Saturday, November 15, 2008

Alternate (and arguably valid) Christian Nation theses

When I argue against the idea of a "Christian Nation" it's usually one particular variant (which happens to be the dominant one in religiously conservative circles) that I tackle (some would say have demolished): It's the David Barton, D. James Kennedy, Peter Marshall version that holds "just about all of the Founders were Christians like I am" and the Founders turned to an infallible Bible/orthodox Christian theology as the prime ideological source for American Founding documents. John Locke, their chief ideological influence, was really a "Christian" (meaning an orthodox Christian) who appealed to an infallible Bible for his politics. Indeed, it was really God that "founded" America (the FFs were just His instruments) on "biblical principles." And consequently, as God's agents, they could do little or no wrong.

What I have described might sound like an exaggeration; but those folks posit such an exaggerated and unreal historical narrative. They use a notoriously revisionist "law office" method and defend their case like the late Johnny Cochran defended OJ Simpson.

The shame of it is that there are other "Christian Nation" or "Judeo-Christian" theses that are intellectual and historically defensible, but don't have the same popular appeal as the "Christian Nation" narrative as told by Barton et al.

Here at American Creation, Kristo Miettinen makes such a case in a fascinating post. But in doing so, by intellectual necessity, he does not argue that the key Founders were "orthodox Trinitarian Christians" OR that they (and their philosophical mentor John Locke) simply appealed to orthodox Christianity/sola scriptura in establishing American Founding principles, especially those that relate to freedom of conscience. No, actually history is more complicated than that.

A few things stand out in Miettinen's post. First, is that he argues John Locke (arguably the most important ideological figure whom the Founders consciously followed) did not hold to an authentically Christian position:

First, many Christian philosophers (e.g. Locke) have held the philosophical view, rather than the Christian view, of conscience. Locke went so far as to take, regarding conscience and its origins, the Freudian view long before Freud did (that conscience is a result of conditioning, holding us back). But apart from Christian philosophers, Christian theologians have has always wrestled with the problem of errors of conscience. The conscience has, in Christian theology, been viewed both as capable of learning on the one hand, and of wandering into error on the other. This is a far cry from the capriciousness of the free will, but it is still indicative of freedom of a sort for the conscience, and unfortunately it has also always formed the basis for Christian persecution: what is free can be influenced, and coercion is just the influential cousin of persuasion.


Indeed, the Founders engaged in historical and philosophical "revisionism" reading things through a Lockean (or a "Whig") lens:

To take another try, many founders quoted Locke and claimed his influence upon the founding. To be sure, they also often cited general “Christian principles”, but still, mustn’t we give Locke (and others) his due? In short, my answer is “no”. The founders were proven historical revisionists, rewriting American history to weave Locke in, ex post facto, where he didn’t belong, e.g. JQ Adams giving a Lockean twist to the pre-Lockean “Mayflower compact” (i.e. Mayflower covenant) thus: “the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.” Given such willingness to interpret pre-Lockean events in Lockean terms, the founders’ enthusiasm for Locke should be seen as rationalization, not explanation.


Finally when it comes to defining "Christianity" Miettinen appeals to a broad understanding of the concept:

To the common claim that the founders weren’t, by and large, Christian, because they were Unitarians, or whatever, my reply is to defend big-tent interpretations of Christianity, at least when we are acting as students of history, rather than engaging in sectarian squabbles. To the historian, the criteria that delimit Christianity must, of course, be different in detail than the criteria that delimit Buddhism, or Marxism, but they should be similarly loose and inclusive. Just as all Marxists are Marxists to anyone but a devout Marxist, so also anyone who attributes historical singularity to Christ (whether as redeemer of mankind, son of a unitary God, one person of a triune God, a member of the divine troika, seal of the prophets, resurrected worker of miracles, etc.) should be acknowledged, by any historian thinking in his capacity as a historian, to be a Christian, even if the historian happens also to be a strict sectarian Christian who denies the true Christianity of competing sects. By this standard, historically speaking, (whatever I think as an orthodox Lutheran), Arians, Nestorians, Mormons, etc., are all Christians for scholarly purposes of historical analysis.


In order to make a “political-theological” connection between American government and "Christianity," one must define Christianity rather liberally to include all sorts of heretical systems that most religiously conservative orthodox Trinitarian Christians find unacceptable. Indeed, those who assert "Mormonism isn't Christianity" are the very ones most likely to assert "American is a Christian Nation." It's only by incorporating such heretical systems as Mormonism etc. into the definition of "Christianity" that America's founding political institutions can be said to rest on a "Christian" foundation. True, Mormons didn't exist during the Founding era (they came later). But America's key Founders disproportionately believed in the Arian and Socinian heresies [like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, America's key Founders were not orthodox Trinitarians]. Madison was quite clear that civil government had no business whatsoever resolving issues such as whether Arianism, Socinianism, and the like qualified as "Christianity"; indeed this was the secret driver behind his "Memorial and Remonstrance. [And indeed, Madison likely was a theological unitarian himself.]

Besides believing in 1) the unitarian heresies, America's key Founders also believed 2) that the Bible was only partially inspired; 3) that man’s reason (not the Bible) was the ultimate determiner of truth; 4) that most or all religions (including non-biblical ones) were valid ways to God; AND 5) they disbelieved in eternal damnation. If those 5 points can be incorporated into the political understanding of "Christianity" then yes, America can be said to have had an authentically "Christian" Founding.

14 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jonathan, I think you hit on a key to our inquiry into religion and politics when you mention James Madison and his "the secret driver behind his "Memorial and Remonstrance'."

Without pulling out the quotes and working from memory [this is a comments section after all]:

I caught a certain influence of Adam Smith when Madison elsewhere complains against the "establishment" of churches, even if they're somewhat equally funded.

"Established" churches [ones without a comfortable source of money] get fat & happy:

a) They might tell people what they want to hear

b) they might kill the inquiry into theological truth by simply becoming reservoirs [fortresses!] of orthodoxy

c) they wouldn't depend on contributions from the congregants, and therefore become indifferent to their needs, wants---and the rise of evangelicism proves this---their spiritual needs, whether they be for theological progress or the defense of orthodoxy. They would become mute, impotent, lazy.

That's what I've got out of Madison. Was he making room for his deviance from orthodoxy? Sure, I reckon. But despite his sphinx-like silence on various dogmas---was he Christian? Unitarian? A seeker like most of us?---I detect a passion for the living pursuit of the truth. I actually detect a passionate Christian in there someplace, one like most Christians, who believe God put a brain in our heads and our heads on our shoulders for some reason.

[This dovetails with Mr. Miettinen's exquisite [we agree] post below.]

[I must admit this blog is getting damned exciting lately. Well, for me, anyway. I'm learning a lot, and nerve endings I usually deaden for the occasion are coming alive again. Most folks enjoy exchanging cannonball volleys to no effect. The sound and the fury are remarkable. But what they signify...?]

Pinky said...

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At some point we turn our attention to the greater society in which we find all the options of our existence. And, a flood of questions awaits us there.
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Before now, we generally took it all as though it had always more or less been the way it is for us and that it had always been the same for all humanity since some far off beginning the details of which were given to us by family and other teachers in whom we placed our trust, believing they knew the truth of whatever seemed to matter.
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Most of us grew up through our youth accepting every explanation that came to us through the teachers of the societal groups to which we belonged. If we voiced any concerns or questions, our leaders were able to satisfy our curiosity and we continued on living by the rules and structures as they were handed down and never straying from the prescribed ways.
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But, it appears things are beginning to fall apart.
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Pinky said...

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Then!
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We lived beyond the years of our teachers.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

If we voiced any concerns or questions, our leaders were able to satisfy our curiosity and we continued on living by the rules and structures as they were handed down and never straying from the prescribed ways.
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But, it appears things are beginning to fall apart.


Yes, but I think the pendulum is on the backswing. The "if it feels good do it" of the late 20th century is not so much in fashion: social pathologies [drug addiction, fatherlessness, etc.] are on the decline. The self-described "functional atheist" philosopher Jurgen Habermas speaks of a "post-secularism," as secularism/materialism/materialism has proved insufficient for man's needs. We seek meaning, and I somehow doubt if this very blog would have existed 30 or so years ago.

Who are we? What are we? Where did this all come from, where is it going?

Now, I would say that our "teachers" lost track of the reasons for our conventions, orthodoxies and mores and could not explain or justify them. Disconnected from their foundations, they seem like stupid and arbitrary.

But the reason for conventions, etc. harkens back to the ancient Greeks, continues through medieval Christian philosophy, and would not seem controversial to even modern behaviorist-empiricists: virtue is a habit.

It's good that we outlived our teachers of the mid-to-late 20th century. They had lost the plot. Driven by our search for meaning, we increasingly turn to the ancient Greeks or the Founders, because although imperfect, it seems they had somewhat of a clue.

Pinky said...

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In writing this, "We lived beyond the years of our teachers.", I meant to imply that those we have followed died before they reached the age to which we have achieved. Their experience falls short of ours.
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Thus, we are far more qualified than they to make judgments about reality. Yet, some of us follow their blinded leadership.
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Kristo Miettinen said...

Jon,

I think you make too much of some of these things, e.g. "the Unitarian heresy". One of my favorite hymns is a forceful exposition of Unitarian theology, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". If you read the lyrics, I submit to you that they are sufficiently Christian for everyone's purposes, despite not praising "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" (that would be a different, non-Unitarian hymn). I suspect that Barton et al have sung the hymn (BHotR) more than a few times, with gusto.

Similarly, when you make the point that the founders believed that "that the Bible was only partially inspired", whom do you intend to disagree with? There are precious few today, or at any time in the past, who view the Bible with the same reverence that Muslims have for the Qu'ran, i.e. that God placed every consonant exactly where it belongs. Once that is acknowledged (as it must be, e.g., by anyone who reads their Bible in translation), the rest is just a matter of degree. Views of biblical inspiration differ among denominations, and even among individuals within denominations, but you seem to be crediting your adversaries with superhuman rigidity.

Can you name any founder who held that "that man’s reason (not the Bible) was the ultimate determiner of truth"? That would be an exceedingly postmodern position for anyone of the founding era to take. Most skeptics who dismiss the Bible as a source of truth view reality, not reason, as the determiner of truth - reason is merely a faculty pursuing truth, which is not nearly the same thing as a determiner of truth, nor is it in conflict with the Bible as a source of truth.

Obviously, you can claim that you were just sloppy in your writing, but my retort is that I await the sharpening of your expression, secure in my faith that as you make your position more exactly expressed, you reveal its weakness.

On your last two points, do you really believe that the founders as a group, in general, did not distinguish Christianity as privileged among religions in America and uniquely relevant to our republican democracy, whatever they may have thought of the merits of other faiths? And are you unaware of the weight that they placed on the threat of divine justice for violations of trust as a mechanism for keeping officeholders honest, regardless of whether the threat was eternal damnation or something less?

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Tom!

I would stregthen, perhaps, your point about Madison: it is stunning, I think, how exclusively he focuses on public money for clergy as the only thing that he objects to in any establishment of religion. If Madison is viewed as a left-wing founder (and think he is), then this is scant resistance to connection of church and state.

His letter in response to Jasper Adams' exposition of the Christian Nation hypothesis is a great example of this: for all that Adams has to say in his sermon, Madison can find no point of disagreement. Despite being commonly interpreted as a "rebuttal", the only specific claims Madison makes in his letter of response are about keeping clergy fiscally dependent upon their congregations, a point that Adams nowhere disputes.

Madison appears to be committed to low-church forms of ecclesiastical organization, a very traditional American theological position.

Pinky said...

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Maybe I'm reading something into Miettinen's posts that isn't there; but, it seems as though he is mixing apples with oranges when it comes to Madison's ideas of disestablishment and his support for the free exerciser thereof.
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The purpose of disestablishment was never to do away with religion; but, to ensure that religion was free of all support and favor from government, ie., tax dollars. To say otherwise is to confuse the issue and which seems to be a popular effort by Religionists as some foot in the door way to get the favor of opportunist politicians. Bush bowed to that pressure by providing tax dollars to "faith based charities" a loop hole found by some strategists. That added a large number of evangelicals to the Republican base--pure politics.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Can you name any founder who held that "that man’s reason (not the Bible) was the ultimate determiner of truth"?

Perhaps I wasn't being clear enough. The assertion is: The Bible is partially inspired; eternal truths are revealed in nature, discoverable by man's reason alone. And as such man's reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth including which parts of the Bible were legitimately revealed. I have some smoking gun quotations from J. Adams AND Jefferson that prove this on their end. I've got quotations from both Wilson and even John Witherspoon who note the discoveries of man's reason are immutable, at least on par scripture.

I don't think it's postmodern at all. The post modern position holds that man's reason discovers no eternal truths or "essences" in nature; rather that it's all subjective and man's reason doesn't "discover" but "posits."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Kristo,

Re your other question on privileging Christianity. What I have discovered is that the key Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin etc.] believed that men of ALL religions had unalienable equal rights. Jefferson & Madison believed that you COULD NOT privilege Christianity and respect equal rights. Whereas Washington and J. Adams believed that you could. I discovered one interesting quotation from Washington where he notes you could tax Christians to support "teachers of the Christian religion" but if Jews and Muslims simply declared themselves Jews adn Muslims they were, by right, entitled to an exemption from such program. The program of course was Patrick Henry's idea to aid teachers of the Christian religion which Madison remonstrated against and which Jefferson's 1786 Virginia Statute made illegal.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Harvey Mansfield on the philosopher Eva Brann, the constitution, modernity, and a bunch of other stuff. Yes, we live in the now, but just because our teachers like Plato are dead, that doesn't make them any less wise.

Our morning newspaper is not just the product of yesterday's events, but of thousands of years of deeds and thoughts.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

You're repeating the part that is postmodern to me, but I don't think you see it the way I do.

The common idea is that truth is a relation between our beliefs and reality, and reason seeks truth but cannot make truth. But postmodern deconstructionists argue (depending on the flavor of postmodernism) that objective truth, in the sense of conformance of belief to any external standard (whether scripture or reality) does not exist; the only truth is what we make for ourselves to be true, and that furthermore we do have such power of making truth-for-ourselves.

You seem to fall into the postmodern camp whenever you say things like reason determines truth, or reason is the arbiter of truth. Causes determine their effects; arbiters make things so by their decisions. But I don't really take you to be a deconstructionist, hence my expressions of doubt that you mean what you seem to be saying.

I suspect that all you have are smoking gun quotes about how reason is a faculty for learning or attaining truth, not a power for making truth. I don't think Adams and Jefferson were deconstructionists either.

With respect to Christian nation analysis, what matters is whether Christian principles, rather than an eclectic mix of principles drawn from all religions (a little suttee here, a little polygamy there, dhimmi taxes for chosen groups...), were to be the basis of our nation. If the answer turns out to be equal rights for all, then the question turns next to whether that is determined by Christian principles, or instead by natural law, and whether natural law itself isn't just another Christian principle, and so on. It's not as easy as you think to argue away the fundamental position of Christianity.

Plus, of course, there is plenty of evidence that while toleration was intended for all, because Christian principles call for it (as you know by now that I would argue), still generic Christianity held a foundational position, which leaked through in various ways, including recognition of Sunday as a sabbath (US Const 1.7.2).

Jonathan Rowe said...

Kristo,

I'll feature the quotations in a new post and then you can tell me how you interpret them.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon,

As one who has read from and listened to many in the so-called "Christian America" camp, I can tell you that there are some distinctions which often escape the critiques on this site.

For instance, I would not put David Barton (at least not the David Barton of TODAY) in the same camp as the late D James Kennedy and Peter Marshall.

Barton does not make the claim that all of our Founding Fathers were orthodox Trinitarian Christians. I've read his stuff, heard him speak, and he does NOT - at least not in recent years - make any such claim.

In fact, I'm quite certain David Barton would agree that "civil government civil government had no business whatsoever resolving issues such as whether Arianism, Socinianism, and the like qualified as 'Christianity'."

I can't speak of Barton's views in the past. I'm not a Barton disciple, nor have I followed the man for many years. But, I have read much of his stuff recently and have heard him speak three times in the last few years. I think he would AGREE with much of what you say in your post.