Saturday, July 26, 2014

WSJ: "Book Review: 'Nature's God' by Matthew Stewart & 'Independence' by Thomas P. Slaughter"

From the Wall Street Journal here. A taste:
It's not clear, in any case, why Mr. Stewart thinks we are in danger of forgetting radical influences on the founders. Those connections were marvelously documented in "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" (1967), Bernard Bailyn's study of Revolutionary-era pamphlets, in which he revealed the influence of England's 18th-century "commonwealth men"—republican reformers in Parliament during the 1720s, especially John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon—on the American Founders. A generation later, Gordon Wood (Mr. Bailyn's student at Harvard) produced "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" (1991), a study of the social and political effects of the Independence.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frazer: "Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order)"

Note: Dr. Gregg Frazer sends over what is reproduced below:

Problems with Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God (not in any particular order):

Thesis: “Spinoza is the principle architect of the radical philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American Republic, and Locke is its acceptable face.  So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.”

My two favorite lines: a) Locke and Spinoza produce a “deeply atheistic proof of a God.”
b) Consciousness “may be found in animals, plants, and even frying pans and thermostats.”

Stewart argues that people falsely identify many with Christianity and that we should not accept their use of that term uncritically. He then enormously expands the meaning of “deism” (without substantiation or support) and expects the reader to accept his use uncritically. Regarding the examples that he does give to try to show this very broad notion of deism, some were instances of opponents calling someone a “deist” as an epithet – i.e. derogatorily; some were simply references to unitarianism, and some merely denials of orthodox Christianity.  Later, he also takes derogatory charges of “atheist” as proof of someone’s atheism.

This leads to another problem: like the prominent “Christian America” advocates, Stewart assumes (without proving) a false dichotomy: that one was either a Christian or a deist (i.e. that those were the only options).  So Christian America advocates find a quote that “proves” that someone disbelieved a deist tenet and proclaim them a “Christian.” Stewart does the same thing in reverse: if someone is not incontrovertably an orthodox Christian, he proclaims them a “deist.” [of course, there was at least one other option: theistic rationalism]

Stewart makes far too much of the content of individual’s libraries.  One need not agree with every book in one’s library.  I have LOTS of books with which I disagree (including Stewart’s) and others that I have not read.  One must have the books of those with which one disagrees in order to deal with them knowledgably.  Stewart assumes that if a particular person had a certain book in his library he must have agreed with it.  The Christian America people do that, too.

He also makes far too much of notes taken on texts.  His assumption is that if someone copied something from a text or took  notes on it, that the individual was, by that action, showing agreement with the text/passage.  The simplest way to demonstrate the falsehood of this notion is to confess that I took LOTS of notes on Stewart’s book – the margins are filled – but I agreed with very little of it.  If someone using Stewart’s methodology were to pick up my copy of his book, they might conclude that I loved it because I took so many notes.

Related to this, Stewart also makes a specific error made by the guru of the Christian America movement – he acts on the assumption that Jefferson’s Notes on Religion reflect Jefferson’s own opinion rather than merely encyclopedic entries of what others believed.  The fact that Jefferson begins a relevant section with “Locke’s system of Christianity is this” and that most of it is nearly verbatim from Locke does not dissuade Stewart or that guru from attributing it to TJ.

In this same vein, Stewart (like his Christian America counterparts) assumes without demonstrating that students agree with all that their teachers believe/teach.  As a college professor, I only wish that were true. J  This saves them from having to show that someone believed what they attribute to them [which they often did not] – they just have to show that their teacher believed it.

Another annoying tactic that Stewart shares with his counterparts on the other side of the argument is regularly suggesting that first drafts and/or initial discussions tell us more of what someone wanted or thought than their final draft!  He does it re the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.  I confess I’ve never understood this logic when used by the Christian America people and I don’t understand it here: what someone REALLY wants or REALLY means is what they rejected/changed?  Hmmmm.

Stewart suggests throughout that the whole American project was an assault on religion -- particularly orthodox Christianity.  Apparently, the political aspects were more or less a byproduct.  Also, his analysis is all about the Revolution; for Stewart, revolutionary thought is definitive for “the American Republic.”  This, of course, ignores the significant changes that came due to experience in the critical years between 1776 and 1787.

Related to that, to accept Stewart’s thesis, one must believe that Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, a twentysomething Ben Franklin who never grew up [America’s Peter Pan], and a partially and conveniently quoted Thomas Jefferson were THE key political/historical figures in the establishment of America.  Others matter only tangentially.

To accept his thesis, one must believe that the Revolutionary/Founding writers did not know who their REAL influences were.  They quoted (as Stewart admits in a footnote) men such as Pufendorf, Grotius, Beccaria, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Vattel and others – but the real driving intellectual forces on them were the ancient Greek Epicurus and the early modern Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. More precisely, it was Epicurus channeled by and improved by Spinoza. Stewart wrote an earlier well-received book on Spinoza and sees the modern world through Spinozist eyes – and says we should, too.  There are a number of hyperbolic statements to this effect.

He gives a very poor, deficient, and one-sided account of Franklin’s prayer proposal at the Constitutional Convention.  It fits his argument the way he selectively and creatively reports it, though.

In order to be able to use his favorite adjective – “Locke-Spinoza” – Stewart terribly abuses John Locke to the point that Locke scholars will not recognize him.  He quotes Locke partially (with his own commentary interspersed to make it look like Locke’s), regularly uses ellipses to change the meaning of Lockean statements, and quotes Locke out of context.  These are also all very familiar tactics for Stewart’s Christian America counterparts.  He takes a square Locke and forces him into a round Spinoza.  He does the same regarding Jefferson – Jefferson is forced to conform with Spinoza whether he will or not.  To be fair, Stewart gives a warning/explanation for his distortion of Locke – he explains that he (basically) subscribes to the Straussian notion of “esoteric” interpretation (while disagreeing with what Strauss does with it).  In other words, as Stewart takes it, Locke did not know what he meant or was too cowardly to say what he meant, so Stewart must channel the real Locke and explain what he meant to say or would have said if he had the nerve.  This, presumably, makes it fine to ignore parts of sentences that are inconvenient and places in which Locke’s words are diametrically opposed to what Stewart wants from him.  Often, what Stewart leaves out of a passage or where he cuts it off is more telling than what he quotes.

The same is true with Jefferson, although Stewart actually quotes passages from Jefferson which contradict Stewart’s take and he just moves on.  One of those cases is absolutely critical for Stewart’s whole thesis.  He argues that the first sentence of the Declaration is the key to the whole American enterprise and that they key to that sentence is the idea that God and Nature are synonymous (not related – synonymous).  He says that Jefferson held this view (pretty important since he wrote the sentence) – but quotes from Jefferson on pages 189, 190, and 194 clearly show Jefferson saying the contrary!  Undeterred, Stewart proceeds as if his take is confirmed.

Also re Jefferson: Stewart takes very seriously Jefferson’s statement: “I am an Epicurean” – not so much Jefferson’s statement: “I am a Christian” or his statement: “I am a sect unto myself.”

As noted briefly above, Stewart – like many who desperately want Franklin to be a deist – keeps Franklin at 19 years of age or in his twenties.  Stewart’s Franklin apparently died at 28.  He quotes Franklin’s famous/infamous confession that he became a deist (at age 19), but somehow (like others) misses Franklin’s statement two pages later that he grew out of it.  Stewart is also apparently unaware of Franklin’s essay On the Providence of God in the Government of the World in which he explicitly rejects deism as irrational (at the ripe old age of 24).  Stewart also cites Franklin’s Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity to show Franklin’s agreement with Stewart’s thesis, but Franklin wrote that at age 19 and years later considered it an embarrassment – he burned as many copies as he could find. Stewart says “he never gave reason to think that he [Peter Pan Franklin] ever departed from the convictions acquired as [a] youthful bibliophile” [meaning his twentysomething position].

The book vastly overemphasizes Hobbes’s influence in America.

Stewart seriously mangles the meaning/interpretation of several biblical passages.  At one point, he admits concerning a passage written by the apostle Paul: “the ultimate implications of this intuition about God are dramatically different from anything Paul seems to have contemplated.” Then that should call into serious question your implications/interpretation!

Stewart has his own idiosyncratic notion of the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment.  By his account, it does not – and was not designed to – guarantee religious freedom.

He constantly uses unqualified, universal terms such as “the founders of the American Republic” and “America’s founders” when ascribing ideas – as if they were all of the same mind.  I doubt that  he’s ever heard of Roger Sherman.

His constant condescending, arrogant, and rather snarky jabs at anyone foolish enough to be religious or to believe in God is equal parts annoying and inappropriate in an academic work.  The last chapter is devoted to making fun of religion and those who are superstitious or gullible enough to believe in something beyond Nature.  “Alert” readers or persons are those who share his views.  Conventional religion relies on “make-believe” and “self-deception,” but his preferred philosophers produce “knowledge.”  Philosophical assumption and/or “doctrine” is fact/”truths.”  Those who refuse to bow to the “obvious” superiority of atheism, simply show “the tenacity of their ignorance” and promote “hallucinations of divine agency.”

He argues that deism was not limited to the elite (pg. 37), then proceeds to talk throughout about the difference betweent the views of the elite and those of the common people who were conventionally religious (e.g. pgs. 32, 35, 68, 73, 122, 274, 404-05).

He argues without substantiation re the Great Awakening: “the revival, while pretending to unite the nation, in reality unified it only in the belief that there are aliens in our midst.” 

He criticizes “enthusiasts” for making personal, sensory judgments, but approves of so-called “deists” making them – ostensibly because he approves of the judgments.

Like certain groups today, he attempts to stifle alternate views and studies with which he would disagree: “The new Christian nationalists [which, in his example, includes Mark David Hall, Daniel Dreisbach, et al and yours truly] represent a powerful force within American history, but their success consists chiefly in creating the illusion of a debate where in substance there is none.  … scholars tout their ‘even-handedness’ by giving equal credence to every ‘narrative’ of the history, however fatuous.  A version of this false equivalence can be found in [Hall, Dreisbach, & Morrison’s] The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life.”  Those who do not know should be aware that there are no chapters from the “Christian America”/David Barton extreme in this book – they are all written by established scholars in the field from places such as Stanford, George Mason, American University, James Madison Univ., Notre Dame, Univ. of Texas, etc.  But because they do not subscribe to Stewart’s “everyone was an atheist deist” view, their views are “fatuous” and unworthy of inclusion in discussion!

Stewart may have included his own marching orders on page 333: “Like revolutionaries throughout history, Young and his gang understood that in order to change the future it is necessary first to change the past.”  That appears to be Stewart’s real project.

NPR: "Founders Claimed A Subversive Right To 'Nature's God'"

Check it out here.  A taste:
RATH: So can you tell us - back in 1776, what did nature's God refer to? 
STEWART: So nature's God is one - a deity that operates entirely through laws - natural laws - that are explicable. And we have to approach this god through the study of nature and also evidence and experience. So it's a dramatically different kind of deity from that you find in most revealed religions. 
RATH: Not the God of Moses who literally gave the law, you know, from on high - revealed in that way. 
STEWART: No, that's right. And it also turns out to have a very different genealogy, if I may say so. Nature's God really descends from an ancient Greek tradition that was passed along to the early modern philosophers. And these were quite radical thinkers who were really challenging the ways of thinking of their time and the established religion. Many of them ran into trouble, but it was from them that America's revolutionary philosophers picked up their ideas and, in particular, the idea of nature's God.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Boston Globe: "‘Nature’s God’ by Matthew Stewart"

Here. A taste: 
The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’  
The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rothbard: "Coercing Morality in Puritan Massachusetts"

By Murray Rothbard here (and newly reproduced here). The whole thing is worth a read. I'm going to reproduce below an interesting quotation discussed in the article from Puritan theologian Rev. Nathaniel Ward’s "The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America" (1647).
God does nowhere in His word tolerate Christian States to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them … He that willingly assents to toleration of varieties of religion … his conscience will tell him he is either an atheist or a heretic or a hypocrite, or at best captive to some lust. Poly-piety is the greatest impiety in the world.… To authorize an untruth by a toleration of State is to build a sconce against the walls of heaven, to batter God out of His chair.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lillback v. Boston on Washington's Faith

Peter Lillback takes on Rob Boston on George Washington's faith.

I don't know a whole lot about this dialog, but I wonder if Lillback's paper, which is reproduced on Wallbuilders, was an exclusive to that site. Perhaps merely associating with David Barton's Wallbuilders is enough to damage one's credibility ... or not. (Just a thought.)

Ultimately, I agree with Lillback that the record demonstrates Washington a man of prayer. According to the theory, 1. Washington was a theist; 2. Since the God of theism intervenes in the affairs of man; 3. Praying is a rational activity.

The record does not prove, however, that Washington was a "Christian" according to Lillback's standards. Indeed, as American Creation's Brad Hart has shown, according to Lillback's own evidence, Washington never prays, either publicly or privately, in exclusively Christian language (i.e., in "Jesus' name").

The best Lillback can offer is Washington, unlike fellow Anglican Thomas Jefferson, agreed to be a Godfather where he'd have to go through high church Anglican rituals that required the Godfather to recite orthodox language. (But elsewhere Lillback claims Washington rejected high church Anglicanism, which is the same thing as stating you reject official Anglican doctrine while simultaneously remaining a member of the club.)

Jefferson was obsessively compulsively anti-Trinitarian; Washington didn't appear to be. In what exists of Washington's extant words -- tens of thousands of pages of them, loaded with God talk -- explicit thoughts on the doctrine of the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrine, are entirely absent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Volokh: "'In a country professing Christianity, … I find my religion and myself attacked'"

Eugene Volokh reproduces a firsthand account from early American artist John Trumbull in 1793 where one of Jefferson's invited guests -- a senator from Virginia, and therefore one of the hundreds of unknown "Founders" -- articulated something very close to strict deism (indeed, something way stricter than what Jefferson himself apparently believed) or perhaps atheism.

From 1793:
Thinking this a fair opportunity for evading further conversation on this subject, I turned to Mr. Jefferson and said, “Sir, this is a strange situation in which I find myself; in a country professing Christianity, and at a table with Christians, as I supposed, I find my religion and myself attacked with severe and almost irresistible wit and raillery, and not a person to aid me in my defense, but my friend Mr. Franks, who is himself a Jew.” For a moment, this attempt to parry the discussion appeared to have some effect; but Giles soon returned to the attack, with renewed virulence, and burst out with — “It is all a miserable delusion and priestcraft; I do not believe one word of all they say about a future state of existence, and retribution for actions done here. I do not believe one word of a Supreme Being who takes cognizance of the paltry affairs of this world, and to whom we are responsible for what we do.”