Thursday, July 3, 2008

Richard Price's Religious Liberalism

Richard Price was a notable British minister who influenced America's Founding. He was similar to Joseph Priestley in that both were British unitarian Whig ministers who supported the American and French Revolutions and maintained a correspondence with many of America's key Founders. Unlike Priestley who was a Socinian (believed Jesus to be 100% human, but on a divine mission) Price, like Locke, Milton, Newton, Clarke and many others, was an Arian (believed Jesus to be a divine but created being subordinate to the Father).

Written in 1785, Price's Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution details his political and religious philosophy. It should be noted that unitarians like Priestley and Price could be just as critical of strict Deism as they could be of orthodox Christianity (and likewise, America's key Founders who were influenced by Price and Priestley occupied that middle position between Christianity and Deism). This is why their quotations could be taken out of context to suit either side (i.e., the religious right's "Christian" side v. the secular left's "Deist" side). For instance, Price considered himself a "Christian" not a "Deist" and praised the Christian religion. He noted:

When Christianity, that first and best of all the means of human improvement, was first preached it was charged with turning the world upside down.

Yet, like James Madison did in his Memorial and Remonstrance, Price praises Christianity in the context of calling for its disestablishment:

There cannot be a more striking proof that nothing but fair discussion is necessary to suppress error and to propagate truth. I am grieved, indeed, whenever I find any Christians shewing a disposition to call in the aid of civil power to defend their religion. Nothing can be more disgraceful to it. If it wants such aid it cannot be of God. Its corruption and debasement took place from the moment that civil power took it under its patronage, and this corruption and debasement increased till at last it was converted into a system of absurdity and superstition more gross and more barbarous than Paganism itself. The religion of Christ disclaims all connexion with the civil establishments of the world. It has suffered infinitely by their friendship. Instead of silencing its opponents, let them be encouraged to produce their strongest arguments against it. The experience of Britain has lately shewn that this will only cause it to be better understood and more firmly believed.

Price's "Christianity" -- if it's fair to call it that -- was "rational" and "liberal." Yet what Price believed was still closer to traditional Christianity than was the religion of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Priestley (and perhaps Washington and Madison):

It is indeed only a rational and liberal religion, a religion founded on just notions of the Deity as a being who regards equally every sincere worshipper, and by whom all are alike favoured as far as they act up to the light they enjoy, a religion which consists in the imitation of the moral perfections of an almighty but benevolent governor of nature, who directs for the best all events, in confidence in the care of his providence, in resignation to his will, and in the faithful discharge of every duty of piety and morality from a regard to his authority and the apprehension of a future righteous retribution. It is only this religion (the inspiring principle of every thing fair and worthy and joyful and which in truth is nothing but the love of God and man and virtue warming the heart and directing the conduct) — it is only this kind of religion that can bless the world or be an advantage to society. This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to promote. But it is a religion that the powers of the world know little of and which will always be best promoted by being left free and open.

I cannot help adding here that such in particular is the Christian religion. Christianity teaches us that there is none good but one, that is, God, that he willeth all men to be saved, and will punish nothing but wickedness, that he desires mercy and not sacrifice (benevolence rather than rituals), that loving him with all our hearts, and loving our neighbour as ourselves, is the whole of our duty, and that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted of him. It rests its authority on the power of God, not of man, refers itself entirely to the understandings of men, makes us the subjects of a kingdom that is not of this world, and requires us to elevate our minds above temporal emoluments and to look forwards to a state beyond the grave where a government of perfect virtue will be erected under that Messiah who has tasted death for every man. What have the powers of the world to do with such a religion? It disclaims all connexion with them, it made its way at first in opposition to them, and, as far as it is now upheld by them, it is dishonoured and vilified.

The most controversial part of Price's observations is where he attacks the Trinity, i.e., the "Athanasian creed."

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.

Price discusses Massachusetts' 1780 Constitution and notes that it was liberal for its time, but still not ideal:

From the preceding observations it may be concluded that it is impossible I should not admire the following article in the declaration of rights which forms the foundation of the Massachusett's constitution:

'In this state every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth shall be equally under the protection of the law, and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.'

This is liberal beyond all example. I should, however, have admired it more had it been more liberal, and the words, all men of all religions been substituted for the words, every denomination of Christians.

This is important. The natural rights ideals of the US Founding demanded a legal equality of rights for all religions, not Christians. This was implemented at the Federal level with the religion clauses of the First Amendment and the "no religious tests" clause in Article VI, Clause 3 of the unamended Constitution. Yet, as a compromise, the states were permitted to establish their own religious policy, with the hopes they would reform their laws in a more liberal direction, which they did. By 1833, all states had disestablished, without the need for a Civil War over establishment policy. But make no mistake some of those practices at the state level -- for instance religious tests that demanded belief in Trinitarian Christianity or the infallibility of the Bible -- violated natural right as much as did chattel slavery. Here is Price on religious tests:

It appears farther from the preceding observations that I cannot but dislike the religious tests which make a part of several of the American constitutions. In the Massachusett's constitution it is ordered that all who take seats in the House of Representatives or Senate shall declare 'their firm persuasion of the truth of the Christian religion'. The same is required by the Maryland constitution, as a condition of being admitted into any places of profit or trust. In Pensylvania every member of the House of Representatives is required to declare that he 'acknowledges the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration'. In the state of Delaware, that 'he believes in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed for evermore'. All this is more than is required even in England where, though every person however debauched or atheistical is required to receive the sacrament as a qualification for inferior places, no other religious test is imposed on members of parliament than a declaration against Popery. It is an observation no less just than common that such tests exclude only honest men. The dishonest never scruple them.

Indeed, Benjamin Rush and Ben Franklin, with the help of Price's writings, both fought mightily to remove PA's aforementioned religious test. These two brief letters from Rush to Price on the matter are worth reproducing. Rush is clear that state religious tests, though they would be permitted as a constitutional compromise, nonetheless violated the natural rights ideals of the Declaration of Independence and therefore should be removed:

Benjamin Rush to Richard Price

15 Oct. 178522 Apr. 1786 Letters 1:371, 385--86

[15 Oct. 1785]

I took the liberty of publishing, with your name, your excellent letter on the test law of Pennsylvania. It has already had a great effect on the minds of many people, and I doubt not will contribute more than anything to repeal that law. Dr. Franklin, who has succeeded Mr. Dickinson as our governor, has expressed his surprise at the continuance of such a law since the peace, and we hope will add the weight of his name to yours to remove such a stain from the American Revolution.

[22 Apr. 1786]

I am very happy in being able to inform you that the test law was so far repealed a few weeks ago in Pennsylvania as to confer equal privileges upon every citizen of the state. The success of the friends of humanity in this business should encourage them to persevere in their attempts to enlighten and reform the world. Your letter to me upon the subject of that unjust law was the instrument that cut its last sinew.

Finally, back to Price's discussion of religious tests. He notes one reason why they should go is so many of America's Founders' philosophical heroes weren't orthodox Christians and couldn't pass them. Hence, there is something perverse about disqualifying the men who formulated the principles of republican government from serving in such government.

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

Again, arguably America's first half dozen Presidents couldn't pass religious tests that required belief in orthodox Trinitarian Christianity or the infallibility of the Bible. Is it no wonder that they pushed for Art. VI Cl. 3 (no religious tests) so they wouldn't be subject to them at the federal level?

1 comment:

Pinky said...

Christianity teaches us that there is none good but one, that is, God, that he willeth all men to be saved, and will punish nothing but wickedness, that he desires mercy and not sacrifice (benevolence rather than rituals), that loving him with all our hearts, and loving our neighbour as ourselves, is the whole of our duty, and that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.
When persons in powerful positions operate with impunity--all the while--in a society in which the above message is sent out by the predominate religion, the common people are left powerless to think they have any right to intervene in the affairs of government. In simple terms, they are led to the slaughter thinking God will take care of the wrong doers in the hereafter and that what is being done works together as God's plan for the ages. This is the most often ignored result of the teaching involved in the above quote from your clips of what Price wrote.