Thursday, August 14, 2008

How America Could Be a "Christian Nation"

In a past post I wrote it's impossible for America to be a "Christian Nation" because you first have to define the term "Christianity," whose definition is disputed, and the doctrine of unalienable rights central to the American Founding forbids government from resolving this issue.

Yet, America does have a theistic or metaphysical underpinning -- see the Declaration of Independence. And America's Founders invoked quite a bit, a generically defined "Providence." In short, America's political theology is a generic Providentialism -- a natural religion discoverable from reason, that is compatible with Christianity and all sorts of heretical non-Christian systems.

When it comes to defining Christianity, to tell you the truth, I can't do it. When debating the Christian Nationalists, I often say America's key Founders (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson and Hamilton) weren't "Christians"; but that's only because I take their understanding of "Christianity" (which they equate with orthodox Trinitarianism) as an assumed premise.

You see, I'm not a Christian, but a detached scholar of Christianity; so I really don't have a dog in the fight over "what is Christianity." I just know if Christianity defines as the "Christian Nation" crowd defines it, America wasn't founded to be a Christian Nation and America's key Founders weren't "Christians."

There are other ways to define and understand the term Christian however. As opposed to the narrow "orthodox" understanding, the "broad" understanding that encompasses all sorts of nominal, theologically liberal, and heretical Christianities. In this broad sense, America's Founders could be considered "Christian" and so could America's Founding political theology.

My friend Eric Alan Isaacson is a prominent attorney and present day member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. He helped author their interfaith, "friend of the court" brief in support of gay marriage in California. In replying to one of my posts where I assumed the "narrow," orthodox understanding of Christianity, he argued for the "broader" understanding, which, if accepted, we could term America's key Founders "Christian" and America a "Christian Nation." Notice his discussion on the Mormons. I think Mormons are a good test case. The Mormon faith is closer to what America's key Founders believed than is the orthodox Christian faith. This is probably because Mormons, looking to America's Founding for inspiration, incorporated some the Founders' eccentric "a-biblical" theological elements. Anyway, Mr. Isaacson's note follows:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

“Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.”

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

“America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the ‘Holy Land.’ Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the ‘Holy Bible.’”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

Now if the "Christian Nationalists" could embrace the above mentioned understanding of the term "Christian," we'd have nothing to argue about.


Tom Van Dyke said...

In short, America's political theology is a generic Providentialism -- a natural religion discoverable from reason, that is compatible with Christianity and all sorts of heretical non-Christian systems.

Jon, I can't see how divine providence can be derived by reason.

Well, I can, sorta, per the 18th century "rationalist" Gottfried Leibniz' "best of all possible worlds" and such. But our atheist [anti-theist] modern-day "rationalist" friends certainly don't see it.

[A little definition housekeeping: The headline "rationalists" of the 18th c. were Leibniz and Descartes, pretty religious guys.

"Rationalist" today can mean the anti-theist Richard Dawkins, who seems to describe his project that way, according to his website.]

Indeed, can the idea of God taking an active hand in human affairs [Providence] even be called "natural" religion?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Jon, I can't see how divine providence can be derived by reason....Indeed, can the idea of God taking an active hand in human affairs [Providence] even be called "natural" religion?

Perhaps this is something that I should try to stress more: I'm trying to give a "descriptive" account of Founding era political theology. Not defend it as "the right" or even a "sound" system in a "prescriptive" sense.

They did believe that "reason" discovers Providence and that this a Truth in which all good men of all world religions believe. This Truth is "natural religion."

Of course, it could turn out that natural rights/law/religion and revealed religion are all fictions.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "[...] I can't see how divine providence can be derived by reason."

I was a bit confused by your comment until I took at look at how "divine providence" is defined.

In theology, Divine Providence, or simply Providence, is the sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people's lives and throughout history.

To be honest, I don't see the hand of God in any events. However, such things are in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps some have seen things I have not, or perhaps the other way around. However, since reason must be applied hand in hand with knowledge, equally reasoned minds will come to different conclusions if they begin with different knowledge.

bpabbott said...

Jon concluded: "Now if the "Christian Nationalists" could embrace the above mentioned understanding of the term "Christian," we'd have nothing to argue about."

If embracing the life of Jesus and endeavoring to follow his path is what qualifies an individual as a Christian, then we'd have a new debate ... In my opinion, many of the "Christian Nationalists" would not qualify ;-)

Anonymous said...

Now if the "Christian Nationalists" could embrace the above mentioned understanding of the term "Christian," we'd have nothing to argue about.

Isn't that because - in actuality - such an understanding says nothing? (We're all Christians now...weeee!)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Matt -- heh.

I've conceded to the Christian Nationalists that, yes, America was founded to be a "Christian Nation" in a "nominal" sense. They don't like to hear that. Nominal Christianity isn't their cup of tea.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, I see my friend Matt Huisman has found his way here. To quote Steve Martin in "The Jerk" after his name is at last published in the phone book, things are gonna start happening now.

Mr. Abbott, you illustrate my point completely. Yours is a common view these days, but Tom Paine, while allowing perhaps some remote and disinterested God who took his phone off the hook after creating all this, was ostracized by most all and sundry of America for such a weltanshauung.

Anonymous said...

The trouble I have with the Nominal Christian argument is how does it explain the tidal wave of Nominalism that must have swept through every part of the country at that time. It seems to be everywhere.

Does one actually rally around the notion of Nominalism? Should I watch and pray expectantly for a Nominalist revival?

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'm not sure if there really was a "tidal wave" of Christianity. I've seen some studies that show about 17% of the American population were church members. Though James Hutson notes it may be a lowball. And it also may be explained by the lack of available ministers.

If you look at many of the key Congregationalist who preached on behalf of the revolutionary cause from the pulpit, they were "religious." I'd be hard pressed to call Mayhew and Chauncy "nominal" in their faith. However, they were also heterodox in the sense that they were theological unitarians, universalists and made some unorthodox theological arguments on behalf of the revolutionary cause.

See my post below which links to Dr. Gregg Frazer's article defending John MacArthur's teachings on the matter (Frazer and MacArthur, both Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals -- indeed MacArthur is one of the most prominent evangelical theologians in the world -- believe rebellion is a sin and as such America's Founders sinned by revolting against Great Britain) where he explains the unorthodox theology of Mayhew et al.

Arguably this was not "Christianity" as historically defined by its traditional orthodoxy, but some other theological driver.

In other words, in a "broad sense" we could call it "Christianity." In a "narrow" sense, arguably it is not.

Jonathan Rowe said...


This is the relevant part of Dr. Frazer's article that I'd like you to consider on Jonathan Mayhew, one of the most important Congregational preacher who preached on behalf of the American Revolutionary cause:

It is also instructive to point out that Mayhew is not exactly the most reliable authority on what the Bible says. His reputation for unorthodoxy was so pronounced that his ordination had to be rescheduled because not enough ministers attended. He was a unitarian (did not believe in the deity of Christ) and a rationalist who believed that reason was the ultimate determiner of what counts as revelation. He specifically denied the doctrines of imputation, justification by faith, the virgin birth and original sin and held an unorthodox view of the atonement. He denied them because he found them to be unreasonable. Doctrines, which he called "niceties of speculation," were not of particular interest to him, though, because he believed that there were many roads to God and that one walked them through works. He listed Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, Sidney and Hoadly among his intellectual influences. His quoted remark in the article that a king can "un-king himself" is completely without biblical foundation. Mayhew's view of Romans 13 had nothing to do with what Paul said and everything to do with what Mayhew found reasonable under the circumstances.

Question: Mayhew called himself a "Christian." Was he one?

Phil Johnson said...

Tom sez, "I can't see how divine providence can be derived by reason."
Read Romans 1:20, Tom. Just to point up what the Bible has to say on the subject.
Here it is, " ... the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead ... "

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aristotle derived such a First Cause, but not Providence.

Anonymous said...

While I have a minute, I should thank all of you for such a gracious welcome. In particular, Mr. Van Dyke, whom you can always count on for a unique take (should I be concerned that my presence inspires a reference from "The Jerk"?).

Back with more as time permits...

bpabbott said...

Jon: "Question: Mayhew called himself a "Christian." Was he one?"

While many talk in a manner which is more consistent with Christian doctrine and scripture, Mayhew words appear (to me) to be much more congruent with the descriptive of the manner by which Jesus behaved.

Since I find "the walk" much more valuable and compeling than "the talk", I'd say Mayhew qualifies.

Anonymous said...

Question: Mayhew called himself a "Christian." Was he one?

I doubt it, but I would say that I would include him as part of a greater supporting Christian culture - in the sense that he spoke the language (shared values, recognition of the Bible, God-fearing, etc.).

Returning to my earlier point on Nominalism (which I view, at best, as a trite accceptance), the "tidal wave" I'm referring to is the volume of public documents (see Justice BREWER) from every corner of the country that appeal to the God of the Bible. Do Nominalist inclinations explain them? Were there that many Unitarians running around?

You're certainly better equipped than I to answer those questions, but a basic understanding of the inherent (lack of) power in those movements leads me to believe they were not the primary cause.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The explanation that Noll, Hatch, and Marsden give is that unitarians like Mayhew imported non-authentically biblical ideas into the pulpits to rally masses of Christians to the cause of Americanism. As Allan Bloom put it in "The Closing of the American Mind":

"When Bishops, a generation after Hobbes’s death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he had defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had." (pp. 141-2).

His interpretation may be overly "Hobbsean." (I think we'd all agree that Locke was central.) But the point is when preachers like Mayhew posited the "state of nature"/contract and rights theory and posited God as the ultimate guarantor of liberal democratic rights, arguably they important non-Christian ideas into "Christian" pulpits.

But no doubt these ideas presented themselves as going "hand in hand" with "Christianity." Whether that's accurate is what this debate is all about.

Here Ben Franklin does something similar. Franklin goes so far as to claim "Christianity" teaches men are justified thru works not faith (and accordingly, if the "ends"/works or morality are achieved, the "means"/which religion you are matters not):

"But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one....Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."

-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.

Is it no wonder that Mormons love the Founders?

This is what the Founders termed "rational Christianity." Mayhew was the archtypical "rational Christian." And this system was the theological driver for American Founding republican ideals. The question is whether this system really was authentically "Christian."

Jonathan Rowe said...

If I may directly answer your question as to whether there were that many unitarians running around. The answer is I don't know. I'm not sure if there were a whole lot of orthodox Trinitarian Christians running around either. Some studies show only 17% of the Founding era population were churched. Though that figure may be a lowball or otherwise explained by a lack of available ministers.

Again back to the broad v. narrow understanding of Christianity. During the Founding era about 98% were Protestants. Today 80% claim to be Christians. But how many of them really are "Christians" in the "orthodox" or "regenerate" sense (as opposed to "nominal" or "cafeteria")? I don't think anyone can answer that question.

In today's era, both Oprah Winfrey and the late Jerry Falwell claimed to be Christians. In the Founding era, both Jonathan Mayhew and John Witherspoon claimed to be Christians.

My point is more that these heterodox unitarian ideas were introduced from the top down, as many intellectual ideas are, obviously not from the bottom up.

Phil Johnson said...

All this talk about what it means to be a Christian is irritating and a gross insult to people that don't "line up".
It looks as though we're put in a place where a Christian must also be a Holy Biblicist. There is a series of test questions beginning with whether or not the Bible is the Revealed Word of God and ending with whether or not Jesus--in one of his three expressions--created all that is over a period of six days. I suppose that includes all the Old and New Testament miracles like a talking snake.
I wonder if there are still those who also say that being a Christian includes Robert E. Lee who is remembered as one of America's most prayerful Christians and who believed the Bible's support for the legalized crime of slavery and who--further--led the war to protect and defend slavery. And, yet they claim that men like Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810-May 10, 1860) were not Christians.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I guess you've thrown your hat in with "broad way" Christianity.

Anonymous said...

All this talk about what it means to be a Christian is irritating and a gross insult to people that don't "line up".

These discussions are not judgments of worthiness, merely attempts at clarity. (I'm quite certain that I will not be consulted on "who's in".)

Jonathan Rowe said...

I might add it's part of an ongoing theological debate. This is what Michael McConnell wrote in his latest judicial opinion.

But the definition of who is a “Christian” can generate an argument in serious circles across the country. Some students at CCU are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or “Mormons.” Members of the LDS Church stoutly insist that they are Christians, but some Christians, with equal sincerity and sometimes vehemence, say they are not. In order to administer Colorado’s exclusionary law, government officials have to decide which side in this debate is right. Similar questions plague the religious taxonomy of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unitarian-Universalists, various syncretistic groups and even (in some circles) the Roman Catholic Church.

Phil Johnson said...

J.R. sez to me, "I guess you've thrown your hat in with "broad way" Christianity."
That can't be all bad. My son is an actor on Broadway and takes turns playing several parts in Mama Mia.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Congrats to you on his success. Not a big fan of Abba. But that play is quite a hit.

bpabbott said...


I was unfamiliar with the case you mentioned, but found a post at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Eugene Volokh: "Colorado drew such a distinction for college student scholarships, providing that the scholarships could be used at a wide range of institutions but not at "pervasively sectarian""

I'm surprised such a blatant qualification was even attempted. I'd think it is sufficient to exclude institutions that are non-accredited.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree. I think what drives McConnell's idea -- a policy/interpretation of the Constitution in which I fervently agree -- is that religious equality means you can't exclude particular religious points of view (i.e., pervasively sectarian ones) from generally neutral programs of aid.

Religious equality of course is the policy that undergirds the Establishment Clause such that even if the Clause were "unincorporated" the Equal Protection Clause could pick up much of the slack. The EPC means government can't discriminate against one in regard to religion. Under this approach Michael Newdow could win an EPC challenge to "under God."

So go ahead Supreme Court, unincorporate the Establishment Clause; I'm not scared.

bpabbott said...

Jon: "So go ahead Supreme Court, unincorporate the Establishment Clause; I'm not scared."

I think that is highly unlikely.

Personally, I'm eager to see "under God" reach the SC. The moral side appears to me to be with returning the pledge to its prior version. In the event, that the SC rejects the next challenge, there will be more challenges to follow.

This contest may ultimately frame the beginning of this century.

Anonymous said...

This resembles some discussions of whether Muslims worship the same god as Christians. One commenter noted that the Christian trinity could be distinguished on set-theoretical grounds from the single god of Islam and Judaism, and in this view Unitarians like the founders don't worship the same god as Christians either.

The contrary view, as Jonathan notes above, would include Muslims as Christians, of a sort.

However, isn't it reasonable to stipulate that Christians, to deserve the name, must hold that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, rather than just a venerable teacher?

I do think the Pledge needs to lose either "under God" or "indivisible". "In God We Trust", though, can remain on the currency until we get the deficit under control.

Congrats to Pinky on his Broadway baby. Best comment on a very lively thread!

bpabbott said...

Jim: "However, isn't it reasonable to stipulate that Christians, to deserve the name, must hold that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, rather than just a venerable teacher?"

From a theological perspective, perhaps ... but whose theology?

Who decides the qualifications of a "Christian"?

Does one who endeavors to live like Jesus qualify? ... although he/she lacks a belief if Jesus' divinity?

Does one who accepts Jesus to be the Christ qualify? ... with out regard to how he/she lives their life?

Are these questions the government should arbitrate?

A great part of the motive behind the Constitutions religious restrictions (no religious test clause, the establishment clause, and the free exercise clause) was to keep the federal government out of the business of arbitrating theological matters.

I like the comment regarding our currency. Do you mean to imply that its time we began to be responsible for our spending habits and not abdicate that responsibility to God? ;-)

Anonymous said...

As regards the currency, yes, absolutely.

As to a definition of Christianity, I can only note that there seems to be a definite consensus, here and generally, about such terms as "deist" and "unitarian", even though general usage, both in the present and the time in question, isn't and wasn't quite so clear. Washington and the rest, in their time, were in some quarters considered deists because their orthodoxy was in question.

Adams certainly considered himself Christian, despite doubting the godhood of Jesus inherent in the title of "Christ". The problem is that we call all of the teachings attributed to Jesus "Christianity", whether they relate to salvation or right conduct.

It would be reasonable, if contrary to popular usage, to distinguish between those who hold Jesus to be in some sense God and those who shelve him somewhere between Kant and Nietzsche.

As an aged child of UU parents, I'd prefer the precise usage of *unitarian* to be distinguished, and perhaps the restriction of the term *christianity* to the belief in the divinity of Jesus could also be so noted.

Thus Adams is Christian but not *christian*, and he, Jefferson and Franklin are *unitarian*, but not UU, and they and Washington are Deists but not *deists*. America can, at its best, be a Christian nation, but has never been a *christian* nation.