Friday, March 20, 2009

Christian Nation Thesis (and Jasper Adams in Particular) Debunked

In the past couple of posts here at American Creation, fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke and I have been engaged in a "heated" discussion over the validity of the Christian Nation thesis. In his piece below, Mr. Van Dyke notes that the Christian Nation thesis is poorly served by the "extremists" on the right (David Barton, D. James Kennedy, etc.) who in their quest to legitimize their claims, make America's Christian heritage "look like balderdash."

On this I couldn't agree more. The "fringe" of the Christian right has done little to promote the belief in America as a Christian Nation. In fact, I believe they have done more harm than good. Mr. Van Dyke will receive no disagreement from me on this issue.

However, my interest was peaked by Mr. Van Dyke's reference to one Jasper Adams, who in 1833 delivered a sermon entitled, "The Relation of Christianity to the Civil Government in the United States." Mr. Van Dyke states:

The definitive Christian nation thesis argument remains
the Rev. Jasper Adams sermon of 1833 [later published with footnotes and
distributed all across America], which was highly praised by not one, but two
sitting Supreme Court justices, America's first great constitutional scholar
Joseph Story, and Chief Justice John Marshall.
And while that all may be true (I have no reason to doubt TVD's integrity), not everyone was accepting of Jasper Adams' comments. James Madison, who was no small player in the establishment of the United Sates Constitution as we all know, had this to say in a letter to Mr. Adams regarding his sermon:

There appears to be in the nature of man what insures
his belief in an invisible cause of his present existence, and anticipation of
his future existence. Hence the propensities & susceptibilities in that case
of religion which with a few doubtful or individual exceptions have prevailed
throughout the world.

The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the
other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best
guarded agst by an entire abstinence of the Govt from interference in any way
whatever.

[...]

In most of the Govt of the old world, the legal
establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little
toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and
there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system
has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.

In the Colonial State
of the Country, there were four examples, R. I, N. J., Penna, and Delaware,
& the greater part of N. Y. where there were no religious Establishments;
the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations &
contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those
Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishments existed.

As it may be suggested that experiments made in Colonies more or less
under the Control of a foreign Government, had not the full scope necessary to
display their tendency, it is fortunate that the appeal can now be made to their
effects under a complete exemption from any such Control.

It is true
that the New England States have not discontinued establishments of Religion
formed under very peculiar circumstances; but they have by successive
relaxations advanced towards the prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion; and since that
event a surrender of it to a spontaneous support by the people, it may be said
that the difference amounts nearly to a contrast in the greater purity &
industry of the Pastors and in the greater devotion of their flocks, in the
latter period than in the former. In Virginia the contrast is particularly
striking, to those whose memories can make the comparison. It will not be denied
that causes other than the abolition of the legal establishment of Religion are
to be taken into view in account for the change in the Religious character of
the community. But the existing character, distinguished as it is by its
religious features, and the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal
support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the
support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered
by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary
aid.
When we look at Rev. Adams' sermon it becomes clear that he, like so many others, banks his "Christian Nation" claim on two key points: (1) America was founded by settlers who clearly established Christian settlements, and whose ideas were paramount in the establishment of the United States, (2) The constitutions of the various states make it indelibly clear that America is a Christian Nation.

Point #1:
In his sermon, Adams states:

The Colonies, then, from which these United States have
sprung, were originally planted and nourished by our pious forefathers, in the
exercise of a strong and vigorous Christian faith. They were designed to be
Christian communities

.

And:

The originators and early promoters of the discovery and
settlement of this continent, had the propagation of Christianity before their
eyes, as one of the principal objects of their undertaking. This is shewn by
examining the charters and other similar documents of that period, in which this
chief aim of their novel and perilous enterprize, is declared with a frequency
and fulness which are equally satisfactory.
I agree, in part, with what Rev. Adams is trying to say. Clearly America was PLANTED as a Christian Nation...at least in most colonies. However, are we to automatically insinuate from this history that the United States was/is founded as a Christian Nation?

The answer to this question can be found by addressing Rev. Adams' second key point; that the various state constitutions clearly establish a Christian nation. He states:

We are, therefore, now prepared to examine with a good
prospect of success, the nature and extent of the changes in regard to Religion,
which have been introduced by the people of the United States in forming their
State Constitutions, and also in the adoption of the Constitution of the United
States.

In perusing the twenty-four Constitutions of the United States
with this object in view, we find all of them recognising Christianity as the
well known and well established religion of the communities, whose legal, civil
and political foundations, these Constitutions are. The terms of this
recognition are more or less distinct in the Constitutions of the different
States; but they exist ill all of them.
But do STATE charters prove that the United States is a Christian Nation? Again, I will quote Madison from his above mentioned letter:

It is true that the New England States have not
discontinued establishments of Religion formed under very peculiar
circumstances; but they have by successive relaxations advanced towards the
prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion
or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there
was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the
support of Religion; and since that event a surrender of it to a spontaneous
support by the people, it may be said that the difference amounts nearly to a
contrast in the greater purity & industry of the Pastors and in the greater
devotion of their flocks, in the latter period than in the former. In Virginia
the contrast is particularly striking, to those whose memories can make the
comparison. It will not be denied that causes other than the abolition of the
legal establishment of Religion are to be taken into view in account for the
change in the Religious character of the community. But the existing character,
distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more
than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently
prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be
contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its
cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.
And even Rev. Adams seems to recognize this when he states:

No nation on earth, perhaps, ever had opportunities so
favorable to introduce changes in their institutions as the American people; and
by the time of the Revolution, a conviction of the impolicy of a further union
of Church and State according to the ancient mode, had so far prevailed, that
nearly all the States in framing their new constitutions of government,
either
silently or by direct enactment, discontinued the ancient connexion
[my emphasis].
Yes, the Reverend Adams provides an eloquent and well-prepared argument for his side, and I personally find much to praise in his sermon. However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation. The federal Constitution is clearly a secular document, a fact that Adams gives very little attention to in his sermon. In addition, as Adams himself notes, these state constitutions eventually removed all religious preference, making the states secular as well.

33 comments:

bpabbott said...

A few weeks back I'd read Madison's response to Jasper Adams's Sermon.

You can read it here.

Adams had sent copies to many revolutionary leaders. Madison was not the only one who had a response. The response of others can be read here.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Ben!

Brad Hart said...

Ben:

Could you put the actual URL of the "responses of others" in the comments section? Whenever I click on it I can't see much, since this window is so small.

Thanks!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, Madison's letter refers specifically to government financial support for religion, to which he held a lifelong opposition. This is not at issue here. I guess we're not done with this yet: Madison's letter isn't the trump card it appears to be in your post. We must read the whole thing.

Madison does not argue against Adams' larger thesis in the least.

To view the letters in bigger boxes, just click the button on top left of the pane next to the "X".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oooops---top right.

Scott Case said...

TVD writes:

Madison does not argue against Adams' larger thesis in the least.

Uh, that's the whole point of Madison's letter, Tom. You don't see it as a smoking gun becasue you don't want to, that's all.

Scott Case said...

BTW, loving the blog.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Go for it, Mr. Case. Mr. Hart's arguments are intertwined with Madison's, and the reader cannot tell which is which. Read the Madison letter and please do jump in based on that.

Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

Go for it, Mr. Case. Mr. Hart's arguments are intertwined with Madison's, and the reader cannot tell which is which.

Then you're more braindead than I first thought. Let me help you out: MADISON's words are in BLUE! My arguments come AFTER MADISON's words.

I'll try to slow down for ya.

Scott Case said...

Tom comments:

Brad, Madison's letter refers specifically to government financial support for religion, to which he held a lifelong opposition. This is not at issue here. I guess we're not done with this yet: Madison's letter isn't the trump card it appears to be in your post. We must read the whole thing.

Tom, I read the whole letter (twice to be certain) and there is zero reference from Madison regarding "financial support" or anything of the like. I'm uncertain where you are making this claim.

Seems to me (from reading the letter and others provided by BP Abbott) that Madison and others were clearly objecting to Adams' central claims. I'm not sure how you are justifyin this sermon as a "difinitive Christian Nation Thesis" yet to be debunked. Seems to me that this was debunked 200 years ago.

bpabbott said...

Brad,

I'm confused by the problem you refer to, but the link is below.

http://www.members.tripod.com/~candst/jaspltrs.htm

Tom Van Dyke said...

Scott, a plain reading makes it seem so. But when Madison is speaking of "And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion" [bold face mine], in the context of Madison, "support" is directly referring to things like the assessment controversy in Virginia.

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel05.html

"Establishment" refers to declaring one sect, say Presbyterianism, as the "official" religion of the nation or state.

Was Christianity ever established as the "official" religion of America? Absolutely not, and that's not Jasper Adams' claim or thesis. As Justice Story noted in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/01/joseph-story-on-religion-and-first.html

even though 11 of the 13 states had religious Establishments, Virginia and New York would have vetoed such an Establishment at the national level---indeed not to veto it would break their own laws and charters!

Madison is speaking here of the two conjoined issues of Establishment and [$$] support, and wrote many many times about them. I have no doubt he doesn't completely see eye to eye with Jasper Adams, but doesn't engage his larger thesis in this letter either.

Brad, I got the feeling that the agreements with you were not based on reading Madison's letter, which I find not fully relevant for the reasons given.

It also doesn't help that our whole site is coming up in italics, and this morning, it was all blue on my computer. I could tell your arguments from Madison's but I don't think it was apparent to the reader that you were adding your arguments to his, not just summarizing his.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I want to give Mr. Adams' argument its just due. But off the bat, I'm having a "big" problem with "Christianity" generally. I might argue that America was founded on "religion in general," to which, I understand, folks could debunk (see for instance Thomas West's debunking "religion in general" here).

http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.926/article_detail.asp

However, I can make just as strong a case against "Christianity" in general.

It all goes back to the Trinity, what the "orthodox" view as central to "general Christianity." Yet, we know that J. Story and J. Marshall both rejected the Trinity, as likely did James Madison.

Three theological unitarian key Founders (Story arguably was a key-post-Founder) bickering over the "Christian" foundations of American government.

That dynamic itself speaks volumes, or ought to, esp. for folks who believe Christianity and Trinitarianism are one in the same.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yet, we know that J. Story and J. Marshall both rejected the Trinity...

Yet they argue for Christianity, leaving your assertion


It all goes back to the Trinity


arguable.

bpabbott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bpabbott said...

Tom: "Madison does not argue against Adams' larger thesis in the least."

Tom, perhaps you might describe what you think Adam's larger thesis is?

My thought is that his thesis is summed up, in his words, as; "the people of the United States have retained the Christian religion as the foundation of their civil, legal, and political institutions.".

A sentiment which Madison takes addresses below.

"Until Holland ventured on the experiment of combining toleration with the establishment of a particular creed, it was taken for granted, that an exclusive & intolerant establishment was essential, and notwithstanding the light thrown on the subject by that experiment, the prevailing opinion in Europe, England not excepted, has been that Religion could not be preserved without the support of Govt nor Govt be supported with an established religion that there must be a least an alliance of some sort between them. It remained for North America to bring the great & interesting subject to a fair, and finally to a decisive test."

bpabbott said...

Tom: "'Establishment' refers to declaring one sect, say Presbyterianism, as the 'official' religion of the nation or state."

Tom, You might want to provide evidence for that.

The comments below were given in the context of discussion/debate of ratifying the un-amended Constitution.

"But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened. Nor would it answer the purpose, for the worst part of the excluded sects would comply with the test, and the best men only be kept out of our counsels. But it is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own. It would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines. The divine Author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority. Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? It made much greater progress for itself, than when supported by the greatest authority upon earth."
-- James Iredell, during the debate on the adoption of the Federal Constitution by the North Carolina Convention.

[emphasis is mine]

Tom Van Dyke said...

You sum up Jasper Adams evenhandedly. However, "foundation" as Adams uses it is not synonymous with Establishment [or "support"] as Madison uses it.

This is not even to declare that Adams is strictly correct here. Jefferson disagreed completely, that since English common law predated the arrival of Christianity to the British Isles, Christianity logically couldn't be a foundation of law.

However, many people disagreed with Jefferson, including several Supreme Court justices!

My point is not that the Christian nation thesis has been "proved," but that I object to the assertion that it's been "debunked."

The floor remains as open as it was in 1833. All we can inquire into is which one may have been the majority view.

If it had been relatively unanimous, Jasper Adams wouldn't have felt the need to write this in the first place!

bpabbott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly what is the "Christian nation thesis"?

Good question. Jon says it's the Trinity, but that's questionable. If we don't even know what it is, how can it be "debunked?"

However, I think you put it fairly in Jasper Adams' own words.

As for my assertion/explanation of what Madison was referring to in his letter to Jasper Adams, one only need read the rest of the paragraph the quote comes from---he specifically refers to the Virginia assessment debate, which is why I always ask people to eschew quote grabbing and scholars' summaries and read the whole thing for themselves.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "My point is not that the Christian nation thesis has been 'proved'".

Exactly what is the "Christian nation thesis"?

Tom: "If it had been relatively unanimous, Jasper Adams wouldn't have felt the need to write this in the first place!"

So Adams' sentiment was a minority view? ... What do you intend to imply?

bpabbott said...

Tom: "However, I think you put it fairly in Jasper Adams' own words."

Jasper Adams doen't tell us what he intends by "Christianity".

What is it you intend? ... specifically must Jesus be divine?

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

I think I can answer for Tom (I'll let him speak for himself as well) but he's made it quite clear that Jesus' divinity is NOT understood to be part of the polito-theological foundations of American.

This is what I wrote to Jim Babka today in a private email. I was emailing him because I wanted to make sure he knew of TVD's post that mentioned Babka's name.

TVD argues there may be some kind of truth to a "broader" Christian Nation idea and I don't disagree with him there. Though I like playing up the angle that this "broader" Christian Nation idea must include things like Mormonism and denial of 1) the Trinity, 2) the infalliblity of the Bible, & 3) eternal damnation. The question is whether evangelicals/fundamentalists who believe in the "Christian Nation" idea are willing to consider such a system "Christian."

That's the irony of this whole debate, it's the evangelicals and fundamentalists who should be REJECTING the Christian Nation idea and the more liberal and moderate religious types who *could* accept such an idea.

bpabbott said...

Thanks Jon.

... if Jesus is not Divine, why is Christian scripture different than Jewish scripture?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ben I'm probably going to turn that question into a post exploring the term "Judeo-Christian." I remember once describing theistic rationalism to a group of people via email, how it was neither strict deism (with the non-intervening God) or orthodox Christianity (with the Trinity) and one of them replied: These Founders sounded like they were Jews.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jon:However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation.

Yes it is, and that's why you and your side will always be wrong on this issue. Religion is left to the states.

You twisted Adams' point as well. His point was separation of church and state. The Constitution is not a secular document; it mentions the Lord, who is Jesus Christ. The framers said "our Lord" not a generic "a Lord" or "the Lord"

A secular document would have left the Lord's name out. How people dated instruments is irrelevant. As Rowe says, it's the words that matter.

Tom:Madison's letter refers specifically to government financial support for religion, to which he held a lifelong opposition.

But, Madison contradicted himself by making government support religion.

I guess we're not done with this yet: Madison's letter isn't the trump card it appears to be in your post. We must read the whole thing.>

It shouldn't hold much weight at all, as he changed his views, and was retired.

Scott:Tom, I read the whole letter (twice to be certain) and there is zero reference from Madison regarding "financial support" or anything of the like. I'm uncertain where you are making this claim.

Hello?????

Madison:But the existing character,
distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more
than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently
prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be
contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its
cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.

Jon:It all goes back to the Trinity, what the "orthodox" view as central to "general Christianity." Yet, we know that J. Story and J. Marshall both rejected the Trinity, as likely did James Madison.

Wrong! Because you aren't a Christian, or have never been to seminary, you don't know.

Jon: J. Marshall both rejected the Trinity, as likely did James Madison.

Marshall accepted the atonement, and inerrancy while still in office, so you're wrong there as usual. Madison affirmed the bible, and you have not quotes from him to affirm the contrary, so you're wrong again; it's a repetitive issue with you.

And you are mistaken, again as "it all boils down to the trinity" It's the Bible and always will be. Why Story rejected Jesus' Deity, no one knows, the Bible says it on almost every page; too bad for him, he was a great man.

Tom:Jefferson disagreed completely, that since English common law predated the arrival of Christianity to the British Isles, Christianity logically couldn't be a foundation of law.

And Story disproved him. Ethelbert had established common law before Jefferson believed. And it was in various towns when augustine went there. Jefferson was too smart for his own intelligence.

The term "Christian" and how the Founding Fathers understood it will never be changed by anyone on this blog!

bpabbott said...

Jon: "However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation."

Ray: "Yes it is, and that's why you and your side will always be wrong on this issue. Religion is left to the states."

Ray the question it not whether the one or more states were founded on religious doctrine, but whether the Federal goverment was.

The Nation of the founding may be qualified as a confederation of 13 Nation States, but that came to an end with the victory of Federalism.

Ray: "The Constitution is not a secular document; it mentions the Lord."

The Constitution mentions the origin of a calender. It does not mention a congruence or obedience to theological doctrine.

Ray: "As Rowe says, it's the words that matter."

I think Jon's intent is that evidence matters ... not literal interpretation. Jon, correct me if I'm wrong.

Ray: "But, Madison contradicted himself by making government support religion."

I think you've made two errors here. (1) I know of instances were Madison (representing government) encouraged religion, but not of a single one where he supported it (i.e. finacially), and (2) you imply the sequence in reverse order. Madison's opposition to religious support/entitlements/encouragement came after his (minor) violations of this principle.

Ray: "It shouldn't hold much weight at all, as he changed his views, and was retired"

And yet his enfluence remained. For example, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance was written in his retirement. While you might find it irrelevant those of his time and place did not.

Jon: "It all goes back to the Trinity, what the "orthodox" view as central to "general Christianity." Yet, we know that J. Story and J. Marshall both rejected the Trinity, as likely did James Madison."

Ray: "Wrong! Because you aren't a Christian, or have never been to seminary, you don't know."

What is it a exclusive club? Do they spead false-hoods to ensure that those who are not approved by some authority have no proper knowledge of Christian doctrine?

Do you imply that the divinity of Jesus is *not* part of Christian doctine? .. that the Trinity is optional?

Ray: "The term "Christian" and how the Founding Fathers understood it will never be changed by anyone on this blog!"

This should be of great amusement ... please Mr Ray ... our resident [sic] divine agency ... please, please, please ... can you tell us how the Founding Fathers understood the term, "Christian"?

Our Founding Truth said...

Ray the question it not whether the one or more states were founded on religious doctrine, but whether the Federal goverment was.>

No, Louie, religion is left to the states.

The Constitution mentions the origin of a calender. It does not mention a congruence or obedience to theological doctrine.>

Sorry, Louie, the Constitution names a person, Jesus Christ is the Lord!

I think you've made two errors here. (1) I know of instances were Madison (representing government) encouraged religion, but not of a single one where he supported it (i.e. finacially),>

Because you don't know what I know. That is where Madison gave money to support religion. But, I figured you wouldn't know that.

For example, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance was written in his retirement.>

I figured you'd say this, coming from your lack of understanding of Madison.

This should be of great amusement ... please Mr Ray ... our resident [sic] divine agency ... please, please, please ... can you tell us how the Founding Fathers understood the term, "Christian"?>

Read the Bible Louie, it's all right there for you.

bpabbott said...

I was correct! ... this was an amusing exericise! ;-)

All but one of your responses are so far afield that you embarrass youself. For the one that remains ...

Ray: "Because you don't know what I know. That is where Madison gave money to support religion. But, I figured you wouldn't know that."

Pleaese educate all of us (or at least me) and tell us where and when Madison, as a representative of the government of the United States, supported religion using government funds.

Our Founding Truth said...

Pleaese educate all of us (or at least me) and tell us where and when Madison, as a representative of the government of the United States, supported religion using government funds.>

Sorry Louie
, but you can go on wallbuilders and find it.

Raven said...

And we all know how credible Wallbuilders is dont, we Our Founding Truth.

Dude, you are a lost cause...what a nut-job jackass!