Mike Kueber's Blog

September 22, 2011

Christianity, Deism, and the Founding Fathers

While doing some research on a famous old saying (“God helps them who help themselves.”), a website informed me that the originator was, ironically, Benjamin Franklin.  That is ironic because Ben Franklin was a Deist, which is a person who  believes that in the beginning God created the world, but since then has not been actively involved the affairs of the world:

  • “The term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws  of the universe.  Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that a god (or “the Supreme Architect”) does not alter the universe by (regularly or ever) intervening in the affairs of human life. This idea is also known as the Clockwork Universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Deists believe in the existence of a god without any reliance on revealed religion, religious
    authority or holy books.”

Since that is basically my world view, I decided to read a little more about Deism.  The first website I went to is called Modern Deism, and it asserted something shocking – “many of the American Founding Fathers were Deists, or incorporated  Deistic thought, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Paine and George Washington.”   This assertion shocked me because I have always been told that the Founding Fathers were Christians.  Well, I can’t imagine a stronger list of Founding Fathers than our first four presidents, plus Franklin and Paine.

But were these people deists or did the Modern Deism people draft them into its fold?  I decided to check with my Bible – a/k/a Wikipedia – and learned the following:

  • George Washington: According to historian Paul F. Boller Jr., “Washington was in fact a typical 18th-century deist.”  Boller finds that “Washington seems to have had the characteristic unconcern of the eighteenth-century Deist for the forms and creeds of institutional religion. He had, moreover, the strong aversion of the upper-class Deist for sectarian quarrels that threatened to upset the ‘peace of Society.'” Washington never made attempts to personalize his own religious views or express any appeal to the aesthetic side of biblical passages. Boller states that Washington’s “allusions to religion are almost totally lacking in depths of feeling.”  In philosophical terms, he admired and adopted the Stoic philosophy of the ancient Romans, which emphasized virtue and humanitarianism and was highly compatible with Deism.  Historian Patrick Allitt characterized Washington’s religious views as “lukewarm”, and said “he went through the motions but he clearly wasn’t a man of particular piety or devotion.
  • John Adams: Adams was raised a Congregationalist, becoming a Unitarian at a time when most of the Congregational churches around Boston were turning to Unitarianism. Adams was educated at Harvard when the influence of deism was growing there, and used deistic terms in his speeches and writing.  He believed in the essential goodness of the creation, but, being a Unitarian, his beliefs excluded the divinity of Christ.  He also believed that regular church service was beneficial to man’s moral sense. Everett (1966) concludes that “Adams strove for a religion based on a common sense sort of reasonableness” and maintained that religion must change and evolve toward perfection.  Fielding (1940) shows that Adams’s beliefs synthesized Puritan, deist, and humanist concepts. Adams thought Christianity had originally been revelatory, but was being misinterpreted and misused in the service of superstition, fraud, and unscrupulous power.  Goff (1993) acknowledges Fielding’s “persuasive argument that Adams never was a deist because he allowed the suspension of the laws of nature and believed that evil was internal, not the result of external institutions.”  Frazer (2004) notes that, while Adams shared many perspectives with deists, “Adams clearly was not a deist. Deism rejected any and all supernatural activity and intervention by God; consequently, deists did not believe in miracles or God’s providence….Adams, however, did believe in miracles, providence, and, to a certain extent, the Bible as revelation.”   Fraser concludes that Adams’s “theistic rationalism, like that of the other  Founders, was a sort of middle ground between Protestantism and deism.”  By contrast, David L. Holmes has argued that John Adams, beginning as a Congregationalist, ended his days as a Christian Unitarian, accepting central tenets of the Unitarian creed but also accepting Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and the biblical account of his miracles as true.
  • Thomas Jefferson:  Jefferson rejected the orthodox Christianity of his day and was especially hostile to the Catholic Church as he saw it operate in France.  Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, biblical study, and morality. As a landowner he played a role in governing his local Episcopal Church; in terms of belief he was inclined toward the religious philosophy of Christianity: In private letters, Jefferson refers to himself as “Christian” (1803): “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence….  Jefferson believed in the moral teachings of Christ and edited a compilation of Christ’s teachings leaving out the miracles.  Jefferson was firmly anticlerical saying that in “every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot…they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes.
  • James Madison:  Wikipedia says nothing about Madison’s religion, but another website said – “In the case of James Madison, his personal faith could be best described as Deist or Unitarian. It was the belief in Nature’s God, the divine Creator that is referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike others among the Founders, Madison was much more reticent when speaking about his personal faith, and relatively few credible quotes exist.
  • Thomas Paine:  About religion, The Age of Reason says:  “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.  All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”  Though there is no evidence he was himself a Freemason, Paine also wrote “An Essay on the Origin of Free-Masonry” (1803–1805), about the Bible being allegorical myth describing astrology: “The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man called Christ in the place of the sun, and pay him the adoration originally payed to the sun.”  He described himself as deist, saying: “How different is [Christianity] to the pure and simple profession of Deism! The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.”  And again, in The Age of Reason: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
  • Benjamin Franklin: Although Franklin’s parents had intended for him to have a career in the Church, Franklin as a young man adopted the Enlightenment religious belief in deism, that God’s truths can be found entirely through nature and reason.  “I soon became a thorough Deist.”  As a young man he rejected Christian dogma in a 1725 pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which he later saw as an embarrassment, while simultaneously asserting that God is “all wise, all good, all powerful.”  He defended his rejection of religious dogma with these words: “I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be  concluded that he holds none that are dangerous, which I hope is the case with me.” After the disillusioning experience of seeing the decay in his own moral standards, and those of two friends in London whom he had converted to Deism, Franklin turned back to a belief in the importance of organized religion, on the pragmatic grounds that without God and organized churches, man will not be good.  Moreover, because of his proposal that prayers be said in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, many have contended that in his later life, Franklin became a pious Christian.

Based on this information, I think the Modern Deism people have accurately asserted that many of the leading American Founding Fathers were Deists, or incorporated Deistic thought.  Some historians have added the fifth president to the list – James Monroe:

  • “When it comes to Monroe’s thoughts on religion,” Bliss Isely notes, “less is known than that of any other President.” No letters survive in which he discussed his religious beliefs. Nor did his friends, family or associates comment on his beliefs.  Letters that do survive, such as ones written after the death of his son, contain no discussion of religion….  As  an adult frequently attended Episcopalian churches, though there is no record he ever took communion. He has been classified by some historians as a Deist because he used deistic language to refer to an impersonal God.”

So perhaps our politicians should rely less on their specific religious credentials and more on the universal merit of their values.


According to Modern Deism, the following are the nine unofficial tenets of Deism:

1. Belief in God based on Reason, Experience and Nature (nature of the universe) rather than on the basis of holy texts and divine revelation. Essentially, through the use of Reason, God’s existence is revealed by the observation of the order and complexity found within nature and our personal experiences.

2. Belief that the nature of God is abstract and generally incomprehensible which puts it beyond definition for humanity at this time.  Furthermore, human language is limited and inadequate to define God; however, man can use Reason to theorize  and speculate on what this possible nature is.

3. Belief that man’s relationship with God is transpersonal.  However, this does not create a feeling of a distant and cold deity, but of one in which God has a profound and unfathomable relationship with all of creation (nature) rather than just one aspect of it.

4. Belief that humanity has the ability to use Reason to develop ethical/moral principles and through the application of Reason these principles can be used to implement moral behavior, which in turn creates a Utilitarian-Humanist morality. Essentially, humans can be guided by their conscience in matters of morality.

5. Belief that humans have the individual capability of experiencing God, which is defined as spirituality.  These spiritual experiences are multi-faceted and can include awe, epiphany, fellowship and even the transcendental.  Essentially, each human is capable of having a profound experience of God and nature.

6. Belief that God should be honored in a way that the individual believes is best and most appropriate for them.  Individuals must determine for themselves how best to honor God and only they can develop how to accomplish this. For many, it is a multi-faceted and an individualized process.

7. Belief in the principle of Natural Law that states that all men and women are created equal to each other with inherent freedom and liberty so that no human has more worth than another. Essentially,  each human is equal in terms of the freedoms that they have and in the eyes of  the law.

8. Belief that mankind’s purpose is to use our  God-given reason to understand what it means to be alive in every sense of the  word (to live life to the fullest) and to act in such a way as to secure human happiness and contentment for all involved.

9. Belief that Reason and Respect are God-given  traits to mankind and that we are to utilize them in all aspects of our daily  lives thus creating a pragmatic approach to life. This includes respecting other alternative views and opinions of God (other religions) as long as they do not produce harm and/or infringe upon others.

June 28, 2011

Great presidents and continuing legal education

During the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas, I had the good fortune of hearing presidential historian Douglas Brinkley give a talk on great presidents in America’s history.  I’m not sure how his talk qualified as continuing legal education for lawyers, but the state bar has almost unlimited power on that issue and it is very unlikely that anyone will complain.

Brinkley is a famous historian who is often interviewed on national news programs because he has the ability to present information in an interesting way, and his talk to at the annual meeting didn’t disappoint.  The talk was informal, and I suspect Brinkley could give it in his sleep.  His principal insights were:

  1. Although the talk was about presidents, Brinkley started with a non-president – Charles Thompson – who was a relatively unknown politician who did yeomen’s work in forming our union, but then was shut-out of a role in the newly-formed United States because he was too progressive for his time – i.e., he favored the emancipation of slaves and the liberation of women.
  2. George Washington’s signal achievement was to give up power after two terms.
  3. Thomas Jefferson saw that the Mississippi River was the spine of America and that religion has no place in a democracy.
  4. James Polk was successful because he established clear objectives (resolving the border issues with Mexico and Canada) and knew that wars of choice must be ended quickly.
  5. Lincoln’s challenges make the challenges faced by any other president seem highly manageable.
  6. Teddy Roosevelt created and led the conservation movement even though the public wasn’t demanding it.
  7. Franklin Roosevelt created the feeling that the federal government could solve all our problems.
  8. Harry Truman was horribly unpopular because he was too direct in trying to achieve his objectives, but his stock in history has skyrocketed.
  9. Dwight Eisenhower was an under-rated president who showed that America could be fiscally conservative and still do great things – e.g., NASA, interstate highways, and St. Lawrence Seaway.
  10. John Kennedy implemented things that worked (Peace Corp and SEALS/Green Beret), whereas his successor Lyndon Johnson spent too much money on things that didn’t work.
  11. Gerald Ford did a great job of extricating America from two problems – Nixon and Vietnam.
  12. Jimmy Carter brought morality to Washington.
  13. Ronald Reagan went with his gut and told Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
  14. Bill Clinton was relatively successful, but never did anything big and will always be remembered for the sex scandal.
  15. George H.W. Bush will be upgraded by historians because of his brilliant handling of foreign policy.
  16. Barack Obama is disposed to placate, not lead.  He acts like the only adult in the room, but doesn’t lead.  His greatest accomplishment will be getting elected.

Brinkley skipped over Bush-43, but someone during the Q&A asked if it was likely that Bush-43 would be upgraded by historians.  Brinkley did not think so because Bush-43 would be forever stained by the economic collapse at the end of his second term.  It’s ironic that Bush’s economic collapse not only resulted in the historic election of Barack Obama, but also may have fated Obama to the ignominy of a one-term presidency.

In my opinion, Brinkley skipping Bush-43 was bad enough, but skipping Richard Nixon, too, is unforgivable, especially when he found time to mention Jimmy Carter.  I will keep that in mind when reading Brinkley in the future.

February 3, 2011

Secession in the 21st century

I recently blogged that I admire Rick Perry’s vision of federalism, as described in his book Fed Up.  My estimable historian friend from Austin, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, responded that Perry’s version of federalism, with some reference to secession, dated back to ante-bellum days and was supposedly extirpated by the Civil War.

Robert is a lifelong Texan who was doubly blessed to graduate from both Texas A&M and UT-Austin Law, yet he is an unabashed supporter of the Union.  By way of contrast, I am a transplanted Texas from North Dakota who is drawn to the principle of States’ Rights. 

Robert recently earned his Masters Degree in History with a Civil-War emphasis, and during one of my visits to Austin a couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of States’ Rights in the context of secession.  I wondered how the northern states could have felt so strongly about the Union in 1860 that they were willing to go to engage in America’s deadliest war to prevent secession.  After all, this country had seceded from England less than a century earlier. 

I suggested to Robert that there was no way people in the 21st century would fight and die over whether a state – e.g., California – should be allowed to leave the union; especially if the war did not involve a huge moral evil like slavery (or some would say abortion).  Academics call my position “The Choice” theory of secession.  As Thomas Jefferson said:

  • If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in union… I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate.”

Robert disagreed with Jefferson and me.  He believed that Americans still adhere to the precedent established by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  This is called “The Just Cause” theory of secession – i.e., secession only to rectify grave injustice.  The problem with that theory is that a grave in justice to me might be a minor accommodation to you. 

Since then, I have asked other friends the same question, and they tend to agree with Robert.  Further, a Zogby poll in 2008 reported that only 22% of Americans believe a state or region should have the right to secede.  Union, forever. 

Perhaps I am fundamentally a pacifist – like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah or Mel Gibson in The Patriot.  I believe in what America stands for, but if some part of America doesn’t want to be a part of that team, I wouldn’t block their exit.

Wikipedia provides an interesting list of reasons to allow secession and a contrary list to prohibit it.  Maybe it’s just me, but the pro-secession list seems long and substantive while the anti-secession list seems short and fluffy.

Arguments to allow secession:

  • The right to liberty, freedom of association, and private property
  • Consent as important democratic principle; will of majority to secede should be recognized
  • Making it easier for states to join with others in an experimental union
  • Dissolving such union when goals for which it was constituted are not achieved
  • Self-defense when larger group presents lethal threat to minority or the government cannot adequately defend an area
  • Self-determination of peoples
  • Preserving culture, language, etc. from assimilation or destruction by a larger or more powerful group
  • Furthering diversity by allowing diverse cultures to keep their identity
  • Rectifying past injustices, especially past conquest by a larger power
  • Escaping “discriminatory redistribution,” i.e., tax schemes, regulatory policies, economic programs, etc. that distribute resources away to another area, especially in an undemocratic fashion
  • Enhanced efficiency when the state or empire becomes too large to administer efficiently
  • Preserving “liberal purity” (or “conservative purity”) by allowing less (or more) liberal regions to secede
  • Providing superior constitutional systems which allow flexibility of secession
  • Keeping political entities small and human scale through right to secession

Aleksandar Pavkovic, associate professor in Australia and the author of several books on secession describes five justifications for a general right of secession within liberal political theory:

  • Anarcho-Capitalism: individual liberty to form political associations and private property rights together justify right to secede and to create a “viable political order” with like-minded individuals.
  • Democratic Secessionism: the right of secession, as a variant of the right of self-determination, is vested in a “territorial community” which wishes to secede from “their existing political community”; the group wishing to secede then proceeds to delimit “its” territory by the majority.
  • Communitarian Secessionism: any group with a particular “participation-enhancing” identity, concentrated in a particular territory, which desires to improve its members’ political participation has a prima facie right to secede.
  • Cultural Secessionism: any group which was previously in a minority has a right to protect and develop its own culture and distinct national identity through seceding into an independent state.
  • The Secessionism of Threatened Cultures: if a minority culture is threatened within a state that has a majority culture, the minority needs a right to form a state of its own which would protect its culture.

Arguments against secession:

Allen Buchanan, who supports secession under limited circumstances, lists arguments that might be used against secession:

  • “Protecting Legitimate Expectations” of those who now occupy territory claimed by secessionists, even in cases where that land was stolen
  • “Self Defense” if losing part of the state would make it difficult to defend the rest of it
  • “Protecting Majority Rule” and the principle that minorities must abide by them
  • “Minimization of Strategic Bargaining” by making it difficult to secede, such as by imposing an exit tax
  • “Soft Paternalism” because secession will be bad for secessionists or others
  • “Threat of Anarchy” because smaller and smaller entities may choose to secede until there is chaos
  • “Preventing Wrongful Taking” such as the state’s previous investment in infrastructure
  • “Distributive Justice” arguments that wealthier areas cannot secede from poorer ones

July 29, 2010

Truth, justice, and the American Way – San Antonio style

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights of all men.  Many years later in Superman comic books, this concept evolved into “the American Way” (i.e., truth, justice, and the American Way).  Although I am not an anthropologist or a world traveler qualified to speak of other cultures, I believe that an overarching belief in justice is one of America’s enduring, singular values.  Whereas people in other countries seen willing to accept an unjust result or an unfair system, Americans often go to great lengths to correct an injustice as a matter of principle.  Part of that motivation comes from an optimistic belief that, although mistakes sometimes happen, they will be corrected if brought to the attention of our leaders. 

As a lawyer, I am an especially strong believer in truth, justice, and the American way because I have not seen a lot of injustice in our country that couldn’t be corrected with the help of a competent advocate.  A couple of years ago, however, my belief was shaken a bit by San Antonio’s finest.  

The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has been controversial since I moved to town in 1987.  The police union has a lot of political power, which has been used to win a series of expensive employment contracts with the city.  Although the education of the officers is relatively low, their pay is relatively high, especially for a low-income city like San Antonio.  According to a national survey of desirable police jobs, San Antonio is #2 in the county. 

That #2 status seemed like a stroke of good fortune for my oldest son, Bobby, who has always been interested in law enforcement.  After graduating from Clark HS, he obtained a criminal justice degree from UTSA and also became an Army Reserve officer through UTSA’s ROTC, with a Military Police specialty. 

After getting married, Bobby and his school-teacher wife decided to settle in San Antonio, so he applied to the SAPD.  At first, everything went fine – his education was exceptional, military service was a plus, and he passed the exam and physical test with ease.

Then there was a hiccup.  During an interview, Bobby was asked if he had every broken a drug law.  Because Bobby is scrupulously honest (and had been taught in Boy Scouts that alcohol was a drug), he thought carefully and recalled that a couple of years earlier, when he was 21 years old, he had purchased some beer for some younger friends on a few occasions.  Surely that wouldn’t be a problem.

After the interview, Bobby was informed that, because he admitted to committing a Class A or B misdemeanor within the past ten years, he was deemed unsuitable for the position and would not be eligible to reapply until the unsuitability factor was no longer applicable (eight more years).  That is like a death penalty – what college kid is going to wait around for eight years to start a career? 

At my encouragement, Bobby went through police channels to question the result.  The interviewer told Bobby that the problematic question wasn’t designed to elicit alcohol-related information, and Bobby would have been telling the truth if he had answered “no.”  But since he had answered the question “yes,’ the rules required that he be rejected.

I was nonplussed.  Surely some human being with authority would over-rule this bureaucratic absurdity.  So I went to work looking for a human being.  I wrote to the Mayor, the City Manager, my Councilperson, and the Chief of Police, but no one was interested in correcting this injustice.  A friend at Valero put me in touch with the previous police chief, Al Phillipus, and I had a lengthy discussion with him, but he said that he didn’t have the ability to influence the result. 

In the end, Bobby and I gave up.  One stupid, inflexible rule stymied Bobby’s career.  He considered applying at other police departments, but there is usually a question about whether you have previously been rejected by another police department.  His alternative was to seek a federal job, and he was just about to land a job with ICE when he decided to go full-time in the Texas Guard.

The silver lining is that Bobby is happy with his job serving our country and doesn’t look back on San Antonio’s refusal to let him serve the city.  But I’m afraid this incident has made me a bit cynical about San Antonio government and justice.

July 4, 2010

The Fourth of July and American Exceptionalism

 Recently I was discussing American immigration policy with a friend who had immigrated to America more than 20 years ago.  She wondered why America restricted the number of authorized immigrants.  I told her that we had instituted restrictions almost 100 years ago, and I suggested that the reason was two-fold – (1) there were limits to how many workers our economy could absorb, and (2) there were limits to how many people our society could assimilate.  I also suggested that assimilation was critical because we wanted immigrants to learn American values.  She followed-up by proposing that American values were already shared by most people – values such as working hard, taking care of your family, obeying the law, and helping the poor.  At that point, I suggested to her that American values were unique.  Americans believed, as so eloquently stated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

  • “… that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed….” 

 That is American exceptionalism at its best.  It includes freedom, inalienable natural and human rights, democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, civil liberty, civic virtue, the common good, fair play, private property, and Constitutional government.

 Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 was the first person to describe American exceptionalism:

  •  “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”

Not coincidentally, de Tocqueville is also the person noted for saying, “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good America will cease to be great.” 

 That is why assimilation of immigrants is important.  As part of that assimilation, we hope that immigrants learn to honor the Fourth of July, which is the day that our Founding Fathers approved and published the Declaration of Independence and created the world’s first democracy.