Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Faith of our fathers

Sorry, James Madison didn't write this. On the other hand, he wasn't an atheist either.

I’ve been thinking a little about the faith of our fathers lately, not because Independence Day was near but because of an interesting, but inaccurate, statement I came across a week or so ago in the blog of another south-of-Iowa writer whose topic always is politics.

This guy announced off-handedly in a post with nothing specific to do with religion that “many of the founding fathers were atheists.” Hmm.

Otherwise, we’d probably agree on most things --- he’s an enlightened liberal and a good Democrat.

But inaccuracy is another matter, and any contention that those guys we know as the “fathers” were atheists is, so far as anyone who has studied the matter knows, not true.

That doesn’t mean that the founders were what today’s evangelical Christians would call born-again believers, however, or that they intended to found a “Christian nation,” if those two words are interpreted to mean more than a nation in which the majority called itself “Christian” and was free, along with non-Christians, to live and practice faith unimpeded --- with the authority to invite and influence but without the authority to impose.


The guy up top, who participated in Monday’s Independence Day parade in Chariton, apparently is at the other end of the misinformation spectrum from my liberal friend.

He was carrying a sign that contends James Madison, our fourth president, wrote during 1788 in the Federalist Papers that “We have staked the whole future of … American civilization to govern … sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

The difficulty here is that James Madison wrote no such thing, as far as Madison scholars have been able to determine. Madison seems to have been a more-or-less orthodox Episcopalian as a youth who as he aged became deeply influenced by deism, highly unlikely to be citing the “Ten Commandments of God” in any context.

Rush Limbaugh, a new sometimes messiah of the Christian right, has attributed these words to Madison, as has evangelical revisionist “historian” David Barton, but the fact remains --- Madison didn’t write them.


By “founding father” I mean that large group of men who signed the Declaration of Independence, signed the Articles of Confederation, were delegates to the Constitutional Convention or who participated in some other manner in the move toward and aftermath of revolution, including its greatest propagandist, Thomas Paine.

One of the interesting things about the founding fathers is that there were no founding mothers. This was a patriarchal and, as far as gender was concerned, chauvinist time --- as it still in many cases is. Nor were there black founding fathers (nearly all blacks in the Americas were enslaved, many by white founding fathers), nor were there native founding fathers --- aboriginal inhabitants already were beginning to be looked upon as a bother, inhibiting EuroAmerican economic expansionism --- ripe for elimination.

The fathers were, however, among the intellectual and economic elite of the colonies and the early nation. All were products of the churches in which they had grown up and all --- even Jefferson --- remained affiliated to a degree with those denominations --- the majority Episcopalian (Anglican before the Revolution) and a lesser number Congregationalist, both established colonial churches, plus several Presbyterians and a scattering of others.

None would have understood “born again” in its 21st century context, virtually all had been baptized as infants in their childhood churches (believer’s baptism was a concept not yet fully developed or widely practiced), none wore their faith on their sleeves and few, if any, trusted the “emotional” religion that moved to the fore in U.S. culture during “great awakenings.”

Many, especially Anglican/Episcopalians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Madison and James Monroe, had been deeply influenced by the deistic philosophy that grew out of the Enlightenment, emphasizing reason quite often in opposition to faith, and spread through the American Episcopal establishment.

Deists acknowledged the existence of a Creator and creation, as demonstrated by laws of nature, most acknowledged divine providence in a general sort of way and most who left indications in their writings anticipated some form of existence after death. Deists were not orthodox Christians, in any sense of the terms then or now. But neither were they atheists.

Other founding fathers, including Samuel Adams and John Jay, were orthodox.

But in New England especially, the Congregationalist majority had been deeply influenced by Unitarianism, another product of the Enlightenment, that dismissed as “hocus-pocus” the concept of a Trinity and the idea that Jesus had been at the outset anything other than a human produced in the usual way but selected by God for a special purpose.

That does not mean Unitarians of that time did not consider themselves Christians and many, including John Adams, acknowledged atonement, the resurrection, the possibility of miracles and the potential for eternal life.

This range of religious unconventionality and conventionality among the founders is among the reasons why the founding documents of the United States are phrased in inclusive deistic language --- a fact that causes those who wish it weren’t so to become inventive sometimes.


Fact of the matter, the founders are an inconvenient bunch for anyone out to prove a point from a 21st century perspective.

We’ve collectively rejected many of their prevailing views, notably in the areas of suffrage and enslavement. Some are discomforted by the fact they saw a place for religion in society as a promoter of public morality and the common good. Others are discomforted by the fact that most would have opposed so much as a whiff of sectarian establishment.

And that makes for interesting politics. But it would be useful if those on both the right and the left focused a bit more on accuracy.

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