Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year, New Look

With 2011 just around the corner, we here at American Creation are proud to unveil our blog's new makeover! After almost three years it felt like a change might do us some good and hopefully you will all agree. Please feel free to take a look around and let us know of any recommendations you might have to make AC even better.

From all of us at American Creation we wish you a happy and healthy new year! A special thanks to all of our contributors, readers, etc. for everything you have done to help make 2010 our best year to date! We are looking forward to a wonderful 2011 and hope you will all be a part of it!

Pastor Rutherford Responds

Yesterday I posted a review of a video done by Pastor Dudley Rutherford of Shepherd of the Hills Church in California. In the article, I pointed out some of the historical errors that existed in his presentation. This morning, I received an email reply from Pastor Rutherford, in which he explained what had happened with the video and the fact that he never meant to mislead anyone. Included in his email was a letter of correction that he has sent out to those who have questioned his video's claims. I thought it only fair to reproduce some of it here for our readers:
Please allow me to address some of your concerns and know this is from my heart.

We made a video. We will call in video #1. Within just a few days, we were told that some of our facts were wrong, starting with the name of the fort. We ourselves were upset that we had our facts wrong. When we shot video #1 we thought our facts were correct. We had no intention of misleading anyone. We simply had our facts wrong.

So we IMMEDIATELY filmed video #2. Video #2 was exactly like video #1 EXCEPT we corrected the name of the fort and a few other facts. We thought we nailed video #2.

Here's what happened. We SHOWED video #2 (the corrected video), yet someone, we don't know who, POSTED video #1 on the web and the thing went viral on us. We have tried to calm the viral, but once something goes on the web you can't control it.

[...]

We are sincerely sorry for ever creating video #1 and NOT having all of our facts correct. It was NOT intentional and we have ZERO desire to mislead people. In fact, we want just the opposite. We want to reveal the true history with the true facts. That's why we created video #2 with the correct facts. But by the time it was completed, it was too late, for video #1 went viral on us. Please accept our sincere apology and know we are trying to correct the situation as best we can
In addition, Pastor Rutherford informed me that a 3rd video, with the correct history, will be out shortly. I have promised Pastor Rutherford that this video will be welcomed here at American Creation when it is finished.

I for one wish to commend Pastor Rutherford on his desire to get the history right and I believe he is being 100% honest in his endeavors. I only wish that others would do the same. Oh, and for the record, I too need to correct a mistake. In the post below I stated that Pastor Rutherford was going to be a guest on Glenn Beck's show. This isn't true. A friend of mine (a former contributor to this blog) who sent me Pastor Rutherford's video informed me that he would be on Beck's show. Apparently she (and I) was wrong. Rutherford has never been contacted to appear with Beck. This was my mistake and I own it.

I have extended an invitation to Pastor Rutherford to post anything he'd like here at American Creation, and we would be more than happy to have him if he chooses.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Star-Spangled Banner (Except Not Really)

With snow piling up in Colorado it looks like I have some extra time to devote to blogging this weekend. To start things off, I wanted to address a video that has become quite popular over the past few months. In fact, three different people have sent it to me via email this past week. The video is of a man named Dudley Rutherford. Rutherford is the Pastor of the Shepherd of the Hills Church in California. In the video, Rutherford gives a stirring and patriotic account of what he calls the story behind the National Anthem. The video has gained so much attention that even Glenn Beck, pseudo historian extraordiaire, is planning on having Mr. Rutherford on to discuss the "real" history of our nation's anthem. Take a look:



Now, before I point out where he went terribly wrong with his history let me first state for the record that I admire Mr. Rutherford's love of country. One of the things I appreciate most about the Christian right is their reverence for this nation and their appreciation for those who went before us. In my opinion, this is something that the secularists on the left (and yes, I realize that not every secularist fits this mold) either detests or can't seem to understand. With that said, I do want to address Mr. Rutherford's woefully inaccurate account in the video above. I do so with the intent to simply correct the history. In no way am I suggesting that Mr. Rutherford is a diabolical liar bent on twisting history for his own personal gain.

1.) About 39 seconds in, Rutherford stated that "the colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain." Rutherford continuously refers to "the colonies" throughout the video, which reveals very poor chronology on his part. The American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, which means that "the colonies" had become a thing of the past. By the time Francis Scott Key met with the British at the Battle of Baltimore the United States had been a sovereign nation for over 30 years. They were not "colonies". Rutherford messes up his chronology by assuming that the Battle of Baltimore took place during the American Revolution, and he is incorrect.

2.) Key did not sail out to the British to free a bunch of prisoners. In fact, he sailed out in order to free only ONE prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. As for Rutherford's claim that Key tried to liberate a bunch of men who were being kept in chains in a cargo hold, this is completely not true. In reality, Key was considered a "guest" on board a British command frigate, where he dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:
When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.
Again, no account of hundreds of men, in chains, in a dark cargo hold being comforted by Francis Scott Key.

3.) Rutherford continuously refers to the fort as "Fort Henry." It was actually called Fort McHenry.

4.) Rutherford is right when he states that Key, Beanes, and John Skinner (who accompanied Key) were not allowed to return to shore, due to the impending attack by the British. This point, however, is about the only point Rutherford gets right. He then completely derails and really screws up the true history. Rutherford claims that Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was in command of the British naval forces, informed Key that he was going to reduce Fort McHenry to rubble. This isn't true. The British had no intention of destroying the fort but instead wanted to capture it.

5.) Rutherford states that Admiral Cochrane informed Francis Scott Key that "the entire British war fleet...with hundreds of ships" were going to attack the "Fort Henry." This is completely untrue. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns that could reach the shore. Also, it is important to note that Cochrane had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men who he had sent ashore.

6.) There were no women or children in the fort. Another bogus claim. I think Rutherford states this because there was one woman killed in the bombardment. She was trying to bring her husband and other men dinner when a bomb took her out.

7.) Rutherford is 100% wrong when he states than men from the fort held the flag up "until they died" and that "the patriot's bodies" were piled around the flag pole. Not true. Only 3-5 soldiers were killed in the fort, nothing more.

*** On a side note, I am curious to know if the Washington quote that Rutherford brings up is true. He claims that Key was inspired by Washington's following words:
"The thing that separates the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"
I have looked around and cannot find anything to substantiate or repudiate that Washington did/did not say this. Anyone out there have the answer?

In conclusion, my intention is not to make fun of Mr. Rutherford or to start calling him a pathological liar. Instead, I simply believe that patriotism based on mythical history really isn't patriotism, and sadly, too many people gobble this stuff up as gospel. After all, it came from a pastor!

***Update: In the post I mistakenly stated that Mr. Rutherford was going to be on Glenn Beck's show. That is not true. Mr. Rutherford informed me that he has never been in contact with Mr. Beck and has no plans to be on his program. My apologies for the error.

Divine providence, liberty and equality in the thought of John Adams

An interesting essay on that topic by J.W. Cooke is now posted over at the First Principles blog:  The Fragile Balance:  John Adams on Liberty and Equality.  Adams' view of liberty was grounded in a belief in divine providence, as Cooke points out, a providence that decreed not only the fate of nations but also the fate of individuals.  Since providence would place different people in different circumstances, strict equality was not only undesirable, it was impossible.  What was possible, Adams believed, was equality of personhood before the law.  And as Cooke explains, Adams saw four vehicles by which such equality could be brought about:
Adams looked to four sources for a tolerable solution to this painful dilemma. The first was Christianity. “The only equality of man that is true,” he wrote,“was taught by Jesus: ‘Do as you would be done by.’ The same Jesus taught ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’’’ A second source of amelioration involved the inculcation of virtue and knowledge. “The way to improve society and reform the world,” he admonished his readers, “is to enlighten men, spread knowledge, and convince the multitude that they have, or may have, sense, knowledge, and virtue.” The latter, in particular, required a negation of selfishness that would do much to mitigate the rapacity of the rich and the misery of the poor. Third, if the poor could be indoctrinated in the virtues of thrift and industry, if they could be taught that their property might be improved by hard work and self-denial, then much envy would be deflected and much social unrest averted. A more mundane key to peace was balanced government. Adams argued that the Constitution had gone as far as man ought in establishing an “equality of rights.” The interests of the poor were balanced against those of the rich in the legislature, while the powers of the executive and those of the legislative and the judicial in turn were matched. The result, Adam hoped, would be an equilibrium of power (a balance of forces) that would prevent a factional or individual despotism.

Cooke's essay is an insightful glimpse into the thought of one of our most philosophical founders.  Well worth a read.

Justice Samuel E. Perkins of Indiana on the Nature of the Constitution (1864)

[Howdy y'all! I'm new here! To quote a guest post I recently contributed to American Creation, "Michael Makovi is an Orthodox Jewish student studying in Jerusalem, and is originally from Silver Spring, MD. Mr. Makovi's focus is on political philosophy, with a special interest in Reformed Christian sources of libertarianism. His personal blog is here."]

I.

In my limited reading, most proponents of interposition and nullification by state governments start with Thomas Jefferson's and James Madison's Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In the former, the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 by Jefferson, we read, inter alia,
Resolved, That the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes — delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: that to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral part, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party: that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress. ... and that therefore this commonwealth [of Virginia] is determined, as it doubts not its co-States are, to submit to undelegated, and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or body of men on earth: that in cases of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the general government, being chosen by the people, a change by the people would be the constitutional remedy; but, where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification [emphasis added] of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non fÅ“deris) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them
The follow-up Kentucky Resolution of 1799 by Jefferson and the Virginia Resolution of 1798 by Madison say much the same. Madison adds another interesting observation, however:
That the General Assembly doth also express its deep regret, that a spirit has in sundry instances, been manifested by the federal government, to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that implications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases (which having been copied from the very limited grant of power, in the former articles of confederation were the less liable to be misconstrued) so as to destroy the meaning and effect, of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the states by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable consequence of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.
Madison also says,
that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose [emphasis added] for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.
Notice how, between the two of them, the concepts of "interposition" and "nullification" are accounted for by that very terminology.

I believe we have there a very accurate and incisive summary of the nature of the compact of the United States Constitution, and certainly the best I have seen anywhere so far.

II.

But I recently saw another similar instance of interposition and nullification which I found exceedingly fascinating: the opinion of Justice Samuel E. Perkins for a unanimous court in Thayer v. Hedges (22 Ind. 282, 1864), in the Indiana Supreme Court. (I learned about this case, as well as about George Bancroft's work (see the end of this post), in "Christianity in Nineteenth Century American Law" by Professor Steven Alan Samson.) The question was regarding the legality of the Greenbacks issued for the Civil War, and the decision was that they were absolutely unconstitutional. Perkins summarized the relevant federal legislation, and concluded that it was all unconstitutional, based on the Constitution's stipulations in Article I, Sections 8 and 10 that only gold and silver coin can be made legal tender. It was interposition and nullification in action.

But what I found even more interesting was Perkins's route to that conclusion. In a 13-page version of that decision I have from WestLaw, roughly one page is the editor's introductory material, two pages is Perkins's laying out the relevant legislation and questions to be asked, and two or three pages is analysis of Article I, Sections 8 and 10. So that accounts for about half of the decision. But what about the other half of those 13 pages?

Perkins actually quotes, verbatim, word-for-word, the entirety of what the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution say about the powers of Congress. He explains this extremely unusual method, prefacing,
This [issue of the Greenbacks] is a question of the gravest import. To arrive at a correct answer to it, it will be necessary to somewhat thoroughly analyze the legislative department of the Constitution of the United States. That analysis we shall attempt. We shall do it in no partizan spirit. All ought to desire to know aright our Constitution, and discussion and comparison of views are necessary to such knowledge.

And especially, in times of difficulty, when the temptation to depart from it may be great, is the duty of watchfulness the more pressing, as the bad precedents of such times become the bad laws of times of tranquillity. Looking forward, as we hopefully do, to the complete suppression of the existing rebellion and the restoration of the Union under our revered Constitution, we are anxious that we may then find it in its integrity, unburdened by bad precedents, dangerous constructions and vicious interpretations.

We do not wish to be understood as intimating that the Constitution is beyond improvement; that progress will not render change necessary; but we do hold that such change, happily provided for in the Constitution itself, should be made in the mode therein prescribed. Ours is either a government of the Constitution, or it is not. If it is a government of the Constitution, then its execution, consistently with the laws made under it, is all the Federal Government that is necessary and proper for the welfare of the nation, and all to which the States and people can be rightfully subjected.
I do not believe the Cato Institute could find a much better summary of its grievances against Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins also notes that the Constitution forbids the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, except by Congress in case of invasion or rebellion. I assume he is taking a stab at President Lincoln here as well.

III.

Before discussing the Articles of Confederation, Perkins first shows why the American Revolution was fought in the first place:
Most of the time since the settlement of this country by the whites, the people of the United States have lived under two governments acting upon them within the same territory. During our colonial State, we had the British for our general government, and the colonial, for our local governments. And it was one great source of controversy as to how far the British general government should have a right to exercise powers over the internal affairs of the Colonies, which were foreign and independent as to each other, but domestic and subject as to the British government. It was agreed that there were some matters pertaining to the general welfare of the Colonies as a whole, such as their foreign and inter-colonial trade, their common defence against the Indians and foreign enemies, which should fall within the power of the general government; but their internal, domestic affairs, the general welfare of the people of the several Colonies, and of the several Colonies themselves, in their domestic affairs, almost everything, indeed, except their common foreign relations, the colonists claimed should be left to the care and judgment of the people, and colonial governments, as the powers best calculated to manage them wisely and economically, and as the most safe to be trusted with them. The reader of history will not require citations of authorities to this point. One of the charges in the Declaration of Independence was that the King had assented to acts of Parliament for suspending our legislatures, and declaring that the Parliament had power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

By the Declaration of Independence, the Colonies threw off the British general government, rather than to submit to its encroachments upon matters pertaining to their several domestic, instead of confining its action to their foreign aggregate general welfare.

It then became necessary for them to create a new general government to manage matters pertaining to their general welfare, which term they used during their colonial State, as applicable mostly to matters connected with their foreign and inter-State relations, which latter were really then foreign, as the States were separate sovereignties.

The new general government was created by the Articles of Confederation, in 1788. There was no general government of authority, force, power, succeeding the British, before these Articles.

IV.

Perkins then makes a wonderful argument against the concept of a "living Constitution":
As soon as peace was established, says Mr. Curtis, (Hist. Const. vol. 1, p. 384,) it became apparent, that while the Confederation was a government with the power of contracting debts, it was without the power of paying them. Id. p. 173, et seq. But the Congress did not claim that, under the pressure of necessity, or a latitudinous construction of the general welfare clause of the Articles of Confederation, it could assume power to raise money. The written charter of powers specified what might be done to provide for the general welfare; it clearly indicated the scope and meaning of that term, and Congress, in its actions, conformed thereto. But efforts were immediately commenced to procure from the States a further grant of power, by way of amendment to the Articles of Confederation, to enable Congress to levy duties, &c., for the express purpose of paying the debts, &c. The efforts were unsuccessful, but they resulted in the call of a national convention to revise the Articles of Confederation; which convention formed our present Constitution.
In other words: when the Articles of Confederation proved insufficient for the proper execution of government, because it gave Congress the responsibility to accrue debts but denied it the power to pay those debts, Congress did not use the "general welfare" clause as a means of creating a new power of taxation for itself. It did not claim that the Articles of Confederation were a "living constitution" and that the exigencies of the times demanded new powers to be imagined and created ex nihilo. Admitting that Congress's desire to tax was a quite legitimate one, the solution sought was not that of a loose-constructionist reading of a living constitution, but rather, a convention was called to revise the actual terms of the Articles, resulting in our Constitution.

Why should our Constitution be any different today? If the Articles of Confederation were not "living," then why should the Constitution be assumed to be "living"? The issue is this: if the Constitution today is "living" and can be amended on-the-fly, via a loose-constructionist reading, in order to answer new necessities not previously anticipated and provided for, then why is the Constitution necessary at all? The Articles of Confederation could have been read exactly the same way that loose-constructionists today (holding by the concept of a "living constitution") read the Constitution! So the whole concept of a "living constitution" begs the question: why do we even have the Constitution? Why were the Articles replaced rather than subjected to a "living Articles" reading?

As we already saw, Perkins says, "We do not wish to be understood as intimating that the Constitution is beyond improvement; that progress will not render change necessary; but we do hold that such change, happily provided for in the Constitution itself, should be made in the mode therein prescribed." In other words, the Amendment process is there for a reason!

V.

One more thing about Perkins's decision is worth remarking on, I believe. In a very refreshing way, he seems to eschew legal positivism, and engages in some historical and philosophical discussion of the issue of legal tender. (The following quotation is why Perkins's decision was discussed in the aforementioned article "Christianity in Nineteenth Century American Law.")
Gold and silver have been chosen by the commercial world as the medium of commercial exchanges and the measures of commercial values; chosen, not by the compulsion of governments, but voluntarily, from utility and convenience, and governments acquiesced in the choice and sanctioned it, and no power of government can compel their abandonment. See Smith's Wealth of Nations, pp. 16, 176, 179. They became legal tender by the lex mercatoria of nations, and contracts, made without specifying a medium of payment, were understood, by the law of nations, to be payable in coin. The history of the world shows this. Say's Pol. Economy, p. 222; 2 Mill's Pol. Economy, p. 19; 18 Ind. 471. Coin was the sacred currency as well as profane, of the ancient world. Historically considered, we find that the Almighty, and his Prophets and Apostles, were for a specie basis; that gold and silver were the theme of their constant eulogy. Abraham, the patriarch, 1875 years before Christ, being about 3740 years ago, purchased of Ephron, among the sons of Heth, the field in which was the cave of Machpelah, shaded by a delightful grove, for the burial place of his dead; and he paid for it "400 sheckles of silver, current money with the merchant." Gen. 23, 16. So Solomon, the wisest of men, seems to have had a decided preference for a hard money currency. In 1st of Kings, chap. 9, verses 27, 28, for example, it is said: "And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, &c., and they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold 420 talents, and brought it to King Solomon." And in chap. 10, verses 14, 15 and 29: "Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents, besides that he had of the merchantmen, and of the traffic of the spice merchants, &c.; and a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for 600 shekels of silver, and a horse for 150 shekels," &c. Again, the prophet Jeremiah, one of the "greater prophets," says, chap. 32, verses 9 and 10: "And I bought the field of Hanameel, my uncle's son, that was in Anothoth, and weighed him the money, even 17 shekels of silver, and I subscribed the evidence and sealed it, and took witnesses, and weighed the money in the balances." Walker, in his Am. Law, p. 145, declares it an act of despotic power to make paper a legal tender. The principal interference of government with the currency has been to debase it. Say gives an account of the acts of the French monarchs, of this character, in his Political Economy, book 1, chap. 21, § 5, and adds: "Let no government imagine that, to strip them of the power of defrauding their subjects, is to deprive them of a valuable privilege," &c. Says Mr. Gouge: "No instance is on record of a nation's having arrived at great wealth without the use of gold and silver money. Nor is there, on the other hand, any instance of a nation's endeavoring to supplant this natural money, by the use of paper money, without involving itself in distress and embarrassment."
And finally, I will cite some nice primary and secondary sources I found regarding the laws of tender in early America, for the benefit of those interested:

  • A Caveat Against Injustice by Roger Sherman, with a foreword by F. Tupper Saussy arguing that the federal government has today utterly neglected the Constitution's provisions on legal tender. See also the link there to a facsimile of the original.
  • An Essay on Money by John Witherspoon. See also the link there to a facsimile of the original. Also, this essay has been republished by American Vision, edited by Joel McDurmon, for sale here.
  • "John Witherspoon: 'End the Fed'" by Joel McDurmon, citing Pelatiah Webster's Political Essays On the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects and Edwin Vieira's Pieces of Eight: The Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution for their historical evidence regarding the colonial period.
  • A Plea for the Constitution of the United States, Wounded in the House of Its Guardians, by George Bancroft. (I learned of this work as well from Steven Alan Samson's aforementioned article.) Bancroft has a summary of the entire history of paper currency from the late 17th-century until the Constitutional Convention, as well as a summary of the Constitution's legal opinion on that subject, and a discussion of the proper jurisdiction and authority of judges with respect to the Constitution. Bancroft argues that as the jurisdiction of a judge is limited to the given case at hand and not to future cases, and that much more is he limited to the authority of the Constitution, that therefore, every upcoming legal case must be judged anew with respect to the Constitution alone. The decisions of judges, he says, are authoritative insofar as they agree with what the Constitution already says, and previous court decisions have authority only insofar as they correctly interpreted the Constitution. (Sola scriptura, anyone?)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Paper From Seth Tillman on Originalism

American Creation readers may remember Seth Tillman from his critique of Geoff Stone's anti-Christian Nation law review article here.

He has a new working paper entitled, "The Originalist Who Came In From The Cold: A 'New' View of the Incompatibility Clause, the Removal & Disqualification Clause, and the Religious Test Clause–A Response to Professor Josh Chafetz’s Impeachment & Assassination." You may access it here.

Universal Reconciliation & the Reductio Ad Hitlerum

I posted it at my other blog here. What follows is what I wrote that relates to America's Founding & religion:

As I noted in this post, George Washington didn’t seem to have a problem with Christian-Universalism. Indeed, I think GW probably believed like the other “key Founders” did — good people get into Heaven, bad people are temporarily punished, eventually saved. Though, his views on the afterlife are hard to pin down; they seemed as much “Greco-Roman” as “Judeo-Christian,” and that synthesis is certainly consistent with the notion that virtuous people get into Heaven, the bad temporarily punished.

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Introduction


“Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.” ~Alexis de Tocqueville




I love reading accounts that challenge conventional thinking and traditional orthodoxies, even if I’m not in agreement with the author’s thesis. And readers here are well attuned to the notion that America’s religious history is more nuanced than religious conservatives “Christian Nation” and decrying of the exile of religion from the public square vs. liberal conceptions of “the separation of church and state” that defends religious freedom. Enter The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat.



Is US religious history not a history of progressive and unfolding freedom? Is it instead, a history of religious conflict? Did that conflict involve extended periods of religious coercion and the continual attempt to maintain religious power and control? These questions are the core of Sehat’s book.



The text begins with the story of Charles B. Reynolds, indicted and convicted for blasphemy in 1886.




“It is well that there should be some means of suppressing a noisy and offensive blackguard like REYNOLDS. …and whether he be suppressed as a blasphemer or merely as a plain blackguard is a matter of very minor consequence” ~NY Times




Sehat details what he terms the threefold myth of American religious freedom, fables that make it difficult to understand the religious politics of the present.




  1. The myth of separation, that US protected religious liberty through the First Amendment’s separation of church and state — though important to some of the founding fathers (i.e., Jefferson, Madison), the First Amendment did not create the separation they advocated. Religious and moral regulations, instead, formed a moral establishment that connected religion and state.


  2. The myth of religious decline, the idea that religious belief and adherence has waned is inaccurate — in 1776, only 17% of the national population belonged to a church. In the 19th century, under the influence of evangelical expansion, church attendance began to increase sharply. By 1850, 35% of Americans were church members. By 1906, the number was 51%. And in 2000, the number was 62%, though not specifically Christian churches. Because evangelical theology demands the intervention of believers into public life in an attempt to shape the world according to the dictates of their conscience, religion has, over the last 200 years, become more important to the public life of the US, rather than less.


  3. The myth of exceptional liberty, that religious liberty in the US forms the cornerstone of American liberty and makes the US into a beacon of freedom to the world — through the regulation of morals religious partisans maintained power. The morality enforced in law often came from Protestant Christian ideals and was presented as such. Foreign observers, including John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville, saw this dynamic with particular clarity and were keen to point out that religiously derived, moral coercion seemed endemic to American society and government.




Sehat goes on to distinguish “institutional establishment” (government paid clergy) from “moral establishment” (laws uphold and promote Christianity). In later chapters, social movements of slavery, segregation and women’s rights are examined in this light. As I continue through the text, will log more blurbs and thoughts here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John Adams on the French Revolutionary "Christian" Millennial Republicans

They were quite an ecumenical and diverse coalition. To JAMES LLOYD, 14 February, 1815:

The Quakers, as I said in my last, were in principle against all wars, and, moreover, greatly prejudiced against New England, and personally against me. The Irish, who are very numerous and powerful in Pennsylvania, had been, and still were enthusiasts for the French revolution, extremely exasperated against old England, bitterly prejudiced against New England, strongly inclined in favor of the southern interest and against the northern. The Germans hated France and England too, but had been taught to hate New England more than either, and to abhor taxes more than all. A universal and perpetual exemption from taxes was held up to them as a temptation, by underhand politicians. The English, Scotch, and Irish Presbyterians, the Methodists, Anabaptists, the Unitarians and Universalists, with Dr. Priestley at their head, and all the other sectaries, even many of the Episcopalians themselves, had been carried away with the French revolution, and firmly believed that Bonaparte was the instrument of Providence to destroy the Pope and introduce the millennium. All these interests and parties were headed by Mr. McKean, an upright Chief Justice, an enlightened lawyer, a sagacious politician, and the most experienced statesman in the nation; by Mr. Mifflin, one of the earliest in the legislature of Pennsylvania and the first and second Congresses of the nation, an active officer in the revolutionary army, always extremely popular; by Jonathan B. Smith, an old revolutionary character.


I get the impression these were, basically, the Jefferson-Madison Democratic-Republicans and this is how they approached what was going down in France at the time.

I've long corrected what I see as an error coming mainly from the ("Christian America") political Right that as soon as the French Revolution broke out, America was against it because America's Founding was "Christian," France's Revolution was "Secular." In reality, most Founding era Americans, swept up in a revolutionary zeitgeist saw the French Revolution as a continuation of the American.

But by the time Bonaparte hit the scene, Adams' and Hamilton's Federalist Party were decidedly anti-French Revolution, with the Democratic-Republicans holding onto hope of the FR's success. Though I haven't confirmed every above name person or group neatly "fit" this categorization.

Book review: Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation by Harlow Giles Unger

Amongst the founding fathers, most of the attention is paid to those who were major players in national politics, and in particular those who attained the presidency.  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe get the lion's share of the glory in popular historical writing, while other major founders like Hamilton, Jay and Marshall receive significantly less attention by modern writers.  At the bottom of the heap nowadays are those founders who were important for a brief period on the national stage but who spent most of their political careers working at the state or local level.  Names that were revered in the past, like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, simply don't get the kind of attention that they deserve given their historic impact on our nation's history.  Harlow Giles Unger, an historian and former visiting fellow at Mount Vernon, has written a delightful biography that tries to rectify the lack of attention paid to Patriot leader and Virginia politician Patrick Henry.  Unger's book hits just the right note -- not to short, not too long -- and provides insightful glimpses into the life and work of one of the most important men who helped to bring about the creation of the American republic.

Unger provides a solid overview of the life of Henry, detailed but not too detailed for the general reader.  While certainly not exhaustive, Unger's book delves into key events in Henry's life, explaining how the episodes discussed helped to shape Henry's work and approach to politics.  Henry's commitment to liberty is explained within the context of Virginia's social and political climate, the prevalence of slavery and aristocracy in the Old Dominion, and the tension that existed between wealthy planters and hardscrabble farmers who were outside of the establishment of their day.  Unger demonstrates how Henry's opposition to what he viewed as oppressive royal government had roots that went back to Henry's earliest days as a backwoods lawyer, long before independence was even being discussed.   In fact, Henry's commitment to liberty is the thread that Unger uses to explain his subject's political career -- his support for the Patriot cause, his opposition to the Constitution of 1789, his support of the Bill of Rights, and his eventual shift from the Republican movement to the Federalist Party at the end of his life.  Henry's friendships and family life are explored as well, with particular attention paid to his legal career and his relationship with George Washington.

One aspect of the book that readers of this blog might find of special interest regards the beginning of Henry's public life.  Henry's first major legal case was an argument in defense of a group of farmers who had refused to pay the church tax to support the established Anglican Church of Virginia colony.  Henry's opposition to what he saw as both a violation of religious liberty and the freedom of the people to be secure against oppressive taxation by the distant imperial & colonial governments featured large in how Henry litigated the case.  Unger quotes a part of Henry's closing argument, where the colonial lawyer provided an eloquent condemnation of the desire of the Anglican clergy to feast at the tax trough:
Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus?  Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked?  Oh, no, gentlemen!  Instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, these rapacious harpies world, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, form the widow and her orphaned children their last milch cow!  the last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!
Henry's opposition to government support of religious establishment would fade after the American Revolution, but prior to the split with the British, he viewed the Anglican Church as parasitic to the people.  In his closing argument, Henry contended that the royal tax in support of the Anglican Church breached the king's duty to provide for the well-being of his people -- the poor were being dispossessed to aid the affluent clergy.  This charge lead to cries of "treason," against Henry, much as his later calls for American independence would elicit the same cry.  Henry's approach to the question of public funding of religious bodies was part of a much deeper and sophisticated critique of government power.  For Henry, liberty and the common good were intertwined principles, principles which in different contexts might lead to a shift in political positions in order to defend those underlying principles.

It is that view by Henry that also explains his shift, at the end of his life, to the Federalist Party.  Long a dedicated opponent of centralized power and a relentless critic of any step by which the federal government seemed to move beyond a limited scope, Henry was also committed to the notion that the United States was in fact a single nation, not simply a collection of independent if confederated republics.  While an opponent of the ratification of the Constitution of 1789, Henry leaped to the charter's defense during Washington's administration, when local tax revolts were springing up in the frontier areas.  Shocked at the political machinations of Jefferson and Madison, Henry moved to support Washington and the Federalists as the political culture of the 1790's grew increasingly polarized.  In 1799, after pleas from both John Marshall and a retired George Washington, a dying Patrick Henry ran for election to Congress, blasting Jefferson and Madison for their support for efforts to undermine national unity via the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.  While Henry, as Unger explains, had been "a bitter opponent of the Constitution, it was the law of the land, and he was, above all, a law-abiding citizen." 

Unger's book on Henry is well worth its $26.00 price.  A fascinating study of one of the most important public men of the founding era, Unger's work is a fitting reintroduction to the life and work of a pivotal Patriot leader.  Highly recommended.

Bro. Washington on St. John’s Day

    
December 27 is the Feast Day of Saint John the Evangelist, and therefore is one of two major celebrations for Freemasonry (June 24, the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist, is the other). On the 27th of December, 1779, while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey during the Revolution, the Masonic brethren serving under Gen. George Washington celebrated the Feast Day in the Masonic style of that period, with a church service, a lodge meeting, and a meal together.

From the records of the Grand Lodge of New Jersey:

“...the headquarters of Washington, at the close of the year 1779, were at Morristown, in this State. The American Union Lodge, which was an army Lodge, whose Warrant had been granted by Colonel Richard Gridley, Deputy Grand Master of Massachusetts, was at that time with the army under Washington at Morristown. At the festival meeting of this Lodge, held to celebrate the festival of St. John the Evangelist, December 27, 1779, the record shows the presence of sixty-eight brethren, one of whom was George Washington.”


One of George Washington's Masonic aprons
is displayed in the museum of the Grand Lodge
of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
(Magpie Mason photo.)
 Considering the hardships faced by the Continental forces at Morristown (better informed historians know it was Morristown, not Valley Forge, that was the site of the most grueling, bitter winter for the troops during the war), it is not surprising that Masonic paraphernalia was not on hand for this celebration. The daunting feat of sending to Newark for the proper regalia was successful, and St. John’s Lodge No. 1 answered the call, providing the needed items. (St. John’s Lodge still exists, and will celebrate its 250th anniversary on May 14, 2011.)



It was at this meeting where a project was launched to bring some order and unity to the Masonic fraternity in the colonies by establishing a single grand lodge for America. Mordecai Gist, representing the Masons in the armed forces of Maryland, was made president of the committee that several months later would formally issue the call for this general grand lodge… with Gen. and Bro. George Washington as its Grand Master.

From this committee’s petition:

TO THE RIGHT WORSHIPFUL,

The Grand Masters of the Several Lodges
in the Respective United States of America.

Union.     Force.     Love.


The subscribers, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons in convention, to you, as the patrons and protectors of the craft upon this continent, prefer their humble address.


Unhappily, the distinctions of interest, the political views, and national disputes subsisting between Great Britain and these United States have involved us, not only in the general calamites that disturb the tranquility which used to prevail in this once happy country, but in a peculiar manner affects our society, by separating us from the Grand Mother Lodge in Europe, by disturbing our connection with each other, impeding the progress, and preventing the perfection of Masonry in America.


We deplore the miseries of our countrymen, and particularly lament the distresses which many of our poor brethren must suffer, as well from the want of temporal relief, as for want of a source of LIGHT to govern their pursuits and illuminate the path of happiness. And we ardently desire to restore, if possible, that fountain of charity, from which, to the unspeakable benefit of mankind, flows benevolence and love. Considering with anxiety these disputes, and the many irregularities and improprieties committed by weak or wicked brethren, which too manifestly show the present dissipated and almost abandoned condition of our lodges in general, as well as the relaxation of virtue amongst individuals, we think it our duty, Right Worshipful Brothers and Seniors in the Craft, to solicit your immediate interposition to save us from the impending dangers of schisms and apostasy. To obtain security from those fatal evils, with affectionate humility, we beg leave to recommend the adopting and pursuing the most necessary measures for establishing one Grand Lodge in America, to preside over and govern all other lodges of whatsoever degree or denomination, licensed or to be licensed upon the continent, that the ancient principles and discipline of Masonry being restored, we may mutually and universally enjoy the advantages arising from frequent communion and social intercourse....”

While Washington was not named in this petition, it was made known that he was the choice of the brethren to serve as the Grand Master. Washington did not accept the position, and the general Grand Lodge in America never came to fruition.
    

Monday, December 27, 2010

Quote of the day: on the clergy and the army

"My Friend, the Clergy have been in all ages and Countries as dangerous to Liberty as the Army.  Yet I love the Clergy and the Army.  What can we do without them in this wicked world."

- John Adams (1735-1826), Founding Father and second president of the United States, Letter to Benjamin Rush, September 1, 1809, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson, (Princeton:  2005), pg. 66.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Don't Forget Trenton Today!

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

234 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:



The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Founding Era Christmas Cheer

My favorite Yuletide Founding factoid is George Washington's contract with his gardener:


"In consideration of these things being well and truly performed on the part of said Philip Bater, the said George Washington doth agree to allow him. . . four dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights, two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars also at Whitsuntide, to be drunk two days, a Dram in the morning and a drink of Grog at Dinner or at Noon."


As pointed out elsewhere here at American Creation, Christmas wasn't a big religious holiday back in the day. But it was twice as important as Easter or Whitsuntide [Pentecost] for getting good and loaded.

Four days drunk and four whole dollars to do it with! Now, that's a verrrrrrry Merry Christmas, and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. [Or four of them!]

[And don't miss GWash's eggnog recipe, which'll clean out half your liquor cabinet!]

No, Mr. Beck, Our Constitution is Not Based on the Book of Deuteronomy

This is a good one from Chris Rodda. It makes an extremely important point on the Donald S. Lutz et al. study that bears repeating. I'll talk more about the Lutz study soon.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The "No Mr. Beck" Series

Chris Rodda is guest co-blogging at Dispatches From the Culture Wars. Check out her latest No, Mr. Beck, Jefferson Did Not Date His Documents "In the Year of Our Lord Christ."

A taste:

Now, Barton claims in his description of the form on his website that "this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents," and said on Glenn Beck that "Jefferson added in the year of our lord Christ." This is a flat out lie. Actually, it's two lies. Jefferson absolutely did not choose the language on this form, and he was not the only president who signed these forms that were dated that way. So did Washington and Adams before him, and Madison and Monroe after him. While the ship's papers form remained virtually the same from 1793 until well into the late 1800s, the name Christ was eventually dropped from the date on it, but that didn't happen until somewhere in the 1820s or 1830s.

The reason Barton lies about Jefferson being the only president to sign these documents is pretty obvious. As he claims in his presentations, other early presidents only dated things "in the year of our Lord," but Jefferson -- the least religious of them all -- the man who coined the phrase "separation between church and state" -- well, he went even further and added the name Christ! And his audience, of course, believes him.

When the Puritans outlawed Christmas

During this festive time of year, it has become normal (sadly) to hear about various attempts to purge or at least tamp-down the actual word "Christmas" in the public square.  From the pc-friendly greeting "happy holidays" to the effort by some to emphasize the old pagan winter celebrations to the now hip references to the Seinfeld-era faux-holiday Festivus, there seems to always be a level of consternation about using the word Christmas this time of year.  You know, because it has that word in it.  The new forbidden "C" word.  Christ.

Well, there was a time when the ire against Christmas and its celebration here in America had to do with the last syllable of the word, the "mas" -- which is an abbreviated version of the word "Mass," a reference to the Catholic eucharistic liturgy.  The Puritans who settled in New England and the Scottish Presbyterians who followed them in settling the American colonial frontier had a particular aversion to the celebration of Christmas, viewing it as a papist festival that had no place in a properly Reformed understanding of the Christian life.  In addition to its Catholic roots, Christmas was also impermissibly tinged, in the Puritan view, with the earlier pagan holidays that occurred in December, as the Puritan leader Increase Mather noted:
The early Christians who  first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens' Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.
And popery and paganism weren't the only Puritan objections to the Christmas celebration.  Christmas also interfered with the joy of Puritan life:  toil.  One Puritan objection to the celebration of Christmas was that it promoted the playing of games and public idleness.  The blog A Puritan's Mind has a short discussion of Puritan efforts to ban the public celebration of Christmas here:  When Christmas Was Banned. Horror of horrors, many Christmas observers would actually commemorate the day by ... wassailing!

Just how strong was the Puritan aversion to Christmas? So strong that the ACLU has an article posted on its website detailing how these devout Calvinists reviled the Christmas holiday:  Puritans & Christmas.  An interesting read!

Being neither a Puritan nor a member of the ACLU, though, and as a proud member of the Church of Rome, I feel completely at ease wishing all our readers a blessed and merry Christmas.  I plan on celebrating the day by engaging in an overt act of papist devotion, followed by a vigorous bout of wassailing!

The Reason For the Season

According to Dicken's A Christmas Carol was NOT Christ's Atonement or Incarnation but rather man's good works and good will. I reposted it at Brayton's blog here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Quote of the day: on the structure of our government as a guarantee of liberty

The truth is, after all the declamation we have heard, that the constitution is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, A BILL OF RIGHTS. The several bills of rights, in Great-Britain, form its constitution, and conversely the constitution of each state is its bill of rights. And the proposed constitution, if adopted, will be the bill of rights of the union. Is it one object of a bill of rights to declare and specify the political privileges of the citizens in the structure and administration of the government? This is done in the most ample and precise manner in the plan of the convention, comprehending various precautions for the public security, which are not to be found in any of the state constitutions. Is another object of a bill of rights to define certain immunities and modes of proceeding, which are relative to personal and private concerns? This we have seen has also been attended to, in a variety of cases, in the same plan. Adverting therefore to the substantial meaning of a bill of rights, it is absurd to allege that it is not to be found in the work of the convention. It may be said that it does not go far enough, though it will not be easy to make this appear; but it can with no propriety be contended that there is no such thing. It certainly must be immaterial what mode is observed as to the order of declaring the rights of the citizens, if they are to be found in any part of the instrument which establishes the government. And hence it must be apparent that much of what has been said on this subject rests merely on verbal and nominal distinctions, which are entirely foreign from the substance of the thing.
 -Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), American founding father, The Federalist #84 (1788).

Will "History" Ever End?

That's the title to a post I did today at Dispatches From the Culture Wars. I'm going to reproduce the part of it that relates to the American Founding so that we might, if we wish, discuss it here as opposed to there:

But Marx wasn't the first to predict an End to History either. While I can't speak for the other religious traditions in which I am less learned, the Bible speaks of an End to History in the Book of Revelation.

Yet, the Bible is not a book of modern politics. Whatever the Christian Americanists may tell you, the Founding Fathers' idea of republicanism did NOT originate in the Bible, just as Marxism did not originate there either. Yet, the Bible did influence both systems. Certain tales in the Bible resonate with both Marxism and the American Founding.

Interestingly, the idea of "Ending History" with liberal democracy traces to America's Founding era. Liberal democracy as originally articulated by America's Founders and the philosophers who influenced them was "settled" as the final form of government with a top down, God given metaphysics. Yet, the God of the Bible is not an apparent liberal democrat.

When one therefore mixes biblical revelation with Founding era democratic-republican theory, one gets results that are "interesting" to say the least. This is what the original "history enders" (most notable among them Enlightenment unitarian Christians Joseph Priestley and Richard Price) believed: Jesus would return at the success of the French Revolution to usher in a millennial republic of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." This was part and parcel of the same line of thought that argued the Bible established a "republic" as opposed to a "Kingdom" of Heaven, that the Ancient Israelites had a "republic" instead of a theocracy and that the Romans 13 really did teach revolution was permitted, indeed demanded, to secure liberal democratic ends.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Quote of the day: the theological roots of American religious liberty

"Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority."

- James Madison (1751-1836), American Founding Father, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments  (1785).

Heads Up

I'll be guest blogging at Ed Brayton's Dispatches From the Culture Wars from Dec. 19-27. My grades (for 21 credits) are due Tuesday morning, so I'm not sure how much blogging I will do till then.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Defining Terms

by John Fea
Guest Blogger


[Great and good friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has a new gig at patheos.com as a regular columnist. From his latest:]

In last week's column, I argued that Americans, since the earliest days of the Republic, have believed that they were living in a Christian nation. But were they right? Was the United States founded as a Christian nation? Did the Christian nationalism espoused by educators and politicians, Unionists and Confederates, fundamentalists and modernists, and civil rights activists and the members of the Christian Right, reflect the spirit of the founding era or, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of Christianity?

The answers to these questions are complicated. How we answer them will depend on how we define our terms. What do we mean when we use terms such as "Christian," "founding," and "nation"? A close examination of these words and their relationship to one another in the context of early American history suggests that the very question, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" does not do justice to the complexity of the past.

...

We may also want to examine the Christian character of the people who made up the nation at the time of the founding. Although I am skeptical of the idea that any society on this side of eternity can be truly called Christian, it does seem that a society can reflect, in a limited sense, Christian principles if the vast majority of its members are doing their best, through the power of God's grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, to live authentic Christian lives. Such an approach takes the focus away from the founders and the founding documents and places it squarely upon the religious behavior and practice of ordinary Americans. Those who argue this way might examine church membership, church attendance, or the number of communicants in a particular congregation or denomination.

...

We could ask similar questions about the words "nation" and "founded." At what point did the United States of America become a nation? Was it in 1776, when the Continental Congress declared its independence from England? Was it 1789, when the United States Constitution became the official frame of American government? Or was it sometime later?

...

These are the kinds of historical complexities that we seldom hear debated in the public square. We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical matters. It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, often contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.

We need historians more than ever.


[And I could not agree more.---TVD]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The positive contributions of the Puritans to the American founding

One doesn't hear much in the way of praise for the Puritans nowadays, but Peter Augustine Lawler over at First Principles has posted an essay reminding us why the Puritans are important for understanding American culture, and important in a good way:  Praising the Puritans.  Lawler's analysis is particularly insightful, I think, in comparing the moral traditions of liberty that developed separately in New England and in Virginia.  The New England variety, informed by Puritanism, was both more communitarian and egalitarian than the slavocracy that developed in Virginia.  Lawler's analysis is well worth a read.

Two Notable Events Regarding Presidential Oaths

First Notable Event - on December 10, 2010 the Library of Congress updated their website entitled Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events. Where it had previously credited George Washington with having added "So help me God" to his oath of office, it no longer does. If the reader scans down to the entry for Chester A. Arthur, the following modification appears:

September 20, 1881, and September 22, 1881 -- Chester A. Arthur

  • First time the oath of office has been taken in the Vice President's Room of the Capitol.
  • Two ex-presidents (Grant and Hayes) were present at this ceremony.
  • Pronounced the words "So help me, God" after taking the oath; other presidents have followed this example.

This is pretty big news for a historical, detail-minded, forensic specialist like myself, but the Library of Congress staff members still have room for improvement. In the case of Theodore Roosevelt and his swearing-in ceremony of September 14,1901 the entry reads, "The only President not sworn in on a Bible." Ahem! TR was certainly not the only president who did not to place a hand on a Bible. The first instance goes back to George Washington's second inaugural ceremony where there were no plans for the inclusion of a Bible, and no one, unlike his first inauguration, ever reported a bible-sighting even at the last minute.

There are at least two other well-documented instances where a president-elect did not touch a Bible. A notable exception occurred at the inauguration of John Quincy Adams' inauguration where:

A March 4, 1825 diary entry by John Q. Adams says "... and pronounced from a Volume of the Laws held up to me by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, the Oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the
United States."

The Washington National Intelligencer reported: "The President-elect [John Q. Adams] then descended from the chair and, placing himself on the right hand of the judges' table, received from the Chief Justice [John Marshall] a volume of the laws of the United States, from which he read, in a loud and clear voice, the oath of office."

- a hat tip goes to Mathew Goldstein. See So help me God in presidential oaths.

Another quite visible instance occurred at John Fitzgerald Kennedy's January 20, 1961 swearing-in ceremony. See the Critical Past video, John Kennedy takes the oath of Office, and notice JFK's left arm is simply resting at his side and his family Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, which, while hidden from view, is being held by James R. Browning, clerk of the Supreme Court.

According to Paul Boller, in his book Presidential Inaugurations, "some people questioned the validity of the [Kennedy] oath. But the White House [spokesperson, maybe Ted Sorenson] patiently explained that the Constitution didn't prescribe the use of the Bible at the inaugural ceremony and that it was simply a tradition that had begun with George Washington." (Click here and follow-up with Search Inside This Book.)


Second Notable Event - I recently came across a forthcoming book with the title, Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory, by Edward G. Lengel . This title will be released January 18, 2011.

Lengel is chief editor of The Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia. The book should prove interesting.

In an early November 30, 2010 Amazon.com Customer Review (from the Amazon Vine Program), entitled When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, the author, Phelps Gates comments:

One chapter is a fascinating exercise in historical detective work about the presidential oath: during the Obama inauguration, commentators, including historians, often remarked that it was Washington who added "So help me God" to the oath. Is this true? Lengel gives a thorough and convincing answer (which I won't give away here).

If, on the outside chance, there's someone who is too impatient to wait for next year's release date to see the results of Lengel's "historical detective work," here's my recommended sneak peek reading list:

January 15, 2009 - "So help me God": A George Washington Myth that Should be Discarded - A January 12, 2009 History News Network article by Peter R. Henriques - posted by Ray Soller, an American Creation contributor.

January 18, 2009 - In the Beginning - The Oath Is a President's First Act, But Everyone's Not on the Same Page by Dan Zak, Washington Post Staff Writer.

August 27, 2010 - Grisold's Only Eyewitness Account of George Washington's 1789 Inauguration posted by Raglinen.

November 4th, 2010 - Five Reasons Washington Irving is Still Important Today - posted by a contributor at myfivebest dot com.

November 16, 2010 (retrieved as of) - Rufus Wilmot Griwold Summary - Dictionary of Literary Biography - posted by BookRags dot com.

- and that's a wrap.

Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and "The Body of the People"

The anniversary of the Boston Tea Party on 16 December is this week.

Here is historian Ray Raphael on Samuel Adams role.


Ray Raphael theorizes on whether or not Samuel Adams really gave a "signal" for the Boston Tea Party, the real story of Paul Revere's ride, and the role of the average person in the events leading up to the American Revolution.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Quote of the day: Providence and the maintenance of the American civic order

"And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence."

- John Adams (1735-1826), American Founding Father and second president of the United States, First Inaugural Address (1797).

Does it even matter if any of the Founders were Christians?

Here at American Creation we tend to get into discussions about the faith lives of the Founders.  Were they Christians?  What kind of Christians?  Devout?  Lax?  Orthodox?  Unitarian?  How can anyone even coherently describe whatever Thomas Jefferson happened to believe at any given moment?  This kind of questioning also shows up quite a bit in constitutional law scholarship discussing the First Amendment's religion clauses and the role of faith in public life.

Over at The American Conservative online, writer Paul Gottfried argues that that whole line of questioning is mistaken:   Was George Washington a Christian?  According to Gottfried's approach the relevant question isn't what did Washington believe? rather it is what kind of social and political order did Washington intend to create?  Gottfried has some thoughts on both questions, and his ideas are well worth pondering.  I particularly am struck by his framing of the debate about religion and the Founding.

Nothing says Christmas like George Washington's eggnog recipe

Courtesy of the Old Farmer's Almanac online, here is George Washington's very own recipe for eggnog.  Be warned, it is heavy on the spirits in keeping with the tastes and customs of the day, and he doesn't specify how many eggs to use.  Of course, this means you can adjust the eggs to your own taste and still claim complete colonial authenticity to your recreation of Washington's recipe:
One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.
Love that last bit of advice from the Father of Our Country!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Update

I know I've been less active here. I'm not done with American Creation yet. I'm happy to see Mark taking a more active role and wish more AC bloggers would as well. I know we are all (including yours truly) very busy. I don't have kids (one reason why I can produce so much output). But I do teach overloads every semester (21 credits every semester -- though 9 of them are online, which puts my blog fun right next to my "work").

One challenge I face is that I/we have uncovered quite a bit already. I know just about all of the footnotes that one is likely to see in a typical America's Founding & religion book. Taking it to the next level via for instance, original googlebooks sources can be tedious. And much of the stuff I uncovered on things like the debates on the nature of the Trinity and so on bores a lot of folks.

I'm thinking about taking a lot of the stuff I've uncovered so far and transferring it into some peer reviewed published articles and then eventually into a non-self published book. I'm still searching for my novel angle. But I think it will have something to do with America's Founding political theology thru the lens of dissent and heresy within Christendom.

In the meantime, look for more stuff in the future on late 18th Cen. and early 19th Cen. American unitarianism and universalism and how those heretical movements within Christendom influenced America's Founders.

How Thomas Jefferson Conquered America's Religion

In a sense. From Eve Tushnet. A taste:

Thomas Jefferson’s most radical declaration of independence isn’t his most famous. In 1820 Jefferson created a simplified, reasonable version of the Bible—taking out the miracles, prophecies, claims of Jesus’ divinity, and other weirdness which offended his Deism. Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that mainstream Christianity, in virtually all of its manifestations, has been similarly bowdlerized. Instead of the life-changing, culture-challenging demands of the gospel, Dean argues, American teenagers follow a mutant creed best understood as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Almost Christian, a popularization of the results of the 2002-05 National Study of Youth and Religion, attempts to help Christian parents, youth pastors, and others who are alarmed at the shakiness and incoherence of most teens’ faith.

The content of that faith is simple and as American as a smile in an airport. The tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) include belief in a god who watches over us and orders life on earth, and whose major moral concern is that humans should be nice to one another: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” These kids aren’t hostile to religion; who would kick such a toothless cocker spaniel? Dean argues that adolescents who were able to be articulate and expressive when discussing issues they really cared about suddenly became tongue-tied when the subject of God or religion came up, falling back on phrases such as “I would imagine [God is] a very nice guy.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Quote of the day: American independence and the hand of Providence

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States.  Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency."

- President George Washington (1732-1799), Father of our country, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Turley, Palin, GW & SHMG

One of Ray Soller's post from American Creation was referenced by Jonathan Turley here. And Chris Rodda too!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is Randy Barnett's Repeal Amendment un-conservative?

Glenn Reynolds over at Instapundit has a round-up of links addressing Randy Barnett's Repeal Amendment, something that I wrote about recently on this blog. As Reynolds notes, one of the prime objections to Barnett's proposal has some from some of the left-side of the blogosphere who are proposing that there is something un-conservative about amending the Constitution.  While it there is no question that a conservative approach to amending the Constitution would stress a prudential restraint in changing our fundamental charter for light reasons, the simple fact is that the Founders themselves thought that the document should be open to amendment -- that's why they put the Amendment Clause in the Constitution to begin with. Article V of the Constitution reads as follows:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
And not only did the Founders think that the Constitution should be open to Amendment theoretically, they thought that it should be amended in actuality.  Let's take a took at statements from the two American Founders most commonly revered on the American Right currently, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

George Washington, writing to anti-federalist Patrick Henry after the Constitution had been proposed, argued that the Constitution was imperfect and that the Amendment Clause should be viewed as the imperfect document's saving grace, meriting its adoption:
I wish the Constitution which is offered, had been made more perfect, but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time.  And, as a constitutional door is opened for amendment hereafter, the adoption of it, under the present circumstances of the Union, is in my opinion desirable.
George Washington, Letter to Patrick Henry, September 24, 1787, quoted in The Essential Wisdom of the Founding Fathers, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi (Fall River Press:  2009), pg. 33.

Washington's statement clearly asserts that the Constitution could be improved upon, and that the Amendment Clause was included to provide a mechanism for correcting its less than perfect elements.  And, critically, that the Amendment Clause is what made the imperfect Constitution worthy of adoption.  The nation would not be stuck with an imperfect charter, but could, over time, correct its errors.

Thomas Jefferson voiced a strong concern that the Constitution as originally drafted lacked fundamental protections against intrusive federal power.  As he wrote to his protege James Madison in 1787, Jefferson objected to the Constitution's lack of critical protections, most notably the following:
[O]mission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury, in all matters of fact triable by the law of the land, and not by the laws of nations.  
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, 1787, quoted in The Essential Wisdom of the Founding Fathers, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi (Fall River Press:  2009), pg. 47.

Jefferson's remedy for these omissions was a Bill of Rights:
I have a right to nothing which another has a right to take away.  And Congress will have a right to take away trial by jury in all civil cases.  Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government one earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference.
Indeed, Jefferson's belief in the malleability of the Constitution via amendment was one of the lodestars of his constitutional philosophy.  While strongly opposed to open-ended judicial construction of the Constitution, Jefferson derided those who thought that the Constitution should not be amended.  As he wrote to Samuel Kercheval in 1816,
Some men look to Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant -- to sacred to be touched.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, quoted in The Essential Wisdom of the Founding Fathers, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi (Fall River Press:  2009), pg. 47.

I think that a good case can be made for skepticism regarding Barnett's Repeal Amendment, but the idea that conservatives should oppose it because of some mythical conservative belief in the sacred and hallowed nature of the Constitution is just silly.  The Constitution itself contains a mechanism for its Amendment, and the Founders most currently looked to by conservatives explicitly endorsed the idea that the Constitution not only could be amended, it should be amended.

[Cross-posted over at my blog Ordered Liberty.]