Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hart Reviews Fea

Darryl Hart reviewed John Fea's book "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction." John Fea informed us here. A taste from Hart's review:
The last part of Fea’s book addresses the beliefs of the founders themselves. He features George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, but includes a chapter on three “orthodox founders,” John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams. This is a subject where Christian nationalism has often turned the founders into devout and orthodox believers, partly at least to justify a reading of America as a Christian nation. Fea is not so sentimental, however. On Washington, he concludes that Christians may laudably celebrate his leadership, courage, civility, and morality, but not his Christianity. Washington’s “religious life was just too ambiguous” (190). Adams “should be commended ... for his attempts to live a life in accordance with the moral teachings of the Bible,” but was finally a Unitarian who denied the deity of Christ (210). Jefferson, likewise, was a great statesman who strived to live a moral life but “failed virtually every test of Christian orthodoxy” (215). Although a successful businessman and patriot, Franklin “rejected most Christian doctrines in favor of a religion of virtue” (227). Meanwhile, in the case of the orthodox Christian founders, Fea concludes that “Christianity was present at the time of the founding” but “merged with other ideas that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity” (242). The best that can be said of Christianity’s influence on the American founding was that “all the founders believed ... that religion was necessary in order to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic” (246).


Tom Van Dyke said...

We'll see what happens when John Fea publishes his upcoming book on Presbyterianism in the Founding, since Darryl Hart is a bitter theological opponent of anything resembling "Calvinist resistance theory."

Bill Fortenberry said...

I borrowed a copy of Fea's book a couple of weeks ago and skimmed through it. I found it to be much more respectful than Frazer's book, but it still presented many of the same errors.

One example can be seen in Hart's reference to Fea's conclusion about Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's own comments about the merits of virtue belie Fea's claim. In a letter to his sister, Franklin wrote:

You express yourself as if you thought I was against Worshipping of God, and believed Good Works would merit Heaven; which are both Fancies of your own, I think, without Foundation. I am so far from thinking that God is not to be worshipped, that I have compos’d and wrote a whole Book of Devotions for my own Use: And I imagine there are few, if any, in the World, so weake as to imagine, that the little Good we can do here, can merit so vast a Reward hereafter. There are some Things in your New England Doctrines and Worship, which I do not agree with, but I do not therefore condemn them, or desire to shake your Belief or Practice of them. We may dislike things that are nevertheless right in themselves. I would only have you make me the same Allowances, and have a better Opinion both of Morality and your Brother. Read the Pages of Mr. Edward’s late Book entitled Some Thoughts concerning the present Revival of Religion in NE. from 367 to 375; and when you judge of others, if you can perceive the Fruit to be good, don’t terrify your self that the Tree may be evil, but be assur’d it is not so; for you know who has said, Men do not gather Grapes of Thorns or Figs of Thistles.

As I stated in my article on The Conversion of Benjamin Franklin:

"Here, Franklin provides a direct denial of the claim that he was relying on good works to gain entrance into Heaven, and to further allay the fears of his sister, he directs her to discover his beliefs about morality in the pages of Jonathan Edwards' account of the revival in New England. Within the pages that Franklin listed, is found a remarkable explanation of the proper role of morality in the life of the believer. Even today, Edwards is well known as one of the greatest theologians in the history of America, and the deference to his teachings on morality indicates that Franklin had an appropriately Christian view of that subject."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Basically, the perpetual argument is to grab the outliers Jefferson and Franklin, the occasional unitarian such as John Adams, and the doctrinal silence of Madison and Washington---put it all under an umbrella, that these men didn't believe Jesus was God [or in the latter cases, there's no direct proof], therefore they are not Christian, therefore the Founding cannot be called "Christian."

Haven't you been paying attention, Bill? :-P

As for “Christianity was present at the time of the founding” but “merged with other ideas that were compatible with, but not necessarily influenced by, Christianity”

This misses that all classical Greek and Roman thought had been run through Aquinas and the Scholastics--as well as natural law Protestants such as Hugo Grotius and William Blackstone--and therefore "Christianized." Natural rights theory--"endowed by their creator"--if not a development of Christian thought, is clearly given sacred force by the Divine Endower.

Further, the Calvinists came up with their own parallel theological contribution, that contra the fundamentalist/literalist interpretation of Romans 13--and Thomas Hobbes--God invests sovereignty in the people, not in the king or the government.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Along that same train of thought, several of the church fathers and even Josephus recognized the possibility that the Greek philosophers were influenced by the writings of Moses.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's a little farther than I'm prepared to go on this point. ;-)

However, truth is truth, so if the classical philosophers discovered truth [via natural law], there is no conflict with revealed religion--in fact men like Locke would say that reason gives assent to faith--the "Reasonableness" of Christianity, in this case.