Recommendations

A lot of interesting things happened since I left this blog. Two friends whose work I closely followed and promoted published (very good, in my opinion) books that sold well (for their genre) and were well received. One is Dr. Gregg Frazer’s “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution“; the other is Dr. John Fea’s “Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.”

Both of those books take a “middle ground” approach that disputes the “Christian Nation” and “Secular Nation” theses.

Another book I recommend is Mark David Hall’s “Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic.” That book attempts to demonstrate how ideas mainstream to reformed Protestant thought at the time influenced the American Founding with Roger Sherman as a notable Founder typifying that mindset.

I haven’t given Dr. Hall’s work as much attention as it merits and I apologize for that. He’s a brilliant scholar and has been nothing but gracious to me. In fact, he invited me to present and participate in a roundtable discussion at Gordon College on Dr. Frazer’s book where I got to meet Frazer in person for the first time (I had previously met MDH in person when he spoke at Princeton).

I endorsed Dr. Frazer’s thesis there, but not without reservation. One issue I had with Frazer’s book was that out of all the featured philosophical and theological influences on the “thought” of America’s “key Founders,” some notable figures were missing, one of whom was Richard Price.

Dr. Frazer’s thesis, if we don’t remember is that the “key Founders” [the first four Presidents, Ben Franklin and a few others] were neither Christians nor Deists. But they weren’t something from left field either. Rather they believed in something “in between” or a hybrid of Christianity and Deism. Frazer terms it “theistic rationalism,” a nifty term which seems accurate enough. The issue is when he asserts the theistic rationalists weren’t “Christian” (even though many if not most of them self defined and understood themselves to be such).

Frazer’s argument is because late 18th Century Christianity defined itself according to creeds the major churches were officially tied to, rejecting certain elements of such creeds disqualified one from the label of “Christian.”

Richard Price (in a sermon that George Washington endorsed!) articulates this understanding:

Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?

Frazer doesn’t argue for “religious tests” (of the kind that would deny “non-Christians” — folks who deny the Trinity, etc. — rights to serve in politics). But he does argue on behalf of “the commonly received ideas of Christianity” in late 18th Century America that would deny the label of “Christian” to them.

Around the time Frazer articulated the term “theistic rationalism” to describe the thought of the “key Founders,” David L. Holmes proposed “Christian-Deism” instead.

And Dr. Joseph Waligore has demonstrated that many of the notable figures scholars have classified as “Deists” were actually “Christian-Deists.” Here Waligore takes on Frazer and argues the [whatever we term them] are entitled to the label “Christian.”

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6 thoughts on “Recommendations

  1. Once upon a time, I would have searched hard for things like this to demonstrate to “Christian Nation” folks that even Christians don’t think this is a “Christian nation.” Time has mellowed me out, and now I realize that what that phrase means to one scholar isn’t necessarily what it means to another and the popular usage of that term is agonizingly fluid. And, I’ve come to think that the notion of a collective intent beyond the words of the documents the Founders agreed to (the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation) is just plain impossible to determine to any useful degree.

    But I love, love, love that this sort of scholarship is going on. I think it’s hugely beneficial to understand the cultural and social and moral miileux that led to the Revolution. So I love, love, love that we have references to this research available here.

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  2. Given the common current use of the self-description “Christian”, one which excludes Catholics, Episcopalians, and other biblical non-literalists, none of the Founders was a Christian.

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    • Really? Am I that out of touch with current religious thinking? I pretty much figured that anyone who ascribed to a faith that had “a jew dying on a cross” pretty much defined “christian”, those of believes of the “one true religion” excluded.

      I think my Episcopalian preacher friend would take except to the definition you describe Mike. :)

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  3. As time goes on, I’ve begun to realize that “Christian” is really shorthand for a lot of other things. Things that have very little to do with Jesus or even theism.

    I do not believe in a deity. I do not believe that Jesus was much more than a particularly charismatic guy who was in the right place at the right time who had a particularly lucky break when it came to Saul/Paul.

    And yet there are some very, very real senses in which I am a Christian.
    There are others, of course, in which I am not… but that argument has far too many similarities to the whole “who is a gamer?” question to not immediately run to examples of “are frat boys who only play Madden gamers? What about if they play Halo or Call of Duty?”

    And these talmudic arguments happen over a construct regarding an affinity for a particular leisure behavior.

    At least we can agree that chicks who play Farmville and Candy Crush exclusively are *NOT* gamers, am I right?

    Anyway, it’s shorthand.

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