Monday, February 15, 2010

" confer a “Christian” history upon the United States then, isn’t merely annoying — it’s also deeply dishonest."

How Christian were the founders? Who cares?

The most popular story at NYTimes. com this hour focuses on the never-ending story to define the Founding Fathers in religious terms.

The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The narrow answer to the question, of course is that some of the Founders were Christians and some, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists at best, and thus “Christian” only in the sense that Unitarians are Christians — which is to say, not really Christians at all.

The broader answer to the question of whether the Founders were Christians, though, is this: Who cares?

As a thought experiment, let’s consider asking a similar question: How slavery-loving were the Founders? The answer would be about the same; some were, some weren’t — and it doesn’t really matter all that much today. Truth is: The Founding Fathers thought a lot more about slavery than religion in putting together the Constitution: The clause that designates slaves as three-fifths of a person appears in the fifth paragraph of the document. The entire structure of the legislative branch — the bicameral thing — was designed to let slave-owning states feel comfortable the free states wouldn’t run roughshod over them. Religion, meanwhile, makes no appearance until the First Amendment; it’s an important amendment, but — coming four years after the main body of the Constitution had been adopted — a bit of a historical afterthought. And rather than enshrine religion, of course, the First Amendment serves to keep the state and the church out of each other’s ways.

In thinking back to the Founders, too, it’s important to remember that they lived in a much less ecumenical age than we. The Catholics of Maryland probably thought the Puritans of Massachusetts were going to Hell — and vice versa. Connecticut and Rhode Island were, in fact, founded by religious splinter groups that found the Massachusetts colonists too stifling. If the Founding Fathers had sought to enshrine Christianity is the state religion, then, they would’ve had to answer a critical question: Whose Christianity? It’s likely the whole project might’ve died in the cradle.

It’s fair to say, then, that the United States exists because the Founders sidestepped the question. So the project to confer a “Christian” history upon the United States then, isn’t merely annoying — it’s also deeply dishonest.

But still: Who cares? The Founding Fathers should be treated with respect and a bit of reverence, I suppose, but we often seem to be in danger of fetishizing them.


Mike aka Dragonfly said...

Our history is greatly tied into the Catholic and protestant denominations. Our nation was founded by theist who based their overarching themes of freedom and equality from their understanding of the Bible. This has become a sensitive area in our nation and consequently it is more prudent to read from historians who wrote in the 1800s to get a truer and unbiased assessment.

We are viewed as a Christian nation just as Iraq is viewed a Muslim nation. Not all Iraqis are Muslim just as all Americans are not so version of Christianity. Dragonfly senses some frustrations with his observations......away!

csm said...

And GWB was viewed as a uniter not a divider... I don't care about views, I care about reality. And the USA is in no way, shape, or form a christian nation.

And basing a theme of freedom and equality on the bible (which promotes slavery and inequality of women) is like basing an IQ test on Mad magazine.


It was based more on common law and the freeing of the intellectual mind in the Age of Reason than it was based on the Christian religion. Were most people living here Christian? Yes. Were these regular Joes the ones who were writing the Constitution? No.

Mike aka Dragonfly said...

Benedetto Croce had some good thought on the process of interpreting history that sheds light on the phenomena the battle of the beliefs. It is well hidden fact that American scholars typically reinterpreted the past in terms of its own day. One undeniable reason has been the continuous propensity of scholars to reevaluate the past in light of the current thoughts, suppositions, and the tribulations encountered in that generation. Every age has developed its own particular worldview of which has habituated the way it views its own history and the current climate. Today the culture is no different and we in turn have a fresh generation of Americans rewriting history of the nation in such a way as to portray their own personality. That’s not to say there were not other motivations for this perpetual reinterpretation of American history, but the constant climate belief and inward perceptions more than any other dynamic leads historians to reinterpret their view of the past.
We have gone from historians casting the US as a nation with a divine mission to an aggressive imperialist evil empire.


I think the reasoning for the formation of this country was more about getting out from under George III than some divine observance from the Bible. And how much of the Bible(I really don't know) has to do with the rights of the individual? It doesn't sound like a major theme in the Great Book; that one man is essentially the same as any other in the eyes of government.

And this is one of the main issues I have with these religious themed threads, the arguments never get anywhere. The only thing worse is having this country called a Christian Nation.

And Mike, you can attribute my feelings as being one of an outsider(atheist)but that is my lot in all areas of public discourse as you should be aware of my political leanings, I have rarely been a political "winner".

Mike aka Dragonfly said...

Bawdyscot I never viewed this as a religious thread. It is just an interpretation of history. Frankly, the fact religion had a great impact on the founding of the nation is unquestionable when the culture, the writings and the thoughts of the many founding fathers are studied. CSM I know will never admit to it but he still believes Big O had a great first year.

I know there is this fear that the Christians will run roughshod over the non-Christians but it didn't happen then and it is not happening now.

That's the last of my 2 cents for what it is worth.

csm said...


Dragonfly keeps on buzzing and putting words into my mouth. Never said the president had a great first year. I just don't see it as the debacle that the right is trying to paint it to be.

Regarding your assertion about the founding fathers and religion, I will bring out my standard reply to lunacy: BAH!