Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How America Is and Is NOT a "Protestant Nation"

A later post will discuss how America is and is not a Catholic Nation

My friends Gregg Frazer and Tom Van Dyke (and some others) are heatedly debating in the comments section at American Creation how to properly understand American political theology. In a nutshell Gregg has termed American political theology "theistic rationalism," and Tom doesn't like the way that term fails to incorporate "Judeo-Christianity." Gregg's thesis argues "Protestant Christianity" makes up one of three components of "theistic rationalism," (the others being Deism and natural religion) but "theistic rationalism" is still not "Christianity." It is also not "Deism," but something in between Christianity and Deism.

So this post explains how America could be accurately termed a "Protestant Nation," but not necessarily a "Christian Nation," and why it might be right to recognize America's Protestant political theological roots, without terming those roots "Christian."

Terms -- what they mean, and how the user and the listener understand them -- might confuse, if not properly explicated, but rather used in vague generalities. The American Founders, by the way, tended purposefully to not explicate theological terms in their public God talk (and private correspondence with non-theologically like minded figures), because, as non-orthodox theists, they differed, theologically, PROFOUNDLY and irreconcilably with the "orthodox" whose "consent" to their liberal democratic-republican project they needed to procure. Washington for instance, invariably spoke in vague theological terms when he addressed the orthodox ministers who adored him and whom he respected.

And that confusion -- where the "orthodox" think the Founders meant what they wanted them to mean, but didn't -- persists to this day (in large part because of the key Founders' clever way of operating and the hagiographic remake of the FFs by pietist myth-makers like Mason Weems -- figures like David Barton and Peter Marshall are the Parson Weemses of the present era).

For instance, one of the "Christian Nation" crowd's favorite quotations is from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 28 June, 1813:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were...the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence.

Now, without understanding the CONTEXT of said quotation one might conclude "Christianity" meant things like infallibility of the Bible, original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation. But, one would be wrong as both Jefferson and Adams (especially in that year 1813 when their heterodoxy was most pronounced!) rejected every one of those tenets. And the context of said letter suggests Adams meant clearly some *other* theological system:

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants,2 Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” [Protestants who believe in nothing---JR.] Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Not just theological unitarians and universalists, but even deists and atheists, Adams states were united under this "Christian" theological system. What Adams means by "Christianity" here seems not unlike his definition to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820 where he wrote:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

In other words, if an atheist was a good person, he was a "Christian." This is not what the followers of David Barton, Peter Marshall and others think when they hear that quote plucked from context. Likewise when they hear or argue America was founded to be a "Christian Nation," "Judeo-Christian Nation," or "Protestant Christian Nation" they likely understand or mean something else.

To them "Protestant Christianity" means Sola-Scriptura, the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God, and orthodox doctrines from original sin, to the Trinity to eternal damnation. In this sense Protestant Christianity is that lowest common denominator between Luther and Calvin. [For evidence of this, see the comments section of this post, which includes a comment by John Lofton.]

But this is precisely NOT how America was founded as a "Protestant Nation" in a political-theological sense. Rather, America's Protestant political-theological foundations relate to the following: The word "Protestant" literally means to "protest," or "dissent." As it applies to political-theology, American Protestantism means a private right to religious conscience. In this sense the individual not only has a private right to decide for himself on matters of Trinity and eternal damnation, but also which parts of the Bible are valid.

In this sense, America was founded, politically, to be a "Protestant Nation," with Thomas Jefferson the quintessential American (political) Protestant. Jefferson certainly thought of himself as a "Protestant Christian," and was a lifelong member of the Anglican-Episcopal club. He also devoutly believed in an active personal God. However, his "Protestantism" led him to reject, not just (his words) "[t]he immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.," but also large parts of the Bible as valid revelation.

So, as Jefferson illustrates, it's possible to be a Protestant, an Anglican, but arguably not a "Christian." One could argue Jefferson's rejection of the infallibility of the Bible did in his "Christianity." But even if we accept Sola-Scriptura, American political Protestantism still might not qualify as "Christian."

Case in point, another monumental influence on the American Founding politics: Rev. Charles Chauncy. As historian and President of Wakeforest University Nathan Hatch described Chauncy:

Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston’s First Church for sixty years (1727-1787), is the most prominent example of an exclusive appeal to Biblical authority in order to unravel theological orthodoxy. Chauncy was persuaded to emphasize Bible study by reading the works of English divines, such as Samuel Clarke’s The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712) and John Taylor’s The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (London, 1740). Both authors used a “free, impartial and diligent” method of examining Scripture to JETTISON, respectively, the doctrines of the Trinity and of Original Sin. [8]

During the 1750s, after the Great Awakening, Charles Chauncy spent seven years engaged in the approach to Bible study expounded by these English authors. In the spring of 1754 he wrote to a friend,

“I have made the Scriptures my sole study for about two years; and I think I have attained to a clearer understanding of them than I ever had before.”

His studies led him to draft a lengthy manuscript in which he REJECTED the idea of eternal punishment and embraced universalism....He explained to Ezra Stiles, “The whole is written from the Scripture account of the thing and not from any human scheme.” This unorthodox biblicist would have been gratified indeed by the reaction of one minister who, finding the book’s arguments convincing, wrote,

“He has placed many texts and passages of Scripture in a light altogether new to me, and I cannot help thinking his system not only rational, but Scriptural.” [9]

So as it turns out, America's Protestant political-theological foundations mean a fundamental right to private judgment in matters of religious conscience. This political theology teaches the right to religious judgment is so private and individualized, that matters such as original sin, trinity, eternal damnation, and which parts of the Bible are valid are consigned to the realm of the private conscience and are driven from politics; they play no part in America's political-theological foundation.

The question then remains is such a Protestant system that posits Providence and a special place for Jesus, but refuses to take a position on original sin, the Trinity, Jesus as the only way to God, eternal damnation, and the infallibility of the Bible, "Christian"?

How we answer the question determines whether America's Founding political theology is aptly termed "Christian" or not. If not, we could say America had a "Protestant" but not a "Christian" founding.

16 comments:

UUFreespirit said...

Somehow, Jon, I completely understand the "protestant but not Christian" concept. I do prefer to use the small "p" for protestant, in the same sense that I prefer to use small "c" for catholic. (I think that even Jesus would have understood that.) I don't think that Christianity has ever had any right to a proprietary claim on the "protestant impulse," which in its more radical forms is seen to be so stubbornly protestant that even the walls of Christian doctrine and tradition could never confine or "fence its spirit."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks Ron. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A later post will discuss how America is and is not a Catholic Nation...

Heh. Kindly leave me out of that line of fire, Jon. Although I maintain there was a heavy influence of some Catholic thinkers on the Founding, it was completely indirect, since quoting a papist back then was pretty much like quoting a Nazi today.

Although as for is a "Catholic nation," we're closing in on six Catholics on the Supreme Court.

Hehe. The influence of Catholic thought on America just won't go away, it seems...

Tom Van Dyke said...

As it applies to political-theology, American Protestantism means a private right to religious conscience. In this sense the individual not only has a private right to decide for himself on matters of Trinity and eternal damnation, but also which parts of the Bible are valid...

As to the Trinity, that is true. As for "which parts of the Bible are valid," and by extension which parts are invalid, the quoted Charles Chauncy/Ezra Stiles section shows that Founding-era disagreements with theological orthodoxy were based on the Bible, not outside it.

Of course Jefferson and John Adams occupy center stage here as usual, since they're the only ones who completely and provably fit the "theistic rationalist" thesis, with the occasional Ben Franklin thrown in.

But I think there's a basic misunderstanding about the Founding-era unitarians in particular, who could argue satisfactorily not just from reason, but solely from the Bible as well, without rejecting any of it.


Samuel Barrett's 1825 "One Hundred Scriptural Arguments
For the Unitarian Faith" is a fine example.

http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/modules.php?file=article&name=News&sid=30

Pinky said...

Jonathon writes, "So as it turns out, America's Protestant political-theological foundations mean a fundamental right to private judgment in matters of religious conscience. This political theology teaches the right to religious judgment is so private and individualized, that matters such as original sin, trinity, eternal damnation, and which parts of the Bible are valid are consigned to the realm of the private conscience and are driven from politics; they play no part in America's political-theological foundation."
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You are beginning to hit the nail on the head!
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And, squarely.
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I've been around going on nine decades and I see that your comment is a true statement.
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And, I am seeing the influence Catholicism is having on American Protestants today through the influence of the "Christian Right".
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I think you are on a roll.
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Pinky said...

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If I were an actively involved Protestant Christian, I would be "up in arms" and raising hell about it.
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In fact, that's kind of what I am.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

matters such as original sin, trinity, eternal damnation, and which parts of the Bible are valid are consigned to the realm of the private conscience and are driven from politics; they play no part in America's political-theological foundation."

You are beginning to hit the nail on the head!

Well, Pinky, I'm glad that excites you. However, few if any claim the Trinity, etc. are at America's political-theological foundation.

Hence, the term "Judeo-Christian," which even appears at least 10 times on David Barton's website. It's not really an issue and hasn't been.

As for Jon slipping in "which parts of the Bible are valid," except for Jefferson's razor blade and a few remarks from JAdams and Franklin, that there was much of a controversy has not yet been adequately supported with evidence. As illustrated with "100 scriptural arguments for the Unitarian Faith," going outside the Bible was unnecessary for them to have theological differences [and disputes!].

As far as your perception of Catholicism encroaching on American Protestantism [and your objection to it], I'm sure your further thoughts would be entertaining.

Pinky said...

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Tom, if Congregationalism, Puritanism, Baptists, the entire Foundational Era Reformed Protestantism was anything, it was anti-Catholic as far as structure is concerned.
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And, the Founding of America is all about structure.
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Unless I am completely mistaken..
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Hm. I don't know exactly what you mean by "structure," Phil. Certainly the Founding was anti-papist---wouldn't that mean they wanted the central government to be as non-authoritarian as possible?

But is papism synonymous with what Leo Strauss calls "Roman Catholic social science" or what we call Thomism? Here we get an equivocation of terms.

When we bring in Thomism/natural law and other "Catholic" thought [as opposed to simply the claim of papal authority over theological doctrine, the "Magisterium"], we see that "Protestant" thought is an even less cohesive concept---if everybody interprets the Bible for themselves, well, first you get Baptists departing from the traditional understanding of the Eucharist, and [inevitably?] unitarianism, where Jesus isn't even God anymore.

And that's the irony of "Protestantism," that it's a leaky umbrella over both the Anglicans, thoroughly anti-papist but still 90% "Catholic" on most other things, and unitarianism, which would have appalled the Big Kahunas of "Protestantism," Luther and Calvin.

But that's a theological argument. Still, the most orthodox "Protestant" preachers of the Founding era were hostile to unitarianism, just as [I submit] the Christian unitarians like Ezra Stiles would be appalled at today's Unitarian Universalism turning their pulpit over to a Wiccan.

Catholicism's are just more tightly drawn, but everybody has their limits, it seems. Well, except the UUs, although I'm not acquainted with their stand on Satanism.

bpabbott said...

Phil, I think you can find evidence regarding anti-Catholicism sentiments during the founding period.

Some of America's Founding Fathers had anti-clerical beliefs. For example, in 1788, John Jay urged the New York Legislature to require office-holders to renounce foreign authorities "in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil." [6]. Thomas Jefferson wrote: "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,"[7] and, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."[8]

I think it woud be interesting to examine John Jay's opinion further. If his motives were not simple bigotry, then his position appears to have been in support of the concept of separation.

In any event, the think I wanted to point out is that I'm not certain these examples are so much anti-Catholicism as they are a defense of sovereignty from religous authorities. Meaning that is how the church operated that was most offsensive/concerning, not the nature of the Catholic faith.

p.s. by the way, I don't mean to imply that I'm arguing against you as you're comments don't give me an indication of your opinion on the origins of the fouding periods anti-Catholicism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I think you're absolutely correct here, Ben. John Jay echoes John Locke himself, who wanted Catholics barred from public life because their true allegiance was to a "foreign prince." [This argument persisted through the 1800s, and JFK still had to deal with that perception. And in Britain itself, Tony Blair found it prudent to wait until he left the office to convert to Catholicism!]

So too, the anti-clericalism of the Founding extended to Protestant clerics as well, especially those pushy Presbyterians. And the colonists opposed the Crown appointing C of E bishops to come over here, as no doubt they'd have their fingers in the political pie before long too.

This is the proper understanding of "church" in "church and state," not the conflation of "church" with religious belief.

Although there was some ethnic bigotry, mostly in the 1800s, for example,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Know_Nothing

the longer history of American anti-Catholicism is probably best understood as anti-papism and anti-clericalism, since few---even today---actually understand Catholic theology and Thomistic philosophy, including many or most Catholics. It's been my contention that the Founding generation was steeped in Thomism/natural law philosophy, but were mostly unaware of it, because they got it second-hand from respectable Protestants like Richard Hooker, Algernon Sidney, Hugo Grotius, and at least exoterically, John Locke.

And although in modern days there has been some principled theological disagreement against Thomism by Protestants like Francis Schaeffer [via the estimable theologian Karl Barth], on the whole anti-Catholicism lives only on the fringes with the John Hagees, and of course with the secular left.

Pinky said...

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I wonder if a non-Christian can comprehend the situation regarding Reformed Protestantism and Catholicism.

Unless I am completely mistaken it was that situation exactly which fueled the reformation by the way the formal "Church" was preempted.
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I'm quite deep into Shain’s book. Is anyone here familiar with his arguments? That would be good to know before I go any further.

Aside from that, I was raised in a protestant situation--Fundamental Baptis--and I easily understand and know where Shain is coming from as I have lived it.
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We can take much into consideration--the Great Awakening for example and apply it to what I'm saying here.

Catholicism teaches that the Church provides Salvation; whereas Reformed Protestantism teaches a one on one relationship.
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These are extremely important points and cannot be figured out by going off on a tangent regarding what this or that philosopher had to say.
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Unless I am completely mistaken.

It will be interesting to get Brian in on this issue.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Catholicism teaches that the Church provides Salvation...

No it doesn't.

Pinky said...

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Personally, I suppose I don't know what the Catholic Church teaches today.
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But, the Catholic Church most certainly took it upon itself to be the sole proprietor of all things spiritual and religious in the many centuries leading up to the Founding Era.
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So, maybe I should have written, "During the Colonial period, the Catholic Church was perceived by the majority of people as giving itself the authority for being in charge of all things religious and spiritual as well as the common good of the people." Or, something close to that. More than that, the perceptions were that the Catholic hierarchy would lay down a centralized authority that would intrude on nearly every aspect of life.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

I think there's a difference between believing the Church provides salvation and that Christ provides salvation but the RCC is the only means to get there.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, it's complicated. If you examine the arguments without hostility, you'll see that in the end it's up to God.