Gary North's Ebook
Jonathan Rowe printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 12:23:33 PM EST
We are very pleased to welcome as a guest front pager Jonathan Rowe. He is a self-described libertarian lawyer and college professor, whose many blogging interests include the problem of Christian nationalist revisions of history. He blogs about this at the group blog, American Creation, from which this is crossposted. -- FC

Every year, out of tradition, I do a post promoting the following E-Book by Gary North entitled "Conspiracy In Philadelphia."  

North is a Christian Reconstructionist in whose first best world, the civil law would impose Old Testament style punishments.  This is obviously totally anathema to me.  However, the book itself is well researched and argued with impressive historiography.  You might expect such a book to rely only on extremist sources (and indeed, there are citations to RJ Rushdoony, et al., but usually to argue against their claim that the US Constitution is consistent with Christian Reconstructionism).  In addition to primary sources, North relies on the work of the most well respected members of the historical community -- Bailyn, Wood, Mcdonald, Gaustad, Boller, Koch, Adair, & Rakove to name a few.

The thesis of the book is that the key US Founders -- the ones who pushed through the ideas upon which America declared independence and then constructed the Constitution -- were secret theological unitarians, whose heterodox religious creed inspired them to found American government upon the notion of religious neutrality and consequently break the tradition of covenanting with the Triune Christian God.  His book focuses on Article VI Clause 3 of the US Constitution ("no religious tests") as the device for achieving "secular government."  

From what I have researched, North is correct in his essential claim.  Other scholars have noted something similar.  For instance, in this post I noted Thomas Pangle and Cushing Stout, whose work North cites, concluding that there is a connection between the US Constitution's benign approach to religion and the key Founders' enlightened and benign personal religious creed.  Indeed, one could argue, as does Dr. Gregg Frazer, that the Founders' unitarianism or theistic rationalism was the "political theology" of the American Founding.

Ideas have consequences and it was these heterodox unitarian ideas, not orthodox Christianity, that drove the US Founding's approach to religion and government.  However, such heterodoxy or heresy wasn't a popular creed, but rather was disproportionately believed in by the elite Whigs.  Whatever the religion of a majority of the US population (either nominal Protestant Christianity, which itself can tend towards "Deism," or orthodox Protestant Christianity) orthodox Churches held a great deal of institutional power.  With such power, they had to essentially "consent" to the elite Whig's new plan on government.  And they did.  But not all of them.  For instance, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters) to whom North dedicates his book.  From the very beginning they "smelled a rat in Philadelphia."  

So the notion that there was a secret coup, a "bait and switch" as Michael Zuckert put it, to "sell" a Christian audience non-authentically Christian ideas is not new.  James Renwick Willson was one of those covenanters who in 1832 made arguments very similar to North's.  And he was burned in effigy for this sermon which called all of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson "infidels" and not more than "unitarians."  I think Willson got at the truth, but did so by shattering a sacred cow -- a social myth.  The kernel of truth that David Barton et al. have is that many folks in the 19th Century did believe in the "Christian America" social myth as a cultural prejudice.  And many of their bogus, unconfirmed quotations source back to 19th Century places that pushed this social myth.  

Now the non-respectable has become the respectable and secular scholars more or less agree with the claims of James Renwick Willson and Gary North that America didn't have an authentically "orthodox Christian" Founding.

Anyway the following are some of North's amusing reactions.  He reacts to the US Constitution the way a hard core theocrat should.

On Jefferson's and Adams' personal religious beliefs:

In their old age, Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship in a long correspondence that lasted for more than a decade. Their letters reveal that they were almost totally agreed on religion. They hated Christianity, especially Calvinism....After surveying their letters, Cushing Strout concludes: "Whatever their political differences, Jefferson and Adams were virtually at one in their religion." Strout identifies the creed of this religion: unitarianism.  pp. 140-41.

On James Madison:

James Madison was a covenant-breaking genius, and the heart and soul of his genius was his commitment to religious neutralism. He devised a Constitution that for two centuries has fooled even the most perceptive Christian social philosophers of each generation into thinking that Madison was not what he was: a unitarian theocrat whose goal was to snuff out the civil influence of the trinitarian churches whenever they did not support his brainchild. For two centuries, his demonic plan has worked. pp. 374-75.

On George Washington and his avoidance of communion:

Here was the strange situation: George Washington was formally a communicant church member who systematically refused to take communion. The institutional problem here was the unwillingness of church authorities to apply formal church sanctions. Any church member who refuses to take communion has thereby excommunicated himself. A refusal to take communion or a prohibition against one's taking communion is what excommunication means. Self-excommunication is excommunication, just as surely as suicide is first-degree murder. Nevertheless, the churches to which Washington belonged did not take official action against him by either requiring him to take communion or by publicly excommunicating him. It was this disciplinary failure on the part of these churches that led to the public legitimizing of Washington as a Christian. This failure later indirectly legitimized the Constitution that he conspired to impose on the nation. Without Washington's support of the actions of the Convention, the Constitution would never have been ratified. But Washington was deemed either too powerful or too sacrosanct to bring under church discipline.  pp. 160-61.

Unlike his fundamentalist contemporaries, North unequivocally acknowledges the reality that the Constitution absolutely did not establish the United States as a Christian nation. Unfortunately, North is incapable of seeing anyone as different from himself. North believes religion must be imposed. So if you're not imposing Christianity, you must be trying to impose something else. This is why he calls Madison a "Unitarian theocrat". The idea that these men were not trying to Establish Unitarianism, (or any other faith), but were simply trying to create a system in which each person was free to believe as he saw fit seems inconceivable to North.

by Dave on Fri Jun 13, 2008 at 10:12:26 PM EST

Just read David McCullough's John Adams: the guy's idea of entertainment when stranded unhappily in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress was to sample as many forms of religious observance as he could find and critique the sermons. Best available theater.
Can It Happen Here?
by janinsanfran on Wed Jun 11, 2008 at 07:29:58 PM EST

I know where you are coming from, but also where North is coming from.  John Adams loved "religion" and was a self-professed "meeting going animal."  However, I've read almost everything he's written on religion and can attest he bitterly rejected orthodox Trinitarian Christian doctrines, those things that define Christianity for North and his fellow traditionalist Christians.  That's why North said Adams hated Christianity.

by Jonathan Rowe on Wed Jun 11, 2008 at 10:16:15 PM EST

North and company are sometimes confused as ignorant.  They, as you see are really quite well read scholars.  Married to Rushdoony's daughter, North is one of the few who will admitt what they actually believe.  In truth they do not like the Constitution and want a different United States than we were created to be.  At least he is honest about it. Want this article for my files since it is theocracy types admitting to a secular state.

by wilkyjr on Thu Jun 12, 2008 at 09:01:02 AM EST
In my book Eternal Hostility. North is quite clear that Article 6 constituted a break with the covenant with God. What's more, if North had his way, the first thing he would do would be to limit voting rights to communcant members of trinitarian churches.

North has a doctorate in American history from the University of California at Riverside. His specialty is the colonial era, and wrote his thesis on "Puritan economics."

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jun 12, 2008 at 10:01:07 AM EST

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