Monday, December 19, 2011

Religion, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers

David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam performed an interesting survey. In 2006 they interviewed 3,000 people to obtain information on their political beliefs. They re-interviewed these people over the past summer. One of the intervening events was the rise of the Tea Party. They were able to then correlate the attitudes of those who currently claim Tea Party allegiance with their prior expression of political attitudes. Campbell and Putnam discovered that those who claim Teat Party alliance now are typically traditional conservative Republicans recast, not a manifestation of a new movement. What was most interesting is the finding that the Tea Party types’ major wish was not so much for small government, but for theocratic government.
"Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek "deeply religious" elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government."

Clearly, all the Republican candidates wish to demonstrate that their religious beliefs are consistent with the desires of this class of voter. To hear these Republican would-be presidents spouting radical beliefs is rather frightening. To hear them claim to be adhering to the intentions of our founders is rather puzzling.

There is an article in The Economist that reminds us of a bit of our history that is not well known, and places the intentions of our "founding fathers" in an interesting perspective.

As usual, Thomas Jefferson is the most interesting person of the era. He apparently created his own version of the Bible to make it consistent with his view of Jesus, and of history.

"But Jefferson’s approach to redacting the Bible involved something more radical than translation. He literally snipped out everything supernatural: miracles, the Virgin birth, the resurrection. The result was his own, non-mystical account of the life of Jesus."

"He admired Jesus as a moral teacher but like many of America’s revolutionaries, he had a visceral loathing for priestcraft. Jefferson blamed Saint Paul, the early Church, and even the Gospel writers for distorting the mission of Jesus, which, as he saw it, had been to reverse the decadence of the Jewish religion."

The article postulates that Jefferson—and many of the country’s co-founders—were likely Deists who were more comfortable with the existence of a God than they were with the existence of religion.

What had Jefferson to say about the separation of church and state?

"....a famous phrase of Jefferson’s, cherished by secularists, which calls for a "wall of separation" between church and state. Jefferson used that formula in a letter to some Baptists who asked him what exactly the constitution’s framers had meant when outlawing the establishment of a state religion."

The meaning of that phrase seems clear to most, but there are those who would still reinterpret it to suit their purposes. There are those who still believe that the US was, is, and always will be a "Christian nation." David Barton is identified as one of the most prominent and most persistent proponents of this view. Barton’s view is that Jefferson meant a wall that only worked in one direction. The wall would protect religion from government, but would not protect government from religion.

"Among his recent claims are that the founding fathers rejected Darwinism (although they pre-dated Charles Darwin), and that they broke away from Britain in order to abolish slavery. In fact the southern states only joined the Revolution on the understanding that slavery would not be questioned. Strange as his views may sound to most scholars, Mr Barton’s philosophy is taken seriously in Republican circles. When Rick Perry, the Texas governor and presidential candidate, held a day of prayer for the nation in August, Mr Barton was an acknowledged endorser. One of Mr Barton’s admirers is Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who argues that American history has been distorted by secular historians to play down the role of faith. ‘I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things,’ Mr Gingrich has said."

This notion of a Christian nation promises the eventual intolerance and discrimination that is inevitable with a state religion, but it also suggests something equally dangerous. Many with theocratic leanings think of the US as occupying a special place in the order of things. When people throw around the phrase "American exceptionalism," most are referring to a historical uniqueness, but a subset actually believe that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are God’s "new" chosen people.

To provide insight into what might have been the attitudes and motives of our founders, the article reminds us that at the time of our revolution nine of the thirteen colonies had established state religions.

"Nine colonies had established churches at the time of the Revolution; most of these regimes sputtered on for several decades afterwards. The religious scene in the colonies ranged from the strict Puritan communities of New England to the suffocating Anglican regime of Virginia. In New England, Anglican clergy acted as fifth columnists for the crown; Virginia had an Anglican American culture of its own. Maryland had always been a comfortable place for Catholics."

"It was all a big, volatile mess, to which a regime of religious liberty was the best solution."

If our country began as a "Christian nation," which version of Christianity was it? The above quote mentions three Christianities that despised each other. The point The Economist makes is that the founders knew that they would have enough trouble creating a country riven by political differences. To try to accommodate religious differences would be impossible. Political disagreements are negotiable, religious differences are not.

Virginia was run by the Anglican Church at the time. It had the power to control what was preached and who could preach it. There was a famous case of a Baptist minister who was whipped and jailed for "preaching without a license." One of Jefferson’s proudest accomplishments was to break this control and establish religious freedom in his home state.

"On his instructions, his tombstone records three things: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his creation of the University of Virginia (pointedly built around a library, not a church), and religious liberty in his home state."

The dismantlement of Virginia’s state religion and eventually all the others, should have been the ultimate victory for religious freedom in this country. Unfortunately, the Bartons and Gingriches, and Perrys would pander and profess allegiance to those who would today take away our freedom. Their goal is to make all of us beholden to their religious laws.

The article provides this summary of the founders’ motives.

"Regardless of their own views on the spiritual, people like Madison, Washington and Jefferson were intensely concerned for the welfare and cohesion of the new republic. They worried not only about religious wars as such but about political disputes which were "religious" in their intensity. They wanted to create a state and political system to which people with utterly different ideas about metaphysics, and many other things, could offer unconditional loyalty."

Jefferson expressed his concerns in his first inaugural address.

"Let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions."

It is highly unlikely that the US would ever become a theocracy, but the issues raised by religious belligerence have already been politically and socially disruptive. The Republican Party, in the name of the founding fathers, would lead us towards a situation that our founders tried desperately to avoid.

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