The Religion of the Founding Fathers: One Nation Under Dogma
Jim Amrhein responds to the response to his Whiskey & Gunpowder article, “One Nation, Under Dogma,” primarily concentrating on the Religion of the Founding Fathers.
THERE WASN’T SUPPOSEDto be a “Part 2” of this essay…
However, we got so much feedback of all types (and from all sides) on One Nation, Under Dogma that my fellow editors and I felt that a “second coming” of sorts was warranted. Why?
Because oddly enough, the issue I chose as the main focus of the first part — namely, whether the inclusion of “under God” in the official Pledge of Allegiance to our nation equates to an unconstitutional governmental sanction of religion — was NOT the focus of many of your responses. This isn’t entirely surprising, and is consistent with what I’ve come to regard over the years as the One Great Truth of editorial writing: That some people will read what they want to read, not necessarily what is written, and that an author’s point is always at the mercy of a reader’s point of view.
At any rate, whether you ultimately call this an expansion, a clarification, or a thinly disguised exercise in pulling the rug out from under some of my original essay’s more outspoken and wrong-headed critics (it’s a bit of all three, actually), I ask you to proceed with an open mind. After all, some of you are going to recognize your own comments in the following paragraphs.
But before I begin, I’d like to get a couple of acknowledgements out of the way:
To the readers who wrote on behalf of the Christian Americans who support sensible measures to separate church and state, I say: Whew! I was a little worried about whether you were out there or not, since the bulk of the “first responders” were hurling hellfire and brimstone my way for my clearly satanic blasphemy….
To the readers who wrote to weigh in with their own perspectives and “angles” on the issue, I say: Thanks. Your perspectives are invaluable to my thinking and, ultimately, to the engagement, provocation, and entertainment of your fellow readers. And as I said above, a few of you will no doubt see elements of some of your more poignant observations in the next few minutes of reading….
And finally, to the reader who wrote to tell me that my essay had done “a lot, in a common sense way” to clear his thinking on the matter of God and the Pledge, I say: I’m humbled, and you’re very welcome.
But enough throat-clearing. Time to strap on the gloves….
The Religion of the Founding Fathers: Bible Belted and Dei-rided
Of course, I expected to be pelted with brimstone and spritzed with holy water. And I was. A lot of Christians — mostly good-hearted, well-meaning folks, I’m sure — seem to view ANY suggestion of scaling back or re-examining God’s profile in American government as blasphemy. If some of the feedback I received is any indication, it borders on a sacrilege to many, regardless of the implicit separation of church and state in the Constitution….
But what I didn’t expect was the surprising amount of e-mails I received taking me to task for characterizing the Founding Fathers as Christians. Many readers wrote in to insist that the framers were atheist or simply “deists,” not Christians. As evidence, they cited three reasons, mainly: the lack of any direct mention of a Christian God in the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution, various quotes attributed to the framers on the downsides of Christianity, and the oft-quoted text of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli.
I’ll give you my take on these one at a time…
The Religion of the Founding Fathers: 1) Absence of Christian references in U.S. founding documents
In the wording of the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers are clearly defying the then-standard ligature between God and government. It’s a slippery slope to walk — and I, for one, think they handled it pretty deftly.
On the one hand, they needed a divine justification for their secession in order to have any hope of persuading the king (who was believed to be God’s own vessel, mind you) to let them go without bloodshed. On the other hand, since they envisioned a new nation that wasn’t strictly a Christian one with an official church, they had to avoid specific references to the Christian God. Perhaps that’s why they used terms like “Nature’s God,” “Our Creator,” and “divine Providence.” It’s clear to me their aim was to invoke the righteousness of their cause in the eyes of the Christian God while not founding a government based on Christianity. Quite a trick.
But regardless of the reasons behind their non-specificity, the absence of any mention of Christianity in the Declaration and the Constitution no more proves the Founding Fathers weren’t predominantly Christian than the presence of the phrase “Nature’s God” proves they were Gaia-worshipping vegans….
However, it DOES prove my original point: that the framers knew what they wanted in their new system of government — namely, one in which morality and reason drives the governing, not any deity or religion. In other words, a separation of church and state.
The Religion of the Founding Fathers: 2) Derogatory quotes on the nature of religion/Christianity
More than one reader sent me quotes or excerpts that are attributed to various Founding Fathers that would seem to indicate their hostility toward or disbelief in Christianity. Of these, only the ones from Thomas Jefferson ring with much credibility in my ears. If any of the framers could rightly be called a “deist,” as opposed to a Christian, it is he. Ever a child of the Enlightenment, his writings on the subject are, both in essays and in correspondence, unmistakable in their contempt of the mysticism, mythology, and superstitions inherent to the beliefs of many Christians of his era.
But quotes are tricky things. They need to be read in context to be fully understood. A perfect example of this is Jefferson’s own quote carved into his memorial in Washington:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
At first glance, this quote would seem to cement Jefferson’s belief in Christianity, since God is capitalized and the text mentions the Christian church practice of swearing before an altar. How its meaning changes, however, when one finds out that this quote was lifted from an 1800 letter to Benjamin Rush condemning the Christian clergy in Philadelphia. The “tyranny” he speaks of is that of Christian dogma over the minds of free men!
What’s also tricky is spirituality itself. Sometimes what a person says on the subject at one point in life is markedly different from what that same person might say at another juncture. For instance, from at least one person I received an emphatic statement of Abraham Lincoln’s lack of Christian faith, citing the following oft-repeated quote:
“The Bible is not my book and Christianity is not my religion.”
Though I’m not sure why a reader would send me Lincoln quotes, since he’s not one of the Founding Fathers, his words nevertheless serve as an example of this kind of ambiguity. After all, he invoked “this nation under God” in the Gettysburg Address, and is credited with having written the following in 1846:
“That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures…”
See what I mean about quotes being tricky things? It’s just like the “sound bite” mentality of today’s media. People can be made to say just about anything when edited and presented out of context. To me, a single quote does not a lifelong philosophy make — especially when it comes to religion.
The Religion of the Founding Fathers: 3) The Treaty of Tripoli
This is the 1797 treaty aimed at re-establishing commerce between the brand-spanking-new American government and the nation of Tripoli (or Barbary), whose ass we had just kicked in a series of naval raids after its harassment of U.S. merchant ships. Part of the text of this treaty reads:
“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
Clearly, this language appears in the treaty to find common ground with that non-Christian nation and to ameliorate its concerns about future aggression or sanctions from the United States in the name of God. Why people sent this as proof of the Founding Fathers’ secularism is beyond me. All the excerpt proves to me (once again) is that the framers were devoted to the separation of church and state in government — not that none of them were Christians. Is there any other way to see this?
Bottom line: While I agree with readers who pointed out that segments of the modern Christian culture have made it their mission over the last 50 years to not only portray the Founding Fathers as crusaders for Christianity, but also to brand America as a “Christian” nation, this doesn’t mean they’re entirely wrong. Many early Americans (I know, not native Americans) were Christians, whether some people want to admit it or not….
However, though it’s completely irrelevant to One Nation, Under Dogma’s main point (that we shouldn’t have to affirm a belief in God to swear allegiance to our country), I concede that my original assertion that the Founding Fathers were “Christians one and all” may have been overstated. In retrospect, I would hope that the framers represented a solid mix of influences: not only Christians of all stripes, but atheists, agnostics, deists, Freemasons (whatever they are), and non-Christians, too — all mixed up with a healthy dash of Enlightenment-age reason, of course.
To my way of thinking, that would be the most appropriate body to forge a nation in which religious freedom would flourish, instead of where a “master faith” is imposed on its citizens, along with oaths of patriotism and devotion.
The Religion of the Founding Fathers: Patriotism = Piety? Freedom = Faith?
As I wrote in an open response to critics on the Whiskey & Gunpowder forum:
Some responding to One Nation, Under Dogma have taken the article to be an attack against any and all references to God anywhere in our government or society. Nowhere in my essay did I say or imply that this should be the case. In fact, my article defended the divine in patriotic songs, the slogan “In God We Trust” on our money, and even to some degree the Ten Commandments in courts….
However, clearly for some people, the main point was either lost or diminished during the discussion of ancillary issues regarding the separation of church and state. And so I want to simplify things right now and pose the following question to fans and foes alike, which sums up that point precisely:
Do you think it’s appropriate that in the pledge of loyalty to our country one must also profess a belief in Christianity?
If your answer is yes, then how does this in any way square with the idea of “freedom of religion” that was obviously the intent of the framers — many of whom were themselves no doubt descendants of the religiously persecuted?
Posed another way: Do you think the intent of the framers was that we should live in a Christian theocracy? If not, do you think it would be BETTER if they had intended this, or if this were the case?
I, for one, feel that it is inconsistent with both the Constitution’s sentiments (if not its words) and the framers’ intent that the official, sanctioned-by-Congress Pledge of Allegiance to our nation also forces an endorsement of ANY religious belief — as the phrase “under God” so unmistakably does.
I, for one, do NOT believe that the term “American” means “Christian” — and I don’t think Jefferson and friends did, either. And I, for one, don’t think (as many obviously do) that everything would be hunky-dory under the Stars and Stripes if only Christianity were the Official American Religion….
And what really doesn’t make sense to me is why so many seem to think the mix of God and government is a good one. As screwed up as our system is, it could only sully the Christian church to affiliate with the state in any more ways than it absolutely has to — and since it pays no taxes, it really doesn’t have to, does it?
Looking at it this way, one would think most Christians — instead of trying to steer America into a theocratic system, which has never successfully coexisted with freedom anywhere in the world at any point in history — would be themselves clamoring for the separation of church and state in our government for fear of blaspheming God with our wretched corruptness….
I wonder why they aren’t?
Always worshipping our individual freedoms,
Whiskey & Gunpowder
October 24, 2005
P.S.To the shrill, gloating reader who called me “lazy” for stating that “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on our money until the 1950s, I say this: You’re lazy for not reading all the words in the article. I said the slogan didn’t appear on our PAPER money until the 1955 act of Congress. This is a fact — you can look it up, if you aren’t too lazy. Everyone with a steel penny in his piggy bank knows these four words have been on various U.S. coins since long before the Cold War.
Strategic Insider – 24 October 2005 – William Rees-Mogg
If one finds oneself in one of those book-lined committee rooms in which the international affairs experts analyse the problems of the world, one is likely to find the same five subjects being discussed. I have known that to be true in Oxford, London, New York, Cairo, Paris or Beijing. I am sure it is equally true in the universities or great cities I have not recently visited.
All five are problems of adjustment. There is a new development; the world has to recognised it, understand it and reach a new relationship with it. All five problems also relate to each other. In the committee rooms, delicate fingers are trying to unravel the tangled web which interconnects them.
The problems, seen from an economic point of view, are these: debt, oil, the renaissance of Asia, Islam, nuclear proliferation. Seen from a defence expert’s point of view, one can reverse the order. Each of the problems is theoretically capable of having a revolutionary outcome. The world could face a debt crisis, conceivably on the scale of a global inflation – the classic way to liquidate debt – or a world slump, as in the 1930s.
The world could face a temporary oil shortage, either at the level of crude supply or of lack of refinery capacity. This would push the oil price to $100 a barrel or more, and bankrupt the weakest nations in the developing world.
The renaissance of Asia could break down in a number of ways, crowding out other economies, conflict with the West, social breakdown, perhaps in China. The Islamic powers could all fall under the control of fundamentalist preachers, broadly sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and the jihad.
Iran may be the next strategically significant power to develop nuclear weapons. This could lead to conflict between Iran and the United States or Israel.
Each of these problems looks reasonably soluble if one takes it on its own. I have been surprised, for the last thirty years, at the amazing resilience of the global financial system. I do not think that the world’s central bankers are especially wise, though they are undoubtedly wiser than their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet they have managed to take us at high speed around one hairbend Corniche after another. I assume that there is a self-equilibrating mechanism, operating through the markets, which prevents what seem to be the natural consequences of unbalanced international finance. Yet, even if finance manages to survive its own self-generated problems, could it survive a major failure to resolve one of the other problems?
In the relatively short term, the oil shortage has been caused mainly by under investment, and the under investment was the result of an optimistic view that oil prices would go back to $20-$25 a barrel. What is worrying is the response time in developing crude or building refineries. It takes at least five years to plan and obtain consents for a new refinery, and another five years to build the new refinery. We are short of refineries now. How short will the world be in 2015? What will the oil demand for China be in ten years’ time?
I believe that the Chinese economy will continue to grow, if not quite so fast as it has grown in the last thirty years. Yet the Chinese economy is already putting an intense strain on the industrial commodities, as well as on oil. Equally China’s export capacity has crowded out the export industries which compete with China, ranging from those of Sri Lanka to Italy.
At least with China international relations are reasonably good and stable. If there are problems with China, there are also broad areas of common interest. Of course, there are also areas of common interest with the Islamic communities, but there are danger areas of instability or conflict. The jihadist view is widely held and widely taught, particularly in Arab Islam, which controls a large part of the world’s oil reserves. This view is accepted by the alienated Islamic youths of the Western world, not universally but commonly.
Finally one comes back to the nuclear question. It is obviously undesirable that Iran, an Islamic fundamentalist power, should become a nuclear power, though it is an understandable ambition from an Iranian point of view. Perhaps, in the end, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction will prove as effective in preventing nuclear war between secondary powers as it was in preventing nuclear war between the superpowers during the cold war period. I would not like to be in Tehran on the day an Iranian nuclear warhead landed on Tel Aviv. Yet there is a real danger of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists, or being used to defend jihadist regimes.
If the world’s leaders only had one of these problems to deal with, I would be reasonably confident that they could handle it. I am less confident that they can manage the interaction of all five. Perhaps the mysterious self-equilibration of global markets will continue to do it for them. The wisdom of markets is more reliable than the wisdom of governments.