Wednesday, February 29, 2012

George Marsden and David Barton Recently Worked on a Book Together

Marsden is one of the co-authors of "The Search For Christian America." The book with Barton is a debate book on Christian America. The book was published in 2011. I'll have to get and read it hopefully soon.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Search For Christian America

I finally got the book. I'm well aware of the arguments as many of the scholars whose works I read and value -- Gregg Frazer, John Fea, Jon Meacham, Steven Waldman, among others -- reference that book and its arguments. Gregg Frazer's PhD thesis especially.

I haven't finished the book yet; but from what I've read, I strongly recommend it. But not without qualification. The book's claims deserve to be scrutinized just as the authors scrutinize "Christian America" claims.

The book's thesis as the authors write on page 17:

We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word "Christian" a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return. ...

Their understanding of "Christian" is tightly wound in a theological sense. But the book's chief target is evangelicals who define "Christianity" as something more meaningful than "weak generic" Christendom. As the authors note, "[a]lmost everything in Western culture from the late Roman Empire until about 1800 was 'Christian' in this sense." (p. 30.)

Years ago when I was discussing on my blogs whether the political theology of the American Founding -- although it often presented itself as "rational Christianity" -- deserved the label "Christian," a clever commenter asked whether America was founded on a "Christian heresy."

Although the authors of the book do not believe America's Founding political theology merits the label "Christian," their thesis fits with the "Christian heresy" understanding.

Their thoughts on Winthrop's Massachusetts remind me of the The Simpsons' Founding of the town of Springfield episode that joked the town was founded when "a fiercely determined band of pioneers leaves Maryland after misinterpreting a passage in the bible. Their destination, New Sodom." The Puritians thought Massachusetts was an exalted "New Israel." But the authors claim this a clear case of "mistaken identity" as they put it. (p. 36.) The authors assert Roger Williams' Rhode Island represented the more authentically Christian understanding of government.

But here is where the authors use their authoritative discretion to choose what counts as authentic ideal Christianity, what counts as error. Though, many of the things the authors count as "un-Christian" and consequently put in the "bad" box were arguably part of historic normative Christianity. Religious persecution, chattel slavery, and the deplorable treatment of American Indians are used to solidify the case for an "un-Christian" America. Yet these things were done by Christians in the name of Christianity. Roger Williams who comes out of history smelling better than John Winthrop arguably held more novel and eccentric positions than Winthrop. I'm trying not to "judge," but it seems to me that Winthrop's illiberality was more normatively Christian for the time and context than Williams' liberality that ultimately prevailed in liberal democratic America (and in Western Christendom as a whole).

The authors have been tarred as "liberals" intent on "revising" the record. While I can't say for sure, I don't believe they are either political OR theological liberals. And, in the book, they promote, in addition to Williams, Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins as model biblical thinkers. They were hardly liberals. And even though Williams' politics were radically liberal for his time, his theology that informed his politics was, ironically, fanatically fundamentalist. Indeed it was America's Founders -- from Washington to Jefferson to Hamilton -- who tended to be theological liberals and consequently not authentically Christian enough. Rather they were the humanists of their day. Albeit theistic/religious humanists.

John Witherspoon was an evangelical Christian. But in his personal theology. When it came to politics -- his Lectures on Moral Philosophy -- he was a naturalist and a (Scottish) Enlightenment rationalist, hardly a "model for Christian political thought." (p. 93.)

On the American Revolution, it violated Romans 13 and otherwise "was not a 'just war' as traditionally defined by the Church, and hence ... was not worthy of unqualified Christian support. ... [Further], the patriots were so hypocritical that they forfeited whatever Christian approval their theoretical justifications might otherwise merit." (p. 95.)

The charged "hypocrisy," you could guess, relates to the patriots' practice of slavery and treatment of the Indians.

I know this is contentious stuff! But it's well worth serious consideration.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Humanist on the Jefferson Bible

Check it out here.

A taste:

Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.

Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ups And Downs For John Fea This Week

Congratulations to John Fea for being selected as a finalist for the George Washington Book prize. You can read about it here, here, and here.

The down: The Glenn Beck crowd went nuts reacting to this article that (accurately) notes Barack Obama, judged by his words as Presidents, may be one of the most explicitly "Christian" American Presidents. BHO is certainly far more rhetorically Christian than the early Founding American Presidents (certainly more than either Presidents Washington and Madison).

And this crowd especially should be wary of casting the "who is a 'real Christian'?" stone given Beck's Mormonism.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Strikes Out on Thomas Jefferson

Here at American Creation we have done a good job (I believe) of putting a lot of the rhetoric of the culture wars in check. When pseudo-historians like David Barton or Howard Zinn got out of hand, we have been quick to point out the error of their ways and help stir the ship of America's founding religion back on the right course. This is one of the many reasons that I love American Creation so much. One of our jobs, if I may be so bold, is to serve as the umpire of the culture wars, calling balls, strikes and outs as best as we can see them, and even on occasion, throwing certain players and coaches out of the game for their blatant disregard for the game.

And today, I believe we have found another batter, who despite his massive swing and impressive batting average, has whiffed on a pitch that he promised to take yard. In one of his last works of mortality, Christopher Hitchens, the Late, great intellectual and atheist extraordinaire, elected to stand in the box and take a few swings at the religious legacy of one Thomas Jefferson. In his 2009 biography on Jefferson, Hitchens claimed that he wanted to present a more nuanced view of his subject than is usually found in the works of Jefferson critics and worshipers. Despite this claim, Hitchens' work quickly diverts from his supposed path of objectivity and travels head-on into an inevitable collision with modern pop-culture, thus rendering the work to be of little historical value. Aside from its strange conclusions on Jefferson's relationships with his mother and with Meriwhether Lewis, not to mention its lack of historical perspective on slavery, Indians, etc., Hitchens' book makes some astonishing claims in the very department that Hitchens loves/hates most: religion.

Right from the start, it becomes very obvious that Hitchens is attempting to "claim" Jefferson for the atheist camp more than he is trying to let Jefferson speak for himself. Hitchens somehow feels qualified to read between the lines of Jefferson's public and private declarations on religion, which affords him the ability to claim atheism where no atheism is to be had. For example, when discussing the final days of Jefferson's life, Hitchens writes:

As his days began to wane, Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he face the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much as to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgement if only because of the prudence he was compelled to reserve during his political life(Pp. 182).
In other words, Hitchens says, "Jefferson was probably an atheist but he couldn't admit it, due to his political duties."

And though it is true that Jefferson was far from being a Christian in any traditional way, to claim that Jefferson invoked religion purely for political reasons is reading between the lines. Virtually everything that Jefferson ever wrote on his personal religious beliefs reveal a private devotion to a providential god of nature, not a rejection of deity. So, while Hitchens was right to say that we must "reserve judgement" on Jefferson's religion, he could have done without the followup lines on political prudence being the exclusive reasons behind Jefferson's approval of religion.

***Strike 1***

Along with his weak attempt at portraying Thomas Jefferson as a closet atheist, Hitchens also fumbles the ball on his interpretation of deism. For Hitchens, deism of the 18th century was a strict belief in the absence of God from human affairs. No product of the Enlightenment could believe in any form of an intervening providential God and claim deism. This later proves problematic for Hitchens when he tries to classify Jefferson's public profession of faith (because he was privately an atheist) as deism, since Jefferson himself seemed to believe in a god who participated in human affairs:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever(Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18).

And finally, Hitchens takes his final hack of the bat when he incorrectly interprets Jefferson's motives for rewriting the Bible to his own liking. Hitchens claims that Jefferson's creation of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was meant to "[Throw] away all of the superfluous, ridiculous and devotional parts" of the Bible, and expunge "all mentions of angels, miracles and the resurrection" all in an effort to to separate "reason from faith." And though it is true that Jefferson removed many of the New Testament miracles, not all of the "ridiculous and devotional parts" were taken out. For example, Jefferson's "Bible" retains Jesus' emphasis on prayer, along with the blessings that come as a result. Jefferson's Bible also retains many of the teachings on the Father and the Holy Ghost, and their role(s) in assisting mankind. And perhaps most striking, Jefferson's Bible retains the belief that Jesus Christ himself will one day return to earth to judge mankind.

So much for the Jefferson Bible doing away with "all ridiculous and devotional parts." (Hat tip: M. DeForrest).

STRIKE 3. You're OUT!!!***

In summation, though Hitchens was a brilliant speaker, debater, writer and intellectual, he was not a historian. His biography (which really shouldn't even be considered a real biography but more of a "treatment") of Jefferson does not add much to the historiography of one of America's greatest statesmen. Regardless of this fact, Hitchens' book, like so many others from fellow culture warriors on both sides, is likely to influence many who regard history as the pursuit of "presentist" agendas mingled with the past. For me the book is pretty much on an equal footing with anything written by David Barton, Peter Lillback or Howard Zinn: on demand, fast food, quick fix, feel good, pill-that-numbs-the-pain, diluted commentary, camouflaged as history.

Thomas S. Kidd on the Faiths of Lincoln and Washington

Here. One word: enigmatic.

Another Story on the Jefferson Bible


Monday, February 20, 2012

Constitution 101

Beginning today, Hillsdale College in Michigan offers a free, on-line 10-week course of study titled "Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution."

Featuring an expanded format from the "Introduction to the Constitution" lecture series with Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry Arnn, Constitution 101 follows closely the one-semester course required of all Hillsdale College undergraduate students.

In this course, you can:

  • watch lectures from the same Hillsdale faculty who teach on campus;
  • study the same readings taught in the College course;
  • submit questions for weekly Q&A sessions with the faculty;
  • access a course study guide;
  • test your knowledge through weekly quizzes; and
  • upon completion of the course, receive a certificate from Hillsdale College.
  • You must register in order to participate in Constitution 101. Even if you have already signed up for a previous Hillsdale webcast or seminar, we ask that you complete the simple registration process for Constitution 101. There is no cost to register for this course, but we ask that you consider a donation to support our efforts to educate millions of Americans about our nation’s Founding documents and principles.

As of last month, Hillsdale has been making available its book titled The U.S. Constitution: A Reader. Edited by the College's politics department, it features 113 primary source documents on the principles of the Founding, and the framing and structure of the Constitution; and it follows history through secession and Civil War to the current rejection of Constitutional law in favor of the administrative state.

Franklin on Catholicism and Brown Sugar

In passing I noticed this paragraph in an article from NRO:
The American arrangement on church-and-state relations was a novelty for the Catholic Church. When it was deemed appropriate to appoint a bishop for the new republic after its founding, the Holy See sent a representative to learn the U.S. government’s wishes through the American minister in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin replied that this was none of the government’s business, and that the Church could appoint whomever it liked — a response that caused astonishment along the Tiber, where the pope, in those days, had a free right of appointing bishops in, at best, 20 percent of the world’s dioceses.
Was Franklin respectful of the Catholic Church or only tolerant, i.e. respectful of their rights? In a footnote of James Campbell’s book, “Recovering Benjamin Franklin” he writes:
Franklin displayed elements of anti-Catholicism throughout his life. He writes, for example, on 13 April 1785 of the conversion of a Boston Protestant clergyman to Catholicism: “Our ancestors from Catholic became first Church-of-England men, and then refined into Presbyterians. To change now from Presbytarianism to Popery seems to me refining backwards, from white sugar to brown.”
Nevertheless, Franklin maintained good relations with Rome and supported Charles Carroll (cousin of John Carroll) for Bishop of the first Catholic diocese in the states (see Raymond J. Kupke’s book). Franklin’s respect for the Catholic Church as an institution (and perhaps his respect for hypocrisy as a practice) made him a logical diplomatic choice for ambassador to the French Court--at least compared to John Jay and John Adams. Or perhaps it was just Franklin’s shrewd manner of making friends for fun and profit. As John Adams said of his friend, Ben:
The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.
I think that Ben wanted it that way.

"So help me God" –– What does it mean?

I recently came across this snippet from the William & Mary Law Review (1992) vol34/iss1/13: Religion-Plus-Speech: The Constitutionality of Juror Oaths and Affirmations Under the First Amendment by Jonathan Belcher:
The phrase "so help me God," a popular component of grand and petit juror oath statutes, is actually an abbreviated form of the oath, "So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me." White, supra note 30, at 379-80 n.10.
When I tracked down Thomas R. White, Oaths in Judicial Proceedings and Their Effect Upon the Competency of Witnesses, 51 U. PA. L. REV. 380, 380 (1903), this is what White says in a footnote:

In some instances the words of imprecation were added to oaths given in the Old Testament. Ruth to Naomi says, "The Lord do so to me and more also, if aught but death part thee and me." Ruth i. 17. The same words were used by Eli to Samuel when he was adjuring him to speak the truth. I Sam. iii. 17.

Many of the later Christian oaths contained express imprecations of God's vengeance for false swearing. Selden says that among the Spaniards the oath used in making a covenant concluded thus, "If I first designedly fail of this oath on that day, ye powers above torment my body in this life and my soul in the next with horrid tortures. Make my strength and my words fail. In battle let my horse and arms and spurs and subjects fail me when need is the sorest." II, II.

The words now used, "So help me God," at present little understood, are but a shorter way of expressing the same imprecation. When this precise form was first adopted is uncertain. Tyler says that he has been unable to find any oath in England which does not contain it or a similar phrase. The meaning of the phrase is, "So may God help me at the judgment day if I speak true, but if I speak false, then may He withdraw His help from me." Tyler, C. III.

So far, I haven't been able to identify this "Tyler, C. III."

I did find: James Endell Tyler - Oaths: their origin, nature, and history (1834). From what can be seen, J.E. Tyler avoids any reference to "So help me God" within what he provides as an enlightened definition of an oath:
"An oath is an outward pledge given by the juror that his attestation [or promise] is made under an immediate sense of his responsibility to God."
In a following footnote he adds:

* I have never found either the definition of an oath, or the form of an oath implying the imprecatory clause, acquiesced in by the early Christians. The ages when the most dreadful imprecations were used, and a multiplication of them was relied upon as a greater security for the truth, were the ages of religious darkness and corruption.

On page 12 he explains:

Phillips, indeed, in his beautifully luminous and able Treatise on the Law of Evidence, seems to take it for granted, that "our law (like that of most civilized nations) requires a witness to believe, not only that there is a God and a future state of rewards and punishments, but also that, by taking the oath, he imprecates upon himself, if his evidence is false*," But as we shall often be reminded, this view is neither universally taken, not is it insisted upon by the jurisprudence of all European countries. M. Merlin having stated that, by ancient law, the members of two different religions in France had the privilege of taking their own peculiar oath, Jews and Anabaptists, observe the latter, "their religion only allows them to say 'Yes," to the form of oath administered by the judge, and forbids them to lift their hand, because they believe that would be to provoke the Lord from the highest heaven; an act which, according to them, would be an impiety more fitted to destroy the credit of him who should be guilty of it, than to merit confidence."

* Phillips, c.3

On page 57 he explains:
I would again observe, that whilst the mode now universally adopted among us, is imprecatory; –– the invoking of God's vengeance in case we do not fulfill our engagement to speak the truth, or perform the specific duty, "So help me God," –– I am not aware of the form being sanctioned by the words or the example of Christ himself, or any of his Apostles, or of those whom we regard as the most approved models of primitive Christianity.
In contrast to the deep-rooted understanding of an impracatory oath as just shown, here's what American Creation blogger Brian Tubbs wrote back on 12/29/2011:

When a President-elect says "so help me God" after the oath, he is simply adding his personal sentiment. He's not writing law. He is asking God to help him fulfill his legal obligations.

So says Brian Tubbs. But look, even if a president would of his own accord choose to omit those non-biblical and extra-constitutional four words, it appears that he would still be doing so at his everlasting peril. See The Everything U.S. Constitution Book: An easy-to-understand explanation of the foundation of American government (2011), page 53-sidebar, by Ellen M. Kozak:
Legend has it that George Washington added the words "so help me God" to the end of the oath, but there is no more proof of that than the legend of the cherry tree. As to whether all other presidents have added it since, it is likely that Thomas Jefferson* did not. However, now that inaugurations are broadcast, presidents omit it at their peril, since the public expects it.

* See my American Creation blog of 6/21/2008 where Barbara Oberg, General Editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson offers her comment about "TJ".

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Should We Understand Violence In The Good Book?

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan. "Patrick Allitt reviews Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses by Philip Jenkins:"

Early figures in Christian history approached the genocidal passages in different ways. Marcion, leader of a highly influential Christian movement of the second century AD, argued that the God of the Old Testament, capricious, brutal, and violent, was the antithesis of the God of Jesus in the New Testament. His own proposed version of the Bible omitted the Old Testament completely. So, a century later, did that of Mani, founder of the Manicheans, who thought of divine history as a great battle between light and darkness and denied that the New Testament fulfilled prophecies made in the Old.

Arguing against the Marcionites and the Manicheans, some of the Church Fathers, including Origen and Augustine, denied that the genocidal passages should be taken literally. In Origen’s view they should be read metaphorically or spiritually so that the Canaanites or Amalekites were not actual groups of people, deserving of death, but the tendency to sin in every human heart, against which we should make perpetual war.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Isaac Newton's Bible Codes

Isaac Newton was one of those British unitarian Enlightenment Christians who greatly influenced America's Founders. Interestingly, he believed in Bible codes as this story explains. Also interestingly, he saw the existence of such as part of his "scientific" enterprise.

Benjamin Franklin and the American Enlightenment

By Dr. Richard Beeman, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania

I found this neat article here.

A taste:

In turning Franklin into a caricature, we obscure the substance of his contributions to what historians have termed “the Age of Enlightenment,” which was, in reality, not so much an “age” as an “impulse,” fuelled by a heightened sense of optimism about the ability of men and women to use their rational powers not only to understand the laws of the universe, but also to devise means by which to use those laws for the betterment of mankind.

Franklin’s contributions to enlightenment thought far transcended the boundaries of his own country: his reputation as a scientist and as a philosopher was, deservedly, an international one. Yet we must not, in our urge to free Franklin from the baggage associated with his image as “typical American,” divorce him entirely from his American upbringing and experience. Despite the fact that he spent nearly 27 years of his life outside the boundaries of North America, his temperament and habit of mind were shaped in countless ways by the natural landscape and social structure of America. The extraordinary novelty and variety in that landscape would give to Franklin, in common with many other American enlightenment figures a sharpened sense of empirical observation and induction: the more open-ended social structure of eighteenth century America encouraged in Franklin an optimism about humanly-created institutions - be they legislatures or fire companies or colleges – that citizens of European societies, more heavily encumbered by tradition, would have found difficult to share. Perhaps more important, Franklin’s own life experiences and accomplishments would serve as models – as he wished them to do – for countless Americans both in his age and in subsequent generations.

Tea with Simon Critchley: The Separation of Church and State Is Impossible

Here is the article. Here is the book.

The way I understand the book's thesis, it has to do with political-theology -- the old saying politics is theology applied. You don't need any kind of traditional or orthodox understanding of the faith. Rather, Rousseau's civil religion or ceremonial deism will do. But the "system" has to have some kind of divine trump.

A taste:

The religious conservatives are right: there is a theology behind the American political system—only it isn’t Christianity. It’s deism, the faith most closely associated with the Enlightenment, which professes, as Critchley puts it, that “there’s a God, but a God that doesn’t do party tricks.” Even if no one calls himself a deist anymore, it lives on it the political systems that the Enlightenment inspired—especially our own. Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.

Is there any way to participate in politics without getting religious? “I don’t think it should even be an aspiration,” Critchley told me. “If you look at a counterexample, the problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have those rituals. It tried to bind a polity together through a constitution, but it was so weak. There’s been a total failure to craft something like a European identity—the problem hasn’t even been recognized. So we’re left with a unity which is simply monetary. And that seems to be screwed.”

I'm not sure if I would call it "deism" as opposed to "generic monotheism." As I have come to learn the civil religion or political theology of the American Founding is an uber-eccumenical generic monotheism where among others, Jews, Christians, Muslims and un-converted Great Spirit believing Native Americans all worship the same monotheistic God. AND further, much of what has been termed "deism" from this era is actually Providential, heterodox (non-Trinitarian) "Christianity." (I put "Christianity" in quotes because, to some, non-Trinitarianism and "Christianity" are mutually exclusive concepts.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Life, Liberty and Property: Slavery and the Founding of America

America is a nation that has become synonymous with freedom. The hope people of all races, religions, genders and backgrounds can have an equal and protected right to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has become the principal creed of the American experiment. This belief has been a constant work in progress, dating back to the time of our Founding Fathers. During the American Revolution, men Like John Adams, Patrick Henry and others tirelessly campaigned and urged the American public to embrace the ideals of independence, and to break the bands of tyranny from England. America’s war hero George Washington was inspiring troops to come together in a common cause, to win their freedom from what they saw as an oppressive King of England.

And though these founders are rightfully praised for their incredible efforts, the American Revolution was far from the perfect personification of human freedom. An entire race of people, for example, would not receive the benefits of independence or of personal liberty. The African American slave population was the greatest contradiction to the ideals of American independence. Their legacy not only confuses many Americans today, but it also greatly troubled the citizens of the early American republic. Citizens endeavored to justify their "rights" to Black "property" while at the same time praising the "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal." Needless to say, this contradiction was an ugly and uncomfortable truth of American society that was simply brushed under the table in most cases. The "peculiar institution", as it became known, was arguably the most ugly and painful thorn in the side of our nation's founders, a thorn they never fully removed.

With mounting tensions between England and her rebel colonies mounting, the Continental Congress looked to the redheaded, thirty-three-year-old Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to create the "marching orders" for the new nation. In a matter of days Jefferson would write one of the most amazing documents in world history, the Declaration of Independence. In this document Jefferson spelled out the reasons and justifications that the colonists had for independence, along with a list of grievances they had against the King of England. In addition, this Virginian master of hundreds of slaves attempted to address the slave issue. In his first draft of the DoI, Jefferson not only condemned the slave trade, but placed full blame for slavery in America on the shoulders of the King of England:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither… to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold.
As wonderful as all of this may have sounded, the Continental Congress elected to delete all references to the slave trade, fearing that it may actually harm the revolutionary movement. No doubt many of the signers themselves were slaveholders. While we today may look at Jefferson and others as hypocrites, it is worth remembering that they were (like us today) a product of their times. Slavery had become a reality for many early Americans. If the Congress truly wanted to gain the backing of the masses, the best way to do that was to ignore the slavery issue altogether.

With the "revised" draft of Jefferson’s Declaration now complete, the Continental Congress distributed the document to the masses. General Washington ordered it read to the men under his command. With all the excitement that this document caused, there is little doubt that many found it to be contradictory to the realities of 18th Century American life. The bold phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" only rang true for a section of the population. Women, Blacks, Native Americans, and many others were far from "equal" to their sophisticated American gentry neighbors. Regardless of this fact, the DoI inspired and gave hope to thousands of slaves, who sought for a way to break the chains of servitude.

Once the exhilaration of victory over Britain had worn off, the American people faced the challenge of creating a new government. With thirteen separate states, each with its unique culture and ideals, this proved to be a very difficult task. Under the Articles of Confederation the new nation was loosely tied together through a virtually powerless national authority. The new government quickly realized that it had little to no influence over the states. As problems arose, the new government was powerless to help. Since the Confederation was powerless to tax the states, they created the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This ordinance was created to help the government sell off the land north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachian Mountains for colonization. This proved to be one of the Confederation’s finest moments. As historian Carol Berlin stated, the Northwest Ordinance was "without question, the government’s finest peacetime establishment" (A Brilliant Solution, 23).

The Northwest Ordinance had another side to it though. Article IV of the document stated that, "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory" (Slavery and the Founders, 40). This move on the part of the Northwest Ordinance was an obvious challenge to many of the accepted norms of the time. Clearly the slavery issue had been a popular topic of the time, and many people felt that the institution had to be eradicated before the revolutionary ideals could be fully realized. Others, however, felt that slavery was an institution worthy of full government protection. As historian Joseph Ellis points out, "slavery was woven into the fabric of American society in ways that defied appeals to logic or morality" (Founding Brothers, 91).

Despite its controversy verbiage, Article IV did not become a source of debate for those for and against slavery. As historian Paul Finkelman argues, southern slaveholders were more than willing to accept the article because to them it meant slavery would continue in the south, and it would prevent settlers of the new territory from competing with their monopoly on Black labor (Slavery and the Founders, 42). Slaveholders also took comfort in the apparent ambiguity of Article IV. For example, Article IV (and the ordinance in general) said nothing about the fate of slaves already living in the territory. It also said nothing about the children of slaves who would be born in the territory. Much of the ambiguity of this article came as a result of its hasty adoption. It was quickly created and accepted with little to no revision. As Paul Finkelman calls it, "The Ordinance illustrates the danger of hastily drafted legislation" (Slavery and the Founders, 48). Had Article IV been better scrutinized before being accepted, then perhaps the pro-slavery arguments would have had not footing to stand on.

As the infant nation continued to define itself, many prominent members of society began seeing a shadow of uncertainty cast over their republican experiment. Men like Madison, Hamilton and Washington began to believe that only a strong nationalized government could secure America’s future. As a result, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, in the very building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Men from 12 of the 13 states came together to discuss different solutions to a growing problem. Opinions varied greatly on whether a new government should be created, and how that new government should look.

After great debates and great compromises the Constitution of the United States was created and ratified. Debates over representation in the national legislature, the nature of the Executive branch, and the protection of individual rights were among the issues debated. But of all the debates that came to the forefront of the convention, the problem of slavery took center stage. As James Madison stated, "the States were divided into different interests not by their difference in size, but principally from their having or not of slaves" (Founding Brothers, 91). Southern states desperately wanted to protect the institution, or at least extend its lifespan. Those who sought to destroy slavery through Constitutional laws were met with disappointment. As Carol Berkin states, "Any attempt to raise the moral issue of slavery was just as quickly rejected" (A Brilliant Solution, 113). Eventually, northern states gave up on the slavery issue and acquiesced to the demands of their southern brethren by accepting the compromise to allow slaves to be counted as 3/5 a person in the representation of a state. This 3/5 Compromise gave slaveholders the comfort of knowing that they would be able to safeguard their "property" from northern abolitionists, and ensured that they would play a major (perhaps the major) role in American politics for the next 70-80 years.

The newly ratified Constitution also served to protect slavery in other ways. The southern delegates were able to gain the guarantee that the slave trade would be Constitutionally protected for at least twenty years. Although many abolitionists were no doubt devastated, many also realized that securing the ratification of the Constitution was a more pressing need. Southern delegates would have been reluctant to sign any Constitution that did not give specific safeguards to slavery. As Joseph Ellis points out, "The distinguishing feature of the document (Constitution) when it came to slavery was its evasiveness. It was neither a contract with abolition nor a covenant with death, but rather a prudent exercise in ambiguity" (Founding Brothers, 93). The southern slaveholders had won a major victory in securing their slave-holding rights. Any effort to restrict or eliminate the institution would have to overcome the massive hurdle of the Constitution. In short, the south had won one of the key battles to secure the legacy of the American Revolution. The rest of the war would have to wait to be settled till the 1860s.

Slavery was not only an institution protected by law in the early American republic, but it also became an institution that defined the early American republic. The complex and immoral debates that arose in defense of the institution helped to determine the actions of many Founding Fathers. The creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution were all influenced by the existence of slavery. Through the actions of our early founders, slavery became not only an institution but also a culture, fully protected by law. It is no wonder that slavery, and all the debates that went with it, would continue to shape American history and eventually contribute to our bloodiest war ever: The Civil War.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

James R. Rogers On Mitt Romney’s Constitutional Theology

Very interesting article that details how Mormonism (unlike orthodox Christianity) believes as a matter of official doctrine that America's Founding documents and their promotion of republicanism and political liberty are divinely inspired.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Petition of the Philadelphia Synagogue to Council of Censors of Pennsylvania

I've been meaning to post this for some time.  We've seen that PA's original 1776 state constitution contains a clause requiring certain public officials to swear belief in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament.  Christian nationalists often cite that clause as a smoking gun.  But then we learn in 1790, under the direction of acting governor Ben Franklin (who noted he himself couldn't pass the test because he didn't believe the entire Old Testament was divinely inspired!), PA removed and replaced the offending clause with one that required belief in "the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments,..."

Guess who else had a problem with PA's original religious test?  Jewish people who didn't believe in the divine inspiration of the New Testament.  You can read their complaints here.

A taste:

That by the tenth section of the Frame of Government of this Commonwealth, it is ordered that each member of the general assembly of representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe a declaration, which ends in these words, "I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the old and new Testament to be given by divine inspiration," to which is added an assurance, that "no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state."

Your memorialists beg leave to observe, that this clause seems to limit the civil rights of your citizens to one very special article of the creed; whereas by the second paragraph of the declaration of the rights of the inhabitants, it is asserted without any other limitation than the professing the existence of God, in plain words, "that no man who acknowledges the being of a God can be justly deprived or abridged of any civil rights as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments." But certainly this religious test deprives the Jews of the most eminent rights of freemen, solemnly ascertained to all men who are not professed Atheists.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

General v. Particular

A post from my solo blog. Here is a passage relevant to American Creation:

What got me thinking on this was Ray Soller's comment that seeks to limit Mark 12:17 to a very limited specific context. Now, Ray may be right on how this text ought to be so understood; but that hasn't stopped folks from interpreting it in a more general sense. Potential examples from the Bible -- and many other notable texts -- abound endlessly. The texts themselves often help point to proper contexts. But also often, certainly, with the Bible, the texts don't teach "one" proper interpretation. Were that true, there wouldn't be so many Protestant sects.

We've spent a lot of time arguing whether Romans 13 is absolute (if it is, then the American revolution was un-biblical and sinful). The text of the Bible clearly supports this reading (insofar as Romans 13 refers to submission to government as opposed to mere obedience; other competing texts of the Bible make a rule that teaches absolute obedience to government not plausible as the Bible teaches sometimes you have to obey God not man). But other readings are plausible.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sandefur on Due Process at Cato

Since I've linked to this topic before, this series may be quite interesting. As usual, keep a sharp eye for arguments from the American Founding and philosophies that influenced it.

David Barton Gets Kirk Cameron

It looks like I'm going to be busy for quite some time. David Barton isn't backing down but hiring getting Kirk Cameron to spread Christian nationalism. Cameron notes he wants it to be a "movement." If you've seen his "Way of the Master" videos, you'll note Cameron has a very strict view on what it means to be a "Christian." Accordingly a great deal of the "Founding Fathers," though they weren't strict deists and did think of themselves as "Christians" in some sense were not "Christians" according to Cameron's strict spiritual standards.

Likewise a lot of Cameron's "Christians" from the colonial era -- the Puritans, for instance -- did indefensible things like executing Quakers, banning Roger Williams and having laws on the books that demanded the death penalty for among other things worshipping false gods.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

More Obama The Christian

Read his remarks here. He was far more explicitly Christian in his remarks than the Founding era Presidents. Indeed, as this Reason article notes, Obama is as explicitly Christian in Presidential remarks as his predecessor George W. Bush.

John Barry's Roger Williams the State of the American Soul

Hat tip John Fea. Roger Williams is timely once again (I think he'll always be timely). This is the Amazon link to Barry's book. And here is Barry's LA Times article on the matter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Bible Usury and Debt

Since this blog deals with how Christian morality impacts American law I'll touch on this story. There is debate as to who -- the Christian Left or the Christian Right (or even Christian libertarians) -- best represents the Bible's politics. These aren't easy questions and I'm not convinced any of the sides are "right." I'm certainly not convinced that Jesus' admonishment to feed the poor demands socialized medicine or redistributionist economics.

There are a couple modest positions I've concluded are so clear that they are beyond debate. One is the Bible is anti-usury and arguably teaches, like Islam, the charging of ANY interest (even a "good" rate for borrowers) is a sin. Therefore, if it's a good idea to write biblical teachings into the law or otherwise have the law reflect and not seem inconsistent with biblical morality, high interest loans are immoral and ought to be illegal. Arguably there should be no interest charged on loans. That represents a huge tension between free market capitalism and what the Bible teaches.

The second non-debatable point is that the Bible is radically pro-debtor. David Skeel, law professor at Penn and whom I had at Temple, seems one of the few notable right of center Christian academics who consistently trumpets a pro-debtor tune (to the chagrin of bondholders everywhere).

The anti-usury, pro-debtor stance of the Bible, it seems to me, are two areas where the Christian Left is more biblical than the Christian Right.

Though, I have concluded that the Bible/Christian religion is, at its heart, a-political and compatible with virtually any political system. It's not just Romans 13 (which we've discussed at great length), but also -- and more importantly -- Mark 12:17. When Jesus said "Render Unto Caesar" he didn't refer to the noble Stoic Roman republicans, but rather to the ignoble imperial Roman tyrants.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Appeal to Heaven

Among the more than 200 flags owned by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York that are exhibited at Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City is this banner with its decidedly faithful message.

This flag, Appeal to Heaven, was the official symbol of Gen. George Washington's fleet from 1775. It is on display in the Kathryn & Shelby Cullom Davis Education Center for American History at Fraunces Tavern Museum in Manhattan.

The marker next to the flag reads:

Washington's Armed Vessels

This flag was the official symbol of General George Washington's fleet of armed vessels. The fleet consisted of about six schooners which he armed at his own expense in 1775. The tree is the symbol of the Revolution in the north. It is modeled after the tree in which the Sons of Liberty rallied under named 'The Liberty Tree.' This flag was later adopted by the Massachusetts Navy in 1777.

I happened upon this flag almost accidentally one night last month. I was honored to have been the first guest lecturer of 2012 in Fraunces' Special Evening Lecture series, and stumbled upon the flag while looking for a place to drop my coat. Of course I immediately thought of all of you, and snapped the photo. (I'll polish up that lecture, and share it here as well eventually.)

Speaking of Patriots, it's almost Super Bowl kick-off time. Go Giants!

Mormonism & America's Civil Religion

In this passage J K.A. Smith highlights a tension between orthodox Christianity and America's Civil Religion:

Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

As I've noted many times before it's precisely because of Mormonism's unorthodox nature (and because of when and where it was founded) that such better "fits" with America's Founding political theology than does orthodox Christianity.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

Democracy's Big Day

Jim Bendat's 2012 edition of his book, Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2013, is now available. His chapter on George Washington's first inauguration, So help me, So help me Not, starts on page 26. Here's a snippet:

There are no contemporary accounts indicating that Washington actually said, "so help me God." No newspapers, magazines or books from the time period indicated that Washington added those words. The first time that anyone ever suggested that Washington had said, "so help me God" took place in 1854, sixty-five years after the event, in Rufus Wilmot Griswold's book, The Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of Washington [page 141]. Griswold hadn't attended Washington's inauguration, but he cited the famous writer Washington Irving as a witness to the ceremony.