Gregg Frazer email me a defense of his review of Mark David Hall's new book. The defense is against charges of inaccuracy.
The prosecutor is apparently unwilling to present his case – other than repeatedly to declare my guilt. But I wish to be acquitted of the charge of “inaccuracy,” so I will present some of my defense – defense of what I said in the review and of some of what I couldn’t include in the review because of word limits by the publisher.
We’ve already discussed my claim that Mark doesn’t recognize alternatives regarding the founders besides deism and Christianity (of some sort). As far as I can see, the only place in the text in which another option is mentioned is pages XXVI and XXVII – but neither of these refers to founders. Non-Christians are mentioned, but distinguished from the founders. Mark’s text says: “There were few non-Christians in late eighteenth-century America, but there were some, and most of America’s founders were convinced that the right of these non-Christians to believe and act according to the dictates of their consciences must be protected.” [my italics] Then Washington’s famous letter to the Jews of Newport is quoted to show that Washington believed in religious freedom for non-Christian Jews. The possibility of founders themselves being non-Christians is never suggested; they are depicted only as acting for others who are non-Christians.
By the way, Mark claims that Washington’s use of his favorite “fig tree” reference shows that “Washington’s faith influenced his political beliefs and actions ….” [my italics] But there is no “influence” of faith here – Washington employs a reference to relate to his audience – to illustrate or ellicit support. This is the way a number of founders used the Bible – simply for illustration or as aphorisms. How does the fig tree reference influence Washington – to do what? Furthermore: Part of GW’s letter says that “the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction” – but the law of God given to the Israelites did give sanction to bigotry in the 18th-century sense of the word (i.e. specific belief). God commanded them to punish heretics; so in this statement, the U.S. system is actually distinguished from the biblical system that God established. Furthermore, in Washington’s statement, he expresses an expectation that God will make “us all … everlastingly happy.” Does the Bible teach that God will make Christians and Jews (as such) alike happy in the after-life – or only those who confess Christ?
On page 7, in arguing that they weren’t deists, Mark says regarding Washington, Madison, and Hamilton: “Yet, to my knowledge, no writer has ever produced a public or private journal entry, letter, or essay showing that these men rejected Christianity ….” That’s a fair challenge to those who say they were deists. Here’s my question: has anyone produced a public or private journal entry showing that these men affirmed the fundamentals of Christianity (deity of Christ; atoning work of Christ as satisfaction for our sins; justification by faith alone; resurrection; inspiration and authority of the Scriptures) – at least until Hamilton’s deathbed profession? If it’s a fair challenge to those claiming a deist founding, isn’t that a fair challenge to Mark, who claims a Christian founding?
On page 9, Mark cites John Marshall’s testimony that Washington was “a sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man”; and on pg. 31, he quotes Marshall’s statement that in America “Christianity and religion are identified.” But Mark only reports half of Marshall’s sentence; the first half is: “The American population is entirely Christian” [pg. 611 in Mark’s Sacred Rights]. Clearly Marshall had a very generous notion or definition of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian. It may fit Mark’s definition – we don’t know because he doesn’t give us one – but it is so broad and inclusive as to have no meaning at all. On this basis, what is the significance of Mark’s overall claim that America had a Christian founding? Is it simply a claim that it was founded by Americans? Of course, Marshall’s statement also flies in the face of the reality of the Jewish congregation that Washington addressed. Marshall is a problematic witness providing problematic evidence.
In the section on the use of “God-words” by founders (11-15), Mark reminds us that orthodox Christians also used such words – even in the Westminster Standards. That is true, but not the central point made by people like me who, like Mark, do not believe the founders were deists. The distinguishing thing about the use of “God-words” by certain of the founders (those I call theistic rationalists) is that those were the only terms they used for God – that they used those terms IN PLACE OF biblical terms. The Westminster Standards have dozens if not hundreds of references to biblical terms for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Theistic rationalists used “God-words” in place of such biblical terms. The exception, of course, is that they used “creator” – but virtually everyone, including deists, believed in a creator prior to Darwin. The question then becomes: Who is this creator God? What is His nature? How do we know?
Another “God-word” issue is what they meant by the terms they used. “Providence” is a particularly problematic term, as it was used by Christians, deists, and theistic rationalists alike, with each meaning something different. For some, “providence” was an impersonal force; for some, it was the religious equivalent of fate. In fact, theistic rationalists (inc. Washington) sometimes used the impersonal pronoun “it” to refer to providence. Gouverneur Morris, for example, used impersonal pronouns for providence and once said that “fortune” was “but another name for Providence.”
The question isn’t whether Christians ever used “God-words,” but whether theistic rationalists ever used biblical terms for God – especially Jesus (the central/distinguishing person in Christianity).
The fact that the Declaration’s references to “God-words” (in place of biblical terms) would have been “quite acceptable to Reformed Americans in 1776” merely demonstrates how artfully Jefferson wrote the document. He used generic language that would bring maximum support. Christians could read Christian content into it (as people still do today); deists could read deist content into it; theistic rationalists could read their preferred content into it – even Jews could read Jewish content into it. It does not point distinctly or specifically to Christianity in any way.
Mark phrases his conclusion of this section cleverly. He says that “Jefferson may have believed in a vague, distant Deity” but that his fellow delegates “understood that ‘Nature’s God,’ ‘Creator,’ and ‘Providence’ referred to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” [my emphasis] The word “understood” following identification of an author implies that they understood and agreed with what the author meant. But Mark here is actually saying that they replaced Jefferson’s understanding of who God is with their own. Their “understanding” was not that God was vague and distant, but a God (as Mark concludes) “who is active in the affairs of men and nations.” It’s a clever construction on Mark’s part because he makes it appear that Jefferson’s view and the view of others was identical – but it was not (in the case of those who believed in the Old Testament God). That’s another issue: to identify God as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is a clever way for Mark to refer to the God of Christianity without any specific or distinctive Christian element. Why not “the Triune God of Christianity” – since his claim is that they were creating a Christian nation?
Mark’s need to “lump” in everyone who believes in a God who is active in the affairs of men and nations as some sort of Christian leads directly into his complete mischaracterization of my concept of theistic rationalism as “a definition of deism” (15). He knows better. I’ve contributed chapters to two books he has edited in which I explain exactly – in detail – what theistic rationalism was and I explain – at length, with evidence – the differences between it and deism and Christianity. He knows the term was chosen to emphasize its distinction from deism (the definitive multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary notes that “theism” was a term used in the 18th century specifically to contrast with deism).
In Mark’s brief description of deism, he says the “critical” point is that “deists did not think God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.” That and criticism of Christianity are the two elements of deism that he refers to over and over again. Two of several ways in which theistic rationalists differed from deists is that they: a) believed in an active, present God who intervenes in the affairs of men and nations and b) they were more favorable to Christianity than deists – even sharing some Christian beliefs. But Mark must “lump” theistic rationalism in with deism because he wants to say or suggest that certain founders were some sort of Christian without providing any evidence (which doesn’t exist) that they actually believed in Christian doctrines. The way to do that is to posit a bipolar religious world of deists and Christians and show that they were not deists. If there’s a third, middle option, he would be forced to provide positive evidence for their Christianity. So he must discredit that third middle option, theistic rationalism, by relegating it to a branch of deism. As I mentioned, I experienced this on the other side when a conservative figure urged me for political reasons to say that theistic rationalism was a branch of Christianity. That should tell people not familiar with my evidence that theistic rationalism is not any kind of deism. I expected better from Mark.
On pages 16 and 17, Mark argues again for an outsized Reformed influence on the founding. After dismissing Washington’s, Jefferson’s, and Madison’s Anglicanism in one sentence, he admits that Adams was the only member of a “Reformed church” in this group. This leads to an example of the problem with relying too heavily on denominational identification. He also concedes that Adams “moved rapidly toward Unitaritianism” – but he does not mention that Adams’s church officially turned Unitarian in 1750 (when Adams was just 15 years old)! Adams’s church was not Reformed in its theology – only in its denominational name. So it wasn’t really Reformed. Was it the only such church?
Mark then lays out estimates of how many Calvinist churches and colonists there were – but these superficial identifications do not tell us anything about the spiritual condition of those churches or their parishioners. He says – without evidence – that the Americans in these churches “are unrepresented” by the founders usually discussed and that those founders “constitute an unrepresentative sample.” First, how does he know that? Evidence? Does he know how many of these externally identified “Reformed” churches still held to Reformed views? Adams shared nearly exactly the same religious views as Jefferson (he said so), but he was a member of one of these “Reformed” churches. How can one make the kind of generalization that Mark makes?
More importantly, the discussion is about America’s founding. The vast majority of Americans had nothing to do with that. Even if they were paying attention, clever men such as Jefferson and Adams could keep them content with generically-phrased declarations or pious-languaged declarations of thanksgiving that helped to smoke out Loyalists, but had no lasting impact on the form of government. Mark says these eight were unrepresentative and, on the next page, says that “there were not many elite Anglicans in America.” But 36 OF THE 55 framers were NOT from “REFORMED” churches and 29 OF THE 55 framers were … ANGLICANS! Whatever the religious identification of the populace, a majority of the guys who actually “founded” the country were Anglicans. Of course, we don’t know what most of them actually believed – as Mark rightly points out. He warns that we “should be careful not to read too much into this lack of evidence.” He needs to take his own advice and not assume EITHER that these founders embraced deism OR that they embraced Christianity!
Mark concludes that “it is obviously bad social science and bad history to generalize the views of the founders as a whole from the views of a few unrepresentative elites.” I agree. That works two ways; one should not make broad claims the other way, either. That’s why in my book, I argue only that the eight guys I studied in depth were theistic rationalists; I don’t try to claim that “America had a theistic rationalist founding.” I would add, however, that these “few unrepresentative elites” were the actual people who did the founding, so one might be on more solid ground to claim that influence. A majority of them were NOT Reformed.