Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cosmic Religions

That's the title of a new post I have at "Ordinary Times."

Here is a taste insofar as it relates to the American Founding & Religion:
But Franklin soon abandoned such strict deism. He desired to worship a more personal God. So his next stop — where he attempted to reconcile Enlightenment with worship of a personal God — was something quite cosmic, indeed proto-Mormon. As he described it in 1728:
When I think thus, I imagine it great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect, does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man. More especially, since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear Idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise, than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even INFINITELY ABOVE IT.
….

I CONCEIVE then, that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Man, who can better conceive his Perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious Praise. As among Men, the Praise of the Ignorant or of Children, is not regarded by the ingenious Painter or Architect, who is rather honour’d and pleas’d with the Approbation of Wise men and Artists. .
It may be that these created Gods, are immortal, or it may be that after many Ages, they are changed, and Others supply their Places. .

Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding wise, and good, and very powerful; and that Each has made for himself, one glorious Sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable System of Planets. .
It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration. .
Note that Franklin, for the rest of his life articulated belief in an active personal God, but never repudiated or retracted the above “cosmic” sentiment. (I’m not sure, however, whether he continued to believe in such.)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Our Religious Founders: Forgotten or Intentionally Neglected?

From the invaluable Daniel Dreisbach, with a HT to friend-of-the-blog Mark David Hall:

Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank. 
If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman. Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding. Why is it that a man of such prodigious contributions to our country is today an all but forgotten figure? 
The same question could be asked about many other patriots— John Dickinson, Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, just to name a few—who labored diligently to establish an independent American republic.
When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically respond with a short list of a half dozen or so notables who have achieved iconic status in the American imagination and collective memory.
This is true of even serious students of American history. The small fraternity of “famous founders” typically includes (in no particular order) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. To this short list, individual historians occasionally add a favorite figure or two.  There is, however, a much larger company of statesmen who made salient contributions in thought, word, and deed to the construction of America’s republican institutions. Unfortunately, many among the founding generation, whose contributions and sacrifices were consequential in the creation of a new nation, have slipped into unmerited obscurity, exiles from the elite fraternity of the famous.
Why are some individuals, whose well-documented contributions were valued by their peers and celebrated in their time, largely forgotten in our time? Why are a few founders “famous” and others now “forgotten”? Separating the famous from the now forgotten founders may erroneously convey the notion that the founders were a much more single-minded, monolithic fraternity than they really were. Our understanding of the delicate balance of personalities, perspectives, and experiences so vital to the success of the founding generation is obscured when we train our sights on a select few famous founders and disregard the rest. 
As previously noted, for example, the most orthodox Christians among the founders (Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon) are rarely counted among the company of famous founders, despite their substantial contributions to the new nation, suggesting, perhaps, that the founders (and, more important, their ideas) were more heterodox than they really were. The contributions of traditional Christian thought to the American founding are, in large measure, diminished in the process.
These distortions, unfortunately, are sometimes translated into modern law and policy. Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment illustrate the potential problems. The U.S. Supreme Court’s near exclusive reliance on the views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two purported advocates of church-state separation, to divine the original understanding of the First Amendment, while ignoring the input of others who, in the deliberative process, championed an essential role for religion in public life, has arguably resulted in a distorted construction of the First Amendment.
Mark David Hall has recently documented that, in its recourse to legislative history, the U.S. Supreme Court has given inordinate attention to Jefferson and Madison. The focus on these two Virginians is odd, if not counter-historical, because Jefferson was, at most, only indirectly involved in framing the First Amendment (he was serving as the American Minister to France when the First Congress framed the amendment) and Madison suffered decisive defeats in his efforts to shape the content of the religion provisions. As Cushing Strout observed: “Madison did not carry the country along with Virginia’s sweeping separation of churches from the state: indeed, the country in some degree carried him.”

Read the whole thing.

Steven K. Green: "God is not on our side: The religious right’s big lie about the founding of America"

The author has a new piece out at Salon. A taste:
... Ever since the nation’s bicentennial, conservatives have raised claims about America’s Christian heritage in their efforts to gain the moral (and political) high ground in the ongoing culture wars. These arguments take on several forms, from asserting that the Founders relied on a pervasive Calvinist ideology when crafting notions of republicanism to claiming that the Founders were devout Christians and were guided in their actions by divine providence. As evidence, proponents point to public statements and official actions during the founding period—for example, thanksgiving day proclamations—that purportedly demonstrate a reliance on religious principles in the ordering of the nation’s political and legal institutions. A plethora of books have been published that attest to the Founders’ religious piety and to their belief about the role of religion in civil government. Although these books are usually weak on historical scholarship, they project a degree of authority by frequently  “disclosing” previously “unknown” historical data, purposely ignored (allegedly) by professional historians....

Connected to this central theme is a second common claim: that scholars, judges, and the liberal elite have censored America’s Christian past in a conspiracy to install a regime of secularism. Public school textbooks and college history courses generally avoid references to America’s religious heritage, creating the impression in the minds of students that that past did not exist....

... For years, the scholarly historical canon maintained that the Founders relied chiefly on rational Enlightenment norms, not religious ones, when fashioning the nation’s governing principles. Lawyer and historian Leo Pfeffer led the way for the “secularist” interpretation in the 1950 and 1960s, to be followed by scholars such as Leonard Levy, Gordon Wood, Jon Butler, Frank Lambert, Geoffrey Stone, and Isaac Kramnick and R. Lawrence Moore in their popular book, The Godless Constitution. While these scholars acknowledge the importance of religious thought and movements during the revolutionary period, they see a variety of ideological impulses that influenced the founding generation....

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Frazer Responds on Whether American Revolution Was a Just War

In the comments here. He writes:
It is too bad that too many people apparently accessed the article for free and the publisher shut down access. If you could actually read the article, you would see the answers to all -- or at least almost all -- of your questions/criticisms.

I address the Romans 13 issue -- but not in a caricatured fashion as in Mark's hypothetical. Incidentally, my view of Romans 13 is identical to that of Calvin -- though not to that of some CalvinISTS.

I address the so-called "lesser magistrate" issue and I deal specifically and at length with Wilson's argument in "Considerations." A major problem that some have -- including Eric Patterson in his article -- is that they automatically assume that everything that the colonists (inc. Wilson) said was TRUE. If that's the case, then, yes (tautologically), it would be foolish to take another position. But not everything they said was in fact true.

I am not blissfully ignorant of English law. Those who make the argument that the law was the highest authority (or that the Constitution is the highest authority in the US today) are, of course, correct. But what does that mean practically? "The law" (or "the Constitution" -- as we've seen in the last two days) is not self-interpreting. Someone has to interpret and apply the law in order to make the rubber meet the road. The issue is: who has authority to do that?

Those who claim that authority for themselves are antinomian and make themselves the law. In Romans 13, God gave authority to PEOPLE -- to agents of His; in the language of Romans 13: to "ministers of God" and "servants of God." In the Old Testament, to "shepherds" and "anointed" and "My servant." As Calvin rightly says: "even if the punishment of unbridled tyranny is the Lord's vengeance, we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer." Calvin also said: "if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Former Federal Reserve Head Ben Bernanke Defends Alexander Hamilton - and He's Right!

Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve Board, has come to the defense of Alexander Hamilton after an atrocious announcement from President Obama's Treasury Secretary that our nation's first Treasury Secretary would be pushed to the side by a woman. As most of you know, Jack Lew, Hamilton's current successor as Treasury Secretary, announced that a woman would grace the new $10 bill. Bernanke is "appalled" - and he's not alone.

I applaud the U.S. government's desire to put a woman on our currency. That is long overdue. But to dump the first Treasury Secretary and one of our most preeminent Founding Fathers is outrageous. Were it not for Alexander Hamilton, we might not even have currency today. We might not even have a working economy today. It's because of Hamilton that we can even have this discussion. And for a modern-day Treasury Secretary to want him shoved aside displays a brazen lack of gratitude and a complete detachment from America's history.

Take a few moments to write the President, the Treasury Secretary, and your Member of Congress to express your support for Alexander Hamilton. As for putting a woman on the currency, I agree 100% with Bernanke's suggestion: Dump Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson. Leave Hamilton where he is.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

JMS: Historical Significance of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Longtime American Creation reader and commenter JMS has written the following guest post:
In light of the murderous anti-black hatred perpetrated at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it is important to acknowledge the vital role of the AME Church in the religious founding of the United States of America, and its heritage as a bastion of human rights.
Two of the most revolutionary outcomes during the thirty years following the American Revolution were: 1) the disestablishment of state churches (except in MA, CT and NH), facilitating the “free exercise” of religion; and 2) the much too gradual abolition of slavery in all the states north of MD, creating new free black communities (e.g., “Philadelphia’s free black population grew from about 240 in 1780 to 1,849 in 1790, over 6,000 in 1800, and 8,942 by 1810; an increase from 2.1% of the total population in 1780 to 10% by 1810”). The result was unprecedented religious pluralism, marred by embedded racism.
As noted here and here, “the independent black churches were the most important of the free blacks’ creations, destined to be a center of African American community life to this day. The churches fostered a communal Christianity of freedom, nurtured a variety of self-improvement organizations and promoted racial pride—they were ’African’ churches.”  Whenever we talk about “founders,” we should acknowledge Richard Allen (1760–1831) and Absalom Jones (1746–1818) “as founding fathers of the free black community of Philadelphia. Both were born slaves who worked to purchase their freedom.” In 1816, Allen led the formation of the first organized black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church.
As Yolanda Pierce, an associate professor of African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary, points out, “The African American church, itself born out of a protest movement, is a symbol to African American community and culture.” It is crucial to remember that as Allen noted in his  autobiography, these churches “bore much persecution”  and “spiritual despotism” from those individuals and groups (Including white churches) that sought to deny the free exercise of religion to African Americans.
Note: In fn 1 of the Allen Autobiography segment, Dr. Benjamin Rush is correctly labeled as an abolitionist, but is misidentified as a Quaker instead of a Universalist.
JMS – 6/20/2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ben Franklin on the Quakers & Lack of Need For Govt. Support of Religion, Etc.

The relationship of the Quakers & the American Founding is fascinating. On the one hand, one might conclude the Founders had a strong dislike for them because of their refusal to take up arms. But they didn't. Hey, many of the most important Founders were Anglicans whose "sect" officially stood for the very propositions against which they rebelled. Irony abounds in the study of religion and the American Founding.

Why might the Founders feel affection for the Quakers? There was a radically decentralized, highly individualistic, anti-creedal, anti-clerical element of the Quakers that resonated with the Whig Zeitgeist. And for those Founders who believed government didn't need to support "true religion," the Quakers had that too. As Ben Franklin explains:
If Christian Preachers had continued to teach as Christ and his Apostles did, without Salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine Tests would never have existed; for I think they were invented, not so much to secure Religion itself, as the Emoluments of it.
When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig'd to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
Note Franklin's letter (October 9, 1780) was to the Arian Richard Price, who because of his Arianism would have flunked those religious tests the two of them complained about. Insofar as I understand the relationship of "Quaker doctrine" to the Trinity, their official doctrine is there is no doctrine.

Quakers of that time tended to believe in the Trinity but had no internal "confession" for it because they had no creeds. If the Spirit instructed the believer the Trinity existed, that was sufficient. If not, that was okay as well.  The individual believer, exercising his privilege as a Priest would decide for himself.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fea: "The Author's Corner with Steven K. Green"

Check it out here. A taste:
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing a Christian America?

SG: I argue that idea of the nation's Christian founding is essentially a national identity myth, constructed by the generations immediately following the constitutional era in an effort to sanctify the founding and give meaning to their hopes and aspirations for the nation's future.  As a result, we need to understand the purposeful origins and limitations of the idea of the nation's Christian origins.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

New Post at "Ordinary Times"

I have a new post at "Ordinary Times" on, basically, what I've been studying and blogging at for some time. A taste:
 Richard Price (in a sermon that George Washington endorsed!) articulates this understanding:
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?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Frazer on whether the American Revolution was a "Just War"

Gregg Frazer has a new article out in the Journal of Military Ethics entitled “The American Revolution: Not a Just War.” Dr. Frazer has, if you don't remember, made the case that the American Revolution violated the biblical injunction against revolution contained in Romans 13. Of course, such a claim would spark controversy among American Christians who take a "patriotic" view of history. This article is much deeper in that it explores the American Revolution through the lens of the eight classic criteria for what constitutes a "just war." A taste:
The most famous and fateful example of this pattern concerned the Tea Act and the colonial response to it. After complaints from the colonists, Parliament withdrew most of the Townshend Acts – except for a 1.7 per cent tax on tea. The Tea Act, which gave the British East India Company tariff breaks, actually lowered the cost of tea for Americans despite the remaining tax. The primary target of the Tea Act was Ireland, not the American colonies, but the only subjects who responded violently were the Americans. The so-called Sons of Liberty used threats and violence to prevent Bostonians from making their own choice of whether to buy tea at a cheaper price. Due to their threats, few dared to accept the tea and many ships were turned away without unloading. In Boston, the governor’s sons agreed to take consignment of the tea, but the Sons of Liberty made sure that the dock workers would not unload the cargoes. Without legal authority, they then threatened the ship captains to get them to leave or at least not pay the duty required; but if the duty were not paid, the governor would not allow the ships to leave and customs officials could eventually seize the cargo. The end result would be that the tea would enter Boston’s market and Bostonians would have the choice of buying the cheaper tea. Rather than allow Bostonians that choice, the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor, destroying £8000 to £18,000 worth of tea. In today’s currency, the value of the tea would be $2 – 4 million. The Boston Tea Party was much more than a simple prank (Harvey 2002 : 113).
Benjamin Franklin, America’s friends in Parliament and the American public were shocked by this vandalism, but Boston refused to punish the perpetrators or to pay for the destroyed property. Colonial authorities had previously refused to punish other lesser- known incidents of violence and vandalism, such as the Gaspee incident in which a ship's captain was shot and a law-enforcement ship burned by the Sons of Liberty without consequence. Repeated acts of this kind forced the British to pass tougher laws and take greater control. After the so-called Tea ‘Party’, the British government had to decide between reasserting its authority or losing Massachusetts. As a result, a series of punitive laws called the Coercive Acts (which the colonists called the ‘Intolerable Acts’) were passed. That punishment for lawlessness produced greater cries of ‘tyranny’. Again, one should think of what would happen if such acts were committed today in the US. Would the governing authorities just look the other way or dismiss it as a ‘party’? If punishing acts of violence and vandalism is a normal, reasonable function of government, then the Americans’ just cause claims must be questioned.
That just scratches the surface. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Founders and Poverty

More good stuff from Thomas G. West, author of Vindicating the Founders: Race, Class, Sex and Justice in the Origins of America:

The more we spend on the poor, the harder it seems for them to attain decent, productive lives in loving families. The federal government has spent $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs since the beginning of the War on Poverty in 1965, but the poverty rate is nearly the same today as in 1969, fluctuating between roughly 11 and 15 percent over that time period.
As I argue in a new essay on “Poverty and Welfare in the American Founding,” these results are bound to continue unless we rethink welfare policy from the perspective of our Founders. Neither the contemporary left nor right in America properly understands their approach.
The left often claims the Founders were indifferent to the poor—suggesting that New Deal America ended callousness and indifference. Indeed, high school and college textbooks frequently espouse this narrative. Many on the right think the Founders advocated only for charitable donations as the means of poverty relief.
Neither is correct. America always has had laws providing for the poor. The real difference between the Founders’ welfare policies and today’s is over how, not whether, government should help those in need.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin believed government has an obligation to help the poor. Both thought welfare policies should support children, the disabled, widows and others who could not work. But any aid policy, they insisted, would include work-requirements for the able-bodied.
Rather than making welfare a generational inheritance, Franklin thought it should assist the poor in overcoming poverty as expediently as possible:
“I am for doing good to the poor.…I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

As always, read the whole thing.

Steven K. Green, Next Notable Book in Christian Nation Debate

Steven K. Green from Willamette University College of Law has written what could be the next notable book in the "Christian Nation" debate. It's entitled "Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding" and is published by Oxford University Press (2015).

In the first link one can find a collection of Dr. Green's law review articles. This one entitled  "Understanding the 'Christian Nation' Myth" seems aptest to the book. A taste from the article:
The general consensus among historians today is that the members of the founding generation relied on multiple ideological sources when they were developing their arguments for revolution, republicanism, and constitutional government. Overall, the Founders were well-educated and well-read for their time; they engulfed histories and theoretical works about classical and medieval republics, the common law, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution. They drew their inspiration about the necessities and forms of republicanism chiefly from Enlightenment and Whig theorists of the preceding generations: John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, Henry St. John Lord Bolingbroke, and James Burgh, among others. Also influential were those writers of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment— Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Thomas Reid—whose “common sense” rationalism influenced many of the Founders including James Madison, John Adams, and James Wilson. Most of these writers were religious nonconformists or skeptics who sought to disassociate the legitimacy for government from religious authority. In his influential Letter on Toleration , Locke wrote that “the whole power of civil government is concerned only with men’s civil goods, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and has nothing whatever to do with the world to come.” 16 Because the “care of souls” was not the business of government, “the civil power ought not to prescribe articles of faith, or doctrines, or forms of worshipping God, by civil law.” 17 Such words were groundbreaking, in that they implied a commonwealth unconcerned with religious fealty or the maintenance of public virtue. Most scholars acknowledge the commanding influence of Locke and other Enlightenment and Whig thinkers on the founding generation. 18

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Different Kinds of Truth Claims

Are there? Yes, I believe so. I'm back writing for "Ordinary Times." My first post explores the difference between making an historical claim and believing in something because you have faith in the notion.

A big taste:
I’m known for my research that meticulously scrutinizes the claims made about religion and the American Founding. I reject the “Christian America” view. That view holds, among other things, that God was on the side of America, against the British and so directly intervened.

Two notable examples offered to prove God’s intervention include:

1. An incident where George Washington was shot at and nearly missed (and my understanding of the history is that it was, or at least Washington claimed it was, a near miss in the Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent sense); and

2. As my friend John Fea tells it,
On the evening of August 29, following a day of defeat at the so-called Battle of Long Island, the American troops found themselves healing their wounds and trying to regroup. The British army was entrenched in the earth only yards away from the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, hoping to deal the final blow to this so-called war for independence. As nightfall came, Washington’s troops began to abandon their posts in order to parade to ferries that would take them across the East River and to the safety of Manhattan. Between 7:00 p.m. and the following morning Washington had evacuated nearly 10,000 Continental troops. The commander was aided by a dense fog that lingered over the East River long enough to shield the American ferries from the sight of the British navy.
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the authors of a wildly popular work of providential history entitled The Light and the Glory, have argued that the fog was a sign of God’s providence. It was “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.”
Dr. Fea notes a problem with the claim:
Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether many English Christians would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?
Indeed Christianity is a much older religion than America and America is not, according to the creed, the center of the Christian God’s concern.

But still, if one wishes to have faith that Providence sided with America for, among other things, the above mentioned reasons, I can respect that. (The Founding Fathers themselves believed Providence was on their side.) Just don’t write and publish these claims as non-fiction history.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins: "The Baptist alliance with Thomas Jefferson that secured religious liberty"

Check it out here. A taste:
In 1776, long-persecuted Baptists hoped that the American Revolution would not only secure America’s liberty, but bring about full religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became their key allies in fulfilling that ambition. Jefferson’s collaboration with the Bible-believing Baptists was spiritually ironic. He remained relatively quiet about his religious skepticism during his political career, but in truth Jefferson did not believe in the resurrection of Christ or that Jesus was the Son of God. Nevertheless, in 1802 President Jefferson appealed for religious liberty in a letter that has become known as the “wall of separation” letter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Locke on the Gospel and on the Limits of Reason


From The Reasonableness of Christianity,
as Delivered in the Scriptures

by John Locke

Guest Blogger

[This passage has been coming back at me lately.  Even though "natural lawyers" such as Su├írez and Grotius argued that even if there is no God, the "natural law" would still have force, Locke realized the limits of reason and therefore of philosophy.*  Without the power and authority of a "law-giver," men are quite adept at fooling themselves as to what's right and wrong.  There's a reason there's no hymn called "Onward Kantian Soldiers," and why "The Internationale" lies astride the ash heap of history [permanently, we hope].

It's always good to have an excuse to take a peek into the "Reasonableness" and Locke's writings in general: he's much more a "Christian" thinker than given credit for. Outside of the Bible itself, there's not much philosophical stuff known by even a fraction of the general public as Locke was in America at the Founding.  Paragraph breaks are added for readability.---TVD]


Next to the knowledge of one God; maker of all things; “a clear knowledge of their duty was wanting to mankind.” This part of knowledge, though cultivated with some care by some of the heathen philosophers, yet got little footing among the people.

All men, indeed, under pain of displeasing the gods, were to frequent the temples: every one went to their sacrifices and services: but the priests made it not their business to teach them virtue. If they were diligent in their observations and ceremonies; punctual in their feasts and solemnities, and the tricks of religion; the holy tribe assured them the gods were pleased, and they looked no farther. Few went to the schools of the philosophers to be instructed in their duties, and to know what was good and evil in their actions. The priests sold the better pennyworths, and therefore had all the custom. Lustrations and processions were much easier than a clean conscience, and a steady course of virtue; and an expiatory sacrifice that atoned for the want of it, was much more convenient than a strict and holy life.

No wonder then, that religion was everywhere distinguished from, and preferred to virtue; and that it was dangerous heresy and profaneness to think the contrary. So much virtue as was necessary to hold societies together, and to contribute to the quiet of governments, the civil laws of commonwealths taught, and forced upon men that lived under magistrates.

But these laws being for the most part made by such, who had no other aims but their own power, reached no farther than those things that would serve to tie men together in subjection; or at most were directly to conduce to the prosperity and temporal happiness of any people.

But natural religion, in its full extent, was no-where, that I know, taken care of, by the force of natural reason*. It should seem, by the little that has hitherto been done in it, that 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. 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 leave it to the long and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them. Such trains of reasoning the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh; nor, for want of education and use, skill to judge of.

We see how unsuccessful in this the attempts of philosophers were before our Saviour’s time. How short their several systems came of the perfection of a true and complete morality, is very visible.

And if, since that, the christian philosophers have much out-done them: yet we may observe, that the first knowledge of the truths they have added, is owing to revelation: though as soon as they are heard and considered, they are found to be agreeable to reason; and such as can by no means be contradicted. Every one may observe a great many truths, which he receives at first from others, and readily assents to, as consonant to reason, which he would have found it hard, and perhaps beyond his strength, to have discovered himself. Native and original truth is not so easily wrought out of the mine, as we, who have it delivered already dug and fashioned into our hands, are apt to imagine.

And how often at fifty or threescore years old are thinking men told what they wonder how they could miss thinking of? Which yet their own contemplations did not, and possibly never would have helped them to.

Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it,) makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders, as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way.

Or whatever else was the cause, it is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the “law of nature.”

And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.


Full text here.

______________________
*See also Kretzmann, N., on Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles on the limits of unassisted reason and natural theology, p. 39 in the text and p. 51 in the PDF.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rational Rant: Without God and the Bible Series

Long story short: Numerous "Christian America" figures have spread spurious quotations, ones that tend to be chosen first because they seem on point. The error gets pointed out. Hopefully, those making the error either retract or otherwise stop citing the quotations. David Barton, everyone's favorite whipping boy, conceded they were "unconfirmed." But then they keep on being recited.

For instance, at WorldNetDaily the Benham Brothers recently wrote:
America was built upon a firm foundation, too; yet over the years it has been compromised.
Our first president said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
Now that is a firm foundation.
The problem is he didn't say it. Rational Rant just did an excellent five part series on the history of that false quotation: Parts one, two, three, four and five.

Jacob Soll: "What do we owe the Enlightenment?"

In The New Republic here. A taste:
All this makes Vincenzo Ferrone’s newly translated book, The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, compelling: Ferrone claims that the importance of the Enlightenment has not been its triumph, but its centrality in public debate. An Italian historian of philosophy and a specialist on the influence of Isaac Newton, Ferrone believes the Enlightenment must be defended not simply as a secular, political idea, but, most importantly, as what Ferrone calls a tradition of “critical thought.” Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment as the “progress of mankind toward improvement” through the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason on every point,” and Ferrone claims it is this critical process that has driven public opinion and politics, giving us the language of human rights, tolerance, and individual liberty. The long philosophical engagement with the idea of Enlightenment, from Voltaire in the eighteenth century down to our own time, is, for Ferrone, one of the great intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment itself. He allows that we can question the primacy of science and secularism, but not critical debate. Many great figures of philosophy who have been seen as critics of the Enlightenment are in fact, Ferrone argues, defenders of the Enlightenment tradition.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Forster on Barton on Locke

Warren Throckmorton has the details here. A taste:
I [Throckmorton] asked Greg Forster, an expert on John Locke (see an earlier critique of Barton’s treatment of Locke), to evaluate Barton’s claims about Locke and the 1500 verses. Forster’s answer is below in full:
Barton does not tell us the title of the book he holds up, but from his description it is impossible that it could be any book other than the Two Treatises of Government. However, his characterization of it is outrageous. Claiming that the Two Treatises “lists over 1,500 biblical references on how civil government is to operate” is not much more dishonest than claiming that the Bill of Rights protects 1,500 rights.
In his edition of the Two Treatises, editor Mark Goldie of Cambridge University lists only 121 Bible verses cited in the entire Two Treatises. And that’s including all the places where Locke didn’t cite the verse explicitly and Goldie “interpolated” the citation. In addition to those 121 Bible verses referenced, Goldie lists six places where Locke cited an entire chapter of the Bible, and one place where he cited an entire book (Proverbs). That’s it. But anyone who has read the Two Treatises will know Barton’s claim is false without having had to count.
Moreover, a large number – possibly even the majority – of those 121 citations are not to passages “on how civil government is to operate.” The Bible references in the Two Treatises are heavily concentrated in the First Treatise. The overwhelming majority of the First Treatise, in turn, is devoted to an extended analysis of small number of selected verses from the first two chapters of Genesis, especially Genesis 1:28-30. That’s a lot of analysis devoted to understanding the biblical text, but it’s not a large number of verses cited. The remainder of the First Treatise, where other biblical verses are cited more frequently, looks to the Bible not primarily for instruction on civil government but almost entirely on the power of parents over their children, especially the inheritance of property from parents to children. Locke is interested in these verses because he wants to use them to refute Robert Filmer’s claim that today’s kings inherit their power from Adam, but these are clearly not “biblical references on how civil government is to operate.” They are biblical references on how families are to operate. In fact, the point that descriptions of the how the family should work are not descriptions of how civil government should work was Locke’s main point!
After all this, it seems trivial to point out that Locke did not, in fact, “write” the Two Treatises in 1690; he published it in that year, but wrote it much earlier.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Slate: "The Mysteries of the Masons"

By Andrew Burt here. A taste:
Freemasonry is thought to have originated in England and Scotland sometime in the 1500s as a trade organization made up of local stoneworkers, but it soon took on a philosophical air. The triumph of reason began to be a focal point of the organization, as did dedication to deism, or the Enlightenment belief that the existence of God is apparent through observation and study rather than miracles or revelation. Over the centuries, the fraternity of Masons would expand throughout the world, as would its ceremonies and rituals, which involved strange symbols and oaths—in addition to its more benign emphasis on civic-mindedness, religious tolerance, and communal learning. The group met in secret.

Masons were overwhelmingly men of middle- and upper-class status—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—who had the time and leisure to join what amounted to a social club for the well-to-do. Many of the founding fathers had been Masons, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin—indeed, 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution claimed membership in the fraternity. In the years between America’s founding and 1826, Masonry had only grown more powerful, especially in New York. Gov. DeWitt Clinton was not only a Mason but had also been the grand master of the Grand Lodge of New York and the highest-ranking Mason in the country. By one estimate, more than half of all publicly held offices in New York were occupied by Masons.
American Creation has a resident Mason who perhaps can verify the facts in that above longish article. It's a mistake, in my opinion, to conflate late 18th Cen. Freemasonry with deism as many understand the term. My understanding is that Freemasonry was dedicated to monotheism and held itself as compatible with all monotheistic religions. You could be a Deist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, etc. and be, in principle, a good Mason.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fea: "David Barton on the American Bible Society"

From John Fea here. A taste:
Most of what [Barton] says about the founding of the American Bible Society is accurate, but he does not paint an entire picture of the founding or the men involved in the founding.

For example:
  • Boudinot did indeed respect the Bible.  He defended its inspiration and authority against attacks from skeptics like Thomas Paine.  He also turned to it to make predictions about the end of the world and to claim that native Americans were the ten lost tribes of Israel
  • John Jay was a devout Anglican Christian.  He also tried to ban Catholics from participating in New York government.