Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Founding Era Civic Christianity Is Nominal Christianity

I often engage my evangelical friends at WorldMagBlog on their comment threads. One thread discusses the actions of some secularists to scrub Founding era references to God out of Washington DC's Capitol Visitor Center.

One commenter noted famous utterances by Joseph Story and John Marshall on Christianity's organic connection to law and government. You can read the originals here and see James Madison's opinion for the opposite position. All three replied to the same sermon by one Jaspar Adams which addressed this issue. John Marshall's comments are short, so I'll reproduce all of his:

MAY 9, 1833

FROM JOHN MARSHALL

Richmond May 9th 1833.

Reverend Sir,

I am much indebted to you for the copy of your valuable sermon on the relation of Christianity to civil government preached before the convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Charleston, on the 13th of Feb. last. I have read it with great attention & advantage.

The documents annexed to the sermon certainly go far in sustaining the proposition which it Is your purpose to establish. One great object of the colonial charters was avowedly the propagation of the Christian faith. Means have been employed to accomplish this object, & those means have been used by government.

No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. It has at all times employed his most serious meditation, & had a decided influence on his conduct. The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, & did not often refer to it, & exhibit relations with it. Legislation on the subject is admitted to require great delicacy, because freedom [sic] of conscience & respect for our religion both claim our most serious regard. You have allowed their full influence to both.

With very great respect,

I am Sir, your Obedt.,

J. Marshall.


Here is an excerpt from Joseph Story:

MAY 14, 1833

FROM JOSEPH STORY

Cambridge May 14, 1833.

Dear Sir,


I am greatly obliged to you for the copy of your convention sermon, which you have been pleased to send me. I have read it with uncommon satisfaction, & think its tone & spirit excellent. My own private judgement has long been, (& every day's experience more & more confirms me in it,) that government can not long exist without an alliance with religion to some extent; & that Christianity is indispensable to the true interests & solid foundations of all free governments. I distinguish, as you do, between the establishment of a particular sect, as the Religion of the State, & the Establishment of Christianity itself, without any preference of any particular form of it. I know not, indeed, how any deep sense of moral obligation or accountableness can be expected to prevail in the community without a firm persuasion of the great Christian Truths promulgated in your South Carolina constitution of 1778. I look with no small dismay upon the rashness & indifference with which the American People seem in our day to be disposed to cut adrift from old principles, & to trust themselves to the theories of every wild projector in to [?] religion & politics.


And here is an excerpt of Madison's:

I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions & doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst by an entire abstinence of: the Govt from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, & protecting each sect agst trespasses on its legal rights by others.


What's ironic about this collection of three is all were theological unitarians. Let us reflect on Marshall's assertion that: "The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified." This is an idea that evangelicals ("born-again Christians") by necessity of their professed religious beliefs must reject. As I noted to my evangelical friends:

[B]oth Story and Marshall were “unitarians” and considered their theological system which rejected the trinity, incarnation, and atonement to be “Christianity.” Therefore “Christianity” to Story and Marshall really wasn’t “Christianity” as evangelicals understand it here but some kind of broader theological system. If termed “Christian” at all, what Story & Marshall refer to is what folks here might term “nominal Christianity.”

Think about the implication of the notion that the entire population was Christian. No population has ever been nor could be — given the teachings of evangelical Christianity of the “narrow path” — “entirely Christian” as folks here understand the term, as being “regenerate” or “born again.”

Roger Williams understood that the unregenerate will always be among you. So in essence these unitarians are saying that America is almost entirely “Christian” in at least a nominal sense. Woo-hoo to that.


Indeed at least one evangelical on these threads properly understands this as he eloquently wrote:

But, as Jon points out, this civic Christianity was so broadly defined as to lack any of the theological content that we identify with orthodox Christianity. Thus, the “Christian America” crowd errs in supposing that these vague references to God evince a historical commitment to orthodoxy.

Although I’m not generally sympathetic to secularists, I often have no problem accepting the outcomes they propose on these kinds of issues. Christianity is fundamentally a dogmatic, exclusivist, particularistic enterprise. It says that our chief enemies are sin and death, and that we can only escape their curse by embracing the scandal of particularity found in the crucified Christ. But civic Christianity has never had much affinity for this message. It prefers trite platitudes, such as “God Bless America” and “In God We Trust.” In that sense, civic Christianity is just one more cultural elixir that leads to death.

Secularists fear that a Constantinian civil religion will harm the state. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about that. If I hate Constantinianism, it is because it obscures the scandal of particularity that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel.

In this season, we often speak of Christ’s peace. On my walk home, I passed by a department store whose window showed a snowman proclaiming “Peace on Earth.” Civic Christianity, it seems, would have us believe that Christ’s peace is a warm, feel-good kind of peace that conjures up images of Norman Rockwell paintings, toasted marshmallows, and the crackle of the fireplace. Yet true Christianity reminds that Christ’s peace is a peace that comes by God’s just wrath against our sinful world - a wrath against which the Cross of Christ is our sole refuge. Christmas reminds us of God’s inauguration of His righteous judgment. When department stores begin hanging up signs where snowmen proclaim “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is Near,” then I will consider the War on Christmas a worthy fight.

8 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, you ceaselessly argue that when these guys say "Christianity," they don't mean Christianity. I like the research, tho.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes -- in a sense. Defining terms is important. Not only is "God" an amorphous term, but so too can "Christianity" be.

The Christian America crowd equates Christianity with such things as orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, Christ as the only way God and the infallibility of the Bible. It's important to note that not only do generic references to "God" and "religion" NOT mean this, but Founding era references to "Christianity" don't necessarily mean this either.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Defining terms is important.

Identifying the underlying concept is more important. By the time we drag in words like "nominal" or "theistic rationalism" all we've done is obliterate Christianity from the Founding. This is nonsense, and seeks neither truth nor meaning.

There's a minority in Christianity that seeks---for purely theological reasons---to exploit the heterodoxy of the Founding to claim Christianity for itself.

And those from the secular side like Marci Hamilton use them back, to exploit the doctrinal divisions within Christianity [which have endured for 2000 or so years] to claim the Founding for themselves, or at least to scrub it clean of Christianity.

I, and most honest inquirers I think, reject these extremes.

Because what Marshall and Story mean by Christianity is a very real thing that we must study and discover, far more than something "nominal" or "generic," and in the letters you cite, they explicitly differentiate it from anything that could be reduced to mere "ceremonial deism."

The concept of Christianity can not be obviated by semantics or narrow theological arguments. That there is only one God, that He looks after his children, that He is just and not capricious, and that he revealed Himself in a book called the Bible tilts the scale over doctrinal issues like Christ's divinity, which are matters of interpretation, not essence.

Folks like Ms. Hamilton are as wrong as Dr. Frazer because they use an understanding of Christianity that's held by only a minority of its adherents, and turn it into "definitions" that obscure and elide too much.

[And let us recall that Madison lost his fight against creating congressional chaplains paid by the government, and that when he eventually became president, dropped his fight and left them in place.]

I myself am content to argue that it was Judeo-Christian principles that were irreplaceable in the Founding, but I must object to what I view as patent sophistry being imposed on the historical record.

Pinky said...

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Some of my first recollections regarding things religious began when I was five years old--72 years ago.
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From that time on, I was raised in what can best be described as a Fundamental Baptist and Bible Believing sub-culture of main line Christianity.
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There was a constant effort made within the inner circles to continually refine and perfect the doctrines of belief. Always and always the preaching and the conversations were about what it means to be a truly devoted Christian.
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I see that now it has seeped into secular society that we must continue the arguments here.
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Funny....
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Kristo Miettinen said...

One thing is well worth remembering in considering this case: Madison never anywhere disagrees with Adams.

Madison is interpreted in the online left as rebutting Adams (Jon's wording is "James Madison's opinion for the opposite position"), but this is factually false. Madison speaks past Adams, to a point Adams never addressed.

Madison was old, knew he was near the end of his opportunities to address the nation, and chose to state his position for posterity rather than address Adams' claims. It is possible to agree with everything Adams says and everything Madison says (and to the best of my recollection of both, I do).

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