Thursday, July 23, 2009

Refining the definition of deism used when discussing the Founding

I have finished up reading David Holmes's excellent book Faiths of the Founding Fathers. I appreciated his balance and attention to detail throughout, but I thought that one area of his analysis could have been more precise. He characterizes the major Founders as falling into three basic patterns: orthodox Christians, Christian deists, and non-Christian deists. While this might appear at first blushe to be a good way to categorize the religious views of the major Founders, at the end of the day I don't think it is helpful. While the founding era did contain its deists, the folks that Holmes describes are, for the most part, not really what moderns think of as deists when it comes to questions of theology.

Rather, the vast majority of the Founders were theists. The vast bulk of them believed, for example, in a God who is active in human affairs, who is to be worshipped and prayed to, who will judge each and every person after death, etc. Even the least religious of the major Founders -- Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson -- affirmed such a deity. This isn't a "watchmaker god" or some uninterrested deity a la the Roman philosopher Lucretius.

While there is no question that many of the Founders, and most of the major Founders, eschewed orthodox trinitarianism, their conception of God remained essentially theistic rather than deistic. To continue to refer to them as deists risks confusion in the minds of modern folks -- many of whom do not realize that the unitarian theology of many of the Founders was far more conservative than the term "deism" would indicate.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Ace, Mark.

In fact, one of my first posts here was about an LA Times writer who not only called Jefferson a deist, but explicitly described deism as the "blind watchmaker" thing! That certainly wasn't Jefferson.

I wrote the writer to that effect and offered evidence. No reply.

No surprise. "Deism" enables the writer to not only skate past Christianity, but any real role for God in the Founding beyond a ceremonial one.

The one crucial item I keep returning to as the Christian dimension of theism---and the Founding---is a belief that the Bible carries divine authority, the word of God [and to the exclusion of other religions' holy books]. Jefferson, no. Certainly not the only true deist, Tom Paine. Of virtually all the other Founders---and Founding era Americans---the answer is either definitively yes [the vast majority], we cannot say [Washington, Madison], or they were on the fence [Franklin].

Even the very heterodox John Adams described Christianity as "revelation," as in God Spoke to Man by other than natural means.

For if we are to speak of God in any "religious" sense, the first question is, did God ever speak to man by other than natural means?

If the answer is yes, the door opens to religion. What follows thereafter is just details.

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

Good post and I agree that Holmes' book is good. Though there is one error -- not really his fault as this is the consensus understanding of historians that is in need of correction -- that Bird (James' son) Wilson gave the "the Presidents from Washington Jackson were all infidels and not more than unitarians" speech. It was actually a Calvinist covenanter (someone who was non-respectable as opposed to the beloved Bird Wilson) named James Renwick Willson. A Brown PhD in history named James Kabala discovered this. I've contacted Holmes via email and he seems to recognize this is the case.

The way this little nuance helps the understanding is much of what we now discuss about the heterodoxy of the American Founding wasn't that comfortably discussed out in the open even as late as 1833. However the un-respected JR Willson was probably right in his religious assessment of the FFs. The very popular Parson Weems, we learned, turned out to be a myth maker.

This is not unlike in certain politically correct circles you can't "say" certain things you know likely are true, else be castigated.

The FFs & religion thing is not only out of the bag, but Barton's position is now the politically incorrect one. Barton et al. want us to go back to the era when an orthodox Christian politically or religiously correct myth dominated certain very important societal and political circles, i.e., when the "orthodox" Churches had more social/political/legal power.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Barton's position is now the politically incorrect one.

Well, duh.

Barton et al. want us to go back to the era when an orthodox Christian politically or religiously correct myth..."

Well, let's drop this part for now so we don't hijack Mark's post. Please do make it the heart of a new post, Jon. Sounds interesting.

In the meantime, the topic is "deism" as misapplied to the Founders and the Founding generation. It was Mark's key point.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you all interested in the discussion of what the FF believed as this would underwrite what is happening today in our culture wars?

Whatever the FF believed, don't you also believe that man evolves intheir knowledge and understanding such that what was once held has to be re-vised? Everything from the development in the OT of "god" to how an individual develops and understands, which is still in dispute, concerning consciousness...

So, what is the purpose truly of getting to the "real" history of the FF? It is the same, it seems, with the discussion about religious traditions, in general. Anthropologists and sociologists have understanding about why these "ideas" developed.

J said...

""I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart" Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, 1820.

Not orthodoxy (and TJ also hints at the correct reading of the real Locke, who may have put on appearances for the theologians for the time (ie affirming miracles), but philosophically was essentially a physicalist).

Given materialist assumptions, a watchmaker Deity (or type of Design--not necessarily monotheistic) would seem to be the only remaining religious alternative. Then "Nature's God" suggests as much, and spares us 50 or 500 pages of metaphysical baggage.

Let's not forget his dismissal of infallibility, and remarks on Revelation (the ravings of a maniac).


Jonathan Rowe said...

But when talking with J. Adams on how they didn't believe in Calvin's God of demonism, he claimed that they both "adored" God who they saw as infinite benevolence. Is a distant clockmaker deity one worthy of adoration and one who is "benevolent."

Mark DeForrest said...

More to the point, Jefferson and Adams -- and even as much of an infidel as Franklin -- consistently and constantly affirmed that God was: 1) good; 2) to be worshiped; 3) intervened in human affairs via Providence; 4) would judge each and every person in the context of an afterlife. Regardless of their views on other aspects of metaphysicas, they affirmed those points solidly. And the kind of God they described is simply not a "watchmaker." Simply because they rejected the Nicene Creed doesn't mean that they rejected a personal God who intervened and judged in the affairs of men.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And you believe in six day creation and TULIP?

Mark in Spokane said...


Ha! I'm a Catholic so TULIP is not part of my faith tradition by any means. In fact, within the bounds of Catholic tradition, I tend to be more on the Suarez/Molina side of the predestination and grace question, as opposed to a stronger determinist position. So, I'm no Calvinist.

I'm not a young-earth creationist either. I think the earth has been here for a nice long time...

But all of that stuff about me is irrelevant when it comes to what the Founders thought about God. What if I was a frothing at the mouth Calvinist who believed that the earth was made in 6 days and is shaped like a burrito, so long as my historical research regarding the Founders' views on God was sound?

Is the idea that what I personally believes influences what I think the Founders thought? I hope that I am enough of a student of the Founding not to have that happen. There are all sorts of aspects of the Founding generation that I don't like and I don't agree with. I am a Trinitarian Christian -- I believe and affirm the Nicene Creed every Sunday at Mass. So, when the unitarians and deists among the Founders deny the Trinity, I think they are wrong. But I acknowledge the fact that they did deny the Trinity. I am a Catholic. Many of the Founders -- like Jefferson and Adams -- were, to be it mildly, not fans of Catholicism, considering it superstitious "priestcraft." Ok. I'm not going to try to whitewash that, because I don't agree with them on that point. If that's what the historical record shows, that's what it shows. All of the Founders, as far as I know, were opposed to interracial marriage. I am married to a woman of a different race than my own. So what? My views on interracial marriage (the greatest thing since sliced bread in my case!) have nothing to do with the actual record about what the Founders may have believed on that subject.

I hope my own personal convictions don't bleed over into my presentation of the evidence regarding the Founding generation's views and beliefs. Whatever I may personally think of the Founders' views, I try to represent those views objectively when I discuss them.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks, Mark. You are correct about not allowing your personal opinion bleed over into scholarship, but often it happens because one has to "put it together" somehow, when pieces are missing...

Do you study to know what the FF believed so that you can teach objectively? or maintain the stance of the FF in today's climate?

Mark in Spokane said...

Good questions, Angie! Why do I study the Founders. I do so for three primary reasons:

First, because I find the Founding Era to be fascinating for a whole host of reasons. The fusion of religion, classical studies, genteel society, the rough and tumble of the frontier, the farmer-businessman dichotomy (Hamilton v. Jefferson), race & class relations -- all of these things things are in play in the Founding era in a way that absolutely captivates me.

Then add the interesting twist of America being a colonial and then a minor power instead of the baddest guy on the continent, let alone the planet, and things get really interesting. America dependent on France? America invaded and its capital burned by England? Spain as a brooding power on America's border? Barbary Corsairs?

Second, I read the Founders and try to study them and their time in order to inculcate prudence. I look at them to see how they dealt with the issues of their time, how they made decisions, the factors that they looked at. I try to learn from their successes and their mistakes. For example, their failure to deal with slavery was based, at least in part, on an overly rosy assumption about economic progress -- thanks to the growth of the American econony, most of the Founders thought that slavery would eventually just die out. Big mistake. Why did they make that mistake? What didn't they foresee (the cotton gin!)? What assumptions undergirded that mistake?

Third, I do study the Founding to help me understand and teach applicable areas of the law -- why our legal system is the way it is, why our constitution is the way it is, what the Founders were trying to do. In some limited instances, I think that the Founders' views have legal relevance when dealing with constitutional law. Let me give you one example of this. The Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement usually is attributed to the Founders' absolute hatred of an English royal writ known as a "general warrant." That can give us an idea today about the kind of law enforcement practices that the constitution was mean to limit.

But this third function, to be honest, is the least interesting aspect of the Founding generation and its ideas to me. The other two are far more important. But that's just me. Why others study the Founding period, I haven't a clue.


Mark in Spokane said...

One last thing -- I don't believe in defending the "stance" of the Founders in today's society tout court. I think the Founders got some things remarkably right -- religious liberty, for example, and the separation of powers. I think they got some things catastrophically wrong -- slavery, most notably. I find some of what they did absolutely detestible -- for example, Jefferson and Franklin behaved, both personally and in terms of practicing "dirty politics," in ways that I find repellant. Even one of my favorite Founders, John Adams, did stuff like supporting the Alien and Sedition Acts that I look at and just shake my head at and say, "what was he thinking?"