Monday, November 30, 2009

The Religious Nature of the Right of Rebellion

by Kristo Miettinen

I've written my own view on this topic about a year ago (here).

But I'm now engaged in reading and digesting a different argument on the topic, here:

I don't agree with the author's presentation through the development of the divine right of kings, but since his credentials are more impressive than mine, I thought others here might want a gander...


Appeal to Heaven: On the Religious Origins of the Constitutional Right of Revolution

John M. Kang
St. Thomas University School of Law

William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 18, pp. 281-326, 2009

This Article explores the religious origins of the right to alter or abolish government. I show in Part I that the right was widely accepted among the American colonies as expressed through their constitutions and, later, the federal constitution. In Part II, I usher the reader back in time and across the continent to seventeenth century England. There, I introduce two men who would have abhorred everything about American constitutional democracy - King James I and the philosopher Sir Robert Filmer. Both men, prominent in their respective domains of authority, devoted themselves to the governing axiom that kings were bequeathed a right by God to absolute rule. Part III sketches the seventeenth century arguments of two other Englishmen, also prominent--the philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney - who challenged James and Filmer. Locke and Sidney argued that God had never sanctioned the divine right of kings and instead had justified the people’s right to overthrow tyrants.

The arguments of Locke and Sidney will, as I show in subsequent sections, influence the American clergy who supported war against Britain and the right of revolution in general. Indeed, the development of this connection will occupy me for the remainder of the Article, but, in Part IV, I take a brief respite to summarize the historical circumstances that severely hampered governmental control over religion in colonial America and thus provided partially autonomous spaces for people to reflect on religion, including in ways that would inform their right to alter or abolish government. I illustrate in Part V how several prominent American clergymen, following Locke and Sidney, rejected as impossible the divine and supposedly infallible status of rulers. God, the clergy insisted, was the only one who could claim such infallibility; the clergy warned that rulers would do well to devote themselves to the people’s well being, not the former’s aggrandizement. In Part VI, I argue that, again echoing Locke and Sidney, a prominent group of American clergymen insisted that, contrary to the anti-democratic jeers of monarchists, God had given people the capacity for reason which enabled them to make meaningful decisions about their political future. I conclude in Part VII by illustrating how the federal and state constitutions following the American Revolution sought to protect conditions for the faithful to contemplate the religious meaning of the right to alter or abolish government.

[The full article is downloadable here on PDF. Please, no comments until you've read it. Let's keep it clean.---Ed.

Nominate Us Today

It's that time of year again! Cliopatria (one of the largest databases of historical blogs) is hosting their year end "Best History Blogs" contest. Sadly, I did not get wind of this until today, which means we only have ONE DAY (today) to get our nominations submitted.

Please click on this link and nominate American Creation for BEST GROUP BLOG by commenting on their comments section below. Your nomination MUST contain the name of the blog and its URL.

In addition, Cliopatria is also accepting nominations for Best Individual Blog (I'm nominating Boston, 1775...He's WAY overdue for this award), Best New Blog, Best Post, Best Series of Posts and Best Writer.

We need your help, everyone! Please flood their comments section for us. Oh, and remember that TODAY is the LAST DAY!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Origins of "Christian Ideas" that Helped Bring Us into the Modern World?

In an attempt to begin answering one of the questions I brought up in my last post I copied and pasted this short excerpt from the notes of John Adams. The question I asked in my last post was this:

Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?

I think John Adams points us in the right direction with the following:

Defence of the Constitutions of Government
of the United States of America

(Source, Charles F. Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams [1851] Vol. 6, p. 3-4)

There have been three periods in the history of England, in which the principles of government have been anxiously studied, and very valuable productions published, which, at this day, if they are not wholly forgotten in their native country, are perhaps more frequently read abroad than at home.

The first of these periods was that of the Reformation, as early as the writings of Machiavel himself, who is called the great restorer of the true politics. The "Shorte Treatise of Politick Power, and of the True Obedience which Subjects owe to Kyngs and other Civile Governors, with an Exhortation to all True Natural Englishemen, compyled by John Poynet, D. D.," was printed in 1556, and contains all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke. This writer is clearly for a mixed government, in three equiponderant branches, as appears by these words:
"In some countreyes they were content to be governed and have the laws executed by one king or judge; in some places by many of the best sorte; in some places by the people of the lowest sorte; and in some places also by the king, nobilitie, and the people, all together. And these diverse kyndes of states, or policies, had their distincte names; as where one ruled, a monarchie; where many of the best, aristocratie; and where the multitude, democratie ; and where all together, that is a king, the nobilitie, and commons, a mixte state; and which men by long continuance have judged to be the best sort of all. For where that mixte state was exercised, there did the commonwealths longest continue."
The second period was the Interregnum, and indeed the whole interval between 1640 and 1660. In the course of those twenty years, not only Ponnet and others were reprinted, but Harrington, Milton, the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, and a multitude of others, came upon the stage.The third period was the Revolution in 1688, which produced Sidney, Locke, Hoadley, Trenchard, Gordon, Plato Redivivus, who is also clear for three equipollent branches in the mixture, and others without number. The discourses of Sidney were indeed written before, but the same causes produced his writings as did the Revolution.
Americans should make collections of all these speculations, to be preserved as the most precious relics of antiquity, both for curiosity and use.

This seems to be part of the thread of political theology that heavily influenced the founding. I also think it is interesting that one the three periods he references is the Revolution of 1688 that Brad Hart posted on the other day. I think the name of the book was, "The First Modern Revolution". Maybe Christian political theology did help usher us into the modern world. That is the thesis of Gary Amos in his book, "Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence".

He gives some compelling evidence that the founders laid out the same legal case for independence that many cited here by Adams had used before. Maybe our founding was not as "revolutionary" as some would give it credit for. Could it have been tied to a long tradition of ideas that could be traced back to pre-Aquinas Christianity? We shall see.

More to come...

Gordon S. Wood on the Founding Concepts of Rights---Part 2

By Phil Johnson

[Part 1 appears here.]

Gordon S. Wood continues:

The people's ancient rights and liberties were as much public as private, just as the king's rights--his prerogatives--were as much private as they were public. So-called public institutions had private rights, and private persons had public obligations. The king's prerogatives, or his premier rights to govern the realm, grew out of his private position as the wealthiest of the wealthy and the largest landowner in the society; his government had really begun as an extension of his royal household. But in a like manner all private households or families--'those small subdivisions of Government,' one colonist called them--had public responsibilities to help the king govern.

This helps us gain some understanding of the mindset the Founding generation had in relation to their own identity. Their experiences of the differences we see between public and private interests were not nearly as well developed then as ours is today. But, they were about to learn much.

Think of what Barry Alan Shain shows us in his Myth of American Individualism, how "localism" was so strong during the colonial years. They were a corporate people--maybe to the extent that we might call "groupthink" today. Now, with their parent-child relationship with Britain ended, they were thrown into the quandary of being forced to reconsider their ideas about private and public values.

As Wood reminds us,

"Governments in this premodern colonial society regulated all sorts of personal behavior, especially the moral and religious behavior of people, without any consciousness that they were depriving people of their private liberty or rights. Of the nearly 2,800 prosecutions in the Superior and General Sessions courts of Massachusetts bet wen 1760 and 1774, over half involved sexual and religious offenses, such as fornication and using profanity. Many of the other prosecutions involved drunkenness, slander, and various violations of decency and good manners. ... Royal governors did not have legislative policies, and assemblies did not enact legislative programs. .... The colonial assemblies still saw themselves more as courts making judgments rather than as legislatures making laws. ... In William Nelson's survey of the Massachusetts General Court in 1761, he could find 'only three acts that were arguably legislative in the sense that they changed law or made new law.'"

The separation of powers was still little more than a vague concept at that early time. The idea that there was such a thing as individual rights was just as obscure.

The Cult of the Founding Fathers

What follows is an address by the late Bible Answer Man, Dr. Walter Martin, on "the cults." Dr. Martin was a key figure in modern fundamentalist-evangelicalism who posited a paradigm that defined non-orthodox Trinitarian systems as "non-Christian cults." As such, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and other non-Nicene "Christians" were in fact, not "Christians," but members of "non-Christian" cults.

Martin criticized what he saw as errors in Roman Catholicism, but didn't term them "non-Christians" because of Catholics' embrace of Nicene orthodoxy.

Taking Dr. Martin's paradigm as a given, I want those sympathetic to his point of view to understand that according to this standard, America's key Founders (certainly J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, probably Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Hamilton before his deathbed, and many others) and the philosophers they followed (Newton, Locke, Milton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, Burgh, and many others) were not "historic Christians," but, like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, members of a "non-Christian cult," that oft-tried to pass itself off as "Christianity."

What is truly appalling is the way the John Ankerberg show -- a key promoter of Dr. Martin's theological understanding -- featured David Barton to mislead Ankerberg's/Martin's otherwise spiritually discerned audience/point of view on America's Founding political-theological heritage.

Note to Dr. Ankerberg's audience: Much of what Barton cites -- and much of the historical record that talks up the "religion" or "Christianity" of America's Founding -- actually invokes a non-Trinitarian and/or anti-Trinitarian theology. And, accordingly, the paradigm (the promoters of which say the Bible itself!) that defines non-Trinitarians out of "Christianity," concludes, by logical necessity, that these utterances may actually be to a "non-Christian cult."

I'd like to see more evangelicals/fundamentalists (or others) recognize this and define the political theology of the American Founding as, along with Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnessism, a non-Christian cult. Or at least be honest enough to recognize that, though orthodoxy abounded in that era, there was enough non-Christian cultic elements from folks like Locke, Newton, Clarke, J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Priestley, Price intermixed that it is impossible to term America's Founding "Christian" in the minimal way that you understand the term.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration and the Definition of Christianity

For those unaware, the Manhattan Declaration is a statement of conservative Christian doctrine on present day hot button moral issues. Mainly it is anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality in its sentiments.

It's also a document that was, by its design, limited to orthodox Christians. That is, it's a document of consensus on political/moral issues among traditional Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Anglicans, and capital O Orthodox Christians (in other words Nicene Christians).

Apparently, Chuck Colson informed Hugh Hewitt that the document was more than merely political or moral; it is theological. "Jews, Mormons, and others, were not invited to sign the document...because this is a specifically Christian statement, quoting from the Christian scriptures."

For historic orthodox purposes, the document seems undeniably "Christian." These signatories are likely folks who would agree with the proposition that you are not a "Christian" unless you endorse the Nicene orthodoxy that forms the lowest common denominator among them.

The definition of "Christianity" also reminds me of Dr. Gregg Frazer's 10 point historic definition for late 18th Century America, one that forms a lowest common denominator among the creeds of Christian Churches during said time period (though, there were no capital O Orthodox Christian Churches then and said Church denies original sin which is part of Frazer's 10 point test).

Yet Dr. Frazer's church minister and college President, Dr. John MacArthur, is one of a number of notable evangelicals who refuse to sign said document. I think Dr. Frazer has a similar personal view about Roman Catholics presenting a false gospel. That is, while Roman Catholics are certainly Christians for historic "orthodox" purposes, and even late 18th Century American purposes, to many evangelicals, for personal salvation purposes, they are not "Christians."

This is where the moral, meets the political, meets the historical, meets the personal. Yes, it's complicated.

It's interesting to see how even among those religious conservatives who agree on 1) Nicene orthodoxy, and 2) political-moral issues, their theology and the role it plays in their lives divides them in seemingly irreconcilable ways. See for instance, the comments section in this Uncommon Descent post on the topic.

Here is James White, another notable evangelical who refused to sign this declaration, on the un-ecumenical reasons evangelicals have for not singing this declaration:

There is no question that all believers need to think seriously about the issues raised by this declaration. But what is the only solution to these issues? Is the solution to be found in presenting a unified front that implicitly says "the gospel does not unite us, but that is not important enough to divide us"? I do not think so. What is the only power given to the church to change hearts and minds? United political power? Or the gospel that is trampled under foot by every Roman Catholic priest when he "re-presents" the sacrifice of Christ upon the Roman altar, pretending to be a priest, an "alter Christus"? Am I glad when a Roman clergyman calls abortion murder? Of course. But it exhibits a real confusion, and not a small amount of cowardice, it seems, to stop identifying the man's false gospel and false teaching simply because you are glad to have a few more on the "right" side of a vitally important social issue.

I note, based on my meticulous study of America's Founders and their religious beliefs, that whatever may divide the Christianity of Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and the Orthodox Church (i.e., the signatories of said declaration) they have far more in common with one another than they do with the "Protestant Christianity" of many key American Founders and the philosophers they followed (J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, probably Madison, Washington, and many others, and their key philosophical influences, Locke, Newton, Clarke, Milton, Priestley, Price, and Burgh).

Finally James White brings up an interesting point about Martin Luther King. Conservative Christians of the religious right have, of late, invoked his example as does this document. Dr. King certainly was religious, and presented his beliefs as "Christianity." However, under a doctrinal test that excludes Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses as "Christians," it's not clear that Dr. King was a Christian. And it's also not clear that Dr. King, were he alive today, would have endorsed their views on political-moral issues either.

White reproduces the following from Dr. King on orthodox Christian doctrine:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadaquate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: "Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possible have." In other words, one could easily use this as a means to hide behind behind his failures. So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied.

White reacts:

So why put forth King as explicitly Christian, but not invite the Jehovah's Witnesses, who would "quite readily deny" the deity of Christ as well? Perhaps a document that identifies Papal actions as explicitly Christian actions can be excused for its inherent self-contradiction.

As a non-Christian observer/scholar of these events, I note all of this for the sake of clarity. Before we move on, realize what we are dealing with.

James Burgh on Unitarians Worshipping In Trinitarian Churches

James Burgh, like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price was a British (Burgh was of Scottish origin) dissenting divine, a Whig, and apparently a unitarian. And like Revs. Priestley and Price, Burgh tremendously influenced the American Founding.

Priestley, Price and Burgh were with Ben Franklin members of the Club of Honest Whigs. When writing Ezra Stiles about "Jesus of Nazareth," Franklin said, "I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his divinity." No doubt Franklin had his friends Priestley, Price and Burgh in mind as those "dissenters in England." They presented their dissent as "rational Christianity" or "unitarian Christianity."

John Adams sought to make Burgh's writings "more known and attended to in several parts of America," and stated Burgh's writings were "held in as high estimation by all my friends as they are by me."

Google books has uploaded originals of Burgh's 1766-67 "Crito," excerpts of which we will see below. Crito may also be where Jefferson lifted "wall of separation between church and state" from. (Yes Roger Williams said it first; but Jefferson likely learned the phrase from Burgh, not Williams.)

With that, let's look at Burgh discussing the dynamic of unitarians worshipping in Trinitarian churches in late 18th Century England. Note, this was published in 1767 and it was a crime to publicly deny the Trinity until 1813. That explains why the Unitarian Burgh didn't come out and deny the Trinity, but rather writes as though he didn't believe in the doctrine. His advice seems to be for unitarians to break away and start their own churches.

Beginning on page 240, Burgh writes:

We see some few among us do still make a point of attending solemnly a place of public worship - once in seven days. If there be any meaning in this practice (which they best know, who observe it) one would imagine it should be of some consequence, that people worship what they, at least, believe has a being.

It is notorious that many who statedly attend Athanasian worship do hold the Athanasian doctrine in abhorrence. (Many whole parishes constantly sit down whenever that celebrated creed is read.) And that those, who do not believe it, do constantly give this reason for their disbelief of it. That it appears to them flatly self-contradictory.

I am not here setting myself to enter into the question, whether the Athanasian doctrine be true or false. I am only observing, that many among us, who (with Newton, Clarke, Locke, Whitby, Emlyn, &c.) are satisfied, that it neither is, nor can be true, do constantly pay solemn worship to H--y, bl----d and gl-----s Tr---ty.

Quaeritur, therefore, the rationale of worshipping, or seeming to worship, what we are persuaded, has no existence? The papists have thought proper to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, and call her the complement, or completing of it. That is, the F----r, the S-n, the H--y Gh--t, and the Virgin Mary, the undivided mystical four, or three, which is the same (for in a mystery, three is the same as four, and four the same as one; finite the same as infinite; human the same as divine) the mystical four, I say, are the tr---ty, or rather quaternity, that is, four different beings, some infinite, some finite, some mortal, some immortal, are only three beings, and these three-four beings, are the One, indivisible, simple, unoriginated Spirit, the first cause and fountain of being.

No Protestant holds the Virgin Mary, who has these many ages been dead and rotten, to be any part of the immortal God. This is out of the question. But I would imagine, that to a person who denies the Athanasian doctrine, it should not appear a whit more absurd to put the Virgin Mary into the Tr---ty, or Godhead, than any other being whatever. All beings are equally different from and inferior to the Supreme; the S-n as much as the virgin; the virgin as much as a worm. For all beings, but the One Supreme only, are finite; and there must ever be an infinite distance between finite and infinite. The question, therefore, is, how any rational and pious person satisfies himself that it is lawful for him to attend constantly a species of worship, which he himself holds to be absurd; and this, while he has it in his power to withdraw himself from such worship, and give support and countenance to what is, according to his own notions, rational as to the Object worshipped.

Will it be said,

We freely declare our sentiment. We do not dissemble. We publicly discountenance the Athanasian creed, by refusing to join in the reading of it. Whenever ecclesiastical authority insists on our joining in the recital of that famous creed, we will immediately turn our backs upon those places of worship, which support absurdity by power. Till then, we see no impropriety in attending on a species of worship not modified to our perfect approbation; as, perhaps none can be found altogether irreprehensible.

If this apology should be offered, let it be considered, how, on such principles, religious truth would ever have prevailed over error; and how a Protestant's constant and exclusive attendance, in a Protestant country, on popish worship, could be proved culpable; which yet would meet with the universal disapprobation of all conscientious persons. I will urge this no farther; though much more might be said. Only, I beg leave to add, that to those, who disbelieve the Athanasian doctrine, it should, in my opinion, be a much weightier cause of dissenting, that a certain establishment is formed upon what they look upon as absurd, and idolatrous, than upon usurped human power. And that, therefore, to the opposers of the tr--------n opinion, it ought to be very desirable to see religious societies formed professedly on unitarian principles, and denominated accordingly, rather than, by the general appellation of dissenters, which leaves the grand point, viz. What object of worship they hold, undetermined; as it is known, that some among them are tr--------n, some Unitarian, in principle, and in worship, and most too inexplicit in declaring themselves.

[Editorial note from Jonathan Rowe: I worked from the original edition and turned what looked like "f's" to "s's." In addition, I added some paragraph breaks and made some punctuation changes that made it look more modern. I also failed to reproduce all but one of Burgh's italics. I left the overwhelming majority of it alone, however. Click on the link and read pages 240-43 to see the originals from which I worked.]

You can smell the anti-Roman Catholic bigotry in Burgh's words (bigotry that prevailed in Protestant American as well). I don't think Burgh's sentiments accurately represented Catholic doctrine on Mary. However, it does explain John Adams' quotation:

“The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage.”

-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.

The unitarian dissenters believed that doctrines such as original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation were corrupted inventions of ecclesiastical authorities, mainly the Roman Church. Therefore, truly reformed "Protestant Christianity" (with their preferred adjectives "liberal," "rational," and "unitarian") rejected all of those orthodox doctrines as fraudulent "Popish" inventions.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Freedom of Religion Necessarily Means a Right to Sin According to Special, Not Necessarily General Revelation

I knew Tom Van Dyke would leave an apt comment on my post on Rights, God and the Fundamentalist Fallacy.

He writes:

Further, I think the first tablet of the 10 Commandments is "special" revelation and doesn't count. [Freedom of religious conscience as "Freedom to sin" does not obtain.]

Natural law arguments, "general" revelation, don't need the Bible be derived. When the Bible agrees with reason in natural law arguments [James Wilson and many or most in the Founding era believed they were always in harmony], that doesn't make the arguments "theocratic," i.e., beyond reason, and rejected out of hand.

This covers a key point I often stress. "The laws of Nature and Nature's God" -- the metaphysical grounding for America's Founding ideals -- is not shorthand for what's written in the Bible, but rather what's discovered by reason. The Christian natural lawyers, as TVD pointed out, believed the two wouldn't contradict one another because they ultimately derived from the same source.

But because the Founders were trying to take sectarian disputes out of politics, they had to leave those parts of special revelation that couldn't be confirmed by general revelation (natural law) out of politics. Hence America's was founded on the proposition that the second tablet is a proper source of public law (because it's part of the natural law) but not the first.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, Hindus could all agree on the norms in the second tablet (don't murder, don't steal, don't bear false witness) but the first tablet as part of "the Law" is what puts them at their throats in the political-theological wars. It was the first tablet as Law that got Servetus burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva. Currently it's the first tablet as Law that limits the Christians' freedom to convert Muslims under Sharia.

So whereas the American Founding doesn't stand for the proposition that men necessarily have a right to sin according to general revelation (the natural law that all good men of all religious faiths could determine from reason) it does stand for the proposition that men have a right to sin according to special revelation. It has to; you cannot get religious liberty for all or even between Trinitarians and non non-Trinitarians without it.

Not every, perhaps not even most unitarians of the Founding era were free wheeling Jeffersonian Epicurians. Some were quite pious and they thought Trinitarianism a grave sin -- a violation of the First Commandment; worshipping Jesus as a false god takes glory away from the Father.

And again whether our natural rights are limited to what the natural law permits is another, much harder proposition to tackle. I noted Randy Barnett's article arguing natural rights are not limited by what natural law ethics permit. For the opposite point of view see Philip Hamburger's article on the matter.

Finally, to drive the point home, here is a classic post by Eugene Volokh that shows how obvious it is that granting religious liberty to Hindus -- something all "key Founders" in principle believed in, even if they didn't get a chance to see the results -- necessarily means giving them a right to break parts of special revelation (i.e., the Bible):

Say that a few Hindus are hired as teachers in a public school district; and that some people start to complain. Hindus, they point out, routinely and unabashedly violate three of the Ten Commandments (they worship other Gods, they create images of their Gods, and they don't observe the Sabbath). What's more, the Hindus would therefore be bad role models for children: Some kids, seeing the teachers' example, might be drawn towards Hinduism; and other kids, seeing some nearby authority figures who aren't Christian, might have their belief in Christianity undermined -- and of course the results of that would be truly dire, since they would jeopardize the children's salvation. Therefore, the people argue, the school must refuse to hire Hindu schoolteachers.

My guess is that such an argument would be pretty broadly condemned, even by many conservatives and Christians (and for that matter conservative Jews and members of other religions; I focus on Christians here simply because their views are especially salient in American public debates). Religious freedom, those people would point out, means (among other things) that we tolerate religious differences, and that we don't discriminate against people in government employment just because of their religious beliefs.

We may earnestly believe that they're wrong -- whether they're non-Christians, heretics, apostates, agnostics, atheists, or what have you. We may believe that they'll go to Hell for their errors (though we may sincerely regret that). We may want our children not to make these errors. But we ought not legally punish people, or deny them access to jobs and other government benefits, because of their violations of certain religious laws, even some of the laws in the Ten Commandments. (I'm sure that some people don't take such a tolerant view, but I believe that many conservative Christians would quite sincerely endorse it -- I certainly know some such people personally.)

Of course, this hasn't always been so: Historically, religious discrimination, intolerance, and persecution has been the rule rather than the exception; and even in the U.S., various groups -- Catholics, Jews, atheists, and others -- have in the past faced substantial governmental discrimination, though generally less than in other countries of the time. But today, the general view, again, seemingly shared by a broad range of people, including many devout, conservative Christians, is that toleration is the more just approach. And, in particular, this means that

1. People's failure to obey religious laws -- even three of the Ten Commandments -- is not by itself reason enough to punish them, or deny them equal access to government benefits.

2. The risk that others will follow this bad example is also not reason enough to punish the violators of religious laws (here, the Hindus), even if we sincerely believe that following the example will lead to eternal damnation.

3. Some religious laws, including some of the Ten Commandments, are matters to be enforced not by man but by God.

I should note, according to the First Amendment and (private anti-discrimination law theory) Hindu Americans are entitled to more than just toleration but a "right" to be a practicing Hindu.

As Volokh noted, Hindus and other sects didn't always, in practice, have equal rights in America (mainly at the state and local level). But the rhetoric of every "key Founder" suggests Hindus had an unalienable natural right to be practicing Hindus, even though such clearly breaks God's law in special revelation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In Praise of Gordon S. Wood

by Phil Johnson

There is a tendency to consider any particular historical consideration as a static or isolated event. Why that is so can be a tough call: I suspect it's related to the way we learned history in the K-12 educational system.

But, Gordon S. Wood’s focus on American history helps us have a better grasp on the present. His work puts shoes on our feet, easing our journey into the minds of Americans during the early days of the republic. He deserves our praise.

“…contractual imagery between two equal parties, not to mention the familial imagery of a patriarchal king and the mother country, suggests that for many eighteenth century Anglo-Americans the public and private realms were still largely indistinguishable. Indeed, the colonists never regarded the struggle between the rights of the Crown and the rights of the people as one between public and private rights. For even as late as the eve of the Revolution, the modern distinction between public and private was still not clear. “

This eye-opener is an important foundation on which we can begin building a more clearly understood concept of American history as a stage in what—-hopefully—-is an unending process.

If we accept that our colonial ancestors thought of their relationship with the king in the context of a father and his children, we might better understand the pre-republic era. To be frank, that relationship bespeaks an immaturity--children on their way to adolescence. It's common in that relationship that rights come from agreements forged between parent and child. Depending on the child's behavior and the parent's nature, the agreements can be adjusted.

But, a time comes in the child's development whey they want to be on their own. The parent might be helicoptering, abusive, or maybe hardly ever around. Or, it might just be time for the child to be off on their own. That's the story of the relationship between the King and the Colonists--it's pretty much detailed right in the Declaration of Independence.

Once the republic was set in motion, the strings between the parent and child were cut. Think a little about the analogy. No need for any further contracts with any parents--all deals had to be made with the self. And, in that case, it was We the People. Now, our ancestors would take responsibility for their own actions.

[Longtime commenter and friend-of-the-blog Phil Johnson (Pinky) makes his first appearance on our mainpage here. AC thanks him for this post and his continuing elevation of the discussion hereabouts. Keep it coming, Pinky.]

Rights, God and the Fundamentalist Fallacy

There's an interesting breakout between Ed Brayton and Joe Farah on Farah's committing what I have termed the "fundamentalist fallacy" regarding rights and God and Brayton's terming Farah's vision "theocracy."

The fundamentalist fallacy as it pertains to the notion of "rights" goes something like this: 1. The Declaration of Independence holds that God grants unalienable rights. 2. God has written in the Bible what behavior is proper. 3. If God forbids a particular behavior in the Bible, then we cannot have a “right” to it.

Read Farah's article for a textbook example of the fallacy as well as one of Brayton's commenters (who was probably directed there from WND's link to Brayton's post in today's WND Commentary section) from someone named Stephen Ray Hale who ends up concluding that the Founders' concept of "rights" was "to protect the right of the Christian to do that which is right and for the non-Christian to have sufficient mercy to allow them to reform in their own or God’s time." And of course the fundamentalist divine command proof texting of verses and chapters of scripture is the test of what is "right" v. "sin."

The problem with Mr. Hale's and (Farah's) idea is that it misreads the historical and political philosophy of the American Founding. And yes, I blame the David Barton types for leading folks to such error.

America's Founders put their imprimatur on a right to sin (according to the fundamentalist proof texting method) when they recognized religious liberty for all, thereby granting men an unalienable "right" to break the first half of the ten commandments and many other parts of the Bible, even that for which the Bible demands the death penalty. (Check out what Deuteronomy instructs about those who encourage you to worship false gods.)

And it's not just about religious liberty issues either. In case anyone has noticed, the Bible is a thick, complicated book complete with lots of dos and dont's. While one could argue Christians are under a new covenant with Jesus and therefore don't have to institute OT style stonings, sacrifices and rituals, one can't argue that Jesus lowered the bar for what constitutes sin. To the contrary, Jesus raised the bar. He equated lust with adultery. Therefore there could be no right to think lustful thoughts according to such a fundamentalist fallacious standard that holds we only have "rights" to do what the Bible says is not "sin." Such a standard means there is no such thing as God given liberty rights at all.

I'm don't argue the American Founders were "libertarians" (they were classical liberals and in a sense Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians are all classical liberals/liberal democrats to some degree); but I do assert the notion of liberty rights, God given or not, is libertarian, that is, these are demands of space from government intrusion. Libertarians tend to max out that space; but everyone wants some degree of "space." The more rights talk, at least in the liberty, as opposed to equality, sense of the term, the more libertarian space you are going to get.

That's why much of the "rights of man" speak from the Founding Fathers (in the Declaration of Independence and debates over the necessity of the Bill of Rights, especially the 9th Amendment) is quite useful for libertarian rhetoric. As future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell put it:

“Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights as he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it.”

-- See Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution, p. 57.

Even "key Founder" James Wilson engaged in similar rhetoric:

“a complete enumeration of rights appertaining to the people as men and citizens….Enumerate all the rights of men! I am sure, sir, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing.”

-- See Ibid., p. 56.

This of course leads to an idea of a general natural liberty right to "space" against government that includes innumerable specific rights. And for reasons I've demonstrated, proof texting the Bible for what is "sin" cannot be the "test" for when said rights end. And the Founding Fathers didn't think so either.

And further, the idea of natural political liberty rights isn't contained in the Bible. Therefore if one desires a political system that makes it easier to write traditional or biblical notions of "sin" into civil law, one should get rid of the idea of "rights talk" altogether.

Social conservatives from Roberts Bork and Kraynak to Walter Berns and the late Irving Kristol recognized this and argue for constitutionalism without the rights rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence for this very reason.

Finally, I realize a breakout will occur in the comments section about the natural law. According to America's Founding theory and rhetoric, if there was a metaphysical mechanism for imposing limits on "rights," it didn't come from biblical prooftexting but from natural reason. The natural law and the Bible are two distinct concepts. Though Christian natural lawyers will say reason and revelation, properly understood, don't contradict one another because they ultimately come from the same source -- the biblical God. The natural law, like the Bible forbids murder, theft, certain forms of sexual immorality. But, the natural law doesn't concern itself with biblical issues that lead to sectarian breakouts like the first tablet of the Ten Commandments or with what goes on in our thoughts like lusting. In short worshipping false gods and idols may violate the Bible, but it doesn't violate the natural law.

For libertarians who don't believe government has just power to limit our rights according to a Thomistic conception of the natural law, this is a harder nut to crack because the argument is far closer to the truth of the American Founding than what we have seen from Joe Farah and other fundamentalist prooftexters.

I won't recount the argument in detail, but Randy Barnett has noted in this law review article, the differences between the natural law and natural rights and how government, by the America's Founders' design, was more concerned with protecting the latter, not making sure individuals refrain from violating the former.

A Challenge to All the "Cultural Warriors" in the Blogosphere: Part Two

The following is the second part of my last post but also is in response to Jon Rowe's great post about some of my thoughts about Christianity:

When I first started commenting on Ed Brayton's blog people blasted me hard because some of what I was saying sounded like Conservative Christianity. Once they realized I was different it stopped. Why do so many like Ed Brayton and Jon Rowe rail against the Christian Right? They feel that many of the backwards people that are associated with it are trying to derail progress toward the next step in creating a modern world. I think they now see that some of us "Christians" are with them. I think what many of them fail to see is that there were many "Rational Christians" at the time of the Founding that fought the good fight for progress in their day. Those that fail to see this want to label the American Revolution as a "secular" event. I think they do this at their, and possibly our, own peril.

For the record, I do think it is important to understand what a "Christian" is, or was, to see the impact Christianity had, or did not have, on bringing us into the modern world. But I think the real questions that will put this "Christian Nation" debate into its proper frame are:

Which Christian ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?


Which Christian ideas, if any, helped try to derail us from progressing toward the modern world?

I think that these ideas can be broken down into two general different views of God. One is the "Augustine view" and the other I like to call the "Locke view".

I think the Augustinian influenced Christian ideas are based on a view of God as not being concerned with the material world, sees man as totally depraved, and arbitrarily decides who goes to heaven and hell. Those whose ideas are shaped by that view will usually tell people that God really wants us humans to very little here because "His Kingdom is not of this world." I think the the Locke influenced Christian ideas are based on a view of God as being concerned with the material world and emphasizing the value of man, even though we are tainted by sin, because man is made in His image. Those whose ideas are shaped by this view of God usually tell people that God cares about the here and now just as much as heaven or hell because, "Jesus asked the Father to bring heaven to earth."

It was the same thing when Neo-Confucians took over China from the Buddhists. It had become a "Dark Age" because so many of the Buddhists became convinced that the material world was evil and the key to life was to escape it. The Neo-Confucians(I read most of this is a HS textbook so this is a broad but I think true statement) said that this world did matter and the key to happiness is to participate in it. This shift in thinking gradually led to a "golden age" in China that was written about by Marco Polo.

I think we see the same shift of thought that leads to a "golden age" in Western Civilization during the Enlightenment. If one looks at the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment I think the biggest thing that changed was hope that man could create a better world and be "happy". For some it was a secular world. For others this meant God's "Millenial Kingdom" coming to earth. Marx spoke of a Utopia. Modern "New Agers" are looking for a "New Age". Hitler was trying to take man to our next evolution. I think we also see the effects of this shift in thought much earlier in both the French and American Revolution. Jefferson wrote about this strange idea of the "pursuit of happiness" that found no place in the world of the "Divine Right of Kings" where all that mattered was obeying him to "please" God.

With that said, I think the Enlighenment was a Christian influenced movement if we are going to say Locke started it. I think it produced the two Revolutions mentioned above. One was a secular and perhaps atheist Revolution. The other was Christian in my view. One threw out Locke's theology(See my post from July on Locke) from what I have read. The other seems to me to have kept it.

Whether if we American's kept Locke's political theology is true or not is going to be my thesis as I pursue my master's degree. That is, if the Declaration of Independence was a Christian interposition based on a thread of theology that went from the Scholastics to Hooker(I think it was Hooker)during the English Civil War to Locke and then to the Founders. To do this I will have to research if the Founders were educated in this political theology, understood it, and applied it to the DOI.

I think Gary Amos makes a good case that the ideas behind the Declaration were part of the thread of Christianity I am talking about. What I think he is missing is if the Founders were educated in this political theology. We know that Madison was educated along these lines but he did not really have that much to do with writing the DOI. I guess I am going to find out about the rest as I study this.

In response to the whole discussion about what I like to call "salvation theology", I am not to sure what this has to do with the political theology used to found the nation. I think David Barton got us all of on the wrong track as far as a frame for this discussion. I understand that Jon wants to make sure that Barton does not distort the History to win his modern political battle. I think Jon does a good job at that. But I also think it is time for the frame of this discussion to shift away from Barton and his "lies" and toward the road TVD has been trying to take it for a while. I am convinced it is the right road. I think the central figure is John Locke and his political theology.

For those who are interested in a theological discussion more about salvation, I wrote a blog post Titled "The Myth of Genesis One" on my blog at about the creation story in Genesis being a allegory that those interested can read it if they want to. Since Jon brought it up, I will say here that if I am right about Genesis then all bets are off about dogmatic views of original sin and evolution. Arguments for eternal damnation start to weaken as well. Nonetheless, as Tom has stated many times, this is a History blog. The only reason to bring the theology up is how it relates to the History. But, as I have stated too, History only matters if it can relate to the issues we all struggle through in the here and now.

So, yes I am trying revive Locke's theological case for Libertarian thought. This is because I do believe in a Millenial Reign of Christ. I am not sure what it will look like but I think "liberal democracy" will have a whole lot to do with it. The problem is that what our government is spreading in the name of "liberal democracy" is nothing more than old European statism and it is slowly taking us on our way back to the "serfdom" we were in before the birth of the Modern World that Cato Unbound has been analyzing the origins of and was the subject of the original post by Jon in this exchange. (See Jon's post on Kuzinski's essay below for the link to join the discussion) (Also see Hayek's book titled "The Road to Serfdom")

This return to "serfdom" was exactly the thing that the Revolutionaries in France and America fought to keep from happening. One group threw out the baby with the bathwater and rejected God in the process. That movement fizzled out and ended with the Congress of Vienna. Oh and lest we forget, the European Statism that was re-established at the Congress of Vienna was based on the Augustinian authoritarian view of God that lead to the doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings". Those jerks were counting on one thing to keep their collectivist civilization alive:

That all the "serfs" would listen to the Gregg Frazer(I am not saying he supports the Divine Right of Kings because I know he does not I just want people to know why I debate his so hard on this issue) like dogmatic views of Romans 13 and fear burning in hell so much that we would all sit and take it. Not me! How about you? But, Braytonites, as we fight back lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater and blame God for fools that use his name to enslave people.

Lets also keep in mind the two questions I posed to try and re-frame this debate. I challege all the "Cultural Warriors" to come up with answers for these questions:

1. Which Christian Ideas, if any, helped bring us into the modern world?
2. Which Christian Ideas, if any, tried to derail us from progressing toward a modern world?

If the level of discussion is going to be raised where I think it needs to go it is going to take more than reading one book and calling David Barton a "liar" to do this. Dr. Frazer feel free to jump into this if you want as well and help us define what are and are not "Christian Ideas". More to come.....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

King of Ireland Responds about Christianity's Contributions to Modernity (My Thoughts Follow)

KOI (a K-12 public school teacher) often comments at Ed Brayton's Dispatches From the Culture Wars and has recently joined my group blog on the Founding & Religion, American Creation as a front page poster. He has also spent many hours debating Gregg Frazer on Romans 13 online. This is his response to my note on Jason Kuznicki's recent post at Cato Unbound on the contributions of Christianity (and classical society) to modernity (with some editorial changes by JR):


I think the best example I can give you to illustrate that there have been two general kinds of Christianity that compete and both use scripture to back them.

The Southern Slave Owners and the Northern Abolitionits fought a Civil War over whose version of what the Bible said would win out. The KKK uses the Bible to elevate one person or group above the other. They look at the Jewish race and how God favored them and say that the white race replaced them.

It is really two views of God. To keep this from going Theological again (Tom Van Dyke has a point that the History can be lost if we always go down the Theology road) let's just look at the two broad groups in History. I think the one group is obvious and talked about a lot. It is the Divine Right dogmatic group. The other is not talked about as much.

Tom has tried to show more than once a line of reasoning from Aquinas forward that found its way to Jefferson and company through Locke. The only question is whether this line of reasoning is Christian.

Based on these discussions I put that I am a “Rational Christian” under religion on my Face Book page. Reason has a big place in all this I am just trying to figure out how much.

I think it is this type of Christianity that changed this world. It came in opposition to the Dark Ages crap based on control. We are headed back to Feudalism gradually. Walmart and companies like it are no better than the landed class in the Dark Ages. We woke up and this ended in a modern society with a middle class.

It is shrinking by the day. We are on Hayek's "Road to Serfdom."

It's an interesting notion. As I understand it, what terms itself "Christianity" has been on the side of the Angels and Devils in contentious issues that history eventually resolves. As we all now know, slavery is of the Devil, abolition of God. History has consigned Divine Rule of Kings to the Devil, liberal democracy to God. And today, with issues like gay marriage, abortion, we argue over which issue goes to God, which to the Devil (as was done before issues like slavery and the "right" form of government were settled).

Sometimes the God/Devil dicotomy is entirely metaphorical, as the militant secularist atheist and Godfather of gay rights activism Frank Kameny coined the term "gay is Godly." The Bill O'Reilly-esq. paradigm of "secular progressives" v. "religious conservatives" seems more apt.

Sometimes it is less metaphorical. The very progressive "Christian" Chris Hedges has done this where he places the religious right/conservative Christian types as devils and the progressive pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, anti-war types as the angelic Christians. Hedges of course claims Martin Luther King, D. Bonhoeffer as the angelic Christians in whose tradition he operates.

KOI is neither a secular leftist nor religious rightist, but is more (like me at my cohorts at Positive Liberty) "libertarian." Likewise, he is no Calvinist. Will he try to use his "rational Christianity" to vindicate libertarianism? Who knows?

KOI, in a sense, is not unlike many of America's key Founders and the philosophers they followed. Figures like Jefferson, Franklin, J. Adams, and their British Divine heroes Revs. Joseph Priestley and Richard Price termed themselves "rational Christians." I'm not sure if John Locke, Isaac Newton, John Milton or Samuel Clarke used that term but the "rational Christians" (what Gregg Frazer terms "theistic rationalists") sure as heck claimed them and purported to operate in their tradition.

Likewise they claimed those who operated on the side of "Whiggery," "republicanism," "political liberty," "unalienable rights" on the side of God, the others on the side of the Devil (and vice versa).

They too were militant anti-Calvinists and claimed God from Calvin: As Jefferson, in 1823, wrote to the likeminded J. Adams:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.

One issue that needs to be confronted is the "rational Christians" of that era (whose namesake KOI invokes) tended to reject original sin, trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation, infallibility of the Bible, and so on. "Rational Christians" of course, hold that men have a right to revolt against tyrants and, if they address Romans 13 at all, formulate an understanding of that part of the Bible accordingly (ala Jonathan Mayhew).

That begs the question as to how authentically "Christian" "rational Christianity" is. Indeed, if one looks at the history of abolition in America, unitarians played disproportionate roles in leading the effort (and unitarians had some stinkers as well like John Calhoun).

It's tempting to take one's pet issues and put the God stamp behind it. I don't care if right wing Christians do this on the issues that I disagree with them (many have long standing theological arguments on which to based their claims). I do mind when they cherry pick America's Founders political theological God quotes -- even those that talk up Christianity as opposed to the more oft-invoked generic references to God, religion, and Providence -- and act as though their narrow orthodox theology owns America's political theological heritage.

Likewise, the Chris Hedges of the world don't own what's good in "Christianity" either.

For me, I'm just trying to step back and ask what is authentic historic Christianity -- complete with its dominant, dissident, and heretical strains -- and examine the contributions, pro and con. I think that requires taking the good with the bad, something that neither side wants. The friends of Christianity want to credit it with everything good and distance said from its mistakes. The enemies, the opposite. The truth usually lies somewhere in between.

Tom Van Dyke Accepts Ed Brayton's Challenge

We got off to a rocky start, but Ed Brayton wrote me on his blog, Dispatches From the Culture Wars:

No, I will not offer you my mainpage for more whining about how unfairly you've been treated. I will, however, offer you my mainpage for an actual substantive response to my challenge.

Cool. We'll drop the question of whether my objections were well-founded or just whining. People don't care either way, and I don't blame them.

So let's move on to Ed's offer to move forward, which I accept.

Mr. Brayton---Ed---I accept your challenge and offer of your mainpage for my arguments. Very cool, a very fair and righteous offer.

In reciprocation, you will of course also have the mainpage at my groupblog, American Creation, as previously offered, unedited and uncommented upon by me as you'll be a guestblogger. It wouldn't be fair for me to foul your every argument with a rebuttal. Your remarks will appear in their entirety as a guestblogger, without editing or comment.

I hope you'll accept Jonathan Rowe as our moderator, as he is our mutual friend and mutual group-blog-brother. Who else would we choose? Mr. Rowe would have the right and duty to speak up anytime he feels he should. I trust him as a fair man, and I'm sure you agree.

I trust Mr. Rowe to arbitrate the details of our engagement, and accept his word as final.

This could be a beautiful thing for our country in our modest way, Ed, to disagree without being disagreeable and show 'em all how it's possible. You're a Great American and I'll try to hold up my end as one, too.

This won't be a cooperative discussion but an adversarial debate, so a moderator will be necessary to judge when one of us is hitting below the belt. We both already know the rules of civilization, debate, and fair play, so Jon should have little to do.


We both are not only Great Americans, but gentlemen, surely. The great questions of humanity are not settled in street fights. And I'll police my blog's comments section, and I'm sure you'll do the same.

Or as you elegantly put it yourself:

: Let me add one more thing. If Van Dyke does choose to reply here, I would ask the commenters to keep the conversation civil and respectful. Things have gotten out of hand in previous threads involving him and I've been too busy to police them. But I'm going to make a point of paying attention to this one. If you can't make your argument against him in a civil manner, please don't make it at all. Thanks.

I'll append that disclaimer to all your guestblog posts at American Creation, and will appreciate it when you do the same.

I'm looking forward to it, Ed. Let's show 'em how it's done, GK Chesterton vs. George Bernard Shaw at London's Reform Club. Neither of them were wrong, it was only a question of who was more right. It was a peak of Western Civilization. May we be worthy. Perhaps we'll even get some folks to think for themselves, which should be our highest ambition.


[HT: King of Ireland]

Ed Brayton is a top guy, and I'm honored to step into the ring with him. I think I'll prove I'm more right than he is, but that's up to y'all, not me or him, because these things are never knockouts, only decisions by the judges. And even then, if you've seen enough boxing matches, the judges sometimes get it wrong.

It's about having the guts to step into the ring, with what you think is the best argument. Sometimes it takes decades, or until after you're dead, before you're voted the "winner." Or the loser.

The Founders had so very many petty debates that are forgotten now, but what survives is when they argued for the ages. This isn't 1776 or 1787, but 2009 is where we are now, and it feels pretty pivotal too.

Bring the pain, Ed, make your best case. The streets of Faber are yours.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Introduction: The First Modern Revolution

Here's a book that the readers of American Creation might be interested in: 1688: The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pinctus (who is a professor of history at Yale University) attempts to look at the Glorious Revolution's influence from a world-wide perspective as opposed to the traditional view of it being an un-revolutionary revolution—bloodless, consensual, aristocratic movement. Here's a brief synopsis from Yale University Press:

By expanding the interpretive lens to include a broader geographical and chronological frame, Pincus demonstrates that England’s revolution was a European event, that it took place over a number of years, not months, and that it had repercussions in India, North America, the West Indies, and throughout continental Europe. His rich historical narrative, based on masses of new archival research, traces the transformation of English foreign policy, religious culture, and political economy that, he argues, was the intended consequence of the revolutionaries of 1688–1689.

James II developed a modernization program that emphasized centralized control, repression of dissidents, and territorial empire. The revolutionaries, by contrast, took advantage of the new economic possibilities to create a bureaucratic but participatory state. The postrevolutionary English state emphasized its ideological break with the past and envisioned itself as continuing to evolve. All of this, argues Pincus, makes the Glorious Revolution—not the French Revolution—the first truly modern revolution. This wide-ranging book reenvisions the nature of the Glorious Revolution and of revolutions in general, the causes and consequences of commercialization, the nature of liberalism, and ultimately the origins and contours of modernity itself.

Early Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

A Textbook Example of
Christian Neutrality

With Thanksgiving just around the corner I thought that this might be an appropriate way to embrace the theme of the season. As we all know, Thanksgiving has become an extremely important event in American culture. For the religious and non-religious alike, Thanksgiving brings opportunities to recognize our nation's good fortune and a communal hope in its future prosperity. For many devout Christians, Thanksgiving takes on an additional measure of significance as a day in which praise is rendered to the God of the early Pilgrims and Founding Fathers, who bravely established a new -- and in their opinion Christian -- nation.

So what did these early Founding Fathers think of celebrating a national day of thanksgiving? Well, while they certainly did not celebrate Thanksgiving in the same manner as we do today, a few of our earliest presidents did decree that certain days be set aside and dedicated to national prayer and thanksgiving. Here are a few of those early presidential proclamations:

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 -- October 14, 1789 to be exact -- has been lauded by Christian nation sympathizers for decades as proof positive that America's first Commander-in-Chief was a devout believer in Jesus Christ. And while I am in 100% agreement with their assertion that Washington was a devout man of faith and prayer, I also recognize that the historical record -- as it applies to Washington's religion -- is far from concrete in labeling him a devout Christian.

Let us look at the Thanksgiving proclamation itself for additional evidence on Washington's faith. First off, most anti-Christian nation advocates routinely point out the fact that the actual author of the proclamation was not President Washington, but William Jackson, the President's personal secretary. And while it is true that Washington did not himself pen the proclamation, it is reasonable to assume that he read and gave consent to the document's contents, thus the actual authorship of the piece has little to no relevance. What is relevant, however, is the wordage that was chosen to pay homage to God. Does Washington actually invoke the blessings of the Christian God as so many Christian nation apologists insist? Below is a copy of Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation:
WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requefted me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of thefe States to the fervice of that
great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our fincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the fignal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the courfe and conclufion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have fince enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to eftablish Conftitutions of government for our fafety and happinefs, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffufing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleafed to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in moft humbly offering our prayers and fupplications to the
great Lord and Ruler of Nations and befeech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private ftations, to perform our feveral and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a bleffing to all the people by conftantly being a Government of wife, juft, and conftitutional laws, difcreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all fovereigns and nations (especially fuch as have shewn kindnefs unto us); and to blefs them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increafe of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind fuch a degree of temporal profperity as he alone knows to be beft.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand feven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington
As noted in bold above, Washington's proclamation contains five specific references to deity. Contrary to what many anti-Christian nation advocates claim, the document is clearly religious in its content and purpose. However, does it support the Christian nation's assertion that Washington was a devout Christian? I would argue that it does not. Washington's "God talk" is both extremely neutral and noticeably absent of any typical Christian references. With that said, it is more than clear from this document and others that Washington was a man of faith. What TYPE of faith is the real question we must endeavor to answer.

This same neutral "God talk" can also be found in the thanksgiving proclamations of President James Madison. In both his 1814 and 1815 proclamations, Madison, like Washington, urges Americans to give thanks to God but does so in a very unitarian tone. In Madison's 1814 decree he writes:
The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace, I have deemed it proper by this proclamation to recommend that Thursday, the 12th of January next, be set apart as a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering at the same time in their respective religious assemblies their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance and amendment. They will be invited by the same solemn occasion to call to mind the distinguished favors conferred on the American people in the general health which has been enjoyed, in the abundant fruits of the season, in the progress of the arts instrumental to their comfort, their prosperity, and their security, and in the victories which have so powerfully contributed to the defense and protection of our country, a devout thankfulness for all which ought to be mingled with their supplications to the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses against Him; to support and animate them in the discharge of their respective duties; to continue to them the precious advantages flowing from political institutions so auspicious to their safety against dangers from abroad, to their tranquillity at home, and to their liberties, civil and religious; and that He would in a special manner preside over the nation in its public councils and constituted authorities, giving wisdom to its measures and success to its arms in maintaining its rights and in overcoming all hostile designs and attempts against it; and, finally, that by inspiring the enemy with dispositions favorable to a just and reasonable peace its blessings may be speedily and happily restores.

Given at the city of Washington, the 16th day of November, 1814, and of the Independence of the United States the thirty-eighth.
And Madison's Proclamation of 1815:
The senate and House of Representatives of the United States have by a joint resolution signified their desire that a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace.

No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights, and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.

It is for blessings such as these, and more especially for the restoration of the blessing of peace, that I now recommend that the second Thursday in April next be set apart as a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assembles unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise.
As noted in Washington's proclamation, Madison's tone is noticeably neutral and intentionally sensitive in recognizing ALL brands of faith.

And while Washington and Madison's presidential proclamations are clearly absent any clear Christian language, it is worth pointing out that President John Adams' proclamation of 1798 for a "Day of Fasting and Humiliation" (not Thanksgiving) does contain specific Christian wordage that cannot be applied to any other belief system:
I have therefore thought fit to recommend and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction.
For the complete text of President Adams' proclamation, click here.

As is obvious above, Adams' petition to "the Redeemer of the World" is clearly a Christian petition and cannot be applied to any other religion. So this must mean that John Adams was a devout orthodox Christian, right?

Well, not so fast. Several years later, Adams admitted to a friend his regret in issuing what he saw as an ultra-orthodox declaration of Christian piety, which he believed cost him the election with Thomas Jefferson. Adams writes:
The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.

~John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. Old Family Letters, 392-93; taken from Hutson’s The Founders on Religion, 101-02.
And while the founding generation -- the earliest presidents in particular -- did strive to maintain a neutral prose when recognizing deity, it would be a dire mistake to assume that such declarations are evidence of a desire for secularism to thrive over religion. Even if the language is noticeably absent any specific Christian references, the fact remains that ALL of these proclamations do call for the national recognition of the role of providence in America's prosperity. Such a petition appeals to Franklin's declaration of an American "public religion" and Jefferson's belief in "the Laws of Nature."

At the same time, Christian Nation apologists would be wise to recognize the reality that our earliest presidents did not favor a uniquely Christian heritage:

So, no matter which side of the fence you fall, try to remember that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sometimes "fence-sitting" isn't such a bad thing!!!