Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama and Civil Religion

President Obama's speech in Cairo is making news. He, notably, reaches out to Islam and at the same time cites the Founding Fathers and Islam's rightful place at the table in America. And he's right; America was founded to be religiously pluralistic. Islam, along with Christianity, Judaism, and religious free thinking, are all American as George Washington and apple pie.

From his speech:

I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.

It was nice to see the President cite the Treaty of Tripoli, which also stated that the United States government is not in any sense founded on the "Christian Religion."

I think the President's address sends the right message to the Muslim world. Though, I'll also credit G.W. Bush for trying to do the same thing. Bush took pains to note that our war was not with Islam but with a radical strain within Islam, that Islam, properly understood, is a "religion of peace," and that Muslims worship the same God Jews and Christians do. And a great deal of Bush's conservative Christian base balked at his message. President Obama, like Bush before him, simulaneously reached out to moderate Muslims and attempted to implicitly nudge the Islamic religion towards a more benign and enlightened direction. The difference is, for complicated reasons I don't need to get into, Obama is in a better position to deliver this message to the Islamic world than Bush.

And both Obama AND Bush delivered this message in large part because the American Presidency and its civil religion, established by George Washington and the other Founding Presidents, demanded it. I sometimes get criticized for focusing on the "key Founders" (a handful of men as seen on US currency) to explain American Founding politics. However, when it comes to explaining the PRESIDENCY, I'm on strongest ground in focusing on four or five men, because they were literally only four or five men. From Washington to Monroe none was identifiably orthodox Trinitarian Christian, and all, with rare exception, took pains to systematically avoid speaking in orthodox Trinitarian terms, or otherwise intimating that Christ was the only way to God. Their theism transcended so called "Judeo-Christian" politics; indeed they put Jews in the same box as Muslims as all believers in "true religion."

It may be naive for Bush and Obama to speak as though Islam is a religion of peace or that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. But, let us remember, that theological naivete was, by precedent, built into the American Presidency by Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Obama and Bush walk in their shoes when they state such things as Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

As John Adams put it:

“It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.”

– John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

Or as Thomas Jefferson put it:

“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....Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!…We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. 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.”

– Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809

In discussing the controversy over funding the Christian religion in the state of Virginia, George Washington put Muslims in the same box as the Jews when he noted he had no problem with with government funding of the Christian religion, provided Jews and Muslims, or other non-Christians were exempted or accomodated from having their tax dollars support a religion in which they did not believe:

...I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief.

-- George Washington to George Mason, October 3, 1785.

Moreover, Washington twice spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing Native Americans, once going so far as to pray in the name of the "Great Spirit." From a strict orthodox perspective, this is worse than praying to "Allah" because at least Allah claims to be the God of Abraham, while the Great Spirit makes no such claim.

And Madison and Jefferson too spoke of God as the "Great Spirit" when addressing American Indians who showed no desire to convert to Christianity.

When I discuss this dynamic with folks skeptical of my thesis, they oft-react, "the FFs were just acting as most politicians do today." Indeed, the FF Presidents did speak like Presidents Bush and Obama when they pretend or really believe that most or all religions worship the same God. But the American FF Presidents were the ones who started it! Before the American Founders, heads of state were almost always officially connected to various churches and were oft-both heads of church AND state. The American Founding Presidents created the tradition of Presidents who could at once invoke God, but also do so in a such an ecumenical, pluralistic way that they appeared to be all things to all people, even to those outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

36 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, we can defend limiting our focus to the first presidents, ignoring the other dozens of Founders, but it fragments quickly when lumping the other presidents in with the private correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson after they left the presidency.

Washington, Madison and Monroe aren't Jefferson and Adams, and never provably agreed with their theological fancies.


Islam had nothing to do with the Founding except as an example of another religion, and an Abrahamic one at that. The Founders knew little or nothing about Islam, except Jefferson and Adams found out in their negotiations with the ambassador from Tripoli:

"The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."

Nothing more should be read into the Treaty of Tripoli saying the [central] government of the United States than should be read into the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War being signed "In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity."


[The Treaty of Tripoli didn't stick, BTW; we sent Stephen Decatur and the Marines in to kick Tripolitan ass. The Shores of Tripoli, all that stuff.]

Which brings us to President Obama's remarks. I resisted the temptation to drag in current politics to this blog in a post. But as Al Smith said, let's look at the record:

I don't mind the president using Treaty of Tripoli language to chill things out internationally, but saying "I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story" is a bunch of fluff and hopefully the Muslim world has forgot the Shores of Tripoli part of the tale.

I'm all for the president's diplomatic BS, but it shouldn't be carried back to our own shores.

Already, the president has told Turkey that America doesn't think of itself as a Christian nation, although a 2006 Pew poll said 67% of us do.

And it's nice that the president just told the Muslim world that America is one of the world's largest Muslim countries, but we're like 30th or 40th.

We hired President Obama for his brilliant ability to BS like this, but those last two are whoppers he told the Muslim world to try and chill it out. I hope they work, but they have nothing to do with our stuff here, at this blog, in the culture wars, and on US soil.

The American Founding Presidents created the tradition of Presidents who could at once invoke God, but also do so in a such an ecumenical, pluralistic way that they appeared to be all things to all people, even to those outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition...

Yeah, I buy that, Jon, as unlike Britain where the "crown" [not the Prime Minister] is both Head of State and head of the Church of England, the American president is Head of State, and we have no national church for him or her to be Head of.

However, whether it's the "Great Spirit" or Islam's joint "God of Abraham," our Head of State still claims America's God is one in the same as everybody else's, Cairo's or the Native Americans'. Washington, Dubya, Obama.

The Qur'an requires some respect for "People of the Book," but for pagans or atheists, none. President Obama hasn't mentioned our atheists overseas, as he did domestically, has he? For good reason---that was for votes and domestic consumption. A diplomat---a politician---tailors his message to his audience.


As to who America's God might be, or used to be, we must continue to discuss. But what the historical record shows that America had one, at least at some point. President Obama's remarks as statesman or politician must be taken in their context, and [see above], are not exactly fact.

Pinky said...

.
Sometimes, when we are so deep in the mix, it is difficult for us to see the bigger picture.
.
America seems to have always been about change.
.
Thanks for the article.

Matt said...

Don't forget that the Treaty of Tripoli, which Obama cited in his speech and which was passed unanimously by the Senate of the time, says explicitly in Article 11 that "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

Can you get any more clear than that?

Tel said...

"In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity."

Particularly interesting, given that Adams was a Unitarian - a branch of Christianity that explicitly denied the existence of the Trinity.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tel,

Yes, Adams, Franklin and Jay negotiated that treaty with Great Britain. And Adams and Franklin were theological unitarians.

GB at that time was an official "Trinitarian" nation (some might argue it is today, in an extremely nominal sense).

I think TVD's point is that when making treaty negotiations with other nations, there are often rhetorical concessions that don't necessarily reflect what your nation is all about.

jimmiraybob said...

Whopper No. 1) "Already, the president has told Turkey that America doesn't think of itself as a Christian nation, although a 2006 Pew poll said 67% of us do."

I assume that you refer to this quote:


"I think that where -- where there's the most promise of building stronger U.S.-Turkish relations is in the recognition that Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership in which a <>predominantly Christian nation and a predominantly Muslim nation, a Western nation and a nation that straddles two continents -- that we can create a modern international community that is respectful, that is secure, that is prosperous; that there are not tensions, inevitable tensions, between cultures, which I think is extraordinarily important.

"That's something that's very important to me. And I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is -- although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.

"I think Turkey was -- modern Turkey was founded with a similar set of principles, and yet what we're seeing is in both countries that promise of a secular country that is respectful of religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom, upholding these values and being willing to stand up for them in the international stage. If we are joined together in delivering that message, East and West, to -- to the world, then I think that we can have an extraordinary impact. And I'm very much looking forward to that partnership in the days to come."


If this blog can spend a year on the questions of “are we or aren’t we a Christian nation?” and “what is a Christian?” and still not come to definitive & unanimous answers, I would guess that a foreign policy speech and/or followup discussion isn’t going to attempt to get into those weeds.

There is plenty of substantiating evidence that can be cited to dispute that “we” think of ourselves as a Christian nation (as if I need to point that out here). We could spend the next year alone debating who he meant by “we.” Was he referring to his administration? The government? The people?

Compare and contrast with what he says on the home continent:

Obama, June 28, 2006 (as delivered): "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

The point being that we are a religiously diverse nation.

As I said before on this, maybe Obama can sharpen up his language a bit but he does and has and I presume will always give a nod to this being a "predominantly Christian natian." I would have preferred he’d said predominantly Christian population or citizenry but you go to the blogs with the statements ya got not the statements you wish you had. I don’t understand the urge to go into a predominantly Islamic country that is trying to preserve a secular government and proclaim that you are the leader of a Christian nation. You may as well throw in some nice crusades reference while you’re at it. Now there’s a foreign policy platform.

jimmiraybob said...

Whopper No. 2) "And it's nice that the president just told the Muslim world that America is one of the world's largest Muslim countries, but we're like 30th or 40th."

While I believe that you and many other people heard or read “[America]...is one of the world's largest Muslim countries...", that isn’t what he said (déjà vu again).

I believe that this is an accurate Obama quote (easily Google checked): "And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd [we would] be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples."

Notice that Obama is making a proposition – if x then y. He does not assert “is.” Note also that Obama is referring to whole numbers within countries and not percentages.

The exact number of Muslims in the U.S. is not known but is estimated between approximately 2 to 8 million (this is consistent with estimated ranges from several other web sites).

Wikipedia estimates the number of Muslim citizens in approximately 175 countries around the world (their sources are cited).

Of the 175 countries approximately 28 countries have larger Muslim populations than the range of the U.S. and about 32 countries have a number of Muslim citizens within the estimated Range of the U.S.

Certainly we are in the top 1/3 to 1/4. Not so whopperific after all.

Again, I would sharpen up the language to say that we would a country with one of the largest Islamic populations in the world.

jimmiraybob said...

One last thing. You say (and have said before) that, "The Founders knew little or nothing about Islam,..." But how do you substantiate this conclusion? Are you asking us to believe that men who were so well versed in antiquity as well as current affairs, whether of governments or religion, drew a complete blank on Islam? That they knew nothing of the religion or the Islamic empires or the Crusades or Spain’s wars of reconquest just a few hundred years before, or nothing of the other historic conflicts between the Church and the Mussulmen/Moors/Islam or of trade (slave or otherwise) or exploration between Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the far East?

Too much to ask. I think that this is a topic that deserves a little more research.

jimmiraybob said...

We hired President Obama for his brilliant ability to BS like this...

Yes indeed. And who needs it pointed out that we are no longer under British (or French or Spanish) rule but for the brilliant BS that the founders put "out there."

I also think that we should give a laurel and hearty shout out to all the brilliant BSers that have posted noble words and sentiments throughout history that have inspired and rallied most of the world away from ignorance and barbarism and toward greater freedom and liberty.

You know what they say, BS is mightier than the sword (or scimitar as the case may be).

Tom Van Dyke said...

if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd [we would] be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples."

Notice that Obama is making a proposition – if x then y. He does not assert “is.” Note also that Obama is referring to whole numbers within countries and not percentages.
..

Nice try. But if we were to honestly examine your argument, we'd find it sophistic, that is, depending on the parsing of words and the use of the conditional to deny we called it sophistic.

But even though we used the conditional, we did call your argument sophistic, didn't we?

As for Islam, if you want to disagree, instead of shifting the burden of proof, simply quote some Founders' statements that show an understanding of Islamic theology.

What we have is Jefferson and Adams ignoring their lesson from the ambassador, that Islam conquers all by duty and right [which is why the treaty failed]. The rest of the Founders speak of Islam in the abstract. Or please do prove me wrong by direct refutation.

jimmiraybob said...

Nice try. But if we were to honestly examine your argument...

By all means feel free to honestly examine the argument. If you feel that the more honest interpretation of what Obama said is the one where his words are changed from what he actually said then that's the way it is and we'll just have to agree to disagree.

I still think that it would be more fruitful if we could at least agree to use what was actually said v. what is imagined that was said as a foundation - call me old school. Regardless, the statement that "...if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world...," while debatable on the merits of how it is derived, can be supported (as I showed) and is not on the whopper scale of Obamatrocities.

I should point out that you made the assertion that the founding fathers (I assume the usual cast of characters tossed around as the "top" founding fathers) knew nothing of Islam. It's your statement, the burden to support it is yours. To declare that an argument or assertion is true based on the fact that the opposite hasn't been proved yet is an argument from ignorance - a logical fallacy.

I agree though, as I said, that it would be a good line of research. Not having the time to do so I'll just post this link to a short article on the Library of Congress website.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, JRB, your "if...we'd" argument is sophistic, and I illustrated precisely how and why.

Your fallacy is yours in trying to shift the burden of proof---it's I who am asserting a negative [you can't prove a negative!], based on reading hundreds or thousands of Founders' writings and finding them devoid of more than a surface understanding of Islam, of only where it agrees with Christianity, and zero appreciation of how Islamic theology differs from Christian theology.

There are differences. Big ones.

All I can do to prove my point is present the 1000s of things I've read. It's you who have the easy task, to present a strong counterfactual or two. You can disprove a negative assertion, and quite easily if the facts are on your side.

The link you posted had the usual generic stuff about Islam that I acknowledged, the shallow perception that it's basically Judeo-Christianity with some furniture rearranged. The Stiles thing looks a little more substantive, and I'll keep an eye out for it.

jimmiraybob said...

You may have read thousands of things about the founding/founders but your statement is still one of incomplete knowledge.

My counterargument was one of incredulity - that the FFs, being so well versed on history and religion, wouldn't have some sunstantial knowledge of Islam upon which their opinions rested. Yes, a logical fallacy, but one with greater credence than asserting that "The Founders knew little or nothing about Islam,...". Assuming "founders" to be all inclusive.

Well, start with an article by Kevin Hayes of the University of Central Oklahoma, entitled, How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an.*

It would appear that at least Jefferson had more than a shallow and passing understanding of the subject. Maybe not a perfect understanding and maybe the "law" of the Mohammedan was outside of his personal experience but nonetheless he had a deeper understanding than you allude to.

It is also apparent from the article that written materials on Islam were readily available (at least to those willing and able to seek it out) and that at least some reference materials found their way to the colony's pulpits and that debate regarding Islam existed.

*My PDF reader is acting up so this is a link to a Google-catched HTML version. There is a link to the PDF from there

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, thx for the link, as I'm always willing to learn, or to be proved wrong.

But if you're going to challenge me on something, please man up and make your counterargument in your own words.

It's a tactic on the internet to post a link and imply that the reason the other guy is wrong is behind the link, casting shadows of doubt on his opponent's credibility, as you've done here.

Links are valuable as footnotes, but don't take the place of honest and affirmative counterargument.

The truth is that your link supports my point. I wonder if you yourself read it through.


The Qur'an remained so alien to Jefferson's
experience that it became useful in this, an analogy for irrelevance...

Reading the Qur'an as his formal legal training
was coming to a close, Jefferson had already developed the critical ability
to recognize it for what it was-and for what it was not. On his library
shelves and in his mind it remained at a halfway point between paganism and Christianity
...

Jefferson never mastered Islam. He gave up the study of it, understandably, for more relevant texts. His best observation was that without supporting texts, one can make no more sense out of Islam based on the Qu'ran than a Martian could make of Christianity armed with only a Bible.

And neither do you even hint, JRB, at an acknowledgment of the theological differences between Islam and Judeo-Christianity---the reality of this issue---and why Islam is not exactly congenial to American religious pluralism, which would be the heart of a sincere discussion, which at present, we're not having.

But thx for the link, as I'll use your own evidence in support of my assertion that the Founders had no genuine understanding of Islamic theology, and spoke of it only in the abstract.

I think they would have considered Mormonism, which came about after the Founding, as congenial to the Founding principles. But not Islam in its reality, the reality they encountered in the words of the ambassador from Tripoli.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, you and the folks 'round here should really read the paper you posted. Here's a link that works:

http://74.125.155.132/search?q=cache:vC9TZwzqyCoJ:www.cairchicago.org/doc/thomas_jefferson_quran.pdf+%22How+Thomas+Jefferson+Read+the+Qur%27an%22&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

What's really strange is that cairchicago.org, a Muslim organization, posted it on the internet. But it's not sympathetic to Islam in the least. I suppose they didn't read the whole thing either, but just carelessly grabbed something whose title seemed to support their POV.

jimmiraybob said...

Links are valuable as footnotes, but don't take the place of honest and affirmative counterargument.

I am glad that you read the article. You seem to be implying some sort of dishonesty on my part. How sad. I made a brief point in posting the link and referred the reader to the details. I'm sorry that I didn't conform to your rules of engagement but I see that my method worked anyway. It's an interesting read and maybe I'll comment on it further.

The truth is that your link supports my point.

No, it does not. If your point was, "The Founders knew little or nothing about Islam...," then the article fully supports that Jefferson had as good a grasp on Islam as anyone in his position in his day - and probably ours too.

I wonder if you yourself read it through.

Why yes I did. Thanks for wondering.

You asked for some evidence that the founders "...show[ed] an understanding of Islamic theology," and I responded with a journal article to gave ample evidence that Jefferson's understanding started in 1765 and continued following the Tripoli affair. He may not have understood Islam in the way that you want him to but nonetheless he was informed.

And neither do you even hint, JRB, at an acknowledgment of the theological differences between Islam and Judeo-Christianity---the reality of this issue---and why Islam is not exactly congenial to American religious pluralism, which would be the heart of a sincere discussion, which at present, we're not having.

We're not having one because you are changing the goal posts. My purpose was to support that at least one of the founders had more than a superficial understanding of Islam, and I supplied the evidence. Whether Islam is congenial to American religious pluralism is another issue.

And as far as whether Jefferson "mastered Islam" that is a slippery term. I think that a closer reading of the article will show that Jefferson had as good a grasp on Islam as most adherents of the three major Abrahamic religions have of their own religion. I refer you to Steven Colbert v. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA).

I suppose they didn't read the whole thing either, but just carelessly grabbed something whose title seemed to support their POV.

I do not think that you understand what you think you understand.

bpabbott said...

Tom,

No offense, but that link doesn't function. However, this link to "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an" does.

If you're intested, you can type working links in directly. There are many tutorials on including html in blogspot posts and comments. "Make active (clickable) links in posts and comments" is one example.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you, Ben. The link I posted works fine, on my computer anyway.

These days, I'm only in the habit of doing the a href thing when there's a reasonable expectation of someone reading it.

And no, JRB, Jefferson didn't really get near the theology.

Despite
his willingness to allow believers to practice Islam and his strenuous efforts
to learn more about the religion and to read Arabic texts in the original,
the Qur'an and its teachings remained essentially alien to Jefferson's per-
sonal experience.
..

Just as I said, and Jefferson gave it a better whack than almost any of the rest of them who blandly compared Islam to Judeo-Christianity, supporting my assertion completely.

bpabbott said...

Tom, Not to be snarky but what you posted was a URL, not a link.

Below is a URL.

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

And below is a link.

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

Regarding your expectation that no one would bother reading what you link to, I've observed that when expectations are implied most indivuals will tend live up (or down) to them.

bpabbott said...

Tom wrote: "[...] supporting my assertion completely"

hmmm, now I will be a bit snarky.

I thought you just got done asserting you hadn't made an assertion ;-)

Regarding that, if your assertion is that you find insufficient evidence to conclude that the Founders were well versed in Islamic scripture, that is a negative assertion.

If your assertion is that the founders were not well versed in Islamic scripture, then that is a positive assertion.

There is no winning debates by making negative assertions. Once the point is made the best one can hope for is a draw.

However, this really has nothing to do with your postive assertion that the quote above supports your negative assertion. All the quote says is that Jefferson had no personal experience with the Qur'an and/or the instruction of Islamic scripture. No doubt the same can be said of you. It is also obvious that none of us have any personal experience with founding a nation, much less this one, but it does not follow that we know nothing of the founding or our nation.

The quote you provided is a non-sequitur.

jimmiraybob said...

...no genuine understanding of Islamic theology, and spoke of it only in the abstract.

...the Qur'an and its teachings remained essentially alien to Jefferson's personal experience...

I can only guess by association, that by "genuine understanding" you mean that Jefferson never lived under Islamic rule or that he did not belong to a mosque and did not perform the 5 pillars and embrace sharia. Or maybe there is a more mystical implication. To that I'd have to concede.

Or maybe it's just that Jefferson's conclusions are the "wrong" conclusions.

There are many similarities between Islam and the Judaic and Christian traditions and Scripture, not all of them superficial.

To go any further with the discussion we would have to establish some specific criteria of knowledge (for instance, what does it mean to have a genuine knowledge? Or, can someone have knowledge of something if the something lies outside of their everyday experience? Or, can we speak of anything other than in the abstract?) to be evaluated and a methodology to evaluate the data. By then we'd be half way to setting up a Master's thesis and would have to quit work and head to university or seminary. :)

Pinky said...

.
You have to forgive Tom.
.
There is so much could be said here regarding the question being raised on what the Founders knew and did not know.
.
But, to put it simply once again, it is impossible to get into their minds. Even their and our vocabularies don't agree.
.
Even so, it's prudent to keep one's nose to the grindstone so that these things are cleared up. Don't stop..
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I thought you just got done asserting you hadn't made an assertion ;-)

It's definitely an assertion, unprovable [especially in an adverserial discussion], and as you observe, Ben, a draw is the best one can hope for, especially in such an environment.

But no effective counterfactual has been offered either, and the paper's use of "alien" comports with what I'm saying, and need not be read only that Jefferson had no direct experience with Islam [he did, with the Tripolitan ambassador]. The theology and belief system remained alien to him [and the Founding generation], as it's completely different from his/their Judeo-Christian acculturalization. As it is to ours, for many or most.

From the OP:

"indeed they put Jews in the same box as Muslims as all believers in "true religion."

Tolerance falls far short of such an endorsement. Hell, most of 'em didn't even think Catholics had the "true religion."

King of Ireland said...

TVD stated:

"As to who America's God might be, or used to be, we must continue to discuss"


Just said this 10 minutes ago in a comment on the "Frazer and KOL continue Dialog" Thread. I might add that it seems that some of the quotes from the founders in this post would seem to endorse Islam or any other religion IN THE POINTS WHERE IT AGREED WITH THE AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION AT THE TIME.

I agree with Tom. Only a surface reading of Islam can produce this kind of ecumenism. What about when the Koran calls for the deaths of all infidels? Hindu's believe in nothing like the Biblical or Koranic sense of God. Neither do Buddhists. The Great Spirit could be the same God as the God of Abraham depending whether the tribe was polytheistic or not. If they were the is not the "Providential" God that the Founders often invoked.

King of Ireland said...

Jon stated:

"And he's right; America was founded to be religiously pluralistic. Islam, along with Christianity, Judaism, and religious free thinking, are all American as George Washington and apple pie."


I think this post was a stretch. The are some very surface things that Muslims, Jews, and Christians can agree on as far as good behaviors to exhibit. Once one scratches the surface and begins to get into the radical difference of world view one would see that these two world views are opposed in almost every sense.

I think the key is dialogue about where we can agree but to also point out the differences in a real and meaningful way. Otherwise it is just fluff. Minds are not changed with fluff. Real mutual respect even in the midst of great differences require honesty. This speech was fluff.

I would say that the God of American Founding and the God of the Koran at its most basic sense is the same God in that the Koran is based on the God of Abraham. I would say that that is where the simliarities end. THe characteristics of their God as compared to the one found in the Bible are totally different.

I think it is two different paintings of the same abstract idea that bear no resemblance to one another in practice. If one were to look at the paintings he would have no idea they were based on the same abstract idea until he was told.

King of Ireland said...

Jimmyraybob,

This book you cited(or one cited in the book hard to tell) actually was written to European Deists warning them about what could happen if religious apathy continued. He cited the Fall of Constantinople and the fact that Islam seeks to expand by the sword.

This was even used by Anti-Federalists in their writings warning against despots. They used the Turks overrunning Constantinople as an example.

This proves Tom's exact point. Most of the Founding Fathers had little more than an abstract understanding of Islam or were just liars. There is no way they could endorse more than surface agreement on some limited points and still promote liberty in America. Some Islamic Empires made King George looked like a benevolent leader.

The sad truth is that there are two forms of Islam:

1. Is moderate and seeks to live at peace with other groups, religions, and world views

2. Is extreme and seeks to exterminate anyone who does not agree with them

The first form one with a different world view can live with and agree when appropriate and disagree when not. The second you have to resist to the death or you will be overun like Constantinople was.

Pinky said...

.
I think the problem, here, has more to do with the methodology of a literal reading of history than it does anything else.
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That existential approach to the Founders wants us to see each of them as consummate persons no matter at what stage in their life they had written. Like us, they changed their positions and understandings over time. And, that may be key to why they created America as it is.
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The idea that they even thought in terms similar to those we use raises deep questions. I'm sure everyone agrees.
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How many of the Founders actually traveled abroad to have any serious understanding or knowledge about any religious beliefs other than those of their personal culture?
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I'm well into Bary Alan Shain's book which dips into the way history is understood. If he is to be given any weight, I have a hard time seeing how we can get a true grasp on what the Founders believed in such distinct and specific ways.
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jimmiraybob said...

KOI

I posted a link to a journal article which itself cited a number of books – of which, The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet is the one you refer to, which is described by Hayes as a "polemic" containing many biases against Islam.

The article then goes on to cite, 'The Koran, Commonly Called
the Alcoran of Mohammed,'
by George Sale and 'A Preliminary Discourse' (Sale) that, "...elaborates the life of Muhammad and emphasizes his personal virtues. Sale also supplied detailed discussions of Islamic history, theology, and law. His scholarship and dedication to his subject allowed him to refute many of the common prejudices against Islam current in Western culture. For example, he challenged the vulgar error that Islam was spread by the sword. Muhammad, as Sale told his story, propagated Islam not by military force but by dint of eloquence."

Hayes also says this about Sale's work, "Reading George Sale's translation, he [Jefferson] had the opportunity to receive a fair view of the religion [Islam]. Originally published in 1734, Sale's was the first English version [Qur'an] to be translated directly from the Arabic. Not only was his translation more reliable than Andre Du Ryer's [also previously cited by Hayes], Sale also wrote 'A Preliminary Discourse,' a thoroughly researched and well documented overview of Islam that ran to nearly two hundred pages in the first edition and filled the entire first volume of the second. Sale's Koran was a landmark of scholarship, and his translation would remain the standard English version into the twentieth century."

The point of the my posting the link (or UHL...or link...whatever) was to present some scholarly work that in itself, presented some of the sources available to Jefferson (and in his library) and to support the contention that he (at least) was not operating in a black hole when it comes to Islam. It can be argued, and indeed it has, that this may or may not have been sufficient to fully inform him of the “genuine theology” of Islam but that is in addition to the point I was making.

In just two works cited by Hayes, Jefferson (and it should be kept in mind that these works were more widely available than to just Jefferson) had a wide-ranging view of Islam from polemics to scholarly research.

jimmiraybob said...

Relative to the point that you and TVD seem to be making I would add “liberal” to your “forms” of Islam. And historically all three tendencies, liberal, moderate, and extreme views have variously been dominant in Islamic culture and continue to be in tension with each other today. But this is no different than Christianity and Judaism as well as atheism and paganism.

I agree whole heartedly with Jon Rowe’s contention of civil religion is the legacy of the founding period; one in which space can be created for the expression of all faith traditions as well as non-theist views as long as they all lead to a public (and of course private) virtue and morality in order to maintain the Republic (i.e., "...forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca..." - Jefferson).

And you are right that the extreme “form” of Islam must not be allowed to dominate. And, like a Jefferson or a Washington or an Adams, I would also say that no extreme forms of Christianity or Judaism or paganism that promotes a decay of the peaceable union should be allowed to prosper. Remember, the excesses of Christianity (intolerance of pluralism, witch trials, the inquisitions) were directly a part of or not far outside of their personal experience.

In the quote that Rowe cites in the original post, Jefferson rails against the extremes of Islam, "...among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest;..." and then goes on to castigate other excesses committed in the extreme “form” of another Abrahamic religion, "...and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!"

But Jefferson, and Adams and Washington, as cited in the original post, also recognized that, as Jefferson said, “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.” So yes, we all agree, there are moderate and liberal elements of all three Abrahamic religions – as also embrace by atheists and humanists – that can, do and will preserve the sentiments contained in, “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.”

And that tranquility includes, not unleashing one extremism in defense against another.

King of Ireland said...

JRB stated:

"I agree whole heartedly with Jon Rowe’s contention of civil religion is the legacy of the founding period; one in which space can be created for the expression of all faith traditions as well as non-theist views as long as they all lead to a public (and of course private) virtue and morality in order to maintain the Republic (i.e., "...forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca..." - Jefferson). "

Yes space was made for the expression of all faiths that respected what you said above. But it was still a predominately Christian public at the time. This would include many of the Founders. I like Tom's point that Jefferson chose to cut through the Bible rather than the other books.

Christianity was dominant not exclusive. Some today would like us to think secularism was dominant but no exclusive. This tarnishes the role that God played in the Founding.

I am not a Christian Nationalist by any means in the sense of setting up a Christian government based on using it to convert others to the believe what I do. But I do believe part of the reason that we have endured this long is that was have applied sound theological and philosophical principles to our government. The former was missing in France and their movement did not endure.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the question is whether "moderate" forms of Islam even existed in the Founding era. Apparently they weren't listing hard enough when the Tripolitan ambassador told them that Islam claims the right [and duty!] to make war on non-Muslims. Claiming the United States was not founded on the Christian religion in the Treaty of Tripoli may have eased some of that Crusades tension, but didn't accomplish anything.

As previously noted, the treaty didn't hold, and only war ended the Barbary pirates mess.


Jefferson initially approached Islam in the course of his legal studies, and the paper JRB cites indicates to me that he was searching for some sort of "natural law" that spanned all cultures and religions.

There, he no doubt discovered that sharia uses lex talionis as its legal principle, and I believe at that time all Muslim nations were under shar'ia.

Lex talionis might be best described as "an eye for an eye," taken literally. Compare that to Judaism, which has the concept but it was rarely or ever practiced literally, or Christianity, where Jesus says directly:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Now, the Koran says that foregoing satisfaction is good, but Jesus demands it. Lex talionis, then, is still practiced today in the Muslim world, cutting off the hands of thieves and even funkier stuff.

In the Islamic view, the Quran is the direct word of God and isn't open to interpretation, and the paper JRB linked to says Jefferson discovered just that. There is no indication there or in his writings that Jefferson went deeper into the theology of Islam, as it would be inimical to his own views on religion, as inflexibly dogmatic as say, Calvinism, which Jefferson explicitly condemns in his writings.

Here is an apologetic by a presumably modern, "un-extreme" Muslim writer, but as you can see,

"Islamic Law has many ideas, concepts, and information that can solve contemporary crime problems in many areas of the world. To do this you must first put on hold the preconceived notion of 'separation of church and state.'"

...such sentiments would tend to lead Jefferson to lose interest in his studies of Islam right there.

_____________

K of I reflects my sentiments above, and indeed that the Native American religions were sometimes pantheistic is seldom brought up in these "Great Spirit" discussions, and it's unclear how many Founders were even aware of that fact. In the abstract, they favored pluralism in personal belief, but they never had to deal with the fallout of conflicting theological mandates in practice.

For as Washington noted in his Farewell Address,

"With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I think one problem is that TVD probably knows more about Islam than the FFs did; however, there is still much more to learn about Islam and its portents for compatibility with moderation and enlightenment.

Obama alluded to this when he spoke of Islam's golden age.

If there is one man whose research might convince TVD it's David Forte, whom I had the pleasure to meet and interact with at Princeton. He's written for National Review, is (I believe) a devout Roman Catholic, if not a promoter of the natural law (like Hadley Arkes) nonetheless.

He co-authored Heritage's guide to the Constitution with Ed Meese and Matt Spalding. And has had at least one appointment by the Vatican. He also advised GWBush on Islam.

I told him I looked forward to learning more about his research. And I found out that he knows a Hell of a lot about Islam than any non-Muslim I am aware of and is optimistic about its internal potential for modernity and enlightenment.

http://www.listeningtowords.com/lecture.php?id=1748

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I'm not going to do the video, but I looked up some of Forte's articles. He's a law professor, and for the record, he says he wasn't an adviser to Bush.

Forte writes:

"The legalistic element of Islam spans wide variations. Not all wish to impose the Sharia in all its archaic details. Many call for a new ijtihad, or redevelopment of the law from its sources to meet modern conditions. Nor is legalism the sole voice of Islam: From the beginning, rationalist, theological, and mystical traditions have vied with it. I believe that, like Christians and Jews, most Muslims crave a moral space in which to worship God and obtain forgiveness and salvation. The imposition of all the elements of a 1,000-year-old code of law would close up that space."

I disagree with much of this. The "rationalist" strain in Islam [to which President Obama alluded to as Islam's Golden Age] was discarded in the 12th century by al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers which to this day holds the top of the hill in Islam.

Further, sharia and lex talionis continue to this day, as the link I posted illustrates. If Gregg Frazer's literalism---or plain reading---of Romans 13 is theological valid [and it is], then the Quran as the literal, physical Word of God dictated directly to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel leaves even less room for interpretation or liberalization/modernization.

And with the exception of perhaps evangelicals and a few others, Westerners---even believers, and especially Roman Catholics---intellectualize religion. They can't "feel" Islam, literally "surrender" or "submission," and the visceral intensity of religious feeling that answers the call to prayer five times a day.

Hell, even many Christians who hold deep religious beliefs can't make it to church once a week!

There's more of course, on Islamic theology and even more on Islamic metaphysics which few in the Western world [and certainly not the Founders] have any clue about, an entire worldview summed up in the simple phrase Inshallah. But it's completely "alien" to the modern Westerner, and was understood by perhaps only the Stoics, who unlike Muslims, chose to bear the slings and arrows instead of using them to advance a divine cause.

Now, I'm not getting into bin Laden and his 21st century version of jihad. We shall accept for the sake of argument that it is indeed "extremism."

But I think Forte sees rather more ijtihad, a modernization of Islamic law, than actually exists, and more than can exist without removing the essential and unique concepts that underlie Islam in the first place, and what make it more than just Judeo-Christianity with he furniture rearranged, as one wag put it.

There's a modern Western tendency to treat religions as pretty much interchangable, as if "religion" is a concept that requires no context, and one size fits all.

When Forte writes

"I believe that, like Christians and Jews, most Muslims crave a moral space in which to worship God and obtain forgiveness and salvation."

I believe he falls into that trap.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, and BTW, rereading some of the above comments, there is a certain mutual understanding being achieved between K of I, JRB and meself, a getting on the same page.

We might back off the idea that Islam calls for the extermination of infidels; on this David Forte argued well in the aftermath of 9-11. Neither did bin Laden's theologians endorse that---as memory serves from an article in the Atlantic, justice allows only for 4 or 5 million to be killed, equal to the number of Muslims that Christianity has unjustly "murdered" across the centuries. Lex talionis again---after all, Muslims are reasonable people and Islam is eminently just.


On the other hand, to say that Islam historically has had three tendencies, "liberal, moderate, and extreme views," might run aground in that "moderate" will not conform to any modern Western understanding of "moderate." I submit that our "moderate" is Islam's "liberal," and that the mainstream of Islamic thought doesn't exactly conform to any of the three options listed above.

If I may return to K of I on the nature of America's God versus Islam's, I think of Jesus' parable of the Good Shepherd. Islam would submit to the Shepherd, and if the shepherd wanted one of the flock for dinner, or ate the one who ran off as an example to the others, well, that's God's will in the first case, and His justice in the latter.

And that would be part of Islamic theology, which JRB graciously allows [no sarcasm, there, JRB] even Jefferson may have never got to. Learning the Islamic view of justice and law and the inflexibility of interpreting the Quran likely satisfied his curiosity.

Good discussion, fellows, and thank you. This blog at its best.

quran learning said...

Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance,,,

Quran learning said...

Islamic Law has many ideas, concepts, and information that can solve contemporary crime problems in many areas of the world.