Bryan Fischer’s Confusion

Bryan Fischer is confused about religion & the American Founding. Fischer is a long time David Barton follower, the likely source of his confusion. Fischer, a conservative evangelical/fundamentalist, attempts to explain the Glenn Beck event where, among others, conservative evangelicals and Mormons seemed to be in spiritual communion together. And what bridged the theological gulf between them? Why America’s Founding civil religion of course.

Conservative evangelicals, who tend to claim “Mormonism is not Christianity,” have been questioning the appropriateness of such political-theological communion and offering their explanations and rationalizations, some pro, some con, some in between. Fischer’s is one of the most amusingly confused explanations. He begins:

America at its founding was 99.8% Christian, and 98.4% Protestant. Not just Christianity but Protestant Christianity built the United States of America. It was not just a Judeo-Christian value system that provided the foundation for the Republic, but a specifically Protestant value system.

The numbers are correct insofar as they refer to “Protestantism” as a religious-ethno-heritage. Broadly understood, deists, atheists, and fundamentalists are all “Protestant” in this sense. What this number does NOT refer to is Founding era church membership, certainly not “true believers” as Fischer would like to claim (and indeed his own faith teaches the “remnant” or the “regenerate” will be a small minority).

Next:

The theological foundation of America was explicitly Protestant. Just one Roman Catholic (Charles Carroll) signed the Declaration of Independence, and 52 of the 55 framers of the Constitution took a solemn oath expressing their agreement with an orthodox Protestant statement of faith. Thus the vast majority of the Founders believed in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his vicarious and substitutionary death, his resurrection, and his eventual return.

Other than the note about the one Roman Catholic, the paragraph false. Likewise we see Fischer — like a lot of “Christian Americanists” — slipping in one understanding of “Protestantism” for another. Yes, the vast majority of FFs and population of America were “Protestant” in a minimal demographic sense. They were “Protestant” in way that Thomas Paine (deist), Thomas Jefferson (theist-unitarian), and Roger Sherman (reformed evangelical) were all minimally “Protestant.” They were not, however, Protestant in the maximal sense that Fischer wants us to believe (“the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his sinless life, his vicarious and substitutionary death, his resurrection, and his eventual return”).

Certainly many in the population and many 2nd and lower tier FFs were Protestants in that sense. But it was no where near 52 out of 55 Framers of the Constitution. And it’s a flat out lie that 52 out of 55 “took a solemn oath expressing their agreement with an orthodox Protestant statement of faith.”

The late ME Bradford found 52 out of 55 Framers of the Constitution had some minimal affiliation with churches that professed orthodoxy. His number is worthless. In fact, all 55 Framers had such a minimal connection, even Bradford’s three “Deists” — Ben Franklin, James Wilson and Hugh Williamson.

I’ve examined this in detail: There is no evidence that shows 52 took oaths or were “members” in that sense. Rather, some later Christian America figure confused Bradford’s minimal affiliation standard with “official member” in the “I took an oath” sense.

Again, no doubt, many were “official members” in that oath taking sense. Thomas Jefferson for instance, was a “member” of the Anglican Church in that sense and took orthodox oaths when he became a Vestryman in his church. And he denied every single tenet of “orthodoxy.”

But we have no idea how many of the Framers of the Constitution were “official members” in the oath taking sense of their orthodox churches.

So what Bradford’s figure really proves is that all 55 Framers of the Constitution were at least nominal Christians who may or may not have believed in what those churches professed.

And so, with erroneous inputs, Fischer concludes:

In other words, there is hardly a stitch of difference between the theology of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Sam Adams and contemporary conservative evangelicals. (Jim Wallis claims to be an evangelical, but he’s not — he is a George Soros-funded socialist masking his radicalism in sheep’s clothing.)

As they say, garbage in garbage out. Fischer scores a 1 out of 4 on his list of Founders who constitute “hardly a stitch” of difference with the theology of today’s evangelicals: Sam Adams. That Fischer would include John Adams on his list shows how mistaken he is. J. Adams, after all, bitterly and militantly attacked Protestant doctrines of orthodoxy in a way that removes him as far from the faith as Mormons are.

John Adams mocking the Trinity:

“The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage.”

— John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.

“If I understand the Doctrine, it is, that if God the first second or third or all three together are united with or in a Man, the whole Animal becomes a God and his Mother is the Mother of God.

“It grieves me: it shocks me to write in this stile upon a subject the most adorable that any finite Intelligence can contemplate or embrace: but if ever Mankind are to be superior to the Brutes, sacerdotal Impostures must be exposed.”

— John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, October 23, 1816.

Adams mocking the Incarnation:

“An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all of the Corruptions of Christianity.”

— John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816.

I could go on showing Adams rejecting original sin, eternal damnation, the infallibility of the Bible and claiming Hinduism and Zeus worship constitute “Christian principles.”

James Madison and George Washington were not so explicit in their rejection of orthodoxy. However, as I noted in my last post, Barack Obama has given us more evidence of his belief in historic Christian doctrine than GW or JM did. And Washington and Madison both sought spiritual communion with UNCONVERTED Native Americans when they referred to “The Great Spirit” as the same God Christians worshipped.

Fischer continues: “Now Glenn Beck, as a Mormon, holds religious convictions that are wildly at variance with orthodox Christianity.”

Response: So did the Founding Fathers (at least many of them).

Fischer reassures conservative evangelicals:

But evangelicals need not worry. There was not a trace of Mormonism in either event. While Glenn Beck provided the platform, evangelicals provided the message. Beck depended heavily on historian and committed evangelical David Barton for assistance in picking speakers and selecting those who would lead in prayer and worship. A Mormon teed up the ball for evangelical Protestants. And evangelicals hit it out of the park.

It’s true (at least as far as I observed) there was nothing peculiarly Mormon that would exclude evangelical belief. But there was also nothing peculiarly orthodox that would exclude Mormon belief. That’s what an amorphous civil religion does. It speaks in lowest common denominator God words where each believer (unless he is an atheist) gets to “read in” his or her own understanding of God, be it trinitarian or unitarian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon or other.

The problem, as I see it, for evangelicals is that rally was a political-theological event; they were praying together in spiritual communion.

If evangelicals are comfortable using (or being used by) America’s Founding civil religion as a bridge to be in spiritual communion with, among others, Mormons, that’s fine with me. Let’s just see it for what it is.

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4 Responses to Bryan Fischer’s Confusion

  1. Mark Boggs says:

    This may all get very interesting, too, especially where Beck is concerned, if Mitt Romney chooses to run again in 2012, as it may put Beck in a difficult spot with many of his followers who love the political things that come out of his mouth but would be aghast at his theological beliefs in comparison to their more orthodox beliefs.

    Personally, I hope Romney does run if only to watch him try to cozy up to the religious segments of the GOP by touting his religiosity and belief that we need religious leaders, while managing to claim exemption from having his religion discussed. That’s always good theater.

  2. James Hanley says:

    indeed his own faith teaches the “remnant” or the “regenerate” will be a small minority

    Sure, but first among them, sitting at the right hand of Jesus, will be the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Constitutional Convention.

    it’s a flat out lie that 52 out of 55 “took a solemn oath expressing their agreement with an orthodox Protestant statement of faith.

    What? I’m sure all of them at one time or another recited the Apostle’s Creed! And meant it! Prove me wrong!

    That’s what an amorphous civil religion does. It speaks in lowest common denominator God words where each believer (unless he is an atheist) gets to “read in” his or her own understanding of God

    This is what bothers me about Scalia’s casual acceptance of the legitimacy of civic religion. By moving to a lowest common denominator it in fact creates an overarching religion, with everything else being subsumed as sects within that religion. But the First Amendment clearly forbids establishment of a religion; it doesn’t simply forbid the establishment of a sect. If civic religion is indeed religion, it forbidden because by it’s very nature–civic–it is political, state-sponsored, religion.

    Let a thousand sects thrive and squabble, but let us have no civic religion.

  3. tom van dyke says:

    That’s not how they understood it when they ratified the First Amendment, not how they understood it when they ratified the Fourteenth. But hey, it’s 2010. Anything goes.

    This is the American civil religion, devoid of neither content nor relevance.

    The rest is idle postmodern talk.

  4. Murdock says:

    I wonder if the inclusion of Native Americans was a Mormon touch that slipped unappreciated under the noses of the Evangelicals. The indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere have special religious significance to Mormons which Evangelicals reject and ridicule. I am not suggesting that Glenn Beck was engaged in conscious trickery. To the contrary, he appears to have tried very hard for nondemoinational civic religion. That extended, laudably, to Muslim Americans. However, it is natural that Glenn Beck’s selection of civic religious symbols would be unconsciously influenced by his beliefs. Because Evangelicals do not yet know that the Book of Mormon is the Word of God, they were not sensitive to what was happening.

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