Monday, July 05, 2010

In The Paper

...But not, for once, their fault: local business ran a full-page ad for a religious outreach, one of the more fundamental Protestant groups -- hey, it's their money and they were after doin' good; I am okay with that -- featuring four Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and George Washington.

I snickered. I don't know a whole lot of theology; I would in no wise argue that any of those men thought of religion -- and most especially Christianity as they knew it -- as anything other than a public good[1], but what you have there is A) an admitted Deist (though a huge fan of pretty much any religion that provoked folk to eschew evil and do good), B) a fellow so skeptical that he produced a Bible with all the miracles edited out and whose dinner parties resulted in shocked comment from some of the attendees on the impiety of conversation to be found there, C) a Unitarian[2], and finally, D) a man whose church attendance is well-documented, though he seems to have been wary of giving any particular congregation too great an appearance of Presidential endorsement.[3] History FAIL.

I don't get it. I'm not especially well-read in American Revolutionary history and I can name at least one fellow right off the top of my head who fits the bill to a T, a patriot and a churchly man: Patrick Henry. One can see why Alexander Hamilton might not be high on the list, though it isn't for lack of religion. On the other hand, you'd think John Jay would be a natural. As for a fourth (presuming Mr. Hamilton hasn't made the cut), why, you're on your own. There are plenty of other well-known men with good qualifications.

The rush to claim the biggest Big Names, no matter how badly they fit, never ceases to amuse me. Hey, do a little homework; it was a great big, inclusive kinda Revolution and faithful or doubter, Deist, Protestant, Catholic or Jew, one or more of your guys was in there. There's no need to co-opt the ill-fitting.

And there's no reason to pretend the Founders were of one mind in all things. It is because they were not and didn't pretend otherwise, that there's as much liberty built into the system as there is.

In writing this, I am probably putting a great big "kick me" sign on my own back but looky here, this isn't a First Amendment debate. The Founding Fathers were who they were, real human beings, not plaster busts looking down nobly on mere mortals.
1. Though Mr. Jefferson's opinion of the funding them with tax money may be found carved into the base of his statue in the eponymous Monument. Look here for a little more on Thomas Jefferson's religious opinions -- and a whole lot of speculation about James Madison's.

2. At a time when that meant utter refutation of the Trinity. That'd be a downcheck, Christianity-wise.

3. El Neil, among others, makes much of Washington's somewhat lofty manner; but he was keenly aware of the precedents he was setting and I think the man did his level best to do right as he saw it. Can't ask for more than that.


Ed Rasimus said...

Beautiful! I'm continually astonished at the ability of folks to characterize as as "a Christian nation" which and usually to support that with our basic documents none of which refer to Christianity but rather only to a Supreme Being. Not a single mention of "God" in the Constitution.

I can't disagree with the ethical basis of our nation, but it doesn't link inexorably to a religion.

LabRat said...

*in b4 thread conflagration!*

People seem to have an inchoate need to think of history as a time in which all right-thinking men were in natural agreement, because they did great things in a sort of intellectual Before The Fall period. Everyone knew their place, everyone knew right from wrong instinctively, and everyone was happy, and then subsequent generations had to succumb to temptations and screw everything up.

Where it really gets interesting is watching different groups project this same imagined condition on the same time and people. The respective attitudes of evangelicals and the more evangelical sort of atheist or Unitarian to the Founders is an excellent such example.

Ambulance Driver said...

I attended Ex Wife's Baptist church because KatyBeth invited me, and it seemed important to her.

Lots of good and simple folk there, kind-hearted and well-meaning, and as a congregation they have really helped The Ex out in a time of severe financial crisis, but...

...I was reminded, once again, that I'd rather seek my own path to God rather than route it through some church's doctrine.

The preacher spent 90 minutes on the same "the founding fathers intended we be a CHRISTIAN nation" trope (or is it tripe?). I think he noticed my skeptical expression, because later, during fellowship, he asked me about it.

I replied that "I think the only thing our founding fathers feared more than the power of government was the power of the church. That's why the First Amendment is not just about freedom OF religion, but freedom FROM religion."

To the guy's credit, he took it in stride, and we had a civil debate about it over barbecued chicken.

Afterward, he told me "You sound like an Episcopalian."

Heh. He's smarter than I first gave him credit for.

Justthisguy said...

From what I've read, Washington was a vestryman, but not a communicant. He always left the service after the Liturgy of the Word, and before Communion. Meself, I like staying for Communion. It's right mystical if you approach it in the right way.

karrde said...

I was at first astounded, then amused, by the way in which people of the 1700's and 1800's used religious phraseology as part of their everyday speech.

Even educated people, no less.

Then I remembered: the tool of literacy was the The Good Book, and everyone who could read had read The Good Book.

This, plus the the fact that in small villages, the local parson/priest was the most educated person around, made the literate world different.

So, Jefferson (and Franklin) could be found using religious verbiage. Washington could wax eloquent (in his own style) and politicians spent as much time using religious arguments as using any other kind of argument.

But the modern Evangelical, most likely to remember the religious behavior of America's early leaders, is also likely to disagree with them heavily about details of doctrine and creed.

And yes, America was at the time Christian in the sense that a majority of the population belonged to one of the major creeds that used the Christian Canon as a reference point.

I don't know if that is still true today; I do know that any change towards a more Christian nation will only work if a large number of Americans voluntarily change their lifestyle.

Kind of like the cultural change that happened between 1955 and 1970, but with the New Wave being people getting religious instead of getting rid of old restraints on thought and action.

(At least one such cultural change in favor of increased religious observance has happened in American history...and the waxing and waning of religious observance in its wake gives the lie to the claim that all was perfect in the past Golden Age. There were slow growths of apostasy/worldliness, and regrowths of religious fervor throughout the history of America, as well as the rest of the world.)

Ian Argent said...

@Ambulance Driver:

On the wall of our pastor's office is a poster of Jesus with the caption "He dies to take our sins, not our minds".

A no-prize to the first guess of denomination. A second to ethnic background.