Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Bit About My History in Researching Religion & US History

I began researching this issue from the secular side a little over 5 years ago because something didn't sound right about the “Christian America” idea I heard promoted (in what I saw as an arrogant manner) by the late D. James Kennedy and David Barton. My liberal law school professors taught me the exact opposite! Along the way I moderated my "secular" position because I discovered the importance religion played in public life during America’s Founding. Given I was a "libertarian" and had no real affinity for political secular leftism, I found I could do that rather easily. [Though when I debunk "Christian Nation" ideas, I'm commonly termed a "secular progressive," or a "liberal." I consider myself a "liberal" only in the classical sense, in the way that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Adam Smith were "liberals."]

I also discovered, to my pleasant surprise that many of the best scholars who debunk the “Christian America” idea are devout traditional Christians, many of whom are concerned with keeping their biblical faith pure from corrupt, non-biblical influences (i.e., “Americanism” or the theology of “Founding era republicanism” which is not biblical, but often presented itself under theological auspices, i.e., “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” which many conservative Christians today confuse with “biblical” ideas).

Notable traditional Christian scholars who refute the "Christian America" thesis include Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Robert Kraynak, Gary Scott Smith, Gary North, and Gregg Frazer (see more on him below), all of whom possess PhDs from prestigious universities and heavyweights like Noll, Hatch and Marsden are arguably among the most well-respected scholars of American religious history period.

As noted, I saw something wrong with the secular talking points as well. Regarding the debate over whether the Founders were Deist v. Christian, I noticed there was some middle ground between the two systems in which many of America's Founders seemed to believe. They may have been "Christians," but weren't orthodox Trinitarian Christians. Or they may have been "Deists," but they believed in an active personal God which contradicts a fundamental tenet of Deism. They seemed to be theological unitarians or otherwise not identifiably Trinitarian, but didn't belong to Unitarian Churches or "societies" which really didn't exist in the mid-late 18th Century (a few got started in the 1780s, but you could count them on one hand; lots of preachers in the New England Congregational Churches, since the mid 18th Century, were "unitarians," but those Churches didn't become "Unitarian" until around the turn of the 19th Century). In the 18th Century, unitarianism was a personal theology, not a Church.

So, I discovered, the key Founders weren't really strict Deist or orthodox Christians, but somewhere in between. Around the time this lightbulb went off, fortuitously or perhaps Providentially, the Claremont Institute, whose website I had been reading regularly, published an article by Gregg Frazer which perfectly articulated what I saw as a needed new paradigm in the debate. I subsequently purchased his PhD thesis from Claremont Graduate University, parts of which I have read over many times. And, daily, I have expanded my knowledge pouring through the primary sources, reading dozens of books on the matter (reviewing one of them for First Things Magazine; kind of odd in that I'm not a traditionalist Catholic conservative, but a soft secular libertarian; but when they asked me to write that "Briefly Noted" book review, I wasn't about to refuse a magazine that publishes Supreme Court Justices; plus I do greatly respect their high intellectual output even if I often disagree with their positions) and am still engaged in knowledge expansion and mastering the primary sources (with the help of neat tools like search engines and googlebooks) on a daily basis, as an avocation.

When I make arguments and discuss my research on the new paradigm and use the term "theistic rationalist" to describe the creed of America's key Founders, I often cite Dr. Frazer by name. And I do that simply because I want make sure I give credit where credit is due and properly cite my sources.

I also don't want folks to get the misimpression that Dr. Frazer and I necessarily agree on issues other than in the specific sense that I endorse his work. Don't think because I throw his name around that he is a "soft-secularist" and a political libertarian like me; he is not. From what I can tell, he is more of a meat and potatoes religious conservative. And in his commentaries, he stresses his traditional conservative worldview and approach to constitutional interpretation more so than I do when I cite him. So perhaps, for the sake of perspective, I should reproduce one of his brief commentaries replying to common "secular left" talking points, in a local California news outlet:

Scott Holleran (Viewpoint, Feb. 11) overstates his case and misstates history. While the founders were not, as a rule, born-again Christians, they were religious and thought religion very important to the welfare of the nation. None of the founders doubted the existence of God and none was ``openly hostile'' to religion.

John Adams denied America was a Christian nation, but he also said: ``Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.'' James Madison, author of the Establishment Clause, said what it meant: ``that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.'' That's it. The Supreme Court in 1947 created the ``separation principle,'' not the founders.

- Gregg Frazer

9 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

kind of odd in that I'm not a traditionalist Catholic conservative

Oh, but you are, Jon. One can't be Catholic without idiosyncracies. That would miss the whole point of being created as an individual. Otherwise, what would be the point of creating you in the first place instead of a mass of robots?

You're one of the best Catholics I've ever known.

Explicit Atheist said...

More John Adams quotes of the same sort:

But let us first Suppose, that the whole Community of every Age, Rank, Sex, and Condition,
has a Right to vote. This Community, is assembled—a Motion is made and carried by a
Majority of one Voice. The Minority will not agree to this. Whence arises the Right of the
Majority to govern, and the Obligation of the Minority to obey? from Necessity, you will Say,
because there can be no other Rule. But why exclude Women? You will Say, because their
Delicacy renders them unfit for Practice and Experience, in the great Business of Life, and the
hardy Enterprises of War, as well as the arduous Cares of State. Besides, their attention is So
much engaged with the necessary Nurture of their Children, that Nature has made them fittest
for domestic Cares. And Children have not Judgment or Will of their own.

True. But will not these Reasons apply to others? Is it not equally true, that Men in general
in every Society, who are wholly destitute of Property, are also too little acquainted with public
Affairs to form a Right Judgment, and too dependent upon other Men to have a Will of their
own? If this is a Fact, if you give to every Man, who has no Property, a Vote, will you not make
a fine encouraging Provision for Corruption by your fundamental Law? Such is the Frailty of the
human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They
talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his
Interest.

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and
Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will
think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand
an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all
Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Level.

John Adams appears to disagree with many of the Supreme Court decisions, constitutional amendments, and laws that have enfranchised almost all adult citizens.

Raven said...

Who is Gregg Frazer? Ok, so he wrote a dissertation. Why does this make him some great source?

Jonathan said...

Raven,

He's a great source because of the content of his work; I wish his Diss. were turned into a book published by a distinguished academic publisher. It hasn't happened yet.

Peter Henriques and Gary Scott Smith in their books on George Washington (Henriques') and the religion of the US Presidency (Smiths') both rely on his work. Henriques' book is published by UVA Press and Smiths' is published by Oxford.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Tom on #1.

Brad Hart said...

I am almost always in complete agreement with your take on the religious creeds of our founders. I find the all-or-nothing approach of those in the deist and Christian Nationalist camps to be counterproductive.

Our Founding Truth said...

So, I discovered, the key Founders weren't really strict Deist or orthodox Christians, but somewhere in between.>

To Rowe, five men were the framers, the others don't matter, showing our irresponsible he is.

John Adams denied America was a Christian nation, but he also said: ``Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.'' James Madison, author of the Establishment Clause, said what it meant: ``that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.'' That's it. The Supreme Court in 1947 created the ``separation principle,'' not the founders.

- Gregg Frazer>

Frazer is full of it as well. My blog has refuted most every word he's said.

Explicit Atheist said...

Here is a 1822 letter from Madison to to Edward Livingston, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions66.html, in which he expesses his disagreement with Congress for funding a Chaplain and better defines his concept "of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction"

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Frazer is full of it as well. My blog has refuted most every word he's said."

At least Frazer knows how to spell "Barack Obama."