Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Profit Motive Keeps Our Union Together -- So Say Alexander Hamilton and Jay Cost

If you think our society's nosedive in civility and the increase in political and identitarian tribalism will lead to civil war... Take heart. It won't happen. That's the message of Jay Cost, writing for National Review. His prognosis is based on none other than Alexander Hamilton, who of course graces our $10 bill and was the subject of a spectacularly popular play in recent years.

In Federalist No. 12, Hamilton wrote that "[t]he prosperity of commerce" is, and will increasingly become, "the primary object of our political cares." He explained that the "interests" of the working citizenry are "intimately blended and interwoven." And this reality, claims Hamilton via and according to Cost, will insure American society today endures the turbulent, polarized affairs in which we find ourselves. 

To read Cost's full article, I direct you to National Review's site below...

It should be noted that the Founders also had much to say about religion and morality being important to preserving the glue which binds us together. See Washington's Farewell Address (which incidentally Hamilton had a hand in writing). But even if Cost is correct in his emphasis on economics, the glue only works so long as Americans embrace the system given to us by our Founders, namely free market economics. If the nation turns away from capitalism and more toward socialism, we may find Cost's hopeful optimism misplaced. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fea: The Author’s Corner with Gregg Frazer

It looks like our friend Dr. Gregg Frazer has a new book out entitled God against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case against the American Revolution (University Press of Kansas, 2018). John Fea has the details here. A taste:
JF: What led you to write God Against the Revolution?  
GF: My primary research interest is religion and the American Founding. I became re-acquainted with the sermons of Loyalist minister Jonathan Boucher while doing research on American Revolution-era sermons for my first book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders. I have always been impressed with Boucher’s biblical argument and with his rational challenges to John Locke’s theories. Having analyzed the basic arguments and assumptions of the Patriot preachers in my first book, I became intrigued with the idea of examining the arguments of the Loyalist clergymen and, as they were the primary spokesmen of Loyalism, the political thought of the Loyalists in general. Irrespective of the title, the book covers all of the Loyalist arguments.
I can't wait to read it and hopefully we will have much more discussion about this book.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ben Franklin on Religious "Diffidence"

In his autobiography Ben Franklin noted that at one point in his younger life he became a "thorough deist." Franklin immediately noted that he backtracked on the thoroughness of such creed. ("I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho' it might be true, was not very useful.")

Elsewhere in his biography, Franklin gives more detail on his change of approach. Paragraph breaks are added:
And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it. Therefore I took a delight in it, practising it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.  
I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. 
This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversion are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purpose for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.  
For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet, at the same time, express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.
Shaftesbury and Collins were two of the "Deists" who influenced Franklin. Early in his life Franklin was imbibed in the game which we see played to this day of skeptics debunking conventional religious dogmas. Franklin claims he was quite good at it. But then opted for a different approach. The approach of making diffident arguments on issues that many hold dear.

More of a soft challenge than a hard one.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Nothing New Under the Sun

“I have long been convinced that our Enemies have made it an Object, to eradicate from the Minds of the People in general a Sense of true Religion & Virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their Point of enslaving them.”—Samuel Adams to John Scollay, 30 April 1776

HT: Daniel Dreisbach

Friday, August 31, 2018

Thomas Jefferson Believed in the Resurrection

Just not of Jesus. At least not yet.

In his letter to to William Short, October 31, 1819, Jefferson listed the doctrines which he rejected:
The 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.
Elsewhere Jefferson posited his materialism and rejected the concept of an immaterial soul. Such got Jefferson accused of secret atheism. Likewise, that John Locke was a materialist is a component in the equation that gets him accused of the same.

Yes, Jefferson following Locke and Joseph Priestley was a materialist. All three believed in or at least professed to believe in a creator God and in a future state of rewards and punishments. I'll skip Locke's particulars for the moment and note that Priestley the Socinian believed in the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. Socinians like Priestley believed Jesus 100% man, 0% divine in His nature. But on a divine mission.

For Priestley the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus was God doing for the most perfect man what He promised to do one day for all good men.

John Adams too believed in the resurrection of Jesus. I can't tell whether Adams was an Arian or Socinian (I'm not sure if he knew what he was in that respect). What I am sure of is Adams bitterly and militantly rejected the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation and self identified as a unitarian.

But for a materialist like Jefferson, if one doesn't believe in the doctrine of an immaterial soul, but one does believe in a creator God and an afterlife, it stands to reason that the resurrection of humans into new material bodies will be the mechanism God uses to accomplish such.

So even if Jefferson rejected the resurrection of Jesus, he probably believed that Jesus would be resurrected in the end with himself and all other good men.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

St. Athanasius and the American Founding

I will admit that I have not done comprehensive research on the topic of St. Athanasius and the American founding. But I am aware of a few notable founders who broached the subject. And all the results are negative towards the name "Athanasius" or "Athanasian."

So, in this post, I attempt briefly to explain who St. Athanasius was, what he was famous for, and why certain founders (or their British influences) would speak negatively about him.

If you want to know more explicit detail about him, start off with his Wiki page and follow the sources in the footnotes there. As I see it, he was notable for three things I list below.

The first is that he played a leading role in the Council of Nicaea that was meant to clarify (small o) "orthodox" church doctrine and anathematize Arianism. The three most notable ecumenical creeds of the early church are as follows: 1. Apostles; 2. Nicene; and 3. Athanasian. People debate when the Apostles' creed was written; it could have been before or after the Nicene. The origins of the Nicene creed are clearer: it was done in 325 CE. Likewise the exact date of the Athanasian creed is debatable; but it appears to be somewhat after the Nicene.

All three of the creeds were meant to clarify the nature of God and anathematize heresy. All three are Trinitarian in their character. The Apostles' creed is the least specific, the Athanasian the most so, with the Nicene somewhere in the middle. The Athanasian creed gets so specific it became clumsy for some orthodox churches to use for liturgical recitation. But make no mistake, the purpose of these creeds was for the early church to clarify the "orthodoxy" of the collective, universal (i.e., small c catholic) church.

So one possible meaning of "Athanasius" or "Athanasian" to America's founders is Trinitarianism in the form of a creed. And the most notable Trinitarian creed is the Nicene (not the Athanasian, ironically) where the doctrine of the Trinity was firmly articulated and where St. Athanasius played a leading role in the process.

So to use the term "Athanasian" in a negative sense might mean a Founder is signifying his theological unitarianism. For instance, John Adams in 1815 comes out of his unitarian closet and attempts to straighten out Jedidiah Morse, a notable orthodox Trinitarian enemy of Unitarianism at the time. Adams states:
In the preface, Unitarianism, is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old Age. Sixty five years Ago, my own Minister the Reverend Lemuel Briant, Dr Jonathan Mayhew of the West Church in Boston, The Reverend Mr Shute of Hingham The Reverend John Brown of Cohasset, and perhaps equal to all, if not above all, The Reverend Mr Gay of Hingham; were Unitarians. Among the Laity, how many could I name Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesmen, Farmers? I could fill a Sheet, but at present will name only one. Richard Cranch a Man who had Studied Divinity, and Jewish and Christian Antiquities more than any Clergyman now existing in New England. 
More than fifty years ago I read Dr Samuel Clark, Emlyn, and Dr Waterland. Do you expect, my dear Doctor to teach me any new thing in favour of Athanasianism?
So when William Livingston slammed St. Athanasius in a letter to, again, Jedidiah Morse (but in 1787), he could have been signalling his unitarianism.

But St. Athanasius is also know for the creed which bears his name: the Athanasian creed. Ironically, scholars conclude he had nothing to do with the writing of that creed; it was as mentioned above, at Nicaea where Athanasius played the leading role. The Athanasian creed came later and is more wordy than the Nicene. The early church felt the need to add more words because it felt the need to further clarify what is orthodoxy, what is heresy.

The creed was adopted by not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Anglicans and many other (though certainly not all) orthodox Protestant churches.

One of the controversial "additions" that the Athanasian creed makes to the Nicene are the so called "damnatory clauses." It's the part at the end which says basically, not only do we believe in the Trinity and other aspects of orthodoxy against heresy, but if you don't believe in this, you are damned.

It's supposedly a "faith" of the universal church "which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved."

Now keep in mind that many orthodox Protestants affirm this creed. Just as many orthodox Protestants believe in a small c catholic or "universal" church. I have encountered a few orthodox Trinitarian Protestants who say they believe in everything the Athanasian creed says except for the damnatory clauses. Meaning that you can have a mistaken view that qualifies as heresy, but not necessarily soul damning heresy.

Most of the fulminations against the damnatory clauses of the Athanasian creed in the 18th Century come from unitarians (as far as I have seen). So for instance, as the Arian Richard Price noted in an address that George Washington endorsed:
Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.
The third thing that Athanasius is notable for is his work in establishing what constitutes the canon of the Bible. In other words, he helped write the Bible. When we say "write the Bible," this is what we mean: If one wants to believe that the Holy Spirit breathed all scripture, fine. However the Bible didn't just fall out of the sky or wasn't just discovered written in gold plates as a complete set of books.

The Bible isn't a novel; it's a canon that had to be complied. And from day one, there were disagreements on which books belonged. From day one (the first century) believers had "scripture." But what they didn't have was a book of 27 that comprised the New Testament or a book of 66 or 73 or some other number that comprised the Old and New Testaments.

Many orthodox Protestants seem under the misimpression that once the ink was dry on the last book in the New Testament in the first century, that all true believers simply knew that it was these 27 books that comprise the NT and those 39 that comprised the OT.

The problem with this is that it's not true; or at least there is no historical evidence for it. Again, they all believed in *some* scripture, but the process for determining "it's these books and not those" took hundreds of years to settle. And in reality, it's still not settled in that Protestants, Catholics and the capital O Orthodox each have canons with slightly different sets of books.

Long story short: the heretic Marcion came forth with the first written canon that struck many in the community as whack. So the community of believers got together and started a long process that attempted to answer him and settle matters of orthodoxy and canonicity.

Some mistakenly believe that Nicaea settled the matter of the canon. In fact, that was John Adams' impression. But Nicaea didn't deal with the canon, rather the Trinity. The reason why someone might make this error is because Athanasius not only played a leading role at Nicaea, but also in establishing the canon of the Bible.

In fact, the earliest historians can trace a complete list of 27 books of the New Testament is to Athanasius in the year 367. Now, let me be clear on what is meant here. Yes, all the books in the canon may well have been written in the first century. But what we are looking for is evidence of "it's these 27, not those other books." Terms like "mostly the NT" or "basically" won't cut it. Yes, much earlier, we can demonstrate figures believing in groups of books that are part of the NT. But you don't get those 27 until Athanasius and 367.

And even then it wasn't settled; that's just the earliest we can find those 27 as defined as "the list" of books that comprise the NT. Though it became formalized in the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD.

So if one takes issue with what constitutes the canon of scripture, especially the 27 books which make up the NT, one might take issue with St. Athanasius.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Who Was Henry Marten?

Another question related to this post is "what is reformed Protestantism?"

I was involved in the comments section at the Law and Liberty site on BRUCE P. FROHNEN's latest. One learned commenter stressed the "reformed Protestant" element in the development of the concept of "liberty" in America and Great Britain.

Though, the commenter seemed to have a very broadly defined understanding of reformed Protestant Christianity. They asserted it encompassed the Arian and Socinian doctrines. As they put it:
... I don’t know that [Roger] Williams ever expressed an opinion about Servetus but non-trinitarinism has been a feature of Christianity since about 300 AD and Arianism was the Christianity of the Goths and Theodoric the Great who conquered Italy in 493. Further, Socinianism had been in the air in England and since 1610, it was part of the Polish Brethren’s belief system in the 1560s. It is a common place observation that rationalist and biblical literalist Reformed christians like Newton, Henry Marten, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson exhibited a marked tendency [toward] non-trinitarianism.
I replied that I didn't know anything about Henry Marten and that very few people associate theological unitarianism with the label “biblical literalist Reformed christian[ity].” Though, yes, arguably it was part of the theologically liberal (for the time) wing of “Protestant Christianity.”

So the commenter noted:
Henry Marten was perhaps the most radically republican member of the Long Parliament. He was John Lilburne’s best connection in Parliament after Cromwell put Lilburne on trial for treason in 1649. Lilburne appeared pro se and told the jury they were final deciders of both the law and the facts. The jury acquitted Lilburne and the cheering spectators carried “Freeborn John” out of the courtroom on their shoulders.  
Like Col. Thomas Rainborowe’s brother, William, Marten was often called a Ranter. Here it is interesting to note that John Winthrop became Thomas and William Rainborowe’s brother-in-law in December 1647 when Winthrop married their widowed sister, Martha Coytmore, in Boston. Winthrop’s son, Stephen, had already been commissioned in the New Model Army. He rose quickly and died in Scotland a Lt. Colonel in what had formerly been Sheffield’s regiment of horse. Things might have been very different in both England and New England had Winthrop and Col. Rainborowe not died so young and so close together in 1648-49.
I briefly looked online for evidence of Marten's creed. This is what Wiki noted:
Although a leading Puritan, Marten enjoyed good living. He had a contemporary reputation as a heavy drinker and was widely said to be a man of loose morals.[2] According to John Aubrey he was "a great lover of pretty girls to whom he was so liberal that he spent the greatest part of his estate" upon them.[10] In the opinion of King Charles I he was "an ugly rascal and whore-master".[11] He married twice (to Elizabeth Lovelace and Margaret Staunton (née West) but had an open and lengthy relationship with Mary Ward, a woman not his wife, by whom he had three daughters.[12] Ward ultimately was to remain with him throughout his later imprisonment.[4] His enemies branded him an atheist but his religious views were more complex, and influenced his position regarding the need to allow freedom of worship and conscience.[13] His political views throughout his life were constant: he opposed one-man rule[14] and was in favour of representative government. In 1643, even while the king was losing the First Civil War and Parliament's cause was beginning to triumph, Marten's republican sentiments led to his arrest and brief imprisonment.[15] Thus for his time Marten was unusual in his political stance, being unashamedly in favour not of reforming the monarchy but of replacing it with a republic.[16]

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fideists Ought Not Try to Claim the Political Theology of the American Founding

From Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825:
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & . …
The Declaration of Independence's, that is.

You can read a philosophical muckety muck definition of fideism here. For the sake of this post, see below Francis Schaeffer as he slams Aristotle and Aquinas.


Years ago I think we noted Barry Hankins' book that featured the battle between Schaeffer on the one hand v. Mark Noll and George Marsden on the other. This article by Hankins summarizes the controversy.

As I see it, Noll and Marsden chewed Schaeffer up and spat him out. They ended up adding Nathan Hatch, currently the highest paid college President in America (Wake Forrest), to their cohort and together they wrote the book "The Search For Christian America" which demolished Schaeffer's "Christian America" claim on his own grounds. 

Schaeffer and the three authors apparently share the same theological premise, which is a kind of fideistic form of reformed orthodox Protestant Christianity. Schaeffer's fideism was the weakest part of his "Christian America" argument. The three academic authors nailed him on it.

From the above linked article:
Like Noll, Marsden again tried to educate Schaeffer as to what Christian scholars do. The first goal is to be accurate, not to fashion a story that is useful for an agenda, however just that agenda might be, Marsden chided Schaeffer. In a more critical vein, Marsden charged Schaeffer with his own inconsistency, in that throughout his career as a Christian author he had argued that Aquinas and theological liberals were similarly guilty of creating a nature/grace dualism, yet America's founding fathers seemed to get a free pass when they engaged in the same type of thinking. Elaborating on Noll's arguments, Marsden charged that at no time in the history of Christianity had the nature/grace dichotomy that Schaeffer had criticized for two decades been more prevalent than in Britain and her colonies in the eighteenth century. Portraying such thinking as broadly Christian, as long as it was not militantly anti-Christian like the French Revolution, was in Marsden's view precisely what had opened the door for the twentieth century secular revolution that he, Noll, and Schaeffer all lamented.
Gotcha! Right between the eyes.

However, one wonders whether the fideistic premise these interlocutors all apparently share is a necessary tenet, central to the orthodox reformed Protestantism on which grounds they argue. J. Daryl Charles argues below, to the contrary.


Still, even conceding the kind of Protestant theology for which Dr. Charles argues has a proper place in authentic orthodox Protestant Christianity, it's still debatable how well the kind of "nature" appealed to in America's Declaration of Independence mixes with traditional orthodox Christianity.

Thomist Robert Kraynak, for instance, argues said appeal to nature is too "modern" for such. But if one refuses to recognize those appeals to nature for what they are (appeals to reason, not scripture) one ought not be taken seriously.

I think that's a reason why Noll and Marsden spent a great deal of ink remonstrating with Schaeffer. Unlike David Barton, I think they respected Schaeffer in a sense, as a theologian who was very good at his particular craft with which they personally sympathized.

As a historian, not so much.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Robert Kraynak: "Catholicism and the Declaration ..." Part VII, Final.

Last month I ran a series of posts which reproduced the first half of this article by Robert P. Kraynak about Roman Catholicism and the Declaration of Independence, with minor edits (omission of footnotes and a few ellipses [...]) and my sparse commentary.

I stopped somewhere in the middle of page 17 out of 30. This will be my final post on the matter. Those interested in a careful reading can read the entire article. These pages are where the article goes deep into the philosophical weeds to explain why the natural law the Roman Catholic Church endorses is not the same thing as the natural rights encapsulated in the Declaration and the tension between the two. I'm just going to post one short excerpt from the rest of the article.
Applied to the American situation, Thomistic natural law requires one to judge the work of the American founding fathers by the objective hierarchy of ends which God has ordained for man. Here, the decisive question would seem to be whether the natural law doctrine of the Declaration of Independence which guided the Americans contains some of the elements of a true natural law found in original Thomism~ The answer, we now must admit, is that the Declaration contains only a partial or incomplete version of true natural law, because it does not provide sufficiently for the perfection of the rational soul. The Declaration of Independence asserts a right to pursue happiness, but does not provide sufficiently for the higher goods of temporal and eternal happiness, ·leaving them more to personal choice than to corporate responsibility or leaving them to the larger culture which surrounded the Declaration and the Constitution that still contained vital remnants of classical and Christian culture and of the English common law tradition. Yet, if the American founders had been more attentive to preserving these traditional elements, they might have been Tories rather than revolutionaries. Or, since they themselves were gentlemen politicians of quasi-aristocratic character, they might have waged a war of independence on less sweeping principles than natural rights and established a more hierarchical regime than a constitutional republic.

However, a Thomistic approach to politics requires prudence, which counsels statesmen to seek the best approximation of the true hierarchy of goods in the given circumstances. After the American Revolution occurred and the regime was settled in favor of republicanism, Catholic Thomists could be American republicans-they could have acted like Alexander Hamilton, who favored constitutional monarchy while accepting constitutional democracy or republicanism as the only practical option in the circumstances. Within that basic acceptance and loyalty to of the American natural rights republic, Catholic Thomists could hold reservations about the natural rights basis of the regime and hope to move it in a ·more hierarchically ordered and less individualistic and less materialistic direction. ... 
 As I mentioned in an earlier post, Kraynak would later write an entire book on this topic entitled "Christian Faith and Modern Democracy." Those who enjoyed books such as "The Search For Christian America," "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," and "The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution" will surely enjoy this book.

And I especially recommend Kraynak's book for those who enjoyed Patrick Deneen's current best seller "Why Liberalism Failed" as the two make similar arguments.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who Were the Founders?

We get a lot about certain "key" Founders, especially John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their copious--and often post-presidential--writings, although much of their stature rests on becoming president after the US government was established by the Constitution, of which neither of them were "Framers." Nor did either actually fight in the Revolution. [Hamilton was a Revolutionary general and was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers; Madison of course is the "Father of the Constitution; and Washington won the war and chaired the Constitutional Convention!]   

With a HT to Mark David Hall, from Daniel Dreisbach of American University, Founders Famous and Forgotten:

Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank. If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman.

Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding.


When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically respond with a short list of a half dozen or so notables who have achieved iconic status in the American imagination and collective memory. This is true of even serious students of American history. The small fraternity of “famous founders” typically includes (in no particular order) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. To this short list, individual historians occasionally add a favorite figure or two.
There is, however, a much larger company of statesmen who made salient contributions in thought, word, and deed to the construction of America’s republican institutions. Unfortunately, many among the founding generation, whose contributions and sacrifices were consequential in the creation of a new nation, have slipped into unmerited obscurity, exiles from the elite fraternity of the famous. Why are some individuals, whose well-documented contributions were valued by their peers and celebrated in their time, largely forgotten in our time? Why are a few founders “famous” and others now “forgotten”?


According to a well-worn axiom, history is written by the victors. The reputations of several important founders have been damaged, one suspects, because they were on the losing side of great debates or controversies, especially the bitter debates over the declaration of American independence and ratification of the proposed national constitution. Consider, for example, the Quaker John Dickinson of Delaware and Pennsylvania (serving both states as the elected chief executive), who championed the cause of American liberties in aseries of brilliant “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” (1767-1768), and who was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress where he drafted the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” (October 1765), a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses where he was the principal draftsman of the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (6 July 1775), and one of Delaware’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In 1776, however, he spoke eloquently against and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he thought it premature and intemperate, and his reputation and public career suffered for it, despite commendable subsequent service to the nation. It has been said of George Mason that “His opposition to ratification of the federal Constitution— a document whose shape he helped mightily to craft—started his fall from the national memory.” The public standing of other vocal critics of the proposed Constitution was arguably diminished by their controversial stances in this most important national debate, despite the fact that some later became ardent admirers of the charter. Among the critics were Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, George Clinton, Luther Martin, and John Francis Mercer. Other founders may have similarly fallen from public favor because of their advocacy of positions and causes that later proved unpopular.
The stature of some founders has risen and fallen with the vagaries of subsequent politics. As political parties emerged in the late eighteenth century and carved out well defined identities in the nineteenth century, partisans often appropriated selected founders as precursor spokesmen for, or ideological models of, their party perspectives, or as avowed opponents of some partisan position. The Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s and succeeding decades, forexample, described themselves as inheritors of the Jeffersonian tradition and demonized Federalist party stalwarts, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams (an especially inviting target because his son, John Quincy Adams, was Andrew Jackson’s immediate foe), and John Marshall, for their opposition to Jeffersonian politics. (The reputations of other prominent Federalists— such as Fisher Ames, John Jay, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris, and C.C. Pinckney—may have similarly suffered in the wake of their party’s demise and Republican ascendancy at the turn of the century.) Thus, Jefferson’s reputation as a founder flourished and Federalist founders’ reputations floundered as Jacksonianism ascended. The War Between the States and its aftermath prompted a reappraisal of Hamilton’s staunch advocacy of a strong national government, and, in the North at least, Hamilton eclipsed the states-rights Jefferson as a “revered figure in the minds of most Americans.” According to Merrill D. Peterson, “Jefferson’s reputation merely survived the War; Hamilton’s was remade by it.” In summary, political partisans of succeeding generations have promoted or demoted selected founders in the public mind depending on whether a founder’s views and associations advanced or impeded the goals of these latter-day partisans.
Another explanation focuses on certain founders’ unappealing personal traits, quirks or eccentricities, or alleged moral failings. George Mason’s truculent temperament and general aversion to public life almost certainly diminished his profile in the history of the founding era. He was a most reluctant public figure, eschewing the limelight and declining to pursue high office (although reluctantly accepting public office when called). An abrasive, egotistical personality did little to enhance Thomas Paine’s reputation, and pious Americans from his day to the present have reviled him for his heretical views on Christianity. John Adams described the radical pamphleteer as “the lying rascal,” and Teddy Roosevelt denounced him as that “filthy little atheist.”

And so the most influential polemicist of the age, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, died in relative obscurity in 1809 without a eulogy from his former compatriots in the struggle for American independence. Gouverneur Morris’s well earned reputation as a profligate rake and lecher may have diminished his standing among prudish nineteenth-century Americans. In a very different vein, Aaron Burr’s widely publicized roguish, even “murderous,” and allegedly treasonous conduct has kept him alive in the public memory, but it has also demoted him from the pedestal of a venerated founder.

There is the tragic case of James Wilson, who died in ignominy in 1798 at age 56, fleeing from creditors for failed land speculation. He was buried in an obscure country graveyard in Edenton, North Carolina. Today, Wilson is virtually unknown to the American public, but he was among the most trenchant and influential minds at the Constitutional Convention (making more speeches than any other delegate, save Gouverneur Morris), and he stamped an indelible mark on American legal theory through his influential law lectures and tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court. Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, a member of the first federal Congress, and the indispensable “financier of the Revolution”—a man who by any measure should be remembered as a founding father—similarly borrowed heavily and failed miserably in western land speculation. He languished for three and a half miserable years in a debtors’ prison and his reputation has never recovered.

Finally, there seems to be an inclination among modern scholars to dismiss, discount,or ignore the views of pious founders whose ideas and actions were shaped by deeply held religious convictions. Trained in the rationalist traditions of the academy, some scholars are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with or closed to religiously informed arguments and rhetoric; thus, they dismiss as serious thinkers or otherwise decline to engage founders whose worldview was profoundly religious. Founders steeped in the rationalist traditions of the Enlightenment are more familiar and accessible, and their exploits are advanced in modern scholarship. John Witherspoon’s faith based perspectives may have scared off more than one secular scholar; moreover, his clerical collar may have symbolically entangled church and state too excessively for modern sensibilities. The profiles of Samuel Adams, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, and Isaac Backus, among others, may have been similarly diminished by modern scholars on account of their profoundly religious identities and perspectives.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

American Creation Awarded

Fellow AC blogger Ray Soller sent us the following link, which recognized American Creation as one of the 50 best history blogs to follow in 2018 (#18 to be specific).  Congrats to everyone associated with AC and here's hoping we can keep our fair little corner of the Internet going for many years to come!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Birthday, America

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Vidal v. Girard and the Wall Between Church and State Debate

Was the United States founded as a Christian nation?  This question has occupied a place in my mind for more than a decade and has motivated me to spend countless hours researching a plethora of fascinating material.  I doubt I will ever reach a fulfilling resolution to this question but if I were to give my best answer today, I would say America was NOT founded as a Christian nation.  Having said that, I would also feel compelled to add that Judeo-Christian beliefs and teachings most certainly played a role -- and not some side show role -- in bringing to pass the founding of this nation.  Put another way, I believe America was PLANTED by Christian principles, but the tree which sprouted on this continent became something different.  Something better.  The "separation of church and state" that ensued was meant to STRENGTHEN both religion and government, not make them bitter enemies of one another.

This "wall" separating church and state is not, in my opinion, some impenetrable shield forever separating God from country.  Instead, I believe the wall of separation between church and state is best understood when compared to a human cell.  The semi-permeable membrane of our cells allows for the fluid (but also controlled) movement of material between the outside and inside of the cell.  Such is the case with the separation of church and state in America.  When one looks at history, the semi-permeable nature of the church/state wall becomes self-evident.  There has simply been too much fluid movement (usually controlled movement) between the worlds of religion and government for us to call this division an actual wall.

Over the years, supporters of the "Christian Nation" thesis, along with their more secular opponents, have appealed to various forms of evidence to support their respective camp.  One of those forms of evidence has been Supreme Court cases from the past.  Today I want to take a deep dive into my favorite Supreme Court case, which regularly seems to pop up in "Christian Nation" apologetic material, and I believe best supports my view of the church/state wall actually behaving more like the human cell.  


The day after Christmas of 1831, Stephen Girard, a French immigrant who resided in Philadelphia, passed away at the age of 81.  Girard was a banker and philanthropist who had amassed an incredible fortune that made him the richest man at that time in the United States (some historians have argued that Girard was the 4th wealthiest American ever, when inflation is considered, behind John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Aster).  Girard was also a widower who had no children.  As a result, Girard elected to leave a large portion of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia.  In his will, Girard wished for the City of  Philadelphia to establish an orphanage/college for "poor male white orphans." In addition, Girard's will carried a clause which called for the complete ban on the Bible and Bible readings in the orphanage, along with a ban on every type of religious minister: 
I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises appropriated to the purposes of the said college.
On the surface Girard's request for a ban on religious ministers and the Bible itself seems incredibly judgmental and capricious.  This is an understandable conclusion, especially when we discover that Girard was somewhat hostile to religion throughout his life.  Before passing judgement, however, there is some important historical context we should consider.

The Bible Wars: Catholics v. Protestants 

The 19th century was a period of extreme growth in the United States.  The swell of European immigrants, particularly large numbers of Irish Catholics, during the 19th century, sparked a fire of anti-Catholic sentiment that consumed large segments of the American populace to include Philadelphia.   During the first decades of the 19th century, Catholic churches and clergy grew at an exponential rate. Protestants reacted by inciting discord within their ranks.  Catholics responded to this growing disapproval of their faith by mounting an attack of their own.  The strife that ensued divided American Christians on fundamental doctrinal issues.  In addition, this division caused both Protestant and Catholic adherents to double down on their faith.  All of this tension proved to be the ideal breeding ground for paranoia and conspiracy that captured the minds of even some of America's best and brightest.  For example, Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and head of the American Protestant Union, argued that Catholic immigrants were part of a plot (on the part of the Pope) to convert America and lay the groundwork for the Catholic domination of the New World.

This Protestant/Catholic battle eventually found its way into America's schools.  In Philadelphia these schools were controlled by the Protestant majority, who insisted that their religious views take center stage as part of the regular school curriculum.  Catholics tried to respond to this action by establishing schools of their own, where Catholic beliefs could be taught and practiced without opposition.  This effort proved to be extremely limited in its impact, since the church could only establish a very limited number of schools.  As a consequence, most Catholic students, who wanted an education, were required to attend schools dominated by Protestant teachings.

One of the most divisive aspects of this conflict came in the form of the Bible.  Since Protestants dominated Philadelphia, they naturally wanted their children to grow up reading the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.  As a result, the KJV was the standard religious text of the overwhelming majority of schools in the region.  Naturally, Catholics opposed the KJV and demanded that their children be allowed to read from the Douay Bible.  Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, who served as the third Bishop of Philadelphia, wrote to Philadelphia school authorities on this problem, stating:
Teachers shall read and cause to be read, The Bible; by which is understood the version published by command of King James. To this regulation we are forced to object, inasmuch as Catholic children are led to view as authoritative [the King James Version] which is rejected by the Church....We do not ask you to adopt the Catholic version for general use; but we feel warranted in claiming that our conscientious scruples to recognize or use the other, be respected....The consciences of Catholics are also embarrassed by the mode of opening and closing the School exercises which... is by the singing of some hymn, or by prayer. It is not consistent with the laws and discipline of the Catholic Church for her members to unite in religious exercises with those who are not of their communion.   
Catholics were quick to point out that their taxes were being used to support Protestant schools that taught Protestant beliefs from Protestant scripture; an injustice they simply couldn't stomach.  Eventually these Catholic protests found their way to the sympathetic ear of William Henry Seward (the same W.H. Seward who would one day serve as Secretary of State to Abraham Lincoln) who stated:
The children of foreigners, found in great numbers in our populous cities and towns, and in the vicinity of our public works, are too often deprived of the advantages of our system of public education, in consequence of prejudices arising from differences of language or religion...I do not hesitate, therefore, to recommend the establishment of schools in which they may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith.
To make a long story short, this division between Catholics and Protestants eventually led to violence.  In what is known as the Philadelphia Bible Riots, citizens of Philadelphia (overwhelmingly Protestant) took up arms and attacked predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhoods, resulting in bloodshed.  Eventually military force was required to quell the rioters.  Ultimately these riots were the culmination of a decade-long feud between Protestants and Catholics over a number of social issues.  The battle over the Bible was the final tipping point that sparked violence.

Now let us return to the story of Stephen Girard and his fortune.  Keeping in mind the fierce division between Catholics and Protestants at the time of his death one can understand why Girard felt that a Bible/minister free orphanage might be advantageous.  It wasn't that Girard disapproved of a particular creed or denomination.  Instead Girard likely felt disdain for the violence and hostility he saw in his community because of religious intolerance.  From Girard's will:
I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises appropriated to the purposes of the said college.
In making this restriction, I do not mean to cast any reflection upon any sect or person whatsoever; but, as there is such a multitude of sects, and such a diversity of opinion amongst them, I desire to keep the tender minds of the orphans, who are to derive advantage from this bequest, free from the excitement which clashing doctrines and sectarian controversy are so apt to produce; my desire is, that all the instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instil into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality, so that, on their entrance into active life, they may, from inclination and habit, evince benevolence towards their fellow-creatures, and a love of truth, sobriety, and industry, adopting at the same time such religious tenets as their matured reason may enable them to prefer.
Enter the Supreme Court

As is the case with most who leave a large fortune, the extended relatives of Girard, some still residing in France, wanted a piece of the pie.  The argument became intense enough that eventually the Supreme Court chose to deal with the matter.  The Girard family hired attorney Daniel Webster, former Senator and Secretary of State to Presidents Harrison and Tyler, while Horace Binney represented the City of Philadelphia.

The case essentially centered on two key issues: first, could the Corporation of the City of Philadelphia take real property and act as trust in the same manner as a private individual?  The second issue dealt with whether or not Girard's will violated the laws of Pennsylvania, particularly as it related to the issue of ministers being banned from the college.  In other words, did Girard's will create an institution (the orphanage) that was specifically hostile to the Christian faith?

Daniel Webster focused most of his energies on this second issue.  In his mind, Girard's will did violate Pennsylvania law and common law because it suggested that sectarian differences within Christianity meant the entire Christian institution was a waste.  Webster stated:
[T]his objection to the multitude and differences of sects is but the old story—the old infidel argument. It is notorious that there are certain great religious truths which are admitted and believed by all Christians. All believe in the existence of a God. All believe in the immortality of the soul. All believe in the responsibility, in another world, for our conduct in this. All believe in the divine authority of the New Testament...And cannot all these great truths be taught to children without their minds being perplexed with clashing doctrines and sectarian controversies?  Most certainly they can.
Webster's defense of Christianity favored Protestant, Catholic and everyone in between, and his defense of all ministers took on an almost patriotic feel:
Sir, I take it upon myself to say, that in no country in the world, upon either continent, can there be found a body of ministers of the gospel who perform so much service to man, in such a full spirit of self-denial, under so little encouragement from government of any kind, and under circumstances, always much straitened and often distressed, as the ministers of the gospel in the United States, of all denominations!
Webster then took his attack to Girard himself:
No fault can be found with Girard for wishing a marble college to bear his name, but it is not valuable unless it has a fragrance of Christianity about it. The reasons which the testator gives are objectionable and derogatory to Christianity; they assume that a difference of opinion upon some religious tenets is of more importance than a Christian education. 
Binney's rebuttal was to predictably point out that the differences between denominations were there for a reason.  It would be utter foolishness to assume that representatives of these different sects would not favor their own beliefs:
If any clergyman was to be admitted, he would of course teach the doctrines of his own church. No two sects would agree. Some would adopt one part of the Bible, some another. If they agreed as to what was to be left out as apocryphal, they would differ about the translation of the rest. The Protestant would not receive the Douay Bible. See the difficulties that exist in New York about the introduction of the Bible as a school-book.
In the end, the court ruled in favor of Girard (or better put, the City of Philadelphia).  The Supreme Court stated that a corporation could in fact receive real property willed to its trust and effectively execute the terms of a will as easily as a private individual.  On the issue of Girard's will violating Pennsylvania and common law, Justice Joseph Story, writing for the court, stated:
It is also said, and truly, that the Christian religion is a part of the common law of Pennsylvania. But this proposition is to be received with its appropriate qualifications, and in connection with the bill of rights of that state, as found in its constitution of government. The constitution of 1790, (and the like provision will, in substance, be found in the constitution of 1776, and in the existing constitution of 1838,) expressly declares, "That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship." Language more comprehensive for the complete protection of every variety of religious opinion could scarcely be used; and it must have been intended to extend equally to all sects, whether they believed in Christianity or not, and whether they were Jews or infidels. 
Is an omission to provide for instruction in Christianity in any scheme of school or college education a fatal defect, which avoids it according to the law of Pennsylvania? If the instruction provided for is incomplete and imperfect, is it equally fatal? These questions are propounded, because we are not aware that any thing exists in the constitution or laws of Pennsylvania, or the judicial decisions of its tribunals, which would justify us in pronouncing that such defects would be so fatal. Let us take the case of a charitable donation to teach poor orphans reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and navigation, and excluding all other studies and instruction; would the donation be void, as a charity in Pennsylvania, as being deemed derogatory to Christianity?...It has hitherto been thought sufficient, if he does not require any thing to be taught inconsistent with Christianity.
Looking to the objection therefore in a mere juridical view, which is the only one in which we are at liberty to consider it, we are satisfied that there is nothing in the devise establishing the college, or in the regulations and restrictions contained therein, which are inconsistent with the Christian religion, or are opposed to any known policy of the state of Pennsylvania. (my emphasis).
In short, the court ruled that though Girard's will specifically forbade ministers of all denominations from teaching or even visiting the orphanage/college, it did not attack or persecute the Christian religion.  In other words, the court recognized that the wall of separation between church and state was not some absolute, impenetrable barrier but instead the semi-permeable membrane I mentioned above.  The court was quick to point out that Christianity was not only a part of American heritage but was also a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.  At the same time, the court was just as quick to defend Girard's will on the grounds that no Christian discrimination had been made by his ban on Christian ministers.  The Church/State cell membrane allowed the stream of Christian belief to seep into the American cell but prevented favoring specific sectarian parasites, thus protecting the delicate American cell from becoming cancerous.   

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the arguments of both the Christian Nation apologists and their secularist opponents why this case would resonate with their respective opinions. Christian Nation advocates like David Barton and Robert Jeffress are quick to site the words of Justice Story, who in his ruling called America a "Christian country" and proclaimed Christianity to be a part of common law.  On the flip side, skeptics love to remind everyone that the court ultimately ruled in favor of Girard, upholding the orphanage's planned ban on Christian ministers.  But in their quest to out-quote the opposition both sides reveal the fundamental flaws of their respective positions.

The truth of the matter is Supreme Court decisions don't happen in a vacuum.  There are many influences that determine the outcome of a case.  Even though the court ultimately upheld Girard, they did not establish a precedent that outlawed religion entirely.  Instead the court discriminated on what it allowed to cross the semi-permeable church/state cell membrane.  As one historian put it, "Vidal was the Supreme Court's very first case dealing with the role of religion in the public schools, and it laid the foundation for an accommodationist view of the religion clauses." 

Simply put, Vidal v. Girard illustrates just how complex the issue of religion and government, church and state can become. For me personally, it underscores the importance that both religion and government have in our fine American republic.  The semi-permeable church/state barrier is one that we need to protect, for it is very delicate.  Allowing ourselves to stray too far into the "Christian Nation" or secularist camps could yield terrible consequences and destroy this beautiful barrier that has protected both religion and government for almost three centuries.  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Happy Second of July

Happy Independence Day to all "American Creation" readers.

Those of you who know your history understand that it was 242 years ago TODAY that the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously (with 1 colony abstaining) to approve Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee's motion, which declared "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The Pennsylvania Evening Post and The Pennsylvania Gazette both heralded the news that the Congress declared independence on July 2. And Massachusetts delegate John Adams famously wrote his wife the next day, predicting that the "the second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America." He prophesied that the Second of July "will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."

So... Happy Second of July, my fellow "American Creation" writers and all of our readers!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Jon Rowe v. Our Founding Truth

Our old buddy (nemesis?) Our Founding Truth has been sporadically updating his blog over the years.  It appears he has been keeping regular tabs on American Creation as well, as evidenced by his most recent post, an attempted rebuttal of our very own Jon Rowe.  In a post made back in April (Jonah Goldberg and the Metaphysics of Liberal Democracy), OFT takes umbrage with Rowe's claim that the Declaration of Independence is a "theist" document but not a "biblical" document.  From OFT: 
Rowe writes, "Even though the Declaration of Independence is a theistic document, it is not a biblical one. The "unalienable rights" in the DOI are anchored to God to make them non-negotiable; but such are, as the doctrine goes, discovered by reason, not revealed directly by God and recorded in a holy book. A generic monotheistic God, though, seems to exist as a necessary given part of the equation." 

 The DOI is proven to be a Christian document and Nature's God as the Divine Person, Christ Jesus, by two prayers. One before the DOI and one after. The first one is 47 days before Hancock signed the Declaration before anyone else. Both prayers mention God through the mediator Christ; meaning Nature's God cannot be anyone else but Christ: 

"The Congress...desirous...to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God's superintending providence, and of their duty devoutly to rely.... on His aid and direction... do earnestly recommend...a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may with united hearts confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life,...and through the Merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain His pardon and forgiveness." (bold mine) --Journals of Congress (1905), Vol. IV, pp. 208-209, May 17, 1776.
Moreover, the Ratifiers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights had these prayers, and others, before them while they deliberated. The idea God changed is ridiculous and promulgated by people who know little of the founding. Rowe, again, "The "unalienable rights" in the DOI are anchored to God to make them non-negotiable; but such are, as the doctrine goes, discovered by reason, not revealed directly by God and recorded in a holy book. 

However, Our unalienable rights are taken from the Bible:

II. The Rights of the Colonists as Christians.. These may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament. --Samuel Adams, The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting. November 20, 1772. 

It is the Christian religion that secures unalienable rights: 

[T]he Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people. --Noah Webster, REVOLUTIONARY SOLDIER; JUDGE; LEGISLATOR; EDUCATOR; “SCHOOLMASTER TO AMERICA” A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (New York: Webster and Clark, 1843), p. 291, from his “Reply to a Letter of David McClure on the Subject of the Proper Course of Study in the Girard College, Philadelphia. New Haven, October 25, 1836.”
I understand what OFT is trying to say but I'm puzzled by how he thinks prayers somehow serve as proof that the Declaration of Independence is a biblical document.  Perhaps he could chime in here.  OFT, if you're reading, the floor is yours.  

Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made news when he referenced the Bible to defend the immigration policy of the Trump Administration.  Sessions stated:
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order...Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
First off, I have no desire to debate immigration policy so you can rest easy in knowing that this post will not be political in nature.  Instead I am more interested in addressing Sessions' reference to the Book of Romans (chapter 13 to be specific) and the unique role this particular chapter of the Bible has played over the years.

Paul and Romans in Brief Historical Context

If we want to understand why Romans 13 has been such a controversial piece of Christian scripture we must first understand why Paul wrote it to begin with.  Most scholars agree that Paul authored Romans sometime between the years 55 and 58.  As its title suggests, Paul wrote this epistle to the "Christians" who were living in the city of Rome.  (I hesitate to use the word "Christian" because it is anachronistic to this time period.  It would be better to say "Jesus followers" or something similar.  In the interest of simplicity, however, I will continue to use the word Christian).

So what was happening in Rome that inspired Paul to write to the Roman Christians in the first place?  In the year 49, just a few short years before Paul wrote his letter, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome, due to what the Roman officials called "instigation of disturbances" among the people.  Shortly thereafter, Claudius was killed by Agrippina, his wife, in the year 54.  Long story short, Nero, the son of Agrippina, rose to power.  At first, Nero's reign was one of peace and prosperity.  Nero allowed the Jews to return to Rome and inaugurated a short era of peace and prosperity that permeated the Roman Capital.

As we all know, this period of prosperity didn't last, and Nero eventually became a degenerate who persecuted Christians to the point of death.  For Paul and his fellow Christians, this was a dark time, and Paul was certainly no fan of Nero. So why would Paul write to the Romans and tell them to submit to Nero's leadership or potentially face the wrath of God?

What we must recognize is that Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans BEFORE the persecutions of Nero had begun.  This is significant because when we read the words of chapter 13 we must keep in mind that Paul was writing during the brief period of peace and prosperity at the beginning of Nero's reign.  When we are mindful of this fact, the verses that Jeff Sessions (and many others) quote from scripture have a very different interpretation.
1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
7. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. (Romans 13: 1-7)
Paul was not writing to a group of persecuted Christians living under the yoke of a dictatorial psychopath.  He was writing to Christians who were being given (albeit temporarily) an opportunity to thrive.  The last thing Paul wanted these new Christians to do was to create waves or even appear to oppose the new regime.  By all accounts it seemed that a new era of tolerance was upon all of Rome, and the Christians stood to benefit from it in a big way.  Why would anyone dare resist it?  Paul, like any leader, would have wanted his people to submit to such a leader.  Why wouldn't this be the will of God?

Romans 13 Over the Years

Jeff Sessions is far from the first person to reference Romans 13 as support for a political agenda.  Over the years Romans 13 has been used to oppose everything from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement.  Jeff Sessions referencing this chapter of the Bible is simply par for the course when it comes to politicians wielding scripture like a weapon.  As Historian John Fea put it:
America was built and born on rebellion and a sort of radical resistance to authority.  Whenever Romans 13 was used in the 18th and the 19th century — and Sessions seems to be doing the same thing, so in this sense there is some continuity — it’s a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify your own political agenda.
Romans 13 was used by Loyalist colonists to oppose the cause of American Independence.  Romans 13 was used by slave-holding Confederates as doctrinal justification to own slaves (interestingly enough, these were the same Confederates who ended up breaking with the Union.  Funny how Romans 13 could be used to justify slavery but not to oppose a break with the Union).  Romans 13 was even used in Hitler's Germany by pro-Nazi Christians to inspire support of the German Furor.  Heck, some have argued (convincingly so?) that Romans 13 was Adolf Hitler's favorite chapter of the Bible.  Even here at American Creation, the blog list of how Romans 13 has been interpreted by a plethora of different people with different agendas is so long that I quit counting at 36 posts.

Romans 13 is, like so many other parts of scripture, a unique tool that can be used to add credence to almost any agenda.  Paul's words can be twisted to fit just about any issue, from opposing American independence in the 18th century to justifying immigration policy in the 21st century.  The fact that these words come from the Bible is why so many are both pleased and pissed with Sessions today.  Having said that, Sessions' tactic is neither unique nor particularly convincing from a purely historical perspective.  Simply put, Romans 13 has been used to justify/oppose everything under the sun.  To call something the "will of God" by appealing to this particular chapter of the Bible is like trying to kick water uphill.

In conclusion, the Apostle Paul was not attempting in Romans 13 to write out a manifesto for Church-State relations that would stand for the next two or three millennia.  Instead, Paul'sconcern was pastoral and local. Paul was worried about his little band of Christians in a foreign land.  Paul was advising his followers to be loyal to a regime that was, at the very least, happy to stay our of the way of the Christians. Jeff Sessions is simply wrong when he assumes that this part of the Bible supports his argument on immigration.  It does not.  Like so many before him, who have also used this Bible chapter to support their respective cause, Sessions is simply acting like a politician, not a historian or theologian.  My guess is the Apostle Paul would want Sessions to leave him out of this whole mess because he had bigger fish to fry.