Saturday, December 27, 2008

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I remember to have heard Dr. Priestley say, that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all;...

-- Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813.

At American Creation we are glad to have on board the Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont and author of Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America's Founding Fathers (BlueBridge 2008). In the comments to his first post he discusses Thomas Jefferson's prediction to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822 "that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian." Rev. Kowalski notes Jefferson "was wrong, but what if he had been right?" Well, Jefferson was wrong in one respect: Not "everyone" is a Unitarian in America today or became one when he predicted they would. Also Jefferson might have meant officially "Unitarian" in Church membership (which ironically enough, Jefferson was not, even though he embraced the "unitarian" identity). Jefferson might have meant the Trinitarian Churches (like the Anglican/Episcopal one he was formally affiliated with) would officially adopt Unitarian doctrines, which they have not. The official Unitarian Churches never became dominant in America during the 19th Century and presently are fairly small.

However, in the sense that Jefferson speaks of Priestley asking Christian men to candidly examine what they really believe and discover it really is "unitarianism" after all, I think most self identified "Christians" of today might qualify as would perhaps a majority during the Founding era.

It's doubtful that a majority of the population during the American Founding were members of orthodox Trinitarian Churches, thought of themselves as "regenerate" or "born-again" and devoutly believed in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. In "The Churching Of America, 1776-2005: Winners And Losers In Our Religious Economy," authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, carefully following census data, documented that only 17% of the American population belonged to a church and more folks were taverns on Saturday nights than in churches on Sunday mornings. This data have been disputed and lack of orthodox religiosity is not the only explanation for such low church membership. However the notion that the Christian America apologists spout that huge majorities were evangelical/born-again/orthodox Trinitarian Christians is wishful thinking with little support in the historical record.

The dominant creed of most of today's younger Americans was discussed in this article from the Christian Post by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. It dissected a survey of younger folks, and labeled their creed, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--the New American Religion." In reading the article, I noted nothing new about this creed, as it looked very similar to what America's Founders believed. Indeed, that this religion was termed a type of "Deism" -- a religion associated with the 18th Century -- contradicts its description as "new." And though the survey was of the young, I really didn't see it as differing too much from the nominal Christianity or deism of folks of all ages.

The article reports:

When Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, they found that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth." 2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions." 3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself." 4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem." 5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

The more I think about it, the stronger I conclude that what's described above as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," the sub-silencio unitarianism that Jefferson/Priestley alluded to in the above quotation, is actually the dominant belief system of those (not just the "younger") who call themselves "Christians" both today and during the Founding era. Evangelicals especially should understand this as their own religion teaches true Christianity as a "narrow path"!

This struck me especially the other night when I was speaking to a family member by marriage, one whom I don't know too well, a smart, well educated businessman who does quite well for himself and his family and a lifelong member of the "Roman Catholic" club. We discussed my blogs, my interest in religion and our religious beliefs. He believed in God, the afterlife was open to the supernatural and called/thought of himself as a "Christian" and a "Roman Catholic." Yet, when I asked him specifically about the Trinity, eternal damnation, the infallibility of the Bible, and his Church's official teachings, he expressed skepticism, doubt, or disbelief. He seemed fairly socially libertarian on various lifestyle issues.

But the rub is that these people don't think of themselves as "deists," "unitarians," "theistic rationalists" or "heretics," certainly not "infidels!" They think of themselves as "Christians" in some sense. 80% of the American population today presently self define as Christians as did (one survey shows) 98% did during the Founding era.

It's true that Jefferson et al. had to keep their religion on the down low. Washington and Madison were so good at hiding their religious cards that they leave much room today for debating exactly what it was they believed.

I think the major difference between the Founding era and today was that the forces of "religious correctness" (the "orthodox") had a great deal more social and institutional power that forced heterodoxy on the down low. That they had the power to keep the masses in line and the heterodox elite on the down low doesn't necessarily mean they had a nation that was statically majority orthodox in its personal beliefs.

The elite philosophical class of the Founding era, (the "thinkers" like Jefferson, Adams, Paine, etc.) thought long and hard about these theological issues and rejected orthodoxy out of hand, sometimes bitterly so. The common man just didn't seem to care too much. That his minister preached orthodox doctrines in which he might not really believe (or fully understand) didn't much concern him. Author John Derbyshire once noted something along the lines of "the lazy Christian mind is reflexively 'deist.'" (See Michael and Jana Novak's "Washington's God," p. 160. The exact quote is theirs and paraphrases Derbyshire.)

Very few folks during the Founding era (at least openly) like Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen embraced a "non-Christian" form of Deism that rejected going to church, the Christian identity. These "non-Christian Deists" wanted nothing to do with the Christians' Jesus, Church or the Bible. Yet, many back then as today who were formally associated with a Christian Church and a Christian sect in an identificatory sense held to beliefs that the orthodox of today would term "Deism," "heresy," "infidelity" or something else (when trying to come up with the right labels the orthodox tend not to include "Christian" in the label. Hence Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalism," or the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as discussed in the Christian Post). When asked to define the "Deism" that dominated the key Founders, Richard Brookhiser termed it something like "active-Christ form Deism," meaning these "Deists" 1) believed in an active Providence, and 2) at least somewhat regularly worshipped in Christian Churches.

Albert Mohler describes how to tell a "real Christian" from this "other" system:

They argue that this distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also "within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions."

How can you tell? "The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward."

And indeed this exclusivist language of orthodoxy is conspicuously missing from the key Founding Fathers' God talk. They either, like Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin explicitly rejected it, or like Washington, Madison, Wilson, G. Morris, and Hamilton totally ignored it but talked of God and sometimes "Christianity" along more generic lines. As Alexander Hamilton described his own version of this system (and keep in mind Hamilton wasn't even a member of a Church when he made this statement) in 1779 when describing what he looked for in a wife:

In politics I am indifferent what side she may be of. I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint.

But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice, yet as money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world, as I have not much of my own, and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry, it must needs be that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.

A religious "moderate" who believes in God but hates a saint. The language of "Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell" completely absent. I included some of his other thoughts from the letter for context. Hamilton was smart and realized he could convert his wife to his politics, but doesn't seem concerned with converting his wife from a generic "moderate" religion to "real Christianity." He seems more concerned that his wife have a fat pocketbook. He also mentioned something about "Purgatory." The theistic rationalists believed in a Protestant Purgatory where bad folks are temporarily punished, but eventually saved. The orthodox, with rare exception, believe in Hell period. The orthodox evangelicals who want to claim Hamilton as a "Christian" during this era certainly don't believe in "Purgatory."

All that said, the debate continues. Does this widely held, long believed in creed of those who profess to be "Christians" but rejects or ignores "experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell," qualify as "Christianity"? And if not, what then do we term it?


Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

I went in search of those "Christian America apologists [who] spout that huge majorities were evangelical/born-again/orthodox Trinitarian Christians". I searched on the terms "American Founding Orthodox Trinitarian". The number one site for hits? This blog. Number two? Positive Liberty.

The Christian Nation apologists that I have come to know through you all have more nuanced positions than you give them credit for. Thanks for introducing me to them, though!


Jonathan Rowe said...


Sometimes I'm surprised at how regularly blogging/getting hits on a website gives one "power" via search engines.

On many of the regular issues about which I blog, put those terms in a search engine (I use google almost exclusively) and one of my web posts will come on the front page.

I know this because I often use search engines looking for Internet sources on the topics I like to discuss and I often come across my posts as the top results.

For instance put "joseph priestley", "richard price" into google and a Positive Liberty post of mine is the 6th URL on the first page of 14,000 URLS. So if use use google as authority, I'm rated 6 out of over 14,000 on websites that discuss both Joseph Priestley and Richard Price.

Or if you put "Philip Hamburger" and "religion" or "Philip Hamburger" and "separation" into google, I'm one of the first hits. Hamburger is, by the way, one of the most important, if not the most important living conservative/originalist scholar of the religion clauses and has been cited numerously by the Supreme Court as authority. (I'd encourage you to check his work out; I'm sure you'd like it a great deal.)

Given I tend to blog about the Christian Nation debate on almost a daily basis, I'm probably the most active source on the Internet to which to go, and indeed a number of scholars have told me they sometimes/often check in.

Pinky said...

In regards to Jefferson's remark, "that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian", it should be noted that Free Masonry was on an exponential grow during the Founding Era. While we can't be precisely sure of what Founding Era Masonry was teaching about the idea of a universal god, chances are they spreading the idea. Jefferson was not a Mason; but, I'm sure he knew all there was to know about it.
One should not underplay the role Free Masonry had in the Founding and the religious beliefs of the time.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Well, sure, if I chose to blog in splendid isolation on some obscure topic, I would be the top source of hits in a search on that topic.

But if I were to claim that I am merely trying to oppose an entire class of people (CN apologists) who are "spouting" (your word) on the topic, I would expect to find some of the spouting, indeed more spouting than my response. The power of many against one, and all that.

But I don't. It's just not there.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I know you still want more evidence on David Barton that he does this and I'll deliver it in the future.

I've already shown you one piece of Barton evidence which I think should be MORE than sufficient, where he was talking to two evangelical Christian hosts and noted to them that nearly all the founders were "serious Christians." What do you think that term meant to them? If you are a non-Trinitarian heretic, you aren't a "serious Christian."

But other than Barton, D. James Kennedy, Peter Marshall, Robert Jeffress and Brannon Howse are other influential names who equate Christianity with orthodoxy and simultaneously claim that America's Founders were almost all Christian and intended a "Christian Nation." [And if you put the two ideas together, by logical necessity, this must mean they intended an orthodox Trinitarian Christian nation.] There are many many other lesser well names. But those mentioned above are national figures with mega-churches or a wide national audience.

We have a commenter named OFT who believes exactly this. And though he is a little off the wall and can be written off as a crank there is another blogger named "Hercules Mulligan" a fairly intelligent fellow who writes in a fairly polished way who believes in exactly this as well. [That Christianity = orthodoxy and almost all America's Founders were orthodox Christians and intended to found American on "orthodox Christian principles."]

But he has to jump intellectual somersaults to try and prove figures such as Washington or Hamilton (until his near deathbed conversion) were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

They object to me qualifying Christianity with the term "orthodox" before it, because to them it's "self evident" that the Bible teaches orthodoxy and Christianity = orthodoxy.

These people DO exist and exist in more than marginal numbers.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

I don't know precisely where she gets it, but my own mother articulates something that sounds an awful lot like the "Christian Nation" line in conversations with my children.

Kristo Miettinen said...


I only know one of those fellows, and only in passing, but what I know of Kennedy tells me you are misrepresenting him by missing his willingness to shift meanings in contexts.

Kennedy writes sometimes of nominal Christians (I believe he thinks Jefferson was one), sometimes of "genuine" Christians, identified as those who are saved (I believe he thinks Jefferson was not).

I have made this point to you before, albeit without reference to Kennedy: you cannot take the theological view on what it takes to be saved, which is often for convenience's sake called "Christianity", and apply that to history.

I can, and have, as a Lutheran, encountered Catholics (mainly) who tell me that I am Christian (in the sense of being "separated bretheren") but not saved (because not subject to the authority of the Pontiff, and denying some de fide doctrines, especially of Mary), which means not a member of the True Church, which means not a Christian in the only sense that matters eternally. I have no problem with this duality of sense and do not accuse such critics of hypocrisy; I dispute them on other grounds.

You have to keep separate definitions for separate contexts, because in one context all that matters is do you hold Christ in some defining position for your faith, while in another all that matters is "are you saved"? The founders kept the same distinction in mind: they cared about the first question regarding public figures in positions of trust; they systematically refused to enter the second question, admitting that those disputes were irrelevant to the civic religion.

If I read anyhting by OFT here that disputes this, I'll take him on (I have seen posts of his in the past). I'll check out this Mulligan fellow, thanks.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I've watched enough of D. James Kennedy's broadcasts to know that when he terms all but few Founders as "Christian" he means it in the very orthodox theological sense to which he refers when he speaks of saving faith.

Jonathan Rowe said...

BTW: I've seen Kennedy just to poke holes in the secular-deist argument note that Jefferson wasn't a Deist because he called himself a Christian and Franklin wasn't a Deist because he quoted Bible verses about an intervening God at the Constitutional Convention. And then he'll leave it there, perhaps intimating they were "nominal Christians." He knows enough not to claim them as "real Christians."

And then he'll have a "experts" come on -- for instance I've seen David Barton play this role many times on Coral Ridge -- and say only a handful of Founders, some big names were Deists. And he'll mention three -- Jefferson, Franklin and Paine -- and then say "the rest were Christians" or "serious Christians."

I'll see if I can find an online clip of this. The argument that Dr. Frazer, myself and others endorse is Paine was the "non-Christian Deist." And Jefferson and Franklin, as neither strict Deists nor orthodox Christians, but something in between -- were NOT outliers but actually represented mainstream thought among the elite Founders that also included Washington, J. Adams, Madison, G. Morris and many others.

Kristo Miettinen said...


I just listened to your Barton clip again. I still miss the part where he says "huge majorities were evangelical/born-again/orthodox Trinitarian Christians" (your words). It's just not there.

He says they were generally Christian, but mainly emphasizes their bibliocentrism.

Look, to justify the volume of criticism you heap on him you should at least take issue with, oh, say a full chapter of one of his books. Responding to a head-nod here and there with a lifetime's blogging at 1000 or more words a day is disproportionate, to say the least.

To Paine I'll add Ethan Allen and Elihu Palmer (admittedly lesser figures) as non-Christian Deists. Before I met you I would have considered Jefferson and Franklin in the same category, but in reading your evidence (and others, sparked by you) I have come to realize that a case can be made for their Christianity. They are fringe Christians, if you will, but I would draw the line to include them.

Still, Jefferson, Madison, et al. do not define the mainstream of the founders, they define the liberal wing, insiders off to one side (Paine would be an outlier).

And in any case the disagreement between the two wings was not "shall we be a secular nation or shall we be a Christian nation", but rather which has logical priority: republican democracy as a form of government or Christian nation as the essence of state. One wing taught we are the latter, and must therefore establish the former; the other taught that we want the former, and must therefore safeguard the latter.

Pinky said...

Leo Strauss Makes a point of telling his students they must understand the historical figures in question as well as those men understood themselves.
His claim was that the only way that could be accomplished would be that the scholar should approach the situation in the same sensibility in which the historical figure existed. If we're going to understand the Founding Fathers, that means we have to learn to know what they knew and to not include that which has been learned since their time. Quite a difficult task if you ask me.
We have to "go back there" with blinders on as to how things turned out.
To speak of such things as bibliocentrism forces us to know how that activity came to be for the Founding Era, i.e., how was it they were involved in a Bible centered frame of thinking?
Is the question that they were so focused or is it why they were so focused?
If you're going to communicate with the electorate you had best speak their language which means you should use ideas and figures of speech with which they can identify.
The Bible was the one book with which most Colonists were familiar--not out of choice; but, that it was the one book that was readily available to each one of them. The Founders just didn't have some of the concepts available to them that have made us who it is that we have come to be. And, we--thereby--have lost some of the ideas that were so common to them.
To use the terminology of bibliocentrism in the sense that it is used today is a major mistake.

Jonathan Rowe said...


That's just one component (his notion of virtually all of the Founders being "Christian" in a way that evangelicals define and understand the term) of Barton's theses about which I disagree. True, it's something that I harp on. But there are others.

His defining of "republicanism" based on something Noah Webster said in the 1800s is another distortion which I haven't yet gotten to. Wait for that in a few days or weeks.

AND his partisan hackery on behalf of capital R Republican politics -- and the way he reads the historical record for that political party is another.

Here is another example of Barton's that really irritates me:

Barton is a southern white conservative Christian male. 50 years ago most/almost all were DEMOCRATS and their spokesperson was among others, Strom Thurmon and they traced their lineage back to the Democrats of the Confederacy.

That has changed. They are all Republicans. Most (though not all, see Trent Lott) of them have adequately repudiated their past. Many of them now embrace Lincoln. And I don't think most of them are racist at all either. I don't think Barton is a racist at all.

But his new passion is now "black history." And he gives these lectures where he rails against the DEMOCRATS of the Civil War and the DEMOCRATS who started the KKK. And tries to make a connection between them and today's Democratic Party in order to get more blacks to vote Republican.

This is nonsense. And anyone with an appreciation of history knows that it's the socio-political tradition in which Barton operates (that of the white Southern conservative Christian male) that traces to the Democrats of the KKK and the Confederacy. So it's so ironic to see him, as a Republican Party hack, try to pin today's Democratic Party (of whose President is Barack Obama!) with the Democrats of the Confederacy and the KKK.

I could go on and on with this kind of hucksterism that Barton engages in.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And btw, I was actually trying to get away from criticizing David Barton on this blog. TVD noted we criticize him so much that the title of this blog could be changed to "David Barton Sucks." I'd just assume leave that job to Chris Rodda who is more than capable of acting as the anti-David Barton.

But, if/when I do get into Barton's definition of republicanism and why so many Christian Nationalists so fervently embrace the mindless mantra, "America is a republic not a democracy," (which is a half-truth, but is mindless the way Barton acolytes repeat it; notions of republicanism and democracy are not mutually exclusive, we could just as truthfully say "America is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy") I will probably title it "David Barton's Ridiculous Definition of Republicanism."

bpabbott said...

Pinky: "To use the terminology of bibliocentrism in the sense that it is used today is a major mistake."

I suppose that depends upon if and what is being argued or justified.

From my pespective such views are not of much consequence if individual rights of conscience are held in higher regard as compared to that of a collective.

Regarding liberty, the idividual occassionally must yield to the collective in situations where there is clear and compelling material impact. However, when it comes to opinions, inspirations, ideas, etc if the hand of government is called into service by the professors of some religious ideals in order to compel individuals to yield, then it is a sign ... and I think it to be a bad one. Bad for the liberty of the individual, but also a sign, or admission, that the professors know they have a weak argument.

Of course I'm paraphrasing Franklin ;-)

"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

Pinky said...

Responding to Kristo Miettinen, Jonathon Rowe writes, "That's just one component (his notion of virtually all of the Founders being 'Christian' in a way that evangelicals define and understand the term) of Barton's theses about which I disagree."
I have to wonder/ask about how the common voting public felt regarding the Christian identity of their leaders, men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, and all the rest.
Is the focus here about how present day Evangelicals judge a person's Christian identity or are they about how a person's Christian identity was judged during the Founding Era?

Pinky said...

What was the criteria for declaring a person to be a Christian in the Founding Era?

Jonathan Rowe said...


That's a good question. Here is how I see it.

Washington was thought of as "Christian," whatever that meant to the populace and we dispute his religious beliefs to this day.

Adams was largely thought of as Christian probably in the same sense that Washington was, and we now know that his unitarianism was virtually identical to Jefferson's, with some minor shades of difference.

Jefferson was largely suspected of being an "infidel" (for things he write in Notes on the State of Virginia) but, like the other two kept his heterodoxy on the down low. The offending passages in "Notes" were provocative, but no smoking gun of his deism, unitarianism or "infidelity." It was actually a line that said something like it doesn't harm me if my neighbor believes there is no God or twenty Gods; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

All three of were elected President with Washington and Jefferson serving two terms and Adams serving one.

AND, Aaron Burr almost got elected President. Now, I'm not sure what his religion was. But, almost all of the Founders (Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson) were agreed on the fact that he was a snake, not a man of honor. This is why, even though he was almost elected President, I don't regard him as a "key Founder," because he was different.

Paine wore his infidelity on his sleeve and was publicly ruined for it.

bpabbott said...

Pinky asked: "Is the focus here about how present day Evangelicals judge a person's Christian identity or are they about how a person's Christian identity was judged during the Founding Era?"

Not that I speak for anyone buy myself, but I think the debate is a product of present day evangelicals confusing the two (not that my experience indicates that all or even most present day evangelicals do so).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Paine wore his infidelity on his sleeve and was publicly ruined for it.

Aha. One might start there instead of a lack of unanimity on the Trinity. Just sayin'...

Pinky said...

This question about which attitude we are to accept regarding what it takes to be known as a Christian is reminiscent of Strauss's lecture on Zionism and the ideas of repentance/salvation/return the past and, further, tying them all into the Founding of America makes me wonder all the more about the arguments conservatives make against liberals.
It's a very deep subject and most interesting. I wonder if others have given it much thought.