Sunday, June 28, 2020

Mark David Hall: Responses to the Panel on Deism, Orthodoxy, and the American Founding at Cato

The conversation at this month's Cato Unbound has begun. This is Mark Hall's response. A taste:
Rather than simply state the uncontroversial fact that virtually all late eighteenth century Americans identified themselves as Christians, I chose to address the common assertion that “most” or “many” of America’s founders were deists. Far too many sensible scholars make these or similar claims, including Professor Allen (“The Founding Fathers were … skeptical men of the Enlightenment who questioned each and every received idea they had been taught”) and Professor Green (“Although many of the nation’s elites privately embraced deism, The Age of Reason and other works popularized irreligion among the laboring and working classes”).[1] 
In addition to Professors Allen and Green, academic and popular authors including Gordon Wood, Geoffrey Stone, Richard Hughes, Frank Lambert, Matthew Stewart, R. Lawrence Moore, Isaac Kramnick, Garry Wills, Steven Keillor, Richard Dawkins, and many others have claimed that America’s founders were deists.[2] Because this assertion is so widespread, it seemed worthwhile to set the historical record straight. In my short essay, and in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I offer excellent reasons for rejecting this error. That Professors Allen and Green do not even attempt to refute my arguments suggest that I have succeeded.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Steven Green's Contribution to Cato Unbound

Here is a link to the Steven Green contribution to the Cato Unbound symposium on the faith of the American founders. A taste:
The incidence of religious language and discourse among leaders of the founding generation more likely tells us something different. As public figures, they understood the power of religious rhetoric to motivate and inspire people. That public speakers used those familiar idioms is unsurprising—everyone did it, including that “filthy little atheist” Tom Paine, as Theodore Roosevelt called him.[6] One must not lose sight of the significant challenges—with the high likelihood of failure—that the founders faced in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Both political and religious figures purposefully drew on Biblical types to legitimize their revolutionary and governing efforts. Political and religious leaders sought to score symbolic points by identifying America’s successes with divine providence; another favorite was to analogize Britain and King George to Egypt and pharaoh and the colonists to the Children of Israel (with George Washington as Moses, leading them to the promised land). This purposeful use of religious imagery served an important political purpose of anointing the struggle with a transcendent purpose. In light of the extraordinary times and the commonality of religious discourse, it would have been remarkable if the founders had not employed biblical terminology in their public statements.[7]  
An undue focus on the religious upbringing of leading Founders, or on the religious discourse during the Founding, also undervalues the significance of Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas on the founding generation. By the second half of the century, both strains of thought were significantly impacting the emerging ideas about revolution and republicanism.[8] The writings of figures such as John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, and David Hume not only influenced the thinking of political leaders, they were adapted and integrated into the thought of clergy.[9] ...

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Thomas Kidd's Contribution to Cato Unbound

Here is a link to Thomas Kidd's contribution to the Cato Unbound symposium on the faith of the American founders. A taste:
The problem is that people in eighteenth-century Anglo-America did not always use our textbook definition of a deist. Deist could mean a person who denied God’s providence, but it could mean other things as well. Sometimes it referred to a person who was critical of Reformed theology and its emphasis on humankind’s lack of free will. Or someone who did not believe that the whole Bible was the Word of God. Sometimes “deism” meant monotheism. Sometimes the use of deism had no skeptical connotations at all, such as when it was used as an antonym for “atheism.” Franklin and others rarely unpacked all those variant meanings, but it would have surprised few people in Revolutionary America to find that a “deist” also believed in God’s providence. Among the various “Enlightenments” of the era, the French Enlightenment tended to be the most radically skeptical, even producing some atheists. Advocates of the British-American Enlightenment, scholars now understand, were mostly friendly to theism, if not Christianity per se. Often British Enlightenment thinkers had a reformist agenda for institutional Christianity, such as disestablishing the official state churches, ending tests of faith for elected officials, or repudiating Reformed or Calvinist doctrines such as predestination.  
Another reason that the founders’ faiths are elusive is that even the “deistic” founders, such as Jefferson and Franklin, knew the Bible and quoted it liberally. As Hall notes, George Washington, typically quiet about his own faith, loved to quote Micah’s peaceful image of the vine and the fig tree. ...

Friday, June 19, 2020

Allen Responds to Hall

Over at Cato Unbound,  Brook Allen has written her response to Mark David Hall. You can read it here. A taste:
Dr. Hall has put the founding in philosophical context but not the wider historical context, which is all-important. “Enlightenment ideas indisputably had some positive influence,” he allows, “but a more important reason Americans embraced religious liberty was because of their Christian convictions.” No, no, and no! For there were Christians and Christians—though Dr. Hall writes as though the various sects formed a monolithic bloc. In fact, for more than two-and-a-half centuries—ever since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses—Christians had been torturing and slaughtering each other all over Europe. Bitter warfare in France, culminating in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1572, endured until the very end of the century, and recommenced, just as brutally, in 1685. It was still going on during deliberations over the American constitution. The Netherlands suffered 80 years of warfare before the Protestant provinces finally succeeded in detaching themselves from Catholic Spain. Germany and other parts of Central Europe were torn apart by the inconceivably savage Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), in which entire regions were devastated and the population of the area was reduced by 30 percent. Britain, closer to home for most American colonists, had seen Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Mary I’s persecution of Protestants, and finally the bloody Civil War (1642-51), in which Puritan parliamentarians took on Anglican royalists, divided the nation, and executed the monarch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

This Month's Cato Unbound

I'm happy to see that this month's Cato Unbound is on "the faith of the American Founders," with Mark David Hall providing the lead essay.

This is Dr. Hall's first essay. A taste:
The Liberty Bell is one of the most prominent symbols of American freedom. It is inscribed with the words “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof,” which are taken from Leviticus 25:10. In Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I contend that the connection between the Bible and liberty is no accident. America’s founders drew from their Christian convictions, and ideas developed within the Christian tradition of political reflection, when they created a constitutional order committed to protecting and expanding freedom.[1] 
The book’s argument is, to put it mildly, controversial. Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts that the Bible and liberty are fundamentally incompatible.[2] Similarly, Matthew Stewart proclaims that the skeptical philosopher Benedict de Spinoza is the “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic … ”[3] Both authors agree that America’s founders were deists who created a godless Constitution and desired the strict separation of church and state. 
Far too many scholars make similar claims. ...  
I will have more to say later. I also look forward to reading the contributions from Steven GreenThomas Kidd, and Brooke Allen

Saturday, June 06, 2020

American States of Nature

The book American States of Nature looks informative and relevant to my interdisciplinary interests regarding America's founding. Below is what the latest edition of the American Political Science Association’s Perspectives on Politics journal (published by Cambridge) has to say about it:
In American States of Nature, Mark Somos makes the simple but important argument that the concept of the state of nature is central to the American founding, an idea comparable to rights, liberty and property” in importance (p. 2). Its centrality, he contends, nevertheless has been largely missed by scholars for the past two centuries. For Somos, the state of nature discourse proceeds through four stages. The first, the buildup to the Revolution from 176172, saw the concept of a state of nature invoked as a source of rights that supported the colonists’ grievances against the actions of Parliament. In the second stage,177275, the concept was invoked to justify independence, as the colonists increasingly saw themselves as effectively abandoned by England and left on their own. In the third stage, 177589, a constitutional framework was built on the basis of this distinctively American state of nature, and in the fourth the concept was adapted to developing the nascent state. In this book, Somos explores the first two stages, leaving the latter two for future work. Following John Adams, Somos finds the beginning of the movement for independence in a speech by James Otis in a court case in 1761. It was Otis, he argues, who first began to transform the concept of a state of nature into a revolutionary idea for the colonists. The idea evolved into a constitutive sense of American state of nature, in which the colonists formed a natural community” (p. 161). This constitutive meaning, which carries well beyond the works of Otis, formed a basis for colonial arguments for independence, whether partial or total, well before 1776. As early as 1772, and certainly after that, every side in every colonial constitutional debate ... regarded the state of nature as a crucial component of the intellectual and ideological debates concerning imperial reform and the colonies’ future” (p. 216).
See more here and here.