Saturday, February 5, 2011

John Fea on Why Jefferson and Franklin were not "Deists."

Here and here. Also order Dr. Fea's book that comes out sometime this month. It's sure to bring much greater understanding of the issue of the FFs' personal religious creed to the orthodox Christian audience to whom it is primarily directed. (Yet, I think it will also be a very valuable resources to any curious person regardless of his or her religious faith.)

Here is a taste from Dr. Fea's personal blog:

... And yes, one can be a theist and reject all the tenets of Christianity. One could certainly believe in a God who intervenes and providentially orchestrates the world without believing that that God revealed himself in the form of a human who died for the sins of the world. What I am basically doing (and I am giving a bit of my book away here) is trying to argue that the founders were neither deists or Christians, but something in-between. Some scholars have suggested that they were "theistic rationalists." I think this is a fair term (although I am not sure I use it in the book).

The larger truth that I've been pressing for years: We've got two boxes "Christian" and "Deist" each of which can have narrow or broad meanings. The narrow meaning of "Christian" is someone who believes in the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrines, that the biblical canon is inerrant or infallible, etc. The narrow meaning of "Deist" is someone who believes in a non-intervening clockmaker God who does not reveal anything to man in any Holy Book. What a wide gulf between those two concepts! It shouldn't surprise that many Founders wouldn't fit into either box, but be somewhere in between.

The game that scholars or advocates can play is define one box strictly and one box broadly in order to capture a particular founder for a preferred outcome. Strictly speaking the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin were neither Christians nor Deists (with some admitted uncertainty regarding Washington and Madison). Broadly speaking they were both Christians AND Deists.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you suggesting that the FF believed in a "moral order" of the universe, that is, that God structured the world such that "order" is the "name of the game"? But, they also believed in natural rights, because of such moral order. And this was based on natural law?

The problem is with our "understanding" (really, our lack of) of quantum theory, where the order is not understood, because of man's lacking the ability to think or understand beyond 3 dimensions. Is this "god"? Is "god's providence" what we don't understand, yet, as in "god of the gaps"?

I agree that humans must base the ordering of society on some foundation. I think it is dangerous to construct a foundation that is too ordered, or too unordered. Isn't this what we have in our society, a liberal Republic"?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

What I really struggle with and cannot accept, is choosing religious language for what happens, as if "god is sovereign". Sh** happens and those that are responsible for it, should be held accountable. This deters a disregarding of proper procedures that protect all of us as free individuals! So, I do not believe in leadership pre-determining another's life without thier full knowledge and consent!

Too often religious language is used to justify what would be horrendouly offensive, illegal and wrong in the "real/secular world". And this is what is offensive to me, using forgiveness language blood/cross symbolozation to justify one's actions.

Ownership of one's life means that one admits one's choices, mistakes and values. Life is a learning/growing process, and not just a "ideological" structure. So, while we have to believe in some sort of structuring of society by laws, and an order to the universe, so science can discover, we must also understand that we don't know everything, so we must not be arrogant in our assertions and leave room for "correction" or change.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As always, "the Founders" becomes Jefferson and John Adams, with a sprinkling of Franklin.

Same ol', same ol'. There were 100 other Founders.

Jason_Pappas said...

Fea's article (your second link) raises more questions than it answers. He quotes both Franklin (our 1st greatest scientist) and Jefferson (who mastered Newtonian physics and calculus) as saying that God keeps the planets in motion. If this isn't, strictly speaking, a Christian God, one has to wonder what kind of God keeps the planets in motion. What God permeates all nature and embodies nature's law? That would be a pantheist God. Since I'm sure both Franklin and Jefferson knew of Newton's law of gravitation, one wonders if such rhetoric (if it isn't just a metaphor) hints at pantheism? Now, I don't think they were but one has to wonder how they see both Newton's laws and God's intervention fitting together. As I said, it raises more questions than it answers.

As you point out, there's a vast realm between deism and orthodox Christianity.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Some such as Jurgen Multmann have suggested panentheism, which ackowledges the "cosmos" within "God". That is that everything that is exists within God...yet, God is greater....(I think I am remembering it correctly)...

Jonathan Rowe said...

Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin had the profoundest respect for Newton.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"There were 100 other Founders."

And they didn't become Presidents. Or at least the one who did (Washington, Madison) didn't stand in any kind of stark contrast with Jefferson or J. Adams on their Providentially theistic but not explicitly, traditionally Christian personal religious creed and public religious proclamations.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"President" is not a necessary function of being a Founder, Jon. Neither was the presidency seen as the "imperial presidency" that it's considered today. Congress was where it was at.

The irony is that the first presidents were seen as largely non-sectarian affiliated, which made them attractive as consensus candidates to the battling sects. But this does not necessarily make them representative of the nation or the Founders as a whole; it's their "outlierness" that made them attractive.

The National Fast recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has alarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, &c,&c,&c, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whispers ran through them [all the sects] "Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President"...

---John Adams on the election of 1800


Jason, a God that keeps the "spheres" whirling is the Aristotelian God, the "God of the philosophers." It's also part of the Thomistic [Aquinas] "proofs of God."

If that helps. It does not necessarily suggest any pantheism. To a man [even Paine], the Founders were still Providential monotheists.

bpabbott said...

Being elected President did carry the necessity of being a popular Founder. I don't think it a stretch to say those who were elected were the more popular founders.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's easily argued that Hamilton did as much or more "Founding" than Jefferson did. The point being that the presidency doesn't jump you to the front of the line.

Again, it always comes down to Jefferson and John Adams---most of which is from their private letters.

bpabbott said...

In my opinion, Hamilton could have become President. It was his habit for dueling that prevented him from being counted among the first five.

I have no problem counting him among the leading founders. But I don't see how that changes anything. The religion of Hamilton pre/post 1801 seems quite inconsistent.

Mark in Spokane said...

Hamilton is a far more important founder, when it comes to the eventual structure and economy of America, than Jefferson. I forget who said it, but Jefferson was the poet of America -- the one who said the pretty words that make people feel an emotional connection to the idea of this country. But it was Hamilton who figured out how to make the country actually work. And this is borne out by Jefferson's own stint as president, where he preserved intact (and in some cases expanded) the machinery of government and economy put into place by Hamilton. Forrest McDonald's biography of Hamilton is really good at pointing this out.

Hamilton never would have become president. His political career was finished by the time he was murdered by Burr. Hamilton after 1798 was becoming increasing erratic -- dreams of military glory, empire building by marching an American army into Mexico, increasing paranoia about France, etc. Most of the Federalist machinery was turning against him after the election of 1800.

As far as his religious views go, Hamilton was not particularly religious for most of his career. He did become increasing religious after the death of his son Philip in a duel. From all accounts, after his son's death, he embraced Christianity. As he was on his deathbed, he was insistent, for example, that he be given viaticum. When a Presbyterian minister wouldn't administer holy communion to him, Hamilton begged the local Episcopalian bishop to do so. And he was persistent on that point, eventually wearing the bishop down and receiving communion before he died.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What I like about our self-avowed atheist friend Ben Abbott is that he never actually crosses the line against the natural law-theism-biblical morality of the Founding vibe.

Well I'm sure he does, or has


As has every other human being with the possible exception of Jesus.

The end result remains that "faith" equals "doctrine" if you wanna be a hardass about it. But the Founders were astute enough to know, with 3 major sects---Presbyterian, Anglican and the upstart Baptists---plus all the variations thereof PLUS your Quakers and Anabapists and whatever...

Jeez, look at the scorecard, if you can buy one! The Catholics ain't even in the game yet, and the unitarians haven't even legally seized the Congregationalist churches of Massachusetts.

Jefferson's private letters back and forth with John Adams after they retired?

Aw geez. Clinton debating Bush 41 in 2001. Who gives a shit?