Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Definition of Theistic Rationalism

Jon Rowe and I have long advocated the use of the phrase “theistic rationalist” to describe the religious views of some of the leading founding fathers. Having both spent a great deal of time researching the religious views of these men, Jon first introduced me to the term, which immediately struck me as the correct description of those views. He got the term from Gregg Frazer, an evangelical Christian historian who rejects the “Christian nation” revisionism that so many other evangelical historians and pseudo-historians have tried to foist on us.

In a new post at Positive Liberty, Jon quotes a long passage from Frazer that provides a comprehensive definition of what we all mean when we use the phrase theistic rationalist. Long excerpt below the fold:

Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements. Theistic rationalists believed that these three elements would generally be in accord and lead to the same end, but that reason was determinative on those relatively rare occasions in which there was disagreement. Rationalism as used here is the philosophical view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. Educated in Enlightenment thought, theistic rationalists were at root rationalists, but their loosely Christian upbringing combined with reason to convince them that a creator God would not abandon his creation. Consequently, they rejected the absentee god of deism and embraced a theist God of, to a significant extent, their own construction. Hence the term theistic rationalism.

An emphasis on reason had long been accepted in the Christian community, but in Christian thought, reason was a supplement to revelation, which was supreme. Theistic rationalism turned this on its head and made revelation a supplement to reason. In fact, for theistic rationalists, reason determined what should be accepted as revelation from God. Unlike deists, theistic rationalists accepted the notion of revelation from God; unlike Christians, they felt free to pick apart the Bible and to consider only the parts which they determined to be rational to be legitimate divine revelation. They similarly felt free to define God according to the dictates of their own reason and to reject Christian doctrines which did not seem to them to be rational.

The God of the theistic rationalists was a unitary, personal God whose controlling attribute was benevolence. Theistic rationalists believed that God was present and active in the world and in the lives of men. Consequently, they believed in the efficacy of prayer – that someone was listening and might intervene on their behalf. Theistic rationalism was not a devotional or inward-looking belief system; it was centered on public morality. God was served by living and promoting a good, moral life. The primary value of religion was the promotion of morality, and the morality generated by religion was indispensable to a free society. Since all of the religions with which they were familiar promoted morality, they held that virtually all religions were more or less equally valid and led to the same God who is called by many names. Theistic rationalists generally disdained doctrines or dogmas. They found them to be divisive, speculative, and ultimately unimportant since many roads lead to God.

This is an excellent description of the views of the leading founders – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin. In a new paper, Frazer argues that Gouverneur Morris, one of the most unjustly ignored of the founding fathers, also fits that description.

The problem here is that most people have attempted to fit the founders into one of two categories, Christian or deist. But as Frazer notes, deism in that day and age was much more hostile toward Christianity than these men were:

In addition, deism was in many ways as much a critique of Christianity as a religion of its own. Deist thought rejected virtually every tenet and fundamental of Christianity and deists were generally critical of Christianity’s central figure: Jesus. In short, deists wanted nothing to do with Christianity or its Christ. While theistic rationalists shared some ideas with deists, they had a much greater regard for Christianity and for Jesus than did most deists.

Thus we could have Thomas Jefferson reject the notion that Jesus was anything but a mere human being while simultaneously embracing the ethical system of Jesus as the most perfect and sublime ever invented. And thus many of these men could talk of the many corruptions and lies in orthodox Christianity while simultaneously praising other aspects of that religion and believing that it was generally a good thing because it made people more moral.

For those leaving comments, please try and stick to the point of this post. The issue here is not whether those men were right; it is only whether this is an accurate description of what they believed.