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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Is "Spreading the Wealth" anti-Capitalist?

In one of his recent posts, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan points out an interesting quote from Adam Smith -- the so-called "father" of capitalism. The quote comes from Smith's extremely popular and influential book, Wealth of Nations (1796). Smith states:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor...The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess...It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion. [my emphasis].
As everyone that follows politics knows, Barack Obama's "spreading the wealth" comment has caused conservatives to go on the attack, labeling Obama as a socialist. Keeping Adam Smith's comment above in mind, could we argue that Obama is actually MORE of a capitalist "purist" than many of his opponents think?

In a letter to Benjamin Vaughn, Benjamin Franklin pointed out his distrust of the elite having too much money and power in their hands. Using an analogy to prove his point, Franklin writes:

When by virtue of the first Laws Part of the Society accumulated Wealth and grew Powerful, they enacted others more severe, and would protect their Property at the Expence of Humanity. This was abusing their Powers, and commencing a Tyranny. If a Savage before he enter’d into Society had been told, Your Neighbour by this Means may become Owner of 100 Deer, but if your Brother, or your Son, or yourself, having no Deer of your own, and being hungry should kill one of them, an infamous Death must be the Consequence; he would probably have prefer’d his Liberty, and his common Right of killing any Deer, to all the Advantages of Society that might be propos’d to him.
So, is true capitalism that which prevents any form of redistributing wealth? Or can capitalism encourage AT LEAST some equality between the wealthy and the middle class? Is redistribution creating equality at all? Food for thought I guess!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Is USA Heading for a "post-Christian" Culture?

The following is from the USA Today, Faith and Reason: A Conversation About Religion, Spirituality & Ethics. The author writes the following:

What's happening to America's "Christian memory?" theologian and Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler asks with alarm.

His online column today puts his concern over the decline of religious denominational ties in New England in historical context.

After all, this is the region the Protestant faithful settled and were later joined by waves of Catholic immigrants. Now, their religious influence is losing sway and there's a marked increase in the number of people -- one in three or four in much of New England-- who claim no religious identity. With this change comes efforts such as the current campaign to legalize gay marriage in several New England state legislatures, Mohler says.

Mohler frets that New England will lead the nation down the path already taken in western Europe where ...

Christian moral reflexes and moral principles gave way to the loosening grip of a Christian memory. Now, even that Christian memory is absent from the lives of millions.

In recent decades, the Pacific Northwest had the distinction of being the nation's most secular region. But the Pacific Northwest was never so highly evangelized as New England. In effect, New England is rejecting what the Pacific Northwest never even knew ...

New England was the cradle of colonial America. Is it now the cradle of America's
secular future?

Do you agree? Do you think moving toward a post-Christian culture is a bad or good direction?
Hard to say. Americans have asked this question before, but sure enough, religious devotees managed to once again legitimize their claims and gain the support of the masses. Every time someone makes the assertion that the "Religious Right," "America's Christian heritage," etc. is doomed to extinction they are able to find new breath and purpose.

Personally, I don't see America entering a "post Christian" culture anytime soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

John Hanson, Historical Myths and Thanksgiving Proclamations

History and popular culture seem to regularly clash these days. Whether in the form of a Hollywood film, a fictional novel or a television series, popular culture's depiction of historical events is often anything but historical. Mel Gibson's depiction of William Wallace in Braveheart, along with his film The Patriot are a textbook example of how history can and is often twisted to make for a more entertaining story.

Such is the case with John Hanson. In recent years, John Hanson has been the target of a number of ridiculous historical myths. For example, many today insist that Hanson was African American. This charge comes from the fact that Hanson's grandfather was an indentured servant, whose services were sold from one farm to another. As a result, a small number of people have jumped to the conclusion that Hanson must have been Black, since, after all, he was sold. However, they neglect to recognize that indentured servants were often "sold" as well.

In addition, Hanson's service as the first president of the United States under the Articles of Confederation has caused some to seek for his recognition in the history books as our nation's first president. Technically speaking, their case makes sense. After all, Hanson was the first president of the United States, but it was not the United States as established by the Constitution. In fact, Hanson was a staunch anti-federalist who campaigned AGAINST the passage of the Constitution.

And while it is unlikely that Hanson will ever be recognized as America's first president, his legacy is not void of significant contributions. For example, Hanson passed legislation for America's first central bank, established the U.S. mint, called for the first national census, and created the position of Chairman of Congress, which was the predecessor to the vice-presidency.

In addition to these contributions, John Hanson was the first president to call for a national day of thanksgiving. His proclamation read as follows:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the Unites States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged, - the present happy and promising state of public affairs, and the events of the war in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils which is so necessary to the success of the public cause, - the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them, - the success of the arms of the United States and those of their allies, - and the acknowledgment of their Independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States; Do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe and request the several states to interpose their authority, in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the TWENTY-EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER next as a day of SOLEMN THANKSGIVING to GOD for all His mercies; and they do further recommend to all ranks to testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.
A Lutheran, Hanson's Thanksgiving proclamation seems typical of his day. He invokes the blessings of "Almighty God" upon the infant nation and the cause of independence. In fact, it is interesting to note just how similar it is to George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, which also beseeches the blessings of "Providence" upon the newly established American republic:

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks – for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation – for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war –for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
Both Hanson and Washington's proclamations carry the same petition. They ask the people to recognize the hand of God -- without giving any specifics as to which God they meant -- in the formation, protection and future prosperity of the United States. In this sense, "God" is neutral and all-encompassing, which supports both Benjamin Franklin's concept of a "public religion" for the United States and Jefferson's belief in the "God of Nature." Both are all-encompassing terms that could apply to any religion of their day.

And while both Hanson and Washington's proclamations take a noticeably neutral stance on God, John Adams' proclamation of 1798 leaves no doubt as to which god is to be invoked:

I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction; that it be made the subject of particular and earnest supplication that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it; that our civil and religious privileges may be preserved inviolate and perpetuated to the latest generations; that our public councils and magistrates may be especially enlightened and directed at this critical period; that the American people may be united in those bonds of amity and mutual confidence and inspired with that vigor and fortitude by which they have in times past been so highly distinguished and by which they have obtained such invaluable advantages; that the health of the inhabitants of our land may be preserved, and their agriculture, commerce, fisheries, arts, and manufactures be blessed and prospered; that the principles of genuine piety and sound morality may influence the minds and govern the lives of every description of our citizens and that the blessings of peace, freedom, and pure religion may be speedily extended to all the nations of the earth[my emphasis].
And though he never comes out and says it, Adams' invocation of the "Father of Mercies," and "Redeemer of the World" make his intentions clear. Adams' proclamation is clearly a petition to the Christian God -- whether orthodox or non-orthodox -- for His blessings upon a nation.

So what are we to make of these proclamations? Can they even be taken as evidence of a person's particular creed, or are they simply political in nature? Ralph Ketcham, author of the biography, James Madison argues that these are political documents with little to no actual religious "meat." He writes:

Madison's singular motivation behind his Thanksgiving Proclamations of 1814 and 1815 was to use religion for his political advantage...The less-than-successful management of the War of 1812 had turned popular support against the president...Wisely Madison put the blame for America's misfortune during the war on God rather than his presidency.
And while there is arguably a great deal of truth to Kecham's assertion, this does not suggest that Hanson, Washington, or Adams were also insincere in their respective proclamations. In addition, if Thanksgiving proclamations really were that politically advantageous, why did Jefferson never issue one? Of all the early presidents, Jefferson could have benefited more from declaring God's blessings in a presidential proclamation than anyone.

Maybe the answer to this question is...BOTH. Presidential/Thanksgiving proclamations should be seen as both political tools AND as evidence of a president's personal religious leanings. Or maybe this is the centrist in me trying to make sense of the senseless!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

David Barton Confronted

For those of you that are unfamiliar with David Barton, he is the premiere figure for the Religious Right on the issue of redefining America as a "Christian Nation." Barton is the author of several books on the topic and runs a website and radio show that can be seen here.

Over the years, Barton has labored to portray the current mainstream historical community as having an agenda of eradicating any and all traces of God from our history. Simply put, this couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that it is Barton who has twisted and fabricated history to fit his own ultra-Evangelical Christian agenda in an effort to portray the Founding Fathers as fundamentalist Christians

In the following videos, Chris Rodda debunks many of the historical mistakes made by Mr. Barton over the years. This is long but well worth your time! Enjoy:

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thou Shalt Not...Seed-Spill?

Colonial law books governing the morality of sex are vast to say the least. Early Puritan leaders were instrumental in establishing a codified system of laws that governed sexual morality, and provided a guideline of what was considered "acceptable" and what was considered "immoral." Along with these laws were the specific punishments that accompanied a particular "immoral" act. For example, bestiality and homosexuality were punishable by death. In fact, the first recorded execution in Massachusetts is that of a young man that was charged with "carnal lust" with animals.

One of the interesting laws that governed sexual practice in colonial America was that of "seed-spilling." In Massachusetts, the practice of masturbation was severely condemned by the clergy. The law was inspired by the Biblical precedent in Genesis 38:9, which states, "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, least he should give seed to his brother." The subsequent verse then mentions god's wrath and how Onan lost his life for such a practice.

Citizens of the various colonies were encouraged to report the practice of "seed-spilling" --which included a number of different sex acts but primarily dealt with masturbation -- wherever such cases were discovered. The initial punishment in Massachusetts for such a crime was death, following the Biblical precedent. The punishment was changed, however, in the latter parts of the 17th century to be "Four hours in the stocks."

The reason I bring up this law is because it illustrates an important aspect of American colonial society. Sexual deviance, though common in America throughout the colonial period, carried a strong religious condemnation that was very real for many people. Just look at the case of Joseph Moody. In the William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, historian Brian Carroll discusses how religious beliefs regarding sex impacted colonial society. In Moody's diary are written the following entries:

Thurs. [July] 19 [1722 ]. This morning I got up pretty late. I defiled myself, though wide awake. Where will my unbridled lust lead me? I have promised myself now for a year and a half that I would seek after God, but now I am perhaps farther away from him than ever before.

Mon. [April] 13 [1724 ]. Pretty Cold; wind from N. W. to S. fine weather. . . . I dined with the doctor and schoolmaster Abbott. Then with the doctor I called on Captain and Ensign Allen. I stayed up with my love not without pleasure, but I indulged my desire too freely, and at night the semen flowed from me abundantly.
The overwhelming sense of guilt that plagued Moody's soul gives us valuable insight into the moral mindset of colonial America. Even if sexual promiscuity was a common occurrence (and it most certainly was in colonial America), there were others who felt deeply about god's moral judgments that awaited them in the life to come.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Thomas Jefferson: Christian Restorationist

Researching the individual religious beliefs of our various Founding Fathers has become a favorite pastime of mine. Whether it is trying to understand the mystery of George Washington, the complexity of Benjamin Franklin, or the "heretical" views of Thomas Paine, the topic of our founding fathers and their religion has captivated the attention of the public. Yet despite this attraction to the founders and their religion, I am amazed at the fact that so many historians, theologians, and common history buffs still push for a singular religious label when it comes to our founders. For example, we have all heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was a Deist, and that George Washington was a Theist, U(u)nitarian, devout Christian, etc. While these labels carry with them a certain degree of truth, it would be foolish to suggest that they contain all we need to know. After all, Franklin referred to himself as a "thorough deist" and a "devout Christian" at different points in his life. From the evidence available Washington's personal faith contained components of Christianity and deism. Simply put, it would be foolish of us to assume that a singular label -- i.e. Christianity, Deism, etc. -- is sufficient in explaining the religious views of our founding fathers.

With that said, I want to focus on one founder that has fallen victim to this "single religious label" phenomenon that I have mentioned above. We have all heard it said that Thomas Jefferson was clearly a deist. After all, the man rejected the divinity of Jesus, changed the Bible to fit his personal creed, and openly criticized organized religion on a number of occasions. While I cannot refute the validity of these facts, I do not believe that they can be used to conclusively label Jefferson as a Deist and nothing more. As Tom Van Dyke has pointed out at the American Creation blog in one of his posts on Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson was no "deist." His God was no cosmic watchmaker; he was active in the affairs of men ... I also noted that the Jefferson Bible left in The Lord's Prayer, which is probative, because when your watch breaks, you don't pray to Timex."
Mr. Van Dyke is absolutely right. Jefferson's God was an intervening force that helped to shape the course of mankind. As Mr. Van Dyke effectively points out, Jefferson never subscribed to the idea of an absent god/cosmic clockmaker.

With that said, I am in no way suggesting that deism played NO role in the religious views of Thomas Jefferson. I am simply saying -- and I believe Mr. Van Dyke is as well -- that deism only tells part of the story. When it comes to Jefferson and deism, perhaps Dr. Larry Cebula put it best when he wrote:

"I think you (and many others) make a mistake by applying a dictionary definition of Deism as if it were a set of principles equivalent to a religious test. Surely 18th century Deism was much more loose than that, more a set of inclinations and ideas than a set of fixed principles. It is hard to define precisely but I know it when I see it. If Deism was a big tent, Jefferson was at least a frequent visitor, and often made his home there."
(see comments section at this link).

It is not my intention to engage in a debate over Jefferson's deism. I believe that it is both reasonable and appropriate to embrace what both Tom Van Dyke and Larry Cebula point to. Deism played a role in Jefferson's faith to be sure, but it does not tell the entire story. With that said, I now want to turn to the main point of my post, which I hope will provide an additional interpretation of Jefferson's faith.

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson's personal religion can be better understood when we recognize a few of the religious constants that he accepted throughout the course of his life:

1.) Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

2.) Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation.

3.) Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

4.) Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.


In summation, I believe that in addition to his Christian and deist leanings, Jefferson was deeply influenced by his belief in Christian RESTORATIONISM, which caused Jefferson to accept what he believed were the true doctrines of Christ and to reject the distorted orthodoxy of his day.

Point #1: Jefferson loved Jesus, but not Christianity:
For Jefferson, the religion of Jesus Christ was simple. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity" [my emphasis].

Jefferson's desire to return to the roots of "primitive Christianity" were the result of his conviction that the Christian religion had strayed from the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. As Jefferson stated on another occasion:

"The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:

"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, true Christianity was not to be had in the ceremonial rituals of communion or the Calvinist doctrine of grace. Instead good works and moral behavior were the TRUE doctrine of a Christian:

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his doctrine. Jefferson sincerely believed that Christ's doctrines were to be admired and emulated. With regards to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson stated:

"It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed a love for Jesus. Perhaps Steven Waldman, author of the book, Founding Faith, points to Jefferson's love of Jesus best when he writes:

"Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child has been kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him" (Founding Faith, 73).

Point #2: Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation:

In my opinion, there can be little doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of scripture. The simple fact that Jefferson spent so many years tediously dissecting the Bible to fit his personal beliefs is evidence of this fact. While there is no doubt that Jefferson's "tinkering" with the Bible has caused Christians to take an antagonistic stance against Jefferson, it is still worth analyzing the motives behind Jefferson's Bible editing.

As Steven Waldman stated in the quotation noted above, Jefferson's intentions behind altering the Bible were based on his belief that Christianity had strayed from the religion of Christ. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1810:

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves: that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
And to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:

"It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe."
It is clear that the reasons behind Jefferson's desire to "edit" the Bible were motivated out of his distrust for pious Christian leaders and from his sincere belief that Christianity had fallen from its true course.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is interesting to note just what kind of changes he chose to make. Clearly Jefferson did not intend to write his own version of the Bible, but instead hoped to recover some of the "missing" or "altered" truths that had been lost over time. Again, Jefferson hoped to RESTORE the true nature of Christ's religion as it was once contained in the Bible of old. A good example of Jefferson's passion to "correct" the Bible can be found in his 1823 letter to John Adams, in which he states:

"[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe."
In addition to pointing out where he believed the original translation of the Bible had gone wrong, Jefferson often took the liberty of changing certain parts of the Bible's text in an effort to make it sound more "Christ-like." For example, instead of keeping the biblical verse found in Matthew 5: 48, which states, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," Jefferson removed the verse completely and then added what was a twist of Luke 6: 36 when he wrote "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Clearly Jefferson felt that a number of biblical texts had been changed to pollute or subjugate the minds of mankind.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is also important to note the fact that all miracles -- i.e. raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. -- were removed from Jefferson's final draft. This helps to clearly illustrate the fact that Jefferson, despite his devotion to the example and doctrine of Christ, never acknowledged him as divine or as the savior of mankind. In fact, Jefferson even stated to his friend, John Adams, that:

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
For all of his praise and devotion to Jesus, Jefferson never publicly recognized him as the Son of God.

Point #3: Jefferson believed in reason and not faith:

As one of the quintessential Enlightenment thinkers of early America, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson favored reason to faith. As mentioned above, Jefferson's removal of all miracles from his draft of the Bible suggests that he put little to no stock in faith-based stories, which he undoubtedly considered to be fables. In addition, Jefferson admonished his family and friends to put their trust in reason, not faith. As he wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear...Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god." [My emphasis].

Point #4: Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots:

This final point was perhaps the biggest pet-peeve of all for Thomas Jefferson. For a man that fought for religious freedom and equality, Jefferson could also not help but notice how pious expressions of religion had caused the world a great deal of harm. As he states in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”
For Jefferson, religion best served mankind when it was left to the individual and not the clergy:

"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).
In Jefferson's mind, this was the only true way to be a Christian. As Jesus himself had admonished to, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men" (Matthew 6:1). With this in mind, it is understandable why Thomas Jefferson would refer to himself as a "true Christian." As he stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush:

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's religion was anything but simple. Defining him exclusively as a deist or any other label is both counterproductive and incomplete. Clearly Jefferson was influenced to a degree by deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. With that said, it is essential that we recognize the passionate devotion to RESTORATIONISM that literally guided Jefferson's walk through his personal labyrinth of religious devotion. Jefferson's love and admiration for the doctrines of Jesus, along with his appreciation of scripture, devotion to reason, and his appeal to private communion with God, all helped to shape Jefferson's religious perspective. By advocating a return to the original doctrines of Christ, Jefferson's Christian RESTORATIONISM is as important to his overall religious DNA as were deism and Christianity.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Christian America: The Roots of an Imagined Community

***The Following is the first five pages of my thesis on the Christian Nation movement as an imagined community.***

The December, 2008 grand opening of the five-hundred-eighty –thousand square-foot, six hundred million-dollar Capitol Visitor’s Center in Washington D.C. was the culmination of an almost forty-year project to provide tourists with an all-encompassing understanding of America’s proud founding heritage. The building’s construction, which has been hailed by renowned architects across the globe, crates an atmosphere of awe and amazement as guests witness first hand how the technologies of the twenty-first century are able to effectively resurrect America’s proud history, which is presented as “an intellectual and emotional encounter comprised of highly personal moments that will inform, involve and inspire those who come to see the U.S. Capitol.” [1]

Yet despite its obvious beauty and extravagance, not everyone has been pleased with the new Visitor Center. Congressional Representative Randy Forbes, in conjunction with Christian-based organizations like Wallbuilders, WorldNet Daily and the American Christian History Institute have criticized the new D.C. center for its negligence in referencing America’s “Christian heritage.” As Representative Forbes stated:

Our Concern is not with the Capitol Visitor Center, but with [an] increasing
pattern of attempts to remove references to our religious heritage from our
nation’s capitol…The Capitol Visitor Center is just one example of the efforts
to censor God, faith and religion from our historical buildings and
ceremonies…Historical buildings like the Capitol Visitor Center are there to
tell the story of our nation. When religious history is removed from these
displays, the American public is not able to observe an accurate depiction of
our nation’s story. We owe it to those who have gone before us and to our future
generations to provide a complete representation of our nation’s heritage. We
will continue to fight until this is achieved in the Capitol Visitor Center
.
[2]

And while his comments helped to trigger a quasi-custody battle over the type of history to be presented at the Capitol Visitor Center, Representative Forbes is far from alone in his sentiments. Over the past couple of decades, American society has witnessed a literal upheaval over the “founding legacy” of this country. Politicians, ministers and even some historians from all walks of life have endeavored to “save” America’s “lost” Christian heritage from the hands of those who they believe seek to remove God from the halls of government and the chronicles of American history. As historian Frank Lambert put it:

During the last two decades of the twentieth century and
continuing into the twenty-first, Americans have engaged in a culture war that
informs the country’s discourse in the new millennium. One side of the debate
are those who insist that America has been since its conception a “Christian
Nation,” and that somewhere along the way, as such it has lost its bearings.
They blame “liberals” for not only turning their backs on the country’s
religious heritage but openly attacking those who embrace “traditional”
Christian values.
[3]

It is this “Christian Nation” debate, which has successfully woven religion, politics, and history into a fabric of quasi-nationalism that has spawned a large grass roots movement to “resurrect” America’s lost heritage. Originally conceived out of the surge of Christian Conservatism in the 1960s and 1970s, this “Christian Nation” movement has evolved to encompass the majority of devout American Evangelicals, who, as a result of their religious and political devotion, have used the “Christian America” argument to create a new form of American Nationalism, or as Benedict Anderson would call it, an imagined community.

I. Roots of the Imagined Community

To effectively understand the “Christian Nation” phenomenon as being a nationalistic movement, it is important to recognize some of the key elements of nationalism itself. In his highly acclaimed book, Imagined Communities, Professor Benedict Anderson defines nationalism as:

an imagined political community -- and imagined as both
inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because members of even the
smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even
hear of them, yet in the minds of each lies the image of their communion...it is
limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living
human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other
nations...Finally it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the
actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is
always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is the
fraternity that makes it possible.
[4]

In addition, the imagined community sees itself as a uniquely sovereign entity, free to determine its own fate as determined by its own set of rules. In essence, the imagined community becomes a collective body united by a common intangible creed, which is exalted by the masses to be an infinite and abiding truth.

When looking at the “Christian Nation” movement on the surface, it may seem far too vague to be considered an imagined community. After all, a mere hope or belief in the providential nature of one’s country hardly substantiates any claims of it being an imagined community. However, a more detailed analysis reveals the fact that the rise of Christian conservatism spawned a highly organized and thoroughly indoctrinated mass movement (predominantly of Evangelical Christians), which is indeed interested in rewriting history to fit its own agenda. In his popular work on fundamentalism in America, historian George Mitchell explains how the Christian culture evolved from a “soul-saving” enterprise into a vast and influential political machine. He writes:

The most striking feature of fundamentalism since the
1970s that distinguishes it from its forbearers is its deep involvement in
mainstream national politics. This point must be stated carefully.
Fundamentalism has always had political implications. One of the several
dynamics shaping early fundamentalists was a sense of alarm over the demise of
Christian culture…The question to be addressed then is: How did a soul- saving
revivalistic movement that mostly steered clear of direct political involvement
emerge at the end of the twentieth century as known especially for its political
stances and influences?
[5]

It is to the 1960s and 1970s that we must look to witness the birth and infancy of the Christian Nation movement, and its eventual evolution into an imagined community. As Marsden points out above, the emergence of Christian conservatism as a legitimate political force, allowed Evangelical Christian leaders to immerse themselves in the turbulent waters of American politics. As one prominent evangelical leader put it, “if ever there was a time when God needed a job done, it was during the 60s and 70s. The very future of our nation was at stake.” [6] With the passage of several landmark Supreme Court cases restricting religious ceremonies in public schools, Civil Rights laws to blacks, and the right of a woman to choose an abortion, conservative Christians experienced a literal crises of conscience, which pitted religious and patriotic loyalties against each other. [7]

In an effort to remedy the apparent dichotomy of religious and national duties, Evangelical leaders attacked what they saw as a blatant disregard for God’s laws. By casting the United States in a Sodom & Gomorrah-like role, Christian conservatives branded their dissent as the truest and holiest form of patriotism. As a result, the line between church and state became further obscured, forcing religious leaders to redefine the role of religion in America. D. James Kennedy, a prominent Evangelical leader and passionate advocate for the “Christian America” movement, illustrated just how convoluted the church/state relationship had become for Evangelical Christians when he wrote, “The great misunderstanding of ‘the separation of church and state’ is closer in spirit and letter of the law to the old Soviet Union than it is to the spirit, letter of the law, and actions of the founders of this country.” [8] By suggesting that religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity, was a fundamental building block of American government and society, Evangelical leaders had taken their first “baby steps” towards establishing an imagined Christian community for America. Eliminating the annoying prerequisite separation of church and state essentially removed the “shackles” of religious restraint on American politics. The “Christian Nation,” though still volatile in its infancy, was born.


Notes:
[1] Capitol Visitor Center Website.

[2] WorldNet Daily: Christian Heritage a No-Show at Capitol Visitor Center.

[3] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 5.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006) 6.

[5] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 232.

[6] Jerry Falwell, Strength For the Journey: An Autobiography of Jerry Falwell (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 362.

[7] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 1080-1082.

[8] D. James Kennedy, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 5.

Christian Nation Thesis (and Jasper Adams in Particular) Debunked

In the past couple of posts at American Creation, fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke and I have been engaged in a "heated" discussion over the validity of the Christian Nation thesis. In his piece below, Mr. Van Dyke notes that the Christian Nation thesis is poorly served by the "extremists" on the right (David Barton, D. James Kennedy, etc.) who in their quest to legitimize their claims, make America's Christian heritage "look like balderdash."

On this I couldn't agree more. The "fringe" of the Christian right has done little to promote the belief in America as a Christian Nation. In fact, I believe they have done more harm than good. Mr. Van Dyke will receive no disagreement from me on this issue.

However, my interest was peaked by Mr. Van Dyke's reference to one Jasper Adams, who in 1833 delivered a sermon entitled, "The Relation of Christianity to the Civil Government in the United States." Mr. Van Dyke states:

The definitive Christian nation thesis argument remains
the Rev. Jasper Adams sermon of 1833 [later published with footnotes and
distributed all across America], which was highly praised by not one, but two
sitting Supreme Court justices, America's first great constitutional scholar
Joseph Story, and Chief Justice John Marshall.
And while that all may be true (I have no reason to doubt TVD's integrity), not everyone was accepting of Jasper Adams' comments. James Madison, who was no small player in the establishment of the United Sates Constitution as we all know, had this to say in a letter to Mr. Adams regarding his sermon:

There appears to be in the nature of man what insures
his belief in an invisible cause of his present existence, and anticipation of
his future existence. Hence the propensities & susceptibilities in that case
of religion which with a few doubtful or individual exceptions have prevailed
throughout the world.

The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the
other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best
guarded agst by an entire abstinence of the Govt from interference in any way
whatever.

[...]

In most of the Govt of the old world, the legal
establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little
toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and
there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system
has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.

In the Colonial State
of the Country, there were four examples, R. I, N. J., Penna, and Delaware,
& the greater part of N. Y. where there were no religious Establishments;
the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations &
contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those
Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishments existed.

As it may be suggested that experiments made in Colonies more or less
under the Control of a foreign Government, had not the full scope necessary to
display their tendency, it is fortunate that the appeal can now be made to their
effects under a complete exemption from any such Control.

It is true
that the New England States have not discontinued establishments of Religion
formed under very peculiar circumstances; but they have by successive
relaxations advanced towards the prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion; and since that
event a surrender of it to a spontaneous support by the people, it may be said
that the difference amounts nearly to a contrast in the greater purity &
industry of the Pastors and in the greater devotion of their flocks, in the
latter period than in the former. In Virginia the contrast is particularly
striking, to those whose memories can make the comparison. It will not be denied
that causes other than the abolition of the legal establishment of Religion are
to be taken into view in account for the change in the Religious character of
the community. But the existing character, distinguished as it is by its
religious features, and the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal
support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the
support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered
by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary
aid.
When we look at Rev. Adams' sermon it becomes clear that he, like so many others, banks his "Christian Nation" claim on two key points: (1) America was founded by settlers who clearly established Christian settlements, and whose ideas were paramount in the establishment of the United States, (2) The constitutions of the various states make it indelibly clear that America is a Christian Nation.

Point #1:
In his sermon, Adams states:

The Colonies, then, from which these United States have
sprung, were originally planted and nourished by our pious forefathers, in the
exercise of a strong and vigorous Christian faith. They were designed to be
Christian communities

And:
The originators and early promoters of the discovery and
settlement of this continent, had the propagation of Christianity before their
eyes, as one of the principal objects of their undertaking. This is shewn by
examining the charters and other similar documents of that period, in which this
chief aim of their novel and perilous enterprize, is declared with a frequency
and fulness which are equally satisfactory.
I agree, in part, with what Rev. Adams is trying to say. Clearly America was PLANTED as a Christian Nation...at least in most colonies. However, are we to automatically insinuate from this history that the United States was/is founded as a Christian Nation?

The answer to this question can be found by addressing Rev. Adams' second key point; that the various state constitutions clearly establish a Christian nation. He states:

We are, therefore, now prepared to examine with a good
prospect of success, the nature and extent of the changes in regard to Religion,
which have been introduced by the people of the United States in forming their
State Constitutions, and also in the adoption of the Constitution of the United
States.

In perusing the twenty-four Constitutions of the United States
with this object in view, we find all of them recognising Christianity as the
well known and well established religion of the communities, whose legal, civil
and political foundations, these Constitutions are. The terms of this
recognition are more or less distinct in the Constitutions of the different
States; but they exist ill all of them.
But do STATE charters prove that the United States is a Christian Nation? Again, I will quote Madison from his above mentioned letter:

It is true that the New England States have not
discontinued establishments of Religion formed under very peculiar
circumstances; but they have by successive relaxations advanced towards the
prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion
or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there
was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the
support of Religion; and since that event a surrender of it to a spontaneous
support by the people, it may be said that the difference amounts nearly to a
contrast in the greater purity & industry of the Pastors and in the greater
devotion of their flocks, in the latter period than in the former. In Virginia
the contrast is particularly striking, to those whose memories can make the
comparison. It will not be denied that causes other than the abolition of the
legal establishment of Religion are to be taken into view in account for the
change in the Religious character of the community. But the existing character,
distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more
than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently
prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be
contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its
cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.
And even Rev. Adams seems to recognize this when he states:

No nation on earth, perhaps, ever had opportunities so
favorable to introduce changes in their institutions as the American people; and
by the time of the Revolution, a conviction of the impolicy of a further union
of Church and State according to the ancient mode, had so far prevailed, that
nearly all the States in framing their new constitutions of government,
either
silently or by direct enactment, discontinued the ancient connexion
[my emphasis].
Yes, the Reverend Adams provides an eloquent and well-prepared argument for his side, and I personally find much to praise in his sermon. However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation. The federal Constitution is clearly a secular document, a fact that Adams gives very little attention to in his sermon. In addition, as Adams himself notes, these state constitutions eventually removed all religious preference, making the states secular as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Will the Real Christian/Deist Please Stand Up: James Madison

In recent years, a fierce battle over the religious views of our Founding Fathers has created a rift between right-wing religious zealots and left-wing secularists. Both sides have engaged in a virtual tug-o-war over the legacy of America’s founding, which is likely to continue for years to come. In defense of their beliefs, both factions are able to successfully site various quotations from our Founding Fathers, which they believe accurately support their respective claims. For religious conservatives in general, the only acceptable truth, when it comes to our Founding Fathers, is that they were stalwart men of God, who remained steadfast in their orthodox devotion to Christianity. In contrast, those of the secular persuasion maintain that the Founding Fathers were anything but orthodox, and that many key founders actually adopted a deistic approach in their understanding of religion.

With the political, religious and historical mess that has ensued, both the left and right wing persuasions have lost a key component in understanding the spiritual persuasions of our founders: perspective. As Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith stated, “in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, both sides distort history…the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.”

Over the past couple of weeks, this blog has engaged in some wonderful discussions on religion and the Founding Fathers. With this in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to continue our inquiry into the religious nature of our key Founding Fathers, which will hopefully provide us with the needed perspective into their respective spiritual beliefs.

With this in mind, I have decided to devote my next few postings to a more detailed analysis of our individual Founding Fathers. I hope that each of you will add your insight, since I am anything but an expert on the topic. I hope that with everyone’s participation we will be able to better understand the religion of our Founders. It is my belief that this project will reveal the fact that the Founding Fathers - in a general sense - embraced the following ideas of religion:

1.) They personally disliked organized religion, but were for cultivating an individualistic understanding and relationship with God.
2.) They were anti-faith, but pro-rational belief
3.) They were anti-orthodox Christianity, but pro-Jesus, at least in terms of his doctrine, which they felt had been altered from its original design.
4.) None of the "major" Founding Fathers were either purely Diests or Orthodox Christians.

So, let us begin. The first victim up for debate...JAMES MADISON

To begin our inquiry into the religious sentiments of James Madison, we need to travel back to his childhood years. From his youth, James Madison was raised in an orthodox Anglican home, where his father, James Madison Sr., was a vestryman in the church. When Madison was able to attend college, he and his family chose to send young James to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Instead of attending nearby William and Mary College, Madison chose to travel north and attend the College of New Jersey, because of its reputation for being “the principle training ground for American Presbyterian clergy” (Holmes, Faith of Founding Fathers, 92).

While attending college in New Jersey, Madison witnessed two evangelical revivals, which split the student body into two groups. Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, notes that these two groups (known as the Cliosophical Society and the American Whig Society) differed in how they perceived religion. The “Cliosophes” were ]more evangelical in their sentiments, while the American Whigs were more cerebral. Madison took part in the latter (Founding Faith, 96).

The fact that Madison favored an intellectual perspective on religion may suggest that the orthodox teachings of his youth were beginning to change. After all, Madison had begun to investigate the teachings of Deism while under the tutelage of Donald Robertson and Alexander Martin. Regardless of what he may have learned from many of his Enlightenment-centered instructors, it appears that Madison still maintained at least a part of his orthodoxy. As he stated in a letter to his friend, William Bradford, Madison found Deism to be “loose in their principles, encouragers of free enquiry even such as destroys the most essential truths, enemies to serious religion” (JM to WB: December 1, 1773). Regardless of what he may have learned in college, it appears that Madison was still unwilling to part with his orthodox upbringing.

Upon his return home, Madison continued to study the Bible with great regularity and even conducted family worship (what David Holmes calls a sign of orthodoxy). At the age of twenty-two, however, Madison became a first-hand witness to a violent wave of religious persecution, which emanated from the very church that Madison embraced. The recipients of the persecution – who were primarily Baptists – were often arrested on bogus charges of disturbing the peace. Since Virginia had a government-sanctioned church – the Anglican Church – Baptists were often esteemed as a lesser faith. This unfortunate turn of events had a deep impact on Madison. As Steven Waldman points out, “Madison’s sympathy for the Baptists translated into an increasing disgust with the Anglican hierarchy” (Founding Faith, 105).

Contrary to popular belief, the American victory over the British during the American Revolution did not instantly bring about religious freedom. In fact, most colonies – now officially states – continued to support the idea of a state religion. In Virginia, Patrick Henry hoped to continue this practice by proposing to tax Virginians to support Christian churches and clergy. Though the act did not specifically favor one religion in particular, Madison stood defiant to the proposal. In one of the most celebrated documents on religious freedom, the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, Madison argued that religion and government ought to be completely separate from one another:

“experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?”
For a man who was raised to be an orthodox supporter of the Anglican faith, these harsh words against “eccelsiastical establishments” signify a clear change in Madison’s spiritual leanings.

In addition, Madison’s notes, which he used as a reference during his debates with Patrick Henry and to write his Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, reveal the fact that Madison was beginning to contemplate his spiritual leanings. In these notes, Madison asks, “What is Xnty” (Christianity), and, “What clue is to guide [a] Judge thro’ this labyrinth when ye question comes before them whether any particular society is a Xn society?” Clearly, Madison was beginning to distance himself from his previous orthodoxy.

In addition to these attacks on religious freedom, James Madison’s religious sentiments were further shaped as a result of his friendship with Thomas Jefferson (a known critic of orthodox Christianity), and his wife, Dolley (a Quaker from birth). As Madison biographer, Ralph Ketcham, stated “Madison’s Christianity came to have an exceedingly individualistic tone…especially as he distanced himself from the Anglican Faith” (Madison, 47-48).

Steven Waldman adds to this assertion when he writes, “there are signs that his affection for orthodox Christianity faded, too, as the years went on. Although his wife, Dolley, and his mother, Nelly, were both confirmed, Madison himself never was” (Founding Faith, 183-184). In addition, Madison eventually quit following a strict observance of the Sabbath and – like Washington – quit kneeling in prayer (See Meade’s account here and here). In addition, Meade states that Madison affirmed his belief in Christianity, as the best form of religion on earth. Despite this account – which is hotly debated in terms of its authenticity – Madison seems to have completely severed all of the orthodox attachments of his youth. In addition, Madison conveyed his “high regard for Unitarian principles,” which were completely incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.

So where does Madison fall? According to David Holmes, author of the book Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Madison is either a closet Unitarian or a moderate Christian Deist. I think this is a pretty good assessment of the man, since it is clear that Madison never returned to his orthodox views of his youth. In addition, Madison’s desire for a strict separation between church and state – which was made evident during the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the Bill of Rights – serves as ample evidence of Madison’s Unitarian leanings.

Monday, March 16, 2009

America's Shifting Religious Identity

If you are anything like me, you probably wake up to your own personal subscription list of your favorite blogs on the net. And this morning, in particular, the topic of all the religious blogs centers on the staggering survey results conducted by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). As the USA Today report states:

When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers. The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.
And as the following graph indicates, those who identify themselves as having "no religion" are up in EVERY SINGLE STATE:



Of course this is nothing new. The current religious landscape of America would be virtually unrecognizable by our founders, who were accustomed to a nation with very few Catholics and a concentration of Episcopalian, Quaker and Congregational denominations.

For more graphs demonstrating the decline in religious belief click here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tom Cruise and Scientology

I just wanted to briefly mention a couple things from a book that I just finished a while back. The book is entitled, Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography by the acclaimed biographer Andrew Morton. Since I have maintained an interest in the bizzare world that is Scientology, I decided to see what Morton would have to say about Cruise's involvement with the controversial "Religion." Choosing to write about this highly contentious actor/Scientologist advocate has brought Morton a tremendous amount of media hype and scrutiny. Morton even alleges that he received death threats from Scientologists prior to the book's publication.

The book itself gives a semi-detailed outline of Tom Cruise's life, with a special emphasis on Cruise's Scientology practices and beliefs. The book alleges that Cruise has climbed to second in command of the organization, and is actively campaigning for the spread of Scientology into other nations (which currently ban the organization from practicing).

Morton alleges that the "religion" is extremely intimidating, corrupt, and littered with a history of criminal misdeeds (in particular regarding Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard). As Morton states:

"Scientology is evil; its techniques are evil; its practice is a serious threat to our communities medically, morally, and socially; and its adherents are sadly deluded and often mentally ill...it dominates its believers completely...no other world view or even point of view is tolerated. It is the North Korea of religion."

Morton also points out that the success of Scientology should be accredited to its policy of celebrity recruitment. He alleges that Scientology has catered to the celebrity, in an effort to lure them to the fold:
"For those working in a profession that is utterly self-involved, the notion of following a faith where the object of devotion and reverence is the self, where a man becomes his own god, is terribly alluring. Scientology strokes the ego as it lightens the wallet."

Despite the insight into the life of "Tom Terrific", the book is not without its critics. The New York Times and Washington Post have questioned the research done by Morton, claiming that critics of Scientology (including many former members) are hardly unbiased sources. The Church of Scientology itself has released a fifteen page rebuttal of Morton's book, calling it "a bigoted, defamatory assault replete with lies." Morton argues that many of his sources are undocumented because they have requested anonymity. Morton argues that if they were to come forward, the Church of Scientology would destroy them through lies, deceit, and scandal. Morton argues that this is a common tactic of Scientology. As L. Ron Hubbard himself wrote, "The only way you can control people is to lie to them." Immediately following the release of Morton's book, a controversial Scientology video of Tom Cruise was released. Here is a segment of that video:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Alexander Hamilton's Economic "Bailout"

In light of President Obama's recent address to Congress regarding the $750 billion plus economic stimulus package, I thought it might be fun to discuss America's first "economic bailout." After all, everyone from religious leaders to radio talk show personalities have brought this issue front and center, with little to no likelihood of letting up.

But is this America's first "bailout?"

As we all know, the eight-year war for American independence with Great Britain was extremely costly. At the war's conclusion, the thirteen separate states had each incurred a tremendous debt, due to the enormous economic burden brought on by the revolution itself. According to Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, the total debt of the United States was a whopping $77.1 million (or roughly $750 billion by today's standards). Of this, $11.7 million was owed to foreign governments, $40,4 million was the result of domestic debt, and $25 million the result of war expenditures of the various states (Ellis, Founding Brothers, 55). As a result, each state's credit was shot leaving them with little credibility on the international stage.

It was under these circumstances that Alexander Hamilton proposed a "bailout" of sorts. Under his plan of assumption, Hamilton suggested that the nation's legitimacy on the international market might be improved if the federal government were to assume the entire debs of the various states. Not only would his plan call for a radical new concept in terms of the federal government's scope and responsibility, but it would remove a measure of state sovereignty when it came to economics.

As could be expected, not everyone was happy with the deal. Most opponents of Hamilton's plan were furious over the fact that Hamilton proposed to pay off at face value all of the war bonds, which had not only been purchased by the masses, but had been used as a means of payment to thousands of veterans of the war. What infuriated these opponents was the fact that the war bonds, which had become virtually worthless, had been sold by the masses to greedy speculators (many who were friends of Hamilton) for a fraction of their original worth. Once Hamilton proposed to pay off the bonds at face value, these speculators stood to make a fortune off of what had once been a worthless bond.

The anger over the war bond saga was evident across the nation. In a letter to James Madison, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote the following, which captures just how polarizing and upsetting Hamilton's plan had become:

Never have I heard more rage expressed against the Oppressors of our country during the late War than I daily hear against the men who...are to reap all the benefits of the revolution, at the expense of the greatest part of the Virtue & property that purchased it.
James Madison and his Virginian comrade, Thomas Jefferson, felt the same. The idea of subjugating the economic sovereignty of the states to the federal government seemed like a violation of everything the Revolution had stood for.

To make a long story short, Hamilton's economic plan of assumption was finally supported by Madison, Jefferson and other influential Virginians, who had originally opposed it, in exchange for the nation's capital to be built on the Potomac. In a historical compromise, Hamilton conceded the location of the federal capital to his Virginian opponents, in exchange for their support of his economic plan. Simply put, the compromise killed two birds with one stone.

Historians have, for the most part, praised Hamilton's economic plan as a stroke of brilliance. The plan delivered the infant United States from the brink of economic turmoil and gave the federal government more centralized control over the economic future of the nation. The economic "bailout" of the states eliminated a large amount of the economic tension between the smaller, more vulnerable states and the larger juggernaut states like Virginia, who had a virtual monopoly on American commerce. By placing the economic future of the nation in the hands of the federal government, Hamilton foreshadowed the often-repeated debate in America between a powerful, centralized union and the independent sovereignty of the states.

**In no way should this be taken to suggest that the current economic "bailout" will experience the same success as Hamilton's. There's more than 200 years separating the two. The success/failure of Obama's plan is yet to be determined.**

Native Americans and the Lost Tribes of Israel

The indigenous tribes of the "New World" have been a source of fascination not only for modern scholars, but for early American colonists as well. For hundreds of years, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and clergymen have argued over the origins of the diverse Native American tribes that once encompassed the entire face of North and South America. Even in our modern society, scholars of all types continue to argue over the origins of the indigenous tribes of the Americas, despite advances in genetics, cultural anthropology and history.

Perhaps the most provocative of all the theories regarding the origins of Native American tribes is the belief that they are somehow a remnantof the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Even the earliest settlers and explorers of the New World were intrigued by the possibility of encountering a lost branch of the House of Israel in the New World. Christopher Columbus, the man credited with "discovering" the New World, proclaimed that these newly discovered "Indians" were, in fact, of Jewish origins. Columbus even suggested that Spain could, "recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem" (Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, 33).

After the American Revolution, the fascination with Native American origins was carried to new heights. Despite the fact that no obvious proof could be found to substantiate the belief that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel, scores of religious zealots hoped to uncover this claim's validity. Just before embarking on their continental trek, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a brief letter to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in which he instructed them to "acuire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them [the Indians] as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them." In addition, Jefferson shared a personal correspondence with his friend, Meriwether Lewis, in which he expressed his hope that the trek west might provide evidence as to the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel (Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 154).

In addition to the president, Dr. Benjamin Rush revealed his hope for the discovery of the lost tribes of Israel when he wrote the following inquiries to Lewis and Clark:
At what time do they rise? What about baths? Murder? Suicide? Are any animal sacrifices in their religion? What affinity between their religious Ceremonies & those of the Jews? [my emphasis].
Though the Lewis and Clark expedition never returned with any evidence to support the Native American/lost tribes of Israel claim, the legend remained extremely popular throughout the early part of the 19th century. Ethan Smith, for example, who was not only a pastor to a small church in Vermont but was also a self-proclaimed expert on Jewish history, hoped to prove the Jewish roots of Native Americans by appealing to the Bible. In his 1825 book, View of the Hebrews, Smith endeavored to point out what he saw as similarities between Native American religious custom and that of ancient Judaism. As Smith states:
In all their rites which I have learned of them, there is certainly a most striking similitude to the Mosaic rituals. Their feasts of first fruits; feasts of in gathering; day of atonement; peace offerings; sacrifices. They build an altar of stone before a tent covered with blankets; within the tent they burn tobacco for incense, with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. All who have seen a dead human body are considered unclean eight days; which time they are excluded from the congregation.
For Smith, this was ample proof of God's biblical prophesy that, "he [God] shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12).

In the record of Imanual Howitt, who had traveled extensively throughout the United States in the early part of the 19th century, the Native Americans held a certain intrigue that permeated his writings. Howitt, though not a deeply religious man, had adopted the earlier opinion of William Penn, who believed that the "Indians...developed from the lost tribes of Israel." As a result, Howitt became a passionate advocate for the further study of Indian rituals and customs.

The fervor over the possibility of American Indians being of Jewish descent was only furthered when Barbara Simon published her book, The Ten Tribes of Israel Historically Identified with the Aborigines of the Western Hemisphere in 1836. Aside from quoting a plethora of biblical sources to defend her thesis, Simon also claims that early Mexican paintings found by Spanish conquistadors contain "allusions to the restoration of the dispersed tribes of Israel."

In addition to Simon's work, other books emerged during the early part of the 19th century in support of the Native American/lost tribes of Israel theory. Books like A View of the American Indians by Israel Worsley in 1828, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West by Josiah Priest in 1835, and the before mentioned View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith in 1825. All of these works combined to create a spirit of enthusiasm that deeply favored the Native American/lost tribes of Israel connection.

Perhaps the most popular -- and most controversial -- interpretation on the origins of Native Americans comes from Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith. During his youth, Smith claimed to have received a revelation from a heavenly messenger, who related to Smith the location of a hidden record of an ancient people:
He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.
This record, which eventually became known to the world as The Book of Mormon was allegedly a scriptural account of God's dealings with a remnant of Jewish descendants who had migrated to America during ancient times. As the Book of Mormon's introduction puts it:
The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel.

The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.
Regardless of their origins, the role of religion in shaping the perception of early American society was extraordinary. The aura of mystery that shrouded the origins of the various Native American tribes kept early Americans in suspense for centuries. For a people who were primarily defined by Christian doctrine, the "Indians" of the New World became a living exhibit of their biblical doctrine. By clothing these native tribes in the robes of the lost tribes of Israel, Christian zealots found an additional motive for their further conversion to their brand of Christianity.