Friday, October 9, 2015

In Vino Deus

I guess this sorta fits under "Religion and the Founding,"  and so what if it doesn't. Ben Franklin:
“We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mark DeForrest on the Public Value of Religion

Check it out at The New Reform Club here. Such is a blog that features a current AC contributor, a past AC contributor and other talented folks. A taste:
... Almost to a man, the American Founders understood that it was faith in God, a God who stood above and beyond the State, that makes the idea of limited government possible, that makes the idea of human rights possible, that makes the idea of common, ordinary people rising up to resist tyranny possible. ...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Forget the Framers, it's the Ratifiers who count

I'm with Madison.  It's not what the lawyers meant when they drew up the contract, it's what the parties thought they were agreeing to. 
"As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character.
However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the authority which it possesses".
 —James Madison to Thomas Ritchie, 15 Sept. 1821

[Crossposted @ with a wee bit of political commentary appropriate for there but not here.]

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ben Carson's "Islamophobia"

Not that Dr. Carson's candidacy was ever going anywhere, but if he'd have majored in history instead of wasting his time becoming a brain surgeon, he could have hidden behind the skirts of Alexis de Tocqueville:

Muhammad professed to derive from Heaven, and he has inserted in the Koran, not only a body of religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science. The gospel, on the contrary, only speaks of the general relations of men to God and to each other - beyond which it inculcates and imposes no point of faith. This alone, besides a thousand other reasons, would suffice to prove that the former of these religions will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age, whilst the latter is destined to retain its sway at these as at all other periods.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Historic Traditional Christianity and Dueling

I mentioned this topic in my last post where I discussed Alexander Hamilton's death. As most readers know, I endorse the scholarly consensus holding that though Hamilton always seemed to have believed in God, he wasn't an orthodox Christian (what some folks define as a "real Christian") until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel.

Before that he was, pick your term: 1. a nominal Christian; 2. a "Christian-Deist"; 3. a "theistic rationalist."

Some challenge this scholarly consensus. I remember one fairly articulate, learned blogger who did, criticizing me in particular; but he seems to have exited the blogsphere years ago.

When so challenged, of course, we must return to the primary sources and carefully read them. Indeed, perhaps so closely that we memorize them.  When looking for "details" we may sometimes focus on one or more (often what we are looking for) and ignore others. We should not ignore the points the other side makes, but do our best to answer them.

However, interestingly, sometimes relevant points exist right there on the page that neither side addresses and thus get lost.

In 2010, at First Things Joe Carter linked to a post of mine on Hamilton's death, where that above mentioned blogger critical of me showed up in the comments section and challenged my (after more reputable scholars') analysis.

That means we must read the original writings of Bishop Benjamin Moore [Episcopalian] and Pastor J.M. Mason [Presbyterian], the two ministers from whom Hamilton sought communion when near death after being shot. 

The blogger who criticized me asserted,
Rev. Moore hesitated to give Hamilton the communion. He did not deny it, he hesitated; according to his own letter, he wanted to give the dying man time to reflect, so that he did not take the Lord's Supper in haste.
Okay. Hamilton was dying, immediately within if not days, hours (for all they knew). And Bishop Moore did indeed say he wanted "to avoid every appearance of precipitancy in performing one of the most solemn offices of our religion...." I had to look precipitancy up in the dictionary. It means "undue hastiness or suddenness." Moore then said "I did not then comply with his desire."

So yes, this was an initial denial. The blogger could term it a "hesitation" only because Moore ended up relenting and giving Hamilton communion.

The blogger also said something about Moore "want[ing] to give the dying man time to reflect...." That's where we ignored the part about how dueling violates Christianity. So Moore said to Hamilton:
I [Moore] observed to him [Hamilton], that he must be very sensible of the delicate and trying situation in which I was then placed: that however desirous I might be to afford consolation to a fellow mortal in distress; still, it was my duty, as a minister of the Gospel, to hold up the law of God as paramount to all other law: and that, therefore, under the influence of such sentiments, I must unequivocally condemn which had brought him to his present unhappy condition. He acknowledged the propriety of these sentiments, and declared that he viewed the late transaction with sorrow and contrition. I then asked him, "Should it please God to restore you to health, sir, will you never be again engaged in a similar transaction? And will you employ all your influence in society to discountenance this barbarous custom?" His answer was "That, sir, is my deliberate intention."
 Moore ended his address with:
Let those who are disposed to justify the practice of dueling, be induced, by this simple narrative, to view with abhorrence that custom which has occasioned an irreparable loss to a worthy and most afflicted family; which has deprived his friends of a beloved companion, his profession of one of its brightest ornaments, and his country of a great statesmen an a real patriot.
 Let's then turn to Pastor J.M. Mason. The blogger who criticized me, again, wrote:
Rev. Mason (who, with his father, had been close friends with Hamilton since Hamilton's youth) was not allowed to administer the communion to his friend because the church forbid him, under any circumstances, to administer it privately.
Yes it's true that the Presbyterians like the Episcopalians had strict rules relating to the administering of communion with which Hamilton apparently was unaware and that lead to Hamilton's clumsy Christian death. But there's more to the story.

The blogger also has Mason's account of Hamilton's death archived at his site. In addition to letting Hamilton know that church rules forbade him to administer communion privately, Hamilton's sinful conduct of dueling was discussed:
This last passage introduced the affair of the duel, on which I reminded the General, that he was not to be instructed as to its moral aspect, that the precious blood of Christ was as effectual and as necessary to wash away the transgression which had involved him in suffering, as any other transgression; and that he must there, and there alone, seek peace for his conscience, and a hope that should “not make him ashamed.” He assented, with strong emotions, to these representations, and declared his abhorrence of the whole transaction. “It was always,” added he, “against my principles. I used every expedient to avoid the interview; but I have found, for some time past, that my life must be exposed to that man. I went to the field determined not to take his life.” He repeated his disavowal of all intention to hurt Mr. Burr; the anguish of his mind in recollecting what had passed; and his humble hope of forgiveness from his God.
Being about to part with him, I told him, “I had one request to make.” He asked “what it was!” I answered “that whatever might be the issue of his affliction, he would give his testimony against the practice of dueling.” “I will,” said he. “I have done it. If that,” Evidently anticipating the event, “if that be the issue, you will find it in writing. If it please God that I recover, I shall do it in a manner which will effectually put me out of its reach in the future.”
The Christian Observer in 1805 gave a review of Mason's Oration on the Death of Hamilton. The review not only slams Hamilton's UNCHRISTIAN conduct of dueling, but also slams Moore for not being critical enough of Hamilton's unChristian conduct that led to his death.

The C.O. piece also examines Hamilton's Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr and from their perspective demolished it. Hamilton's account was (my words, paraphrasing) I went to the duel to protect my honor, but would not shoot at Burr. So Burr took advantage of the situation and killed him. But the Christian Observer didn't buy Hamilton's self serving explanation.

 They wrote:
It is regard to reputation then which induces him to violate the strongest obligations of religion and morality. It is true that this regard to reputation is clothed in the honourable guise of an ability to be in future useful. But are we to do evil, or to yield to a prejudice which we know to be both absurd and sinful, that we may have the power of doing good afterwards! 
The C.O. then declares such a notion the doctrine of "expediency" and slams it. They continue:
A real Christian, who judges only by the plain rules of scripture, would have felt little difficulty in the case which so much perplexed General Hamilton. He would have decided at once that the practice of dueling is sinful; and therefore, whatever the consequences might be, he would not sanction it. If, by following this course, his character should suffer ever so greatly in the estimate of the world, still he must obey God rather than man, and abide by the consequences with the fortitude of a martyr. ... 
Very interesting. Obey God not man. Acts 5:29. I'm used to dealing with that chapter and verse when "man" is earthy government that a believer ought disobey. Here "man" is simply popular opinion represented in notions of "earthly honor." And the "consequences" the believer is to deal "with the fortitude of a martyr" is not a governmental punishment which for the martyr was often death, but rather an injury to "honor."

But to tie this back to the context of Hamilton's twice being denied communion only to have one of the ministers (the Episcopalian Bishop Moore) relent and serve Hamilton communion, the elephant in the room was the inconsistency between the practice of Hamilton's dueling and the practice of Christianity.

I stand by my assertion that Hamilton was a newbie orthodox Christian at death. However, the issue for the ministers was that given he engaged in this unChristian practice of dueling, they doubted he was a "real Christian" deserving of communion.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

AFA's Rusty Benson on "What Is a Christian?"

See here. His answer:
  1. I Peter 1:23 – “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,”
A Christian is a person who has been “born again,” that is, radically and supernaturally changed by God. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:26) this change is described like this: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 – “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
A Christian is one who is so gripped by Christ’s love that he dies more and more to any other person, thing, or idea that would compete for his allegiance. 

  1. Luke 15:21– “And the [prodigal] son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
Romans 7:24 – “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 

When he first repents, a Christian sees himself in the words of the prodigal son. Though he progresses in the Christian life, he never outgrows his need for Christ and the gospel. In fact, a Christian’s sense of his unworthiness grows as Christ becomes greater in his eyes. 

  1. Matthew 21:10 – “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

Though none can fully understand this mystery, a Christian believes that Jesus is God in the flesh and his only Savior. Like Thomas the apostle, a Christian proclaims that Jesus is “my Lord and my God!”
 (John 20:28)
  1. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

By faith, a Christian trusts that Jesus fully paid the penalty of sin due each of us and perfectly satisfied God’s justice. It’s a transaction in which Jesus willingly takes the punishment for a Christian’s sin; the Christian gets Jesus’ perfection.

  1. 1 John 3:1a – “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!

    A Christian never gets over the wonder of God’s love for him and mercy given to him through Christ. He is forever overwhelmed at the miracle of his own salvation.
This is an interesting standard that the author notes is influenced by some notable orthodox Protestant theologians. As it relates to the American Founding, the problem for the AFA (who seem very sympathetic to a "Christian America" view of the Founding) is that none of the key Founders (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) was, according to this standard, a "Christian."

And Alexander Hamilton (arguably a key Founder) wasn't a Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel (and after Hamilton did his "work" as a Founder).

According to the above test, only "born again" Christians who believe in the "Incarnation" are "true Christians." Likewise the list intimates other doctrines like Sola Fide and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement as part of the definitional mix.

Unitarians, by their nature deny the Incarnation, and by necessity the "satisfaction theory of the atonement." (This is why we can say some unitarians have an "unorthodox" understanding of the "atonement," while others just reject the atonement).

Militant unitarians J. Adams and Jefferson, for instance, rejected both the Incarnation and the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement (Jefferson rejected the atonement and Adams may have held to an unorthodox understanding of the doctrine).

Franklin didn't seem to accept the Incarnation when, at the very end of his life answering Ezra Stiles' question on who Franklin thought Jesus was. Tellingly, after informing Stiles he had "Doubts as to [Jesus'] Divinity," Franklin doesn't identify Jesus as Savior/Messiah/or Son of God (all things compatible with and believed by various forms of then existing unitarian Christianity), but rather as someone whose "System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see;..."

So Franklin was no "born again" or "evangelical" Christian. In fact, when, in 1752 discussing the particulars of religion with a "born again" evangelical leader, that figure, George Whitefield, recognized Franklin at that time was not "born again" and tried to convert him:
... As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth. It is a most important, interesting study, and when mastered, will richly answer and repay you for all your pains. One at whose bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that without it, “we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”...
Likewise, George Washington and James Madison were no evangelical, "born again" Christians. Both, though they often expressed their devout belief in Providence, did not talk about Jesus or evince belief necessary to pass Rusty Benson's biblical standards. Both may have been like Jefferson and J. Adams, unitarians. But they left little on the public record relating to belief in doctrine beyond endorsement of more general concepts like warm Providentialism.

If George Washington was orthodox (I don't think he was, but don't necessarily rule it out), it was in the Anglican tradition, which does not teach the necessity of being "born again." Indeed, the latitudinarian tradition of the Anglican Church offered much latitude on matters of "doctrine," even transcending orthodox Trinitarian belief.

This is a point Dr. Joseph Waligore makes on "Christian-Deism." Waligore's "Christian-Deists" like Dr. Gregg Frazer's "theistic rationalists" (and those terms are arguably six and one half dozen of the other) seemed quite comfortable in the latitudinarian wing of the Anglican (and then Episcopalian) Church.

Attempts to make James Madison into an orthodox or evangelical Christian invariably relate to out of context statements made while very young to William Bradford. For more on the context, see this classic article by James H. Hutson. As noted, Madison, like Washington, could be sphinx like in refusal to put his specific doctrinal beliefs (as opposed to endorsement of generic warm Providence) on the table.

But attempting to latch onto the young Madison's letters to William Bradford as smoking gun proof is thin gruel. And there is much in Dr. Hutson's article that provides helpful understanding of context (testimony by, among others, Bishop William Meade, James Ticknor, and Rev. Alexander Balmaine who said Madison's political association with those of "infidel principles" either changed or made him suspicious of the "creed" of orthodox Christianity which Madison was coming out of).

Finally, Alexander Hamilton. He clearly had some kind of "born again" experience or return to the faith after his son died in a duel. When dying, after he himself was shot in a duel, he sought communion in two orthodox Churches (the Episcopalian and Presbyterian ones) and was initially denied both because of:

1. his lack of established track record as a "Christian" (he had not engaged in Christian communion* with EITHER of the churches, but when dying, these were the ones with whom he sought communion; if Hamilton were an established Christian communicant, with "imperfections," but still one who worked it out with the church with whom he was in communion, the strange clumsy situation of asking for but being denied communion by two ministers only to have one mercifully relent and administer the holy sacrament would not have occurred); and

2. his un-Christian like conduct engaging in a duel which was condemned by the faith.

By the way, I have never given serious thought on the relation of the practice of "dueling" (which seems to exist in a much less civilized way today with things like gang shootouts and even fist fights) to "Christianity," but note BOTH of the orthodox ministers in the churches with whom Hamilton sought communion (again, the 1. Episcopalian and 2. Presbyterian) condemned the action as sinful, made a personal issue out of it, and thus knowing Hamilton would soon meet his maker and concerned with his soul demanded he repent of this conduct which led to his death.

*On the matter of communion, we all know how central that doctrine is to Roman Catholics. The Founders, however, with rare exception, were affiliated with the Protestant Churches. And Protestantism being Protestantism, they can appear all over the place. The two churches with whom Hamilton sought communion seemed to have viewed it with fundamental import: a. as the Episcopalian Benjamin Moore who ultimately administered Hamilton communion put it, such was "one of the most solemn offices of our religion"; and b. said the Presbyterian John Mason, it was "a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s supper privately to any person under any circumstances.”

But to tie Hamilton's faith to the original article, Rusty Benson intimates that Donald Trump isn't a "real Christian," but Trump attempts to give a fig leaf of cover to being one. Hamilton's "Christianity," before his son died, likewise appears such. Hamilton, very talented statesman he, had all of the prideful, arrogant, obnoxious, egotistical, narcissistic bluster, and sexual improprieties associated with Trump.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

17 September — Constitution Day — James Cowles

Appropriately enough James Cowles, a contributor at the Beguine Again website, has posted a reminder that today, September 17, is Constitution Day (see here). Here's a taste:
...  Irrespective of one’s personal theology, religion revolves around the axis of the relationship between God and human beings, and how each relates to the other. Even under this broader and more realistic definition of “religion”, the place of religion in the American Constitution is still deeply “recessed” and implicit. The Constitution is, in a very radical and fundamental sense, a “horizontal” Document, a Document for human beings, not gods, with basically no “vertical” component. But even this lack of “verticality” carries within it an implicit view of God, of religion, and of the place of both in the Nation whose government the Framers were in the process of designing when they wrote the Constitution. At least in the Constitution “proper,” the absence of explicit references to God, religion, and faith tells us as much as any explicit reference ever could.
And later on:
 The “horizontal” nature of the US Constitution is glaringly evident from the first three words of the Preamble (boldface added, but in the original the first three words are written in a much larger script):
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
 With those first three words, the entire world, the conceptual cosmos, the moral universe of pre-Enlightenment Western civilization is left far behind. In a recent non-credit course on constitutional law, Prof. Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School compared the Preamble of the Constitution to the Big Bang.  That comparison is no exaggeration. The government being formed does not originate from the Hand of God. It is not Divinely ordained. It is not specified in or by the Bible. This is evident, not only in the words, but in words that occur elsewhere in the Constitution and in the way those words were acted out, where “made flesh”, were “incarnate,” if you will. First of all, the Framers, in Article VII, were careful to specify in very explicit terms not open to ambiguity the means whereby the Constitution would be ratified by the Colonies – which would only become States when the Document was ratified.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Bible Can Be Hard to Interpret

Because often the principles deduced from it involve more than just one "proof text" but synthesizing a number of different texts to produce a harmonious result. See here for Joseph Farah's article entitled Should Christians always obey government? And then he proceeds to try to refute the claim of Bible believing Christians who teach Romans 13 demands this.

But he knocks down a straw man. Even the thinkers who have the most fundamentalist approach on Romans 13 (Drs. John MacArthur and Gregg Frazer) don't claim this. Rather they claim SUBMISSION to the civil legitimacy of government is absolute. (That means rebellion is categorically forbidden).

Of course, they understand the competing verses and chapters of scripture like Acts 5:29 that say when the two conflict obey God not man. And the principle they deduce from putting the verses and chapters together is if government is ordering you to do something that the believer in good conscience thinks "sin," then disobey government. BUT, accept the civil legitimacy of the process when government comes along and punishes you for it.

Don't rebel or try to overthrow it. Rather work within the confines of the positive law for a solution, if you can get one. If not, then you'll just have to accept your punishment like a good martyr.

I did note when I presented at Gordon College on Dr. Frazer's book (which holds, among other things, that the American Revolution -- as all revolutions do -- violated Romans 13 and the rest of the Bible), that if objective truth can be found outside the four corners of the Bible, that could change the understanding. (New principles need to be synthesized in with the competing verses and chapters of scripture.)

Among others, the "Patriotic Preachers" (many of them unitarians and natural law believing rationalists) discovered a right to revolt against tyrants in nature via the use of reason. These preachers believed in a theistic natural law. That is, the God who authored scripture also authored the principles of nature discovered by reason. So after finding a right in nature through the use of reason to rebel against tyrants, they then went to the competing verses and chapters of scripture with that truth and added a new element into the equation. This resulted in an understanding of Romans 13 where rebellion against tyrants was permitted.

Samuel West for instance, addressing the claim that the ruler St. Paul instructed believers to submit to was the pagan psychopath Nero, asserted that the right to rebel against tyrants was so clear a teaching that Paul might actually have meant Romans 13 to be satire.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Noah Feldman Responds to a Ray Soller E-mail

This is the September 6, 2015 e-mail Ray Soller sent to BloombergView columnist, Noah Feldman, to which he referred in his 9/11/2015 column, What ‘So Help Me God’ Meant to George Washington.
Dear Prof. Feldman,

 In your 9/3/2015 BlombergView article [What the Oath of Office Means to a Kentucky Clerk] you wrote:
Of course, the oath of office prescribed by the U.S. Constitution doesn’t include those words [So help me God]. George Washington famously added them after taking the oath of office as president, and  tradition has maintained them.
 dot - dot - dot
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing like Washington and adding God to the oath. But the key point is that doing so is a personal decision -- not an official or professional one. And the consequence of that distinction is all-important.

 It would have been a big help to your article, if you had been aware that GW did not add a religious tagline to the end of his presidential oath. Please check out the article, “So help Me God”: A George Washington Myth That Should be Discarded, by Peter Henriques

Chester A. Arthur is the first president who is reliably known to have inflated his oath of office by the four extra-constitutional, non-biblical  words, “So help me God.” HerbertHoover is the last president who is known not to have uttered them. It’s only since FDR’s 1933 inauguration  that tradition has maintained them as a part of each following inaugural ceremony.

Even when it comes to whether Washington swore his oath on a Bible as a matter of personal choice that can’t be ascertained with any assurance, because no one knows exactly why a Bible was included as part of our first president’s inaugural ceremony on April 30, 1789. We do know that Chancellor Robert Livingston administered Washington’s oath of office in a manner that was completely consistent with the New York State Usual Mode of Administering an Oath. (In contrast, from what we know, a Bible was neither planned for nor included at GW’s second inauguration.)

At first Noah Feldman responded with an ever-so-short message that said, “Thank you for this reference. – NRF”

Soon after, on 9/11/2015, NRF posted another column to the internet that led off with the ambitious title, What ‘So Help Me God’ Meant to George Washington. The first paragraph mentions my 9/6/2015 e-mail and gets to the point by saying:

Did George Washington add the words “so help me God” to the constitutionally prescribed oath of office when he was sworn in as president on April 30, 1789? I’ve always thought so, and when discussing Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’s misinterpretation of her oath of office last week, I wrote that the U.S. Constitution doesn't include the words but that Washington “famously added them.” Immediately I received an e-mail [from American Creation blogger, Ray Soller,] citing an essay [by Peter Henriques] that claims this widely held view was in fact a myth, unsubstantiated by contemporary historical evidence and derived from a doubtful childhood memory by Washington Irving. I read the essay, and then found counterarguments [mainly by David Barton] on the web and in a good old-fashioned book [by Forrest Church].

For those who care to look at a critique of the David Barton argument see here, and for those who care to pursue an examination of the old-fashioned “book,” So help me God, The First Great Battle - Appendix by Forrest Church see here.

NRF then, very lawyer like, cherry-picks through the internet to answer the question, So what is the truth?, regarding whether GW said SHMG. To no surprise NRF comes up with this meandering conclusion:

Given this context [concerning how oaths were presumably administered during Washington’s lifetime], it seems more likely than not both that Washington, who was no Quaker, and swore rather than affirming, would have added the words in his oath, and that the fact wouldn't have been especially noteworthy. Conceivably, however, he didn’t say them -- although given the 18th century context, you’d think that the omission would have been noteworthy as well.

There are, unfortunately, two serious gaffs that occur in the effort to support his conclusion, mainly:
·      The statement, “Such a kiss [as occurred at GW’s 1st inaugural ceremony] was a ritual that at the time generally accompanied the saying of ‘so help me God,’” is unsubstantiated. Outside of references to English coronation ceremonies, and Masonic ritual, I am not aware of any state that administered an oath of office to a public official by having the oath-taker both kiss the Bible and pronounce the words “So help me God.” In the particular case of New York State statute, there was one of only two possibilities, where 1) a person would swear (there was no affirm option) by the usual “book-oath” method, that is by placing one’s hand on the Bible and kissing it at the conclusion of the oath, or, 2) provided the oath-taker was a person who held “conscientious scruples,” that person could, with uplifted hand, “swear by the everliving God.” The notion that so help me God  “generally accompanied” a book-oath does not hold up.
·      In the way of an afterthought, NRF quotes a line from Washington’s Farewell Address as saying, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths”? This line, as presented, has been edited without any notice to the reader. Instead, the quote, as cited, should be completed to include the clause, “which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice.” In this instance, President Washington is not trying to promote a comprehensive endorsement of  a religious codicil. He is, however, validating his signature of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on September 24, which contrasted with “The First Act of the FirstCongress” --signed into law by him on June 1, 1789— where the congressional oath, without a religious codicil, simply reads: “I, A.B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”

Most seriously, NRF is asking the wrong question. He, instead, should be asking, “What the presidential oath of office meant to George Washington”? That question can be answered succinctly by reading Washington’s second inaugural address.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Reason & Revelation (and Something Else)

See this article by Hadley Arkes celebrating the life of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. wherein he notes:
But the deepest question for Fr. Schall, and political philosophy, is that question of reason versus revelation. And that is the question that he and I use to ponder in walks through Georgetown. My late professor Leo Strauss thought there was a benign standoff here, for reason could not deny revelation, nor revelation refute reason. But as Fr. Schall noted, both revelation and reason emanated from the same source, and they were accessible only to the same kind of creature.
Yes that's the operative question for those who follow closely the teachings of Leo Strauss (and his followers). "Reason" is the secular, "revelation," the sacred. The twin foundings of Western Civilization. Reason, Athens; Revelation, Jerusalem. For those who might consider yourselves proudly secular pagan, it's your Western Civilization too, tracing back to Athens.

Though I do worry whether in our attempts to conceptualize we may be creating a false dichotomy. For those who are religious, if one is, say, a Roman Catholic, one has not just "reason" (from Aristotle-Aquinas) and "revelation" (the 73 books of the canon), but also tradition and the Magisterium. Likewise, Wesleyans have a Quadrilateral.

Recently I reflected on the insufficiency of reason and revelation, not because I, like what Strauss feared (and indeed perhaps what he esoterically believed) endorse a post-modern notion that objective notions of truth potentially ascertained by the two are in fact unobtainable. Rather, that the two, by themselves or together are in fact incomplete.

I think of my meticulous examinations of the writings of America's Founder (and tremendous thinker) James Wilson. And the arguments I have had over what his words really meant and stood for. When I wrote
Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for)
I was thinking of Wilson and some of the thinkers who influenced him.  The context of my disputes has been how did Wilson view "revelation" (on the one hand) v. "reason" (on the other). But when one examines some of the "proof quotes" without looking further for context, one might miss that Wilson isn't dealing with two concepts, simply.

Quotations like this:
Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive.
And this:
These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.
The larger, more contentious teaching I get from Wilson (and the thinkers he followed) is that "revelation" was designed to complement the discoveries of "reason" AND "the senses" (or "conscience"). That is, "reason and the moral sense" trump "revelation."

(Indeed, that the 2nd above quoted passage, and not what he wrote prior, summarizes Wilson's thoughts demonstrates such was what he was ultimately getting at.)

The lesser included, less contentious claim is that 1. revelation, 2. reason and 3. something else ("the moral sense," "conscience") are all incomplete without one another but necessary to work together to find the clearest understanding of truth.

So it's not a matter of "reason" v. "revelation." But a third thing beyond them both. Like revelation, reason is something that can be taught and tested for externally. The conscience or moral sense is something internal.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

More Attacks on Glenn Beck and David Barton, or: Lex iniusta non est lex

[Crossposted at The New Reform Club]

Here and here, for a conversation they had in a car and put on Facebook.

Barton refers to "4 types of law," which is Aquinas. [Blackstone had 6, but they're similar.]

Aquinas recognizes four main kinds of law: the eternal, the natural, the human, and the divine. The last three all depend on the first, but in different ways. Were we to arrange them in a hierarchy, eternal would be at the top, then natural, then human. Divine law is not in conflict with natural law, but it reaches human beings by a different route, revelation.

Barton usually has something substantive in mind, although what comes out is often a jumble. However, his point here could be whipped into shape.

Elsewhere, a correspondent cites the "supremacy clause" of the US Constitution:

Article VI: This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

But that's circular. The Constitution's supremacy clause does not grant to the central government powers it's not specifically given. It is not the supreme ruler of the land, only the highest legislature.

The Constitution was conceived as giving only certain enumerated powers to the central government. The supremacy clause, the "law of the land," applies only to what the central government is constitutionally empowered to do.

Of course, today the federal government claims absolute power over every facet of our lives, but this does not mean it's a legitimate power, nor are we bound by any moral law to bow to it against our consciences--a moral fact implicitly in the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

"Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these."--Blackstone
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”---Martin Luther King
"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."--Jeffersonet al.

Barton [and Kim Davis] will lose before the power of the state, which has the biggest guns. But his argument is both timeless and tenable. It's disappointing that their critics are so blinded by their animus against Barton and Beck that they have forgotten the Founding principles. We have the natural right to resist tyranny in all its forms, even "legal" tyranny.

Lex iniusta non est lex.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Trying to Make Sense of David Barton's Word Salad

I'm going to try and do a more serious analysis of David Barton's observations of the Kim Davis issue.

Below is my more glib analysis:
[America is] a democracy and a republic. Revolutionary France called itself a republic. France also recognized a "higher law" -- a theism to undergird its principles to which they appealed; they simply -- like America -- re-envisioned this monotheistic God to be more "revolutionary." And this is one reason why many American Christians at the time supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.
Okay, so first Barton claimed the difference between revolutionary America and France is that America was founded to be a "republic," France a "democracy."

This is false. The terms "democracy" and "republic" accurately describe both founding era America and revolutionary France. The terms are not mutually exclusive. And yes, America's Constitution promises each state a "republican" form of government. Revolutionary France, likewise termed itself a "republic." (That is they didn't say, "we are a democracy, not a republic.")

(For more on why America is both a "democracy" and a "republic" see Eugene Volokh's post here.)

Second, Barton intimates a feature that distinguishes democracy and republic is that democracy is "the will of the people," republic is "higher law" (which Barton apparently conflates with his understanding of "the Bible").

I think a kernel of truth lies underneath Barton's confusion. Democracy, in its rawest sense, does mean "majority rule," at its worst "mob rule," something arguably more present in the French Revolution than the American. Both the late 18th Century American and French systems sought to pay due respect to "the will of the people." And both believed in limits on such. Small r "republican" checks on the "democratic, majoritarian" process. Such "republicanism" means certain structures are built into the system that operate as as check on raw democratic majoritarian rule.

And those "checks" don't necessarily have anything to do with "higher law." Rather they are things like the checks and balances built into the American constitutional structure, the separation of powers, and the fact that it's elected representatives as opposed to "the people" themselves who write the statutes. The people elect the representatives to "do their will." And most of the time, hopefully, the "will" of both converge.

But not always. When "the people" are subject to fanatical passions, America's founders hoped the will of the more elite refined elected representatives would temper those passions.

Barton's misrepresentations relate more to the nature of unalienable rights. The "liberal" qualifier in the concept of "liberal democracy." If we were a pure "direct democracy," then majority would always win. But that's not our system. Rather, majority wins sometimes, most times in fact. But not always. Certain rights are antecedent to majority rule. Those are the small l "liberal" rights with which a small d "democracy" must deal.

That's one "republican" check on the democratic process, among many, in the kind of "democratic-republic" that both America and France in the late 18th Century were founded to be.

There is no easy answer for determining, in politics, which principles the majority gets to "win on" and which principles are antecedent to majority rule. Harry V. Jaffa termed this dilemma the "Crisis of the House Divided."

("All men are created equal" + the rational truth that blacks are "men," that is "mankind" or human beings = slavery has got to go; but the Constitution makes compromises with the institution of slavery. The Declaration + Constitution put together = an anti-slavery Founding and Lincoln securing a promise America's Founders made but could not or did not keep.)

One way in which to "settle" the issue as to which rights are "liberal"--  that is, antecedent to majority rule -- is tie them to God. This is what Barton intimates distinguishes the American Founding from the French Revolution. 

But revolutionary France too tied their liberal rights to God. In fact, all three of France's "Declaration of the Rights of Man, like America's "Declaration of Independence" appealed to a generic deity as the ultimate guarantor of liberal rights, antecedent to majority rule.

This should surprise not as America's Declaration of Independence greatly inspired the French Revolution and its author, Thomas Jefferson, went to France and assisted in the writing of their Declaration of the Rights of Man, fomenting the French Revolution.

Barton seemingly intimates the theistic "higher law" that undergirds liberal rights in America's system is, unlike that of the French Revolution, from the God of the Bible. But America's Declaration of Independence doesn't claim this. Instead, it appeals to a God in four places [1. Natures' God; 2. Creator; 3. Divine Providence; 4. Supreme Judge of the World] without ever explicitly identifying such God as the Christian one, or quoting verses and chapter of Scripture. The revolutionary French documents do more or less the same appealing to the generically defined "Supreme Being."

During the Founding era, the term "nature" especially as it relates to religion means discovered by reason as opposed to revealed by God in sacred scripture. As it were, the phrase "laws of nature and of nature's God" is a double invocation of reason. Yes, I would say, America's Founders like the French Revolutionaries believed in a higher law as ascertainable by reason.

Christians, yes, after thinkers like Thomas Aquinas believe in such and make "reason and revelation," properly understood work together. And the principles of the  French Revolution are compatible with such. This is why so many Christians of apparent orthodoxy like Ezra Stiles supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.

A Confession of Faith

So here at American Creation I've written quite a bit about how religion relates to the American Founding. I'll admit my meticulous study has influenced my personal understanding of what true religion is. Over at my personal blog I detail that understanding.

I'll reproduce here what I think most apt to American Creation's mission. A taste:

As a libertarian individualist, I'm interested in taking the notion of Protestant individuality (Priesthood of all believers) to its logical conclusion. Each individual, appealing to his own conscience in good faith, decides for himself not only how to understand the books of the Bible, but also which books are inspired and whether there are errors in them.

The way in which it was determined the Bible has 66 books instead of 73 is complicated and there isn't a clear objectively provable reason to endorse one canon over the other. Martin Luther in fact, when he was cutting out books of the Roman Catholic Bible wanted to -- if I understand the story right -- cut into the 66 until his other friends in his movement stopped him. (Luther actually did a Thomas Jefferson to the Bible, or vice versa.)

The Book of Revelation, among others, almost made Luther's chopping block. Now, I think that book is poetically interesting and well worth reading and reflecting on. But it is so trippy in the way it is presented my conscience instructs that no general principles can be derived from it. The Gnostic gospels are more valuable for ascertaining general truth principles. (And indeed, the early church fathers, though they believed in sacred scripture, did not believe in the Protestant "book of 66." Once they actually formed the consensus in the late 4th Century, the councils settled on books that numbered in the 70s).

As noted above, I reject "rationalism" as a place to settle these issues because it can't. Religion, yes, must meet the test of rationalism. If science tells us that, for instance, evolution is true, then a rationalistic religion must explain itself to meet that test. Thomas Aquinas noted that if religion and reason appear to contradict one another you have either bad religion or bad science.

There is still, alas, something beyond citing verses and chapters of scripture and testing according to the rules of rationalistic philosophy. Something mystical. And the mystical is something the individual must experience for herself in order for this truth sense to be understood and validated.


 Of all the Christian sects, the Quakers come closest. They call the internal understanding "the spirit" from within speaking. (Though I don't like how they got their name. Religious truth should make us be still, not make us quake.) Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for). ...

No. I don't consider myself "a Quaker." Rather, my personal theological approach is "Quakerish."

The Adventures of David Barton and Glenn Beck

Wow, the two of them here look like they are on some kind of "caper." Secret agents with Barton riding in the back seat getting ready to rescue Kim Davis. See John Fea's post and Warren Throckmorton's.

Seriously though, below is what I wrote on Facebook in response to Barton's strange blatherings:
We are a democracy and a republic. Revolutionary France called itself a republic. France also recognized a "higher law" -- a theism to undergird its principles to which they appealed; they simply -- like America -- re-envisioned this monotheistic God to be more "revolutionary." And this is one reason why many American Christians at the time supported the French Revolution and saw it as a continuation of the American.

Monday, August 31, 2015

King James Bible Eliminates Tyrants and Tyranny

The early Pilgrims, Puritans, and Scottish Presbyterians are widely reported to have brought the Geneva Bible to America for their personal reading. (The King James Bible, first published in 1611, did not become the consensus bible until nearly a century later.)
The Washington D.C. Capitol Rotunda gives an illustrated example for the Pilgrims as shown here:
The Embarkation of the Pilgrims painting was commissioned in 1836 by the US Gov’t for the Capitol Rotunda. (Note the open Geneva Bible in the hands of John Robinson.)
There are a number of references saying that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin read the Geneva Bible.  Apparently,  Franklin was sufficiently impressed with the illustration on the frontispiece of the Geneva Bible to use it as the theme for his proposal of the First Great Seal.  

Geneva Bible Frontispiece is shown here:

In contrast to the restrained message of Exodus 14:14, the motto on Franklin’s Great Seal went one step further by inscribing it with "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."  

The King James Bible was not meant to endorse Franklin’s chosen motto. Quite to the contrary, the underlying purpose for publishing the KJB was to supplant the Geneva Bible, and reinforce the edict that the divine right of kings as being sacrosanct. Just consider, for example, the King James Bible "translation" eliminated every occurrence of the words, “tyrant” and “tyranny,” whereas the Geneva Bible has 400 occurrences for both tyrant and tyranny.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Swedenborgs' Address to George Washington

I've written many times before on George Washington's classic address to the Swedenborgs where he lets them know whatever rights the federal Constitution grants to "religion" they are equally entitled to such.

But it's worth focusing on their address to him. Religious leaders constantly corresponded with Washington, praising him, seemingly both to try to smell him out and proselytize to him. Washington invariably responded with generic, inclusive head nodding language that affirmed his belief in a monotheistic Providence (as he does here).

They wrote:
An Address from the New Church at Baltimore, To George Washington, Esquire
While the Nations of the Earth, and the people of United America especially, have in their various denominations paid their tribute to the respectful deference to the illustrious President thereof, permit, for a Society however small in number, yet sincere they trust, in their attachment to offer up in the dawn of their institution, that mark of dutiful esteem which will become the new associations, to the Chief Magistrate of America.
We presume not, Sir, to enter into a reiterated panegyric of matchless virtues or exalted character, but assuming causes with effects, we are led to believe that you were a chosen vessel for great Salutary purposes, and that both in your actions and in your conduct, you justly stand one of the first disinterested and exemplary men upon earth. Neither in this address can we, was it expected, enter into a detail of the profession of our faith; but we are free to declare that we feel ourselves among the number of those who have occasion to rejoice that the word literally is spiritually fulfilling; that a new and glorious dispensation or fresh manifestation of Divine Love hath commenced in our Land; when as there is but one Lord, so is his name becoming one throughout the earth; & that the power of Light or truth and righteousness is in an eminent Degree, universally prevailing, and even triumphing over the powers of Darkness; when Priestcraft & Kingcraft, those banes of human felicity, are hiding their diminished heads, and equality in State, as well as in Church, proportionally to mind, are considered the true criterion of the majesty of the people. -- Oh! Sir, could we, without being charged with adulation, pour out the fullness of our souls to the enlightened conduct of him who stands chief among the foremost of men, what a volume of truth might we deservedly offer to the name of Washington, on the altar of Liberty uncircumscribed! Allow us, by the first opportunity, to present to your Excellency, among other Tracts, the Compendium of the New Church, signified by the New Jerusalem, as the readiest mean to furnish you with a just idea of the Heavenly Doctrines.
That the Lord Jesus, whom alone we acknowledge as "the true God & eternal Life," will preserve you long to reign in the hearts of the people, and lastly to shine as a gem of the brightest lustre, a Star of the first magnitude of the unfading mansions above, is the fervent aspiration of your faithful citizens and affectionate Brethren. Done in behalf of the members of the Lord's New Church at Baltimore, this 22d Day of January 1793 -- 37.
W.J. Didier
Secy. Protem
While they could not "enter into a detail of the profession of [their] faith," they still did proselytize for their unorthodox understanding of the Christian faith. They were modalists, believing the Father, Son & Holy Spirit were One Person, not Three Persons. While most modalists believe the three names are just three different titles or "modes" of One God, the Swedenborgs believed that One Person was Jesus Christ. (That Jesus wasn't just the "mode" of the Son; He was the "mode" of all three). 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Julie Ingersoll's New Book

John Fea has the information here. It's noteworthy in that it's being published by Oxford University Press. A taste:
David Barton is also the popularizer of a revisionist history of race in America that has become part of the Tea Party narrative. Drawn in part from the writings of Christian Reconstructionists, that narrative recasts modern-day Republicans as the racially inclusive party, and modern-day Democrats as the racists supportive of slavery and postemancipation racist policies. Barton’s website has included a “Black History” section for some time. Like Barton’s larger revisionist effort to develop and perpetuate the narrative that America is a Christian nation, the “Republicans-are-really-the-party-of-racial-equality” narrative is not entirely fictive. Some historical points Barton makes are true; but he and his biggest promoter, Glenn Beck, manipulate those points, remove all historical context, and add patently false historical claims in order to promote their political agenda. Barton appeared regularly on Beck’s show to disseminate his alternative reading of African American history, carrying with him, as he does, what he claims are original documents and artifacts that he flashes around for credibility.
(Those are Ingersoll's words, not Fea's.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Another Conservative Christian Nation Wacko

"I don't think we put enough stress on the necessity of implanting in the child's mind the moral code under which we live.

The fundamental basis of this Nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days.

If we don't have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the state."

OK, OK, you're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The answer is

[scroll down]

Harry S Truman
Address Before the Attorney General's Conference on Law Enforcement Problems
February 15, 1950

Mind you, I don't necessarily agree with all this, um, chapter and verse as it were, but I think it provides a interesting perspective in the current historiographical crisis.

[HT: WorldTribune-Editor.]

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Two From Robert Tracy McKenzie on the Founders & Religion

"Wheaton University Professor McKenzie is Chairman of the History Department." Here is the first entitled "The Contradictions Of A Secular University: Another Jefferson Legacy." And the second entitled "WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?" A pull quote from the first:
Jefferson’s approach to moral values differed in the details but was similar at the bottom line. Jefferson’s starting point was what historian Gregg Frazer labels theistic rationalism. Frazer means that Jefferson was willing to concede the existence of God on logical grounds, but reason was always in the driver’s seat when it came to determining his religious beliefs. He rejected as irrational almost all of the fundamental tenets of orthodox Christianity (as outlined in the Apostles’ Creed, for example), was skeptical of the concept of special revelation, and insisted repeatedly that reason was the only reliable guide to virtue.
And the second:
... If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.
The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance

On Monday’s date 225 years ago, there took place one of those singular moments in history when a moving event during the American Founding intersected with a cherished moment in the story of Freemasonry. On August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island during a nationwide public relations tour of the new country to confirm the bonds among the newly united states, and to show off its first president who, for all his exploits as commanding general during the Revolution, really had not seen most of the country.

The visit is memorialized in ways that include two exchanges of letters with Washington. The first was between the small congregation of Jewish residents of Newport; the second was between the Freemasons of the town. Both pairs of letters communicated messages of good will and brotherhood, and both would be remembered by posterity for their significance to the new nation’s fledgling commitment to guaranteeing religious liberty.

Mr. Moses Seixas, one of the leaders of the synagogue, representing approximately 300 Jews in Newport, writes:


Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits, and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days—those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword—shielded Your head in the day of battle, and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship—deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine. This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men, beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life. And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island,
August 17th 1790.
Moses Seixas, Warden

President Washington replies:


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

It is “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” that is most remembered from these letters, partially because it is communicated by both writers, but I think mostly because it powerfully summarizes what is at stake. The Jews of Newport were denied citizenship. The First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty still was in its embryonic stage in the summer of 1790, as the Bill of Rights would not be ratified for another sixteen months. But what is more significant to me is what Washington writes additionally: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Again, before the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first president assures a tiny and disenfranchised religious minority that the right of conscience is not a political option to be elected or rejected by a majority, but is part of what makes the new United States distinct among nations. And I believe there is within it an echo of the first Masonic grand lodges book of jurisprudence—Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723—that enjoins Freemasons from concerning themselves with each others’ religious convictions, instead urging all Masons to build on the common ground of a shared faith in deity, regardless of how various specific theologies can differ beyond that primary spark of belief.

(Thomas Jefferson’s letter of January 1, 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut arguably is the more famous presidential assurance to a religious congregation of their right to worship. It is here that Jefferson writes of “building a wall of separation between Church and State”—an idea that goes beyond the First Amendment’s prohibitions of a U.S. government-founded church and government interference with religious practices, and that colors many citizens’ understanding of religious freedom to this day.)

Returning to Freemasonry, it was on August 17, 1790 that King David’s Lodge—originally a lodge of Jewish Masons founded in New York City on February 17, 1769—sent a welcoming note to President Washington, the fraternity’s most famous and beloved brother. Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, was Worshipful Master of King David’s Lodge also, and it is he from whom we hear again:

We the Master, Wardens, and Brethren, of King David’s Lodge, in Newport, Rhode Island with Joyful hearts embrace this Opportunity, to greet you as a Brother and to hail you welcome to Rhode Island. We exult in the thought that as Masonry has always been patronised by the wise, the good, and the great; so hath it stood and ever will stand as its fixtures are on the immutable pillars of faith, hope, and Charity.

With unspeakable pleasure we Gratulate you as filling the Presidential Chair with the applause of a numerous and enlightened people, whilst, at the same time, we felicitate ourselves in the honour done the Brotherhood by your many exemplary Virtues and emanations of Goodness proceeding from a heart worthy of possessing the Antient Mysteries of our craft; being persuaded that the wisdom and Grace with which heaven has endowed you, will ever square all your thoughts, words, and actions by the eternal Laws of honour, equity, and truth, so as to promote the advancement of all good works; your own happiness, and that of mankind.

Permit us then Illustrious Brother cordially to Salute you with Three times Three and to add your fervent supplications that the Sovereign Architect of the Universe may always encompass you with his holy protection.

Mentions of Masonic thought and practice abound in this brief note, which should surprise no one, but what catches my eye is the writer’s seamless blending of Masonic phrasing with concern for civic integrity. Washington was not the president of Freemasonry; he was chief executive of the new federal government. (An attempt years earlier to elect him Grand Master of Masons for the entire country was unsuccessful, Masonic governance thought best to be kept local, not unlike the Federal system of civil government formed later by the U.S. Constitution.) Again:

Virtues and emanations of Goodness proceeding from a heart worthy of possessing the Antient Mysteries of our craft; being persuaded that the wisdom and Grace with which heaven has endowed you, will ever square all your thoughts, words, and actions by the eternal Laws of honour, equity, and truth, so as to promote the advancement of all good works; your own happiness, and that of mankind.

Reading this in 2015, the heart pines.

The Masonic Brother’s reply to the lodge bears the same date, suggesting the two notes were delivered by messenger:


I receive the welcome which you give me to Rhode-Island with pleasure—and I acknowledge my obligations for the flattering expressions of regard contained in your address with grateful sincerity.

Being persuaded that a just application of the principles, on which the masonic fraternity is founded, must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity, I shall always be happy to advance the interests of the Society, and to be considered by them a deserving Brother.

My best wishes, Gentlemen, are offered for your individual happiness.

Go. Washington