Sunday, November 1, 2009

Founding Fathers and Religion

I have been getting increasingly frustrated in seeing the attempted indoctrination of the American public into believing that the Founding Fathers established a Christian nation. Added to recent headaches, I have seen various blog posts linking to this artist's painting depicting Jesus holding the Constitution with many of the founding fathers and patriotic matriarchs following Him. Imagine my hilarious chuckles to see the likes of Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson supporting the Constitutional Christianity...

I guess that brings us to a need for definition on who are considered the "Founding Fathers." I suppose we should start at the inception of the phrase "founding fathers." It was President Warren G Harding who first coined the phrase along with his testimony in his religiously laced inaugural address in 1921: "...I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God's intent in the making of this new-world Republic."

The irony of one whose political career was riddled with unethical behavior and scandal playing on the emotions of God-fearing people does not escape me. It kind of reminds me of another recent President, but I digress...

The most blatantly obviously, and hence, most frequently quoted in this debate is from the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797. Article 11 states: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility [sic], of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never have entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

Well, forget that, Neo-cons will say. It was written by an Enlightenment freethinker. I know, I know, the Dark Ages were ruled by authoritative religions and the Enlightenment brought about philosophical atheists. As the religious conservatives would say:

Evidence rejected.

How about the 10th President of the United States (get out your history books) John Tyler? Is he authoritative enough? He said the following in an 1843 letter: "The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent -- that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions."

Well, we can forget forget him. He was the first President born AFTER the adoption of the US Constitution, so I guess that technically disqualifies him from personally knowing the intent of the founding fathers. He was a big proponent of states rights so you Neo-Cons should love him, unfortunately, that also means he sided with the Confederacy...but that may still bring some Neo-Con love anyway.

Evidence rejected.

Alright, how about George Washington? Does he count as a Founding Father???? In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

But, George Washington had his famous prayer and was a member of the Episcopal Church.

Evidence rejected.

Washington, like many people in colonial America, belonged to the Anglican church and was a vestryman in it. But in early America, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, you had to belong to the dominant church if you wanted to have influence in society, as is illustrated by the following taken from Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, by Bishop William Meade, I, p 191. "Even Mr. Jefferson, and George Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence."

In the book Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr., we read on page 92, "Washington was no infidel, if by infidel is meant unbeliever. Washington had an unquestioning faith in Providence and, as we have seen, he voiced this faith publicly on numerous occasions. That this was no mere rhetorical flourish on his part, designed for public consumption, is apparent from his constant allusions to Providence in his personal letters. There is every reason to believe, from a careful analysis of religious references in his private correspondence, that Washington’s reliance upon a Grand Designer along Deist lines was as deep-seated and meaningful for his life as, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s serene confidence in a Universal Spirit permeating the ever shifting appearances of the everyday world."

On page 82 of the same book, Boller includes a quote from a Presbyterian minister, Arthur B. Bradford, who was an associate of Ashbel Green another Presbyterian minister who had known George Washington personally. Bradford wrote that Green, "often said in my hearing, though very sorrowfully, of course, that while Washington was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist."

George Washington coupled his genuine belief in Providence with action. After the American defeat at Germantown in 1777 he said, "We must endeavor to deserve better of Providence, and, I am persuaded, she will smile on us." He also wrote that we should take care to do our very best in everything we do so that our, "reason and our own conscience approve."

William and Mary professor David Holmes, after 40 years of religious study, compiled his research and concluded that while many of the founding fathers were associated with certain Christian denominations of their time, he noted a relevant distinction between membership and belief in denominational interpretations and doctrines. “These men fit the category of men of faith though that faith is different from the faith of most Christians today.”

It is akin to the countless numbers of people who when asked their religious affiliation will claim Catholicism yet when asked about regularity of attendance or level of doctrinal belief and adherence, the truth reveals itself.

In my argument I will not disagree that the founding fathers saw inherent good that came from religion. Even George Washington, in his farewell address noted this: "Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."

In a article on this very topic, writer Michael Lind notes: "In Washington's day, it may have been reasonable for the elite to worry that only fear of hellfire kept the masses from running amok, but in the 21st century it is clear that democracy as a form of government does not require citizens who believe in supernatural religion. Most of the world's stable democracies are in Europe, where the population is largely post-Christian and secular, and in East Asian countries like Japan where the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' has never been part of the majority culture."

Which brings us back full circle. Does having a nation of Christians make us a Christian nation? Simply because the majority of the founding fathers affiliated with Christian denominations does that make this a Christian nation? Does is make The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution Christian documents? Does God than approve of everything that was done in this country with the protection and interpretation of the Constitution by Christian judges and voting bases?

I suppose not anymore than Microsoft being an atheist company, Wal-Mart a Presbyterian corporation, IKEA from being a Lutheran company, Cargill from being a Methodist company, or Dell from being a Jewish company...or maybe they are simply because of their founder's religious affiliations?

Evidence rejected.


Scott said...

I really like this one TJ, and whole heatedly agree. However, let's not be naieve here, this country is dominated by Christianity. For over 200 years every man to serve in the office of the president has at least professed Christianity as his religion of choice. Obama walked a very tight wire rebuffing claims of Muslim theology, meanwhile distancing himself from his outspoken Christian pastor.

Irregardless of the founders and their intent for this nation, a non-Christian has a huge hurdle to overcome if he seeks the highest office in this country.

T.J. Shelby said...

Scott, I agree with you and don't think I'm being naive. I don't see it changing anytime soon. And I see it as this country is being dominated by Christians, not Christianity. Slight wordplay but I think you get my point.

Seriously though, it was also for over 200 years that the very thought of a black man becoming President was a laughable delusion.

Depending on how the next couple of years play out, I think Michael Bloomberg may seriously consider running against Obama in 2012. He's a middle of the road Republican (former Democrat), an uber-successful businessman (8th richest American) and he's Jewish.

Is the country ready for a Jewish President? And why does religion even matter when choosing a President?

Jared said...

I hate you TJ for always being more concise and thorough than me.

That said, as always, great post man.