Saturday, December 27, 2008

America's "Unorthodox" Religion

In the post below, fellow blogger Jonathan Rowe aptly points out how religion in America -- both in the colonial era as today -- is not as orthodox as we might think. In addition to his comments, I would like to borrow from Pastor Robert Corwall's excellent blog. In a recent post, Pastor Cornwall posted an interesting survey, which demonstrates that most Americans are not nearly as orthodox as we might think. Cornwall writes:

An August Pew Forum poll, recently released, that reports that 65% of Americans believe that other religions are just fine as avenues to heaven. Indeed, atheists might be surprised to know that a majority think they'll be going to heaven as well.
In addition, the survey breaks down what specific segments of the population believe about the "saving powers" of other faiths.

The reason for my bringing this up here is because I am in agreement with the title -- and most of the content -- of Rowe's post below. Even though much has changed in America's religious landscape, there is still a great deal that remains the same. As Rowe points out, only an estimated 17% of the American population -- give or take a couple of points -- belonged to a particular church in Colonial America. And while these numbers are certainly influenced by other factors -- long distances to travel, illnesses, harvest season, etc. -- the numbers certainly do demonstrate the fact that religious affiliation was not nearly as cut-and-dry as we might think.

Historian Whitney Cross adds credence to this notion in his book, The Burned-over District, which, among other things, focuses on the influence of enthusiastic religion on the common citizen. As Cross points out:

The majority of churchgoers during the turn of the century found it supremely difficult to profess any one specific religion, and instead chose to attend a variety of different denominations without ever officially pledging their allegiance to one in particular (41).
This at least partially explains why so many religions of early America were so passionate in their revivals, demanding of the people's loyalty, and insistent in their assertions that their way was the ONLY way to God. Simply put, there were a lot of unaffiliated souls out there to be saved, and pastors faced a tremendous amount of competition in saving them.

And while I agree with my fellow blogger in his assertion that the majority of Christians today, and in colonial times "just didn't seem to care too much" about the particulars of their faith -- i.e. Transubstantiation, the Trinity, infallibility of the Bible, etc -- I do disagree on one important point: I do not see how the modern mainstream interpretation of Christianity is compatible with Jefferson's assertion that Unitarianism is "really the religion of all." While most Americans may rejects or simply ignore certain specifics of their faith, most still do maintain an allegiance to the broad doctrines of Christianity, which never seemed to sit well with Mr. Jefferson. To be certain, Jefferson was a passionate reader of the Bible. His dissection of the "Good Book," which he hoped would bring to light the "true" doctrines of Christ is a good example of Jefferson's devotion to seeking after religious truth. However, Jefferson's dissection of the Bible also helps to reveal many of his particular beliefs. For example, his removal of virtually all of Christ's miracles, including his resurrection, shows that Jefferson thought little of the notion that Christ was divine. This belief in Jesus as nothing more than a "really super awesome" philosopher would not jive with most Christians -- then and now -- who, despite their lack of knowledge of certain particulars, still revere Jesus as the divine Son of God.

So while most Americans (then and now) lack an understanding of the particulars of their respective faith(s), and while the majority of Americans (then and now) maintain a loose allegiance (or no allegiance) to a particular faith, the fact remains that the majority of Americans (then and now) still hold the BASIC doctrines of Christianity to be absolute truths. What would Jefferson have to say about this I wonder???

13 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for this.

On our point of disagreement, I think you may be pushing Jefferson a little too far to the left. He was a true blue Socinian who thought Jesus 100% man, not God at all. But, I have seen at least one quotation where he refers to Jesus as savior which would accord with the Unitarian idea that Jesus the man saved mankind through his perfect moral example. And in this sense, though not divine, Jesus was on a "divine" mission.

The biggest difference between Jefferson's beliefs on the one hand those of not just J. Adams but Priestley on the other is that Jefferson disbelieved in the Resurrection, they believed in it. (And they believed it was God doing for the most moral man what He might one day do for all mankind). Jefferson understood he could disagree with them but still maintain fellowship as "rational Christians" or "unitarians."

Indeed, I've seen a few letters of Jefferson praising the Arian Richard Price. Price believed in Jesus as the "divine Son of God," just not "God the Son." So I think Jefferson's definition of "Unitarianism" would jibe with most American's Christianity today. Just not with the orthodox Trinitarians who believe the Bible infallible and all non-born again Christians get eternal damnation.

Brad Hart said...

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Yes, Jefferson may have accepted a more unitarian definition of Jesus as the savior of mankind via his morals, philosophy, etc., but I don't see him being on the same page with mainstream Christianity of today (or of his day for that matter). After all, his contemporaries scolded him for his religious view, which caused Jefferson to become private on the issue.

And while many moderns may share Jefferson’s distrust of orthodoxy, I doubt that many would agree with his alteration of the Bible, insistence that Jesus was a mere mortal, etc.

Pinky said...

.
.
The day HAS come "...when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter".
.
Brad Hart writes,
"... I don't see [Jefferson] being on the same page with mainstream Christianity of today (or of his day for that matter). "
.
Which brings up the point about how anyone gets to include themselves as belonging to "mainstream Christianity".

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Brad writes that "the fact remains that the majority of Americans (then and now) still hold the BASIC doctrines of Christianity to be absolute truths."

Whether they can articulate what those doctrines are is another matter.

Brad Hart said...

Heh...I can't argue with you there!

Brian Tubbs said...

Pinky, with due respect, you show your ignorance at saying that day HAS come that the supernatural components of Jesus' story have been "classed as fables." Maybe they've been classed as such by SOME in society, but a majority of Americans (according to every poll I've seen) still believe in the virgin birth of Jesus as well as his resurrection.

What's more, EVEN IN THE WORLD OF SCHOLARSHIP (and I refer to liberal as well as conservative scholars), there is a pretty spirited debate (and even acknowledgment on) some of the more significant aspects of the Gospels.

Read a few books by Gary Habermas, N.T. Wright, and (going back a few years) J. Gresham Machen. And, of course, C.S. Lewis. Then, we'll talk.

Brian Tubbs said...

Unfortunately, Eric, you are very correct.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brian,

Pinky is quoting Jefferson.

Pinky said...

.
"...ignorance at saying that day HAS come that the supernatural components of Jesus' story have been 'classed as fables.' Maybe they've been classed as such by SOME in society..."
.
You made my point.
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Not only is it stated as so "by SOME in society"; but, those who make the statement are growing in number.
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Our generation has seen Jefferson's prediction come true.
.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, I'm aware that Pinky was quoting Jefferson. Got that. Where I disagree with him is the application of the quote to today. A majority of Americans STILL believe in the basic, supernatural claims of Christianity - virgin birth, Jesus as the Son of God, resurrection, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A majority of Americans STILL believe in the basic, supernatural claims of Christianity - virgin birth, Jesus as the Son of God, resurrection, etc.

Brian, I meself don't know that as fact. Pls do support this claim as best you can, and perhaps most importantly, the belief that God spoke to man in some fashion and the results are in the Bible. [Inerrant or not.]

I honestly don't know one way or the other. In fact, I don't think it's been established around here that they felt that way at the Founding, at least listening to the arguments flying past each other on this blog...

Brian Tubbs said...

According to the latest Harris Poll...

80% of Americans believe in God
75% believe in miracles
73% believe in heaven
71% believe in angels
71% believe Jesus is the Son of God
70% believe in Jesus' resurrection
62% believe in hell
61% believe in the virgin birth

These numbers are similar to other polls taken in recent years.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hmmm. If I had to bet, I'd say America at the Founding had similar numbers, if not even higher. Yet the argument is made often around here that they were lower, perhaps far lower.

Regardless, based on these figures, surely America 2008 is a Christian nation in some meaningful sense.