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.


King of Ireland said...

My sincere thanks to Jon Rowe for his editing and counsel on how to get my point across the most clear and simple way. John and I are starting to sound a lot alike! We may not agree on all of this but I think we have found a lot of common ground through dialogue. That is a testament to this blog. The two things they say not to discuss in public, religion and politics, are discussed here with civility and respect on a daily bases. Thanks to all who participate. I have been involved in a lot in my life. Some good some bad. Participating in learning about all this with you is close to the top of the list of the better choices I have made.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Knowing and befriending Jonathan Rowe has been among my bst choices in life as well.

Dunno if it was a choice as much as a gift. Providence, mebbe, which is sort of a cross between the two.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Many thanks to you both and Merry Christmas.