Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Colonial Halloween

Did the citizens of colonial America celebrate Halloween? The answer is yes, but not in the way you may think. An historian with Colonial Williamsburg points out just how different Halloween was for our colonial ancestors:

With the arrival of European immigrants to the United States of America, came the varied Halloween customs indigenous to their former homelands. However, due to the rigid Protestant beliefs which characterized early New England, celebration of Halloween in colonial times was extremely limited in that particular area of the country. Halloween festivities were much more common in Maryland and the colonies located in the South. As the customs practiced by these varied European ethnic groups meshed with traditions employed by the native American Indians, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge.

The first celebrations included "play parties," public events held to celebrate the harvest. At these gatherings, neighbors would share stories of the dead, predict each others' fortunes, sing and make merry with dancing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and general mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the 19th Century, annual Autumn festivals were quite common, but Halloween was still not yet celebrated throughout the entire country.

During the second half of the 19th Century, America became flooded with a new wave of immigrants. These new arrivals...especially the millions of Irish nationals who were fleeing from the Potato Famine of 1846...helped greatly in popularizing the celebration of Halloween on a country-wide level. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to don costumes and journey from house-to-house asking for food or money (the probable forerunners of today's "trick-or-treaters"). Young women held the belief that they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by performing tricks with yarn, apple peelings or mirrors.

happy halloween kat Pictures, Images and Photos

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Am Not Jonathan Rowe!

[Note: I wouldn't normally publish this at American Creation; but in case any casual readers are under this misimpression...:]

I'm Jonathan Rowe! This is what you get when you combine two different people into one. There is a more prominent established writer named Jonathan Rowe with whom folks commonly confuse me. I actually got paid $500 or so to write an article -- never published -- under the mistaken impression that I was him. The publisher never admitted this or returned my email when I asked when my article would be published, but I'm almost certain this was the reason. If you look at the top of my website you see that I self identify as a libertarian. The other guy is the furthest thing from a libertarian. That alone should give folks a heads up. I'd much rather folks confuse me with this Jonathan Rowe.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Battle For the Ages

Chris Rodda v. David Barton

Chris Rodda, a well-known and passionate opponent of the work of David Barton, writes about her recent experience in which she met her arch-nemesis face-to-face. Rodda writes the following about the encounter:

When I found out that David Barton was going to be appearing at a church about ten miles from me, I just couldn't resist going to see him in person. So, tonight I went to the Calvary Chapel in Old Bridge, NJ. I had brought along a copy of my book, "Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History", hoping to get an opportunity to give it to Barton personally. I inscribed the copy of the book, much of which is devoted to debunking the lies in Barton's books and videos, "To the person who, more than anyone else, inspired me to write this book."

After Barton got done spewing his usual Christian nation crap, and telling the audience how important it is to vote "Christian," he took a seat near the side of the stage. As the band was playing a song to close the service, I figured it might be my only chance to approach Barton, so I did. One of my friends caught that with my video camera as she was walking out a door into the bookstore part of the church. I then went out to get my camera from my friend, and started to walk back in, but didn't get more than a foot or two past the door before being spotted by a formidable looking guy sitting behind Barton, who got up and came towards me, asking if there was anything he could help me with. I said no, to which he replied, "Anything I could pray for you about?" Looked like I wasn't getting back in, so I left.
And here is the video of the encounter:

Interesting how Barton just tosses the book aside.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Francis Schaeffer would likely call it "pagan"
by Tom Van Dyke

I still prefer the admittedly imperfect term "Judeo-Christian" as more descriptive of the Founding's "civil religion" over "theistic rationalist" or the [per]mutations of "Deist," so I would not want to be accused of "peddling half-truths," as Jonathan Rowe's post intimates below.

Well, actually, Jon comes right out and says it's peddling half-truths. So if we may "unpack" this a bit:

First of all, the "Judeo-" part doesn't believe Jesus was God, and would not find the New Testament part of the Bible either infallible or even divinely inspired. So that clears the decks of "orthodoxy," the Atonement, the Trinity, and certainly Francis Schaeffer. [More on him later.]

Secondly, as Jon concedes, the medieval pre-Reformation ["Catholic"] Christian intellectual tradition quite took in the "pagan" Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, as did Judaism itself. The apostle Paul, who wrote most all of the Epistles, was himself a Roman citizen and often argued from his deep background in classical philosophy for his Mediterranean-rim audience, who were also steeped in it.

Moreover, the main American "Protestant" tradition was largely Anglican/Church of England, which was Roman Catholicism shed of the Rome/Pope part [The Book of Common Prayer even uses the word "catholick" to describe its own religion!]. John Locke often and approvingly mentions Rev. Richard Hooker, whose own philosophy/theology was a direct offshoot of the medieval "Catholic," Thomas Aquinas.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians and the various unitarian movements were not direct descendants of Martin Luther's theological Protestantism---"faith alone saves" as a shorthand---which was what informed the views of Francis Schaeffer and many in our contemporary evangelical movement.

Theologically speaking, Luther, Calvin, et al., are what "Christian" meant to Francis Schaeffer---he had an expressed distaste for Roman Catholicism, and saw "pagan" philosophy as a malign influence on true Christianity across the board. [And art! Do look at this link to Schaeffer's seminal How Should We Then Live?!]

That's the theological Francis Schaffer, at least the Schaeffer best known to many evangelicals these days. And that's OK, religious liberty-wise. [The interested or curious seeker will read this for the rest.]

But here's the story: It was Francis Schaeffer who was the strategist behind Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" political movement. The true enemy was "secular humanism," and it was Schaeffer who convinced Falwell to build an activist coalition of the likeminded including Jews [!] and Roman Catholics [!!!]

The theological Francis Schaeffer was not the same as the political philosopher Francis Schaeffer, or even the Francis Schaeffer as citizen/voter. We should keep this in mind as we attempt to penetrate the doctrinal beliefs of the Founders. Their [dis?]beliefs are of some academic interest, but their public practice is where the rubber really meets the road, and the main focus of this blog.

Mr. Rowe once wrote about Frank Pastore, the former MLB pitcher turned fundamentalist preacher. Pastore condemned Mormonism theologically, but said he could vote for Mitt Romney since he agreed with Romney on the issues, in that Moral Majority umbrella sort of way.

As a corollary to Shanna Riley's most recent [excellent] post, when we try to fit genuine human beings into boxes and labels, we lose the plot. Sam Brownback and Nancy Pelosi are putatively both Catholics; John McCain and Barack Obama both say that they are "saved" through Jesus Christ.

The rubber will meet the road November 4. Professions of faith and the labels we put on them don't look to be of much help. It's to the underlying philosophies of the individual persons, their worldviews---weltanshauungen---where we must look, and sussing them out is no small task. We don't even have a handle on George Washington or Ben Franklin, and you'd think that would all be settled by now.

Noble Pagans

As the years go by, I'm sure eventually I'll produce a book or two that relates to the Founding & religion. Right now, I'm 1) too busy, and 2) haven't yet found my novel angle. I won't self publish or write a book that no one will read. If it won't show up at Borders or Barnes & Noble, I doubt I'll write it. I'm thinking of a title like "Noble Pagans: America's Founding Heretics" or just "Noble Pagans." A provocative title that will catch people's eye is a must.

My research has moderately explored America's Founders' strong affinity for noble pagan Greco-Roman antiquity. And this in turn was part of their Whig-Enlightenment worldview. I've noted how Washington's hero was a figure from antiquity named Cato the Younger who committed suicide as a matter of principle rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar. The authors of the Federalist Papers adopted the surname "Publius." And Washington (and some of his soldiers and intimates) were affiliated the Society of Cincinnati named after the pagan figure LUCIUS QUINTIUS CINCINNATUS. This is from their 1783 founding order:

Tuesday, 13th May, 1783

The representatives of the American Army being assembled agreeably to adjournment, the plan for establishing a Society, whereof the officers of the American Army are to be Members, is accepted, and is as follows, viz.:

It having pleased the Supreme Governor of the Universe, in the disposition of human affairs, to cause the separation of the Colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain, and after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them Free, Independent, and Sovereign States, connected by alliances, founded on reciprocal advantages, with some of the greatest princes and powers of the earth.

To perpetuate, therefore, as well the remembrance of this vast event, as the mutual friendships which have been formed, under the pressure of common danger, and in many instances cemented by the blood of the parties, the officers of the American army do hereby in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute and combine themselves into one SOCIETY OF FRIENDS, to endure so long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and in failure thereof, the collateral branches, who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and Members.

The officers of the American army having generally been taken from the citizens of America, possess high veneration for the character of that illustrious Roman, LUCIUS QUINTIUS CINCINNATUS; and being resolved to follow his example, by returning to their citizenship, they think they may with propriety denominate themselves ---

There is actually quite a bit in Washington's writings on the group.

I should note there were, I have found, orthodox Trinitarian Christians who were involved with things such as affinity for Greco-Roman antiquity, the excessive use of reason/natural law in religion, and Freemasonry. My point is these things were 1) at the very least a-biblical, and 2) essential to understanding Founding era ideology. They were as essential as the so called "Judeo-Christian" tradition. So when folks say America's Founding has a "Judeo-Christian" Foundation or the Founding documents represent a "Judeo-Christian" worldview, they peddle, at best, a half truth. America's Founding mixed the Judeo-Christian tradition in an ideological synthesis with a noble pagan, Enlightenment and Whig worldview. Which, if any of those worldviews dominated and whether such an ideological synthesis is truly compatible with historic orthodox Christianity is a matter of debate. But there is no denying the historical reality of dynamic.

Take for instance, George Washington's dithering on the afterlife to ANNIS BOUDINOT STOCKTON, August 31, 1788:

But, with Cicero in speaking respecting his belief of the immortality of the Soul, I will say, if I am in a grateful delusion, it is an innocent one, and I am willing to remain under its influence. Let me only annex one hint to this part of the subject, while you may be in danger of appreciating the qualities of your friend too highly, you will run no hazard in calculating upon his sincerity or in counting implicitly on the reciprocal esteem and friendship which he entertains for yourself.

The felicitations you offer on the present prospect of our public affairs are highly acceptable to me, and I entreat you to receive a reciprocation from my part. I can never trace the concatenation of causes, which led to these events, without acknowledging the mystery and admiring the goodness of Providence. To that superintending Power alone is our retraction from the brink of ruin to be attributed.

Now, if George Washington were a Christian in the sola scriptura, Christ only, orthodox Protestant sense (as some on the Christian America side shockingly assert) why on Earth would he appeal to Cicero as an authority for the immortality of the soul, but instead cite verse and chapter of scripture (which, despite the occasional biblical allusion, he never did)?

Or take Thomas Jefferson's letter to Richard Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, on the ideological sources of the Declaration of Independence and lists them as "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. ..." Jefferson certainly was no orthodox Trinitarian Christian; Washington may have been (I doubt it). But one thing for sure is the "Christianity" of the key Founders, Washington's for instance, was nothing like Francis Schaeffer's, who typifies to many modern evangelicals what Christianity should be about. Even if Washington were an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, his theology downplayed orthodox doctrine and integrated natural law, Aristotelean and pagan elements. Some orthodox Christians think this perfectly fine. Many traditionalist Roman Catholics embrace their Aristotelean roots as their hero Thomas Aquinas did. But not Francis Schaeffer. See him rail against this admixture of Christian and noble pagan elements that was (perhaps unbeknownst to him) key to American Founding thought and the theology of men like George Washington.

Sure there were plenty of "Francis Schaeffers" during the era who supported the American Founding. One thinks of Timothy Dwight (President of Yale) or Jedidiah Morse (one does NOT think of John Witherspoon, President of Princeton, who himself was imbibed in the philosophical rationalism that Schaeffer argues against here). George Washington communicated with them, supported their free exercise of religion and otherwise had no problem with them. However he was not that kind of Christian and it was NOT this kind of Christianity that drove the American Founding.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Franklin: A Jesus-Centered Deist

In light of the recent discussion on the religious creed of Benjamin Franklin, and the recent book reviews by guest blogger Robert Cornwall, I thought I would add my 10 cents to the discussion by creating this post. As Jon Rowe has already mentioned in his previous post, Franklin, for the most part, considered himself to be a "rational Christian." Yet, throughout the course of his life, Franklin was repeatedly labeled as a "heretic," "Deist," "agnostic," etc.

Certainly the impact of Enlightenment philosophy led Franklin down diverse paths in the development of his own personal religions creed. Yet the impact of Enlightenment philosophy only tells part of the story when it comes to Franklin’s religious beliefs. After all, Franklin was raised in a very religious family, where his father, Josiah, – upon immigrating to the British colonies in America – rose to the status of a “watchman” within the Puritan community of Boston, where he enforced the strict rules of morality and piety of the colony. Josiah even planned to have Benjamin enrolled in the Boston Latin School, where he hoped his son would begin his preparations for the Congregationalist ministry (Founding Faith, 53). Benjamin, however, had different plans. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson points out, “Franklin’s ‘skeptical, punkish and irreverent’ behavior made him a terrible fit for the clergy” (Benjamin Franklin, 19). Later during his teenage years – while pretending to be a widowed woman named Silence Dogood – Franklin would expound upon his “rebellious” sentiments towards religion. In Silence Dogood #9, Franklin states:
'Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho' he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations "to propagate publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security": And if his Natural Temper be covetous, and his Actions often contradict his pious Discourse, we may with great Reason conclude, that he has some other Design in his Religion besides barely getting to Heaven. But the most dangerous Hypocrite in a Common-Wealth, is one who <>A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceiv'd, and the People of being deceiv'd by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance. And it is a sad Observation, that when the People too late see their Error, yet the Clergy still persist in their Encomiums on the Hypocrite; and when he happens to die for the Good of his Country, without leaving behind him the Memory of one good Action, he shall be sure to have his Funeral Sermon stuff'd with Pious Expressions which he dropt at such a Time, and at such a Place, and on such an Occasion; than which nothing can be more prejudicial to the Interest of Religion, nor indeed to the Memory of the Person deceas'd. The Reason of this Blindness in the Clergy is, because they are honourably supported (as they ought to be) by their People, and see nor feel nothing of the Oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.
Upon revealing the true identity of Silence Dogood, Franklin was quickly branded a dangerous and rebellious heretic. Those within Boston’s religious community – including Franklin’s friend, Cotton Mather – distanced themselves from the young man who dared to question the religious status quo. As Franklin put it, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist” (Franklin, Autobiography, 71).
After moving away from Boston and establishing himself as a successful printer in Philadelphia, Franklin continued his attack on pious religious leaders, who used their faith to control their flock. As Franklin states in one edition of his popular series, Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful…Nor is duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.” In another edition Franklin wrote, "Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought easier service and therefore is more generally chosen."

With such an early assortment of controversial statements on religion, it is understandable why some people have considered Franklin to be an agnostic or even possibly an atheist. Such a conclusion, however, obscures much of Franklin’s passionate belief in virtue and divinity. For example, though Franklin questioned the authority of the pious ministers of his day, he never doubted the importance of living a virtuous life. Instead of devoting himself to a particular brand of orthodoxy, Franklin chose to invoke the “laws of nature” – a typical Deist principle of his day – which became the backbone of his views on divinity. Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues are a perfect example of how Franklin merged Christian principles with his Deistic philosophy:
1. Temperance. Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ'd in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extreams. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Cloaths or Habitation.
11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
In addition to this personal code of conduct, Franklin sought to “amend” a number of Christian creeds and beliefs. His version of the Lord’s Prayer is an excellent example of how Franklin stripped the miracles of Christianity from his personal liturgy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of Franklin’s personal beliefs comes from his infamous letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790. In the letter, Franklin states:

You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble [my emphasis].
Franklin's Deistic leanings are augmented when we consider the fact that he not only questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ – as evidenced by the Ezra Stiles letter – but that he also questioned the infallibility of the Bible. The fact that he also rejected the ordinances of communion and confirmation, combined with his lack of regular church attendance serve as ample evidence that Franklin was far from an orthodox Christian. Franklin’s own admission that he was “a thorough Deist” virtually ends the dispute over his religious leanings (Franklin, Autobiography, 114).

Such an admission, however, does not suggest that Franklin was a pure Deist. After all, Franklin did believe that God regularly intervened in the affairs of mankind (Holmes, Founding Faith, 55). Franklin also maintained an appreciation for the teachings of Christianity, though he detested how it was being practiced:

I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen. I mean real good works; works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not holiday-keeping, sermon-reading or hearing; performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers...[Jesus] preferred the doers of the word, to the mere hearers...Serving God is doing good to man...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" (Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 20-21).
So where should we classify Franklin? From the evidence noted, it is clear that he does not fall anywhere near orthodox Christianity, yet he also falls short of embracing pure Deism. Clearly Franklin is closer to Deism than he is Christianity, so it would be fair to categorize his religious beliefs as being those of a "liberal Deist," or as I choose to define him, a "Jesus-centered Deist."

Richard Brookhiser on the Founders and Religion

Here is a short clip of historian Richard Brookhiser on the religion of the founders. Brookhiser argues that the founders never intended to set up a Christian nation, but they did intend for the United States to be a religious nation:

I believe that Brookhiser's assertion that America was intended to be a religious nation fits nicely with Franklin's idea of a public religion, and Jefferson's notion of natural religion. For all of their arguments against religion in government -- and there are many -- you would be hard-pressed to find many arguments against America being a religious nation.

Dialog on Washington's Religion Continues

At American Creation Brian Tubbs left an apt comment on my long post that tried to put Washington's religious beliefs into perspective.

Good post, Jon. But, you've only cast some doubts here and raised some questions. You have not shown that GW rejected the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

I think all we've established here is that there's an element of mystery to GW's Christian doctrine. This much, I readily grant.

And Tom Van Dyke left the next comment about "burdens":

Well, Brian, I must admit I don't see much "Christian" in GW's doctrine either. Claiming him for Christianity by default---by what he didn't say, which seems to be Liliback's argument---doesn't rock for me. Burden of proof must be shared, and made by affirmative argument.

In fact, the most explicitly theological thing from Washington I've seen is Masonic, and I've seen nothing comparably "Christian":

"At the same time, I request you will be assured of my best wishes and earnest prayers for your happiness while you remain in this terrestrial mansion and that we may hereafter meet as brethren in the eternal Temple of the Supreme Architect."---from a 1792 letter

Indeed I agree both sides should equally share the burden. And I've searched for smoking guns in Washington's 20,000 pages of known recorded writings and speeches and on the doctrines of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, there are none. You can try the search engine there and see for yourself. There's lots of evidence on Washington's belief in Providence and his support for religion in general, how it fosters virtue necessary for republican government. And there's evidence of his positive feelings on Christianity, but no smoking guns on his belief in doctrines like the Trinity, Atonement or infallibility of the Bible. He simply never discusses these things. And when one peers into the void of abstract God words like "Providence" that's when folks on various sides "read in" their desires, not what Washington specifically said.

In Peter Lillback's case, he reads in belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. If you watch the following video of him discussing Washington's creed, he too discusses "burdens" and acts as though the fact that Washington regularly worshipped in the Trinitarian Anglican/Episcopal Church is something that skeptical scholars would have a hard time answering.

Not only is this claim easily answered, but it's answered with a factual dynamic that probably disturbs Lillback, such that he and likeminded folks desire to explain it away (he certainly didn't adequately deal with it in the 1200 pages of "George Washington's Sacred Fire"): Key Founders commonly worshipped in Trinitarian Churches while privately disbelieving in orthodox doctrines. This certainly applies to Jefferson, Franklin, Marshall, and probably James Madison whom George Ticknor founder of the Boston Public library testified "pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines." In John Adams' case his Congregational Church -- a Church with Trinitarian origins -- had ministers that preached these unitarian doctrines as of 1750! Indeed in many ways, unitarianism was spearheaded by ministers coming out of Trinitarian Churches (like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, who preached Unitarianism in the English Presbyterian Churches, and more New England Congregational ministers that I can name in a short space) who rejected the official Trinitarian doctrines of their churches.

Lillback in his book does attempt at a smoking gun to prove Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism: Oaths that he took while becoming a Godfather and a Vestryman in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. As the argument goes, if Washington not only worshipped in a Trinitarian Church but took oaths to Trinitarianism while privately disbelieving in those doctrines, he was a dishonorable hypocrite. [I guess in the same sense that folks who get divorced are dishonorable hypocrites because they -- the ones who got married the Church -- pledged in a covenant before God "till death do us part."]

Lillback et al. paint themselves into a corner by invoking such an argument. And that's because if we take those oaths too seriously, we might be forced to conclude that he was such an oath breaker. Washington never took oaths to low church latitudinarian orthodox Trinitarian Anglicanism (because those oaths didn't exist), what Lillback argues Washington believed in. Rather those oaths were high church Anglican oaths that not only commanded believers to engage in the Lord's Supper (which Washington systematically refused to do) but pledge loyalty to the King of England! You can read more on them here.

And indeed, many American Anglican colonists remained Tory loyalists precisely because they took similar oaths and believed they had a Christian duty to remain loyal to the King of England. Taking these oaths too literally forces one to conclude that Washington violated his oaths by not just engaging in but leading a rebellion against said King to whom he pledged, before God, his loyalty.

Further on the matter of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion, Lillback, engaging in pure speculation, constructs an argument that it had something to do with Washington's political disagreement with Dr. James Abercrombie and the other high church Tory Episcopalians. Well indeed, if you worship in the Anglican Church, a church whose theology pledged itself to loyalty to England, you are bound to hear a lot of Tory sentiments. The fact that Whigs could remain formal members of a Church whose official theology posited Tory loyalty to England raises the same issues of hypocrisy that unitarians worshipping in Trinitarian churches does. Why didn't the Whigs like George Washington just leave the Church of England? There were no Unitarian Churches for them to join, but plenty of Baptists or Presbyterian ones. That's because, as with Roman Catholics like Joe Biden, it's a very common thing in the present and the past to be attached to a Church in sentiment and tradition but not believe in all of the Church's official theological stances, be it on loyalty to England, abortion, birth control, or the Trinity.

And I would note, though Washington never told us why he systematically avoided communion the most common sense answer is he disbelieved in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement. That's far more common sensical than political problems he may have had with Tory preachers or Tory doctrine in the Church. The Lord's Supper does NOT represent communing with your fellow believers; it represents Christ's Atonement. Sitting in a church and worshipping with other people represents communion with them. And that's something Washington was willing to do with Tories.

Why is this important? The only evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism is indissolubly tied to his membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. If one weakens the case for Washington's belief in official Anglican/Episcopal doctrines (like pledging loyalty to Great Britain) then out of logical necessity one simultaneously weakens the case for positive evidence of Washington's belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

I would concede that showing Washington was only formally connected to the Anglican/Episcopal Church and didn't necessarily buy all that it stood for is not negative evidence against his orthodox Christianity. He really could have been a "Christ only" orthodox Trinitarian Protestant who disregarded the high church doctrines that were superfluous to Christianity anyway. But there is absolutely no positive evidence for this. The only positive evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism comes through official Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. And as we've seen, that evidence rests on shaky grounds.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Faiths of the Founding Fathers/Founding Faith Book Comparison

From Special Guest Blogger, Robert Cornwall

I am pleased to present to our blog readers the following book reviews by Pastor Robert Cornwall. Mr. Cornwall is Pastor of the Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI. Pastor Cornwall holds a Ph.D. in history and regularly blogs about the role of religion in American society. Here is a link to his personal blog, which we invite you all to visit.

We are delighted that Pastor Cornwall has taken the time to contribute the following material to American Creation. Pastor Cornwall's insight into the theme of this blog is greatly appreciated. So, without further delay, here are Pastor Robert Cornwall's book reviews on Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David Holmes, and Founding Faith by Steven Waldman:


David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 225 pages.

There is great debate about the piety of the nation’s founders. There are those who claim that ours is a Christian nation and that the founders – with perhaps the exception of Thomas Jefferson -- were pious Christians. On the other side of the coin there are those who insist that the nation was as pluralist as today and that the Founders were to the man (yes they were men) non-Christian Deists. In large part this debate has political implications, for it is a debate about how great a separation there is between church and state.

Historian David L. Holmes, himself an Episcopalian, takes on the task of faithfully laying out the views and practices of the Founding Generation of Americans. He begins with a survey of the state of religion in America circa 1770. We learn that New England is Congregationalist, the Middle Colonies more mixed, and the South having originally a more Episcopal establishment. The educational establishments were by and large religious, from the Congregationalist Harvard and Yale to the Episcopal William and Mary and King’s College (Columbia), from Presbyterian Princeton to Baptist oriented Brown. It is in these institutions that most of the Founding Fathers were educated, but as we read we discover that there were other influences, influences of the Enlightenment such as Free Masonry that also proved influential.

The center-piece of the book is a series of chapters that explore the religious beliefs and practices of Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents. All six of these figures valued religion, but were by any measure Deists. The stories of Washington’s piety were created whole-cloth following his death. What is interesting is that Monroe was the least religious of the early Presidents. He was by affiliation Episcopalian, but his writings and speeches say little religion. The wives, on the other hand, were for the most part much more pious than their husbands. The one major exception was Abigail Adams who shared her husband’s strong Unitarianism. But Martha Washington and other wives and first daughters tended toward orthodoxy – a reality explained in part by education, social circles, expectations, and the fact that there was no woman’s version of the Deist infused Freemasonry to be had.

That these leading figures were not orthodox does not mean that none of the Founding Generation was Orthodox. Indeed there were a number of leading patriots who were extremely orthodox, ranging from Patrick Henry to Samuel Adams. Holmes devotes one chapter to the lives and practices of three orthodox founders, Adams, Elias Boudinot, and John Jay. Jay was especially conservative theologically, but this did not keep them from embracing the revolutionary spirit. Indeed, Samuel Adams was considered the “Father of the American Revolution.”

With these contrasting stories, the question is: How do we discern who is orthodox and who is not? In what is, I believe, the most important contribution of the book, Holmes offers four tests to distinguish a Deist from an Orthodox Christian. Holmes divides the Founders into three categories – non-Christian Deist, Christian Deist, and Orthodox Christian, and by considering these four tests we are better able to place the Founders in their proper category.

The four “tests” are as follows:

1. Examine the actions of the founders in the area of religion. Do they belong to a church? Attend church? Serve on governing boards? By itself this criteria offers little help, for Jefferson and other Deistic founders held roles of importance in their churches. But, the more active, the more likely one was to be orthodox.

2. Reception of “ordinances” or sacraments. While baptism is not a good marker – they likely did not have a choice in the matter (infant baptism being the predominant mode) and the baptism of children could have been done at the behest of wives, but other ordinances such as confirmation (which was available among Episcopalians in the colonies after the appointment of the first bishops in the 1780s), and reception of the Lord’s Supper were more telling. Deists tended to shy away from both sacraments, believing them expressions of superstition. Many Deists, such as Jefferson and Washington, would either avoid Eucharistic Sundays or leave prior to the celebration of the sacrament.

3. Dimension of Inactivity versus Activity. Few thorough-going Deists took an active role in Christian rituals, and Deistic Christians were less observant and active than orthodox ones. In other words, Deistic Christians would participate in more passive forms of Christian life such as listening to sermons, but tended to avoid active expressions such as being confirmed or receiving communion. It is noticeable that Jefferson left out the Last Supper from his retelling of the Gospels.

4. The Use of Religious Language. The way God was referred to and the use of distinctly Christian language can be gauged from the writings and speeches of the Founders. Some like Monroe hardly even mention God or religion. It is almost totally absent from his public expressions. Words like Providence, Creator, and Nature’s God were used by non-Christian Deists like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen (though Allen was even more radical than Paine). Deistic Christians would make use of the same terms, but they tended to add modifiers such as “Merciful Providence” or “Divine Goodness,” and they were more likely to speak of Jesus – even if not in orthodox Christian ways. Positive references to the Trinity and use of terms such as savior and redeemer would be found only among the orthodox.

With these guidelines, we can discern that a Thomas Paine or an Ethan Allen was a non-Christian Deist (though Allen may have been an atheist). Franklin, Washington, and the other presidents considered, were Christian Deists. Among the orthodox were Henry, Adams, Martha Washington, and Jay. The lesson is that while Protestant Christianity was dominant, a goodly number of the Founding Generation – at least among the men – were not Orthodox partisans.

What we can say, Holmes insists, is that the Founding Generation as a rule did believe in divine providence and life after death, putting them in a different place from the more radical forms of Deism. But, they were by and large Deists of some form, and as Holmes writes, it would have been more surprising if they had become “evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Scandinavian Lutherans, or Orthodox Jews” (164). Deism was the dominant philosophical perspective among educated males of the day.

What is true of the Founders is not true today. From Gerald Ford to the present, a period surveyed in the “Epilogue” of the book, the Presidents have made their religious professions quite public. Indeed, many have courted the religious vote. That the current election cycle is so filled with religious rhetoric would have surprised the Founders, but it seems to be expected today – in spite of our supposed secularism. The religious beliefs and practices of each President beginning with Ford, is explored in this final chapter, That they might use religion for political ends is acknowledged, but for most the professions have been sincere.

With the religious rhetoric growing louder and more divisive, this relatively brief and very readable book is just the tonic we need to attend to. Note well that the title of this book is not “The Faith of the Founding Fathers,” but the “Faiths of the Founding Fathers.” There is not one faith perspective or style that covers them all – and in a time of religious turmoil that pluralism needs to be recognized. This tonic will then, if properly digested, offer an important perspective not just on the past, but on the present situation as well. This is then, a must read book for the upcoming election cycle.


FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. By Steven Waldman. New York: Random House, 2008. xvi + 277 pages.

It is no secret that Americans are a religious people. More than any other developed nation, we not only believe in God, but we regularly go to church, synagogue, mosque, and temple. We do this without any social inducement or government coercion. This is true, because at the core of American life is the belief that we should be free to believe and practice our faith as we choose. That belief has enabled the faithful to remain steadfast in their beliefs and practices, even as much of the rest of the Western world has become increasingly secularized.

The secret to this American success can be traced back to the nation’s founding, to a time when a group of British colonies, most of which had established churches, threw off their rulers, established a new nation, and came to the conclusion that the religious pluralism already present in this new nation (even if it remained predominantly Protestant) would undermine the nation’s unity if the government did not grant some kind of religious freedom. There was not, of course unanimity as to how this would be accomplished – the fact that state establishments continued into the 1830s shows this to be true. In the end, however, the work of the Founders, especially in laying out the Constitution, laid the foundation for the religious freedom Americans enjoy today.

In recent years the discussion of America’s religious identity has become at times heated and has spurred the publication of numerous books and articles, some scholarly and others that are more general and popular. Some of these contributions leave much to be desired, but in the mix have been a number of helpful and well-written tomes, including ones written by Randy Balmer, Mark Toulouse, Jon Meacham, and David Holmes. The most helpful works have explored the historical connections that link today to the Founders. They have helped us understand where we started and the road we took to get to where we are today.

Among the most recent offerings is Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith (2008). Like Jon Meacham, Waldman is a journalist. Before becoming the founder of he served as editor at U.S. News and World Report. There are numerous similarities between the Waldman and the Meacham books, in part I think because both write as journalists who understand how to communicate their message in bold and concise fashion. At the same time neither is a professional historian, so both rely on the judgments of leading historians. That reliance is reassuring – it helps us understand that they aren’t making this stuff up. There’s another similarity between the Meacham book and Waldman’s; they both take a middle path between Christian nation partisans and secularists. What sets them apart is Waldman’s focus on the founding generation.

At the heart of this book is the question: what did the Founders believe and how does that belief affect what we do now. To put it another way, “What Would the Founding Fathers Do?” (WWFFD) – Waldman uses this exact acronym (p. 197). To best gauge this impact, Waldman focuses on five figures – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Other figures, including Patrick Henry appear, but Waldman believes (rightly so) that these figures proved most influential in the end. They didn’t all agree on every point, but all of them, at least in the end, realized that America’s success as a nation required not just toleration, but inclusion of multiple voices. Protestantism might be dominant, but it didn’t tell the whole story. They could have institutionalized this Protestant dominance, but they chose to go another direction. And when it comes to religion, these Founders were both deeply spiritual and committed to a simple creed that focused on ethics not doctrine.

“Each journey was distinctive, but they ended up in similar places, still deeply spiritual but with an ever shortening list of required religious creeds. The older they got, the simpler their faith became” (p. 182).

What ultimately drives Waldman’s book is his concern about the continuation of religious liberty in America. That is a liberty to both practice and believe (or not) as one pleases. In arguing for a robust freedom of religion, Waldman believes that the Founders not only got it right, but that we need to listen to and understand their rationale for liberty so as to protect religious liberty today. In analyzing their contributions, he concludes that Founders were neither card-carrying orthodox evangelicals, as some would have us believe, nor were they necessarily wild eyed secularists, as others will argue. There were evangelicals in the mix, but some of them – like John Leland and Isaac Backus – were among the strongest proponents of separation of church and state. As for the five Founders under investigation, they weren’t orthodox, but the wouldn’t qualify as true Deists (Jefferson included), if we take the classic definition of Deism into account. All five would likely have affirmed a Unitarian version of Christianity, but they all believed in divine providence, affirming the direct involvement of God in human history. Indeed, they believed that God was active in America’s rise to nationhood. Therefore, they were likely closer in their theology to John Locke than to David Hume.

This attempt at taking the middle road may not sit well with all observers, but it would seem to be the most accurate accounting. His point is clear – if we’re going to use the Founder, let’s use them appropriately. They are not, as he says, “historical conversation stoppers” (p. 196).
To understand the decisions of the Revolutionary Era, one must understand the Colonial Era that gave rise to it. This was, as Waldman lays out for us, a period of state establishment – with Congregationalism in New England and Anglicanism in the Southern Colonies. Maryland may have started out as a safe haven for Roman Catholics, but in time it became an Anglican colony and Catholics became a persecuted minority. Baptists suffered under colonial rule, but even their disabilities paled in contrast to the Quakers, many of whom were executed for their faith. Founders such as Madison saw this happening around them and decided it could not continue. With this in mind, Waldman believes that the American Revolution was in many ways a religious war. In part it was driven by fears of Anglican establishment – including provision of bishops who might undermine the religious distinctives of the colonies. There was also concern about an ascendant Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. Fear of an imposed religious settlement drove the push for liberty. As described by Waldman, the picture of an established Christianity isn’t pretty and should stand as a warning of what could happen if America ever did become an officially Christian nation.

The Revolution itself had religious overtones, with patriot clergy rallying their congregations to the cause and political pamphleteers, including Thomas Paine, using religious language to defend and describe the revolutionary effort. This was in the minds of many God’s war, and thus it was a righteous cause. But even as they sought to wrap their cause in religious language, leaders such as George Washington discovered that success in this effort required not just toleration but bridging of differences. If they were to work together then they had to see each other as equals. Thus, even as they fought for their own freedoms, the soldiers discovered that they were fighting for the freedoms of others with whom they differed religiously.

The most important contribution is Waldman’s exploration of the religious identities and of Benjamin Franklin and the first four presidents. While none of these five would be welcomed into the modern evangelical fold, they each affirmed a supreme being/God who ruled over all and believed that religion played an essential role in the life of the nation. By their own definition each was a Christian – though they’re definition of Christianity would be different from some coreligionist. Theirs was a simple creed focused on ethics and behavior rather than on doctrine or institutions. They were not classic Deists, but instead viewed God as intimately involved in human and American history. Where they differed with “orthodox” Christians was in their Christology.

In many ways the hero of this book is James Madison. It is Madison, of course, who is the primary author of the U.S. Constitution, a document that is conspicuous by the absence of God from its pages. Article Six of the Constitution specifically forbids religious tests, and while Madison did not believe a Bill of Rights was necessary he made sure that there was an amendment that ensured religious freedom. Madison shared many beliefs with Jefferson, but according to Waldman Madison was just as concerned, if not more so, with the corrupting effects of state support on religion itself. Jefferson was more concerned about the possible evils of religious influences on government. Getting these provisions in the Constitution was not easy, for there were those, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams that wanted to see a stronger church-state relationship. But even as he fought tax assessments for churches in Virginia and argued vociferously for keeping religion and the state as separate as possible. While Jefferson was greatly concerned about the corrosive effects that a religious establishment might have on government, Madison was equally concerned about the unhealthy effects government support might have on religion. He truly believed that religion would flourish only if government got out of the way. History has proved him prescient.

The ultimate effect of the Founders vision took time to spread throughout American society. Madison didn’t believe a Bill of Rights was necessary, believing that the Constitution had provided sufficient protection of civil rights – including those of religious people – but he lost that debate. However, once it became clear that such a bill of rights would emerge he made sure that religious liberty was protected. Unfortunately, he was not able to get these protections extended beyond the Federal level. Compromises required the language to be muted and the effects narrowed. Therefore, it was not until the 14th Amendment was passed that these important rights were extended below the Federal level. Thus, when we talk about the interpretation of the Constitution we must recognize that a strict constructionist view that does not take into consideration the 14th Amendment will restrict, not expand, civil and religious liberties. Waldman writes:

“As interpreted by twentieth-century court rulings, the Fourteenth Amendment applied the principles of the First Amendment to the states eighty years after Madison had tried unsuccessfully to do the same” (p. 188).

In writing this book Waldman has attempted to disprove the assertion that to be an advocate of separation one is therefore anti-God or anti-religion. By highlighting the efforts of Madison and his evangelical supporters such as Leland and Backus, he has demonstrated otherwise. Whether or not the book will end the debate is uncertain, but surely he has helped clarify the issues. If you are at all concerned about religious liberty then this is a must read, and the foundation of important conversations within this country.

Ben Franklin's Creed

Ben Franklin is one key Founder most likely conceded as "Deist." And indeed once in his biography he noted he identified as such. However, from the research I have uncovered, more often throughout his adult life, he thought of himself as a "Christian" -- a "rational Christian." Like Jefferson, Washington and the other key Founders, he attended Trinitarian Churches and sought communion (not in the Lord's Supper sense of the term!) with them. Though the "rational Christians" politely hoped the Trinitarians with whom they worshipped would eventually come to reject such "irrational" doctrines as original sin, the Trinity, and the infallibility of the Bible. It was the Trinitarians, especially the Calvinists, who thought such "rational Christianity" to be not Christianity at all but heresy or infidelity. Indeed, they would actively disfellow themselves from the "rational Christians" and lump them in with strict Deists like Thomas Paine. Hence the need for the key Founders to tread cautiously while dealing with the orthodox Trinitarians, speak in abstract lowest common denominator terms with them (like "Providence") and only reveal their secrets to "safe" friends, else have their public reputation damaged. And whether what the key Founders believed (a "rational Christianity" that rejected most of the fundamentals of orthodoxy) qualifies as "Christianity" is debatable.

I stress John Adams so much because his political views were so mainstream, indeed conservative for the Founding era. There is a tendency on the Christian America side to identify Franklin and Jefferson as Deists, and cast them off as outliers. But given the evidence unequivocally demonstrates J. Adams was virtually agreed with Jefferson and Franklin on their basic creed, that such a mainstream figure as J. Adams could believe in the same creed as Jefferson and Franklin demonstrates just how mainstream this creed was among the Founders. That indeed, Washington, Madison, Hamilton and many others could just as easily "fit" into Franklin's and Jefferson's religious shoes just as John Adams did.

That's the nuanced dynamic I've discovered after years of meticulously researching this issue.

But onto my contention that Franklin was not a strict Deist, but more likely thought of himself as a "rational Christian." The one time he identified as a Deist in his biography, Franklin embraced the term in a lukewarm manner:

But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns several points as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of the Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of the sermons which had been preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them. For the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to be much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist....I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful.

When a young man, during his defense of a young Presbyterian preacher named Samuel Hemphill accused of "heterodoxy," Franklin presented his religious creed under the auspices of "Christianity." And by the way, the heterodoxy that Hemphill preached in the American Presbyterian Church -- what the orthodox Calvinists wanted to defrock him for -- was exactly the type of "rational Christianity" that the key Founders would later embrace.

Here, in his defense of Hemphill, Franklin argues true Christianity rejects original sin.

But lest they shou’d imagine that one of their strongest Objections hinted at here, and elsewhere, is designedly overlook’d, as being unanswerable, viz. our lost and undone State by Nature, as it is commonly call’d, proceeding undoubtedly from the Imputation of old Father Adam’s first Guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this Opinion every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness. ’Tis a Notion invented, a Bugbear set up by Priests (whether Popish or Presbyterian I know not) to fright and scare an unthinking Populace out of their Senses, and inspire them with Terror, to answer the little selfish Ends of the Inventors and Propagators. ’Tis absurd in it self, and therefore cannot be father’d upon the Christian Religion as deliver’d in the Gospel. Moral Guilt is so personal a Thing, that it cannot possibly in the Nature of Things be transferr’d from one Man to Myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a Man liable to Punishment upon account of the Guilt of another, is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.

Here Franklin argues against the notion that men are justified through faith alone. He argues true Christianity elevates works over faith:

Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. 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.

Note how Franklin presents this as authentic Christianity and even refers to Jesus as a "Savior," but does so in the context of arguing for outright heresy. If Franklin were a Deist, why would he care about presenting his arguments as "Christian"? Further, Franklin's notion that "if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" has the effect of reducing Christianity to mere morality and all good people, even professed non-Christians, to be "Christians." As John Adams put it: “I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

– John Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.

Or as George Washington put it:

To the distinguished Character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to add the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal Instances of providential Goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labours with complete Success, demand from us in a peculiar manner the warmest returns of Gratitude and Piety to the Supreme Author of all Good.

– George Washington, General Orders, Saturday, May 2, 1778

We should also understand why Franklin wouldn't fear Muslims preaching Islamic doctrines in Christian Churches. If they were good people, professed Muslims could qualify as "Christians." As Franklin put it in his autobiography:

Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.

In his defense of Hemphill, Franklin also notes that true Christianity views the Bible as secondary to the law of nature discovered by reason. That is, revelation's purpose is to support and complement reason, not the other way around:

Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures: That the Laws of our Nature, I say, oblige us to these things....

What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it’s natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.

Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov’d from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill’s asserting,

Article I.
That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.

Elevating the law of nature discovered by reason over revelation opened the door for Franklin and the other key Founders to view the Bible as fallible or partially inspired. As Franklin put it in his August 21, 1784 letter to John Calder:

To which I may now add, that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.

In that same letter Franklin demonstrates his affinity for Unitarianism: "By the way how goes on the Unitarian Church in Essex Street? and the honest Minister of it, is he comfortably supported?"

Indeed "rational Christianity" was "unitarian" not "Trinitarian." In his Sep. 28, 1772 letter to the unitarian Richard Price, Franklin expresses his interest in "rational Christianity":

Sir John has ask'd me if I knew where he could go to hear a preacher of rational Christianity. I told him I knew several of them, but did not know where their churches were in town; out of town, I mention' d yours at Newington, and offer 'd to go with him. He agreed to it, but said we should first let you know our intention. I suppose, if nothing in his profession prevents, we may come, if you please, next Sunday ; but if you sometimes preach in town, that will be most convenient to him, and I request you would by a line let me know when and where. If there are dissenting preachers of that sort at this end of the town, I wish you would recommend one to me, naming the place of his meeting. And if you please, give me a list of several, in different parts of the town, perhaps he may incline to take a round among them.

And much of what I've just outlined above is summarized in Franklin's 1790 letter to Ezra Stiles where he notes, like the "dissenters" (i.e., "rational Christians") in England he "doubts" Jesus divinity. Though he notes "Jesus of Nazareth" (not "Jesus Christ") as the world's great moral teacher. And when he lists the essentials of true religion, it's generic Providentialism with the tenets of orthodox Christianity conspicuously missing:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

J. Adams and Jefferson certainly and I conclude Washington, Madison, G. Morris and many other key Founders likewise could agree with that above creed. The question as to whether this system that presented itself under the auspices of "rational Christianity" actually qualifies as Christianity remains.

Another Perspective of an American First

A Comparison between Washington's First and Second Inaugural Ceremonies by Ray Soller

On April 30, 1789, the day of this nation's first inaugural ceremony, President George Washington was sworn into office and presented his inaugural speech. Then, according to fellow blogger, Tom Van Dyke, "The whole bunch, president and congress, packed over to St. Paul's Chapel immediately for a prayer service." That, of course is not entirely true. There was at least one Senator who didn't parade over to the chapel singing "koom-bye-yah." He was Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay. Fortunately what Maclay did do was keep a journal, where he recorded his concerns during the legislative process that led up the parade into Saint Paul's Church.

Here's the pertinent part of his journal entry for Monday, April 27th, 1789, the day on which the Senate took up the matter of scheduling a church service as part of the inauguration:
Tried my knee and walked a good deal. Attended the Hall. We had prayers this day by the [recently appointed] chaplain, Dr. [Samuel] Provost. A new arrangement was reported from the Joint Committee of Ceremonies. This is an endless business. [Virginia Senator Richard Henry] Lee [of the JCC] offered a motion to the Chair that after the President was sworn (which now is to be in the gallery opposite the Senate chamber), the Congress should accompany him to Saint Paul's Church and attend divine service. This had been agitated in Joint Committee. But Lee said expressly that they would not agree to it. I opposed it as an improper business after it had been in the hands of the Joint Committee and rejected, as I thought this a certain method of creating a dissension between the Houses.[South Carolina Senator Ralph] Izard [of the JCC] got up in great wrath and stuttered that the fact was not so. He, however, would say nothing more. I made an effort to rise. The Vice-President [John Adams] hurried the question, and it was put and carried by the churchman [Senator Lee]. [Maryland's Catholic Senator] Mr. [Charles] Carrol[l], though he had been the first to speak against it, yet was silent on this vote. This proves him not [the rank and] file man of firmness which I once thought him.

Two days later on April 29, 1789, the same day the House approved the measure to attend the service at Saint Paul's Church, Maclay added the following:
I have observed ever since we began to do business that a Jehu-like spirit has prevailed with a number of gentlemen, and with none more than with the member [Richard Henry Lee] from the Ancient Dominion [Virginia], who is said to be a notorious anti-Federalist (a most expensive and enormous machine of a Federal Judiciary, pompous titles, strong efforts after religious distinctions, coercive laws for taking the oaths, etc.). I have uniformly opposed, as far as I was able, everything of this kind, and I believe have sacrificed every chance of being popular and every grain of influence in file Senate by so doing. But be it so.' I have the testimony of my own conscience that I am right. High-handed measures are at no time justifiable, but now they are highly impolitic. Never will I consent to straining the Constitution, nor never will I consent to the exercise of a doubtful power. We come here the servants, not the lords, of our constituents. The new Government, instead of being a powerful machine whose authority would support any measure, needs helps and props on all sides, and must be supported by the ablest names and the most shining characters which we can select. The President's amiable deportment, however, smooths and sweetens everything. Charles Thomson [the congressional envoy sent to Washington with word of his election] has, however, been ill used by the Committee of Arrangements of the ceremonial. This is wrong. His name has been left out of the arrangements for tomorrow.

On the day of the Inauguration, after an unflattering description of Washington's inaugural speech, Maclay reported:
From the hall there was a grand procession to Saint Paul's Church, where prayers were said by the Bishop. The procession was well conducted and without accident, as far as I have heard. The militia were all under arms, lined the street near the church, made a good figure, and behaved well.

Four years later, on March 4, 1789, Washington's inauguration in Philadelphia was a much simpler affair. In contrast to the first inauguration, there were no elaborate preparations, no parades, no swearing on or kissing the Bible, no church services, and not a single reported reference to the Almighty. Washington merely informed Congresss as to when he would appear to take the oath. William Maclay's two-year term as a senator had expired, so it is unlikely that he had been able to advise the President, but we can find have clues regarding the deliberations that went into the inaugural planning if we turn to a June 6, 1824 Jefferson letter addressed to Martin Van Buren. (See The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Augustine Washington, especially pages 367-8). In part, Jefferson recalled:
"We met at my office. Hamilton and myself agreed at once that there was too much ceremony for the character of our government, and particularly, that the parade of the installation at New York ought not to be copied on the present occasion, that the President should [in addition: dah - dah - dah] . [Attorney General Edmund] Randolph and [Secretary of War Henry] Knox differed from us, the latter vehemently; they thought it not advisable to change any of the established forms, and we authorized Randolph to report our opinions to the President. As these opinions were divided, and no positive advice given as to any change, no change was made."

Jefferson's self-serving statement that "[n]o change was made" is obviously incorrect. His first inaugural ceremony followed the simplistic example set by Washington's second inauguration, except for one noticeable difference. Jefferson walked to the Senate chamber while Washington preferred his plush carriage pulled by four of his well-groomed horses. (Oh yes, another difference - there were, much like as at Washington's first inauguration, several punctuated volleys of celebratory cannon fire.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Value of Debate

The recent post by Tom Van Dyke, One of the First Things America Did, and the book I'm currently reading, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes, have given me some fresh perspectives on the perpetual arguments waging over religious freedom in this country.

While all of us have our solid arguments for or against the many aspects of the old debate, it is often refreshing, and even necessary, to take a step back and respect just what we are arguing for – and to appreciate the ability to do so. A new outlook on an old stance does everyone some good, and an appreciation for the opponent's argument is something to always be mindful of. For as Aristotle once wrote, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

The truth is none of the great men that founded this country can be pigeon-holed into a one-way street of beliefs and ideals. Likely they were as complex as the rest of us and even their own views would have changed throughout their lifetimes. All that we can hope to do is make our very best assumption about what they would have to say about today's current dissertation, and make our best guess as to what they meant when they originally penned their thoughts centuries ago.

Obviously this all leaves a great deal of wiggle room; hence blogs such as this one where the debate rages on. It's a topic, I believe, that will be discussed and danced around until the end of times.

Yet I'd like to think that our founding fathers would have welcomed such discourse – such open-ended and free-willed discussions on what they meant and how they meant it, with everyone chiming in and sharing their own thoughts and opinions.

In fact, it is just such deliberations that took place for weeks on end in 1787 at the First Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and that – in the end – created our great Constitution.

Even then it had its opponents. Patrick Henry was opposed to the Constitution before he even finished reading it and became a vocal antagonist against its ratification. He and the Anti-Federalists work is what led to the passing of what is now our Bill of Rights.

You see, opposing viewpoints are more a necessary evil than any real roadblock in public discourse. They are the meat and bones of what constitutes the very heart of the American ideal – free will and, most importantly, freedom of speech. Not a one of us may agree on exactly what our forefathers meant in relation to religion and its place (if any) in government and politics; yet each of us has the ability, nay the freedom, to speak out and publicly share our views on the topic. That is the beauty of being an American; a vision that our founding fathers all shared – regardless of their opposing viewpoints on how to get there.

We may never all fully agree on the separation of church and state issue or government's role (again, if any) in religious matters. Yet, I don't believe that all of our founding fathers ever even agreed wholeheartedly on the same issue. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a legendary friendly rivalry that often included long discourses on religion and its place in government via the letters they wrote to one another in their later lives.

While our differences in agreement may seem trivial and even irritating at times, it is important to remember that these arguments – and our ability to publicly indulge in them – are part of the rights we, as American citizens, have and should be proud of. We should recognize that even the great men whose minds we try to dissect years after their deaths, too, had some of the same arguments and take heed of the fact that some of those arguments resulted in the great works of our government – The Constitution of the United States, The Bill of Rights, and so on. We will not always agree, but that is not always a bad thing. We can either agree to disagree, or we can work with our opponents in creating a bigger, better, and greater shared ideal. That is one idea, I believe, that all of our founding fathers did agree upon.

Religion and the Public Square

The following video is a public forum on the impact of religion in the public square. The forum includes notable writers and journalists such as Jon Meacham, Alan Wolfe and Reza Aslan. It is a fascinating dialogue on how religion has shaped American history and culture since our very conception. My purpose for posting it here is to try and instigate some further discussion on this topic.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

One of the First Things America Did

Another little-known Founding fact about Church and State
by Tom Van Dyke

The very first meeting of the US congress took place in New York on March 4, 1789, but because of various delays in getting George Washington to schlep up from Virginia, his inauguration as president didn't happen until April 30. Washington gave a great speech, and took the oath.

The congress and our new president were finally in place. So what's the first thing the new American state did? Why, it went to church.

The whole bunch, president and congress, packed over to St. Paul's Chapel immediately for a prayer service.

We know from Washington's diary that he continued to attend services most every Sunday at St. Paul's throughout his first year as president, then switched over to the newly rebuilt Trinity Church where they'd constructed a special pew for the President of the United States.

Now it's quite true there's a formal "wall" between "church" and "state" in the federal constitution. No religious tests for federal office, no government church, thank God.

A formal separation between church and state? Certainly. A few want some sort of theocracy today, but they are few, very few. As in the Founding and as it is today, hardly anybody would want to be ruled even by the elders of their own church, let alone anybody else's church. So that's a dead letter.

However, if a nation is more than just the sum of its laws---and a president sitting in a presidential pew loudly suggests the Founders thought there is more to it than just law---then that "wall" didn't mean you couldn't see through it to the other side. In our litigious age, we tend to reduce everything to formalities, the letter of the law. It seems clear that the Founders were far more attuned to the spirit of such things.

There are tons of quotes by the Founders about virtue and morality being necessary for the health of the new American republic, and that religion was a good if not necessary way to foster those virtues. These quotes come even from the least religiously orthodox of the Founders, and here's the point I think gets missed by those who try so hard to prove "key" Founders like Washington were orthodox Christians:

It works even better if they weren't.

The new president and congress, by gathering at St. Paul's for prayer after the inauguration, and by Washington showing his impressive six foot-three self at services every Sunday, by action and deed acknowledged the importance of religion in the public square, not tucked away behind closed doors as a mere matter of private conscience, as many urge we should do today.

Now, it seems recent polls indicate slightly more than half of people today want to "keep religion out of politics." That's fine, but almost half don't. And neither can it be claimed the Founders did, or they would have stayed out of St. Paul's that day, April 30, 1789. Believe it or not, and whether they believed in it or not.

Washington prayed here. Or mebbe he just slept.

Pat Boone's Errors

World Net Daily should hire me to fact check whenever one of their writers produces a "Christian Heritage" article. I'm not going to deal with the arguments, just two errors in Pat Boone's latest. First:

You may have heard that quote before, but have you asked yourself just what Ben Franklin was getting at? Well, the long, tiresome and often contentious convention had almost ended with nothing, with members going back to their home states angry and bitter. In the midst of apparent breakdown and failure, it was Franklin himself who stood up and proposed that starting the next morning, the convention should open with prayer and a sermon, because it was obvious that their momentous objective could not be achieved without the direct intervention of God, the One all the attendees credited with their very existence.

And starting from the very next day, after the morning prayers and sermons, the Constitution was brought to final form and agreed to. It was unlike any document in history, purporting to guarantee every citizen equality, possibility, security and liberty.

Nope there were no official prayers or sermons at the Constitutional Convention. They did not act on Franklin's call to prayer. And there was no three day recess as some sources have erroneously reported. They got on with secular business.

George Washington had declared, "Religion and morality are the twin pillars of freedom."

This is likely a paraphrase of Washington's farewell address. The problem is Boone put it in quotes as though those were Washington's actual words when they weren't.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Is "Unorthodox Christianity" "Christianity"

Kristo Miettinen says yes. Many orthodox Christians say no. I say, yes and no; it depends on how one defines "Christianity." Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnessism are two classic examples: They call themselves Christians. But many orthodox Christians balk: "This isn't Christianity, whatever you call yourselves."

It all depends on where you draw the line and how you "box" people. For instance, regarding race we have blacks, whites and mixed race. In this society we tend to box folks as either "white" on the one hand or "black and mixed race" on the other. But in a society where blacks predominate, we might box folks as either "black" or "white or mixed race." Likewise we box folks as "straight" or "gay or bi." Looking for homosexual purity we could box folks as "gay" or "straight or bi."

America's key Founders [Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin] emerged from a "Christian" history but tended to reject orthodox Trinitarian doctrines and the infallibility of the Bible; they were theists who believed God primarily revealed Himself through nature discoverable by reason, secondarily by the Bible which they regarded as partially inspired, not infallible. To many orthodox Christians of the past and present era that puts them outside of the "Christian" label, regardless of what they termed themselves [the key Founders including Jefferson and Franklin, more likely thought of themselves as "Christians" not "Deists"].

And with that I am going to reproduce a little back and forth between Kristo Miettinen -- arguing for the "unorthodox" understanding of Christian -- and Gregg Frazer -- arguing for the "orthodox" understanding of Christianity.

My conclusion is the glass is half full and half empty so it all depends on which perspective one takes.

Kristo wrote:

I think your term “theistic rationalist” misses a key element of the left-wing founders: that even they were bibliophiles or bibliocentrists, and affiliated in individual cases with bibliolatry (e.g. the masonic ritual use of the KJV as their “Volume of the Sacred Law”).

Might I suggest “biblical rationalist” rather than “theistic rationalist”, since what they applied their rationalism to was more often the bible than God in any natural-theology sense.


[The term theistic rationalism] misses the founder’s bibliocentrism, which I believe was stronger than their theocentrism, if the latter is interpreted in a generic sense. They may have dabbled in natural theology, but not with the same energy that they applied to the bible.

Frazer deflects attention from their biblical obsession because they didn’t see the bible as he sees it. That is no reason to follow him in his choice of terms. Early America was a bible-soaked society. Frazer’s intellectual ancestors were products of that environment, but so were a number of other highly creative bibliocentric thinkers whose opinions Frazer abhors.

He may have coined a term, but you make an independent judgment of the matter when you choose his term over others. You have to stand behind your choice, you cannot point a finger at the man behind you.

Frazer replied:

“Biblical rationalist” would be a very misleading term. One shouldn’t use something they largely rejected as a central part of identifying them. That would be like calling the Protestant Reformers “Catholic” instead of Protestant. After all, they lived in a “catholicism-soaked society” and they applied their reforms to catholicism!

The key Founders lived in a “Bible-soaked society,” but they reacted against that to a large extent. The key Founders almost universally rejected and scorned the Old Testament (other than the Psalms & Proverbs & Ecclesiastes) as well as the New Testament other than the Gospels. They were hardly “obsessed” with the Bible and were FAR from bibliocentrists! When one uses “centric” as a suffix, it is not to be prefaced by something the individual rejected or disagreed with!

To the extent (not that much, by the way) that they used biblical allusions or illustrations, it was to relate to their “Bible-soaked society” — not because of their own “obsession” with the Bible.

It would also be misleading to use “biblical rationalist” simply because they applied their rationalism to the Bible. To call them “biblical rationalist” is to apply the adjective “biblical” to THEM (the rationalists) — not to the target of their rationalism.

As for the choice of “theistic,” the definitive dictionary of the 18th century, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines theism as: “Belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe, without denial of revelation: in this use distinguished from deism.” That is a precise description of the belief of the key Founders.

I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Miettinen knows so well what I abhor and to what “highly creative” bibliocentric thinkers he refers.

Finally, I don’t think Jon was hiding behind me where the term “theistic rationalism” is concerned. He has been scrupulously careful to give me credit (and I think it is CREDIT, not blame) for coining the term and I am exceedingly grateful. That is all he was doing.