Mr. Fortenberry has asked me to explain to his readers something of how I handle quotes as evidence. Contrary to popular belief (and to undergraduate education), the emphasis in graduate programs and in the process of earning a PhD degree is not on information transfer or indoctrination. The emphasis is on the proper methods for doing one’s own research. PhDs are expected to contribute to the academic world – to write the books used by others; so one is taught how to appropriately handle evidence and what counts as evidence. Contrary to what those who have never attended graduate school say, PhD students are not taught what to think, but how to properly treat competing and conflicting sources of information.
A critical and primary component of proper evaluation of sources is context. Just as one would not properly say that a profane person who exclaimed “J…. C…..!” in an argument at a ball game believed in Christ simply because he uttered the word, simply printing the word at some time in some context does not necessarily indicate belief in Christ, either.
When I say that the key founders did not talk about Christ, I am not saying (and don’t say) that they never used the word at any time in their lives. I am not saying that they never printed the word “Christ” at any point or in any context. I am saying it in the same sense that I say that “my wife does not eat fish” – it is not that she has never eaten fish at any time or under any circumstance in her life; it is that she does not eat fish as a matter of normal/general practice. It is in the sense that I would say that “my pastor does not lie.” Since he is a human being, I assume that he has lied at some point in his life (probably several times) – but it is not inaccurate to say that he does not lie; it reflects what he “does” (his regular practice) and not what he may have “done” on isolated occasions under certain circumstances.
If one digs deeply enough, as Mr. Fortenberry has done, one can find examples of each of the key founders printing the word “Christ” – but that does not mean that it always (or even usually) reflects their own thinking or initiative or chosen vocabulary. And it does not mean – in my usage of the phrase – that they talked about Christ. Talking about Christ in the context in which I say it is about talking about the Christ – talking about Him in a way that indicates that He is the Christ – as opposed to just an extraordinary man. That depends on context.
If someone merely quotes someone else talking about Christ, that does not tell us anything about what the person doing the quoting believes. If someone is raised in an orthodox environment and only mentions Christ as a young man, but as an adult at the time of the Founding says contrary things, the original quote tells us little about what he believed as “a founder.” If someone reports the subject of a conversation in which someone else mentioned the word “Christ,” that tells us nothing about the views of the reporter – especially when, in his commentary on the event, he expresses heretical views of his own about Jesus. If someone is defending a pastor and reports what the pastor taught, that tells us nothing about the beliefs of the defender. If, in that same situation, the defender uses the language of the judges/jurors to try to favorably influence them, that tells us nothing about the views of the defender. If, in more than 20,000 pages of someone’s writings, there is only one reference to “Jesus” or “Christ” and that is not in the person’s handwriting, but in the handwriting of an aide of his who was a Christian, that tells us little about that person’s belief in Christ. Use of the word “divine” must also be evaluated in context because in 18th century common usage, “divine” also meant simply “preeminently gifted or extraordinarily excellent” (like some people even today refer to symphonies or desserts as “divine” or to Bette Midler as “the divine Miss M”). It was also a common term for a merely human representative of God, such as pastors. When a 21st-century evangelical sees the word “divine,” he/she automatically assumes a reference to God – but not so in the 18th century. This is context. In the case of one of the key founders, quotes given in which he says “Christ” and even expresses belief in Christ actually make my point: he does not do so until after he has a conversion experience and is born again (long after he was a “founder”).
As a general rule, the public statements and pronouncements of politicians sensitive to public approval are not as reliable indicators of true belief as private statements which they did not expect the public to see. Like politicians today, they often had aides who wrote public documents. They wrote their own private correspondence, however, and, depending on the recipient, usually had no reason to hide their true beliefs. On numerous occasions, key founders aware of the heterodoxy they expressed in a letter, instructed the recipients of correspondence to return or to burn the letters to keep them from the public eye. Surely we are all aware of the propensity of politicians to “tickle the ears” of the public in order to become or remain popular – the key founders were no exception; they were not gods or demi-gods, they were merely political men (albeit much better ones than we have today).
Finally, for many people, “Christ” is simply Jesus’ last name. For them, saying or writing “Jesus Christ” does not reflect belief in Jesus as the Christ. In the minds of some who see “Christ” as Jesus’ last name, simply referring to “Christ” doing or saying something could simply be like me referring to “Fortenberry” doing or saying something – referring to someone by their last name (which is common practice when discussing someone’s views/teachings). It all depends on context.
You, as a reader, may (with Mr. Fortenberry) not find any of this persuasive. In my experience, that is particularly true of those who really want to believe something. And, of course, I could be wrong; I do not claim infallibility. I approach texts with my training as a professional; but I am a human being and, therefore, subject to making errors.
You can, of course, disagree with me. I certainly disagree with the conclusions drawn by many professional historians. I disagree strongly with those who claim that the founders were virtually all deists or secularists who wanted to erect a wall of separation and remove religion from the public square. The evidence tells me that there were a number of Christians among the founders, but not among the key founders (those who had the greatest impact). The evidence further tells me that even those Christians who were among the founders did not intend to create a Christian nation. The key founders wanted religion to have an important public role in society, but not necessarily Christianity – any religion would do because they believed that all religions promote morality, which was their public concern. Conversely, I can find from the evidence only one deist among the founders – and that only if I widen the net of “founders” very wide. And the evidence tells me that no one intended to create a strictly secular nation, either.
Mr. Fortenberry and I have both severely criticized a recently published book that has garnered far more attention than it deserves. We clearly agree on the quality and application of the evidence cited by that author in that book – we just disagree concerning much of the evidence on the other end of the spectrum.
I would like to thank Dr. Gregg Frazer for this guest post enlightening us on the proper method for using quotations as evidence in historical research. Personally, I could have done without his condescending assumption that neither I nor my readers have any experience in graduate programs as well as the whole "look at me; I'm a professional" part, but I suppose that was to be expected. I am entirely grateful, however, for Gregg's insistence that we faithfully adhere to the context when we use quotations as evidence in our debates. I only wish that he had been as careful to follow his own advice.
I would like to invite my readers to investigate this particular contention between Gregg and myself and to determine which of us is using quotations in a manner that is faithful to their contexts. Here are the three articles that I wrote which led up to Gregg's guest post:
Thomas Jefferson Recognized Jesus as the Christ
Gregg Frazer is Still Wrong about the Founders
Frazer, Fortenberry and Franklin
If you would like to read other arguments that I have brought against Gregg's claims, you can check out my short e-book The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism, search for the name "Frazer" on this website or search for both Fortenberry and Frazer at the American Creation Blog.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)