Friday, August 14, 2009

Christianist, Mormons, and Early Presidents

This is an old post I dug out of the archives of my other blogs. Contributor TVD reminded me of it in a recent comment.

The theological split between Mormons and conservative Christians may give Mitt Romney some problems securing the GOP's nomination. Check out this column by Christianist Frank Pastore. While he notes he could vote for Romney, he also has to include the following caveat:

Though I could vote for Romney, my ballot should not be seen as an endorsement of Mor-monism. Conservative Mormons are among the finest people I've ever met, and they are critical allies in the culture war. I appreciate their contribution to advancing our shared values. Yet as we make common cause, I should not be asked or feel pressured to compromise, weaken, or di-lute my theology. Allies need not obfuscate distinctives. We can unite politically and socially to advance our cause, but we must not blur the lines between our distinct religions.

Just as Christians and Jews, by definition, cannot ignore their differences over the resurrec-tion and the New Testament, so too Christians and Mormons cannot ignore the differences be-tween the Bible and the three books of Mormonism: the Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Cove-nants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

Yet many Mormons in recent years have taken to calling themselves Christians, and a grow-ing number of Christians are willing to speak of Mormonism as something akin to another Chris-tian denomination. But, Mormonism is not a Christian denomination, nor is it merely "a non-Christian religion." To be theologically precise, though perhaps politically incorrect, Mormonism is a cult of Christianity ( -- a group that claims to Chris-tian while denying one or more central doctrines of the Christian faith.

The polytheism of Latter Day Saints is a striking contrast to the monotheism of the Bible. The Mormons also deny original sin (central to a Christian understanding of the human condition) and believe that Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary. I could go on, but Mormonism has far more that distinguishes it from the historic Christian faith than unites it to Christianity.

So, though I am willing to unite with and befriend Mormons in common cause to advance our shared values, I am hoping to be a voice of clarity -- unwilling to allow Mormonism to be mis-taken for orthodox Christianity and unwilling again to disqualify a candidate simply because he is from a faith tradition so different from my own.

Attitudes like that, no doubt, will scare many fundamentalist Christians from voting for Romney. However amusing his article, Pastore makes one glaring historical error, very apt to whether "non-Christians" like the Mormons traditionally have had a place in the White House. He writes:

Historically, our largely Christian country has chosen to elect Christian candidates (not that there have been many non-Christian candidates). In the last two presidential elections, church attendance was the most reliable indicator of voting preferences. It's no coincidence that the Democrats this time around are determined to appear more religious (i.e., more evangelical friendly) in order to win the White House. Yet, if appearing more religious in this majority-Christian nation is an electoral advantage, then being from a faith other than Christianity pre-sents a new set of challenges. And therein lies the problem for the Romney campaign.

The problem for Pastore is if you define the Christian faith so narrowly as to exclude Mormons, you must also exclude our key Founding Fathers, including the first half dozen Presidents or so.

Some orthodox believers in the Founding era were aware of this dynamic. Rev. Wilson notoriously noted in 1831: "[A]mong all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." [Note: Though Till acts as if he is quoting Rev. Wilson directly, it seems he is quoting John E. Remsburg paraphrasing Wilson's sermon. See the primary source, Remsburg's book.]

He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).

A bit of clarification. James Monroe, according to David Holmes, seems to have been, like the other key Founders a "theistic rationalist," which some see as a softer form of deism, or a more liberal, rational form of Christianity (Holmes calls him a Deist; Holmes labels theistic rationalists either "Christian-Deists" or "Unitarians." I get the impression that's exactly the kind of "deist" he argues Monroe was.)

John Q.Adams was born and raised a Unitarian like his father, but sometime during college converted to a more of a Trinitarian Calvinistic form of Christianity. Yet, JQA throughout the rest of his life seemed to vacillate between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism, and I'm pretty sure died a Unitarian.

I have never studied the religion of Andrew Jackson.

Though, most of these early Presidents did have some sort of formal or nominal connection with a church that professed orthodoxy; for instance, Washington, Madison and Jefferson were all Anglican/Episcopalians. However, these early Presidents/key Founders rejected those core teachings of Pastore's understanding of Christianity (and their own Churches') just as much as if not more so than Mormons do.

They weren't "strict deists" as some on the secular left mistakenly believe; their God was an active personal Providence. However, they bitterly rejected the Nicene Creed and core doctrines of orthodoxy which define Christianity for folks like Pastore. Adams and Jefferson were fervent theological unitarians who bitterly attacked the Trinity and its subsidiary doctrines as metaphysical insanities which stupified the minds of Christians.

True, they were publicly silent on their heterodoxy and their Churches, with the exception of Adams', still affirmed orthodoxy. (Even with Adams, though his Church preached unitarianism as of 1750, I'm not sure when his Congregation officially changed its creed to "Unitarianism." It could have been before or after his election to Presidency.)

But we no longer live in the 1700s. That these great leaders were no more "Christian" than Mormons are "Christian" is a fact of our diverse religious heritage which ought to be embraced. If more folks understood these early Presidents and Founders, like the Mormons, were of what folks like Pastore consider "a faith other than Christianity," perhaps the Romney campaign can spin this "challenge" or "problem" into a talking points solution. Or, on the other hand, raising this point might just tick off the Christianists and further alienate Romney. This history, though, as it relates to early Presidents and Founders, is on his side.


Brad Hart said...

Interesting article. A couple points:

1.) If believing that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind then yes, Mormons MUST be considered Christians. If, however, the definition of Christianity is to subscribe to traditional beliefs on the Trinity, Original sin, et. al, them Mormonism doesn't fit the definition. It's all an argument of semantics and is left to the personal interpretation of the individual.

2.) Mormons DO NOT believe Jesus was conceived through sex between God and Mary. This is an old "folklorish" idea that has been refuted by countess modern Mormon leaders.

3.) You are right to exclude many of the "key founders" from being Christians...that is...if you are one who subscribes to the belief that TRADITIONAL Christian doctrine is the EXCLUSIVE definition for Christianity. Again, it's all an issue of personal semantics. If you deny Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. the distinction of being "Christians" then you MUST also deny Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and many others that same distinction. It's only fair.

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

You're overlooking the Framers' praise of Reason. Unitarianism, while not exactly calvinist orthodoxy, could be squared with the Framer's rationality, more or less--though Unitarianism certainly offended the fire and brimstone types (as it did when unitarian yankees such as Emerson supported abolition)

I don't think the visions of Joe Smith could be squared with Reason (Locke would have termed Smith's visions--and claims that natives were one of the 12 tribes, Christ walked the Americas, etc-- Enthusiasm of the most severe sort, near to lunacy).

Mormons are covered under First Amendment, of course. There are some intelligent Mormons people (and taking on the liquor business not completely mistaken), and some may have distanced themselves from Smith and Brigham Young, polygamy, mistreatment of natives, etc but the initial formation of the LDS was hardly christian (and let's not forget the masonic aspects of Smith's supposed visions as well).

Mark Twain may not have been some high-powered philosopher, but reading the sections of "Roughing It" addressed to Young's theocratic regime, one gets the sense (while chuckling at descriptions of the 70+ kids of Young, and 25 wifeys or so) that Twain/Clemens felt the LDS was a complete negation of the principles of the American Revolution.

Brad Hart said...

I hear what you are saying but I think you may have missed Jon's basic point. Comparing the founders' affinity for reason with the alleged revelations of Smith is silly. You are right about that. However, comparing the "infidel" leanings of Mormonism (infidel in that they do not subscribe to the traditional doctrines of Christianity) and the "infidel" leanings of many key founders can and does serve as a good barometer for the "Christian Nation" crowd. After all, if the Christian Nation (which is predominantly Evangelical in its makeup) is willing to deny Mormons the title of "Christians" then they must do the same for many of the founders.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Though I could vote for Romney, my ballot should not be seen as an endorsement of Mormonism."

Just as a vore for John F. Kennedy wasn't an endorsement of Roman Catholicism. Duh.

As long as people like the evangelical Rev. Frank Pastore or the Rev. Wilson dictate the frame of this debate, we're not doing history. I continue to object to the inclusion of those with a theological axe to grind except as a footnote to history.

The distinguishing features of the American Founding were a) a disdain for such clergy, who could always be counted on to sow theological discord and the poison of sectarianism, and on the other hand, b) a rejection of atheism, which does not and cannot respect the concept of God-given rights, the cornerstone of the American Experiment in liberty.

As we recall, when Samuel Adams had all the sects join in prayer, the American Revolution was on its way.

[We do recall that, right?]

Brad Hart said...

VERY good points, Tom!

By the way, it's good to see you again! It seems like ages since I have been able to engage in this blog. I'm glad to be back!

J said...

Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Franklin, and others --Adams, most likely-- certainly contemplated atheism (TJ kept a bust of Voltaire in his study his entire life).

Madison may have gradually moved back towards a type of nominal Christianity, but read his "Remonstrance" from what 1785 or so: it sounds about like Christopher Hitchens:

"""Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"""

"All other religions"--that would include non-judeo-christian ones, even mormonism, would it not. Madison certainly supported ecumenicalism, as y'all say.

All hail ye Lamanites!

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you're misreading Madison's argument. "Sects" refers to the denominations of Protestantism, and indeed, it was the Baptisits who accepted the argument and turned their support to the Virginia statutes vs. the dominant Episcopalians.

The prevailing narrative is that the forces of Enlightenment carried the day, but that's not accurate.

For the record, only Jefferson and Adams vociferiously rejected the Trinity [and only in private!]; of Washington and the others, nothing is provavble, except that JQ Adams did voice very strong doubts.

As for Voltaire, John Adams denounced him and others of his ilk, in an 1810 letter to Benjamin Rush, as I recall.

J said...

For the record, the Remonstrance clearly shows Madison's secular inclinations. The point was not primarily about christian "sects", but about the key Framers' refusal to give in to the fundamentalists of the time who wanted America to be a Christian nation.

Mad's suggesting that allowing Christianity to be the official religion would most likely result in one sect proclaiming superiority to the rest (Madison probably had in mind the presbyterians and/or baptists)--an unpleasant and unconstitutional situation. So best to prevent all that by allowing all religions, even non-christian or "heretical" (echoed also in the Tripoli declaration). Madison indeed anticipates the First Amendment in the Remonstrance.

As far as "Voltaire and his ilk" (rather sophomoric if not jingoistic criticism), Jefferson was not the only Framer who had met him. Ben Franklin shook hands with Voltaire as well.

Do you have a quote of Adams criticizing Voltaire? Sounds a bit out of character. The french-haters were Patrick Henry and pals--sort of the Pat Robertsons of 1790 or so.

Tony Sifert said...

J - Some "French-hating" (and Tom Paine-hating) quotations from John Adams, though I don't think they mention Voltaire in particular, can be found in Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," starting around pg. 86.

Jonathan Rowe said...

To be fair John Adams criticized EVERYBODY, including Joseph Priestley whom he and Jefferson (and probably Franklin) regarded as a spiritual mentor.

On the whole, I think he regarded Voltaire in the negative sense; but you can find words of praise and criticism of Adams on Voltaire.

Adams thought himself a "Christian," was a devout theist and a fervent unitarian. He was virtually a Roman Catholic bigot, and blasted orthodox Trinitarians to his right almost as harshly as he did the deistic and atheistic philosophers to his left.

Tom Van Dyke said...

J, you still misread Madison's argument in that particular quote.

And "ilk" is not a pejorative. Even sophomores know that.

ilk1  /ɪlk/

–noun 1. family, class, or kind: he and all his ilk.

–adjective 2. same.

3. of that ilk, a. (in Scotland) of the same family name or place: Ross of that ilk, i.e., Ross of Ross.
b. of the same class or kind.

bef. 900; ME ilke, OE ilca (pronoun) the same, equiv. to demonstrative i (c. Goth is he, L is that) + a reduced form of līc like 1 ; cf. which, such


Further, your remarks about the Mormon faith were the same sort of thing you just wrongly accused me of. Since there are several members of the Mormon faith here in attendance [and even if there were not], you could have phrased your remarks more like an upperclassman.

As for the Virginia Statute and Madison's M&R's effect on it, as well as its greater effect on the First Amendment, there is a nuance beyond "fundamentalists" turning America into a Christian nation.

Religious issues like this were left to the states under the principle of federalism. Had there been any more religion in the Constitution, states like Virginia would have been unable to ratify it under their own laws and charters, as Joseph Story pointed out in his seminal study of the Constitution.

Which you can find with little google trouble, as well as Adams' 1810 letter to Rush.

In fact, you can use the "search" function on this very blog, as we've covered both issues.

J said...

No, TvD you misread it, or rather don't understand it (it is based on Reason, instead of say the Book of Revelation,or Book of Mormon). Madison asserts that Christianity has no political standing over other religions--and a fortiori, no xtian sect would have any standing over other sects.

Madison thus argues against Christianity as a official state church (ala no Church of England, nor following in the footsteps of the various catholic or lutheran states of Europe), or even semi-official --in this passage, and others. That he makes reference to sects doesn't offer the calvinist-theocrat any support. IN fact the entire Remonstrance may be one of the clearest statements of Madison's secular principles (and one being overlooked by the Christian nation crowd).

Logic's not your strong point, TvD. Maybe some exegesis of Smith's conversations with the Angel Moroni, or ......translations of Zee Golden Plates? Wunderbar

"Ilk's" pejorative in common usage, regardless what your online Webster's says

(and as even Rowe stated, Adams praised Voltaire in his diary, when Franklin and Voltaire embraced a few months before Le Mort de Voltaire. Decades later, Adams did object to some apparent anti-semitic passages in Voltaire's writing. Tant pis.

Adams was hardly consistent himself--he hated Jefferson at first, and then after TJ's presidency, and successes, more or less pleaded with Jefferson to make amends...and was in ways even more skeptical of christian orthodoxy)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, we know all that, J, and have discussed it. In fact it was the aforementioned Benjamin Rush who reconciled them, based on a dream he considered to be of divine origin. Your remarks indicate you were unaware of that. Which is OK, as it's an obscure tidbit, but please, sir, you seem to think we just dropped in from Mars as well.

You continue to miss the dynamics of the religious debate, preferring a caricature of it. The winning argument wasn't secular, it was that once you go after one particular sect, next time they might be coming after yours. It was an entirely practical argument, and one that the Baptists figured out on their own. Madison's M&R was not what swung the day.

As for my logic, your opinion of it is appreciated, but my objection to your remarks on Mormonism was for its breech of our standards of civility, not its content. You don't insult other people's religions, OK? Surely even someone who just dropped in from Mars can respect that.

Further emications will result in the immediate contrority and derundment of all sarmansants involved.

J said...

No. I have never denied that christianity played a role in the foundation of America, or that many ratifiers of the Constitution were traditionally christian. Yet the central documents written by the leading lights were primarily secular--including Madison's Remonstrance, written a few months before the Virginia Assembly passed Jefferson's Bill for Religious Liberty (after a few years of arguing). Anyone who does NOT belong to a mainstream protestant sect--catholics, muslims, hindus, jews, even mormonics-- should say grazi for that secular move, really.

(and they should be thankful for the Federalist power of the 1st Amendment --courtesy of Madison-- which prevents states from setting up any religious sect as official doctrine. All rather obvious, but the sectarian pettifogging tends to overlook the essential rational and secular core of the foundation (""well, Rev Higginsbothams, Mayor of Richmond, was a Arminian with reformed socianian-anabaptist tendencies, yet had rationalist leanings ala Zwingli" ...yada yada yada)

Tom Van Dyke said...

(and they should be thankful for the Federalist power of the 1st Amendment --courtesy of Madison-- which prevents states from setting up any religious sect as official doctrine.


J said...

You're wrong.

You misinterpret Federalism as well, TvD. Federalists opposed states' rights--and Madison was a big Federalist (second only to Hamilton). Res Publica itself derives from Latin and in european usage means the parties opposed to monarchy and theocracy. Madison's no Lockean democrat, and was quite concerned with controlling sects--"factions".

The aged Madison may have attended church once in a while, but vociferously opposed military chaplains and wanted to end the tax exemption for churches. Really, Madison's political ideas do not assist the christian nation thesis.

King of Ireland said...

I am still wondering how trying to figure out what which founders were or were not Christian has to do with where the ideas they used came from. The whole thing was begun with a legal document that severed all ties with the King of England. The rubber meets the road when we begin to discuss whether the ideas behind the Declaration are part of Christian theology and philosophy or Enlightenment philosophy.

It is these ideas that should be at the center of this debate not what the people believed who used them. More specifically, the only theological ideas that matter are those to do with political theology not doctrines of salvation. A shift in the frame of the debate will inevitably lead us to a pre-Aquinas understanding of what "The laws of nature and natures God", "self-evident" knowledge, "unalienable rights", and "consent of the governed" mean.

Once this is understood, one will see that the Declaration was the only "legal" means available to the founders once they were stripped of their rights as Englishmen. They used the same legal arguments that Hooker and Locke used that were based on over-ruling the king by appealing to the "Supreme Judge".

I think all forget that the Magna Carta was pre-enlightenment. Maybe these ideas did not begin with Enlightenment "rationalists"?