Sunday, January 10, 2010

Private Religious Tests

The Founding Fathers agreed that government -- at least at the federal level -- shouldn't be able to impose formal religious tests. See Art. VI, Cl. 3 of the US Constitution. But what of private religious tests? (I.e. I want to vote for the "Christian" candidate.) They are permitted in the sense that the voter is allowed to vote for whomever s/he wants, for whatever reason.

John Jay has an oft-repeated quotation that encourages private religious test in favor of "Christians."

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

Yet, what turned out to be minimal "Christian" standards required for public vetting -- for instance, the "Christianity" of the first half dozen Presidents, perhaps the majority of American Presidents -- was a formal or nominal affiliation with a Christian Church and identification with the Christian label. That's it.

Since Washington's Presidency, there has been no successful "precedent" for privately vetting a Presidential candidate's "Christianity," with a strict confession of orthodox faith (i.e., "Do you George Washington believe in a Triune God? Do you believe the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God?), even though many orthodox (Timothy Dwight, William Linn, Jedidiah Morse) wished there were.

The republican form of federal elections that the Founding Fathers established almost landed someone as bad as Aaron Burr in the Presidency.

Washington started many informal Presidential precedents, one of them was religious aloofness, or trying to be all things to all people when pinned down, religiously.

So the "Christianity" of the first four or five Presidents turned out to be, in principle, not much different than the Roman Catholicism of Jack Kennedy, the Quakerism of Richard Nixon, the Southern Baptistism of Bill Clinton, and the unorthodox Christianity of Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter and GWBush stand as the most "orthodox" of Christian Presidents in the modern era, hence the most "Christian" of modern Presidents.

(Reagan? He certainly believed in Providence and thought himself a "Christian." However, it's not clear where he stood on the Trinity, Atonement, Jesus as personal savior. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.)

Perhaps it's better that American Presidents and politicians aren't subject to effective private religious tests like John Jay suggested. It would likely burn too many of them. Orthodox theologians don't necessarily make for the most effective American politicians (see Carter and Bush). By avoiding specific confessions of faith, American federal politicians are effectively shielded from "heresy hunters."

Even the great "John Jay" has given rope with which the heresy hunters could hang him. Though Jay is conceded as one of the "authentic" orthodox Christian notable Founders, one could argue Jay may not have been a "Christian." Or at least that he doubted his Christianity and flirted with Arianism.

As Jay noted in a private letter:

"It appeared to me that the Trinity was a Fact fully revealed and substantiated, but that the quo modo was incomprehensible by human Ingenuity. According to sundry Creeds, the divine Being whom we denominate the second Person in the Trinity had before all worlds been so generated or begotten by the first Person in the Trinity, as to be his coeval, coequal and coeternal Son. For proof of this I searched the Scriptures diligently -- but without Success. I therefore consider the Position of being at least of questionable Orthodoxy."

-- John Jay to Samuel Miller, February 18, 1822. Jay Papers, Columbia University Library.

Do you think he would feel comfortable with a Trinitarian confession of faith for public office?


Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't recall much resistance to Joe Lieberman's Judaism in 2000. The Trinity doesn't have much to do with anything, then or now. Only certain Calvinists and their secular sympathizers


use doctrinal differences like the Trinity as a cudgel against the Christian origins of America.

What's clear is that Europe saw great political battles over possession of Jesus in the 200 years before the Founding, and Americans were determined it not be repeated here.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You sound like a "Quaker in politics." Google that term.

Tom Van Dyke said...

More like Hugh Trevor-Roper:

There's a lot there. What we see for 200 years is the high clergy and the government using each other for their own purposes, and the everyday guy getting the squeeze.

I'm just catching up on Protestant theology, but it appears that John Calvin is by no means the last word on Calvinism, and it's bad history to put him front and center. By the time of the Founding era, Calvinism had moderated, not just in the colonies but in Britain, too.

Daniel said...

I agree that Calvinism evolved. But to say that it moderated requires the questions: which branch of Calvinism? and, in what way? The moderate stream of Calvinism, in this country probably best represented by Witherspoon, represented a Calvinism reconciled with the Enlightenment. But the Calvinism represented by the Separatists or the Edwardsians was, in a real sense, more radical, demanding, and rigid than that of Calvin. At the time of the Founding, both of those movements were ascendant.

My vague impression is that the Edwardsians hoped to have more influence that they did in the shaping of a Godly government. But in the end, each group found a secular government more desirable than the risk that the wrong religion might gain too much power.

Daniel said...

I don't think I got around to making the point I started out with. Calvinism, as envisioned by Calvin, is entirely compatible with an established church, since anyone born within the precincts of the church is a member. But to the Separatists, Baptists, and many Edwardsians, only those who make an *authentic* confession of the saving grace of Christ can be church members. Each such church becomes a minority church which sees the majority church as willing to admit all manner of corruption.

The Edwardsians seemed to wish for a Godly government, but the nature of their movement(s) carried the seeds of destruction for that wish. Any religious movement with political influence would be confronted by parallel movements which either questioned its purity or chafed at its requirements, or both.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True, Daniel, but the Founding isn't just the US Constitution. The states were much "godlier," and religion was left in their hands.

But in the larger picture, I fear slipping into the "Harvard Narrative" again

where the forces of Enlightenment come to rescue us from the brutish anti-intellectualism of Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.

I point out [as does Trevor-Roper] that John Calvin is subsumed by successors, including Arminians, and of course

a) Edwards was one of the most well-read men of his time and
b) rather lost his battle for non-Arminian Calvinism anyway.

And let's add there is indeed a "Calvinist Narrative" of the Founding too, that credits all good things to Calvinism. But Trevor-Roper argues that John Calvin was more an obstacle, a bump in the road, in a greater arc of Christian theological progress that dated back to at least Erasmus [and I'd argue, further back than him].

There is more to Christian political theology than doctrines like the Trinity; in fact, such doctrines aren't part of the political theology worldview atall. Trinitarian Samuel Adams held the same political theology as his unitarian cousin John.

Brian Tubbs said...

On Jay...I don't think he was advocating (nor would he be comfortable with) some kind of unofficial, but very dominant religious test to the degree that you mention. I think he's just saying: "Hey people, the government is neutral on religous tests. That means...YOU, the voter...should step up and make sure that Christians serve in office."

There's nothing wrong with that statement. It's the same as someone saying: "Make sure that we get only Democrats in office" or "Let's make sure only Republicans get in" -- or conservatives, libertarians, war veterans, whatever.

People and/or groups have the right to pursue their agenda and try to elect their candidates. That's the American way.