God of the Old Testament, capricious, brutal, and violent, was the antithesis of the God of Jesus in the New Testament. His own proposed version of the Bible omitted the Old Testament completely. So, a century later, did that of Mani, founder of the Manicheans, who thought of divine history as a great battle between light and darkness and denied that the New Testament fulfilled prophecies made in the Old.

Arguing against the Marcionites and the Manicheans, some of the Church Fathers, including Origen and Augustine, denied that the genocidal passages should be taken literally. In Origen’s view they should be read metaphorically or spiritually so that the Canaanites or Amalekites were not actual groups of people, deserving of death, but the tendency to sin in every human heart, against which we should make perpetual war.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Isaac Newton's Bible Codes:

Isaac Newton was one of those British unitarian Enlightenment Christians who greatly influenced America's Founders. Interestingly, he believed in Bible codes as this story explains. Also interestingly, he saw the existence of such as part of his "scientific" enterprise.
Benjamin Franklin and the American Enlightenment:

By Dr. Richard Beeman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania

I found this neat article here.

A taste:

In turning Franklin into a caricature, we obscure the substance of his contributions to what historians have termed “the Age of Enlightenment,” which was, in reality, not so much an “age” as an “impulse,” fuelled by a heightened sense of optimism about the ability of men and women to use their rational powers not only to understand the laws of the universe, but also to devise means by which to use those laws for the betterment of mankind.

Franklin’s contributions to enlightenment thought far transcended the boundaries of his own country: his reputation as a scientist and as a philosopher was, deservedly, an international one. Yet we must not, in our urge to free Franklin from the baggage associated with his image as “typical American,” divorce him entirely from his American upbringing and experience. Despite the fact that he spent nearly 27 years of his life outside the boundaries of North America, his temperament and habit of mind were shaped in countless ways by the natural landscape and social structure of America. The extraordinary novelty and variety in that landscape would give to Franklin, in common with many other American enlightenment figures a sharpened sense of empirical observation and induction: the more open-ended social structure of eighteenth century America encouraged in Franklin an optimism about humanly-created institutions - be they legislatures or fire companies or colleges – that citizens of European societies, more heavily encumbered by tradition, would have found difficult to share. Perhaps more important, Franklin’s own life experiences and accomplishments would serve as models – as he wished them to do – for countless Americans both in his age and in subsequent generations.
Tea with Simon Critchley: The Separation of Church and State Is Impossible:

Here is the article. Here is the book.

The way I understand the book's thesis, it has to do with political-theology -- the old saying politics is theology applied. You don't need any kind of traditional or orthodox understanding of the faith. Rather, Rousseau's civil religion or ceremonial deism will do. But the "system" has to have some kind of divine trump.

A taste:

The religious conservatives are right: there is a theology behind the American political system—only it isn’t Christianity. It’s deism, the faith most closely associated with the Enlightenment, which professes, as Critchley puts it, that “there’s a God, but a God that doesn’t do party tricks.” Even if no one calls himself a deist anymore, it lives on it the political systems that the Enlightenment inspired—especially our own. Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.

Is there any way to participate in politics without getting religious? “I don’t think it should even be an aspiration,” Critchley told me. “If you look at a counterexample, the problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have those rituals. It tried to bind a polity together through a constitution, but it was so weak. There’s been a total failure to craft something like a European identity—the problem hasn’t even been recognized. So we’re left with a unity which is simply monetary. And that seems to be screwed.”

I'm not sure if I would call it "deism" as opposed to "generic monotheism." As I have come to learn the civil religion or political theology of the American Founding is an uber-eccumenical generic monotheism where among others, Jews, Christians, Muslims and un-converted Great Spirit believing Native Americans all worship the same monotheistic God. AND further, much of what has been termed "deism" from this era is actually Providential, heterodox (non-Trinitarian) "Christianity." (I put "Christianity" in quotes because, to some, non-Trinitarianism and "Christianity" are mutually exclusive concepts.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

James R. Rogers On Mitt Romney’s Constitutional Theology:

Very interesting article that details how Mormonism (unlike orthodox Christianity) believes as a matter of official doctrine that America's Founding documents and their promotion of republicanism and political liberty are divinely inspired.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Petition of the Philadelphia Synagogue to Council of Censors of Pennsylvania:

I've been meaning to post this for some time. We've seen that PA's original 1776 state constitution contains a clause requiring certain public officials to swear belief in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament. Christian nationalists often cite that clause as a smoking gun. But then we learn in 1790, under the direction of acting governor Ben Franklin (who noted he himself couldn't pass the test because he didn't believe the entire Old Testament was divinely inspired!), PA removed and replaced the offending clause with one that required belief in "the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments,..."

Guess who else had a problem with PA's original religious test? Jewish people who didn't believe in the divine inspiration of the New Testament. You can read their complaints here.

A taste:

That by the tenth section of the Frame of Government of this Commonwealth, it is ordered that each member of the general assembly of representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe a declaration, which ends in these words, "I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the old and new Testament to be given by divine inspiration," to which is added an assurance, that "no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state."

Your memorialists beg leave to observe, that this clause seems to limit the civil rights of your citizens to one very special article of the creed; whereas by the second paragraph of the declaration of the rights of the inhabitants, it is asserted without any other limitation than the professing the existence of God, in plain words, "that no man who acknowledges the being of a God can be justly deprived or abridged of any civil rights as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments." But certainly this religious test deprives the Jews of the most eminent rights of freemen, solemnly ascertained to all men who are not professed Atheists.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

General v. Particular:

In philosophical parlance they often say "universal v. particular." It seems to me this presents not only a problem with interpreting texts but renders one "correct" interpretation impossible. This isn't to say that anything goes. It would be a non-sequitur to so conclude. As it were, rules of philosophy/logic (like that of the non-sequitur!) must be adhered to and facts, respected. But among smart folks who argue well (that is, those who make the fewest errors in fact or logic) competing narratives that contradict one another nonetheless emerge.

What got me thinking on this was Ray Soller's comment that seeks to limit Mark 12:17 to a very limited specific context. Now, Ray may be right on how this text ought to be so understood; but that hasn't stopped folks from interpreting it in a more general sense. Potential examples from the Bible -- and many other notable texts -- abound endlessly. The texts themselves often help point to proper contexts. But also often, certainly, with the Bible, the texts don't teach "one" proper interpretation. Were that true, there wouldn't be so many Protestant sects.

We've spent a lot of time arguing whether Romans 13 is absolute (if it is, then the American revolution was un-biblical and sinful). The text of the Bible clearly supports this reading (insofar as Romans 13 refers to submission to government as opposed to mere obedience; other competing texts of the Bible make a rule that teaches absolute obedience to government not plausible as the Bible teaches sometimes you have to obey God not man). But other readings are plausible.

Do biblical prohibitions against homicide apply to matters of abortion, capital punishment, self defense, or foreign wars? Everyone agrees exceptions exist to "don't kill." Smart folks debate whether the Bible absolutely prohibits lying or permits righteous deception. (In addition to biblical texts, there is the reductio ad absurdum, "what would you do if you lived in Nazi Germany and the Nazi's asked you whether you were hiding Jewish people in your attic?" and you in fact were.)

What about the texts of the Bible that seemingly approve of genocide and slavery? No sane person today defends genocide or slavery; so if one wants to defend the Bible but not the texts that seem to teach God was okay with or demanded these, then limit the offending texts in the strictest way possible. On the other hand, seeking a "good" interpretation of the Bible, we'll take principles that were enunciated in specific context and "extend" them in a more general sense. The Golden Rule is certainly a great principle, and a "good" interpretation of the Bible will render it as broad as possible. Imago Dei, very broadly understood, certainly works wonders for human rights.

Yet, certain texts of the Bible seemingly suggest certain (perhaps many, perhaps the vast majority of) humans, whether they were made in the image of God are children of the devil, irresistibly damned and that God hates them. (No the Westboro Baptist Church didn't just make that stuff up; Calvinism is mainly to blame for this.) These would support the pro-slavery, pro-genocide interpretations of the Bible, which are plausible textual interpretations.

Richard Dawkins' God of the Bible is Fred Phelps' God.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sandefur on Due Process at Cato:

Since I've linked to this topic before, this series may be quite interesting. As usual, keep a sharp eye for arguments from the American Founding and philosophies that influenced it.
David Barton Gets Kirk Cameron:

It looks like I'm going to be busy for quite some time. David Barton isn't backing down but hiring getting Kirk Cameron to spread Christian nationalism. Cameron notes he wants it to be a "movement." If you've seen his "Way of the Master" videos, you'll note Cameron has a very strict view on what it means to be a "Christian." Accordingly a great deal of the "Founding Fathers," though they weren't strict deists and did think of themselves as "Christians" in some sense were not "Christians" according to Cameron's strict spiritual standards.

Likewise a lot of Cameron's "Christians" from the colonial era -- the Puritans, for instance -- did indefensible things like executing Quakers, banning Roger Williams and having laws on the books that demanded the death penalty for among other things worshipping false gods.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

More Obama The Christian:

Read his remarks here. He was far more explicitly Christian in his remarks than the Founding era Presidents. Indeed, as this Reason article notes, Obama is as explicitly Christian in Presidential remarks as his predecessor George W. Bush.
John Barry's Roger Williams the State of the American Soul:

Hat tip John Fea. Roger Williams is timely once again (I think he'll always be timely). This is the Amazon link to Barry's book. And here is Barry's LA Times article on the matter.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Bible Usury and Debt:

Since this blog deals with how Christian morality impacts American law I'll touch on this story. There is debate as to who -- the Christian Left or the Christian Right (or even Christian libertarians) -- best represents the Bible's politics. These aren't easy questions and I'm not convinced any of the sides are "right." I'm certainly not convinced that Jesus' admonishment to feed the poor demands socialized medicine or redistributionist economics.

There are a couple modest positions I've concluded are so clear that they are beyond debate. One is the Bible is anti-usury and arguably teaches, like Islam, the charging of ANY interest (even a "good" rate for borrowers) is a sin. Therefore, if it's a good idea to write biblical teachings into the law or otherwise have the law reflect and not seem inconsistent with biblical morality, high interest loans are immoral and ought to be illegal. Arguably there should be no interest charged on loans. That represents a huge tension between free market capitalism and what the Bible teaches.

The second non-debatable point is that the Bible is radically pro-debtor. David Skeel, law professor at Penn and whom I had at Temple, seems one of the few notable right of center Christian academics who consistently trumpets a pro-debtor tune (to the chagrin of bondholders everywhere).

The anti-usury, pro-debtor stance of the Bible, it seems to me, are two areas where the Christian Left is more biblical than the Christian Right.

Though, I have concluded that the Bible/Christian religion is, at its heart, a-political and compatible with virtually any political system. It's not just Romans 13 (which we've discussed at great length), but also -- and more importantly -- Mark 12:17. When Jesus said "Render Unto Caesar" he didn't refer to the noble Stoic Roman republicans, but rather to the ignoble imperial Roman tyrants.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Mormonism & America's Civil Religion:

In this passage J K.A. Smith highlights a tension between orthodox Christianity and America's Civil Religion:

Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

As I've noted many times before it's precisely because of Mormonism's unorthodox nature (and because of when and where it was founded) that such better "fits" with America's Founding political theology than does orthodox Christianity.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

David Rosman's Christian Nation Book:

Here are two links on a new, perhaps notable Christian Nation controversy book.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Slavery: America's Original Sin?

From Thomas Kidd here.