Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fortenberry's Latest on Frazer and More on John Adams' Heterodoxy

Bill Fortenberry forwarded this along to me. It involves a letter John Adams wrote to fellow unitarian Francois or Francis Van der Kemp. Apparently there was a figure named Dupuis who was either an atheist or a deist who denied the possibility of special revelation. 

Adams thinks Dupuis is really smart and makes points that need answering. Adams makes clear he believes in special revelation and in Christianity founded on such.

The issue is whether Adams believes the Bible -- and given unitarians are Protestants, the Protestant canon -- though it contains true revelation, has nonetheless been corrupted and contains errors. Below quotes Dr. Gregg Frazer (Fortenberry's bete noire) discussing Adams' quotation:
His theistic rationalism, like that of the other key Founders, was a sort of middle ground between protestantism and deism. For example, his complaint that “millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation” to make “the most bloody religion that ever existed” would not please either camp.  Deists could not countenance the recognition of legitimate revelation, and Christians would not appreciate either the characterization of parts of Scripture as “fables, tales, legends” or the use of the “most bloody religion” label.
You can read Fortenberry's link that features the original exchange between Adams and Van der Kemp and make up your mind for yourself.

Fortenberry tries to argue of Adams that this exchange (or apparently anything else Adams wrote) does not reveal he thought the Bible had errors. I think Frazer's analysis is correct.

In the exchange of letters Adams notes as he did numerous times that he thought there were "corruptions" of Christianity that needed to be purged. The unitarian Joseph Priestley coined that term and he defined the corruptions as follows: 1. Original Sin; 2. The Trinity; 3. The Incarnation; 4. The Atonement; and 5. Plenary Inspiration of the biblical canon. 

Adams may not have agreed exactly with Priestley (or Jefferson or anyone else). Though the connection is relevant because these unitarians thought of themselves as continuing in the tradition of Protestant reformers. They just didn't think the original reformers went far enough. Now in the age of Enlightenment, Christianity ought to reform further in that direction.  

Fortenberry attempts to punt with an answer I've often seen: When the founders talked smack about problems in Christianity, they were referring to Roman Catholicism only. 

This is an error with a kernel of truth. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church typified everything that was corrupt, superstitious and violent about "Christianity." But Protestants also had those problems. And indeed, those problems, as the narrative goes, derived from the Catholic Church that the original reformers didn't satisfactorily purge. The Trinity, for instance, is labeled a Roman Catholic fabrication. 

And yes, the Protestant canon itself contains corruptions. I've noted before Adams discussing what he saw as "error[s]" and "amendment[s]."
When and where originated our Ten Commandments? The Tables and The Ark were lost. Authentic copies, in few, if any hands; the ten Precepts could not be observed, and were little remembered.

If the Book of Deuteronomy was compiled, during or after the Babilonian Captivity, from Traditions, the Error or Amendment might come in there. 
-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 14, 1813.
Much more demonstrates that texts Protestants view as canonical John Adams thought corrupted. I will provide a bit. Below are two smoking gun quotations where Adams criticizes the King James Bible. Pay special attention to the second one where Adams discusses his thoughts on the different "canons."
We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity, than to propagate these corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America! 
-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 4, 1816.
What do you call “The Bible”? The Translation by King James the first? More than half a Catholick.? ... “The Bible a Rule of Faith.”! What Bible? King James’s? The Hebrew? The Septuagint,? The Vulgate? The Bibles now translated or translating into Chinese, Indian, Negro and all the other Languages of Europe Asia and Affrica? Which of the thirty thousand Variantia are the Rule of Faith? 
-- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816.
This fits my thesis that Roman Catholicism, to men like Adams, was the source of the problem, but much of what Protestantism embraced, like the canon of the King James Bible, was corrupted by Roman Catholicism.

(On a different note, Adams' letter to JQA, dated 3/28/1816 has a lot more to it. There Adams explicitly rejects the orthodox Protestant doctrine of justification by faith or faith alone in favor of a works based justification scheme. Plus more. Perhaps later we will do an in depth exploration of it.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Robert P. Kraynak on Gregg Frazer's Book

From Dr. Robert P. Kraynak of Colgate. Kraynak's review is online now. Check it out here. A taste:
According to Frazer, America's Founders created a national religious creed that underlies our republican institutions, even though it is hard to pin down precisely because it is more than "deism" and less than orthodox Christianity. To capture the Founders' religion, Frazer invents a new term, "theistic rationalism," which emphasizes rational belief in God and morality rather than faith in the revealed mysteries of the Biblical God (14-20). It was a hybrid religion, combining Enlightenment ideas of a Creator God who is the Intelligent Designer of a rational cosmos and elements of Christian belief in a providential God who intervenes in history and supports a moral code of benevolence and political freedom. Frazer shows how theistic rationalism became a republican religion of God-given natural rights and civic duties, whose expressions in America were the Declaration of Independence and public rituals of civil religion ...


... He tips his hand at several points, for example, when sympathetically discussing the Christian scholar James W. Jones, whose book The Shattered Synthesis (1973) criticizes the "arrogance" of the American Founders for deliberately altering and diluting Christianity for political purposes. Jones traces their error to theologians like Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) who remade God and the Bible in the image of man by insisting that God's "benevolence" bound Him to the humanistic idea of nonjudgmental acceptance of every sincere person--preparing the way for the Unitarian universalist claim that everyone goes to heaven (55-62). In the last lines of his book, Frazer judges this transformation of religion with benevolent severity: "God became whoever they preferred Him to be and made only those demands they wished Him to make. They had truly created a god in their own image" (236). In other words, the American Founders and their theological authorities were guilty of idolatry by remaking God into a republican humanist.
For the record, Kraynak, like Frazer, is influenced by the Straussian school and one of the figures whom Frazer positively sources for his book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

James Kabala's Book on Church State Relations in the Early American Republic

This was published in 2015. I've always found James Kabala to do solid work. Gordon Wood endorses this book.

And I made the footnotes on page 220 accessible here. As was mentioned in the note, back in the day when I was involved with the now defunct group blog "Positive Liberty," through a spontaneous and informal process that could have occurred only in the age of the Internet, Dr. Kabala and I mutually investigated the claim that the Reverend Bird Wilson (James Wilson's son) labeled the first half dozen American Presidents "infidels."

In fact there was a Reverend Wilson or Willson who made this claim, but it wasn't Bird Wilson. Rather it was James Renwick Willson, a Calvinistic covenanter.

Monday, January 23, 2017

What George Washington May Have Really Said...

What a young George Washington, after cutting down the cherry tree, might have said in today's socio-political climate....
I'm not sure who came up with this meme, but I had to share.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Prager University's Take on the Founders' Religion

Prager University (PragerU) is an "online video resource promoting knowledge and clarity on life's biggest and most interesting topics." The brainchild of conservative author and columnist Dennis Prager, PragerU is a popular online resource for conservatives. And here is PragerU's take on the Founding Fathers and their "diverse" religious beliefs...

Friday, January 20, 2017

‘Trump invokes a timeless Scriptural staple of initiations’

Alex Wong for Getty Images
No, that is not an Illuminati hand gesture.

After taking the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States this afternoon, Donald Trump delivered his inaugural address, a speech of only 16 minutes that vowed a revival of self-governance and national self-determination, and also professed faith in God—while also invoking a verse of Scripture that should be familiar to the attentive ear of every Freemason.


“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.”

Of course the new American president cites the first verse of Psalm 133, which is offered (in longer form) in Freemasonry’s first ceremony of initiation: the Entered Apprentice Degree:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

Psalm 133 has been a staple of initiation rites at least since St. Benedict authored his rule for monastic life 1500 years ago.

At the risk of stirring the troubled minds of all kinds of conspiracy “theorists,” I share this minor point here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trump Will Be Sworn In on the Lincoln Bible

Lest Brother Magpie's post

Trump will not be sworn on Washington Bible

seemed too negative or ominous, or something,

Trump Will Be Sworn In With Same Bible As Lincoln And Obama

In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man's welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.
Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible on September 7, 1864 (CWAL VII:542)

For all their differences, when Donald Trump takes the oath of office to succeed Barack Obama on Friday, one small but symbolic similarity will be on display. Trump will place his hand on the Bible that President Lincoln used at his first inauguration, the same one President Obama used at both of his swearing in ceremonies.
The Lincoln Bible was purchased for the 1861 inauguration by Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll.
Trump will also use his personal Bible, given to him by his mother when he graduated from Sunday school in 1955, according to a statement from the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trump will not be sworn on Washington Bible

Magpie Mason file photo
The George Washington Inaugural Bible, at Genesis 49-50, where the first American president placed his hand upon being sworn at Federal Hall in Manhattan on April 30, 1789.
I hadn’t been able to get an answer—which I took as a negative answer—from the Masons I know at St. John’s Lodge in New York City as to whether the 45th American president will take his oath of office Friday with his hand upon the George Washington Inaugural Bible, which the lodge owns, but The Hill reported within the hour that Donald J. Trump instead will have both his personal Bible and the Abraham Lincoln Bible for the swearing in at the U.S. Capitol.

The Washington Bible is on display, alongside handwritten pages of Washington’s first inaugural address, at the National Archives through next Wednesday. The Bible’s appearance there caused some wonder about the historic holy text possibly being used January 20. This Bible typically is displayed at Federal Hall in New York City, where Washington took his first presidential oath of office in 1789.

Click here to read The Hill story.

Click here to read a 2009 American Creation article on the historic Bible and the non-Constitutional addition of “So help me God” to the swearing ritual.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Return Encounter Touching on the Book-oath

Back on Dec. 10, 2013, Tucker Lieberman posted an article, The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles, which was originally published as part of the now defunct Helium Network. I posted a segment to American Creation after it came to my attention.  Now the author has expanded and revivified this same article  at his blog that’s called, Dead Man Blogging, which is “Dedicated to the writings of (mostly) dead, mostly Western philosophers.”

Here’s a taste:

The term 'book-oath' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Henry IV.  Part II contains the words: "I put thee now to thy/book-oath: deny it, if thou canst." In pre-Revolutionary America, swearing on the Bible served as a religious test "designed to marginalize infidel deists like Thomas Paine, and religious dissidents especially like members of the Dutch Reformed Church," according to information received from RaySoller.

Placing one's hand on the Bible
Despite this, many U.S. presidents have recited the oath with their hands on a Bible. George Washington did so at his first inauguration. ( . . . ) The next well substantiated claim to this is for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at his inauguration in 1829, followed by the eleventh U.S. president, James Polk, who also kissed the Bible when he swore on it at his 1845 inauguration, an event that was publicized by telegraph. Social critic and comic Dean Obeidallah singled out "two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, [who] did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies, but many others certainly did.

 Read full article here.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Brayton, Fischer, Washington & Me

Check out this post by Ed Brayton that references comments by Bryan Fischer on George Washington and religion. It also mentions me.

This links to Fischer's original words. One thing is for sure: George Washington was pro-religion. There is smoking gun evidence for this. There is a world of difference however between "religion" on the one hand, and what Fischer understands to be "Christianity" on the other.

Religion is a genus of which Christianity is a species. And Fischer's Christianity (like for instance President Obama's or the Pope's) is a further subspecies. Fischer's error is that he conflates Washington's genus with Fischer's own subspecies.

President Washington didn't have a problem with the then conservative Christian clergy (the ones who tried to sniff Jefferson out as an "infidel"). However, GW didn't seem to have a problem with any religious sect, provided they weren't Tories and that their faith yielded moral practice.

Given the contentious nature of the debate, we have to draw our conclusions carefully. We know GW believed in a warm Providence and was, as noted, pro-religion. I suspect, for instance, that on the nature of future punishment, he was a universalist. I don't have any smoking gun quotations to prove it for certain. However, he did give John Murray's Universalist Church the highest regards he gave to any other sect. But admittedly many of those other sects that earned his imprimatur were not universalist on the matter.

Likewise with the Trinity, I don't see GW as an "orthodox Trinitarian" Christian. However, he never bitterly ridiculed the orthodox doctrine like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did. He did give props to an address by the Arian Richard Price which was pro-unitarian. And in that address Price discusses the importance of granting rights to "religion" and not "Christianity."

As Price argues:
From the preceding observations it may be concluded that it is impossible I should not admire the following article in the declaration of rights which forms the foundation of the Massachusett's constitution:
'In this state every denomination of Christians demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth shall be equally under the protection of the law, and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.'
This is liberal beyond all example. I should, however, have admired it more had it been more liberal, and the words, all men of all religions been substituted for the words, every denomination of Christians.

It appears farther from the preceding observations that I cannot but dislike the religious tests which make a part of several of the American constitutions. In the Massachusett's constitution it is ordered that all who take seats in the House of Representatives or Senate shall declare 'their firm persuasion of the truth of the Christian religion'. The same is required by the Maryland constitution, as a condition of being admitted into any places of profit or trust. In Pensylvania every member of the House of Representatives is required to declare that he 'acknowledges the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration'. In the state of Delaware, that 'he believes in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed for evermore'. All this is more than is required even in England where, though every person however debauched or atheistical is required to receive the sacrament as a qualification for inferior places, no other religious test is imposed on members of parliament than a declaration against Popery. It is an observation no less just than common that such tests exclude only honest men. The dishonest never scruple them.

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Biggest Criticism of Dr. Gregg Frazer's Thesis

Gregg Frazer's book is current again if for no other reason than his bete noire Bill Fortenberry has once again taken to writing about it. (On Frazer on John Adams parts I, II, and III).

One note of criticism that I don't see as apt is that Dr. Frazer is reading his personal definition of Christianity into what it means to be a "Christian." But that's not what his thesis argues. Frazer is an evangelical fundamentalist of the Calvinist stripe (though I think he believes in 4 of the 5 points).

His thesis on the other hand is a late 18th Century American ecumenical Trinitarianism -- lowest-common-denominator -- from the major churches including lots of non-Calvinists and those whose theology differs from his. Roman Catholics, High Church (liturgical), non-Calvinistic orthodox Anglicans get to be "Christians." So do orthodox evangelical Baptists of the free will Arminian stripe.

When I presented at Gordon College in front of him and a group of notable scholars, I endorsed the book with qualification. One of the biggest criticisms -- and I'll say right now it's the biggest -- is the lack of attention paid to Richard Price (and a few others, but the lack paid to Price is the most notable). Frazer argues the Socinian Joseph Priestley as a sort of "guru" for the political theology of the American Founding. But the Arian Price should have gotten just as much ink. Priestley and Price as leaders of a cohort that actually has a name: Club of Honest Whigs. They are also sometimes referred to as "dissenters" on theological issues.

The lowest-common-denominator consensus I referred to above was a consensus among the prevailing theological authorities. That is, such consensus excludes dissenters. The tradition was started by St. Athanasius and continues to this day. I'm no expert on C.S. Lewis, so I'm open to correction. But I understand even he posited that one must believe in certain orthodox Trinitarian minimums in order to qualify as a "mere Christian."

But this understanding did indeed exist, as an historical matter, in late 18th Century America. And unless I missed this in reading his book, none other than Richard Price offers a smoking gun quotation on its existence, that if used would have strengthened Frazer's case.

From an address that George Washington strongly endorsed, Price stated:

"Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity."

Frazer argues on behalf of those "commonly received ideas of Christianity" at the time and against which Price dissents. 

On a personal note, I'm with Price. But I write this to observe the reality of the historical dynamic.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Lund: "Rousseau: Radical philosopher, political conservative"

From Nelson Lund guest blogging at Volokh. A taste:
Rousseau was the first great philosophic critic of Enlightenment liberalism, which was itself founded on a rejection of classical political philosophy. The greatest division in ancient thought arose between those who took seriously the search for the naturally right political order and those who regarded political life as fundamentally unnatural or merely conventional. Modern liberal thought began to demolish this distinction by attributing to all men certain natural rights and then taking as the task of political philosophy the discovery of those conventions that will best protect those rights.

Rousseau raises some serious doubts about certain aspects of liberal theory and about the wisdom of relying on abstract principles like natural rights and natural freedom as the basis for a political order. His rhetorical fire has led a long line of political conservatives to denounce him. If we pay more attention to the subtle complexity of his thought than to his frequently jarring rhetoric, we can avoid snap judgments that reflect our impatience rather than Rousseau’s foolishness.
Very interesting. But as we can tell from the context of the quotation, very contentious as well. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Nelson Lund on Rousseau

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Nelson Lund is sharing his cutting edge research on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His first post is entitled Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist, and not an irresponsible intellectual. And his second is Rousseau on human evolution: vindicated by modern science.

From his first:
Rousseau was the first great philosophic critic of what we call the Enlightenment, without being a defender of the ancien régime. Right from the start, he was seen by his critics as a mad father of mad fantasies. The leading philosophers of the French Enlightenment treated their former friend and colleague as a deranged traitor. He was seriously persecuted by governments and clergymen in both Catholic and Protestant parts of Europe, and celebrated after his death by those who made the French Revolution.

Political conservatives, whether of a classical liberal or traditionalist orientation, have generally found Rousseau repulsive and dangerous, and his admirers tend to be on the political left. One striking exception to this generalization is Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that Rousseau was a man (along with Montesquieu and Pascal) with whom he spent time every day.
And from his second:
The deepest root of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opposition to Enlightenment political thought can be traced to his views on the state of nature, which are set out most openly in his “Discourse on Inequality.” For modern social contract thinkers such Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the state of nature is the condition in which people like us find themselves before governments are instituted or where they have stopped operating. Rousseau believed this was extremely misleading because it assumes that what we are now we are by nature.

For Rousseau, the nature of man is not an observable phenomenon. Instead, it is something that lies hidden beneath layers of characteristics acquired through our social lives, including the most important of all social institutions, human speech. The true state of nature is the condition men were in before being shaped by social life into the strange and unique animal that we are.
A bit on terminology: The way I understand it, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were three greatly influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. They were "moderns." Nietzsche was not a modern. Rather he started post-modernity. H, L & R each were also united by the discursive theory of "state of nature," social contract and rights. But each also had profoundly different visions of that common ground.

America's founding was Lockean. The big bureaucratic state as it currently exists is Hobbesian.  And to the extent that Rousseau engaged in an egalitarian critique of Hobbes and Locke, the way the state currently redistributes wealth and provides safety nets can be credited to his vision (and the earlier Anglo-republicans like Harrington).