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 Suárez 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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Volokh: "Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?"

Answer:
I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.
The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cult of the Supreme Being

Today on Facebook, the legendary Lawrence Reed notes:
On this date in 1794, the power-mad Maximilien Robespierre introduced the infamous "Cult of the Supreme Being" as the new state religion of the French Republic. To learn more about it, put your cursor at 1:17:50 in this video:
We have to be careful when dealing with those generic God words like "Supreme Being" (one of the many favorites of America's Founders). I know some revolutions have been purported to have been done in the name of atheism. But it is more effective to tie God to the cause. It helps to park your case on the highest authority possible. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sandefur: "John Adams insists the American constitutions were not divinely inspired"

We've seen this quotation before; but it's always worth a revisit. A taste:
It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.... Neither the people, nor their conventions, committees, or sub-committees, considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important.
John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, reprinted in 4 Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams 292 (1851).

Monday, May 4, 2015

Tom Paine, "Common Sense," and the Bible

by Tom Van Dyke

Our American Creation blog entirely changed my viewpoint about religion and the Founding. I thought they were all deists or something, because that's how I was educated.

Reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense now, I'm simply amazed at how much religion is in it, and how much our discussions at American Creation have opened my ears to what he was actually saying, beginning to understand the language of the Founders as they heard it themselves. Thanks to all here gathered.

Most of those who fought the American Revolution couldn't do it in all good conscience without God's permission. The infidel Paine gave them that Biblical permission, clever fellow that he was, even though he didn't believe a word of it. Without further ado-doo, ladies and gentlemen, excerpts from Thomas Paine's Common Sense with commentary, the short and full text available here:

HOW CAME THE KING BY A POWER WHICH THE PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO TRUST, AND ALWAYS OBLIGED TO CHECK? Such a power could not be the gift of a wise people, neither can any power, WHICH NEEDS CHECKING, be from God; yet the provision which the [British] constitution makes [empowering Parliament---TVD] supposes such a power to exist.

Not an argument that John Calvin would have liked, but clearly addressing in the negative the Divine Right of Kings and Romans 13 ["Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers"]. No argument for the Revolution could be made without addressing this great Biblical theological problem.

In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology there were no kings; the consequence of which was, there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion...Antiquity favours the same remark; for the quiet and rural lives of the first Patriarchs have a snappy something in them, which vanishes when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.

Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom...

As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings...

Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. The history of that transaction is worth attending to.


Before Paine attends to that, he makes a Biblical argument for a republic, the sort of thing you only hear from hardcore "Christian Nation" fundamentalists, but Paine doesn't miss a trick:


Near three thousand years passed away, from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of Republic, administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts.



Then Paine goes on [at great length] to explain that in the Book of Judges, how Gideon refuses the Israelites' offer of their crown after his great military victory [Judges 8, King James Version], replying [all CAPS are Paine's]:

"I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU." Words need not be more explicit: Gideon doth not decline the honour, but denieth their right to give it; neither doth he compliment them with invented declarations of his thanks, but in the positive style of a prophet charges them with disaffection to their proper Sovereign, the King of Heaven.


and of the First Book of Samuel

"But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, give us a King to judge us; and Samuel prayed unto the Lord, and the Lord said unto Samuel, hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee, for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, THAT I SHOULD NOT REIGN OVER THEM."


As well as a VERY long account from 1 Samuel 8 of how the king will take their sons for war and their daughters for servitude, and take a tenth of everything and

"...your fields and your vineyards, and your olive yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shell have chosen, AND THE LORD WILL NOT HEAR YOU IN THAT DAY."


All in all, a convincing argument against monarchy, not only Biblical but reality, a reality that's just dawned on the colonists...

Now we all know that Paine starts to show his anti-Biblical cards in 1794 with the first part of his The Age of Reason, and believes the Bible no more than Aesop's fables. But in 1776, he's not nearly done dealing from the bottom of the deck yet to get Christian America nodding in agreement at his "Common Sense":

If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next; for to say, that the right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam; and from such comparison, and it will admit of no other, hereditary succession can derive no glory. for as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from re-assuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels. Dishonourable rank! inglorious connection! yet the most subtle sophist cannot produce a juster simile.

Original sin! A doctrine doubted by even the early "unitarians" of the age, a doctrine Ben Franklin felt comfortable enough denying publicly. Surely, Paine would never subscribe to such nonsense! [Or did he?]

No matter, the Founding era did, at least to the degree that they distrusted man's reason as the final arbiter of all truth.

And Paine's citation of the Biblical Adam here is no small thing: it stands directly as a refutation of PATRIARCHA OR THE NATURAL POWER OF KINGS By THE LEARNED SIR ROBERT FILMER, BART. [1680][sic], the best known defense of the British monarchy before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which traced King James' [yes, that King James] authority back to Adam himself!

What Paine writes of here isn't abstract theologico-political abstract stuff for an elite few---to his audience, the American colonists, the disputes are well known, and what Paine writes is clearly common sense!

As to usurpation, no man will be so hardy as to defend it; and that William the Conqueror was an usurper is a fact not to be contradicted. The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.


OK, this is a cheap argument by Paine going back to 1066, but his audience is already on his side. But the illegitimacy of government by a usurper goes all the way back to Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s! And N.B.---"usurp" is used TWICE in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Surely no coincidence: the illegitimacy of usurpation had 500 years to imbed itself into Christian thought and the Western mind, contra Romans 13. It was in the theologico-political air they breathed.

For us to understand what Jefferson called the "American mind"---what he claimed he was only setting down on paper in drafting the Declaration---we need to be familiar with the air they breathed. Probably a disappointing fraction of Americans today could even define "usurp," but the American Mind knew well what it meant in 1776, or Jefferson wouldn't have used it twice in the same paragraph, and neither would Paine have gone there.


The first king of England, of the present line (William the Conqueror) was a Frenchman, and half the peers of England are descendants from the same country; wherefore, by the same method of reasoning, England ought to be governed by France.


That's a pretty funny reductio ad absurdum, and definitely kicks Filmer's Patriarcha to the curb. Couldn't resist giving Paine his props as a comedian here.

Well, this next one is Paine's greatest whopper, since no way he believes a word of it. [Does he?] But it does tell us a lot about his audience, which is our primary historical concern:

Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.


I mean, did you get that one? The Almighty is establishing America as a refuge not merely for religious freedom blahblahblah, but as a sanctuary for Protestantism! "Natural proof," at that!

Paine could push buttons, man. He'd have a talk show these days. What network, aw, I'll leave that aside.

Almost done here on Mr. Paine's Common Sense---if you've read this far, and I've written this far, let's do the entire thing. Paine's next appeal to the Divine is pretty straightforward:

But where says some is the King of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING.


Again, the CAPS are Paine's. He's getting a little imprecise here, either tired or wasted or just trying to finish up. God is King of America, if "reigns above" means what it appears to mean. But THE LAW IS KING, too. And even if the colonists never actually read it, surely they'd heard the title of Samuel Rutherford's 1644 Calvinist tract, Lex, Rex and pretty much got the gist of it from the title. Not only isn't the King the law, but Rutherford's already on to the minimization of the leviathan of government.

Paine's appropriation of THE LAW IS KING likely carried to its audience more than just its rhetorical face value, it brought echoes upon echoes with it: Britain's Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution, the better part of a century of political strife; the Calvinist theology that powered not only the Scottish Covenenters but the Presbyterians in America whom King George blamed for the revolution itself; the refutation of the Divine Right of Kings, as well as Rutherford's own thoughts on minimalist government itself.

"Lex, Rex" was a powerful term, and well-known; that's probably why Paine put its English translation of it in CAPS, confident his readers knew what he was talking about and its echoes too.

Hey, it's not as though ALL of Paine's arguments are theological. He abandons that tack at the 2/3 mark of "Common Sense," having established the righteousness of the cause, through reason and Bible. He closes with a generic call for liberty, and cites the rest of the world's [Africa and Asia's] rejection of Europe as oppressors and all-around nogoodniks.

In the last third, as a practical matter, Paine argues how and why the American revolution can succeed---and he was wrong about building an American navy, but right that the French would only help us if we split off from Britain and not reconcile with them, thereby weakening them. [And indeed it was the French navy, not an American one, that swung the showdown at Yorktown.]

Paine's "Common Sense" was a pamphlet, not a book, and can be read pretty quickly. The colonists did. And once you tune your ears to their ears, theologically and politically, it's even easier to hear.

Everybody could agree, it was just common sense.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Go To Guy" Fumbles Continental Army Military Oath

What follows are two segments taken from the 1/18/2013 C-Span  video transcript  that was recorded at the Washington Center for Internships & Academic Seminars.  It starts off with the host,  Ross K. Baker, introducing the featured speaker for that day, Donald A. Ritchie, whom he presents as the best example of a “go to guy.”

All right, now, there is a phrase that journalists use a lot. It’s called a “go to guy,” and I think you know what that means. It means somebody who knows a lot about something that a journalist can go to, and get from that person reliable information. There are not that many “go to guys” around. There are a lot of people in this town of opinions, and a lot of people in this town who are incredibly glib. There are not that many people who are so fundamentally immersed in a subject and an important subject that journalists and others - academics are attracted to that person. 

In my mind, the best example of a “go to guy” is our next speaker, Don Ritchie. I’ve gone to him and more than that. I’ve received ideas even a little bit of inspiration in terms of my own work. He is the historian of the United States Senate and as such he is the keeper of the Family Jewels of the history of the United States Senate. It’s glorious, interesting, fractious cooperative history. I’ve known Don for many years as I’ve known his predecessor [Richard A. Baker] and I’m so pleased to have him here to talk about the Senate today so much as about Inaugurations which after all is the reason why we’re all here. So it’s my great pleasure to present Historian of the United States Senate.

When, during the course of Don Ritchie’s presentation on Past Inaugurations, he came to the part about explaining how the traditional use of the extra-constitutional phrase, “So help me God,” has become a topic of such paramount importance, he had this to say:

Now one of the strange things about the inaugurations and one that leads to controversy is that as I mentioned that the Constitution writes out the oath of office. And one thing the Constitution does not say is concluding the inaugural oath with “So help me God.” And yet most presidents [beginning with Chester A. Arthur] say “So help me God.”  And part of that is because there was a tradition; there was sort of a folklore that developed that Washington said “So help me God.” And we historians have been looking for whether Washington said  or didn’t say “So help me God.” We’re not sure about this one. One of the accounts [first told by Rufus Griswold was seemingly] given by Washington Irving, who was five-year-old at the time of Washington’s inauguration, [...]   But [sixty-five] years later he gave his remembrance that Washington said “So help me God.” We just don’t know.

It’s up to the President of the United States to say whatever he wants. [It’s been suggested that according to a common practice,] [m]ost  presidents in the 19th Century did not repeat the oath, they just said, ”I do.”  Starting about the 1880’s presidents began to say “So help me God.”  It’s interesting to me that the Chief Justice who swears them in says “So help me God.” If you’re going to be a strict interpreter of the constitution, it’s not there. The President can say it. You wonder why the Chief Justice puts this in. It’s become tradition, and tradition is even more important that constitutional structure in this process. But it’s become a point of controversy.

I should say that Chief justices of the United States have been known to fumble the oath of office. It’s different than all the others, and one reason why they do fumble is they are used to giving the oath, but it’s not the same oath. The oath we take as staff of the Senate, or the  military offices, or the judges take is the oath written by Congress, and that oath does end with “So help me God.” And in fact, the military oath that Washington’s troops [took] during the Revolution ended with So help me God . So it was natural for Washington to have said it at that occasion, although not required [my italics].

As for the actual “military oath that Washington’s troops took during the Revolution,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie fumbled this one away, because he is totally unaware of the need to piece together the February 7, 1778 act of the Continental Congress with Washington’s subsequent General Orders of May 7, 1778. 

So, now, here’s the real scoop.

At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress established  loyalty oaths for both  men and officers who had enlisted into Continental Army. The first such oath was put into effect on October 21, 1776, but this version with its concluding So help me God was repealed.  A revised oath  took its place on February 3, 1778, but at this time an apparently minor change took place. In contrast to the earlier version the usual So help me God did not occur within a delimiting pair of quotations marks. (Unfortunately, this apparently minor change is frequently unnoticed, i.e. U.S. Army Center of Military History website, Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office.)

You can see a broadside containing the original February 3, 1778 legislation at a website provided by The Library of Congress – American Memory as shown here

Here’s another source, Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777-1795, 1801 ..., pgs, 703-707, that shows the same.

If the matter concerning the Continental Army military oath with its trailing So help me God tagline was limited to the placement of a single quotation mark, then this matter would hardly be worth mentioning. What follows, however, is significant.

According to the GENERAL ORDERS -  Head Quarters, V. Forge, Thursday, May 7, 1778, issued by Commanding General George Washington,  So help me God was taken out of the military oath. Consequently, when the printed military oath certificates were distributed to the officers in the field, the printed oath stopped at the final quotation mark, and it did not include the apparently unnecessary So help me God tagline.

It was five days later on May 12th that George Washington’s signed  his oath certificate as specified by the General Orders of May 7, 1778.  As I’ve previously shown (see here, and here) Washington did not append So help me God. 

Now with this particular historical background kept in mind, is it all reasonable for the “go to guy,” Don Ritchie, to peddle the notion that  it was “natural for Washington to have said it [So help me God] at that occasion, although not required ”?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hall on Stewart's "Nature's God"

Mark David Hall has published a piece for the Spring 2015 issue (pp. 285-291) Christian Scholars Review entitled "A Failed Attempt at Partisan Scholarship." It reviews Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.

We get an exclusive preview. See below:
Matthew Stewart is upset.  It seems there have been many attempts, “most of them misinformed, some shamelessly deceitful,” to deny the “basic fact” that America’s founders embraced a version of deism that is “functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism’; and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism” (4-5).  “Christian nationalists” such as David Barton, Gary DeMar, John Eidsmoe, and “Tim La Haye” [sic] who challenge this reality not only “misread the American Revolution . . . they betray it” (445).  
Given this complaint, one might think that Stewart would engage books written by these men.  But he ignores them.  Instead, he points to four volumes that provide “a good start on exposing the deceitful historiography of Christian nationalism” (445).  Of these books, Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming (2007), Jeff Sharlet’s The Family (2008), Rob Boston’s Why the Religious Right is Wrong about the Separation of Church and State (2003), and Chris Rodda’s Liars For Jesus (2006), only the latter—a self-published screed—comes close to meeting this description.  The others make occasional references to David Barton but are far more interested in revealing theocratic conspiracies by leaders of the religious right.
            In addition to popular Christian authors, “new Christian nationalists” are also a “powerful force” within the academy (445).  The only example Stewart gives of such a work is a volume I co-edited with Daniel L. Dreisbach and “Jeffery” [sic] Morrison entitled The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).  We, in cooperation with contributors Mark Noll, Edith Gelles, Gary Scott Smith, William Casto, Gregg Frazer, Thomas Buckley, Jonathan Den Hartog, David Voelker, Kevin Hardwick, Robert Abzug, and Rosemarie Zaggari, succeed in “creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none” (445).  That Stewart considers any of these scholars to be “Christian nationalists,” new or otherwise, should give anyone familiar with the literature on religion and the American founding pause.  Many of these scholars have also written well-received books and articles on the subject, yet these are completely ignored by Stewart.  So are relevant works penned by Jane Calvert, Thomas Curry, John Fea, Nathan Hatch, James Hutson, Thomas Kidd, Donald Lutz, George Marsden, Vincent Philip Muñoz, Ellis Sandoz, and Barry Shain.   
            Stewart does mention books by Alan Heimert, Steven Waldman, Patricia Bonomi, T.H. Breen, and Jack Rakove that contend, in his estimation, that “the American Republic owes its independence and its individual freedom to its Protestant Christian legacy” (72, 460).  But he dismisses this view as getting “the history of ideas almost exactly wrong” (73).  These authors miss, in Stewart’s mind, the central truth that the “Reformed religion brought carnage to Britain and Germany in the seventeenth century and madness to America in the eighteenth because it was a symptom of modernity, not a cause—a pathology, not a theory” (73).[1]
            In contrast to “new Christian nationalists” and others who see the relationship between religion and the American founders as complex, Stewart much prefers the clarity of R.R. Palmer, who “could still write” as late as 1959 that, “[a]s for the leaders of the American Revolution, it should be unnecessary to demonstrate that most of them were deists” (445).  Those were the good old days.
Or were they?  It seems to me that it is still quite common for writers to echo Palmer’s assertion.  Included among their number are Brooke Allen, Edwin Gaustad, Steven Green, Richard Hughes, Susan Jacoby, Harvey Kaye, Steven Keillor, Isaac Kramnick, Frank Lambert, William Martin, R. Laurence Moore, Geoffrey Stone, John Wilsey, and Gordon Wood.[2]  If these authors bother to defend their claims, something R.R. Palmer did not do, they follow a distressingly common and problematic path.  In most cases they focus on the religious views of some combination of the following men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and Alexander Hamilton.  On rare occasions they reach beyond this select fraternity to include another founder, and almost inevitably they concede that not all founders were as enlightened as the ones they profile.  However, they leave the distinct impression that most founders, and certainly the important ones, were deists.
            Stewart departs little from this pattern.  The vast majority of the examples he gives of founders rejecting orthodox Christian views come from five men: Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young.  Virtually no one—including popular Christian authors—denies that these men came to embrace heterodox views.  The first three are well known and are regularly discussed in books of this sort.  Stewart’s relatively minor deviation from the common approach is his heavy reliance on Allen and Young.
Ethan Allen is reasonably well known as the hero of Fort Ticonderoga, an important advocate for Vermont statehood, and the author of the first American book advocating deism, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1785).  Even admirers recognize that Allen was a poor writer, that the book sold fewer than 200 copies, and that it had almost no influence.  After its publication he played virtually no role in American politics, which perhaps helps explain why writers who argue that America’s founders were deists do not spend a great deal of time discussing him.
          One contribution of Nature’s God is to introduce the deist founder Thomas Young.  Young is not unknown to students of religion and the founding, but he is usually described in passing as Ethan Allen’s mentor and the unacknowledged coauthor of Reason the Only Oracle of Man.  Stewart contends that Young was not, in fact, the volume’s coauthor.  As well, he does a good job of highlighting Young’s underappreciated contributions such as advocating resistance to perceived acts of British tyranny in Boston and helping to craft the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.  Yet Young died in 1777 and so played little role in the creation of America’s constitutional order. 
          No reasonable student of religion and the founding denies that the five founders regularly quoted by Stewart rejected orthodox Christian beliefs.  But the case is far more questionable with the other important founders Stewart claims as radical deists: Washington and Madison.  Indeed, Stewart gives no evidence that they rejected orthodox Christian ideas, to say nothing of embracing deism or pantheism.  Like other texts in this genre, the proof he offers is highly selective or misleading.
          For instance, Stewart writes: “Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Gouverneur Morris, and possibly the Reverend Ashbel Green, Washington’s own minister . . . were convinced” that Washington was “a deist, not a Christian” (31).  As evidence he cites Jefferson’s diary entries for February 1, 1800, where he recalled that Rush told him that Green observed that Washington was not forthright about his religious views and a second entry where he reported that Morris told him that Washington was not a Christian.  It is noteworthy that there is no mention of anyone even suggesting that Washington was a deist, and contrary to Stewart, it is not clear from Jefferson’s “tone” what the Sage of Monticello thought (452).[3]  Using second and third hand accounts is inherently problematic, but if Stewart is going to do so, he should engage competing accounts.  For example, John Marshall, the great jurist who served on Washington’s staff during the War for Independence, wrote that the general was a “sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man.”[4]  Similarly, a Frenchman who knew Washington said that “[e]very day of the year, he rises at five in the morning; as soon as he is up, he dresses, then prays reverently to God.”[5]  Yet Stewart ignores these accounts.
          Even more troubling, Stewart quotes Washington selectively and uses ellipses to remove problematic words in his quest to prove him to be a child of the Enlightenment.  Consider his use of Washington’s famous Circular to the States (1783), which he quotes to show that America’s first president joined the radical deistical project of discarding, in Stewart’s words, “the politically dangerous delusions that arise from the common religious consciousness” (389).  In a footnote to this sentence he concedes that Washington also gives credit for America’s progress to “the pure and benign light of revelation,” but dismisses this as “a characteristic gesture of Washington and the deistic Enlightenment—to give credit for pacifying the rebarbative masses…” (528).  But consider the sentence in full (passages quoted by Stewart in bold):
The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.[6]
Given Stewart’s argument, it would seem reasonable for him to address Washington’s claim that “the light of Revelation” has had an influence “above all” other factors. 
          But things get worse (at least for Stewart’s argument) if one reads the last sentence in the Circular: 
I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for brethren who have served in the Field; and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.[7]   
Do popular Christian authors make too much of this paragraph with its prayer, paraphrase of Micah 6:8, and reference to Jesus Christ (“the Divine Author of our religion”)?  Perhaps.  But a scholar interested in presenting an accurate account of Washington’s views should engage this part of the text, not simply ignore it.  It is ironic that Stewart’s use of primary sources, here and elsewhere, bears a strong resemblance to the worst practices of the popular Christian authors that he criticizes. 
          Stewart makes a weak case that Washington is a deist, and he offers even less reason to believe that Madison is appropriately labeled as such.  He does mention in passing a few other founders who held heterodox views, e.g., John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Joel Barlow and Philip Freneau.  But rejecting some tenets of orthodox Christianity is not the same thing as embracing deism, a distinction that seems lost on Stewart.  Indeed, it is shocking how little evidence Stewart offers to support this affirmative claim.  
          Those who argue that America’s founders were deists often limit their claims to “key,” if unrepresentative, founders, but Stewart also contends that deism “spread in America far beyond the educated elite” (5).  He provides few examples of such deists, but he does offer several contemporary accounts.  For instance, he quotes the following passage from a 1785 evangelical petition against Patrick Henry’s general assessment bill: “Deism with its ballefull Influence is spreading itself over the state” (31).  But again, consideration of the full text from which Stewart is quoting tells a different story.  The full sentence reads: “But it is said Religion is taking its flight, and that Deism with its banefull Influence is spreading itself over the state.”[8]  Note that the authors are not themselves making the claim; they are referring to someone else, presumably supporters of the general assessment bill.  Advocates of government subsidies have an obvious incentive to exaggerate the problems they seek to address with taxpayer dollars.
          Many scholars who contend that the founders were deists understand the god of deism to be, in Stewart’s words, “a ‘watchmaker God’ who fashions a world of mechanical wonders and then walks away to the sound of ticking noises.  Deism, according to this line of interpretation, was just a watery expression of the Christian religion…” (5).  Stewart rejects this conventional view.  Instead, he contends that America’s founders embraced a form of deism that is “functionally indistinguishable from what we would now call ‘pantheism,’ and pantheism is really just a pretty word for atheism” (5).  America’s founders as functional atheists; now there is an interesting claim. 
          Stewart spends a good portion of Nature’s God examining the philosophical roots of America’s heretical origins.  He traces them to Epicurus and Lucretius, who developed a rationalist, materialist philosophy that looks to nature, not God, for guidance.  Their quest was embraced by modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, but critical to this enterprise is the work of Benedict de Spinoza.  Spinoza, it turns out, is the “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic” (147-48).  Stewart concedes that “[t]here was—and is—no meaningful evidence at all in revolutionary America” of Spinoza’s influence (3).  But this doesn’t matter as Locke embraced Spinoza, and Locke is “the single greatest intellectual influence on America’s revolutionaries” (141). We know this because Carl Becker told us so in 1922 (141).  Ah, the good old days.
          Stewart recognizes that Locke can be read as being more or less compatible with Christianity, but he dismisses this debate with the unsupported assertion that “by the time his work reached American ears, only the radical interpretation [of Locke’s works] mattered” (241).  Making almost no reference to what the founders (elite or otherwise) actually read or cited, he argues for a clear line of influence from Epicurus to Hobbes to Spinoza to Locke to the American founders.
          Stewart regularly makes sweeping statements that leave the impression America’s founders were radical deists who wanted to create a godless republic, but he occasionally offers the qualification that many Americans were traditional Christians and that intellectual traditions not antithetically opposed to Christianity may have had some influence as well (e.g. 32, 352).  But these qualifications are too few, faint, and far between.  By focusing on a handful of founders with radical religious views, some important—Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine—and others relatively unimportant—Allen and Young—he grossly distorts the founders’ religious views and political commitments.  Even brief consideration of a wider range of founders reveals a very different picture.[9]
          Before concluding, I should observe that Stewart’s grasp of basic political and constitutional issues in the era leaves much to be desired.  To give just a few examples, Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1776 did not contain a “bristling array of checks and balances” (376).  James Wilson was the only delegate to the federal convention of 1787 to argue for the direct, popular, and proportional election of members of the House and Senate and the President, yet Stewart labels him the “personification of the ‘conservative’ side of the Revolution” (387).  Presumably to convince readers that Wilson was a conservative, Stewart notes that he was “the architect of the ‘three-fifths’ compromise that embedded the institution of slavery in the new Constitution” (387).  Wilson did propose this compromise in Philadelphia, but scholars have long debated who, exactly, should be considered its “architect.”  And if Wilson’s association with slavery makes him “conservative,” it should perhaps be noted that he voluntarily manumitted the one slave he owned, whereas “radical deists” such as Jefferson, Madison, and Washington felt no need to do the same (at least during their lifetimes) for their hundreds of slaves.  
          Nature’s God suffers from a number of serious flaws.  Stewart virtually ignores the vast literature on the role of religion in the American founding and he utterly fails to engage scholars whose works challenge his thesis.  He misuses and misconstrues primary sources and largely ignores founders (key and otherwise) who do not fit his thesis.  Alan Ryan, in a friendly blurb, describes the book as “partisan scholarship.”  It seems to me that Ryan is half right.  Readers interested in a polemical account of religion in the American founding almost completely ungrounded in history may enjoy this book, but anyone interested in a serious treatment of religion in the era should look elsewhere.

Mark David Hall
Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics
Faculty Fellow William Penn Honors Program
George Fox University


[1] John Adams apparently made the same mistake when he wrote “I love and revere the memories of Huss Wickliff Luther Calvin Zwinglius Melancton and all the other reformers how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points.  As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.”  John Adams to F. C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821.  Quoted in Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (Oxford, 2013), 24, wherein I argue that Reformed political thought had a significant influence on large number America’s founders.
[2] Citations supporting this claim available upon request: mhall@georgefox.edu.

[3] Paul Leicester Ford, ed. Works of Thomas Jefferson, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), 1: 352-53.  As Stewart acknowledges, Green later denied every questioning Washington’s orthodoxy (452).

[4] Marshall, The Life of George Washington (James Crissy, 1832), 2: 445
[5] Quoted in Gilbert Chinard, ed. George Washington as the French Knew Him: A Collection of Texts (Princeton University Press, 1940), 119
[6] Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 296-97.
[7] Ibid., 298.
[8] Ibid., 308.
[9] See, for instance, the approximately thirty-three founders and traditions profiled in Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, and Dreisbach and Hall, eds, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (Oxford, 2014).