Friday, January 23, 2009

George Washington's Theistic Rationalism

At American Creation, Tom Van Dyke comments:

I hear Hamilton and were Washington were "theistic rationalists" all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.


I'll save Hamilton for a later day and focus on Washington. I respectfully disagree. I could just as easily turn this around and state:

I hear Washington was an orthodox Christian all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.


Elsewhere Tom noted Washington's Farewell Address where he stated:

"The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles." [Emphasis added.]


In his PhD thesis, Dr. Gregg Frazer quotes this as evidence of Washington's theistic rationalism, not his orthodox Christianity. And that's because the people of the United States were not all orthodox Christians. So whatever this "same religion" was, it was NOT orthodox Christianity. Washington knew there were theological unitarians among them. Indeed, the 2nd & 3rd Presidents who followed him were theological unitarians. And one bit of eyewitness testimony from George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library, claims Madison identified as a "unitarian." Washington himself may have been a theological unitarian (he certainly didn't talk in Trinitarian terms). Washington gave his imprimatur to an address by Richard Price that slammed the Trinity.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Trinitarian Universalists who denied eternal damnation. As he wrote to them:

I thank you cordially for the congratulations, which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.


Further, Washington defended the Universalist John Murray as a Chaplain.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Swedenborgians, who taught an extremely novel view of the Godhead that was neither Unitarian nor Trinitarian. As he wrote to them:

But to the manifest interpretation of an over-ruling Providence, and to the patriotic exertions of United America, are to be ascribed those events which have given us a respectable rank among the nations of the earth. --

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.

Your Prayers for my present and future felicity were received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities, taste those blessings which a gracious God bestows upon the Righteous.


Washington also knew of Jews and recognized their civil and religious rights under US law, which destroys the claim that some Christian Nationalists posit that "religion" in the US Constitution originally meant "Christianity" only. As he wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.


Washington also knew of Roman Catholics in America and didn't seem to have a problem them. As he wrote:

And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.


Finally, on the American Indians. I've noted before, when speaking to unconverted Natives, twice Washington termed God "The Great Spirit" (actually prayed to that name) intimating that UN-converted Natives worshipped the same God that Christians do. I've also read every single time Washington approved of converting the Natives to Christianity and it was never for orthodox reasons. The orthodox reason is Indians are in a state of spiritual darkness, they worship a false god and need to be saved. Washington's reasons were either the Indians wanted to convert and/or converting the Indians to Christianity helped to better civilize and assimilate them.

So now go back and rethink the passage in Washington's Farewell Address where he noted, "With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion,..." Unitarian or Trinitarian (or like the Swedenborgs, neither), eternal damnation or universal salvation, Roman Catholic or Protestant, indeed perhaps Jewish, Christian, or Native American spirituality, it's all the "same religion," the differences among them being only "slight shades." This is not orthodox Christian political theology, but rather what Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism."

25 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I could just as easily turn this around and state:

I hear Washington was an orthodox Christian all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.


I'd agree with that, too, Jon, and have written to that effect.

I don't use the term "orthodox." Only some orthodox Christians do. And you. For some reason, you're all concerned about that.

I find it unhelpful, especially since with the zillion sects flying around America, one man's orthodoxy is another man's heresy. You yourself have pointed out that the federal government wanted no part in these intramural battles. A wise course, and one I follow as well.

Washington's swearing in on a Bible and semi-frequent attendance at church make him recognizably Christian. What he felt about the Eucharist or other doctrine is superfluous.

As for Hamilton, better you got to that first, as I think the claims about him, conflating his lack of ritual piety with a heterodoxy of belief, are unwarranted speculation.

But the Washington quotes show nothing but the tolerance we'd expect from a president and the father of our country. To read more into them is error, in my view.

As for the efforts to evangelize the gospel to the Native Americans, I've seen no proof to suggest just what Washington's intentions were in supporting them. But those efforts should have been met with indifference by a "theistic rationalist." One god should be the same as the next.

All in all, my objection is to too many assertions being drawn from too little evidence.

Pinky said...

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"Washington's swearing in on a Bible and semi-frequent attendance at church make him recognizably Christian. What he felt about the Eucharist or other doctrine is superfluous."
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Swearing on a Bible was how it was done and it still is de rigeur as far as I know--Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and un-believers. And, it doesn't make any of them Christian. Anyone swearing an oath on a Bible was/is condemning their soul to eternal damnation if they were giving false witness. At least as far as the Christian audience to that oath taking was/is concerned.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

Okay. I can't argue with much of what you write. Except a little here:

But those efforts should have been met with indifference by a "theistic rationalist." One god should be the same as the next.

The theistic rationalists didn't quite see all religions as equal, but rather all as valid ways to God. Christianity was the quickest way to the top of the mountain because of the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth's (the "man's" not the "God's") moral teachings.

Plus wanting the Indians to become Christian to better assimilate and civilize -- what I see from GW's writings (and I could reproduce them) is, I think, a pretty secular-utilitarian reason for their conversion. As a secular-pluralistic minded fellow, I don't have much of a problem with that. I believe it's best for the Indians to get off the Reservations and assimilate into modern American society. I don't see that as all too different from GW's approval of them converting to Christianity.

Tom Van Dyke said...


The theistic rationalists didn't quite see all religions as equal, but rather all as valid ways to God. Christianity was the quickest way to the top of the mountain because of the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth's (the "man's" not the "God's") moral teachings.


Well, here's the thing---Christianity is given top spot even by the outliers [here you're referring to Jefferson and Franklin, I think], but "theistic rationalist" doesn't acknowledge that reality.

I don't oppose the term "theistic rationalist" as being inaccurate, but for its insufficiency. To ignore the uniquely Christian character of the Founding ethos is to miss the key thing that separates the Founding from bland deism.

Let us recall also, that many scholars and other mainstream writers often blandly assert the Founders and the Founding were deistic. These "credible" sources I worry about far more than the World Net Daily crowd, whose audience is each other, not the entire nation!

Moving on to the other Founders, if Madison was a unitarian, that's fine, as long as we realize that "unitarian" at the Founding carried a strong Christian connotation.

And I'll go so far as to say I proved that at least on one day in 1810, John Adams believed Christianity was more than a "moral system," he believed it came from divine revelation.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/01/john-adams-christianity_16.html

I'm unaware if he claimed the Qu'ran or any other religion was divinely inspired. This is important. "Key," if you will.

And of course, as we open the circle to the other Founders, they certainly don't. We start getting knee-deep in orthodoxy, whatever that is. It's recognizably Christian, we can safely say, and I think arguments or terms that don't recognize the uniquely Christian worldview of the Founding, well, I wonder what they're up to. We got Phil here claiming Muslims swear on Bibles. Geez Louise.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Plus wanting the Indians to become Christian to better assimilate and civilize -- what I see from GW's writings (and I could reproduce them) is, I think, a pretty secular-utilitarian reason for their conversion.


Even if so---and I have no reason to doubt you---this argues against Gordon Wood excluding the common religion from the Founding glue, eh?

Pinky said...

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"We got Phil here claiming Muslims swear on Bibles. Geez Louise."
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That's the way it was done in our courts from the gitty up, Thomas. They either swore on a Bible or they were not allowed to testify.
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I don't know any Muslims to verify this; but, didn't Mohamed get much if not all of the Koran directly from God?
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Check me if I'm wrong; but, my understanding of Theistic Rationalism holds that theology and rational thinking are put together in conformity using natural religion as a guideline. If there are parts of the religion in question that don't hold up to rational thought, they are tossed out. That's what Thomas Jefferson did with his versions of the Bible, right? Or am I wrong?
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Tom Van Dyke said...


That's the way it was done in our courts from the gitty up, Thomas. They either swore on a Bible or they were not allowed to testify.


If true, what does that tell you?

As for Jefferson and the term theistic rationalism, asked and answered above. You will find that the discussion works just fine with little of the former and none of the latter, in fact, it improves.

Pinky said...

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Much of religion is tradition as you well know.
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America is a nation with a preponderance of Christians and those who claim to be such. It's a good idea to run with the grain in almost any group.
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Putting one's hand on the Bible and swearing an oath is a long standing tradition that became law.
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It does NOT make a person a Christian.
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The things we know about many of the Founders is what qualifies many Fundamentalist Christians to say that a person is on the "Slippery slope of liberalism" and in danger of losing their salvation or, at least, falling from Grace.
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You really cannot understand Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity unless you have been on the inside.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

I pretty much agree, although I get the ripples from people like you whom they scare the bejesus out of. Unfortunately, I think this blog gets too preoccupied with them.

Proving them wrong does not address finding out what's right, which I believe is our real purpose. As we can see, there are many reasonable, "Enlightenened" people who think the Founding was deist, or even worse largely a product of the Enlightenment. There is ignorance, cementheadedness, and agendas to be found everywhere.

As for what swearing on the Bible means, you just confirmed my main point, that America is [or at least was] a Christian milieu. Was it a theocracy? No, and you'll find few people willing to argue that. Even the Dominionists don't: they want a freely-chosen theocracy to usher in the Second Coming.

As previously noted, this is not likely in our lifetimes, nor in our children's children's children's. It is far more likely they'll take In God We Trust off the money by then.

Pinky said...

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I was correct, Tom. It is sooooo obvious that you have an agenda here and it isn't to search out what can be learned about history. It is, instead, to push a certain view of history.
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But, so what! That's your right.
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I think we can pretty safely say that the Founders were not what is termed Orthodox Christians in these days. They were on the cusp of getting up their own steam on the ideas of reality. That must have been a heady experience to be able to not only say what you were thinking; but, to develop your beliefs according to your own rational.
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It's true, we cannot get into their heads and those who think they can, are just plain nuts to put it in World War II terms.
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At some point in time after we've heard all the arguments at least three or four time, each of us has to take a position. To say that most Americans are Christians or claim to be such does not make our nation legally founded as such.
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I am a Christian and I believe that a secular government is the best of all possible types. I have spent long years in the inner circles of Fundamentalist Christianity.
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bpabbott said...

Tom: "Christianity is given top spot even by the outliers [here you're referring to Jefferson and Franklin, I think], but "theistic rationalist" doesn't acknowledge that reality."

Tom, I find your explanation (of which the above is part) to be quite compelling.

As we are bound to adopt terms to describe the founders flavor of theism, and their priorization of reason vs doctrinal revelation, what should such a term be?

"Rational Christians" perhaps? ... I'm sure that would be quite popular among the irrational Christians ;-)

In all serioiusness, is there a more proper term?

bpabbott said...

Phil: "[...] my understanding of Theistic Rationalism holds that theology and rational thinking are put together in conformity using natural religion as a guideline. If there are parts of the religion in question that don't hold up to rational thought, they are tossed out. That's what Thomas Jefferson did with his versions of the Bible, right? Or am I wrong?"

I have the same understanding.

I prefer the term Theistic Rationalism over "Christian Rationalism" or "Rational Christian" because for the first reason trumps all theistic doctine.

The other examples may infer/imply that reason trumps all doctrine, except the Christian variety, or that Christians must be divided into two groups; those who are rational and those who are not.

Tom Van Dyke said...


I was correct, Tom. It is sooooo obvious that you have an agenda here and it isn't to search out what can be learned about history. It is, instead, to push a certain view of history.


Right about what, Phil? Did I say you were wrong about anything? That wouldn't be my style. I prefer the "if so, then..." style if I'm not going to look something up for myself.

I'm happy with my "if so, then..." replies to you on this thread. For some reason you prefer to charge me with an agenda rather than reply to what I actually wrote.

I see also that you've bought into the "orthodox" line of argument, which I reject, and do not argue, leaving that to orthodox and anti-orthodox types.

The so-called "key" Founders were not orthodox Christians. Many of the rest were, however, as were the majority of the rest of the Founders and Ratifiers.

Make of that what you will, which so far you make nothing of. As for agendas, I'm willing to compare the color of our kettles.

Ben, thank you for finding any part whatsoever of my presentation compelling. As for the rest, I'm willing to leave it open to discussion.

As for your notion that "we are bound to adopt terms" about the Founding, I prefer not to. I find even my own favored term, "Judeo-Christianity" to be admittedly insufficient. Terms seem to inhibit the truth rather than clarify, so at present, I resist terms.

See, the funny thing is that Thomas Jefferson only put his razor to the Bible, not the Bhagavadita or the Qur'an or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Despite his disbelief, his milieu was still thoroughly Christian. There's no running away from that.

Our Founding Truth said...

The so-called "key" Founders were not orthodox Christians.>

Yes, the key founders were orthodox; the key founders are the men who ratified our law. [emphasis added]

The ratifiers were orthodox. Men such as Committee Chairpersons, Governors, and other State Legislators, etc.

bpabbott said...

OFT: "Yes, the key founders were orthodox; the key founders are the men who ratified our law." [emphasis OFT]

sigh ... so if you can't compel others to embrace your ideology, then you'll just change the rules in order to make your position easier to defend?

The key founders, are the elite amont the founding fathers.

The founding fathers are those who drafted and/or signed the DOI, those who drafted and/or ratified of our Constitution, as well as others who enfluenced those events.

The *key* founders would be those who disproportionately particpated in and/or enfluenced those events.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I see the repeated use of "special pleading" or "I get to make the rules of argument & debate" in OFT's content.

I'm not sure whether the majority of the US population really believed in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine (they may have, who knows?). However, that doesn't prove how the Constitution & DOI *ought* to be interpreted.

As Dr. Frazer noted, majorities "assent" to law, they don't "make" the law in a republic (though they do in a "democracy").

Majorities "assented" to laws made by theistic rationalists, the content of which, was entirely consistent with theistic rationalism.

bpabbott said...

Nicely said!

Tom Van Dyke said...

The "key" Founders riff is also "special pleading." These Founders but not those Founders. Sorry.

Majorities "assented" to laws made by theistic rationalists, the content of which, was entirely consistent with theistic rationalism.

And entirely consistent with the Ratifiers' Christianity. This is a point overlooked when trying to swing the Founding to the Enlightenment or "theistic rationalism," an only semi-accurate term.

bpabbott said...

Tom: >>The "key" Founders riff is also "special pleading."<<

How so?

Do you imply there is not objective method to distinguish the more from the less prominent?

Is so, is there a method to distinguish "the founders" from the public at large?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Do you imply there is not objective method to distinguish the more from the less prominent?

The method has to be argued, not asserted.

If the Jews, Catholics and Protestants made a deal, how important would the religion of their lawyers be?

Further, the role of federalism, and the states' primacy and prerogative in matters of religion, is completely ignored by the "key" Founders method. It also feeds the [erroneous, in my view] reductive method that The United States of America is no more or less than the literal content of the Constitution.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "The method has to be argued, not asserted"

Ok.

Do you agree that different founders contributed to different degrees?

Are you concerned about the degree of value different contributions merit, or something else?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think the method is wrong: it postulates that "key" Founders led the nation to its Founding documents and the nation followed.

More accurate, I think---and supportable by quotes put up here in the past few months---is Jefferson's note on the D of I that he was merely crystallizing the thoughts sentiments of the "American mind," and in Madison's case, I submit he was more an "honest broker" between the various sects, powers and interests. That he was aligned with none of them made him the perfect man for the job.

[Let us not forget that he lost many battles along the way when he tried to insert his own druthers.]

As for the paucity of mentions of the Christian religion in the Founding documents, Joseph Story states the obvious:

"In the actual situation of the United States a union of the states would have been impractible from the known diversity of religious sects, if any thing more, than a simple belief in Christianity in the most general form of expression, had been required. And even to this some of the states would have objected, as inconsistent with the fundamental policy of their own charters, constitutions, and laws."

Pinky said...

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These questions being raised by OFT, Abbott, and Rowe are reminiscent of how Plato has Socrates discussing justice in the Republic.
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I don't get it that the elite Founders imposed their ideas of law on the majority; but, I see it just the other way around that those leaders had their fingers on the pulse of what was coming to be the American idea of what it means to be created equal--Don't Tread on Me, Live and Let Live and the fact that "my way" is as good as "your way". A republic! in that the leadership re-presented the individual citizen in law. The Bill of Rights was the jelling of the change from a sovereignty of rulers to the sovereignty of the individual citizen and the result of leaders knowing who We The People really were.
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It's all very complicated; but, it relates to so much that came out of ancient Greece. The case is more easily made that America was created to be a nation of equals than it was that it was created to be a Christian nation. But, there is a similarity to which we can address ourselves.
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Pinky said...

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Tom wrote, "More accurate, I think---and supportable by quotes put up here in the
past few months---is Jefferson's note on the D of I that he was merely
crystallizing the thoughts sentiments of the "American mind," and in
Madison's case, I submit he was more an "honest broker" between the
various sects, powers and interests. That he was aligned with none of
them made him the perfect man for the job."
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I stand with Tom, here. America was created to be a republic.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I think the method is wrong: it postulates that "key" Founders led the nation to its Founding documents and the nation followed."

I agree with the sentiment you offer. However, I'll put it into what I think is a more proper context.

The "thoughts sentiments" of America were focused upon their lives under tyranny, and they had a genuine desire to free themselves of it.

I don't think anyone is claiming that the founders took advantage of the situation and imposed their ideas and sentiments upon America (too much tragic irony in the idea the founders imposed a tyranny of their own).

Many in our nation understood the problem. I expect many of them could see the problem from many different perspectives (through the Nation's many eyes).

However, it was the key founders who constructed a solution to governing which the nation followed. To be successful their understanding must have been very broad and inclusive of the vast majority. It must also have ommitted many minor positions ... and I expect most idividuals would have subscribed to one or more of these minor positions. I also think the key founders intended to go futher and protected these minor positions from the will/persecution of the majority.

In doing such, they didn't impose themselves upon others, but constructed a legal basis for governing that favors decisions by majority while protecting minor positions/opinions from being infrined upon by of the majority.