Friday, January 9, 2009

John Adams, Christianity, & Civil Religion

Kristo Miettinen has a post at American Creation on John Adams' personal heterodox religion and his promotion of Christianity in the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 he helped to pen. The relevant language in the state constitution is:

Article III

As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

And the people of this commonwealth have also a right to, and do, invest their legislature with authority to enjoin upon all the subjects an attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers aforesaid, at stated times and seasons, if there be any on whose instructions they can conscientiously and conveniently attend.

Provided, notwithstanding, that the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, shall, at all times, have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers, and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.

And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship, and of the public teachers aforesaid, shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid towards the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.

Any every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law: and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.

The conundrum is how could someone with with views as heterodox as Adams support such a thing? Miettinen writes:

Adams knew that virtue sufficient for civil society was found in men of many faiths, and he arguably even would have called all such men "Christian" regardless of faith, e.g. a pious Muslim who was a model of civic virtue might be pleasing to God, and saved, and therefore living the life Christ intended (thereby qualifying as Christian), despite never hearing of, or believing in, Christ.

This is not nearly the same thing as believing that a society that inculcates Islam in its citizens has the same prospects of success and virtue as a neighboring society that inculcates Christianity. One religion is better than the rest, at least on Adams' view, and that was the religion intended by Adams for America. It was a broad vision of Christianity that embraced Unitarianism (then based at Harvard and surging in Massachusetts) but probably not Universalism (or Catholicism).

I agree that Roman Catholicism was not Adams' cup of tea; Adams was arguably an anti-Catholic bigot. From a letter to Jefferson, May 1816:

"I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum."

Adams also remarked to Jefferson in 1821: "Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?"

However, Adams himself was a theological universalist in the sense of denying eternal damnation:

"I believe too in a future state of rewards and punishments too; but not eternal."

-- To Francis van der Kemp, July 13, 1815.

More importantly George Washington gave such theological universalism his imprimatur, which I think settles the matter that such was part of the civil religion. As he wrote to the Universalist Church in Philadelphia:


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. It is, moreover, my earnest desire, that all the members of every association or community, throughout the United States, may make such use of the auspicious years of peace, liberty, and free inquiry, with which they are now favored, as they shall hereafter find occasion to rejoice for having done.

With great satisfaction I embrace this opportunity to express my acknowledgments for the interest my affectionate fellow-citizens have taken in my recovery from a late dangerous indisposition; and I assure you, Gentlemen, that, in mentioning my obligations for the effusions of your benevolent wishes in my behalf, I feel animated with new zeal, that my conduct may ever be worthy of your favorable opinion, as well as such as shall, in every respect, best comport with the character of an intelligent and accountable being.

When John Adams in his personal letters made odd comments equating Christianity with Zeus worship or Hinduism, I think he was out of the mainstream. However, the idea that the "end" of religion was to make men moral, and as such, if the "end" was met, the means didn't matter -- hence all good people were "Christian" -- was quite mainstream among the key Founders.

First Franklin:

"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.”

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

J. Adams:

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

– To Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.


"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."

-- To Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.


"[F]or no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.

"I desire you to accept my acknowledgments for your laudable endeavours to render men sober, honest, and good Citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government."

-- George Washington, Letter to General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches, May 1789.

So subtract from civil Christianity justification through faith.

And for the sake of space I won't detail the key Founders' view on the Bible. I'll just assert it cannot be gleaned that they believed the Bible infallible. I have quotations from Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin rejecting such. And Washington and Madison never publicly held up the Bible an inerrant, infallible book. At best, a consensus dictates they believed the Bible at least partially inspired, many believing it more, some believing it less.

So we end up with a civil Christianity that lacks belief in 1) the Trinity and related orthodox doctrines, 2) eternal damnation, 3) justification through faith, and 4) the infallibility of the Bible.

And because virtue is central to this public creed, if it can be found in other religions, they too have a place at the table of "publick religion."

Is there a problem here? I would say yes. The same political theological problem exists today as it did during the Founding era. Lot's of things have changed since then, but this, I assert, is not one of them: The "orthodox" do not consider what's outlined in those four points to be "real Christianity." Rather, they are poison pills.

The way the Founders initially threaded this needle was leaving religion to the states. One irony of ironies is that Jefferson and Madison who handled state religion policy for Virginia that had the strongest degree of separation of Church & State and J. Adams who spearheaded Massachusetts' model that had the strongest degree of integration between Church & State possessed a personal religious creed that was agreed on the basics (i.e., a "rational Christianity" that denied the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, eternal damnation, and infallibility of the Bible).

And it's important to note that John Adams and many other New England Congregationalists thought this "rational Christianity" to be every bit of deserving public funds. But the orthodox did not. And that's because to them this "rational Christianity" was NOT Christianity, but, to use a present analogy, like Mormonism, a creed that calls itself Christianity but is not. When the orthodox scholar Gregg Frazer terms this creed "theistic rationalism" he is being true to this historic dynamic as well as the personal religious convictions of most orthodox Trinitarian Christians through out history.

The history of disestablishment in New England supports my analysis. In the mid to late 18th Century theological unitarians abounded as both ministers and laymen in the Congregational Church. Those very same churches also had orthodox Calvinists and the unitarians threaded the needle by just ignoring the divisive Trinitarian doctrines about which they differed. But slowly unitarianism came out of the closet. And when it did the orthodox Calvinists who did NOT think Unitarianism to be "Christianity" actively disfellowed themselves from the Unitarians and sought control over church property and establishment aid. They lost a series of decisions at the state level in Mass. (this was not a federal issue as of yet). Most notably was the Dedham decision which left much Church property and establishment aid in the hands of Unitarians.

As I noted above, this was, to the orthodox, a poison pill. That what they regarded as fake Christian heretics were getting government money under the auspices of being a "Protestant Christian" sect was too much for them. This was the impetus that led Massachusetts to finally disestablish in 1833.

Madison, of course, was well aware of these potential spats and that's what drove his Memorial and Remonstrance. Under the Virginia model, Christianity would get no public aid. As Jefferson's Statute (which Madison helped to see pass) famously notes:

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern,...

II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance argues for a "no cognizance" by government of religion standard. Madison, in his notes on the Mem. & Remon. informs in more detail why government has no right to take cognizance of religion. It has to do with this very issue that we are currently debating: What is Christianity?

In Roman numeral V of his notes, Madison ponders the question “What is Xnty?” This is relevant because in Patrick Henry's bill against which Madison remonstrated only “Christianity” and not other religions were eligible for aid. In V6 he discusses that some view the entire Bible as divinely inspired, some view only “essential parts” as divinely inspired; in V7 he notes some believe if a creed rejects certain key doctrines it is not Christian even if it calls itself Christian; in V8 he notes Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism, (the latter two are forms of theological unitarianism) asking which of them would qualify as “Christian” under the bill; and in II6 he notes the case of “primitive Christianity,” “Reformation” and “Dissenters formerly.” He concludes that unless Christianity is specifically defined in the bill, judges might have to answer what is heterodoxy v. what is orthodoxy. And that in turn will “dishonor Christianity.”

So Madison believed government itself had no natural right to decide what is Christianity? This is essential: If government is going to support Christianity and not other religions, it has to define Christianity, something by right, it could not do. And indeed, this is EXACTLY what ended up happening in Massachusetts. That state Supreme Court which had a number of Unitarians on the bench had to decide whether theological unitarianism qualified as "Christianity," and they held yes it did. To many orthodox this was akin to government declaring declaring a dog's tail is a fifth leg.

Of course, this problem is mostly (though not necessarily entirely) obviated by government granting rights to "religion" in general as opposed to Christianity in particular. And this is exactly what was done in the US Constitution.


Kristo Miettinen said...

Wow, Jon,

when you unleash a torrent like this without taking on my thesis, you seem to be conceding my thesis: at least as far as John Adams is concerned, the civic religion was protestant Christianity, not religion in general. Will you concede this?

If your only objection is that universalism (in its American Christian form) should be included, fine. That's pocket change in the bigger scheme of things. Adams was a Christian Nationist, and an unorthodox one. And my general argument is that America was founded as an unorthodox Christian nation.

Now, as to the rest of your torrent of text:

When you say "if the 'end' was met, the means didn't matter", you have yet to address my objection that what matters is not whether the end was met in this or that case, but rather what means are best for pursuing the end. Even imperfect means succeed from time to time; as they say, even blind squirrels find the occasional nut. The founders knew this and acknowledged it, but this does not make your case that generic religion is what they wanted inculcated in America.

Your four theses are misstated. They should be:
(1) Christianity that embraces a variety of theories on the nature of Christ and the Godhead;
(2) Christianity that beleives in damnation of the wicked, perhaps forever, but perhaps only for a really, really, long time;
(3) Christianity that embraces a variety of views on the interaction of faith and works;
(4) Christianity that embraces a variety of techniques for biblical hermeneutics, including at the extremes views that involve selecting only some portions of scripture for interpretation.

Your wordings are even too strong for me in their rejection of orthodoxy, despite my unorthodox Christian nation thesis. Orthodoxy on your four points was tolerated; it was other aspects of othodoxy where American intolerance of orthodoxy approached absolutism.

This nowhere suggests that other religions, understood to mean non-Christian religions, are part of the civic religion. If you still believe this, I suggest that you drop Adams from your supporting evidence.

As for Madison and Jefferson, you mustn't read too much into their differences with John Adams et al. They too showed their cards on the Christian nation issue, if only you look at them that way. See, for instance, Madison's reply to the Christian Nation pamphlet of Jasper Adams, which you yourself have linked before (thanks - I wouldn't otherwise know of it). What is remarkable is that Madison takes no issue with anything Jasper Adams says, he only reiterates his warning not to go so far as publicly funding Christian denominations, something Jasper was not asking for. As for the thesis of Adams' pamphlet, essentially the modern Christian Nation thesis, Madison endorses it both by acquiescence and with some flowery prose at the end that could be written off as a mere courtesy, were it not for the absence of a challenge to any point of Adams'.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I am currently working on a post right now; so this is going to be brief (I'm only going to respond to your first point.) I'll note one IMPORTANT thing. I am not interested in a tit for tat argument. For me this is not -- as an end -- an intellectual exercise (although, as a means, my mind certainly gets intellectually exercised); rather I have a thesis to posit and I'm sticking with it.

I agree with a lot of what you posit. To someone like OFT who argues for an "orthodox Christian" Founding civic religion, I'm bound to engage in a "tit for tat" as we disagree on most points.

Re your question, would I concede "as John Adams is concerned, the civic religion was protestant Christianity, not religion in general. Will you concede this?" My thesis demands I give a half concession. The half that I DO concede is yes, Adams believed his heterodox theology that was identical to his vision of a civic religion was a form of "Protestant Christianity." The other half needs to note 1) what Adams presented as a form of "Protestant Christianity" contains enough heterodoxy that many "orthodox" of the Founding era and today term it "not Christianity" but some "other" theological system. And 2) because Adams (like the other key FFs) stressed "virtue" as the sine qua non of civic religion, that opened doors to any religion that met that test. (Certainly because Mormons tend to live such moral lives they absolutely would meet Adams' test for "Christianity.") Hence what John Adams understood as "Protestant Christianity" arguably qualifies as "religion in general." See his quotation that all good men are "Christians." The orthodox on the other hand belive that Christianity is true and other religions are false; there are no good people; and consquently men are saved through Christ's atonement not other false theological system, certainly not their own "virtue." That standard draws a clear line between Christianity and religion in general. Adams' reducing Christianity (for both his own personal reasons AND for public civic reasons) to a generic moralizing religion blurs that line.

THAT is my thesis.

Jonathan Rowe said...

While I'm on break from working on my next post...:

When you say "if the 'end' was met, the means didn't matter", you have yet to address my objection that what matters is not whether the end was met in this or that case, but rather what means are best for pursuing the end. Even imperfect means succeed from time to time; as they say, even blind squirrels find the occasional nut. The founders knew this and acknowledged it, but this does not make your case that generic religion is what they wanted inculcated in America.

Okay. I would agree that the key FFs thought Christianity to be superior to the non-Christian religions. As they believed, all religions were valid (not necessarily equal) ways to God, with Christianity the best in a comparative sense (the quickest way up the mountain) because of the superiority of Jesus' moral teachings, NOT that folks are saved through Christ only and other religions are false. This relates to their heterodox unitarianism. Jesus was not an Incarnate God who saved men through His atonement. Rather he was the greatest moral teacher, who saved men through his superior moral teachings. They believed this non-God's moral teachings were "divine" and "saving."

HOWEVER, they also believed all men of whatever religion possessed equal rights of conscience. That led figures like Jefferson and Madison to assert government could not publicly aid Christianity because such led to taxing non-Christians (or non-the right kind of Christians) for beliefs in which they had not freely chosen.

Washington, on the other hand, believed it fine to use tax dollars to support "Christianity." But, what about non-Christians? The orthodox might say "tough luck" -- this nation was founded on "our Truth" not yours. But Washington said (quotation available upon request) you merely needed to claim yourself a Jew or a Muslim (those are examples from the original quotation) and you had a natural right to "relief." In other words, GW believed you could publicly tax a mostly Christian population to support the Christian religion, but still believed in respecting the natural unalienable rights of conscience of non-Christians.