Monday, June 27, 2011

The Relevance of Early Unitarian Presidents

I don't think I'm the first person to note this relevance AND I don't think this is the first time I've noted this. Tom Van Dyke lays down the gauntlet. Well I answer his challenge with, from what I understand, an answer with which he entirely agrees and, from what I remember, that he's given before.

But let me try to explain it in a way different from what I have before:

America's Founding era political-theological landscape, good Protestants they were, was quite fractured and divided. Trinitarianism, though associated with the essentials of "Christianity" by some back then (and today, think of CS Lewis' "Mere Christianity"), became a part of the disputed definition of "Christianity," not an essential doctrine of the "general Christianity" that may have united them. The unitarians by that time had been keeping their mouths shut on those doctrines whenever they mentioned God; they got used to speaking in more generally theistic terms so as not to offend their unitarian private convictions or the convictions of the orthodox. In short they were the ones, out of personal necessity, who got really good at lowering the common denominator of God talk. They even realized lowering the denominator of God talk and combining it with a natural theology with which all "reasonable" men could agree enabled them to communicate metaphysical-theological truths with, among others unconverted Native Americans and even Muslims.

In short, the unitarians made for the best neutral referees among bitterly divided sectarian dogmatists and were most suited for uniting a country divided by theological dogma. We know that J. Adams and Jefferson turned out to be self conscious unitarians. And George Washington and James Madison were closeted about their Christological opinions and systematically spoke in more generally theistic uniting God terms. I wonder why.

And so we have John Adams' 1798 Thanksgiving Proclaiming that sounded Trinitarian on its surface, but may have also been consistent with pious unitarian consciences (most of whom believed God is Father, Jesus, though not fully God, was Redeemer, and also found some way to explain the existence of the Holy Spirit without believing in the Trinity).

John Adams regretted that because...surprise surprise, it was too sectarian. Its Trinitarian sounding surface was too easily mistaken for Presbyterianism. And sectarian power at the top was a slippery slope towards persecution. At least, that's how John Adams saw it. John Adams' June 12. 1812 letter to Benjamin Rush explains this AND the letter is also the source of Adams' Trinity mocking quote ("The Trinity was carried in a general Council by one vote against a Quaternity...") that I have oft-quoted.

Adams comes off as a ninny, perhaps half drunk, paranoid about religious persecution. But it was that paranoia about NOT sounding sectarian that helped unite the American Founding era under a more general God. I'll let you read the entire letter for its context. Here's a BIG taste:

The next paragraph requires a graver answer. But a Volume would not suffice. Take a hint. I have lived among Infidel Philosophers more than half a Century, and been engaged in continued disputes with them. This has compelled me to spend more time in reading Universal History but especially Ecclesiastical History, than has been for my Interest or Comfort. While the Result has been an increasing Love for Christianity, as I understand it, a growing Jealousy of the Priesthood has accompanied it all the way. Levites, Magi, Faquirs, Mandarines, Mufti, Druids, Popes; Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Bernardines, Jacobins, Dominicans, Westleys, the Prophet of Wabash, or Tippecanoe, Nimrod Hughs, Christopher McPherson, and even Priestly and Price, even Dr. Ewing, Dr. Rogers and Dr. Dwight have conspired together to rivet to my soul the Duty and Necessity of Tolleration.

These general assemblies of Presbyterian Divines are general Councils in embrio. We shall have Creeds and Confessions, Church discipline and Excommunication. We shall have, the civil Government overawed and become a Tool. We shall have Armies and their Commanders under the orders of Monks. We shall have Hermits, commanding Napoleons, I agree with you, there is a Germ of Religion in human nature so strong that whenever; an order of Men can persuade the People by, flattery or Terror, that they can have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud Violence or Usurpation. Ecumenical Councils produce Ecumenical Bishops and both subservient Armies, Emperors and Kings.

The National Fast recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has alarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, &c,&c,&c, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whispers ran through them [all the sects] "Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President" This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgiving. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion. This wild Letter, I very much fear, contains seeds of an Ecclesiastical History of the U.S. for a Century to come.

Okay. Now get ready for the CONTEXT of John Adams' The Trinity prevailed by one vote against a Quaternity quote. The context is close tie breaking elections illustrating the nature of groups of men to divide themselves, intractably.

The similitude between 1773 and 1774, and 1811 and 1812 is obvious. It is now said by the Tories that we were unanimous in 1774. Nothing can be farther from the Truth. We were more divided in 74 than we are now. The Majorities in Congress in 74 on all the essential points and Principles of the Declaration of Rights, were only one, two or three. Indeed all the great critical questions about Men and Measures from 1774 to 1778 were decided by the vote of a single state, and that vote was often decided by a single Individual. Jumble and Chaos as this Nation appears at this moment, I never knew it better united. It is always so. The History of the World is nothing but a narrative of such divisions. The Stuarts abdicated or were turned out and William came in by one or two votes. I was turned out by the votes of S. Carolina not fairly obtained. Jefferson came in by one vote, after 37 Tryals between him and Burr. Our expedition against Cape Breton and consequent Conquest of Louisburg in 1745 which gave peace to the World was carried in our House of Representatives of Massachusetts by one single vote. The abolition of old Tenor in 1750 was decided by one vote. What is more awful than all. 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. All the great affairs of the world temporal and spiritual, as far as Men are concerned in the discussion and decision of them are determined by small Majorities. The Repulsion in human nature is stronger than the Attraction. Division, Separation are inevitable.

Adams then starts in with a diva-like discussion of "Boudoirs." Adams seems self consciously aware of his "feminine side" in this letter. That's probably when the alcohol fully kicked in.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Adams became familiar with his feminine side" (when the alcohol kicked in) exactly! People that are reasonable do not live their life by and on "faith". They live thier life self-interstedly, based on reason.

Trinitarian doctrine was a way for the Catholic Church to distinguish itself, from it roots of Judiasm. And Incarnational theology is useful today for a political/social agenda of the study of "alturism". It is Jesus, as moral model theory, as historicized and pragmatic theology of humanistic endeavor. Such a view doesn't have to be religious, as it is a language game to get people to buy into a social/political agenda.

Civil liberties have to be understood in individual terms, otherwise, "group think" will prevail, whether it is through a "majority or minority" rule. Such groupish mentality subverts justice for individuals, which is the linch-pin of political liberty!!

I don't know that Muslims were in early America, obvioulsy the Natives were...

Tom Van Dyke said...

In short, the unitarians made for the best neutral referees among bitterly divided sectarian dogmatists and were most suited for uniting a country divided by theological dogma.

This is approximately correct, Jon, but the live issue is not dogma itself, but sectarianism: Adams was seen aligned with the Presbyterians, perhaps the most politically ambitious sect.

Adams' suggestion of "a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer" is perfectly Presbyterian, esp the "humiliation" part. The putatively Trinitarian part was shared by the vast majority of Christians, and does not account for Adams' electoral loss as an alliance with Presbyterianism does.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I appreciate your comment, but sectarianism is just a dissent from a "traditional view of religion", and in a free society, that is as it should be. All religions set themselves up in certain ways in distinction to others, as all groups do.

"Self definition" is how groups function, as well as how individuals define themselves through their own values, interests and commitments. And such self definitions commit to certain organizations that represent these values or commitments. The social/poltiical agenda or/and the combining of scientific views in understanding society, is one of the problems, I believe.

It is true that communication has united the world, but the world is still divided over many things, such as religion. That one's religious opinons, values and commitments are not going to be changed without a re-definition of "self identity" itself...and this is a dangerous prospect in a world fraught over relgious ideologies and political agendas....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And I think my opinion is in "good company" with Adams here, on Utopian goals.....

Tom Van Dyke said...

I appreciate your comment, but sectarianism is just a dissent from a "traditional view of religion", and in a free society, that is as it should be.

With 35,000 sects of Christianity, they're all "dissent." In fact dissenting Protestantism is what made religious tolerance necessary simply as a practical matter.

Jon is right in this way: a president has to be president of all Americans regardless of sect. If you're too associated with one sect, there's a problem.

JFK had to minimize his Catholicism. Sam Brownback is very Catholic, as is Bobby Jindal, and I think it'll hurt them. [Strangely enough, probably more than Romney's Mormonism will hurt him, certainly more than Joe Lieberman's observant Judaism did.]

Mike Huckabee is just a little too evangelical for my taste, having said this from a pulpit

"“When we become believers, it's as if we have signed up to be part of God's Army, to be soldiers for Christ..."

while running for president.

And I'll tell ya what, Rick Perry's gonna suffer for aligning himself too closely to an evangelical-led specifically "Christian" day of prayer scheduled for next year.

Very bad presidential business.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree with you, Tom. One's ability to lead has little to do with what one believes about the transcendent. There was to be no relgious tests for public office.

But, our nation would not have religious liberty, if it were not for the fact that we were a Protestant nation, which means that one's conscience cannot be conformed (or transformed).

Dissent is in our blood as Americans. We were a crew that believed that liberty was of ultimate value, not religious opinion. But, unfortunately, with fundamentalism, resistance to that same liberty is what has transpired.

And today, it becomes dangerous, indeed, to mix religion and politics with tolerance, because then, we open the door to radicals of other faith traditions, giving them rights, over and above our nation's security or citizens priority.

Liberalism has undermined our very ability to define outselves at all, for fear that someone might be offended, or be discriminated against. The loss of free speech and a free press is a step toward propaganda (to protect the special or privileged "minority class").

The question today seems to be whether international law, based on Western principles of rationality holds sway, irregardless of one's religious persuasion. The U.N. has granted these special priviledges to Islam, and that has wrought great havoc on our ability in the West to make any judgments at all! We must defend ourselves against such commitments, and 'worldviews"....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heh heh, Angie. Reading along, Christian fundamentalism circa 1910 was your given and I figgered Islam was the subtext and then it jumped out of John Hurt's chest!

None of this has anything to do with this blog, except that you haven't reconciled religious belief with American pluralism.

The Founding era was quite aware that in not enshrining Christianity in the Constitution, something like Islam or The New Atheism might come along.

Well aware. Goddamn aware. That's what makes them so fascinating and so wise.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If there was to be no religous tests for public office, and for the most part, religious conscience was a private affair, (separation of Church and State), then America was nominalist in its religious commitment.

Radicalization of religious commitment brings us into our culture wars today. We had a conversation at least once on this blog about our country being a Judeo Christian country, not in the Christian nation sense, but in the "christian-ese" why am I not in line with the blog, when I suggest that our nation is not open to radical politicized religious views?

It seems that Islam is the only religion with any rights any the political realm....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I mean, honestly, Tom, the fundamentlists, did not think that the Academy had anything to say to them, for "God's Word" said it all...this is the same for Islam, isn't it? So, I'm not picking on Islam, anymore than I would radical these think that they know what God/Allah's will is and others be damned if they don't submit to it!! That is not liberty, but conformity of the worst kind! Such as these are perfectly happy with where they are and what they think...there isn't any change for them. It is only those that don't believe that need "fixing"!!!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, I too have reservations in the real world of 2011 how Islam is going to play out worldwide vis-a-vis church and state.

But in America, it's really not an issue. Further, our focus is the American Founding.

I'm really going to have to insist you stop this ragging on Islam on this blog, or measures will have to be taken to stop it. OK?

Phil Johnson said...

As per the blog.....
I see from the blog that there is much more to John Adams position than some position he picked up along the way. His letter points out the strength of effort he put out to settle questions he had in his mind.
This blog is the second place where I have read that Adams may have had a drinking problem. As long as that is on the table, was there much of a Hemp Experience amoung our Founding Fathers?
Adams must have been surrounded by persons on all sides of the religiosity of the day. And, that kept right on growing well into the first part of the Twentieth Century. And, now (alas) it looks like it's kicking up again in spade.
sight ~~~~

Phil Johnson said...

The point Adams makes about how it takes only the slimist of majorities (sometimes questionable( it takes to settle big questions is very interesting.
Thanks for this blog.

Jason Pappas said...

It’s still interesting how Adams describes the need to avoid sectarian tropes. The question then becomes: what do you have left? Tom argues: Trinitarianism. Jon argues for less. In either case when you’ve strip Christianity that far you don’t have much more than a skeleton of a religion. It can hardly be of much use in guiding actions. Perhaps this is why we see so many generic statements extolling “morality and religion” with no details to follow.

I should add an amusing personal note. My mother was ecumenical in the extreme. She looked for the commonality of all religions (known to her). This left precious little. I knew very little about religion until I went to college. Occasionally I’d ask my childhood Catholic School friends about such phrases as “Holy Ghost” but there weren’t quite clear. The first time I heard about “original sin” was from a critic of Christianity in college. I thought he was slandering Christianity!

When I read the generic statements from the Founder Fathers, I’m reminded of my mother. It’s a fond memory.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for sharing your analogy and the personal memories of your experience.

It is almost impossible for someone raised in a fundamentalist home to imagine life without "the religious". And as you point out, the language is "unique". And such "uniqeness" caused the splits in the Protestant movement, over "meaning", such conflicts were not "realities" before the authority of the Church was challenged!

For the sake of unity are we to go "back" to Church authority and deny conscience? That would be answered differently depending on where one plays out on the state of our society and what and how that is understood. Is Church authority via government domination is tolerable....or should there be those that are influencing society in other ways?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jason being up another good point, Tom is Trinitarian. Trinitarianism was an attempt for the Church to distinguish itself from Judiasm, as Jesus was the moral model. But, Church demands upon conscience left Luther without any other option than to question Church authorities.

"Here I stand" was his stance. It was a matter of conscience, but he didn't desire for it to be a matter of "liberty", regarding authority. He just desired answers. The Church was not open to those questions. This is where our nation came to understand itself within Protestant Reformational identity.

In Reformational theology, Jesus was no longer a 'moral model", but a sacrifice and not just a sacrifice, but the fulfillment of Judaism's sacrificial system (Hebrews). This was the linch pin of America's liberty of conscience, as a value! (We won't even go to the question of "the Holy Spirit" and the division of the Eastern and Western Church)...

The "moral model" has its how is "Jesus" to be understood? There are as many ways to understand "Jesus" as there are understandings. That is a matter of conscience, too. Authority is in opposition to conscience.

This is where the separation of Church and State is important! Authority, whether religous or political is tyrannical. We were to have freedom of consience AND a LIMITED government!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The public and the private has always remained relatively separated in our culture, as we understood liberty of conscienct to allow diversity of values, opinions, and lifestyles.

But, those that believe in Church authority, don't think there should be a separation of the public/private domains. The Church has a right to investigate the private, as they are and "should be" the moral policemen. This is a dangerous precedent. And the collapse of the public and private through government interference, is a dissolving of liberty, itself!

On the other hand, intervention, citizen concern, and national security all demand some personal limitations, so that society can remain "at peace", "free", and free from those that would undermine society's values of responsible behavior.

Jason Pappas said...

Angie, as to unity I've been thinking about the Founding as I re-read the literature.

As I read the Founding generation, I come to appreciate the emphasis on natural rights and natural law. By approaching ethics and political principles via reflections on nature, two things were achieved.

The first is the avoidance of theological strife of the prior century, the 17th century. With the advent of Protestantism it was clear that theology would never unite Christendom again. The natural law approach of Grotius and Locke (based on ideas going back to Aquinas and antiquity) pointed to a new way. It was not anti-religious but it was independent of sectarian theology.

Secondly, it was an objective approach to ethics. It avoided the collective subjectivism that followed in the 19th and 20th century. Once natural law/rights was abandoned, the choice was a false alternative between revelation or subjectivism. While natural law/rights is not a panacea for faction, it at least creates a disposition and orientation that furthers concord.

As the Founding Fathers were writing the Declaration, natural rights was being abandoned by Europe’s intellectual leaders. Hume, Bentham, Burke, and others would attack the notion of rights. Forrest McDonald notes that after the 1773 edition there would be no “new American printing of the Two Treatises for 164 years.” The loss was ours.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I probably don't have enough information to be responding, but I will use the knowledge I do have.

Rights or Responsibility is the question. And where and what defines one's rights and one's responsibilities, that is another question.

You are speaking of universals, that cannot be separated from responsible behavior. No one has an innate right to dependence on another, nor does anyone have the responsibility to "take care of" another's dependency.... Each is responsible for himself, this is good stewardship, citzenship and what has furthered society's flourishing, not a welfare mentality.

"Human rights" is a liberal agenda for the global. But, one cannot bring about human rights without governments that cooperate with human rights. And those cultures that are not desirous for individual liberty will not bring about a real "human rights movement'. These governments and their people do not see things the way the West sees or understands them. We waste time and resources on such endeavors, I believe.

Yes, these are human beings, but they do not desire "our way of life". This is why the cry of the radicals to destroy America! They despise liberty! And we are not going to change them...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The law defines criminal behavior. International law should define terrorist actions as a crime. And not deal with the terrorist in a "multicultural way". But, then there are those that believe to be humane, one cannot "see" these as criminals, as they have a different understanding and value system...I think we dissolve our ability to protect if we do not have legitimate ways of holding people accountable to their actions. War criminals were defined, sought and convicted. Such should be the case with terrorists.

Sovereignty is about a country's right to protect/defend itself. Individuals have that same right, at least in the West!

Phil Johnson said...

"Human rights" is a liberal agenda for the global. But, one cannot bring about human rights without governments that cooperate with human rights. And those cultures that are not desirous for individual liberty will not bring about a real "human rights movement'. These governments and their people do not see things the way the West sees or understands them. We waste time and resources on such endeavors, I believe.

This is why the cry of the radicals to destroy America! They despise liberty!

You seem to be mixing ideas of foreign elements with American liberals.

And, so, you final statement comes across as outrageoiud to me.
Maybe I misunderstand your intent here?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is suggested that much of the reactions against the West is our invasiveness into their culture. We do this in war and in "liberal agendas" such as human rights. So, both the conservative and the liberal have some responsibility according to thie paradigm.

We don't take seriously the claims of "their God", Allah, and we can't if we are to remain open, diverse, and 'liberal' in our understanding of government!

So, how does/did the West think that tolerance was to be of importance or of value, when they cannot tolerate our very understanding of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness We are infidels, because we are "nominalists"!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do we want to become radicalized Christians?????

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just a thought...Jason shared his experience of growing up without the "language" of religion and how he misunderstood that language. Such is the case with radical believers. They do not understand the language of "peace", liberty or civility...

Phil Johnson said...

It is suggested that much of the reactions against the West is our invasiveness into their culture. We do this in war and in "liberal agendas" such as human rights.
Who suggests that?
The obvious point is that the multinationals are working of open up the so-called "Third World Markets". They are trying to change those cultures into consumerists. And, as a side benefit for the big investors, there get to supply the materials of war.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Didn't our Founders think that we should not be too entangled in multinational issues? But, in today's world, that would be an impossibility, as we are "unified" by trade. This has always been the case, and was the basis of colonization. Is it any different today?

But, one has to value the colonization of another country. Liberals have had a reaction to "paternal" governing of another country, and, yet, they value it in their own country. The conservative might see this as an expanse of "liberty" itself.

Whichever way one understands "progress", development of another country is a matter of individual value and commitment.

I think we have spent well over our share of humanitarian aid, and expanding democracy abroad, in blood, sweat and tears. And yet, do we see progress overall? are there still genocides, wars, ethinic cleansings, human rights violations, disregard for Sovereignty? and it will always be....Now, we need to focus on the issues that prey upon us at home, as they are at a crisis point and our govering body leaves a little to be desired....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom is Trinitarian

For the record, besides a sympathy for theism, I have don't announce my personal beliefs publicly. Nor are our opinions on divine mysteries relevant in this context of this blog.

We don't take seriously the claims of "their God", Allah...

I take their claims very seriously, and everyone else's too. Including no belief atall.

So, how does/did the West think that tolerance was to be of importance or of value, when they cannot tolerate our very understanding of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

It would be radical cultural imperialism for the West to impose its values [or lack of them] on an unwilling Muslim populace, to expect them to behave as if God doesn't exist, or that the Quran is false.

"Enlightened" Westerners ought to take a look in the mirror about who's imposing what on whom.