Sunday, January 6, 2019

What Was Unique About the American Founding and Religion

The American founding had a number of novel things to it. Though it wasn't entirely novel. For instance, the American Revolution wasn't quite as novel as say, the French Revolution which it inspired. On religion (correct me if I am mistaken), every single modern Western European nation state at the time was in some way formally connected to an official Christian sect.

At the state level, America post founding still retained some "state established" churches, which were on their way out.

But at the federal level, there was nothing. George Washington, America's first President, was like many founders, formally/nominally affiliated with the Anglican then Episcopalian Church. "The Church of England" against which America had then separated.

When Washington spoke to the different religious "factions," he had a method of seeming to be all things to all people. For instance, recent events remind of us of Islam's place in the mind of America's founders. With the assistance of his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, Washington delivered remarks to Morocco where he claimed to "adore" (his word) the same God as the Muslim leader.

Now, one could write this off as something "diplomatic." Perhaps it was. It's certainly the kind of sentiment today that leaders in pluralistic societies use. But back then, before America, every single head of state was connected to an official church. And it was expected that in their public utterances, they would endorse that particular brand of faith. Not generic, bridge building, monotheism.

That's something that arguably Washington and the other early American Presidents invented. And perhaps they were so effective at it because such a sentiment mirrored their privately held religious convictions which focused more on commonly held doctrines of monotheism and virtue, while if not downplaying, outright removing other more divisive sectarian "doctrine."


Tom Van Dyke said...

outright removing other more divisive sectarian "doctrine."

Religious pluralism was already a reality in England well before the American Revolution, simply out of necessity, not "enlightenment."

Voltaire, 1733:

You will see representatives of all the peoples gathered there for the benefit of humanity. There, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian deal with each other as if they shared the same religion and give the name ‘infidel’ only to those who go bankrupt. There, the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the promise of the Quaker.

The Protestant Reformation created almost innumerable opposing doctrines, and many died in Europe as a result. Finally, the multiplication of sects reached a critical mass.

You can't kill everybody!!

If there were only one religion in England, there would be great danger of despotism. If there were two religions, they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty religions, and they live together in peace and happiness.

As for Islam, there is little evidence the Founders knew very much about it. Their religious tolerance was more theoretical than actual--they often mento the polytheistic Hindus in the same sentence as the Mohammedeans. The content of these alien religions was immaterial.

And although state-established churches waned, almost every state had a religious test for statewide office, often demanding Christian beliefs [sometimes Protestant!], but in the least requiring a belief in God.

There is more to the American religious milieu than just the Constitution, which is why Moore and Kramnick's militantly secularist "The Godless Constitution" proceeds from a false premise.

Jon Rowe said...

"The Articles were silent on the matter; in seeking to secure religious liberty, however, the Constitution prohibited religious tests for federal officials in Article 4, clause 3."

Article 4?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Obviously a mental typo, Article IV rather than Article VI.

Now, one could write this off as something "diplomatic." Perhaps it was. It's certainly the kind of sentiment today that leaders in pluralistic societies use. But back then, before America, every single head of state was connected to an official church. And it was expected that in their public utterances, they would endorse that particular brand of faith. Not generic, bridge building, monotheism.

The Muslims [Arabs in particular] claim Allah is Jehovah--the same God who favored Abraham favored both his sons.

Genesis 21:9-20 GNB
One day Ishmael, whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, was playing with Sarah's son Isaac. Sarah saw them and said to Abraham, “Send this slave and her son away. The son of this woman must not get any part of your wealth, which my son Isaac should inherit.” This troubled Abraham very much, because Ishmael was also his son. But God said to Abraham, “Don't be worried about the boy and your slave Hagar. Do whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I have promised. I will also give many children to the son of the slave woman, so that they will become a nation. He too is your son.”

Why would Washington pick a theological fight with somemone he was trying to make peace with?

Early Islamic scholars drew family trees that placed Ishmael as the father of the Northern Arabs and in the line of Mohammad through the patriarch Adnan.

Many Muslim scholars take the “Servant” and “Elect One” who “will bring forth justice to the Gentiles” of Isaiah 42:1 to be Mohammad, descendant of Ishmael. Christians, of course, identify Him as Christ. Is the Elect One, then, the Prince of Peace or the father of jihad?

From a Christian perspective the answer is not in dispute, but the embellished Ishmael story throws light on both who Muslims believe the final Messenger of God to be and on Mohammad’s character.

This narrative that originates in the Hebrew Scriptures and has been so thoroughly incorporated into Muslim tradition speaks of a people’s yearning to be numbered with Jews and Christians among the family of Abraham.

We can hardly take issue to this point; by natural descent, Arabs are Abraham’s descendants equally with Jews and Christians.

How much of this George Washington or the founding generation knew about Islam, I do not know, and is probably impossible to determine. But that Islam is a Judeo-Christian "heresy" goes back to Aquinas and earlier. Islam made ample use of the Biblical legends.

Jon Rowe said...

Well sure. Muslims claim to worship the God of Abraham, so do Jews and so do Christians. But they all also make specific claims that contradict one another.

As the article points out Aquinas thought Islam was a "Christian heresy." I think Luther did too. It's certainly possible for traditional orthodox Christians to believe all three worship the same God.

It's also possible for orthodox Christians to argue they all worship different gods.

My pet peeve is the notion that Jews and Christians worship one God, Muslims another. I think that claim is indefensible. The logic that says Christians and Muslims worship different gods also applied to Jews and Christians. I've encountered a few Christians who want to argue this case focus on the Jews before Jesus. Okay, yeah, they worshipped the same God Christians worship. But that's a weasel like dodge.

No, the claim is, do Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro worship the same God as Christians? The Muslims' God is not Triune. Ditto for the God of P & S. The Muslims' God doesn't have a son. Ditto for the God of P & S.

You can play a game and try to score points by noting certain similarities the Jewish and Christian God has that the Muslim's doesn't share. But that game can be played from the other side too. For instance, as far as I can tell, the Muslims have a MUCH MUCH higher view of Jesus than do the Jews. Likewise they at least incorporate parts of the Christian NT as inspired.

Tom Van Dyke said...

My point is that the Muslims maintain they worship the same God as Christians do. There is no reason for President Washington to dispute that with them and start a theological battle.

That is the only historical fact that matters here. Whether GWash believed what he wrote is not knowable. My suggestion is that he didn't know and didn't care.

As for whether Jehovah and Allah are the same God, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser remains my go-to guy in these things.

First, we need to keep in mind the Fregean point that a difference in sense does not entail a difference in reference. To use Frege’s famous example, the sense of the expression “the morning star” is different from the sense of the expression “the evening star.” But these two expressions refer to one and the same thing, viz. the planet Venus. Similarly, expressions like “the God of the Christians” and “the God of the Muslims” differ in sense, but it doesn’t follow from that alone that they don’t refer to the same God. By the same token, though the expression “God” is different from the expression “Allah,” it doesn’t follow that God is not Allah, any more than Stan Lee and Stanley Martin Lieber are different men.

Second, even a speaker’s erroneous beliefs don’t entail that he is not referring to the same thing that speakers with correct beliefs are referring to...

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