A few weeks ago over at Slate Dave Weigel stated that “Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” I tweeted to Weigel that this was just plain wrong. There have been plenty of presidents who rejected orthodox Christianity, the last one being William Howard Taft, a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. And now Jeffrey Goldberg is saying the same thing in Bloomberg View:
But theological honesty demands that we recognize that. Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.
There is much in Mormonism that stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, including the belief that the Book of Mormon completes the Christian Bible. Christianity had an established creed about 1,500 years before Joseph Smith appeared in upstate New York with a new truth, codified in the Book of Mormon, which he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni.
“The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”
I know this is a science blog, but sometimes I frankly can’t stand how little specific information generalist pundits seem to have (though Jeff Goldberg is famous for being the guy who got promoted after convincing many liberals of the feasibility and justice of the Iraq War, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised). Here’s a “fact check.” Four American presidents have been Unitarian.
In the United States Unitarianism evolved out of the liberal wing of the Congregational movement (in New England most Unitarian churches used to be Congregational churches, with King’s Chapel in Boston being the primary exception). Today Unitarianism is predominantly a non-Christian denomination, with about a half and half split between ‘humanist’ and ‘theist’ Unitarians. But in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries Unitarians were generally Christian in self-conception, though they rejected the Trinity as outlined in the Nicene Creed. Thomas Jefferson was never an avowed Unitarian, but his personal correspondence indicates that his views toward religion were in line with more radical Unitarians during his presidency, though he did become more of a liberal Episcopal Christian in his later years. It has to be remembered that Jefferson invited Thomas Paine back to the United States in 1802. Keep in mind that Paine was the Christopher Hitchens of his day when it came to religious opinions (Christian churches would not take his body for burial upon his death because of his reputation).
Jefferson’s religious heterodoxy can be understood best by observing the substance of the Bible he produced by redacting much of the material. In content:
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth…It does, however, include references to Noah’s Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil.
There is a movement in the United States to erase the reality of the heterodoxy of these early Founding Fathers from historical memory, and that movement originates out of the evangelical Protestant Right which puts a premium on theological orthodoxy, and cannot brook the fact that the more prominent Founders were not Christians as they would understand it. Strangely these views are now spreading through repetition. I recall running into a doctor a few years ago who was raised evangelical in Texas who told me that “of course the Founders were orthodox Christians….” This person is no longer an evangelical, and was totally taken aback when I corrected the fake history he’d been fed in Sunday School.
Now, it must be remembered that the Founders themselves conceived of themselves as Christians. Unitarian Christians of the period believed themselves to be the real Christians. Even many of the heterodox Founders with Deist sympathies like Jefferson perceived the Christianity of their day to be in a degraded condition. Kind of like Mormons.