Saturday, January 31, 2009

Belief in a Certain Type of God as a Foundation For Natural Rights

At the recent natural rights conference put on by The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown University, Michael Novak gave the keynote address entitled "Belief in a Certain Type of God as a Foundation of the Natural Right of Conscience." I was not at the conference and I sincerely hope it will be available on webmedia sometime soon. But based on what I know of Novak's work (and I think I know it fairly well) let me surmise what I think he argued: the "Deist" God does not provide a firm foundation for natural rights, rather the "Judeo-Christian" God -- the God of the Hebrew Scriptures -- does.

In response, I would argue drawing a distinction between the "Deist" God and the "Judeo-Christian" God may be a false dichotomy. I raised a similar point in a brief dialogue with Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute. The bottom line is Jefferson's God perfectly suits the role of the God that guarantees natural rights. Indeed, this makes sense given Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence. And make no mistake, Jefferson's God was an active, intervening rights granting Providence. As Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia [1785]:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!

Yet, Jefferson also rejected:

The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.

And I would argue the God of Jefferson was the God of J. Adams, Franklin, Madison, Wilson, G. Morris, Washington and Hamilton. There's room for some honest debate here. Those founders may not have rejected every single one of the above mentioned tenets Jefferson rejected (Adams for instance accepted the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom he believed a man, not an Incarnate God on the grounds that this was God doing for the most moral man what He one day will do for all good men, perhaps all men). I would argue even if there are no "smoking guns" proving beyond a reasonable doubt that for instance Washington, Wilson or Hamilton (until the very end of his life) believed in the tenets of American Founding political theology that I describe below, everything they said is compatible with it.

Here is how I summarized the God of the American Founding -- that common ground in which the above mentioned "key Founders" probably believed -- in a post that the Cato Institute reproduced:

Nature’s God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man’s reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.

I would further argue that this God serves as a more authentic guarantor of natural rights than the orthodox biblical God. For one, the orthodox biblical God does not, by doctrine, guarantee natural rights as they are foreign to the Bible's text. As Robert Kraynak summed up America's Founding liberal democratic (or "republican" if you will) order & God:

Thus, we must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be.

[And for any potentially ignorant readers who erroneously think the concepts of "democracy" and "republicanism" are mutually exclusive, small l liberal, small d democracy refers to the Lockean principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.]

Friday, January 30, 2009

Christianity, Sola Scriptura, State of Nature, & Evolution

I turn our attention to my friend and Positive Liberty co-blogger, Jim Babka, who posted on the "Two Books Approach to Christianity." Babka is an orthodox evangelical Christian. He believes the Bible as God's revealed Word. Yet, he rejects Sola Scriptura and calls for a theology more "open" to the discoveries of nature, science and reason. When reading Babka's post I'm reminded of Benjamin Rush (a Trinitarian Universalist) who described his faith as "a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches."

As Babka writes:

There is a presumption amongst reformed and fundamentalist Christians, that revelation reigns Supreme and Alone — Sola Scriptura. The fundamentalist who then insists that man’s “helpmeet,” woman, was literally built from the rib of man, sometime on the sixth (24-hour) day of creation, serves as the cliche example of this principle taken to its logical conclusion.

Skeptics — atheists in particular — mount a counter-charge (often with pomposity), that they eschew revelation and embrace Reason.

Not all Christians embrace Sola Scriptura at the expense of Reason. All truth is God’s truth.

There are two problems here to be addressed when looking at the fundamentalist’s view. First, the Bible itself does not advocate Sola Scriptura. Second, this need not be a stricter either/or situation, but rather can be a fuzzier both/and. There is a middle ground, if you will.

Explicitly, Romans 1 says that all mankind should recognize God in the creation. No one is permitted the excuse of not recognizing God because the creation “testifies.” Atheist Bertrand Russell was asked how he would respond, if after dying he was brought face to face with God. His reply: “There wasn’t enough evidence.” Romans 1:18-20 suggests that we know today as “science” is, in part, actually the study of God’s world.

Implicitly, most conservative Christians will instantly recognize what I mean when I refer to Hebrews 11 as the “Faith Hall of Fame.” In it, appears Abraham, who precedes Moses on the historical timeline. Moses is (from the fundamentalist perspective) the author of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, including Genesis) which tells Abraham’s story. Thus, Abraham was a man without a book of revelation. Yet he followed God. Abraham is the greatest figure of “faith” because he acted, without a book of revelation.

Sola Scriptura is strictly a religious construction. It is a Reformation doctrine that arose in response to the corruption of the Catholic Church. That response is understandable and was, initially, liberating.

What's notable about Babka's approach is that he uses it to defend the compatibility of Darwin's theory of evolution and orthodox Christianity. I'm writing about this because I spend a great deal of time critically analyzing the "political theology" of the American Founding and I have concluded (after some more notable scholars) that, arguably, such political theology is not "Christianity," but not "Deism" either. Yet, American political theology often presented itself as "rational Christianity." And this kind of "Christianity" oft-turned out to be theologically unitarian, universalistic, and rejected the infallibility of the Bible. It also excessively relied on "nature" and "reason" as much as if not more so than the Bible. But, this "political theology" (that may or may not be properly termed "Christianity") was not exclusive; it didn't seek to exclude orthodox Trinitarian Christianity (or non-orthodox faiths). Yet, it wanted all faiths to be open to the discoveries of nature, science and reason.

So while American political theology is not necessarily hostile to orthodox Christianity, the orthodox Protestant Sola Scriptura crowd who 1) rejects natural law discoverable by reason that has its foundations in Aristotle and 2) embraces "Sola Scriptura" as a "closed system," are likely to be anathematized by said political theology. Francis Schaeffer comes to mind as a theologian whose "Christianity" does not accord with the political theology of the American Founding. In short, if "Christians" want their faith to best resonate with American political theology, they don't necessarily need to reject the Trinity or other orthodox doctrines, but they do need to embrace a more "open" theology -- "open" to the findings of science, nature, and reason.

Thus, Jim Babka's Christianity is closer to the political theology of the American Founding than is Francis Schaeffer's.

A "Christianity" that is open to the scientific discoveries of Darwin, for instance, is closer America's Founding political theology than is a closed, Sola Scriptura system that rejects Darwin (or whatever science discovers), because such "Truths" seem not to accord with what the Bible, on the surface, teaches. The Founders, of course, weren't Darwinists because Darwin's theory had not yet been discovered (in the same sense that they didn't believe in Einstein's theories either). Yet, they embraced Locke and Locke posited theories that were as foreign to the Bible as were Darwin's.

Leo Strauss quite properly termed Locke's state of nature theory as "wholly alien to the Bible." As Gregg Frazer put it:

The biblical account of Eden and the origin of human society bears little resemblance to [Locke's] world of free agents restrained only by natural law forming society on the basis of voluntary consent. (Ph.D. dissertation, p. 369.)

Now, because of the difference between what Locke teaches and what the Bible teaches, one might conclude that Locke's theories are "anti-biblical." As legendary political theorist Walter Berns put it: "[T]he idea of the state of nature is incompatible with Christian doctrine." Or, if one believes in a more "open" form of Christianity (that goes beyond "closed" Sola Scriptura) one might conclude Locke's idea of the "state of nature" (which concept was first posited by Hobbes and also articulated by Rousseau) is compatible with "Christian doctrine." But in that sense, it would be "a-biblical" not "anti-biblical."

I think we can say the same thing about Darwin's theory of evolution. Because of the differences between what Darwin teaches and what the Bible teaches, many orthodox Christians, most notably so called "young earth creationists" who believe in a literal six day creation, argue Darwin is incompatible with Christianity. In this case, Darwin's teachings are categorized as "anti-biblical" and it is no coincidence that Dr. Gregg Frazer is a literal, six day young earth creationist. Yet, to a more "open" form of Christianity, Darwin is compatible with the Bible and Christianity, properly understood. In this sense, Darwin's teachings are "a-biblical," not necessarily "anti-biblical."

We could analyze John Locke's "state of nature" teachings almost exactly as we do Darwin's. The concept of Locke's, Hobbes', OR Rousseau's "state of nature," central to American Founding thought, was either "a-biblical" or "anti-biblical" depending on whether one possesses a closed "Sola Scriptura" understanding of Christianity or a more open understanding. America's Founders, as Lockeans, obviously possessed the more "open" theology. Indeed it is what founds America's democratic-republican political order.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Natural Rights Conference At Georgetown

Anyone in the DC area might want to strongly consider attending this conference at Georgetown tomorrow featuring among others Randy Barnett of Georgetown Law and the Volokh Conspiracy.

9:30am-11:00am Panel 1: The Origin and Nature of Natural Rights and the U.S. Constitution
Brian Tierney, Cornell University: Sources of the American Idea of Natural Rights: Some Competing Narratives
Robert Kraynak, Colgate University: Ordered Liberty at the American Founding: Natural Rights in Cultural Context
Respondent: Steven Brust, Georgetown University

11:00am- 11:15am Break

11:15am – 12:45pm Panel 2: Perspectives on the Constitution, Natural Rights, and Natural Law
Robert George, Princeton University: What is Natural Law?
Randy Barnett, Georgetown Law School: Was Lochner Right? Natural Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment
Moderator: Patrick Deneen, Georgetown University

12:45pm-2:00pm Lunch with Keynote Address
Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute (begins at 1:00pm):
Belief in a Certain Type of God as a Foundation of the Natural Right of Conscience
RSVP required for Lunch

2:00pm – 3:30pm Panel 3: Natural Rights, the Bill of Rights and Judges: Theory and Practice
Christopher Wolfe, McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies: Natural Rights, the Constitution, and Judicial Review
Charles Lugosi, Ave Maria Law School: Why Judges Should Understand the True Nature of the Rule of Law to Effectively Interpret the Constitution to Protect the Rights of All Persons.
Respondent: Phillip Muñoz, Tufts University

I've blogged about the work of many of the above mentioned figures. Many of presenters are going to make a Thomistic natural law case for natural rights; Randy Barnett is more than able to hold his own when he argues for a different perspective. Barnett's idea is if we have a natural right to political liberty (something I don't believe Thomas argued) such concept transcends the strict domain of natural law ethics. In short the natural law tells us what is right and what is wrong in every aspect of our lives. Natural rights deal with what government may, by right, do. Both use the same method: "natural," by definition, means discoverable by reason, as opposed to revealed in the Bible. The biggest difference between Barnett and George is that Barnett argues individuals have a natural right to do what might arguably violate the natural law; whereas George argues that we have a natural right to do what is compatible with the natural law only. Here's an example: Adults have, I would argue, a natural right to consume alcohol in private. Drinking in moderation doesn't violate the natural law; though a case could be made that drinking to excess does. Nonetheless government does not have the natural right to use its police powers to ensure my drinking in private accords with the natural law. Indeed, government doesn't need to enforce the natural law because the natural law is self enforcing. If I drink too much I get a hangover. Nature punishes me! Government need enforce natural rights only, not the natural law.

Robert P. Kraynak of Colgate is a really interesting fellow as well. He a conservative Catholic like George, Wolfe, Novak et al. (what some have termed "theocons"), but one who does not believe America's Founding concept of natural rights accords with Thomism (not unlike Robert Bork) or a traditional Christian worldview. He'll argue to his fellow conservative Catholics that American natural rights as the American Founders articulated them are dangerous to Christians who want to use the organs of government to enforce their traditionalist worldview (which he wants to do). He believes in reading the Constitution unmoored from the natural rights dogma of the Declaration of Independence. And in his first best world (where traditional Christians use government to enforce their worldview) the best instrument for doing so is NOT the US Constitutional system, but rather a more authoritarian top down constitutional monarchy.

His work has provided me with valuable insights on refuting the "Christian Nation" thesis.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Religious Tolerance: Reformation and Enlightenment

Way back in 2004, my co-blogger at Positive Liberty, Jason Kuznicki, wrote a long post, quite eloquently, on religious tolerance, Christianity & Enlightenment, who really deserves credit for the concept of religious rights? Dr. Kuznicki has a PhD in history from John Hopkins University and specialized in the French Enlightenment.

I'm going to reproduce the first half of the post and then let you (if interested) read the second half at the original location. As he wrote:

...Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars has recently suggested I should support my claim that the Enlightenment, not the Reformation, was the true source of religious tolerance as we now understand it.

He asks, “Didn’t the Reformation pave the way for the Enlightenment in many ways?”

In a sense, the answer to his question is yes–but the Reformation paved the way for the Enlightenment in much the same way that the existence of smallpox paved the way for vaccination, or in the same way that Marxism paved the way for the Austrian School in the twentieth century.

And yet I often hear just the opposite: “Martin Luther… ah, he helped establish religious tolerance!”

Would that it were, but it is not.

It could be that a good deal of what I’m about to write won’t even address Mr. Brayton’s original concern; quite possibly, he shares none of the misconceptions that I’m about to attack. And on the off chance that he does share them, I will gladly look the other way if he wants to abandon them in private.

To state the key contention as baldly as possible: Christianity is more tolerant than any other world religion, and that it owes this tolerance to the Reformation.

No doubt it is a comforting belief. And in practice, both Protestants and Catholics today do tend to be quite tolerant. A few exceptions exist, but we need not consider them here. In general, one could do far worse than to live in a majority-Christian country.

But there is nothing inherent about Christianity’s tolerance. On the contrary, Christianity became tolerant almost in spite of itself, and it only did so when the other alternatives had been exhausted.

I say this not to deprecate Christianity, but because there is a grave danger in thinking that we need no longer attend to the problem of religious tolerance. In every age, the urge to intolerance presents itself anew. We must not become complacent about the freedom of conscience any more than we would take for granted the other rights that we now enjoy.

I will argue in this essay that the Enlightenment is the true intellectual origin of tolerance as we know it, and, while there could not have been an Enlightenment without a Reformation, it is a serious mistake to confuse or equate the two.

Nor do individual instances of tolerance before the Enlightenment tell us very much about the origins of present-day attitudes: Until the Enlightenment, wherever an official tolerance existed, it was almost always a particular and revocable license to practice one specific minority religion, and to do so only under highly restrictive conditions. In a sense, these were merely truces in the fighting, often agreed to simply because it was impossible to eradicate the religious minority. These early and frankly misnamed “tolerances” were in no sense predicated on the notion that an individual has a moral obligation to seek the truth for himself, unconstrained by the civil authority.

This last is what we now expect, and until the late seventeenth century, nothing even close to it could be found in Europe. It was also not until this time–the era of John Locke and Pierre Bayle–that an organized, philosophical defense appeared for the principle of general religious toleration.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

For the rest, read it here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Founding Era Republican Enlightenment Clergy & Theology, Part I

As I try to get a clearer understanding of how Founding era Americans viewed the French Revolution, I've come across a rich source of "Christian" literature arguing on behalf of the French Revolution's principles. As I understand the history -- the French were quite popular in Founding era America; they were instrumental to securing American victory over the British, and American consensus initially strongly supported the French Revolution and thought (or perhaps hoped) it would be an extension of the American Revolution. As things started to go wrong, more Americans began to jump ship. And the end of Washington's Presidency coincided with the emergence of political parties (the Federalists v. the Democratic-Republicans) and the increasing awareness that the situation in France was getting worse. Support for the French Revolution became divided along party lines, with the Federalists becoming increasingly anti-French Revolution and sympathizing with the British and the Republicans maintaining support for the French.

Along the way, some orthodox Federalist Clergy labeled Jefferson an "infidel." They did so for a variety of reasons, in part for his excessive sympathy for the French, but also for things he wrote in "Notes on the State of Virginia." But, the Republicans had their clergy and theologians as well, many of whom defended Jefferson and the French Revolution on explicitly "Christian" grounds. Or, at least they presented their defense of such under the auspices of "Christianity." But what presented itself as "Christianity" was Enlightenment dogma mixed in with biblical language. I recently wrote about one of these figures -- Bishop James Madison. But there are more, one of whom I detail below and others in subsequent posts.

Note these defenders of Jefferson and the French Revolution were not Thomas Paine style deists. Though some of these enlightened clergymen may have appreciated the likes of Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau (to an extent) it was not open infidels rejecting the "Christian" label who had respectable platforms for reaching the public (the works of the hard infidels were widely read in certain circles, but also viewed as subversive; you can imagine them being mailed in brown paper envelopes). Rather, it was clergy and theologians teaching such things as the perfectibility of man was a "Christian principle." A recurring theme is that the French Revolution would triumphantly usher in a millennial republic of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." This should illustrate a danger to orthodox Christians who wish to read in "republicanism" to the biblical record that clearly *isn't there.*

Philip Hamburger writes about this dynamic in Chapter 6 of "Separation of Church and State," entitled Keeping Religion Out of Politics and Making Politics Religious. And the Liberty Fund reproduces many of these sermons edited by Ellis Sandoz.

First let us learn about the Tunis Wortman, a theologian. Sandoz notes:

Wortman’s background and activities before the 1790s are unknown. He appears first as a New York City lawyer and man of the Enlightenment, a French-style partisan of liberty, and an apostle of the millennial republic. He viewed the French Revolution as the continuation of the American Revolution and as the European phase of history’s progress toward universal peace.



In the ensuing observations, I shall consider your duties as christians and as patriots. I shall make it my task to establish the following propositions.

1st. That it is your duty, as christians, to maintain the purity and independence of the church, to keep religion separate from politics, to prevent an union between the church and the state, and to preserve your clergy from temptation, corruption and reproach.

2d. That as christians and patriots, it is equally your duty to defend the liberty and constitution of your country.

3d. Although I am a sincere and decided opponent of infidelity, yet as it respects a president of the United States, an enmity to the constitution is the most dangerous evil; inasmuch as christianity is secure by the force of its own evidence, and coming from God, cannot be destroyed by human power; but, on the contrary, the constitution, is vulnerable to the attacks of an ambitious and unprincipled executive.

4th. That Mr. Jefferson is in reality a republican, sincerely attached to the constitution of his country, amiable and irreproachable in his conduct as a man, and that we have every reason to believe him, in sincerity, a christian.

5th. That the charge of deism, contained in such pamphlet, is false, scandalous and malicious—that there is not a single passage in the Notes on Virginia, or any of Mr. Jefferson’s writings, repugnant to christianity; but on the contrary, in every respect, favourable to it—and further, that there is every reason to believe the story of Mazzei a base and ridiculous falsehood.

Interestingly, Wortman defended Jefferson and called for separation of Church & State while attacking the harder "infidels."

If you are real christians, anxious for the honor and purity and interest of the christian church, you will feel a steady determination, to preserve it free from corruption. Unless you maintain the pure and primitive spirit of christianity, and prevent the cunning and intrigue of statesmen from mingling with its institutions; you will become exposed to a renewal of the same dreadful and enormous scenes which have not only disgraced the annals of the church, but destroyed the peace, and sacrificed the lives of millions. It is by such scenes and by such dreadful crimes, that christianity has suffered; by such fatal and destructive enormities which, since the days of Constantine, have been perpetrated without intermission, that the church has become debased and polluted; in language similar to that of Joshua, we have reason to exclaim there is an accursed thing within the tabernacle. The blood of many an innocent Abel has stained the ephod, the vestments and the altar. Religion has suffered more from the restless ambition and impiety of the church of Rome, than from all the writings of a Voltaire, a Tindal, a Volney, or even the wretched blasphemies of Paine.*


Experience suggests a more satisfactory but a more fatal reason; the crimes and abuses which have been committed in its name, cruelty and persecution, and intolerance have raised up an host of enemies, and accounts for the zeal, the bitterness and the vehemence of their opposition. It is the departure from the original purity of the system; the alliance with courts; the impurities and prophanity of spurious, amphibious, hermorphredite priests, the innumerable atrocities and persecutions, which have been perpetrated in the name of the most high, that has produced or encouraged the school of infidelity, and occasioned many an honest mind to believe that the establishment of christianity, is incompatible with civil freedom. Let me conjure you, then, to purify the altar, to keep things sacred from intermingling with things prophane, to maintain religion separate and apart from the powers of this world; and then, to use an expression similar to that of the infidel Rousseau, you will hasten the æra when all mankind shall bow at the feet of Jesus.

But what kind of "Christian" was Wortman? Four years earlier in 1796 in an "Oration on the Influence of Social Institutions," he noted that the spirit of the age (enlightenment) had "exalted the human character to a state of splendid greatness and perfectibility that no former age has ever yet realised or experienced." He cited Godwin for the proposition of the mind's "plastic nature" and railed against the "monkish and dishonorable doctrine which teaches the original depravity of mankind," which Wortman termed a "false and pernicious libel upon our species." Eventually human progress would perfect mankind. As Wortman wrote, mankind would "continue to make accelerated advances in wisdom and in virtue until he hath rendered himself the vanquisher of misery and vice, and until 'Mind hath become omnipotent over matter.'" (For more see the above link to Hamburger's "Separation of Church and State.")

In subsequent posts I'll detail more enlightened "Christians" who sympathized with Jefferson & the French Revolution. I don't think their views represented "mainstream" thought for the Founding era, but they were "the base" of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who represented half of America towards the end of the "Founding Era" (the 1790s).

Monday, January 26, 2009

George Marsden on American Evangelicalism

George Marsden, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of several books on religion in American history, gave the following lecture at a conference for the Organization of American Historians in 2007. In the video, Marsden points out the role that Protestantism had in shaping American religious history. In addition, Marsden counters the "Christian Nation" assertion by pointing to the religious plurality that Protestantism brought to the shores of the "New World." Marsden is one of the most respected historians on American religious history, and is himself a practicing Christian. Along with historians like Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, Marsden has labored to shed light on the origins and influence of the "Christian Nation" argument.

The video is short, but is a nice "appetizer." For a more in depth look into this topic try Marsden's books, Fundamentalism and American Culture" and Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

The First Amendment Debates

A closer look at the genesis of the Establishment Clause
by Tom Van Dyke

As we know, George Mason, a "key" Founder and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, refused to sign the draft that came out of it because it lacked a Bill of Rights. So, even though he didn't work on it himself, the House and Senate set about working on one.

And so, the legislative history of the religion clause of what became the First Amendment:

* Mason's original conception: "All men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular sect or society of Christians ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others."

* James Madison's draft, June 7, 1789: "The Civil Rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed. No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases."

* House Select Committee, JUL-28 "No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed..."

* Samuel Livermore, AUG-15 "Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience."

* House version, AUG-20 "Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience." (Moved by Fisher Ames)

* Initial Senate version, SEP-3 "Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

* Final Senate version, SEP-9 "Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion."

* Conference Committee: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Philip Hamburger, very good, on what was on Madison's mind during the debates in the House.

Some notes:

a) The Virginia Declaration of Rights was not the product of the Enlightenment-type secularists; Baptists and the Presbyterian laity [eventually joined by their clergy] wanted government to butt out of state-supported religion. It should be noted that Virginia was one of the more diverse states sect-wise: The [Anglican] Episcopalians were in the mix there, too. That the sects were in competition was key, and indeed Hamburger alludes to the thought that several sects might combine against the others.

b) Virginia isn't typical: the other states tended to be dominated by one sect or another.

c) Quotes from the House debates:

Mr. SYLVESTER had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it was liable to a construction different from what had been made by the committee. He feared it might be thought to abolish religion altogether.

Mr. HUNTINGTON said that he feared, with the gentleman first up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion. He understood the amendment to mean what had been expressed by the gentleman from Virginia; but others might find it convenient to put another construction on it.

Hyuh, you got that one right, Messrs. SYLVESTER & HUNTINGTON.

But in fairness, although we cannot pick up the debate after it moved from the House to the Senate, because it seems there wasn't much of one, let's look at the record:

September 3, 1789--First Federal Congress

The Senate resumed the consideration of the Resolve of the House of Representatives on the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

The third article [which became the religion part of the First Amendment---TVD], as it passed the house, stand thus:

"Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

On motion, To amend Article third, and to strike out these words. "Religion or prohibiting the free Exercise thereof," and Insert, "One Religious Sect or Society in preference to others,"

It passed in the Negative.

On motion, For reconsideration,

It passed in the Affirmative.

On motion, That Article the third be striken out,

It passed in the Negative.

On motion, To adopt the following, in lieu of the third Article, "Congress shall not make any law, infringing the rights of conscience or establishing any Religious Sect or Society,"

It passed in the Negative.

On motion, To amend the third Article, to read thus- "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

It passed in the Negative.

On the question upon the third Article as it came from the House of Representatives-

It passed in the Negative.

On motion, To adopt the third Article proposed in the Resolve of the House of Representatives, amended by striking out these words- "Nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed."

It passed in the Affirmative.

Since we respect the Framing/Ratification process as Madison asks us to, we can plainly see that the Senate wanted no part of overspecifying "religion" to merely mean preventing one Christian sect from gaining dominance over the others, although that meaning might be reasonably drawn from the House debates.

We should also note that just as Rep. LIVERMORE "was not satisfied with the amendment; but he did not wish them to dwell long on the subject," and Madison himself wrote privately that the Bill of Rights was a "nauseous project,"
so too, "after this the amendments to the Constitution sent from the House of Representatives...[t]hey were treated contemptuously by Izard, Langdon, and Mr. Morris. Izard moved they they should be postponed till next session. Langdon seconded, and Mr. Morris got up and spoke angrily but not well."

There were obviously many who were opposed or just bored with the idea of a Bill of Rights, and Sen. Robert Morris in particular was kinda wasted and going bankrupt by then. Sorta like now.

So, there's plenty of wiggle room for all.

But let's return to James Madison once more, which might explain the Senate's retisence to get involved at all:

Mr. MADISON said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some of the state conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion, that under the clause of the Constitution, which gave power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit.

Obviously, if the clauses barring "[o]ne Religious Sect or Society in preference to others" or "establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another" had been adopted, a majority of the states could still come up with a looser definition of Christianity and use it to gang up on a Quaker state or a Catholic one or a Unitarian one; surely it would make sense for the Senate to dodge the question entirely. Lord knows that Christianity had a long history of one set of Christians declaring another set of Christians to not be Christians at all.

And so, it might be useful at this point to revisit that link from Philip Hamburger on the Virginia debates. Sects/denominations "ganging up" on the others would be a real possibility, and would explain why the Senate wanted no part of that possible complication. In that case, the anti-sectarian argument for non-establishment still holds. Certainly those who argue from the lack of evidence for the Founders' orthodoxy would be hard-pressed to argue that the Founders contemplated any other religions than Christianity taking over, or even that they knew much about the other non-Christian religions.

In closing, I'd also submit that
any discussion of this matter must begin at the beginning, with "Congress shall make no law..." [Bold face mine.]

According to the record of the House debates, Roger Sherman, a "key" Founder who was also part of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and generally regarded as not only a thoughtful but very religious man, "thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as Congress had 'no authority whatever delegated to them by the Constitution to make religious establishments; he would, therefore, move to have it struck out."

Perhaps Rep. Sherman was right, and we are arguing about nothing, since by most understandings, religion was formally and purposely left out of the central government for the states individually to sort out for themselves.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Original Meaning of "Religion"

I'm still thinking about writing a scholarly article on the original meaning of the term "religion" in the US Constitution. Endless articles have been done on the original meaning of the religion clauses by much better scholars. They explore such things as whether the free exercise clause meant to include exemptions from generally applicable laws and exactly what the establishment clause prohibited, the erection of a national sect only (like the Church of England) or something more. See among others the work of Phillip Munoz, Philip Hamburger, Marci Hamilton, Douglas Laycock, and Akhil Amar. My article would focus on what "religion" means in the specific sense of whether it's "Christianity only" "religion in general" or something else.

How does the difference matter? If it's "Christianity only" then according to the original meaning of the religion clauses, non-Christian religions wouldn't have a right to freely practice their religion.

Does it even matter? In a sense yes; in a sense no. It doesn't matter in the sense that the question has been settled by judges and policy makers; even the most conservative jurists on the Supreme Court of the United States believe non-Christian religions are protected under the religion clauses. However, that "religion" originally meant "Christianity" is one of the central tenets of the "Christian America" thesis. I don't argue Christian Nationalists want to deny non-Christians the right to freely exercise their religion; though the Christian Reconstructionists (who are extremist and marginal) who borrow from Barton's work do. But I do sense these Christian America types argue non-Christians religions are lucky we Christians give them religious rights, because the original meaning of the Constitution holds we don't have to.

If you don't believe me, see mega-church pastor and Christian America promoter (David Barton speaks at his church) Robert Jeffress claim that "[n]o serious student of history doubts the framers of the First Amendment were referring to Christian denominations." Well, no, many serious students of history, for instance, the majority of the PhDs in history at prestigious universities, do not believe "religion" in the First Amendment meant "Christian sects." Though I have seen a few ultra-leftist "critical legal" theorists claim something like this in order to show just how unacceptable "originalism" is. [As the theory goes "rights" were intended to protect white, propertied, Protestant males only.]

But to the meat of the argument, the Constitution uses the term "religion" only once in the First Amendment and "religious" as in "no religious test" once in the unamended Constitution. My research concludes "religion" meant "religion in general" not "Christianity only," for all three clauses. Much groundbreaking work has already been done on the "no religious test" clause. This work demonstrates it did NOT refer to sectarian Christian tests only as Christian Nationalists argue, but rather abolishes all religious tests for public offices and permits, if the people so decide, the election of a non-Christian to public office. As Kramnick and Moore point out in The Godless Constitution the side that objected to the US Constitution on the grounds that it permitted non-Christians to be elected to office lost once the Constitution was ratified. However, the authors downplay the fact that their pious fears were largely assuaged by the fact that the "religiously correct" knew electors ultimately had the right to vote for "Christians only" if they so chose.

Now, so far, I've spoken of "religion" in the First Amendment and not differentiated between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause. And I've done so for good reason. And that's because, even though the FEC and the EC deal with two different concepts, the term "religion" is used only once. As the clause reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;..." Note the term "religion" is used once in the EC and the term "thereof" is used in the FEC. The "thereof" in the FEC relates back to the term "religion" in the EC. It is logically impossible for something to qualify as a "religion" under the FEC, and not under the EC. This is a profound observation legal scholar Philip Hamburger makes at the 1 hour and ten minute mark in this video.

Hamburger notes some Wiccans have argued they are a "religion" for Free Exercise purposes, but not for Establishment Clause purposes. He correctly counters that such construction of the First Amendment is logically impossible because the term "religion" is used once for both of the clauses. It's like Siamese twins who are two distinct entities but share the same organ, like a heart. And in this case the term "religion" in the Establishment Clause is the "heart" that both the EC and FEC share.

I bring this up because I've seen some Christian Nationalists argue that non-Christian religions are protected under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, but the Establishment Clause meant "Christian sects only." That construction of the Constitution's text is logically unsound and hence not viable. Some of them (the Christian Reconstructionists) might argue "religion" for BOTH clauses meant "Christianity" only. And that would pass the logical construction test; but the historical record shows non-Christians had rights under the term "religion" in the First Amendment.

The first rule in constitutional interpretation is we begin with a sound, logical construction of the text. Often the text is broad and "indeterminate," can support multiple meanings. But just because a text can support multiple meanings doesn't mean it can support anything. For instance the text of the Second Amendment clearly refers to some kind of "guns," but is indeterminate regarding whether government is permitted to distinguish between handguns and howitzers. But if someone argued the Second Amendment guarantees a right to play tennis, it would flunk the text test. Likewise arguing the Free Exercise Clause covers non-Christian religions, but the EC covers only "Christianity" flunks the test of logical construction of the Constitution's text.

Christian Nationalists are fond of offering a quotation by Joseph Story (a theological unitarian who thought unitarianism was "Christianity") to prove their point where Story noted:

The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.

Now, Story's quotation may shed light on the underlying aim of the First Amendment (which may have had multiple underlying aims). However, it still cannot trump the TEXT of the Constitution, which uses the term "religion" not "Christianity" and where the term "religion" MUST by logical necessity cover the same faiths for both clauses.

So we come back to the blog where Christian Nationalist minister Robert Jeffress left a comment using Joseph Story's quotation to attempt to prove "religion" in the US Constitution originally meant "Christianity" only. The blog's host, Dr. Bruce Prescott, effectively countered with George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Now this is one piece of many evidences. But that it came from the Father of America makes it quite compelling. This proves "religion" in the First Amendment meant more than just "Christianity" where the meaning of "religion" in the Free Exercise Clause, by logical necessity, defines the meaning of "religion" in the Establishment Clause and vice versa.

Bishop James Madison, American Jacobin

As Thomas Jefferson wrote of his friend Bishop James Madison, cousin to key Founder James Madison, one of the first bishops of the American Episcopalian Church, the first bishop of the Diocese of Virginia and eighth President of William & Mary, (1776–1812):

[F]or I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison, &c., which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei & Bishop Madison, for they are men of truth.

The context of Jefferson's letter to B. Rush was he slammed the orthodox Trinitarian clergy who termed him an "infidel." Jefferson felt comfortable discussing his heterodoxy with Bishop Madison. While I don't know of all of Jefferson's "conversations" with Madison, this letter where Jefferson talks highly of Adam "Wishaupt," founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, seems quite telling. Jefferson certainly wouldn't feel comfortable uttering sentiments like this to Timothy Dwight, Jedidiah Morse or the other orthodox clergy who typified the "religious correctness" of the Founding era. The following passage in Jefferson's letter to Bishop Madison is telling of the "Christianity" or "republican religion" that Jefferson, Bishop Madison, Richard Price and Joseph Priestley all shared:

Wishaupt seems to be an enthusiastic Philanthropist. He is among those (as you know the excellent Price and Priestley also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man.

Now, Jefferson, Price, and Priestley were all theological unitarians. Was Bishop Madison? I don't know. I have found no evidence (so far) where he denied the Trinity. And David L. Holmes (top historian at William & Mary, and currently faculty advisor to the Bishop James Madison Society at William & Mary) terms him as probably an orthodox Trinitarian Christian in his stellar book "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers." He was a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, whose official doctrines were orthodox, after all.

After reading up on Bishop Madison, I have my doubts. If he were an orthodox Christian, he was nonetheless one imbibed in radical enlightenment philosophy and turned, not to orthodox Christian principles to justify "republicanism" but rather theistic rationalist principles. Because of Madison's involvement with enlightenment radicalism, the orthodox at the time accused him of being an "infidel." Here is Bishop Meade, an Episcopal historian of the Founding era, on the matter:

It has been asserted that Bishop Madison became an unbeliever in the latter part of his life, and I have often been asked if it was not so. I am confident that the imputation is unjust. His political principles… may have subjected him to such suspicion. His secular studies, and occupations as President of the College and Professor of Natural Philosophy, may have led him to philosophize too much on the subject of religion, and of this I thought I saw some evidence in the course of my examination; but that he, either secretly, or to his most intimate friends, renounced the Christian faith, I do not believe, but am confident of the contrary.2

What kind of "Christian faith" Bishop Madison professed -- that of the orthodox or the unitarianism of Jefferson, Priestley, and Price -- remains unknown. Though, I think what I uncover here should cast serious doubt on his orthodoxy and clearly show him as the Enlightenment radical that he was. To which we might react: This guy was a BISHOP in the Episcopalian Church?!? This demonstrates how firmly entrenched Enlightenment principles, even those of the radical French philosophes, were in elite American Founding era circles.

Key evidence that Bishop James Madison adhered to radical Enlightenment philosophy is found in the article entitled "Bishop James Madison and the Republic of Virtue," by Charles Crowe, published in The Journal of Southern History, in 1964. (Hopefully, you'll be able to access the entire article as I can at my college of employment).

Like many of the pro-revolt "Whig-republican" preachers of the Founding era (both unitarian and trinitarian) Bishop Madison "revised" the biblical record and "read in" a republicanism that is not there. Where the Bible speaks of a KINGDOM of Heaven, Bishop Madison, we are told, spoke of a REPUBLIC of Heaven.

Madison's radicalism is evident in his 1795 Sermon MANIFESTATIONS OF THE BENEFICENCE OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE TOWARDS AMERICA, where he noted:

How was the human race to be restored to their inherent rights, rights, which the God of nature consecrated at the birth of every individual?...How were those sentiments of equality, benevolence and fraternity, which reason, and religion, and nature enjoin, to reassume their sovereignty over the human soul,...? How could the principles of a revolution so important, so essential for the happiness of the human species, be generated, but by raising up, as it were, a new race of men, in some remote, some blessed clime, where, from their infancy, unfettered by those errors, which time appears to sanctify, they should be trained not only to a knowledge, but to a just sense of the duty of asserting and maintaining their rights; and above all, where the love of equality, the basis of all rights and all social happiness, should be congenial to man? This favoured region, favoured indeed of heaven, is America. It is here, a knowledge of those political truths, which the immortal Sydneys and the Lockes of former years investigated with philosophic eye, bursts spontaneous forth. It is here, that men, led by the hand of nature, their minds unawed and unobscured by opinions and customs as barbarous and unfriendly to social rights as the dark chaotic ages, which gave them birth, see and acknowledge as axioms, what philosophers have toiled to establish by deductions, long and intricate. It is in America, that the germs of the universal redemption of the human race from domination and oppression have already begun to be developed; it is in America, that we see a redintegration of divine love for man, and that the voice of heaven itself seems to call to her sons, go ye forth and disciple all nations, and spread among them the gospel of equality and fraternity.

This is important to note: Madison's sermon was dressed up in explicitly Christian language, and indeed arguably has rights to the "Christian" label (I don't want to cast doubt on Madison's religious sincerity). The instructive lesson is that sometimes Enlightenment radicalism presents itself as "Christian." Think of Bishop Madison as one of the earliest "liberation theologists."

On page 61 of Crowe's JSTOR article, we are told that, in 1797, Bishop Madison supported the French Revolution and thought of the American executive power as an "organ of the general will." I've uploaded page 63 of Crowe's article which quotes Madison speaking in more detail about his endorsement of the "general will," (for those unaware, "general will" is a term/concept posited by Rousseau and is central to his political philosophy):

Bishop Madison's sentiments also illustrate that the American Revolution was key in inspiring the French Revolution and consequently, Jacobinism, or the idea of spreading "liberal democracy" or "republican revolutions" to the entire world. The model of the American Revolution, Madison noted, "will redeem the captive nations of the earth." Madison believed that the liberal democratic or republic revolution that America perfected

will not be arrested in its progress, until the complete restoration of the human race to their inherent rights be accomplished, throughout the globe. Let the tyrants of the earth set themselves in array against this principle; “they shall be chased as the chaff of the mountain before the wind, and like the down of the thistle before the whirlwind.”

Bishop Madison sounds not unlike the neo-conservative Straussian Francis Fukuyama (before he was spooked by the second Iraq War) when he noted to CSPAN's Brian Lamb:

Now, by the French Revolution, we don’t mean just the limited historical event; what we mean is the emergence of what we understand as modern liberal democracy because in the French Revolution, ultimately what it was about was a revolution in favor of the principles of liberty and equality. Now you could substitute the American Revolution for that because, I think in that kind of ideological sense, those two revolutions were equivalent. I mean, they were both revolutions to create what I earlier defined as a liberal democracy as a political system based on popular sovereignty with guarantees of individual rights.

[The thesis of Fukuyama's book, "The End of History and the Last Man," was that Bishop Madison's/the French Revolution's idea of global liberal democracy would soon bear fruition. Though as post-modern philosophers, the East Coast Straussians (of which Fukuyama is one), don't believe in any kind of viable, God-given, "natural rights" justification for liberal democracy (i.e., what was argued during the Founding era by Bishop Madison and America's Founders), but rather thought that a Hegelian sense of "History" would vindicate the concept.]

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inspiration Abounds At American Creation

Just when I was beginning to think that we were more full of hot air than honest historical discourse, John Fea of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog rushed in to save the day! It is he who has bestowed upon us all the distinguished and illustrious 2009 Inspiration Award, which is reserved exclusively for "inspiring" blogs like this one (those in the peanut gallery can quit laughing now).

As part of this award, it now becomes our responsibility to recognize 5-7 other "inspirational" blogs, which also deserve this, the grandest of awards! I hope that my fellow blog will not be offended at these selections. Normally we try to be democratic around here, but right now I just don't have the time. And the winners are:

1.) Religion in American History: This blog won for Best New History Blog in 2007 by History News Network -- the same bastards that stiffed us this year -- =). The blog is dedicated to all things related to the history of religion in American history, and is directed by none other than the legendary Paul Harvey!!!

2.) Ponderings on a Faith Journey: This blog is the work of Pastor/Dr. Robert Cornwall, who is Pastor of the Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan. Pastor Cornwall's blog is an ELEGANT mixture of history, religion, politics and personal reflection, all of which provides the reader with a delicious cornucopia of intellectual sophistication!

3.) Vast Public Indifference: Even though this blog is the work of a TRAITOR to American Creation, Caitlin Hopkins, a graduate student of history at Harvard, has assembled a vivacious assortment of historical brilliance that focuses on early American history, with a particular affinity for graves!

4.) The Historic Present: As the personal blog of our Puritan liaison here at American Creation, Dr. Lori Stokes adopts an all-or-nothing, in your face approach to 17th century American history. It's the power and intimidation of Chuck Norris and Rambo, meets the wisdom and finesse of Yoda and Gandhi!

5.) American Revolution and Founding Era: Brian Tubbs, who often plays the role of The Lone Ranger here at American Creation for his stalwart defense of the more conservative persuasion, is a pit bull to say the least. Though he is a man of the cloth, don't be deceived or underestimate the man, for Mr. Tubbs is a man who knows his history -- and he'll kick your ass to prove it!

6.) Positive Liberty: Yes, they may be a bunch of Libertarians, but the folks over at Positive Liberty have amassed an impressive following to say the least. This is an all star cast of some top dogs whose bark is every bit as powerful as their bite! Their "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality makes them a hallmark blog here on the World Wide Web.

George Washington's Theistic Rationalism

At American Creation, Tom Van Dyke comments:

I hear Hamilton and were Washington were "theistic rationalists" all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.

I'll save Hamilton for a later day and focus on Washington. I respectfully disagree. I could just as easily turn this around and state:

I hear Washington was an orthodox Christian all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.

Elsewhere Tom noted Washington's Farewell Address where he stated:

"The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles." [Emphasis added.]

In his PhD thesis, Dr. Gregg Frazer quotes this as evidence of Washington's theistic rationalism, not his orthodox Christianity. And that's because the people of the United States were not all orthodox Christians. So whatever this "same religion" was, it was NOT orthodox Christianity. Washington knew there were theological unitarians among them. Indeed, the 2nd & 3rd Presidents who followed him were theological unitarians. And one bit of eyewitness testimony from George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library, claims Madison identified as a "unitarian." Washington himself may have been a theological unitarian (he certainly didn't talk in Trinitarian terms). Washington gave his imprimatur to an address by Richard Price that slammed the Trinity.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Trinitarian Universalists who denied eternal damnation. As he wrote to them:

I thank you cordially for the congratulations, which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.

Further, Washington defended the Universalist John Murray as a Chaplain.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Swedenborgians, who taught an extremely novel view of the Godhead that was neither Unitarian nor Trinitarian. As he wrote to them:

But to the manifest interpretation of an over-ruling Providence, and to the patriotic exertions of United America, are to be ascribed those events which have given us a respectable rank among the nations of the earth. --

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.

Your Prayers for my present and future felicity were received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities, taste those blessings which a gracious God bestows upon the Righteous.

Washington also knew of Jews and recognized their civil and religious rights under US law, which destroys the claim that some Christian Nationalists posit that "religion" in the US Constitution originally meant "Christianity" only. As he wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Washington also knew of Roman Catholics in America and didn't seem to have a problem them. As he wrote:

And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

Finally, on the American Indians. I've noted before, when speaking to unconverted Natives, twice Washington termed God "The Great Spirit" (actually prayed to that name) intimating that UN-converted Natives worshipped the same God that Christians do. I've also read every single time Washington approved of converting the Natives to Christianity and it was never for orthodox reasons. The orthodox reason is Indians are in a state of spiritual darkness, they worship a false god and need to be saved. Washington's reasons were either the Indians wanted to convert and/or converting the Indians to Christianity helped to better civilize and assimilate them.

So now go back and rethink the passage in Washington's Farewell Address where he noted, "With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion,..." Unitarian or Trinitarian (or like the Swedenborgs, neither), eternal damnation or universal salvation, Roman Catholic or Protestant, indeed perhaps Jewish, Christian, or Native American spirituality, it's all the "same religion," the differences among them being only "slight shades." This is not orthodox Christian political theology, but rather what Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Bit More on American Constitutionalism and Imagined Communities

As I quoted in the post below, historian Gordon Wood has noted that the United States "was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language or religion." As a result, we have a unique way of establishing our nationhood that is, in many ways, different from other nations around the world. In the following video, Gordon Wood goes more in depth into the development of American constitutionalism and nationalism. If you are interested in this topic the video will be worth your time. Start the video at 12:00. That way you can avoid all of the stupid introductory crap!

American Atonement, Part I

Is "Christian America"
an Imagined Community?

by Brad Hart

Hello again, everyone. Being that this is the first of many posts that will focus on my research into the origins and evolution of the "Christian Nation" movement, I thought I would begin by throwing out a couple of general ideas and seeing what everyone thinks.

In his highly acclaimed book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson presents the argument that a nation:

is an imagined political community -- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lies the image of their is limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations...Finally it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is the fraternity that makes it possible. (6-7).
Anderson makes specific mention of three unique characteristics that all imagined communities embrace: First, a recognition that a large number of citizens, who will never meet in person, embrace the same shared values, which become the framework of the imagined community. Second, the imagined community has finite boundaries that are exclusive and restricted. Third, the imagined community shares in a collective "brotherhood" of devotion to the nation.

So how do we apply these concepts to the "Christian Nation?" First, apologists of the Christian Nation regularly point out that it is they who share the same values and beliefs as our founding fathers. And even though they have never met an American of the 18th century, the Christian Nation has incorporated them into their imagined community, just as a nation today incorporates its vast citizenry into a collective unity. In addition, "Christian Nationalists," who insist that America was founded exclusively through a devotion to Christian principles, have created an exclusive "boundary," which shuns alternate interpretations of America's founding. And finally, the Christian Nation has successfully woven religion, politics and history into a common web, which has inspired a "brotherhood" of sorts amongst its followers. Their collective goal to "save" America's true Christian heritage has become the glue that unites the religious with the political, all of which inspires its followers to a communal devotion to the basic principles of the Christian nation.

But why get so hung up on America's founding history? After all, the history of the United States spans across two centuries and has seen a number of dramatic religious moments. Perhaps historian Gordon Wood answers this question best in his book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. Wood writes:

America's Founding Fathers, or the founders, as our antipatriarchal climate now prefers, have a special significance for Americans...No other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the same manner...The British don;t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts the way we seem to check in with Jefferson or Washington. We Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now. Why should this be so?

Scholars have a variety of answers. Some suggest that our continual concern with constitutional jurisprudence and original intent accounts for our fascination with the founding and the making of the Constitution. Still others think that we use these eighteenth-century figures in order to recover what was wise and valuable in America's past. They believe that the founders have become standards against which we measure our current political leaders. Why don't we have such leaders today? seems to be the implicit question many Americans ask.

Others quite sensibly think that the interest in the revolutionary generation has to do with an American sense of identity. The identities of other nations, say, being French or German, are list on the mists of time and usually taken for granted (the reason why such nations are having greater problems with immigrants than we are). But Americans became a nation in 1776, and thus, in order to know who we are, we need to know who our founders are. The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language or religion. Since we are not a nation in any traditional sense of the term, in order to establish our nationhood, we have to reaffirm and reinforce periodically the values of the men who declared independence from Great Britain and framed the Constitution. As long as the republic endures, in other words, Americans are destined to look back to its founding.
As a result, it is only natural that an imagined community within the United States would have to find a way to incorporate the original founders of this nation into their shared communal identity, and such has been the case with the "Christian Nationalists."

Your thoughts...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dave Welch Misses on Inaugural Prayers

Sometimes I think we criticize David Barton too much. However, if you want a good example of why we keep hammering him, see Dave Welch's latest article from WorldNetDaily. In it he repeats one of Barton's phony, "unconfirmed" quotations. This one attributed to Patrick Henry:

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here."

One reason why these quotations refuse to die, I think, is because they are so on point to the "Christian Nation" argument. Take them away and the Christian Nation claim practically collapses.

The overall context of Welch's post is that he disagreed with having an openly gay Christian Bishop, Gene Robinson, give a prayer at the Inaugural. He also balked at Robinson's objection to making the prayer too exclusively "Christian," and the intimation that public prayers should be inclusive. The following briefly captures Welch's argument:

Given the fact that Christianity has historically been recognized as the majority religion in the United States since our founding, it should not shock the good bishop that the inaugural prayers reflect that reality. Even given the increase of religious plurality and other religions in recent years, Christianity still receives the adherence of over 75 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Since George Washington spontaneously added, "So help me, God," to the oath of the president in his first inauguration, recognition of our allegiance to, dependence upon and desire for blessings by God have been integral to the ceremony. Since the modern recording of inaugural prayers in 1937, all clergy have been Protestant or Catholic Christians, with eight rabbis participating through those years to recognize the deep, historic connection of those faiths.

I'll ignore the assertion of the historically unsubstantiated fact that "Washington spontaneously added, 'So help me, God,' to the oath of the president in his first inauguration," as that is the territory of my co-blogger at American Creation, Ray Soller. But yes, around 80% of Americans identify as "Christians" today as did 98% during the Founding era. Today that includes men like Gene Robinson and Obama himself. And during the Founding era it included men like Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, a figure Welch appealed to in an earlier article, a theological unitarian, which according to Welch's strict standards for "Christianity," arguably disqualifies Mayhew from the "Christian" label.

Further if you examine the public God talk of America's first 4 Presidents, you see a systematic effort at generic, philosophical inclusive titles for God. They may have been compatible with orthodox Christianity, but were also compatible with all sorts of non-Christian theological systems. Even Justice Scalia in his dissent in the most recent Supreme Ten Commandments case caught this nuance when he wrote:

All of the actions of Washington and the First Congress upon which I have relied, virtually all Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout our history, and all the other examples of our Government’s favoring religion that I have cited, have invoked God, but not Jesus Christ.

Scalia therefore concludes: “This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not)”....

This is what American Civil Religion is all about: Invoking a Providence, but doing our best to make such a concept as inclusive as possible in a religiously pluralistic society. The pluralism of the Founding era was not quite the pluralism of today (the Unitarians and liberal Christian Churches weren't marrying same sex couples). However, make no mistake, America was founded to be a religiously pluralistic nation, with all of those different "factions" -- some Christian, some not, and some debatable as to whether the term "Christian" is properly applied to them at all -- being united in an overriding undefined "Providence." That, not the phony quotation of Patrick Henry that Welch recites as capstone to his argument, is what America's religious Foundations are all about.

And if one's understanding of "Christianity" is theologically orthodox, holds Christ the only way to God, and other non-Christian (or even non-Trinitarian) religions to be "false," then the American Founding's concept of "publick religion" will not speak to you, and you should take such with a grain of salt and not rely on it in positing your worldview of "spiritual discernment."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

George Washington, the Oath of Office, and So Help Me God

At the request of Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts today added the words "So Help Me God" to the presidential oath, continuing a tradition that -- at least -- dates back to Chester A. Arthur and may go back even further.

The Debate Over Four Simple Words

Objections to adding "So Help Me God" have intensified in recent years, due to activists such as Michael Newdow and American Creation's very own Ray Soller. They contend that prompting an incoming President to say "so help me God" amounts to a "religious test" (which, of course, is expressly forbidden by our Constitution) and that it's not reflective of the will of the Founders. This latter point is in dispute, as historical tradition generally holds that "so help me God" was added by our first President, the Father of our Country, George Washington.

Here is where the debate gets intense. The secularists (for lack of a better term) insist that there's no direct, eyewitness testimony to place "so help me God" on the lips of President Washington at his inauguration. They contend it's a historical "legend" fostered by Washington Irving. Since Washington didn't say the words, they contend, modern Presidents should not either.

Unraveling the Real Agenda Against "So Help Me God"

There are several fundamental flaws with the secularist argument:

1. Not all "legends" are false. There are many things in history we call "legend" and which we do NOT know to be false. In other words, the jury is out on some of them. In some cases, the legend may, in fact, be true (or at least close to the truth). And, in the cases where it's not true, it may still be partly true or at least be based on true events.

2. Assertion isn't reality. Secularists can't have it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that the oft-repeated tradition that Washington added "so help me God" shouldn't be believed, simply because it's been repeated over the years. Okay. Fine. If that's the case, then let's apply the same logic the other way. Just because secularists are now calling Washington's "so help me God" addition a "myth" doesn't make it a myth. The truth (the real truth) stands apart from our assertions - regardless of which side we're on.

3. There is a difference between "oral tradition" and a "legend" or "myth." By calling an event or claim of history a "legend," one automatically calls it into question. This is the power of language. Yet, if we analyze this issue carefully, it's more appropriate to call Washington Irving's recollection of George Washington's inaugural swearing-in "oral tradition" and not a "legend." And oral tradition carries weight in historical circles (or at least it used to).

4. The absence of direct evidence doesn't automatically overturn historical tradition, which itself is bolstered by indirect evidence. The best way to illustrate this point is by example. How early did people celebrate Christmas? The earliest known reference to the celebration of Christmas (as an official feast or celebration on December 25) is in the mid-4th century. Does that mean that this was the earliest Christmas was celebrated? Not necessarily. It only means that we lack documentary proof of Christmas celebrations prior to the mid-4th century. Likewise, the ONLY thing that Mr. Soller, Mr. Newdow, and others have established (and that Mount Vernon and the Library of Congress have conceded) is that there's no direct, documentary evidence to prove that Washington said "so help me God." Forgive the double negative here, but this does NOT automatically or necessarily prove that Washington didn't say the words.

5. Secularists argue that George Washington was a stickler for rule and detail, and that it would have been "uncharacteristic" for him to add "so help me God" to the presidential oath. This is another example of the secularists picking and choosing their facts. The argument that it would have been uncharacteristic for Washington to add "so help me God" is one of the most foolish contentions made in this debate. One only needs to read Washington's First Inaugural Address to see that our first President intentionally and emphatically made God a part of the proceedings.

" would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either...."

Now read this next part VERY CAREFULLY....

"... You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."

George Washington makes it clear (for those willing to see clearly, that is) that the "proceedings" of the inauguration of the new government - the one over which Washington would preside - should be "commenced" with "fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe." And that the American people should obey and adore the "Invisible Hand" (see the full text of the speech) that providentially guides the nation.

You're going to tell me that it would have been UNCHARACTERISTIC for George Washington (after saying all the above - and more - about God) to have said (even if it were only a whisper) "so help me God" at the end of the oath!!!????


To hear me interviewed on this subject, visit "Why The Controversy Over Religion at the Inaugural?" over at the "American Revolution & Founding Era" blog.


6. If Washington said "so help me God" at the end of the oath, it was probably uttered as a personal sentiment (from his standpoint) and not as part of any official oath. I believe Washington would AGREE with the argument that a Chief Justice shouldn't require an incoming President to say "so help me God." For that matter, I agree with that point. The Constitution is clear that no religious test can be forced on a federal official, but....

The Constitution is also clear that we have the right to the "free exercise" of our religion. And, quite frankly, that includes incoming Presidents.

As to whether a President should have to opt-IN as opposed to opting OUT of saying the words, let me simply point to a few democratic realities. Depending on what poll you read, 85-95% of the American people believe in God. Similar polls have shown that the American people overwhelmingly want their President to be a person of faith. Given this reality, it's clear that the culture (and that includes inaugural ceremonies) will reflect the majority will of the people.

7. The First Amendment doesn't protect anyone from being offended or uncomfortable. This idea that our public square has to be free from all religious verbage or symbolism because it makes some people feel "uncomfortable" or it "offends" them is, frankly, a pile of what old farmers call fertilizer. Now, I don't mean to be impolite here, but this really gets me frustrated. I remember a few years ago, students in a public school voted something like 490 to 96 to have STUDENT-led prayer over the loudspeaker in the mornings. Well, some folks on the losing side of that vote do what many liberal activists do when they can't win at the ballot box - they sued in court. And the courts, typical of liberal judicial activism, ruled against those 490 students!

This is the same thing - only at a bigger level. You've got, what, 10% or (I'll be generous) 20% of the American people who want a 100% secular public square (with no mention of God whatsoever), and they are trying to force that into reality via the court system.

For one thing, a 100% secular public square (with no mention of God) is nowhere near what the Founding Fathers envisioned! And for another, it's not what an overwhelming majority of the American people want.

I appreciate the time and scholarship that many people, including our own Mr. Soller, have put into this issue. And I always appreciate it when people engage in civic participation.

But, in my opinion, this issue has been blown way out of proportion. The phrase "much adoo about nothing" comes to mind!

If the American people ever elect an atheist President, THEN and ONLY THEN will secularists like Messrs. Newdow and Soller have a case to make. But the day Americans vote in an atheist for President is probably a long way off - and, in my opinion, I'm glad for that. And I'm sure the Founders would be as well.

Inauguration Thoughts

Congratulations to our Ray Soller for pretty much single-handedly setting the historical record straight about whether George Washington said "So help me God" at his inauguration. There is no reason except legend to believe so: there is absolutely zero first-hand testimony.

[USA Today picked up the story, but rudely omitted Mr. Soller's contribution.]


On the silly front, there was a jumble today when Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath to Barack Obama. See the comments under this news report---partisans from left and right blamed the other "side" for the screw-up.

Even more troubling is that here's the video, and the commenters can't even agree about what they saw!

For the record, it seems Obama jumped in early with the first line, then Roberts proceeded to put the word "faithfully" in the wrong place, and then it all went a bit squirrelly after that. But hey, I could be wrong. But some commenters charged Roberts with being as stupid as Dubya, and others charged that Roberts screwed up on purpose just to make Obama look bad. Some from the right flatly asserted it was Obama who screwed up the "faithful" part.

Sometimes I do wonder about our chances around here of ever finding any truth, when people can look at a video and disagree about what they see. There are no videos of the Founding.


To return to "So help me God" for a moment, the secular activist Michael Newdow [for whom Ray Soller did research] recently sued to bar Justice Roberts from using "so help me God" in the oath for Obama to repeat, since the phrase doesn't appear in the oath of office as written.

Newdow lost his bid
for an injunction, but will appeal with an eye to 2013.

When Justice John Paul Stevens administered the oath to VP Joe Biden today, he said, "So help me God" for Biden to repeat, which he did.

However, Justice Roberts instead made it a question---"So help you God?"

"So help me God," replied President Obama.

Newdow's initial bid for an injunction was denied on First Amendment grounds of Obama's right to free expression of religion. It's possible that by turning the phrase into a question, Justice Roberts may have found a clever way around Newdow's very narrow argument that the Chief Justice, as a government official, cannot issue religious tests. Since one may swear or affirm in taking the oath, to tell the Chief Justice beforehand that one intends to swear might be enough to dodge the prohibition against religious tests.

Now, whether that argument would hold up throughout the appeal process, who knows? But I have no doubt that the Chief Justice rephrased "So help me God" as a question precisely with Michael Newdow and his ilk in mind. Or perhaps it was President Obama's idea. I think we'll find out more about this...