Saturday, November 1, 2008

Geoff Stone Law Review Article on Christian Nation

A short while back I blogged about a live lecture Geoff Stone gave on the Christian Nation question. The lecture is now a law review article. Stone's take is important because as a professor and former Dean of the University of Chicago School of Law, he's one of the most prominent public intellectuals. Indeed, he's certainly one of the most prominent intellectuals ever to tackle this issue in detail. And indeed the major difference between this and the live lecture is we get to examine Stone's footnotes.

What follows is Stone's thesis with which I agree, although I would clarify it's *some/many* modern day evangelicals and other religious conservatives who assert this:

Invoking that past, modern-day Christian evangelicals assert that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but that in recent decades out-of-control secularists have broken faith with our most fundamental traditions.13 Nothing could be further from the truth. Long before the American Revolution, the Puritan vision of a unified and orthodox religious community had proved unattainable.

My biggest criticism is Stone's conclusions are too slanted towards the secular left. If you want to see what America, in principle, in the ideal, was supposed to be all about, you don't turn to Thomas Paine anymore than you turn to Timothy Dwight or Jedidiah Morse. Rather look at those things in which Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin agreed. And there you will find the more moderate Enlightenment American Founding. This passage reflects Stone's over reliance on the more extreme Enlightenment views of Paine:

Under the influence of Enlightenment ideals, the American colonists converted their frustration with overbearing British rule into a bold new conception of freedom, a conception that involved new understandings “of God, man, human rights, the state, and history.”16 With the Declaration of Independence, these new understandings became a “cornerstone of the American political tradition,” a tradition that “was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment.”17

Thomas Paine reminded Americans of the Revolutionary era that they had boldly thrown off the prejudices of the Old Order and had embraced a new, enlightened, more rational conception of man: “We see,” he said, “with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”18 The ignorance and superstition of the Old World, he declared, had finally been expelled, and the “mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”19 The United States was conceived “not in an Age of Faith . . . but in an Age of Reason.”20 The Framers viewed “issues of religion and politics through a prism” that was highly critical of what they saw as Christianity’s historical excesses and superstitions.21

And then, there is the issue of Deism which Stone, after many other established scholars, sees as the dominant religion of the principle Founders. But as I've long noted, there are problems with this paradigm. Though, to his credit, Stone notes the existence of a "hybrid" religion that was not quite strict Deism, not quite orthodox Christianity. As he notes:

Many of our founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Gouverneur Morris, were flat-out deists, and many others, such as John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and George Washington, were at least partial deists who accepted most elements of the deist critique.44

Jefferson and Franklin and probably G. Morris do not belong in the same box with Paine and Allen as the "flat-out deists." They belong in the box with those other mentioned Founders as "partial deists" if it's proper to label them as "deists" at all. Accordingly, they were also "partial Christians" as well.

When Stone explores the religious beliefs of certain "key Founders" in detail, I think he makes a mistake by including Paine. He should have substituted Madison for Paine.

To that end, I would like to explore the beliefs of five key members of the founding generation: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Paine.

Paine had too many problems because of his outspoken public infidelity. Those who cast him off as an outlier have a point. However, the five "key Founders" (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) can hardly be termed "outliers."

In this passage, I think, Stone well understand the Founders' concept of "civil religion":

The vast majority of the founders believed that the principle “be just and good” could play a critical role in nurturing the sort of public-spiritedness they deemed essential to self-governance. And they believed that some version of what Rousseau called “civil religion,” and what Jefferson referred to as “Nature’s God,” would be salutary in fostering the spirit of American republicanism.123 But this was a far cry from endorsing the sanctity of Christian doctrine.124

Stone also, I think well understands Washington's faith, although I would use more cautious language; it's possible to read Washington's personal letters and come to different conclusions.

It is not even clear that Washington considered himself a Christian. Although he maintained a connection with the Anglican Church, this was prudent behavior for a cautious political leader. Washington’s personal papers, however, offer no evidence that he believed in biblical revelation, eternal life, or Jesus’s divinity. In several thousand letters, he never once mentioned Jesus, and the name of Jesus was “notably absent from his will.”131 All in all, Washington’s practice of Christianity has aptly been characterized as “limited and superficial,” at best.132

This isn't the time for an extensive exegesis on Washington's faith; I would note that his letters do show that he believed in the afterlife, but it's not clear whether Washington believed in the personal "eternal life" of the biblical (as opposed to the Greco-Roman) version of the "immortality of the soul." Also, Washington's view on revelation is hard to pin down. From his private writings, it's certainly not clear that he accepted the Bible as the inerrant infallible Word of God. He did make biblical allusions (as just about everyone from that era did and even today still do) and sometimes quoted from the Bible, but never verses and chapters as "authority" to settle the matter as you would expect someone who believed the Bible inerrant and infallible to do. I have concluded that GW probably believed, like the other key Founders that the Bible was a partially inspired book and that reason determined which parts of the Bible were true. This is the "theistic rationalist" position.

And speaking of "theistic rationalism" Stone mentions the term in describing Washington's faith, the hybrid that is not quite strict deism or orthodox Christianity:

Washington has variously and accurately been described as a “cool deist,”134 a “warm deist,”135 a “theistic rationalist,”136 a “Stoic,”137 and a “Christian Deist.”138

Yet, the problematic term "deist" leads Stone to unfairly push Washington to the "secular" side of this false dichotomy, Christianity or deism.

As president, Washington was always careful not to invoke Christianity. His official speeches, orders, and other public communications scrupulously reflected the perspective of a deist. His references to religion omitted references to Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior, and he invariably edited such terms out of his official documents whenever his subordinates tried to insert them. Instead, he used such deistic phrases as “Providence,” the “Supreme Being,” and the “Deity.”139

Like Adams, however, Washington believed that some form of religion was useful both to public morality and republican government. In his Farewell Address, for example, he warned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principle.”140

It's certainly true that Washington's public supplications to God as President were careful to omit explicitly Christian language. However it does not follow that Washington was a "deist." The use of terms like "Providence" and the avoidance of explicitly Christian language like "Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior," was done to unite not divide, to form a lowest common denominator among various orthodox and heterodox theistic belief systems. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Dwight could all unite around the term "Providence."

There is much more. And the footnotes reveal Stone cited many of the sources I've blogged about over the past few years including the works of James H. Hutson, Brooke Allen, David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Mark Noll, Jon Meacham, Gordon Wood, Henry May, Sydney Ahlstrom, Isaac Kramnick, R. Laurence Moore, and many others.

Check out Stone's excellent article.


Pinky said...

It seems to me that there is an inordinant amount of focus put on the thought that America was founded as a Christian Nation.
Here is a quotation from a Humanitas article by Claes Ryn:

"Straussians are fond of referring to 'the Founding' of the United States, because that term suggests that America sprang from a fresh start. Turning its back on the bad old ways of Europe, America adopted ahistorical universal principles. The Straussian use of the term 'Founding' conceals that prior to the War of Independence, which Straussians prefer to call 'the American Revolution,' and prior to the framing of the Constitution, America was already constituted as functioning societies along the lines of classical, Christian and specifically English traditions. The term conceals also that the American colonists rebelled against the British government in order to reclaim their old historically evolved and respected rights as Englishmen, which King and Parliament were denying them. The phrase 'American Revolution' conceals the great extent to which, after the War of Independence, America, including the U.S. Constitution and not least the Bill of Rights, represented a continuation of its historical heritage.26" **
For what it's worth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Inordinate? Not at all. The modern language of "rights" has replaced the Founding concepts of "rights and duties," to our great peril.

Historicism, the idea that man and his society is getting better, is vulnerable to the criticism that "progress" can peak, and decline is inevitable. The history of man's great civilizations prior to our own seems to suggest regression to the mean is the rule, not "progress."

And as for man himself, the historicist sees an evolution toward some level of perfection. The ahistoricist sees "Lord of the Flies."

For the record, Ryn, like many theorists and scholars [and I like Ryn], completely loses the plot once contemporary politics comes in and his personal prejudices and apoplexies take over.

Ryn takes the easy way out, building a "Straussian" straw man to deconstruct. In reply to another anti-neocon polemicist of Ryn's ilk and derangement, Grant Havers replies,

Personally, I find the so-called "Straussian" literature to be remarkably divergent in its teachings. On the issue of the US founding alone, the differences are quite dramatic.

To learn about Strauss, et al., from Ryn is like learning Hamlet from a Shakespeare coloring book.

Brad Hart said...

Nice quote, Phil. Thanks for including it here.

Jon writes:

"If you want to see what America, in principle, in the ideal, was supposed to be all about, you don't turn to Thomas Paine anymore than you turn to Timothy Dwight or Jedidiah Morse. Rather look at those things in which Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin agreed. And there you will find the more moderate Enlightenment American Founding."

For the most part, I am in agreement with you here. You cannot look to the extreme examples in order to clarify the general religious beliefs of the founding period.

With that said, I don't even think that a general view of the key founders is sufficient to provide a religious "profile" of our founding fathers or early America as a whole. To be certain, most of our key founders shared many of the same religious beliefs by endorsing the concept of "nature's God." However, a whole slew of people -- founders included -- did not subscribe to such a notion. Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Charles Carroll, John Witherspoon, etc. prescribed to a different creed. In addition, we need to remember that the laity believed very differently than did their "superiors" of the gentleman class.

Pinky said...

I have a book by Strauss, Tom; but, it's been some time since it's been cracked. If you want to do some kind of an article on what Ryn or Strauss has to say about America's Founding, I would be happy to learn from you.
In the meantime, and as a response to your post here, different people apply different meanings to words like historicism. I guess it's important to put things in context. I think Ryn is an excellent thinker. I have almost no respect for neo-conservatives whatsoever. I think I understand both classifications of neo-conservatism quite well--the leaders and the followers.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps, perhaps not, and yes, your sympathies are quite clear, Phil. This isn't the forum for that stuff anyway. But as long as you continue these drive-bys, I feel obliged to rebut them. I'm content with linking to Havers' [who is the recipient of Ryn's attack in your link] essay and salient quote. Our readers will judge for themselves.

As for Ryn's straw man attack on the "Straussian" interpretation of the Founding, the semi-famous contretemps between two leading "Straussians," Harry Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield

belies any assertion that "Straussianism" can be addressed and refuted as a monolith.

As for historicism, Ryn uses Strauss' understanding of the term. There is no question of differing contexts here; it's not on the table. Ryn simply disagrees.

The ultimate claim for historicism, of course, is that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, was born and died for our sins and secured salvation for mankind, and through the Holy Spirit still leads mankind through the vicissitudes of this worldly sphere.

[Google "Aquinas" and "Christology," if you're interested. Which you're not, but our readers might be. The birth of Christ and the etc. is the ultimate expression of God in human history. Afterward, mankind is no longer the same.]

Between you & me, I think that's why Strauss doesn't like "historicism" so much. Strauss gives Christianity a wiiiiiiiiiide berth, but if he was "up" to anything, I think it was driving around it. Whether or not the Incarnation thing is truth, Christianity changed mankind all the same. Except for Jaffa and the "West Coast Straussians," Christianity in Straussworld is a footnote.

[Mansfield---a Harvard professor---is the much better arguer, BTW, but I think Jaffa's on to things that Mansfield misses completely.]

As for "neo-conservatism," then, we must ask what it is. For now, I suspect it's buried in a grave in Iraq. But it's warmed-over Wilsonianism, and I think Jaffa would argue it's Lincolnism---not the legal-constitutional Lincoln of the beginning of the Civil War, but of the Gettysburg Address and more importantly, the Second Inaugural Address.

So, Phil, if you or anyone else wants to discuss this stuff, I'd love to, but not at the level of tossing grenades at each other. This blog, thankfully, leaves such brutality toward the search for truth to the rest of the internet. Despite your protestations about "honesty," as if we should change our approach, I think that's why you hang around this pub. Me too.

Pinky said...

Tom writes, "As for 'neo-conservatism,' then, we must ask what it is."
I'm sure I have a good grasp on neo-conservatism and it surely isn't buried anyplace; but, it is alive and doing just fine. It's all over the place. I'd say the Founders were dead set against its sproutings.
And, Tom continued with, "So ... if ... anyone ...wants to discuss this stuff, ..."
My point was, entirely, related to the Founding. I offered that if you wanted to provide a paper of the way these men see the Founding, I would be happy to learn from you. I wasn't trying to instigate any battles of righteousness.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I linked to several of them, Phil. Should you exhibit any indication of having read and understood them, I'll be happy to discuss them. In the meantime, your assertions are second-hand Ryn, underinformed, and mere caricature. I'll continue to point that out.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I might do a post in more detail on Ryn. Though I'm not much impressed with what I've read so far. Perhaps that's because I am very Straussian influenced in my perspective on the US Founding (though I'm not at all influenced by the Straussian foreign policy project; though "Straussian" in this sense may be a code word for Bill Kristol's policy position which is just, arguably a school of thought within Straussianism that many notables such as Michael Zuckert and Francis Fukuyama do not share).

From what I have read of the American Founders, they used the phrases "War For Independence" and "American Revolution" interchangeably.

Even if the term is anachronistic, it does not follow that it is valid. You don't see the Founders using terms like "secular" (as in "secularism") or "Judeo-Christian. BOTH of those terms ARE anachronistic to the period of the American Founding. However, it does not follow that they are therefore invalid and not useful to the debate.

But in any event "American Revolution" was not anachronistic, but used by the Founders to describe what went down in 1776.

Pinky said...

I'm probably missing your point, Tom; but, I think it's important for you to realize I don't come here claiming a great expertise. I'm here to learn and not to teach. That's your job.
I hope you do some papers on Ryn, Jonathon. It will be interesting to see how you handle his positions on history.
By the way, I just watched a C-span Book TV program with Gertrude Himmelfarb who spoke on her book and handled questions. Appropriate to your paper here and this thread.
I guess I'm going to have to pick up a copy of her book.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm happy to teach, more precisely to share, Phil. The essays I linked to as homework will clear up a lot of the confusion that Claus Ryn sows. He's not entirely wrong about Strauss, but is completely off-base when it comes to "Straussianism."

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, did Gertrude Himmelfarb mention that she's Bill Kristol's mother?