August 14, 2006

Faiths of Our Fathers

Ben Witherington, a Christian believer and Bible scholar, here summarizes a book by one David L. Holmes that delves into the religious beliefs and practice of the Founding Fathers.

The upshot is that although some important figures were orthodox Christians, the big dogs were not, although they weren't atheists, either:
What emerges from Holmes careful research is that George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all strongly influenced by Deistic thought (Jefferson and Adams in particular objecting to the idea of the Trinity, and in general the concept of divine revelation, preferring instead the idea that nature and reason revealed the character of God). In addition there was the syncretistic influence of Free Masonry with its pan-religious approach (involving a bit of Judaism, a bit of Christianity, a bit of Egyptian religion and more) which seems to have had a marked impact especially on Washington.

Holmes carefully documents how these founding fathers avoided getting confirmed in the 'state' church of Virginia (which was the Episcopal Church, unlike in most of New England where Congregationalism was the state church), and did not take the Lord's Supper in these churches by design. In this way they showed their objection to 'priestcraft' and what they took to be the corruption of the originally pure faith of Jesus which was not Trinitarian and did not involve the worship of Jesus. This did not make these men either secular humanists or 'free thinkers' in the broad sense. Our country was certainly not founded by secular humanists. Not even Thomas Paine deserves that anachronistic label. It was however founded by people whose religious beliefs ranged from non-Christian Deism to more Christian Deism, to, in the case of people like Samuel Adams, John Jay and Patrick Henry, orthodox Christianity.
Witherington goes on to note that there's not much in the Bible, really, about "no taxation without representation," democracy, or the right to rebel against unjust authority. If anything, it's the opposite, and the details of our founding politics come much more from the Enlightenment than from Christianity.
Here are some questions for thought as a result of reading this book: 1) Is there anything in the Bible that suggests that democracy rather than rule by a king or a emperor, or perhaps a theocracy, is most favored by God? I don't think there is. There is of course plenty in the NT about freedom from sin and freedom to serve God, but that can transpire under various sorts of polities. There is also plenty in the Bible in general about justice, and respect of persons, loving neighbor and the like. But again all these practices can exist under varied forms of governments; 2) Is there anything in the Bible that supports modern notions about nation states, particularly about God blessing or especially favoring not ethnic groups (e.g. Jews) or religious groups (those in Christ), but certain nation states? I must admit I can't find it in there. As Paul says, Christians have and are part of a politeuma, a constituting government that is from above. This stands in contradistiction in Paul's mind to things like countries or humanly constructed empires (see Philippians). 3) Is there anything in the Bible that warrants an open rebellion against a legitimate governing authority simply because there was taxation without representation? This is just the opposite of what Romans 13 would seem to suggest. Paul tells Christians in Rome to pay taxes to the tyrant Nero! By comparison to Nero, King George of Hanover looked like good King George. And of course 'representation' in the colonial sense was very different from the plebs and the patricians in Rome during the Empire. 4) If you ask where the founding notions about freedom, democracy, pure reason, common sense, congresses, no taxation without representation, the electing of leaders come from in America, they seem to have as much or more to do with the spirit of the Enlightenment which was the Zeitgeist of that age (read John Locke who so impressed Wesley on certain points), than it has to do with the spirit or tenor or teachings of the Bible. This is of course a hard truth for patriotic, flag waving, freedom loving Americans to swallow, and I am one of them. But it does raise this question. Is it our Biblical absolutes or our cultural principles, however good, which have most shaped and continue to shape our nation and shaped its governing documents in the first place (e.g Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the Bill of Rights)?
An honest and thoughtful post from a believing Christian.

I'm venturing no answers today. I should be working.

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