Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wish Me Luck

I'm going -- as an invited guest -- to the Christians in Political Science Conference at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. I'm going to be on a roundtable with Dr. Gregg Frazer discussing his new book. It is this weekend. Wish me luck.

Gary Wills on the Mormon Constitution

Here. Joanna Brooks corrects.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Christian Nationalism Is Authentically Mormon

But it is not authentically Christian! From Andrew Sullivan here. A taste from a 1987 statement by Ezra Taft Benson:

Our Father in Heaven planned the coming forth of the Founding Fathers and their form of government as the necessary great prologue leading to the restoration of the gospel. Recall what our Savior Jesus Christ said nearly two thousand years ago when He visited this promised land: “For it is wisdom in the Father that they should be established in this land, and be set up as a free people by the power of the Father, that these things might come forth” (3 Ne. 21:4). America, the land of liberty, was to be the Lord’s latter-day base of operations for His restored church.... For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off... 
I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval upon it. I testify that the God of heaven sent some of His choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government, and He has now sent other choice spirits to help preserve it. 
We, the blessed beneficiaries of the Constitution, face difficult days in America, “a land which is choice above all other lands” (Ether 2:10).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Evangelical War on Mormonism That Wasn't


A rather odd--or underreasoned--op-ed from Harvard prof Noah Feldman is making the rounds, like at our good friend John Fea's place: Mitt Romney's candidacy is Mormonism's ticket to American Protestant acceptance. That's a very big yes and no, as we shall see:
As a deeply believing Mormon, he actually, sincerely (yes, sincerely) believes that his moral values are equivalent to those of evangelicals.
Why Prof. Feldman finds this worthy of note or the least bit puzzling is puzzling. Romney's values are the same as American evangelicals'. Not only that, but the feeling is mutual. As Dennis Prager writes:
"Traditional Jews and evangelical Christians have quite different theologies, but they often have virtually identical values. (That is why this Jew is so supportive of evangelicals and why evangelical Christians syndicate my radio show.)
Conservative Catholics and evangelicals differ on theology but share virtually every important value. The Founders differed on theology but rarely on values. It is hard to identify any area of life in which Mitt Romney's values and life differ in any way from the finest evangelical's values and life. And with regard to electing a president, that is what matters."
Via the internet, I've heard some of the stations Prager refers to, say WORL in Florida, which explicitly self-identifies as "Christian" in its station breaks. They carry the conservative Jewish commentator Michael Medved as well. They don't mind.

In 2012 the evangelical right has embraced the American Founding's vision of religious pluralism---park the soteriology [the business of salvation] at the door and concern ourselves politically only with the concerns of this world. This detente has been vitiated by the rise of secular-progressivism and/or libertarianism-libertinism, both of which largely reject any notion of natural law, that there exist objective and universal standards of morality that a society should govern itself by.  The "Judeo-Christian" thing.

Feldman, who is a Harvardly expert on religion as well as constitutional law, adds to the undifferentiated soupiness thus:
In historical terms, this change is business as usual. Catholics came to be seen as a legitimate Christian denomination only after years of oppression. Then came the acceptance of Jews. Mormons are the latest beneficiaries. Eventually, Muslims and Hindus will have their day as well.
Well, not exactly. It's not just one big stew where you toss in this religion or that one, as if they're all more or less the same. Salt isn't pepper isn't an onion isn't a carrot or a hunk of lamb or even a stone.  [Stone soup actually tastes like water with it a stone in it.  Ick.]

Theologically, Christianity's relationship with Judaism has finally warmed in the past century, that the Jews have a legitimate place in God's plan, and it's certainly indisputable that their Bible is biblical. However, there will be no such dispensation for the unbiblical Book of Mormon [or the Quran, for that matter].  When it comes to man's religions, one size does not fit all.

A Rev. Frank Pastore [ex-Cincinnati Reds pitcher, now a scholar and evangelical pastor and talk show host] can support Romney socio-politically ["We're not electing a pastor, we're electing a president"], but has reservations that such a tolerance-acceptance is a theological endorsement of Mormonism as a legitimate variant of Christianity.

Many Christian sects remain kissin' cousins, and accept each others' legitimacy as authentic Christianity. But Mormonism with its additional book of revelation [like Islam]? No can do. Never. But that's theology.  All that stuff will be settled on Judgment Day and not one day before.

Back here on earth, for years now, the leftish chattering class has been predicting an evangelical rejection of Mitt Romney's candidacy---and thus a splitting or neutering of the Religious Right if and when he's nominated.

But the Religious Right are neither the blithering idiots nor the implacable theological ideologues that would reject a Romney for an Obama, whose own Christianity hasn't much in common with theirs when it comes to this here planet. 

[Even as the president's surrogates are "letting slip" that Barack Obama the man is theologically much more the orthodox Christian than he was in 2008. That should probably be a post of its own. I find it inappropriate---bizarre if not cynical---for one's pastors and advisors to be leaking a candidate's theological bona fides to the press.]

Indeed, it's the evangelical right who have settled comfortably into the Founding era's religious pluralism, a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell---that doctrine and dogma are unhelpful, and indeed are needless distractions when it comes to constructing a polity congenial to your values. As John Adams wrote to Abigail about his cousin S[amuel] Adams---an uber-Calvinist---at the very first Continental Congress in September 1774:
When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a Motion, that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of N. York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Aanabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.
Mr. S. Adams arose and said he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country.
He was a Stranger in Phyladelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that Character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an episcopal [Anglican, i.e., Church of England---TVD] Clergyman, might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress, tomorrow Morning. The Motion was seconded and passed in the Affirmative.
That the Religious Right fancy themselves the successors of the American Founding is well-known. Few of them would find the above story surprising or anything less than wise: in the 21st century, the most Protestant issue joint politico-moral declarations with the most Papish

The Founders would smile if not laugh in satisfaction, and it's very disappointing to those who oppose the Religious Right, I suppose, that they refuse to commit political suicide over theology. But it's an American tradition that dates back to at least 1774 and the launch of the American Revolution, and that's very good thing.

Otherwise, you know, you'd be reading this in English.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Romney Is Mormons’ Path to the Christian Mainstream

From Noah Feldman here.  A taste:
And as a Mormon, Romney is a participant -- indeed, he is the most important participant -- in the long-term project of convincing mainstream American Protestants that Mormonism is a normal denomination like all the others. Given this historic opportunity to “normalize” Mormonism, Romney is acting not opportunistically but on deeply felt principle. By embracing evangelicals and being embraced by them, he is bringing Mormonism into the denominational scheme that characterizes mainstream American Christianity.

Short-term politics is therefore making a long-term historic difference. Evangelical Protestants who once believed that Mormonism was a deviant sect, not a legitimate denomination, may come to believe something very different as they prepare to cast their votes for a Romney. The practice of pluralism can come first. The beliefs can come later.

There is nothing unique about this cart-pulling-the-horse version of tolerance. The modern doctrine of religious toleration grew out of the wars of religion of the 17th century. When enough people had died, practical people -- especially politicians -- begin to see the benefits of leaving well enough alone. Once the government has dictated toleration, the citizens who must practice it need to find a good reason for doing so. Tolerance is the theory that justifies practical coexistence.

As Americans, we can pat ourselves on the back in celebration of increased toleration. The fact that it comes from a historically less-tolerant strand of American life just makes the victory for coexistence all the sweeter.

In historical terms, this change is business as usual. Catholics came to be seen as a legitimate Christian denomination only after years of oppression. Then came the acceptance of Jews. Mormons are the latest beneficiaries. Eventually, Muslims and Hindus will have their day as well.

Price of Normalization

Yet the consequences of turning Mormonism into just another denomination are epochal for Mormons. The doctrine of “be careful what you wish for” certainly applies.

On the one hand, Mormons no doubt believe, with reason, that their evangelizing efforts will be enhanced by a broad public perception that they are Christian. After all, American Protestants change denominations with little frictional effect. If all are worshipping Christ, the mode of worship seems altogether secondary.

On the other hand, seen through the lens of history, entering the mainstream poses major risks. If Mormons think of themselves as another Christian denomination, the risk of defection rises. The distinctive Mormon beliefs in a new scripture and in the possibility of joining the supernal realm for eternal life will come into jeopardy precisely because they mark differences with the Protestant mainstream. If you believe you are not that different from others, there will be a tendency to downplay those practices and beliefs that suggest otherwise.

Is Obama a Born Again Christian?

Very interesting article from Stephen Mansfield here. A taste:
Given the influence of these evangelical spiritual advisors, has Obama become a "born again" Christian?

Some would say he has.

"Yes," says Dubois, "I know he's born again. I've asked him and he's described his faith in detail. He believes what the majority of Christians believe. And the experience of the presidency is strengthening his Christian muscles, making him a calm, confident, certain believer in Jesus Christ." Joel Hunter agrees: "There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart."

Yet not everyone is as convinced. Among them is Jerome Corsi, the Harvard Ph.D. who wrote "The Obama Nation," raising serous questions about Barack Obama's birth, religion, political affiliations and policies during the presidential race of 2008. "Barack Obama's Christianity is a religion of political convenience," Corsi, a Roman Catholic, has said. "You find in him no orthodox Christian doctrine, a heavy dose of Marxism, a heavy dose of race, but a very poor brand of Christianity. His faith is essentially Marxism transplanted onto a watered-down version of Christianity. I just don't see much fruit that indicates he is a Christian regardless of what he has learned to say or read to the public."

Equally suspicious of Obama is David Barton, a historian whom Time magazine has called "a hero to millions" for his renditions of American religious history. Barton allows that Obama may be, in some form, a Christian, but insists that given the administration's policies it doesn't seem to matter. "He might have a Christian faith but it clearly isn't a biblical faith. What difference does it make, politically speaking, if the man is a Christian personally if he doesn't let that Christian faith shape his policies? And Obama clearly does not have biblical policies in any form."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Was Jefferson a conservative? Not in matters of religion

There is a considerable ongoing debate on the Right side of the blogosphere about whether Thomas Jefferson should be included within the ranks of conservative thinkers.  One aspect of the discussion regards Jefferson's religious views. And any inspection of Jefferson's views on religion reveal a man who was a radical and not a traditionalist -- somebody who was deeply and fundamentally alienated not only from orthodox, creedal Christianity in any of its historic variants (Protestant, Catholic and eastern Orthodox) but also from Judaism. No where is this more evident than in his letters to various correspondents. Those who would argue that Jefferson held to traditional or otherwise orthodox views regarding either Judaism or Christianity need to be able to explain passages like the following:
His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses.  That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.  Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration.  Moses ad either not believed in a a future state of existence, or had not thought it essentially to be explicitly taught to his people.  Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision.  Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances of no effect toward producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance.  The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit toward other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence.  The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous.  Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion; and a step to right or left might place him within the grasp of the priests of the superstition, a blood-thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.  They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law.  He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplication of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient, ad homines, at least.  That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.  But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible.  The whole religion of the Jew, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration.  The fumes of the most disorded [sic] imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications from the Deity; and as it could not but happen that in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only persevered their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatized from them.  Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order.  This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon. 
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, Aug. 4, 1820, reprinted in In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, edited by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers: 1958), pgs. 153-154.

Jefferson on bad and good religion

If by religion we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, "that this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."  But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropism and deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth, in which all agree, constitute a true religion, then, without it, this would be, as you again say, "something not fit to be named, even indeed, a hell."

- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, dated May 5, 1817, reprinted in In God We Trust:  The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, edited by Norman Cousins (Harper & Bros.:  1958), pg. 283.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Progressive ideology and the Constitution

Matthew Spalding discusses the anti-foundational approach of progressive ideology to the federal Constitution in this article posted over at First Principles: A New Republic: The Progressive Assault on the Founders' Principles. Spalding provides a good overview of the difference between the progressive mindset and the mindset of the Founding generation. And he does a good job of showing that Abraham Lincoln, far from being a herald of the new progressive era (as many liberal and some libertarian writers contend), harkened back to the Founders' vision of the Constitution bounded by the moral order of natural law and civic virtue enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

[Cross-posted at my own blog, Libertas et Memoria.]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Page 94 of The Search For Christian America

I'm enjoying this book. From what I can tell, it was written to Francis Schaeffer. That's implicit throughout the book. The authors respected Schaeffer as a Calvinist theologian, but thought he greatly erred when he put on his historian and political scientist hats. Schaeffer was, as well, a Sola Scriptura evangelical who disbelieved in the natural law and the Church's incorporation of Aristotle. This is key; because what Noll et al. write that is reproduced below doesn't work unless one accepts this premise. Natural reasoning as such is "secular" because it is not from the Bible. Theistic natural law merges God and natural reason. It's the natural law (as discovered from reason) with God to make it binding (not everyone accepts you need God to make the natural law binding in an "ought" sense; but America's Founders seemed to believe this). The authors argue that without a grounding in the Bible, it was easier for later secularists to separate God from nature.
I know this post could to lead to arguments. But one minimal point on we should all agree: The political theology of the American Founding was not Francis Schaeffer's which believed in the Bible, but not natural law (which has its origin in the noble paganism of Greece and Rome and was later incorporated into the Church by Aquinas). Hell, I'm not even sure if Schaeffer's Calvinist resisters like Rutherford believed in this. (I'm no expert in them; but I've seen evidence that they believed in the natural law and like Aquinas, cited Aristotle as an authority on part with early Church Fathers; John Knox did; though I can't vouch for what he argues.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

John Dickinson and American constitutionalism

That's the topic explored in this fascinating post over at The Imaginative Conservative.  Did you know that the Federalist Papers weren't the only defense of our Constitution at the time of its proposal?  American founding father John Dickinson wrote a set of articles, under the pen name Fabius, in defense of the proposed Constitution.  How powerful was Dickinson's argument in favor of the Constitution?  Powerful enough to earn the praise of the Father of Our Country, George Washington.  Read the entire post by George S. Ahern to learn more.  And I now have another book to add to my queue at the local public library!

Jefferson's July 25 1788 letter to Derieux

I took a pic from Lenni Brenner's book that reproduces everything Jefferson and Madison said on religion.
As I understand the letter, Jefferson admitted he had for his entire adult life been a theological unitarian.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Getting Jefferson Right: When did Jefferson question the Trinity?

I was about to write this post, but I see Professor Throckmorton wrote it for me. Here.

Jefferson on Who Gets Into Heaven

To William Canby, September 18, 1813:
I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ. That on entering there, all these are left behind us, and the Aristides and Catos, the Penns and Tillotsons, Presbyterians and Baptists, will find themselves united in all principles which are in concert with the reason of the supreme mind. ...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's In Jefferson's Bible

We've heard the claim Jefferson made his Bible(s) to cut out the supernatural parts. David Barton using, as Warren Throckmorton and others have shown, erroneous scholarship claims, no, Jefferson's Bible was for the purpose of evangelizing the Indians.

Barton needs to take a refresher course on philsophy and read up on, among other concepts, straw mannon-sequitur, and red herring. Barton notoriously engages in these and other fallacies. Even if true that Jefferson made one of his Bibles for a purpose of introducing Indians to "Christian" ideas (I put that in quotes because what Jefferson valued in "Christianity" were not the central doctrines of faith which he rejected) it does not follow that Jefferson did NOT cut up the Bible for the purpose of editing out that which he did not believe.

I need not reiterate the evidence here; Jefferson clearly states, in his letters, that he made his Bible to cut out that which he didn't believe -- what he thought corrupted -- and leave in that which he thought legitimate. Strangely enough Barton seems to understand (because the evidence is so overwhelming that he couldn't deny it) that Jefferson did not believe the entire Bible was legitimately revealed, that indeed Jefferson rejected entire BOOKS of the Bible. For instance, the book of Revelation which Jefferson terms "merely the ravings of a maniac no more worthy of explanation than the incoherences of our nightly dreams." Yes, Barton concedes this on pages 180-81. And Barton concedes Jefferson's unitarianism (how could you not?). Barton seems to want to make Jefferson a biblical unitarian. But still concedes Jefferson, at the very least, disbelieved in entire books of the Bible. Why he can't accept Jefferson wrote his own Bible to exclude the portions with which he disagreed is beyond me given how much else he concedes.

Also, strangley, Barton goes on about the Stone-Campbell movement as the hermeneutical key to understanding Jefferson's creed. It's true that movement of non-creedal, non-Trinitarian Christianity is closer to Jefferson than is orthodox Christianity (they were biblical non-Trinitarians). But if we need "outside" sources to help supplement our understanding of what Jefferson believed, why not go to sources Jefferson claimed as mentors? He didn't claim Stone-Campbell but rather Joseph Priestley and Conyers Middleton in his letter to John Adams, Aug. 22, 1813. Priestley, the most notable Socinian Unitarian of that era, rejected the Trinity. I'm not sure if Middleton did. But BOTH rejected the infalliblity of the Bible. Priestley termed the "plenary inspiration of Scripture" as one of Christianity's "corruptions." And Middleton made his own Bible before Jefferson did, cutting out that which he didn't believe.

On a final note, it helps to read the Jefferson Bible to see what's in it. I never accepted the claim that Jefferson cut out ALL of the supernatural from the Bible. Jefferson believed in an active personal God, which itself seems "supernatural." Jefferson disbelieved in a great deal of the supernatural. And Jefferson, unlike his mentor Priestley, explicitly rejected Jesus' Resurrection. Priestley rejected the Trinity, and as a Socinian, thought Jesus was 100% human not divine at all (Arian unitarians believed Jesus divine but created by and subordinate to the Father; higher than the highest archangel but lower than the Father). Priestley believed Jesus, as God's perfect human Son, resurrected as an example of what God would one day do for all good men. Jefferson believed in an afterlife where all good men would live in eternal bliss.

Jefferson and Priestley were BOTH materialists. That is, for Priestley, you didn't get an afterlife without a Resurrection. So it's not a stretch to conclude Jefferson believed in the future resurrection of all good men. And, according to Jefferson, who was the best man? Jesus. So even if Jefferson's Jesus, unlike Priestley's, had not yet been resurrected, he would be.

What I'm trying to lead to is the valuable Tom Van Dyke discovered Jefferson's Bible left in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus' second coming and judgment, the future state of rewards and punishments. (The "rational Christians" of that era did believe in future punishment for the bad; just not eternal.) It could be that Jefferson mistakenly left those passages in. OR, I think based on what I've outlined above, it "fits" with the kind of Socinian unitarianism in which Jefferson believed.

Monday, May 7, 2012

John Adams on the Bible's tangled history as a text

"What suspicions of interpolation, and indeed of fabrication, might not be confuted if we had the originals!  In an age or in ages when fraud, forgery, and perjury were considered as lawful means of propagating the truth by philosophers, legislators and theologians, what may not be suspected?"

- Marginal note written by John Adams in John Disney's Memoirs (1785), quoted in The Founders on Religion, A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton University Press: 2005), pg. 26.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Bunch of Barton Links

I thought I'd compile a number of recent current David Barton links into one post as opposed to a series of posts with links. First Barton was on the Daily Show again. Here Ed Brayton complains Stewart was too easy on him. Ed had a follow up post which links to this post of John Fea's on the matter. Here is Charles Johnson's post which links to Chris Rodda's Huffington Post article entitled Pseudo-Historian David Barton's New Jefferson Book is a Load of Crap -- and a Bestseller. Finally don't miss historian Martin Marty's take down of Barton (hat tip John Fea).

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Who is David Barton, #1 trending topic on Google?

Here.  Like it or not, David Barton is current.

Mel Bradford on the Founders, religious establishment, and the First Amendment

The late Mel Bradford (d. 1994) was one of the leading paleo-conservative scholars of the South, teaching at the University of Dallas until his unexpected death due to complications from surgery.  Bradford's scholarly work was primarily in the field of Southern literature (his writings on Faulkner received particular attention), although he branched out from literary studies to tackle historical writing as well, particularly historical writing relating to the American Founding and the Civil War. In 1981 Bradford was in the running to be Ronald Reagan's appointee to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities, but due to controversy regarding his views toward Abraham Lincoln, Bradford was passed over and the NEH post went to William Bennett. Bradford was a friend to several notable paleo-conservative writers, most notably Russell Kirk (who also died in 1994) and the historian and Calhoun scholar Clyde Wilson. Towards what would be the end of his life, Bradford also was closely associated with historian Forrest McDonald. And it was MacDonald who had the strongest influence on what would be Bradford's last book, Original Intentions:  On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution, sadly now out of print but available in libraries and in the used book marketplace.

Original Intentions is an amazing book, made all the more amazing in that it was written not by a professional historian but by a professional literary scholar. Yet it is precisely Bradford's mastery of the craft of literary analysis that lends insight to his work. It is beyond the scope of this blog-post to offer a complete review of the book, but it is worth noting that Bradford's literary background gave him a deep appreciation that the Founders had not one single set of motivations or intentions but multiple ones when they came together to draft a new charter for the young American Republic. Far from seeking an original intent (in the singular), Bradford sought to introduce his readers to the complexity of the views of the Founders, looking not only at their intellectual influences but on their political, economic and social contexts when examining the forces and ideas that shaped the Founders' work.  This is not simplified history or partisan history, but a serious, conservative approach to examining the perspectives, views and concerns of the men who drafted and ratified the main text of our nation's current Constitution.  And it bears in critical ways the marks of Forrest McDonald's influence on Bradford's later examination of American history.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bradford's examination of the religious views of the Founders who participated in the Philadelphia Convention, found in chapter 7 of Original Intentions.

Bradford begins his discussion by noting that much of modern Establishment Clause jurisprudence regarding the First Amendment distorts the original purposes behind our Constitution's protections for religious freedom. The justices of the Supreme Court, Bradford writes, "lost their way" and have been unable to find anew a path to understanding and applying the First Amendment in light of its proper historical and cultural context at the time of its ratification.

Bradford does a very thorough job of identifying the intellectual temptations that can thwart a truly originalist view of the First Amendment's provisions regarding religion. From the great-man theory of the Constitution, to a selective and ideological reading of the text, to an anachronistic reading of the text in light of modern intellectual concerns, Bradford sees a host of difficulties the navigation of which necessitate a properly contextualized view of the background of the First Amendment.

To provide such a contextualized view, Bradford provides what he calls "a collective portrait" that draws upon evidence usually overlooked when discussing religion and the Constitution. Bradford gives great weight to the confessional affiliation of most of the Framers of the First Amendment, the ardent Christian faith of many of the Founding generation -- including those who insisted on a Bill of Rights to supplement the original text of the Constitution. The faith of men often overlooked, like John Jay and James Mason, are important to Bradford as an example of the overall nature of religious views by those men of prominence who are often ignored or relegated to the fringes of historical examination. The conviction in divine Providence was strong not only among those who, thanks to a later following, figure large in our contemporary imaginations regarding the Founding Era.

Of particular interest in Bradford's study is his detailed overview of the significance of swearing oaths.  The swearing of an oath, and the constitutional requirement that office-holders swear them, was seen as an acknowledgement of the government's subordination to divine authority. Both Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut and James Iredell of North Carolina (a future Supreme Court justice) argued for this understanding of swearing an oath, with Wolcott going so far as to argue that requiring a religious test for holding office was redundant because the requirement for office-holders to swear an oath was itself a sufficient test in that regard. To require an additional test of faith was, as Bradford puts it, "a pious redundancy."

Bradford brings his skills as a literary critic to bear in his discussion of the use of the term "establishment" in the First Amendment. Far from being a term of indefinite or general meaning, Bradford demonstrates that the word was a term of art with a very specific context and usage in 18th century English law, a law with which the Framers of the First Amendment were quite familiar. This usage was concerned not so much with religious activity influencing the government but with the government's overt sanctioning of specific religious institutions. Combined with this technical reading of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, Bradford notes, is the jurisdictional language at the beginning of the Amendment, prohibiting the federal government from addressing religion in the states through congressional action. What the Framers meant the Establishment Clause to do was, quite simply, prevent the creation of a national church with the power to enforce doctrine and demand direct support through taxation. As Bradford writes,
In 1789 a religious establishment was, in Anglo-American parlance, sensu stricto, an institution able (with the assistance of government) to promulgate a creed or dogma, to require official assent to that doctrine, to collect rates or some other tax in support of that religion, and to require, at least from time to time, attendance at worship.  According to the limits of the definition, all religious activity not comprehended under this list of characteristics but encouraged or supported by the state or conducted under its auspices signified nothing concerning an establishment.  Neither would the fact that a particular activity not sectarian in purpose happened to benefit one denomination more than another.  
Far from seeking to curtail religion, the push towards limitation of religious establishment at the national level sought to promote both tolerance and piety, seeking to avoid "the repetition of sectarian animosity among Christians living on these shores," an animosity that "would ultimately undermine the status of religion among us." Bradford details quite effectively that the purpose behind the First Amendment was not to hobble or limit religion -- or even less to abolish it -- but rather was to protect and nurture it, even when it existed in quasi-established form in the states.

Thus, while insisting on precluding a national establishment of religion, the Framers of the First Amendment rejected Madison's call for a limitation on state establishments. Let the states, informed by the specific cultures and the specific needs of their own circumstances determine the role that religion would play in their own polities. And even Madison agreed that the prohibition of a national establishment "should not prevent the federal government from giving nondiscriminatory assistance to religion, as long as the assistance is incidental to the performance of a power delegated to the government."

Far from seeking to overturn an existing consensus within American society, the First Amendment was designed, as far as its provisions concerning religion are concerned, to constitutionalize an already existing relationship between religion and the government. The point of the First Amendment was not and is not to secularize America or to abolish Christianity from the public square. Rather, those men who framed the First Amendment sought to protect a tolerant but identifiably Christian culture from government overreach at the federal level.

In light of this understanding, at the end of his discussion Bradford takes aim on the judicial doctrine of incorporation, whereby provisions of the Bill of Rights are imposed upon the states through the 14th Amendment. Bradford sees the doctrine of incorporation as problematic, a position that has at least some merit in light of the overall context of the First Amendment and its express jurisdictional limitation on the authority of Congress. While it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that the Supreme Court will revisit whether the First Amendment can legitimately be incorporated against the states, there is no question that the First Amendment as originally understood applied only to the federal government and not to the states in their separate & individual capacities.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Paul Revere, the "Immersion" of Jesus, and the Complex Nature of Early American Religion

This past month, officials with the Library Preservation Department of Brown University uncovered a rare engraving (seen on the left) from our nation's founding period, which I believe illustrates the complexities of early American religion.  This engraving, which was completed by none other than Paul Revere, is a depiction of the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist.  As you can see, the engraving illustrates Christ's baptism as being done through immersion. 

Paul Revere was well known in his day for several of his artistic engravings, the most famous of course being his depiction of the Boston Massacre.  As an artisan, silversmith and dentist by trade, Revere was exceptionally gifted with his ability to create these artistic engravings, all of which helped to gain him notoriety during the early years of the American Revolution. 

But this particular engraving of Christ's baptism is noteworthy not just because of the artist who created it, but because it also sheds light on some interesting aspects of early American religion and the personal creed of Paul Revere himself.  As the son of a very devout French Huguenot who had immigrated to Boston, Revere was raised in a very devout Protestant home.  The family's primary loyalty rested with Christ's Church (Old North Church) where the children were raised in the traditional orthodoxy of their day. 

And though orthodoxy was an important component in the lives of many early American colonists, the sweeping tides of the First Great Awakening had brought about new ideas regarding humanity and its place with the divine.  For a young and intelligent boy like Paul Revere (who seemed to have an inherent attraction to revolutionary ways of thinking) these new ideas seemed to strike a chord.  Though originally drawn to the teachings of the Church of England, Revere eventually began to align himself with the West Church, and its controversial pastor Jonathan Mayhew.  Mayhew's provocative brand to preaching, particularly his support of resistance to civil authority and opposition of British "tyranny" had earned him a large number of supporters within the Boston area, particularly the young fifteen-year-old Paul Revere. 

Needless to say, Revere's newfound faith did not sit well with his extremely orthodox father.  In fact, Revere's decision to give ear to the radical Mayhew ended with him being on the receiving end of a severe beating at the hand of his father, which caused the young lad to "repent" of his error and return to his family's church (though he stayed close friends with Mayhew).  But it wasn't Mayhew's political views that angered Revere's father.  According to Joel Miller, author of the book, The Revolutionary Paul Revere, Revere's father wasn't upset over Mayhew's political rhetoric but rather over his "heretic" teachings:
Mayhew's politics weren't as radical as they might seem. Mayhew was speaking from what was by then a long tradition of civil resistance, primarily from the Calvinists. While John Calvin himself opposed rebellion, his Huguenot heirs in France penned treatises defending it: Fran├žois Hotman, Theodore Beza, and Phillipe du Plessis-Mor-nay and his famous Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. Ditto for Calvin's Puritan heirs like George Buchanan, Samuel Rutherford, and John Ponet. These writers shaped Puritan and Huguenot ideas about civil power and rights and were hardly radical to those standing in their stream. John Adams spoke glowingly of them. "The original plantation of our country was occasioned, her continual growth has been promoted, and her present liberties have been established by these generous theories," he wrote, specifically referring to Ponet and the Vindiciae.
All this matters because Paul's family was Calvinist. His dad was a Huguenot refugee from France and married into a Puritan family in Boston. Mayhew's politics wouldn't have been radical to him at all, and preachers all over Boston echoed Mayhew's political sentiments. The problem for Revere's dad was the rest of Mayhew's theology. Mayhew was a winsome, exciting preacher -- and also a heretic. He denied some basic Christian teachings, such as the Trinity. From my reading, Paul got the beating for lending ear to a heretic. Mayhew's politics were actually pretty orthodox for their time and place, which was one of the reasons Boston so quickly fell into their resistance against England. (My emphasis).
It was Mayhew's infamous unitarianism, mingled with Christianity, that angered Revere's family so much.  Resistance to some distant king or some foolish tax was one thing, but resistance to the Holy Trinity or God's one true faith was quite another.  This is why I find the engraving above to be of such interest.  As already mentioned, Revere was raised to embrace a very orthodox view of Puritan Christianity.  As a result, one has to wonder why Revere chose to depict the baptism of Jesus as being one by immersion, when the Puritans/Congregationalists taught baptism by sprinkling (particularly at infancy).  Could it be that Revere was once again challenging the faith of his father? 
Of course, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty why Revere chose to make this engraving.  Perhaps, like many others of his faith, he believed that Jesus was baptized by immersion but that the same was not needed for his followers.  Or perhaps he was simply trying to profit from the growing revivalism in the early years of the Second Great Awakening.  After all, we know that Revere had profited handsomely from the growing demand for church bells, becoming America's best-known bell caster.  Could engravings like these also been the result of his desire to make an extra buck?

I don't think so.  First off, this engraving is only one of five known in existence today.  In addition, there is zero evidence that the engraving was published in any of the books or pamphlets of the time.  Instead it appears that Revere made a relatively small number of these engravings and sent them to close associates.  As a result, it would stand to reason that these engravings were more for sentimental value than anything else.  This makes sense when we consider the fact that Revere elected to further his studies of "infidel" Christianity at the hands of Mayhew and others. 

With that said, it is important that we be careful not to classify Paul Revere as a unitarian, closet unitarian, etc.  Revere maintained a very close alliance with Congregationalism throughout the course of his adulthood.  Boston's New Brick Church was like a second home to Revere, as he was a regular in Sunday church services.  Clearly Revere maintained a love for his family's orthodox faith.  As a result, I have no problem with those who wish to classify Revere as a devout disciple of Christian orthodoxy.  With that said, I do think that these apparent "heathen" blips on the radar are noteworthy because they reveal the fact that almost nothing about early American religion (or any religion of any era for that matter) is cut and dry.  Like many of his time, Revere was questioning and thinking about matters of faith.  Was God really the totality of an obscure Trinity?  Is infant baptism/baptism by sprinkling really a requirement for heaven?  Is there really such a thing as "the one true faith?"  In the end, these are questions that are just as relevant today as they were 200 or 2,000 years ago, which proves that Paul Revere was a pretty stereotypical Christian of his time.