Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Article & the Straussian Appeal

I like the work of Leo Strauss and his followers more for their method of analysis as opposed to their conclusions. Say what you want about them, they have tremendously influenced "conversations" in academic and intellectual circles.

Take, for instance, this new article written by professor of law and Donald Trump speechwriter F.H. Buckley in The American Conservative. I generally don't agree with the tenor of the article. Though, I think the article is interesting, makes some good points and is therefor worth reading (which is what I think in general of T.A.C.).

This quotation below relates to the mission of American Creation:
[M]ost intellectuals on the right draw their inspiration not from the Judeo-Christian tradition but from abstract theories of natural rights that have little need of God. They revere Jefferson, but as Walter Berns once asked me, just what kind of a god is “Nature and Nature’s God” anyway? At most, He’s Descartes’s god, as seen by Pascal, where he appears in Act I of the drama to give the system a “little push” and then departs the scene. But if that’s all He is, why do we need Him?


... By resting their political beliefs on abstract axioms of natural rights they have subscribed to theories of learned heartlessness; and it is a testament to their personal goodness that they’re better than their theories.
One doesn’t learn empathy or kindness from John Locke. Perhaps it’s not something one learns at all. The natural lawyer says it’s written on one’s heart; the evolutionary biologist says it’s coded in our genes, which perhaps comes down to the same thing. But it’s not to be derived from abstract theories. At best it’s a philosopher’s premise, not his conclusion, as it was for Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We might get it from our families, or be reminded of it by novelists such as Dickens, Hugo, or E.M. Forster. Mostly, however, we get it from religious education and belief. 


... Even devout Christians will prefer to speak the language of natural law and natural rights, conceding to the secular left the principle that moral and political arguments can be framed only in terms that might appeal to people of other or no faiths. But in so doing they abandon the firmest and most encompassing foundations of our moral language.
... The natural-rights theorist can tell you what others owe him, but not what he owes to others save for the thinnest of duties: don’t harm others, don’t steal from them or defraud them. Does that sound like a complete moral code? ....
This is East Coast Straussianism, something the author learned from at the very least Walter Berns whom he cites. This isn't West Coast Straussianism. (Though, I've heard Berns, along with Michael Zuckert categorized as "mid-Western," something in between East and West Coast Straussianism.)

Berns may have been wrong on the "Nature's God" part of the Declaration of Independence. The personal writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin demonstrate they believed in a warmer deity. Or perhaps there is some chain of reasoning that demonstrates this "Nature's God" is more deistic than even those authors understood Him to be.

The East Coast Straussians thought natural rights were a "solid" place to rest a political order, but also a "low" place, and therefore should be supported but with a corrective. The explicit politics of revelation (what Buckley argues for) is one such corrective.

The Straussians are often termed "neoconservatives." I think many are; and some are not. But Mr. Buckley is the furthest thing from a non-religious Straussian neoconservative. 

But he learned from them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How John Locke Influenced Christian-Deism, etc.

I think we are destined to debate about what John Locke really meant. Straussian claims that he was a secret Hobbesian imbibed atheist or something along those lines are too controversial to be asserted (as opposed to wondered about).

He was a secret something, probably theological unitarian of the Arian bent. He had a lowest common denominator understanding of Christianity that was so generously ecumenical that it got him accused of secret Socianianism.

I write this because I don't think an article by one Timothy Gordon (that Tom Van Dyke at American Creation linked to) quite gets John Locke anymore than the renowned Jeremy Waldron (insofar as Mr. Gordon properly articulates his argument) does. Gordon writes:
Locke was as Protestant as he was empiricist. As Jeremy Waldron notes, “Locke was intensely interested in Christian doctrine, and in the Reasonableness he insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus [i.e. the Bible].” This is a repudiation, not an affirmation, of natural law—the abiding epistemological expression of the Protestant one, at least until Immanuel Kant came along. Only revelation is meaningful. By implication then, Locke’s metaphysics was the perfect expression of Anglo-Protestant Christianity, notwithstanding his very un-Protestant “tabula rasa,” which was only a small setback. Such a setback is quite negligible in light of the more predominating Lockean concomitance between a meaningless empiricist nature and a meaningless Protestant nature—both of which thrive in Locke’s philosophy. And this means that the concept of “natural law” should be utterly anathema to Locke or the Lockean.

This is why, Waldron continues, “like the two other very influential natural law philosophers [being read by the Founders], Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, Locke equated natural law with the biblical revelation.” Natural law equals Biblical revelation? What an intentional misconstruing of opposites!

Natural law is what we know about reality from nature, not from revelation. Locke, however had to proceed like that because he wanted to overthrow the (ironically Catholic) tyrant in 1688. And he wanted to do so even though natural law and revelation are conceptually distinct. Indeed, such a distinction between Natural Law (inherent in the two out of three of Catholicism’s teaching voices the Reformation excised) and Revelation informed the sine qua non of the Reformation, which repudiated the Catholic view of their concomitance.
If Gordon accurately represents Waldron, I agree with Gordon and not Waldron's Locke. Natural law is not biblical revelation. But I don't think either Locke or those other natural law thinkers equated them as such. In fact, in his Second Treatise on Government, Locke noted that the "state of nature" -- foundational to his political theory -- needs a law to govern it, and "reason ... is that law."

Rather the argument is that reason and revelation are separate channels that when properly put together will arrive at the same conclusion. I saw, at Princeton, Waldron debate Michael Zuckert, who posits the esoteric Hobbesian atheistic Locke theory. The debate was moderated by the late great Locke scholar, Princeton professor Paul Sigmund. Sigmund told me personally, off the record, he saw Locke as a "liberal Thomist."

Locke may well have repudiated natural law; but if that's true, it's an esoteric conclusion. Locke's exoteric texts don't do such. Rather, one could argue Locke changed or weakened the classical understanding of natural law by providing a metaphysically thin basis for it.

But ultimately I think Locke made a good point when he, as summarized in the above quotation, "insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus."

Locke also, if I properly understand his teachings on Christianity and the limits of human understanding, thought the average person -- certainly the people with below average intelligence -- (i.e., the "ignorant fishermen" who were Jesus' original followers) might not be able to understand all of the verses and chapters of the Bible and complex doctrines that have developed in Christendom over the ages.

Yes. With three graduate degrees and having passed the bar exam in two states, I've gotten through Aristotle and the natural law thinkers. And I've read the Bible and so on. All of this can be very difficult to understand. Parts of the Bible are as difficult to understand as the intricacies of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Locke was NOT saying that whereas natural law can be difficult, the Bible is easy. Rather he was saying that Jesus' moral teachings were much easier for people of average or below average intelligence to understand than what you get through the long chain of reasoning required to understand the natural law and other complicated matters.

In essence, Jesus here provides a shortcut to get to the same conclusions a very refined mind can get to through reason alone, examining nature. If a more simple mind can't grasp the complicated intricacies of the Nicene Trinity and other complex theological doctrines, and instead ends up believing in something not orthodox, such shouldn't disqualify the person from "Christianity" provided he believes Jesus a unique Messiah.

This is a point that the Christian-Deists, Unitarians, and other expositors of "Primitive Christianity" would later run with. And I don't see it as a repudiation of natural law or equating natural law with biblical revelation.

Though it does strongly reinforce the point later made by Christian-Deists that Christianity essentially was a republication of the law of nature. As it were the "essential" parts of Christianity tended to be the simple parts, Jesus' words, and moral teachings and example. Everything else was either superfluous or up for grabs.

This includes what the canon of the Bible was. Especially whether some of the harder to understand books of the Bible like Revelation (Apocalypse) properly belonged. Whether St. Paul was inspired or an original corrupter of Jesus' words. I'm not saying Locke took such unorthodox positions on these matters. But the Christian-Deists he inspired, using his method, did.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

America's Founding Principle: Even before the Enlightenment, Catholic Liberty

0487 tp

Before there were Whigs, there was Algernon Sidney.

Before there was Sidney, there were the "Schoolmen," the Scholastics, the philosophical descendants of Thomas Aquinas such as the Jesuit priest Francisco Suárez, whose work informed Dutchman Hugo Grotius's seminal work on natural law.

The notion of liberty as a natural right predates the Enlightenment, the Whigs, and modern "rationalism."

SECT. II. The common Notions of Liberty are not from School-Divines, but from Nature.
Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all Men saw, nor lay more approv'd Foundations, than, That Man is naturally free; That he cannot justly be depriv'd of that Liberty without cause, and that he dos not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.
But if he unjustly imputes the Invention of this to School-Divines, he in some measure repairs his Fault in saying, This has bin foster'd by all succeeding Papists for good Divinity: The Divines of the reformed Churches have entertain'd it, and the Common People every where tenderly embrace it.That is to say, all Christian Divines, whether reform'd or unreform'd, do approve it, and the People every where magnify it, as the height of human Felicity. But Filmer and such as are like to him, being neither reform'd nor unreform'd Christians, nor of the People, can have no Title to Christianity; and, in as much as they set themselves against that which is the height of human Felicity, they declare themselves Enemys to all that are concern'd in it, that is, to all Mankind.
 —Sidney, Discourses concerning Government, c. 1683

Like any good 17th century English Protestant, Sidney disparages and minimizes the role of Catholicism in creating the emerging political philosophy that would be known as "liberalism," but then again it still goes on today with the 21st century secularists.

Plus ça change.  


[See also Timothy Gordon's  Plagiarizing Catholicism: Algernon Sidney and the Whigs:
In the end, the only stretch of “intellectual reality” inheres in the American hagiography suggesting that Whig theory was a new American innovation in the late 18th Century…or even a new British one during the prior century…or even a new Northern European Protestant one during the century prior to that.
Whiggism is simply Anglified Catholic political theory imported by sola scriptura Protestants (many of whom were also Enlightenment empiricists) and turned directly against the Catholics in 17th century England—and somewhat less directly against the Catholics in 18th century America. Now how simple is that? Probably not simple enough to plagiarize effectively!]

Friday, October 21, 2016

All American Whigs Thought Alike on these Subjects

This letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 brings to mind a recent article by historian Alan Taylor in the New York Times entitled Our Feuding Founding Fathers. Below is a larger quotation from Jefferson's letter to Lee:
[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.


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, &c. …
The bottom line of the New York Times' article is that whereas people today tend to think "the Founders of America" agreed in one voice, the fact is that they disagreed.

The impression that they were so united in opinion, though, is arguably their fault (or desire). We see the above quotation by Jefferson stating, "All American whigs thought alike" and of course George Washington hoped they would when he cautioned against the political factions that were breaking out before his eyes, much to his chagrin.

And in Federalist 2, John Jay wrote eloquently about America's supposed homogeneity.

Renowned historian Bernard Bailyn has written the standard bearer work on the different ideological sources that drove the American Founding (his thesis is technically on America's Revolution, though it can be enlarged to include the entire "Founding").

Below are the 5 principle sources Bailyn identifies:

1. Ancient Greco-Roman; 2. Biblical, with a focus on Protestantism; 3. English Common Law; 4. Enlightenment rationalism; and 5. Whig, with a focus on the British "Commonwealth" thinkers.

I used to argue -- and it's possibly a correct argument -- that 4. Enlightenment rationalism was the lens through which America's Founders viewed the competing sources. But that's not Bailyn's argument. Rather, his is that 5. the Whigs were responsible for "harmonizing" all of the different sources.

And, indeed, speaking as Whigs, with the above quotation by Jefferson as proof, America's Founders presented the different ideologies as harmonized. (Whether the final result of the ideological pot America's Founders stewed perfectly parallels that of the British Commonwealth Whigs is questionable, see below.)

But was it so harmonious? Apparently not.

Of Jefferson's sources (and using the above numbers), Aristotle and Cicero were 1; Locke was 4; and Sidney was 5. Because they were both professed Christians, Locke and Sidney could also qualify as 2 (and there were plenty of patriot preachers and notable divines of that era whose names we could plug in). Source 3, English Common Law, didn't have a figure represented in Jefferson's quotation. But there is one figure who unquestionably stands as the authority for such and that is Blackstone.

So how does Blackstone "fit" with the American Revolution in particular and founding in general? He was a Tory who didn't think anyone -- including the Americans -- could overrule Parliament's last word on what the rights of Englishmen were, the antithesis of what America's Revolution stood for.

Likewise my studies of "republicanism" and Agrarian laws -- basically me reading Eric Nelson's work -- demonstrate a tension, on economic policy, between the 1. Ancient Roman view, which was more individualistic; and 2. British Commonwealth Whig view, which was more egalitarian. And the Enlightenment liberal view, i.e., Madison's, rejected British Whig egalitarianism in favor of a more individualistic view closer to the Ancient Roman position.

As I've noted before, arguably Madison's view prevailed during the American Founding which suggests that modern scholars, like Bailyn (and Gordon Wood) who stress "republicanism" over "liberalism" may have it wrong. Or we can say that the "liberal" and "republican" strains of Founding era thought were both important and competed with one another, and what prevailed is debatable. 

On a related note, I like the work the followers of Leo Strauss (with whom I often disagree) have done putting the record of the American Founding under the microscope. It's not so much their conclusions, but analysis which I most appreciate.
I think the Straussians paid a little more attention to Bailyn than he did to them, but the East Coasters (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, the Kristol family) came to a similar conclusion in that the different ideological underpinnings of the American Founding were in tension with one another. They particularly focus on how the "modern" Lockean view was not consistent with either traditional orthodox Christian teachings or of the noble pagans (Aristotle, Cicero).

On the other hand the West Coasters -- followers of the late Harry V. Jaffa -- tend to act as good modern Whigs and "harmonize."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ben Franklin Quotation that Typifies the Zeitgeist that Caused the Great Enrichment

Back in 2009, Cato Unbound published a series on how the world got modern. The amount of details there is massive and something I care not to address. I want to look at more "forest" issues, than "trees."

This question is worth revisiting because it hasn't been answered definitively. It's indeed one of those things over which we will continue to argue.

Peter Thiel is fond of noting the incredible technological progress the modern world experienced starting around 1800 and ending, in his opinion, 1969 (with the moon landing, and the field of information technology excepted). Niall Ferguson recently gave a Ted Talk on what he views as "6 Apps" that caused modernity's material progress. And most recently Deirdre McCloskey has written about this "great enrichment" that didn't start to take off until around 1800 and arguably continues to this day (even if Thiel and others argue we stopped progressing as we should in 1969).

The possibilities as to what caused such to happen when and where it did are endless. For instance, it could be that Providence simply willed it to start taking off around 1800. Or, that advanced aliens who seeded life on Earth decided that was the time to start filtering down to humanity more knowledge that would lead to such dramatic advances. The evidence for both of such cannot, alas, be falsified. So we need to look somewhere else.

My explanation is that it was the Enlightenment zeitgeist perfectly captured in the quotation below by Ben Franklin in a letter written to John Lathrop, May 31, 1788:
I have been long impress’d with the same Sentiments you so well express, of the growing Felicity of Mankind from the Improvements in Philosophy, Morals, Politicks, and even the Conveniencies of common Living by the Invention and Acquisition of new and useful Utensils and Instruments, that I have sometimes almost wish’d it had been my Destiny to be born two or three Centuries hence. For Inventions of Improvement are prolific, and beget more of their Kind. The present Progress is rapid. Many of great Importance, now unthought of, will before that Period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their Advantages, but have my Curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be. I see a little Absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a Friend who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one Reason more for such a Wish, which is that if the Art of Physic shall be improv’d in proportion with other Arts, we may then be able to avoid Diseases, and live as long as the Patriarchs in Genesis, to which I suppose we should make little Objection.
This is for lack of a better term -- and I'm sure we can come up with better than this -- classically liberal, Enlightenment progressivism.

Yes, it's something scientifically based. But there's more to the story. These thinkers like Ben Franklin had a holistic view that every field of knowledge including politics and theology were sciences.

The problem I have with Jack Goldstone's essay, as it were, is that he's too particular in specifying and crediting engineering. Yes, of course engineering is important. But so too are the insights of economist Adam Smith and those who followed him. Economics is not engineering. As Niall Ferguson notes, it's not just one thing; it's a number of things. Thus, it's something more holistic than specific.

Look at how such thinkers as Franklin viewed the "science" of political theology. It's not necessarily traditional orthodox Christianity which had been established since 325 AD. But it's also not necessarily the strictly deist God of Spinoza. (One could argue, as Jason Kuznicki did in the original Cato series that the modern Enlightenment view would eventually grow into such, and perhaps then further towards agnosticism and atheism.)

And much of what they wrote was consistent with what's written in the Bible. Indeed, we see Franklin using biblical examples as inspiration for scientific advancements. But this approach is more free and forward thinking.

Many of these "scientists of everything" were like Franklin (electricity), Joseph Priestley (chemistry),  Richard Price (finance), members of The Club of Honest Whigs. That's to whom I give chief credit for modernity's advances.

The period in which they operated was "the Enlightenment" of the late 18th Century. Ironically, the advances of modernity didn't start to take off until 1800, which marks the end of that period. So we can say that the late 18th Century Enlightenment is when the seeds were planted. To the extent that pre-Enlightenment periods caused the Great Enrichment, we would have to argue that they created the fertile soil for the fruits of which the seeds of the Enlightenment rightly take credit.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

John Adams on Republican Government

John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Apr. 1776, Papers 4:86--93

A taste:
We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.


A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadley. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a Republic, is "an Empire of Laws, and not of men." That, as a Republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words that form of government, which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of Republics.

Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Did the Ancient Jews in fact have a Republic?

Below is an email I sent to a libertarian friend of mine (for the record, I am a libertarian, but am open minded on making exceptions that many libertarians would not) for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration. I sent him an email which he didn't respond to. It's below.
I know that John Milton was good on a lot of liberty issues. But I wonder what you make of his thoughts on economic liberty. Eric Nelson of Harvard has done a lot of interesting research that transcends ideological boundaries.
The way I see it, Madison's vision, which is close to the laissez-faire that libertarians would endorse, prevailed (in no small part because of the hard work he and others did for that to happen). This is the "liberal" stream of thought of the Founding era.
However, the "republican" or we could say "commonwealth" view was something arguably more economically egalitarian. This is a reason why some notable left of center scholars -- the ones who aren't busy trying to "deconstruct" the American Founding -- may stress "republicanism" over "liberalism."
Nelson's thesis is, regardless of Madison's vision prevailing at the American Founding, the world we have today -- the "mixed" system of capitalism that currently predominates geopolitics, where we have simultaneously inequality of outcomes and private holdings, but also a government that steps in and decides how much is too much and taxes affluence more in order to redistribute -- is the vision of Milton and some other British commonwealthsmen.
It's also an explicitly religious vision. I could go on.
Yes on page 56 of The Hebrew Republic, Nelson claims that we are living in the age of Milton as opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes (I will have a subsequent post where I argue that we are actually living in the age of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and the hebraic republicans represent a more authentically Anglo example of the egalitarianism that the continental Rousseau would later champion).

Did you get that? Nelson isn't arguing that Milton prevailed during the time of the American Founding. Rather, that the system that predominates TODAY in 1st world nations -- not just the United States, but Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the developed Asian nations, etc. -- traces to Milton and the other hebraic republicans.

A question that interests me is, did the Ancient Hebrews in fact have a "republic"? As I read the text of the Bible, I don't see it. But I'm just some dude. And on faith matters, I am radically individualistic. I will decide for myself how to interpret the Bible, the context, not limited to but including, matters of doctrine, which texts are inspired, what the errors are (if any) and which books belong in the canon. And my faith beliefs change from day to day.

But on theological matters, I am a nobody.  So I wonder what the prevailing theologians make of the idea that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." I may be ignorant here but I can't think of any current "leading" Christian theologian of whatever ideological stripe endorsing the notion that the Ancient Jews had a "republic." Not Pope Benedict, not R.C. Sproul, not Russell Moore, not N.T. Wright, not (the relatively recently departed) Jaroslav Pelikan, not Miroslav Volf, not Bishop Spong, not Rachael Held Evans, etc. They may have made these arguments or addressed the issue; I'm just not aware of them.

In the past, yes, very notable thinkers did make this argument which had, according to Dr. Nelson, profound consequences. They took the notion of "republicanism" that was entirely a matter of pagan Greco-Roman origin, and grafted it onto the Old Testament. But in so doing, drafted what they saw as the economic egalitarianism of Ancient Jews into the concept of "republicanism."

The Ancient Greco-Roman republicans on the other hand were, like James Madison, not economic egalitarians. They weren't concerned with inequality of outcomes.

Milton et al. did borrow from Jewish sources -- rabbis who were his contemporaries or preceded him. But I too wonder about where prevailing Jewish thought among the different strains -- conservative, reformed, Orthodox, etc. -- is on this matter.

For that, I will ask my friend, the estimable Seth Barrett Tillman.

Friday, September 30, 2016

John Adams Rejects the Concept of the Hebrew Republic

One of the challenges in trying to articulate what "the Founders" believed is that they often differed. In fact, as I've often noted, there were different strains of thought that made up a "synthesis." And those strains were in tensions with one another. Whig thought though presented the synthesis as a unified whole. As in "all American Whigs thought alike, etc."

One sentiment which united the Whigs was "republicanism" was the best if not only viable form of government. Certainly it was preferable to monarchy.  The notion of republicanism traces to Western Civilization's Greco-Roman heritage. And the Founders who wrote the Federalist Papers, adopting the surname Publius, imagined themselves as revived Roman republicans. Noble pagans, if you will.

There was another stream of thought which argued that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." Eric Nelson's magnificent work traces the intellectual lineage of such sentiment. We see this sentiment represented in sermons such as Rev. Samuel Langdon's The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States, (June 5, 1788) and even in Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

I remember reading John Adams' rejection of Paine's argument that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." American Creation commenter Lex Lata reminded me. As Adams wrote in his autobiography:
"I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me."
Yes, as Eric Nelson discovered, John Milton was one of those figures who posited the concept of a Hebraic republic.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Observation on Bill Federer's Recent Article

So I linked to Ed Brayton's criticisms of Bill Federer's recent Christian nationalist article. I read Federer's article. This part struck me:
After being president of Harvard, Samuel Langdon was a delegate to New Hampshire’s ratifying convention in 1788. The Portsmouth Daily Evening Times, Jan. 1, 1891, accredited to Samuel Langdon: “by his voice and example he contributed more perhaps, than any other man to the favorable action of that body” which resulted in New Hampshire becoming the 9th State to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus putting it into effect. There Rev. Samuel Langdon gave a speech titled ‘The Republic of the Israelites An Example to the American States, June 5, 1788, which was instrumental in convincing delegates to ratify the U.S. Constitution:
Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz. – That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured … and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ…a complete revelation of his will … it will be your wisdom … to … adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.”
I understand why a Mormon would believe in the theology of Langdon's address, precisely because of when and where Mormonism was founded. Mormonism incorporates various eccentric late 18th Century Americanist historical dynamics into its theology. For instance, they believe as a matter of doctrine that America’s Constitution was a divinely inspired document.

Because orthodox Christianity was founded one thousand and some hundred odd years before America and thus teaches nothing special about America as a particular country, serious scholars of political theology, many of whom devoutly believe in orthodox Christianity and try to get the faith right, understand these sermons and their premises differently.

I’m thinking of among others Drs. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Robert Kraynak, Gregg Frazer and John Fea.

The notion that Ancient Israel had a “republic” that could serve as an example to the newly established “United States” is as much a creation of Whig and Enlightenment thought as it is “biblical.” And since the concept of a “republic” actually derives from the Ancient Greco-Roman tradition (for whom America’s Founders had an affinity) arguably that ideological strand gets dragged in too here.

As Dr. Frazer observes on the content of this and related sermons:
[They] seem to depict God’s role as something similar to Rousseau’s legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon’s sermon] “for their happiness” rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignly determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau’s legislator).
— Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.
If I remember correctly, Dr. Frazer claims Samuel Langdon was a "theistic rationalist" not a "Christian." This may not be correct insofar as the "theistic rationalists" were not orthodox on matters like Trinity and other traditional doctrines of the faith. Langdon may well have been an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

One thing Dr. Frazer claims about the "theistic rationalists" is that their God (unlike the "Christian" God) was man made; the key Founders and those who influenced them remade God in their image. So Rev. Langdon may have been an orthodox Christian. But it seems he's still revising the biblical record.

I don't think there's any question that Elias Boudinat was an orthodox Christian.  But he did something very similar when he claimed that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel. And as with the notion that the Ancient Israelis had a "republic," this notion too was originally posited by European Rabbis.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Brayton on Federer's Recent Article on the Lutz Study

Check out Ed Brayton's piece here. A taste:
... The Lutz study, you may recall, looked at the relative influence of various Enlightenment philosophers on American politics before, during and after the founding (from 1760-1805). Lutz, a history professor at the University of Houston, and his co-author took a large number of samples of political writings from that period and counted up the number of references in those documents to people like John Locke, Montesquieu, Sidney and others.

There are two different versions of the lie about this study. Some claim that this study looked at documents from the founding generation, for instance. But Federer goes all the way and claims that the documents being studied were not just from the founding fathers, but specifically from the 55 men who signed the Constitution.


... This study started with 15,000 documents, then pared that down to about 2200, then finally to 916 documents that were actually included in the sample. The vast majority of them were not from any of the men who signed the Constitution, or anyone who is rightly considered a founding father at all. They were newspaper articles, pamphlets (which was the dominant means of communication in those days) and such. A full 10% of those pamphlets were actually reprinted sermons, which was very common then, and the overwhelming majority of the Biblical citations found in those documents came from those sermons.

But that’s just the start. The study also broke down those citations by specific time period, including 1787-1788, the two years when the Constitution was being written and ratified. During that time, there is not a single reference to the Bible from the Federalists, those who were advocating the passage of the Constitution. The only ones during that time period who referenced the Bible were the anti-Federalists, who used the Bible to argue against the passage of the Constitution.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Den Hartog on Noll (& More)

Here is a post from Jonathan Den Hartog on Mark Noll's analysis use of the Bible during during the revolutionary debates.
Noll's significant contribution is to be able to step back from all of the documentation of the Bible in Revolutionary debates--and it was massive--to be able to systematize the scholarship and make sense of the welter of biblical uses. Some uses are simply rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political point. On a much stronger level, many Revolutionaries drew parallels between the cause of the colonies and ancient Israel. Noll thus demonstrates how "Hebraic" political thought could make in-roads into a biblicist America. Still others made sustained arguments through biblical exposition for one side or another.

Noll demonstrates extremely wide-ranging knowledge of the sources from the Revolution, but he also offers incisive close readings of important sermons and Biblical exchanges. I especially appreciated Noll's attention to a sermon by David Griffith, a patriot Anglican in Virginia, a sermon which comes as close as possible to earning Noll's approval of its biblical usage. Noll is also extremely perceptive on the debate between Tom Paine in Common Sense and the biblical rejoinders offered by loyalists. By tracking their arguments minutely, Noll demonstrates multiple interpretive strategies that were being used in the colonies.
This reminds me of the exhaustive studies I've done on George Washington's faith, trying to make sense of what he believed. On the one hand, some scholars have said GW didn't reference the Bible. That's false.

I have found some evidence that GW believed objective truth can be found in both "reason" and "revelation." But how he put them together remains a bit of a mystery.

One thing GW never or almost never (I hesitate to write in absolute terms) did was proof text verses and chapters of scripture in an authoritative sense. Rather his uses were almost always "rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political" or some other kind of  point.

This is something secular people do all the time. The Bible like Shakespeare greatly impacted the way we express ourselves. And this is applicable BOTH to the time of America's Founding AND in today's modern world.

Anyway here is an example from GW, taken from Mark D. writing at The New Reform Club. Addressing the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, GW said:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The reference to the vine and fig tree is found a number of places in the Bible and was a phrase that GW often used.

And I write this post peacefully sitting in the comfort of my vine and fig tree.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Den Hartog is a Lucky Man

Jonathan Den Hartog, that is. He teaches a course entitled, "American Revolution and Early Republic Class." I'd love to teach a class like this. Except I'd like to do the entire "Founding" as opposed to just the "Revolution."

A taste:
We'll definitely be revisiting those great questions about Christianity's role in the Revolution. Here, though, it's important to me to demonstrate the religious debates of the period. Although there was a patriot religious argument, it wasn't the only one. There was a strong Loyalist one, as well. Further, the conflict looked very different to equally-evangelical believers on either side of the Atlantic. So, this story has to be a transatlantic story.

I look forward to seeing what students do with the primary sources we'll be reading. I wonder what they'll make of Edmund Burke's claim that American religion demonstrated "the dissidence of [religious] dissent," which suggested conciliatory measures. I'm looking forward to the day we simultaneously read John Witherspoon's "Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" and John Wesley's "Calm Address". These two voices by themselves mark contrasting evangelical opinion. I'm also confident Romans 13 will come up.

We'll also have a lot of secondary material to work through. One of my knowing students has already mentioned John Fea's arguments. Without a doubt, Mark Noll's scholarship--both older and more recent will make a strong appearance. We'll work through Thomas Kidd's claims about links between evangelical Protestants and the liberty desired by the revolutionaries. It will also be important to bring in Loyalist voices. I look forward to introducing Glenn Moots's take on covenantalism.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Founders and Ministers, Some Thoughts

John Fea has demonstrated that at the state level some ministers were banned from public office. At the federal level, I'm not aware of America's Founders adopting such a policy as it might (?) violate Article VI's "no religious test" clause.

Only one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, was an active minister. David Barton wrote an article where the best evidence he could muster was that a few others WERE ministers in the past, but not at the time the DOI was written.

Yet, I don't think America's Founders so much minded ministers being involved in public political life provided they were supporting the right political theology. Even the more heterodox founders offered qualified support to the work George Whitefield or even Jonathan Edwards did ministering to folks; though they disagreed with the theology, and wished such Protestantism to further reform to a creed more enlightened, liberal for the era.

But some ministers like the heterodox ones Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, orthodox ones like John Witherspoon, Ezra Stiles, or those in between like Bishop James Madison played key roles in expositing America's Founding political theology.

The politics were a synthesis: it was citing the Bible, with Lockeanism and Whig thought, and essences discovered in "nature," which is a tradition that Aquinas whom they never cited because they didn't cite Roman Catholics incorporated from Aristotle, whom they did cite. But "nature" also provided the grounds for Lockean teachings, which arguably broke from that earlier tradition. Or at least introduced new things into it.

This Whig political theology was extremely self serving in how it understood the faith. You had to have the "right" understanding of Romans 13. Which is such a text, properly understood, does not stand in the way of what America did when it revolted against Great Britain.

I don't get the sense that America's Founders minded the political involvement of these ministers because they taught what they wanted the public to hear.

Barton: "No Professor Fea, The Founders Did Not Want Ministers to Stay out of Politics"

From "Dr." David Barton here. As it begins:
Dr. John Fea is a professor of history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. He has been an outspoken critic of those who believe that America had a Christian founding or think ministers should be active in politics. 1 In addition to being an historian, he writes political columns praising those on the political left. For example, he called President Barack Obama “the most explicitly Christian president in American history,” and asserted that his “piety, use of the Bible, and references to Christian faith and theology put most other American presidents to shame.” 2 Given Professor Fea’s political disposition, it is perhaps not surprising that his blog posts and opinion pieces on political issues are regularly critical of religious conservatives.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Livingston Cribbed Trenchard & Gordon

The appendix to this collection of Livingston's writings aptly notes this. "Primitive Christianity" was a concept en vogue during the American Founding and in Great Britain among the dissenters who influenced America's Founding.

Primitive Christianity appeals to among others Quakers, Unitarians, Christian-Deists, and more. Like all of the variants of "Christianity," it sees itself as the one authentically representing the teachings of Jesus and his followers. However it believes that by the time the Nicene Creed was written the faith had already been corrupted. It blames the Nicene Creed on Roman Catholicism.

The Catholic Church of course, would gladly take credit for the Nicene Creed. But the vast majority of "orthodox" Protestantism believes in that creed, feels in communion with the church who wrote it, and no, does not believe Catholics should be credited for it.

Primitive Christianity is radically individualistic, anti-creedal, and anti-clerical. It's not necessarily theologically unitarian, but the method obviously lends support to such. Trenchard and Gordon define and defend the concept of Primitive Christianity in great length here. We see, among other things, the Roman Catholic Church is the chief villain. High Church Anglicanism isn't much better. And the entire clerical class of all Christian churches is tarred.

Here is a passage where they claim to be agnostic on the Trinity, and declare the question to be irrelevant to the expression of the faith:
Since ’tis agreed amongst all our present Sects of Christians, that the Saviour of the World is the Son of God, descended from Heaven to teach Virtue and Goodness to Men, and to die for our Redemption; how are we concerned in the Scholastic Notions of the Trinity? Will the Scripture be more regarded, or the Precepts of it be better observed, if the Three Persons are believed to be Three Divine distinct Spirits and Minds, who are so many real subsisting Persons? Whether the Son and Holy-Ghost are Omnipotent of themselves, or are subordinate, and dependent on the Father? Or, if they are independent, whether their Union consist in a mutual Consciousness of one another’s Thoughts and Designs, or in any thing else? Whether they are Three Attributes [96] of God, viz. Goodness, Wisdom and Power? Or Three internal Acts, viz. Creation, Redemption and Sanctification? Or Two internal Acts of the One subsisting Person of the Father; that is to say, the Father understanding and willing himself and his own Perfections? Or Three internal Relations, namely, the Divine Substance and Godhead confidered as Unbegotten, Begotten, and Proceeding? Or Three Names of God ascribed to him in Holy Scripture, as he is Father of all Things, as he did inhabit in an extraordinary Manner in the Man Jesus Christ, and as he effected every thing by his Spirit, or his Energy and Power? Or lastly, Whether the Three Persons are only Three Beings, but what sort of Beings we neither know, nor ought to pretend to know? which I take to be the Trinity of the Mob, as well as of some other wiser Heads.
And here they are on the Quakers and why their example demonstrates that Great Britain didn't need an established Church:
Now it seems to me, that the Toleration or Liberty of Conscience granted by Law in England, gives us an Opportunity of examining this Matter, beyond what can be done in Popish or other Countries, where no such Toleration is allowed. We have a numerous Sect, or People among us, distinguished by the Name of Quakers, who have no Spiritual Officers, with any Wages, Hire, or Salary, whose peculiar Business it is to Teach; but every Man among them does freely of himself, and gratis, communicate his Knowledge, both publicly and privately, according to his Ability, whenever he judges it proper so to do: And therefore we may easily make a Comparison in the Case, between the Wisdom and Virtue of the common People of the National Church, and the Wisdom and Virtue of the Quakers, (who have no Quality or Gentry among them; but consist of Tradesmen, Artificers, Farmers, Servants, and Labourers) and thereby make a [182] just Judgment, whether the Two Millions per Annum are well or ill bestowed.
They make an interesting argument which you can read for yourself: Because the Quakers all read the Bible for themselves as opposed to relying on the Priestcraft to read, interpret and spoon-feed it to them (and what they are getting spoon-fed distorts the Bible), the Quakers not only end up understanding the Bible better but have their literacy rates improved over that of the vast majority of ordinary folks sitting in the pews of the Church of England.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Barton is Calling Fea Out

I think I'm siding with John Fea here.
The piece that Barton refers to in this video can be read here.  Barton does not respond to my evidence from the state Constitutions.  I apparently have little credibility because I don’t actually own a copy of these state Constitutions.  How dare I cite them.🙂
Warren Throckmorton also comments.
Listening to the Barton father and son team in sales mode was interesting. If you buy what they are selling, you would think that no historian gets it right. Truth comes only from Wallbuilders. ...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Koppelman: "Kathleen Brady's The Distinctiveness of Religion in American Law"

The good professor writes:
Religion is something special in American law.  A swelling army of scholars think this is unfair.  Kathleen Brady's new book, The Distinctiveness of Religion in American Law, shows how and when equality between religion and nonreligion became the central theme of religion law scholarship, and offers an original and important response that will persuade almost nobody.

I have reviewed the book for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Religion.  A draft is now on SSRN, here.
This relates to the most contentious part of the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence. One can argue that America's Founders were concerned about equality and equal treatment/respect in religion that transcended "Christianity." They argued over whether standards like separation, non-cognizance or accommodation were needed to validate such.

For instance, George Washington thought we could have a bill that would tax the general public of Virginia to support the Christian denominations generally, but thought that Jews and Muslims (and "otherwise") should be accommodated with some kind of "proper relief."

Equality between religion and non-religion seems a bigger step. Though it could be argued such is necessary to treat atheists and non-monotheists equally.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Jefferson (at Different Stages of his Life) on Priestley & Price (with some J. Adams Too)

Arguably, the two most notable British Unitarians who influenced the American Founding were the Socinian Joseph Priestley and Arian Richard Price.

Thomas Jefferson, self proclaimed unitarian, militantly so, professed great admiration for both (theologically he was closer to Priestley; though arguably Jefferson was even more heterodox than Priestley. I'm assuming that Socinianism is more heterodox than Arianism).

Some controversy ensues over whether Jefferson was heterodox before 1813. Every serious Jefferson scholar thinks he was. See Warren Throckmorton's ongoing case, all the details of which admittedly, I haven't memorized.

I know Throckmorton invokes a 1788 letter by Jefferson on refusal to be a Godfather because TJ didn't want to affirm the Trinity. There Jefferson notes a lifelong "difficulty" with that doctrine. Throckmorton offers other evidence too, noting:
Jefferson also confided to a Unitarian friend that he attended Priestley’s Unitarian church before 1800, while he was Vice President. In Jefferson’s 1803 Syllabus, he laid out his belief that Jesus was not part of the Godhead. [The] attempt to make Jefferson seem orthodox during the active part of his political engagement is contradicted by Jefferson’ own words.
Throckmorton may have included perhaps (?) what I disclose below. But I want to re-fresh the record.

Let's start backwards with where Jefferson ended. On February 27, 1821, writing to Timothy Pickering, Jefferson stated:
I do not know that you and I may think alike on all points. as the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds. we well know that among Unitarians themselves there are strong shades of difference, as between Doctors Price and Priestley for example. so there may be peculiarities in your creed and in mine. they are honestly formed without doubt. I do not wish to trouble the world with mine, nor to be troubled for them. these accounts are to be settled only with him who made us; and to him we leave it, with charity for all others, of whom also he is the only rightful and competent judge. I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the Unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.
The context of this letter has Jefferson railing against "the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three," while granting latitude towards the Arianism and Socinianism of Price and Priestley.

It's hard for anyone to dispute Jefferson from 1813 onward held to such a heterodox unitarian position. 1813 seemed a watershed year for both Jefferson AND J. Adams where they bitterly rejected and mocked the Trinity. That was the year Great Britain finally got the law off its books making it a crime to publicly deny the doctrine. When reading their correspondence, skip to 1813. That year is practically all about their rejection of the Trinity and orthodox Christian doctrine.

So then let's go to the beginning. The earliest I trace Jefferson's connection to Priestley and Price is the mid 1780s, after the Declaration of Independence, but before the Constitution was ratified and Jefferson's subsequent service in the newly formed Federal government.

Jerry Newcombe and Mark A. Beliles have a new book out which explores the current controversy (and examines the arguments of among others, David Barton, Gregg Frazer, Throckmorton and his co-author Michael Coulter). Though known to sympathize with the "Christian America" view of history, the timeline they give on page 380 seems accurate enough (to my eyes). I would stress, though, there is not sufficient evidence that Jefferson's turn towards explicit unitarianism at that time -- 1785-86 -- came from the orthodox Trinitarian direction as opposed to one more deistic and less self consciously "Christian" than where Jefferson's beliefs terminated.

Newcombe and Beliles document how John Adams, meeting with Jefferson in England in 1786 took him to a Unitarian Church with a service led by Richard Price.  Jefferson penned a letter to Price in 1785 praising Price's Observations on the American Revolution which Price earlier sent a copy. Price also sent a copy to among others, George Washington who similarly praised the tract. Price's addresses is explicitly pro-unitarian.

In their ensuing correspondence, Price further discusses religion with Jefferson. As Price wrote him on October 26, 1788:
I am now reading Mr. Necker’s book on the importance of religious opinions. ...  He should have defined it, and taken care to distinguish the religion he means from the Superstitions that go under the name of religion, and which have done unspeakable harm in the world. What he Says is true only of a rational and liberal religion; that is of a religion which enforces the obligations of morality by motives drawn from the authority of a righteous and benevolent Deity and a future retribution. But he Seems never to have consider’d that there has been in almost all religions a melancholy Separation of religion from morality. Popery teaches a method of pleasing God without forsaking vice, and of getting to heaven by penances, bodily mortifications, pilgrimages, saying masses, believing mysterious doctrines, burning heretics, aggrandizing Priests &c. Mahometans expect a paradise of Sensual pleasures. Pagans worship’d lewd, revengeful and cruel Deities, and thus Sanctify’d to themselves1 Some of the worst passions. The religion likewise of many Protestants is little better than a compromise with the Deity for wrong practises by fastings, Sacraments hearing the word &c. Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism? And what is the religion of many persons but a kind of demonism that delights in human Sacrifices and causes them to look with horror on the greatest part of mankind? Plutarch, it is well known, has observd very justly that it is better not to believe in a God than to believe him to be a capricious and malevolent being. These reflexions have Struck me very forcibly in reading Mr. Necker’s book. They shew how incumbent it is on all who wish the happiness of the world to endeavour to propagate just notions of the Deity and of religion. I can reflect with Some Satisfaction that this has been one of the Studies and labours of my life.
Jefferson's response, dated January 8 of that year, affirms Price's sentiment while connecting their shared enlightened heterodox theological zeitgeist to the US Constitution.
I was favored with your letter of October 26th[;] ... its subjects ... were to me, as everything which comes from you, pleasing and instructive. I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians. Your opinions and writings will have effect in bringing others to reason on this subject. Our new Constitution, of which you speak also, has succeeded beyond what I apprehended it would have done.
Then in a letter written on July 12, 1789, Jefferson asks Price the following:
Is there any thing good on the subject of the Socinian doctrine, levelled to a mind not habituated to abstract reasoning? I would thank you to recommend such a work to me. Or have you written any thing of that kind? That is what I should like best, as none are so easy to be understood as those who understand themselves.
Price replies, August 3, 1789 introducing Jefferson to Joseph Priestley's Socinian writings:
In consequence of your desire that I would convey to you some tracts on the Socinian doctrine, I desire your acceptance of the volume of Sermons and the pamphlets that accompany this letter. The first part of Dr. Priestley’s letters I cannot immediately get; but it shall be sent to you by the first opportunity. The pamphlet entitled Two Schemes of a Trinity &c. is reckoned by the Socinians one of the best of all the publications in favour of their doctrine. You will see that Dr. Priestley and I differ much, but we do it with perfect respect for one another. He is a materialist and fatalist and we published some years ago a correspondence on these Subjects. ...
Jefferson then develops a fascination with Joseph Priestley's writings. It's evident that from 1813 onward Priestley had become Jefferson's favorite theologian. Jefferson corresponded with Priestley in the window between when Price introduces Jefferson to Priestley's writings and 1813. In a later post I may detail more on Jefferson's pre-1813 correspondence with Priestley.

Rather, let's examine how Jefferson invokes both Price and Priestley in the year 1800. Writing to an ideological confidant, Bishop James Madison, on January 31, 1800, Jefferson praises Adam Weishaupt of the Illuminated Freemasonry legend. Before we see what Jefferson wrote, I note I don't see this as part of any kind of nefarious conspiracy. Freemasonry at the time was theistic, virtue orientated and religiously ecumenical in a way that was in principle universalistic. Hence it "fit" with their enlightenment zeitgeist.

The Illuminated Masonry of Weishaupt came to be known as the stuff of conspiracy and legend. But the context of Jefferson's letter, as I see it, has Jefferson trying to shoehorn Weishaupt's theology into his projected ideal of the works oriented unitarian theologies of Price and Priestley.
Wishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist. he is among those (as you know the excellent Price and Priestly also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man. he thinks he may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless. this, you know is Godwin’s doctrine, and this is what Robinson, Barruel & Morse have called a conspiracy against all government. Wishaupt believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. that his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, & by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves. his precepts are the love of god & love of our neighbor. and by teaching innocence of conduct, he expected to place men in their natural state of liberty & equality. he says, no one ever laid a surer foundation for liberty than our grand master, Jesus of Nazareth. he believes the Freemasons were originally possessed of the true principles & object of Christianity, and have still preserved some of them by tradition, but much disfigured. the means he proposes to effect this improvement of human nature are ‘to enlighten men, to correct their morals & inspire them with benevolence. secure of our success, sais he, we abstain from violent commotions. to have foreseen the happiness of posterity & to have prepared it by irreproacheable means, suffices for our felicity. this tranquility of our consciences is not troubled by the reproach of aiming at the ruin or overthrow of states or thrones.’ as Wishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot & priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, and the principles of pure morality. he proposed therefore to lead the Freemasons to adopt this object, and to make the objects of their institution, the diffusion of1 science & virtue. he proposed to initiate new members into this body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny. this has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment & the subversion of the Masonic order, and is the colour for the ravings against him of Robinson, Barruel & Morse, whose real fears are that the craft would be endangered by the spreading of information reason & natural morality among men.—this subject being new to me, I have imagined that if it be so to you also, you may recieve the same satisfaction in seeing, which I have had in forming the Analysis of it: and I believe you will think with me that if Wishaupt had written here, where no secrecy is necessary in our endeavors to render men wise & virtuous, he would not have thought of any secret machinery for that purpose: as Godwin, if he had written in Germany, might probably also have thought secrecy & mystycism prudent.
Now, this letter was written in 1800, just before Jefferson became President of the United States. Though not railing against the Trinity, he seems pretty clearly in Price and Priestley's unitarian theological camp, expositing heterodox political theology.

One final thing for now. It's my contention that the self consciously "unitarian" "Christianity" of the 1813 Jefferson onward was arrived at NOT from an orthodox Trinitarian direction, but rather the other side. From a place more deistic and less self consciously "Christian."

As I have noted before, I think Jefferson's chief theological influence before encountering Price, Priestley (and Conyers Middleton, who also cut up a Bible and was a source TJ named in 1813 with Priestley), was the more deistic Lord Viscount Bolingbroke

If Jefferson were coming from an orthodox Trinitarian direction towards his ultimate destination, why didn't he apparently stop at Price's Arianism for a short while? What I observe is Jefferson becoming familiar with and praising Price's works oriented unitarianism in 1785 and by 1789 asking about Socinianism and consequently being introduced to Priestley to whom Jefferson seems immediately to appreciate.

Likewise, the place where Jefferson from 1813 onward ends up is MORE heterodox than Priestley's Socinianism. As I have noted before, Priestley never (as far as I know) like Jefferson did, cut out large portions of the Bible -- like everything St. Paul "revealed" -- as false. And Priestley unlike Jefferson affirmed Jesus' resurrection.  

Below is how I envision a theological spectrum from most orthodox to most heterodox:

1. Christian orthodoxy; 2. Arianism; 3. Socinianism; 4. Deism; 5. Atheism. 

I know reality can be more complicated and not so easily boxed. I don't think Jefferson was ever an atheist. And the "Deism" of 4 doesn't necessarily equate with cold "strict deism." But looking at the larger picture I see Jefferson, in his adult life moving from Bolingbroke's Deism towards Priestley's Socinianism. But remaining stuck in the middle. 

In short, I'd rate Jefferson a 3.5. (Likewise, since "Deism" is a broader category than what we may previously have thought, the cold, strict, deist whose God neither reveals nor intervenes is not a 4, but a 4.5).

Sunday, August 14, 2016

James Madison on Defining Christianity

Or, to put it another way. He doesn't. Rather, he asks (very good) questions that he doesn't answer. 

I've reproduced this before; but it calls for a rerun because the question is so important. Madison didn't believe civil governments could take "cognizance" of religion. He wrote about such in the context of remonstrating against a bill that would support Christianity generally.

He thought government taking cognizance of Christianity in particular would lead to arguments over what's Christian and what's not. That wasn't part of civil government's just powers.

It's interesting that James Madison doesn't provide an answer to the question here or elsewhere. Madison had a commitment to theism generally, and a perhaps very broad understanding of Christianity generally that would accept all of the differences we see him writing about below.

But we don't see commitments along the lines of, "I believe the Roman Catholic Church is the true one, but if not, you have to at minimum believe in X to be a 'real Christian.'" Or "I believe the atonement is limited; but folks could disagree and still be 'good Christians.' But no true Christian could countenance Y."

Here is a link to the original.
3. What is Xnty? Courts of law to Judge.
4. What edition: Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate? What copy what translation?
5. What books canonical, what apocryphal? the papists holding to be the former what protestants the latter, the Lutherans the latter what the protestants & papists ye former.
6. In what light are they to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only? Or the matter in general not the words?
7. What sense the true one for if some doctrines be essential to Xnty those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Xn Society?
8. Is it Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism? Is it salvation by faith or works also, by free grace or by will, &c., &c.
9. What clue is to guide [a] Judge thro' this labyrinth when ye question comes before them whether any particular society is a Xn society?
10. Ends in what is orthodoxy, what heresy.
Dishonors Christianity.
panegyric on it, on our side.
Decl. Rights."

And George Washington Called Providence "She" and "It"

This is an interesting article -- an op-ed, which by their nature are slanted -- from the NYT on the gender of the God of Abraham. Quoted below is what the piece concludes:
Counter to everything we grew up believing, the God of Israel — the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet today belong — was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.
Along the way the rabbi who authored the piece uses original Hebrew to make his case. I don't read Hebrew. If any readers do, I wonder, are his translations accurate?