Wednesday, October 31, 2018

St. George Tucker, Religion & the American Founding, Part V

See parts I, II, IIIand IV. This is the fifth and final part of the series and I hope you read my analysis at the end, because I think the post ends with a bang. 

Paragraph breaks added for clarity.
It is indeed only a rational and liberal religion; a religion founded on just notions of the Deity, as a Being who regards equally every sincere worshipper, and by whom all are alike favoured as far as they act up to the light they enjoy: a religion which consists in the imitation of the moral perfections of an Almighty but Benevolent Governor of Nature, who directs for the best, all events, in confidence in the care of his providence, in resignation to his will, and in the faithful discharge of every duty of piety and morality from a regard to his authority, and the apprehension of a future righteous retribution. 
It is only this religion (the inspiring principle of every thing fair and worthy, and joyful, and which, in truth is nothing but the love of God to man, and virtue warming the heart and directing the conduct). It is only this kind of religion that can bless the world, or be an advantage to society. This is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to support.  
But it is a religion that the powers of the world know little of, and which will always be best promoted by being left free and open. The following passage from the same author, deserves too much attention to be pretermitted:  

"Let no such monster be known there, [in the United States] as human authority in matters of religion. Let every honest and peaceable man, whatever is his faith, be protected there; and find an effectual defence against the attacks of bigotry and intolerance. In the United States may religion flourish! They cannot be very great and happy if it does not. But let it be a better religion than most of those which have been hitherto professed in the world. Let it be a religion which enforces moral obligations; not a religion which relaxes and evades them . . . A tolerant and catholic religion; not a rage for proselytism . . . A religion of peace and charity; not a religion that persecutes curses and damns. In a word, let it be the genuine gospel of peace, lifting above the world, warming the heart with the love of God and his creatures, and sustaining the fortitude of good men, by the assured hope of a future deliverance from death, and an infinite reward in the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour."

This inestimable and imprescriptible right is guaranteed to the citizens of the United States, as such, by the constitution of the United States, which declares, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States; and by that amendment to the constitution of the United States, which prohibits congress from making any law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;  

[A]nd to the citizens of Virginia by the bill of rights, which declares, "that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience: and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other."  

And further, by the act for establishing religious freedom, by which it is also declared, "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
Now for the controversial part, my analysis:

First, Tucker does not argue for what might be termed "strict deism" -- as his deity is too personal and Christianish -- but he does argue for some kind of Enlightenment theology. The term "the Enlightenment" was something that was crafted later by historians and intellectuals; but when one sees terms like "a rational and liberal religion" and "[t]his is the religion that every enlightened friend to mankind will be zealous to support," we are dealing with Enlightenment speak.

Second, if not strict deism, then what? This theology presents itself under the auspices of Christianity, and it quotes a "passage from the same author." That same author is Richard Price and the passage was quoted from Price's "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, and the Means of Making it a Benefit to the World [1784]."

That address (which George Washington endorsed) is, at the very least, implicitly unitarian as Price was an Arian.

After arguing for his ideal political theology which also happens to be his personal faith, Tucker then notes that this theology is validated by the US Constitution and the various laws in Virginia. Political theology is more of an informal thing (a spirit if you will) than a formal thing, like an official religious establishment.

Perhaps Tucker inappropriately reads in his personal preferences to American law. He does seem a partisan advocate of the "Virginia view," which is more secular and "separation of church and state" oriented. This wouldn't be the first time an influential figure from the past has done this. Professor V. Phillip Munoz, a leading expert on originalism and the religion clauses, noted to me (and others in a private group) he thought Joseph Story's "Commentaries on the Constitution" inappropriately read the "Massachusetts view," which is more accommodating of religion and public life, into the US Constitution.

(Yes I know, Tucker's writings predate Story's. But this is how Whigs tended to operate.)


Tom Van Dyke said...

Where is the evidence St. George Tucker's pontifications on religion were any more influential that Richard Price's? As a matter of fact, Benjamin Rush urged Price to keep his heterodoxy on the Trinity quiet, lest it detract from his influence on other subjects [such as education].

Tucker did have influence via his commentaries on Blackstone, but his personal theology was not representative of America at large.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Here's the problem with the Jefferson, Prices and St. George Tuckerses--their utopian religion is diluted, bled of theological content--it is, to be kid, simplistic and sophomoric.

REAL tolerance, the American miracle--is peaceful coexistence between individuals of strong and deeply-held onvictions. From First Things:

This isn’t how liberalism was supposed to be. From the very start, citizens were to have more space than that, to feel less pressure from their neighbors when it came to fundamental beliefs. “There is room for everybody in America,” J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a book the founders loved. With land in Europe limited and controlled, he said, “where every place is overstocked,” differences get magnified, tensions percolate, and life is a “perpetual collision of parties.” The locales people inhabit bear the traces of war and sectarian strife, but they can’t leave because everywhere else makes them feel like a “stranger.”


Tom Van Dyke said...

"In America, though, people move around and spread out. The pressures don’t build. The places where they settle remind them of nothing discordant. The French and English will soon be at war again, but here they intermarry, Crèvecoeur notes approvingly. In the Old World, they fight over the liturgy, but in America a Catholic “prays to God as he has been taught,” and “his belief, his prayers offend nobody.” Down the road is a German Lutheran whose contrasting worship proceeds, and “by so doing he scandalizes nobody.” The Low Dutchman who lives around the bend obeys the Synod of Dort, but his ministers in no way disrupt the “religious indifference” of the neighborhood. No one takes umbrage at others’ rites.

The smart money in Europe bet that the American experiment wouldn’t last a generation. Crèvecoeur’s model of pluralism gave the founders hope. George Washington rated it alongside Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as the best description of life in the New World, while Ben Franklin wrote to Crèvecoeur thanking him for “un présent des plus agréables, votre excellent ouvrage.” How would this, already the most diverse nation in world history, absorb so many languages, religions, and nationalities? Only by retaining a personal distinction, Crèvecoeur asserted. In public, Americans have a “visible character,” the crops they grow, the look of their dwellings and churches, their demeanor at the market. They are to be judged on them accordingly. They also have an “invisible” character, however, their profoundest beliefs and loves, and it is “nobody’s business.”

Crèvecoeur’s formula might sound overly libertarian to First Things readers, but it has a corrective worth in the face of liberal intolerance."

Jonathan Rowe said...

These commentaries were published in 1803.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I saw that. Tucker was part of a theological fad, a dead end, its remnants now in the Unitarian Universalist Church, which numbers only a few hundred thousand in the US.

Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) appears far more significant, both in influence and in substance.

Again, the miracle of American religious tolerance is not in watering down theology but in having disparate [and opposing!] theologies peacefully coexist WITHOUT diluting or suppressing them.

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