Monday, October 23, 2006

God and the Founding Fathers?

You often hear the claim that the United States is a "Judeo-Christian" nation, founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. This is usually used as a preface to argue that the government should be heavily involved in religious speech.

But it's bunk. And it has never been so eloquently pointed out as it was this weekend by George Will, in a review of "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers" by Brooke Allen.

I'll let Will do the talking on this one:

Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but, tellingly, they frequently preferred synonyms for him — “Almighty Being” or “Divine Author” (Washington) or “a Superior Agent” (Jefferson). Having set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see “the hand of Providence” in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. “Christian deist” is an oxymoron.

Allen’s challenge is to square the six founders’ often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive.

When Franklin was given some books written to refute deism, the deists’ arguments “appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.” Revelation “had indeed no weight with me.” He believed in a creator and the immortality of the soul, but considered these “the essentials of every religion.”

What Allen calls Washington’s “famous gift of silence” was particularly employed regarding religion. But his behavior spoke. He would not kneel to pray, and when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his austere manner: he stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity’s “benign influence” on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered as he died a Stoic’s death.

Adams declared that “phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all terrestrial religions,” and told a correspondent that if they had been on Mount Sinai with Moses and had been told the doctrine of the Trinity, “We might not have had courage to deny it, but We could not have believed it.” It is true that the longer he lived, the shorter grew his creed, and in the end his creed was Unitarianism.

Jefferson, writing as a laconic utilitarian, urged his nephew to inquire into the truthfulness of Christianity without fear of consequences: “If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comforts and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

Madison, always common-sensical, briskly explained — essentially, explained away — religion as an innate appetite: “The mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect.” When Congress hired a chaplain, he said “it was not with my approbation.”

There's more. It's a good read for anybody interested in the religious underpinnings (or lack thereof) of our nation.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that, more than 200 years after the founding of this country, historians and writers alike still have the issue in debate, makes me come up with this thought.
The founding fathers, while they had their skepticism about God, they did not close their mind, and create an atheist system, like the communist/socialists did elsewhere. Their ideas help create the most open and democratic society man has ever known. And the people who pledge their allegiance to the constitution and the secular instituitions of government it helped create , are no less religious than the bible carrying christians who think otherwise. I am specifically referring to the so called "east coast intellectuals", Who, for example, believe that the first amendment is as valuable as any of the ten commandmants.


10/24/2006 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

There is also a good article in the New York Review of Books discussing Lincoln that talks about his religious convictions or lack thereof and it seems clear that he was, at least, somewhat skeptical. Like the Founders, he was forced to hide his skepticism to some extent.

To be fair, however, you can probably argue that the values of the country do derive from a Judeo-Christian ethic, which, after all, the vast majority of Americans believe and still believe in. I am a non-believer myself and I am all in favor of secular institutions, but I don't think the fact that the founders may have been religious skeptics means that you can simply dismiss the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition on the United States. (Although, obviously, you don't need to be Jewish or Christian to have similar values.) People don't develop beliefs in a vacuum. Even those who are not religious are certainly influenced by the culture around them and, in America, that is, to a great extent, a Judeo-Christian culture.

10/24/2006 12:57 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

GK: The genius of the FF was making room for all beliefs, or lack thereof. Such tolerance has been sorely tested at times. But a government that studiously avoids embroilment in religious matters serves religion better than the alternative -- which is to serve one belief at the expense of others.

Marc: Agreed that America is a religious nation, and that influences our character -- believer and nonbeliever alike. I have no problem with that; it would be rank foolishness to try to divorce religion from society. My point is that this nation was not built on a religious footing. Individuals, including those in government, are free to express their beliefs; they are not free to use public money or the power of their office to support them.

10/24/2006 9:39 PM  

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