Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Russell Moore on Kidd's Book on Franklin's Religion

Thomas Kidd's book on Ben Franklin's religion was one of Russell Moore's favorite books of 2017. Check out Moore's brief review here. A taste:
I’ve long said that the cultural Christianity around us often resembles the religion of Benjamin Franklin rather than that of his friend and contemporary George Whitefield. ...

... Kidd portrays a dying Franklin in a room with a painting of the Matthew 25 scene of Jesus dividing the sheep from the goats at his Judgment Seat: “What was going on in Franklin’s mind, as he gazed at God separating the saved and the damned? To the end, Franklin’s faith was enigmatic. It was clear that by the end of his life, he affirmed God’s Providence, and God’s future rewards and punishments. But after a lifetime of questions…doubts still lingered. He had sought to live by a code of Christian ethics. But had he fully lived up to them? The doctor believed that those who enter heaven must do so by their virtue. But he knew that the Calvinist questioners saw this as false hope. No one merited salvation by their goodness, they said. They thought Franklin was wrong. He thought they were wrong. And so, Franklin waited, with ragged breathing, eyes fixed on the painting.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Benjamin Rush on "Sects"

I don't think I've ever shared this quotation. There was a prevailing zeitgeist of religious correctness that dissenters of the era bucked. The "Athanasian" divines held that folks who didn't believe in among other things the Trinity weren't "Christians" whatever they called themselves.

Benjamin Rush, a Trinitarian Universalist, wasn't one of those religiously correct folks. His universalism made him a dissenter.

Below is the quotation from July 18 1792:
There is a propensity in all sciences to simplify themselves and to ascribe that to one which should be divided among many causes. For example, how few sects honor Father, Son and Holy Ghost in religion as they should do. The Socinians honor the Father only; the Catholics the Saviour chiefly, and the Quakers the Holy Spirit above both; how few include all the ends of our Saviour's death in their belief of the Atonement; each contends for one end only while six or seven other ends are clearly revealed in the Scriptures; many exalt one power or one set of powers only in the mind instead of all, many confine religion to one power only instead of applying it to all. The Episcopalians to the understanding, the Methodists to the passions and the Quakers the moral powers.
Socinians, Catholics and Quakers each were controversial in their own right. That Rush includes Socinians as a "Christian" sect demonstrates his sympathy with the dissenters and against the orthodox forces of religious correctness that would deny them such label.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Kathryn Gin Lum: "Damnation, American style: How American preachers reinvented hell"

I missed this, published at Salon in 2014. The author has an academic book on a subject that is of interest to this blog. A taste:

Among the many congratulatory letters George Washington received after assuming the presidency was one from “the Convention of the Universal Church, assembled in Philadelphia.” “SIR,” it began, “Permit us, in the name of the society which we represent, to concur in the numerous congratulations which have been offered to you.” The letter reassured the president that “the peculiar doctrine which we hold, is not less friendly to the order and happiness of society, than it is essential to the perfection of the Deity.” One of its signers, Universalist minister John Murray, had known Washington since serving as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. The minister and his second wife, Judith Sargent Murray, had even stopped to dine with the Washingtons on their way to the Convention. Thanks in large part to their efforts, universal salvation was no longer an obscure creed espoused by a scattered few. Now the Convention sought to establish Universalism as a recognized, socially responsible faith.
Washington responded favorably. “GENTLEMEN,” he began, thanking them for their well-wishes, “It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing: for their political professions and practices, are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.” Such affirmation of the Universalists’ civic friendliness, from none other than the first president of the newly United States, must have gratified the Convention. They were well aware that other Protestant clergy, especially the Calvinists, disdained their “peculiar doctrine.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

D. C. - Bible Museum Opened on November 18, 2017

There's a new tourist attraction in Washington D. C. It's the Museum of the Bible. You can read about it in a Washington Post article, The New Bible Museum tells a clear, powerful story. And it could change the museum business.

There's another 11/17/2017 WP article, Jefferson took a blade to his Bible: Presidents, faith, and new Bible museum, by Rachel Siegel. According to this article, "the new museum includes an exhibit on the founder's views on religion and the Bible."

Here's how the article features Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson had a complicated relationship with the Bible.
By the time he was elected the nation’s third president in 1801, the Founding Father had become a champion of separation of church and state. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to First Amendment safeguards on religious freedom in the Constitution, passed the state’s general assembly in January 1786. When campaigning for president, Jefferson was berated by his opponents for being “anti-Christian” and “an infidel.” Once in office, Jefferson hosted what is believed to be the White House’s first iftar — the sunset meal to break daily fasts during Ramadan — in 1805. 
Jefferson kept his own religious views private. But he always wrestled with the veracity of the New Testament. That’s when his penknife came in handy. 
Jefferson believed that in order to glean the most from the New Testament, Jesus’s moral teachings needed to be separated from the miracles in the Gospels that he found suspect. He ordered six volumes — in English, French, Latin and Greek — and took a blade to their thin pages, rearranging Jesus’s teachings in chronological order and cutting out what he saw as embellishments that he didn’t believe. He felt those core teachings provided “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” 
Jefferson pasted his preserved passages on blank sheets of paper and sent the scrapbook off to a book binder. In 1820, when Jefferson was 77 years old, the small, red volume of roughly 80 pages was complete. 
Titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” Jefferson leaned on its lessons in the last years of his life. Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, described the book, known as the “Jefferson Bible,” as well-worn and riddled with dog-eared pages.
Continue reading here.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Article on Winchester & Murray

I found this very informative article on Elhanan Winchester, a Baptist Universalist who influenced among others Benjamin Rush. It brings to mind Rush's quotation:
At Dr. Finley’s school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.
Curiously, one name missing from Rush's list is that of the other most notable Universalist of America's Founding era, John Murray. The article sheds light on why that might be so [it relates to Murray's denial of temporary punishment in the afterlife]:
During the Revolutionary Era and Early Republic, the two leading universalists in America were Winchester and John Murray; the latter was a onetime friend of George Whitefield who eventually came to embrace the universalist views of a Welsh minister named James Relly. Both Relly and Murray had been pro-revival Calvinists prior to their conversion to universalist sentiments. In 1770, Murray relocated to America and spent the next forty-five years promoting the universalist cause from Virginia to New England. Murray met Winchester shortly after First Baptist Church of Philadelphia split over Winchester’s views. The two men became friendly acquaintances, and on August 5, 1785 Murray and Winchester founded a Universalist Society in Oxford, Massachusetts. ...
Though the two men were co-laborers for the universalist cause in the mid-1780s, they represented two distinct versions of universal restoration.42 Following Relly, Murray argued for what might be called a Calvinistic version of universalism that affirmed unconditional election and effectual atonement, but applied them to all of humanity. Murray argued that all people are presently reconciled with Christ, even if they do not know it, and are thus ushered into Christ’s presence upon their death. For Murray, conversion was about awakening to the reality that you are already saved; Christians are those who simply live in light of that reality.43 Murray denied that there would be any punishment for sin in the afterlife, believing that sin is punished temporally in the present life; this emphasis on temporal punishment marked a key difference between Murray and Winchester.
Winchester advocated a different understanding of universal restoration. James Leo Garrett argues Winchester built his cases for universalism around three key ideas: God’s love is his central attribute, Christ’s atonement is general in its provision, and salvation is inclusive of all people.45 Unlike Murray, Winchester argued for the necessity of post- mortem punishment as a means to reform unrepentant sinners and reconcile them to God. Eventually, all people would be purged of their sin and be saved. For Winchester, conversion was about resting in the saving work of Christ in this life and avoiding God’s just punishment of sinners in the next life.46 Though a universalist, Elhanan Winchester was in every other respect a mainstream evangelical.
I think that Winchester's view of "future punishment, and of long duration" probably predominated among then Universalists. However, one still can't discount Murray's influence during the American Founding.  In 1775, George Washington defended Murray as a chaplain during the revolutionary war when the "religiously correct" sought to disqualify Murray for the position because of his universalism.

Later, in 1790, responding to a letter co-written by Murray, Washington gave his props to the Convention of the Universal Church. Though I don't think this group privileged Murray's view of the afterlife over Winchester's (Winchester also, apparently played a leadership role in that group).

[The notes to Washington's letter to the Convention also interestingly detail George and Martha's social relationship with the Murrays.]

Still, one thing about Murray's view reported above, to me, sticks out as striking a very important note that resonates with classical and Christian thought of yesterday and today: "believing that sin is punished temporally in the present life[.]"

Of that era, most Unitarans, Universalists, Deists and so on, along with Jews, orthodox Christians and Muslims believed in at the very least the doctrine of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments. While Murray's view is consistent with Providence and a future state of rewards, what about the punishment part? Yes, there is punishment for sin, or for the more philosophically minded, violation of the natural law. But to Murray, it's more of a present punishment than a future one.

This is Aristotle's notion of Eudaimonia, that there is, as George Washington put it in his First Inaugural "an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." Perhaps this explains why Washington could venerate Murray's theology.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Robert G. Brown on The Great Spirit

Robert G. Brown is, apparently a professor of physics at Duke University. He also has an interest in theology and has written on the Natives' "Great Spirit" whom, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison invoked by name when speaking to the Natives and referencing God.

A taste:
The Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka, Gitchi Manitou of Native American cultures) is a beautiful example of a non-theistic belief in an active, personal, non-anthropomorphic Deity that is intertwined with the fabric of the Universe itself on the large scale and yet is personally engaged with the web of living things and the world on an earthly scale. These cultures are not completely homogeneous, and there are a variety of creation mythologies that need not concern us as (in my opinion at least) these cultures have always been aware that their mythologies are myths, that their legends are legends, that their sacred stories are stories, and thus they have avoided the curse of socially enforced orthodoxy or any sort of insistence on ``belief''. The myths themselves are intended and used as teaching stories that guide individual behavior in ways that support the individual and the community, not as metaphysical speculation. These religions also seem to lack the hellfire and damnation meme - the Great Spirit doesn't punish people for being bad, doesn't inflict eternal torment on people for ``not believing in It''. In these cultures, a life out of balance with the Great Spirit, with the earth, with the community is its own punishment.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Brookhiser on Wood's new book on Adams & Jefferson

Read about it in the New York Times here. Richard Brookhiser reviews Gordon Wood's new book on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. A taste:
Silence fell between the two men. Abigail sent Jefferson a letter of condolence after the death of his daughter Polly in 1804, but their tentative correspondence almost immediately went nuclear. Friendship was finally restored through the efforts of Benjamin Rush, a colleague from the Continental Congress, who conducted a two-year campaign of exhortation, flattery and guile. Among Rush’s stratagems was telling Adams that he had had a dream in which Adams broke the ice by writing Jefferson. Adams finally did so on New Year’s Day, 1812. Enemies no more, the two corresponded until the end.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

George Washington Apparently Makes People Feel "Unsafe"

Christ Church Episcopal in Alexandria, Virginia is removing plaques to George Washington and Robert E. Lee because they apparently make some people feel "unsafe" and "unwelcome." While it's debatable whether a church should have a plaque or statue to any person, other than Christ, in its sanctuary, the reasons given for this change are driven not by a desire to enhance worship but rather by political correctness.

George Washington was one of the key founders of Christ Church Episcopal, and both his family and the Lee family had close ties to Christ Church. Accordingly, it seemed appropriate to earlier generations of Christ Church parishioners to honor both men. Not so today. And while I can understand people objecting to a plaque honoring Lee, I have no respect for any such objection to honoring the father of our country.

For more of my thoughts on this, I invite you to check out the following article at my blog...

"George Washington's Home Church Caves to Political Correctness"

Thursday, October 19, 2017

William Livingston: The Brooding Omnipresence in the Sky ISN'T Christianity

Legal positivists who are on the Left, the Right, in the Center and libertarian don't believe in a "brooding omnipresence in the sky" at least not for purposes of constitutional interpretation.

The late Justice Scalia was one of these legal positivists. He was a devout Roman Catholic who personally believed in what his Church taught: the natural law of the Aristotlean-Thomistic tradition. His point was if legislatures wish to use that to inform their conscience when drafting and voting for legislation they are free to do so. Just as they are free to use the the Bible, Book of Mormon, the works of Immanuel Kant or whatever they wish.

I can't resolve the debate between the legal positivists and those who believe that a higher organic law undergirds our system and can be used in constitutional interpretation. Legal positivism predominates. I do believe that the reason why some very distinguished scholars dissent and believe in natural law and rights is that quotations abound from America's Founders demonstrating that they believed in the existence of such.

Christian nationalists think that it's Christianity that is the source of this higher law. After years of studying this, I don't think that's right. Though God does have a place in documents like the Declaration of Independence and Alexander Hamilton's "The Farmer Refuted," which are among the sources of the aforementioned quotations by America's Founders on their belief in the existence of the "brooding omnipresence in the sky."

We can add William Livingston's name to the list of Founders who denied that Christianity was the source of the omnipresence. Livingston was a framer of the US Constitution and played a key role in getting the document ratified in New Jersey.

The denial of Christianity as the organic law of America comes from Livingston as he commented on the Articles of Confederation. The Articles do invoke "the Great Governor of the World," but that wasn't good enough for John Mason who wanted language that the "law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, [is] the supreme law of the United States,..."

That language is also absent from the US Constitution. In fact the US Constitution, unlike the Articles, is Godless. Below is from Livingston's letter to John Mason, Princeton, 29th May, 1778:
And to have made the 'law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,' would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute, as the very first question that would have arisen upon that article would be, whether we were bound by the ceremonial as well as the moral law, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel. Should we confine ourselves to the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the New Testament (which is undoubtedly obligatory upon all Christians), there would still have been endless disputes about the construction of the of these laws. Shall the meaning be ascertained by every individual for himself, or by public authority? If the first, all human laws respecting the subject are merely nugatory; if the latter, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, and enforce their own interpretations with pains and penalties.


[A]nd the inseparable connexion between the morals of the people and the good of society will compel them to pay due attention to external regularity and decorum; but true piety again has never been agreed upon by mankind, and I should not be willing that any human tribunal should settle its definition for me.
Post Script: For the full, easily accessible version of Livingston's letter, see here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Newest Debate Influenced By East v. West Coast Straussianism

This time the two players are Robert Reilly, batting for the West; and Patrick Deneen, batting for the East. Both are traditional religiously conservative Roman Catholics.

The issue is how the politics of the American Founding -- philosophy and theology included -- squares with "Christianity" (scare quotes meant to denote all of its inherit meanings).

Adam Seagrave joins the conversation.

There are too many points for me to address in a brief blog post; so I will choose to focus on one by Professor Deneen:
... Indeed, inasmuch as for Locke the first form of property is ownership of our own selves, protection of expression of selfhood is a predictable form of how our “diversity in faculties” is likely to find expression. And, as his 1792 essay on property makes clear, Madison’s understanding of property as exclusive possessions of individuals, which includes not only external wealth but also opinions and belief, is extensively the same as the Lockean view.

Reilly claims that Locke and Madison—in distinction from Hobbes and Machiavelli—are part of a continuous tradition that reaches back to ancient and Christian philosophy. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a justification of res publica from pre-modern thinkers that rests on the claim that protection of private differences is the “first object” of republican government. The classical tradition—expressed, for instance, in the writings of Aristotle or Aquinas—encouraged public-spiritedness, self-rule, concern for the common good, and cultivation of virtue as the essential elements of a polity or republic. While classical thinkers also recognized differences (and the potential for factions) as a major challenge, they commended the harmonization of differences and cultivation of virtue rather than promoting pursuit of private differences as the best avenue of avoiding political division. Indeed, the ancient Greeks reserved the word idiotes to those mainly concerned with private things. Classical thinkers encouraged the formation of small-scale regimes over large ones as more likely to promote participation in a shared common good. Aristotle argued for a limit to acquisition, believing that excess was as dangerous to civic and personal virtue as deficiency.

In calling for a large and extended republic, a relatively small political class whose ambition would promote national greatness, and a citizenry with a main focus on private pursuits, both Madison and Hamilton were cognizant that they were building a nation based on a new science of politics, as Hamilton readily acknowledges in Federalist 1 and 9.
I agree with Deneen that Madison, Hamilton, following Locke were positing something "new" that broke with the "classical" tradition that traces from Aristotle, whom America's Founders lauded, to Aquinas, whom they didn't.

However, the Lockean liberal tradition was one of a number of different core ideologies that made up the the synthesis of the origins of the American founding. Perhaps the "civic republican" ideological thought found in such thinkers as Harrington resonates more with the classical tradition from which Locke and Madison broke and adds balance to the perspective, especially to those who laud the classical tradition and wish to find more of it in the American founding. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What is the Judeo-Christian Tradition?

I saw John Fea link this a little while back. I think the term to describe the political theology of the American Founding is as problematic as any other competing ones. To hear George Washington tell the narrative, yes Jews and Christians worshipped the same God. But so too did Muslims and unconverted "Great Spirit" worshipping native Americans.

A taste:
The inclination to incorporate Jewish thought into the fabric of society is noble and important, especially in light of political history. But some scholars point out that “Judeo-Christian,” unlike the term “Abrahamic,” can also serve to exclude other religious minorities, such as Muslims — which can have unwelcome implications. The term “Abrahamic” is more inclusive because all three major monotheistic religions trace their lineage to the figure of Abraham.
Personally I think "generic monotheism" gets at the political theology of the American Founding. But if the "generic" part makes it too weak, Dennis Prager's "ethical monotheism" will do.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Articles From Mark David Hall and Thomas Kidd

Check out this new article by Mark David Hall at the ISI site discussing how the "Deism" dynamic of the American Founding has been exaggerated. A taste:
But even if the Founders discussed above were all clearly deists, what would that say about the founding generation? Consider for a moment the background and experiences of these men. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were wealthy Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and Paine was born and raised in England. In an era when few people travelled internationally, Jefferson and Adams spent significant time in Europe, and Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. Needless to say, these men are not representative of late-eighteenth-century Americans.

When one turns from these few select Founders to the broader constellation of men and women who played significant roles in winning American independence and creating America’s constitutional order, the proposition that the Founders were deists becomes impossible to maintain. ...
Hall does solid work. Though no one's scholarship is perfect. But to (admittedly) "nitpick," Hall then lists a bunch of "orthodox Christians" that outnumber the "deists." He includes Abigail Adams in his list of orthodox Christians. She wasn't. She just as militantly rejected the Trinity as did her husband.

This is an article from Thomas Kidd published in Baylor Magazine on Ben Franklin. Kidd also does solid work. A taste:
... The text of the unamended Constitution is notably secular, save for references like the “Year of our Lord” 1787. But the lack of religion in the document does not mean the topic went unmentioned.

Several weeks into the proceedings, the octogenarian Benjamin Franklin proposed that the meetings open with prayer. “How has it happened,” he pondered, according to a copy of the speech in Franklin’s papers, “that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?”
We've heard the story and seen the quotation from Franklin at the Constitutional Convention many times. They were deadlocked and Franklin suggested that they pray. He did so using language that suggested belief in an active personal God.

So I often see Christian nationalists framing the issue as though, "see even the supposed 'deist' Ben Franklin was prayerful."

But here is the funny thing. We are assuming Franklin is the less than fully orthodox outlier, as the Christian nationalists narrative suggests he was the least conventionally religious man in a room full of devoutly orthodox Christian men who were writing a Constitution based on biblical principles.

So look at what Franklin wrote about the men in this room. From Kidd's article:
Even stranger, few convention attendees supported the proposal. A couple of devout delegates seconded his motion, but it fizzled among the other participants. Franklin scribbled a note at the bottom of his prayer speech lamenting, “The Convention except three or four Persons, thought Prayers unnecessary!”
As noted above the Constitution's text is secular. Likewise the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention quote the Bible little if at all for the propositions contained in the Constitution.

And what does it say about a room full of mostly, or with a few exceptions, "orthodox Christian" men that they thought prayers unnecessary to resolve their deadlock? 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ben Franklin on the Ten Commandments and More

So I never inquired before on quotations from Ben Franklin on the Ten Commandments. After a little research I can only find one. Interestingly, American Creation's Tom Van Dyke's 2009 post came up in my search which aptly noted that the context of the quotation was Franklin acting the part of a "dirty old man."

In a flirtatious letter to Madame Brillon de Jouy, née Anne-Louise Boivin d'Hardancourt (March 10, 1777), Franklin states there are actually 12, not 10 Commandments.
People commonly speak of Ten Commandments. I have been taught that there are twelve. The first was increase & multiply & replenish the earth. The twelfth is, A new Commandment I give unto you, that you love one another. It seems to me that they are a little misplaced, And that the last should have been the first.
Chris Rodda's "Liars for Jesus" (Volume I) also references this quotation on page 423. She notes that Christian Nationalists who look for and cherry pick quotations to fit their narrative don't use this one.

Interestingly, I also found in Rodda's chapter on Franklin (11 in her book) a letter that deals with the Deism controversy. Franklin admitted that he was a "thorough Deist" when younger but soon abandoned that creed.  In 1728, in his early 20s, Franklin thought the God of the Universe was a Deistic, impersonal Creator who created a personal God that rules our solar system, one he would worship.

By the end of his life, I doubt Franklin continued to believe this. Where he ended up was belief in an active personal God but without endorsing any orthodox doctrine. Rather, the doctrine he did endorse was morality and doing good to our fellow man as the central purpose of all valid religions. And that Jesus -- about whose divinity Franklin had "doubts" -- was the greatest moral teacher.

Franklin had a friendship with the evangelical preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield tried and failed to convert Franklin to his creed. Rodda uncovers a letter from Franklin to Whitefield (Sept. 2, 1769) where, aged 63 at the time, Franklin addressing the doctrine of Providence, again, sounds like some kind of Deist:
I see with you that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.
Well America won the then brewing revolutionary war that was the subject of Franklin's 1769 letter to Whitefield. Franklin's speech as an old man at the Constitutional Convention reveals belief in a Providence who more actively personally intervenes in man's affairs.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dreisbach: Liberty under law was always rooted in biblical principles

From Daniel Dreisbach's op-ed at The Hill

Most American founders regarded the Bible as a great handbook for nurturing morality and ethics; and even many who doubted the Bible’s divine origins appealed to Scripture. To be sure, the founders drew on and synthesized diverse intellectual traditions. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.

But the Bible was the most accessible, authoritative, and venerated text in 18th Century America. It was, by far, the most cited work in the political discourse of the age, referenced more frequently than the great political theorists John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu. The Constitution, as well as two dozen or so state constitutions framed in the wake of independence, was shaped by a legal culture and constitutional tradition influenced by Christianity and its sacred text. This includes measures separating and checking government powers in the hands of “fallen” public officials, mandating oaths of offices, and prohibiting double jeopardy.

...the Bible may have influenced some specific provisions written into the U.S. Constitution. To be sure, it is difficult to establish definitively that a specific constitutional provision was taken from a specific biblical passage; rather, it is more plausible that constitutional principles were indirectly influenced by biblical concepts that had long before found expression in western legal tradition, especially in the English common law, and, more recently, colonial laws.

Consider, for example, Article I, § 7, cl. 2 excepting Sundays from the 10 days within which a president must veto a bill. This is an implicit recognition of the Christian Sabbath, commemorating the Creator’s sanctification of the seventh day for rest (Genesis 2:1-3), the fourth commandment that the Sabbath be kept free from secular defilement (Exodus 20:8-11), and, in the Christian tradition, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

For one final example, the Fifth Amendment, crafted by the first federal Congress, prohibits double jeopardy, or trying a defendant twice for the same offense, which Saint Jerome in a late fourth-century commentary and legal scholars ever since have said was a principle found in the book of the prophet Nahum 1:9.

Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”

Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

What's a Cult Anyway, Part II

Roy Masters presents himself as a Messianic Jew and a Bible believing Christian. He's not a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, which I suppose makes him Protestant by default. Masters is a "new" teacher in the sense that he innovated a certain theological understanding and attained a group of people who follow his comprehensive teachings.

He does not, however, wish to be seen as "New Age," or as a "cult leader." Rather, he asserts he falls squarely within the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. His comprehensive packaging of his theological teaching is indeed novel. However, I would argue the vast majority of the components of his teachings can be traced to earlier traditions in Christendom, many of them "dissenting" or "eccentric" traditions.

So here is what he believes, or claims to believe:

1. The God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

On matters of biblical canon, I think he follows the Protestant canon (book of 66) with questions as to whether the Song of Solomon is inspired. If that book is, he rejects the sexualized reading of it. He may well believe some of books rejected by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions are inspired. I saw him quote the Gospel of Thomas in one of his lectures as though it were inspired. That may make him some kind of Gnostic (sorry Eric Vogelin fans).

2. The mystical tradition of Christianity. 

I don't know whether there is a connection between Gnosticism and Christian mysticism. But Roy Masters' devotee David Kupelian explicitly notes that tradition as authoritative:
Then there’s the famous 16th century Catholic priest, Saint John of the Cross, who authored the Christian classic “Dark Night of the Soul” and others. He said this: “Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved” (that is, for God). And this: “If you purify your soul of attachment to and desire for things, you will understand them spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them.” This is a mystery. We spend our lives coveting and acquiring the possessions and relationships we think will make us happy. And here we’re being told that to find true happiness, we must somehow forsake these very desires. How? And more importantly, why?

By the way, for his efforts at religious reform, John was imprisoned by religious authorities and flogged publicly every week, only to be returned to isolation in a tiny cell barely large enough for his body.

And what about Jean Guyon, the 17th century French author of many Christian books including “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ”? She gently nudges believers in the direction of “retreating inward, and seeking after tranquility of mind” in order to do all things “as in the Divine presence.”
 3. A view of "the God within" and revelation that is like what old school Quakers taught. 

This may also parallel the above mentioned non-Quaker mystical tradition of Christianity. It's about being still and listening to your conscience in order to channel and truly understand revelation from God. Those Quakers were the group who focused most seriously on the 3rd Person in the Trinity -- the Holy Spirit -- as God who gets inside of man and speaks directly to him. Without it, no one will ever truly understand what the Bible means and how to properly put it together. It will just be citing verses and chapter of word blather.

Likewise Masters, after these Quakers teaches the Bible is NOT the "word OF God," rather the "word FROM God." True revelation is wordless! It's a wordless word that one receives in a state of stillness. Then, after channeling this "understanding," we do our best to put it into the imperfect words of language. The understanding precedes the language words.

This is how Quaker Robert Barclay put it in 1675:
Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.a Seeing then that we do therefore receive and believe the Scriptures because they proceeded from the Spirit, for the very same reason is the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale: That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.
Yes, the "fountain" is the truth; the scriptures are not "the fountain," but rather a declaration of the "fountain." As we will see below, Roy Masters doesn't believe in the Trinity; but he does believe in the Divine. When I first read the above quoted passage by Barclay it reminded me of what Masters teaches. The divine within precedes the written Word and is instructive. Because the scriptures testify to that primary wordless fountain of truth, that is what justifies the words of scripture as valid and true. Not vice versa. Don't put the cart before the horse. The scriptures are the cart, not the horse.

(Before the Internet was invented Masters once noted "Bibles" are just books of paper, the inherent quality of which is no greater than toilet paper, fit to wipe your ass with. It's not the paper; it's not the print that is holy.)

4. Arianism

Masters does not believe Jesus is God, but rather the Son of God. The Son of God is NOT God the Son. Jesus was there "In the Beginning," (first born of creation). And Jesus is the "Word of God." But English translations improperly state that the Word OF God "was" God. Rather, like Scripture itself, the "Word of God" (Jesus) was "from God," not God Himself. So John 1:1 should be translated as saying "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was FROM God."

5. The Holiness Doctrine

This is something that Masters has gotten a lot of flack for. The media has said he claims to be "sinless." No. He claims rather that he DOES NOT SIN. But he used to before he was saved (as the Bible says no human except Jesus is "without sin"). This is exactly what evangelical revivalist Charles Finney posited. And Matthew 5:48 and I John 3:8-10 are the scriptural justifications for the doctrine.

6. An Augustinian View of Sex.

Masters believes, after Augustine, celibacy and chastity are the ideal. I'm no expert in Augustine and Masters' teachings here are a bit difficult to understand, but I try. Masters thinks that the "begetting"of the human species is somehow mysteriously tied to the fall of man. Sex is only appropriate between a married husband and wife. But even there it falls short of the ideal. Orthodox Protestants believe, if you are married most anything goes, even contraception. Catholics believe if you are married, as long as the sex is Thomistic, anything goes. Masters believes it's immoral for a man to be addicted to sex with his wife.

If a man is addicted to sex with his wife, it's a sign of not being saved. Indeed, if a young man is already saved, he, like Jesus and St. Paul, wouldn't need to get married, because he would have, out of his holiness, transcended his sexual desires. And part of the salvation process is for a married man to transcend his sexual desire for his wife and treat her like a father treats his daughter. (Similar to how Roman Catholic dogma says men and woman who aren't married in the eyes of the Church must live as "brother and sister" until they are. Masters uses the "father/daughter" analogy).

Along the way, while a man is getting saved, that's when children incidentally happen in the context of marriage. Masters is almost 90 and has five children and many grandchildren (and I think great grandchildren). Yet he brags about how he hasn't had sex with his wife in I think around 50 (or more) years.

7. Judeo-Christian meditation as essential for salvation. 

This is where Masters gets accused of being "New Age" and or "Eastern." You can listen to the meditation exercise here. There is no funny sounding mantra. However, it does sound like something from the meditation/mindfulness movement, which has eastern origins. The mindfulness way of life, I should add, also parallels Stoicism, which is a Western philosophy.

Masters argues his meditation is, unlike all the others, "Judeo-Christian" because it anchors you to the God of the Bible. Sure there are seeming similarities to Eastern teachings. But as the Stoic example demonstrates, sometimes different cultures come to the same or similar conclusions through different channels.

But the other meditation exercises are dangerous because they in a sense "work" like his does, but without anchoring you to the God of the Bible, which is what is special about his. Masters argues that being in a state of stress -- fight or flight, anger or anxiety -- is less than ideal, and signals an unsaved state. His meditation exercise supposedly makes you immune to stress. You don't get angry or experience anxiety, no matter what happens.

Buddhism and other Eastern meditation exercises also promise something similar. But the difference is, by being anchored to the God of the Bible, the meditator will not sin. On the other hand, the Eastern meditator are anchored to nothing. So they can get immune to anger and fear, but go on sinning with a big grin on their face, like the Cheshire Cat.

A psychopath is someone who can do wrong without a sense of guilt. It's the difference between a stressed out angry compulsive person who does harm and feels guilt (not a psychopath) and someone in a calm and blissful state who can stick a knife in an innocent person and sleep peacefully that night (a psychopath).

Indeed, Buddhist monks score high on the psychopathy index.  It doesn't mean they are horrible people. Rather that they are calm and peaceful. So if they did choose to do wrong, they would feel peaceful about it. No guilt. Their meditation helps to anesthetize real and necessary guilt feelings. Masters claims his helps men to stop sinning and once they cease sinning entirely, they feel no guilt because there is nothing to feel guilty about.

There is a lot more to Mr. Masters' teachings, but I think the above captures 7 key points. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says. Rather I view him like Immanuel Kant viewed Emanuel Swedenborg. Kant had a love/hate fascination with Swedenborg.

But as a civilized gentleman, I'm trying to be fair. One thing about Mr. Masters' teachings that bother me is his theology is extremely politicized. Public figures Jesse Lee Peterson and the above mentioned David Kupelian are devotees. And they teach moral truth is on the side of the political Right. The extreme socially conservative Right.

My opinion is if there is a God, His truth transcends politics.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What's a Cult Anyway?

A while ago, I introduced the notion into discussion forums populated by many evangelical Christians that the driving political theology of the American Founding, adhered to by certain "key Founders" -- leading lights, if you will -- was something halfway between Deism and orthodox Christianity. Some folks in these forums responded that such to them, sounded like a "cult." (Others simply wished to deny that what I reported was accurate.)

Indeed, certain evangelical-fundamentalist circles define "cult" by adherence to doctrines that are not "correct" as they understand what the Bible "really" means. In other words, if you are not "doctrinally correct," you risk the "cult" label.

But there has to be more than that, right? Arminians and Calvinists disagree with one another, sometimes call the other "heretics," but do they throw around the "cult" label in their accusations? (Not a rhetorical question, rather one I really don't know the answer to.)

It could be that orthodox Trinitarian doctrine -- something to which Arminians and Calvinists both adhere -- is the "safe ground" that avoids the cult label (but not necessarily the "heretic" label).

But I have heard evangelical-fundamentalist types term "Roman Catholicism" a cult. But Roman Catholicism adheres to orthodox Trinitarian doctrine! Protestant evangelical-fundamentalists disagree with one another here. Many, sensible in my opinion, evangelical-fundamentalists, though they may disagree with Roman Catholicism and indeed, fear its adherents are not really "saved," understand it's not proper to label such a "cult."

Why? In addition to endorsing orthodox Trinitarianism, Roman Catholicism also happens to be the largest Christian denomination in the world. And arguably the oldest. In other words, it's "normative," historic Christianity.

What then? In addition to being doctrinally incorrect -- especially on areas like the Trinity -- for a sect to be relatively new and relatively small, might help to establish its status as a "cult." This is why, in the above mentioned circles, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, among other creeds, qualify as "cults."

I still don't see why any of these criteria make "cult" status negative or wrong compared to the religious traditions that don't necessarily qualify for "cult" status.

Is it because of issues of "control"? All religions to some degree seek to control the behavior of their adherents. That's supposed to be a feature, not a bug. Fallen humans are by nature out of control and bound to cause trouble. "Religion" is something that is supposed to, for the sake of society and civilization -- at least according to George Washington in his Farewell Address -- keep them in line and make them into moral and productive citizens.

With that, see below a 35 year old video from CNN's "Crossfire" featuring one Roy Masters. The show terms Masters a "cult leader." On social media, Masters -- still alive at almost 90 -- frames it as a matter of the corrupt "media" smearing him. Masters is very conservative and integrates his political leanings into his theology. As such, the "media" establishment who tend towards the Left and have institutional biases against the Right, have not been kind to him.

After Masters posted this old video, many followers on his site made the expected comments on how the Left media establishment were characteristically smearing him then as they do today.

But they missed one important dynamic. CNN's "Crossfire" was a show that featured someone from the Left, and someone from the Right. The person on the Left who antagonized Masters was the late Tom Braden. I don't know much about him, and just learned that apparently he was the real life inspiration for the Dad from "Eight is Enough." The person on the Right was the late John Lofton, who was far more "conservative" than Masters, arguably to the Right of Attila the Hun. Lofton was a member of RJ Rushdoony's "Christian Reconstructionist" movement that sought to impose harsh Old Testament style punishments in today's civil society.

These "uber-orthodox" Protestant fundamentalist Christians like Lofton, as such, had no problem terming Masters -- who is not "doctrinally correct" according to fundamentalist Protestant standards -- a "cult leader." Lofton wrote, ironically, for the Rev. Moon owned "Washington Times" until he was fired for being too conservative for them.

Lofton said of Masters that he is “a false prophet and theological fraud.” I write of this because some of Mr. Masters' social media followers apparently thought these were two members of the Liberal media trying to smear him as a "cult leader."

They couldn't be more wrong, at least as it relates to the late Mr. Lofton.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

And Who Is David Currie?

Who is this David R. Currie sliming David Barton in the San Angelo [TX] Standard-Times?

I wear quite a few hats in San Angelo, and I love this community. I am writing this article as the retired executive director of Texas Baptists Committed and a longtime board member of The Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C.

David Barton is of course a GOP activist, heavily involved in questions of religion and government and usually in fierce opposition to the Democrats. [See The Great Texas Textbook Massacre.]

What Currie does not mention anywhere in his op-ed is the hat he wears as the current chair of the Tom Green County Democratic Party. Currie's bio does disclose he holds a PhD in "Christian Ethics."

I do not question Currie's Christianity. But I do question his ethics. This lack of disclosure is inexcusable. 

I'm also disgusted at Currie's attack in its misrepresentations of Barton's actual positions, as well as using the newspaper to urge fellow Christians to shun Barton. But let's just leave it here at Currie's ethics. This is political, and to pretend it's solely a Christian question is dishonest. And even if it were, on a Biblical level, completely inappropriate to take to the newspapers (see 1 Corinthians 6:1).