Friday, February 26, 2010

Three Misuses of the American Founding & Religion For Political Purposes

The culprits are Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, and David Limbaugh, writer, author, attorney, and brother of Rush.

First, at CPAC, Pawlenty declared:

"... God is in charge ... In the Declaration of Independence it says we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. It doesn't say we're endowed by Washington, DC, or endowed by the bureaucrats or endowed by state government. It's by our creator that we are given these rights."

Pawlenty misused because he is a conservative evangelical Christian and the God of the Declaration of Independence is arguably not that of evangelicals and doesn’t vindicate their ideal vision for society. That document doesn't mention Jesus Christ or quote verses and chapters of scripture. Its call to revolution is arguably in tension with Romans 13. And it's not clear that other central principles enunciated in the Declaration have anything to do with the Bible.

Further, this speech was given at CPAC. God is not a member of CPAC or the conservative movement. Apparently, Pawlenty doesn't realize God is a libertarian. :)

Next we have Dan Kennedy's article on Pawlenty speech featured in the British newspaper The Guardian.

After making a number of good points, Kennedy finishes his article by quoting James Madison and writes:

"While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe, the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to them whose minds have not yielded to the evidence which has convinced us," wrote James Madison.

In contrast to Madison, the Republicans propose a theocracy of believers. It is an assault not just on anyone who isn't one of them, but on the American idea, and on liberal democracies everywhere.

Kennedy's misuse is characterized by the phrase "overstating your case" or "hyperbole."

Finally, Limbaugh's misuse:

Kennedy responds that Pawlenty misrepresented the founders' "intent" because Jefferson, the "primary author" of the Declaration, deleted all references to Jesus' deity from his personal Bible.

Jefferson's Christianity may be subject to debate, but it is clear that he didn't view himself as expressing his own views in the Declaration; rather, "it was intended to be an expression of the American mind." (The American mind, it should be noted, was decidedly Christian.) Plus, a congressional committee led by the devout John Adams made more than 80 changes, deleting nearly 500 words and adding two references to a providential God. The Declaration was a corporate statement of Congress. Also, Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention. So Kennedy's reference to Jefferson is at best misleading, as is his convenient omission of many other relevant facts – including that 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration and 50 to 52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.

First, Jefferson may well have believed the DOI an "expression of the American mind." But nothing suggests Jefferson believed in an "expression" that at all contradicted his personal political theological convictions. Jefferson -- that unitarian rationalist he -- thought such an "expression of the American mind" entirely compatible with his personal theology that rejected every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy, the infallibility of the Bible, eternal damnation, etc.

Jefferson so embraced the final version of the DOI that he lists his authorship of it as one of his three proudest accomplishments on his tombstone.

Second, Limbaugh falsely contrasts John Adams' "devout" nature with Jefferson's. In reality, the two possessed the same unitarian rationalistic creed that rejected orthodox Christian doctrine, the infallibility of the Bible, eternal damnation, etc.

Finally, Limbaugh passes phony statistics about the "orthodox" nature of the signers of the Declaration and signers [sic] of the Constitution.

The notion that 50-52 of the men who attended to Constitution Convention (only 39 singed!) were "orthodox Christians" is bunk. A scholar -- the late ME Bradford -- asserted this and he based it entirely on some kind of formal or nominal connection to a Christian Church that professed "orthodoxy."

The three of Bradford's "Deists" -- Ben Franklin, James Wilson, and Hugh Williamson -- likewise possessed the same formal/nominal connections to Christian churches with an orthodox creed. As did Jefferson, and J. Adams (who weren't at the CC). And Washington, Hamilton, G. Morris, James Madison and a plethora of other Founders who are not provably "orthodox Trinitarian Christians." (Hamilton, in fact had NO connection to a Church that professed orthodoxy during the Framing of the Constitution.)

The 52 of the 56 figure that relates to the Declaration of Independence results (likely) from a mistake some activist made, confusing Bradford's "52 out of 55," that was meant to discuss the US Constitution, with the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The truth is, we know a handful of very important Founders (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin,) explicitly rejected orthodox Christian doctrines, a handful of important Founders (Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Wilson, Hamilton before the end of his life) were, after meticulous study, not provably orthodox Christians during the time in which they founded America; they went out of their way not to give rope to hang their good reputations with (which leads me to believe they were close to the heterodox rationalist camp than the orthodox camp). And a handful of second tier Founders (Jay, Henry, Witherspoon, Boudinot, Sherman) were provably orthodox Christians (but even they flirted with heterodoxy and rejected Sola Scriptura). There were a number of important second tier Founders like Paine, Allen and Palmer who were strict Deists.

And with the great many of other lesser Founders, we just don't know enough to be certain. Proving they had some kind of connection to an orthodox Church -- as Bradford did to prove the Founders' "orthodoxy" -- shows nothing more than they could have been as orthodox as Patrick Henry or heterodox as Thomas Jefferson.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Positive Liberty

In case anyone is interested, one of my group blogs, Positive Liberty, has, of late been going through technical problems. The site's founder, my friend Dr. Jason Kuznicki has given up, lest he pull all of his hair out and become bald like me, and joined this very estimable other group blog.

Check that link for more information. If you go to the site Positive Liberty, some squatter now resides there.

The good news is the rest of us libertarians (or is it "we" libertarians; I think this is a place where both "us" and "we" work within the prescriptive grammatical rules) who blog there plan to stick together.

We just aren't yet sure whether we will continue to use the name "Positive Liberty" because our URL has been hijacked.

I'll keep you posted.


Update: We are back for now. We will probably go through significant future changes. Again, I'll keep you posted.

Beware Academic Elitism

As we explore the concepts of religion and morality in early American history, to what experts or authorities should we turn? How do we decide whether a certain speaker, activist, or writer can be considered an "expert" or "authority"? Who deserves our attention and respect?

If you've spent much time here at American Creation, you've probably seen several cases where the above questions have been debated -- if not openly, at least in the subtext of the comments. How often have we read someone say that a certain activist, writer, or even blog contributor has dubious or suspect qualifications to address matters of history, because...well....he or she "is not a historian." Not a real historian anyway.

These kinds of exchanges raise some important questions. Does a person need to have a master's or doctorate in history specifically in order to warrant our respectful consideration? Or is a degree even enough? How many books must be published or awards received, before a person is considered sufficiently "credentialed" to warrant our respect?

My thesis is that a speaker, writer, or activist should not be judged (and certainly not dismissed) based solely or even primarily on his or her resume. A person should be evaluated based on character and performance, not on credentials. Having a resume full of degrees, awards, etc. doesn't give someone a monopoly on truth, nor does it exempt him or her from making mistakes or errors in judgment.

To dismiss someone out of hand for a lack of certain credentials can fairly be called "academic elitism" and it has unfortunately raised its ugly head on too many occasions in our society, including here at our American Creation blog.

Scholarship and Credentialism - They Are Not Always The Same

Effective, credible analysis of history requires patience, discipline, careful research, and some form of system designed to compensate for the individual's or group's bias. Regarding the latter, that a person or team will have a bias is natural. No one is free from some kind of bias. But it is possible to account for that bias and put in "checks and balances" to channel and control for it. Thus, it is not elitism to insist that a writer or reseacher employ such skills or disciplines.

On some occasions, activists have failed to employ these skills and have encountered reasonable criticism and scrutiny as a result. David Barton, for example, has acknowledged that his past use of quotes landed him in hot water, because he too casually accepted secondhand or thirdhand sources, rather than confirming the authenticity of the quotes themselves by combing through the original source material. It was a layman's error and a costly one, for it continues to dog his credibility in some circles to this day.

The Internet is full of examples where activists, on all sides of the political spectrum, have lifted quotes out of context or clipped quotes to suit their own purposes. This kind of shoddy, agenda-driven "research" should be called out.

Principles and practices of sound scholarship are certainly needed. But credentialed historians are just as capable of flawed or deceptive "scholarship" as any layperson. Remember Ward Churchill? And how about the late Howard Zinn? Both guys had the official credentials, but their "scholarship" left much to be desired.

It's one thing to demand sound, credible scholarship. It's another to demand that a writer or speaker have a certain resume before you'll give her a hearing!

The Dark Side of Elitism

In a recent article "Judge the Person: Not the Resume," film critic and conservative writer Michael Medved deplored elitism in American culture, writing: "The poisonous polarization of the culture has produced some ill-considered attacks that call into question one of the most fundamental American values: the notion that each individual deserves to be judged on ability, not background, and evaluated on performance rather than credentials.

K12 Academics, an education resource website, defines academic elitism as a belief that "only those individuals who have engaged in scholarship are deemed to have anything worthwhile to say, or do."

Once again, it's not unreasonable to demand that a person "engage in scholarship" insofar as his or her specific studies are concerned. But, all too often, a person is considered to have not "engaged in scholarship," unless he or she has the resume to prove it. Scholarship is too often based on resume.

I grant that a credentialed, professional historian deserves a certain presumption of respect. Nevertheless, a journalist, minister, philosopher, or even one completely outside of social studies can still offer something of value to the study and discussion of history. In fact, at times, such a contribution can be of great value.

David McCullough comes to mind. McCullough's award-winning books are well researched and immensely popular. Yet many deride McCullough, because he lacks a degree in history. To them, McCullough is not a REAL historian. Of course, what this usually means is that the Howard Zinns and quasi-Zinns of the historical scholarship community sneer at McCullough's unabashed patriotism. I mean, a historian - a REAL historian - would never be patriotic, right?

Can Ministers, Theologians, or Activists Offer Good History?

Let's take Dr. Peter Lillback, author of George Washington's Sacred Fire and several other books. A few here at American Creation have dismissed Lillback on the grounds that "he's not a real historian."

Well, Lillback is the president of the renowned Westminster Theological Seminary and head of the Providence Forum. He possesses three degrees: a Bachelor's from Cedarville University, a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Westminster. In addition to serving as president of Westminster, he also teaches a class in historical theology.

It's true that Lillback doesn't have an advanced degree in history specifically, but I can tell you that a degree in religion or theology (and Lillback's degrees and schools are quite impressive in their own right) is similar to one in philosophy, political science, and, yes, even history. Not exact, mind you, but similar in some respects.

I would submit that a minister or theologian, with training in scholarship (be it in the form of an advanced degree or otherwise) can offer something of value to the study and analysis of history. As self-serving as this may sound, a minister or theologian should not be dismissed out of hand for their contributions to the field anymore than a philosopher, political scientist would be.

Of course, scholars like Lillback or activists like David Barton are often dismissed not simply for their lack of history-specific credentials (or lack of "sufficient" history-specific credentials), but because they....heaven forbid...have an agenda!

Anyone who dismisses Lillback or Barton because they have an agenda should never, under any circumstances, pick up a book written by the likes of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or Ward Churchill or ever watch a documentary by Michael Moore. If having an agenda disqualifies someone from being taken seriously, then, frankly, you're out of luck until Mr. Spock is born or we invent Data. (That's a wink at my fellow Star Trek fans. And frankly, even Spock and Data had agendas!).

So, knock off this nonsense about agendas! I have no problem with scholars having agendas. None whatsoever. And you shouldn't either.

What matters is how a person HANDLES his or her agenda. Are they honest, disciplined, reasonable, and rational in doing the research and laying the intellectual groundwork for the pursuit of their "agenda"?

Let's Not Forget Common Sense

And, frankly, while I agree that it's important for us to exercise some scholarly discipline in our exploration of these subjects. And I'd certainly hate to see American Creation degenerate into partisan mud-slinging or sloppy, superficial articles that are long on agenda and short on research. Nevertheless, let's not ignore the wisdom of common sense!

There are times when average, ordinary Americans without an Ivy League education have something to offer our society. In fact, there are a LOT of such times. I would submit that our greatest Presidents in American history (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) were not intellectual giants, when it came to academic training and certainly not when it came to "credentials." But they possessed character, wisdom, and a driving desire to learn and grow. This made them great.

So, again, I am not devaluing the importance of knowledge, education, and wisdom. On the contrary, I'm a big believer in all those things, and in the need for honest, painstaking, disciplined research and analysis. But I categorically reject any implication, assumption, or tendency to automatically extend favor to those with certain CREDENTIALS at the expense of those who may not have them.

I'll allow the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. the last word. Alluding to the Left's unfortunate bias toward intellectual elitism at the expense of common sense, Buckley famously remarked: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Unchurched President?

Should our President go to church more often?

Candidate Obama held his first presidential debate in Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He worshiped regularly with his family at Chicago’s Trinity Church, until his fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright started sounding like an angry radical. But a recent news story on headlines the President’s religion taking a private turn, reporting the family has attended church just four times in the year he’s held office.

The retreat from visible, public piety is drawing fire from some who voted for Obama on the basis of his Christian credentials. The Gallup Poll shows Americans becoming more tolerant in some respects, with larger numbers than in the past saying they might vote for a woman, an Hispanic, or a divorcee for President. But the majority still indicate they could not abide an atheist in the White House.

Apparently, voters want their Chief Executive to believe in God, or at least pretend to believe by warming a pew each week.

But one wonders whether the Founding Fathers would have ever been elected, had this standard been enforced. George Washington’s diaries, for example, indicate that in 1748, he spent 15 Sundays going to church, recording 49 days spent fox hunting, attending two balls, one play and receiving a reprimand from a Scotch Presbyterian acquaintance for spending too much time at the card table. In January the following year, he hunted on twelve days and went to church just once.

Shortly after being elected, President Washington was virtually “arrested” for not attending church, apparently detained by the local tithing man responsible for enforcing New England’s blue laws prohibiting travel on the Sabbath. Delayed and anxious to reach his destination in New York, he was intercepted on Sunday morning in the Connecticut village of Ashford and forced to halt. The President’s diary indicates that he used the interlude to rest his horses, but he found the tavern where he cooled his heels “not a good one” and the sermon of Mr. Pond, the parson of a nearby church, “very lame discourses.”

Some Presidents, like John Adams, attended church almost every Sunday of their lives. Others, like Jefferson and Madison, rarely bothered. But all of the nation’s first half dozen Presidents were enormously discreet about their personal spiritual lives. None would have engaged in the kind of “media spirituality” that voters seem to demand now.

Voters should judge their President on the basis of his economic policies, his ability to work with Congress to pass important legislation, and his strength in protecting America’s interests around the world. Obama’s church attendance (or lack thereof) is just not the public’s business.

Monday, February 22, 2010

State Lawmaker Wants to Amend Iowa's Constitution

Here's a January 11, 2010 online news story from Radio Iowa, Lawmaker restates her oath after “God” flap, by O. Kay Henderson:

A Republican legislator is unhappy the words, “so help me God,” have been dropped as Iowa lawmakers recite the oath of office to begin a new term in the legislature.

Representative Dawn Pettingill of Mount Auburn raised the objection after two new lawmakers were sworn in in the Iowa House in opening ceremonies earlier today. She says there’s a long tradition of appealing to the divine when taking office in Iowa.

“It has been said in the oath of office since 1939 here in Iowa and it’s included in the oath for federal senators and congressman,” Pettingill says. “I think we should have had a discussion before it was removed.”

Pettingill didn’t notice the change last year when all 100 newly-elected members of the Iowa House were sworn in using an oath without the words: “so help me, God.” Mark Bransgaard, the chief clerk of the House, says there was no conscious decision to drop the phrase.

“I didn’t have a copy of the oath so I went to the constitution and copied it, unawares that we’ve said, ’so help me God’ in the past,” Bransgaard says. “I mean, we can go back to saying that if the members choose to do that.”

Representative Pettengill took matters into her own hands and asked for time to speak on the House floor today so she could restate her oath and add: “so help me God.” Pettingill plans to sponsor a resolution to try to put that phrase in the oath for good.

This is the section of the Iowa Constitution outlining the oath of office members of the legislature are to recite:

Oath of members. SEC. 32. Members of the general assembly shall, before they enter upon the duties of their respective offices, take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation: “I do solemnly swear, or affirm, (as the case may be,) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Iowa, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of senator, (or representative, as the case may be,) according to the best of my ability.” And members of the general assembly are hereby empowered to administer to each other the said oath or affirmation.
[end article]

Lawmaker Dawn Pettingill may want to do some additional research before sponsoring "a resolution to try to put that phrase in the oath for good," because according to the 1857 Constitution of the State of Iowa, Article I, Section 5 that type of change would require a constitutional overhaul:
SEC. 4. No religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office, or public trust, and no person shall be deprived of any of his rights, privileges, or capacities, or disqualified from the performance of any of his public or private duties, ... in consequence of his opinions on the subject of religion, ... .

In a previous blog I pointed out how authors Kramnick and Moore were right to single out Utah as having a "unique State Constitution." I guess I need to take that back. The Iowa Constitution apparently protects religious liberty, as spelled out in Article I Section 4, just as well. The big differences between the two states seems to be that Utah office holders are aware of what their constitution says regarding the addition of "so help me God" to the end of their oath.

Unitarianism of the (Early Post) American Founding Era

Following up on TVD's post that features a letter of WILLIAM E. CHANNING, Minister of the Church of Christ in Federal Street, Boston (one of the most notable American Unitarians of that era) to TO THE REV. SAMUEL C. THACHER, circa 1815, I below feature a letter of Jefferson's discussing Channing and unitarianism.

As we know, to many of the "orthodox" of today and back then, unitarianism is not "Christianity" whatever it calls itself. Ironic in that many/most "Christian Nationalists" are orthodox Christians who likely would term non-Trinitarianism as "not Christian."

But if unitarians are "Christians" then that captures a lot more notable Founders (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, probably Madison, and contemporaries of Channing, Joseph Story and Jared Sparks) as "Christians."

That would bring us closer to a "Christian" Founding.

Here Thomas Jefferson writes to Timothy Pickering (February 27, 1821) commenting on one of Rev. Channing's sermons:


I thank you for Mr. Channing's discourse, which you have been so kind as to forward me. It is not yet at hand, but is doubtless on its way. I had received it through another channel, and read it with high satisfaction. No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples; and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from His lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr. Drake, has been a common one. The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce its Founder an impostor. Had there never been a commentator, there never would have been an infidel. In the present advance of truth, which we both approve, I do not know that you and I may think alike on all points. As the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds. We well know that among Unitarians themselves there are strong shades of difference, as between Doctors Price and Priestley, for example. So there may be peculiarities in your creed and in mine. They are honestly formed without doubt. I do not wish to trouble the world with mine, nor to be troubled for them. These accounts are to be settled only with Him who made us; and to Him we leave it, with charity for all others, of whom, also, He is the only rightful and competent Judge. I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Locke, Noah and Man as the "Workmanship of God"

By King of Ireland with editorial suggestions by Jon Rowe.

Previously at American Creation, I asked two questions I think better frame the "Christian Nation" debate in clearer context. They 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, inspired my posts here.

Goldstone wrote:

"What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers, the prohibition of diverse religious beliefs in any one society, the elevation of the rights and needs of political and social status elites above those of ordinary inhabitants — in order to develop and implement the idea of society as a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state. Yet this was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries."
I argue that Christianity, properly understood, provided the fertile ground that launched modernity, promoting the the idea of the free sovereign individual. 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.

In this vein, I argue "rational Christianity" and the "rational Judaism" that preceded it, grounds inalienable rights in the notion that man is the workmanship of God and His property. Genesis 1 first discussed this notion when God states man is made in His image. Later in Genesis, the idea is further expounded when God tells Noah it is wrong for man to murder man because he is made in God's image.

This notion was promoted by medieval Roman Catholic Canon Law, most notably by St. Thomas Aquinas, and later by the Anglican natural law theologian Richard Hooker. Citing Hooker, John Locke's Second Treatise directly influenced the Declaration of Independence.

Locke's Second Treatise stresses that inalienable rights exist because man is God's Workmanship and as such, His property.

With that, ladies and gentlemen, John Locke:

"This equality of men by Nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in nature and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity. His words are:

'The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves, for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man's hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men weak, being of one and the same nature : to have anything offered them repugnant to this desire must needs, in all respects, grieve them as much as me; so that if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should show greater measure of love to me than they have by me showed unto them; my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be,imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to fbemward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant.'

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for iw The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure.

And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another."

Who Were the Unitarians?

Much has been written here about the "unitarians" of the Founding era. John Adams averred he was one, as did Abagail Adams. But were they Christians?

Well, they certainly considered themselves Christians, and protested quite vociferously when accused of not being Christians, usually by competing "orthodox" clergy.

It all came to a head around 1815, when William Ellery Channing---generally regarded then (as now) as exemplary of that era's unitarianism [Abigail Adams specifically endorsed Channing theologically]---answered some prevailing charges against unitarianism in

A Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher on the Aspersions Contained in a Late Number of the Panoplist, on the Ministers of Boston and the Vicinity

Now, perhaps the defining feature of unitarianism was that it didn't believe in the Trinity---1 + 1 + 1 would equal Three, not One. Hence the term "unitarian."

There were other orthodox doctrines rejected, too, namely, as Channing wrote:

"I fear, that the Author of the Lord's prayer will, according to this rule, be driven as a heretick from the very church which he has purchased with his own blood. In that well known prayer I can discover no reference to the "inspiration of the holy scriptures, to the supreme divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost, to the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ, to the native and total depravity of the unregenerate, and to the reality and necessity of special divine grace to renew and sanctify the souls of men;" and these, let it be remembered, are _five_ out of the _six_ articles which are given by the Reviewer as fundamental articles of a christian's faith."

So that's what they didn't believe. So what did they believe? Channing wrote:

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

Is that Christian enough? Certainly not to the orthodox clergy and various laymen of the time who stood in opposition to them.

Probably not Christian enough for most Christian theologians of any stripe today, certainly not evangelical or orthodox.

But perhaps Christian enough for the sociologist or the historian. "Unitarian Christian" is my own preference, both descriptively and definitively, at least for our best understanding in this day and age. [Channing and others used "'rational' Christians," but in our day, I'm not sure that's helpful or descriptive enough, although it's certainly a proper term. Channing himself published a popular tract in 1819 called Unitarian Christianity.]

Do read Channing's letter for yourself, as there's more than can be sketched or excerpted here. It offers an excellent window into what is called the Unitarian Controversy today, and clearly outlines the issues and the players, a clarity we need to consider the unitarians properly in the scheme of things.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Competing Definitions of "Deism" and "Christianity"

During America's Founding era, and today, "Christianity" and "Deism" didn't have univocal meanings, part of what makes the "Christian Nation" debate tough but interesting.

A friend emailed arguing for a broader definition of "Deism." Indeed, scholars have used terms like "warm Deism," or "Providential Deism" to describe the religion of Washington, Franklin, etc.

Thomas Jefferson, from what little he wrote on Deism, seemed to endorse a very broad understanding of Deism, that is belief in one God. He wrote of the "Deism" of the Jews.

In an 1803 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote:

II. JEWS. 1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one only God. But their ideas of him & of his attributes were degrading & injurious.


1. [Jesus] corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

According to Jefferson, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Christians are all "Deists," because they all worship one God. Well...maybe not Trinitarians because they worship three gods. :)

Jefferson's understanding of "Deism" is arguably too broad to be meaningful. And, also arguably, an understanding of "Christianity" that holds anyone who calls himself a Christian (even if an agnostic or an atheist) is too broad to be meaningful.

Scholars can also unfairly play the broad/narrow game to unfairly claim the religion of the American Founders for the side they desire.

As I wrote on Secular Right's website comment thread:

... One unfair thing scholars from both sides do is read one term broadly and the other narrowly to try and “capture” a Founder for each respective side.

The broad understanding of Deism includes belief in an active personal Providence. The broad definition of Christianity includes anyone who call himself a Christian or is formally/nominally associated with a Christian church.

The narrow definition of Deism means belief in a non-intervening God. The narrow definition of Christianity requires strict adherence to the orthodox Trinitarianism found in, for instance, the Nicene Creed.

Broadly understood, the “key FFs” (the first 4 Presidents, Ben Franklin and a few others) were both “Christians” and “Deists.” Hence David Holmes’ term “Christian-Deism” to describe their creed. Narrowly understood they were neither. Hence terms like “unitarianism” or “theistic rationalism” to describe this creed.

Important "Christian Nation" Question

Here at American Creation, Tom Van Dyke asks them. Of them:

---And the old standby, What is "Christian?" Can you be "Christian" if you believe the Bible is the direct Word of God? If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, although not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?
---And who decides the answer to this question? Trinitarian clergy? Theologians? Sociologists? Historians?

---Was there a God of the Founding?
---Was His name Providence?
---Is this "theism," or is "theism" just a slippery term for what is the uniquely monotheistic, providential Creator-God who endowed men with certain unalienable rights, one who is unmistakably "Judeo-Christian," at least compared to all of man's other gods?
---What might Judeo-Christian mean? Anything? Everybody seems to know what it means, so does that mean anything?

I focused on these because they parallel questions James Madison asked in his notes preparing for the Memorial and Remonstrance. Madison asked:

3. What is Xnty ? Courts of law to Judge.

4. What edition: Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate ? What copy what translation ?

5. What books canonical, what apocryphal ? the papists holding to be the former what protestants the latter, the Lutherans the latter what the protestants & papists ye former.

6. In what light are they to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only ? Or the matter in general not the words ?

7. What sense the true one for if some doctrines be essential to Xnty those who reject these, whatever name they take are no Xn Society?

8. Is it Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism ? Is it salvation by faith or works also, by free grace or by will, &c., &c.

9. What clue is to guide [a] Judge thro' this labyrinth when ye question comes before them whether any particular society is a Xn society ?

10. Ends in what is orthodoxy, what heresy. Dishonors Christianity.

By this time many leading light "Protestants," Madison perhaps among them, began to argue things like Arianism, Socinianism, salvation through works, and a Bible where only the "essential" parts (not the whole thing) were inspired, under the auspices of "Christianity."

Yet others -- the "orthodox" -- maintained believers in these positions "whatever name they take are no Xn Society."

Madison didn't want judges resolving this issue. And they would if government gave aid to "Christianity" generally but not "other" religions.

[This is, ironically, exactly what happened in Mass. and what led to their disestablishment, the last state to do so. In the Dedham decision, Unitarian judges decided Unitarianism was "Christianity" and hence eligible for state establishment aid. To the orthodox that poisoned the well; so they got rid of their state establishment of "Protestant Christianity."]

If the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution permits aid to "Christian" but not other religions, one easy solution would be simply call yourself a "Christian" and get that aid. You can be an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, just call yourself a "Christian" and you are eligible for government support.

And that relates to another dynamic behind the "Christian Nation" debate. No one argues America wasn't and isn't a "Christian nation" in a nominal or demographic sense. No one argues, for instance, the Founders were predominantly Muslim.

98% of Americans thought of themselves as "Christians" as do roughly 80% today. These include, not just Pat Robertson and the Pope, but Chris Hedges, Andrew Sullivan (who it might surprise you, is orthodox in his Christology), Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Plenty of deistic and agnostic minded folks consider themselves "Christians" for heritage, cultural and demographic reasons. I am a baptized Roman Catholic (but went no further). Arguably, I could, but I don't, call myself a "Christian-Agnostic." Or a non-practicing Roman Catholic-agnostic.

Rather, we argue over a tighter, more meaningful definition of "Christian," AND how "Christianity" (however that theology defines) informed the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Federalist Papers and other aspects of life during Founding era America. Further, we argue over how the Founders THOUGHT government and religion should intersect.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Chris Rodda on Barton & Beck

Check out her latest Huffington Post entry here.

A taste:

On October 25, 2008, I attended a presentation given by Barton. After his presentation, I approached him and gave him a copy of my book, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, a book debunking many of his lies, as well as those of a number of his fellow revisionists.

On January 16, 2009, I became the subject of a segment on Barton's WallBuilders LIVE! radio show, in which he lied about me, my book, and our encounter at his presentation.

Rather than just write about the lies Barton told about me on his show, I decided to make a little video with iMovie, something I've never tried to do before. I ended up getting a bit carried away, making a video that's over an hour long, but once I got started, I wanted to address not just the lies Barton told about me on his show, but also the lies he told in the presentation I attended.

For those unfamiliar with Barton, he is not only the most popular of all the Christian nationalist history revisionists, but a former vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party who was used by the GOP in recent elections to travel the country stumping for their "family values" candidates, and is very well connected with the far right members of Congress. In 2005, was named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America by Time Magazine. But, outside of evangelical Christian circles, and those of us who fight the religious right, few people know who he is.

Barton's pals in Congress, who regularly appear on his radio show to push their far right agenda, include Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Randy Forbes (R-VA), Mike Pence (R-IN), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Joe Pitts (R-PA), Trent Franks (R-AZ).

Another one of Barton's buddies, described by Barton as "One of the Really Cool Guys," is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. During Jindal's gubernatorial campaign in 2006, Barton appeared with him at churches in Louisiana, and, on October 18 and 19, 2006, had him on his radio show for a two part interview. Referring in the opening comments of the program to Jindal's election to Congress two years earlier, Barton remarked, "That is the election in which we saw a huge increase in Christian voter turnout, and he is part of that product of what we were able to put in office in 2004."

Barton is currently joining forces with Newt Gingrich and his newly launched Renewing American Leadership organization. According to a March 20 U.S. News & World Report article, "This spring, Gingrich will speak to a handful of large gatherings for politically conservative clergy that have been organized by David Barton, an influential evangelical activist who spearheaded the Republican National Committee's rigorous outreach to pastors in 2004."

Gary Scott Smith on "How Christian Were the Founders?"

Check it out here.

A taste:

Conservative Christian authors such as David Barton, Peter Marshall Jr., and Tim LaHaye contend that most of the founders were devout Christians who sought to establish a Christian nation. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore in “The Godless Constitution” and Brooke Allen in “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” counter that very few founders were orthodox Christians. They and others often generalize from famous founders, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, to argue that most founders were deists who wanted strict separation of church and state.

The truth lies between these two positions. Almost every major founder belonged to a Christian congregation, although a sizable number of them were not committed Christians whose faith strongly influenced their political philosophy and actions. Two recent books edited by Daniel Dreisbach, Jeffry Morrison, and Mark David Hall—“The Founders on God and Government” and “The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life”—carefully explained the religious backgrounds, convictions, and contributions of numerous founders. They show that many who played leading roles in the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress, and the devising and ratification of the Constitution were devout Christians, as evident in their church attendance, commitment to prayer and Bible reading, belief in God’s direction of earthly affairs, and conduct....

Even many of those often labeled as deists—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—do not fit the standard definition of deism, which asserts that after creating the world, God has had no more involvement with it. Deism views God as a transcendent first cause who is not immanent, triune, fully personal, or sovereign over human affairs. All of these founders, however, repeatedly discussed God’s providence and frequently affirmed the value of prayer. Their conviction that God intervened in human affairs and directed history has led some scholars to call these founders “warm” or “enlightened” deists, but these terms seem like oxymorons. A better label for their position is theistic rationalism. As Professor Gregg Frazer explains, this hybrid belief system combines elements of “natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism—with rationalism as the controlling element.” Those espousing this perspective believed in a powerful, benevolent Creator who established the laws by which the universe operates. They also believed that God answered prayer, that people best served Him by living a moral life, and that individuals would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their earthly deeds. Only a few founders, most notably Thomas Paine and Ethan Allan, can properly be called deists.

Washington Supreme Court rules that the 2nd Amendment is incorporated against the states

This story is a bit off-topic since it doesn't deal with religion and the founding, but I thought it might be of interest to our readers because of the significance of the court's ruling, dealing as it does with one of the most controversial components of the Bill of Rights.

Here's some analysis of the Washington supreme court's decision in State v Sieyes, courtesy of the informative Washington State Supreme Court Blog, a website run by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. The case represents a major victory for gun-rights, although interestingly enough it was a defeat for the appellant in the case before the court.  For what it's worth, I think that Justice Stephens had the better approach; the state supreme court probably should have refrained from addressing the issue of incorporation until the federal Supreme Court decided the issue. But that's a question of prudential judgment. I think the majority's opinion is pretty persuasive.

Here's my favorite line from the majority's opinion:
Accordingly we regard the history, lineage, and pedigree of the Second Amendment right to bear arms necessary to an Anglo-American regime of ordered liberty and fundamental to the American scheme of justice. It is deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.
Amen to that.

Of course, as the Washington supreme court points out in its ruling, the Washington constitution itself provides significant protections for gun owners. In article 1, section 24 the state constitution explicitly states that:
The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain or employ an armed body of men.
The Washington constitution makes clear that the right to keep and bear arms, at least under state law, is a right designed not only to allow for a state controlled militia, but also for personal defense.

Which makes me wonder, couldn't the court have decided the case on narrower grounds, basing its decision on the Washington constitution alone, without addressing the question of the 2nd Amendment? This is why I think Justice Stephens' more prudential approach has merit. Why decide a question federal constitutional law if it isn't necessary to do so? And why decide a question of federal constitutional law that is currently before the federal Supreme Court? Wouldn't it have been better to wait to see what the federal Supreme Court will do?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Was America Founded as a Godless Nation?

Finding the truth of the Founding is
all about asking the right questions
by Tom Van Dyke

Friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea is currently writing "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer"
scheduled for publication in 2011.

But is that the proper question? It's always posed in those exact words, with no variation. Some very religious folks answer yes, but on the whole, even for those who argue for America's Christian, or "Godly," heritage, most admit it was not "Founded" as a "Christian Nation," if that means any level of theocracy.

Nor do they wish a "return" to theocracy. Settled early on in the debates in Virginia and elsewhere is that Baptists would rather not be ruled by Presbyterians, and nobody but nobody wanted to be ruled by Roman Catholicism.

Y'see, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" is usually the formulation used by those whose answer is emphatically "NO!"

And so, I submit we must ask better questions to get to the bottom of things, and here are a few:

---Was America founded as a secular nation, then?
---An agnostic nation?
---Since it's said we have a Godless Constitution, was America founded as a Godless Nation?

---And what do we mean by "Founded," anyway? 1787, the ratification of the Constitution? July 4, 1776, which America celebrates as its birthday?
---Was America America yet under the Continental Congress, which called itself the Congress of the United States?

---What is a "nation?" The debates over the First Amendment discarded Madison's language against establishment of a "national" church, since it was to be a federal government. [Jefferson referred to it as the "general" government.]
---Was religion left to the states under federalism, then? Did the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights change the status of Christianity anywhere in America?

---Was America already a Christian nation [at least in most states aside from Virginia] when the Constitution was ratified, and ratification changed nothing?
---Because what does "Founded" mean anyway? Oh, we already asked that one, but it seems proper to return to it here.

---And the old standby, What is "Christian?" Can you be "Christian" if you believe the Bible is the direct Word of God? If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, although not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?
---And who decides the answer to this question? Trinitarian clergy? Theologians? Sociologists? Historians?

---Was there a God of the Founding?
---Was His name Providence?
---Is this "theism," or is "theism" just a slippery term for what is the uniquely monotheistic, providential Creator-God who endowed men with certain unalienable rights, one who is unmistakably "Judeo-Christian," at least compared to all of man's other gods?
---What might Judeo-Christian mean? Anything? Everybody seems to know what it means, so does that mean anything?

Until we answer each of these questions---and many more, like What is a Founder?---we haven't even scratched the surface. And the terms, my God, the terms. We can put "scare quotes" around each one of them, because each has an arguable meaning:


Per Dennis Prager, our motto around here is that we value clarity over agreement. As we can see, our national discussion is remarkably free of clarity, since few of us are using the same terms and meanings and are asking the same questions. This is one small vote for clarity.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fea on Barton on Huckabee

Check out Dr. John Fea's reaction to David Barton's appearance on the Mike Huckabee show. Dr. Fea writes:


3). I have no idea where Barton gets the idea that 29 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence held "seminary" and "Bible school" degrees. How does he define "seminary" and "Bible school?" These kinds of institutions did not exist in the eighteenth-century.


5). One would be hard-pressed to call John Witherspoon the "best known gospel evangelist of his generation." It sounds like Barton wants to turn Witherspoon into some kind of southern revivalist preacher when in fact Witherspoon tended to downplay evangelism and even tried to squash a revival among the student body at Princeton in 1772....

6). Barton fails to mention that Benjamin Rush spent a portion of his adult life as a universalist.


8). Barton is wrong about the so-called "prayer meetings" at the Constitution. Franklin did call for prayer at the Constitutional Convention, but his proposal was rejected.

9). Barton is wrong when he claims that the 1782 Aitken Bible was printed by the Continental Congress. The Congress actually turned down a proposal to publish Aitken's Bible, but it did endorse it once it was published. It was not funded by Congress.


If you are interested in this kind of stuff, you might be interested in my forthcoming (probably January 2011) book: "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Primer."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Did Jefferson support public worship in federal buildings during his administration?

I'm not a fan of David Barton, for a variety of reasons.  To use a phrase from my grandmother, the kind of advocacy-oriented history that Barton (but not Barton alone!) engages in makes my feet itch.  That said, a question was raised in the comments to one of the posts below about a claim Barton made about the extent to which Jefferson supported public Christian worship in federal facilities.  Gordon Wood discusses this point about Jefferson in the latter part of Empire of Liberty and points out that Jefferson did in fact support such worship and even went so far as to specifically authorize church use in federal buildings controlled by the executive branch.  As Wood writes:
Jefferson very much wanted to win over to his Republican cause all those ordinary religious people who had voted for his opponent.  To do so he knew he had to offset the Federalist accusations that he was an enemy of Christianity.  Consequently, to the surprise of many Federalists, he had good things to say about religion in his first inaugural address.  He also knew very well that effect he as president would have when in January 1802 he attended a church service held in the chamber of the House of Representatives.  His attendance attracted wide public notice and astonished the Federalists.  Even though other churches were available, Jefferson continued to attend church services in the House chamber and made available executive buildings for church functions.  Sometimes the U.S. Marine Corps Band supplied music for religious services.  As president, however, Jefferson held to his vow never to call for any days of fasting and prayer as his two predecessors had done.  
Empire of Liberty, pgs. 586-87.  Now, as Wood points out, Jefferson did all this because he was trying to woo the mass of voters who were attached, with varying levels of devotion, to Christianity.  And there were limits to how far Jefferson was willing to pander -- he did not, as the end of the quote above indicates, call for national prayer and fasting on notable occasions.  However, Jefferson was quite willing to use federal facilities, and hence federal funds, to support public Christian worship. 

It was also around this time, according to Wood, that Jefferson began to work on his redaction of the Gospels, a work commonly known today as the Jefferson Bible.

As with most things involving Jefferson, he was not incapable of being duplicitous in order to get what he wanted.  Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, after all.

Related item:  don't forget Jefferson's letter to the Ursuline nuns upon taking over the Louisiana country.  He promises those nuns not just the protections of the Constitution, but the "patronage" of the U.S. government.  Here's a copy of the original letter, still treasured by the Ursuline religious community in New Orleans.  On an unrelated note, Jefferson had terrible handwriting...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Paul Harvey on the NYT's Texas Controversy Article

University of Colorado history professor Paul Harvey gives his thoughts on the recent New York Times article about the Texas schoolbook controversy (his post kindly links to one of my posts).

A taste:

... Shorto covers the strategy of the Houston dentist Don McLeroy and other board members who are seeking "transformational change outside of the public gaze," meaning that the real war will be conducted in private with textbook publishers who have to take these general standards and condense them down into textbook bite-sized chunks.

Their model is based on their previous assault on the state educational science standards -- failing to get in their intelligent design theories, they managed to get textbooks to incorporate language about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution as a possible "inroads to creationism." In their view, there has been a secularist conspiracy among experts to suppress "truth" in both science and history. Evidently, biology and history professors are united in an alliance to lead schoolchildren down the path of destruction, while the Texas activists seek "an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed." (My blog co-editor Randall Stephen's forthcoming book The Annointed: America's Evangelical Experts discusses the history of this idea, and the creation of an entirely separate evangelical intellectual universe, with great skill).

To be Fair...

Some on this blog have worried that we are getting a little "one sided" in our criticism of politics and religion (as they apply to the founders). In an effort to provide BOTH sides (I posted something from Olbermann below) here is a video of David Barton on Mike Huckabee's show. Again, decide for yourself.

Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and David Barton Tossing Around the Founders

Yeah, this is just another one of those David Barton/politics and religion posts. With that said, I still thought that some might find this interesting. No comments needed on my part...make up your own mind.

***It should be noted that this video does not, in any way, represent the feelings of the author or fellow contributors to this blog. With that said, we here at American Creation try to provide a complete view of religion and the founding (from all perspectives) which is why I chose to post this here. Again, decide for yourself.***

Saturday, February 13, 2010

New York Times on the Texas School Controversy

At Positive Liberty, my other group blog, I posted long excerpts of the NYT's article entitled How Christian Were the Founders?

You can read those excerpts there and the entire article in the above link.

Since American Creation has no "jump" where you can hide the content of long posts, I won't waste space here. Instead, I quote a small excerpt of the NYT article and then my commentary follows. With that:

... “The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.

And here again there is a link to Texas. David Barton specifically advised the writers of the Texas guidelines that textbooks “should stipulate (but currently do not) that the Declaration of Independence is symbiotic with the Constitution rather than a separate unrelated document.”

In 2008, Cynthia Dunbar published a book called “One Nation Under God,” in which she stated more openly than most of her colleagues have done the argument that the founding of America was an overtly Christian undertaking and laid out what she and others hope to achieve in public schools. “The underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes. “Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview.”

On the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, historians, political scientists and legal scholars on the Left and the Right actually vigorously dispute the matter.

Given the dispute, it's probably not a good idea for history books to take a side, but rather, do their best to "teach the controversy" (and unlike the case with Intelligent Design where you may have heard that line, there really is a compelling controversy here).

Barton and company argue the DOI's status as "law" in an attempt to answer "The Godless Constitution" thesis. The problem is the DOI is not a Christian/biblical document -- at least not in the sense that the Christian Nationalists understand the concept. It doesn't mention Jesus Christ or quote verses and chapters of scripture. Its call to revolution is arguably in tension with Romans 13. And it's not clear that many/most of the important principles enunciated in the DOI have anything to do with the Bible.

The DOI is obviously a Providential or theistic document (not necessarily a Christian or a biblical document).

8 out of 9 members of the Supreme Court (insofar as I correctly understand the newish Justices Alito's, Roberts' and Sotomayor's views) don't believe the Declaration of Independence is "law."

Justice Thomas, btw, is the only member who does.

And most conservative expert figures endorse the "DOI is NOT law position." Not only Justice Scalia (and the late CJ Rehnquist), but also former Judge Robert Bork, law professor Lino Graglia, the late conservative traditionalist Russell Kirk (who notably argued the DOI was a wink towards France to win their support against the British) and many others.

I think they recognize calling for revolt on the grounds that God gives us the "right" to do so isn't exactly a settled position in traditional conservative Christendom and also may not foster the kind of orderly, traditionalist society they desire.

Yes, a "revolutionary" current is fairly well established in Christendom. It's just not clear that revolutionary thought harmonizes better with conservative Christianity, than for instance, liberation theology.

Lino Graglia well sums up how the DOI's call for revolt arguably conflicts with conservatism’s moral traditionalism and vision for an orderly, lawful society:

... The Declaration, however, consists largely of a lengthy indictment of King George III. It is hardly the sort of thing you would expect to find in a nation's constitution. What it is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution -- that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on -- being in defiance of authority -- revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest.

I'm not sure whether Graglia is a Christian, but he could, if he wished, quote verses and chapters of scripture and distinguished orthodox theological arguments on behalf of his sentiment.

Perhaps he, Robert Bork, Russell Kirk are wrong and perhaps the conservative Christians who reconcile the "Americanism" of the DOI with biblical Christianity are right. But, again, K-12 history books shouldn't pick a side in that debate and try to sell it to school kids as Barton wishes.

A Whites Only Tea Party?

A photograph in this week’s Economist shows an actor dressed in a tri-cornered hat and colonial garb attending last week’s national Tea Party convention, surrounded by a sea of white faces.

Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who led the roster of speakers, lamented the fact that citizens who couldn’t even speak English or spell the word “vote” sent a socialist to the White House.  Tancredo didn’t mention that President is black, yet his tirade against “multiculturalism” and his call for a return to the kind of literacy tests that disenfranchised African Americans in the Jim Crow South spoke for itself.

While the blogosphere ponders just how racist the Tea Party counter-revolution really is, historians agree that the original American Revolution was anything but. Every school child knows that Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to fall in the Boston Massacre, was a black man.  But most don’t know that  African Americans were present in nearly every major battle in the War for Independence. The Continental Army was probably the most racially integrated up until the 1950’s, when Harry Truman officially de-segregated the armed forces.

And while I am anything but a linguist, Americans in the colonial period spoke Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Spanish, a variety of African dialects and dozens of Native American languages as well as English.  In a document titled  “Colonial Irish Immigration to North America,” Jerry Kelly observes:

English spies and Tories reported back to their English masters that "Irish is as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English," which thereby puts English speakers at about 30% of the Continental Army once you count in the Gaelic-speaking Irish from every state; the German-speakers from Pennsylvania and Virginia; the Dutch from what had been New Holland (Long Island, northern New Jersey, the Hudson Valley, and the Mohawk Valley); the French of the frontier and Louisiana; the Finns and Swedes of what had been New Sweden (parts of Delaware and New Jersey), the Spanish of what had been Spanish Florida and Louisiana, and our Algonquin and Iroquois allies. Anybody who had a serious grudge against the English went into rebellion, and that was a lot of people. Anglo Saxons and their language were a minority. The Continental Army was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and ready to welcome the likes of Lafayette, Von Steuben, Kosziusko, and others as valued officers even if (or because) they barely spoke English or didn't speak English at all. English was regarded as the language of the enemy - Tories and Regulars alike.

That may be stretching a point.  But Tea Party nativists who want the nation to “return” to its English-speaking, Euro-centric roots surely misunderstand the racial and linguistic diversity that the American experiment has welcomed since its very beginning.

That diversity, which extended hope to all races and manners of people—not a phony homogenous “Tea Party” of Sarah Palin look-alikes—constituted the real American Revolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

President Washington's First Official Act

...he thanked God for the Founding
and that's just a fact, in his own words
by Tom Van Dyke

Rev. Gary Kowalski ["Revolutionary Spirits"] writes in his post How Christian Were the Founders? below:

They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives.

This is somewhat true, although James Madison lost the battle against publicly-funded chaplains to the US Congress, which voted otherwise. A tradition that continues to this day, and one Madison didn't try to overturn even when he eventually became president.

And of course, religion was left to the states, and many states had religious tests for office and some still have them on the books even today; some even had "official" churches, and the ratification of the Constitution changed none of that.

But most troubling about Gary's riff is this phrase:

that faith should be exercised in the private sphere

What does Rev. Kowalski mean by "faith?" I have no idea.

But "faith"---to me---is the question about whether God even exists, or if He does, whether He guides our lives with an active hand. Maybe He created us, but left us to our own devices, since He had better things to do.

And what does Gary mean by "private sphere?"

Because George Washington, who was no Holy Roller, and indeed he was questionably even "Christian," said in his first inaugural address:

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.

And Washington felt that he was speaking not just for himself, but for the new American nation:

In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either.

And Washington continues, not only with the success of the American Revolution, but in crediting the Almighty with a peaceful agreement among men how to govern themselves and each other---the Constitution:

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."

And, yeah, if you noticed at the end there, Washington speaks hopefully of "an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage."

So I must humbly submit that's a prayer for America's future. Humble people pray that way. George Washington, even when he felt the presence of The Almighty, as he especially did here on the occasion of being inaugurated as America's first president, remained a humble man.

And so, Gary---Rev. Kowalski---I must strongly disagree that the "Founders" thought religion---at least "the question" of God---was a private matter. Like George Washington,

"These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed."

How Christian Were The Founders?

An article in today's New York Times asks, "How Christian Were the Founders," reporting on efforts of the state Board of Education in Texas to re-cast the nation's as fundamentalist Christians.

One member of the Texas Board, Don McLeroy, is a dentist rather than an historian, but declaims that "The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible.."  McLeroy thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, and thinks that the 47 millions textbooks his state purchases each year should reflect that Biblical "fact."

But facts are stubborns things--and history shows that America's founders and framers were not fundamentalists, by any stretch of the imagination. Ben Franklin re-wrote the Lord's Prayer. Jefferson edited his own version of scripture, eliminating the miracles. Washington was never a formal communicant in the Episcopal Church, and avoided attended services on Sundays when communion was served, probably because he didn't believe in the all the doctrines required of orthodox Christians. John and Abigal Adams were both Unitarians, who rejected notions like original sin and eternal damnation. The Constitution never mentions God, because the framers believed government was based on the consent of its citizens, not upon any divine mandate. 

Yet the founders were not secularists or opposed to organized religion. They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives. Unfortunately, today's evangelicals want their own brand of dogma to receive government recognition and support, eliminating the barrier separating church and state. This is a recipe for sectarian conflict. America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth, where Buddhists outnumber Presbyterians and Muslims may outnumber Jews. There is no creed or confession that can unite these various religious systems. Only a philosophy of mutual tolerance and forbearance will enable us all to live together as Americans, inhabitants of a land that--as the founders intended--welcomes people of all beliefs.

Evangelicals Should Not Claim George Washington as a "Christian"

Jim Fletcher, writing at WorldNetDaily, asserted the following about George Washington:

But at Mount Vernon, I was struck by the lack of information about Washington's faith. Even the bookstore, with its dozens of volumes about the great man, doesn't stock many titles that deal with George Washington, the Christian.

All this makes "The Life of Washington" an especially important book. Newly published by Attic Books, this rich historical treasure was originally published in 1842 by the American Sunday School Union (now known as the American Missionary Fellowship) and authored by Anna Reed – a niece of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This is an amazing book!

If liberal historical revisionism is considerably more than an annoyance to you, projects like "The Life of Washington" take on vital importance. It doesn't hurt that this little volume, produced by Attic Books' crack team of editorial, design and marketing professionals, has a vintage feel. From the rough-cut edges to the scan of the original pages, "The Life of Washington" is a look back in time (and, hey, at $16.99, it's a value-packed prize).

Of course the primary value of this book is that it was originally produced much nearer to the time George Washington lived, so the history recorded here is accurate. When it was released in 1842, it proved to be one of the most widely read biographies of Washington.

We know we are reading a 19th century book when we find in the opening of Chapter 1, "To give us the delightful assurance, that we are always under the watchful care of our almighty and kind Creator, He has told us that He notices the movements of every little sparrow; and as we are 'of more value than many sparrows,' He will surely ever care for us."

Try finding such a line in one of our modern textbooks. Lefty historical revisionists would have none of that.

If interested in the book, don't bother buying it, you can download it for free via googlebooks here.

I wrote the following to Jim Fletcher:


I read your WND article, posted today, on Washington. While you assert GW a "Christian," you offer no evidence for it. A book written in the mid 19th Cen. may offer valuable insights, but ultimately, it's the historical record that counts. Some/much of what was thought in the 19th Cen. has been rightly corrected (or to use that boogey word, "revised"). For instance, if you took a poll of Americans in the 1950s on Rock Hudson's sexual orientation, they would (probably) have wrongly termed him straight. "Revision" does not necessarily equal "wrong."

Based on my exhaustive research of Washington's religion (I've read Peter Lillback's entire 1200 page book, footnotes and all, as well as countless other books and primary sources), the record shows GW was, like Jefferson, Franklin, and others, formally and nominally associated with "Christendom," i.e., he probably thought himself a "Christian" in an identificatory sense (though little evidence shows him calling himself a "Christian"). But NOTHING shows GW would pass an evangelical's test for "Christian." In 20,000 pages of Washington's recorded writings (the Fitzpatrick ed., in NONE of Washington's personal letters (where he often speaks of "God," "religion," "Providence," etc.) does he speak of Jesus Christ by person or example. And in only TWO of Washington's public addresses does he invoke JC by name or example. And both of these addresses were written by aides (but signed by GW).

In short, NO EVIDENCE shows GW had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, accepted Him as Savior, 2nd Person in the Trinity, believed the Bible the inerrant, infallible Word of God., etc.

Evangelicals need to stop claiming Washington as a "Christian."


Jon Rowe....

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leon Wieseltier on [Not] Understanding the Trinity

In this article Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, attacks Andrew Sullivan relating to some beef that traces to Sullivan's leaving TNR (where he was the editor) some 14 years ago, about which I could care less.

Rather, Wieseltier's ruminations on the Trinity interest me. He writes:

“Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.” On June 2, 1944, W.H. Auden penned that sentence in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr. On January 26, 2010, Andrew Sullivan posted it as the “quote for the day” on his blog. Displaced and unglossed quotations are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications. Let us see what this one implies.

Auden was at Swarthmore when he wrote his letter to his friend. He began by thanking her for her admiration of a piece about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that he had recently published in The New Republic, and then reported that he had just finished, “after writing it four times,” a review for the magazine of Charles Norris Cochrane’s book Christianity and Classical Culture, which had in fact appeared four years earlier. His trouble in completing the piece to his satisfaction was what prompted the remark that Sullivan finds so pleasing and repercussive. Auden’s intense and idiosyncratic theology was flourishing in those years, not least owing to the impact upon his thinking of the friendship and the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr, Ursula’s very remarkable husband. The Cochrane piece, which barely mentions Cochrane at all, is a fine example of Auden at his most philosophically grandiose and amateurish. “The distinctive mark of classical thought is that it gives no positive value to freedom and identifies the divine with the necessary or the legal.” “A monolithic monotheism is always a doctrine of God as either manic-depressive Power or schizophrenic Truth.” And so on. On metaphysical themes, Auden’s original formulations could sometimes be very obscure. Perhaps that was why my predecessor at this magazine held the article for many months, until late September. “At last, The New Republic has printed my now months’ old piece on Cochrane’s book,” Auden wrote to Ursula in October, “—they’ve cut it about a bit but I’m really quite pleased with it.”

The striking thing about Auden’s discussion of the Trinity in his piece is that, notwithstanding his complaint about the difficulty of explaining it, he fails to explain it. Instead he concedes that it is inexplicable. “The formula,” he declares, is “a foolishness to the reason,” because reason is convinced only “by logical necessity, like the timeless truths of geometry,” and so could not “grasp … the doctrine of three persons” in God. Auden is not be chided for his failure. He followed in a long line of Christian intellectuals who despaired of explanations for this belief. That line included some of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition. Augustine, whose treatment of the Trinity was discussed by Cochrane in his book and by Auden in his review, began his influential treatise on the subject by declaring that the aim of his work was “to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason.” Aquinas, in the first part of the Summa Theologica, was more direct: “It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason.” For this reason, he asserted, “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others, it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.” Indeed, the despair of explanation goes all the way back to the Fathers of the Church, who afflicted themselves with the most extraordinary mental contortions–hypostasis, ousia, and the rest–to make the idea of the Trinity seem plausible. They were right, finally, to call it a mystery. To regard a concept as a mystery may be a spiritual triumph, but it is an intellectual defeat.

I wish to confirm Auden’s–and Sullivan’s–suspicion that New Republic people cannot comprehend the Trinity; or at least those New Republic people who are not (in Aquinas’s terms) among “those who receive the authority,” but are the logically minded “others”; or at least this New Republic person. The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity (Auden would not have had an easier time with the Incarnation!), represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity. It is completely inconsistent with everything that my mind instructs me to believe about God’s essence. (I leave aside what my mind instructs me to believe about God’s existence. We are in the realm of theology here, not the realm of philosophy.)

Love Birds: A Revolutionary Valentine

Were two  love birds ever better suited, almost destined for one another?  Their marriage would last fifty-four years and their names become inextricably linked.  But it wasn’t longevity that distinguished their pairing so much as the quality of their relationship.  Affection blended with respect.  They shared basic values: a preference for plain living and plain speaking with a distaste for ostentation, alike strongly opinionated, with political and religious views that were decidedly liberal. But they also shared more.  Lust, yes.  They were well-matched in that department, and a very un-Puritanical eroticism creeps into some of the epistles they exchanged.  But they had more than sex.  Abigail and John Adams also enjoyed a teasing playfulness in their communications as if the two of them were alternately team mates and rivals, but always in on a game together.

Although she was born a parson’s daughter with predictably prim parents, little Abigail acknowledged that she always had a "volatile and giddy" personality, which didn’t concern her was Grandmother Quincy who chiefly raised the lass, remarking that "wild colts make the best horses." The young attorney first noticed the Smith girl when she was just fourteen, describing her as a "wit" while wondering if that was a trait compatible with the feminine graces. Yet within a short time, that same high-spirited and flippant character proved irresistibly attractive, provoking the first exchanges in a lifelong correspondence, as when the suitor sent his heartthrob an invoice, payable in passion:

Oct. 4, 1762
Miss Adorable,

By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 o’ Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account .... John Adams

At first, they signed themselves Lysander and Diana, named for the goddess of the moon and a famous Spartan statesman. Later, Abigail would sign her letters "Portia," modeling herself on the wife of the Roman patriot Marcus Brutus, who slew an ambitious Caesar to save the republic. But from the beginning, they called each other by another dearer, name—Friend--that would endure through all their years together.

August 11, 1763
My Friend,

If I was sure your absence to day was occasioned, by what it generally is, either to wait upon Company, or promote some good work, I freely confess my Mind would be much more at ease than at present it is. Yet this uneasiness does not arise from any apprehension of Slight or neglect, but a fear least you are indisposed, for that you said should be your only hindrance.

Humanity obliges us to be affected with the distresses and Miserys of our fellow creatures. Friendship is a band yet stronger, which causes us to feel with greater tenderness the afflictions of our Friends.

And there is a tye more binding than Humanity and stronger than Friendship, which makes us anxious for the happiness and welfare of those to whom it binds us. It makes their Misfortunes, Sorrows and afflictions, our own. Unite these, and there is a threefold cord–by this cord I am not ashamed to own myself bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it ...

Adieu may this find you in better health than I fear it will ... Accept this hasty Scrawl warm from the Heart of Your Sincere


Riding the Circuit Courts between Massachusetts and Maine, John thought it wise to undergo an experimental medical procedure, inoculating himself against small pox, and necessitating a period of isolation as he recovered in the sick ward.  The separation, for his sweetheart, was hard to bear.

Fryday Morning April 20

What does ti signify, why may not I visit you a Days as well as Nights?  I no sooner close my Eyes than some invisible Being … bears me to you.  I see you, but cannot make my self visible to you.  That tortures me, but it is still worse when I do not come for I am then haunted by half a dozen ugly Sprights.  One will catch me and leep into the Sea, an other will carry me up a precipice (like that which Edgar describes to Lear,) then toss me down, and were I not then light as the Gosemore I should shiver into atoms … I had rather have the small pox by inoculation half a dozen times, than be sprighted about as I am.

Three weeks shy of turning twenty, Abigail was finally released from her nighttime torments, marrying John in 1764 in a ceremony conducted  by her father at the pasonage in Weymouth.  Though technically wives were subject to their husbands, matrimony felt like a liberation, or at least a release from parental authority, for Abigail would write  her sister Mary, “I desire to be very thankful that I can do as I please now!!!”

The man she’d wed was ambitious for himself and his family, determined to make a mark upon the world.  Yet his legal practice and then election to the Continental Congress meant extended time away.  Never one to underestimate his own talents, he wrote his wife,

I shall arouse myself ere long I believe, and exert an Industry, a Frugality, a hard Labour, that will serve my family, if I cant serve my Country … I thank God I have a Head, an Heart and Hands which if once fully exerted altogether, will succeed in the World as well as those of the mean spirited, low minded, fawning obsequious scoundrels who have long hoped, that my Integrity would be an Obstacle in my Way, and enable them to out strip me in the Race.

I must intreat you, my dear Partner in all the Joys and Sorrows, Prosperity and Adversity of my Life, to take a Part with me in the Struggle.  I pray God for your Health—intreat you to rouse your whole Attention to the Family, the stock, the Farm, the Dairy.  Let ever Article of Expence which can possibly be spared be retrench’d.  

Abigail oversaw the farm and ran the household in John’s absence, superintending also the upbringing of the growing brood of Adams offspring, Nabby, John Quincy and Charles.  John admonished,

The Education of our Children is never out of my Mind.  Train them to Virtue, habituate them to industry, activity and Spirit.  Make them consider every Vice, as shamefull and unmanly: fire them with Ambition to the usefull … Fix their Ambition upon great and solid Objects, and their Contempt upon little, frivolous, and useless ones.  It is Time, my dear, for you to begin to teach them French.

When John elaborated in another letter, lamenting the woeful state of learning in the colonies, his wife was moved to speak up,

If you complain of the neglect of Education in sons, What shall I say with regard to daughters, who every day experience the want of it.  With regard to the Education of my own children, I find myself soon out of my debth, and destitute and deficient in every part …

I most sincerely wish that some more liberal plan might be laid and executed for the Benefit of the rising Generation, and that our new constitution may be distinguished for Learning and Virtue.  If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen and Philosophers, we should have learned women.  The world perhaps would laugh at me, and accuse me of vanity.  But you I know have a mind too enlarged and liberal to disregard the Sentiment.

Adieu ever yours.  Breakfast waits.  Portia.

Conflict with Britain meant rationing, first as American colonists boycotted tea and other products they considered unfairly taxed, then tightening belts even further as trade dropped to a trickle.  But defiance of the home country also stirred a defiant  attitude among many women, as Abigail recorded to her husband,

It was rumoured that an eminent, wealthy, stingy Merchant (who is a Batchelor) had a Hogshead of Coffe in his Store which he refused to sell to the committee under 6 shillings per pound.  A number of Females some say a hundred, some say more assembled with a cart and trucks, marched down to the Ware House and demanded the keys, which he refused to deliver, upon which one of them seazd him by his Neck and tossd him into the cart.  Upon his finding no Quarter he deliverd the keys, when they tipd up the cart and dischargd him, then opend the Warehouse, Joisted out the Coffe themselves, put it into the trucks and drove off.
It was reported that he had a Spanking among them, but this I believe was not true.  A large concourse of Men stood amazd silent Spectators of the whole transaction.   Portia
John himself may have been amazed when he received a letter from his wife dated March 31, 1776, addressed to him in Philadelphia, where delegates were beginning to debate separation from the motherland.

I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.
Abigail knew her complaint would be taken only half-seriously, and that’s how John responded, predicting that the new demand for equality and civil freedom would eventually lead to the inmates running the asylum.

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.  We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere.  That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negros grew insolent to their Masters.  But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.—This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Neither of the two were populists.  Both believed there existed a natural aristocracy of brains and talent.  But they were united in their opposition to slavery, not entirely free of the prejudices of the time, but surprisingly enlightened.  Abigail gave an involuntary shudder at a Shakespeare play as she watched the dark-skinned Othello lay hands upon fair Desdemona.  But when a schoolhouse in Braintree threatened to close if a black pupil were allowed to attend classes, she became a local champion of racial integration.  And in the same letter where she urged her husband to “remember the ladies,” Abigail reflected that Virginia must possess some virtues for producing a Washington, but she remained wary and suspicious of the slave-holding south: 

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.  Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.

Touching the subject of religion, her husband said that his own brand of Christianity consisted of following the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, complaining that the church had forgotten the simple moral teachings of its founder.

Where in the Gospel do we find a precept requiring ecclesiastical Synods?  Convocations?  Councils?  Decrees?  Creeds?  Confessions?  Oaths?  Subscriptions?  And whole cartloads of other trumpery we find religion encumbered with these days?  How has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?
John was reacting to the cold-blooded Calvinism on which he’d been reared.  But too much warmth from the pulpit could also be nerve-wracking.  In New York, where he was stationed during his tenure as Vice-President, he and Abigail struggled to find a church to their liking.  The Congregational preachers there clung to the old-fashioned doctrines of predestination and tried with “noise and vehemence to compensate for every other deficiency.”  Listening to their “foaming,” Abigail told a friend, was like “doing penance,” making her long to her “liberal good sense” from the pulpit: “true piety without enthusiasm, devotion with grimace, and religion upon a rational system.”

More to their liking were the sermons of Richard Price, a dissenting clergyman whose services the two attended while on appointment to Great Britain.  Although ordained a Presbyterian, Price’s doubts about the divinity of Jesus had turned him toward Unitarianism—like his friend Joseph Priestly, who succeeded him in the same pulpit.  A superb mathematician, Price shared the Adams’ scientific interests.  But when the reverend presided over the christening of their grandchild William, Abigail was so flustered that she had to take to her bed, causing her miss several of his lectures on “electricity, magnetism, hydrostatics” and other researches which she described as “going into a beautiful country … a country to which few females are permitted to visit or inspect.”

Dr. Price had been a strong supporter of the colonies in their revolt against England.  In Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, and the Means of Making It a Benefit to the World, published just after the war, Price argued that complete religious liberty ought to prevail in the new nation, along with a system of education that “teaches how to think, rather than what to think.”  He spoke admiringly of the Massachusetts Constitution that John had written, guaranteeing that “every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the Commonwealth” should have equal protection of the laws.  “This is liberal beyond all example,” Price declared,  “I should however have admired it more had it been more liberal and the words all men of all religions been substituted for every denomination of Christians.”

“I am happy to find myself perfectly agreed with you, that we should begin by setting the conscience free,” John wrote back.  It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and Abigail told their son John Quincy that traveling the few miles from London to Hackney each Sunday was well worth the effort, “to hear a man so liberal and so sensible and so good as he is.”

Their eldest son tended to be more traditional in his faith than either father or mother, but when the break occurred in New England that divided so many congregations down the middle, Abigail made her position  clear.  “I profess myself a Unitarian in Mr. Channings sense,” she told her son.  “The soil of N England will not cultivate nor cherish clerical bigotry or intolerance although, there is a struggle to introduce it.”  In a letter dated May 4, 1816, she staked out her non-trinitarian beliefs even more firmly, telling the junior Adams “There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three,” adding in an aside to a friend that her husband considered their son an “Excellent politician, but no theologian.”

Yet Abigail’s letters mention religion only rarely.  Along with observations on politics, education, and culture, more mundane matters predominated.  As might be expected, the pair corresponded about money, household finance and investing, which Abigail mostly managed with a shrewd business sense that enabled the family to retire with a modest prosperity that stood in sharp contrast to former presidents like Jefferson and Madison who were bankrupt by the end.  From selling pins to buying depreciated Continental I.O.U.s to purchasing land in far off Vermont, Abigail always had some scheme for turning a profit.  And slowly the nest egg grew.

 A tranquil old age had been their lifelong dream.  Long before, during the war years of absence and  separation, a homesick husband had written from across the Atlantic, longing for the simple comforts  of hearth and native land.

My dearest Friend

I am so sensible of the Difficulty of convey Letters safe, to you, that I am afraid to write, any Thing more than to tell you that after all the fatigues and Dangers of Voyage and Journey, I am here in Health ..

It would be futile to attempt Descriptions of this country especially of Paris and Versailles.  The public Buildings and Gardens, the Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture Musick, &c. of these Cities have already filled many Volumes …

All the Luxury I desire in this World is the Company of my dearest Friend and my Children, and such Friends as they delight in, which I have sanguine Hopes, I shall, after a few Years enjoy in Peace.—I am with inexpressible Affection Yours, yours,   John Adams 


His partner returned the sentiments:
June 8 1777

I generally endeavour to write you once a week, if my Letters do no reach you, tis oweing to the neglect of the post … I should greatly rejoice to see you.  I kow of no earthly blessing which would make me happier …

You express a longing after the enjoyments of your little Farm.  I do not wonder at it, that also wants the care and attention of its master—all that the mistress can do is see that it does not go to ruin.  .  She would take pleasure in improvements, and study them with assiduity if she was possessed with a sufficiency to accomplish them.  The season promises plenty at present and the English grass never looked better.

You inquire after the Asparagrass.  It performs very well this year and produces us a great plenty.  I long to send you a Barrell of cider, but find it impracticable, as no vessels can pass from this State to yours.

I do not feel very apprehensive of an attack upon Boston … I should make a miserable hand of running now.  Boston is not what it once was.  It has no Head, no Men of distinguished abilities, they behave like children.

I wonder how you get time to write so much.  I feel very thankfull to you for every line.  You will I know remember me often when I cannot write to you.

Good Night tis so dark that I cannot see to add more than that I am with the utmost tenderness Yours ever Yours.

Their last years were quiet.  Having survived war and hardship, having made do and gone without, having lost one child in the cradle and watched their son Charles go to ruin through drink and seen their grown daughter Nabby suffer a masectomy without anesthetic and prematurely die of cancer, having endured stretches of loneliness where ink on parchment was the only solace, Abigail and John grew closer than ever, content upon the acreage near their childhood homes that they called Peacefield.  Trials that might have shattered other marriages seemed only to strengthen their bond..  The equality, candor and compassion that marked their relationship were surely ingredients that helped keep their romance alive.  And in a lesson for our age, which has grown impatient with manners, they were unfailingly courteous to one another.

As much as John Adams became a founding father of our nation, Abigail became a founding mother, calling for women’s full legal rights and by her own dignity and composure proving they were entitled to nothing less.  And yet through her loyalty and gentleness as mate, she showed that political independence and relational interdependence must go hand in hand, reminding us that no charter of freedoms would be complete without the command to love.