Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jon Adams on State and Religion

Politics are the divine science, after all. (John Adams to James Warren, 1780)

The science of government is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain. (John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1780)

Jon Rowe has posted here a series of quotes to persuade us that the founders intended the new America to be a religious, but not explicitly Christian nation. The first three of his quotes are from John Adams, a man who made a lifelong mission of studying politics throughout history (see above): what societies succeeded, and what qualities did they have that enabled them to succeed?

Jon's quotes get at part of Adams' answer: religion matters. Any religion is better than no religion, and many religions have historically been adequate to the task in their times and places. But the diverse historical answer to "what has worked somewhere somewhen?" does not imply "anything goes" as the answer to the question "what shall we have as civic religion for America?" The first question was about what religions have been good enough, at least once; the latter question is about what religion is best for the task in general, or at least best for America in particular.

The founders were not, after all, aiming for mere adequacy, or mediocrity, or something which might succeed with a little luck.

So what was John Adams' answer? He, unlike many other founders, wrote out his theory of good government in the form of a state constitution (the state governments were the specific government, supplemented by the union's general government). Here is where John applied what he had learned in his studies of government and religion through the ages, written in the same year as the letters quoted above:

1780 Constitution of Massachusetts, by John Adams (mainly), with the assistance of Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin

Article III
As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.
And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subjects an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.
Provided, notwithstanding, that the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, shall, at all times, have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers, and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.
And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship, and of the public teachers aforesaid, shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid towards the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.
Any every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law: and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.


How can the same man who wrote Jon's quotes also write this? Easily. Adams knew that virtue sufficient for civil society was found in men of many faiths, and he arguably even would have called all such men "Christian" regardless of faith, e.g. a pious Muslim who was a model of civic virtue might be pleasing to God, and saved, and therefore living the life Christ intended (thereby qualifying as Christian), despite never hearing of, or believing in, Christ.

This is not nearly the same thing as believing that a society that inculcates Islam in its citizens has the same prospects of success and virtue as a neighboring society that inculcates Christianity. One religion is better than the rest, at least on Adams' view, and that was the religion intended by Adams for America. It was a broad vision of Christianity that embraced Unitarianism (then based at Harvard and surging in Massachusetts) but probably not Universalism (or Catholicism).

That Adams thought Christianity superior:
The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will. (John Adams diary entry July 26, 1796)

That Adams might think a pious Muslim was a Christian:
Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word. (Adams to Jefferson, 1818)
I'll admit I'm stretching the point here - to say that an honest Trinitarian is a Christian is not nearly the same as saying that an honest Muslim is a Christian, but it is a point that leans Jon's way without contradicting my thesis above, so I'm happy to concede it. Besides, even if Adams didn't believe that a pious Muslim was a Christian, it is quite possible that Jefferson, to whom the letter was addressed, did believe it.

Again, though, with respect to Adams (and Jefferson, and Franklin for that matter), the important question is not "who is a Christian?" or "who is virtuous?", but "what is the surest means of inculcating virtue (or Christianity) in the nation?" To this latter question, the answer of the founders' generation was Christianity (and specifically broadly interpreted Protestantism).

Sidebar on article 3 above: note the point that not only is the legislature permitted to require establishment of Protestant instruction, the legislature is required to do so, and it is the right of the people to have their legislature do so! This is not some Orwellian absurdity, this is New England collective covenant communitarianism: I have the right to have Protestantism taught to you at our expense, and you have the same right to have it taught to me.

It's been a while since Jon's and my exchanges on covenant theology, but this was the Massachusetts (Bay colony) way, that we are all bound together so that my well-being depends on your piousness, and vice versa. The original communitarianism was spiritual (your impiety threatens my salvation), the later communitarianism was socioeconomic (your impiety threatens my person and property - as explained by the Theophilus Parsons of the Mass SC). But the theory is the same.

30 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

I just skimmed this. But I noticed at the top you have spelled Adams' first name "Jon." You'd better change that lest you merge us into one being!

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay on the issue of Unitarianism, Universalism, & Roman Catholicism, you are dead right about RCism; Adams said some things that arguably qualify as anti-Roman Catholic bigotry.

On theological universalism, it depends on what you mean. I think TVD is right to note that Adams' syncretic quotes seeming to equate Christianity with Hindooism and Zeus worship were out of the mainstream. However, theological universalism as in everyone eventually gets saved was quite mainstream in those elite circles.

Adams himself was a theological universalist in this regard.

“I believe too in a future state of rewards and punishments too; but not eternal.”

– To Francis van der Kemp, July 13, 1815.

Benjamin Rush in fact believed in a Trinitarian form of Universalism that was more mainstream. The unitarian universalists of the Founding era believed men were saved through their good works. The good merited Heaven upon death, the bad, temporarily punished eventually redeemed (Adams' was of this kind).

Trinitarian Universalism held that all men were saved through Christ's universal atonement. Christ had to simply work with people after their deaths. And with some, He had to work for a long time.

Eric Alan Isaacson noted that some Universalists believed you had to spend 1000 years in Hell (or purgatory) before salvation. That's quite a long time!

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

Surely you are aware of the commonness of a requirement to believe in a coming judgment as part of the civic religion.

Universalists believing in a coming purgation but universal salvation are on the borderline, at best, with respect to that one.

Of course every definition of the civic religion will have borderline cases (I have always been a defender of the ubiquity of vagueness).

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's future state of rewards and punishments. That can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Even universal salvation with no temporary punishment in purgatory could qualify. The good simply get greater rewards in Heaven. The bad are "punished" with fewer rewards.

Pinky said...

.
While it is valuable to understand how one politician thought and acted during the Founding; it certainly is a waste of time and energy to bring up their thoughts as though a handfull of them represented the final purposes of the Founding. The purpose is plainly stated in the Declaration of Independence.
.
No one here can get into the minds of the Founders.
.
No where have I seen one comprehensive definition of what the Founders meant by the term, Civic Religion. As far as I can tell, it is the Constitution with its amending process.
.
They were politicians in their day as our leaders are politicians today. The one continuous strain we see in all politicians is their propensity to lie in order to please and or influence the electorate. Some of the elitists actually think it is a noble thing to lie. It was that way in ancient times and it is that way today.
.
We need less of trying to prove a bias and more clear knowledge.
.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Pinky,

I don't think it's a waste of time because I'm convinced that the personal convictions on religion & politics evidenced by the handful of key Founders connects with the way the US Constitutiona and DOI treat religion.

Pinky said...

.
So do I. But, how does the Constitution along with the Declaration of Independence treat religion?
.
Was not the Founding of America intended to be a final and fatal broadside fired against the idea of a state ruled by theological principles so that, to interpret Adams, the children and grand children would be free to develop to their fullest potential? Why should the interpretation be made that the Founders intended America to be a Christian State?
.
Doesn't this statement,
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.", establish the legal purpose of the Constitution?
.
Isn't this the true chase?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Part of it, but not all of it.

Every fortnight or so, you make this reductionist argument, Pinky, as if nothing had been written here in the two weeks in between. But keep plugging.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Pinky,

Let me add the first increment to your focus on the DoI and federal constitution: the 13 original state constitutions, and perhaps the first few soon after the revolution.

The founders, in the spirit of the (French) political philosophy of the age, believed in, among other things, distinct specific and general governments. Jefferson himself explained, for those unaware, that in America those roles were taken by the state and federal governments, respectively.

All of the state constitutions are revolutionary era documents, written and ratified by the founders (understanding the founders to be a generaltion of political leaders, not just a handful of guys who wrote private letters) and integral to understanding the overall system of American government.

Pinky said...

Insults,Tom?

Pinky said...

.
I understand your point, Cap; but, the Union is not any one or less than 13 of the original states.
.
When the signers put their John Hancock on the Founding documents, they, in effect, gave up their individual constitutions in support of the Union. Three generations later, President Lincoln reiterated the sovreignty of the United States--"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. "
.
When we read the comments on John Hanson, we are reminded that there had been a strong push to have a nation based on religious law. The point I keep plugging away at is that the Founders recognized the danger of a society based on religious theory and provided us with a nation free of religious intolerance.
.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not an insult, Pinky. You frquently argue that the United States is no more or less than the US Constitution [as do many these days], to wit:

"
When the signers put their John Hancock on the Founding documents, they, in effect, gave up their individual constitutions in support of the Union.


This is simply not accurate, as it elides federalism. For instance, there were religious tests for office in every state except Virginia and New York; some even insisted you be Protestant.

If I may clip from the internet:

* The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 restricted public office to all but Protestants by its religious test/oath.
* The Delaware Constitution of 1776 demanded an acceptance of the Trinity by its religious test/oath.
* The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 had a similar test/oath.
* The Maryland Constitution of 1776 had such a test/oath.
* The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 had a test/oath that restricted all but Protestants from public office.
* The Georgia Constitution of 1777 used an oath/test to screen out all but Protestants.
* The Vermont state charter/constitution of 1777 echoed the Pennsylvania Constitution regarding a test/oath.
* The South Carolina Constitution of 1778 had such a test/oath allowing only Protestants to hold office.
* The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 restricted such office holders to Protestants.
* Only Virginia and New York did not have such religious tests/oaths during this time period.

Pinky said...

.
In response to my statement, "When the signers put their John Hancock on the Founding documents, they, in effect, gave up their individual constitutions in support of the Union."
.
Mr. Van Dyke replies with, "This is simply not accurate, as it elides federalism. For instance, there were religious tests for office in every state except Virginia and New York; some even insisted you be Protestant."
.
Read my statement again, Tom. I distinctly spoke in regards to the Union.
.
As dumb as I am compared to you on these things, I'm still knowledgeable enough to know that there were threats to the Union made early on. They continued. And there are still some dummies who think otherwise.
The U.S. Constitution is superior to all other state constitutions and the U.S. Civil War was fought by a generation much closer to the idea of Union than you and I can imagine to prove the point. A great deal of blood was shed--great sorrow covered our land; but, the Union continues to stand.
.
You might be able to pull up some support for your position out of the internet; but, so what?
.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

It might also be interesting to note changes in state matters re religion thru 1800 or so. I know that PA, under Franklin as acting governor, replaced their sectarian religious test around 1786 with one that required simple believe in God and a future state of rewards and punishments period.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True, Jon; I was simply using the religious tests as a blantant example of how wrong Pinky's assertion that

"When the signers put their John Hancock on the Founding documents, they, in effect, gave up their individual constitutions in support of the Union."

is. Pinky, I'm sorry that your opinions are unswayable by facts.

"You might be able to pull up some support for your position out of the internet; but, so what?"

So what, indeed, Pinky. So what, indeed.

bpabbott said...

Pinky: "When the signers put their John Hancock on the Founding documents, they, in effect, gave up their individual constitutions in support of the Union."

While the individual signers of the DoI may not have intended or desired that their state constitutions yield to the (yet to be drafted) federal one, such was the eventual result (as we can attest today).

Thus, I find your comment to be a reasoned assesment of the facts, as we know them.

Have I properly inferred the context of your comment?

Pinky said...

.
"Have I properly inferred the context of your comment?"
.
Actually, I have a sense that some of the Founders knew the power of the Constitution when it was finally put to the people for ratification. And, I guess my sense is as good as any supposition that is expressed hereabouts.

The genius of the Founders continues to express it self in our great society.
.

bpabbott said...

Pinky: "I have a sense that some of the Founders knew the power of the Constitution when it was finally put to the people for ratification."

I don't recall who, but I have a recollection that some expressed the view that such was inevitable. As Jefferson appears more than any other to have been aware of the history being written, perhaps it was he.

Pinky said...

.
Jefferson!
.
I think so.
.

Pinky said...

.
Tom: "I was simply using the religious tests as a [blatant] example of how wrong Pinky's assertion ...is. Pinky, I'm sorry that your opinions are unswayable by facts."
.
The day that I am unable to change my thinking about anything has not arrived, Tom.
.
So, if you can show me how IN EFFECT my statement is wrong, I will be happy to adjust my thinking. It will mean I have learned something I didn't know before.
.
But, you're going to have to prove your point beyond question.
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I did. You ignored it.

Pinky said...

.
Your superior attitude is easy to ignore.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I've tried being solicitous with you, Phil; it makes no difference. You do not counterargue against evidence that challenges your preconceptions, you ignore it.

As you do here. Please don't mistake my tone for feelings of superiority. It's simply annoyance.

bpabbott said...

pot ... kettle ... black

Pinky said...

.
I am not the only person who complains about being treated as though they are an annoyance.
.
I can take it; but, that is NOT the point. It is an affront to the entire blog site and has the effect of driving otherwise valuable participants away. Who needs the insults?.
.

Raven said...

Don;t sweat it, Pinky. Arrogant people rarely realize that they are arrogant, as is the case with Mr. Van Dyke. BPABBOTT hit the nail on the head. Pot...kettle...black.

Pinky said...

.
I know, Raven; but, thanks for mentioning it.
.
I've been doing some careful reading of Leo Strauss. I'm reminded of his comments regarding his ideas on the nature, nature's god, etc..
.
Tom is just expressing his nature; but, I must add that he does have a high level of virtue in knowledge. And I'm sure most of us certainly appreciate that. You cannot be all things to all people.
.
My bet is that he isn't married; but that may be wrong.
.
.

bpabbott said...

Pinky: "It is an affront to the entire blog site and has the effect of driving otherwise valuable participants away. Who needs the insults?."

As ironic as it may appear to some, I'm in complete agreement ... provided the participants intend to be constructive and honest in their participation.

If I'm seen as the harshest critic of OFT, I've earned it ... and harbor some pride it that.

Not because I favor a position of authority, but because OFT's participation has made such a tremendous turn that I am of the opinion that his change of behavior is a result of a cognitive decision.

While I deserve no credit for his congitive turn (the credit is all his) I do fancy my judgment that he was capable for more than arrogant incompetence.

Even so, I do not expect OFT's and my reasoned opinions to converge, I am happy to participate here along side of him.

What does get under my skin are snide remarks and other ad hominem style insults / disrespect.

I'll have to work on that (both my offense to such and my contribution to such).

In any event, my intention in this response was to encourage a greater participation on your (Pinky) part. Simply because I find your question and comments strike a cord with me.

bpabbott said...

Raven,

Your comments are few and far between. I hope I'll eventually learn to disperse my critique at such infrequent intervals.

I can't help but wonder if you don't have more to offer. You appear (to me) to have a keen insight into what qualifies as intolerant (antagonstic to libety).

As I think one of the foundational sentiments of our nation was to secure liberty (as well as life and happiness), I encouage you to particpate more often.

In any event, I thank you for backing me up. I slept uncomfortably last night. It is pleasing to know I'm not alone in my opinions.