Monday, March 18, 2024

Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin? It's Coming Soon to Apple TV+

 I don't know how I missed it, but I did. When I opened YouTube today, I saw it for the first time, even though it was announced in 2022. What is "it"? Well...

It's Michael Douglas starring as Benjamin Franklin. If you haven't seen the trailer, here it is...


Yeah, I'm not sure how I feel about "it." 

Don't get me wrong. I am definitely excited about Hollywood bringing another Founding Father to life. Although it seems that the subscription-pay "content mill" is getting a wee-bit excessive.  

And Michael Douglas is certainly an accomplished actor. One might call him a "legend." His father, Kirk Douglas, certainly was. I have nothing against Michael Douglas, but... starring as Ben Franklin?

Thus far, one of the best Ben Franklin portrayals I've seen was that of Tom Wilkinson in the John Adams miniseries. (Ironically, Wilkinson also played Cornwallis in The Patriot). It will be hard to top Wilkinson-as-Franklin in my opinion.

Time will tell. Maybe Douglas will be fantastic. 

The miniseries premieres April 12 on Apple TV+.


Friday, February 23, 2024

America: The Revived Roman Republic

Biblical conspiracy theorists hypothesize about the identity of the "revived Roman Empire" who will host the Antichrist during end times or something like that. 

I'm not getting into that.

Many different currents flowed into the ideological stream of the American Founding. The Greco-Roman current is unquestionably one of them. Though much emphasis needs to be added to the Roman part, especially the Stoic philosophy of those noble ancients.

Though I haven't read the book yet, Jeffrey Rosen's new book seems like one that will shed some much needed light on this particular dynamic. 

Set all of the conspiracy nonsense aside, one thing America's Founders explicitly seemed intent on was "reviving" not the evil Roman Empire of Caesar's tyranny, but rather that of the noble Stoic Roman Republicans whom those tyrannical Caesars wiped out.

But yes, understandably, for their time, what America's Founders did was "new" and thus in some meaningful way "different" than the ancient system that so inspired them.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part II

See Part I here.

More from Sen. Hawley:
God gave rulers authority to command and coerce, but only insofar as they protected the liberties of the people. God instructed the people, in turn, to obey “the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), but only insofar as the rulers honored their liberties. Winthrop envisioned a covenant made with God: Only a godly nation would win God’s favor and prosper under his direction of human affairs. But the political covenant was also—and this is crucial—an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. Should the authorities break the terms of God’s delegation of governance and assault the people’s freedoms, then the people had a right to defend themselves, even to rebel.

I emphasized what is in bold. This is an extremely loaded and contentious understanding of Romans 13. Great Britain, against whom America rebelled was every bit as "Christian" and "biblically informed" as America was and their political pulpits didn't understand Romans 13 with these qualifications. Arguably their understanding was the more "fundamentalist" in terms of a "literal" reading of the verse and chapter.

More from Hawley:

It is a small step from covenants to constitutions, and if this rehearsal of the evolution of early modern political thought brings to mind John Locke, it should. Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists and converted it (sometimes dubiously) to his own use. Thus, whether from the Puritan settlers or from the Calvinist-influenced Locke, covenant has long been in the American bloodstream. ...

There is precisely zero evidence that Locke learned covenantal theory from the French Calvinists. The American Founding had many different currents that flowed into its stream and the "Calvinist resisters" (as I like to call them) were certainly one of them. Locke was a much stronger current and he has nothing to do with them. There is a provable connection between Locke and Hobbes (and the Anglican divine Richard Hooker). 

Locke's teachings complete with the "state of nature/social contract and rights" (what he got from Hobbes) did find their way into the founding era "political sermons." But whether such teachings are in according with traditional Christianity is entirely debatable. 

More from Hawley:

I have attempted only the barest sketch of the Bible’s influence on America’s most enduring ideals. Others have traced the argument in greater detail. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism demonstrates the Christian taproot of Western rights. In The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, Eric Nelson identifies the biblical ground of our political institutions. There is real value in getting this history right, because it tells us what sort of society America has truly been. ...

I'm not familiar with Siedentop's work (though I hope one day to be), but am intimately familiar with Nelson's. Yes it's a work that all interested in this topic should check out. I'm not sure whether Hawley fully understands or accurately represents it in his brief mention. Nelson's thesis does not focus on America but rather prior European (it's in the title of the book!) writers (many of whom indeed did influence America's founders). And he connects their thought to all of the nations (mainly Western) that comprise "modernity." 

Nelson's work focuses on one group of thinkers -- the "republicans" -- in contrast to the "liberals." Madison's excerpt from Federalist 10 that I featured in Part I well represents the "liberal" perspective. And Madison's liberal view is in tension with the "Hebraic republican" view.

The bottom line is this: Madison didn't believe in limits on the accumulation of and the consequent redistribution of wealth. But the Hebraic republicans did. Indeed someone from the "Christian Left" who believe in such would find much ammo for their perspective in Nelson's book. 

Something else notable about the Hebraic republicans featured in Nelson's book is the content of their theology. I'm no theologian, so I'm not one to judge. But for those looking for "sound  theology" you really need to question their hermeneutics and exegesis. In short, they argued that the Old Testament taught "republican" form of government that demanded redistribution of wealth in the form of "agrarian laws." (They thought the way the OT dealt with debt and the Jubilee was an agrarian law.)

The way I see it, the concepts of "republican" government and "agrarian" laws have nothing to do with the Old Testament. But these thinkers (James Harrington of "Oceana" fame is one of the most notable) argued otherwise. I see them as grafting on post-hoc these Greco-Roman principles to the Old Testament.

Also note when the authors of the Federalist Papers discussed the concept of republican government precisely NONE of the Hebraic republican rhetoric was invoked. It was mostly Greco-Roman metaphor (just look that their surnames like Publius). 

A final point of analysis. More from Hawley:

... But the nation’s ideals, social institutions, and habits have all been Christianly shaped. And this is a good thing, maybe especially for Americans who are not Christians. Precisely because of the Christian influence, American society has protected the liberty of all to speak, to worship, to assemble and petition, to share in self-rule.

A little while ago, Hawley stepped in it by spreading a phony quotation attributed to Patrick Henry:

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” 

The actual quotation came from 1956 in a magazine called The Virginian. It was from an article about Patrick Henry. It is good that Hawley doesn't repeat the error in this article. Though I do note that Hawley's sentiment seems influenced by the commentary from The Virginian. (No, it's not plagiarism; I'm just noting the apparent influence.) 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Observations on Senator Josh Hawley's Christian Nation Piece Part I

He wrote this for First Things, a respected scholarly journal. Let me note up front I'm not interested in fighting political-cultural war battles over the "Christian Nation" issue. Plenty of folks on "the other side" have given Hawley hell over his positions here. Though, Hawley does posit his position in the context of fighting a political-culture war over this issue for his side. 

With that, I will make some observations on the soundness of his historical claims with a focus on his political-theology. 

Let's start with this passage from the good Senator:
... The Founders read Roman historians, yes. Some were influenced by Enlightenment philosophies. But the Bible has been the main source of our national ideals. From the age of the New England Puritans to the Great Awakening that prepared the ground for revolution, Scripture has molded our common life from the first. Consider: Our ideal of the individual has Christian roots. So too does our constitutionalism. Our great traditions of progressive reform were animated by an ardent Christian spirit—as was conservative resistance to their excesses. Even in our most bitter conflicts, Christian culture has been America’s common ground.

The term "national ideals" is amorphous political speak. I think where his claim is at its strongest is that Christianity was important at the cultural, local, decentralized level. Where it's at its weakest is that the ideas are responsible for the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. One thing I do appreciate about the claim is that it (properly) intimates there are various ways of understanding the faith. A "Christian Left" for the progressives and a "Christian Right" who resist.

But what we will then see is that his idealized politics ends up "coloring" his theological understanding of Christianity, in "questionable" ways. His history likewise is cherry picked and idealized. 

Next passage:

Conservatives have their own version of the secular myth, one that usually comes with appeals to the market or James Madison or both. Some conservatives—the neoliberal types—argue that free-market exchange supplies all the common meaning we will ever need. We can unite in the cause of moneymaking, they say. But you don’t need a society for that. Corporations and trading zones will suffice. Other conservatives look to the Constitution for salvation, as if that document were a perpetual motion machine that can operate on its own, no common affections or moral purpose needed. Set faction against faction and the republic will endure forever! But Madison never said any such thing. He presumed a baseline of shared culture, language, and moral outlook—a very robust baseline, by modern standards. The truth is that no constitution, however well designed, can unite a people who do not hold a common conception of the good. No system of checks and balances can replace a common moral vision. 

I will let people read Madison's Federalist 10 to which was above alluded. Hawley puts words into Madison's mouth he never said, but on "set[ting] faction against faction," THIS is what Madison said:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

This does resonate with the notion of setting factions against one another in a pluralistic, commercial republic. So maybe the conservative (or "neoliberal") "secular myth" has something to it at least with regards to Madison. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Romans prized property rights—for certain people—and the Greeks and Romans both praised the liberty of the citizen to share in ruling the city, but the advent of individual liberty accompanied by personal rights awaited the New Testament’s announcement of freedom in Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” the apostle Paul announced. This was deeply personal freedom of a radically new kind.

I think it's a fair point to credit Christianity for laying a fertile ground for the concept of individual, which as Hawley accurately notes, "[t]he West would spend centuries working out its implications," but it's simply mistaken or bad theology to attempt to credit Paul in these passages for preaching political liberty. That would come much, much later. The "centuries." Paul noted this in the context of also telling slaves to obey their masters, after all.

More from Sen. Hawley:

... The Ten Commandments (for example) are moral duties, to be sure, but they also adumbrate individual rights. They define the obligations of individuals, which entail the political freedoms individuals must enjoy in order to meet them. Over time, Christian theorists would come to see that God’s injunctions require the rights to worship, to marry, to pursue an honest profession, and to live generally in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

The term "over time" is what saves this passage. Yes, it took a long time. Any honest reading of the Ten Commandments though in particular are in tension with these freedoms, even if they are ultimately reconcilable from a Christian and biblical perspective. America's Founders were clear that the "rights to worship" applied universally, not just to Christians. This includes the inalienable right to break them by worshipping what some might see as false gods. 

More from Sen. Hawley:

Then there is constitutionalism, another Christian contribution to our nation’s identity. On board the Arbella as it was sailing for a new world, John Winthrop told his fellow colonists that they were making a covenant with God; they would be a “city upon a hill,” a light to all the world, a community committed to God’s law. Winthrop came by the idea of covenant naturally. Christians had been reading it in their Bibles for centuries. God made a covenant with Noah, and then with Abraham, and then with Moses and David after them. The God of the Bible was a covenant-making God. By the 1600s, Christian theorists had come to explain God’s purposes for government in terms of covenant.

I'm of the mind that America was "founded" in 1776, not 1619. The period to which Hawley refers was when America was actually Great Britain. These covenants were also done prior Britain's own Glorious Revolution (which led them in a more democratic-republican direction) and were explicitly done under the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, one thing against which America especially rebelled. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Who Were the Unitarians?

Much has been written here about the "unitarians" of the Founding era. John Adams averred he was one, as did Abigail Adams. But were they Christians?


Well, they certainly considered themselves Christians, and protested quite vociferously when accused of not being Christians, usually by competing "orthodox" clergy.

It all came to a head around 1815, when William Ellery Channing---generally regarded then (as now) as exemplary of that era's unitarianism---answered some prevailing charges against unitarianism in

A Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher on the Aspersions Contained in a Late Number of the Panoplist, on the Ministers of Boston and the Vicinity
.


Image result for 1815 A LETTER TO THE REV. SAMUEL C. THACHER ON THE ASPERSIONS CONTAINED IN A LATE NUMBER OF THE PANOPLIST, ON THE MINISTERS OF BOSTON AND THE VICINITY

Now, perhaps the defining feature of unitarianism was that it didn't believe in the Trinity---as John Adams noted, 1 + 1 + 1 would equal Three, not One. Hence the term "unitarian."

There were other orthodox doctrines rejected, too, namely, as Channing wrote:

"I fear, that the Author of the Lord's prayer will, according to this rule, be driven as a heretick from the very church which he has purchased with his own blood. In that well known prayer I can discover no reference to the "inspiration of the holy scriptures, to the supreme divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost, to the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ, to the native and total depravity of the unregenerate, and to the reality and necessity of special divine grace to renew and sanctify the souls of men;" and these, let it be remembered, are _five_ out of the _six_ articles which are given by the Reviewer as fundamental articles of a christian's faith."


So that's what they didn't believe. So what did they believe? Channing wrote:

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren." 


Is that Christian enough? Certainly not to the orthodox clergy and various laymen of the time who stood in opposition to them.

Probably not Christian enough for most Christian theologians of any stripe today, certainly not evangelical or orthodox.

But perhaps Christian enough for the sociologist or the historian. "Unitarian Christian" is my own preference, both descriptively and definitively, at least for our best understanding in this day and age. [Channing and others used "'rational' Christians," but in our day, I'm not sure that's helpful or descriptive enough, although it's certainly a proper term. Channing himself published a popular tract in 1819 called Unitarian Christianity.]

Do read Channing's letter for yourself, as there's more than can be sketched or excerpted here. It offers an excellent window into what is called the Unitarian Controversy today, and clearly outlines the issues and the players, a clarity we need to consider the unitarians properly in the scheme of things.


The primary qualitative sine qua non for an understanding of unitarianism as Christianity is a belief that the Bible is literally the Word of God--even if corrupted over the centuries by churches, churchmen and assorted prophets and scholars, even if well-intentioned. The following excerpt from Channing contains too many ellipses [by a Dr. Jan Garrett] to be taken as a primary source, but it conveys enough of the unitarian view of scripture to serve as a starting point.

1 Thes. v. 21: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."


I shall [try to explain] the [methods we use] in interpreting the Scriptures . . . and . . . some of the [teachings] that [they] . . . seem to us clearly to express.
I. We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's . . . revelations to mankind, . . . Whatever [ideas] seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve . . . We do not, however, attach equal importance to all the books in this collection.
Our religion . . . lies chiefly in the New Testament. . . . whatever [Jesus . . . ] taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his . . . Apostles, we regard as of divine authority . . . This authority, which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason . . . for studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring . . . into the principles of interpretation . . . by which their . . . meaning may be [determined] . . .
Our [primary guideline] in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for [human beings], in [human] language . . . and that its meaning is to be sought in the same [way] as that of other books. . . . God, when he speaks to the human race, [abides by] the established rules of speaking and writing. . . . Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; . . . their . . . [meaning] is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, . . . admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feelings, circumstances, and principles of the writer, and according to the [features] of the language . . . he uses. These are acknowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings . . .

One may protest this contains too much theological leeway to be considered "Christian," but as one unitarian argued in the 19th century, it certainly qualifies as Protestant!