Sunday, March 30, 2008

Founders Religion in Modern Politics: Why Conservatives and Liberals Get it so Very Wrong

Will all of the political talk about Obama's religion, along with the role of faith in the halls of government that seems to be infesting the "blogosphere," I thought it might be fun to engage in a discussion about how the religion of the Founding Fathers has become a political platform of sorts. No matter where you turn these days, it is virtually impossible to avoid the onslaught of Democrat and Republican politics. Both parties have invested a great deal of assets in this year's election in an effort to ensure their party's triumph. Political rhetoric seems to saturate the airwaves with promises of reform and change coming from the rival political camps.

Of all the arguments that seem to complicate this year's election, religion is at or near the top. Whether it comes in the form of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Mike Huckabee's Evangelical beliefs, or allegations of Barack Obama's ties to Islam and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the religion of our candidates has taken center stage. To further complicate this messy conglomeration of religious fervor, both the Democrats and Republicans have chosen to passionately invoke the memory of our Founding Fathers to bolster support for their respective causes. From Mike Huckabee's assertion that the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen, to Barack Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech, this season's crop of presidential hopefuls have fully embraced the time-honored tradition of "piggybacking" the memory of the Founding Fathers with their individualistic political agendas.

This is, of course, nothing new to the world of politics. Over the centuries virtually every politician has appealed to the legacy of the Founding Fathers to rally support. What has changed, however, is the fanatical desire to polarize the religious sentiments of the Founding Fathers. These extremist views between the secularism of most liberals and the Christian zeal of most conservatives has created opposing doctrines on how religion influenced America's founding. As Steven Waldman point out in his new book Founding Faith:

In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.

Waldman's bold statements are virtually echoed by those of author John Meacham, who writes in his book American Gospel the following:

Both sides feel they are fighting for the survival of what's best for America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture...The conservative right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument...the secularist arrogance that religion played no role in America's founding is equally ridiculous.

So where does this leave us? Despite all of the "historical" arguments of the Democrats and Republicans, we can conclude three truths about the role of religion in the lives of the Founding Fathers, and its influence on America's founding:

1.) The Founding Fathers were religious individuals, in the sense that they believed in a "divine Providence," which oversaw and assisted in the efforts of mankind. Very few can or should be classified as Atheist. In one form or another, the majority believed in a higher power.

2.) The "Major" Founders (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton) had a strong distrust of organized religion. The Founders were more than aware of the religious atrocities that had occurred in the colonies (the Salem Witch Trials were still fresh in the minds of almost everyone). The ideology and doctrine of the Enlightenment, though not opposed to religion, did convince many within colonial society that an individual did not need organized religion to commune with deity.

3.) The United States of America was NOT created as a CHRISTIAN nation. Though this is often an offensive statement to many Christians, I would remind them that America's greatness comes from its liberties and diversity. We accept and embrace ALL religions, not just Christianity. Though the Founders embraced Christian ideals, this does not suggest that they created a Christian nation. As John Adams himself stated, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

Though this argument is likely to continue for many years to come, perhaps some sense of it could be made by merely taking a trip to Washington D.C. There you will find the Washington Monument (built in the style of the Egyptian Obelisk). Egypt, as we all know was hardly a Christian nation. Then there is the United States Supreme Court building, which is build after the manner of the Greek Parthenon (Greece, as we all know, was a deeply pagan society at the time of the Parthenon). The Supreme Court building is also adorned with an elegant statue of Moses (which, of course, has angered many secularists). Perhaps the secularists should give the statue a further examination, for they will find that Moses is accompanied by a statue of Confucius (the great Chinese philosopher) and Solon (the great Athenian poet, statesman and leader in early Greece). Inside the Supreme Court building you are also likely to see the pagan statues of Britannia and Mars. Again, the Founding Fathers sought to create a nation where we would embrace and accept ALL beliefs.


This "Temple of Justice" as it was called, has become a symbol of America's religious diversity, which is one of its greatest strengths. It would do both the conservatives and liberals a great deal of good to remember these truths before making their partisan claims. After all, only damage can come from distorting history to fit one's agenda. As John Meacham states, "If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."

14 comments:

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, I think you've done a good job summing up the Jeffersonian view within the founding era.

I am a little uncomfortable with your attribution of the "Christian religion" quote to John Adams. Secularists love that quote, which is lifted of course from the Treaty of Tripoli. I think more mileage is gotten from that line of the treaty than what is warranted.

Overall, though, I like your article. Just a few points of disagreement. Not many. :-)

Brian Tubbs said...

Oh, one more thing...

You said that "very few" of the Founders could be considered "atheists." I think it would be more accurate to say that NONE of the Founders could be construed as "atheists." I challenge anyone here to name me ONE - just ONE - Founding Father that was an atheist.

Brad said...

Your point is well taken, Brian. I should have used a different phrase than "very few." To be honest, I didn't realize I wrote it.

I am in complete agreement with what you say. Can anyone name a truly "Atheist" founder? Even Paine acknowledged a belief in god. Naturally, the founders had different beliefs about god, heaven, etc. Buc can anyone dispute Brian's claims? I think not.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Amen Brad. It is about time that the liberals and conservatives shut up about matters they know nothing about.

Wasn't Ethan Allen an Athiest?

David Mabry said...

One of my favorite quotes is the one where Theodore Roosevelt calls Thomas Paine that "filthy little atheist", which, of course, he was not. But I cannot pass on the opporunity to use it again. I give a little belly chuckle when I use it in class with my students.

Steve said...

Good overview of this issue. I as well hate it when I hear idiotic politicians distorting history. You are right to make the claim that religion has become a major issue in modern politics. I'm not saying that it isn't important...I just believe it is being distorted. Both hard-core conservatives and liberals desperately need a chill pill (sorry for using a phrase that is a throwback to the 90s).

I much prefer it when you hear of religious leaders like Joel Osteen, who, despite his massive following refuses to get involved with politics. Way to go, Joel!
The same goes for secularists like Joyce Appleby, who strongly supports everyone's right to worship as they see fit.

The Bill Maher's, Sean Hannity's, Rush Limbaugh's, Michael Moore's, James Dobson's, and Rosie O'donnell's of the world should simply shut the hell up when it comes to their mixing of religon and politics.

Also, let's give a shout out to our resident pastor, Mr. Brian Tubbs, for staying objetive in his views. I've surfed your sites and notice that you keep things pretty level-headed when it comes to religion and politics. Why can't America have more pastors like this???

Brian Tubbs said...

Lindsey, not sure about Ethan Allen. I did think about him, but he's hard to classify. He was certainly hostile to organized religion, but I don't know that he went as far as embracing atheism. Besides, can we really call Ethan Allen a "Founding Father." :-)

Here's a quote from Ethan Allen I found on the Internet....

"I have generally been denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism makes me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking, whether I am one or not."

Hercules Mulligan said...

No, Ethan Allen was not an atheist. As a matter of fact, I read in his own Memoirs that when he took Fort Ticonderoga shortly after the American Revolution began, he shouted that he took the fort "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

He was, however, a DEIST (Brian Tubbs is correct). He wrote a pamphlet called "Reason: The Only Oracle of Man," and the title itself gives away his deism, which teaches that there is no supernatural revelation of God to man, even though there is a Supreme Creator of the World.

Allen, however, was not a Founding Father, although he was a patriot. Allen was simply a soldier in the American Revolution, and I am not trying to downplay that as if it were unimportant. However, he did not forge any founding principles, and unless it can be demonstrated that he influenced more active Founders directly, his role is unimportant in the question of "are we a Christian nation?"

I am writing several blogs on this topic, and while I admit that the subject is not a simple one, nevertheless I believe that we are a Christian nation (not in the European sense, though; if that's what those who think contrary are trying to destroy, they are beating a horse that has been dead a long time) in the sense that the success of the American experiment rests in the ability of the people to at least respect Christianity. My conclusions are based upon what the Founders wrote (www.foundersbookshelf.blogspot.com) and if anyone would like to learn more about that, please come over to my blogs. You are invited to present your thoughts and any evidence you have if you do not agree. Disagreement is perfectly fine.

This is a good and thought-provoking article. I will revisit and digest this material more thoroughly, and then perhaps present my thought on it more directly.

Brad said...

I've actually been a big fan of your blogsites, Hercules. I enjoy your perspective and your writing ability.

Thanks for visiting our site. We are pleased that it has been received so well. We have a wide diversity of opinions on this blog, so feel free to comment any time. We love a good discussion!

Hercules Mulligan said...

Thanks for your kind words, Brad. I have been following this blog for a little while myself, and find the discussion very interesting.

Thanks for your invitation to comment; I will take it up. I love a good discussion, too.

Brad said...

We'll look forward to seeing you! Also, if you would like to join our blog as a contributor we would love to have you, Hercules. You clearly have a great understanding of this topic.

Let us know! We'd love to have you!

Hercules Mulligan said...

Your offer is an honor, Brad. Currently, I am not writing much even on my own blogs (I have been busy with other priorities immediately), and as you probably know, I have several! But I will consider your offer.

Thanks for the invitation.

Hercules Mulligan said...

This post points out that "The Founders were more than aware of the religious atrocities that had occurred in the colonies. ... The ideology of the Enlightenment, though not opposed to religion, did convince many within colonial society that an individual did not need organized religion to commune with deity."

This statement contains many facts. Yes, the Founders believed that people had, in the name of religion, committed atrocities.But consider the words of Alexander Hamilton, a Christian: "The world has been scourged with many fanatical sects in religion – who inflamed by a sincere but mistaken zeal have perpetuated under the idea of serving God the most atrocious crimes. If we were to call the cause of such men the cause of religion, would not everyone agree, that it was an abuse of terms? ... Can this political phrenzy [of the French Revolution] be dignified with the honorable appelation of the cause of Liberty with any greater propriety than the other kind of phrenzy would be denominated the cause of religion?” The Cause of France, Philadelphia, 1794 (Papers of AH, 17:585)

Hamilton viewed religion to be the solution to violence and atrocity, not the cause of it. For instance, he wrote in his "pay book" in 1776, when he was fighting in the War for Independence, “He (Numa) was a wise prince and went a great way in civilizing the Romans. The chief engine he employed for this purpose was religion, which could alone have sufficient empire over the minds of a barbarous and warlike people to engage them to cultivate the arts of peace.” PAH, vol. 1

And later, in 1799 he wrote: "How clearly is it proved by this that the praise of a civilized world is justly due to Christianity;—war, by the influence of the humane principles of that religion, has been stripped of half its horrors. The French renounce Christianity, and they relapse into barbarism;—war resumes the same hideous and savage form which it wore in the ages of Gothic and Roman violence." The Works of Alexander Hamilton (ed. by Lodge), vol. 6 ; “The War in Europe”

The post also makes the point that one did not need organized religion to commune with the deity. This is true, and who says that the idea that one must adhere to organized religion is a part of Christianity? I am a Christian, and have studied the Bible all my life, and I find nothing that says that disdaining organized religious systems is indicative of infidelity. In fact, God Himself does not need organized religion to get through to everybody. When the Christian church first got started (their history is recorded in the Book of Acts), they did not go around organizing religion; they went around preaching the Gospel of Christ, and how God wants to hold people accountable on an individual basis, whether they were white or black, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. I think that the Founders understood this Christian concept that man does not need organized religion, but that rather organized religion can be a bad replacement of the commandments of God with the "traditions of men" (see Jesus as He smashed organized religion in Mark 7).

The post also says that America was not created as a Christian nation, but that America embraces all religions.

If you think that the Christians who advocate the "Christian nation" theory were advocating a nation in which Christianity was the only religion allowed in the country, than you are mistaken. Obviously, that's not what the Founders wanted, and that's not what we are contending for. America was founded upon principles derived from the Bible (for example, man has a sinful, or selfish, nature, and needs to be held accountable; law transcends man's opinion, and is rooted in the words of God; etc), and that is what we are claiming. We are not saying that all the Founders were perfectly Christian, or that Christianity has to be sponsored by the government, or anything like that. What we are saying is that the Bible contains the only principles of truth and morality that are sufficient to sustain our free form of government.

I am not sure what the post means by saying that we "embrace all religions." Oh yes, we allow people with other religions to come here and profess their religions, but, we do not go so far to EMBRACE them as EQUALLY VALID. To do so is not only to make a logical error (how can you embrace theistic and atheistic religions??? Isn't that a contradiction?), but to deny that there is any ultimate truth, and therefore, to deny the basis for law; and it need not be questioned that our Founders made a government of law as opposed to a government of man. Now, we may EMBRACE the RIGHT of people to have whatever religion they want, but there are standards and limitations, because the goal of society is to protect life, liberty, and private property -- not to make everybody feel good.

Brian Tubbs has a point about the so-called Adams quote, which comes from a version of the Treaty of Tripoli (and may I point out, that some scholars have been questioning, for a few decades now, that the article in which that sentence -- and that is not the full sentence, btw -- did not exist in the original treaty; I am still looking into this). If you want a valid opinion from John Adams, here are his words, as I have presented on my blog, www.thefoundationforum.blogspot.com:
"The GENERAL PRINCIPLES on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were those GENERAL PRINCIPLES? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects [the Roman Catholics, Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, and Universalists] were united, and the GENERAL PRINCIPLES of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system." To Jefferson, 28 June, 1813

Um, and may I inquire, how does the architecture of Washington, D.C. prove that we are or aren't a Christian nation? Can somebody show me some quotes from THE FOUNDERS that have been substantiated that say we aren't one??

“Our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament, or, the Christian religion.” Noah Webster

“Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others … Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” John Jay

And here is some food for thought from Joseph Story (US Supreme Court Chief Justice, one of the 2 Fathers of American Jurisprudence): “The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects [denominations] and to prevent any national ecclesiastical patronage of the national government.”

My blog discusses this subject more in depth, in many posts. I am writing a series of the posts on this subject, and I left off at the biblical justification for our American Revolution. I am too busy to be blogging very frequently, but I will resume it soon!

P.S. I hope my comment is not too long!

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