Monday, December 22, 2008

Majority of American Christians are not Christian!

At Secular Right, David Hume points us to a survey that hints at the idea that most self described "American Christians" (about 80% of the population defines itself as "Christian") probably wouldn't pass the strict test of orthodoxy that the "Christian" Barack Obama apparently flunked.

This dynamic is key to my historical research on the Founding & Christianity. There are many possible meanings of a "Christian nation" some valid and some not. The meaning posited by the "Christian America" proponents defines "Christianity" and "a Christian" fairly tightly according to its orthodox biblical ideas. They really do believe that "God" (meaning their specific understanding of God) founded America and as such He would use "real Christians" in a born-again, regenerate sense to do his bidding. They are probably already confounded by the fact that God would raise up John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who clearly were not "Christians" in this sense (though they understood themselves to be "Christians" not "Deists") to be second and third Presidents (many of them are ignorant of Adams' heterodoxy, however). And they desperately try to latch on to whatever thin evidence there is that Washington and Madison were "real Christians." If the first four (or five) Presidents from Washington to Monroe were indeed non-Trinitarians who rejected eternal damnation, salvation through Christ alone, and probably didn't believe the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God, why would God raise up such leaders to "Found" America, His nation?

I'll again stress that the key Founders who believed what I put in bold did NOT tend to consider themselves "Deists" but "Christians." This was the kind of "Christianity" that drove the American Founding from the top (not necessarily from the bottom), if it's fair to even call it "Christianity."

The key Founders, in a sense, had to call it "Christianity"; if they called themselves Deists and rejected "Christianity" out of hand, the orthodox easier would have been able to separate themselves from this religious system; but, were that to happen, the different sects couldn't have come together to "Found" America. Instead, the key Founders had to convince the orthodox that the "American project" really did derive from "Christianity," properly understood. [Note: I am NOT arguing the key Founders were secret Deists; from reading their letters, I conclude they really were secret unitarians who thought of their system as a purified, rational form of "Christianity."] And they left quotations to be taken out of context by folks who wish for an orthodox Christian Founding. For instance, one of Christian America proponents favorite proof quotes, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813:

The general principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty…Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.


The problem is what Adams meant by "general principles of Christianity." The orthodox reading such a quotation might HOPE that Adams meant such things as original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, regeneration, eternal damnation. But alas, he didn't. In fact, Adams and Jefferson rejected every single one of those tenets. And elsewhere in that very letter Adams explains exactly what he meant by "general principles of Christianity."

Who composed that Army of fine young Fellows that was then before my Eyes? There were among them, Roman Catholicks, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anababtists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists; and “Protestans qui ne croyent rien ["Protestants who believe nothing"].” Very few however of several of these Species. Nevertheless all Educated in the general Principles of Christianity: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.


How could a Deist or even an “atheist” be “united” with the orthodox on any Christian principles? The answer is simple. According to Adams being a Christian meant being a good person. If an atheist was a good person, he was a “Christian.” As he put it:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

– John Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.


To conclude, if we define "Christianity" broadly to include the heterodox ideas of Founding era figures, Adams and Jefferson, and from today, Obama [and many other liberal, moderate, and conservative politicians], then yes, America could be said to have had a "Christian" Founding and still is a "Christian nation."

The problem is that's not how proponents of the "Christian America" thesis understand "Christianity." They don't want what they regard as false, heretical and nominally Christian teachings to have *any* place in the definition of "Christianity," certainly not in the "Christian" that qualifies "Nation" when they argue America was founded to be a "Christian Nation."

13 comments:

Christian Salafia said...

Good post.

This does seem to be the foundational issue with the whole "Christian nation" debate. In my experience, it all comes down to what kind of glasses you're looking through....just as in the one I wrote the other day.

I agree that most of the founders weren't orthodox Christians, as we understand it to be today. Honestly, in the 18th and early 19th Century, that wasn't the prevailing theology.

Again, depending on how you define it, orthodoxy didn't come back into vogue until about WW1, when Karl Barth led the way in rejecting Liberalism in theology.

The Enlightenment period represented a dramatic shift towards reason and science and away (to some extent) from the "superstition" of religion. Theologians such as Schleiermacher thought orthodoxy got in the way of the religious experience.

While certainly there were some orthodox Christians, to ignore the prevailing liberal theology of the time makes no sense.

Tom Van Dyke said...

On the other hand, it's viewing Christianity through the confidential writings of Jefferson and Adams after they left public life that really makes no sense.

As for the "Secular Right" article, I found the insinuation to be dishonest, that we should view Christianity only through the eyes of the most [self-proclaimed!] orthodox, an orthodoxy that "David Hume" obviously doesn't share in the first place.

In this case, there are many Protestant sects that believe in universal salvation [or "conciliation"], and Roman Catholicism is open to it. It seems to me that "David Hume" is exploiting doctrinal differences among Christian sects to obliterate any understanding of the quite meaningful concept of "Christian," a tactic I have previously noted as growing in popularity with the anti-religion camp.

Christian Salafia said...

Division within the Church has been around since the days of Paul. In 1Cor1:10-17 he warns against "preaching with the words of human wisdom". Plus, the first big debate in the Church was over circumcision, again, essentially a doctrinal difference.

It doesn't surprise me when people put on the glasses of one particular orthodoxy in order to condemn another. It seems that they're more enthralled with John's "If they're not for us, they're against us" than the earlier "If they're not against us, then they are for us" of Mark.

Personally, I think the viewpoint of universal salvation has plenty of merit. That would disqualify me as a "Christian" in some eyes, right?

Liberal theologians were partially right when they said dogma gets in the way. Sometimes people lose sight of the big picture when they're focused on the nit-noid details.

Like always, the truth is somewhere in the middle... (thanks, Hegel)

Tom Van Dyke said...


It doesn't surprise me when people put on the glasses of one particular orthodoxy in order to condemn another.


Well put, sir.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

I think your point is well taken (as is Christian's). Part of me thinks it most important to get "Christians" (at least for political purposes) to build a consensus that ditches certain issues that by their nature will always be debated (like eternal damnation and the Trinity).

Those who (like you) don't argue these things have anything properly to do with American politics should be welcomed at the table as "reasonable Christians." Those who don't should be consigned to the private sphere free to practice their religion, but not given public respect. Yet, I don't want "unreasonable Christians" to be unfairly unwelcomed either.

Yet, I WILL NOT let folks like OFT/the Christian America crowd who argue their idea of Christ (in the sense of the Trinity) or the Bible alone -- and if you disagree with such, eternal damnation -- MUST be what American politics is all about because the Founders said so get away with their inaccuracies or revisionism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, since the agenda of such folks is foggy or mostly symbolic---exhibits of the 10 Commandments or nativities are small potatoes--- the only ones to worry about are the Dominionists, who I reckon are under 1% of the population. Therefore, I don't worry they'll get very far toward theocracy.

Even your acquaintance Herb Titus, whom you just debated on the radio, claims he's not a Dominionist, but was still extreme enough in Pat Robertson's eyes for Robertson to fire him as dean of Regent Law School.

But I do believe the "Secular Right" crowd, and the far larger strict-secular crowd of the left are making arguments in the public square about theology and politics without any understanding whatsoever of theology, this latest nonsense from "David Hume" being a fine example.
As Mr. Salafia points out, Christian heterodoxies are 2000 years old, and were especially accentuated at the Founding with its polyglot of boat people. Acknowledged, stipulated, and let's move on.

I find the agenda transparent, to reduce Christianity to an incoherent---and therefore dismissible---set of dogmas, squabbles, and superstitions, and in so doing, expel any idea that there is a God and a natural law to whom and to which we are accountable.


As for OFT, I don't know what he wants, but his quotes are usually informative, even when not strictly germane, so I value him. Of late, he has also played by your rules for "reasonable Christians."

Our Founding Truth said...

Personally, I think the viewpoint of universal salvation has plenty of merit. That would disqualify me as a "Christian" in some eyes, right?>

Benjamin Rush believed in the Universal Atonement, yet, he believed in the fundamentals of the faith.

Yet, I WILL NOT let folks like OFT/the Christian America crowd who argue their idea of Christ (in the sense of the Trinity)>

You shouldn't believe what I say, the Bible EXPLICITLY claims the Trinity, and that Jesus is God. Jesus claimed to be God several times.

Again, you don't know the Bible, so you wouldn't know these things.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Again, you don't know the Bible, so you wouldn't know these things.

I think the problem is, OFT, that I know both the Bible and the historical record re America's Founding better than you.

If you had any ability to read context you know what I meant was the key Founders, whatever they thought of the Bible, disbelieved in the Trinity and thought it had no proper place in America's Founding politics. See for instance, the Declaration, Constitution and Federalist Papers which do NOT mention the Trinity.

I'll wait for you to defend a "non-Trinitarian" but "Christian" American Founding politics to your fellow believers in your California Church.

I won't hold my breath because I doubt you'd know where to begin.

Our Founding Truth said...

The problem is what Adams meant by "general principles of Christianity." The orthodox reading such a quotation might HOPE that Adams meant such things as original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible, regeneration, eternal damnation. But alas, he didn't. In fact, Adams and Jefferson rejected every single one of those tenets. And elsewhere in that very letter Adams explains exactly what he meant by "general principles of Christianity.">

Dude, if you haven't learned by now, you are hopeless.

If you had any ability to read context you know what I meant was the key Founders,>

You're key founders deceit is just that, deceit. Ratifiers are more important than drafters, but knowing you, you'll hurt your career by believing this nonsense, and go to your grave still believing it.

Our Founding Truth said...

If you had any ability to read context you know what I meant was the key Founders, whatever they thought of the Bible, disbelieved in the Trinity and thought it had no proper place in America's Founding politics.>

Of course, that's your agenda! Your goal is to eliminate the voice of the majority, in favor of three guys; how crazy!

What you can't understand is who makes Law? Once you figure that out, you'll see where you're off track.

I meant was the key Founders, whatever they thought of the Bible, disbelieved in the Trinity and thought it had no proper place in America's Founding politics.>

Most of the time, you don't even understand what you write. How can the Trinity not be in American Politics when religion is left to the states, and Delaware mandated belief in the Trinity for public office!

Christian Salafia said...

the Bible EXPLICITLY claims the Trinity,

No it does not. If it did, then we never would have had Athanasius and the banishment of Arius. Nor would we have the Mormon "Justice League" version of the Trinity.

and that Jesus is God. Jesus claimed to be God several times.

Not really. He is claimed, true, but Jesus generally stays away from making that claim himself (except in John, which is questionable because it so different than the other 3). The only way you could seriously make this claim is in the Old Testament, prophets often used the phrase “Thus says the Lord”, but in the Gospels, Jesus often says “But, I say to you...”, asserting his authority to speak directly as God instead of for God.

Pinky said...

.

Here’s something for yah.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jesus DID claim to be God, according to his style of teaching. Jesus quite often used metaphors, parables, and questions to get people to THINK. Jesus' style of teaching was to LEAD people to the truth, rather than deliver it to them. (Though he did, on occasion, resort to direct delivery as well. :-) ).

So...when Jesus says: "Before Abraham was, I AM." That is a pretty unambiguous declaration of his Deity. Yet it's expressed in a way to get people to THINK.

The same is true with Jesus' frequent act of FORGIVING people of their sins. Jesus (and his audience) knew that only GOD can forgive sins. Yet Jesus did so repeatedly.