Thursday, August 22, 2019


See here. A taste:
He knew immediately that he’d struck historical gold—a completely unknown manuscript in John Locke’s own hand entitled Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others.  
It was a unique find; in the world of Locke scholarship, there is a fairly definitive online bibliography of more than 8,000 of the philosopher’s works, from books and treatises to notes and letters. The Reasons for tolerateing Papists manuscript was not among them.  
“It was amazing because it was obviously a Locke manuscript. There was no mistake about that. St. John’s was in possession of a very rare item even by the standards of major U.S. libraries,” he recalls. “And the content was really, really interesting.” 
According to Walmsley and Waldmann, this was the first major discovery of new work by Locke in a generation. While there are occasionally unseen letters or signed documents found, something this “substantial in content” is incredibly rare—particularly because it represented a previously unknown perspective held by Locke.  
The manuscript essentially consists of two lists: the first, a set of reasons for tolerating Catholics, which at the time simply meant not actively persecuting the group, and the second a list of reasons not to (which is his much wider-known opinion).  
According to Walmsley, the manuscript is directly connected to Locke’s Essay concerning Toleration, and, he says “was most likely its immediate antecedent and inspiration.”  
“The early drafts of the Essay read like successively more elaborate treatments of questions raised in the Reasons, and parts of the Reasons re-appear in later drafts of the Essay. The Essay was Locke’s first mature formulation of the views that would be immensely important,” Walmsley adds. “When repeated in the Letters on Toleration, these arguments would indelibly inform Western liberal thinking in general and the U.S. Constitution in particular.”  
“Today we would call it brainstorming,” says Cole Simmons (A09), a St. John’s alumnus and lecturer at Baylor University who wrote his PhD dissertation on Locke and toleration. “Everyone kind of has down that Locke doesn’t and isn’t willing to tolerate Catholics, so the surprising thing is that he entertained tolerating Catholics for some time. ...

Monday, August 19, 2019

Chief Justice Earl Warren and America's Christian Roots

Most conservatives remember Chief Justice Earl Warren with less than kind feelings.  Warren is sometimes called the "father of Judicial Activism" by those on the right.  Several of his key decisions include:
- Engel v Vitale, which prohibited mandatory prayer in public schools.
- Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down a state law designed to limit access to contraception.
- Reynolds v. Sims, which essentially promoted federal authority over that of the state on matters of representation.
These, along with other decisions (many of which promoted federal supremacy or gave special privileges to criminals) have left a lasting bitter taste on the palette of most on the right.  After all, many of these decisions have served as precedents for the establishment of even greater federal authority and more activism on the part of the Judicial branch of government. 

Despite this apparent hostility to Warren, there is one topic on which he and conservatives can find common ground. While attending a prayer breakfast in Washington D.C., Justice Warren delivered a speech in which he lauded America's unique Christian origin and heritage.  Time Magazine was there to capture the Chief Justice's words:
I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the Spirit of our Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses.  Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present.  A Christian government of Christian principles. I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their express belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under the law, and the reservation of power to the people.  I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion.  I like also to believe that as long as we do so no great harm can come to our country. 
When we examine the three documents referenced by Justice Warren (the first Charter of Virginia, the Charter of Massachusetts Bay and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut), we discover that Warren wasn't wrong.  The Virginia Charter makes clear that one of its primary goals was, "the propagating of the Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God."  The Massachusetts Bay Charter has a similar goal, namely to bring "the Natives of the Country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the only true God and Savior of Mankind, and the Christian Faith, which is...the principal end of this Plantation."  And finally from the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, we read that one of its main goals was, "to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus, which we now profess."

Naturally we should point out that these same colonies would go on to debate the specifics of what it meant to be a Christian, and whose brand of Christianity was THE true interpretation of Jesus' divine message.  Images of Ann Hutchinson squaring off with John Winthrop, or the Danbury Baptists appealing to the likes of the heathen Thomas Jefferson are too obvious to ignore.  That being said, I believe Justice Warren's message rings clear.  Despite the arguments over whose Christianity is THE American Christianity, the cultural, social and spiritual fabric of what became the United States is undeniably Christian in origin.  Benjamin Franklin's appeal to a collective "public religion" (a sort of shared Christian "Wi-Fi" network) seems to fit best.  Different faiths may access the shared Wi-Fi for different purposes, but ultimately they are sharing the same network.     

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Dougherty on Locke

Michael Brendan Dougherty has some interesting thoughts on among other things John Locke at National Review here. I'm more sympathetic to the Lockean liberal tradition than he is; but I think he accurately describes some of the "issues" Locke poses for those committed to more traditional conservatism.
Locke describes natural rights this way: “Men being by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent.” But men do not meet each other as free, equal, and independent in the real world. They must be brought to a state of freedom, equality, and independence. 
John Locke also turned to scripture, but for different reasons. Some readers find in Locke a liberal theorist more compatible with inherited Christian understandings of society. Unlike Thomas Hobbes before him or John Stuart Mill later, he seems to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. He even affirms belief in the Resurrection. But Locke’s reading of the Bible is a curious one. God’s sovereignty is established because for Locke human beings are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker — all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business — they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.” Instead of being made in the image and likeness of a Heavenly Father, we have the Divine Whig, a property owner whose unchallengeable judgments are to remain undisturbed. Locke would have, instead of right living and worship, human strife ended by the flowering of a civil society “the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.”   
Locke recognized that this society needed to be held together by morality, but his elaboration on Christian teaching degrades the status of individual churches in favor of a mere Christian morality. Liberalism was not just a political project but a theological one. And, across his essays A Letter concerning Toleration and The Reasonableness of Christianity and his commentaries on the Pauline epistles, Locke takes up the task to diminish the controversies between Protestant sects with his own position that the only doctrine to believe is that Christ is the Messiah — all other titles for Christ are reduced to this in his reading. And the only thing to be done is to live according to the moral precepts derived from reason or taught commonly in scripture. “The preaching of our Savior and his apostles has sufficiently taught us what is necessary to be proposed to every man, to make him a Christian,” he writes. “He that believes him to be the promised Messiah, takes Jesus for his King, and repenting of his former sins, sincerely resolves to live, for the future in obedience to his laws, is a subject of his kingdom, is a Christian.” 
In Locke’s reading, the miracle stories and the histories are not expositions and revelations of the character of God but rather over-awing demonstrations of power to the vulgar masses who cannot, like a philosopher, divine morality from pure reason. “It is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts upon its true foundation with a clear and convincing light,” Locke writes. “And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties and require their obedience, than to leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them.” 
Locke’s entire approach to scripture is to reduce the doctrinal controversies among Christians to mere “speculative opinions and divine worship” on one side, whereas moral teaching and his minimal creed are the parts that matter to supporting public morality and the life of the state. For Locke, immorality is a more grave offense against his true, “reasonable” Church, than “any conscientious Dissent from Ecclesiastical Decisions, or Separation from Publick Worship, whilst accompanied with Innocency of Life.” Consequently, his form of toleration excludes Catholics, not because their nations had not proven themselves bastions of liberty but because Catholic morality could not be separated from the teaching authority of the Church itself — namely, its ecclesiastical claim to define matters of faith and morals. 
But the link between morality and authority is a feature not only of Catholicism. Most Christians understand that morality depends on doctrine and cannot be separated from it. And therefore tolerance, but not for Catholics, becomes generalized: tolerance, but not for “the intolerant.” Not for those who would impose on others “a concept of existence” and “speculative opinions.” It’s important to note that this generalization was predicted at the time by Locke’s contemporaries. In a heated attack on Reasonableness, Anglican divine John Edwards criticized Locke for his minimalism. “This Gentleman and his fellows are resolved to be Unitarians,” Edwards wrote. “They are for One Article of Faith, as well as One Person in the Godhead,” and when Christianity is “thus brought down to One Single Article, it will soon be reduced to none: the Unit will dwindle into a Cypher.” And yet we must make laws that point to and implicate truths. Lincoln sought to “impose a concept of existence” on his hearers and on his nation: that Negroes were men. Laws will reflect theological commitments about the world, even if they pretend not to do so. The purpose of classical conservatism is to be clear-eyed and wise about this point, to engage in the world in an undeluded way. Liberal arrangements may be tolerable and even well suited toward a people, but conservatives will not presume that that is owing to the nature of man. The presumption that men are “free, equal and independent” by nature is wrong. They can be made so by the nurture of family, community, nation, and faith. 
The Bible’s political lessons offer almost nothing to support John Locke’s natural individualism, but there may be a scriptural type useful for understanding or at least seeing liberalism’s predicament, the contradiction born in John Locke’s theology ...: the idea that there can be a common morality with no common creed, a common law without a common life. ...
We see above is an accurate description of Locke's theology peppered with Dougherty's more conservative critical analysis. But Locke was indeed central to the American founding in certain ways. Statistically, his sentiments were cited more during the revolutionary period than that of the framing and ratifying of the Constitution.

And ironically Locke was often cited from the pulpit along with the Bible in sermons. So even if the Bible doesn't offer support to Locke's ideas, ministers were still promoting them.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fea on Pastors Preaching Politics

Dr. John Fea has another good post here about pastors involved politics. A taste:
400 evangelical pastors are heading to Liberty University this week to participate in an event sponsored by the American Renewal Project.  The goal of the closed meeting is to mobilize pastors for the 2020 election.  Speakers at the event include former Virginia congressman (now Liberty professor) David Brat, Christian nationalist David Barton, and Christian Broadcasting Network political analyst David Brody.  (I am guessing that they are not mobilizing pastors to vote for a Democrat :-)) 
The American Renewal Project is run by David Lane, a Christian Right politico who wants pastors to preach political sermons, run for political office, and use their ecclesiastical authority to convince parishioners to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. We wrote about him here and here. 
Lane and other Christian nationalists and court evangelicals believe that they are a modern-day “Black Robe Brigade,” a name given to revolutionary-era pastors who supported American independence in 1776. 
The appeal to the Black Robe Brigade reveals a fundamental problem with these kind of history-based Christian Right arguments.  Lane, David Barton, and others give a moral authority to the past that is almost idolatrous.  In other words, if pastors used their pulpits to promote a political agenda in 1776, then they must have been right.  If it happened in the eighteenth-century it is somehow immune from any moral or theological reflection today.  Thomas Jefferson said that our rights come from God, so Christian nationalists conclude, with little theological reflection on whether or not Jefferson was correct, that our rights indeed come from God.  This leads them to make all kinds of wackadoodle arguments that the amendments related to quartering soldiers, trial by jury,  excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment are somehow rooted in biblical teaching.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hall on Seidel

At the Law and Liberty site, Mark David Hall takes on Andrew Seidel and his new work that attempts to debunk the Christian Nation thesis. A taste:
Misstatements of Fact 
Founding Myth is littered with historical inaccuracies. Every writer slips occasionally, but the large number of errors in this work call into question the author’s commitment to providing an accurate account of the founding era. This is particularly significant for a constitutional attorney who believes history is, at least upon occasion, relevant for interpreting the First Amendment. 
Seidel’s historical errors sometimes cut against his own argument. For instance, he asserts that “every colony had an established church.” By most counts, only nine of the original thirteen colonies had establishments; Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware did not. Some separationists point to these colonies, especially Rhode Island, as being ahead of their time with respect to church-state relations. Seidel offers no explanation as to why he considers them to have establishments. 
Separationists are often interested in debates over religious establishments in only one state: Virginia. Seidel focuses on these as well, especially on the general assessment bill supported by Patrick Henry that would have provided state support to ministers from different denominations. The bill did not say how much support would be given, but Seidel refers to it as “Henry’s proposed three-penny tax.” He is presumably conflating the proposal with Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773, which included a three penny tax on tea (to which Madison refers in his Memorial and Remonstrance). 
Madison’s Memorial had some influence in Virginia, but not as much as an evangelical petition that received three times as many signatures. But whatever impact it had, it did not convince “the people of Virginia to vote against the bill giving financial support to Christian ministers,” as Seidel asserts. In December of 1784, the Virginia legislature postponed action on the general assessment bill until the fall of 1785, but a final vote was never taken on it. Instead, the legislature passed Jefferson’s famous Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, but it did so in 1786, not 1785 as Seidel claims.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Franklin on Works Based Justification

After meticulously reading and rereading certain parts of the historical record, some things just slip by you, and then one day, you notice them. I just noticed something on Ben Franklin's writings that I missed before.

Fellow unitarians John Adams and Thomas Jefferson held that men were "justified" by their works, not by faith alone, grace alone (the Protestant "solas"). Franklin seems to agree; but he was also clear in some letters that he didn't think he personally merited Heaven by his good own works. But he expected Heaven nonetheless.

Still good works seemed a necessary, indeed central component to Franklin's justification scheme. In 1735 and in a satirical tone, Franklin writes at length in his "Dialog Between Two Presbyterians" on how good works, not a particular faith is the sine qua non of true religion.
Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one.
There are a few things about this passage might lead us to question whether Franklin personally believed in the sentiments. One, it has a satirical tone. And two, Franklin wrote as an advocate for another person (for one Hemphill, a minister who was being defrocked for heterodoxy).

As to the first, just because something is satire doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't convey one's true beliefs. To the contrary, what is distinctive about satire is its method. Satire is oft-meant to contain a deadly serious truth message in its teeth.

As to the second, what I discovered, and as we will see below, is that years later, Franklin, in his personal letters, repeats almost verbatim these sentiments. This suggests the sentiments in the aforementioned Dialog did indeed reflect Franklin's personal convictions.

Let me repeat, Franklin in his letters also claimed he didn't think his own "good works" merited Heaven, but he expected to get to Heaven nonetheless. It's a "works" plus scheme. Good works plus the fruit of God the Father's mysterious benevolence.

I think Dr. Gregg Frazer noted that because Franklin, unlike Jefferson and J. Adams, rejected "works alone" in favor of a works plus faith justification scheme, that made the "Protestant" Franklin's creed look ironically similar to that of Roman Catholics. However, Franklin's notion of good works and Jesus' role arguably would be even too "works oriented" for Roman Catholics.

It's hard to pin Franklin down on exactly what he thought of Jesus. We know Franklin thought, at the very least, Jesus the greatest moral teacher. But what else? I see Franklin believing Jesus to be a "savior" through perfect moral example. That is, I don't see good evidence that Franklin believed in anything resembling a traditional notion of the atonement.

So in 1735, in the Dialog, Franklin writes:
Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means. What think you of these Sayings of Christ, when he was reproached for conversing chiefly with gross Sinners, The whole, says he, need not a Physician, but they that are sick; and, I come not to call the Righteous, but Sinners, to Repentance: Does not this imply, that there were good Men, who, without Faith in him, were in a State of Salvation?
Bold face mine.

These are the sentiments that get repeated in years later in personal letters. Jesus' role here is to save man by modeling perfect morality. But if you already had your moral affairs in order, you actually didn't need to follow Jesus. This is where I think even the "works based" Roman Catholics would balk.

I noted the quotation below previously, but I didn't connect it with the "Dialog" of 1735. Franklin wrote in 1753 and again in 1790, of Jesus:
He profess’d that he came not to call the Righteous but Sinners to Repentance; which imply’d his modest Opinion that there were some in his Time so good that they need not hear even him for Improvement;...
In short, Jesus' role as savior is as the greatest moral teacher, the perfecter of morality. As a means, not an end.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Fea's Latest on Christian Nationalism

Check it out here. A taste:
If you want a recent glimpse of Christian nationalism at work, read the following transcript from David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” radio program.  As many of you know, Barton is a self-professed dominionist and GOP politician who uses the past to promote his Christian nationalist agenda.  He knows a lot of facts about American history, but he does not think historically about these facts.  In other words, he is oblivious to context, change over time, contingency, causation, and the complexity of the human experience.  Despite the fact that his work as a historian has been discredited, he still has a large following and his disciples include GOP lawmakers and most of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals.  Those who still follow him believe that his critics–many of them evangelical Christian historians–have been overly influenced by secular ideology.
The only disagreement I have with Dr. Fea is that in his post while analyzing the transcript he tries to make sense of a David Barton word salad where arguably no sense is to be made of it.