Friday, November 25, 2022

John Adams' FU Letter to Jedidiah Morse

 This is another post of mine from 2008 on John Adams' response to one Jedidiah Morse on the concept  of Unitarianism. 

Adams was a fervent theological unitarian who militantly and bitterly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1815, he gets a letter from one Jedidiah Morse who attacked unitarianism, which was then growing in popularity.

Adams responded with an FU letter featured that you can read in its entirety here. To his credit, Adams tries to occupy a reasonable middle ground between the Trinitarian Calvinist fundamentalist "orthodoxy" Morse was trying to enforce and the more radical philosophical deism that was in the "air" of that era.

When Adams uses the term "Athanasianism," he refers to the traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy of St. Athanasius who defended the Nicaean creed in 325AD against Arius (Adams was on Arius' side). Athanasius also later first (meaning he literally was the first early church father or figure to do so) articulated the 27 books of the New Testament as an exclusive list in 367 AD (something Adams mistakenly thought was done in Nicaea; and Adams didn't have any kind of confidence in the biblical canon partly because of such).

But on to Adams' quotation:
... More than fifty years ago, I read Dr. Clarke, Emlyn, and Dr. Waterland: do you expect, my dear doctor, to teach me any thing new in favour of Athanasianism? — There is, my dear Doctor, at present existing in the world a Church Philosophick. as subtle, as learned, as hypocritical, as the Holy Roman Catholick, Apostolick, and Ecumenical Church. The Philosophical Church was originally English. Voltaire learned it from Lord Herbert, Hobbes, Morgan, Collins, Shaftsbury, Bolingbroke, &c. &c. &c. You may depend upon it, your exertions will promote the Church Philosophick, more than the Church Athanasian or Presbyterian. This and the coming age will not be ruled by inquisitions or Jesuits. The restoration of Napoleon has been caused by the resuscitation of inquisitors and Jesuits.

I am and wish to be 
Your friend, 
JOHN ADAMS 
Quincy, May 15th, 1815.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Revisiting George Washington and Richard Price

I wrote this in 2008. It's not bad. Though, I think I could have written a stronger piece. The point I take from intensely studying George Washington's personal and political theology is that, aside from certain minimal points on which we all should agree, Washington leaves a bit of mystery because of his silence on the matter.

The minimal points are as follows: 1. devout belief in a warm Providence; 2. the importance of "religion" (generally defined) in helping to promote the morality of a virtuous citizenry on which republics depend; and 3. because "Christianity" is a "religion," a general endorsement of "Christianity" without necessarily endorsing orthodox Christianity's narrow claims. 

I do NOT see Washington as a Trinity and Incarnation believing "orthodox Christian," but rather something else. But I would agree that there are ambiguities in the record (and, to me, they seem purposeful on Washington's part).

But it's in trying to "fill in" these gaps -- the "detective work" -- that leads to a temptation: To incorporate the words of other people and institutions and put them in Washington's mouth or at least into his personal convictions. So, Washington was an Anglican; and Anglicanism has spilled a lot of words on what it stands for. Let us then assume that this is what Washington believed. OR, Washington was a collector of sermons; let us then assume he believed in all the content of the sermons he collected. OR, Washington corresponded with various religious figures and organizations of his day and said nice things to them; let us then assumed he agreed with them on all of their doctrinal points.

All of those assumptions I described above are problematic. 

As I noted in my above mentioned 2008 post, one of the theologians that was the subject of Washington's brief correspondence was the legendary British Arian Richard Price. Price gave an "address" -- perhaps it could be classified as a "sermon" because Price was among other things, a minister -- entitled "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution." 

Price was a theologically liberal, rationalistic Arian. I use the terms "liberal" and "rationalistic" because Price actually uses those terms to describe his creed in this address:

It is indeed only a rational and liberal religion, a religion founded on just notions of the Deity as a being who regards equally every sincere worshipper, and by whom all are alike favoured as far as they act up to the light they enjoy, a religion which consists in the imitation of the moral perfections of an almighty but benevolent governor of nature, who directs for the best all events, in confidence in the care of his providence, in resignation to his will, and in the faithful discharge of every duty of piety and morality from a regard to his authority and the apprehension of a future righteous retribution. It is only this religion (the inspiring principle of every thing fair and worthy and joyful and which in truth is nothing but the love of God and man and virtue warming the heart and directing the conduct) — it is only this kind of religion that can bless the world or be an advantage to society. This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to promote. But it is a religion that the powers of the world know little of and which will always be best promoted by being left free and open.

I cannot help adding here that such in particular is the Christian religion. ...

Now, Price's personal "Christian" convictions were, as noted above, Arian (the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, is NOT God the Son, but rather a created being who is higher than the highest angel, but not fully God Himself). Though, Price's address doesn't stress the Arianism (as I initially first thought when reading it). 

Price does say the following: 

Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains. 

Again, Price was an Arian; the Athanasian Creed was a Trinitarian one that has "clauses" that "damn" people (like Price himself) for not believing in the Trinitarianism expressed there. However, other Trinitarian creeds, most notably the Nicene, were more central. Theologically unitarian Founding Fathers and their influences like Price often did use the term "Athanasian" as a shorthand for "Trinitarianism" (mainly because of St. Athanasius' role in defending the Trinity during the Council of Nicaea).  

But in rereading Price's address, it seems more of an attack on that particular part of the Athanasian creed than promotion of theological unitarianism. Though, Price does describe the "latitudinarian" landscape of the Church of England at his time and how unitarians and other dissenters like himself "fit in" there:

The Church Establishment in England is one of the mildest and best sort. But even here what a snare has it been to integrity? And what a check to free enquiry? What dispositions favourable to despotism has it fostered? What a turn to pride and narrowness and domination has it given the clerical character? What struggles has it produced in its members to accommodate their opinions to the subscriptions and tests which it imposes? What a perversion of learning has it occasioned to defend obsolete creeds and absurdities? What a burthen is it on the consciences of some of its best clergy who, in consequence of being bound down to a system they do not approve, and having no support except that which they derive from conforming to it, find themselves under the hard necessity of either prevaricating or starving? No one doubts but that the English clergy in general could with more truth declare that they do not, than that they do, given their unfeigned assent to all and everything contained in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer; and yet, with a solemn declaration to this purpose, are they obliged to enter upon an office which above all offices requires those who exercise it to be examples of simplicity and sincerity. Who can help execrating the cause of such an evil?

Bold face is mine.  

"Latitudinarianism" means "doctrinal latitude." Not all latitudinarians were unitarian; but as I understand the record, some/many were. People part of the Church of England in Richard Price's day -- including ministers -- didn't necessarily buy into everything the Church "officially" taught. 

Well, what does this have to do with George Washington? 

For one, Washington endorsed Price's address. As he wrote to BENJAMIN VAUGHAN, February 5, 1785:

Sir: I pray you to accept my acknowledgment of your polite letter of the 31st. of October, and thanks for the flattering expressions of it. These are also due in a very particular manner to Doctr. Price, for the honble mention he has made of the American General in his excellent observations on the importance of the American revolution addressed, "To the free and United States of America," which I have seen and read with much pleasure.

Now, I agree it's a bridge too far to treat this like a "smoking gun" that proves Washington agreed with every word of this address. 

But this is generally how Washington corresponded with various religious figures of his day who sent him items for his perusal. He gave polite, perfunctory "thank yous" and imprimaturs. But the different individuals and groups who sought his approval, which he most often gave, taught contradictory things on "doctrinal" matters and the like. 

So, it's also a mistake to cherry pick from the polite correspondence Washington had with more orthodox theologians and groups and assume that Washington personally shared their beliefs. Likewise, because Washington was affiliated with the Anglican Church, it's a mistake to assume he believed in all of their doctrines. If Washington were an Anglican fundamentalist, he'd be a Tory. And as we've seen above from Price's testimony, plenty of Anglicans, including ministers from that area "dissented" from or otherwise rejected "official" doctrine like that found in the 
Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common-Prayer.

As I look at the "big picture" I see Washington's personal creed as closer to Price's than that of the more traditional orthodox types of his day; however, even there, we have uncertainty. Washington could have been even further from conventional Christianity than Price was. He could have been more Socinian and Deistic (though, as noted above Washington clearly believed in a warm Providence). 

Monday, October 10, 2022

How Howard Zinn Hijacked History and Christopher Columbus

 From “Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America” by Mary Grabar. This excerpt originally appeared at The College Fix and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




Howard Zinn rode to fame and fortune on the “untold story” of Christopher Columbus—a shocking tale of severed hands, raped women, and gentle, enslaved people worked to death to slake the white Europeans’ lust for gold.

Today, that story is anything but untold. Zinn’s narrative about the genocidal discoverer of America has captured our education system and popular culture. The defacement of statues of Columbus with red paint had already become an annual ritual in many places.

Zinn is the inspiration behind the current campaign to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” High school teachers cite his book in making the case for the renaming to their local communities. In October 2018, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Rochester, New York, joined at least sixty other cities in replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Six states also do not recognize the holiday as Columbus Day. Many articles reporting on this trend cited Howard Zinn’s role in the change in attitude.



Stanford anthropology Professor Carol Delaney, who was quoted in a Courthouse News Service article to provide a counter-narrative, informed reporters that Columbus acted on his Christian faith and instructed his crew to treat the native people with kindness. But such inconvenient facts are inevitably drowned out by the Columbus-hate that Howard Zinn has succeeded in spreading.

Presumably extrapolating from the “many volumes” he had read, Zinn found the inspiration for the dramatic opening sentences of “A People’s History of the United States” [presented in full at the link by the aptly-named historyisaweapon.com—Ed.]:

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log: ‘They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton, and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . ’”

The quoted passage from Columbus’s log continues with Columbus’s description of the Arawaks. They are “well-built” and handsomely featured. Having never seen iron, they accidentally cut themselves on the Europeans’ swords when they touch them. The passage ends with Columbus’s now infamous words: “They have no iron. Their spears are made out of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

The ellipses in this passage are Zinn’s, not mine. Those omissions are essential to Zinn’s dishonest retelling of the Columbus story. By leaving crucial words out of the quotation, Zinn makes Columbus say something very different from what he actually said.

It’s unlikely that he even read as much of “Columbus’s journals” or the works of “Las Casas, the great eyewitness” as he claimed. The truth is that Zinn’s description of Columbus’s first encounter with the American Indians is lifted from “Columbus: His Enterprise: Exploding the Myth,” a book for high school students that Zinn’s friend and fellow anti-Vietnam War activist, Hans Koning, first published in 1976.

Zinn perpetuates Koning’s smears. In Koning’s telling and in Zinn’s, Columbus set out to enslave a uniformly gentle people for the sole purpose of enriching himself with gold. In fact, that is far from the truth. European efforts to find a sea route to Asia had been going on for hundreds of years. As William and Carla Phillips point out in “The Worlds of Christopher Columbus,” Columbus’s voyages of discovery were a continuation of Europeans’ ventures of sailing to Asia—at first, around Africa—that had begun in 1291. For centuries before Columbus, Portuguese and Spanish explorers had also ventured farther and farther out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Thus, Columbus’s mission was multi-faceted and inspired by several different motivations: “to reach the East Indies, so as to take Islam in the rear, and to effect an alliance with the Great Khan—a mythical personage who was believed to be the sovereign of all that region, and favorable to the Christian religion—and finally . . . to diffuse Christianity throughout that unknown continent and trade with the traditional sources of gold and spices.”

Desires to find new lands for more resources and to escape enemies and persecution are not impulses unique to Europeans. The natives of North America “in prehistoric times” themselves came from Asia and “crossed the land bridge across the Bering Strait to the lands of the Western Hemisphere.”

When he encountered naked natives instead of the Asian merchants he was expecting, Columbus did not jump to thoughts of working them to death for gold as Zinn, following Koning, suggests. For example, in his log entry for October 12, 1492, Columbus wrote, “I warned my men to take nothing from the people without giving something in exchange”—a passage left out by both Koning and Zinn.

But Zinn’s most crucial omissions are in the passage from Columbus’s log that he quotes in the very first paragraph of his People’s History. There he uses ellipses to cover up the fact that he has left out enough of Columbus’s words to deceive his readers about what the discoverer of America actually meant. The omission right before “They would make fine servants” is particularly dishonest. Here’s the nub of what Zinn left out: “I saw some who bore marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to them to ask how this came about, and they indicated to me that people came from other islands, which are near, and wished to capture them, and they defended themselves. And I believed and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them for slaves.”

In his translation of Columbus’s log, Robert Fuson discusses the context that Zinn deliberately left out:

“The cultural unity of the Taino [the name for this particular tribe, which Zinn labels “Arawaks”] greatly impressed Columbus…. Those who see Columbus as the founder of slavery in the New World are grossly in error. This thought occurred to [Samuel Eliot] Morison (and many others), who misinterpreted a statement made by Columbus on the first day in America, when he said, ‘They (the Indians) ought to be good servants.’ In fact, Columbus offered this observation in explanation of an earlier comment he had made, theorizing that people from the mainland came to the islands to capture these Indians as slaves because they were so docile and obliging.”

Zinn’s next ellipsis between “They would make fine servants” and “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want” covers for Zinn’s dishonest pretense that the second statement has anything at all to do with the first. The sentences that Zinn joins here are not only not in the same paragraph—as he dishonestly pretends by printing them that way on the very first page of A People’s History— but they’re not even in the same entry of Columbus’s log. In fact, they’re from two days apart.

Zinn’s highly selective quotations from Columbus’s log are designed to give the impression that Columbus had no concern for the Indians’ spiritual or physical well-being—that the explorer was motivated only by a “frenzy for money.”

But literally the explorer’s first concern—the hope that he expressed in the initial comment about the natives in his log—was for the Indians’ freedom and their eternal salvation: “I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force.”

Zinn just entirely omits the passage in which Columbus expresses his respect and concern for the Indians. Zinn also suppresses—and, where he doesn’t suppress, downplays— the evidence from even the sympathetic Las Casas that the Indians could be violent and cruel. Zinn has to admit that they were “not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes.” But, like Koning, he is eager to explain their violent behavior away, arguing, “but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.”

In Zinn’s telling, the Arawaks—or black slaves, or Cherokees, or New York Irish, or whoever—must always be persecuted innocents and the condemnation of their sufferings must be absolute. The officially oppressed cannot be blamed even for any crimes they themselves commit, which are inevitably the fault of their oppressors.

According to Zinn, there’s no such thing as objective history, anyway: “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.”

Once ideology has become a moral virtue, Zinn can discount standards of scholarship—such as those of the American Historical Association—as having to do with nothing more important than “technical problems of excellence”—standards of no importance compared to his kind of history, which consists in forging “tools for contending social classes, races, nations.”

Thus it would seem that the noble political purpose behind Zinn’s history justifies him in omitting facts that are inconvenient for his Columbus-bad-Indians-good narrative.

"Debunking Howard Zinn" is available from Regnery Publishing.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Arnold's Article on James Madison, Anti-Christian Nationalist

This is is very thorough and well argued article from a brilliant young scholar, Gordon Dakota Arnold. He sympathizes with the perspective of more accommodation of traditional, conservative Christianity in public life. The article is a good reminder that America's Founders weren't always on the same page. But we can make observations like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had a particular vision of church-state relations that was more secular and "separation of church and state" oriented. This has been called the "Virginia view" because Madison and Jefferson were both from Virginia and saw their vision validated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

But there were other perspectives; the "Massachusetts view" was most notably articulated by George Washington and John Adams and permitted more expression of religion in public life and more interplay between church and state. 

But onto Arnold's article. A taste:

Was Madison a Christian?

It is quite likely that the beginning of Madison’s rejection of Christian nationalism is found in a rejection of orthodox Christianity more generally. Like George Washington, Madison was meticulous in his effort to keep his precise religious beliefs private, and he shied away from discussing theology or religious doctrine in all of his private correspondence. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and John Adams left ample evidence in their writings that they rejected the divine origins of orthodox Christianity, Madison’s papers never explicitly denounced doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ or the resurrection.11 And yet, it is a mistake to rely upon arguments from silence as a means of bolstering Madison’s claims to orthodoxy. In 1774, when Madison the youth was studying under the Rev. John Witherspoon and considering a career in ministry, he praised the “advocates of the cause of Christ.”12 But after this, references to Jesus Christ in his private correspondence disappeared and he appeared to approach religion with more indifference. As an adult, Madison is said to have refused to kneel for prayer, and though he sometimes attended an Episcopal Church, he never joined it and never participated in holy communion.13 Friends of Madison, such as the Bishop William Meade, attested to his unbelief,14 and George Ticknor recounted a conversation he had with the President in 1815 wherein he “intimated to me his own regard for Unitarian doctrines.”15

But more disturbing than Madison’s apparent shift away from the evangelical theology of his youth is the sense one gets while reading his corpus that his final position entailed more hostility towards traditional Christianity than has often been acknowledged. As early as 1772, Madison included a striking note in his Commonplace Book, quoting from the Cardinal de Retz: “Nothing is more Subject to Delusion than Piety. All manner of Errors creep and hide themselves under that Veil. Piety takes for sacred all her imaginations of what sort soever.”16 Throughout Madison’s long career, he often returned to this theme about the political dangers of piety and religion. “Religious bondage,” he said to his friend William Bradford, “shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize every expanded prospect” [sic].17 While Madison in one instance referred in passing to Christianity as the “best & purest religion,” it is likely that he, like his friend Thomas Jefferson, primarily praised it with a view towards its ethical precepts—precepts accessible to unaided, natural reason—and emphatically not its doctrinal claims uncovered within divine revelation.18 In fact, Madison thought that doctrinal orthodoxy needed to be eliminated in order to further the cause of progress and enlightenment. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison complained about “Sectarian Seminaries” in Virginia—almost certainly alluding to Calvinist or Reformed institutions of learning—and their incorporation into the Virginia state charter on the grounds that this would empower churches of “any creed however absurd or contrary to that of a more enlightened age.”19 Doctrines must shift and change with the times, and any attempt to ground the nation in a static doctrine of Christianity is a threat to progress.

 [...]

Madison and the Great Divorce of Christianity and Politics 

Because he believed that religion is essentially a passion that causes rather than discourages faction, Madison also contended that it needed to be pacified for liberty to be preserved. The primary method of solving the political problem of Christianity was to encourage religious diversity and foster disunity. As Madison’s friend, neighbor, and first biographer William Cabell Rives reported, the President was fond of quoting Voltaire’s maxim that “if one religion only were allowed in England, the government would possibly be arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut each other’s throats; but, as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”30 And Madison himself left no doubt that these were exactly his sentiments. He spoke in Federalist no. 51 of how the “multiplicity of sects” was the only security for the preservation of “religious rights.”31 In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison celebrated the fact that the “mutual hatred” of Virginia’s Christian denominations “has been much inflamed.”32 He added: “I am far from being sorry for it, as a coalition between them could alone endanger our religious rights.”33 Where the Apostle Paul spoke of the need for harmony, unity, and love within the body of Christ, Madison preferred that the church be characterized by disarray, discord, and faction. Only then would Christianity fail to mobilize itself as a political force, and only then would the natural rights of individuals be safe from a majority faction. Madison’s view, too, contrasts with the more Pauline beliefs of George Washington, who celebrated the “harmony and Brotherly Love which characterizes the clergy of different denominations” because it further substantiated his conviction that “Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”34 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Lillback Repeats Phony Quotation

In 2022

Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Theological Seminary has done some legitimate scholarly work on the history of theology. I've criticized his 1200 page book that purports to show George Washington was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. Though, let me note the book does have its virtue as a reference for all of Washington's words on matters of religion and government.

I would assume that Lillback is well aware of the "controversy" regarding the phony quotations that the "Christian America" crowd has spread which caused them much egg on their faces. 

But, alas, in 2022, he steps in it.

Now, if you turn to page 16, Patrick Henry, do you remember what he said? The man who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He said, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The problem is Henry didn't say the "it cannot be emphasized ..." quotation.  I've been noting this since around 2005. 

I know that the older Patrick Henry backed off from his militant anti-Federalist sentiments; but around the time that the US Constitution was ratified, calling America a "great nation" probably would have made Patrick Henry want to puke. This was a man who objected to the phrase "We the People" in the preamble to the US Constitution because it intimated the US was a single consolidated nation as opposed to a collection of free, sovereign states. He wanted "We the States."

This was back when the United States was commonly referred to in a plural sense, as in "The United States are," as opposed to "The United States is." 

But in any event, Patrick Henry still didn't say it

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Bolingbroke's Deism

I am still around and blogging, just busy with some work/life issues which is why you haven't heard from me in a while. One of the highlights of my Summer (2022) was peer reviewing a book on Deism which should be out shortly.

Here is the bottom line of this book: Most English, American and French "deists" believed in an active personal God, not a cold distant watchmaker. If the term "deist" isn't appropriate for the theology that posits an active personal God, then lots of folks, not just George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin need a new term; so too do Robespierre and many of the French Revolution's "deists."

Though one thing that DOES tend to distinguish the English and American "deists" from the French is that the English and Americans retained more of their "Christianity." Someone like Bolingbroke, for instance, thought Jesus was on a divine mission, worked miracles and ascended to heaven.
 
But what DIDN'T Bolingbroke believe? Large parts of the Protestant canon. For instance, he thought the Book of Revelation was false in a nutty way and that everything St. Paul wrote was not in fact true revelation.

He also thought much of the Old Testament was not actual divine revelation. For instance, the supposed curses of Noah on Ham and Canaan. Bolingbroke actually wonders whether those parts of the OT were, instead of divine writ, simply the meanderings of Noah in a drunken stupor. (See this link.) 

If there is a better term than "deist" to describe this creed, I'm all ears. But if we call it either "deism" or "Christianity" we need to clearly define the terms to understand what we are dealing with.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The American Theory of Rights: Not in the Social Contract, but in the Natural Law

 James Otis might have become the foremost thinker of the Founding, except he was brained by a violent Tory in 1769 and was showing signs of mental problems before that.  But 'twas James Otis who got the intellectual arguments for the American vision of liberty off to a brilliant start in 1764:




"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."
This is the unique American theory of rights as expressed in the Declaration of Independence--the foundation of man's rights is "the laws of nature and of nature's God."

Here the erudite James Otis makes the essential distinction between various "Enlightenment" theories of government and rights [Hobbes and Harrington, yes, even contrary to John Locke!] and the uniquely American vision--our rights come prior to government, we don't negotiate our rights with the government, or with each other:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Rights are prior to government, then

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...



And some years later, in 1790, James Wilson---one of the few signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution, and a future Supreme Court justice, reminds his audiences [that included President Washington] in his lectures on law of just how the American view of rights differs from the British "contract" view of 1688, the supreme legal theorist William Blackstone and Edmund Burke, and even John Locke and the Magna Carta:


"But even if a part was to be given up, does it follow that all must be surrendered? Man, says Mr. Burke, cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. By an uncivil contradistinguished from a civil state, he must here mean a state of nature: by the rights of this uncivil state, he must mean the rights of nature: and is it possible that natural and civil rights cannot be enjoyed together? Are they really incompatible? Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution? Such seems to be the sentiment of Mr. Burke: and such too seems to have been the sentiment of a much higher authority than Mr. Burke -- Sir William Blackstone. 

...
And must we surrender to government the whole of those absolute rights? But we are to surrender them only -- in trust: -- another brat of dishonest parentage is now attempted to be imposed upon us: but for what purpose? Has government provided for us a superintending court of equity to compel a faithful performance of the trust? If it had; why should we part with the legal title to our rights?"

Here is the fatal flaw of "social contract" theory, the British understanding of rights and government according to Burke and Blackstone and Locke---We barter our natural rights with the government and receive "civil privileges" in return.

Wilson answers his own question, "Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution?"---a "social contract" with government...?

 No!

At first, the stirrings of rebellion among the American colonists came from acts of Parliament abridging their "rights as Englishmen." But in the end, the Americans realized that even their "contractual" rights as Englishmen weren't enough---

 Rights reside in man, not in where a man resides.

This is the American way.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

When Historians Attack III—Princeton's Kevin M. Kruse Exposed

(One in what we hope is only a very occasional series: When Historians Attack--and misuse their scholarly authority: Part One [Joseph Ellis]; Part Two [Mark Noll]--TVD)


Phillip W. Magness in the libertarian Reason magazine on Princeton—and MSNBC—historian Kevin M. Kruse's own scholarly record.  




Kruse's academic fraud is pretty bad. Read for yourself.

Sugrue: Detroit is a logical site for such a close analysis.

Kruse: Atlanta struck me as a logical site for such an analysis.


It gets even worse:











Dr. Kruse is "Twitter-famous" for taking on ideological opponents like non-historian Dinesh D'Sousa on their questionable assertions but here Kruse himself is


Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Hutson: Up Against the Wall ["of Separation"]

From James H. Hutson, former chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and author of Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, in the Claremont Review of Books:


But even the most objective scholars can not provide jurists with the one, true answer about the 18th-century meaning of the Establishment Clause.


Opinions of the founding generation were scattered all across the spectrum on the question of the assistance government could give religion. Consider the Baptists, the most ardent separationists in the Founding Era. Some Baptists in Massachusetts and Maryland actually favored selective state financial subsidies for churches; others, while disapproving financial support, encouraged the state to print and distribute bibles; Virginia Baptists opposed both measures but were happy to accept public accommodations for church services. Presbyterians were divided over state financial assistance to churches as were political leaders in virtually every state. Statesmen like George Washington changed their mind on the issue. James Madison participated intermittently in public religious acts for 30 years, i.e., in issuing religious proclamations, which in the privacy of retirement he deplored. Jefferson permitted church services to be held in federal office buildings but was accused of hypocrisy for doing so.

Confronted by opinions so diverse and problematic, the best scholarship can be of only limited assistance in supplying the "correct" answer about the framers' precise intentions regarding government assistance to religion—a painful conclusion for a supporter of the "jurisprudence of original intent." Yet, according to a Massachusetts commentator in 1780, the meaning of the term, establishment of religion, was even then "prodigiously obscure." If so, do today's judges not deserve a degree of sympathy as they try to tease out the intentions of the drafters and ratifiers of the First Amendment?

Dreisbach's superb book, and Hamburger's as well, pierce the fog to this extent. They inform us that, if there is no "right" answer about how far the founding generation would have permitted government to go in assisting religion, there is indisputably a wrong one: the radical, unprecedented divorce of church from state that the Court has decreed since 1947.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Cambridge Article on Ben Franklin and The Reasonableness of Christianity

This very dense article by one Kevin Slack is found here. There are many good things in this article, most of which I've already seen; but it did manage to deliver something I hadn't noticed before and which I haven't seen either from most contemporary scholars of Ben Franklin and religion.

Apparently Franklin was involved in a liturgy project with one David Williams. From the article:

As a member of the Thirteen Club, Franklin helped David Williams construct A Liturgy on the Universal Principles of Religion and Morality in 1773–1774.Footnote258 Franklin told Williams that he “never passed a Church, during Public Service, without regretting that he could not join it honestly and cordially,” and he wished to revive a “rational form of devotion,” like that of Shaftesbury's deism, for freethinkers.Footnote259 Church attendance had declined, and there was no alternative to the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer or Dissenter enthusiasm.Footnote260 He “thought it a reproach to Philosophy that it had not a Liturgy and that it skulked from the public Profession of its Principles,” and he lamented the loss of “that pleasure, which all virtuous minds have in a public acknowledgement of their duties.”Footnote261 A liturgy was needed to preach the general principles of a common creed: “All disputed opinions should be excluded public-worship; and that all honest, pious men, Calvinists, Arians, Socinians, Jews, Turks, and Infidels, might and ought to worship God together in spirit and in truth.”Footnote262 Thus the liturgy invited the many of all faiths to join in a common creed constructed for a select “Party of Virtue.”Footnote263

The bold face is mine and it's an exact quotation from their project.

One reason why this piece of evidence may have flown under the radar of many scholars is that the evidence of Franklin's involvement in the project comes mainly from David Williams and not Franklin. However, I have found one letter of Franklin's to Williams and two letters (one and two) from Williams to Franklin.

The letters discuss their project. But in any event what was quoted above in bold reflects as far as I can tell Ben Franklin's adult opinions on both public (political) and private (personal) theology. And it's fairly close to Jefferson's and J. Adams' and thus explains the generic, "non-disputed" God language of the Declaration of Independence. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Hamburger: "Separation of Church and State: A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle"

For some time I have featured the work of Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger's "Separation of Church and State" with critical commentary. I just hope my criticisms are fair. 

The chapter to that book entitled A Theologically Liberal, Anti-Catholic, and American Principle is available online in its entirety so readers can decide for themselves if I'm being fair. I stand by my assessment; Hamburger is a brilliant scholar who meticulously documents the record, but at times weaves an utterly contentious narrative while doing so. 

For instance, the "Anti-Catholic" and "American" principle Hamburger documents is, as I see it, simply Protestant anti-Roman Catholic animus, that has been present since day one of the Reformation. Hamburger seems to argue in the chapter that the "liberals" are to blame for it and somehow got the theologically orthodox, conservative Protestants to go along for the ride in 19th Century America; but I don't think so. The creedally orthodox, Trinitarian Protestants have as much of a history of anti-Roman Catholic animus as the "liberals" in America and Europe since, again, day one of the Reformation.

The "liberals" as Hamburger describes them, and as I have noted before, were either theologically unitarian or doctrinally lax in the anti-creedal, anti-clerical sense. This theologically liberal Protestantism was also arguably key to the political theology of the American Founding. Arguably, it owns a great deal of the "spirit" of the 18th Century American Founding, not just the 19th century which is the focus of Hamburger's chapter. 

I've also featured the work of Dr. Gregg Frazer whose thesis describes the political theology of the American Founding as not "Christianity" or "Deism" but some kind of hybrid which he terms "theistic rationalism." One could argue that this "theistic rationalism" is actually a late 18th century version of "liberal Protestant Christianity" of the unitarian variant. Very similar to the "theologically liberal" American theologians of the 19th Century whom Hamburger tars with "animus." (Note, the 18th Century American Founders who adhered to this theology like John Adams and others also possessed such anti-RC animus.) 

The legendary 19th Century Unitarian figure William Channing features prominently in Hamburger's chapter as a notable expositor of this kind of "theological liberalism." But one need not even be identifiably self consciously theologically unitarian in order to qualify as an adherent to this kind of theological liberalism. Rather, one would need to be a self consciously anti-creedal and anti-clerical Protestant. Certainly, William Livingston and John Dickinson (basically 1/2 Quaker Whigs who didn't care for creeds or clergy) would also qualify in addition to the "key Founders" that Gregg Frazer identifies (the first four American Presidents, Ben Franklin, etc.). As would the Quakers and perhaps some Baptists who also eschewed creeds. Again, lots of important figures and forces of the 18th Century American Founding. 

Below is an interesting passage from page 13 of Hamburger's above linked article.
In addition, some Enlightenment Protestants attempted to reconcile religion and reason by accentuating what could be inferred from reason and by reducing religion to what was reasonable. Associating reason with the purity of their own faith, Protestants condemned Catholicism as not only unfree but also irrational and superstitious-thereby joining earlier Protestants who classed it with the mummery and horrors of paganism.

This completely resonates with the political-theological zeitgeist of the American Founding (or at least notable elements therein like the aforementioned "key Founders," Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Brits. Joseph Priestley and Richard Price). But in this chapter, Hamburger apparently tries to tar it as a "bad guy" position by connecting it to animus and eventually the KKK.  

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Cincinnatus Goes Home

March 10, 1797: George and Martha Washington leave the President's House in Philadelphia for a much-anticipated retirement at Mount Vernon.

To celebrate George Washington's retirement from the presidency, Philadelphia displayed a life-size painting showing Washington leaving a sword and helmet—symbols of power—at America's feet as he gestures towards Mount Vernon.

'General Washington's Resignation' (engraving) by Alexander Lawson, John James Barralet. Circa 1799.