Monday, September 19, 2005

A Myth of Origins: America's Christian Founding Fathers?

It is always a surprise, and sometimes very painful to have one's bubble burst. This is all the more so when it has to do with something or someone a persons loves deeply and is deeply commited to. Take for example our country. It is not a very old country by global standards. Our less than 250 years of actual nationhood pales in comparison to a country like Egypt which has been extant for thousands of years. One would think with such a short history we could get the facts right about the religious character of our nation, and the beliefs of its founding fathers--- but apparently what we as Christians often wish was true, colors how we read our history so strongly that we cannot believe it could be otherwise.

Now before I go further I want to stress that of course plenty of the first persons who came to America were devout Christians--- both Protestant and Catholic. Not for nothing is Mary-land named for Jesus' mother, or Pennslyvania named for the great Quaker William Penn. Then too, Providence Rhode Island came by its name from its Christian leaders. We could go down this road a rather long way. We could recount for instance how Harvard was founded as a school for the training of Evangelical clergy and when it became too liberal in the minds of many Yale was founded as the antidote and when it became too liberal in the minds of many Princeton was founded by persons who made Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest early native theologian, its first real head. We could talk about why institutions of higher learning founded on Christian principles often go native within a generation.

What I am interested in however in this posting is the persons who framed our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the Bill of Rights. More partricularly I am interested in the real architects of these documents, especially the Declaration of Independence.

What one discovers on close scrutiny is that it is not Christians, but rather Deists (Unitarians as they called themselves) who were most influential. Though I could talk about George Washington and his Masonic faith in the syncretistic rites of the Masons (one part Christian, one part Jewish, one part Egyptian--- look at the Pyramid on George's dollar bill sometime, and ask yourself where that came from), or I could talk about free thinkers and radicals like Thomas Paine. But I must focus on Thomas Jefferson the intellectual heavyweight of the period, and close friend to John Adams. These two of course were the second and third Presidents of our nation, and they shared common views on the blessings of Unitarianism.

I provide here an excerpt from a letter which Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822, a Unitarian pamphlet writer, only shortly before Jefferson died. He shared the same sentiments about this matter as did John Adams. In order to understand this letter one needs to keep three things in mind: 1) by 'primitive Christianity' what Jefferson means is Christianity shorn of its supernatural character--- without miracles, without the Trinity, without the resurrection. He is talking about the image of 'primitive Christianity' he was helping to create himself by his Jeffersonian Bible-- a Jesus Seminar kind of Bible with all the miracles in the NT snipped out, leaving us with the Sermon on the Mount and other ethical teachings. 2) the three headed dog Cerberus from Greco-Roman mythology is the point of comparison for his derogatory comment about the Trinity; 3) Unitarians were rationalists and Deists. They were the split offs from the controversial battles fought by the Congregationalists, originally in New England, who divided between Trinitarians, which is to say traditional Christians, and Unitarians.

Here is Jefferson's letter to James Smith written in 1822:

"I have to thank you for your pamphlets on the subject of Unitarianism, and to express my gratification with your efforts for the revival of primitive Christianity in your quarter. No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded [i.e. not three persons in one God], was that of the early ages of Christianity; and was one of the most efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs. And a strong proof of the solidity of the primitive faith, is its restoration, as soon as a nation arises which vindicates to itself the freedom of religion opinion, and its external divorce from the civil authority. The pure and simple unity of the Creator of the universe is all but ascendant in the eastern states; it is dawning in the west, and advancing towards the south; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States."

In another letter written at about the same time Jefferson shared his confidence that "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." (These quotes and more can easily be found in David Hempton's fine study entitled Methodism. Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale, 2005, p. 48).

Our founding fathers and the chief drafters of America's foundational documents wanted at all costs to avoid having a State or national church endorsed and under the patronage of government. Even more they wanted to avoid have a church which shaped, or partially controlled the government. There had been too many religious wars in Europe and they wanted to avoid that scenario in America--- which of course was a noble aim. The principle of 'freedom of religion' is of course not one found in the Bible strictly speaking. Elijah, for example in 1 Kngs. 18, was hardly an advocate of 'freedom of religion' when he attacked the prophets of Baal, but then Israel was hardly a democracy anyway, nor was Jesus' vision of the kingdom democratic. These entities were intended to be benevolent monarchies, though as you will remember, God was loath to give Israel a king in the first place.

One thing we must never do is make the mistake of equating Israel with America. America has always been a nation commited to pluralism (remember 'e pluribus unum'), though it has always debated how much pluralism was too much. Democracy of a sort, and freedom of religion was the sanction needed to allow for that sort of pluralism. Of course it is true that the Founding Fathers did think we could be united, whether Christian or Jew or even native American, in a belief in one God, in divine providence, in ethical principles (many of them from the Bible including the ten commandments) to undergird the nation.

Modern pluralism goes way beyond what the Founding Fathers could have conceived as either true or good, and indeed they did see the minimal beliefs of Deism as something that could unite everyone. It was a least common denominator sort of religious foundation for the nation, and its principles of respect for difference, open and free inquiry, no religion imposed on anyone had numerous merits when compared to the ugly spectacle of Christians killing each other over their differences in religious beliefs.

Another myth that dies hard is that we have written down somewhere in our founding documents the principle of 'separation of church and state'. Actually that is not in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence at all. It was however an undergirding principle of various of our founders in an attempt to avoid European religious scenarios. America's founding documents reflect the individualism (often of a radical sort if one reads Thomas Paine), rationalism and empiricism and even eudaemonism of our founders (noting the clause on the individual pursuit of happiness rather than holiness). These things made good sense then with the rise of the industrial revolution on the not too distant horizon.
In other words, our founding documents owe more to the libertarian sentiments of the Enlightenment than to the Bible. Our founding fathers believed democratic government could help set the people free--- one did not need to wait for revivals and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do the job. Of course it is true that democracy has many virtues, and probably is the best sort of government found on earth. It is certainly far closer in many ways to Biblical ideals than communism.

But by the same token we need to be honest about the founding of our nation, and the beliefs of its founding fathers. We need to recognize that America was not founded to be a Christian nation if by Christian we mean orthodox Christianity that believes in a supernatural Gospel, a Trinity, a virginal conception, a bodily resurrection, an atoning death of Jesus, or the Bible as divine revelation. Perhaps you may have noticed that the quote from Jefferson places him in the camp of the Dan Brown's of this world who blame Constantine and Athanasius for orthodoxy, not realizing that Trinitarian thinking about God already existed in the first century A.D. as any careful reader of the NT can see.

The question then I wish to pose is--- if Christians should give up the quest to 'get back to Christian America', what then should we do? I would suggest we should go forward towards a Christianity in America that does a better job of being an advocate for its own position in all spheres of life and public discourse, not retreating into the narrow bubbles of holy conventicles, churches, home schools and the like.

If we really want to help our nation to go to Hades in a handbasket more quickly we can continue to retreat into our holy huddles, counting on the separation of church and state to protect us--- when ironically there is no such written down principle in our founding documents.

"Greater is he who is in us, than is in the world" should be our battle cry, or perhaps let us "take captive every thought for Christ". We must work and pray for revival not just of ourselves but of our whole nation. Escapist religion must be avoided. As John Wesley said there is no spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel. Indeed so, and we may say that while Christianity is a deeply personal matter, it was never intended to be a private matter--- we are after all called to make disciples of all the nations. Even our own. May it be so in our lifetime.

47 comments:

Ken Abbott said...

Minor correction, Dr. Witherington. The colony and state of Maryland were named after Henrietta Maria, Charles I's queen, not the Virgin Mary.

I'm curious what were your sources for this post. My most recent reading is Samuel Eliot Morrison's history of the United States; he gives a rather different account of the nation's foundings than you have. I think it is possible to overemphasize the role the personal philosophies of men such as Jefferson actually played.

philosapologist said...

"Princeton was founded by persons who made Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest early native theologian, its first real head."

If Jonathan Edwards was America's greatest early native theologian, we're in sad shape. His philosophical work sure leaves much to be desired.

TheBlueRaja said...

Hmm . . . I think Edwards left a legacy of devotional passion that is reflected beautifully in Piper's "Christian Hedonism" project and a legacy of philosophical rigor reflected in Reformed epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga, Michael Sudduth, etc. I could see those of a different theological persuasion disagreeing; but these judgments are largely aesthetic, I guess; but all of that's a smidge off topic anyway.

In regard to your post, Dr. Witherington, here here! I completely agree with your assessment and with the folly of trying to reclaim a heritage that was never there in the first place. But I'm not sure you've posed the kind of solution that is consistent with NT picture of the Church as an alternative kingdom whose existence both demonstrates the reality of new creation life and stands as an eschatalogical reminder that God's kingdom is coming to overtake the fallen creation. That's not to say the Church retreats from the world, leaving it to its own devices, but it is to say that cultivating virtue in community formation is of utmost importance in fulfilling the Church's vocation. The goal of extending the community through discipleship is only as valuable as the community lives as Christ's body - with all the ethical implications that flow from this identification. One might make the criticism that our problem is that we're not as focused on character and community formation as we should be, and are instead trying busily to invite people into a kingdom we ourselves aren't participating in with power. Your warning against "holy huddles" and escapism is duly noted - but it can sometimes be misconstrued for the priority of community formation.

1 Peter 4:17: "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"

TheBlueRaja said...

Sorry - that last line was supposed to read: " but it can sometimes be misconstrued in abandoning the priority of community formation."

TheGoodWord said...

A big, gigantic "AMEN" to that blog, Dr. W!! Jesus said "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one." (John 17:15). I've been wanting to scream this from the mountaintops as well--"WE MUST CHANGE THIS WORLD FROM WITHIN!" If God had wanted to legislate His Kingdom into existence, I'm sure He could have, but He chose another way.

I had a question or two:

1) Is it possible that somewhere hidden within the names Unitarian, Trinitarian, etc., there is a common ground? What I mean is, If I believe that the Father and Son and Spirit are equally God, but refuse to call myself a "trinitarian" because I fear it may limit God, am I anathema?

2) Even given these comments by Jefferson, do we know for a fact that he denied the deity of Jesus and the Spirit? Or could this just be semantics.

There's so much we don't know...

BigFerret said...

One option is a return to the natural moral law. It has been described as God's general revelation in creation. It articulates an objective and universal morality. It underpins Jefferson's ideas in the Declaration of Independence.

A good modern exposition might be found in the works of Mortimer J. Adler.

philosapologist said...

Come on... Edwards couldn't even get past theological fatalism. And I really don't think all that much of Piper either. ;-)

Now Plantinga on the other hand is solid!

D

J said...

theblueraja: Not to be off topic again, but Plantinga hardly resembles Edwards. Plantinga's reformed epistemology and Edward's reformed theology are unrelated studies. (You might review Plantinga's thoughts on the will or his critique of Edwards on causality). The argument that choices spring from self is yet to be refuted. Edwards was quite confused about this.

Had to throw that out there! =)

J

TheBlueRaja said...

David,

When I read Desiring God, I was just enraptured with the concept of Christian Hedonism. Of course I was bred in a Kantian duty-based fundamentalist stronghold, so when I allowed myself to entertain the notion of pursuing my own pleasures in the knowledge of God, it was revolutionary for me! I know C.S. Lewis et. al. did it first, but Piper's where I first found it, and I'll never forget my wonderment at reading that book. God-intoxicated. C'mon! I know the worn roads of election and sovereignty may be points of departure, but give the guy his due!

J,

I knew you'd say that! ;)

But you've got to admit, the way Plantinga adumbrates cognitive malfunction, noetic failure and the phenomenology of spiritual knowledge borrow heavily from an Edwardsean trajectory. Consider the following quote:

"In the fall into sin, Edwards thinks, we human beings lost a certain cognitive ability: the ability to apprehend God’s moral qualities. With conversion comes regeneration; part of the latter is the regeneration (to a greater or lesser extent) of this cognitive ability to grasp or apprehend the beauty, sweetness, amiability of the Lord himself and of the whole scheme of salvation. And it is just the cognitive ability that involves the new simple idea. And one who doesn’t have this new simple idea—one in whom the cognitive process in question has not been regenerated—doesn’t have spiritual knowledge of God’s beauty and loveliness."

Plantinga draws on Edwards' Religious Affections for various aspects of his epistemology, including his conception of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Of course I'm not saying that Plantinga lifted Edwards' philosophy wholesale, or even that he was uncritical of parts of it - but its patently clear that he is deeply indebted to Calvinistic thinkers like Edwards (how could he not be with his conception of an "extended Aquinas/Calvin" model?). It is, after all "Reformed" epistemology that occupies his attention.

C'mon, now fellers -- even though it's clear that you've both got your issues with determinism and Augustinian compatibilism, this isn't the only area of theological interest for Piper, Edwards or any other theologian worth their salt! Wouldn't you say that Edwards has made some invaluable contributions to Christian faith and practice in American Church History? I don't think agreeing with him is a prerequisite for honoring his indisputedly influential and impressive work! Yale University Press, Princeton University Press, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press is still publishing the guy, for goodness sake! The Journal of American History agrees that he is universally recognized as a seminal figure in American intellectual history!

I wouldn't want to be dismissive of your passion for the free will issue, but defining the value of a particular intellectual figure's contribution by one's own parochial interests and chosen positions seems a bit heavy handed. Even though I don't follow men like Kant, Locke, Hume or Spinoza on a hundred different issues doesn't mean I think they're chump change!

Matt said...

i haven't read plantinga (though i want to), and i'm not terribly familiar with piper.

some questions:

what might a weslyan approach to this dilemma be?

how does the Christian just war doctrine tie into American Christians seeing or wanting to see america as a Christian nation?

say we outlaw homosexual marriages at the federal level; what penalties will we impose on those who engage in civil disobedience by getting married anyway? fines? prison? just refusing to honor the marriage in regards to taxation, social security, etc? at what point do non-Christians (or Christians with more 'liberal' views) start to be punished for not upholding portions of (conservative) Christian morality? wouldn't such a situation contradict 'turning the other cheek'?

why don't we see a push in this country for a federal law aginst divorce? or children not obeying their parents? or, GASP, greed? these things are in the Bible too.

if America was to become a "Christian nation," wouldn't the governemnt have to excommunicate and deport all those who did not make Christian confession? if church and state/country are supposed to be the same, how can we avoid that conclusion? maybe b/c our churches are not even pure, let alone the country as a whole. i am not advocating gracelessness, but no one (at least in the circles i run in) seems to pay any attention to church discipline scriptures such as matthew 18 and 1 corinthians 5.

so hopefully this gives a little different perspective than other threads of the debate already posted.

matt varnell

J said...

theblueraja:

"Even though I don't follow men like Kant, Locke, Hume or Spinoza on a hundred different issues doesn't mean I think they're chump change!"

I disagree... Hume was quite the Chump! ;)

Seriously, though, I do appreciate your attitude and words. I need to pray about my passions.

J

J said...

Matt:

Plantinga hardly adds to this discussion (Sorry Dr. Witherington) He's just a Christian Philosopher (one of my favorites... ridiculously funny but brilliant in debates) who has written extensively on the will. You might enjoy, “God, Freedom, and Evil.” Great bedside read!

J

john alan turner said...

Blueraja,
You started with a simple comment and said, "All of that's a smidge of topic anyway." Then, somehow, your line of thought became the topic. Amazing!

I agree with you -- I think Edwards and Piper are deeply flawed in some of their presuppositions, but they are good thinkers and have provided a valuable service to the Body of Christ.

But back to the topic... wait... what was the topic again?

Oh, yeah, the idea of reclaiming a Christian heritage that wasn't so Christian after all. I grew up in the Restoration Movement -- we were trying to reclaim a pristine ideal of the church that it turns out wasn't so pristine after all. So, I know about how frustrating it can be to have one's bubble burst.

Going back to something hardly ever made sense to me anyway. Going forward seems to be what God is interested in.

J said...

theblueraja:

“But you've got to admit, the way Plantinga adumbrates cognitive malfunction, Noetic failure and the phenomenology of spiritual knowledge borrow heavily from an Edwardsian trajectory.”

Well… Plantinga probably borrowed heavily from scripture, not Ed!

“Plantinga draws on Edwards' Religious Affections for various aspects of his epistemology, including his conception of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.”

Nah… I think he got that from Romans

Bless the Lord!

J ;-)

Ben Witherington said...

It is indeed amazing to see how a post about history can turn into a philosophical debate--- but I consider it a good thing. Jonathan Edwards, whether one likes his brand of theology or not, is clearly one of the great American thinkers of any kind. Anyone who carfully reads his treatise on The Freedom of the Will has to be impressed, at the very least at his prestidigitation ( free will it turns out, means not 'feeling' compelled by God to do something even though it is pre-determined). Even Wesley thought his Diary of David Branerd and Narrative of Surprising Conversions admirable stuff. As for the Wesleyan approach to things, I think my post suggested that we engage at all levels of the culture and work for its transformation through various means, recognizing that one cannot legislate Christianity into existence.

Brian said...

I for one, who isn't that concerned about the philosophy of those mentioned, agree whole heartedly with your post. This has been my contention for a few years now.

I also very much agree with the notion of it being impossible to legislate Christianity. Christianity is of an other Kingdom and is not in anyway dependent on this Kingdom. It is quite separate and above. Legislation only takes care of symptoms while denying the cause.

I thank you very much for your blog it is very informative and quite enlightening.

Are there any particular books by or on Jonathan Edwards that you would recommend?

J said...

Agreed! Christianity should not be legislated. But I think Christians have every right to be involved in the process of legislating morality. Christians vote, right?

J

J said...

Brian:

“Legislation only takes care of symptoms while denying the cause.”

I’m not sure I completely agree with this comment. I think the recognition of objective moral values might be a positive thing for humanity/society. It seems to me that if the law could point us to Christ, laws might therefore have a positive effect on humanity. Could it be that legislating moral values is more than just a restraint?

J

Brian said...

To my way of thinking legistlation can only tell us what we can and cannot do as opposed to what we should or should not do. I'm not sure law can point us to Christ. It most definately points us toward our shortcommings. If law could point us to Christ we would have had no need of a redeemer. I do believe that legislating moral values is more than just a restraint. Unless you are of a mind that rules were meant to be broken.

I think much of the population has become so entrenched in sin that they are narcissistic to the point that they think they can do what they want regardless of the law and when they are caught they will give the law a figurative or literal finger. In effect saying that the law is bad because it caught me.

I think there has been a shift of the direction in which we look at things but this may only be a matter of symantics.

The lowest common denominator is often sought as a means of being meaningful or relational to the greatest number of people.

C.S. Lewis spoke of the Highest Common Factor.

This may very well be the same point but on perspective is looking down while the other is looking up.

I've rambled on more than long enough.

poserorprophet said...

Dr. Witherington,

I was delighted when I stumbled upon your blog. Being a student of both New Testament Studies (the focus of my undergrad) and Cultural Theology (the focus of my current studies) I find your blog to be well worth reading.

Having said that, I have a few questions about the political implications this post possesses.

While I agree with you (100%) that the Church cannot retreat to some sort of private sphere but must instead exist as a public body, I wonder about the "conquer or be conquered" motif that seems to exist in your conclusion. Am I wrong to see R.R. Niebuhr running through this way of thinking? I feel like Niebuhr's ghost is lingering around this post and that makes me quite uncomfortable. While not espousing the seperation of Church and State, I feel that those like Stan Hauerwas and Bill Cavanaugh are developing a much better approach to a public Christian identity -- one that confronts various myths offered to us by the nation-state and, instead of embracing those myths (like Niebuhr and his crew tend to do) they offer the Church as a genuine counter-polis.

I would be delighted to hear more from you about where you stand on this issue. Grace and peace,

Dan

J said...

Brian:

I agree with a lot of what you said… thanks for your words! Let me clarify a few earlier points.

You said, “I'm not sure law can point us to Christ. It most definitely points us toward our shortcomings.”

I think both are true. When I said the law points us to Christ I had Paul’s words in mind (Rom 3:20). “…for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Through the law comes not just a knowledge of sin, but a knowledge that cries our need for a Savior.

You said, “To my way of thinking legislation can only tell us what we can and cannot do as opposed to what we should or should not do.”

I agree! I don’t think laws themselves explain the “ought,” you’re correct! Honestly, I don’t think they need to. I think objective moral values made into law, combined with the conscience is what makes the difference. That’s why it’s crucial for Christians to be involved in legislation. If laws do have an effect on the mind, Christians ought not avoid legislation.

Bless the Lord!

J

Ben Witherington said...

Good questions raised by the prophet from Canada in comment no. 20. Stan Hauerwas, with whom I resonate on many issues, and as a fellow Methodist pot stirrer I know rather well, is in my view much too deeply indebted to Anabaptist allergic reaction to government, national policy and the like. I don't agree with the Anabaptist reading of Rom. 13. It actually says that God is the one who sets up governments. and thus the attempt to create a 'we' 'they' relationship between the Christian community and government (being the big Blue Meany) is not a Biblical approach in my view. Governments can be good or bad, and yes evil can be structured into society by government (e.g. apartheid), but that need not always be so. I am an advocate of Christ transforms culture, not merely Christ sets up a counter culture, though to some extent that must also be true as well in a secular country.

Where I do agree with Hauerwas is that NT ethics are intended for NT people in the first instance. It is a Christian community ethic, not a world ethic by and large that we find in the NT. The NT neither asks nor answers the question of the degree to which Christians should participate in government, in part because to do so during the Roman Empire required endorsing their deities, in particular the Emperor cult. We are in a rather different cultural situation.

I also agree whole heartedly with Stan's consistent pro-life ethic which sees the interconnections between one's views on abortion, capital punishment, and war. I am basically an advocate of the same position on those issues, and I don't believe in making an ethic out of a rare exception.

Hope this helps.

Alan S. Bandy said...

Great post and much needed in our current political climate. Your most insightful comment is that "One thing we must never do is make the mistake of equating Israel with America."

All to often, I hear popular preachers and bible teachers exalt America as some sort of New Israel, when in reality it is more akin to a New Europe. The American nation does not owe its existence to a covenant, but rather Enlightenment thinking. Although we may have barrowed from Ancient Israel's constitution (the Pentateuch)this in no way implies that the 13 colonies are equivalent to the the 12 tribes.

Christ himself taught that our kindgom is not of this world. The modern evangelical political enterprise seems to forget that basic truth. If we are not careful we will be guilty of making Christianity a civil religion comparable to the civil religion of the Emperor cult and worship of Roma.

P.S. Maryland was established by Lord Baltimore, a devote Catholic, as a fully Catholic colony. As such it was most likely named after the Virgin Mary and not Henrietta Maria.

poserorprophet said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for taking the time to respond. Can I press you further on your understanding of Christ transforming culture and Ro. 13?

While I agree that Stan has been deeply influenced by Anabaptist thinking, I would like to point out that it is not only the Anabaptists who take issue with the way in which those who belong to H.R. Niebuhr's fifth type utilise this passage (I tend to side with Yoder, Hauerwas & Willimon, in viewing "Christ and Culture" as an inherently biased and rather unuseful work).

Those who identity with the "Christ transforming culture" type seem to elevate Ro 13 into some sort of all powerful proof-text, and that strikes me as rather dangerous. Tom Wright (not an Anabaptist, as you know) has done an excellent job of showing how the whole of the Epistle to the Romans carrries heavy political implications (cf. "Paul and Caesar: A New Readings of Romans" & "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire"). Not only that but other authors like Richard Horsley, Brian Walsh, and several others are showing us how Paul was far more (radically?) political than we have previously assumed.

So on the one hand we have a range of New Testament scholars who are showing us that the New Testament is far more political than we had imagined -- while on the other hand we have socio-political voices telling us that our structures of power are far more compromised than we had imagined. The writings of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein come to mind, not to mention the critiques raised by liberation theologians and other authors like Walter Wink and Willliam Stringfellow. Perhaps America (and by "America" I mean North America -- I have little interest in throwing stones at my neighbours to the south while ignoring the atrocities committed by my own nation) bears a much closer resemblance to the Roman Empire than many of us had previously imagined.

If these authors (from Wright to Chomsky) are telling the truth then one can gain a new appreciation for Stan's repeated assertion that it is through the Church being the Church that the world (or "culture") is transformed -- perhaps there is far more going on here than a mere Anabaptist "allergic reaction to government"?

Grace and peace,

Dan

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for posts no. 23-24. You are absolutely right that Lord Baltimore was naming Maryland after the mother of Jesus.

And in regard to what you say Dan, I am not only aware of Wright's and other arguments about Paul and politics, I agree with the fact that Paul is critiquing the rhetoric of Empire and am in print to this effect. This does not in any way settle the issue.

Paul is prepared to urge submission to these governing authorities even though he critiques one growing aspect of the governmental culture-- namely the Emperor cult. It is a huge mistake to globalize Paul's argument from the critique of the Emperor cult to a critique of government in general, even Roman government in general.

Paul was a Roman citizen who took full advantage of that fact as he evangelized Roman colony cities. And Hauerwas is simply wrong that the most fundamental mandate of the church is to be itself--- the most fundamental mandate is to make disciples of all nations which requires engagement with the culture, not just being ourselves in community.

It is of course historically true that the church went from being a missionary movement to being a self-protective nurture institution, but our history does not change the Great Commission.

Lastly, while I agree that it is a good witness for the church to be itself, this is not the whole witness, and it misses the spirit or ethos of the Pauline Gospel which was relentlessly evangelistic with the pagan culture. It is not by accident that Luke quotes the remark "these are the people who turned the world upside down".

Walter Wink is absolutely wrong that Paul is referring to world rulers when he speaks of the heavenly powers and principalities. To the contrary, he is using the Jewish names for various kinds of angels and demons and is talking about the cosmic struggle that Christ and the church are also engaged in. Paul uses very different terms for human rulers in Rom. 13 than for the powers and principalities in Ephes. 5 and elsewhere.

So I am quite unconvinced by the attempts to demonize human government in general that are latent in Hauerwas and Willimon, and patent in Wink and liberation theologians.

As for comparisons of America and the Roman Empire, there are some apt comparisons in the way we abuse the power we have, but as of yet we are not worshipping our governmental officials or President, thank goodness. It is a mistake then to tar (and feather) America with the brush of an ancient pagan culture in any sort of globalizing way.

Matt said...

but perhaps "being the church" includes the mandate to make disciples, which would make stanley h's dictum true.

acts actually gives a more radical model both for "being together" and "witnessing/disciple-making" than most of us embrace or practice (individually & communally).

lastly, what, dr. w., do you think the book of revelation has to speak to us today concerning politics, particularly about a government that may be 'evil'?

Brett Royal said...

I just finished reading the John Adams biography by David McCullough. Adams and Jefferson were friends, for the most part, but Jefferson's religious beliefs bothered Adams, as well as Jefferson's spending habits.
When Adams was in France, that culture really bothered him because it was not a christian culture.
Adams was a devout christian, Jefferson was not.

poserorprophet said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks again for taking the time to respond. There's definitely a lot of food for thought here. It's a privilege to dialogue with you and I hope that I can press this point one more time.

You write that, "It is a huge mistake to globalize Paul's argument from the critique of the Emperor cult to a critique of government in general, even Roman government in general." I whole-heartedly agree with you here. You are right to point out that "as of yet we are not worshipping our governmental officials or President," and much (although I don't think all) of Paul's critique of the Roman Empire focusses on the Emperor cult.

However, what Paul's political critique does do is force us to ask ourselves who (or what) we are worshipping. We may not be worshipping our government officials but we could well hold an idolatrous attitude about our nation (which, in turn, could end up being a form of self-worship, where each of us become divine individuals).

This does make our situation unique from Paul's but I wonder if the relationship between the Emperor cult and the "America cult" is not more closely related than some are willing to recognise.

You also mention how Paul was willing to exercise the privileges that came with Roman citizenship as he evangelised Roman colony cities -- and seem to suggest that we should do the same. However, as you also say, we live in a different time than Paul and one of the things that we are now aware of is how deeply corruption is rooted into American politics (I recognise that this is a contentious point, but I think the critiques raised by the likes of Sobrino, Ellul, Chomsky and others hold some water here). It may not be so easy for us, in our time, to exercise this privilege.

This is not to say that I am arguing for any sort of way of disengaging from culture and that results in Christians "just being ourselves in community" (nor, do I think this is what Hauerwas suggests). As Matt suggests in comment 26, making disciples is an integral part of being the Church. Hauerwas is simply saying that the first question Christians must ask is not, "How am I to transform culture?" or "How am I to be relevant?" (nor is it, I must remind myself, "how am I to be counter-cultural?") but rather, "How am I to be faithful?" If we are being a faithful people, we will turn the world upside-down.

poserorprophet said...

One correction: for the questions I list in my final paragraph please substitute "we" for "I".

Peace,
Dan

Ben Witherington said...

I have answered the question about Revelation in my commentary on Revelation. You are welcome to read it at length.

I would be the first to admit that some persons' patriotism borders on idolatry in many nations, and for some persons patriotism is a higher value than religious faith of whatever sort. Nor would I want to deny there is corruption in politics.

This however is not the issue at all. The issue is whether the system of government as is, if run properly is capable of properly upholding its own founding principles, and I think the answer to this is yes. I have seen government work well, and I know of various real honest public servants, which our system, as a system does not marginalize, but supports. I also think that we see the full range of Christian views on government in the NT, whether it is working well, or as under Domitian poorly.

As for John Adams being a devout Christian. This is not what his correspondence with Jefferson suggests on the whole. Maybe Sam Adams, but I am not sure about John Adams, or for that matter John Quincy Adams.

RonMcK said...

I am writing a series on this topic at the moment on my blog called Blessed Economist.

Evangelism must come first.

The solution to the problem of government is government by judges.

Matt said...

i don't know how long this post will continue in dialogue, but. dr. w. (and others), what do you think of yoder's chapter on rom. 13 in "the politics of Jesus"?

i am sure not many people agree with him in all details (excepting maybe stanley h.), but what are some major points of disagreement, if there are any?

Ken Abbott said...

Look, I didn't make this up. Here's an excerpt from the state's tourism board's website:

"Maryland began as a colony when King Charles I promised George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, a colony north of Virginia. Before he could visit the colony, George Calvert died. His son, Cecilius, became the second Lord Baltimore and the Lord Proprietor of Maryland. He named his colony "Terra Maria," or "Maryland" in honor of the king's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Because Cecilius Calvert had to remain in England, he sent his younger brother, Leonard, to accompany the colonists and to be the first governor."

The Wikipedia article says almost exactly the same thing.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ken:

I certainly know you are not making it up, but even dictionaries make mistakes, especially hastily thrown together online ones like the Wiki one..... beware, beware, beware of relying on online resources whose sources you cannot check.

As for the tourist board, well they have good reasons for avoiding the RC connection since it offends some, and has throughout American history.

As for Yoder's chapter on Jesus' politics, I think it has some merit. Jesus was certainly for social change through non-violent means, and by violence I mean no killing etc. of human beings. Jesus' temple tantrum is not an exception to this rule of non-violence and turning the other cheek.

The real problem with Anabaptist exegesis comes with Rom 13 which certainly does not say that God merely 'ordered' or 'arranged' pre-existing governments which are seen as inherently evil human creations. No, the text actually says God sets up governments, which is hardly a surprise since we have numerous Biblical texts saying God sets up and deposes kings and other rulers. In fact Rom. 13 says that no legitimate governmental authority or power (exousia) can even exist except from God.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. If Maryland was named after Henrietta Maria it should have been Marialand, not Maryland, and for sure many RC immigrants to the U.S. who settled in that state did so because it was seen as a haven for them, just as Pennslyvania was a haven for Quakers, New England for Puritans etc.

J said...

You history buffs are killing me... I'm going to the gym. Come talk to me when you push 500 lbs off your chest! =)

J

Alan S. Bandy said...

Although this seems trivial, I am a Maryland native and would like to set the record straight. According to one history textbook, The Making of America, Maryland was established as a haven for Catholics in the New World. Likewise it appears that the name Maryland served a twofold purpose: (1) to honor the Virgin Mary; and (2) to honor the king's wife, Henrietta Marie.

Cecilius Calvert (the second Lord Baltimore) recieved a large tract of land from Charles I, which he planned to give or sell to his Catholic relatives and friends. He set up a recruiting office in London for poor Catholics to become tenant farmers. However, because England had few Catholics at this time, the first 200 colonists (1634) included a number of young protestant men and women.

Interestingly, despite Maryland as a Catholic Haven among the Colonies, the Catholics were still at a disadvantage. "No colony allowed Catholics to vote or hold elective office, and even Maryland did not permit Catholics to worship openly until Baltimore Catholics broke the law and founded a church in 1763." (p.83)

Well insted of setting the record straight, I may have only muddied the water even more. Nevertheless, we can agree that Maryland was named after both Jesus' mother and Charles I's wife.

Ken Abbott said...

Hey, I'm doing what I can with the resources available to me at hand. Here's another citation, and it's not from some "hastily
thrown together" online encyclopedia:

"In 1632, King Charles I granted the Lord Baltimore the territory extending southward from the James River to the Roanoke River and west to the mountains, as the province of Carolina. However, members of the Virginia Company, resentful of this, opposed such a grant. The King, responding to this opposition, substituted the land. This new territory was between the fortieth degree of north latitude and the Potomac River extending west from the Atlantic Ocean to the longitude of the first source of the river, as the province of Maryland. King Charles I, who ruled from 1625 to 1649, was married to Queen Henrietta Marie, for whom Maryland was named."

One can argue until the cows come home about the "appearance" of things. Were the Calverts Roman Catholic? Yes. Did they intend to establish a colony welcoming to Roman Catholics? Yes. Is it a happy coincidence that Henrietta Maria and the BVM have a name in common? Yes. Does any of this prove that the Lords Baltimore fully intended that "Maryland" should be a double entendre? Not in the slightest.

I think it no more of a stretch that "Maryland" comes from Henrietta Maria's name (Maria being the Latinate form of Mary) than "Carolina" comes from Charles, also by way of the Latin.

Now, it is true that the first capital city of the colony, St. Mary's, was named to honor the BVM.

BTW, Mr. Bandy, I'm writing this from Prince Frederick...Maryland.

Steven Ingino said...

Dr. W,
It seems you are using selective evidence. I suggest you read "One Nation Under God" by Dr. David Gibbs, or anything by David Barton.

steve

J said...

Edwards has failed to deal with God's sole eternality, lololol. Have a great weekend bloggers! =D

J

Isaac said...

My favorite source, which I don't believe has been mentioned yet, is "the treaty of peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary."
Unanimously approved by congress and signed by Adams in 1797, article 11 states that our country "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion" and therefore has no inherent emnity toward Islam (Mussulmen). This document can be found at: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llac2&fileName=009/llac009.db&recNum=340

James Petticrew said...

This discussion is interesting given the e-mail sent to all the students at Asbury about the "Christian" heritage of America today. As an international student I was totally alienated by it, the e-mail read like we ignorant people from heathen countries need to learn and appreiciate what a great Christian country we are privileged to be in. I hate all of that we "are God's special people" theology. It got my nation, Scotland, in a real mess through the Solemn League and Covenant and was the theology the British Empire used to impose some very unchristian things and some very overt oppression on other nations. I am glad there is someone on faculty with a differing point of view.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Isaac for that link.

Yes, indeed there is strong evidence that various of these founding fathers were doing their best not to allow America to be founded on strictly or specifically Christian principles, however much we might wish it to have been true. Nor did various of the most influential fathers conceive of America as a 'Christian nation' being birthed, if by Christian you mean orthodox Christian.

Just as sobering as the quote from the document for Tripoli you have listed is reading about the polemics against Catholics by some of these same fathers--- namely Adams and Jefferson. Tolerance of Islam, apparently did not prevent fulminating against Catholics.

It also did not prevent their advocating certain visions of early Christianity which we would deem heretical--- namely they advocated that Trinitarian Christianity and a belief that the Lord's Supper or Holy Eucharist is a means of grace came to us courtesy of the pagan mystery religions of antiquity! By the way this view is still alive and well today.

If you want a read that will keep you up late at night sometime, check out Jonathan Z. Smith's Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity.

There are more quotes from Adams and Jefferson there, enough to give you apoplexy.

Modern hagiography bordering on myth-making about the origins of America and its 'founding Christian principles' does not help us understand why America today has the religiously pluralistic character it has, which in part is based on the 17th-18th century notions about religious tolerance.

That notion of 'tolerance' which was already a buzz word in the 18th century in Wesley's homeland and became a battle cry in America to this very day, was undergirded by a theology of pluralism and even syncretism, which meshed very nicely with the strongly Masonic orientation of some of our founding fathers.

These same notions of pluralism and tolerance and relativism are what guide a good deal of public discourse and thinking today about religion and ethics. These ideas are not a recent invention of 'secular' or 'liberal' thinkers foisted on us in the 20th century.

I would say that several ideas are linked together in this way of thinking-- for example pluralism, relativism (the idea that there is no absolute truth particularly about matters religious), and universalism, an unholy Trinity if there ever was one. When you combine these ideas with the notion of tolerance you can see where a good deal of thinking comes from about religion in modern American political discourse.

To my fellow Evangelical Christians in America I say--- wake up and smell the coffee, and when you do, realize it is 'grounds' for rethinking amalgamating your Christian faith with your wishes and dreams about our country and its origins.

Ben Witherington said...

And now for as little frivolity I pass along this which my dear ole mom sent me to make me smile.


Subject: Do you know your state motto ?


Alabama
Yes, We Have Electricity.

Alaska
11,623 Eskimos Can't Be Wrong!

Arizona
But It's A Dry Heat.

Arkansas
Literacy Ain't Everything.

California
By 30, Our Women Have More Plastic Than Your Honda.

Colorado
If You Don't Ski, Don't Bother.

Connecticut
Like Massachusetts,
Only The Kennedy's Don't Own It Yet.

Delaware
We Really Do Like The Chemicals In Our Water.

Florida
Ask Us About Our Grandkids.

Georgia
We Put The Fun In Fundamentalist.

Hawaii
Haka Tiki Mou Sha'ami Leeki Toru
(Death To Mainland Scum, Leave Your Money)

Idaho
More Than Just Potatoes...
Well, Okay, We're Not, But The Potatoes Sure Are Real Good

Illinois
Please, Don't Pronounce the "S"

Indiana
2 Billion Years Tidal Wave Free

Iowa
We Do Amazing Things With Corn

Kansas
First Of The Rectangle States

Kentucky
Five Million People; Twelve Last Names

Louisiana
We're Not ALL Drunk Cajun Wackos,
But That's Our Tourism Campaign.

Maine
We're Really Cold, But We Have Cheap Lobster

Maryland
If You Can Dream It, We Can Tax It

Massachusetts
Our Taxes Are Lower Than Sweden's

Michigan
First Line Of Defense From The Canadians

Minnesota
10,000 Lakes...And 10,000,000,000,000 Mosquitoes

Mississippi
Come And Feel Better About Your Own State

Missouri
Your Federal Flood Relief Tax Dollars At Work

Montana
Land Of The Big Sky, The Unabomber, Right-wing Crazies,
and Very Little Else.

Nebraska
Ask About Our State Motto Contest

Nevada
Hookers and Poker!

New Hampshire
Go Away And Leave Us Alone

New Jersey
You Want A ##$%##! Motto?
I Got Yer ##$%##! Motto
Right here!

New Mexico
Lizards Make Excellent Pets

New York
You Have The Right To Remain Silent,
You Have The Right
To An Attorney...

North Carolina
Tobacco Is A Vegetable

North Dakota
We Really Are One Of The 50 States!

Ohio
At Least We're Not Michigan

Oklahoma
Like The Play, But No Singing

Oregon
Spotted Owl...It's What's For Dinner

Pennsylvania
Cook With Coal

Rhode Island
We're Not REALLY An Island

South Carolina
Remember The Civil War?
Well, We Didn't Actually Surrender Yet

South Dakota
Closer Than North Dakota

Tennessee
The EdyooKAshun State

Texas
Se Hablo Ingles

Utah
Our Jesus Is Better Than Your Jesus

Vermont
Ay, Yep

Virginia
Who Says Government Stiffs And Slackjaw Yokels Don't Mix?

Washington
We have more rain than you do

West Virginia
One Big Happy Family...Really!

Wisconsin
Come Cut The Cheese!

Wyoming
Where Men Are Men... And The Sheep Are Scared

Ted said...

Just a comment on Jefferson & Adams as "Unitarians"-

TJ was a naturalist unitarian, denying the Biblical miracles, the Trinity and Jesus' Deity, Unique Divine Sonship & Resurrection. His edited New Testament as well as his correspondence demonstrate that.

From what I've read, John & Abigail Adams were supernaturalist unitarians, believing in the Biblical miracles & Jesus' Unique Divine Sonship & Resurrection, but not His Deity or the Trinity. For a while John Quincey debated for orthodox Trinitarianism against them in letters but I think eventually embraced supernaturalist unitarian "Christianity".

Kagehi said...

A couple of minor additions. One - the idea of God as the creator of the universe is contradicted by the OT. Not mind you the edited, Europeanizes versions that tried to shoe horn the OT into European thinking and changed critical bits in the process, but by the original Hebrew version, which in Genesis has God consulting with a "Council" of other Gods, and all of them together deciding to create man in *their* image. Later on he apparently becomes a megalomaniac and tells everyone that he will get really pissed off if they follow any of those *other* gods...

Second minor issue. There is some fairly strong evidence that even if a general concept of religious tolerance was intended in this country, the ammendments designed to prevent a state religion where actually argued for and suggested the most vehemently by the Biblical literalists at the time. In other words, the same people now pissed off that the concept of seperationg is destroying their irrational reality contradicted (if this was not so, then they should start complaining about the abandonment of heliocentrism, which contradicts the literal word of god too, before pissing on evolution) literalist version, are also the people most agressive in getting it into the constitution in the first place, to prevent all those horrible Unitarians from making them irrelevant 200 years ago.

But then, if these people had any concept of the very thing they claim to follow, they wouldn't use moral relativism to simultaniously attack everyone around them, then claim that everyone else attacking them is un-Christian, amoung other similar idiocies, never mind trying to excuse that by calling everyone else a moral relativist instead. I has said it before, and will say it again, the only reason these supposed morally superior evangelists and fundimentalists haven't universally broken every one of the ten commandments yet (instead of just 9 of them) is because no one has come up with an excuse to commit adultery that, as of yet, provides any tangible means to achieve the goal of turning other people into fundimentalists. If someone could convince them that sleeping with a virgin could convert them to evangelism/fundimentalism, half of them would be arrested the next morning for child molestation.

How am I sure of this? Well, lets just say that more than half of the fundimentalist types I have talked to have said that, "If someone proved to me tomorrow that god didn't exist, I would rob a bank, rape a bunch of women, kill a bunch of people I don't like, then commit suicide, since my life would be useless without God." Umm... Why not just skip to the last one and save us all the trouble? And by the way, I plan to get a restraining order and a gun in about five minutes. Guess who *both* of them are being bought to deal with. Shudder!!

ChristianRoadWarrior said...

I think that overall this is a good blog. However, I feel it is not as balanced as it could be. Even if some of the founders were deists, certainly all of them were not.

George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton cannot be accurately classed as deists.

Most of American law comes right out of the Bible, and many of those who helped frame those laws were either Christians or were heavily influenced by the Bible (Samuel Rutherford, John Locke, John Witherspoon, and William Blackstone). Rutherford and Witherspoon were both Presbyterian ministers.

So with a little more balance, I think this blog could have been A+, but as it stands, I'd give it a B.