Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Faithlessness and the Founding Fathers

In her most recent About.com: Christianity newsletter, Mary Fairchild exhorts readers to commemorate our nation's origin "in the spirit of the founding fathers." By implying that this spirit is a Christian one, however, she is mistaken. Either she is unaware that the founders of early America were far more freethinking than her or your fellow believers, or, she is willing to ignore a preponderance of historical evidence in order to rally her audience to the belief that their faith was shared by these great leaders. In case the former explanation accounts for her lapse, I wrote to her to share the following quotes assembled by Steven Morris for a 1995 article in "Free Inquiry", titled "The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians." They're also of certain interest to all red-blooded American Atheists:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
The first president of the United States, never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. Washington Championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment. On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance.
"The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained."
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." ... "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
In her email, Fairchild mentions a letter which John Adams wrote to his wife. Perhaps she are unaware that his wife was particularly pious and devout? It's conceivable that Adams was deferring to his wife's religiosity when he made the suggestion that Independence Day "ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty." Certainly such an idea was uncharacteristic of him, as can be seen in this final excerpt from Morris' compilation:
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers 'noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces". Late in life he wrote: "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!"
One might recall from junior-high civics class that it was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states (in Article XI) that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

I hope, but cannot expect, that Fairchild will in the future give her audience a more historically accurate perspective on the religious views of the founding fathers.Their religious beliefs were quite alien from those she holds, and I think it is likely that they would be quite intolerant of her efforts to align their actions and pronouncements with her doctrines. But this should be no reason for anyone to celebrate less patriotically on the 4th: the deeds of the founding fathers were worthy of our respect and admiration, regardless of their creeds.

A final note. Fairchild writes at About.com: Christianity that "many of the founding fathers of the United States of America were men of deep religious convictions based in the Bible and their Christian faith in Jesus Christ." I won't outright deny this -- my knowledge of history perhaps isn't as deep as yours -- but I can dispute it, with a simple question about the professional roles available to a certain class of citizen in that time: what else was an intellectually-minded man to do? If he was not a lawyer or a merchant, he was bound to be a clergyman. But less important than the actual distribution of authentic religious belief among the founding fathers, is the corollary to your statement. If it is undeniable that many of the founding fathers were men of religious conviction, it is equally undeniable that many of the founding fathers rejected religion.

I hope that Fairchild, and the many thousands of Christians who receive her newsletter, can honor the virtue and legacy of skeptics, freethinkers, deists, agnostics, and atheists, with as much enthusiasm as they celebrate the legacy of the Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc., found among the founding fathers. The good fortunes and freedoms of our United States is due in large part to the work of men who had courage enough to reject the supernatural, at a time when doing so came at great cost, in order to build the world's first first modern democratic republic upon a sound, secular foundation.

For those who want to learn more, here are the sources which Morris gives in his article. It's quite an exciting bibliography, for anyone looking for summer reading.

1. From: "The Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine, pp. 8,9 (Republished 1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
2. From: "George Washington and Religion" by Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127 (1963, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX)
3. From: "Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History" by Fawn M. Brodie, p. 453 (1974, W.W) Norton and Co. Inc. New York, NY) Quoting a letter by TJ to Alexander Smyth Jan 17, 1825, and "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 246 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to John Adams, July 5, 1814.
4. From: "The Madisons" by Virginia Moore, P. 43 (1979, McGraw-Hill Co. New York, NY) quoting a letter by JM to William Bradford April 1, 1774, and "James Madison, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by Joseph Gardner, p. 93, (1974, Newsweek, New York, NY) Quoting Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments by JM, June 1785.
5. From: "The Character of John Adams" by Peter Shaw, pp. 17 (1976, North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC) Quoting a letter by JA to Charles Cushing Oct 19, 1756, and "John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by James Peabody, p. 403 (1973, Newsweek, New York NY) Quoting letter by JA to Jefferson April 19, 1817, and in reference to the treaty, "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 311 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June, 1814.

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