Monday, January 5, 2009

American Was Founded to be A Religious Not a Christian or a Secular Nation

I often criticize the "Christian Nationalists" for what I see as misrepresenting history. I've been, in turn, called a "Secular Nationalist." I admit from a policy standpoint I'm somewhat sympathetic to secularism (a soft secularism) and when beginning researching this issue I expected to find more evidence of a secular deistic Founding. However, what I found was the Founders (at least the key Founders -- all of the early Presidents) intended America to be a religious, not necessarily a Christian Nation. And from the perspective of orthodox Christianity, those key Founders themselves were "religious" but not "Christians." So the charge against me that I am a "secular nationalist" is patently false.

This thesis is controversial to both sides. The hard core secularists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris attack "religion" in general; they don't signal out Christianity and don't want America's Founders to have appreciated the variety of religions they criticize. They want them to be atheists or strict Deists along the lines of Thomas Paine who thought all of these religious systems to be "no good."

Traditional Christians on the other hand want orthodox Christianity to "own" the Founding to the exclusion of other religions.

I think of one Christian Nationalist blogger (no dummy, and his two favorite figures are David Barton and D. James Kennedy) who has said things along the lines of the FFs thought government should publicly support "Christianity" not other religions. And then he defined "Christianity" with orthodoxy and noted it would be therefore inappropriate for America to support Mormonism, because it is not "Christianity" but another religion.

If you pin down most other Christian Nationalists, I'm sure you'd be able to get them to make assertions/conclusions like this.

And traditional Christians otherwise have a problem with the notion of "religion in general." Take for instance Thomas West, a conservative scholar for whom I have a great deal of respect. He writes:

There is no such thing as "religion in general." All meaningful government support of religion is always support of a particular religious view, as 19th-century Catholics bitterly experienced. Today, support of "religion in general" would include taxpayer funding of Wiccans, Satanists, Muslims (including those who teach hatred of America), and worshippers of that favorite goddess of some feminists, "Our Sweet Sophia."

On sound theological grounds, West may be right to debunk "religion in general." His problem is 1) the key Founders believed in this illusion, and that 2) that's what they protected in the US Constitution -- "religion" not "Christianity." Now, the entire notion of "natural law/rights" has been, some prominent scholars argue, debunked in a metaphysical sense (Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law says it's like believing "ghosts"). West's prime mission as a scholar is to "vindicate" the Founding against such debunking. So he might want to exercise more caution when he tries to debunk religion in general, because it only serves to debunk what he's trying to vindicate.

Now, I won't try to defend the idea that the Founders included Satanists in their vision for "religion in general." But the following is a list of "religions" which they believed were "sound" and valid ways to God: Orthodox or unorthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, certain forms of Deism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Native American spirituality and pagan Greco-Romanism. Putting them together, you certainly get "religion in general" not "Christianity in particular."

Some quotations:

“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.

"θεμις was the goddess of honesty, justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations, and councils. She commanded all mortals to pray to Jupiter for all lawful benefits and blessings. Now, is not this (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion? Is not this Christian piety? Is it not an acknowledgment of the existence of a Supreme Being, of his universal Providence, of a righteous administration of the government of the universe? And what can Jews, Christians, or Mahometans do more?"

-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, October 4, 1813.

"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.

"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."

-- Ben Franklin, Autobiography.

“Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world!…We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.”

– Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809

“Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one….Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means.” [Bold mine.]

– Benjamin Franklin, “Dialogue between Two Presbyterians,” April 10, 1735.

The following quotations concern "The Great Spirit" which was the unconverted Natives' specific God term. This is important because the Natives were (as far as I know) the largest population of non-identifactory Christians during Founding era America and as Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison all used that term by name suggesting it was the same "Providence" Christians, Jews and Muslims worshipped and thus a valid way to God.

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

-- George Washington, TALK TO THE CHEROKEE NATION, August 29, 1796.

"I now sincerely wish you a good Journey and hope you may find your [families and] Brothers well on your Return, and that [the Great Spirit above] may long preserve your Nations in peace with each other and with the United States."


Note, one of Washington's aides wrote this speech and Washington HIMSELF crossed out the word "God" and wrote in "the Great Spirit above."

"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."

-- Thomas Jefferson, to the Choctaw Indians, 1803.

"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."

-- Thomas Jefferson, to the Cherokee Nation, 1806.

"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!"

-- James Madison, to the Cherokee Indians in 1812.

Finally, here is a quotation by Benjamin Rush. Rush was a Trinitarian Universalist. The following illustrates that he believed the people were free to choose Christianity as religion which they wanted to see inculcated in America. I suppose it's a soft version of the Christian Nation idea. However, he also notes the concept of religion in general about which I speak, thus simultaneously argues for a soft version of that standard. The content of "sound religion" is not anything particularly Christian (i.e., Christ's atonement) but rather the teaching of the existence of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments. Note how what I put in bold can connect Christianity with all sorts of exotic world religions (see the quotations from Adams above connecting it to Hinduism and pagan Greco-Romanism).

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.

-- Benjamin Rush, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.

Note the negotiability of "Christianity" as the religion which government should support or teach. It is something Rush merely "recommends," not some kind of essentially true religion to the exclusion of false religions that forms the foundation of America's public, organic, principles.

All of this is why I believe the religion spoken of in the Declaration of Independence is a far more generic inclusive natural religion, than anything particularly or exclusively Christian.


Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

I'm taking off on a trip as I type, but I've printed this out and will reply on my return. Looks good in terms of outlining what you are trying to establish.

My only request would be that more of your quotes address specifically the role of religion in government and the health of the nation. Your Rush quote works that way for me; some of the others less so. I'm sure you have more of them, it's just a matter of selection.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for this Kristo. Though I wonder why you think the Rush quotation works way more for you. Orthodox Christianity, as I understand the teaching, does not venerate Confucianism or Islam at all, but rather sees such as "false teachings." But perhaps I am sweeping too broad in thinking orthodox Christianity so narrow.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, you show the difficulty if not impossibility of arguing this theisis without depending on the private and confidential writings of Jefferson and Adams after they left public office.

You would have to argue why they're relevant or anywhere close to the mainstream. I don't believe you can, as evidenced by the fact they kept their letters confidental, and further, they often discuss ideas they hadn't even developed when they were participating in the Founding.

These arguments of a "we are the world, all religions are interchangable" unitarianism in the Founding become pretty thin gruel without the questionable Adams-Jefferson correspondence.

Your Franklin quote refers only to a private forum for comparative theology and is not relevant to the Founding itself.

The quotes about the Great Spirit are efforts to create a commonality with the Native Americans; the Founders, including Washington himself, supported efforts to evangelize the Gospel to them.

Neither are the kind words above for Islam backed by any evidence I've seen that they even knew much about Islam except it claimed to worship the Abrahamic God. Their support of it is abstract and ideological, not founded on any informed conclusion about Islam's compatibility with republicanism and therefore social utility.


"I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles."

should be kept in mind we consider the secular ideology that controls our schools in 2009. What Rush most feared has happened.

[And BTW, the concept of imago Dei is firmly embedded in this continuation of your quote of Benjamin Rush:]

"The history of the creation of man, and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament, is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings, and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind. A Christian, I say again, cannot fail of being a republican, for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness, which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy and the pageantry of a court. A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teacheth him, that no man "liveth to himself." And lastly, a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teacheth him, in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him."

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, I think most evangelical Christians today would be more than comfortable with an American government and society that truly embraced a "generic inclusive natural religion" (such as retaining "In God We Trust" on our coins, keeping "Under God" in the Pledge, allowing inaugural prayers, and re-allowing generic prayers at high school graduations, etc.). Most Christians today would settle for that, with the understanding that spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ is NOT the purview or responsibility of the state, but rather the Christian church.

Jonathan Rowe said...


That gets us back to what has inaptly been termed "ceremonial deism" -- a better term which would have been "ceremonial theism." Because of what I've learned researching the Founding, I can't oppose "ceremonial theism" on originalist constitutional grounds, even though as a policy I don't want to do anything that offends atheists, agnostics, or polytheists -- makes them feel like second class citizens.

Jonathan Rowe said...

You would have to argue why they're relevant or anywhere close to the mainstream.

Tom we are talking about the 2ND and 3RD Presidents of the United States of America. I think that covers both the "relevant" and the "mainstream" critique. John Adams was nothing if not "mainstream."

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

I think it's fair to say that John Adams was a mainstream Massachusetts Unitarian.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom we are talking about the 2ND and 3RD Presidents of the United States of America. I think that covers both the "relevant" and the "mainstream" critique. John Adams was nothing if not "mainstream."

I simply won't drop the point, Jon. These letters were private, and from after their presidencies. It is with their public lives that we're concerned, the objective, not the subjective. You yourself have allowed that has these thoughts been known to the public, neither would have ever got elected president.

Further, if these thoughts were indeed mainstream, it would be easy for you to use other Founders to prove it, as the sentiments would be fairly universal. You should be able to make your case without them, but I don't believe you can do that. Certainly the Washington, Madison, Franklin and Rush you just trotted out make for a pale case---and indeed often argue for the exact opposite, as in the case of the evangelization of the Gospel to the natives, and in Benjamin Rush's desire for Christian education.

Now, I give some weight, although not a lot, to their private thoughts while they were in public life. I have my doubts about Ronald Reagan's "orthodoxy," and would reserve my use of him to his public life as well.

Same is true of Dubya and Bill Clinton, and as for Jimmy Carter, well, let's not go there...

As for John Adams' post-presidential theological musings, they're not mainstream, they're sophomoric and asinine. I haven't even bothered to refute his clippings of a quote here and a paragraph there because of their lack of intellectual rigor.

When he writes,

"θεμις was the goddess of honesty, justice, decency, and right; the wife of Jove, another name for Juno. She presided over all oracles, deliberations, and councils. She commanded all mortals to pray to Jupiter for all lawful benefits and blessings. Now, is not this (so far forth) the essence of Christian devotion?

I think, no, it's not the "essence," rigidly biased ideological reductionism. For one, the Greco-Roman vision of the afterlife as the dull gray Hades has nothing to do with the Christian heaven or the beatific vision. I could go on, but Adams is irrelevant anyway, and often laughable. His theory about the religious wisdom of the ancients being destroyed by some churchly cabal is the stuff of cranks, not mainstream Founding religious thought.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't want you to drop the point; I think it's an valuable critique. I also respect your categorizing Adams beliefs as "crank[ish]," "sophomoric," "asinine" and "lack[ing] of intellectual rigor." However, I will never accept it as "irrelevant." Every single thing that Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison did, because they were our first four Presidents, is relevant, in principle, to the soul of America. If there are four most important Founders, it's them. I think Hamilton, Franklin, and Wilson are very important as well. But not as important as those four.

Jefferson and Adams, in their correspondence, believed that they were writing for future ages; they knew their key roles and as such their correspondence would be picked up by later inquiring minds like ours.

And this in turn, may have fueled, what (I think) you (and many others, like Dr. Frazer) see as a problem: Their big heads or intellectual arrogance (pride) or hubris.

Personally I don't hold traditional Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity) to be sacred, so I can laugh at/with their critiques. But I totally understand from the perspective of a devout orthodox Christian why they might take serious umbrage with these heterodox sentiments.

What I reproduced above from Adams certainly qualifies as something with which religious traditionalists would strongly object; but I think (from that perspective) the worst thing he did was claim even if he were on Mt. Sinai with Moses and God Himself revealed to him the Trinity, he still wouldn't believe it because reason proves 1+1+1=3 not 1.

I also think George Washington's systematically turning his back on the Lord's Supper (a quasi-public act) qualifies as did Ben Franklin's claiming to Ezra Stiles that he need not "busy" himself with the question of Jesus' divinity because he'll find out shortly enough.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re "mainstream" Founding thought: It's generic. If you look at Adams' and Jefferson's public God talk you'll a few telling things: 1) It was almost entirely compatible with their heterodox sentiments as found in their private letters; 2) it was also compatible with prevailing orthodox sentiments; 3) hence they had to "thread the needle" by speaking in generic philosophical terms that didn't offend either their private sentiments or the sentiments of public orthodoxy that they could not buck; 4) Washington's and Madison's public God talk was every bit as generic as Adams' and Jefferson's -- in fact, remarkably similar; and 5) Washington's and Madison's (and many other Founders') private letters were, on personal religious matters, "sphinx-like" as you once put it -- telling of the fact that personally they had something to hide or didn't believe in the orthodoxy whose tenets publicly it was not safe to "buck." Given that orthodoxy was something to which you could not buck publicly, but also, it was understood that "infidelity" or "heterodoxy" was quite a popular current that had to be kept on the down low, a way to tell the difference between the two was that the orthodox were not afraid to publicly OR privately speak their minds; but the heterodox were systematically cautious, and only revealed their secrets to their trusted confidences. So when I see systematic "sphinx-like" religious talk from not just Washington and Madison, but Hamilton (before the very end), Morris, Wilson and others, I count that as supporting my thesis.

And I think all of this leads to the conclusion that America, in principle, was not necessarily supposed to be about heterodoxy or rejecting orthodox Christian cows, but rather generic Providentialism (i.e., being "religious" but not necessarily "Christian"). The key FFs certainly wanted the orthodox to have their place at the table -- along with the heterodox like themselves and most other religions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But I totally understand from the perspective of a devout orthodox Christian why they might take serious umbrage with these heterodox sentiments.

Christ on a cracker, Jon, I hope you're not referring to me! Everything's on the table.

As for George Washington "turning his back" on the Lord's Supper, he did not. He left. Why he did, we do knot know. Perhaps he disbelieved int he Eucharist. Perhaps he felt unworthy of it.

As I'm too lazy to find the passage in the Book of Common Prayer, please look up what the minister is supposed to do when someone excommunicates himself. I belive that's what occurred in the case of GWashington.

To submit that Washington, who answered all religious letters like the Swedenborgians' with political grace and noncommittal, would "turn his back" on the Eucharist is to offer a Washington who doesn't jibe with the historical record.

And yes, John Adams' theology would embarrass any sophomore. Sorry, Jon. No thinking man would pick it up and run with it, and no thinking man ever did.