Monday, October 26, 2009

John Adams Addresses A Nation of Christians & more on what is "Christianity"?

I think TVD's recent post hits upon an important point; the "key Founding Fathers," in their public addresses, especially as their role as the first four Presidents of the United States, did their best not to ruffle the feathers of "the orthodox" or any powerful, socially viable branch of Christianity. Indeed the internal theory of their Founding politics demanded "consent" of the governed, many (perhaps the majority) of whom were "orthodox."

Jefferson too. In his second inaugural he stated:

I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

I think this and John Adams' above sentiments were sincere; however both are consistent with unitarianism or what has been termed "theistic rationalism." These same first four Presidents could turn around while addressing unconverted Native Americans and speak as though their "Great Spirit" God was the same one that Jews, Christians, Muslims and Unitarians worshipped.

If there is an incompatibility between orthodox Christianity and the American Founding Presidential political theology, it's that the latter is too ecumenical. Orthodox Christianity is not eccumenical; it believes Christ the only way to God. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics can gather together over their shared belief in Nicene orthodoxy; but the America's Founding political theology went further.

I noted this on an evangelical thread (I choose this thread because the smartest, most well educated evangelicals tend to comment there AND the blog has high standards for civility) where I pose a question that most folks there have trouble answering. I noted the "key Founders" tended to present their theological opinions under the auspices of "Christianity" and greatly respected CERTAIN tenets about "Christianity." But...the million $$ question:

“What is Christianity without original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible?” Whatever it calls itself, is it still "Christianity" or some "other" theological system?

I don't think there is a clear cut answer; the answer depends on one's premises or definitions.

The irony is -- and I'm all about playing up delicious philosophic irony -- those who most loudly and popularly defend the "Christian Nation" idea have a tight definition of "Christianity" and are likeliest to term such a theology as "not Christian." In other words, they evaluate what is a "Christian" as it relates to "their beliefs on doctrines of salvation." Gregg Frazer doesn't even do this when he constructs a definition of late 18th Century "Christianity" that excludes what the first four Presidents believed. Gregg forms a 10 point lowest common denominator among the creeds of the largest "Christian" sects in 18th Century America. And this includes Roman Catholics and Anglicans who would not pass the "born again"/salvation standard of evangelicals.

In other words, while it's still a tight test, Dr. Frazer's is a rung lower (or broader) than the evangelical/salvation test for Christianity.

This is a point evangelicals need to understand. When they hear folks like David Barton claim George Washington was a "Christian," they hear in their minds a "born again" or "regenerate" Christian.

Some folks believe this to the point of delusion. I was shocked once debating a seemingly intelligent evangelical blogger who claimed that while St. Augustine probably wasn't a "Christian," George Washington was. What nonsense.

Again -- delicious irony -- the "Protestant Christianity" of orthodox evangelicals of both today and the Founding era is, despite whatever differences they might have, theologically CLOSER to Roman Catholicism than what George Washington or John Locke PROVABLY believed. After all, Roman Catholics believe in the Nicene Creed, some might even say, they WROTE the creed and constructed the biblical canon. And neither Washington nor Locke provably believed "in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, the atonement, or justification by faith." Roman Catholics believe in all of these things.

My million dollar question remains. I'm interested in the different answers and defenses thereto.


Naum said...


most fundamentalist/conservative evangelical christians believe that the trinity, atonement, inerrancy are christianity *essentials*. and any denomination or sect that does not accept those are questionable christians or at best termed false teachers (indeed even amongst reformed and evangelical church leaders, evangelicals like greg boyd, brian mclaren, rob bell are tagged as heretics, even though they believe in the same *essentials*.

and regarding jesus, stephen prothero, in *american jesus* details how the 18th century focus of christians was not on jesus but mostly centered in the old testament.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think this and John Adams' above sentiments were sincere; however both are consistent with unitarianism or what has been termed "theistic rationalism."

Yes, once again, it's Jefferson and Adams, although their private thoughts were quite different from their public thoughts.

Jefferson was definitely a "theistic rationalist," Adams less so, since in the same quotes he calls Christianity a "revelation," which simply means it came directly from God.

There were tons of other Founders, including Washington and Madison, about whose religious beliefs nobody can say for sure, since they designed their writings that way.

I know plenty of religious people who say equally little, because, following the Bible, they refuse to cast their pearls before swine.

"Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you."---Mt 7:6

Phil Johnson said...

Tom, I don't have your email address and I have something to send to you.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think faith is the "undefined" term, that should remain undefined.

Faith is an attitude or state of mind, that understands limitation, fallibility, and conditioning of reason, but does not invalidate reason to "prove" faith. Faith remains and affirms "the human".

Faith is an attitude toward life itself, that wonders, as a child does over the mystery of "all that is". Faith affirms 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as the "good". Faith believes in a graced existence, for all humans.

Religious traditions frame faith through understanding the "transcendent", without understanding the "immanant".

Both the transcendent and the immanant are necessary for democratic governance, as it affirms humility of mind as it concerns transcendence, but does not allow the political realm (the immanant) to dissolve "human rights".