Sunday, November 14, 2010

Heresy and Tolerance in the American Founding

Per Jonathan Rowe's post at his new groupblog, I'll spirit my reply over here to AC:

One clever reader of mine reacted with the question: Was America founded, in a political-theological sense, on a “Christian heresy?”

The proliferation of Protestant sects made a true orthodoxy impossible. For as Locke writes:

“It will be answered, undoubtedly, that it is the orthodox church which has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical. This is, in great and specious words, to say just nothing at all. For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined.”

Our colleague King of Ireland commented:

I think sotierology is a red herring here.

Perhaps John Locke’s most elegant argument in the storied A Letter Concerning Toleration is that government can’t get you into heaven.

“We have already proved that the care of souls does not belong to the magistrate. Not a magisterial care, I mean (if I may so call it), which consists in prescribing by laws and compelling by punishments. But a charitable care, which consists in teaching, admonishing, and persuading, cannot be denied unto any man. 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? Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves. 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.”

[Unlike the Roman model, where one could become divine by vote of the Senate.]

Another commenter:

I cringe when I hear “the founding fathers” or “the founders” named as a singularity, as if they were of like or similar mind on matters of politics, law, religion, and so forth.

Still, there evolved a consensus, what Avery Dulles called The Deist Minimum, which was more than the cold deism of the God of the Philosophers, more than what the Supreme Court has called “ceremonial deism”:

“Our American republic has therefore had what, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we may call a civil religion. Rousseau enumerates the positive dogmas of such a religion as follows: 'the existence of a mighty, intelligent, beneficent divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and [Rousseau added] the sanctity of the social contract.'”

[Just how sacrosanct that "social contract" actually is remains a question for another day.]

Mr. Rowe calls his witnesses and expert testimony:

Yet I do know experts (many of them tending to be evangelical Christians themselves) in history like John Fea at Messiah or Gregg Frazer at The Master’s College with whom I see eye to eye. Likewise what I say is confirmed by Mark Noll (of Notre Dame) who is the preeminent evangelical historian of the American Founding.

However, each of these gentlemen has his own "orthodox" bent, and in the case of Mark Noll, his reading of Locke is based on a "Straussian" view of Locke, that he is "modern" and secular.

But there was no sharp bifurcation between philosophy and theology as there is today, between the sacred and the secular: God was [with a few exceptions like Hume] considered a reality. A close reading of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration shows it's quite theological, some common sense about the growing diversity of Protestantism and a clarification of Christian theology, and not a rejection of it for an "Enlightened" secularism.

It was in this light that men of the Founding era like the orthodox Calvinist Samuel Adams read him.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Very nice. But I think you may be confusing Noll with Zuckert. I may be wrong. I don't think Noll is a Straussian or even very Strauss influenced (but is one of Zuckert's interlocutors). I think he came to his similar conclusions about Locke without Strauss.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Noll used Zuckert. I got that from one of your posts.

Zuckert is a "Straussian," and his conclusions are congenial to Strauss' [if not based on them].

Unknown said...


Looks like that blog is going to have a wider appeal than PL or the other one you guys tried. I am excited. I know I have been AWOL but I have been focusing on my Real Estate/Innovation blog.

Once I get my feet under me trying to relaunch my real estate business after BP screwed me I will continue with some thoughts from Tierney.

Good post though. Reads well.

Jason Pappas said...
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Jason Pappas said...

Great quote from Locke. It inspires me to make a suggestion for debate.

Of course, for a Christian, salvation is a central concern. For those of us who are not religious, Christianity’s ethical teachings are paramount. I’m less concerned with whether my neighbor gets into heaven than whether he's going to be a threat to my life and property.

When I read the founding fathers my concern is: what ethical lessons have they learned from the Bible (and other sources)? While I my not consider Jefferson a Christian in the religious sense, given his love of Jesus’ ethical message, I do see him Christian in the ethical sense.

Perhaps the debate is more interesting if we change the question from “Is so-and-so Christian?” to “What has he learned from Christianity?”

I’ll leave others to debate whether Jefferson is roasting in hell since salvation requires “faith and faith alone” or given his deeds he is surely one of the “elect” leading the American Revolutionary brigade across the Pearly Gates. Given Mark’s quote of the day, it must be the latter. :)

jimmiraybob said...

...given his love of Jesus’ ethical message, I do see him Christian in the ethical sense.

Which is fair to a degree, but confusing in that Jefferson did not derive his ethics solely from studying the teachings of Jesus. As with many of the founders who'd studied classical sources, many of their cited standard bearers of virtue and moral instruction are pre-Christian pagan.

As to who of our predecessors are roasting in hell.........

PS, Jason, I bought and have read Carl Richard's Why We're All Romans based on your earlier citation. It's a very good summary of Roman influence on the west.

Arguing that "we as Westerners are all Hebrews in the crucial areas of ethics and spirituality, Greeks in everything else" and that it was the Romans "who made us Greeks and Hebrews."

I tend to think that Greek/Roman ethical and pagan spiritual development shouldn't be shorted* but at this point don't disagree completely with his broader conclusion.

*where would Christianity today be without both its Hebrew as well as its Epicurean, Stoic, Platonic and Aristotelian incorporation.

Jason Pappas said...

Jimmiraybob, I agree. Jefferson was eclectic. It was common for the founding fathers (particularly before the French Revolution) to see no conflict between what they valued in religion and secular philosophy. Still, it is interesting to see what Jefferson treasures in the New Testament.

Of course, I never underestimate religion’s ability to restate and recast secular thought—even when it is left unacknowledged. There could be an endless debate over what comes from Athens and what comes from Jerusalem.

Richard's book has the virtue of highlighting the points of Roman history most important to the founders. I still would argue that Roman literature adds to Greek thought in important ways. I don't see Cicero merely as a Latin speaking Greek even if he says he is adding little.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Between Clement, Jerome, Augustine and of course Aquinas, there's no doubt that Christianity was Hellenized, or we could say that Christianity subsumed Hellenism, adding a systematized theology to an already-workable philosophical system.

And of course, the Romans figure in, too. Not only Aquinas, but perusing him recently, I was struck by how deeply the 2nd-generation Calvinist Peter Martyr [Vermigli] went into Roman law.

Truth is truth; good sense is good sense, no matter its origin.

As for Jefferson, JRB, I agree. What Dulles means by "The Deist Minimum" is Jefferson. Pretty much everybody else was more "Christian."

[Despite his self-description as a follower of Jesus, calling Jefferson a Christian is a bridge too far. However, note well that "The Deist Minimum" is never in direct conflict with orthodox Christianity. This is a key point.]

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"A close reading of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration shows it's quite theological, some common sense about the growing diversity of Protestantism and a clarification of Christian theology, and not a rejection of it for an "Enlightened" secularism."

When I read Locke's letter, the sense I get is that the letter is a combination of the Protestantism of Protestantism, with some common sense and abhorrence of hypocrisy.

Locke's letter can be summarized like this: "God is the only lord of conscience, and it is illegal to have any intermediary between God and man. There are two kingdoms: the civil and the spiritual, each having a separate sphere of jurisdiction."

So far, that's just pure Lutheran Protestantism, including Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms. The summary would continue: "It is hypocritical for you to have the government decide which religion is correct, because we all have different opinions on which one is true. If you think that your party, when in the majority, can decide that your religion is the true one, then you must accept that your enemy, when his party is in power, has that same right to decide." That's not a particularly religious argument, but it's a very rational and reasonable one, and there's nothing in Christianity that opposes logical, reasoned argumentation.

Locke's argument also had a social contract aspect to it, in that he combined his Lutheran argument about the existence of two kingdoms, with a Calvinist/Reformed Christian argument of social contract.

So far, then, Locke = Luther + Calvin + common sense.

Now, granted, Locke took much of these arguments further than others did. But he was still building on Luther and Calvin. In fact, James Madison cited that doctrine of Luther's as the source of the First Amendment: here, to Schaeffer.

to be continued

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...
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Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...
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Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

continued from above

If you check the arguments of John Cotton against Roger Williams, you'll see that the two are actually quite similar in philosophy. When Roger Williams cited Luther in his defense, Cotton said he also held by Luther and had no disagreement. The difference with Cotton, however, was the following:

Cotton said, "[I]n fundamental and principal points of Doctrine, or Worship, the Word of God is so clear, that he cannot but be convinced in conscience of the dangerous error of his way, after once or twice admonition wisely and faithfully dispensed. And then if any one persist, it is not out of conscience, but against his conscience, as the Apostle saith, verse 11, he is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself, viz., of his own conscience: So that if such a man after such admonition, shall still persist in the error of his way, and be therefore punished, he is not persecuted for cause of conscience, but for sinning against his own conscience."

In other words, Cotton felt that anyone who sinned, KNEW he was sinning, and was a deliberate, conscious sinner. On the other hand, Cotton explicitly said that Native Americans were not to be punished as heretics or infidels, for they were sinning out of ignorance.

For Cotton, it was OBVIOUS what the truth was. Remember, this was only a short time after the Protestant Reformation had begun. Cotton and others were confident that the whole world would soon recognize the truth now that it was freed from papal corruption. Martin Luther, for example, was sure that the Jews would flock to him, now that the truth had been unchained. So remember, Cotton was still laboring under this naive view.

Given this view, it stands to reason that any sinner is conscious and deliberate. Now, think about: if you KNOW that the Bible is true but you violate it anyway, then you'll probably come to murder and steal as well. Even John Locke said we cannot trust atheists, because they have no motivation to be moral and law-abiding.

Given all this, Cotton could countenance punishing a heretic even according to Luther's and Calvin's separation of church and state, based on the reasoning that a deliberate and cognizant heretic would soon come to sin against his neighbor, such as by murdering and stealing. In a society where all morality was based on the belief in God, disbelief in God was taken to be a guarantee of imminent lawless and antisocial behavior.

Williams replied, "And if this be not to pull God and Christ and Spirit out of heaven, and subject them unto natural, sinful, inconstant men, and so consequently to Satan himself, by whom all peoples naturally are guided, let heaven and earth judge."

That is, Williams was far more aware than Cotton was of the danger of using religious belief as a litmus test for your interpersonal morality. When we remember that even John Locke condemned atheists we realize that Williams's opinion was incredibly advanced and forward-looking.

Second, Williams said, "[Y]ea that commonwealth which makes such magistrates, must needs have power and authority from Christ Jesus to fit judge and to determine in all the great controversies concerning doctrine, discipline, government, etc."

In other words, Williams was far more Protestant than Cotton, i.e. afraid of any human authority or intervention in matters religious.

In short, Williams and Cotton almost completely agreed on basic theology, both holding by Luther. The difference between them was not a theological one, but a sociological one: Cotton naively believed it obvious to everyone what was heresy and what wasn't, while Williams realized how much honest and sincere dispute there would be. Second, Williams, more than Cotton, was a Protestant to the core and realize how dangerous it was to have any human authority at all. Williams was basically an anarcho-capitalist whereas Cotton was a minarchist, in terms of their own Protestantism.

to be continued

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

continued from above

And we must also remember the social environment. Recall that the subject is Massachusetts, where it was basically like an Amish town, with everyone having taken an oath of covenant and the entire community being immensely religious. We are talking about a small, localized community of believers. Imagine a debate in an Amish town among the Amish, discussing whether non-Amish should be allowed to live among them, in the middle of the town, using cars and televisions. It would be one thing for an Amish to tolerate that the people elsewhere do what they do. But what do you think would happen if in the middle of the Amish town, a bunch of non-Amish from somewhere else came in carrying television sets and setting them up in the middle of the street? You have to realize what kind of social environment a Massachusetts town was in 1630.

Thus, in fact, Cotton blessed Williams, and wished him well. Cotton had no problem with Williams and his ideas, as long as he did it all somewhere else. To quote Cotton regarding Williams's banishment, "The Jurisdiction (whence a man is banished) is but small, and the Countrey round about it, large and fruitful: where a man may make his choice of variety of more pleasant, and profitable seats, then he leaveth behinde him. In which respect, Banishment in this countrey, is not counted so much a confinement, as an enlargement."

What Cotton wanted was a quiet corner of the world for his own ideas to prosper. In fact, that's exactly the same thing the Jews did when we entered Israel: we gave the Canaanites an ultimatum, but the Talmud forbids us to molest idolaters outside of Israel. Why? It's because we want our own quiet corner for Judaism to prosper, but we have no problem with idolatry flourishing everywhere else, unmolested. (Well, we do have a problem with such idolaters outside of Israel, but we solve it with debate and reason and convincing arguments, not pyres and stakes and stoning.) And in fact, John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration" interprets the Biblical period exactly as I just did (my interpretation was formed before I read Locke).


Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Oh, and it's worth noting that if you compare "A Model of Christian Charity" and the "city on a hill" mentality with Locke's defense of the Biblical Jews in "A Letter Concerning Toleration", it's easy to see that the Puritans, according to their own covenantal ideas and self-image as the New Israel, could have acted as they did, even according to the thought of Locke.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"Perhaps John Locke’s most elegant argument in the storied A Letter Concerning Toleration is that government can’t get you into heaven."

It's worth noting that a Calvinist believing in predestination would have believed this even more than Locke did. Hence my assertion that the Calvinists killed heretics due to their fear of what the heretics would do to their fellow man, in this temporal world. And if that was their concern, then it perfectly satisfies Luther's and Calvin's distinction of the two kingdoms.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Calvinists killed heretics due to their fear of what the heretics would do to their fellow man, in this temporal world."

How do you deal with the following from Rutherford of Lex Rex fame?

"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."

-- Samuel Rutherfurd, "A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience." (1649).

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Okay, thank you, good point. Let me refine what I said, then. Thank you for forcing me to clarify, because I do admit you have made a very good objection.

"Calvinists killed heretics due to their fear of what the heretics would do to their fellow man, in this temporal world." or because heresy, when spread to one's fellow man, was perceived as an actual act of harming him, no different than physically striking him.

But the emphasis is still on the outward effect of the heresy on this temporal world. If the sinner wants to send himself to hell, fine, as long as he doesn't take anyone else with him.

I'll admit that such an attitude betrays a lesser amount of respect for the freedom of one's intellectual inquiries. I'll definitely admit this, and this is no small matter.

But that's exactly the point. The difference between the Calvinist and the Baptist was that the Calvinist - as epitomized in Cotton's quotation - was far more confident that he had the truth, and that everyone else, even the heretic himself, recognized this as well.

The Calvinist's mindset was like that of a Biblical Jew. If a Biblical Jew heard of another Jew trying to seduce another to heresy, he did not respect the freedom of inquiry, but rather, he burned the heretic. But the reason is, as Locke says, because God was the immediate Legislator. What this really means is that everyone took for granted the authority of one God and of one way of interpreting the Torah. In a world where there is only one opinion and everyone takes it for granted, freedom of inquiry is obviously not going to be given much credence.

But remember, this was because the Protestant Reformation was still relatively new. Many Protestants thought they were in the Messianic era and that they had rediscovered the truth, and that the trumpets and rainbows would soon break forth. They thought they had finally broken the truth free of papal grasp, and that all would admit the newly discovered truth.

But despite all this, the Calvinist was still holding by a distinction between two kingdoms, and he still punished heretics not because they'd go to hell, but because they'd harm their neighbors, whether spiritually or physically.

In practice, this may not have made much of a difference. In the end, the Calvinists were still killing heretics. But there were two subtle results:

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

(1) As shown by Cotton's quote regarding Williams, a heretic could be tolerated as long as he merely left for somewhere else. If he left town and started his own town, and other would-be heretics followed him there, then the heretic could be tolerated, because he was hurting no one but himself and those who chose to associate themselves with him. The Calvinist didn't care that anyone was going to hell, and as for the issue of a heretic harming his neighbors, this heretic would now be harming no one but those who chose to put themselves into his gun sights, as it were. Again, cf. Israel, where an idolater in Israel would be executed but an idolater outside of Israel would not be.

(2) Even though heretics were still being killed, the fact that it was being done under the guise of the heretic's harming his neighbors, and not because he would go to hell, allowed a gradual evolution over time, and growth in tolerance. As I argued, the reason a Calvinist killed a heretic was largely due to his belief that there was one opinion accepted by everyone. Once Protestant sects proliferated enough, however, no intelligent Calvinist could honestly argue that there was anymore one opinion that everyone accepted. Religious toleration, I believe, largely grows out of the recognition that the "heretics" may be wrong but that they are nevertheless sincere, honest, and decent people. Once the Calvinist was faced with a proliferation of sects, he had to admit that he could not be so confident and self-assured in his belief that there was only one acceptable opinion. Combine that with his already-held belief that heretics could be punished only for harming their neighbors, and the result was toleration.

In other words, the Calvinist, at first, may have behaved indistinguishably from the hellfire-inspired heresy-hunter, but because deep down, the underlying reason was according to the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms, with punishment being only for harming one's neighbor, this opened the door to an eventual toleration of heretics.

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