Saturday, May 30, 2015

Different Kinds of Truth Claims

Are there? Yes, I believe so. I'm back writing for "Ordinary Times." My first post explores the difference between making an historical claim and believing in something because you have faith in the notion.

A big taste:
I’m known for my research that meticulously scrutinizes the claims made about religion and the American Founding. I reject the “Christian America” view. That view holds, among other things, that God was on the side of America, against the British and so directly intervened.

Two notable examples offered to prove God’s intervention include:

1. An incident where George Washington was shot at and nearly missed (and my understanding of the history is that it was, or at least Washington claimed it was, a near miss in the Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent sense); and

2. As my friend John Fea tells it,
On the evening of August 29, following a day of defeat at the so-called Battle of Long Island, the American troops found themselves healing their wounds and trying to regroup. The British army was entrenched in the earth only yards away from the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, hoping to deal the final blow to this so-called war for independence. As nightfall came, Washington’s troops began to abandon their posts in order to parade to ferries that would take them across the East River and to the safety of Manhattan. Between 7:00 p.m. and the following morning Washington had evacuated nearly 10,000 Continental troops. The commander was aided by a dense fog that lingered over the East River long enough to shield the American ferries from the sight of the British navy.
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the authors of a wildly popular work of providential history entitled The Light and the Glory, have argued that the fog was a sign of God’s providence. It was “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.”
Dr. Fea notes a problem with the claim:
Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether many English Christians would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?
Indeed Christianity is a much older religion than America and America is not, according to the creed, the center of the Christian God’s concern.

But still, if one wishes to have faith that Providence sided with America for, among other things, the above mentioned reasons, I can respect that. (The Founding Fathers themselves believed Providence was on their side.) Just don’t write and publish these claims as non-fiction history.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins: "The Baptist alliance with Thomas Jefferson that secured religious liberty"

Check it out here. A taste:
In 1776, long-persecuted Baptists hoped that the American Revolution would not only secure America’s liberty, but bring about full religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became their key allies in fulfilling that ambition. Jefferson’s collaboration with the Bible-believing Baptists was spiritually ironic. He remained relatively quiet about his religious skepticism during his political career, but in truth Jefferson did not believe in the resurrection of Christ or that Jesus was the Son of God. Nevertheless, in 1802 President Jefferson appealed for religious liberty in a letter that has become known as the “wall of separation” letter.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rational Rant: Without God and the Bible Series

Long story short: Numerous "Christian America" figures have spread spurious quotations, ones that tend to be chosen first because they seem on point. The error gets pointed out. Hopefully, those making the error either retract or otherwise stop citing the quotations. David Barton, everyone's favorite whipping boy, conceded they were "unconfirmed." But then they keep on being recited.

For instance, at WorldNetDaily the Benham Brothers recently wrote:
America was built upon a firm foundation, too; yet over the years it has been compromised.
Our first president said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
Now that is a firm foundation.
The problem is he didn't say it. Rational Rant just did an excellent five part series on the history of that false quotation: Parts one, two, three, four and five.

Jacob Soll: "What do we owe the Enlightenment?"

In The New Republic here. A taste:
All this makes Vincenzo Ferrone’s newly translated book, The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, compelling: Ferrone claims that the importance of the Enlightenment has not been its triumph, but its centrality in public debate. An Italian historian of philosophy and a specialist on the influence of Isaac Newton, Ferrone believes the Enlightenment must be defended not simply as a secular, political idea, but, most importantly, as what Ferrone calls a tradition of “critical thought.” Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment as the “progress of mankind toward improvement” through the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason on every point,” and Ferrone claims it is this critical process that has driven public opinion and politics, giving us the language of human rights, tolerance, and individual liberty. The long philosophical engagement with the idea of Enlightenment, from Voltaire in the eighteenth century down to our own time, is, for Ferrone, one of the great intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment itself. He allows that we can question the primacy of science and secularism, but not critical debate. Many great figures of philosophy who have been seen as critics of the Enlightenment are in fact, Ferrone argues, defenders of the Enlightenment tradition.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Forster on Barton on Locke:

Warren Throckmorton has the details here. A taste:
I [Throckmorton] asked Greg Forster, an expert on John Locke (see an earlier critique of Barton’s treatment of Locke), to evaluate Barton’s claims about Locke and the 1500 verses. Forster’s answer is below in full:
Barton does not tell us the title of the book he holds up, but from his description it is impossible that it could be any book other than the Two Treatises of Government. However, his characterization of it is outrageous. Claiming that the Two Treatises “lists over 1,500 biblical references on how civil government is to operate” is not much more dishonest than claiming that the Bill of Rights protects 1,500 rights.
In his edition of the Two Treatises, editor Mark Goldie of Cambridge University lists only 121 Bible verses cited in the entire Two Treatises. And that’s including all the places where Locke didn’t cite the verse explicitly and Goldie “interpolated” the citation. In addition to those 121 Bible verses referenced, Goldie lists six places where Locke cited an entire chapter of the Bible, and one place where he cited an entire book (Proverbs). That’s it. But anyone who has read the Two Treatises will know Barton’s claim is false without having had to count.
Moreover, a large number – possibly even the majority – of those 121 citations are not to passages “on how civil government is to operate.” The Bible references in the Two Treatises are heavily concentrated in the First Treatise. The overwhelming majority of the First Treatise, in turn, is devoted to an extended analysis of small number of selected verses from the first two chapters of Genesis, especially Genesis 1:28-30. That’s a lot of analysis devoted to understanding the biblical text, but it’s not a large number of verses cited. The remainder of the First Treatise, where other biblical verses are cited more frequently, looks to the Bible not primarily for instruction on civil government but almost entirely on the power of parents over their children, especially the inheritance of property from parents to children. Locke is interested in these verses because he wants to use them to refute Robert Filmer’s claim that today’s kings inherit their power from Adam, but these are clearly not “biblical references on how civil government is to operate.” They are biblical references on how families are to operate. In fact, the point that descriptions of the how the family should work are not descriptions of how civil government should work was Locke’s main point!
After all this, it seems trivial to point out that Locke did not, in fact, “write” the Two Treatises in 1690; he published it in that year, but wrote it much earlier.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Slate: "The Mysteries of the Masons"

By Andrew Burt here. A taste:
Freemasonry is thought to have originated in England and Scotland sometime in the 1500s as a trade organization made up of local stoneworkers, but it soon took on a philosophical air. The triumph of reason began to be a focal point of the organization, as did dedication to deism, or the Enlightenment belief that the existence of God is apparent through observation and study rather than miracles or revelation. Over the centuries, the fraternity of Masons would expand throughout the world, as would its ceremonies and rituals, which involved strange symbols and oaths—in addition to its more benign emphasis on civic-mindedness, religious tolerance, and communal learning. The group met in secret.

Masons were overwhelmingly men of middle- and upper-class status—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—who had the time and leisure to join what amounted to a social club for the well-to-do. Many of the founding fathers had been Masons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin—indeed, 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution claimed membership in the fraternity. In the years between America’s founding and 1826, Masonry had only grown more powerful, especially in New York. Gov. DeWitt Clinton was not only a Mason but had also been the grand master of the Grand Lodge of New York and the highest-ranking Mason in the country. By one estimate, more than half of all publicly held offices in New York were occupied by Masons.
American Creation has a resident Mason who perhaps can verify the facts in that above longish article. It's a mistake, in my opinion, to conflate late 18th Cen. Freemasonry with deism as many understand the term. My understanding is that Freemasonry was dedicated to monotheism and held itself as compatible with all monotheistic religions. You could be a Deist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, etc. and be, in principle, a good Mason.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fea: "David Barton on the American Bible Society"

From John Fea here. A taste:
Most of what [Barton] says about the founding of the American Bible Society is accurate, but he does not paint an entire picture of the founding or the men involved in the founding.

For example:
  • Boudinot did indeed respect the Bible.  He defended its inspiration and authority against attacks from skeptics like Thomas Paine.  He also turned to it to make predictions about the end of the world and to claim that native Americans were the ten lost tribes of Israel
  • John Jay was a devout Anglican Christian.  He also tried to ban Catholics from participating in New York government.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Volokh: "Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?"

I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.
The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Cult of the Supreme Being

Today on Facebook, the legendary Lawrence Reed notes:
On this date in 1794, the power-mad Maximilien Robespierre introduced the infamous "Cult of the Supreme Being" as the new state religion of the French Republic. To learn more about it, put your cursor at 1:17:50 in this video:
We have to be careful when dealing with those generic God words like "Supreme Being" (one of the many favorites of America's Founders). I know some revolutions have been purported to have been done in the name of atheism. But it is more effective to tie God to the cause. It helps to park your case on the highest authority possible. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Sandefur: "John Adams insists the American constitutions were not divinely inspired"

We've seen this quotation before; but it's always worth a revisit. A taste:
It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.... Neither the people, nor their conventions, committees, or sub-committees, considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important.
John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, reprinted in 4 Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams 292 (1851).