Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What is a "Christian Nation," Anyway?

Jonathan Rowe of this blog, and historian Gordon Wood in the posts below, illustrate the difficulty of determining what "Christian" means. As the late Dave Allen said about the Irish, they have trouble deciding who God is, but once they do, they're willing to fight for Him.

The American Founders, of course, wanted to leave all those messy, bloody sectarian battles back across the pond, and so, eventually fashioned a Constitution that glossed over the details bigtime.

Still, if "Christian" is nettlesome enough, what is a nation? A quote from the very wise man who is best known as the former occupant of Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is making the rounds again these days, and for good reason.

"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."---Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY)

What is a nation, its government or its society? Most of the disputes, both on this blog and in current affairs, stem from fundamental and philosophical disagreement on the answer to this question.

[No, "both" is too squirrelly an answer.]

Crash Course on American Protestantism

Essential reading over at First Things, the Catholic-oriented journal of religion, politics and culture. FT was founded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who's credited with originating the phrase "naked public square," which he opposes, the separationist vision of a polity devoid of religious expression.

FT's editor, Joseph Bottum, offers a provocative overview of America's Protestant history in The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.

As my blogbrother Jonathan Rowe has noted, it's quite difficult, especially for Christians themselves, to decide just what "Christianity" is. Bottum quotes historian Gordon Wood that by 1800,

“There were not just Presbyterians, but Old and New School Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Springfield Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, and Associated Presby­terians; not just Baptists, but General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Dutch River Baptists, Permanent Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists.”

Oh, my. Like that Reynolds fellow says, read the whole thing.

Barack Obama on "The Christian Nation"

Lindsey Shuman

At the risk of plunging into a political debate, I thought the following video would be quite appropriate for our blog. Considering some of the recent debates over the "Christian Nation" argument I am sure that this will be a very provocative video.

In the video, Barack Obama discusses why he believes America is not a Christian nation. In addition, Obama points out that to call America a Christian Nation is foolish because who's Christianity should we embrace? BTW, the video is from 2007 and has been used by Christian conservatives to demonstrate the fact that Obama is an evil man...or something like that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Colonial American Religion...In the West

Brad Hart

When it comes to the history surrounding America's founding -- and particularly when it relates to religion -- most of us automatically think of the various events that took place in Boston, Philadelphia, etc. Rarely if ever do we consider the colonial history that took place in the west. After all, what was to become the United States was nothing more than 13 colonies. Why should we consider history of the west?

The land that eventually became the western part of the United States has as rich of a religious history as does the east. When we consider the various Native American tribes, each with their unique forms of worshipping the divine, the religious heritage of the west becomes virtually immeasurable. Sadly, much of this rich Native American religious culture has been lost due to disease, war, etc. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico and eventually made their way north into the southwestern part of the United States, a large portion of this Native American religious culture was replaced with the passionate and obligatory doctrine of Catholicism. Most natives were compelled to convert to Christ's "holy church" in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their families.

One group of Native Americans that converted to Catholicism, and were subsequently used as slave labor were the Tlaxcalan Indians of Mexico. After their conversion, the Tlaxcalan's were sent north to help settle Santa Fe. Their task was to construct a church, which they build upon the remnants of an ancient Indian holy site in 1598, roughly 22 years before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth. This Church, which became known as the San Miguel Church, is today the oldest church in all of the United States. Here are a few pictures that I took of the San Miguel Church during a recent visit to Santa Fe:

Welcoming sign at the front of the church.
A View of the church from across the street.
This picture was taken from the very back of the church and gives the best perspective on the church's overall size.
The tapestry in the center was done by the Tlaxcalan Indians in the early 1600s. The church decided to leave it as it was hanging on the wall.
This is the original mural that was restored in the 1980s. It sits behind the altar.
Some additional art done by the Tlaxcalan Indians.
Here is a cutout on the floor of the church that shows where the original Indian holy mount was once located. Archaeologists estimate that the holy mount was built in 1300.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Impossibility of a "Christian Nation"

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub features a post about some debates I did with blogger Hercules Mulligan. This post is based off a comment I left there.

In my last post I noted, though a minority, some folks do argue for a reading of the Constitution and the American Founding that privileges "Christianity" over other religions. This blogger is one of them. And, in making his case, he cites 19th Century hagiographers who promoted Christian America sounding ideas. Unfortunately, such hagiography made its way to the Supreme Court in the Holy Trinity decision which illustrates something we all understand -- that even the Supreme Court is capable of getting it utterly wrong.

American Founding ideals make it impossible to implement the notion of a "Christian Nation." We have to define exactly what we mean by "Christian Nation." It's the notion of some type of indissoluble connection between America’s civil institutions (its government) and “Christianity.” Well, in order for Christianity to have some kind of “special status” or organic connection to government, you have to first define it. And that’s something government, arguably, is incapable of doing. Indeed Jefferson and Madison believed it violated the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence for government to do this.

I know from communicating with the blogger that he defines “Christianity” very narrowly, with “orthodoxy.” And that’s fine because there is a strong tradition in Christendom for doing this. Indeed, most of the religious conservatives who posit the "Christian America" idea define Christianity in this manner. If you don’t believe in orthodoxy then you aren’t a Christian even if you call yourself one. See for instance, the Mormons. The same people who argue for "Christian America" tend to argue Mormons aren't "Christians."

The problem is many of America’s Founders, notably John Adams, weren’t “Christians” even if, like the Mormons, they understood themselves as such. And they were the ones who supposedly delivered America a "Christian order." Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin certainly were not "Christians" in this regard. And it's highly doubtful if Washington, Madison, and others were either.

Mulligan offered a quotation from the 33rd session of Congress that seemed to be based on Joseph Story’s constitutional commentaries.

At the time of the adoption of the constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged — not any one sect [of Christianity]. Any attempt to level and discard all religion, would have been viewed with universal indignation.

And Story, as a Unitarian, likewise was in that position of thinking himself a Christian but not really being one according to the understanding of the “orthodox”.

So when Story noted that “Christianity” had some kind of organic connection to the civil state (a position in which Jefferson & Madison strongly disagreed) he certainly included his heretical Unitarianism into the understanding of “Christianity.” Joseph Story and John Marshall, both Unitarians, probably give the most notable historic testimony in favor of that anti-Jeffersonian-Madisonian position.

So in giving “Christianity” such special rights, government would necessarily have to define it to include that which the orthodox regard as utter heresy. To the orthodox, this would poison the proper understanding of Christianity.

Could you imagine the orthodox thanking Joseph Story and John Marshall for their sentiments in arguing for an organic connection between Christianity and American government. And then saying but your false, heretical religion doesn’t get one iota of support because it’s not “Christianity.”

This is a recipe for sectarian squabbles, what America was founded to overcome. Indeed those squabbles did happen. In the Dedham decision in 1820 in Massachusetts, Trinitarians sued Unitarians for control over the benefits of the state Establishment aid using very similar arguments (i.e., the aid is for we “real Christians”). And they lost. And yes, there were Unitarians on the Mass. Supreme Court whom the Trinitarians blamed for “bias.” And then seeing the Unitarians getting such public aid under the auspices of a “Christian establishment,” the Trinitarians got Mass. to finally end its state religious establishment, the last one in the nation.

Like slavery, established churches or government supported Christianity, though initially permitted at the state level, were incompatible with American ideals -- i.e., the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.

History vindicated the Jeffersonian-Madisonian understanding that held government cannot by right define Christianity. And if it cannot define it, it cannot support or protect “Christianity only.” If government, rather, protects “religion” in general, the problem is solved. That’s why natural religion (or reason) could serve as America's Founding public religion because it could unite all “good men,” regardless of their sectarian creed or status as “Christians.”

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Michael McConnell's Latest Opinion

As I noted previously, I think Judge Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals one of the best Establishment Clause scholars. And he shows off his talent in his most recent opinion. I'm not going to analyze the ins and outs of his Establishment Clause jurisprudence (you have Eugene Volokh for that). Rather, how the passage from the opinion well illustrates the impossibility of America being a "Christian Nation" in a civil governmental sense:

CCU stated that its students, faculty, and trustees are not of a single religion, because the school is an interdenominational institution; it “unites with the broad, historic evangelical faith rather than affiliating with any specific denomination.” The state defendants took a different view: to them, all Christians are of the same religious persuasion, and denominational distinctions do not matter. The “correct” answer to that question depends on one’s ecclesiology. But under the First Amendment, the government is not permitted to have an ecclesiology, or to second-guess the ecclesiology espoused by our citizens. “Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”

The State defendants blithely assumed that they could lump together all “Christians” as a single “religion.” But the definition of who is a “Christian” can generate an argument in serious circles across the country. Some students at CCU are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or “Mormons.” Members of the LDS Church stoutly insist that they are Christians, but some Christians, with equal sincerity and sometimes vehemence, say they are not. In order to administer Colorado’s exclusionary law, government officials have to decide which side in this debate is right. Similar questions plague the religious taxonomy of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unitarian-Universalists, various syncretistic groups and even (in some circles) the Roman Catholic Church.

To make matters worse, the Commission has (no doubt without animus) applied different standards to different religious traditions. When confronted with the question of whether Regis College was eligible for student scholarships, the Commission (and later the Colorado Supreme Court) focused on the particular denomination, which is Roman Catholicism, and concluded that the institution was eligible. In CCU’s case, however, the Commission focused on a broader category: all Christians....

The reason why government cannot give religious rights to "Christianity" is that it would have to define "Christianity" which -- according to the unalienable rights of conscience -- it may not do. So government can give rights to "religion" and say you can't prohibit its free exercise, establish it or discriminate among "religions," but cannot give rights to Christianity only. This is what Madison's notes on the Memorial and Remonstrance discuss.

If government did for instance, say we'll support Christianity or the "Christian sects" only then the inevitable questions arise: Do Mormons have rights under this doctrine or are Mormons not Christian? What about those "Christian" Churches that are marrying same-sex couples? Are they real "Christians"? What about "Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unitarian-Universalists, various syncretistic groups and even...the Roman Catholic Church?"

Many evangelicals who promote the "Christian Nation" thesis devoutly believe that these religions are not "Christian," that Christianity = orthodox Trinitarianism, the Bible is infallible, etc. I know a few of them who wish to draw the line there (i.e., Christianity = orthodoxy and that's the only type of religion that should receive public support or the public's imprimatur). Some of them are more generous in regard to what they might presently permit, but insist that this is how America was founded.

I know this might sound a little "strawmanish" -- who is it that argues Christianity only should receive "rights" or that the EC was initially conceived to protect Christianity only? It's not just Barton et al. Justice Rehnquist in his dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree intimated this was the original understanding of the Establishment Clause. And Clayton Cramer, who is a respectable historian of the hard conservative bent has intimated the Establishment Clause as originally conceived protected Christian sects only from government discrimination.

The problem is the key Founders were not orthodox Trinitarian Christians (what many folks regard as the only "true" Christianity) and when they said for instance "religion" provides republican government with vital moral support, they did not mean biblical orthodox Trinitarian Christianity exclusively. Indeed they purposefully chose to give federal constitutional rights to "religion" not "Christianity."

One of the most notable quotations that seems to support the "Christianity only" view of constitutional rights comes from Justice Joseph Story, indeed, was cited in Justice Rehnquist's dissent.

§ 1871. The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.

Two points: One, Story is explicating the "real object" or underlying aim of the First Amendment. I don't doubt the real aim was indeed to exclude rivalry among the sects, just about all of the major ones of which called themselves "Christian." However, the text of the First Amendment is what controls and the text protects "religion" not "Christianity."

Secondly, Story himself was a Unitarian, a biblical Unitarian of the Socinian variety who believed Jesus a man, not at all divine, but on a divine mission. And he fervently argued that his system -- quite popular in Mass. during his time -- was true, authentic Christianity.

So even if we take Story's understanding as dispositive, we have to conclude that Socinianism -- that which denies the Trinity -- is "Christianity" protected under the First Amendment. Further, in protecting "Christianity" only government has now concluded that Socinianism, that which the orthodox regard as utter heresy, merits the label "Christian." And that is something that the government cannot, by right, do. If government, rather, protects "religion" in general, the problem is solved.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

My Illusion of Secular Leftism

I often comment on WorldMagBlog because lots of intelligent evangelicals comment there who are ready and willing to give my ideas critical feedback. Yes, I specialize in debunking the "Christian Nation" idea. And yes, I started my journey more sympathetic to the "secular" side (which I suppose I still am). However, I've moderated my position and try to articulate a balanced, nuanced middle ground between secular leftism and religious conservatism. Books I endorse that also represent this middle ground position include Steven Waldman's "Founding Faith," Jon Meacham's "American Gospel," and "The Search For Christian America" by Noll, Hatch, and Marsden.

On political-judicial matters, I describe my jurisprudence as somewhere between Justice Kennedy's and Justice Thomas'. Further I accept the possibility that the Establishment Clause doesn't properly incorporate to apply against state and local governments (but argue that the Equal Protection Clause, on religious matters, can do much of what the Court currently has the Establishment Clause doing) and think Judge Michael McConnell, a conservative evangelical, of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals one of the best Establishment Clause scholars. On Free Exercise, I differ with McConnell's notion that the Clause grants a constitutional right to religious accommodations from generally neutral civil laws, but rather endorse Justice Scalia's, Philip Hamburger's and Marci Hamilton's position that argues otherwise.

I write all this to try to put my personal positions into perspective because, in realizing that one has to pick one's battles, I realize that I pick a battle -- debunking the "Christian America" thesis -- that is associated with the secular left (though it should be noted that many moderates, libertarians and conservatives likewise agree with my position). So my battle gives the illusion that I am more of a hard secularist than in reality, I really am. For instance, on the WorldMagBlog, one commenter notes:

Jon Rowe, I too have a hard time accepting your theses as a middle-ground approach. You are a man on a mission to prove that America was not founded upon Christian principles and to discredit those who say that she was. Your view of the Founding Fathers doesn’t strike me as any more nuanced than the view(s) that you oppose.

....As we look back to the Founding Fathers we can acknowledge that there were varied beliefs among them and that America’s founding principles come from varied sources. It’s neither as simple as David Barton implies or as simple as you, Jon Rowe, imply.

The ideas of religious and political liberty did not spring up in the eighteenth century. The entire history of the world contains a continuous struggle between liberty and control. It’s true that liberty scored an enormous victory in 1776 and again in 1789, but thousands of years of history underly it–not just Christianity and not just the Enlightenment.

I describe my personal position as "soft-secularism" -- a "classical secularism" that derives from America's Founding, "classical liberal" era.

Why Its Important to Debunk the Idea of a "Christian Nation"

Because it will help folks like this end up with less egg on their face. The first video speaks of Obama's recent statement that America is no longer a "Christian Nation." Obama's mistake was intimating that America ever was a "Christian Nation." When this fellow gets to arguing his case, he does so by relying on, you got it, those "unconfirmed," that is bogus, quotations.

And in the following video another fellow discusses the much misunderstood Donald Lutz study and then cites the hoary "Holy Trinity" case of 1892, which even Justice Scalia in "A Matter of Interpretation" considers textbook piss poor legal reasoning.


by Tom Van Dyke

Oooops, I should have used scare quotes in the title. "Scare quotes." "Judeo-Christianity."

Because "Judeo-Christianity" doesn't exist of course. The term is a neologism, more specifically a retronym, where the old term loses its meaning and needs a qualifier to make any sense. Like "acoustic guitar." Once upon a time, all guitars were acoustic, like before electricity and before Les Paul invented the electric guitar.

Acoustic Guitar.


Note how guitars are now pointed upwards, but in the olden days, they were always horizontal. That's just the least of the differences, but this illustration do for now.

Anywayz, way back when, there were yr Jews and there were yr Christians, and never the twain should meet, least of all in a hyphenated word. Might as well call Thomas Jefferson a "Democrat-Republican"! But today, necessity dictates the miscegenation of "Judeo-Christian" in trying to make some sense out of the religious landscape at the founding of this here US of A.

You see, our first four or five presidents believed in the Bible more or less, but didn't believe Jesus was God or died for our sins or is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whatever that is. But they believed that the Bible wasn't total bunk and that man was created in God's image like it says in Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 9:6.

That meant that man was endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights, blah, blah blah. But it was still a statement that the human race, for all its intellectual fortitude, hasn't managed to get around yet. Whether truth, myth, or illusion, the idea founded the greatest nation in history [IMO], and is imitated around the world through the present day.

I was struck by something the atheist Jürgen Habermas [who was one of the philosophical founders of post-WWII Europe] wrote recently:

“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”
---[Jürgen Habermas, “Conversation About God and the World,” Time of Transitions, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006,): pgs. 150-151.]

Ah. Judeo-Christianuty.

Now, intellectual honesty would oblige Jürgen Habermas to deny that Jesus is God or even that the Old Testament [another retronym, eh?] is revelation from God. Or that God even exists. Still, Habermas, a manifestly good man, can't get around that ol' Bible, which had certain unique ideas. "Judeo-Christianity" sums up those ideas, justice, and then on to love [which I read as mercy].

I think the Founders, even the first four presidents, were cool with that. Were they "Christians?" Nah. Were they Jews? Hah! "Judeo-Christians?" Mebbe.

[Oh, BTW, Jefferson always seemed quite in accord with rabbinical Judaism to me. No Jesus-is-God, emphasis on good works. Turns out he WAS Jewish!]

Friday, July 25, 2008

D. James Kennedy on Washington's Phony Prayer Journal

The problem is Kennedy doesn't tell his followers that the prayer journal was found to be phony; rather he lies to them and says handwriting experts validated the prayer journal when they did the exact opposite.

Talking Past One Another

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

-- George Washington, Farewell Address.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

-- John Adams, October 11, 1798.

This preamble [to the laws of ZALEUCUS] instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration [My emphasis].


The laws of ZALEUCUS were supposedly revealed by Athena 600 BC. When Washington et al. stated "religion" was necessary to support republican government, they meant "religion" not "Christianity." Though they weren't familiar with all world religions, they did mention Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Unitarianism, Deism, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, pagan-Greco-Romanism, and Confucionism as "sound" or valid religions.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thomas Jefferson on the Bible in Schools

by Brad Hart

We’ve all heard it said that our founding fathers would be appalled at the fact that religion – particularly the Bible and other Christian teachings -- has been removed from the public school system’s curriculum. As a result, a number of Christian enthusiasts have fought tirelessly for the inclusion of prayers in school, classes on the Bible, etc. To lend support for these causes, a number of Christian apologists have appealed to the legacy of our founding fathers and their alleged loyalty to the Holy Scriptures. The ultra conservative Christian group, Wallbuilders, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. On their website, they point to the establishment of the American Bible Society as evidence that our nation’s founding was based on biblical doctrine. In addition, Wallbuilders makes the claim that, “the signers of the Declaration of Independence firmly believed in the Bible as the primary text in America’s schools.” [1]

While there were a number of signers to the Declaration of Independence that believed in making the Bible the premiere text for American schools, a larger number were against such an idea. After all, the teaching of the Bible in a school setting brought up a number of Church/State issues that have continued to our present day.

The foremost advocate against the use of the Bible – as many of you can easily imagine – was none other than the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson. As we all know, Jefferson was a passionate proponent for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In addition, Jefferson was also a devout supporter of educational reform. Jefferson believed that a secularized education, free from the shackles of religious piety would create a superior learning environment. It was largely due to this conviction that Jefferson established Mr. Jefferson’s University, or the University of Virginia as it is known today.

For Jefferson, the instruction of biblical or Christian doctrine took a back seat to the more important lessons of ancient history and philosophy. As Jefferson stated:

“Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” [2]
A number of Christian apologists – David Barton in particular – have insisted that Jefferson not only supported the study of the Bible in public schools, but in fact participated in its teaching. This myth is not only the result of over enthusiasm, but also the result of poor historical research and knowledge. As Jim Allison states:

"On page 130 in his The Myth of Separation, David Barton makes the following claim:

'Thomas Jefferson, while President of the United States, became the first president of the Washington D. C. public school board, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymnal as reading texts in the classroom. Notice why Jefferson felt the Bible to be essential in any successful plan of education: I have always said, always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.'

Barton's reference for Jefferson's service on the Washington D. C. school board is J. O. Wilson, "Eighty Years of Public Schools of Washington," in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. 1, 1897, pp. 122-127. Barton's quotation from Jefferson is taken from Herbert Lockyear, The Last Words of Saints and Sinners, 1969.

Apparently, Barton wants us to conclude that, since Jefferson was president of the board for a school system that used the Bible for reading instruction, he must have approved of using the Bible in this manner. In fact, some readers of this web site have claimed in their e-mail correspondence with us that Jefferson requested the Bible to be used for reading instruction. But nothing in Barton's source supports either of these claims. In fact, Barton's source suggests that someone other than Jefferson was responsible for introducing the Bible into the schools, and that this policy was adopted after Jefferson had left Washington for retirement in Virginia. Here are the facts:

On September 19, 1805, toward the end of Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, the board of trustees of the Washington D. C. public schools adopted its first plan for public education for the city. Given its resemblance to a similar plan proposed several years earlier by Jefferson for the state of Virginia, Wilson (Barton's source) suggests that it is likely that "he [Jefferson] himself was the chief author of the...plan." The plan called for the establishment of two public schools in

...poor children shall be taught reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of the mathematics as may qualify them for the professions they are intended to follow, and they shall receive such other instruction as is given to pay pupils, as the board my from time to time direct, and pay pupils shall, besides be instructed in geography and in the Latin language.

As you can see, there is nothing in this plan that mentions religious education or the use of the Bible in reading instruction. Nor, we might add, was the Bible mentioned in any of Jefferson's plans for public education in the state of Virginia, either before or after his presidency (check out an extract from Leonard Levy's book
Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side for documentation on this point). There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Barton's source that connects Jefferson to the practice of Bible reading. So how did the Bible come to be used in the Washington public schools? Remarkably, Barton's own source provides an answer to that question." [3]

[1] Wallbuilders. “The Aitken Bible.”, accessed July 23, 2008.
[2] Thomas Jefferson. The Administration of Laws and the Description of Laws?
Thomas Jefferson supported Bible reading in school; this is proven by his service as the first president of the Washington D. C. public schools, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymns as textbooks for reading. By Jim Allison.

The Founders & Higher Law

Ed Brayton sent me a post from Nathan Bradfield, a Christian America apologist, on the Founding and Religion with some quotations from our Founding Fathers about "higher law." The notion of "higher law" is easily misinterpreted and thus needs explaining. The Founders believed in both man made "positive" law, and God given "natural" law, which positive law, by right could not contradict. "God given" did not necessarily mean "biblical." The content of natural law was ascertainable by man's reason unaided. If revelation had any role to play in determining "the laws of nature and nature's God," it was to assist or provide support for man's reason, not the other way around. Further, though the key Founders believed that reason and revelation mostly agreed, they also believed that some revelation was not legitimately given by God and had to pass the "reason" smell test to be true or part of the "higher" law that rules us and which no positive law could contradict. That is the lens through which we need to view the following quotations that Mr. Bradfield offers:

All laws, however, may be arranged in two different classes. 1) Divine. 2) Human. . . . But it should always be remembered that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same Divine source: it is the law of God. . . . Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine. --James Wilson, Signer of the Constitution; U. S. Supreme Court Justice--

The law . . . dictated by God Himself is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this. --Alexander Hamilton, Signer of the Constitution--

The . . . law established by the Creator . . . extends over the whole globe, is everywhere and at all times binding upon mankind. . . . This is the law of God by which he makes his way known to man and is paramount to all human control. --Rufus King, Signer of the Constitution--

Bradfield and others in first encountering quotations such as Hamilton's believe it refers to biblical law. In fact, Hamilton's "law...dictated by God Himself" refers to the "law of nature" or what man discovers from reason unaided. In founding era parlance this is how the law of nature defines. Here is the entire quotation from Hamilton:

Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original." Blackstone.

Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.

Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty; nor the least authority to command, or exact obedience from him; except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity.

Though Hamilton quotes Blackstone, he does so in the context of arguing the "state of nature" theory, which is Hobbsean/Lockean in origin, and, as Leo Strauss put it, "wholly alien to the Bible." The context of the quotation shows Hamilton clearly arguing for truth discovered by natural reason -- even if divinely mandated -- not the Bible. Finally, note that when Hamilton wrote this, he was not a Christian and didn't become one until the end of his life after he had done his work "founding" the nation. He believed in the same system of theistic rationalism/theological unitarianism, in which Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison believed.

Moreover, here is John Adams on the matter explaining that the laws of nature and nature's God are discovered by reason, not revelation.

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.

Adams clearly regarded reason superior to revelation. In the following letter to Jefferson (Dec. 25, 1813), he discusses Joseph Priestley's work and prefaces his statement by noting that man's reason is the ultimate discerner of the truth. Reason not only supersedes revelation, it makes revelation entirely unnecessary:

Priestly ought to have done impartial justice to Phylosophy and Phylosophers, Phylosophy which is the result of Reason, is the first, the original Revelation of The Creator to his Creature, Man. When this Revelation is clear and certain, by Intuition or necessary Induction, no subsequent Revelation supported by Prophecies or Miracles can supercede it.

Writing in 1735, here Ben Franklin says basically the same thing (note Franklin states these ideas in the context of defending a Presbyterian minister -- Samuel Hemphill -- from charges of "heterodoxy"; Hemphill was one of many ministers during the Founding era who preached what the orthodox termed "infidelity" from the pulpit):

Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures...What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it's natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.

Franklin goes on to describe the proper relationship between reason and revelation and, like Adams above, positioned scripture as secondary revelation, with "reason" or "the light of nature" as primary revelation that God gave to man:

Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov'd from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill's asserting,

Article I.

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

In the following, Franklin clearly noted that revelation must be "reasonable" in order to be true. And the difference between this system and orthodox Christianity makes a difference. Franklin argues for this method in the context of denying original sin and that non-Christians, because of such, deserve eternal damnation and will go there if they die without Christ. Franklin disagrees: "to suppose a Man liable to Punishment upon account of the Guilt of another, is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel." He then writes:

Our Adversaries will perhaps alledge some Passages of the sacred Scriptures to prove this their Opinion; What! will they pretend to prove from Scripture a Notion that is absurd in itself, and has no Foundation in Nature? And if there was such a Text of Scripture, for my own Part, I should not in the least hesitate to say, that it could not be genuine, being so evidently contrary to Reason and the Nature of Things. But is it alledg'd, that there are some Passages in Scripture, which do, at least, insinuate the Notion here contradicted? In answer to this, I observe, that these Passages are intricate and obscure. And granting that I could not explain them after a manner more agreeable to the Nature of God and Reason, than the Maintainers of this monstrous System do yet I could not help thinking that they must be understood in a Sense consistent with them, tho' I could not find it out; and I would ingeniously confess I did not understand them, sooner than admit of a Sense contrary to Reason and to the Nature and Perfections of the Almighty God, and which Sense has no other Tendency than to represent the great Father of Mercy, the beneficent Creator and Preserver of universal Nature, as arbitrary, unjust and cruel; which is contrary to a thousand other Declarations of the same holy Scriptures. If the teaching of this Notion, pursued in its natural Consequences, be not teaching of Demonism, I know not what is.

James Wilson, whom Bradfield quotes, likewise believed the same. He once stated "the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supersede the operations of reason and the moral sense." Indeed, he believed revelation's task was to support reason, not the other way around: "Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance." And yes, Wilson, like Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, and Jefferson, was not an orthodox Christian but a "theistic rationalist."

In sum, when the Founders spoke of higher law which no positive law could contradict, they referred to natural law which was discoverable by reason, and not necessarily revelation. Indeed, only those "reasonable" parts of the Bible were part of such "higher" law which, they believed, formed the organic law of our nation. Thus, the higher law/natural law dynamic of our Founding lends more support to an "Enlightenment" worldview than a "Biblical" one.

Jonas Phillips to the President and Members of the Convention

by Ray Soller

We have already, albeit briefly, met Jonas Phillips in an earlier post, Jews in the Revolution - Irving Levitas. At the time of the federal Constitutional Convention (May 25, 1787 - September 17, 1787) Phillips lived in Philadelphia. While living there, he was a founding member of the Mikveh Israel Congregation. He was also a Freemason. By profession he was a merchant who had supported a break with Great Britain.

Earlier, when the British invaded New York City he left the city and moved to Philadelphia rather than live under British rule. Shortly after his relocation he enlisted and served under Colonel Bradford with the Philadelphia militia.

On March 12th, 1776, the Pennsylvania legislature approved the following oath for those who enlisted in the military:
"I, A.B. voluntarily enlisted a soldier, until the first day of January, 1778, unless sooner discharged, in the troops ordered to be raised by the assembly of Pennsylvania, and subjecting myself to such rules and articles, as are or shall be made, or directed, by the said assembly, for regulating and governing the said troops, do solemnly __________ that, in this service, I will truly and faithfully obey the present and any assembly of this colony, and, in their recess, any committee of safety by them appointed for the time being, and, in pursuance of their direction and command, such officers as shall be placed in authority over me; that I will to the utmost of my power, defend the rights and liberties of this province, and of America in general, and will oppose and resist any force or enemies that shall act, or be employed, against them." So help me.

As we can see, Jonas Phillips' enlistment oath was compatible with his Jewish belief. (Similarly, this compatibility held true when in 1769 Phillips had become a Freemason, since membership only required a belief in a Supreme Being and as a Jew his obligatory oaths had been sworn on the Tanakh.)

During the colonial era, Pennsylvania had been known as a province of broad religious toleration. An "infidel" community, a Jewish community, and a number of different Christian denominations, all free from religious persecution, had taken root in Pennsylvania. This, however, did not mean that all citizens were treated with the same degree of civic equality. Indications of this blatant disparity flared up during the invidious debates regarding rights of conscience that dominated the July 15 to September 28, 1776 proceedings of Pennsylvania's Constitutional Convention. (See Prelude to Article VI: The Ordeal of Religious Test Oaths in Pennsylvania by Stephen A. Smith, University of Arkansas.) The furor arose over the exact wording for the oath required for members of the legislature. A portion of the prescribed oath that was to be recited just prior to the seating of a legislator follows:
I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

Those, like Benjamin Franklin and Jonas Phillips, who opposed the oath protested. In Phillips' case, he wanted to make sure that the same injustice didn't carry over into the federal level. He wrote a letter to the President and Members of the Convention dated September 7, 1787:
With leave and submission I address myself To those in whome there is wisdom understanding and knowledge. they are the honourable personages appointed and Made overseers of a part of the terrestrial globe of the Earth, Namely the 13 united states of america in Convention Assembled, the Lord preserve them amen--

I the subscriber being one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia, a people scattered and despersed among all nations do behold with Concern that among the laws in the Constitution of Pennsylvania their is a Clause Sect. 10 to viz--I do believe in one God the Creature and governour of the universe the Rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked--and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and New testement to be given by a devine inspiration--to swear and believe that the new testement was given by devine inspiration is absolutly against the religious principle of a Jew. and is against his Conscience to take any such oath--By the above law a Jew is deprived of holding any publick office or place of Goverment which is a Contridectory to the bill of Right Sect 2. viz

That all men have a natural and unalienable Right To worship almighty God according to the dectates of their own Conscience and understanding, and that no man aught or of Right can be Compelled to attend any Relegious Worship or Erect or support any place of worship or Maintain any minister contrary to or against his own free will and Consent nor Can any man who acknowledges the being of a God be Justly deprived or abridged of any Civil Right as a Citizen on account of his Religious sentiments or peculiar mode of Religious Worship, and that no authority Can or aught to be vested in or assumed by any power what ever that shall in any Case interfere or in any manner Controul the Right of Conscience in the free Exercise of Religious Worship--

It is well known among all the Citizens of the 13 united States that the Jews have been true and faithful whigs, and during the late Contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the Cause, have bravely faught and bleed for liberty which they Can not Enjoy--Therefore if the honourable Convention shall in ther Wisdom think fit and alter the said oath and leave out the words to viz--and I do acknoweledge the scripture of the new testement to be given by devine inspiration then the Israeletes will think them self happy to live under a goverment where all Relegious societys are on an Eaquel footing--I solecet this favour for my self my Childreen and posterity and for the benefit of all the Isrealetes through the 13 united States of america

My prayers is unto the Lord. May the people of this States Rise up as a great and young lion, May they prevail against their Enemies, May the degrees of honour of his Excellencey the president of the Convention George Washington, be Extollet and Raise up. May Every one speak of his glorious Exploits. May God prolong his days among us in this land of Liberty--May he lead the armies against his Enemys as he has done hereuntofore--May God Extend peace unto the united States--May they get up to the highest Prosperetys--May God Extend peace to them and their seed after them so long as the Sun and moon Endureth--and may the almighty God of our father Abraham Isaac and Jacob endue this Noble Assembly with wisdom Judgement and unamity in their Councells, and may they have the Satisfaction to see that their present toil and labour for the wellfair of the united States may be approved of, Through all the world and perticular by the united States of america is the ardent prayer of Sires

It may seem strange, but when Pennsylvania debated the merits of the new federal Constitution the religious test clause was not a problem. The divisive political climate of 1776 had changed abruptly, and later in 1790, after its ratification of the United States Constitution, Pennsylvania like many of her sister states chose to revise its state Constitution. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania relaxed its religious test requirements to a level where the new test oath mandated only a belief in God and a future state of rewards and punishments. That, at least for people like Jonas Phillips, meant they were no longer "objects of' political and social changes, now they were participants in such changes" (Irving Levitas).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Word Clouds

Forgive me a somewhat frivolous post. All the cool kids are using Wordle to visualize their blogs' content as "word clouds."

Here is the result for American Creation as of July 22, 2008 (click to enlarge):

Here is the U.S. Constitution:

Washington's First Inaugural Address:
The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom:

I'm excited about subjecting some seventeenth-century sermons to this process.

Correction in the Historic Record Needed on Bird Wilson

If you google for "Bird Wilson" my blogpost on him should come up on the first page. He was indeed the son of Founder James Wilson, an Episcopalian minister, and the biographer of Bishop White, the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania ("Memoir of Bishop White"). Bird Wilson would be, and to most historians perhaps is, a footnote in history. Bird Wilson plays a minor role in the controversy over the religion of the key Founding Fathers. In particular, on the matter of George Washington not taking communion, Bishop White, one of Washington's Bishops, gave key testimony that Washington didn't commune, some of which was reported through Bird Wilson. For instance,

"Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary war, and afterwards while President of the United States, he never was a communicant in them" (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 188).

Bird Wilson was also purported to have given a sermon in Albany in 1831, on the religion of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson which concluded "among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." The following, further, was preached in that sermon:

When the war was over and the victory over our enemies won, and the blessings and happiness of liberty and peace were secured, the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it.... There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory. Those who have been called to administer the government have not been men making any public profession of Christianity.... Washington was a man of valor and wisdom. He was esteemed by the whole world as a great and good man; but he was not a professing Christian (quoted by Remsberg, pp. 120-121, emphasis added).

After the sermon was published in the Daily Advertiser, freethinker and Utopian Robert Dale Owen, personally visited the Reverend to dialogue on the matter of Washington's religious views. It was during this discussion that Owen testified in a letter to Amos Gilbert dated November 13, 1831:

I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor's residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently approaching fifty years of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the Daily Advertiser of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken a part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not.... I then read to him from a copy of the Daily Advertiser the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, "Washington was a man," etc. and ending, "absented himself altogether from the church." "I endorse," said Dr. Wilson, with emphasis, "every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr. Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was--for I well remember the very words--`Sir, Washington was a Deist.'"

The fact that Washington didn't commune in Philadelphia under Dr. Abercrombie and Bishop White is not in dispute. However, the minister who gave the fiery sermon terming all of the Presidents thus far elected "unitarians" and "infidels" was not, (or likely not) Bird Wilson but rather James Renwick Willson.

I was first alerted to this by a Brown doctoral candidate in history, James Kabala, in a comment on my blog:

I'm a historian currently working on church-state relations in the early republic who stumbled across this blog. The sermon you attribute to Bird Wilson, an Episcopalian, was actually delivered by James Renwick Willson, a Reformed Presbyterian or Covenanter and no relation to the Founding Father James Wilson. I've seen this error in books by a number of authors and have been trying to trace it back to its origins; I've traced it as far back as Paul Boller's book on Washington's religion, but the source he cites is not at my university's library. Willson's sermon was still largely accurate, but it lacks the authority of being by James Wilson's son.

I've been emailing him back and forth over the past few days and we have tried to get to the bottom of the matter. John E. Remsburg's book Six Historic Americans seems to be the origin of the error, though Remsburg doesn't technically make the error. If you read Remsburg carefully he treats "The Rev. Dr. Wilson" and "Rev. Bird Wilson, D.D." as two different people, but does not make this clear enough. And he misspells James Renwick Willson's last name with only one l, further adding to the confusion. And to confuse even more, ironically both "Rev. Wilson" and "Rev. Willson" were domiciled in Albany!

The first scholar, relying on Remsburg's work to confuse the two "Wilsons" into one was Franklin Steiner, where he writes:

Here is honest, straightforward talk, both on the part of Washington and the clergyman. 'What is more, it is confirmed by others. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, the biographer of Bishop White, in his sermon on the "Religion of the Presidents," says....Dr. Wilson's sermon was published in the Albany 'Daily Advertiser,' in 1831. Mr. Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, was attracted by it, and went to Albany to interview Dr. Wilson, and gives the substance of the interview in a letter, written on November 13, 1831, which was published in New York two weeks later....

From there relying on Steiner's work, Paul F. Boller, in George Washington and Religion continues to treat James Renwick Willson's work as thought it were Bird Wilson's. And from Boller, various George Washington scholars on both sides of the culture war debate over just how "Christian" Washington was have attributed to Bird Wilson words which probably came from James Renwick Willson. They include David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Farell Till, Brooke Allen, Michael and Jana Novak, and Peter Lillback.

I know all of this Wilson v. Willson stuff is confusing. This email that James Kabala sent me helps to clarify:

Steiner seems to be our culprit (or at least, the farthest back we can definitively trace this mistake at the present time; perhaps he himself was drawing on someone else). The Rev. Dr. Wilson who wrote a biography of Bishop White was, I assume, Bird Wilson. The Rev. Dr. Wilson [sic; should be Willson] who spoke with Robert Dale Owen was undoubtedly James Renwick Willson; the dialogue between the two men as quoted by Steiner is quoted verbatim from the Free Enquirer of December 3, 1831. The misspelling as "Wilson" occurred in that original article and is the likely source of much later trouble. This mistake is relatively inconsequential in the long run, since we know from other sources that Washington was undoubtedly a non-communicant and probably a Deist (or "theistic rationalist"), but it is remarkable how an error can spread from book to book without ever being caught. It will make me even more vigilant to make sure my own work is free from such errors!

Regarding the sermon in the Daily Advertiser, the primary source is not available online (nor in most libraries either!). However, one of Willson's sermons with almost identical sentiments is available here. The sermon in question was titled, PRINCE MESSIAH’S CLAIMS TO DOMINION OVER ALL GOVERNMENTS: AND THE DISREGARD OF HIS AUTHORITY BY THE UNITED STATES, IN THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, and as the site says, because of the way in which he criticized the Presidents, he was denounced.

The whole thing makes for an interesting read. Here are some excerpts:

There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion, or even a speculative believer in its divinity, before he retired from public life.[6] In no state paper, in no private letter, in no conversation, is he known to have declared himself a believer in the Holy Scriptures, as the word of God. General eulogy, by a Weems, or a Ramsey, will not satisfy an enlightened enquirer. The faith of the real believer in the word of God, is a principle so powerfully operative, that you cannot conceal "its light under a bushel." "It works by love." "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." Is it probable that he was a true believer in Jesus Christ and his Bible, when in times so trying, and in a Christian nation, he wrote thousands of letters, and yet never uttered a word, from which it can be fairly inferred that he was a believer? Who ever questioned whether Theodosius or Charlemagne believed the Bible? "He that is not against us is for us." And it is as true, that he who is not for us, is against us.


He was President of the convention, that voted the name of the living God out of the Constitution. His influence was great among the members of that body. Had he taken part with Dr. Franklin, in the attempt to have an acknowledgment of God inserted in the Constitution, they could hardly have failed of success. The conviction forces itself upon us, that that act of national impiety, was done with the approbation of Washington. It is to his everlasting dishonor, that he is not known to have opposed that insult offered to the Lord God, who had made him so great and successful a captain.

While President, in Philadelphia, his habit was to arise and leave the church, when the Sacrament of the Supper was dispensed. After the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie had preached a faithful sermon against the evil example thus set by the President of the United States; Gen. Washington remarked, that he would not set such an example for the future; and from that time, he did not attend church on the Sabbath, in which the Lord’s Supper was dispensed.

When the several classes of citizens, were addressing Washington, on his retirement from office, the clergy, who doubted his Christianity, resolved to frame an address, so that he could not evade, in his reply, an expression of his faith, if he were really a believer. He did, however, evade it, and the impression left on the mind of one of the clergy, at least, was that he was a Deist.

Mr. Jefferson, affirms that Washington was a Deist. To be ashamed of Christ, which no one can reasonably doubt he was, is infidel. He did not set an example of godliness, before the nation, over which in the Providence of God, he was made President.

The Cabinet which Gen. Washington chose, indicates that he was not a fearer of the Lord. Mr. Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, was an unchaste man, and died by a duel. Mr. Jefferson, his Secretary of State, was an avowed infidel, who mocked at every thing sacred. You know men by their society. Among the members of the first Cabinet of the Federal Executive, vital godliness would have been mocked at as fanaticism. Which of the heads of departments prayed in his family daily? Which of them sanctified the Lord’s day, by abstaining from worldly conversation, company, and business? The practical piety of the Bible, as exhibited in [Thomas] Boston’s Fourfold State, [Jonathan] Edwards on [Religious] Affections, and [Alexander] McLeod on True Godliness, had she been introduced to the inmates of Washington’s Palace, would have been derided as a fanatic.

And here Rev. Willson uses the "God was voted out" of the US Constitution language:

Besides, there is some reason to believe, that the people were not so bad as a few practical atheists, into whose hands the management of the national affairs fell, immediately after the revolution. These men voted God out of the Constitution, and discarded all moral qualifications for office. But the people, pending the election of Mr. Jefferson to the office of President, adopted a test. The opponents of that gentleman, insisted that he was an infidel, and therefore not to be honored with the highest office in the gift of the people. His friends admitted the doctrine that a deist ought not to be President; but denied the charge against Mr. Jefferson. His Notes on Virginia, are essentially deistical. But comparatively few had read them. The people, many thousands of Christians, did not believe the charge, and thinking it a slander of his political enemies, they voted for him. Had the people known his malevolent opposition to the Bible, truth, church and worship, of God as it is now known, the writer believes that he never would have been President of the United States. That very contest rendered Deism forever unpopular in this nation.

And in the footnotes, Willson relays that it was he who had been in correspondence with Washington's minister, Dr. Abercrombie.

Since the above was written, the author has heard some facts respecting Washington’s last days at Mount Vernon, which give reason to hope, that he became, at least a speculative believer in revealed religion, after he withdrew from the cares of empire, and found time for investigation and devotion. We are sure the first President did not acknowledge Prince Messiah. Dr. Abercrombie said to, the writer—"Sir, General Washington was a Deist."

In another sermon, Rev. Willson repeats similar sentiments:

Never in any form, since the United States became an independent nation, has it acknowledged the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, nor professed subjection to his law. The convention that ratified and unanimously signed the present Federal Constitution, could not have meant to do so, as is demonstrated by many solid arguments. 1. The question was debated, and a very large majority refused to insert any acknowledgment of God, or of the religion of his Son. 2. Had this not been done, the members were men of too much discernment, to have overlooked, through inattention, a matter of so great magnitude. If they intended to acknowledge Christ, it would have been in such terms, as to admit of no doubt. 3. There were many deists in the convention, such as Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Thomas Mifflin, Governor Morris, and James Madison. Governor Morris and Thomas Jefferson, affirm that General Washington was also a deist.[1] Yet all these infidels signed the constitution. Would they have done so in the presence of those who knew them to be opposed to revealed religion had the instrument been christian. 4. Could the Presidents of the United States, three of whom, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, were certainly infidels, numerous members of congress, Governors of States, and many other officers of the General and State governments, have sworn to the Federal Constitution, had it been understood to recognize the headship of Messiah, whom they held to be an impostor? 5. It has never been the understanding of the nation that the constitution acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ, or professes subjection to his laws. All infidels have sworn to the support of that instrument, and no one has ever thought of charging them with inconsistency. 6. The present President of the United States, in his message to congress, at the opening of the extra session of 1837, says: "The will of a majority of the people is the supreme law, in all things that come within the jurisdiction of the Federal government." In all the opposition to his administration, this sentiment has never been called in question. The politicians of the nation, would generally reject with detestation, the doctrine, that the constitution binds to the acknowledgment of the Bible as the supreme rule of legislation in this commonwealth. 7. All these arguments are sealed, by the following provision. "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."[2] This prohibits the passage of any law excluding gamblers, whoremongers, slaveholders, profane swearers, sabbath violaters, gross idolators, blasphemers of the divinity of Christ, deists or atheists, from access to the highest honours of the land, for to exclude any of these, would be to require a religious test. A man might be convicted of any and even of all these sins, and yet be eligible to any office. Here is a flat contradiction to the Bible. "He that ruleth over men must be just ruling in the fear of God." 2 Sam. 23:3. If the constitution acknowledged Christ, the christian religion, or Jehovah, in any article directly or indirectly, it would thereby establish a religious test, as no deist or atheist could swear to its support. This sweeping clause is found in the conclusion of a section declaring, "that all executive and judicial officers both of the United States and of the several States shall be bound, by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution." It has been plead[ed] that this provision acknowledges the christian religion . But how vainly? Heathens swear oaths. An atheist might come into office by an affirmation. The concluding sentence forbidding all religious tests, shews how anxious the framers were to avoid even a seeming acknowledgment of God or his holy religion.

As noted, this is not verbatim of the actual sermon "The Religion of the Presidents" printed in the Albany Daily Advertiser. That is a primary source available in few libraries. Ultimately someone, probably James Kabala, will get his or her hands on it and settle this issue. But the sentiments are so similar, it's almost certain that the Rev. terming the Founders "infidels," that none of the Presidents from Washington Jackson were professors of religion beyond Unitarianism, that the record shows Washington was a Deist and nothing more, and stating that God was voted out of the US Constitution, was Rev. James Renwick Willson, not Bird Wilson. Bird Wilson was "esteemed." James Renwick Willson after delivering this sermon attacking the Presidents and the US Founding was burned in effigy. Bird Wilson's father, James, whose work Bird catalogued in detail, was likely not an orthodox Christian, but rather adhered to the same system of "theistic rationalism" that the key Founders (early Presidents) did. Thus, Bird would be attacking his own father as an "infidel." Not likely.

Finally, note that Rev. Willson was an early prominent member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Covenanted and they were notable dissidents on the US Constitution. They believed its lack of supplication to God, absence of a religious test, and absence of explicit covenant with the Triune God of the Bible made it a document, at the very least, inconsistent with their view of covenant theology and civil government. (At the worst it is an anti-Christian, infidel document). This is the very group to whom Gary North dedicates his ebook. And though North doesn't cite Rev. Willson, many of Willson's same arguments against the US Constitution are fleshed out in detail in North's book.

Rev. Willson was a true "dominionist," and he should remind the Reconstructionists that a dominionist theology is inconsistent with the US Constitution. (On a personal note, he was a mean looking dude as well!)

Joyce Appleby's "Inheriting the Revolution"

Historian Joyce Appleby discusses her book, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Her book is basically a social history of the first American generations that followed the American Revolution. She mentions how many of the changes of the early 19th century were NOT expected by American, but were unpredictable results of the American Revolution. One of those biggest changes that came, and that Appleby discusses in detail, is that of religion.

Enjoy the video.

Monday, July 21, 2008

American Heritage Group on Google

I have joined the American Heritage debate site at google. It is founded by a young evangelical Christian who is sympathetic to David Barton's point of view. We are engaging in civil debate. You can check it out and if you want to join send him an email. Though, I'll note, I have my problems with David Barton's research; but we are keeping it civil. No name calling. I don't necessarily expect to convince them. Just share some contrary evidence that will cause them to doubt Barton's dogma. Or at least be able to better deal with some of the historical facts that Barton doesn't share with his followers.

The following is a summary that the administrator has put together of our debate.

Jefferson on the Freemasons

Thomas Jefferson was not a Freemason (as some mistakenly believe). Though he had no problem with them and in the following letter to Bishop James Madison (cousin to the Founding Father of the same name), praised an "Illuminated" Mason named Adam Weishaupt (see number 8 in the below link) (hat tip Tom Van Dyke):

Barruel’s own parts of the book are perfectly the ravings of a Bedlamite. But he quotes largely from Wishaupt whom he considers as the founder of what he calls the order. As you may not have had an opportunity of forming a judgment of this cry of 'mad dog' which has been raised against his doctrines, I will give you the idea I have formed from only an hour’s reading of Barruel’s quotations from him, which you may be sure are not the most favorable. Wishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist.

He is among those (as you know the excellent Price and Priestley also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man.

Indeed, Jefferson saw in such Freemasons folks who preached the same kind of religious principles in which he believed. He even compared "Wishaupt" to his spiritual mentor, Joseph Priestly, and Richard Price, another British unitarian who strongly influenced Jefferson and America's key Whig Founders. Note, they believed "in the indefinite perfectibility of man," which is not consistent with orthodox Christianity because it denies original sin. Neither is Locke's notion of a tabla rasa or "blank state" for human nature (or at least for the human mind).

Jefferson continues on "Wishaupt":

Wishaupt believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. That his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, & by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves. His precepts are the love of god & love of our neighbor. And by teaching innocence of conduct, he expected to place men in their natural state of liberty & equality. He says, no one ever laid a surer foundation for liberty than our grand master, Jesus of Nazareth. He believes the Free Masons were originally possessed of the true principles & objects of Christianity, & have still preserved some of them by tradition, but much disfigured.

Though I've never read Adam Weishaupt's work, this is exactly what Jefferson, after Joseph Priestly, believed about Jesus and Christianity freed from its "corruptions" (i.e., the tenets of orthodoxy that distinguish it). Jesus was a man, not God, and a great moral teacher who preached "natural religion," -- a sort of universalistic ethical monotheism that man can discover from reason.

This also shows that when Madison, for instance, referred to Christianity as the "best & purest religion," it by no means pointed towards his belief in orthodox Christianity as such contention perfectly parallels Jefferson's above quoted heterodox thoughts. This is why James H. Hutson noted about that quotation:

This last assertion, however, sounds very much like the deistical maxim, frequently indulged by Jefferson, that the "pure" religion of Jesus had been unconscionably corrupted by the apostle Paul and the early church fathers.

Jefferson continues on Weishaupt:

The means he proposes to effect this improvement of human nature are 'to enlighten men, to correct their morals & inspire them with benevolence. Secure of our success, sais he, we abstain from violent commotions. To have foreseen the happiness of posterity & to have prepared it by irreproachable means, suffices for our felicity. The tranquility of our consciences is not troubled by the reproach of aiming at the ruin or overthrow of states or thrones.'

As Wishaupt lived under the tyranny of a despot & priests, he knew that caution was necessary even in spreading information, & the principles of pure morality. He proposed therefore to lead the Free masons to adopt this object & to make the objects of their institution the diffusion of science & virtue. He proposed to initiate new members into his body by gradations proportioned to his fears of the thunderbolts of tyranny.

This has given an air of mystery to his views, was the foundation of his banishment, the subversion of the masonic order, & is the colour for the ravings against him of Robinson, Barruel & Morse, whose real fears are that the craft would be endangered by the spreading of information, reason, & natural morality among men.

It's a wonder why Jefferson never joined the Freemasons as he saw them as teaching exactly what he believed in.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Thomas Jefferson's Religion, by Thomas Jefferson

Ok, now we can conclusively determine what Jefferson's personal religious creed really was. Thomas Jefferson has returned from the grave to give us his view on religion and everything else.

That's right. Thomas Jefferson is alive and well! In fact, he has his own radio program. Jefferson can be heard loud and clear every Sunday morning across this great nation (in Co. Springs where I live, Jefferson can be heard on 91.5 KRCC). In fact, the man has been on the radio for quite some time. He has amassed over 700 installments, each packed with the incredible insight that only Thomas Jefferson can provide.

The New Enlightenment Radio Network, in conjunction with renowned scholar Clay Jenkinson, have combined to create The Thomas Jefferson Hour, which has become a special treat for history nerds across the country. Jenkinson, who portrays Jefferson on the program, takes questions, phone calls, and answers emails as if he were the REAL Jefferson (which, I must admit he excels at).

On the website for the program (which can be seen by clicking here) the producers of The Thomas Jefferson Hour give a brief explanation of their intentions. They state:

The Thomas Jefferson Hour® is a weekly radio program dedicated to the search for truth in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a man of the Enlightenment, a student of human nature and gentlemanly behavior, and he applied this to his personal life as well as to both the national and world wide challenges he faced during the forming of our nation.

Nationally acclaimed humanities scholar and award winning first person interpreter of Thomas Jefferson, Clay Jenkinson, portrays Jefferson on the program, and he answers listener questions while in the persona of Jefferson--his answers are grounded in the writings and actions of the great man.

Our mission is to generate one-on-one discourse between friends and family members, then to help broaden it to national discourse (replace the 30 second two position only sound bites) about important, and many times sensitive, topics to our country and to our citizens. We do this in a unique and entertaining way—through the voice of our third president Thomas Jefferson.

Our listeners have encouraged us to sprinkle the program lineup with out-of-character programs. The format is one of Clay Jenkinson, the humanities scholar and social commentator, examining a current or historical event using both a Jeffersonian lens and a modern-day humanities lens. The gift we bring to both program formats is the ability to help people strip through the advertised message and look for the truth of the situation. The truth may be painful and self-revealing, but it is always uplifting to the spirit.

The Thomas Jefferson Hour® appeals to Public Radio listeners, not just history buffs. While some of our primary stations are in historical areas (Norfolk and Radford, Virginia) or areas that are Jeffersonian (North Dakota, Kansas, Texas), our largest listening audience occurs in postmodern regions such as Fresno, California and Colorado Springs, Colorado. Our appeal truly is our ability to bring out the truth in a non-dramatic, unthreatening manner then to help our audience think through the complexity of the decision making process, bringing clarity to the steps and the events.

For all you early American buffs, I encourage you to check out the website, where all of the local affiliates are listed, along with the program's schedule. Even if you are not a history nut, The Thomas Jefferson Hour is an enjoyable program for everyone!
Check it out!

***Thomas Jefferson discusses his religion on program #622. Simply go to the website and click on "Listen To The Show," which is the very last link of the left hand side. Then scroll down to program #622 and enjoy listening to Jefferson himself explain his religious beliefs.***

To Jenkinson's credit, I think he does an excellent job of explaining Jefferson's religion.

A Brief Commentary on the Founders and Religious "Labeling"

For those that regularly follow this blog, I am sure you are more than aware of the fact that the greatest source of debate and controversy we see invariably has to do with the specific religious beliefs of our mainstream founding fathers. What typically happens is that someone will write up a posting that argues for or against a particular religious label – i.e. “Jefferson was a deist,” “Washington was a Christian,” etc. In response, those opposed to the thesis of the post will present a number of quotations, primary sources and other forms of evidence that he/she feels will successfully “debunk” the posting’s claim.

Though I am not opposed to this style of debating – in fact, I have participated in a plethora of such postings and debates and actually enjoy them quite a bit – I do feel that such a practice of assigning a religious “label” to our founders is counterproductive at best. As bpabbott has argued in a former posting:

"What is the point of debating the founders faith? They should be known for their deeds and their words. We should not attempt to label them with a theological label as if such sheds any light upon the details of their individual personal opinions; religious, political, or otherwise." [1]

While I disagree with abbott’s notion that debating the religion of our founders is somewhat a futile effort, I do agree with him when he states that theological labels do not always shed light “upon the details of their individual personal opinions; religious, political, or otherwise.”

The bottom line is this: the religious beliefs of our founding fathers were, much like they are for people today, very complex. Assigning one specific religious label in the hopes that it will somehow reveal all that is needed to know about a particular founder’s religion is silly. For instance, let’s look at the founder that is perhaps the most controversial of them all when it comes to his religious views: George Washington.

When it comes to “claiming” the legacy of our founders, both Christian Nationalists and secularists have fought tirelessly in proving that George Washington is one of their own. Naturally, this is due to the man’s Herculean status that seems to trump that of the other founders. Or as Washington biographer, Joseph Ellis put it, Washington was “the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character…the American Zeus, Moses and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.” [2] For both Christian zealots and hard-core secularists, having America’s premiere founder in your corner is a prestigious trophy to say the least.

But when it comes down to the “nitty-gritty” of proving that Washington was a Deist, U(u)nitarian, Christian, etc., things are not as clear cut as they may seem, even when die-hard activists like David Barton for the right, or Howard Zinn for the left continue to insist that the religion of our founders is a simple and obvious endeavor.

For this particular post, I am not interested in diving into the actual historical records to prove that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. were Christians, Deists, etc. For those arguments I will simply refer you to the numerous postings that have been done on each founder at this blog and the many other blogs/websites that are dedicated to the same goal. Instead, it is my hope that people will at least consider the possibility that there is MUCH more to the religion of our founders than meets the eye. To the Christian Nationalists, I would ask you to take a step back and ask yourselves why you are so adamant on insisting that our founders were devout men of a Christian God. Do the opinions of secularists, who, for the most part, are trying to be as sincere in their scholarship as you are, really have a secretive agenda to destroy all remnants of Christianity in our nation’s history? To the die-hard secularists, do you really think that embracing a religious heritage could constitute a legitimate threat to our nation’s founding principles? Are Christian conservatives really attempting to rewrite history, or are they simply trying to demonstrate the importance of religion in our nation’s founding?

By no means am I trying to be offensive here. For myself, I realize that I too need to take a step back at times so that I can effectively see things as they are. To do otherwise would essentially “label” me as an irresponsible student of history. And in the end, isn’t this what we all want to avoid?

In conclusion, when it comes to “labeling” the religion of our founders make sure that you do so with a grain of salt. As Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as a simple person. We are all complex beyond our wildest imaginations.” So it is with the religion of our founding fathers.

[1] bpabbott’s comment on, Jefferson still wasn’t a Deist, OK? July 17, 2008. American Creation Blog.
[2] Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 121