Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Democracy in America

If you're reading this,
you're probably ignorant
By Tom Van Dyke

Good friend-of-the-blog John Fea asks "Are Americans Ignorant?."

First off, I'm a little uncomfortable with open-ended questions that float like a fart in the air. I've used that technique meself, I confess, but let's get real.

In the words of that great philosopher Ali G, he who smelt it, dealt it.

"Was George Washington a Satanist?" Well, 999 times out of 1000, you're arguing that he was. [Well, actually, he was, but let's drop that for now.]

So yeah, I think Dr. Fea is saying, yes, Americans are ignorant, even if it's in the form of a question.

This Tea Party thing is about to vote out the current regime in Congress bigtime, and the recent Pew [no pun intended, but I'll take it] polls that Dr. Fea cites about religions and civics knowledge say we Americans don't know squat about squat.

And sort of, we don't. We don't know if Vishnu is the current president of Israel or the latest iPhone app for Argentina. Probably most of us don't know that Bill Clinton's wife is the Secretary of State. How can we trust us to even vote?

But let's just do the math here. Think of how stupid and ignorant the average person is. Well, that pretty much means half the population is even more stupid and ignorant than he is. I mean, it is what it is. You can't fight the math in a democracy. And really, Vishnu will pick you up a couple bucks on a quiz show, but can't tell you the price of Chinese tea at Wal-Mart, OK?

And so on to the Founding:

Everybody knows the Founders were "elitists." Only white male property owners could vote or whatever. Federalists like John Adams were especially good with that. Adams wrote to Jefferson that an idea was floating around Massachusetts to come up with something like a House of Lords.

You know, the elite.

Jefferson replied:

"I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society."

Jefferson trusted the people, and he was sure right in that we had wealth [John Kerry] and birth [Bush 41 & 43, Al Gore]. Still, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Obama made it through the net, and that's not even going back very far.

And although I'm quite partisan, looking back at it historically, and with a trust of the wisdom of the American people, there's not a single election in the 20th and 21st centuries where I'd say the wrong man won. Ford? Mondale? Dole? Hey, I voted for Michael Dukakis and I'm not ashamed to admit it!

Even if we want to quibble about this guy or that guy, the batting average of the American people is way higher than that of the "elites." "In general," said Jefferson, "they will elect the real good and wise."

I don't think we're stupid or ignorant atall. I trust us, regardless of our knowledge or sophistication or lack of either. Plus, as it turns out, in this here democracy, I really have no choice but to trust my fellow citizens, talk it out, and then each head for the voting booth.

[In fairness to Dr. Fea, more precisely he wrote:

"Kerry's remarks were bad only if we define what is good and bad based upon the ethical system (if we can call it that) of American politics. And if this is the case, as I am afraid it now is, God help us.

Help! I think I am becoming an elitist!!"

As a partisan on the other side of John Kerry, I find his political ethics unacceptable if not invisible. I do think "what is good and bad" can be debated and realized "upon the ethical system (if we can call it that) of American politics."

Again, in the real world, on this earth, America is where the Kingdom of God vs. the City of Man will be debated; nowhere else. But Dr. Fea may be right. Perhaps we can't debate it in America either, but it's the American tradition to try.]

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Was John Jay a Christian Hypocrite?

John Jay, not a "key Founder" but a 2nd tier Founder, is generally conceded as an "orthodox Christian." He certainly has a number of quotations that support the "Christian Nation" thesis. From most of what I've read, I'd say the categorization is accurate. Though, I've reproduced before, and will reproduce again quotations from Jay affirming the Bible, but doubting the Trinity.

In a letter to Samuel Miller, Feb. 18, 1822, Jay wrote:

"In forming and settling my belief relative to the doctrines of Christianity, I adopted no articles from creeds, but such only as, on careful examination, I found to be confirmed by the Bible."

To the Sola Scripturaist that sounds good. After all, church doctrine can be tainted with man's doctrines. But, Sola Scriptura without creeds led Jay to doubt the Trinity. From that very letter:

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

I want to focus more on Jay's disregard for creeds and how that relates to the political theology of the American Founding.

The late ME Bradford did a study where he "found" 52 out of 55 Founding Fathers in some way connected to churches that adhered to an orthodox creed. Christian Nationalists have run with that figure with a talking point that argues "52 out of 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention were orthodox Christians."

Some Christian Nationalist (not sure if it was Bradford himself) mistakenly claimed the 52/55 figure found "membership" at a time when membership required oaths to official church doctrine.

I've looked into this in detail and the figure does not relate to "membership" but "affiliation." There is NO EVIDENCE that 52/55 took membership oaths (although some/many of them did). Alexander Hamilton, for instance (not one of Bradford's "Deists") had affiliations with both the Episcopalian and Presbyterian Churches (the two churches from whom he sought communion on his deathbed) but was never a MEMBER of either or any church during his adult life.

Bradford's figure is worthless. In fact, all 55, even his 3 "Deists" -- Franklin, Wilson, and Williamson -- had affiliations with churches that professed orthodoxy in their creeds.

Therefore, a counter to the Bradford figure that shows the vast majority of FFs connected to orthodox churches is that those affiliations were for social reasons, that, whether official members or unofficial affiliates, it was not uncommon for elites to belong to orthodox churches while disbelieving in what the churches taught as formal doctrine.

The response, I've heard, is that makes them hypocrites. Perhaps. And that's a charge those making the claim have deal with, not us who argue against Christian Nationalism. Keep in mind the Anglican Church preached loyalty to the crown as a political-theological doctrine. And many American Anglicans, most notably George Washington, remained so while rebelling against England. How is that any less hypocritical than disbelieving in the Trinity, even though your church holds to it as an official doctrine and may make you take an oath to it if you want to get involved in leadership positions(which again, many FFs used as a social network)?

But back to John Jay. He too was an Anglican who rebelled against Great Britain. In fact he was (apparently) a warden of this church.

I've seen many Christian Nationalists try to use church affiliation/membership, and especially leadership positions (which did require oaths) as shortcuts to prove the "orthodoxy" of a particular Founder. The shortcut is needed in the absence of quotations supporting the orthodox Christianity of a particular Founder. For instance, George Washington offers little if anything from his own mouth to prove he believed in the Trinity, Atonement, Resurrection of Christ. So Peter Lillback uses his Anglican affiliation as a surrogate.

Likewise with John Jay we could argue, since he was an Anglican, indeed a Church warden required to take oaths to official Anglican doctrine (which were orthodox), and since John Jay offered other quotations which seemed to support orthodox Christian doctrine, we could conclude Jay believed in official orthodox Anglican doctrines.

But no, the above offered quotations refute that. It's true that late 18th Cen. Anglicanism supported the idea of the Bible as divinely inspired in an inerrant, infallible sense (something to which Jay apparently believed). It also made the Trinity central to its creed. AND relied on official creeds like the Athanasian Creed and 39 Articles of Faith to clarify just how they interpreted Word of God. And those, apparently, to Jay at that point in his life, meant little if anything to him.

In that letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, Jay was being a very bad orthodox Anglican from that perspective. If he affirmed the Trinity from Sola Scriptura but disregarded the creeds and 39 Articles of Faith, we could say Jay was being a good orthodox Christian, but not a very good Anglican (that's what evangelicals might wish because, as mostly non-Anglicans, they don't care about Anglican doctrine). But he doesn't even do that. Rather, he sounds more like a quasi-Quaker whose belief in "no creed but the Bible" led them to be wobbly on the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines.

But anyway, the Jay quotes support the notion that many late 18th Cen. American orthodox Churches functioned as social networks and members and affiliates didn't necessarily believe in what their churches held as a matter of official doctrine. The official doctrines of those churches CANNOT be used as shortcuts to determine what the Founders believed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

John Jay: America's First Chief Justice

Today, September 24 marks the 221st anniversary of President George Washington's nomination of John Jay to be the first Chief Justice of the United States. A respected attorney and noted negotiator (he helped with the treaty negotiations that ended the War for Independence), John Jay possessed a brilliant mind and a solid reputation. As co-author of The Federalist, he was a logical choice for the newly established Supreme Court.

Jay's appointment was made possible, when on the same day (September 24, 1789), Congress passed the first Judiciary Act under the new Constitution of the United States, which established six seats on the Supreme Court of the United States and a network of inferior courts to round out the judicial branch of government. President George Washington responded to this by immediately nominating John Jay as Chief Justice and naming John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair, Robert Harrison, and James Wilson to be associate justices.

Though Jay was a conscientious and dedicated Chief Justice, his most notable achievement during his years on the Supreme Court had nothing to do with the Court, but rather his role as principal negotiator with the at-the-time hated "Jay Treaty." Jay's efforts, though highly controversial, helped secure a much-needed peace with Great Britain, postponing a war that the nascent United States could ill afford to fight. That peace would last until 1812.

When Jay left the Court, he found himself elected governor of New York, where he fought for penal and judicial reform as well as the abolition of slavery. Jay declined a reappointment to the Supreme Court in 1800, citing the health of his wife. He retired from active politics and died in 1829.

John Jay's contributions to the formation of the United States are noteworthy and deserving of our respect. These words, summing up the legacy of the American Revolution and the cause of popular government in America, echo through the centuries in a way that remain as relevant today as ever before...

"The people are Sovereign. ... at the Revolution, the sovereignty devolved on the people; and they are truly the sovereigns of the country, but they are sovereigns without subjects... with none to govern but themselves; the citizens of America are equal as fellow citizens, and as joint tenants in the sovereignty."

Would the Puritans Have Executed John Adams For His Religious Heresy?

I dunno. But they said they would.

This article by Joseph Farah commits a common error among "Christian Americanists" confusing the "Founding" of America -- the Declaration of Independence -- with the "Planting" -- the Mayflower Compact and establishment of Puritan Massachusetts.

The Mayflower Compact was done under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, something the American Founding repudiated.

Read the link and see the MC begins:

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith,...

And ends:

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.

Exactly what America rebelled against in 1776.

The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties [arguably SIC] details the Christian content of their "Shining City on a Hill." Whatever the validity of the modern analogies between Christian conservatism and the Taliban, this code reads like a true American Taliban.

94. Capitall Laws.


(Deut. 13. 6, 10. Deut. 17. 2, 6. Ex. 22.20)
If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.


(Ex. 22. 18. Lev. 20. 27. Dut. 18. 10.)
If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.


(Lev. 24. 15,16.)
If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

[Page 274]

In particular it's the third under which the Puritans would have executed or at least threatened to execute John Adams, arguably the majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were all theological unitarians).

As Adams blasphemed:

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

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

"If I understand the Doctrine, it is, that if God the first second or third or all three together are united with or in a Man, the whole Animal becomes a God and his Mother is the Mother of God.

"It grieves me: it shocks me to write in this stile upon a subject the most adorable that any finite Intelligence can contemplate or embrace: but if ever Mankind are to be superior to the Brutes, sacerdotal Impostures must be exposed."

-- John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, October 23, 1816.

George Washington & The French Revolution

Another repost to The One Best Way here.

This post hits on an historical dynamic I've uncovered that I don't think is too well appreciated (why I stress it). One could argue the American Founding was authentically Christian, the French was not. OR, that neither were authentically Christian. OR that BOTH were authentically Christian. But as a matter of what was said, BOTH the French and American revolutions and republics were identified, perhaps crassly so, with "Christianity." Indeed there is rich literature of giants from the era arguing the "Christian" case for the French Revolution. Even if they were right, John Adams and Edmund Burke were the outliers. And it wasn't just the Enlightenment Unitarian Christians Joseph Priestley and Richard Price who argued the "Christian" case for the French Revolution (though they did). It was also orthodox Christians like Ezra Stiles as well.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

President Obama Drops "Creator" From The Declaration of Independence

In a speech given to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at its 33rd annual gala, President Barack Obama cites the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in an effort to cite the values that unite all Americans and make us strong...

Many conservatives have savaged Obama for intentionally dropping "Creator" from the preamble. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he misquoted the Declaration of Independence intentionally. As a pastor, I sometimes find myself accidentally mangling a Bible verse or a quote - even at times a passage with which I'm normally very familiar. That kind of thing can happen when you're speaking in public. (We all remember how Chief Justice Roberts mangled the presidential oath, right?) So, I'm willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. It's also possible there was a mistake with the Teleprompter.

Nevertheless, the mistake is worth acknowledging. It's worth pointing out, because the principle at stake is no small matter. According to the Founding Fathers, people are not "endowed" with "unalienable rights" by happenstance, evolution, majority consent, or the government. According to Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress, our fundamental rights come from the Creator.

As Jefferson famously asked in his Notes on Virginia: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"

That a human being's fundamental rights come from a divine, intelligent Creator is a core value central to the nation's founding and one our government and all American Presidents should embrace.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Joe Farah Commits The Fundamentalist Fallacy

On "rights & God." I've blogged about this before but think I will mention it again because it's a line of reasoning common among conservative evangelicals who wish to claim the American Founding, especially the Declaration of Independence (and many more sophisticated Christian conservatives reject the DOI for reasons similar to what I'm about to write).

Farah debated a gay conservative leader of GOProud and tried to invoke the American Founding, in particular the DOI. The Founding Fathers did not support gay rights (a concept unknown to them) and, from what I've seen didn't think too much about homosexuality, which remained deep in the closet. Sodomy laws had long been on the books and the FFs didn't give much thought to removing them. Jefferson, apparently, supported making sodomy a non-capital crime in a proposed revision to the VA criminal code, a code that also sought to decriminalize bestiality. You can google what that reduction for sodomy was.

I haven't seen any evidence that one person was executed in post Founding America (I'm not even sure about pre-Founding America) for the crime of sodomy. And the Cato Institute, in their brief submitted in Lawrence v. Texas, argued (unrebutted so far) that sodomy law prosecutions/convictions invariably involved men raping other males, which may explain why Jefferson wanted to decriminalize bestiality, but not sodomy.

Still, the laws did their damage in other ways and are rightly off the books.

Where I think Farah errs is his philosophy of rights/God/the DOI. It goes something like this: 1) Rights come from God; 2) God tells us what is sin in the Bible; 3) therefore there can not be a "right" to do what the Bible forbids. Proof text, proof text, proof text the Bible. That's what Farah argued during the debate.

The problem with this sentiment is manifold. Leaving aside the issues of whether God exists and whether the Bible is true, it's not what the Bible says; it's not what the DOI said; and it's not what the Founders said or did as a matter of principle. And the Founders wisely avoided this method (prooftexting the Bible to find what our unalienable rights are) because it didn't work for them, and in fact was what they were trying to get away from.

First, the Bible doesn't mention the concept of unalienable rights. And many smart evangelical/fundamentalists reject the concept for this very reason. I know you can construct a theological case for unalienable rights based on Imago Dei, in the same way you can construct other theological doctrines that are disputed on Sola Scriptura, and other theological grounds, like original sin or TULIP. But the first step for proof-texting evangelicals is to realize the Bible doesn't specifically mention the concept of unalienable rights.

Second, the DOI says that men have unalienable rights to life, liberty (meaning political liberty) and the pursuit of happiness. But it does not cite verses and chapters of Scripture for that or any proposition and does not identify God as Jehovah or the God of the Bible. The DOI does not say "look it up in the Bible" to determine the special content of our unalienable rights.

Third, the Founding Fathers recognized men had an unalienable right to do wrong in some instances, or at least what many orthodox (and non-orthodox) Christian believed to be wrong. The rights of conscience were the most "unalienable" of liberty rights. And holding that your neighbor has the right to worship God (or not) according to his conscience and to freely speak his mind on why he so does invariably grants men a right to break the first table in the Ten Commandments, most notably the First Commandment itself.

The Founding Fathers believed in granting the right to worship universally, to Christians and non-Christians. That includes Jews, Muslims, Hindus. Most orthodox Christians believe Hindus worshipped false gods (I suppose there is always a potential Acts 17:23 defense for Hindus, seems a stretch though). Many, but not all, orthodox Christians believe Muslims worship a different God. And a few notable orthodox Christian theologians believe Jews worship a different god than Christians because Jews don't worship a Triune God.

Back then, I think more orthodox Christians -- at least the theologians -- would agree Jews and Christians worshipped different gods. And here is where the unitarian controversy which I am so fond of writing about is relevant. The second and third American Presidents were militant unitarians. The first and fourth may well have been unitarians (certainly they never spoke in overtly Trinitarian language) and Ben Franklin politely and gently affirmed unitarian doctrines. Even if their views were "unrepresentative" of the larger era, the fact that played such prominent roles (among other things, they wrote the DOI) means American political-theology had to fully accommodate them.

When reading the theological debates of that era, we see the unitarians and trinitarians accused one other of breaking the First Commandment, of worshipping different gods. The orthodox theologians argued God was Triune in nature, and hence unitarians (and Jews, logically speaking) worshipped different gods. Since God is Triune, their gods (those of any non-Trinitarian) were false.

The unitarians were more generous in recognizing trinitarians worshipped the one true God of the Universe whenever they worshipped God the Father. But worshipping Jesus as God was 100% sinful idolatry (to the more pious unitarian; the more latitudinarian unitarians probably thought worshipping Jesus as God more silly than sinful) and wrongly took rightful worship away from the Father -- the only Person who deserved to be worshipped as God.

So granting religious liberty to unitarians & trinitarians alone necessarily means giving men an unalienable right to sin according to each's respective understanding of the Bible.

Finally, the Founding Fathers, especially when they moralized, rarely cited verses and chapters of scripture as "proofs" to settle things. Rather they preferred speaking in a more general philosophical language of "Nature" as discovered by man's reason. (This is not to say that they didn't speak in biblical metaphor -- they commonly did, even, indeed especially Thomas Paine, when talking politics.) And that's because they knew just how disputed, just how much blood had been shed over sectarian religious squabbles, especially those where the parties disagreed on how to interpret Scripture.

The Founders recognized, contra many of today's conservative evangelicals, it's not just so "easy" to look something up in the Bible to settle things. The Bible is one thick, complicated book that lends itself to multiple interpretations, some more "literal" than others. After Rome lost its monopoly on political theological matters, the Christian West went to war in literal and figurative senses over matters of sectarian biblical interpretation.

For instance, there are powerfully convincing arguments in Christendom that hold Romans 13's prohibition on revolt is absolute, that what the FFs did against Great Britain -- indeed what they said God gave them a right to do -- was as sinful as witchcraft. In this sense, the American Founding was anti-Christian and anti-biblical. The Christians in England and the many (perhaps as many as 1/3!) who remained loyalists in America were sympathetic to this understanding of Scripture which for all we know is the "right" one.

But the Founders had no interest in that method of debate. "Nature" had already determined that men had an unalienable right to revolt against tyrants. So go back and interpret the Bible accordingly, even if, as Rev. Samuel West instructed in 1776, we have to conclude that St. Paul was joking in Romans 13.

The Founders removed revelation from politics; that was the only way to solve the political theological sectarian wars based on how to properly interpret revelation. Government therefore would no longer care whether the Bible really taught original Sin, TULIP, Trinity, eternal damnation. And any political matters that stemmed therefrom was consigned to the realm of private conscience.

The bottom line is, in order to make an "American" argument you have to do better than "the Bible says it's sin, therefore there can be no right to it." No, the American Founders held, as a matter of principle, in certain circumstances, men had an unalienable God given political liberty right to do what the Bible terms sin. The alternative was to continue religious persecution and sectarian bloodshed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Quote of the day: on education, religion and liberty

"The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty."

- Benjamin Rush (1746-1814), American founding father. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Continental Comedy

"Mind your business."

Those Founders really
crack me up.

Happy Independence Day to Mexico

This is slightly off topic, but today is the bicentennial of Mexico's independence from Spain. 

Two hundred years ago, Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo, inspired by the American and French revolutions, issued "the cry" ("el Grito de Dolores") that began Mexico's struggle to free itself from colonial rule.  Sadly, this year's celebrations have been somewhat subdued given the narco-violence plaguing the country.  While Mexico has its problems, it is heir to a magnificent civilization and can be a great nation, one with a bright future if it can finally deal with the threats to public order and establish the rule of law.

So, on this anniversary of the independence of our fellow republic here in North America, here's hoping that such reforms will come to pass, and that Mexico will continue to rise.  ¡Viva México! ¡Viva Independencia!

"Mr. Jefferson I Know You are a Deist...Right?"

In light of some of the recent discussions on Jefferson I thought this might be an appropriate post. It's based on some earlier stuff that I have written but also includes some new material.

Bill Baker of Colonial Williamsburg is well known for his portrayal of President Thomas Jefferson. As can be expected of any person portraying Jefferson, Baker is well-acquainted with questions regarding Jefferson's religious beliefs. In the following video, Baker (Jefferson) is posed a question by an audience member who asks, "Mr. Jefferson, I know that you are a Deist. I'm wondering if this was the reason for your editing the Bible as we know it into your own version of the Bible?"

Mr. Jefferson's (Baker's) response is quite interesting. See for yourself:

The question is asked at 1:33 seconds.

For the most part, I agree with Bill Baker's depiction of Jefferson. However, I think that he oversimplified things just a bit (probably due to time constraints as he couldn't rant for hours on one single question). For me personally, Jefferson has always been a bit of an enigma. When I first started studying early American history years ago I hated Jefferson. Now he is my favorite founder of them all. And when it comes to his religious beliefs I believe that one cannot understand the man by simply skimming the surface. You must dive deep into the man to truly understand what he was all about.

And when it comes to his religion, I believe that Jefferson can be best understood and appreciated with the following four points:

1.) Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

2.) Jefferson loved scripture but despised its priestly/pastoral interpretation.

3.) Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

4.) Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.

In short, I believe that in addition to his Christian and deist leanings, Jefferson was deeply influenced by his belief in CHRISTIAN RESTORATIONISM, which caused Jefferson to accept what he believed were the true doctrines of Christ and to reject the distorted orthodoxy of his day.

Point #1: Jefferson loved Jesus, but not Christianity:
For Jefferson, the religion of Jesus Christ was simple. In its purest form it represented (to Jefferson) the greatest philosphical strategy for acheiving harmony in one's life. However, Jefferson did not believe that organized Christianity was the vehicle by which Christ's teachings were to be taught to the mases. Quite the contrary. In fact, Jefferson believed that organized Christianity had actually distorted and ruined the teachings of Jesus. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity" [my emphasis].

Jefferson's desire to return to the roots of "primitive Christianity" were the result of his conviction that the Christian religion had strayed from the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. As Jefferson stated on another occasion:
"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...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:
"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, true Christianity was not to be had in the ceremonial rituals of communion or the Calvinist doctrine of grace. Instead good works and moral behavior were the TRUE doctrine of a Christian:
"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his life philosophy. Jefferson believed that Christ's teachings were to be admired and emulated, not wrapped up in ceremonial liturgy. With regards to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson stated:
"It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed a love for Jesus. Perhaps Steven Waldman, author of the book, Founding Faith, points to Jefferson's love of Jesus best when he writes:

"Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child has been kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him" (Founding Faith, 73).

Point #2: Jefferson loved scripture but despised its priestly/pastoral interpretation:

In my opinion, there can be little doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of scripture. The simple fact that Jefferson spent so many years tediously dissecting the Bible to fit his personal beliefs is evidence of this fact. While there is no doubt that Jefferson's "tinkering" with the Bible has caused Christians to take an antagonistic stance against Jefferson, it is still worth analyzing the motives behind Jefferson's Bible editing.

As Steven Waldman stated in the quotation noted above, Jefferson's intentions behind altering the Bible were based on his belief that Christianity had strayed from the original teachings of Christ. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1810:
"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves: that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
And to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:
"It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe."
It is clear that the reasons behind Jefferson's desire to "edit" the Bible were motivated out of his distrust for pious Christian leaders and from his sincere belief that Christianity had fallen from its true course.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is interesting to note just what kind of changes he chose to make. Clearly Jefferson did not intend to write his own version of the Bible, but instead hoped to recover some of the "missing" or "altered" truths that had been lost over time. Again, Jefferson hoped to RESTORE the true nature of Christ's religion as it was once contained in the Bible of old. A good example of Jefferson's passion to "correct" the Bible can be found in his 1823 letter to John Adams, in which he states:
"[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe."
In addition to pointing out where he believed the original translation of the Bible had gone wrong, Jefferson often took the liberty of changing certain parts of the Bible's text in an effort to make it sound more "Christ-like." For example, instead of keeping the biblical verse found in Matthew 5: 48, which states, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," Jefferson removed the verse completely and then added what was a twist of Luke 6: 36 when he wrote "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Clearly Jefferson felt that a number of biblical texts had been changed to pollute or subjugate the minds of mankind.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is also important to note the fact that all of Jesus' miracles -- i.e. raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. -- were removed from Jefferson's final draft. This helps to clearly illustrate the fact that Jefferson, despite his devotion to the example and doctrine of Christ, never acknowledged him as divine or as the savior of mankind. In fact, Jefferson even stated to his friend, John Adams, that:
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
For all of his praise and devotion to Jesus and his teachings, Jefferson never publicly recognized him as the Son of God.

Point #3: Jefferson believed in reason and not faith:

As one of the quintessential Enlightenment thinkers of early America, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson favored reason to faith. As mentioned above, Jefferson's removal of all miracles from his draft of the Bible suggests that he put little to no stock in faith-based stories, which he undoubtedly considered to be fables. In addition, Jefferson admonished his family and friends to put their trust in reason, not faith. As he wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear...Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god." [My emphasis].

Point #4: Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots:

This final point was perhaps the biggest pet-peeve of all for Thomas Jefferson. For a man that fought for religious freedom and equality, Jefferson could also not help but notice how overly-pious expressions of religion had caused the world a great deal of harm. As he states in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”
For Jefferson, religion best served mankind when it was left to the individual and not the clergy:
"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).
In Jefferson's mind, this was the only true way to be a Christian. As Jesus himself had admonished to, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men" (Matthew 6:1). With this in mind, it is understandable why Thomas Jefferson would refer to himself as a "true Christian." As he stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush:
"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's religion was anything but simple. Defining him exclusively as a deist or any other label is both counterproductive and incomplete. Clearly Jefferson was influenced to a degree by deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. With that said, it is essential that we recognize the passionate devotion to RESTORATIONISM that literally guided Jefferson's walk through his personal labyrinth of religious devotion. Jefferson's love and admiration for the doctrines of Jesus, along with his appreciation of scripture, devotion to reason, and his appeal to private communion with God, all helped to shape Jefferson's religious perspective. By advocating a return to the original doctrines of Christ, Jefferson's Christian RESTORATIONISM is as important to his overall religious DNA as were deism and Christianity.

Acts 17 & General Principles

I knew someone would mention Acts 17 when I noted Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison repeatedly spoke of God as "The Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Jews and Christians do.

Biblical interpretation has similarities to constitutional interpretation. Neither text says "read this provision broadly, read that one narrowly." If there is a doctrine which you are "worried" about, you try to limit its effects, not make a general principle out of it. On the other hand, if there is a doctrine that sounds nice you make it as generally applicable as possible. "Love your neighbor" and "do unto others" are the nice things which we want to apply as broadly and generally as possible.

Likewise, the Bible says nothing about unalienable rights (and yes, to be fair it doesn't mention "The Trinity" or original sin either, which are also doctrines constructed from interpretations of the Bible's text) but you may be able to get there by taking a leap from the general principle of Imago Dei.

On the other hand, all non-psychopaths (hopefully) want to limit the parts of the Bible where God commands genocide against certain tribes. They were, after all, human beings, created in the image of God, but that didn't stop God from commanding Moses et al. to wipe them out. So we say they applied to specific times and circumstances only (how convenient).

We could, as with other parts of the Bible, apply the genocidal texts as general "principles" to grant believers the general power to wipe out all "enemies of God." Scary stuff, yes.

What about the principle of folks who worship the "true God" -- the God of the Bible -- without knowing more about Him?

One thing that always struck me about that provision was how it anticipated the merging of the noble pagan Greco-Roman with the Judeo-Christian. It was Rome, after all, which globalized Christianity. And then, of course, we had Thomas Aquinas' fuller incorporation of Aristotle and Greco-Roman philosophy into Christianity. The Acts 17 example resonates.

The example of the "Great Spirit" on the other hand, seems different in its non-Westerness. Though certain Mormons or any folks who believed Natives are lost tribes of Israeli would be spoken to by the narrative that holds Act 17/TGS as the same God Jews and Christians worship.

But how far does this reasoning extend? Who else worships the true God of the universe dressed up in pagan garb? Who are the false gods which the First Commandment says not to worship?

As far I can tell the only gods the first four Presidents and many other Founders considered false were those who supported the Tories and those who were illiberal in not respecting the freedom of folks to worship Him according to the dictates of their conscience. As long as those two requirements were meant God could call Himself Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu or The Great Spirit and still be the One True God of the Universe.

Is this what Acts 17 teaches?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Under Which God?

Joe Carter has a very apt post on the Glenn Beck event and American Civil Religion. As he correctly points out, the idea of a more generic civil religion that purports to unite orthodox Christians with other religions under God and Country traces back to Rousseau.

Some readers/co-bloggers will disagree and try to save the civil religion under "Judeo-Christian" Providentialism, because, after all just about every citizen back then was a professing "Christian" of some sort even if some/many of them like "Christians" Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin (yes, they understood themselves to be "Christians" not "Deists") didn't worship a Triune God, but a unitary one.

Yet, when it came time to dealing with the one group of non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian types -- the American Indians -- Washington, Jefferson and Madison repeatedly spoke of God as "The Great Spirit" suggesting un-converted Natives worshipped the same God Jews and Christians did.

J. Adams may well have too; I haven't yet found the evidence. But I have found letters of his where he, I kid you not, terms Hinduism and Zeus worship as "Christian principles."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three minutes on C-Span with Gordon Wood

Listening to What's in the Air and Watching the Waves

September 5, 2010 - In Depth with Gordon Wood - 1:20:15

Host (Peter Slen): One more question about religion and then we're going to move on, but this is from Ray Soller whom you have communicated with in the past, and he has sent us a new e-mail that you and he exchanged. He [on Aug. 31, 2010] had written to [both C-Span and] you:
In your book, Empire of Liberty, you, in a footnote, comment that "[t]here is no contemporary evidence that he [George Washington] also said 'so help me God' at the end of the oath; the matter is very controversial today."
Soller: What was skipped over by the host, Peter Slen, is that I had also cited the entire footnote:
See Forrest Church, So help me God: The Founding Fathers and the Great Battle over Church and State, (New York, 2007), 445-49. Since the Judiciary Act of 1789 declared that the oath to be sworn by the justices of the Supreme Court and the other federal judges included the phrase "So help me God," it is likely that Washington may have also used the phrase (1 Cong. Ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, Sec. 8). I owe this information to Steven G. Calabresi.
Host: And that's in your footnote in Empire of Liberty.
Soller: Again, what was skipped over by the host is that I had also said:
My basic question is "Did Forrest Church get it right when he wrote the Appendix chapter, Did George Washington Say "So Help Me God"? I mean, in view of the facts that 1) a long letter by the French foreign minister provided a detailed account of Washington's inaugural ceremony that recorded the president's oath of office without including the words "so help me God," and 2) the bulk of Washington Irving's 1857 narrative of the event is known to have been plagiarized from the memoirs of Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, who was a teenager at the time of the inauguration; how can you still favor the notion that Washington had added "so help me God" to his oath?

I also need ask why you feel that the Judiciary Act of [September 24] 1789 seems to have had more of an influence on how Washington recited the presidential oath than the first bill Washington signed into law on June 1st 1789 that contained the standard oath for all federal employees except for the president. Peter Henriques, the author of Realistic Visionary, A Portrait of George Washington, wrote a 1-12-09 History News Network article, "So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded, came to the opposite conclusion based on his review of the House and Senate deliberations regarding the standard federal oath.
Host: And then you [Gordon Wood, just an hour later,] wrote to Mr. Soller:
I have no idea whether he said that phrase and no one else does either. Everyone is guessing. George Washington was not someone who liked to create waves so that if the phrase was expected he probably would have used it. But I don't know with any certainty. [I find it fascinating that people today care so much. GSW]
Host: Now, Mr. Soller has e-mailed [both C-Span and] you here today [actually, four days earlier], and he said:
Thank you for responding, but I still hope the question, in one form or another, as to whether George Washington added "So help me God" to his oath will come up during the C-Span interview.

You are correct Professor Wood, ultimately, everyone is guessing, though some guesses are more reasonably formulated than others. However, it is not a guess to say that there are no firsthand accounts that support the notion of George Washington adding "So help me God" to his oath.
Soller: I didn't stop there. I also said:
It is unfortunate that the Senate Historical Office under the direct supervision of the Senate Rules Committee does not recognize what is actually known about GW's swearing-in ceremony when it comes to its Facts and Firsts website (accessed 9/13/2010). Here, the website states in the entry for GW's inauguration on April 30, 1789,"First Inauguration; precedents set include the phrase, "So help me God," and kissing the Bible after taking the oath." No correction has been made even though staff members at the Senate Historical Office are currently aware of the inaccurate nature of their assertion, and this is a big reason why I care so much about this question.
Guest (Gordon Wood): That's right, but there is contemporary evidence that he did kiss the Bible – after the oath. So we had somebody who witnessed that. And the question then is did he say "So help me God"? Well, what's interesting is that the Judiciary Act of [Sep. 24,] 1789, which was passed shortly after his inauguration [April 30, 1789] in that same year, did prescribe for judges an oath, which does include "So help me God." So it may have been in the air. People might have expected it, although it is not in the constitution – the oath as prescribed in the constitution does not – does not say anything about God. So there's where we are. You can make up your mind. What I think is fascinating is the interest in this, because the stakes seem high for people. If you can show that he said or did not say that phrase, then certain things follow from that. I'm not sure we want our politics to hinge on that one fact.

Host: Did the news accounts at the time [report it] – nobody reported it?

Guest: No, nobody reported it.

Host: So where does the contemporary evidence come from?

Guest: You mean at the time, there was no contemporary evidence?

Host: No, today.

Guest: It's from what I said before - the fact that he kissed the Bible and that the Judiciary Act which was passed that same year did prescribe for the oath for judges that they say "so help me God." So you can deduce from that that maybe he said it. That's all we have. It seems to me I'm happy to just leave it at that. But others, lots of people want it settled for reasons that have to do with contemporary political life.

Soller: Please note, on 1/25/2009 the Balkinization blog featured Steve Calabresi on the Oath Controversy (recall the footnote shown above), where Calabrisi settled the matter this way:
The addition of the words including the President’s name (in this case “Barack Hussein Obama”) and “so help me God” are permissible both because they do not take away any of the words the Constitution mandates and because two centuries of practice starting with George Washington himself have established that the addition of these words is permissible.
Soller: Yeah right?! - that's a line from Scot Turow's book, Presumed Innocent.

Special thanks to Pinky, who alerted us all at American Creation to the September 5, 2010 C-Span interview with Gordon Wood; to Todd Andrlik over at for providing the link to the "contemporary evidence that he did kiss the Bible – after the oath"; and myself for providing Gordon Wood with a full transcription of the Lear letter to which he referred at 1:01:40 into the interview.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

William Bentley

I've extensively examined the Founding era record re what the FFs believed on religion and paid special attention to the philosophers and theologians who influenced them. Still, sometimes notable figures get ignored. It's a failing of mine that I haven't yet dealt with Rev. William Bentley.

Expect more about him in the future. For now, an except from his diary:

His political affinities and extensive learning brought him into full sympathy with many of the leading statesmen and scholars of Virginia. The late President Jefferson, and Bishop Madison, evinced the highest appreciation of his character. During the administration of the former gentleman, Dr. Bentley was selected as the candidate for the chaplaincy in Congress but he declined that office.

Sometime later, when Mr. Jefferson was maturing his plans for establishing the University of Virginia, which was incorporated in 1819, he consulted him about it and tendered to him the honor of its Presidency. But he refused all these honors on the ground that "he had been so long wedded to the East Church, he could not think of asking a Divorce from it."

The honor of a Doctorate in Divinity was conferred by Harvard University upon him, a few months before his decease. It came too late to heal the wounded feelings of Dr. Bentley, in being so long overlooked by his Alma Mater and too late for her to enjoy the benefit of the will he had made in her favor.

Piqued by her tardy acknowledgment of his claims, he had, a short time before, revoked the bequest made to her, and given all his valuable books, manuscripts, and rare curiosities, to Alleghany College at Meadville, and the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester. The College received his theological and classical books and was made richer in that department than any other institution in the West. The trustees immediately caused a building to be erected, which was to be called Bentley Hall, in honor of his memory. On the 5th of July, 1820, its corner stone was laid covering a plate on which this name was inscribed. But the College soon fell into other hands and the library and the building have lost all association with the name of the illustrious donor.

Fortunately for his memory, a better fate attended his bequest to the Antiquarian Society. Upon the receipt of his valuable gifts the Society passed resolutions recognizing the great learning and talents of Dr. Bentley and the inestimable value of this contribution to their library, and a suitable acommodation was provided for them in alcoves superscribed with his name.

In this collection are many rare Persian, Arabic and Chinese manuscripts, scarce pamphlets, choice works of art, and a mass of correspondence which the Doctor maintained with the eminent scholars and statesmen of his day among whom were the Ex-Presidents J. Adams, Jefferson and Madison.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tempest at Dawn: Who Wrote the US Constitution?

[I recently had the pleasure of reading Jim Best's historical novel about the framing of the Constitution, and a glowing review is forthcoming. In the meantime, while you're waiting for your copy to arrive after you've ordered it here, a few words from Mr. Best himself. Enjoy.---TVD]

Who Wrote the United States Constitution?
by James D. Best
Guest Blogger

"The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable, and perhaps the world has lost little it should regret. But the origins of the American Republic contain lessons of which posterity ought not to be deprived."—James Madison

The Articles of Confederation proved barely adequate during the imperative of war and a failure after independence. It looked as if the American experiment was doomed. Then in May of 1787, delegates came to Philadelphia with a congressional charter to revise the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t revise the Articles. Instead, they wrote a constitution from scratch for a totally new government. These men carried out a bloodless coup that replaced an existing government without a shot.

Who were these men? Who wrote the Constitution of the United States?

The short answer is that Gouverneur Morris wrote the Constitution, with editing help from other members of the Committee of Style. In truth, all of the delegates, to a greater or lesser degree influenced the substance of the Constitution. There were fifty-five men that attended the Federal Convention, what we now call the Constitutional Convention. When Thomas Jefferson read the list of attendees, he called them an “assembly of demi-gods.”

Not exactly, but they were staunch revolutionaries and patriots. They were also highly successful, well educated, and unswerving in their support of the republican form of government. They came to Philadelphia committed to rescuing American from its slide into anarchy.

A few are household names. George Washington presided over the convention. James Madison, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and George Mason were all key delegates. Many of the rest have been forgotten.
Most of these men knew each other from years of politicking or war. Twenty-nine served in a military capacity during the Revolution and another twenty-three risked their fortunes and lives by taking an active political role during the war. Eight committed treason by signing the Declaration of Independence.
In colonial America, college degrees were rare, yet twenty-nine held college degrees and many others were self-educated in the classics and modern political thought. Almost all of the delegates were knowledgeable about Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu. Ten had degrees from the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), six from European universities, four from Harvard, four from Yale, four from William and Mary, two from the College of Philadelphia, and one from Kings College (later to become Columbia University).

Forty-five delegates were rich. Thirty-one had the good fortune of being born to wealthy or prominent families. Twelve were self-made and two married into money. Ten struggled to make ends meet and to support their families. Eight were born in other counties and many were second generation. Eleven were businessmen, eight owned large plantations, three were physicians, one was a professor, and six could be called professional politicians.
Thirty of the delegates were lawyers in an age that revered the rule of law and reason. All of them had extensive political experience and many went on to take substantial roles in the government they created. Two became president, twenty-five served in Congress, five gained appointments to the Supreme Court, four became foreign ministers, and four held cabinet positions.
Not every delegate went on to further success. Six wealthy delegates died impoverished, fleeing creditors. One was indicted, but not tried, for treason. One barely escaped impeachment from the Supreme Court and another was expelled from the Senate. Two died in duels, another mysteriously disappeared in the middle of New York City, and another was rumored murdered by a grandnephew impatient for his inheritance.

These were not demi-gods, but real men with human frailties and weaknesses. The story of the Constitution’s creation is incredible, but what makes this work as a novel is the cast of characters. The Founding Fathers were bigger than life, but they were also real human beings—--men and women that I wanted to bring into the reader’s living room.

It was fun getting to know them as I researched and wrote Tempest at Dawn—well, all of them except for possibly Elbridge Gerry.---JDB

Friday, September 10, 2010

Washington Wouldn't Burn the Qur'an

Over at the Religion in American History blog, historian Chris Beneke points out how the current drama over the scheduled burning of the Qur'an on 9/11 by nut-job idiots is invoking a powerful rebuking from General David Petraeus. General Petraeus has urged Americans to abstain from such hate-filled activities not only because of their obvious prejudice but because they also, "put our troops in harm's way."

As Dr. Beneke points out, General Petraeus' admonition is not without its historical precedent. In 1775, General George Washington also had to shoot down a similar act of religious hatred within the ranks of his own army. Dr. Beneke writes:
Amid the siege of British-occupied Boston in 1775, the recently appointed commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington issued an order that must have resulted in some grumbling in the ranks. For decades, English and American Protestants had burned effigies of the Pope to celebrate the thwarting of (the Catholic) Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Bostonians marked the anniversary in a particularly lively way that featured fireworks, two flammable "Popes," and one grand fistfight. But in November 1775, with Catholic support for the American war effort desperately needed, an irritated Washington ordered his soldiers to forgo their beloved Pope's Day festivities.
These Pope Night activities are something I have written about before on this blog (click here and here to read the articles). For the General, these activities represented a clear breach of morality and discipline. Washington's General Order of November 5, 1775 illustrate this fact:
As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope -- He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
One can only hope that the admonitions of both generals (Washington and Petraeus) will not go ignored by the masses.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Damned Lobsterbacks" and the Boston Massacre

I thought this mundane little tidbit of history might be a nice break from some of our traditional nitpicking over Imago Dei, John Locke, natural religion, Theistic Rationalism, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The evening of March 5, 1770 was like any other evening in colonial America...well...almost. As young Private Hugh White of the British Colonial 14th Regiment took his post in front of Boston's custom house, one wonders if he sensed the impending doom that would shortly come. As the evening progressed, young Private White was met by his superior, Captain John Goldfinch, and the two men "exchanged in pleasant conversation." The conversation was to be interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a young local apprentice named Edward Garrick. Garrick accused the soldiers of several misdeeds, all of which were ignored by the British soldiers. Angry that his accusations were being swept aside, Garrick attacked the men through obscenity, calling the British soldiers, "a bunch of damned lobsterbacks." This insult was apparently sufficient provocation to cause Private White to strike Garrick on his head with the stock of his musket.

Upon seeing and hearing this altercation, scores of Boston citizens rallied to defend the young Garrick. As we all know, tensions were high to begin with, and the people of Boston did not need much provocation to start a riot. In literally minutes, the crowd gathered to roughly 300. Seeing the possibility of a riot, Captain Thomas Preston sent reinforcements to help support Private White and the other soldiers present. The crowd had already surrounded white, backing him up all the way to the customs door. As the other British soldiers arrived to help White, several were knocked down by the crowd, which caused the British soldiers to fix bayonets.

As the crowd continued to grow, more and more Bostonians joined in the chorus of obscenity that was directed to the British. Chants of "damned lobsterbelly" and "fight you wretched, damned lobsterbacks" brought the level of tension to its ultimate crescendo. As the snowballs, oysters, and insults continued to be hurled at the British (who were, quite frankly, having a very difficult time getting organized), several soldiers began to point their muskets at the crowd. This new sign of force caused even more snowballs to fly, and harsher insults to be shouted. Seventeen-year-old Samuel Maverick dared the soldiers to do their worst. "Come on and fire you damned lobsterback!" The rest of the crowd also joined in, yelling "Fire, Fire, FIRE!!!"

As we all know (even though the specifics are greatly debated), the British fired into the crowd, striking 11 random people. Young Samuel Maverick was instantly killed, along with four other Bostonians.

In the weeks after the Boston Massacre several of young Samuel Maverick's closest friends decided to join the movement for revolution. Many of them joined the army as soon as possible (most of them were under the age of 16). When asked why he had joined, the young William Greenwood (a friend of Samuel Maverick), stated "to kill those damned lobsterbacks."

But is the legacy of the "lobsterbacks" accurate? Were British soldiers really made fun of in this manner? For the longest time I thought so. I've read and heard numerous stories of how colonial rebels heckled British Red Coats with chants of "lobsterbacks" ever since I was a puny little undergrad. For the longest time I accepted these stories as factual simply because it sounded like something that an 18th century colonist would do. Truth, however, is sometimes not as dramatic

Over at his excellent blog, historian J.L. Bell points out that the phrase "lobsterback" appears to be more the stuff of myth than actual history. Quoting author Christopher Lenny, J.L. Bell points out that:
“Lobsterback” has been repeated so often by historians that the term has taken on a life of its own. I learned it in school, and if you Google it you’ll find it still is a standard Revolutionary War vocabulary word. But is it really a Revolutionary-era taunt?

If you go to the standard references, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, you find that “lobster” has been used since 1643 as a slang term for English soldiers, originally said of Roundhead cuirassiers on account of their armor, not the color of their uniforms. Later it was transferred to other British soldiers with red uniforms.

“Lobsterback” is not in the OED, Webster’s Second, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, The Dictionary of American English, or The Dictionary of Americanisms. It is in Webster’s Third (1961).

Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists the first example of “lobster-back” in 1822, and says it is a variant on “lobster (soldier).” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists the first example as “lobster-backed” in 1809 in a non-North American source, and gives the first American usage as Crockett’s Almanac in 1840
(You can read Mr. Bell's entire post by clicking here).
So it looks like British soldiers may not have been provoked over the heckles of "lobsterback" after all. With that said, we can still rest assured that colonists were probably less-than-civil on the night of the Boston "Massacre" regardless of whether or not "lobsterback" was a part of their repertoire.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Locke and Toleration, Salvation and Politics

It was the rise of Protestantism that
made religious intolerance intolerable

by Tom Van Dyke

In 2010, there are approximately 34,000 sects of Protestantism. Other religions measure their sects and denominations in mere handfuls.

After witnessing the tragedy of religious wars of Europe, and fleeing from it, the Americans figured out that soteriology [the business of salvation, of the next world] doesn't have to be synonymous with political theology [the business of this world].

Thank God. Mebbe I'm going to hell, or mebbe you are, but let's all be Americans, live in peace, and talk about it over a beer. This is our political theology in a nutshell. Thankfully, salvation isn't up to politics, law, or a democratic vote.

And frankly, I'm happy that the question of my salvation and the afterlife is up to God, and not you. I suspect we would all send each other to hell a lot quicker than God would.

The political theology of the Founding was this: God and His Providence are an immediate reality, not an abstract "doctrine." He looks down upon us, and smiles or frowns upon us depending on our actions, and is not some absentee landlord.

The corollary is that rights are endowed by God, and that there's a higher order than merely man's law. That was the Founding, and for that I say God bless America.

Yes, the soteriology of “a future state of rewards and punishments” was seen as largely necessary for good individual conduct. And a proper theological understanding of liberty—--freedom—---is our liberation from the bondage of sin, from base human desire, by the grace of God. You might scare a few people into proper conduct by threatening them with hell, but probably not for long.

Most men will only behave decently---Christian-ly---because of their love of God. He loves his neighbor only because he loves God: our neighbor is not very lovable, let's face it. I want to shoot one of mine. [Two or three, actually.]

Such virtue and therefore self-governance were seen as necessary for this liberty thing to work, and that was expected to be inculcated by religion. Liberty is not license, said John Locke, and no Founder disagreed. [Not even the peg-legged sybarite Gouverneur Morris.]

It was Mr. Locke, in his famous “Letter Concerning Toleration,” who made the elegant theological point that no government can get you into heaven anyway. So much for soteriology and the state.

“The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul? I answer: What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate, which things are nearlier related to the government of the magistrate than the other?


No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no. Nay, God Himself will not save men against their wills.”

No government is going to get you into heaven. Who could argue with that? Perhaps John Locke is a product of the Enlightenment, but that's a theological argument worthy of Augustine or Aquinas. I doubt Luther or Calvin object to it either.

And leaving out the theological or "rights" questions about the right to religious freedom, in the 1600s, Europe proved that the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s spawned so many "heretical" sects that if Christendom had to burn all its heretics, it would have run out of wood.

Any theology that doesn't hold up on earth as it is in heaven probably isn't a very good one. "Love your neighbor as yourself" works pretty well: your neighbor is more likely to love you if you don't shoot him. "Kill the infidel" doesn't work as well, since he thinks you're an infidel, too. Ouch.

And even if you kill him for his own good, that's not going to get him into heaven, so it's not very nice, and it's not even charitable either. Better to let him live, and hope one day God shows him the error of his ways, in His Own time, not yours.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Book Review: Unlikely Allies by Joel Richard Paul

Truth, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction.  That maxim certainly applies to Joel Richard Paul's book Unlikely Allies (Riverhead Books, 2009).  A delightful telling of the diplomatic machinations behind the Franco-American alliance during the Revolutionary War, Paul's book is a helpful reminder that the success of the American Revolution was dependent not only on the actions of great men on the public stage, but on countless patriots who worked behind the scenes or in obscure posts to make American independence a reality. 

Paul focuses his story on three major characters -- American merchant and diplomat Silas Deane, French playwright and government go-between Caron de Beaumarchais (who wrote the Barber of Seville), and Chevalier d'Eon, an eccentric, cross-dressing French noble who inadvertently pushed the French king Louis XVI into an alliance with the Americans.   Paul weaves the story of how these three interacted, building piece by piece, in fits and starts, the partnership between France and America that eventual led to the French intervention in our war for independence.  In the process, Paul introduces us to a host of other players - including one memorable Scottish pyromaniac who was caught while executing a scheme to burn down all the shipyards in Britain in an effort to aid the American patriots.  All in all, Paul's writing is fast paced and evocative, and he brings a very subtle eye to observing the complex diplomatic endeavors both before the formal American declaration of independence and after. 

Aside from being a delightful story, Paul's book serves another function, one that is sorely necessary whenever we study the Founding period.  As Americans, we tend (regardless of our political ideology) to look upon the Founding period as a time of giants.  Great men strode the country then, our pantheon of Founding Fathers (and the occasional Founding Mother like Abigail Adams).  There are the gods like Washington and (depending on one's ideological proclivities) Jefferson.  Then there are the attending angels like Madison and Hamilton.  There's even a devil or two -- Benedict Arnold during the Revolution, Aaron Burr during the early Republic.  The great ideas of our revolutionary period -- scientific, religious, philosophical -- get lots of attention as well.  But what Paul's book emphasizes is that the success of the Revolution depended just as much on people outside the elite circles of power, motivated not by grand Enlightenment principles or solid Christian beliefs, but by simple love of country (whether of America or of France).  As Paul himself puts it in the introduction to his book:
We are accustomed to reading about the great men who won our Independence.  We know that the Revolution was also inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment and realized by mass social movements.  While it is true that great men, great ideas, and great movements all influence history, history is never so predetermined.  We know from our lived experience the impact of random events, chance meetings, and peripheral characters.  So too, the arc of history is often diverted from its intended trajectory.
Paul's study of Deane, Beumarchais and d'Eon demonstrates his point quite well.  The book is well worth reading for its broader perspective on what made our Revolution successful.

Bryan Fischer's Confusion

Bryan Fischer is confused about religion & the American Founding. Fischer is a long time David Barton follower, the likely source of his confusion. Fischer, a conservative evangelical/fundamentalist, attempts to explain the Glenn Beck event where, among others, conservative evangelicals and Mormons seemed to be in spiritual communion together. And what bridged the theological gulf between them? Why America's Founding civil religion of course.

Conservative evangelicals, who tend to claim "Mormonism is not Christianity," have been questioning the appropriateness of such political-theological communion and offering their explanations and rationalizations, some pro, some con, some in between. Fischer's is one of the most amusingly confused explanations. He begins:

America at its founding was 99.8% Christian, and 98.4% Protestant. Not just Christianity but Protestant Christianity built the United States of America. It was not just a Judeo-Christian value system that provided the foundation for the Republic, but a specifically Protestant value system.

The numbers are correct insofar as they refer to "Protestantism" as a religious-ethno-heritage. Broadly understood, deists, atheists, and fundamentalists are all "Protestant" in this sense. What this number does NOT refer to is Founding era church membership, certainly not "true believers" as Fischer would like to claim (and indeed his own faith teaches the "remnant" or the "regenerate" will be a small minority).


The theological foundation of America was explicitly Protestant. Just one Roman Catholic (Charles Carroll) signed the Declaration of Independence, and 52 of the 55 framers of the Constitution took a solemn oath expressing their agreement with an orthodox Protestant statement of faith. Thus the vast majority of the Founders believed in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his vicarious and substitutionary death, his resurrection, and his eventual return.

Other than the note about the one Roman Catholic, the paragraph false. Likewise we see Fischer -- like a lot of "Christian Americanists" -- slipping in one understanding of "Protestantism" for another. Yes, the vast majority of FFs and population of America were "Protestant" in a minimal demographic sense. They were "Protestant" in way that Thomas Paine (deist), Thomas Jefferson (theist-unitarian), and Roger Sherman (reformed evangelical) were all minimally "Protestant." They were not, however, Protestant in the maximal sense that Fischer wants us to believe ("the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his vicarious and substitutionary death, his resurrection, and his eventual return").

Certainly many in the population and many 2nd and lower tier FFs were Protestants in that sense. But it was no where near 52 out of 55 Framers of the Constitution. And it's a flat out lie that 52 out of 55 "took a solemn oath expressing their agreement with an orthodox Protestant statement of faith."

The late ME Bradford found 52 out of 55 Framers of the Constitution had some minimal affiliation with churches that professed orthodoxy. His number is worthless. In fact, all 55 Framers had such a minimal connection, even Bradford's three "Deists" -- Ben Franklin, James Wilson and Hugh Williamson.

I've examined this in detail: There is no evidence that shows 52 took oaths or were "members" in that sense. Rather, some later Christian America figure confused Bradford's minimal affiliation standard with "official member" in the "I took an oath" sense.

Again, no doubt, many were "official members" in that oath taking sense. Thomas Jefferson for instance, was a "member" of the Anglican Church in that sense and took orthodox oaths when he became a Vestryman in his church. And he denied every single tenet of "orthodoxy."

But we have no idea how many of the Framers of the Constitution were "official members" in the oath taking sense of their orthodox churches.

So what Bradford's figure really proves is that all 55 Framers of the Constitution were at least nominal Christians who may or may not have believed in what those churches professed.

And so, with erroneous inputs, Fischer concludes:

In other words, there is hardly a stitch of difference between the theology of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Sam Adams and contemporary conservative evangelicals. (Jim Wallis claims to be an evangelical, but he's not — he is a George Soros-funded socialist masking his radicalism in sheep's clothing.)

As they say, garbage in garbage out. Fischer scores a 1 out of 4 on his list of Founders who constitute "hardly a stitch" of difference with the theology of today's evangelicals: Sam Adams. That Fischer would include John Adams on his list shows how mistaken he is. J. Adams, after all, bitterly and militantly attacked Protestant doctrines of orthodoxy in a way that removes him as far from the faith as Mormons are.

John Adams mocking the Trinity:

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

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

"If I understand the Doctrine, it is, that if God the first second or third or all three together are united with or in a Man, the whole Animal becomes a God and his Mother is the Mother of God.

"It grieves me: it shocks me to write in this stile upon a subject the most adorable that any finite Intelligence can contemplate or embrace: but if ever Mankind are to be superior to the Brutes, sacerdotal Impostures must be exposed."

-- John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, October 23, 1816.

Adams mocking the Incarnation:

"An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all of the Corruptions of Christianity."

-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816.

I could go on showing Adams rejecting original sin, eternal damnation, the infallibility of the Bible and claiming Hinduism and Zeus worship constitute "Christian principles."

James Madison and George Washington were not so explicit in their rejection of orthodoxy. However, as I noted in my last post, Barack Obama has given us more evidence of his belief in historic Christian doctrine than GW or JM did. And Washington and Madison both sought spiritual communion with UNCONVERTED Native Americans when they referred to "The Great Spirit" as the same God Christians worshipped.

Fischer continues: "Now Glenn Beck, as a Mormon, holds religious convictions that are wildly at variance with orthodox Christianity."

Response: So did the Founding Fathers (at least many of them).

Fischer reassures conservative evangelicals:

But evangelicals need not worry. There was not a trace of Mormonism in either event. While Glenn Beck provided the platform, evangelicals provided the message. Beck depended heavily on historian and committed evangelical David Barton for assistance in picking speakers and selecting those who would lead in prayer and worship. A Mormon teed up the ball for evangelical Protestants. And evangelicals hit it out of the park.

It's true (at least as far as I observed) there was nothing peculiarly Mormon that would exclude evangelical belief. But there was also nothing peculiarly orthodox that would exclude Mormon belief. That's what an amorphous civil religion does. It speaks in lowest common denominator God words where each believer (unless he is an atheist) gets to "read in" his or her own understanding of God, be it trinitarian or unitarian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon or other.

The problem, as I see it, for evangelicals is that rally was a political-theological event; they were praying together in spiritual communion.

If evangelicals are comfortable using (or being used by) America's Founding civil religion as a bridge to be in spiritual communion with, among others, Mormons, that's fine with me. Let's just see it for what it is.