Thursday, June 7, 2012

"Theistic rationalists"

Seeking historical legitimacy for their contemporary political positions both the extreme "wall of separation" folks and the "Christian America" adherents oversimplify the beliefs and intentions of the Founders of the Republic. A few years ago I posted part of Richard Brookhiser's review of Steven Waldman's Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. After examining what can be discovered about what the Founders believed Waldman concluded:
“the Founding Faith...was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty — a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.”
Now comes another historian who has examined the religious beliefs of the most influential Founders. Gregg Frazer's The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution argues that most of them were neither Christians in any orthodox sense, and not Deists either, but what he calls "theistic rationalists." Justin Taylor interviewed Frazer about his conclusions:
What are the key “narratives” you are seeking to overturn in this book—either about Christian America or Secular America or the Wall of Separation between the two?

My primary claim is that the key founders (those most responsible for the founding documents and putting the new government into effect) were neither Christians nor deists, but “theistic rationalists” (a term of my construction).

I argue that both the Right and the Left are wrong about the founding.

The key founders did not create—or intend to create—a Christian nation.

But they did not create—or intend to create—a strictly secular nation with a “wall of separation” between church and state, either.

They believed that morality was indispensable for a free society and that religion was the best source for morality.

Contrary to the claims of secularists, they did not want to divorce or separate religion from public life; rather, they believed that religion was a necessary support.
[emphasis added]

Contrary to the claims of Christian America advocates, they did not believe that the religion needed for this purpose must be Christianity—and they were not Christians themselves.

The key founders were theistic rationalists.

What exactly is “theistic rationalism?”

“Theistic rationalism” was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element. Adherents believed that these three elements would generally complement one another, but when conflict between them could not be resolved or ignored, reason had to play the decisive role. Because they borrowed from natural religion and Christianity, if one selects statements conveniently and out of context, one can make them appear to be either Christians or deists. That is why both the Christian America camp and the secular camp can find snippets to support their claims.

We hear a lot of sweeping claims about what the “founding fathers” believed. But you’re uncomfortable with that kind of language.

General claims about “the founders” or “the founding fathers” where religious or political beliefs are concerned are not legitimate (with very few exceptions).

The founding fathers were a diverse group of individuals who were not all in agreement on virtually anything. I make claims concerning only the “key founders” (as I call them). The “key founders” are those most responsible for the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin), those most responsible for the Constitution (James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson) and those most influential in putting the new government into effect (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton).

One should be very skeptical about general claims that begin with: “the founding fathers believed . . . ” or “the founding fathers thought . . . . “ There were Christians among the founders and there were deists among the founders and there were theistic rationalists among the founders—no legitimate claim can lump them all together. .... [more]
Frazer's approach was to examine the private behavior and correspondence of his subjects since they would have expressed themselves most straightforwardly in their private behavior. I read Waldman's book and found it very helpful. This one appears to be equally interesting.

America’s Key Founders, Neither Christians nor Deists: An Interview on a Major New Book – Justin Taylor