Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Don't Want a Naked Public Square:

But I do want a crowded, pluralistic one.

"The Naked Public Square" refers to the title of Father Neuhaus' classic book. NPS means in essence if government has to remain entirely neutral among all theological systems, including atheism and polytheism, then we form a lowest common denominator of "0" and the public square refuses to speak on religious matters. Hence, it's "naked."

A few things spurred this post. First, the new visitor's hall in the Capitol Building has deleted some Founding era God talk and that's ticked off among others, Christian America proponents and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. You can read Michael Tomasky's account of it where he links to one of my posts where I explain why George Washington was likely neither a strict deist nor an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

The second is Tom Van Dyke's recent comment where he asserts my attacking the Christian Nation idea is leading to a public square "naked" of Christianity's influence:

By the time we drag in words like "nominal" or "theistic rationalism" all we've done is obliterate Christianity from the Founding. This is nonsense, and seeks neither truth nor meaning.

There's a minority in Christianity [the "orthodox" who believe non-Trinitarians are not "Christians"] that seeks---for purely theological reasons---to exploit the heterodoxy of the Founding to claim Christianity for itself.

And those from the secular side like Marci Hamilton use them back, to exploit the doctrinal divisions within Christianity [which have endured for 2000 or so years] to claim the Founding for themselves, or at least to scrub it clean of Christianity.


Folks like [secular] Ms. Hamilton are as wrong as [orthodox] Dr. [Gregg] Frazer because they use an understanding of Christianity that's held by only a minority of its adherents, and turn it into "definitions" that obscure and elide too much.

Personally, I don't want to obliterate Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) from the public square; but the Christian Nation claim that I have relentlessly addressed seeks to "outright" own the public square and disrespects the pluralism of the Founding; and I want proponents of such to understand they have a place at the public square as long as they don't mind sharing it as America's Founders intended.

Look, the American Founding, in many ways, treated unacceptably various social groups -- women, blacks, non-propertied males, Roman Catholics, American Indians, and many others. I agree with Harry Jaffa that if we view the Founding through these "compromises," as opposed to its "ideals," then the whole thing is non-starter; arguments from its authority cannot take the moral high ground. And this has implications for constitutional interpretation (and remember arguments from authority are NOT fallacious in law, i.e., constitutional law), patriotism, and the ideal vision of what America "ought to be."

There is good reason to want argue from the Founding's authority and preserve its moral vision; the Founders did deliver broad ideals of liberty and equality, democratic-republican government, and, of especial import -- religious liberty [and made the US the most powerful nation on Earth].

And the Founders were ahead of the learning curve on issues of pluralism. So ahead that they had to keep many of their heterodox religious beliefs on the down low.

America was not founded to be pluralistic per se. But on some issues -- like religion -- the Founders wanted an extent. They wanted to take sectarian issues "out" of politics. Yet they were so non-sectarian that their vision of "ecumenicism" transcended "Judeo-Christianity." And this is one important reason why America was NOT founded to be a Christian Nation, but a religiously pluralistic one. And I'm going to run with it as far as I can.

My prescription for the public square: Instead of making it "naked," let's make it crowded. Feature the traditional Christian utterances of the Founding, along with utterances from that era that blatantly contradict such claims. James Madison believed in exploiting religious factions to "cancel" one another out.

As he wrote in Federalist 10:

The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to controul one part of the society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself, from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole Society.

And in Federalist 51:

In a free government, this security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other, in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.

See Gary North's commentary on pp. 194-96 of "Conspiracy in Philadelphia."

Christian Nationalists might like to think that those factions were to constitute orthodox Trinitarian Christian sects only, which is laughable given that Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin were certainly unitarians as Madison and many others probably were. But even limiting the "factions" to "Judeo-Christian" sects is problematic as the Founders' vision for religious pluralism extended further.

And so it is that I think we should give equal time to heterodox, pluralistic and freethinking statements of the Founders on these "religious heritage" public displays. I thought perhaps feature some of the statements of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson attacking the Trinity next to Founding era quotations "talking up" Christianity; but in a sense, that would be "uncivil" to conservative Trinitarians.

So my prescription for public displays of religious pluralism is accentuate the positive. Display founding era quotations "talking up" non-Christian religions as valid and acceptable places at the public table next to those that talk up Christianity. Let the Christian Nationalists be the ones who go negative when they assert these non-Christian religions false or the heresies in which the American Founders believed as "not Christian."

For instance, the following from John Adams:

“It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.”

– John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.

That puts an arrow through the oft-repeated notion that Jews and Christians worship the same God but Muslims a different one.

The Native Americans' "Great Spirit" especially should play a prominent role. For one, arguably we owe Indians such public respect given their mistreatment at the hands of Westerners. And they certainly have influenced America's cultural heritage in terms of names of American geographic locations and whatnot. And two, they were (I believe) the largest population of non-identificatory Christians in America during the Founding era. The key Founders often supported converting them to Christianity; but it was invariably for utilitarian reason; it helped them to better assimilate and civilize. It was not because the key Founders believed the Indians in a state of spiritual darkness, that their religion was "false" while [orthodox] Christianity was "true." Indeed, when dealing with unconverted Natives the key Founders had no problem invoking their "Great Spirit" God suggesting It was the same "Providence" Jews, Christians and Muslims worshipped and a valid way to God. George Washington went so far as to pray to the "Great Spirit" by name which is more heterodox than praying to Allah, because at least Allah claims to be the God of Abraham.

As Washington spoke:

"I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great spirit to preserve them."

Here is the other time Washington used the term "the Great Spirit" when speaking to the Natives. Note, one of Washington's aides wrote this speech and Washington HIMSELF crossed out the word "God" and wrote in "the Great Spirit above."

Thomas Jefferson followed Washington's precedent and prayed to the Great Spirit by name. As he wrote in an 1803 letter to the Choctaw Indians:

But we thank the Great Spirit who took care of you on the ocean, and brought you safe and in good health to the seat of our great Council; and we hope His care will accompany and protect you, on your journey and return home; and that He will preserve and prosper your nation in all its just pursuits.

And in an 1806 letter to the Cherokee Nation:

My children, I thank you for your visit and pray to the Great Spirit who made us all and planted us all in this land to live together like brothers that He will conduct you safely to your homes, and grant you to find your families and your friends in good health.

And finally Madison's invocation of "the Great Spirit" to the Cherokee Indians in 1812.

"I have a further advice of my Red children. You see how the country of the eighteen fires is filled with people. They increase like the corn they put into the ground. They all have good houses to shelter them from all weathers, good clothes suitable to all seasons; and as for food, of all sorts, you see they have enough and to spare. No man, woman, or child, of the eighteen fires, ever perished of hunger. Compare all this with the condition of the Red people. They are scattered here and there in handfulls. Their lodges are cold, leak, and smoky. They have hard fare, and often not enough of it.

"Why this mighty difference? The reason, my Red children, is plain. The white people breed cattle and sheep. They spin and weave. Their heads and their hands make all the elements and productions of nature useful to them.

"It is in your power to be like them. The ground that feeds one lodge by hunting, would feed a great band by the plough & the hoe. The Great Spirit has given you, like your white brethren, good heads to contrive, and strong arms, and active bodies. Use them like your white brethren of the eighteen fires, and like them, your little sparks will grow into great fires. You will be well fed, dwell in good houses, and enjoy the happiness for which you, like them, were created. These are the words of your father to his red children. The Great Spirit who is the father of us all, approves them. Let them pass through the ear in to the heart. Carry them home to your people; and as long as you remember this visit to your father of the eighteen fires, remember these are his last and best words to you!"

Given the significant number of Hindus in America, public displays might also feature John Adams' quotation that asserts Hindu principles are at heart the same as Christian principles.

Where is to be found Theology more orthodox or Phylosophy more profound than in the Introduction to the Shast[r]a [a Hindu Treatise]? “God is one, creator of all, Universal Sphere, without beginning, without End. God Governs all the Creation by a General Providence, resulting from his eternal designs. — Search not the Essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; Your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough that, day by day, and night by night, You adore his Power, his Wisdom and his Goodness, in his Works.”

– John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813.

And finally the following statement from Ben Franklin's biography well demonstrates the "openness" the key Founders believed in when they invoked "religion" that they believed went hand in hand with "morality" needed to support republican government and "the people's" inalienable liberty to therefore choose which one to support:

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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I wouldn't oversell the "Great Spirit" business. It's a fine Christian tradition to tell someone he's been worshiping the Christian God all along. See Acts 17:22.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think that's fair Tom. I only wish religious conservatives would be so fair to Muslims who CLAIM to be worshipping the same God Jews and Christians do.

Charles T. Wolverton said...

I can kind of see how the god of Judaism and Islam could be the same since both (I think) accept Jesus as "only" a prophet. But since Chritianity claims Jesus is the son of God, the trinity, et al, I don't see (logically) how that god can be the same: an anthropomorphic god either has a son or doesn't.

This is, of course, a simplistic argument and no doubt wrong, but I'd like to understand where it goes astray.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Charles I think you are exactly right.

The Jewish God is A, the Triune Christian God is B, and the Islamic God is C. Joe Carter has made the case (convincingly as I see it) that they all three worship different Gods. The Christian God is Triune by nature, the Jewish and Muslim God is not. Therefore not just Muslims but JEWS as well do NOT worship the Christians' God.

One self-serving assertion that irritates me is the idea that Jews and Christians worship the same God, Muslims a different one. If they want to make that claim, fine. However, they should realize how utterly contentious and unclear such a claim is. One could just as easily assert (as you did) that Jews and Muslims worship the same God (a unitary God of Abraham) the Christians a different one.

I think the two most LOGICAL claims are either the "inclusive one" (they all worship the same God -- the God of Abraham) or the "exclusive one" (they all worship different Gods).

The notion that there is a "Judeo-Christian" God that Jews and Christians worship but Muslims don't, as I see it, is self serving and doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Charles T. Wolverton said...

Thanks, Jon.