Saturday, September 6, 2008

Gouverneur Morris, Theistic Rationalist

That's the title to a paper Dr. Gregg Frazer recently gave at the APSA 2008 Annual Meeting, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Luckily the entire paper is available online. At 30 pages, that's quite a bit about both Gouverneur Morris and theistic rationalism. Some highlights.

On Morris' importance as Founding Father:

Morris spoke more often than anyone at the Constitutional Convention and was an influential member of the critically important Committee of Style. In fact, Morris wrote the Preamble to the Constitution,...

On theistic rationalism:

Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements. Theistic rationalists believed that these three elements would generally be in accord and lead to the same end, but that reason was determinative on those relatively rare occasions in which there was disagreement. Rationalism as used here is the philosophical view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. Educated in Enlightenment thought, theistic rationalists were at root rationalists, but their loosely Christian upbringing combined with reason to convince them that a creator God would not abandon his creation. Consequently, they rejected the absentee god of deism and embraced a theist God of, to a significant extent, their own construction. Hence the term theistic rationalism.

An emphasis on reason had long been accepted in the Christian community, but in Christian thought, reason was a supplement to revelation, which was supreme. Theistic rationalism turned this on its head and made revelation a supplement to reason. In fact, for theistic rationalists, reason determined what should be accepted as revelation from God. Unlike deists, theistic rationalists accepted the notion of revelation from God; unlike Christians, they felt free to pick apart the Bible and to consider only the parts which they determined to be rational to be legitimate divine revelation. They similarly felt free to define God according to the dictates of their own reason and to reject Christian doctrines which did not seem to them to be rational.

The God of the theistic rationalists was a unitary, personal God whose controlling attribute was benevolence. Theistic rationalists believed that God was present and active in the world and in the lives of men. Consequently, they believed in the efficacy of prayer – that someone was listening and might intervene on their behalf. Theistic rationalism was not a devotional or inward-looking belief system; it was centered on public morality. God was served by living and promoting a good, moral life. The primary value of religion was the promotion of morality, and the morality generated by religion was indispensable to a free society. Since all of the religions with which they were familiar promoted morality, they held that virtually all religions were more or less equally valid and led to the same God who is called by many names. Theistic rationalists generally disdained doctrines or dogmas. They found them to be divisive, speculative, and ultimately unimportant since many roads lead to God.

This next passage is important because it clears up a source of confusion that has led to the inapt categorization of many theistic rationalists (like George Washington) as "Christians." Because the theistic rationalists thought Jesus a great moral teacher, they tended to be "pro-Christianity" without actually being Christians. Christianity was just great, as were most other world religions. The non-sequitur would be to conclude that the pro-Christian quotations of the theistic rationalists mean they themselves were Christians. As the paper notes:

In addition, deism was in many ways as much a critique of Christianity as a religion of its own. Deist thought rejected virtually every tenet and fundamental of Christianity and deists were generally critical of Christianity’s central figure: Jesus. In short, deists wanted nothing to do with Christianity or its Christ. While theistic rationalists shared some ideas with deists, they had a much greater regard for Christianity and for Jesus than did most deists.

On Morris' theistic rationalism, particularly his belief in an active God:

In my research, I encountered more than 40 references by Morris to God’s activity in the world, the nation, and the lives of individuals. Although he thought the decrees of Heaven and the ways of Providence “inscrutable by man,” Morris was confident that the “Almighty will work out his wise ends by the means of human folly.” In fact, Morris maintained: “I know that in the order of his providence, the wisest ends frequently result from the most foolish measures. It is our duty to submit ourselves to his high dispensations.” Furthermore: “In the great course of events, which divine Providence may have marked out, human wisdom can do but little.” On the large scale, Morris’s God actively ruled over this world and the universe: “My trust is not in a President, Senate, and House of Representatives, but in Him who governs empires, the world, the universe.” He concluded that “when you take occasion to pity the infirmity of human nature … you assail the wisdom of Providence in his moral government of the world.” He urged a correspondent: “Be persuaded, that, in spite of our feeble efforts and empty vows, events in this world, and in the thousands of worlds, which roll through the regions of space, will pursue the course marked out by Omnipotence. Every inferior intelligence, the greatest as well as the least, is but an instrument in his hand.”

On the God-words of Morris the theistic rationalist:

Because theistic rationalism was a sort of mean between deism and Christianity, Morris shared some beliefs with deism, as well. Like the deists, Morris “detested Calvinism.” Like the deists, Morris and other theistic rationalists used generic “God-words” rather than specifically Christian terms for God and studiously avoided references to “Jesus” or to “Jesus Christ.” As can be seen in the quotations above, Morris’s favorite terms for God were “Providence” and “the Almighty.” Most of the other “God-words” that Morris employed emphasize the deist triad of divine attributes: wisdom, goodness, and power. His third favorite term for God was “the Omnipotent” or “Omnipotence,” which, like Almighty, focuses on power. Morris regularly emphasized God’s wisdom, as well, including a reference to God as “the Fountain of supreme wisdom.” He also used a number of terms to emphasize God’s goodness. He called God “the great Parent,” “indulgent father,” “Comforter,” “the Giver of all good,” and “Creator” and spoke of “the kindness of that Being” and of His “paternal love.”

On why Morris probably wasn't a "Christian":

Turning to Morris’s relationship to Christianity, we know that Morris belonged to an Episcopalian church and that he attended it regularly when in New York. Beyond what may have been essentially club membership, however, there is little evidence connecting him to belief in Christianity. Of the ten fundamental doctrines of Christianity listed above, Morris only identified clearly with one of them: belief in a present, active Creator God; which is the least definitive of the doctrines. Speaking of Christianity, Thomas Jefferson testified: “I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.” It is instructive to note that, at least in his writings, Morris never claimed to be a Christian and never put forward Christianity as a superior belief system – or even Protestant Christianity as a better religion than the Catholicism that he detested.

And finally, probably the most interesting part of the piece, Morris "immoral" conduct. He was certainly the kinkiest Founding Father:

There is another factor separating Morris from Christianity, or at least highly inconsistent with Christian faith – Morris’s immoral conduct. As to reputation, when he was nominated to be minister to France, Roger Sherman said of Morris that “with regard to moral character I consider him an irreligious and profane man.” James Monroe said: “Upon the grounds of character he was twice refused as a member of the Treasury Board.” Though he publicly defended his appointment of Morris, George Washington wrote to Morris about his “imprudence of conversation and conduct” and asked him to display “more caution and prudence” and “more circumspection.” A few years later, Monroe referred to Morris as “a man without morality.” Of course, this could have simply been a matter of political partisanship or personality conflict, but, in Morris’s case, the reputation was well-earned. Morris once threatened to kill a man if he spoke disrespectfully of him, and he frequently got “very drunk” while in France. His most conspicuous moral problems concerned women, however.

Morris had numerous illicit affairs with married and unmarried women and, by his own admission, was constantly trying to initate new ones. One of his earliest dalliances may have cost him one of his legs. One account of the loss of the leg, which is reported as fact by most biographers, is that it happened as a result of a cart accident. There is a good chance that this was merely a cover story, however. There is reason to believe that Morris lost his leg jumping from a window to escape a jealous husband. John Jay joked about it in a letter of consolation to Morris and Lord Palmerston testified that Morris told him the whole story at breakfast a decade later. There is also circumstantial evidence surrounding the woman involved which lends credence. Morris denied the story in a letter to Jay, but not very convincingly. If true, the unfortunate event did not dissuade Morris from similar activity in the future. In fact, he used the curiosity afforded by his one-legged status to attract and seduce other women.

Morris’s diary entries during his time in France are filled with sexual escapades. He had an ongoing affair with Madame de Flahaut for more than three years. She and Morris were eventually so “wanton and flagrant” that they engaged in intercourse “in the passage … at the harpsichord … downstairs ... the doors are all open,” and in a coach with the coachman staring straight ahead. They became so shameless that they engaged in intercourse inside a convent and even tried to conceive a child while she denied her husband conjugal rights. Morris’s diary contains at least eighteen references to their sexual liaisons, but Morris claimed that they had made love “several hundred” times. In addition to Madame de Flahaut, Morris reported having affairs with Madame Simon, an unnamed “damsel,” Madame de Lita, Madame de Crayen, Miss Matthiesen and her “young sister,” Miss Gehrt, and Mrs. Perez Morton. According to the diary entries, he tried to seduce – or thought of doing so – Madame de Flahaut’s niece, Lady Webster, the “daughter of a Frenchman,” Madame Foucault, the daughter of his landlord, Madame de Nadaillac, Madame de Fontana, and even Dolley Madison! Everyone except Jesus sins, but the extent, duration, and brazenness of Morris’s immoral conduct must call into serious question the idea that he was a Christian. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruit.


Phil Johnson said...


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Christian," especially used in the orthodox sense, is a definitive term. "Theistic rationalist" is at best a descriptive term, and can easily shed as much confusion as clarity. They cannot be used as either/or---they are apples and oranges.

One may conclude rationally that there is some God-as-creator, but belief in divine providence is a belief. An atheist/rationalist like Richard Dawkins, and not unfairly, might call it "superstition."

That God spoke or directly inspired man in the Holy Scriptures, even partially, isn't rational---it's a belief. Dawkins might call it---again, not unfairly---nonsense.

And although today's scholars may assert that God of an [admittedly significant] handful of Founding Fathers was "one of their own invention," they would have to prove that that God was essentially different from the Judeo-Christian one. ["Judeo-" obviating all the Jesus-as-God business.]

I don't see the essential difference, nor how that God resembles the one of other world religions as much as it does Judeo-Christianity's.

But I'm always willing to learn.

As for Gouverneur Morris, yes, he was quite influential, but he was also an embarrassment. But he wasn't a hypocrite, I suppose, and that counts for everything in some circles.

bpabbott said...

Tom: >>"Christian," especially used in the orthodox sense, is a definitive term. "Theistic rationalist" is at best a descriptive term.<<

Tom, if I'm not mistaken the term "Theistic rationalist" was explicitly defined prior to its descriptive use ... it is both definitive and descriptive.

By the way what is the definitive definition of Christian? ... orthodox or otherwise?

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Theistic rationalist" is an oxymoron especially as used in this context. I gave my arguments why I think so, did I not, Ben?

Please do present some useful counterarguments. I continue to be unhappy with Dr, Frazer's catchall term; although it has some value, it's limited, and fatally limited, in my view.

To "explicitly define a word prior to its descriptive use" is merely an admission that we're inventing a new term. So let's just call 'em btfsplks or shmoos and be done with it. [That one was for you, Brother Pinky.]

I really don't want to get off on sophistries or theories of language, Ben, although it would be mild fun. "Judeo-Christians" works better for me until somebody argues otherwise.

Which they don't. When it comes to the total landscape of the Founding, I find "Judeo-Christian" both more definitive and descriptive than "theistic rationalist."

I gave my reasons, right? Just checking. I engage Dr. Frazer's argument on its own terms, so it would be proper for you to engage my counterargument with the same good cheer.

Phil Johnson said...


Tom Van Dyke said...

Dang. I thought you'd enjoy the L'il Abner reference, Phil. Obviously you're not very interested in engaging the rest.

Phil Johnson said...

It went right past me.

Sorry about that.
But I learned a new word in one of Johathon's posts, inapt, that at first I thought was a misspelling.
What kind of work do you do, Tom?
Are you in academia?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heaven forbid, Mr. Johnson. Academia is where honest inquiry goes to die.

There's a small blurb on my personal self on the sidebar to the right under "Meet the Contributors." Thx for asking.

Phil Johnson said...

TVK sez, "Academia is where honest inquiry goes to die.
It looks like you've misspoken yourself there, Tom.
Are you sure you didn't mean to say, "[Ecclesia] is where honest inquiry goes to die.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hehe, good one, Phil. But I'm not a preacher either.