Saturday, February 7, 2009

Michael Novak Replies to Me

I want to thank Michael Novak for devoting an entire post to my comments at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. To make sure that I am not misunderstood, I need to clarify some of my assertions. Novak begins:

In his intelligent replies to Ms. Allen and me, Mr. Jonathan Rowe raises many good points. But his vision of Christianity matches up neither with the Anglican nor the evangelical tradition. Rowe holds that “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,” and that the three distinctive tenets “which distinguish Christianity from all the other world religions” are “things like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement.”

But the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality. More important are repentance, and a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord. Meanwhile, most of the American Founding Fathers would have recited the Nicene Creed with some regularity at Anglican services. The tenets of that creed include many more items than Mr. Rowe’s three. Such abstract terms as “Trinity” and “Atonement” do not appear in it.


First, I argued that the key Founders (not me personally) believed “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,...” Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, in no uncertain terms, made it clear they believed this. And while there are ambiguities in exactly what Washington and Madison believed (requiring some detective work, putting the pieces of the puzzle together), I believe Madison and Washington were likewise agreed. So when Mr. Novak writes, "the Evangelical tradition rejects the understanding of Christianity as mere morality," indeed, I am trying to show how the key Founders' creed differed from Christianity as historically defined by its orthodoxy. Likewise though the Nicene Creed includes more tenets than just the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, it is nonetheless *the* quintessential statement of Christianity's Trinitarian orthodoxy. And, I would argue, many of those Anglican Founding Fathers did not believe in the tenets that their Church preached.

Let us not forget Jefferson was, like Washington, a lifelong Anglican/Episcopalian and a vestryman in the Church as well. Jefferson clearly rejected the creeds of orthodoxy which his Church preached. And though Madison -- another Virginia Anglican/Episcopalian -- revealed far less in his writings about what he really believed, the available evidence I've been able to uncover strongly points towards his belief in the same unitarian doctrines in which Jefferson believed. David L. Holmes' fine book on the religion of the Founding Fathers reproduces the evidence on Madison's heterodoxy as does this paper available online by James H. Hutson.

Washington, even more reticent to give the specific details of his creed than Madison, often praised the Christian religion by name. But he invariably did so in the context of equating (or seeming to equate) Christianity with virtue itself and never with Christianity's historic tenets of orthodoxy (e.g., the Nicene Creed). It was Ben Franklin who once said, "Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means." If Washington equated Christianity with virtue, by following Franklin's logic, other religions which produce virtue would be valid like Christianity. In his famous Farewell Address, Washington noted the most important aspect about "religion" is the morality it produces (as opposed to the souls it saves). And Washington specifically chose to use the term "religion" absent the qualifier "Christian" there, which again hints towards a belief that all world religions, so long as they produce morality, are sound and can support republican governments.

As I noted in my original comment, if Christianity had any advantage over the other world religions, to our Founders, it was because Jesus of Nazareth, as a man, was arguably the greatest moral teacher the world had seen. Indeed, what Mr. Novak reproduces from Jefferson perfectly confirms my contention:

“I have made a wee little book…which I call the philosophy of Jesus…a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He saw in his selection, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”


Yet, according to Jefferson et al., the other world religions, because they taught the same morality as Christianity were also "sound." As Jefferson wrote in his 1809 letter to James Fishback:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society....It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.


So, because they all taught the same basic moral principles, all world religions, in Jefferson's eyes, were valid, with Christianity having a slight plus, only because of the superiority of Jesus' moral teachings, not Jesus' claims of Godhood, Atonement, and the only way to salvation, things which Jefferson did not personally believe (indeed, Jefferson didn't believe that Jesus claimed such either, but rather that His words were corrupted by His followers).

I strongly disagree with Mr. Novak's assertion that the Founders believed "the characteristics of Christianity and Judaism...make them distinctively fit for free republics." Nothing in my meticulous study of the key Founding Fathers shows they believed Judaism and Christianity were exclusively "fit" for free republics. Indeed, they've said much to the opposite. Consider, John Adams in a published book he wrote to defend the US Constitution said:

ZALEUCUS was of Locris in Italy, not far distant from Sybaris. He was a disciple of Pythagoras, of noble birth, and admirable morals. Having acquired the esteem and confidence of his fellow-citizens, they chose him for their legislator....In this preamble he declares, that all those who shall inhabit the city, ought, above all things, to be persuaded that there is a God; and if they elevate their eyes and thoughts towards the heavens, they will be convinced, that the disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the order which reigns in all nature, are not the work of men, nor of chance; that therefore they ought to adore the gods, as the authors of all which life presents us of good and beautiful; that they should hold their souls pure from every vice, because the gods accept neither the prayers, offerings, or sacrifices of the wicked, and are pleased only with the just and beneficent actions of virtuous men....This preamble, 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.


Zaleucus' laws were supposedly revealed by Athena 600, BC! Lycurgus, whose laws Adams also praised, similarly had pagan origins. Indeed, Adams and the other key Founders drew such an equivalence between Christianity and the other world religions, that they often referred to such pagan systems as "Christian." In his Dec. 25, 1813 letter to Jefferson, Adams wrote, “The Preamble to the Laws of Zaleucus…is as orthodox Christian Theology as Priestlys.” Joseph Priestly was Adams’ and Jefferson’s spiritual mentor and pioneered the "Christianity" (if it's fair to term it such) in which Jefferson and Adams personally believed. Thus when Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813 --

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


-- he was not making an exclusivist claim about traditional Christianity. Indeed, what Mr. Novak failed to reproduced from that same letter reveals just how unorthodox Adams' sentiments were. Adams further explained those "general principles of Christianity":

I could therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present Information, that I believed they would never make Discoveries in contradiction to these general Principles. In favour of these general Principles in Phylosophy, Religion and Government, I could fill Sheets of quotations from Frederick of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau and Voltaire, as well as Neuton and Locke: not to mention thousands of Divines and Philosophers of inferiour Fame.


Finding “general principles of Christianity” in the teachings of Enlightenment philosophers, like Locke, Newton? Perhaps. But also in the works of French philosophes, Rousseau, and Voltaire? And the atheist Hume?

I agree with Mr. Novak that the Founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, supported the people's commitment to their Christian religion. But only because Christianity was "the people's" religion. As I wrote in my original post, if the people were so disposed, Jefferson, Adams, and the other early Presidents could just have easily marched their horses to a Mosque or a Greco-Roman temple of pagan worship.

Consider, Franklin, that supposed "Deist," actively supported Christian Churches. Yet, his support for Christianity in particular stemmed from his support for "religion" in general. And that support, in principle, extended to Islam, if the citizens were so inclined. In his autobiography he wrote:

Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.


Finally, regarding Mr. Novak's claim that (perhaps regardless of what the Founders themselves believed) Judaism and Christianity are special over other world religions because they emphasize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," and that "[f]or Christians and Jews, freedom is at the heart of the matter," this is a particular understanding of Christianity that didn't begin to emerge until around the 17th Century. For a thousand and some hundred years, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) theologians who knew the Bible as well as anyone did not interpret the good book in this manner. Augustine...Aquinas...Luther...Calvin? None of these men believed in "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Indeed, Samuel Rutherford, Calvinist author of "Lex Rex," which supposedly influenced our Revolution, said the following about the execution of Michael Servetus:

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).


Michael Servetus was, if readers aren't aware, a theological unitarian whom John Calvin saw put to death for publicly denying the Trinity.

The Christian religion indeed marvelously transformed to recognize "the free conscience of the free person in the free community," with both Protestant dissidents and Enlightenment rationalists contributing to this great epistemological effort. Each of the key Founders over whom we argue believed Christianity must conform to the teachings of Enlightenment. To them, enlightened Christianity truly was a religion of "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Given that they saw validity in the world's other religious systems, they probably would have had no problem with the flourishing of exotic non-Judeo-Christian religions in America provided those religions likewise conformed to the tenets of enlightened liberality.

15 comments:

Jim Sweeney said...

This is a free country.

Why would anyone want anything less?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I generally agree with your arguments against Michael Novak, Mr. Rowe, Novak being someone who is putatively on my "side." I could provide additional source-material arguments to back your counterarguments.

You write:


I strongly disagree with Mr. Novak's assertion that the Founders believed "the characteristics of Christianity and Judaism...make them distinctively fit for free republics." Nothing in my meticulous study of the key Founding Fathers shows they believed Judaism and Christianity were exclusively "fit" for free republics.


"Key" would be once again the operative word, on which your thesis hangs, and is hanged.
You return to your "key" Founders canard, as if there weren't a hundred other Founders who signed and ratified the Founding documents, and as if the United States of America would not have been founded without Jefferson and Adams, or Franklin. Washington spoke little at the Constitutional Convention, but was necessary as a unifying figurehead; about James Madison you can say nothing except guesses, as he left an admirably scant paper trail about his theology. And Benjamin Franklin wanted to pray while they were ginning up the Constitution.

As for John Adams, it's becoming clear through our joint studies that he was incoherent enough that one Adams quote can be set in opposition to another.

The "Key" Founders thesis has serious problems, as the rest of the Founders were not mooks who signed ontoany document "key" Founders stuck in front of them.

And to return to your argument re Judeo-Christianity, that "Nothing in my meticulous study of the key Founding Fathers shows they believed Judaism and Christianity were exclusively "fit" for free republics"---

All I can say is that I challenge---defy---you to show that the Founders, "key" or otherwise, had a goddam clue about the content of the other religions of the world.

The best you got is John Adams and a fragment of "ZALEUCUS," and on another occasion when Adams speaks well of a nice fragment from Hinduism about the big picture of Deity.

Do you think that when George Washington spoke of "The Great Spirit," he had a clue that The Great Spirit was seen by many Native Americans pantheistically [God-in-all-things]?

Jon, this conception of the Great Spirit was the monotheistic and providential God, a western thing. It wouldn't occur to anyone in the Founding era except the deists like Thomas Paine that it wasn't all the same God. And even Thomas Paine was a monotheist!

"Other religions," in the most essential sense, are non-starters in considering God and the Founding era.

Tim Polack said...

In his famous Farewell Address, Washington noted the most important aspect about "religion" is the morality it produces (as opposed to the souls it saves).

But Jon, how much does this statement tell us about his personal faith? Not as much as you seem to propose I would say. He is making a statement about religion generally (and certainly he was thinking of Christianity, more on this later) and how it relates to government. To include this as a clear argument about his personal faith is not a fully accurate representation.

Also, he is not saying here that morality is the most important part of religion. Rather, he is saying that the most important thing that religion has to offer this young nation is it's morality, which as has been pointed out by others, is only one part of it's emphasis.

And on your intimation that by not specifying Christian when mentioning religion in his inauguration hints toward a personal belief of his that all religions can contribute equally in this way doesn't hold much weight. While you can pull numerous quotes from Washington referring to many ways of saying "God", and thus seeming to imply a personal plurality. I think these must be put in the context of the position Washington was in.

He quickly, in his leading role, realized that he must speak generally about religion because America needed all the help it could get, and thus he needed to be, well, politically correct in not offending others.

For example, he became quickly sensitive to Catholic believers' lives and role in the Revolutionary War when dealing with both Quebec as well as in realizing the helpful efforts of Catholics in fighting in the war. After that time, you almost never (and possibly never at all - I'm not fully certain) heard him talk negatively about Catholics.

Did he believe Catholicism was ok? No, I think it's clear he didn't. But to succeed in his role, he did what was needed.

In sum, I think it would be more helpful to separate out his personal beliefs from those he meant to be political. I realize he didn't say much about his personal faith, but we cannot use his more political leaning statements to support his own personal faith. I think it's clear his main goal was to found a country. Spending time personally discerning his own faith, let alone communicating it to others was not high on his list. Don't mean to downplay the faith of George Washington. He clearly had faith in a Christian God. But as you well know, considering context and intent is crucial in parsing out the meaning of these or any quotes.

On another note, congrats on having your unique idea's heard on some important venue's.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tim,

Thanks. Yes, this was done almost 2 years ago in 2007. The problem with the Internet is these things tend to get lost in the scrolls. That's why I reproduced it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The "Key" Founders thesis has serious problems, as the rest of the Founders were not mooks who signed ontoany document "key" Founders stuck in front of them.

We differ a bit here Tom. I don't think the folks were "mooks." However, I do believe that ideas have consequences and that often it's one or a few folks who posit novel and groundbreaking ideas that end up transforming societies and affect millions to billions.

I'm thinking of men like Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Locke, Rousseau and Marx and how profound world movments often boil down to the thought of just one key person.

So I think it's entirely plausible to think that the ideas of a handful of leading light key Founders set America in motion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In principle. But I did a rundown above about these Founders, and they don't shoehorn in too easily to any one "team." Madison is not Washington is not Franklin, and neither can the Founding be attributed only [or largely] to a half-dozen figures.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well, it might not have been a conscious project by the key Founders but rather the effect (or is it affect, I sometimes have a hard time with those two) of the compelling thought of Locke, Newton, Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin et al. But I DO not see it as chiefly deriving from the Bible or orthodox traditions of Christianity, rather more from a modern enlightenment zeitgest, more moderate than Rousseau, but enlightenment nonetheless. And by the way the moderation might actually make such thought MORE dangerous to Christianity because at least with Rousseau and Paine the orthodox could tell when a spade was a spade.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

But let me note that I am open to the idea that what the key FFs and the philosophers they followed believed in could have been an Aristotelian-Thomistic endeavor. But, I still think the "Christian Nationalists" would need to appreciate how these truths derive from OUTSIDE the Sola-Scriptura system. That they are found in "Nature" using "reason" and trace to the pagan Aristotle, not the Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes and no. I was reading through Locke on natural law, and here's the thing: Perhaps the Straussians are correct that Locke---upon very careful reading---puts natural law to the sword. Michael Zuckert here, for instance.

However, there are other interpretations. As the link above from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes,

[Jeremy] Waldron, in his most recent work on Locke, explores the opposite claim: that Locke's theology actually provides a more solid basis for his premise of political equality than do contemporary secular approaches that tend to simply assert equality.

...which takes Locke's use of Christianity in his theories as quite sincere. And the above is an argument I frequently make, about the fundamental equality of man being grounded in Christian thought.

Which brings us again to the question in the history of ideas, which I think best suits the political-historical angle, of whether our first concern should be how ideas were received and put into practice. Locke's Christianity was certainly taken as sincere by Sam Adams and James Wilson, and I suggest that their view was the majority view.

As for the "Christian Nationists" you speak of and oppose, I don't know if they can all be put into one tidy neck for you to wring.

;-)

Our Founding Truth said...

Jon:Washington noted the most important aspect about "religion" is the morality it produces (as opposed to the souls it saves).

Where does Washington claim morality was more important than salvation?

Jon:And Washington specifically chose to use the term "religion" absent the qualifier "Christian" there, which again hints towards a belief that all world religions, so long as they produce morality, are sound and can support republican governments.

The nation was entirely Christian, making no difference to use the qualifier "Christian." The result does not follow the argument:

"You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it." [bold face mine]

- SPEECH TO THE DELAWARE CHIEFS
Head Quarters, Middle Brook, May 12, 1779.

To Washington, Jesus was taught in the schools more than anything else.

"The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it."

- Chief Justice John Marshall to Jasper Adams on May 9, 1833.

Jon:For a thousand and some hundred years, Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) theologians who knew the Bible as well as anyone did not interpret the good book in this manner. Augustine...Aquinas...Luther...Calvin? None of these men believed in "the free conscience of the free person in the free community,..." Indeed, Samuel Rutherford, Calvinist author of "Lex Rex," which supposedly influenced our Revolution, said the following about the execution of Michael Servetus:

Here's another fallacy, no? Misconstueing (sp)freedom of conscience with blasphemy? Blasphemy was a crime. All the reformers believed in freedom of conscience.

Our Founding Truth said...

Let's make this clear:

"The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it." [bold face mine]

- Chief Justice John Marshall to Jasper Adams on May 9, 1833.

Religion and Christianity are the same, to the people of 18th century america unless specifically enumerated.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Religion and Christianity are the same, to the people of 18th century america unless specifically enumerated.

Nope. Sorry. You don't get to draw conclusions that form the burdens on proof in this debate based on out of context quotations which you probably don't even fully understand.

Marshall was a theological unitarian. When he said "Christianity" he meant something that was generic and nominal, something that had nothing to do with the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, infallibility of the Bible. I have yet to see you conceded that "civil Christianity" as the Founders understood the concept was a "Christian" theology stripped of its orthodox doctrines. At least Kristo M., someone with whom I often strongly disagree, seems to recognize this dynamic.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jon:Marshall was a theological unitarian. When he said "Christianity" he meant something that was generic and nominal, something that had nothing to do with the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, infallibility of the Bible.

Fair enough, post a quote of Marshall affirming the bible fallible, and I'll concede. Let's see those quotes from Marshall.

Jon:I have yet to see you conceded that "civil Christianity" as the Founders understood the concept was a "Christian" theology stripped of its orthodox doctrines.

The framers used orthodox words, you aren't aware of.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The framers used orthodox words, you aren't aware of.

Nope. They used either generic God words or generic "Christian" words consistent with the "Christianity" of Jefferson, J. Adams, Marshall, et al.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jon:Marshall was a theological unitarian. When he said "Christianity" he meant something that was generic and nominal, something that had nothing to do with the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, infallibility of the Bible.>

Come on there Johnny boy! Where are those quotes from Marshall on fallibility of the Bible?