Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Anti-Creedalism of the American Founding

How America's Founders viewed creeds/confessions is important for a few reasons. First, some Christian Americanists have used the content of the creeds as a shortcut to determine the Founders' religious belief. I most recently blogged about Bryan Fischer doing this.

Now, I know Fischer is a dimwit who makes for easy pickins. But he relies on the work of M.E. Bradford, no lightweight he.* As I mentioned before, Dr. Bradford, at least in my second revised edition of "Founding Fathers" doesn't make the total leap of saying the FFs were "members" in the sense of swearing oaths to doctrinally orthodox creeds, but he does use the term "members" of orthodox churches. (p. xvi.) Regardless, he doesn't demonstrate, because the record doesn't show 50+ of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention swearing oaths to their churches' orthodox doctrines/creeds. Rather the record shows some kind of bare affiliation with churches that professed orthodoxy; and it shows it for all 55 delegates including the supposed "Deists." Some/many did take oaths; we just don't know the exact number. Though Fischer didn't fabricate the "swear oaths to orthodox doctrines" meme; other, more notable figures did before him.

Peter Lillback for instance, in George Washington's Sacred Fire accurately notes George Washington took oaths to the Anglican Church when he became a vestrymen and a godfather. Thomas Jefferson likewise did when he became a vestryman for the Anglican Church.

As I've noted many times before, Lillback's "smoking gun" to prove GW's "orthodoxy" are those oaths to official Anglican doctrine; and that's because Washington's own words don't prove this. The logic of Lillback, Fischer and others on this matter has been something along the lines of: 1. they were members of orthodox churches in the "they took oaths to creeds" sense; 2. therefore they either were orthodox Trinitarian Christians OR they were dishonorable hypocrites. In fact, I debated a Christian Americanist PhD, author, scholar whom I won't name because I don't think he wants me to (you can ask Ray Soller or Jim Allison about him to confirm this) who repeated like a mantra: Because they took those oaths, Washington AND the other Founders were either orthodox or political whores.

Note: I don't make this argument; they do. That's their judgment not mine. I understand life is complicated. But one senses Lillback's "George Washington's Sacred Fire" writes off Jefferson as a dishonorable man because he took oaths to orthodox Anglican doctrines to become a vestryman while personally rejecting every single doctrine of orthodoxy.

Enter John Jay. He is, in my opinion, rightly conceded as an orthodox Christian. And as I wrote here, he was a church warden in the Anglican-Episcopalian Church, which presumably demonstrates "official oath swearing member" status as opposed to mere nominal affiliation. Yet, as I noted in that link, he didn't seem to care one whit about those creeds, but rather, viewed sectarian oaths as man made creeds.

And doing so led him to flirt with either theological unitarianism, or as this commenter noted, perhaps the Incarnation Sonship heresy, where Jesus is viewed as eternally the second Person in the Trinity, but not the "eternally begotten" Son; rather, the Father-Son relationship didn't occur until Jesus was Incarnated. That's not what his church taught; that's NOT what the Athanasian Creed teaches.

Enter William Livingston, who, as I noted here and here, rejected creeds and ecclesiastical authority. He is also one of Bradford's Presbyterians. I don't know whether he took Presbyterian oaths (see this chart for late 18th Cen. American Churches and their oaths). But my links show he 1. believed in the Bible; but 2. rejected creeds as man made, and 3. mocked the Athanasian Creed.

Enter Benjamin Rush. Though an orthodox Trinitarian, he embraced the Universalist heresy. He was nominally Presbyterian (see this useful chart for formal/nominal affiliation of the Founders). I do not know whether Rush took Presbyterian oaths; but his Arminianism and Universalism contradicted Presbyterianism's creed.

And Rush knew it. He expressed his rejection of creeds to John Adams, April 5, 1808, and noted his religion a compound of "orthodoxy" and "heterodoxy." He also told Adams he kept his exact religious beliefs secret.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I DISLIKE the claim -- "they were orthodox because they were all members of Churches with orthodox creeds" -- so much is, from what I have seen it is precisely the opposite of the truth. Some Founders connected to those churches were biblical unitarians; some were orthodox in spite of what those creeds taught, but rather because they found Trinitarianism in the Bible; and some were more rationalistic unitarian and deistic "Christians." But I haven't seen ANY evidence that the Founders were "orthodox" because they respected the creeds to which their churches adhered. James H. Hutson's The Founders on Religion, on pages 79-81, reproduces quotations from Abigail and John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Jay and Rush on the subject of creeds and EACH is anti-creedal in sentiment.

The "orthodox because of their churches' creeds" meme misses the radically anti-creedal, anti-ecclesiastical dynamic of the American Founding.

*Bradford was almost the appointed to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities by President Reagan until his paleoconservative belief that the South was right poisoned his well

26 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree, Jon. The creed/oath argument is a poor one.

Further, people's faith swings in and out of doubt during their lives. Any creedal oath one swore to in their teens or twenties does not stop them from questioning and doubting---or changing their minds---in later life.

For example, this blog itself is full of apostates.

;-)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. :).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

That doesn't matter to me ;-)! America is the land of the free...

secularsquare said...

Christian nationalists keep forgetting that the Founders drafted a better credal statement to which they did take an oath--the Declaration of Idependence.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Because our nation has believed in the right of conscience and private property, and the divisiona between the public and private spheres, I believe that America should consider "body rights", as private property. Government could then not decide what one should do about healthcare concerns, unless one consented to such government "intrusiveness"....nor could religious communities take that priviledge unless one "consented".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Christian nationalists keep forgetting that the Founders drafted a better credal statement to which they did take an oath--the Declaration of Idependence.

I dunno about that, SS. It's certainly not the secular argument that our rights come from God.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom,
Secular Square was just expressing the idea that Americans are not under religious authority and our government was to be a limited authority...don't you think?

jimmiraybob said...

How compatible would the pledge in the DOI and the required oath to the US Constitution, where it is declared as the supreme Law of the Land, have been with the religious creedal oaths at that time? Especially given that the national Constitution forbade religious tests, forbade establishment of religion and recognized sovereignty in the people without qualification.

Did any of the founders, framers or potential ratifiers bring this up as an objection - that the civil oaths conflicted with their religious creedal obligations?

I guess what I'm wondering is if it was possible to be rightly faithful to a particular religious creed and at the same time to a far more conceptually secular government that didn't incorporate religious creeds.

Phil Johnson said...

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Read it with interest; but, this one is well outside my paygrade.
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Phil Johnson said...

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I do think, however, that there should be a more inclusive inspection of as much as can be known about the contemporary culture of the time aside from the religious and philosophical writings that led up to and were published during the Founding Era. What were the popular novels of the time? What games were being played? What about dances and popular entertainment? Seems insight might be gained thereabouts.
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secularsquare said...

TVD:

Along the lines of Angie's comment, I was suggesting that the DofI is something of a creedal statement for our nation. And without the traditional geographic, ethnic, and linguistic attributes of nationality, the United States almost utilizes the DofI as a creedal "statement of faith." If I can engage in a brief and shameless act of self-promotion, you are read about it at

http://secularsquare.blogspot.com/2011/07/declaration-and-meaning-of-america.html

secularsquare said...

TVD:

In the 18th century, esp. with Jefferson, it is difficult to discern where the sacred ends and the secular begins. Jefferson believed in God and creation, and providence. But he did not argue for rights from religious dogma. I believe he thought they derived from human nature as created by God, as I suggest at (look out, Tom! another shameless act of self-promotion) http://secularsquare.blogspot.com/2011/07/we-hold-these-truths-part-ii.html

Phil Johnson said...

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The DoI sets a great example for the rest of humanity.
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Including
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You and Me in America's present situation.
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secularsquare said...

jimmyraybob-

Since Christians (and non-Christians) from the beginning have generated diverse interpretations of the bible, generating diverse interpretations of church creeds should pose no real problem. Creative hermaneutics can reconcile the DofI or Constitution with any church creed, or the bible itself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Lee.

http://secularsquare.blogspot.com/2011/07/we-hold-these-truths-part-ii.html

The missing link between the creator and man's nature is "natural law." The D of I is a natural law argument. Strangely enough, pre-Enlightenment figures like Suarez and Grotius maintained that even if there were no God, natural law would still be in force. However, Locke put God back in as lawgiver and the ooomph behind it, hence the "laws of nature and of nature's God."

As for yr other piece, I think in the context of the Founding, there was little ethno-religious diversity. Certainly the arrival of other peoples in the 19th century---in no small part Catholics, who were not quite imbibed in the Protestant vibe--- posed the first big test of the American creed.

Since my own background is Roman Catholic, perhaps my biggest surprise in studying the Founding has been that one cannot understand it without understanding Protestantism, particularly Calvinism. The Enlightenment, by contrast, seems way overrated, esp vis-a-vis Locke.

The Wiki tells us that Enlightenment natural law theory challenged the Divine Right of Kings.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_and_legal_rights

But this is bullshit, unless the Jesuits Suarez and Bellarmine were Enlightenment figures. they challenged the Divine Right of Kings, and were in turn challenged by Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha which was in turn challenged by Locke's First Treatise on Government. Locke was rather late to the party, although certainly worthy in his own right.

And on the ground in Britain, it was the Presbyterians [Calvinists] who challenged the King in 1642, and 100+ years later, led the American Revolution as well.

Shorter TVD: Protestantism is as American as apple pie. Without the Calvinists, the USA is Canada--- Tories and Catholics.

Phil Johnson said...

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Did trade unionism have any influence on thinking during the Founding Era?
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ha Ha Pinky,'
Slaves were useful for labor, they didn't have rights. Is this the point of the blog to have some "sentiment" for those that are slaves? The Founders certainly didn't, as they owned slaves...and we still have slavery worldwide...this is a necessary "evil". Everyone cannot be "the leader"...or "owner"....class envy isn't becoming of a prosperous nation! AND anyone can talk about corporate wealth all they want, while neglecting to talk about Union crimes, and these are much worse, as they are connected to international crime rings....

jimmiraybob said...

Did trade unionism have any influence on thinking during the Founding Era?

There were trade organizations that did play a role, at least in the larger cities like Boston. Jim Hogeland in his Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776 touches on this and you might be able to find some more info at his blog Hysteriography. You should ask - he's good at responses and could probably point out additional sources.

I think that Pauline Meier in From Resistance to Revolution may make some mention.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just as government cannot prevent "legal crimes", neither can unions...

Those that are "leaders", "corporate heads" should be people that treat their laborers with respect and dignity, not using or abusing them. And how they do business will reveal their character, which is much more trustworthy than a law that one can 'Hide behind"...transparency in government is necessary if the government is to be limited and held accountable...that means that people are not making decisions "in secret"!!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

How otherwise, are leaders to get the consent of those they govern??

Angie Van De Merwe said...

secrecy would be necessary for the neuroscientists or behaviorialist to study those they deem necessary to "control"....as social control is the outcome of the necessary evil of secrecy....

secularsquare said...

TVD

You are correct on pre-enlightenment sources. Even Jefferson cited ancient sources as well as modern in explaining the ideas behind the DofI (Aristotle, Cicero)

I understand divine right of kings as a Protestant idea to deny any temporal authority to the Popes. did that enter into any of the Catholic attacks on the Divine Rights theory?

secularsquare said...

TVD
As to the other piece, I probably over emphasized the ethno religious diversity. I think it characterized the Mid Atlantic colonies/states (NY/NJ/PA/DE) that the others. If colonial Virginia came closest to duplicating contemporary life in Britain, the Mid-Atlantic colonies best exemplified what the future US would become.

Phil Johnson said...

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Angie wrote, " ...anyone can talk about corporate wealth all they want, while neglecting to talk about Union crimes, and these are much worse, as they are connected to international crime rings."
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I don't think the application of criticdal theory in the study of history should ever have anything to do with our biases for or against any movement. That would be extremely antiproductive! It is obvious--at least in my mind--that craft and trade organizations have most often been involved in civilizing society. In a certain respect, the Free Masonry movement was a model of craft unionism and it carried out a very important role in the creation of our glorious America. What other forces of trade union movement were involved in the Founding of our Great American Society?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

I understand divine right of kings as a Protestant idea to deny any temporal authority to the Popes. did that enter into any of the Catholic attacks on the Divine Rights theory?

Yes, SS, I'd say that's at the heart of the Catholic opposition. But it had been going on since the Pope made Henry II do public penance in sackcloth and ashes for the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170.

And continuing through the

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investiture_Controversy

The question is often put backwards, those awful Christianists trying to take over the government. Most of the time, it was the state trying to run the church. Finally, Henry VIII said screw it, and simply took over the church. Separation of church & state indeed.

That stuff had been going on for 500 years. But James I [he of the KJV] made a run at Divine Right again in the late 1500s, and it was the Catholic thinkers first who demolished it, then followed by the Puritans on the ground and then by "Enlightenment" thinkers Algernon Sidney and John Locke. {See Filmer's Patriarcha. He's in the middle of it all.]

But it wasn't the church trying for temporal power, it was the monarchy trying for control over religion, over everything in a Hobbesian manner. This really set the Protestants off, particularly the Calvinists. They had just booted the Pope, and now here's the King imposing a Book of Common Prayer!

Related:

I agree completely with Jonathan Rowe's statement

The "orthodox because of their churches' creeds" meme misses the radically anti-creedal, anti-ecclesiastical dynamic of the American Founding.


However, I think this is Protestantism at heart. Protestantism is the rejection of the Roman Church's "magisterium" that added creeds and theologies on top of the Bible and on top of early Christianity. As we see in the Thomas More vs. William Tyndale battle, it's the essential battle.

Protestantism itself quickly splinters into almost countless sects, each with their own interpretations of scripture and formation of essential creeds. The anti-ecclesiasticism, anti-clericalism and anti-creedalism of the Founding are all features of Protestantism itself, and are miscredited to the Enlightenment, in my view.

Once the philosophes drift toward moving the divine out of the picture and substituting man's reason alone, yes, this is a separate movement. But the philosophes [and the rather atheistic Hume] are not in the mainstream of American thought at that time.

One can understand the currents and attitudes of the Founding very well through the eyes of Protestantism rather than secular Enlightenment. It would not be inaccurate to say that even though he turned out to be not really Christian, it was because Jefferson was quite the Protestant!

Joe Winpisinger said...

Jrb stated:

"How compatible would the pledge in the DOI and the required oath to the US Constitution, where it is declared as the supreme Law of the Land, have been with the religious creedal oaths at that time? Especially given that the national Constitution forbade religious tests, forbade establishment of religion and recognized sovereignty in the people without qualification."

I think this was much more to that no one religion could take over and use central government to oppress other denominations. Not to achieve some "secular" nation. Now, as was stated, states like Va.(rightly so from a federalism/states rights perspective) took it to complete religious freedom.

Personally, I live in Florida and care what this state does. If California wants to do crazy shit I could really care less unless they use the central government to oppress my state.

I think my thoughts, which are the thoughts of many proponents of modern interposition and states rights(Ed Brayton being one of them when it comes to issue like pot) and that of many of the founders.