Review of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (1)

In the next few weeks or months, I plan to review the book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution, chapter-by-chapter.[1] It is written by Gregg Frazer, a Master’s College professor of history and political science. The book has caused a stir among those who have an interest in the United States being a “Christian nation” and those on the other side who claim that it is a “secular nation.” His central thesis is that most of the Founders were religious yet unorthodox. The dominant view among the Founders was what he calls “theistic rationalism.”

In the introduction, he provides a brief discussion on the current state of the debate. The secular view is dominant in major universities while the “Christian nation” view is largely found in sectarian colleges (such as Patrick Henry College). Some have taken a more “balanced” view, notably Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Michael Zuckert. Frazer states that a detailed and adequate analysis of the religious orthodoxy of the Founders has not been done.

Frazer next briefly discusses the anti-puritanism of the Founders. He writes,

Most obvious was the revolt against Calvinism, which was abandoned by many at the time of the Revolution because it was viewed as inconsistent with the Revolutionary emphasis on liberty. Each of the so-called five points of Calvinism offended liberal democratic sensibilities. Eventually, many deemed the tenets of Calvinism to be irrational, making those who had rejected them feel further justified. (6)

Frazer then quotes Cushing Strout: “Tocqueville’s emphasis on the Puritan roots of the Revolution does less than justice to the rationalist anti-Calvinists who led it” (6).

Indeed, it was Arminianism that was most identified with “toleration, free inquiry, the use of reason, [and] democratic methods in church and state.” In my own study, I’ve noticed that the shift from Calvin’s more conservative understanding of social and political inequality, gave way in England to an emphasis on equality and social contract, leading ultimately to John Locke and Algernon Sidney. The shift, to my mind, concerns the relationship of reason and revelation. Calvin, in his Institutes, argues that revelation, far from being opposed to reason, is a further accommodation to man’s fallenness. In other words, revelation is, in a sense, right reason. Revelation serves as spectacles to show what ought to have been in the world through reason alone. In this sense, revelation is not to be privatized in a secularized state. It is not to be relegated to personal, individual opinion. Revelation gives us principles for a pubic (or political) theology. When Locke relegates revelation to the private sphere, he separates reason and revelation in ways that Arminians could celebrate. And since Locke profoundly influenced the Founders, they adopted a more Arminian approach to reason and revelation. In the next few weeks, I will (Lord willing) post a series on Calvin and Winthrop in an attempt to show how Calvin and early Calvinism was politically conservative by medieval standards, not radical or the foundation for modern politics.

Frazer argues that the conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries set the stage for the 18th century conversation wherein, quoting, Basil Willey, “a desire arose…to formulate a creed which should be acceptable to all good and reasonable men” (8). The result was theistic rationalism, and it was, according to Conrad Wright, “so widely accepted, across denominational lines, that one might justly call it the great ecumenical theology of its age.” It was “all-pervasive” and the “orthodox theology of the Age of Reason.” It was not deism, as is often argued. The result was a middle ground between revealed religion and reason alone. What these men wanted was something more reasonable that lacked the questionable (and often foundational) elements of traditional Protestantism. They sought to make religion rational “while preserving a set of core convictions grounded on reason rather than on revelation or Scripture.” He quotes Robert Kraynak, who writes,

What all of these movements have in common is the belief that religion can be preserved in the modern age of Enlightenment only by rationalizing and simplifying it to include the belief in a rational morality of universal benevolence that requires religious toleration, human freedom, and scientific progress. Nearly all other doctrines of traditional Judaism and Christianity…were to be discarded as irrational relics of a less enlightened age which modern people, especially educated people have outgrown.

Frazer quotes Sydney Ahlstrom who called this “a distinct form of Enlightenment theology.” This “natural religion” flourished among the intellectuals in the 18th century against the traditional “revealed religion.” The Founders, then, were neither truly Protestant (let alone Puritan), nor truly deistic. Their thought was a combination of their Puritan heritage, middle-class democracy, and various Enlightenment influences. When combined, basic orthodoxy was abandoned.

There have been various names given to this view: “theological rationalism,” “Christian rationalism,” enlightened Christianity,” supernatural rationalism,” and others. Frazer, as stated above, prefers the terms “theistic rationalism.” He considers it improper to label this view “Christian” because the belief system is, well, not Christian in any orthodox sense. His reasoning will not convince many outside of orthodox Christianity, for his rejection of this label requires, for instance, that all unorthodox “Christian” theologians be labeled “theistic” theologians . Theologian Paul Tillich or maybe even Walter Brueggemann comes to mind here. I’m not particularly interested in the label debate and likely will not question it throughout my reviews.

Frazer next begins discussing his understanding of the theistic rationalism. Theistic rationalism is a hybrid of rationalism and natural religion, the “essence” of which is rationalism. To my mind, this emphasis on pure reason and “natural” religion already violates certain Calvinist positions on natural theology and reason apart from revelation. It is more Arminian or, perhaps better identified as, Unitarian than Calvinist. Reason was the dominant feature of theistic rationalism and the “adherents were willing to define God in whatever way their reason indicated and to jettison Christian beliefs that did not conform to reason” (14). Only the elites, according to Frazer, held these views, so it was uncommon at the time of the Founding.

Though the theistic rationalist employment of reason seems to return to medieval Thomism, there is a fundamental difference. Thomas did not employ reason to destroy revelation but to support it. As Aquinas said, reason is to “reconcile experience with revealed truth.” Reason that contradicted revelation was faulty reason. Not so for the theistic rationalists.

Frazer proceeds with a discussion on deism. Deism rejects the “fundamentals of Christianity…the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, original sin, miracles, the atonement, the Resurrection, eternal damnation, and the Christian notion of faith.” Still, most deists continued to believe that this God should be worshiped and that he (it?) will dispense rewards and punishments in the end (16-17). Frazer argues that theistic rationalism was a “mean” between (orthodox) Christianity and deism. Its adherents denied the deity of Christ and held that God primarily revealed himself through nature. Thus, while they thought that reason and revelation generally agreed, revelation was reason’s supplement, not the other way around.

Concerning the divide between the elites and the masses, Frazer writes,

Theistic rationalism was a belief system for the educated elite. It held little appeal for the average American congregant but was a natural system for an individual raised in Protestantism and educated in Enlightenment rationalism. That was particularly true for ministers who, as will be demonstrated in this study, were trained in Enlightenment thought under the auspices of the seminary. (20)

He also noted that George Whitefield, one of the most popular and effective preachers of the Great Awakening, was hated by the elites of New England. Benjamin Franklin, who befriended him and appreciated his oratory skill, noted that Whitefield was “especially disliked by the educated and refined.” Whitefield appealed, in the words a contemporary Jonathan Mayhew, to the “illiterate sort.”

Frazer concludes with the following:

Theistic rationalism was an elite understanding of the eighteenth century, shared by the key Founders and by many preachers. A gentle, hopeful, and nondenominational belief system that borrowed from Christianity and from deism, it never became the property of the masses. But is equipped elites to describe the projects of the Revolution and the Founding in terms that did not offend popular religion. If it never conquered the evangelical spirit of popular Christianity nor wholly displaced orthodox and traditional religion, it nevertheless was enormously influential in reshaping religious understandings in a way that made them welcoming to revolution, republicanism, and rights. If America can be both religion and republican today, it is partly because the Founders, in their day, were theistic rationalists.

This last statement is quite controversial. The development of republicanism and early liberalism has contributors such as Theodore Beza (resistance theory), John Knox (natural reason), Johannes Althusius (consociation), Samuel Rutherford (Lex Rex), and Philippe de Mornay (Vindiciae, Contra Tryannos). It is not obvious that orthodox Christianity and republicanism are incompatible. Hobbes, Locke and, perhaps, Sidney might have been unorthodox, but Rutherford and Mornay certainly were orthodox.

Glenn Moots recently wrote,

It is cases such as Rutherford and Mornay that should force scholars to reexamine their assertions about a discontinuity between political theology and political philosophies calling on nature, natural law, or rights derived from an original position. Prominent Reformed political theologians were not only prepared to call both arguments from nature and secular sources. They may have had some hand in informing the “Enlightenment” tradition that supposedly grew up entirely ex nihilo in the very countries where Reformed political theology dominated political thinking.[2]

 Besides this criticism, I look forward to my reading and reviewing of this book by Dr. Gregg Frazer.

____________________________

[1] Gregg Frazer The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2012.

[2] Glenn Moot Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2010, 129.

 

16 thoughts on “Review of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (1)

  1. Wow. This post is really enlightening (pun not really intended). I’m aware of the debate between the “America was founded on a Judeo-Christianity” and “America was founded on secular principles” and didn’t know anything at all about “theological rationalism.”

    With regards to the term “orthodox” can you please elaborate, Mr. Wolfe? An “orthodox” Protestant is different from an “orthodox” Catholic who is different from an “orthodox” Greek Orthodox who is different from an “orthodox” Lutheran.

    Were any of the Founding Fathers confessional subscribers to the Westminster Confession or the London Baptist Confession of 1689?

    Thanks again for this upcoming project.

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    1. Hi truthunites,

      If it worked, the image above shows what Frazer considers to be Christian orthodoxy.

      Though I haven’t read the whole book, I’m pretty sure that he considers only two of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence to be orthodox. One is John Witherspoon. The other, we’ll find out. Witherspoon held to the Westminster Confession.

      I have two concerns as I go forward with my reviewing:
      1) His argument might hang too much on his definition of orthodoxy.
      2) His suggestion that Protestant orthodoxy (particularly Calvinism) is incompatible with “revolution, republicanism, and rights” is problematic, as I stated in the review. I’m interested it where he takes that idea.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Stephen

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      1. Hi Stephen,

        Thanks for sharing your review so far. I couldn’t help but notice your two concerns as they were the same concerns that I had in my review. After reading the book and discussing it with Gregg himself, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that both concerns had been confirmed.

        I ended up writing a ebook in response to Gregg’s definition of Christianity. In that book, I demonstrate how Gregg’s definitions are so poorly constructed that even he himself could be identified as a Theistic Rationalist and not a Christian. For example, Gregg claims that anyone who relies on human reason to determine what is and is not part of the Bible must be a Theistic Rationalist and not a Christian, yet he himself relies on human reason to determine which ending of Mark is correct, and all Christians rely on the reasoning expressed by Augustine to determine which reading of the genealogies in the Old Testament is correct. Thus, Gregg and every other Christian as well, must be a Theistic Rationalist. You can get this ebook for .99 on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BGSM1UC

        I regards to the second concern, I had previously written “We the People,” an ebook detailing the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the Bible and demonstrating that this doctrine had been preached by Christian theologians throughout the entire Christian era. In that book, I’ve documented references to popular sovereignty, popular election and the right of resistance from the early church fathers, Augustine and Aquinas. This ebook is available for free on my website at: http://www.increasinglearning.com/we-the-people.html

        I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your reviews, and I would be honored to have you review my responses as well.

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        1. Hello Mr. Fortenberry,

          Thank you for your comment. So far I think that Frazer is correct about the content of basic Christian orthodoxy. If someone denies original sin or the deity of Christ, then someone is pretty clearly unorthodox. And this could be viewed from a simple historical perspective, not a dogmatic one. There is a basic orthodoxy in Christian history, and the Reformation, continuing this tradition, was fairly conservative in many ways, including in theology. Historian Richard Muller writes,

          The Reformation, in spite of its substantial contribution to the history of doctrine and the shock it delivered to theology and the church in the sixteenth century, was not an attack upon the whole of medieval theology or upon Christian tradition. The Reformation assaulted a limited spectrum of doctrinal and practical abuses with the intention of reaffirming the church catholic. Thus, the mainstream Reformers reconstructed the doctrines of justification and the sacraments and then modified their ideas of the ordo salutis and of the church accordingly; but they did not alter the doctrines of God, creation, providence, and Christ, and they maintained the Augustinian tradition concerning predestination, human nature and sin. The reform of individual doctrines, like justification and the sacraments, occurred within the bounds of a traditional, orthodox, and catholic system which, on the grand scale, remained substantively unaltered.

          Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, 97.

          My point is that there is an historical orthodoxy codified in the various creeds of Christianity that continued through the Reformation. We can talk of Reformed orthodoxy, but there is (one could say) a codified general orthodoxy. So it is fair for Frazer to talk of Christian orthodoxy in the way he has in the book (though I haven’t read the whole book). There is, in purely historical terms, a general orthodoxy in Christian history.

          As for his view of reason and determining what is part of the Bible, his view is not clear to me. There is a difference, to my mind, between using reason alone to determine the biblical canon and using reason alone to determine the content of each book of the canon. The former involves a unique type of reception (“the sheep hear my voice”) and the latter is a matter of textual variants. The former is what the church universal receives and the latter is what the church clarifies. But is this a matter of orthodoxy? I suppose that if one were to use reason (or ‘neutral’ evidence) alone to determine the canon and came up with the orthodox table of contents, then that person would be orthodox (and unorthodox if the resulting canon is unorthodox). But calling the method itself unorthodox doesn’t seem correct to me. I’d have to receive more information on Frazer’s view to understand what he means.

          To clarify my first concern, what I meant was that he might incorrectly dismiss the idea that the US is/was a Christian nation simply because most of the Founders were unorthodox. I don’t think that follows. As he says, the Founders had a minority view at the time; and, though he does not mention it, the theory of rights, revolution and republicanism were developed by (Reformed) orthodox thinkers. His index does not list Rutherford or Mornay. So even if the Founders were unorthodox, much of their political thought was espoused and developed by the orthodox. So it doesn’t seem to follow that the United States is/was not a Christian nation because its founders were unorthodox. Locke’s view of toleration, which I do not think is part of the Calvinist tradition, was not adopted until decades later at the state convention debates, and even then it was a limited toleration.

          I’ll take a look at your work. Thanks again for commenting. I look forward to future interactions.

          Stephen

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        2. “In that book, I demonstrate how Gregg’s definitions are so poorly constructed that even he himself could be identified as a Theistic Rationalist and not a Christian.”

          Obviously, a very damning statement. In other words, you are showing that Gregg’s thesis is self-refuting and undermines itself.

          In another sense it is hilarious. At least to me. ;-)

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          1. Not exactly. I don’t think that Gregg’s thesis is self-refuting. There is nothing about his concept of theistic rationalism that contradicts itself. It is simply so broad of a category that it includes all Christians and even Gregg himself. His error in this point is not so much in claiming that certain people are theistic rationalists as it is his belief that those people cannot be Christians.
            Of course, I think that Gregg is wrong on several other points as well, and I’ve written about some of them on my website at:

            http://www.increasinglearning.com/apps/search?q=frazer

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            1. Okay.

              But distinctions and definitions do matter, and when you construct a definition so poorly that you yourself wind up in the same category that you don’t want to be a part of, then that seems to be self-refuting. Unless of course, Gregg considers himself a “theistic rationalist” and not a Christian. Then in that case he’s being entirely consistent.

              Does Gregg consider himself a “theistic rationalist”?

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            2. A. “In that book, I demonstrate how Gregg’s definitions are so poorly constructed that even he himself could be identified as a Theistic Rationalist and not a Christian.”

              B. “No. He does not consider himself to be a theistic rationalist.”

              Hi Bill, two things come to mind when looking at A and B above. First, either you don’t understand his definition of “theistic rationalism” and are therefore mistaken, OR he doesn’t understand his own definition and how he actually falls into being a theistic rationalist.

              Second, if you’re “A” statement above is correct, then a large body of his work is largely unhelpful.

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            3. Mr. Fortenberry,

              I now remember what I meant to ask you (and Mr. Wolfe) earlier regarding Gregg’s definitions of “orthodoxy” and “theistic rationalism” and “theistic rationalist”:

              Are there Founding Fathers whom Gregg (mis)identified as theistic rationalists whom you believe are more accurately identified as orthodox Christians?

              If so, how many? Enough that it negates both the secularists and Gregg’s claims?

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            4. Gregg’s definition of theistic rationalism is too broad to say that he misapplied that label to anyone. However, Gregg was definitely in error when he claimed that certain founders were not Christians.

              According to Gregg, no one can be a Christian if he does not perfectly adhere to all ten of the doctrines listed in the photo above. In my book, I demonstrated that both Scripture and most of the denominations in Gregg’s affirm a very different measure of who is and who is not a Christian. According to those denominations and Scriptlf, one is a Christian if he believes the Gospel which Paul presented in I Cor. 15. The only denomination that agrees with Gregg’s definition of a Christian is the Catholic denomination.

              Using this definition of a Christian, I can affirm that nearly all of those that Gregg claimed were not Christians actually were.

              The most surprising of these would be Benjamin Franklin. I am currently writing a book on Franklin’s faith, and I can say with absolute certainty that Franklin was a Christian. At the age of 29, Franklin made this statement:

              “Christ by his Death and Sufferings has purchas’d for us those easy Terms and Conditions of our Acceptance with God, propos’d in the Gospel, to wit, Faith and Repentance.”

              Now, Gregg should be aware of this statement since he quoted other statements made in the same document, but you will not find any reference to this statement in Gregg’s book, nor will you find reference to any of the ten or twelve times that Franklin expressed belief in Christ as his Savior. In fact, Gregg actually claims in his seminars that Franklin never even referred to Jesus as the Christ but only as just Jesus or as Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve confronted Gregg on this subject, but he refuses to change his position in spite of the evidence.

              You can read about some of my discussions with Gregg through the link I provided a comment or two before this one.

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  2. The rationalists were just living off of the borrowed capital of Reformation orthodoxy; ” You (rationalists) have taken grapes from God’s vineyard without paying Him any rent and younhave insulted His representatives who asked you for it.” – C Van Til, “Why I Believe in God”

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  3. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for a very interesting review. I am looking forward to more.

    Earlier this year (or maybe last) I read a couple of books dealing with this subject – one by David Holmes and the other by John Eidsmoe. Based on these, it’s hard to square Frazer’s claim that Calvinism was being abandoned at the time of the revolution. Holmes notes that the Calvinist insistence on an educated laity to govern the churches was the impetus for the establishment of two thirds of the new nation’s universities. By the time of the signing of the Declaration that number grew to 70% and reached its apex of 77% by the time the Constitution was ratified. He goes on to note that, “Church historians have estimated that over 80 percent of American Christians in the colonial period….were significantly influenced by John Calvin’s teachings.” (David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, kindle location 225) If that is true – and I believe it to be – there is some reconciliation needed between that and Dr. Frazer.

    John Eidsmoe begins his work by citing an eminent German historian who claimed “John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.” (John Eidsmoe: Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers; location 68)

    And, based on these two works and your introduction of Frazer’s work, I suspect that he places too much emphasis on “rational theism”. Eidsmoe notes that deists were not allowed to hold office in many of the states themselves so its not clear how they could have been delegates to the federal convention. He further chronicles how deism died the death of any fad.

    Lastly, on this point, one of the two made what I think is a noteworthy observation about Deism and rationalism. And that is it was essentially and upper class male phenomenon. What that means is that while the men were dabbling in Deism, their wives and children were still being taught at the neighborhood church and reading their catechisms; hence Deism’s speedy demise.

    Thank you for your choice of topic and work on this review. I am very interested to see how you progress.

    Blessings,

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    1. Hi Paul,

      I apologize for the late reply. I just finished up this semester.

      I agree with you that Dr. Frazer fails to appreciate both the extent of the orthodox Calvinism during the time of the founding and the influence of Calvinism on the thought of the Founders. For the former, Frazer himself says that the religion of the average American at the time was orthodox Protestantism. As for the latter, in John Adams’ A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the USA, Adams cites not only Locke and Sidney but also Ponet, Milton, and the Vindicae, Contra Tyrannos as sources of the American liberty and constitution. Regardless of the “theistic rationalism” of the Founders, much of their political thought came from Reformed Protestants. This fact is rarely mentioned by scholars today.

      I do not think that calling Calvin the virtual founder of America is very precise. It might be better to say that Calvinism is the virtual founder of America. There was plenty of development after Calvin.

      Also, I suspect that Frazer is correct about the heterodoxy of most of the Founders. He is careful not to call them deists. They did believe in a personal God that could do things in the world. But they wanted to rationalize religion; and they thought that they could rationalize it without becoming deists. Still, they rejected many key doctrines. So I think that he is right about that.

      Thanks for commenting. Hopefully, I will get another review out next week.

      Stephen

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