Thursday, August 13, 2009

Carter, Civil, Public, & Natural Religion

Joe Carter has a good post over at the First Things blog that well understands America's civil religion, how it is not "Christianity," and how Christians can tolerate it as long as they understand to take it with a grain of salt.

Carter notes one reason why Christians shouldn't embrace America's civil religion (i.e., "under God" in the Pledge, "In God We Trust" on our currency, and generic Providential invocations of God made by the Declaration of Independence and America's key Founders) is the idea derives from Jean Jacques Rousseau of all people.

Now, I've meticulously researched the record and have found little that suggests the "key Founders," despite Jefferson's flirtation with his ideas, consciously followed Rousseau. Rather Rousseau's powerful ideas were absorbed through osmosis.

So because the Founders had better "intentions" than Rousseau, Carter, after Jon Meacham suggests we understand America's version of the "civil religion" as Ben Franklin's "public religion," something Christians can feel a little better about, but still shouldn't confuse with real, genuine orthodox Christianity.

Here is a taste from Carter's piece:

I think most of the Christians at both First Things and Front Porch Republic would agree that there is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between a deistic civil religion and orthodox Christianity. But the civil religion that our fellow citizens embrace is not the type Rousseau had in mind. It is very much a view that is rooted in the concept that America is a Christian nation (or at least a Judeo-Christian nation). For them, the “In God We Trust” on our coins might as well say “In Jesus We Trust.” The State is not only subordinate to the one true Sovereign (and don’t let the capitalized noun fool you—we’re still talking about Jesus here) but is expected to conform to his standards. Although this view can lead people to use Christianity to promote Americanism, more often it simply leads to criticism of the nation’s flaws. The fact that the country continually falls short of God’s standards is a constant annoyance for those who believe that the founding documents were wholly derived—at least in principle—from the Holy Scriptures. (Think I’m exaggerating? Talk to some of these folks and see if you don’t get the impression that they think the Constitution was inspired more by the Gospel of John than by John Locke.)

Those of us who champion a role for religion in the public square, however, cannot fully embrace this Christianized concept of civil religion. If we claim, as our friends and neighbors believe, that “under God” refers only to the Christian conception of God then we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that our fellow Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist patriots are claiming to be under the same deity as we are?

And here is perhaps the most powerful and contentious part of Carter's post:

We can’t claim, as the Apostle Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the Divinity of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we can’t justify submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge and think of the one true God. But the god of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross.

This brings to mind both Freemasonry and the concept of "natural religion," both powerful influences on America's Founders. I've seen a simple reduction made by secular leftists that Freemasonry and natural religion equate with non-Christian deism. And that's not quite right. "Natural religion" means that which man can understand about God and His attributes from reason unassisted by the Bible. It holds that all good men of all religions (including non-Abrahamic traditions) worship the true monotheistic God. Not surprisingly this concept had its deistic and unitarian defenders. What might surprise some folks is, it had its orthodox Christian defenders as well. Their take was yes, all good men of all religions worship a monotheistic God. And, obviously, God is monotheistic. But non-Christians distort or otherwise err on God's attributes. Still, natural religion can be shown to parallel and reinforce the teachings of revealed religion.

I blogged about this here and I noted, Samuel Landgon, former President of Harvard University, probably the most prominent orthodox Christian expositor of "natural religion" of the Founding era. Samuel Langdon's lecture on natural v. revealed religion typifies the orthodox Christian pro-natural religion position of the Founding era.

Likewise Freemasonry was predicated the concept of "natural religion." Freemasonry was a system where anyone who believed in God -- Deists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. -- could belong. Freemasonry and orthodox Christianity are not necessarily mutually exclusive (indeed there were lots of orthodox Trinitarian Freemasons of the Founding era). Rather, orthodox Christians need to ASK whether, at its least harmful level, Freemasonry is in tension with orthodoxy. Arguably it is as orthodox Christian Freemasons, by necessity, take religious oaths along with Jews, Deists, Unitarians, Muslims and Hindus whose religions are incompatible with theirs.

Likewise, just because Samuel Langdon was (or appeared to be) orthodox doesn't necessarily give the concept of "natural religion" ANY value to orthodox Christians. Of course, when said Christians understand the CENTRALITY natural religion played during the Founding era -- it is THE RELIGION THAT UNDERLIES THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE -- they might wish to "find" value in it. But perhaps that's just wishful thinking.

By way of analogy, Elias Boudinot was, without question, an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, and a very important Founding Father. He also argued that the American Indians were Lost Tribes of Israel. Boudinot's orthodoxy along with the important place he occupies in American history should not give his theory any credence in fact for the simple reasons that 1) it's in all likelihood wrong, and 2) it has nothing to do with orthodox Christianity. Yet it's precisely this kind error of appeal to authority that David Barton and the "Christian America" crowd oft-make.

But much of this depends on the approach orthodox believers take. Orthodox Christians are not all monolithic. Many orthodox Christians argue Jews and Christians worship the same God; I've seen some argue Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God (I would assert that if you argue former, you must, by logical necessity argue the latter; but I don't have time to get into that in detail here). And some like Carter argue that Christians worship a Triune God, Jews, Muslims and everyone else, a false God. If one takes Carter's approach to orthodoxy, then the Declaration of Independence, America's Founding civil religion, the concept of natural religion all should not speak to one's personal religious convictions.

On the other hand, if one takes a more ecumenical approach and is open to the idea that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, that, like Paul on Mars Hill, non-Abrahamic folks (for instance, unconverted Native Americans, worshipping "the Great Spirit") can unknowingly worship the Abrahamic God, then the Declaration of Independence, Freemasonry, America's civil religion and natural religion might resonate with one's personal faith.

Finally, as a philosophically minded fellow, I like it when folks shit or get off the pot, and follow their theory to its logical conclusions, consequences be damned. If one is going to take Joe Carter's approach, as Dr. Gregg Frazer does, then argue Christians worship a Triune God, all other religions a different God and this includes Jews, Deists, Unitarians, Muslims, Native Americans, Mormons, the God of the Declaration of Independence, America's civil religion and the key Founders.

On the other hand, if you are going to be ecumenical, cut the self serving sophisticated crap and admit that Jews, Christians, Unitarians, some/(most?) Deists, Muslims, Mormons and others all worship the same God, which could be the "Nature's God" of the Declaration of Independence. The idea that the God of the Declaration of Independence is a "Judeo-Christian" God that Jews and Christians, but not Muslims or others (Mormons?) worship is an indefensibly nonsensical assertion. The key Founding Fathers intimated that UNCOVERTED Native Americans who worshipped "the Great Spirit" worshipped the same God Jews and Christians did. If Paul on Mars Hill applies to "the Great Spirit," it certainly applies to Allah, the Mormons, Deists and Unitarians, and probably just about every other exotic world religion. At least that's the way Christian defenders of "natural religion" like Samuel Langdon would see it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Hallo to everyone here gathered---I'm not back to LaLaLand yet but had the opportunity to drop in. Folks like Mr. Carter [and of course his "In Jesus We Trust" bogeymen] make a such a pudding of Religion and the Founding.

The comments sections under both Carter's essay and the original essay he was commenting on

use the word "confused."

Attentive readers of American Creation will agree. One cannot begin to list its errors, but tying Rousseau to the American Founding and its complete misunderstanding of the Founding's regard for natural law and its relation to scripture, and the Judeo-Christian conception of God as creator and Providence will do for starters.

This nation was founded on an understanding of God that was not Hindu or Buddhist or deist or pagan or even Muslim---but neither was it was founded on Jesus as God, or who died for our sins or is present in the Eucharist, or any number of other doctrines and dogmas.

Geez. It's not all that complicated.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The point on Rousseau is not an error. Rousseau's discourse on "civil religion" irrefutably ties itself to the American Founding.

As I noted the point is not that the FFs consciously followed Rousseau, but rather the absorption of his ideas thru osmosis and the profundity of his ideas.

Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke (and like it or not) was a thinker of the highest order. They all had their disagreements; but those three all belong together. Their thoughts differ in degree. Thinkers outside of their "modern" ideas differ in kind.

Daniel said...

The distinction between the God of Jews and Christians versus all others is defensible. The 'key founders' of Christianity worshipped the God of the Jews and claimed to be a continuation of that line. Mohammed was neither Jew nor Christian and a case can be made that Allah was not the same God; I will concede that it is a weak case since Islam claims to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and accepts much of Jewish and Christian revelation (but with the caveat that it is corrupted). It is not so difficult to define the Gods of those without roots in the Jewish or Christian tradition (or somehow claiming such roots) as different Gods. It is pretty clear that some (most?) of the key founders would differ, but the proposition is certainly defensible. The later OT prophets and NT writers tended to denounce the gods of polytheists as idols, false gods, or demons.

I agree that there is a very strong argument to be made in the monotheistic context that all gods are One. However, in the writings I have seen, the Framers who took that position either didn't support it or supported it with an unconsidered equivalence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Jon, I see you commented over at the Front Porch republic blog.

Their problem over there is that they seem completely unacquainted with the 500 years of Christian thought that led from Aquinas to Locke, and eventually to the to the notion that liberty is a God-endowed right.

This is the heart of the matter, not the Trinity or the other theological doctrines on which there was no unanimity. And neither are Buddhism, deism, etc.---or philosophy itself---capable of reaching this theological conclusion.

[And the comment that God is a monarchist is untenable; having kings was the Israelites' idea, not God's.]

FPR and Mr. Carter are, unfortunately, starting at the
21st century and attempting to work backward instead of starting at the beginning; this is the wrong approach as it sheds no light on the presuppositions of the Founders, and so their discussion is completely unhelpful.

Brad Hart said...

Carter's invocation of Rousseau can be easily refuted by simply appealing to Montesquieu's "The Spirit of the Laws," which did have a TREMEMDOUS influence on the founding.

I can easily see Montesquieu's view of religion being in step with Franklin's "Public Religion" or Jefferson's "Natural Religion."

Montesquieu and "The Spirit of the Laws" are a topic in desperate need of representation here at American Creation. They are essential to the founding of America.

Do I sense a blog post coming???

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree that there is a very strong argument to be made in the monotheistic context that all gods are One. However, in the writings I have seen, the Framers who took that position either didn't support it or supported it with an unconsidered equivalence.

Quite so, Daniel, especially the soggy-headed John Adams, who had a We Are the World thing going with theology.

However, the Langdon essay Jon linked to

is very informative about the Founding-era view, and Langdon explicitly notes he's not saying anything bold or new, but is simply consolidating the prevailing wisdom.

What's interesting is that his "law of nature" and view of "natural religion" begins with the observation that all human cultures worship God in some way, even if the non-Christians have a confused conception of Him.

But he moves on further that what we would call "natural law" binds man to more than simple rules of survival [presumably thou shalt not kill or steal, etc.], but to a law promulgated by a God who is "king and judge of the world," which holds a far higher standard.

I can only skim the Langdon essay for now, but there's a lot there and if we truly want to understand the Founding theology/philosophy, it's an essential starting point.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Tom. Much as I enjoy digging into original sources, priorities being what they are, I usually take my history pre-digested and excerpted. I last researched original sources shortly after graduation from law school about 20 years ago. I greatly enjoy lurking on this blog and taking advantage of the efforts of others.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Daniel, I'm coming to the view that most of our "pre-digested" history is, well, shit.

The 19th century revisionists made them all into orthodox Christians, the 20th century revisionists made them into Enlightenment deists.

The funny thing is that Langdon's essay seems like it could have been written by Thomas Aquinas, who lived 5 centuries before. Historians without a background in medieval theology would have absolutely no way of recognizing Aquinas' echoes, which is why we have no choice but to return to the original source documents.

Glad you like hanging around. Me too, and I especially liked Lori Stokes' fresh look at the Salem witch trials, which disputes the "common knowledge" about them.

Brad Hart said...

Not all "pre-digested" history is shit, is it Tom? How about the likes of Noll, Hatch, Marsden, Nash, Wood, etc.? They're pretty solid.

Yes, some is bad but some "shit" is rather tasty! =)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not sure they get it, Brad, although I've liked everything I've seen from Gordon Wood. Noll in particular I have my doubts about.

But as my own time is limited, I prefer to spend it with the source documents and not with pre-digested material. I don't care if Noll is wrong or right. Or David Barton for that matter.

Regardless, the "common knowledge" about religion and the Founding is on the whole in grave need of repair, and in particular for its inability to see the whole picture, the continuum of Christian thought from 1200-1776 that eventually led to God-given rights and liberty. This is why the American Founding stands at the crossroads of human history.

Daniel said...

Shit is in the eye of the beholder, er, something like that. Since I rarely check the sources, I usually accept the posts here as pre-digested and excerpted, and have had many fine shit sandwiches. I agree that the look at the witch trials was enjoyable and fit better with what I know of the Puritans than an other approach I have seen.

I agree that Aquinas seems to echo through the founding. I assume that is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment and its version of natural law. Of course, Aquinas' primary source was pagan and classical; he dressed Aristotle in Christian theology in the same way much of the Enlightenment dressed Reason in Christian theology. In either case, the understanding of revelation was modified. So claiming Aquinas as a source gives us a Christian source, but one who revered a pagan source.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re predigested shit. My M.O. is confirm it in the footnotes and the primary sources.

Daniel said...

Ya. It's there if I take the time. Unfortunately, I rarely do. I do often enough to have the impression that you're being honest and not playing games. That one reason I enjoy it, even when I don't have time for anything other than what someone else has predigested for me. For the lazy or time-crunched reader (or both), the advantage of the web is being able to quickly check some links to explore a bit further or to see if a surprising reading seems fair or reasonable. Reading intelligent comments is a big bonus.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Daniel, I feel the same way. Folks excerpt the original documents well around here, IMO, using bigger chunks and seldom resorting to...ellipses...which are a red flag.

As for Aquinas, his use of "pagan" sources as early as 1200 is illustratative of how Christian thought had been reconciling revelation and reason for 500 years before the Founding---it was not a new thing.

Many of today's sola scriptura types [as well as secular types] seem to think the King James Bible dropped in from Mars one day and set itself up as opposition to man's God-given reason.

Ironically, even Luther and especially Calvin did more than their own share of theologizing. But once American Protestantism and the individual conscience kicked in, all dogmatic bets were off. [Even the Trinity...!]

Magpie Mason said...


Typically, I address only the subject of Freemasonry, so I'd like to clarify some of the things said and implied in this post.

1. Regardless of whatever secular leftists have to say about Freemasonry, it is not to be equated with non-Christian deism or any other variation of faith for the simple reason that Freemasonry is not a faith or a denomination within a faith.

The Freemasonry at that time in history was intentionally designed to avoid sectarianism. It was a creation of British culture in the wake of England's Civil War, Restoration and Revolution, and during the era of English-Scottish Union, Jacobite rebellion and wild change in royal families.

Freemasonry in the Enlightenment era was very intentionally devised to serve as a social venue where Catholics could meet with Protestants, and where the various Protestants (namely Anglicans and Presbyterians) likewise could get along. This was revolutionary thinking; it only sounds simple to us today because we enjoy the fruits of what they built then.

2. "Freemasonry was a system where anyone who believed in God -- Deists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. -- could belong."

Jon, this is a claim heard frequently in modern times, but it wasn't quite true back then. There is a record of one Jewish man being initiated into one lodge in London c. 1730, but that by no means indicates that membership was open to anyone who professed a belief in deity. THAT would come later, when the British Empire expanded into the Near East, Africa, and Asia. It happened slowly and was considered anything but inevitable.

3. "Freemasonry and orthodox Christianity are not necessarily mutually exclusive (indeed there were lots of orthodox Trinitarian Freemasons of the Founding era). Rather, orthodox Christians need to ASK whether, at its least harmful level, Freemasonry is in tension with orthodoxy."

There is NO "mutual" exclusivity at all because Freemasonry does not inquire into the religious opinions of its members.

It is entirely the responsibility of the prospective member to decide for himself, consulting with his clergyman if he chooses, if he can take part in the Masonic fraternity.

The Roman Catholic Church forbids Masonic membership for its members. Likewise the Eastern Orthodox. And the Southern Baptists. But that's up to them; Freemasonry neither provokes nor reciprocates their rejection of us.

Respectfully, I object to the phrase "least harmful level," and request a definition or clarification because of the obvious insinuation that there are harmful levels.

4. "Arguably it is as orthodox Christian Freemasons, by necessity, take religious oaths along with Jews, Deists, Unitarians, Muslims and Hindus whose religions are incompatible with theirs."

There are no religious oaths in the Masonic lodge, which is precisely why Jews, Christians, Muslims, et al. can enjoy lodge membership together, sitting side by side. (And, frankly, why the aforementioned churches and others condemn Freemasonry and proscribe Masonic membership for their followers.)

Perhaps I am dwelling on minutiae within Jon's larger points, but these facts are quite important to Freemasonry, and since I'm here, I'll do my best to provide the best obtainable version of the truth as regards Freemasonry.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious to know why people who want to argue about these issues don't look at some of the original sources. All one has to do is read the Massachusetts House of Representatives "Election Sermons" (particularly that by Rev. Samuel West in 1776) to see the great conflation of ideas of church, Enlightenment, free thinkers, and every other "religious" or "philosophical" bent at the time of the Declaration of Independence. A Congregational minister talking about "the laws of Nature," and of the "natural Right To Rebel Against Governors." What a grand tapestry of ideas!