Sunday, January 24, 2010

Samuel W. Calhoun v. Geoff Stone on the Christian Nation Debate

Samuel W. Calhoun writes a spirited response to Geoff Stone's "The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?" A taste:

Professor Stone’s evidence for deism’s surpassing significance is flawed. By his own description of their beliefs, some of which were indisputably deis?tic, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson do not belong in the “flat-out” deist category to which Professor Stone assigns them.[17] Deists thought that God does not “intervene[ ] in human history,”[18] yet Franklin believed that God “‘governs the World by his Providence.’”[19] Jefferson was “the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence.”[20] Professor Stone characterizes this document as “a statement . . . of American deism,”[21] but its language shows the opposite to be true. If God does not interact with mankind, why did the signatories appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the World” to vindicate their honorable intentions, and also express confidence in “the Protection of divine Providence”?[22]

Another way to overemphasize the impact of deism is to overstate the decline of orthodox Christianity. Professor Stone does this in part by oversim?plifying the record concerning the complex issue of George Washington’s religious faith. A letter to Lafayette is quoted in which Washington said that he was “‘no bigot . . . to any mode of worship.’”[23] It is also claimed that “Washington’s personal papers . . . offer no evidence that he believed in . . . Jesus’[ ] divinity”[24]; that “[i]n several thousand letters, he never once mentioned Jesus”[25]; and that, “[a]s president, Washington was always careful not to invoke Christianity[, but h]is official speeches, orders, and other public communica?tions scrupulously reflected the perspective of a deist.”[26][JSK1]

Contrast this rendering with the fuller picture. Washington’s statement to Lafayette is accurately related as far as it goes, but Professor Stone omits the critical words that follow the quoted phrase: “Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.”[27] Professor Stone is correct to suggest that had Washington been a committed Christian, one would expect to find more references to Jesus and Christianity in his works. But Professor Stone once again gives an incomplete account. First, at least one of his three specific claims about Washington’s use of language is incorrect.[28] Washington as president did not “scrupulously reflect[ ]” a deistic perspective. In an October 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington referred to “Almighty God,”[29][JSK2] hardly a “deistic phrase[ ],”[30] and also urged that various “prayers and supplications” be offered,[31] a nonsensical entreaty had he shared the deistic belief that God does not “listen[ ] to personal prayers.”[32] Second, Professor Stone ignores two public occasions when Washington did refer to Jesus. In 1779, General Washington urged the Delaware Chiefs “to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”[33] More importantly, Washington ended his 1783 Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States on Disbanding the Army by stating in his prayer for the Governors and their respec?tive States that

God would . . . dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.[34]

Prof. Stone responds. A taste:

In reading Professor Calhoun’s response, I was struck not only by his determination to refute almost every statement, but also by his sharply accu?satory tone. (I should note that, in a rare moment of magnanimity, Professor Calhoun generously acquits me of being “shrill,”[3] though I’m not at all sure I can return the compliment.) I have often challenged the work of scholars with whom I disagree, and they have often challenged me. But rarely have I seen so uncivil a tone as that evidenced by Professor Calhoun. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of free speech and I would defend to the death Professor Calhoun’s right to be as uncivil as he likes. Indeed, if he truly believes that I “distorted” the evidence in order to “mislead” my audience, then he is certainly right to take me to the woodshed. But why would he accuse me of intentionally distorting the evidence and attempting to mislead my audience? Whatever happened to honest error (if error there be) and collegial disagreement? Professor Calhoun seems like a perfectly decent fel?low, so what is going on here? Why in God’s name is he so overwrought?

My puzzlement goes well beyond Professor Calhoun’s litany of quibbles and un-Christian tone. More substantively, he attacks me repeatedly for claims I never made. This is vexing. I was quite careful in my lecture to state pre?cisely what I was claiming. I made three claims that seem most relevant to this discussion: First, and most importantly, I claimed that the Framers did not intend to establish a Christian nation. Second, I claimed that the Framers believed that religion “should play a role in helping ‘to preserve the civil morality necessary to democracy,’” but that they also thought that “in the ‘public business of the nation’” it was “essential for the government to speak of religion ‘in a way that was unifying, not divisive.’”[4] And third, I claimed that when we consider what the Constitution “allows” in the realm of relig?ion, “it helps to know the truth” about what the Framers believed and “what they aspired to when they created this nation.”[5]

With respect to my first claim, Professor Calhoun concedes the point.[6] Thus, we can put aside the Christian nation issue. Ironically, in light of the fury of his attack, this was the primary point of my lecture, as was evident from its title—The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?

One quibble with Prof. Calhoun's analysis of GW & the letter to the Delaware Indians (which like the 1783 Circular was not written by Washington but signed by him). The entire context of GW's correspondence reveals he wasn't URGING them to “to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ" but rather APPROVING of their already made decision to do so.

This is exactly what Washington said with MY EMPHASIS on how the phrase SHOULD read when one understands the context:

Brothers: I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly. This is a great mark of your confidence and of your desire to preserve the friendship between the Two Nations to the end of time, and to become One people with your Brethen of the United States. My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

For more on the context see here. I noted that GW was replying to a REQUEST from the Indians a part of which read as follows:

5th. That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation — the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far away as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their power.

It's a non-sequitur to conclude -- as some have -- that Washington was an orthodox Christian based on his expressed sentiments (written by aide, Robert Hanson Harrison) to the Delaware Indians. Rather Washington intuitively thought it a good idea for Indians to convert to the dominant religion of America and learn our other ways of life. George Washington thought the purpose of "religion," -- i.e., why Indians should convert to Christianity -- was civic utility. No evidence shows GW thought only Christianity true, other religions false (i.e., the orthodox position). Did he, GW wouldn't have twice (here and here), when speaking to unconverted Natives, termed God the "Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Christians do.


Unknown said...

Stone just accuses him of being un-civil, which I did not think he was, and then does not answer any of his charges that are emphatically true. I would not even call this a debate. One side has to be at least somewhat credible for it to be called that.

dunnettreader said...

Stone just accuses him of being un-civil
It's quite a bit more than that. "Civility" in fact is central to Stone's historical inquiry and the lessons that history might suggest.

Stone first accuses Calhoun of attacking a series of strawmen of Calhoun's invention, and not engaging in the conversation Stone was trying to have. Stone doesn't pick apart Calhoun's various claims and counter-claims. But he surely could have. From just a quick skim it looks like Calhoun has cherry-picked his evidence and played games with some definitions. E.g. Calhoun's discussion of deists and Providence is too narrow and too broad at the same time, and Stone could have chosen to defend himself and attack Calhoun on that score.

But Stone refuses go there, because that would be accepting Calhoun's reframing of Stone's initial paper. And Stone totally rejects Calhoun's reframing.

Stone then goes back to explain his central original thesis about how some of the key FFs viewed the place of religion in the republic they were in the process of inventing. Stone believes many FFs shared a positive attitude about the civic utility of Religion for a republic -- and he explains how they thought religion could contribute to good citizenship, a sense of working for the public good in a manner of decency, respect and civility. But the FFs also had negative attitudes, inspired by the recent centuries of religious conflict, about the ability of specific religions to use the coercive power of the state. They also feared the destructiveness for a republic of inserting personal religious beliefs -- as legitimating principles -- into public debate which would tend to inflame passions and defeat reasoned discussion.

Stone then uses Calhoun's own difficulties with civility as a cautionary tale that illustrates the distinctions Stone is trying to flesh out in examining the history of the attitudes of some FFs. Calhoun has candidly admitted his own difficulties with managing civility while engaging in public policy debates with people who don't share his religious views. Calhoun can't appeal to what he accepts as religious authority if his interlocuteurs don't share his specific religious beliefs. The challenge for Calhoun of finding a non-religiously-defined way of communicating policy options and preferences in a civil fashion leaves Calhoun admittedly anxious. Civility is in fact hard stuff.

Stone makes clear, however, that he's not suggesting that the FFs would expect Calhoun would or should segregate his religious beliefs from his political or policy preferences. And that, says Stone, is where the difficulty for our political system (as protected by the courts interpreting the Bill of Rights) lies. How to distinguish between unlawful attempts to impose one's religious beliefs on others from non-religiously motivated and justified policy.

Stone is saying that we and the courts can never know what's in another's heart. So all we can do is to continue the experiment he believes the FFs launched us on, while acknowledging as they did both the potential positive (civic virtue) and negative (erosion of liberty) effects of religion on our politics. Civility, including the ability to hear and acknowledge what another person is actually saying, is a necessary condition to that process.

Unknown said...

Stone states that people were Deists who clearly were not. That is what he got called on. He is wrong. Now I have not read all of Stone's argument only what others have written about it and what Jon quoted here. So to his overall point I cannot comment. But I read enough not to want to read more if he is going to call people Deist who were not.

Unknown said...

Jon stated:

"Did he, GW wouldn't have twice (here and here), when speaking to unconverted Natives, termed God the "Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Christians do."

Be careful here Jon. There are many in the Evangelical movement that believe this true to a degree. A book by a guy named Don Richards called "Eternity in their Hearts" chronicles various tribes that had legends about a white man coming with a book that would reintroduce them to God. Many of them had different names for God. The hebrews did too.

What is the issue? I think you need to leave the world of strict Calvin as postulated by Frazer and read some other stuff from that crowd. There is more of a diversity of opinion than you let on.

Christopher Smith said...

If our definition of "Christian" is going to be broad enough to encompass the Founders, then I don't see why we shouldn't leave similar leeway in our definition of "deist". Deism isn't always defined in a way that excludes Providence and divine interventionism. In fact, Jefferson himself considered the Jews to be deists, though I think they'd hardly fit under Calhoun's definition of that term.

Jonathan Rowe said...


That's a good point. One viable definition of "Deist" during the American Founding (i.e., Jefferson's) is the belief in one God only. That way, Jews, orthodox Christians, Unitarians, Muslims are all "Deists."

One problem with that is the definition is too broad that it loses its meaning.

However a similar problem can be raised with "Christian" -- the anyone who calls himself a Christian even if he rejects all of the orthodox doctrines, and doesn't believe the Bible as revelation -- is similarly so broad that it loses its meaning.

David Holmes, as you know, terms the middle ground position "Christian-Deism" that distinguishes from the "non-Christian Deism" of Paine and "orthodox Christianity."

dunnettreader said...

Stone states that people were Deists who clearly were not.

Not so clear. Calhoun takes a narrow definition of deism and a loosey-goosey application of Providential rhetoric to "prove" that some folks weren't "deists." Frex, lots of "deists" would have absolutely no problem with "Almighty God." And many were Providential in the sense of grand scheme beyond man's ken even if they rejected God acting in specific ways in history, or were strong "free will"ers, etc. There was great variety. There wasn't a deist "clergy" who defined deist "creed" to determine who was "in" and who wasn't. An occasional public rhetoric of prayer isn't proof that speaker/writer wasn't a deist. Similarly, a "big tent" rhetoric that speaks to many different theological traditions isn't "proof" of the speaker/writer's deism or lack of orthodox Christian beliefs.

So without going to the bother of picking over Calhoun's "proofs", I was underwhelmed with both his evidence and argument.

Stone could have debated Calhoun's debateable claims, but as he pointed out, that's a sideshow to what his paper was about, which involves attitudes toward religion-and-politics shared by key FFs who might, in their private heart-of-hearts, have been Deists or heretics or heterodox "Christians" or Trinitarians etc etc.

But this really gets back to the point I made a week or so ago. So many of the 18thC debates were about ecclesiology, not theology. So folks with very different theological positions might share similar approaches to ecclesiology or politico-theology. Deciding what label to stick on a particular FF's theological views (was he "really" deist, etc) often results in missing the forest for the trees. Which, as I read Stone's response, was part of what he was trying to say when he turned his remarks back to the theme of civility.

Christopher Smith said...

Hi Jon,

>>That way, Jews, orthodox Christians, Unitarians, Muslims are all "Deists."

I don't think Jefferson would have included orthodox Christians in that category. He didn't really think of them as true monotheists.

But, point taken. If we're going to label the Founders, then we need to carefully define our terms, and qualify our labels.

Which is the same that I'd say to those who want to label them "Christians".



Jonathan Rowe said...


I think you are right except for the fact that, confusingly, Jefferson and J. Adams had schizophrenic attitudes towards Trinitarians.

On the one hand, sometimes they were not "Christians" but fanatical polytheists who worshipped three Gods. Other days, they were fellow "Christians" with whom they wished communion, while lamenting the fact that they believed in an irrational doctrine (the Trinity).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Calhoun attacks one of Stone's fundamental premises:

“[t]he significance of deism for the creation of the United States ‘can hardly be overstated.’”

and attacks it well. It is completely overstated. Deism was fairly dead by the 1750s, and outside Paine [not a "key" Founder] and at a stretch Jefferson, the Founders weren't deists. the deist God is distant and remote: the Founders [especially see Washington's First inaugural] saw the Divine Hand in the success of the revolution and indeed in the success of achieving a constitution.

"Deism led the “founding generation [to view] religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.”

this is true in the private writings of Jefferson and Adams.

For the record, franklon abandoned deism fairly early on, and although he remained agnostic on the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, in his way was more devout and lived the Bible more than many who professed orthodoxy.

I did a brief study based on Franklin's own autobiography here

The rest of Stone's reply is a typical modern politics which I find foggy and unfounded. Which is fine, but invoking US history in support of his position, he's all wet. As for the rest of it, it's not the purview of this blog, but I'm not surprised Calhoun got angry and felt the need to parse every half-truth.


Mary, I know you're mostly familiar with Bolingbroke, but his posthumous writings in defense of deism made few waves when finally published in 1775 or so. It was already dead and was really an English thing, not an American one.

Daniel said...

During the 17th and 18th centuries, labels tended to be very elastic Depending on the speaker or writer, "Christian" could be expanded to include any person of good-will or contracted to include only with an appropriate personal confession. "Atheist" was applied to Hobbes, Hume, and Spinoza, although none of them would fall within our common definition. "Deist" was also elastic. I agree with Jon that elastic definitions can render words unhelpful, but we must keep in mind that, in the period under consideration, those definitions were not well fixed so usage can depend on context.

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