Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is the DOI a “Christian” Document?

That's the title to my latest post at LoOG.

I referenced the following article by Peter Lawler at Postmodern Conservative.

Here is a comment I left at that blog:

... I would add J. Adams in with Jefferson and Franklin. Adams may have been culturally more Calvinistic than the other two, but theologically he was at home with Jefferson and Franklin.

And the the latter two were not "deistic," but seemed to believe in a God every bit as "theistic" as John Adams'. The "Deists" of the day (Paine, et al.) did dig the term "Nature's God," so that point is valid. The DOI attempts to unite Deists, Unitarians and orthodox Christians, each of whom hold certain theological positions that contradict the other.

Those are the perils of America's Founding civil religion and trying to claim it for yourself. There is a little bit of it for everyone, and a little bit for no one.


Irenicum said...

I noticed that your comment doesn't show up at Post Modern Conservative. Did they delete it?

Jonathan Rowe said...

No it probably has not yet been approved. I posted this just after I left the comment.

Mark D. said...

DOI is both a Christian document and an Enlightenment document in that it was written to appeal to the common ground regarding natural rights that both the Christian tradition and Enlightenment rationalism had at that time embraced. The law of nature and nature's God could be found in Montesquieu and St. Paul (Romans 2:14), in Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, in Augustine and Cicero. That made the DOI's appeal universal and its assertions "self-evident," even though to most moderns they aren't. To the people that the DOI was addressed to, its principles were self-evident because they were grounded in both the broad Christian tradition and the principles of the Enlightenment.

With the vast bulk of the Founders, it wasn't a question of choosing either Christianity or the Enlightenment. It was both/and, not either/or.

Jason Pappas said...

I would say it is not a Christian document. It also isn’t anti-Christian. I can be appreciated by everyone who accepts that rights are inherent in human nature. That includes a subset of Christians, atheists, deists, etc.

In the history of Western religion and secular philosophy there are both monarchists and republicans. I wouldn’t call monarchy “Christian” even thought it was the preferred form of government for 16 of the 20 centuries of that religion. Nor would I call it secular because Hobbes loved it and Plato advocated something similar.

Let's just say liberty and natural rights are part of the better strain of Western history, including both religious and purely secular thought.

Always On Watch said...

Mark said in his comment above: DOI is both a Christian document and an Enlightenment document in that it was written to appeal to the common ground regarding natural rights that both the Christian tradition and Enlightenment rationalism had at that time embraced.

Some conservative Christians wouldn't agree with that statement, but I (a conservative Christian) certainly do.

"Whatsoever things are good...think upon these things."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I tend to agree with John Pappas, because the Christian religion is a narrower view or more specified philosophy.

All truth is God's truth, means that there is no sacred or secular distinction.

As to natural rights, human rights has been an accepted "universal". But, when terrorists attack our soil, then they do not deserve a civil trial, but a military trial, because the nation state deserves also the right to protect its citizens. A corollary truth is the citizens's right to private property.

Nation states exist to protect thier citizens rights. Human rights is an international/universal right. A criminal has forfeited his right by his crime. The question becomes what is a crime when diverse cultures understand crime in different ways?

Mark D. said...


I think that we agree on the point of the Declaration trying to ground itself on principles that were seen as universal. I think that most of the Founders would have argued that those principles were Christian -- even if more orthodox or evangelical Christians might have disagreed with that characterization.

Ultimately, most of the Founders, at least the "top-tier" ones, didn't see a conflict between Christianity and Enlightenment values. Now, what they meant by Christianity and Enlightenment values might differ from what other partisans of those thought-systems might believe, but for folks like Jay, Jefferson, Adams (John & Abigail, and even Samuel), Washington, Madison, Marshall, Benjamin Rush, there simply wasn't a conflict. One could be both a Christian (broadly defined) and an adherent of the Enlightenment. And when they spoke of faith and reason, of natural rights, they tended to speak in ways that appealed to both streams of thought.

Phil Johnson said...

I see that the Founders had to struggle with one of the main issues we are forced to struggle with today.
"How to move forward as a society while--at the same time--appeasing the hyper religious among us."
They make up a force with which society must reckon. Like it or not.

Jason Pappas said...

Yes, Mark, I agree that they didn't see any conflict between secular and religious thought.

By the way, it would seem to me that they could agree on the DOI more than they could agree on religion--given the large number of denominations and differences between them. What do you think?

Mark D. said...

Yes, I think that's right. And I think that one of the reasons why the Founders tended to embrace a kind of "mere Christianity" was to downplay sectarian differences between Americans. The Founders as a group consisted of Unitarian Christians (folks like John and Abigail Adams, for example), Calvinists (Samuel Adams), vague Anglicans (Washington, Benjamin Rush), relatively pious Catholics (Charles Carroll), strong deists like Jefferson & Madison, apparently non-religious folks like James Monroe, evangelicals like Patrick Henry -- they were a very religious devout group, although nearly all sought to identify themselves with Christianity, even Jefferson.

Mark D. said...

Oops, I mean to write "religiously diverse" in the last clause of my preceding post. Sorry for any confusion!

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