Sunday, August 17, 2008

Christianity Today Library on American President's Religion

They relied on the excellent historical work of Gary Scott Smith chair of the history dept. at Grove City College and one of the most prominent evangelical historians. Notice their classification of the first half dozen:

PRESIDENT TERM DATES DENOMINATIONAL AFFILIATION
George Washington 1789-97 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
John Adams 1797-1801 Congregationalist; Unitarian
Thomas Jefferson 1801-09 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
James Madison 1809-17 Episcopalian (theistic rationalist*)
James Monroe 1817-25 Episcopalian (deist?)
John Quincy Adams 1825-29 Unitarian
Andrew Jackson 1829-37 Presbyterian


Here is what they put next to the "*":

*The term "deist" is often used for a number of early presidents and founding fathers, though this causes confusion. For some of these founders, historian Gary Scott Smith prefers the term "theistic rationalism," which mixed elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, and relied foremost on reason. Unlike deists, theistic rationalists believed that God was active in the world and that prayer was therefore effectual. They contended that religion's primary role was to promote morality, which was indispensable to society.


What's striking is according to Christian Nationalist standards, the first "Christian" President was probably Andrew Jackson. Traditional Christians define Christianity fairly narrowly according to orthodox Trinitarian doctrines. Because the "theistic rationalists" weren't orthodox Trinitarians -- yet because they also weren't "Deists" -- a new term was needed. Theistic rationalism is similar to John Adams' "Unitarianism" in all but name only. It's basically Christianity stripped of all of its orthodox doctrines such that theism and mere morality remain.

Glad to see there are honest evangelicals who get it. Indeed, they were among the first to get it.

4 comments:

Brad Hart said...

Well done, Gary Smith! It is inevitable that more and more Christian Nationalists will come around to the truth...especially when good scholarship like this is coming from one of their fellow believers.

Dave2 said...

The distinction between 'theistic rationalist' and 'deist' seems to rest on a historically ignorant definition of 'deist'.

They seem to think that 'deists' denied the efficacy of prayer and the activity of God, as seen in the sentence "Unlike deists, theistic rationalists believed that God was active in the world and that prayer was therefore effectual". But is that true of the paradigm deists in English history? John Toland, Anthony Collins, Matthew Tindal, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, William Wollaston, Lord Bolingbroke, et al.? I doubt it.

Indeed, Jon Rowe's description of Christian rationalism -- "[i]t's basically Christianity stripped of all of its orthodox doctrines such that theism and mere morality remain" -- seems like a near-perfect description of deism (i.e., 'deism' as it actually existed, under that very name, in history).

bpabbott said...

Dave, I agree that there are various definitions/interpretations of what Deism is, and the sort I'm familiar with is more akin to yours than to Jon's. However, I also realize that there is an overlap between the broad definitions of Deism and Christianity.

For descriptive reasons there is motive to constrain the definitions of the words so as to provide context to discussion. For that purpose I like Jon's approach.

Perhaps it would be useful to have a FAQ on how Deism, Unitarianism, nominal-Christianity, and orthodox Christianity, etc it defined in the context of this blog. However, I expect that topic would be a bit passionate ;-)

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