Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rick Perry's Christian America

Well, the problem isn't perhaps-GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry attending a semi-political prayer meeting. This stuff happens all the time. [His playing Pontifex Maximus for it and the potential political fallout from it, all in due time.]

Of course, it was overtly and annoyingly Christian to some and many people, Perry invoking Jesus Christ and Christian theology and all that, but it's not without precedent. In fact, President Obama did so just this year, asserting the Resurrection as historical fact [!]:

“I wanted to host this [event] for a simple reason,” announced the president to a White House stocked with some of America’s most prominent Christian leaders. “During this season, we are reminded that there is something about the resurrection. Something about the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ that puts everything else in perspective.”

Well. Not exactly what a Jew or Muslim was dying to hear.

Everybody knows that during the Founding era, presidents didn't talk like that. They preferred more generic terms for America's "civil religion," which might be safely described as "Providential monotheism." There's one God, not many gods, and He looks down on us and occasionally sees His way fit to gently guide history for the better:

"[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect...In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."
---George Washington, First Inaugural Address

To the Founders, God was a reality, not a theory. When Washington presumed to speak for "my fellow-citizens at large," this raised no controversy. But America's Deity to which he gave thanks was "the Almighty Being," "the Great Author," with an "Invisible Hand." Not Jesus the Christ, with all the doctrine that accompanies him.

And so, the irony is that here in the 21st century, while religion, religious conscience and Christianity itself are punked in various courtrooms as being inherently irrational, presidents and maybe-presidents are becoming more explicit in articulating Christian doctrine than the Founders ever found proper, even back when there were few Jews and even fewer Muslims thereabouts. [Let alone out-of-the-closet atheists---Ben Franklin said you could live to an old age in America without ever meeting one!]

For every push, there is a shove: you play Wack-a-Mole on God, he pops up somewhere else. Back when God was considered a reality, the details were largely left open. But now that God is legally only one theory among many---and an inherently irrational one at that, reduced to a "ceremonial deism" that not one Founder accepted, not even Tom Paine---it's really no surprise that a Rick Perry or even a citizen-of-the-world like Barack Obama feels obliged to show his cards to an electorate that wonders what the hell is going on.

NB: None of this is to say God even exists. We are all modern gentlemen, afterall, and gentlemen do not discuss such things. We are speaking of history, American history, of man and his questions and answers about God, not God Himself.

Although I meself have found that the name of God is on the lips of every drunk. But I admit haven't met them all yet. And Tom Paine, a true deist who rejected the Christian scriptures, even went to Revolutionary France and lectured against atheism. You could look it up. Even Tom Paine's deism wasn't just "ceremonial," and neither is America's.


Jason Pappas said...

When I read Washington’s Address I continue to think of the historical context. In the back of the Founders’ minds was the recent history of the massive slaughter among the Christian denominations during the Thirty Years War on the Continent as well as the Interregnum in England. Given that history, the avoidance of dogma and denominational-specific tropes seems understandable.

Compare this with the present. Modern Conservative thought is formed in reaction to Godless communism. Today's Leftist thought is formed in reaction to the violation of minority rights in the extreme: Nazism. The Founders period shows the scares of religious wars. Those concerns are largely forgotten today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Absolutely, Jason. My original thought was to bash Perry for his sectarianism, but this approach seemed more interesting.

[As for the left's anti-religious streak being attributable to anti-Nazism, I'm not sure about that one.]

Spurge said...

The Almighty Being said, "I and Thomas Paine are one. No one comes unto the Great Author except through Thomas Paine. If you don't know Thomas Paine, you don't know the Divine Designer. If you bless the land of Thomas Paine, you will be blessed. If you're a drunk and/or lowly, you are clearly not Enlightened and probably Christian, which everybody knows is not authentically American but a hijacker of the authentic American glory of America's Great High Head Knocker whose demigods are way smarter than you by far, and which Enlightened gentleman's personal cause is too smart and classy to compromise by displaying publickly or admitting as though it were singularly the way the truth and the life with some kind of precedence over Thomas Paine?"

Tom Van Dyke said...

That was so delightfully wack I'm going to leave it up.

Phil Johnson said...

Perry is playing the Righteousness Game that the late neoconservative movement has engendered. And, he gets away with it with the mass that has been dumbed down to swallow almost anything said in Jesus name. He might have even convinced himself of his sincerity. How stupid we have come to be!!
In so far as Deism is concerned, here is the first paragraph that I referenced in J. Rowe's last article:

Deism holds more meanings than one word should be asked to bear. Generally, to the point of almost being meaningless, it refers to the notion that reason plays an important role in determining religious knowledge. By this definition the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, Cicero, Lucretius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all qualify to varying degrees as Deists. With more historical precision the term embraces the religious philosophy of the Enlightenment. But there is a wide range of meanings here too. To religious traditionalists, Deists were effectively atheists. To atheists and materialists, Deism represented a half-realized understanding of the universe. For those who would not have balked had the word been applied to them—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century self-identifies as a "Deist"—it signified belief in a God who could be known by naturally given reason rather than solely by revelation.
(My bold emphasis) How great is that?
Here's the link again for those who might be interested:

Burt Likko said...

I followed your link, TVD, but didn't see any reference to Paine going to France to rescue the revolution from atheism. That was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. I'm not at all convinced Paine thought his mission in France was anything but political.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mr. Lawyer, great catch and cross-check. My claim is unsubstantiated by the link and may be faulty memory. I will adjust the text accordingly until I come up with the source text, perhaps a letter to his patron in France, Hames Madison, I dunno. Or perhaps I'm simply in error.

For now, I will point to his

in revolutionary France where he argues for natural religion, for a creator-God, and against atheism.

"It has been the error of the schools to teach astronomy, and all the
other sciences and subjects of natural philosophy, as accomplishments only; whereas they should be taught theologically, or with reference to the Being who is the author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin. Man cannot make, or invent, or contrive principles. He can only discover them; and he ought to look through the discovery to the Author.

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom, you're correct to say that President Obama in 2011 went further in publicly endorsing Christianity's central claim than President Washington would have been comfortable doing in his time.

That said, I imagine Washington believed in the Resurrection. He was just more comfortable, in public venues, speaking in monotheistic (rather than overtly Christian) language.

And I must admit that I liked Obama's language. :-)

And, finally, while I recognize that I'm getting a little off topic, there IS strong evidence for the Resurrection as an actual historical event. That some people of other faiths might be offended by that assertion doesn't (to steal a phrase from John Adams) "alter the state of facts and evidence."