Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Christian Nation? Be Careful What You Preach

A good friend sent me this article the other night written by Rob Boston and published in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.  My friend wanted to know my thoughts about the article.   He also wanted to know if the article was factual. 

After reading the entire piece I advised my friend the article was indeed factual even though it was contrary to those who happen to think certain members of the Founding Fathers were Christians in the same sense the Religious Right profess to be.

For the most part while I tend to be a Conservative in political matters, I also tend to part ways with the Religious Right in this county who follow a hard-line stance regarding their view concerning our nation was founded on Christian beliefs.  
It really comes down to understanding what the Religious Right believes a Christian to be and how the majority of our Founding Fathers actually viewed Christianity when you place them under a microscope.

I advised my friend, “We have to remember these were all educated men during their time and as such their classical education included views of the Age of Enlightenment….science and fact took the lead.  While they believed in God their views regarding Christianity don’t exactly match up with the Christian Right today.

Boston brings up the issue of Deism when discussing George Washington.  Deists believed in God but didn't necessarily see him as active in human affairs. He set things in motion and then stepped back.

Washington saw religion as necessary for good moral behavior but didn't accept all Christian dogma. He seemed to have a special gripe against communion and would usually leave services before it was offered.

Stories of Washington's deep religiosity, such as tales of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge, are pious legends invented after his death.

I have to agree with Boston.   Back in 2007, I wrote about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge here and here.   I’ve also examined the controversy about Washington’s inauguration and the fact that there really isn’t any true documentation regarding those little words, “So help me God!” here.

Boston didn’t just pick on historical myths regarding Georgia Washington.   He discussed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine as well.

Boston states John Adams was Unitarian, although he was raised a Congregationalist and never officially left that church. Adams rejected belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, core concepts of Christian dogma. In his personal writings, Adams makes it clear that he considered some Christian dogma to be incomprehensible.

In February 1756, Adams wrote in his diary about a discussion he had had with a conservative Christian named Major Greene. The two argued over the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. Questioned on the matter of Jesus' divinity, Greene fell back on an old standby: some matters of theology are too complex and mysterious for we puny humans to understand.

Adams was not impressed. In his diary he wrote, "Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity."

As president, Adams signed the famous Treaty of Tripoli, which boldly stated, "The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion ..."

It is very well known among historians that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin and other core Christian doctrines. He was hostile to many conservative Christian clerics, whom he believed had perverted the teachings of that faith.

Boston goes on to discuss what is known as The Jefferson Bible…..

Although not an orthodox Christian, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral teacher. In one of his most unusual acts, Jefferson edited the New Testament, cutting away the stories of miracles and divinity and leaving behind a very human Jesus, whose teachings Jefferson found "sublime." This "Jefferson Bible" is a remarkable document -- and it would ensure his political defeat today. (Imagine the TV commercials the religious right would run: Thomas Jefferson hates Jesus! He mutilates Bibles!)

While I have written about James Madison and his college days at Jersey College….we know it today as Princeton… I have left his religious beliefs alone until now.   Boston doesn’t.  He advises….Nominally Anglican, Madison, some of his biographers believe, was really a Deist. He went through a period of enthusiasm for Christianity as a young man, but this seems to have faded. Unlike many of today's politicians, who eagerly wear religion on their sleeves and brag about the ways their faith will guide their policy decisions, Madison was notoriously reluctant to talk publicly about his religious beliefs.

Madison was perhaps the strictest church-state separationist among the founders; taking stands that make the ACLU look like a bunch of pikers. He opposed government-paid chaplains in Congress and in the military. As president, Madison rejected a proposed census because it involved counting people by profession. For the government to count the clergy, Madison said, would violate the First Amendment.

Madison, who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, also opposed government prayer proclamations. He issued a few during the War of 1812 at the insistence of Congress but later concluded that his actions had been unconstitutional. He vetoed legislation granting federal land to a church and a plan to have a church in Washington care for the poor through a largely symbolic charter. In both cases, he cited the First Amendment

Finally, we come to Thomas Paine.  The man who never held office but wrote a little pamphlet we remember as “Common Sense.”  

Boston advises he was also a radical Deist whose later work, "The Age of Reason," still infuriates fundamentalists.

In the tome, Paine attacked institutionalized religion and all of the major tenets of Christianity. He rejected prophecies and miracles and called on readers to embrace reason. The Bible, Paine asserted, can in no way be infallible. He called the god of the Old Testament "wicked" and the entire Bible "the pretended word of God." (There go the Red States!)

Boston states, “There was a time when Americans voted for candidates who were skeptical of core concepts of Christianity like the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth. The question is, could any of them get elected today? The sad answer is probably not.
Based on this knowledge, wouldn’t it would be interesting to see the founding of our nation played out in more contemporary times?

I have a feeling it would be as much of a circus as our primary and election seasons have become today.


Richard Ewen said...

I enjoy your articles very much. What struck me soundly when I read this one was its tone. Wouldn't it nice if Congress was able to communicate in this manner where people's views were respected and merited in an honest and productive way. It seems to me the "religious right" has injected intolerance and hate into political commentary. It makes most people reluctant to discuss issues dispassionately and to try to actually solve problems with constructive dialogue.

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