First, I want to be clear that I am criticizing what Mark wrote and his methodology – not Mark personally. I have a lot of respect for Mark and we’ve been friends and colleagues for years, which is why this whole thing has been very upsetting to me. I was asked to write a review and owed it to the editor to write an accurate one, especially since the question at hand is so important to so many Christians (the particular audience of the publication). Mark has been critical of my work in the past, and we remained friends.
Contrary to Mark’s latest charge, Gregg has never before accused Mark of claiming that many or most of the founders were orthodox Christians (though I will do that here with page numbers). Do a word search in my review or in these posts and see if I say that. Mark again adds a qualifying adjective; in this case: “orthodox.” Without that adjective he would have no charge. Another person well-known in Christian circles has also changed what I said in a review in order to be able to make a charge against me. I assume that, unlike the other guy, Mark did not do it on purpose.
My “accusation” is that Mark argues that they were some type of Christian – or at least that he recognizes no other possible identification for the founders. He never says that any of the founders was not a Christian; he says that some were not “sincere” Christians and that some were not “orthodox” Christians or other categories of Christians based on his ubiquitous use of qualifying terms/adjectives before the word “Christian” – as he did again in this post and in his previous post. He dismisses (incorrectly) one of the alternatives to either deism or Christianity (theistic rationalism) and never mentions any other alternative for founders (saying that he mentions the Jewish congregation isn’t relevant to this point because they weren’t founders).
He does not explicitly state that the founders who weren’t deists were Christians, but: a) he gives no alternate possibility; b) whenever he expresses doubts about individuals, he denies that they were some specific category of Christian which – without any other option – leaves the distinct implication that they were some other type of Christian than “orthodox” or “sincere” or “pious” or “evangelical”; and c) he later uses examples from those about whom he expressed doubts to make his case for Christian influence in the founding. If using a qualifier is necessary, doesn’t that indicate that the person must be some other type of the thing referenced?
I fully agree with Mark that: a) almost none of the founders was a deist and b) it is important to show that they were not deists because some scholars – and many average readers – still make the claim or assumption that they were deists or rank secularists. There is a need for a “they weren’t deists” chapter in a book intending to make a case for a Christian founding. Mark does a good job of demonstrating that they were not deists.
HOWEVER: I don’t understand why Mark thinks the “they weren’t deists” chapter is necessary given that he defines “Christian nation” status as simply being that the founders were “influenced by Christian ideas.” Deists could have been influenced by Christian ideas just – as he says: “nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non- Christian ideas.” So, if you’re not arguing that they were Christians, what’s the point of the chapter? Why does whether or not they were deists matter in pursuit of his claim? If being influenced by “Christian ideas” is all it takes to make the founding “Christian,” then it doesn’t matter what the religious beliefs of the individuals were – only whether they were so influenced. I think the point of the chapter is to suggest that they must have been some kind of Christian because they weren’t deists and there’s no other option. There are plenty of indications of that.
Despite his protests that he does not claim that they were “orthodox Christians,” on pages 17 & 19, for example, Mark in fact suggests that “many” of the founders were “orthodox Christians” and on page 48 he says that “many” of them held “Christian convictions.” Such a claim requires substantiation – does it not? On page 17, he says there are “good reasons to believe that many of America’s founders were orthodox Christians.” Shouldn’t some of those good reasons be given? He does not even provide any evidence in cases in which it could actually be done, as in the case of Roger Sherman or John Witherspoon. He sends the reader to other books. He makes that claim for James Wilson and I, for one, would love to see some evidence for that claim.
In contrast to Mark, I think that just as evidence is required (and given) to demonstrate that those claimed as non-deists were not in fact deists; evidence is also required (but not given) to demonstrate that those he says or implies were some kind of Christian were, in fact, Christians. Mark does say multiple times that “many” or “most” of the founders were Christians but never provides any evidence that they believed in any of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as defined by the American churches of that day. He repeatedly says that there is “virtually no evidence to suggest that most (or even many) of them were deists,” but for all a reader of the book knows, there is virtually no evidence to suggest that they were Christians, either, as none is given. But there’s no other option in his presentation – so there’s the conundrum. Mark complains that scholars “leave the distinct impression that most founders, and certainly the important ones, were deists.” Mark does the same thing on the other side, except that at times he actually states that “most” were Christians.
As for Mark’s claim that my concept of theistic rationalism is “a definition of deism”: Mark told me that it was “his view” of it and in this post he says: “I see very little light between these two” but “in Gregg's mind there is a difference.” Hmmmm. a) can we stipulate that the person who originates a term/concept knows what it is better than anyone else?; b) wouldn’t a case like this be the perfect place – a necessary place – for one of Mark’s ubiquitous qualifying terms, such as “in my opinion,” or “as I see it” rather than a blanket statement of his opinion as fact? Unfortunately, there is far too much of that in the book; i.e. opinion/claims stated as fact; c) the difference is not just in Gregg’s mind – it’s on paper in ink.
As the coiner of the term, I can report that the carefully chosen first word of the term was in part specifically designed to distinguish theistic rationalism from deism. The definitive multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary that traces the history/etymology of words says that “theism” was used in the 18th century to distinguish a view of God contrasting with “deism”; that’s part of why I chose it. In my book (which introduces the term/concept), I spend two pages explicitly and carefully explaining the differences between deism and theistic rationalism. Throughout the book, that is repeated and illustrated dozens if not hundreds of times. The definition of deism that I employ is not one from a 2018 commentator, but the definition given by the man credited with (or blamed for) devising deism: Lord Herbert of Cherbury. He is known as “the father of deism.” I also used Elihu Palmer’s Principles of Nature, which was called in 18th-century America the “bible of deism” and I used explanations of it by Christians of that period, such as Jonathan Edwards. But, even taking the definition Mark uses (from Christopher Grasso), theistic rationalism does not fit within the deist camp.
It is ironic that Mark wants to “lump” theistic rationalism in with deism because a very prominent scholar of early American political thought lobbied me to call it a branch of Christianity before looking at the evidence and being persuaded. The point is that my whole purpose in writing the book was to distinguish what the key American founders believed from both deism and Christianity – to identify the “middle” or “hybrid” belief system that prominent scholars from Henry May to Sydney Ahlstrom to Thomas Pangle (who has embraced my concept) to Sidney Mead to Cushing Strout to McMurray Richey and others described and for which they sought an appropriate name. They were familiar with deism, but recognized this other belief system between (in a sense) deism and Christianity. This belief system embraced elements of Enlightenment rationalism, but also clung to elements of the Christian ethos of the day. As Strout put it, “they still preserved residual connections with Christianity, even when they attacked specific Christian dogmas and practices.” [By the way, Mark cites Ahlstrom, but, as with several scholars he cites (including Lutz), he applies statements made about the religion of the people – not the leaders – to the leaders. He does not quote what Ahlstrom says about the religion of the leaders (who are the ones who did the “founding”).] Mark says: “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” – one might say the same about taking the views of the general uneducated public and generalizing from them about elite individuals with elite education.
Was theistic rationalism “a definition of deism?” You decide. According to the guy who originated deism, the guy who wrote the “bible” of it, and prominent scholars of it, the two defining features of deism were: 1) the effectual absence and nonintervention of God and 2) denial of any written revelation from God – nature being the only “revelation” of God. Deism was also characterized by brutal criticism of Christianity and of Jesus (by most). [Palmer’s “bible” called Jesus “immoral,” “criminal,” an “enemy to moral virtue,” and “a murderer in principal.”] Mark identifies as “critical” the fact that “deists did not think God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.” This is critical, but theistic rationalism is a “definition of deism” that holds that God does intervene in the affairs of men and nations? Hmmm. Theistic rationalists did not believe in an absentee God or that He is noninterventionist in human affairs – they believed that God is present and active; they did not believe that there was no written revelation from God – on the contrary, they affirmed some of the Bible as being from God (the parts they thought rational or consistent with their view of God); they denied almost every fundamental doctrine of Christianity, but also affirmed some elements of Christianity and were admirers of Jesus (unlike deists); some of them believed in miracles and some did not. Theistic rationalists shared some beliefs with deism and they shared some beliefs with Christianity. They were raised in “christendom” and educated in Enlightenment thought. They did not completely “buy into” either – they did what most Americans do today: they picked and chose what they wanted to believe from both sources based on what seemed reasonable to them.
In his post, Mark says that he “set up the chapter with a clear definition of deism.” By the definition that he himself set up, theistic rationalism is not any form of deism. Nor is it deism by the standards of the man who originated it or those who practiced it in 18th-century America.
Mark notes in his post that I was “quite upset that [he] conflated ‘soft deism’ and ‘theistic rationalism’"; but I was no more upset than he would be if I wrote in a very popular, best-selling book that Mark’s thesis is that all of America’s founders were deists – or, as he has shown, if I said he was no better historian than David Barton (which he seems to think I said, but didn’t). To borrow Mark’s phrase, no “fair or reasonable reader” would conclude that theistic rationalism is any form of deism after reading my book.
In an endnote, Marks says: “Theistic rationalism is a phrase coined by Gregg Frazer, and it is more accurate than deism as applied to a handful of America’s founders. Frazer is careful to limit his claims to “key” founders, but even so, he overstates the attraction of this belief system in the founding era.” He says it applies only to “a handful of America’s founders,” but how does he know? He, himself, says: “In most cases, the historical record gives us little with which to work. Even if we can determine, say, that a particular founder was a member, a regular attender, and even an officer in a church, it does not necessarily mean that he was a sincere Christian. Perhaps he did these things simply because society expected it of him.” And: “the lack of records makes it difficult to speak with confidence on this issue with respect to some founders.” In personal discussion with him, Mark and I have both lamented the profound lack of scholarly work done on the religious beliefs of MOST of the founders. So, how does he know that only a handful of America’s founders were theistic rationalists? How does he know I’ve “overstated” it? Saying it applies to eight people whose work you’ve analyzed in detail and backed up with thousands of primary source endnotes is “overstating”? But making numerous broad, sweeping claims without any substantiation is OK? Which is “overstating?” Mark says of scholars: “they certainly should not extrapolate from the absence of texts to the conclusion that these founders embraced deism.” Likewise for Christianity. Here we’ll be reminded that Mark says he’s not claiming they were Christians, but he says “many” and “most” and he leaves “the distinct impression” that problematic individuals were still Christians of some stripe.
He is quite right that I limit my claim to those I’ve actually studied – isn’t that the right practice? But maybe “most” of the founders were theistic rationalists – how does he know that’s not true? Should he say if he doesn’t know? I don’t say because I don’t know. But Mark makes a lot of “many,” “not many,” and “most” claims in his book – some of which are patently false. For example, in the midst of his early argument for Reformed influence, Mark says “there were not many elite Anglicans in America.” But 36 of the 55 Constitutional Convention delegates were not Reformed and a majority of them (28) were Anglicans/Episcopalians.
Mark claimed in his first post that any “fair and reasonable” reader would find my review “unfair and inaccurate.” I won’t comment on “unfair” because that’s a matter of opinion and in the “eye of the beholder.” But, I presume we all consider Jon Rowe to be a “fair and reasonable” reader – and he gave Mark’s book a positive review on this site, so he’s clearly not biased against it. He can speak for himself, but Jon has told me that he found nothing inaccurate in my review.
Earlier, Mark said he didn’t have time to identify particular errors/inaccuracies in my review. Now, he’s contributed a couple of lengthy, detailed posts that clearly required time and effort. This latest one was 1,074 words – including detailed citations. Since he apparently has more time now, perhaps he could identify some of the many supposed inaccuracies in my original review.