Saturday, August 22, 2015

Two From Robert Tracy McKenzie on the Founders & Religion

"Wheaton University Professor McKenzie is Chairman of the History Department." Here is the first entitled "The Contradictions Of A Secular University: Another Jefferson Legacy." And the second entitled "WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?" A pull quote from the first:
Jefferson’s approach to moral values differed in the details but was similar at the bottom line. Jefferson’s starting point was what historian Gregg Frazer labels theistic rationalism. Frazer means that Jefferson was willing to concede the existence of God on logical grounds, but reason was always in the driver’s seat when it came to determining his religious beliefs. He rejected as irrational almost all of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity (as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, for example), was skeptical of the concept of special revelation, and insisted repeatedly that reason was the only reliable guide to virtue.
And the second:
... If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.
The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.


JMS said...

As the chair of a college history department, I am surprised that Professor Mckenzie’s blogpost is devoid of three essentials of any history-based argument.

First, is the weakness and inappropriateness of his thesis. I agree that Jefferson was the most prominent founder responsible for the creation of the secular university in America (although from 1814-1819 he was joined in his plans by Madison and Monroe, and we should acknowledge Franklin’s herculean efforts at founding the College of Philadelphia (U Penn) back in 1749 as the first non-sectarian school of higher learning in America).

But then he attacks Jefferson and the secular university for failing to live by, provide or instill “objective moral truth” like what other institution (I guess we are supposed to fill in the blank with “religion” in general, or Christian colleges in particular)). But how can he fault Jefferson for a failing that he never aspired to or intended in his secular public education and university plans (primary schools in every community; each school supported and controlled by the voters; secondary schools would be located in districts throughout the state, governed by a board of visitors and supported by the state literary fund; the capstone was to be a university financed by the state).

Jefferson (Franklin, Madison and Monroe – and many others) believed that a republic (or a democracy) could only survive with an educated citizenry. So from the outset, McKenzie concocts a strawman by misrepresenting Jefferson’s actual position.

Second, how do I know or assert this? For a historian, Mckenzie’s critique lacks historical context or any reference to primary sources (an alleged sine qua non of AC), like Jefferson’s “Rockfish Gap Report,” in which he stated his intent:

To expound the principles and structure of government, the laws which regulate the intercourse of nations, those formed municipally for our own government, and a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another;

To harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce, and by well informed views of political economy to give a free scope to the public industry;

To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order;

As Merrill Peterson’s 1960 biography noted, Jefferson’s “university contained several innovations. The substitution of the elective systems for a prescribed course of study, the dissolution of the ties between church and school, the switch from a predominately classical curriculum to one embracing technical and practical branches, the liberalization of disciplinary codes, and the development of specific studies such as political science (p. 242).

Third, invoking Jefferson’s “theistic rationalism” fails to understand, appreciate or convey Jefferson’s most significant intellectual contribution to education, which was the Enlightenment-derived interdisciplinary approach to problem solving as the basis for innovative thinking. That is what secular universities ideally seek to provide, no “objective moral truth.” For a historian, Mckenzie’s assertions about “dogmatic morals” and aversion to pluralism are devoid of any social science evidence (data) published widely in books like Losing My Religion and The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, which cite Pew Research and especially the Barna Group’s research indicating they “couldn’t find any evidence within Protestantism or Catholicism that the actions of Christians, in general, showed that their religion made them morally or ethically better than even atheists. Losing My Religion, pp. 204-207

JMS said...

Since my prior post was shortened by the number of characters limitation, I wanted to add a couple points.

Other than UVA, Jefferson as president followed the advice of his two predecessors and convinced a very “limited government” budget-conscious Congress to create the Military Academy at West Point.

Jefferson’s (and Franklin’s) secular university plan obviously bucked the colonial American trend of universities founded by religious groups (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, College of NJ (Rutgers) or had ties to organized religion (Oxford and Cambridge) designed to train Protestant Christian clergy. But Franklin and Jefferson saw the need to challenge the educational conventions of their day with broader knowledge spanned multiple disciplines (the sciences and liberal arts curricula)

But vis a vis Professor McKenzie’s concerns about “objective moral truths” and pluralism, Jefferson’s initial recruitment of Thomas Cooper as UVA’s first chemistry professor (and mutual friend of Joseph Priestley) met resistance from VA clergy (especially Presbyterians) for his Unitarianism, culminating in the job offer being retracted and Cooper’s resignation (he went to SC). As noted in R.B Bernstein’s bio of Jefferson, UVA “seemed to some nervous conservatives to be a nursery of atheism and radicalism.” (p. 175)

Again, while the following from the “Rockfish Gap Report” falls short of “objective moral truths,” Jefferson proposed a system of publicly funded elementary education that would ensure that all citizens knew their rights and their duties to community and country. He wanted students of higher education to be well-versed in political theory, have a strong knowledge of law and government and have the skills to reason and debate the issues. Among other things, he wanted quality history and civic education.
To ask or expect more, or edge towards demonizing Jefferson a la Conor Cruise O’Brien, is counterfactual and should be eschewed by any historian.