Sunday, November 21, 2010


I wanted to write a follow up to Mr. Ridgely's post about meaning of terms as it relates to the Christian Nation controversy. When I first began this inquiry about seven years ago, I assumed -- wrongly -- that most America's Founders were strict deists and would not have considered themselves Christians.

I found out they were more theistic and many of these "deists" -- notably Thomas Jefferson -- thought of themselves as "Christians" in some sense. But also that many rejected (either explicitly or implicitly with their silence) orthodox Trinitarian minimums that CS Lewis would say make up "mere Christianity." Therefore, they weren't "Christians."

I used that as the normative definition of "Christianity" while not being much of a believer myself because it helped refute the "Christian America" thesis.

I began to rethink whether I, as a non-believer, should be personally terming someone not a Christian when they called themselves one, after a number of dialogs with interlocutors. One of them was Eric Alan Isaacson a prominent attorney and Unitarian-Universalist. He wrote to me:

Hi Jonathan,

I’m troubled by those who insist that only people who believe in one way can be “true Christians.” If Mormons consider themselves followers of Jesus, that’s good enough for me to regard them as Christians. If Trinitarian Evangelicals regard themselves as followers of Jesus, I’ll consider them Christians too — even though, so far as I can tell, Jesus never claimed to be God.

If someone like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley honored Jesus and endeavored to follow his teachings, they should not be denied the name “Christian” merely because others who claim that name have embraced any number of extra-biblical doctrines.

I’ve heard Catholics occasionally say that theirs is the only “true church,” suggesting perhaps that Protestants are not truly Christians. I’ve heard Protestant preachers denounce the Pope as the Anti-Christ, insisting that Catholics can’t be true Christians because they follow the Pope rather than Christ.

I must confess, such attitudes offend my sensibilities.

And yet, I find you, an open-minded and liberal chap, adopting the same stance, and suggesting that Unitarians and Mormons can’t be Christians.

I am reminded, quite frankly, of how New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 1868 the Dover, New Hampshire, First Unitarian Society of Christians’ chosen minister — the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot — was insufficiently “Christian” to serve the Congregation that had called him. Justice Jonathan Everett Sargent’s opinion for the court quoted passages from Abbot’s sermons, to show that the minister was too open-minded to serve his congregation.

The Rev. Abbot, after all, had once preached:

“Whoever has been so fired in his own spirit by the overwhelming thought of the Divine Being as to kindle the flames in the hearts of his fellow men, whether Confucius, or Zoroaster, or Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed, has proved himself to be a prophet of the living God; and thus every great historic religion dates from a genuine inspiration by the Eternal Spirit.”

In another sermon, Rev. Abbot even declared:

“America is every whit as sacred as Judea. God is as near to you and to me, as ever he was to Moses, to Jesus, or to Paul. Wherever a human soul is born into the love of truth and high virtue, there is the ‘Holy Land.’ Wherever a human soul has uttered its sincere and brave faith in the Divine, and thus bequeathed to us the legacy of inspired words, there is the ‘Holy Bible.’”

“If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,” Justice Sargent opined for New Hampshire’s highest court, “it would of course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire called ‘that outrageous blasphemer,’ that ‘infamous blasphemer,’ ‘that miscreant Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ Plumer had read ‘with unqualified disapprobation of its tone and temper, its course vulgarity, and its unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his readers.’”

Hale v. Everett, 53 N.H. 9, 16 Am. Rep. 82, 1868 N.H. LEXIS 47 (1868). See Charles B. Kinney, Jr., Church & State: The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire, 1630-1900 113 (New York: Teachers College, Columbia Univ., 1955) (“One of the more celebrated cases in New Hampshire jurisprudence is that of Hale versus Everett.”); Carl H. Esbeck, Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic, 2004 B.Y.U. L. Rev. 1385, 1534 n.541 (“As late as 1868, the state supreme court decided that a Unitarian minister would not be allowed to use the town meeting house because of his heterodoxy, and in spite of being called and settled by a majority of the community.”).

You might suppose that being run out of the pulpit would sour the Rev. Abbot in his attitudes toward those who thought themselves more orthodox than he was. You would be wrong. Abbot went on to edit The Index, and on his retirement from that position in 1880 addressed those who gathered in his honor: “I know we are here Unitarians and Non-Unitarians, and I rejoice to stand with Christians, with Catholic and Protestant Christians alike, for justice and purity; and I will always do so. These things are more important than our little differences of theological opinion.” Farewell Dinner to Francis Ellingwood Abbot, on Retiring from the Editorship of “The Index” 14 (Boston: George H. Ellis, 1880) (remarks of Rev. Abbot, June 24, 1880).

It may be noted that Frederick Douglass praised Rev. Abbot for doing “much to break the fetters of religious superstition, for which he is entitled to gratitude.” Farewell Dinner, supra, at p. 48 (letter of June 15, 1880, from Frederick Douglass to the Rev. M.J. Savage).

I think it a tremendous mistake, Jonathan, for you to side with the likes of Justice Sargent, who think they are entitled to determine who can, and who cannot, be called a true “Christian.” In truth, Justice Sargent may have been somewhat more liberal in his attitudes than you are – for he and the New Hampshire Supreme Court at least accepted the notion that one can be a genuine Unitarian Christian, even as they ruled that Rev. Abbot was far too unorthodox even to preach in a Unitarian church.

Peace be with you!

Eric Alan Isaacson

So, for personal reasons, if someone calls themselves "Christian" whether they are the Pope, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, President Obama, Bishop Spong, a Mormon or even an atheist who considers himself "Christian," they are one.

But not everyone views things that way. The Christian Nationalists certainly don't. That's why we need clarity and working definitions. We need "ifs." For instance, pay attention to historian Paul F. Boller's "if" when summarizing George Washington's faith:

[I]f to believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and his atonement for the sins of man and to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are requisites for the Christian faith, then Washington, on the evidence which we have examined, can hardly be considered a Christian, except in the most nominal sense.

-- George Washington & Religion, p. 90.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed, it is argued---and was argued in the Founding era---that what with the proliferation of Protestant sects, that separating church and state had as a primary purpose keeping the government out of the business of deciding what "true" Christianity is.

And again, to return to elemental logic of Locke's "Letter Concerning Toleration:"

"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.”

It's the American way. Governments---or historians, for that matter---have no authority to judge theology.

[Although I would not claim Jefferson for any normative understanding of "Christian" whatsoever, although "Jesusian" might fit. Nowhere does he give Jesus any necessary standing above any other philosopher, and indeed claims superiority to Jesus when it comes to materialism vs. spiritualism. But no Christian could say, "Well, I disagree with Jesus on this point..."]

[I mean, we can take this "non-judgmental" business to absurdity. Jefferson's "Jesusianism" has no metaphysical component whatsoever.]

Jason Pappas said...

I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Isaacson. To say anyone can call themselves a Christian regards of belief or practice is absurd. The Gospels have a narrative of Jesus’ purpose on earth. One can read it and decide for oneself if someone is a Christian or not—even if like me you are not a Christian. If someone is completely at odds with the messages of the Gospels, to call them a Christian would be to make the word devoid of any meaning.

Of course, my definition will be broader than some believers. And I tend to focus on how someone is a Christian rather than if they are completely so. I’d rather understand the influence of Jesus’ ethical teachings on Jefferson, Washington, and Paine rather than ascertain their belief in Jesus’ divinity, their views of the afterlife, or their church going habits. Ethical teachings tell us about their view of man in society.

As far as I can tell, they all see a role for religious institutions in the ethical development of the citizenry. Am I wrong?