Tag Archives: David Barton

ERIC METAXAS ON CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION

It is understandable for American Christians to be curious about Christianity’s influence on the founding of the United States and its framework of government, but all kinds of historical snares await us when we explore the question.  Even with the best of intentions, we will be tempted, subconsciously at least, to distort what we see in order to find what we are looking for.  Like human beings generally, we naturally want to harmonize the various facets of our identity, in this case, to think of our loyalty to Christ as reconcilable with the other attachments that are important to us.  For many American Christians, to be specific, this has translated into the insistence that the United States be viewed as a Christian nation built on Christian principles embodied in fundamentally Christian founding documents.

When it comes to the Constitution, a common strategy has been to insist that the overwhelming preponderance of the Framers were Bible-believing Christians and that they actively sought divine guidance as they deliberated about the form that the new government should take.  With this end in mind, numerous well-meaning Christian writers have been quick to re-tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s plea for prayer in the midst of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787.

MetaxasIn his just-released book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas becomes the latest in a long line of amateur Christian historians unable to resist its allure.  In a chapter titled “The Almost Chosen People,” Metaxas makes the story the centerpiece of his argument that the United States has a unique, divinely ordained mission to the world.  The anecdote, Metaxas tells us, reflects the belief among “many of our founders . . . that they were being guided by an unseen hand” and that their success at Philadelphia was nothing less than a divine miracle.

If you don’t know the story, here is the gist of it:

It was the summer of 1787, and 55 men had gathered behind closed doors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to try to create a new framework of government that might deliver the infant United States from a morass of difficulties: governmental impotence, contemptible military weakness, commercial anarchy, and financial disarray.  Their quest “to form a more perfect union” was in jeopardy, however, as the clashing interests of northern and southern states and of large and small states were repeatedly thwarting efforts at compromise.

On June 28th, according to the detailed notes of the convention kept by Virginia delegate James Madison, Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin rose late in the afternoon to address the contentious gathering.  The 81-year-old scientist, statesman, writer, printer, inventor, and businessman acknowledged that the convention had reached an impasse, “groping as it were in the dark to find political truth.”

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

Benjamin Franklin circa 1778

“How has it happened,” Franklin asked, “that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? . . . I have lived a long time,” the convention’s oldest delegate shared, “and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can fall without his aid?”  Franklin went on to make a motion that, from that point forward, each day’s proceedings begin with prayer led by some local clergyman.

Let me interrupt the story a moment for a comment: There is incontrovertible evidence that this happened.  It is not the invention of Tim LaHaye or Gary LeMar or David Barton or any other “Christian America” propagandist.  We not only have Madison’s meticulous notes to corroborate it, but also evidence from Franklin himself.  The aged patriot spoke rarely during the convention’s four long months, and knowing that he wanted to address the assembly on June 28th, he apparently wrote out the substance of what he wanted to say in advance, and the text, in Franklin’s own hand, survives to this day.  This was an extraordinary moment that is also extraordinarily well documented.

But the story didn’t end with Franklin’s brief speech, and this is where we start getting into trouble.  In the mid-1820s—nearly four decades later—a legend began to form that Franklin’s proposal was met with near universal approval.  Soon Americans were reading that, with but one dissenting vote, the delegates immediately embraced Franklin’s proposal and voted to take a three-day recess.  For seventy-two hours they devoted themselves to prayer and fasting, and when they returned to their labors they discovered that all wrangling had ceased.  Thanks to a new spirit of compromise and selflessness, the logjam was broken and the delegates readily crafted the remarkable document that forms the foundation of our political system to this day.

Historians who have meticulously traced the origins of this part of the story attribute it to a man named William Steele, who in 1825 claimed in a newspaper article that he had heard the story ten years earlier in conversation with one of the lesser-known delegates to the convention, a politician from New Jersey named Jonathan Drayton.  In other words, the story comes indirectly from a supposed eyewitness who waited nearly three decades to relate his experience to someone who waited another decade to write down what he was told.

By the time Steele got around to circulating the story, Drayton had died, along with almost all of the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention–but not James Madison.  When approached by a Methodist minister who was writing a history of the convention, Madison categorically denied that the delegates had adopted Franklin’s recommendation.  Madison’s notes of the convention (not published until after his death), make clear that the proposal was rejected.  After several delegates raised objections on a variety of grounds (they didn’t want to appear desperate, they lacked the funds to pay a clergyman), the convention tabled the measure and adjourned for the day.  On the 29th they didn’t pray and fast but resumed their deliberations as usual.  They never subsequently hired a chaplain.  They never subsequently began any of their proceedings with prayer.  And Franklin, who had written out his recommendation in advance, tersely acknowledged the defeat of his proposal on the manuscript before setting it aside.  At the bottom of the document, you can still read Franklin’s summary: “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”

You wouldn’t know this from reading If You Can Keep It, however.  Metaxas reprints Franklin’s speech in its entirety, and then without sharing anything about the delegates’ actual response, he breezily notes that, “As we know, in the end all impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found.”  (What is the reader supposed to infer except that Franklin’s proposal was both adopted and decisive?)  Citing no evidence, he then adds that “there was what all felt to be a truly remarkable—almost odd—willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole.”

What are we to make of this?  Regarding If You Can Keep It specifically, it’s hard to say.  If Eric Metaxas knows the whole story, then his truncated retelling of it must go down as intentionally deceptive, and I don’t want to think that is true.  Alternatively, he may have no idea of what actually happened and is simply relying on secondary works by other amateur historians who tell the story in the same misleading way.  (He offers neither footnotes nor a bibliography, so it is almost impossible to say.)

If the latter is true–that is, if he’s simply repeatedly a good story that he has come across without verifying it–then Metaxas is simply guilty of an offense that we’re all prone to.  The most common temptation that we face when investigating America’s Christian past is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility–the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true.

All too often, popular Christian writers exploring the role of faith in the American founding write as if only secularists are susceptible to bias.  Authors like Tim LaHaye, Gary DeMar, and above all, David Barton (who reprinted the Drayton/Steele account as fact in his book The Myth of Separation) present themselves as uniquely zealous in the search for truth.  (To his credit, Metaxas does not do this.)   Perhaps the most important moral of the story is that Christians can be “revisionist historians” just like secularists can.

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(To see my fuller review of If You Can Keep It, click here.  To read my analysis of the book’s faulty use of the metaphor of a “City on a Hill,” click here.)

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and, given the impending Fourth of July holiday, I’ve been re-posting some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian is both important and controversial.  The essay below is an extended review of one of the most careful and persuasive responses to that question, Gregg L. Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders.]

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A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

For Christians interested in American history, probably no question looms larger than this one: Were the men who brought our nation into existence authentically Christian?

This is not inevitable. There are a host of other questions that we could imagine rising to the top: Have America’s wars always been just? Was the defense of the Union scripturally justifiable? What should we think of American territorial expansion? Have we shown mercy to the strangers among us? How has America been influenced by the marketplace? What has been our record in dealing with the widow and the orphan? How should we rate our influence on the world?

All of these should demand our attention if we’re really interested in thinking Christianly about our national heritage. None of them captivates us like the question of the religion of the Founders. It isn’t hard to see why. Over time we’ve come to impute enormous political significance to the question. The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian frames the story that we tell about our beginning as a nation. It becomes central to how we define our identity, not only with regard to our past—who were we?—but also with regard to our present and our future—who are we supposed to be? And so the debate over the religious convictions of a handful of eighteenth-century statesmen is now inextricably intertwined with contemporary debates over the place of religion in the public square. The past becomes proxy for the present.

Predictably, the political stakes make the question almost impossible to approach objectively. Polemics abound. Historians—not to mention armies of politicians, pundits, and preachers—have spilled oceans of ink in addressing the question. But despite some notable exceptions, the debate on the whole has generated way more heat and hyperbole than light and nuance. As is so often the case, the extremes command the most attention. Want to attract a large following? Be dogmatic and simplistic. Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the winning formula in Democracy in America: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex,” Tocqueville observed. He was dead on.

The result is a stark dichotomy:  One side insists that the Founders were born-again believers, men of Christian faith guided by Christian principles to establish a Christian nation. The other side contends that they were apostles of the Enlightenment, radical skeptics determined to purge public life of every whiff of religious superstition and “bigotry.” You can take your pick, in other words, between the Founding Fathers as forerunners of the Moral Majority or as ancestors of the ACLU.

Given the explosiveness of the topic, the safest course is simply to steer clear of it. Barring that, the next smoothest path is to preach to the choir—pick a side and beat the drum for it. Those on the other side will mostly ignore you, while those who agree with you will welcome the affirmation. Few of us relish having our prejudices challenged; not many of us mind having our prejudices confirmed.

Historian Gregg Frazer has not chosen the broad and gentle path. Instead, he has written a book that will offend almost everyone invested in the debate, save a handful of scholars. I recently read his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. The author, professor of History and Political Studies at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, wants nothing to do with either extreme. On the book’s very first page he throws down the gauntlet: “I want to force extremists on the Left and on the Right to make the case for their vision of what America should be on its own merits,” Fraser writes, “without hijacking the fame of the Founders and without holding their reputations hostage to causes of which they would not approve.” It’s a courageous objective, and he’s written a worthwhile book. I commend it to any thinking Christian interested in the American past.

Frazer

In a sense, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is really two books for the price of one. First, Fraser scrupulously scrutinizes the religious beliefs of eight key founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson. (The latter two often don’t make the cut for these kinds of studies, but Frazer includes them because of the significant, if often forgotten roles that they played at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.) Second, in an investigation that anticipates James Byrd’s book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, he offers a careful assessment of the revolutionary era pulpit and the arguments that colonial ministers made in support of independence. (For my review of Byrd’s fine book, click here.)

Frazer arrives at two key conclusions. First, concerning the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers: Frazer determines that the leading Founders were not Christian in any orthodox sense, as the Christian America propagandists would have us believe, but neither were they liberal Deists, as secular academics so often insist. Indeed, no existing category satisfactorily captures the constellation of convictions that Fraser discovered, so he created a new one: theistic rationalism.

There’s a symmetry to the combination of these terms that reflects the two-front war that Frazer is fighting. The noun rationalism underscores that the leading Founders weren’t Christian, as David Barton and others so strenuously insist. (To read my review of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies, click here.) But the adjective theistic emphasizes that they also weren’t functionally atheist, as Matthew Stewart has dogmatically argued, for example. (Click here to read my review of his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

According to Frazer, “Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.” [Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that makes human reason the ultimate arbiter of all truth claims.] If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.

The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

The key Founders that Frazer studied rejected both premises. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that parts of the Bible are inspired. They prayed for God’s assistance, they praised God for His deliverance, and they believed in (or hoped for) an afterlife. Whenever scripture and reason conflicted, however, reason trumped revelation. The Founders’ rationalism led them to deny original sin, hell, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and miracles in general.

So what does this mean for contemporary cultural debates over the Founders’ religious beliefs? To a degree that would make the ACLU shudder, the Founders agreed that “the morality engendered by religion was indispensable to society.” But they simultaneously believed that “many—perhaps all—religious traditions or systems were valid and led to the same God.” They were NOT Christian—Frazer emphasizes this repeatedly—and it is a libel on Christianity when David Barton and others insist that they were.

Frazer stresses that theistic rationalism was primarily limited to intellectual elites and “never became the property of the masses” during the era of the American Revolution. It did find considerable voice among colonial pastors, however, and was widely trumpeted from the Revolutionary pulpit. While “Christian America” proponents exult in the degree to which American ministers backed the cause of independence, Frazer finds in that pattern distressing evidence of the Church’s conformity to the world.

In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.

In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”

In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”

Frazer is not as careful as I would wish in making these contentions. You can read his book and almost come away with a view of colonial pastors and parishioners as coldly calculating, consciously sorting through the Scripture for politically useful proof texts and ignoring the rest. I would add that he is equally critical of twenty-first-century proponents of either extreme in the current cultural debate. The author contends that the secular interpretation of America’s founding is widely accepted in part “because members of its intended audiences want to believe that it is true.” In like manner, he maintains that “the Christian America view has found a huge and trusting audience among those . . . who want to believe that the view is accurate.”

I would qualify these claims a bit more carefully. I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S FAITH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below deals with the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.  For a more direct rebuttal of Barton’s claims about Jefferson, go here.]

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.]

American-revolution

Independence Day is less than a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important.  I certainly share that view.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, however, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  There are many that I could cite.  An encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among accomplished Christian scholars to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger historians who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.

Christians in the American RevolutionUndertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.

EXPOSING THE MYTH OF CHRISTIAN AMERICA . . . SORT OF

I’m sorry to have been away for so long. The beginning of a new academic year is always hectic, and this year seems more frenzied than most. I’ll try to check in at least once a week, although I’ve fallen short of that goal recently. I thank you in advance for sticking with me.

Last time I promised to report on a couple of books that I read this summer on faith and the American founding. In this post and the next I’ll make good on that pledge. The question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country is a historical perennial—it keeps coming back. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it never goes away. When I interact with Christians who are interested in history, nine times out of ten this is the first topic they want to talk about.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I began a month-long series of lectures at an evangelical church on what it means to think Christianly about our nation’s past. My goal in the opening talk was simply to persuade the audience that Christians need to pay attention to history—indeed, that we have an obligation to do so—and I said almost nothing about American history specifically. (You can see the gist of my argument here.)  Even so, one of the first questions after I was done concerned the beliefs of America’s founders. Wasn’t the United States founded by Christian men guided by Biblical principles?

It’s a good question but not an easy one. History is complicated, and we live in a culture that requires answers in 140 characters or less. Compounding the challenge, the question has become hopelessly politicized. It’s intertwined with a host of controversial contemporary issues having to do with religious freedom in our increasingly secular society. This raises the stakes. And precisely because more is at stake, the question becomes both more important and harder to handle. Without realizing it, we’re tempted to make history into a weapon instead of a source of wisdom. Unfortunately, we rarely learn from the past when our goal is to prove points with it.

This is why I’m always on the outlook for good books that can help American evangelicals think Christianly about our nation’s past, and why I immediately put Steven Green’s latest book on my reading list when it came out earlier this year. The title was enough to hook me: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. I also respect the press that published it. Oxford University Press (which published my book Lincolnites and Rebels) is not a Christian publishing house, but its editorial board takes religion seriously and the press has published a lot of fine work in the area of religious history.

I’ll be reviewing the book for academic scholars in Fides et Historia, a journal affiliated with a national organization of Christian historians called the Conference on Faith and History. Here are my thoughts concerning what Inventing a Christian America has to offer interested Christian readers outside the Academy.

Green-Inventing a Christian America

The author, whom I do not know personally, is a professor of law and director of the Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy at Willamette University. Green explains in the opening pages that his goal is to “unravel the myth of America’s religious foundings,” to help us understand “how the idea of America’s Christian origins became a central part of the nation’s founding narrative.” He promises not to become embroiled in the “irresolvable” debates over whether the Founders “were devout Christians or atheistical deists, of whether the people of the founding generation believed chiefly in divine providence and the role of religion in public life, or in separation of church and state.” Rather than focus primarily on the founding and the Founders, in other words, Green wants to explain why the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation became so important to later Americans’ sense of national identity. Where did the myth come from, and why did it become so deeply entrenched?

Green’s answer is that the myth evolved over several generations, but that “the most significant period of myth-making occurred in the early years of the nineteenth century as the second generation of Americans sought to redefine and reconcile the founding to match their religious and patriotic aspirations for the nation.” This was a period when the Second Great Awakening was transforming the American religious landscape and evangelical denominations—Methodist and Baptists, most notably—were exploding in size and cultural influence. As Christianity flourished in America during the early 1800s, American Christians retroactively baptized the 1600s and 1700s as well, inventing—or at least exaggerating—the nation’s religious roots. In sum, they practiced “revisionist” history.

Let me put my cards on the table here. I think that Green is partially correct. The evidence is overwhelming that the proportion of Americans belonging to Christian churches mushroomed dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century. It’s also clear that there was a lot of creative rewriting of the nation’s founding during these years. The revolutionary generation had passed from the scene by the height of the Awakening, and newly zealous evangelicals were quick to swallow sentimental commemorations that recreated the past in their own image. They were neither the first nor the last members of the human race to engage in this near universal practice.

Beyond this, Green offers some specific insights that American evangelicals interested in our history need to hear. Repeatedly, he makes the good point that we should be just as cautious in reading histories of the founding written in the nineteenth century as we are of histories written in the twenty-first century. When David Barton insists, for example, that accounts written before 1900 are intrinsically more trustworthy than more recent works, he’s just revealing his ignorance of the context in which the former were written.

Green is also correct to remind us of the danger of proof-texting sources from the past. Most Christians are alert to the danger of plucking isolated verses from the Bible without paying sufficient attention to the totality of Scripture, but we frequently abandon that caution when it comes to the writings of the Founders. We’re rarely willing to do the hard work of immersing ourselves in the historical era that interests us when a few scattered quotes are sufficient to confirm our preconceived notions.

Despite these strengths, I really can’t recommend this book. Here are three reasons why. First, Green fails to follow the roadmap for the book that he sets out in the introduction. Rather than shunning the “irresolvable” debates over the actual religious beliefs of the Founders, Green devotes four fifths of the book to “debunking” specific claims about the founding. The result is that he spends a great deal of time going over territory that has already been plowed again and again: the influence of Christian belief on the establishment of the American colonies, the connection between Christian convictions and the American Revolution, the specific religious beliefs of the leading Founders, and the role of religious principles in the nation’s founding documents, among other topics. In contrast, very little of the book actually focuses on the historical memory of Americans during the early nineteenth century, the period when the belief in America’s Christian founding was supposedly taking root.

Second, because of the approach that Green takes, his treatment of the founding is almost unavoidably superficial. He tries to cover way too much in a book of just over two hundred pages: the establishment of the colonies; the religious beliefs of individual Founders; the influence of Christian conviction and Scriptural principle on views of religious freedom, on political liberty, on resistance to authority, on the Declaration and Constitution, among other things. When he finally gets to the early 1800s—the period that was supposed to be the focus of his book—he seems to have lost steam. He devotes barely forty pages to suggesting how the belief in America’s religious founding grew after the passing of the Revolutionary generation, and his account is superficial and anecdotal, shifting from Parson Weems to Lyman Beecher to Alexis de Tocqueville in rapid succession.

Finally, my sense is that Green has stacked the deck against the Christian America argument. Repeatedly, he defines the argument for America’s religious founding in a way that is easy to discredit. For example, with regard to the original establishment of Britain’s American colonies, he insists that the Christian Nation myth posits not only that the colonies were settled by religiously motivated Christians who believed that government was ordained by God and derived its authority from the Creator, but also that the original settlers were religious dissidents wholly committed to modern understandings of religious freedom. The latter is child’s play to topple. Seventeenth-century Protestants almost never understood religious liberty as we would today. As Green frames his argument, however, their religiously motivated opposition to modern standards of religious toleration becomes evidence for the myth of Christian America. I call that strange.

In the end, this is a book that could have been much better, much more valuable to Christian readers than it is.

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?

For Christians interested in American history, probably no question looms larger than this one: Were the men who brought our nation into existence authentically Christian?

This is not inevitable. There are a host of other questions that we could imagine rising to the top: Have America’s wars always been just? Was the defense of the Union scripturally justifiable? What should we think of American territorial expansion? Have we shown mercy to the strangers among us? How has America been influenced by the marketplace? What has been our record in dealing with the widow and the orphan? How should we rate our influence on the world?

All of these should demand our attention if we’re really interested in thinking Christianly about our national heritage. None of them captivates us like the question of the religion of the Founders. It isn’t hard to see why. Over time we’ve come to impute enormous political significance to the question. The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian frames the story that we tell about our beginning as a nation. It becomes central to how we define our identity, not only with regard to our past—who were we?—but also with regard to our present and our future—who are we supposed to be? And so the debate over the religious convictions of a handful of eighteenth-century statesmen is now inextricably intertwined with contemporary debates over the place of religion in the public square. The past becomes proxy for the present.

Predictably, the political stakes make the question almost impossible to approach objectively. Polemics abound. Historians—not to mention armies of politicians, pundits, and preachers—have spilled oceans of ink in addressing the question. But despite some notable exceptions, the debate on the whole has generated way more heat and hyperbole than light and nuance. As is so often the case, the extremes command the most attention. Want to attract a large following? Be dogmatic and simplistic. Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the winning formula in Democracy in America: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex,” Tocqueville observed. He was dead on.

The result is a stark dichotomy:  One side insists that the Founders were born-again believers, men of Christian faith guided by Christian principles to establish a Christian nation. The other side contends that they were apostles of the Enlightenment, radical skeptics determined to purge public life of every whiff of religious superstition and “bigotry.” You can take your pick, in other words, between the Founding Fathers as forerunners of the Moral Majority or as ancestors of the ACLU.

Given the explosiveness of the topic, the safest course is simply to steer clear of it. Barring that, the next smoothest path is to preach to the choir—pick a side and beat the drum for it. Those on the other side will mostly ignore you, while those who agree with you will welcome the affirmation. Few of us relish having our prejudices challenged; not many of us mind having our prejudices confirmed.

Historian Gregg Frazer has not chosen the broad and gentle path. Instead, he has written a book that will offend almost everyone invested in the debate, save a handful of scholars. I recently read his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. The author, professor of History and Political Studies at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, wants nothing to do with either extreme. On the book’s very first page he throws down the gauntlet: “I want to force extremists on the Left and on the Right to make the case for their vision of what America should be on its own merits,” Fraser writes, “without hijacking the fame of the Founders and without holding their reputations hostage to causes of which they would not approve.” It’s a courageous objective, and he’s written a worthwhile book. I commend it to any thinking Christian interested in the American past.

Frazer

In a sense, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is really two books for the price of one. First, Fraser scrupulously scrutinizes the religious beliefs of eight key founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson. (The latter two often don’t make the cut for these kinds of studies, but Frazer includes them because of the significant, if often forgotten roles that they played at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.) Second, in an investigation that anticipates James Byrd’s book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, he offers a careful assessment of the revolutionary era pulpit and the arguments that colonial ministers made in support of independence. (For my review of Byrd’s fine book, click here.)

Frazer arrives at two key conclusions. First, concerning the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers: Frazer determines that the leading Founders were not Christian in any orthodox sense, as the Christian America propagandists would have us believe, but neither were they liberal Deists, as secular academics so often insist. Indeed, no existing category satisfactorily captures the constellation of convictions that Fraser discovered, so he created a new one: theistic rationalism.

There’s a symmetry to the combination of these terms that reflects the two-front war that Frazer is fighting. The noun rationalism underscores that the leading Founders weren’t Christian, as David Barton and others so strenuously insist. (To read my review of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies, click here.) But the adjective theistic emphasizes that they also weren’t functionally atheist, as Matthew Stewart has dogmatically argued, for example. (Click here to read my review of his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

According to Frazer, “Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.” [Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that makes human reason the ultimate arbiter of all truth claims.] If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.

The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

The key Founders that Frazer studied rejected both premises. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that parts of the Bible are inspired. They prayed for God’s assistance, they praised God for His deliverance, and they believed in (or hoped for) an afterlife. Whenever scripture and reason conflicted, however, reason trumped revelation. The Founders’ rationalism led them to deny original sin, hell, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and miracles in general.

So what does this mean for contemporary cultural debates over the Founders’ religious beliefs? To a degree that would make the ACLU shudder, the Founders agreed that “the morality engendered by religion was indispensable to society.” But they simultaneously believed that “many—perhaps all—religious traditions or systems were valid and led to the same God.” They were NOT Christian—Frazer emphasizes this repeatedly—and it is a libel on Christianity when David Barton and others insist that they were.

Frazer stresses that theistic rationalism was primarily limited to intellectual elites and “never became the property of the masses” during the era of the American Revolution. It did find considerable voice among colonial pastors, however, and was widely trumpeted from the Revolutionary pulpit. While “Christian America” proponents exult in the degree to which American ministers backed the cause of independence, Frazer finds in that pattern distressing evidence of the Church’s conformity to the world.

In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.

In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”

In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”

Frazer is not as careful as I would wish in making these contentions. You can read his book and almost come away with a view of colonial pastors and parishioners as coldly calculating, consciously sorting through the Scripture for politically useful proof texts and ignoring the rest. I would add that he is equally critical of twenty-first-century proponents of either extreme in the current cultural debate. The author contends that the secular interpretation of America’s founding is widely accepted in part “because members of its intended audiences want to believe that it is true.” In like manner, he maintains that “the Christian America view has found a huge and trusting audience among those . . . who want to believe that the view is accurate.”

I would qualify these claims a bit more carefully. I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.

JEFFERSON’S FAITH

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.)

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.