Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hard Truths & Noble Lies

[I am going to excerpt part of a post I did at Positive Liberty. Because the entire theme extends beyond religion & the Founding, I'll only include that portion which relates to this blog's theme. You can read the whole thing here.]

As my readers know, I like to deconstruct the idea of a "Christian Nation," to expose the tensions between America's Founding ideals and traditional biblical Christianity and to show how many notable Founders turned out to be not "real" (meaning orthodox Trinitarian) Christians after all. In fairness to me, I didn't let this cat out of the bag and the secular historical academy is to the left of me. You see, much of this was taboo during the Founding era until the 20th Century. That Christianity and republicanism were perfectly compatible and that men like George Washington were pious Christians was a "noble lie" that much of the American public for many years believed. I'd remind folks the record clearly shows inveterate noble liars like Parson Weems making things up out of whole cloth about George Washington's Christianity. Liars like Mason Weems had a better public reputation than did truth tellers like Washington's own minister Rev. Abercrombie who had to request anonymity when he wrote of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion:

I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

The uber-orthodox Christian Rev. James Renwick Willson was burned in effigy (presumably by other orthodox Christians) in 1832 when he told the truth that according to orthodox standards the early American Founders/Presidents weren't "Christians" but "unitarians" and "infidels."

Often public perception is based on a noble lie and the truth tellers are "tabloid deconstructionists." Most of America, for instance, at one time believed Rock Hudson was straight. But we now know the "secret minority," not mass consensus was right on Hudson's sexuality. We could easily imagine one of Mr. Hudson's family members or close friends, back in the 1950s, lying to protect his reputation. Keep in mind when Nelly Custis testified to her adopted father's Christianity, it was in the context of protecting his public reputation when the tabloids of the day were chattering:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.

Now, if she believed Washington was privately what the orthodox would have termed a "heretic," an "infidel," or otherwise not a "real Christian" would she have answered any differently?


Brad Hart said...

Jon Rowe writes:

"Now, if she [Nelly Custis] believed Washington was privately what the orthodox would have termed a "heretic," an "infidel," or otherwise not a "real Christian" would she have answered any differently?


The infatuation that so many have with Custis' record, believing it to be a "smoking gun" for Washington's orthodoxy is absurd. From what I have read of Custis, it seems that she was AT LEAST moderately influenced by unitarian ideals, thus it would be natural for her to think of Washington as a devout Christian...just not in the ORTHODOX sense as you point out.

Also, historian Sydney Ahlstrom points out in his book, A Religious History of the American People that virtually all 19th century historical accounts of Washington -- and the founding in general -- contained blatant falsehoods regarding religion. As a result, a supercharged religious culture was essentially spoon-fed this junk, most of which has survived to our present day.

bpabbott said...

Wow! ... I read the entire version at Positive Liberty. I like that one much better as it makes your point much clearer.

It occurs to me that many/much of the heated debate here might benefit from an examination of the arguments regarding what assumptions are made which would qualify as noble lies.

For example, regarding "under God" in the pledge, there are perhaps two at play.

(1) "God" is a philosophical being, not a Christian one. One that equally applies to Deists, Muslims, Christians, etc.

(2) Given (1) there is no violation of the establishment clause beyond a ceremonial nature.

I've been given something to think further about.

Thanks for the post.

p.s. By chance did you have some of us in mind when you wrote that?

Phil Johnson said...

I have to chime in here.
I mentioned that I'm reading Claes Ryn's book,A Common Human Ground.
( ).
He does an excellent job of putting these things in perspective. It's a short but concise work that gets right to his point of the present concerns at this site.
Maybe I will be able to articulate his position in the near future? I'm working on it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Or the "noble lie" is that the orthodox let the "Enlightened" types think they'd invented a new secular God, when it was really pretty much the old one. Hehe.

When Joe Carter writes:

"We can't claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the "unknown god" they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

I answer, sure we can. In fact, it's a very good analogy, except we must note that Paul was also preaching the mystical Jesus, an unnecessary complication. If we leave it at the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of "Judeo-Christianity," it works fine.

When he asks, "Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be under the same deity as we are?," that's a purely theological argument, and the answer is likely "no." But the Founders had no reasonable idea of what those religions' concept of the deity was anyway. If amateur theologians like John Adams wanted to claim in the name of "unitarianism" that they all worshiped the same deity as the Judeo-Christian one that ungirds the American civil religion, well, let them claim that if it makes them happy and gets them on board with the program.

That's the political, practical argument.

If someone would like to argue that Hindu-Buddhist principles do or could vitiate the American "civil religion" just as well as Judeo-Christian ones, I'm all ears. I do not think so.

Hinduism's scheme of karma does not logically lead to the proposition that all men are created equal, and in fact was quite at ease with social inequality due to karma.

And Buddhism features no Creator Who endows us with certain unalienable rights, nor one of Divine Providence, nor one who is the "Supreme Judge of the world" as the D of I reads, all essential features of the American civil religion.

[This isn't to say Hinduism and Buddhism are incompatible with the American civil religion, only that their theological foundations, especially as of 1776, were not remotely in the same place.]

That's the theoretical, or theologico-political argument, if you will.

But as our colleague Brad Hart has noted, even Thomas Jefferson saw himself as a "restorationist." His complaint was that the Bible had been corrupted, not that it had been fabricated from whole cloth. So, if we stipulate all his "restorations," what is left still must be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it seems to me.

So, who bought the "noble lie?" Was it the orthodox or the Enlightened? Some say that the Enlightened pulled a fast one on the orthodox at the Founding, slipping in all that "secularism," but I'm not so sure. There's nobody easier to con than a con man, they say.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Very interesting Tom.

Though one thing that gets Carter is that not only does he not believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God, he also disbelieves that Jews and Christians worship the same God. While he believes in notions of "Judeo-Christian" morality, he doesn't believe in a "Judeo-Christian" God. The Christian God is Triune, the Jewish God is not. Hence they worship different Gods.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "And Buddhism features no Creator Who endows us with certain unalienable rights, nor one of Divine Providence, nor one who is the "Supreme Judge of the world" as the D of I reads, all essential features of the American civil religion."

Many practicing Buddhists would not agree. At least with regards to the idea of providence.

By coincidence today's Singapore Strait Time's has an article where by which divine providence is clear.

Unfortunately a subscription is required. I'll post short portion.

'Confucius, help me score As'

THOUSANDS of students and parents flocked to temples yesterday to pay their respects to the Chinese thinker-philosopher Confucius, ahead of his birthday on Friday.

And no time is more apt than now - the current examination period in schools - to make fruit and paper offerings to Kong Zi, as he is known to the Chinese. He is, after all, believed to bestow luck and mental acuity on those sitting for exams.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Jon, Carter's is the minority view, I think. He's entitled to his opinion, but it's a purely theological one anyway. If someone from another religion says he worships the same God as you do, taking him at his word seems the, um, civil thing to do.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay Tom. Fair enough. Keep in mind that Muslims say that they worship the same God that Jews and Christians do: The God of Abraham.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Close enough for rock'n'roll, or the American civil religion. Rep. Keith Ellison was sworn in Jefferson's Qur'an, yes? If he wants to say his is the same God, that's a good thing. The rest is just details, which we Americans have mostly agreed not to fight over.