Thursday, December 31, 2009

Are Religious Tests UnDeclarational?

Tom Van Dyke's citing Daniel Dreisbach's understanding of religion & the original Constitution that responds to Kramnick and Moore's "The Godless Constitution" thesis is fair, as far as it goes.

However I find Dreisbach's mantra -- religion is left to the states -- unsatisfactory in the sense that it avoids the natural rights framework of the American Founding. The natural rights of conscience were the most "unalienable" of rights intimated in the text of the Declaration of Independence. Under the "religion was left to the states" rule (indeed, as originally conceived, the overwhelming MAJORITY of things were left to the states that our modern, post 13th, 14th Amendment AND post Wickard v. Filburn understanding of the Commerce Clause world finds anathema) state and local governments get to ride roughshod over many unalienable rights of conscience.

This is, some might not like to hear it, EXACTLY like "slavery was left to the states." And that's because, as with religion, it was. BOTH issues involve fundamental matters of unalienable rights that states originally were permitted to violate, as per federalist compromises.

Now, the hard question that follows, with regard to religion, is, what practices did the original US Constitution permit that violated the natural, unalienable rights of conscience? Prohibiting anyone from openly professing their religious beliefs and practicing them in a peaceful manner that didn't contravene the secular civil law? Yes, some states did that, and virtually everyone agrees THOSE things, originally constitutional according to the "religion is left to the states" rule, violated the natural rights of the DOI. They are today, understandably, held to be unconstitutional.

But there are harder questions. What if I am free to practice my religion under the confines of the secular civil law, but am barred from holding public office because I am not of the "right" religion of the state? What if the state uses my tax dollars to support a sectarian religion in whose doctrines I don't believe?

Answering these questions is the matter of not just one book, but many. So I'll pick my battles, one at a time and carefully. Regarding sectarian religious tests, the original Constitution permitted states to enact them. But, at the very least, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Richard Price, and many others thought they violated the natural rights of conscience that the Declaration of Independence protected.

For instance, what follows is PA's original Constitution which Ben Franklin helped pen. It contains a religious test that violated the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence. It held:

And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

Franklin despised the "un-Declarational" religious test contained therein. (He had to accede to such a test as a political compromise.) As he wrote in a letter to John Calder:

I agreed with you in Sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpower'd by Numbers, and fearing might in future times be grafted on [it, I Pre]vailed to have the additional Clause that no [further or more ex]tended Profession of Faith should ever [be exacted. I ob]serv'd to you, too, that the Evil of it was [the less, as no In]habitant, nor any Officer of Government except the Members of Assembly, were oblig'd to make that Declaration. So much for that Letter. To which I may now add, that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib'd to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole.

Benjamin Rush -- originally an orthodox Christian, but later converted to universalism, believing all will eventually be saved -- likewise despised PA's religious test. Here are excerpts from two of his letters to English Whig Richard Price (who in turn greatly influenced our key Founders).

In the first, Rush calls such a test "a stain from the American Revolution."

[15 Oct. 1785]

I took the liberty of publishing, with your name, your excellent letter on the test law of Pennsylvania. It has already had a great effect on the minds of many people, and I doubt not will contribute more than anything to repeal that law. Dr. Franklin, who has succeeded Mr. Dickinson as our governor, has expressed his surprise at the continuance of such a law since the peace, and we hope will add the weight of his name to yours to remove such a stain from the American Revolution.

And here he notes that such test was eventually repealed:

[22 Apr. 1786]

I am very happy in being able to inform you that the test law was so far repealed a few weeks ago in Pennsylvania as to confer equal privileges upon every citizen of the state. The success of the friends of humanity in this business should encourage them to persevere in their attempts to enlighten and reform the world. Your letter to me upon the subject of that unjust law was the instrument that cut its last sinew.

A "stain from the American Revolution." Perhaps not "unconstitutional" according to 1791's amended Constitution. But clearly, "un-Declarational."

A Godless Constitution?: A Response to Kramnick and Moore

by Daniel L. Dreisbach

[Below, Jonathan Rowe continues our continuing series of continued fiskings of advocate/history writer David Barton. For a more scholarly account of Barton's objections, we feature excerpts from accredited historian Daniel Dreisbach. The full article may be found here.]

In their provocative polemic The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (W. W. Horton, 1996), Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore argue that the God-fearing framers of the U. S. Constitution "created an utterly secular state" unshackled from the intolerant chains of religion. They purportedly find evidence for this thesis in the constitutional text, which they describe as radically "godless" and distinctly secular. Their argument, while an appealing antidote to the historical assertions of the religious right, is superficial and misleading.

There were, indeed, anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution who complained bitterly that the document's failure to invoke the Deity and include explicit Christian references indicated, at best, indifference or, at worst, hostility toward Christianity. This view, however, did not prevail in the battle to ratify the Constitution. The professor's inordinate reliance on the Constitution's most vociferous critics to describe and define that document results in misleading, if not erroneous, conclusions. Furthermore, like the extreme anti-Federalists of 1787, the professors misunderstand the fundamental nature of the federal regime and its founding charter.

The U. S. Constitution's lack of a Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Indeed, it had little to do with religion at all. The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the framer's personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as "godless" or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.

Relationships between religion and civil government were defined in most state constitutions, and the framers believed it would be inappropriate for the federal government to encroach upon or usurp state jurisdiction in this area. State and local governments, not the federal regime, it must be emphasized, were the basic and vital political units of the day. Thus, it was fitting that the people expressed religious preferences and affiliations through state and local charters.

Professors Kramnick and Moore find further evidence for a godless Constitution in the Article VI religious test ban. Here, too, they misconstrue the historical record. Their argument rests on the false premise that, in the minds of the framers, support for the Article VI ban was a repudiation of state establishments of religion and a ringing endorsement of a radically secular polity. The numerous state constitutions written between 1776 and 1787 in which sweeping religious liberty and nonestablishment provisions coexisted with religious test oaths confirm the poverty of this assumption. The founding generation, in other words, generally did not regard such measures as incompatible.

The Article VI ban (applicable to federal officeholders only) was not driven by a radical secular agenda or a renunciation of religious tests as a matter of principle. The fact that religious tests accorded with popular wishes is confirmed by their inclusion in the vast majority of revolutionary era state constitutions.

Professors Kramnick and Moore also blithely ignore Article I, sec. 2 of the U. S. Constitution, which deferred to state qualifications for the electors of members of the U. S. House of Representatives. This provision is significant since the constitutional framers of 1787 knew that in some states--such as South Carolina--the requisite qualifications for suffrage included religious belief.

Significantly, there were delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who endorsed the Article VI ban but had previously crafted religious tests for their respective state constitutions. The constitutional framers did not appreciate this apparent contradiction, which arises under a secular construction of Article VI. The framers believed, as a matter of federalism, that the Constitution denied the national government all jurisdiction over religion, including the authority to administer religious tests. Many in founding generation supported a federal test ban because they valued religious tests required under state laws, and they feared that a federal test might displace existing state test oaths and religious establishments. In other words, support for the Article VI ban was driven in part by a desire to preserve and defend the instruments of "religious establishment" (specifically, religious test oaths) that remained in the states.

The Godless Constitution's lack of clear documentation is a disappointment. In order to examine the book's thesis more fully, I attempted to document the claims and quotations in the second chapter, which sets forth the case that the "principal architects of our national government envisioned a godless Constitution and a godless politics." It was readily apparent why these two university professors, who live in the world of footnotes, avoided them in this tract. The book is replete with misstatements or mischaracterizations of fact and garbled quotations. For example, the professors conflate two separate sections of New York Constitution of 1777 to support the claim that it "self-consciously repudiated tests" (p. 31). Contrary to this assertion, neither constitutional section expressly mentions religious tests and, indeed, test oaths were retained in the laws of New York well into the nineteenth century. The Danbury Baptists, for another example, did not ask Jefferson to designate "a fast day for national reconciliation" (pp.97, 119).

The book illustrates what is pejoratively called "law office history." That is, the authors, imbued with the adversary ethic, selectively recount facts, emphasizing data that support their own prepossessions and minimizing significant facts that complicate or conflict with their biases. The professors warn readers of this on the second page when they describe their book as a "polemic" that will " lay out the case for one" side of the debate on the important "role of religion in public and political life."

The suggestion that the U. S. Constitution is godless because it makes only brief mention of the Deity and Christian custom is superficial and misguided. Professors Kramnick and Moore succumb to the temptation to impose twentieth-century values on eighteenth-century text. Their book is less an honest appraisal of history than a partisan tract written for contemporary battles. They frankly state their desire that this polemic will rebut the "Christian nation" rhetoric of the religious right. Unfortunately, their historical analysis is as specious as the rhetoric they criticize.

Daniel L. Dreisbach, D. Phil. (Oxford University) and J. D. (University of Virginia), is an associate professor at American University in Washington, D. C.. He is the author of Religion and Politics in the Early Republic (University Press of Kentucky, 1996), and Real Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment (Crossway Books, 1987).

David Barton's Interview In Dakota Voice

Davie Barton gives an interview in the Dakota Voice on America's "Christian Heritage."

Here's a taste:

We hear the common claim that most of America’s founders were not really Christians but were in fact deists. How many of the founders were actually deists?

You have to define the term. The dictionary definition of the term ”deist” in America’s first dictionary is radically different from what it is today. Really, none of them fit the term “deist” today. When you look it up today you’ll find that “agnostic” and “atheist” are synonyms for deist. At best, today’s definition of “deist” would be one who believed in the great clock-maker, and that he winded up that clock and took off, don’t pray because he’s not going to answer. Maybe Thomas Paine would fit that. Franklin would not; Franklin’s autobiography actually has hymns of praise to God for answering his prayers. Jefferson was very regular in prayer, but a deist is not going to pray because no one is going to hear them. In that sense you could probably put Thomas Paine, Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn, and maybe Ethan Allen.

So take 250 founding fathers, the 56 signers of the Declaration, the 55 that did the Constitution, take Washington’s 17 major generals, his 84 generals, take 13 states and their governors, and out of maybe 400 guys you could find maybe four or five.

Here's the problem: Perhaps Barton correctly identifies this very narrow strain of Deism that excludes even Jefferson and Franklin (note, some scholars argue for a broader understanding of "Deism"). The problem is he leaves the impression that 395/400 Founding Fathers were "Christians" in a way that he and his could embrace.

Nope. Sorry. 395/400 may have been "Christians" in a minimalistic way that Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses (conservatives) or Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey (liberal) could pass (identifying as "Christian," believing in Providence, something special about Jesus).

But huge numbers were not "Christians" in a way that Barton and his followers would find satisfactory. And indeed, Barton still refuses to define acceptable minimal standards for "Christian" in a 1) personal sense and 2) late 18th Century American historical sense. They are the ones guilty of refusing to distinguish between historical and personal understandings of "Christianity."

More from Barton:

I was involved in writing an academic book with three other professors. They said there is no question that America’s founders weren’t religious, because Thomas Jefferson started the first secular university, wouldn’t allow chaplains and such. But I said that’s interesting because I have here the original ads for the University of Virginia that ran in the newspaper. The ads were signed by the chaplain and there were about nine or ten specific things Thomas Jefferson did to make sure every student had a religious activity. These professors were shocked and said, “That’s not what we were taught.”

Barton co-writes an article on the UVA that's available on the Wallbuilders' website. I'm not even going to link to it (if you care enough you'll be able to find it) because I plan on dissecting it in a later post. It's typical distortionist Bartonism. Barton may be right that the secular left claim that the UVA was founded to be totally secular, isn't totally accurate. But, as usual, Barton replaces one misunderstanding with another.

Phillip Munoz in his latest book on the FFs & religion (look for a detailed review of that over the Winter Break as well) brilliantly captures the nuances of the UVA Founding. Bottom line: Jefferson indeed intended the University to be a secular-Enlightenment operation. But had to compromise with more conventional institutional sources. Again, more on that later.

More Barton:

What’s happened is that today’s professors are so much into peer review that they quote each other but nobody goes back and looks at the original documents. So it was really embarrassing to these three professors that I pulled out a single document, just a newspaper ad from 1838 or thereabouts and they were just floored. So I find that a lot are just ignorant, they don’t know any better.

Sorry, it's total bullshit (pardon my French) that trained historians just look at what one another say but don't go back and verify things in the primary sources. Perhaps Barton is venting because he is not a historian by profession, but a BA in Education and is not taken seriously by real historians.

On the other side you have professors like [Isaac] Kramnick and [R. Laurence] Moore out of Cornell who did the book called “The Godless Constitution.” Their position is that all the guys were atheists, agnostics and deists.

This is a flat out lie. The thesis of the book was that Art. VI, Cl. 3 symbolized a groundbreaking secular political theology. They recognized the FFs were a mixed bag, religiously, and many of them were indeed Christians, orthodoxly so.

In the back of the book I love what they say because in the back section where the footnotes are supposed to be, they have a single line that says,”We have dispensed with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes.” So you have two PhD’s who say, we’re not going to document anything we say. That’s pure, hard-core revisionism.

And quite frankly, it's a shame that Kramnick and Moore, two respected scholars whose water Barton isn't fit to carry, didn't conventionally footnote the book. They do however cite their sources inside the text of the book and there is not ONE example Barton and his allies can find of Kramnick and Moore just making things up or, as Barton has done, citing second hand sources from other academics that are "unconfirmed" in the primary sources.

As is normal for when historians argue over controversial subjects, what is most contentious about Kramnick and Moore's book is their INTERPRETATION (i.e., the "no religious test clause" represented a groundbreaking political expression of secular politics) of the record, NOT the veracity of the facts they cite.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Frazer's Hermeneutic And the History of Orthodox Christian Political Theology

With Editorial Suggestions by Jonathan Rowe

My last few posts argued American Founding era political theology created a "Big Tent of Diverse Interests" that allowed various Christian factions of the country to put aside the doctrinal differences that privately divided them and embrace political ideas that publicly united them.

This post continues in that vein.

I stressed that two God terms in the Declaration of Independence were added by the Continental Congress to appeal to Calvinists. This, I think, strengthened the connection between the political-theology of the DOI and Calvinistic notions of interposition.

Then, to better inform myself on the matter, I just carefully read the exchange between Jim Babka and Gregg Frazer that was part of "Romans 13 round 1." You will see Babka and I, for the most part, agree on Romans 13 & Christian history. We stress how Dr. Frazer downplays the later Calvinists (not necessarily Calvin himself) like Rutherford whose teachings on "interposition" transition into those of the Declaration of Independence.

As Dr. Frazer wrote:

A second argument THAT I DID NOT MAKE which you refute at great length is the idea that everyone who supported the Revolution (or the idea of revolution) was Unitarian and that “Unitarianism was required to get around” Divine Right of Kings. I SAID NO SUCH THING – nor did I imply it. I said (and I quote): “one must move away from Calvin (whether to Arminianism or Unitarianism) in order to support the revolution.” Your extensive quest to show trinitarian support for revolution is interesting, but irrelevant. No one denied that one could be trinitarian and support the Revolution. You then list a number of Calvinists who supported revolution, but I never denied that people identifying themselves as Calvinists supported revolution. I said that Calvin did not and that many churches held Calvin’s view and that that was a hurdle which had to be overcome – hence, the significance of Mayhew’s landmark sermon (which would not have been landmark if Rutherford’s view were the norm).

I also did not say or even imply that Unitarians “had the next largest plurality” after Calvinists – I said nothing about unitarianism as a denomination. I also said nothing about Calvinist denominations in terms of percentages of churches – I spoke about the theology. I said (and I quote again): “Calvin’s view was the majority view in the century leading up to the Revolution.” [emphasis added] One need not be a Calvinist or a member of one of the 1300 Calvinist churches (compared to <900 Baptist/Episcopalian/Anglican churches) to hold Calvin’s view of Romans 13 and against revolution. That view – based on what Romans 13 actually says -- was the majority view throughout the history of the church up to that point. Jonathan Boucher and Samuel Seabury (for example) were prominent Anglican ministers who argued the traditional literal (and biblical) view of Romans 13 and against revolution.

This begs the question: Why is Frazer's view of unlimited submission that dominated Christendom until the age of revolution given any special historical weight when, for over the past 200 plus years, Christianity -- indeed orthodox Christianity -- reconciled itself with the permissibility of revolt as per Romans 13 (under certain circumstances)?

Indeed, keep in mind, dissident strains within Christendom intimated the permissibility of revolt for hundreds of years before the American Revolution.

My co-blogger Jon Rowe noted my main issue with Frazer is that we have two different hermeneutics. Perhaps yes, but, I argue mine, like Mayhew before me, is taken straight from the Bible's text and is just as historically Christian and valid as Frazer's. In fact, after reading what Calvin actually stated, I believe mine might even be John Calvin's.

Before my next post on Calvin's view on Interposition I pose the following questions:

1. Is the Mayhew interpretation of Romans 13 straight from the Bible's text?

2. Is that interpretation historically Christian?

3. Does Mayhew's interpretation fit with Calvinistic notions of "interposition"?

If we answer yes to all three, that would explain why enough Presbyterians joined the American Revolution such that it was termed a "Presbyterian Parson’s rebellion."

Before I end, here is one quote from John Adams on Romans 13 recited in his Proclamation of 1799 to keep in mind. Ask how "Christian" this quote sounds to you.

"that He would bless all magistrates, from the highest to the lowest, give them the true spirit of their station, make them a terror to evil doers and a praise to them that do well;"

--John Adams

Fleming on "Christian America"

Hard right paleo-conservative Thomas Fleming explains why America was not founded to be a "Christian Nation." He writes:

Despite the number of religious fanatics who landed on our shores early on, America has never been a Christian nation. Conservative evangelicals are fond of saying that the Founding Fathers were all pious Christians, but few of the men who led the Revolution or drafted the Constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. George Washington was an ordinary Episcopalian who showed no conspicuous attachment to religion. His biographer Parson Weems has preserved touching stories about Washington’s faith, but Weems was a notorious liar, and his morale-building stories have repeatedly been debunked. The chaplain to the First Continental Congress knew Washington well and respected him, but, when asked in 1832 about the first president’s religion, he replied, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which will prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”

Revelation, miracles, and mystery were a stumbling block to John Adams, who was an undoubted Unitarian, like his wife, Abigail. Ben Franklin turned deist at the age of 15, before turning into a freethinker and Freemason. He was also a notorious philanderer who fathered bastards and wrote a famous essay on how to get and keep a mistress. Small wonder that Newt Gingrich says Franklin was “great in the way he lived his life.” Thomas Jefferson was also a mildly anti-Christian deist.

As Tocqueville told us 150 years ago, we are a conventional people, afraid of controversy. Going to church, in most periods of our history, has entailed fewer social complications than a reputation for atheism. No known atheist has ever been elected president: Lincoln learned to keep his skepticism to himself. America’s tradition of toleration—a peculiar blend of public hypocrisy and personal indifference to religion—is often explained by the First Amendment. Anti-American Catholics and ACLU liberals agree that the development of a Christian social order (much less a religious establishment) was prevented by the so-called wall of separation between Church and state. The phrase comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson addressed to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802....


To be fair to that good man, Jefferson was in something of a bind. His indifference (at best) to religion was well known, and he knew that anything he wrote could and would be used against him by political rivals who had always tried to represent him as the enemy of Christianity. Cleverly, Jefferson did not even answer the Baptists’ main point: He wrote nothing about the rights of Baptists in Connecticut or the power of the legislature but spoke only of the national legislature—that is, the U.S. Congress—which is forbidden to establish a church or interfere in the exercise of religion.

Jefferson’s wall of separation cannot honestly be used to justify the government’s campaign to eliminate Christianity from public places. The President thought, rightly or wrongly, that he was merely restating and applying the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is not easy today to get the point of this clause, since so few of us have lived in a country with an established religion....

The First Amendment, then, forbids Congress either to establish a national church or to interfere in the exercise of religion. Why Congress, specifically? Because Congress, elected from the people, is the supreme lawmaking body. As Jefferson understood, it was up to Congress to pass laws, which the president executed. The president could not have his own policies on religious freedom any more than he was entitled to have his own policies on war (much less the special “war powers” that Lincoln invented and subsequent presidents have abused): For a president to impose his own ideas on the nation would be tyrannical. Nor did anyone (except possibly Jefferson) ever think the federal courts would get involved in such an issue, since their role was to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, and they had virtually no authority to intrude themselves into the affairs of the separate sovereign states.

The fears of the Danbury Baptists were legitimate: Under the First Amendment, the states could, theoretically, interfere in the exercise of religion or establish a church, whether Anglican or Congregationalist. The fear of a national establishment came natural to Americans. What sort of national church could America have that would unite the Anglicans of Virginia and South Carolina with the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania? Even the Southern states were religiously diverse. The Carolina backcountry was dominated by Presbyterians and, eventually, Methodists, Baptists, and Campbellites, while Charleston had a significant Catholic population even in the early 19th century, and eventually the number of Irish Catholics in the lower South and, after the Louisiana Purchase, French and Spanish Catholics in Louisiana was too great to be ignored. So, although Christianity held a privileged position, it was, for practical reasons, virtually impossible for states to maintain a church establishment.

Although the Bill of Rights is interpreted today as a guarantee of individual and minority rights to exercise freedoms of expression and religion, this was not the original reading. In this respect, Jefferson’s letter points in the wrong direction. The primary object of the Bill of Rights was to restrain the national government, particularly the Congress.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Babka Defends and Challenges Frazer

I want to preface this post with the disclaimer that Jim gave me permission to reproduce this here from Positive Liberty with the condition that he not be expected to comment.

The following is some more insight from Jim Babka on Gregg Frazer's thesis and the whole Interposition discussion in response to Jon's last post:


I couldn’t read thoroughly all the comments back and forth between you and King of Ireland over at American Creation. After awhile, I skipped to the end. I’m not interested in weighing back into this fray, as I believe I’ve said everything I want to say on the matter. Still, I think that this particular discussion could be aided a bit with the following perspective.

I agree with KofI, for the most part, in the case he’s been building of late, both for the Presbyterian doctrine of interposition and its influence on the Founding Fathers. And, overall, I admire and appreciate what I’ve learned, from you, about Mr. Frazer’s thesis — that is, I believe that Theistic Rationalism was the primary belief system amongst the leading Founding Fathers.

But all that said, I think KofI’s critique of Mr. Frazer on this aspect of Interposition is focused imprecisely. Both Mr. Van Dyke and I have pointed out that Frazer dismisses, entirely, all the scholarship within Calvinist circles, following Calvin himself.

1) Frazer takes the view that Calvin didn’t really mean that kind of interposition! He meant that only lower magistrates who had the power, as a specific job description, to rebuke the king, could do so, albeit guardedly and hesitantly. This view ignores that Calvin lived in an era where individual interpretation of scripture was new, that Calvin’s view appears to have evolved, and that he made reference to Biblical situations that did not fit the take that the power was so limited.

2) Frazer is unwilling to consider that Calvin had contemporaries who wrote on the topic of interposition, who claimed Calvin personally agreed with them. Whether or not they were telling the truth, he ignores the fact that “Calvinist” scholarship expanding the doctrine of interposition began while Calvin was still alive.

3) He rejects the influence of Calvinist interposition authors on the Founders, even when John Adams cites one of them, and other historians like Gary Amos can demonstrate that the DOI was modified, in convention, to appeal to the Calvinists. That would suggest, along with King George’s claim of a “Presbyterian Parson’s rebellion,” that the ORTHODOX Presbyterians were a necessary part of the revolutionary block.

4) And, most amusing of all, he rules out the generations that followed Calvin and elaborated on his doctrine of interposition, as Calvinists — like, they don’t have the secret decoder ring, and if they do, they should return it. As I pointed out in the past, their non-Calvinism would come as a great surprise to most of them.

Jon, you are correct: Mr. Frazer’s hermeneutical/theological disagreement is legitimate, even if KofI and I think he gets that part wrong as well (to disagree with Frazer theologically, btw, does not require that we look at Scripture as uninspired — the mere doctrine of men). Each must judge for their own, but to me, judging historically, given the aforementioned four points, Frazer seems closed to contrary evidence on interposition.

And I’m not sure why. I for one think his historical flag in the ground is still erect and waving, even while disagreeing with him on this singular aspect.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hermeneutics & the American Founding

Gregg Frazer spent a great deal of time debating my co-blogger King of Ireland on Romans 13, and of late, I've taken to defending Gregg's hermeneutic, not because I believe it personally, but simply on its internally coherent logical grounds.

Gregg is, as my readers know, an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian who believes the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God and a literal 6-day young earth creationist.

While it's not out of the realm of possibilities that I become a self-defining/self-understanding "Christian," even an "orthodox Christian" in the future. I seriously doubt I'll ever become that kind of Christian.

The conversation, of late, I've been having with KOI centers around whether Gregg properly interprets and understands Romans 13 in terms of history and logic. From everything I've studied, according to Gregg's internal hermeneutic, he does. Perhaps one could hold to Gregg's fundamentalist premises and differ in outcome on Romans 13 absoluteness. After all, fundamentalists argue over every letter of TULIP. However, according to Gregg's theological premises, his interpretation is as sound as any other (in a later post, I'm going to explain why Gregg and John Calvin had almost identical understandings).

It's just that it leaves a bad taste in many people's mouths (mine included). It holds, while obedience to government is qualified by "rulers" not making believers affirmatively or by omission sin, submission to government is unqualified. And that includes Hitler, Stalin or whomever.

Such a fundamentalist fatalism is immune to the reductio ad absurdum. Of course, the idea that the vast majority of humanity face eternal misery for not being of God's elect is about as bad a truth as I can imagine (worse than submit to Hitler and Stalin). But again, if that's what the Bible says, that's what it says, as the hermeneutic goes.

I've thought about lately the words of the Apostles and hermeneutics. When Jehovah speaks, it's the first person in the Trinity (according to orthodox hermeneutics). When Jesus speaks, the second person. And when St. Paul in Romans, St. John in Revelation, their words are directed by the Holy Spirit, the 3rd Person in the Trinity.

Therefore, when Paul speaks in Romans, etc. this is the "Word of God," -- eternally binding -- that doesn't get explained away by "context." As Gregg wrote in an earlier post:

You must remember that Paul wrote Romans UNDER THE INSPIRATION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. God knew what Nero was going to do – and inspired Paul to write to those people how they must conduct themselves not just for that day, but when the persecution came. If it was just Paul’s opinion or limited by Paul’s finite understanding, then I wouldn’t give it any more weight than my own thoughts or those of a “wise” man. But it was GOD’s Word to those people – and it wasn’t bound by time constraints because God isn’t bound by time constraints. Paul did not say: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities until they start doing mean and nasty things.” There are no qualifiers – despite Mayhew’s penchant for adding them. So, no, Nero had not yet begun burning Christians alive or feeding them to animals or nailing them to crosses, but the God Who inspired Paul’s writing knew he was going to. [Italics mine.]

In short, when you read Paul et al. you are getting the 3rd Person in the Trinity -- an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God -- if not writing for Paul, guiding his hand making sure it says everything God wants. That's why Paul's words (and those of the other Apostles) constitute the "Word of God," just as Jesus' and Jehovah's do. In this sense, the words of Paul, St. John, are equal to Jesus' and Jehovah's. They are all "God's Word," depending on which Person in the Trinity does the speaking (or guiding).

THAT'S the hermeneutic from where Gregg comes. And if one believes in it, Gregg's conclusions per Romans 13 stand on solid ground.

However, that's not the only necessarily proper way to interpret the Bible. It could be that Paul had a finite understanding in some parts of the Bible, and in others, was just giving his opinion, which may have been wrong. If one adopts THAT hermeneutic, then Romans 13 isn't as much of a problem.

Jefferson simply disregarded everything Paul said as "corruption."

When Brad Delong first commented at Positive Liberty (after I linked to a posts of his on the matter), he wrote:

I would cut St. Paul considerable slack here. He’s trying to keep his tiny churches scattered across the Mediterranean functioning and making converts so that as many people can be saved before the imminent, really imminent coming of the Kingdom. And he wants to keep some of the Romans alive so that the church in Rome can continue to preach. And if to keep them alive he has to say that it’s God’s will that Nero reigns, and you shouldn’t interfere with God’s will, and throwing your life away on some anti-Nero gesture is interfering with God’s will… well, I can see why he would say that. And I can see how he would say “But I didn’t mean it to go so far” if we generalize from it…

Nino Scalia on the other hand… much less slack. He wants to get to the conclusion that Martin Luther King and other civil disobeyers are not just criminals but sinners. And he rushes to that conclusion so fast he forgets what this country is, or how it was founded.


Brad DeLong

Or one could, like Jefferson, argue as Pete Guither does:

First of all, Paul is a putz. He’s not a very good interpreter of Christ’s message to the people, but he’s great at organizing church dogma. Second, he’s in an occupied land sending messages that could be intercepted by the government - of course you throw in some pablum about respecting authority just to be on the safe side.

Finally, its this kind of blind obedience to text instead of to God’s message that ends up causing so much damage in this world.

Did Paul Instruct Believers to Submit to Nero In Romans 13?

According to longstanding, traditional interpretation of the Bible, yes.

So what is the relevance? Gregg Frazer explained in the following post in October:

Re the Nero issue:

The flexibility of people holding your position on Romans 13 (especially as it applies to the American situation) never ceases to amaze me. In one sentence, you can justify a revolution against a “tyrant” for imposing a $1 per year tax to pay for a war which protected those people; in the next, you can with a straight face assert that a Roman emperor who drained every Roman of every cent to build extragant palaces for himself was not a tyrant. In one sentence, you can demand CONSENT as the only legitimate basis for government; in the next you can defend a Roman emperor as legitimate and not meeting the standard of tyranny that, of course, an English king met. While Nero had not yet begun specifically persecuting the Christians, he was hardly elected and hardly “consulted the public welfare and the good of society” by your and Mayhew’s standard!

You must remember that Paul wrote Romans UNDER THE INSPIRATION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. God knew what Nero was going to do – and inspired Paul to write to those people how they must conduct themselves not just for that day, but when the persecution came. If it was just Paul’s opinion or limited by Paul’s finite understanding, then I wouldn’t give it any more weight than my own thoughts or those of a “wise” man. But it was GOD’s Word to those people – and it wasn’t bound by time constraints because God isn’t bound by time constraints. Paul did not say: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities until they start doing mean and nasty things.” There are no qualifiers – despite Mayhew’s penchant for adding them. So, no, Nero had not yet begun burning Christians alive or feeding them to animals or nailing them to crosses, but the God Who inspired Paul’s writing knew he was going to.

Though my friend and co-blogger Jim Babka has referred me to some evangelical-fundamentalist scholarship that now (for whatever reason) doubts that Paul instructed believers to submit to Nero. It should be noted that this is the "novel," or "revisionist" position (and indeed Christianity is so vast and old that one might be able to dig up some old heretic that first thought of this interpretation long before the age of revolution, as one can with theological unitarians, universalists, Gnostics, dissident authority figures who argued for a different biblical canon, etc.).

Sometimes the "revisionist" position turns out to be correct (not saying that it is here, just making a point).

Of My First Experiences With Anti-Unitarian, "Joel Mark"

American Creation readers may know of "Joel Mark" -- a right reverend -- from the post Frazer Responds to Joel Mark.

Here is one of my earliest dealings with the right Rev. This post is relevant because Joel typifies the misunderstanding of 1) John Adams' religious creed and 2) the Founding era understanding of "unitarianism." When one mentions "unitarianism," strangely, many folks, perhaps out of hatred for the religion, think modern day "Unitarian-Universalism," when founding era unitarianism simply meant disbelief in the Trinity, but rather in one unitary God. As such Jehovah's Witnesses are "unitarians."

An early notable discourse of mine with the anti-Unitarian (bigot?) Rev. Joel Mark commences:

John Adams Quotation of the Week:

It's funny. See this thread on worldmagblog, which illustrates that stubbornness is intractable in human nature. Someone possesses an erroneous assumption. They are given more than adequate evidence refuting the assumption. Yet, they stubbornly refuse to let go of their error.

In this case, it's a fellow named Joel Mark who assumed that John Adams was an orthodox Christian, and not a Unitarian, was shown overwhelming evidence to the contrary, complete with references to primary sources, yet still refuses to let go of the notion that Adams was a traditional minded Christian. In one comment directed at me, he wrote:

Jon Rowe,

You are flat out wrong....John Adams was NOT a Unitarian. That was never how he identified himself or was identified and the Unitarians were not even around in Massachusetts or America in his prime years.

You are unreliable on this matter. maybe its just that your sources are poor. But you are wrong.

He further asks for "smoking gun" evidence demonstrating that Adams identified himself as a Unitarian. Ye ask, and ye shall receive. Here is Adams himself on the matter:

I thank you for your favour of the 10th and the pamphlet enclosed, "American Unitarianism." I have turned over its leaves and have found nothing that was not familiarly known to me.

In the preface Unitarianism is represented as only thirty years old in New England. I can testify as a Witness to its old age. Sixty five years ago my own minister the Reverend Samuel Bryant, Dr. Johnathan Mayhew of the west Church in Boston, the Reverend Mr. Shute of Hingham, the Reverend John Brown of Cohasset & perhaps equal to all if not above all the Reverend Mr. Gay of Hingham were Unitarians. Among the Laity how many could I name, Lawyers, Physicians, Tradesman, farmers!

-- John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, May 15, 1815. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress.


We Unitarians, one of whom I have had the Honour to be, for more than sixty Years, do not indulge our Malignity in profane Cursing and Swearing, against you Calvinists; one of whom I know not how long you have been. You and I, once saw Calvin and Arius, on the Plafond of the Cathedral of St. John the Second in Spain roasting in the Flames of Hell. We Unitarians do not delight in thinking that Plato and Cicero, Tacitus Quintilian Plyny and even Diderot, are sweltering under the scalding drops of divine Vengeance, for all Eternity.

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816, Ibid, reel 430.

These quotations are featured in James H. Hutson's fine book of quotations, pp. 220-221.

Theistic Rationalism From the Pulpit, Redux

Because Samuel West's 1776 Election Sermon featured so prominently in a number of recent American Creation posts (and in Jeff Morrison's paper on the political theology of the Declaration of Independence, also discussed in said posts), I thought I'd refer back to a post I did where I noted Dr. Gregg Frazer discusses West and his sermon in detail in his PhD thesis and sees it not as "Christian" principles preached from the Founding era pulpit, but theistic rationalist principles.

Samuel West was also a unitarian, not a Calvinistic Christian. That's one of the deficiencies of Morrison's paper. He seems to view Rev. West as orthodox. But it's understandable. West doesn't talk about his unitarianism in that sermon. And the Congregational Church where he preached had, or likely had, numerous Calvinists. Indeed, few understand that unitarian ministers in Founding era New England Congregational Churches placated the Calvinists by refusing to preach on the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines.

This was a Lockean solution, indeed a Lockean lowest-common-denominator of what it means to be a "Christian." Jesus is some kind of divinely special Messiah and Savior of Mankind. That was Locke's test for what it means to be a "Christian." "Divinely special" could mean fully divine Himself (2nd Person in the Trinity), some type of created and subordinate divine being (this is Arianism where Jesus is the first created being, more divinely powerful than the top archangel but inferior to his creator God the Father) or 100% man but on a uniquely divine mission, sent by the Father (this is Socinianism).

Indeed, Locke likely was a unitarian (his orthodox critics so accused him of being for positing an LCD understanding of Christianity that refused to distinguish between Trinitarianism and unitarianism) and West's sermon preaches Locke, heavily.

Samuel West's sermon is also heavy on the natural law/reason as trumping truth discovery. While he doesn't come out and say the Bible is fallible and man's reason trumps, he does say that revelation, in order to be true, MUST meet the test of reason. That was "right revelation." That is, TRUTH, like that men have an unalienable right to revolt against tyrants, is ascertainable from reason/nature alone. Indeed that's the first place men SHOULD look for metaphysical truth. Once found, go back to the Bible and MAKE the Bible fit with what man already discovered from reason, even if we have to conclude that the Apostles when they spoke were joking and didn't really mean what they said. That was West's hermeneutic, how he approached scripture, and especially Romans 13.

(Ready my original post; this is no shit. West claims that St. Paul may have been joking in Romans 13.)

Yep, Another Romans 13 Post

I have watched, over the past several months, my fellow blog brothers debate Romans 13 into the dust. This debate usually follows the same rough outline where one person will enter the ring armed to the teeth with quotes from Locke, Rutherford, Sidney, Mayhew, Calvin, Jefferson, etc., etc., etc. Not soon after, my email inbox will be full of comment notifications, full of anxious rebukings, most of which are, like the original comment itself, delivered with powerful counter-punch material from some of the same sources. Now, it's not that I dislike this back-and-forth debating over this singular (and in my opinion, relatively unimportant) issue. On the contrary. I have found the debate to be both extremely enlightening and quite entertaining. I've admired the abilities and passions of the "key participants" (you know who you are) along with the enormous arsenal of knowledge and understanding they possess.

With that said, I think most of you know where I stand on this issue (and yes, it is likely to get me in trouble with both camps). In a nutshell, I simply do not believe that this was as big of an issue as we make it out to be. Please, don't get me wrong here. I realize that it was a major issue for many people. After all, obeying the will of God is no small sack of potatoes, and I realize that many people believed that salvation (not just worldly freedom) hung in the balance. However, if we take a step back, remove our American Creation lenses (which seem to dwell almost exclusively on religious matters) and look at the grand picture, I believe we can see that the American Revolution was much larger than one simple chapter from the "Good Book" and that war with Britain was going to happen with or without Romans 13.

With all of that said, I am going to try and play along as best I can. Let's assume that I am completely wrong and that the Romans 13/God sanctioning rebellion was not only an issue but THE ISSUE of the American Revolution. Given this new sense of importance I still maintain that the debate surrounding Romans 13 was not that big of a deal for those involved in the American Revolution.

Why you ask? Because the matter had already been resolved...


...At lest for those who established the American republic.

Long before the Founding Fathers arrived on the scene the debate over the Kingship/rule of law had been raging for centuries. As has been pointed out numerous times on this blog, a number of important theologians, thinkers, and civic leaders took up this very cause as their own. Everyone from Locke to Rutherford, Sidney to Montesquieu helped to mold how the founding generation would come to understand the relationship between God and government, government and the people and the people's duty to government.

Much has been made of Romans 13 and rightfully so. St. Paul's message that whoever "resisteth the power [government], resisteth the ordinance of God" would strike the soul of any devout Bible adherent. But there is another Bible chapter to consider; one that inspired a certain Samuel Rutherford to challenge Divine Right kingship. In Deuteronomy 17 we read:
14 When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;

15 Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

16 But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.

17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that
he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.

20 That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
For men like Rutherford, this was clear-cut evidence from God himself that the LAW was king, not the other way around.

Algernon Sidney, who Jefferson credited (along with Locke) as being one of the primary sources for the American conceptualization of individual liberty, agreed with Rutherford's interpretation that the rule of law was to be superior to any kingship. To defend his thesis, Sidney appealed to the very laws of nature:
If there be any precept, that by the light of nature we can in matters of this kind look upon as certain, it is, that the government of a people should be given to him that can best perform the duties of it. No man has it for himself, or from himself; but for and from those, who, before he had it, were his equals, that he may do good to them. If there were a man, who in wisdom, valour, justice, and purity, surpassed all others, he might be called a king by nature; because he is best able to bear the weight of so great a charge; and, like a good shepherd, to lead the people to do good . . . Solomon tells us, 'That a wise child is better than an old and foolish king.'


If governments arise from the consent of men, and are instituted by men according to their own inclinations, they did therein seek their own good; for the will is ever drawn by some real good, or the appearance of it. This is that which man seeks by all the regular or irregular motions of his mind. Reason and passion, virtue and vice, do herein concur.... A people therefore that sets up [government does it so]...that it may be well with themselves and their posterity.
Which of course sounds awfully familiar to:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
For Jefferson, who was never a big fan of St. Paul to begin with (you may recall that his version of the Bible contains none of Paul's epistles), Sidney's interpretation of law rang strong and clear as it pierced through the "old school" interpretation of complete submission to God's rulers. In a letter to his chubby little New England buddy John Adams, Jefferson points out just how appealing Sidney's view of government was:
I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government...As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce —- as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world —- ought to be now published in America.
Of course skeptics will point out that the American Revolution cannot, in any way, be reconciled with Romans 13 because if Paul admonishes Christians to endure the treacheries of Nero, how can they possibly justify rebellion against a king who simply raised their taxes? Perhaps they are right. There may be no biblical way to justify the American Revolution. I suppose one could cite Biblical examples such as Deuteronomy 17, 1 Kings 11, Daniel's civil disobedience, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's refusal to obey Nebuchadneezar's laws, Moses, etc., but I doubt much of it would stick. Simply put,much of this debate is based off of personal biblical interpretation.

And such was the case with our founders. The moment that Jefferson, Madison, etc. committed to embracing the perspectives of Locke, Sidney, etc. they also committed, perhaps subconscientiously, to rejecting a literal interpretation of Paul's admonition in Romans 13.

But Paul's lesson wasn't completely ignored either. Yes, the framers of the Revolution were not about to let some obscure chapter from the Bible deter them but at the same time, they weren't about to rush into a reckless rebellion either. The trick was knowing when abuses from tyrannical leaders required a response from the people. Again, Algernon Sidney helped to provide the answer:
Those who had wit and learning, with something of ingenuity and modesty, though they believed that nations might possibly make an ill use of their power, and were very desirous to maintain the cause of kings, as far as they could put any good color upon it, yet never denied, that some had suffered justly (which could not be, if there were no power of judging them); animate them to persist in the most flagitious courses, with assurance of perpetual impunity, or engage nations in an inevitable necessity of suffering all manner of outrages. They knew that the actions of those princes, who are not altogether detestable, might be defended by particular reasons drawn from them, or their laws or their country; and would neither undertake the defense of such as were abominable, nor bring princes, to whom they wished well, into the odious extremity of justifying themselves by arguments that favored Caligula and Nero, as well as themselves, and that must be taken for a confession, that they were as bad as could be imagined.


They who are already fallen into all that is odious, and shameful and miserable, cannot justify fear...Let the dangers never be so great, there is the possibility of safety while men have life, hands, arms and courage to use them but that people must surely perish who tamely suffer themselves to be oppressed.
Or in other words, it is completely silly (and contrary to the laws of nature) to endure inept leaders who had demonstrated their incompetence or their ill will towards their subjects. Or as Jefferson put it:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
And while this debate is likely to rage on for months (or maybe even years) here on this fair little blog, I remain convinced that the Founders' understanding of kings and law had already been shaped by centuries of European debate on the matter. Men like Locke, Sidney, Rutherford, etc. (along with many before and after them) helped to mold (and perhaps justify) the arguments for Revolution.

But again, it doesn't really matter because war was a' coming regardless of what the Bible said.

And that's a fact, Jack!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mark Noll's Review of Empire of Liberty

As most of you already know, renowned historian Gordon Wood's latest book is creating a lot of buzz. Not that this is anything new. Wood has a history of writing excellent history. I ran across the following book review (thanks, Dr. Fea) from Mark Noll, another excellent historian, who gives a thorough overview of Empire of Liberty. Anyway, I thought some of our readers might appreciate it:
Merely mortal historians dream fondly of writing one book of enduring significance. With the publication of Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University, has now published three such volumes. His Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 was recognized immediately upon its appearance in 1969 as a nearly definitive explanation of what the republican political principles of the American Revolution meant to their proponents and how those ideas fueled the successful revolt against Britain. Then in 1992 he published The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a compelling study that showed how widely and deeply the Revolution's republican ideology worked to shape all aspects of early American society. In a career also marked by a stunning proliferation of seminal scholarly essays, insightful books on the major founding fathers, and much general writing of the absolutely highest caliber, Wood's addition to the noteworthy Oxford History of the United States could be the occasion for pure celebration.[1]

If, instead, I take more time to treat what strike me as problems, it is not from any doubt about the book's triumphal success in achieving what it set out to do. That goal seems to be a political history of the early United States that also explains the many connections between the era's political life and the dramatic changes percolating through American society as a whole.

The organization of the book indicates clearly what Wood is attempting. Its introduction and first eight chapters narrate the trials of the new republic from the writing of the Constitution through the administrations of George Washington and John Adams to "the Jeffersonian Revolution" of 1800, when the Democratic Republicans displaced the Federalists as the nation's guiding political faction. The more than 300 pages in these chapters offer a bravura account of frequently retold events, enlivened with telling details (when Washington became the president, he employed more workers at Mount Vernon than he supervised as head of government), persuasive judgments on individuals (James Madison was "the most intellectually creative public figure America has ever produced"), and commanding interpretations of key documents (the Federalist Papers, various Indian treaties, Federalist and Democratic Republican propaganda, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that protested Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts).

Then come two thematic chapters on social organization and the opening American frontier, c. 1800; followed by two especially compelling chapters on law, the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall; then four thematic chapters (reform, slavery, culture, religion); followed by two outstanding chapters on American foreign policy and the War of 1812, featuring the maneuvers of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; and finally a last chapter on the great changes in the country from 1789 to 1815. In other words, we have a political narrative with interpolations.

So, what could possibly be troubling about such a work? The materials for complaint, which are mostly provided by Wood himself, concern issues of comprehension, causation, and irony. First is the question of comprehension, which is best explained comparatively. Wood's volume in the Oxford History of the United States most closely resembles volumes by Robert Middlekauff on the American Revolution (The Glorious Cause, first edition 1982) and James McPherson on the Civil War era (Battle Cry of Freedom, first edition 1988), which were also superb political histories. None of these volumes, however, accomplished what Daniel Walker Howe brought off so successfully in his 2007 contribution to the Oxford History, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. While Howe too provided sterling political history, he also drew upon a vast quantity of social history and the recent outpouring of scholarship on previously understudied groups to write a full history of the American people. When Howe showed how the political history shaped broader cultural values, his work paralleled what the others had done. But when he went beyond to demonstrate how the political history often reflected economic, demographic, religious, cultural, and intellectual developments, he reached a level of comprehension not nearly as obvious in the other volumes. To be sure, Empire of Liberty has useful pages on Native Americans, commerce, agriculture, religion, the arts, voluntary organizations, newspapers and magazines, slavery, and much else, but developments in these spheres are usually treated as reactions to ideology—thus, in chapters titled "Republican Society," "The Jeffersonian West," and "Republican Reforms."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Samuel West, Calvinism, and the Big Tent

With Thanks to Jonathan Rowe For Editorial Suggestions.

Following up on my last post, I further examine Jeffry H. Morrison's paper entitled, "Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence."

Let's focus more on the sermon by Samuel West that Morrison discusses in his paper. In the passage reproduced below, Morrison adds brackets to West's sermon with "corresponding phrases" from the Declaration of Independence to illustrate how strikingly similar the wording of two documents is. Honestly reading West's sermon in this way shatters the myth that the Declaration of Independence's God words are exclusively Deistic/Enlightenment references. Here is West with Morrison's brackets:

"The great Creator ["their Creator"], having designed the human race for society, has made us dependent on one another for happiness ["the pursuit of Happiness"]. He has so constituted us that it becomes both our duty and interest to seek the public good; and that we may be the more firmly engaged to promote each other's welfare, the Deity has endowed us ["endowed by their Creator"] with tender and social affections . . . . The Deity has also invested us with moral powers and faculties, by which we are enabled to discern the difference between right and wrong, truth ["self-evident" truths] and falsehood, good and evil . . . . This proves that, in what is commonly called a state of nature, we are the subjects of the divine law ["Laws of Nature and of Nature's God"] and government; that the Deity is our supreme magistrate, who has written his law in our hearts [again, "self-evident" truths], and will reward or punish us according as we obey or disobey his commands ["the Supreme Judge of the World"]."

The Declaration of Independence was written shortly after this sermon. Would John Calvin, himself, have been comforable in the "big tent" of American Founding political theology that sought to depose tyrants like Calvin's disciples (Rutherford, et al.) did? More on that later...

Merry Christmas to All

To all our readers, friends, followers, etc. have a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS! Thank you for all your continued support and we hope to see you throughout 2010!

Don't Forget Trenton

Merry Christmas everyone! As you enjoy the festivities, keep in mind that today also carries a special American tribute that should not go forgotten.

233 years ago on this date George Washington and the Continental Army made their daring advance on Trenton to attack the Hessian soldiers encamped at the city. The move was risky to say the least. Trenton was defended by 1,500 Hessian mercenaries, who were expecting to pass through a relatively calm winter encampment at the city. Washington, however, saw an opportunity to gain a moral victory (moral because winning Trenton was not a major tactical victory) for his army. After all, this was the same army that had been thoroughly routed by the British at New York, where they were forced to flee on a number of occasions. As a result, the Continental Army was in extreme disarray and Washington himself was being questioned by the delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, some even suggested that the General should be replaced for his poor performance at New York.

It was under these tough circumstances that Thomas Paine wrote the words to his epic pamphlet, The Crisis, which was written just two days before the planned attack on Trenton:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
With such dire circumstances all around them, Washington decided to roll the dice. An attack on Trenton would secure a for the Continental Army a legitimate moral victory, one which would help to inspire the allegiance of more colonials to the cause of independence. Despite the benefits, Washington was not unaware of the tremendous risk he was taking. In a very real sense this was an all-or-nothing gamble (It is therefore no surprise that Washington would pen a note on his desk that read, "Victory or Death").

To make a long story short, Washington and the Continental Army won an astonishing victory at Trenton, capturing over 1/3 of the entire Hessian garrison. Since the Hessians expected a quiet winter encampment, they chose to enjoy the holidays by staying up late and drinking away their Christmas Eve. As a result, the army was caught asleep, hung over, and disorganized upon Washington's arrival. Here is a clip from the movie The Crossing, which captures the feel of that Christmas morning:

The Army then goes on to rout the Hessians at Trenton. In the process, only 2 continental soldiers lost their lives. In addition, only five were wounded (including James Monroe, who eventually became our 5th president).

So, Merry Continental Army Kicks Hessian Butt Day/Christmas!!!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Moon

Remembering the important things, as these men did, seems longer ago and even farther away with each passing year. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all those here gathered...

It was on Christmas Eve 1968 that the astronauts of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, became the first of mankind to see an earthrise from the orbit of the moon, and looking back on us, they spoke these words:

Anders: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And, for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you...

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good."

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

It is good. God bless us, every one.

Merry Colonial Christmas

Being that we are only days from celebrating Christmas, I have chosen to look at how early colonial Americans understood this celebration, which has become so mainstream in our modern era. Contrary to what most of us might think, Christmas has not been a predominant American holiday throughout our history. In fact, it has been anything but that.

This bright and joyful holiday that we celebrate every December, which is no doubt the most popular holiday in modern day America, was seen in a very different light by the earliest Americans. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance on the celebration Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it:
Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
Nicole Harms is 100% right. The Puritans, whom we celebrate for their quest to establish a new religious community, utterly loathed the celebration of Christmas. Since their religious doctrine was predominantly based on strict adherence to the Bible, and since there is no mention of Christmas being celebrated in the Bible, the Puritans saw the holiday as a blasphemous heresy. Even the overwhelming majority of Puritan diaries reveal that December 25th was nothing more than an average day of work and worship in their corner of the New World. Not only could one be fined for celebrating Christmas, but in addition they could find themselves locked up in the stocks for up to four hours!

As more Europeans began migrating to British America, many of their Christmas customs naturally made the journey as well. However, as these customs clashed with overwhelming religious opposition, the celebration of Christmas evolved into a more secular winter festival that was reminiscent of its original pagan roots. As a result, Christmas was detached from any major religious significance. The overwhelming majority of colonial preachers -- particularly in the Puritan lands of Massachusetts -- made little to no effort to preach the "pagan" or "papal" doctrine surrounding Christmas. For those various Protestants, the Reformation had taken care of those "vile," "hideous" traditions of the papacy, and Christmas was certainly seen as one of them.

A good example of this American religious detachment from Christmas can be found in the first year of the American Revolution. As George Washington and his men limped away from their horrific defeat in New York at the end of 1776, the Continental Army was literally teetering on the brink of destruction. It wasn't until General Washington suggested a Christmas Day attack of the Hessian camps in Trenton that the "rebels" were able to gain a measure of success in the war's first year. And why did Washington choose Christmas for his attack? Because he knew that the Hessians, would be completely drunk and hung over from their Christmas celebration; a celebration that was completely secular in nature. After all, Washington wasn't counting on the Hessians being caught up in prayer. Instead he was sure they would be drunk off their mind from their holiday ale.

In addition to Washington's wartime experience, it is also worth noting that Christmas was ignored in the halls of government. In the early years of the republic, members of Congress assembled on December 25th as if it were any other day. In fact, the earliest notes of the congress gave little or not mention to the Christmas holiday. This tradition would continue for the first 65 years of the nation's existence.

And such was the case for most colonial celebrations in America. Amongst the earliest settlers to the New World were the Jamestown explorers of 1607. And what did their first Christmas in the New World entail? Well, pretty much nothing but getting as drunk as possible. John Smith mentioned how the popular holiday drink that we call eggnog was the primary source for "jolliness" during their Christmas season. The Jamestown drink, known as "grog," was a slang for any beverage containing run. Later, the word was eventually changed to "nog," and has been present at every Christmas festival since.

In conclusion, there can be little argument that many of the festivities that we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on its central role as the premiere American religious holiday. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. If our ancestors could only see us now!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The American Founding: A Big Tent of Diverse Interests

By King of Ireland with special thanks to Jonathan Rowe for editorial suggestions/changes that I adopted.

In my last series of posts, I attempted to start a dialogue around two questions I think better frame the "Christian Nation" debate in clearer context. The questions are:

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


2. Which Christian ideas, if any, derail us from progressing toward the modern world?

Jack Goldstone's essay at "Cato Unbound", arguing "a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state" created the engineering culture that launched the modern world, initially inspired the thought that produced this series of posts.

I argue the history of Christianity, properly understood, provided the fertile ground that launched modernity and as such those who invoke the authority of "science" and "rationality" should be less hostile, as many of them oft-seem, to what I term "rational Christianity," a theological system that helped bring about science, rationality and political liberty. Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton and many American Founders stand as the best representatives of the "rational Christian" tradition that I defend.

I see America's Declaration of Independence -- a document that posits the universal natural ends of government -- as typifying "rational Christianity." Indeed it was written by "rational Christians" Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin and supported by "rational Christians" like Sam Adams. But wait, didn't John Adams -- a unitarian -- practice a different religion than that of his cousin Samuel, a Calvinistic Trinitarian? The kind of rational Christianity for which I argue transcends such sectarian differences. Issues of salvation/heresy such as whether Jesus is the second person in the Trinity matter not to the political-theological tradition of "rational Christianity" that I (after America's Founders) endorse.

With that, the Declaration of Independence indeed supports the concept of "a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state," as Goldstone put it. I argue, relying on the work of authorities like the evangelical historian Gary Amos, that the Declaration of Independence captures the philosophical tradition of "rational Christianity" that is pro-liberty in an individual and political sense (more than just "spiritual"). The "rational Christian" political theology of the DOI, while having nothing to do with orthodox doctrines like the Trinity, rather relates to strongly established philosophical traditions in Christianity like Imago Dei, Aquinas' incorporation of Aristotle into Christendom (Jefferson sourced Aristotle as one of the four prime ideological sources behind the DOI), and the doctrine of "interposition" developed by the Calvinists.

My co-blogger Jon Rowe disputed the latter point in his post entitled The DOI is NOT a Document of Interposition. However, Rowe's Positive Liberty co-blogger, the evangelical Christian libertarian Jim Babka differs with him on the matter. Like me, Babka sees the Declaration of Independence as consistent with and reinforcing Calvinistic notions of Interposition.

I seriously wonder how important Romans 13 was to the Founding generation. Many key Founding Fathers hardly discussed it (figures like Jefferson didn't believe in those parts of the Bible). Yet the ministers, like Jonathan Mayhew, who preached pro-revolutionary sermons to the Christian public did not ignore or disregard Romans 13; rather they adopted a more "reasoned" and less fatalistic interpretation of the text. They opened their pulpits to the teachings of God's Book of Nature to reinforce their reasoned interpretation of the Bible's text. In short, the Christian public didn't want Romans 13 -- with its command to submit to rulers -- ignored, but rationally interpreted and explained.

Many Christian factions and sects had to work with one another and compromise under one big tent in order to successfully declare independence from Great Britain. Their sectarian differences were irreconcilable; those divided them. But "rational traditions" within Christianity united them.

One of the largest factions among them who proved themselves willing to follow the demands of "rational Christianity" was, believe it or not, the Calvinists. While many Calvinists certainly remained loyalists (Calvin's himself provided much dicta that would seem to support the loyalist position), those Calvinists sympathetic to a pro-resistance Whig position had a long established intellectual tradition of "Interposition" from which to draw and the "rational Christians" further supported such position with what man's reason discovered in Nature.

That narrative I just argued is supported by Jeffry H. Morrison, an evangelical Professor and former fellow at Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, in his outstanding paper entitled, "Political Theology in the Declaration of Independence."

Morrison stresses that though Jefferson and his committee of drafters authored the first two references to God in the Declaration of Independence, the latter two were inserted by the Continental Congress largely to make the document more appealing to traditional Christians, mainly Calvinists. Morrison discusses how important the Calvinists were to the cause of the Revolution and how important it was to get Calvinist fence sitters on the side of the Revolutionaries. He mentions a few notable sermons that used God words very similar those found in the Declaration of Independence and intimates, again, that said phrases were added to the Declaration to draw Calvinists/orthodox Christians to the revolutionary cause.

Morrison uses the following sermon by Samuel West to make his point. Morrison notes:

On May 29, 1776, a month before Jefferson and the Drafting Committee began preparing their declaration, the Rev. Samuel West preached a sermon that anticipated not only the language about a supreme judge and divine providence, but every theistic phrase in the Declaration. Rev. West was, like Langdon and Witherspoon, a political preacher who moved in high Calvinist circles. Graduated from Harvard in 1754, West was "distinguished in metaphysical speculations with the [Jonathan] Edwardses, father and son," and went on be a political pamphleteer, member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention and the Massachusetts ratifying convention. Also like Revs. Langdon and Witherspoon, West...pays homage to "the sacred Scriptures" and "our blessed Saviour."

Once again, in that election sermon, which was printed at Boston in 1776, we see the grateful acknowledgment of "the interpositions of Divine Providence" and "the dispensations of Providence towards this land." West marvels at "how wonderfully Providence has smiled upon"the colonies and caused them to unite against "the tyranny of Great Britain." And since "Divine Providence has placed us at so great a distance from Great Britain that we neither are nor can be properly represented in the British Parliament, it is a plain proof that the Deity designed that we should have the powers of legislation and taxation among ourselves." Turning to the New Testament for examples of due submission to what he calls "good government," West finds "our blessed Saviour directing the Jews to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar's . . . and the apostles . . . strongly enjoin[ing] upon Christians the duty of submission to that government under which Providence had placed them."

Elsewhere in West's sermon, the "Saviour" and"Providence" appear in the same sentence, which should once and for all disabuse us of the notion that "Providence" must be read as Enlightenment code for a less-than-biblical god. In fact it was common practice for "Awakened" pastors to use what would today be considered deistic language to refer to God. For example, Joseph Bellamy, a Connecticut New Light revivalist and associate of Jonathan Edwards frequently used phrases such as "the great Governor of the world," and "the supreme Governor of the world" in discourses like "True Religion Delineated".

Besides "Divine Providence," God appears in Rev. West's sermon in the robes (more or less) of a supreme judge of the world. He is "our supreme magistrate, who . . . will reward or punish [i.e. judge] us according as we obey or disobey," and "the Supreme Magistrate of the universe" under whom all earthly magistrates act. Coming closer still to the language of the Declaration, God is "the great Judge of quick and dead," and the good people of Massachusetts, having "made our appeal to Heaven . . . cannot doubt but that the Judge of all the earth will do right." Furthermore, Samuel West's god is the "Creator," the endower of rights, and author of the laws of nature, in addition to being "Divine Providence" and "the [Great] Judge of all the earth." In fact, the first four sentences of his election sermon refer to the following concepts: a Creator who endows mankind with certain affections; all men's happiness; self-evident truths; laws of nature; and a supreme magistrate who will judge the world.

Morrison further continues:

Samuel West's election sermon of May 1776, perhaps more than any single religio- political artifact of the revolutionary era, reveals the deep harmonies between the language of Reformed colonial Protestants and the theistic language employed in the Declaration. These harmonies are so striking (if we have ears to hear), that one is led to believe that those later references to the deity were inserted into the final draft to resonate with a large and peculiarly pious Calvinist audience. Indeed, as all of the preceding sermons and discourses suggest, the appeals to "the Supreme Judge of the World" and "the protection of divine Providence" in the last sentences of the Declaration would have struck Reformed Americans as simply good Calvinist faith in practice, and rallied their support for the cause of independence; which, in the event, they gave. It was in this way that the Second Continental Congress made strategic (though not necessarily impious) use of what can be called political theology in its Declaration of Independence.

I could not have said it better myself. Belief or non-belief in the trinity, virgin birth, original sin, etc. might keep one out of heaven. Such, however, did not matter to the "Big Tent of Diverse Interests" that was America.

I again stress that the Declaration of Independence had to have been compatible with "Interposition" in order not to lose the people who cared about what God thought and wanted the protection of "Divine Providence" in their quest for liberty.

The American Founding, at its heart, invoked a Christian ecumenicism. They embraced John Locke -- a man whose Christology remains a mystery and whom the orthodox Trintiarians and heterodox unitarians both followed -- and his teachings on, among other things, religious toleration and political liberty.

The Declaration of Independence, as a document of political theology articulated a Lockean "rational Christianity" around which Calvinists, Arminians, unitarians and deistically minded Christians could rally.