The Floundering Fathers – Part I
Quick, what do old-time religion and conservative politics have in common? The most obvious answer is the reliance on mythological interpretations. Just like you can ‘prove’ anything with the bible or equivalent religious text, you can make any point by portraying the founding fathers as a group of men of unimpeachable virtue and collective wisdom. We do not need less accurate U.S. History taught we need much more. The lack of understanding and misinformation among our general public about the history of this country is both astounding and discouraging. The general understanding of the early history is comparable to our understanding of the western frontier in the 19th century via western television shows. Much of the popular accounts of those times come from works of fiction called ‘dime novels’ and are sensationalized tales of events that never happened that way.
The conservative originalist understanding of the period before and after the revolution is not much more accurate. Those trying to build a nation or confederacy of states after rejecting rule by a monarchy, although Britain was and remains a constitutional monarchy the monarch had more power at that time, especially over colonies. The chief complaint leading to revolt was the lack of power given to colonists in deciding their own fate. Money was probably an even bigger factor in the form of taxes, but that is not the common narrative. No, we portrayed our younger selves as virtuous folk struggling to be free to unleash our view of paradise on the earth. As usual, it was not that simple and base, human emotions played a big role.
Myth # 1: The U.S. was founded as a Christian nation
This one is so far off the mark that it deserves top mention. Nobody, except for someone who believes: that an invisible being created everything and constantly monitors its work, the age of the earth can be measured in the thousands of years and the universe is less than a week older, a woman who never had sexual relations with a man gave birth to a messiah, and a Jewish zombie will return to save all who believe and have been doused with magical water, could look at the history and come to this conclusion. Yes, it is a fact that some of our first non-Scandinavian settlers came to escape religious persecution, but there were other places they could go to do that. There is another reason these people came here. Nobody liked them and they weren’t doing well socially or economically in Devon. Of course, all of this happened a century and a half before the country’s founding and reflects nothing of the mindset of the nation’s founders.
Why stop at Christian? Why not claim this is an Anglican nation and make the church Henry VIII created to get a divorce the official state church? England’s history is full of religious strife with various kings and queens declaring which particular sect was the correct one at the time. Wars were fought, plots hatched, usurpations attempted (sometimes successfully), and homicides committed, all under the guise of religious preference. This is NOT what the founding fathers wanted for the new nation. They created specific provisions to ensure that there was no state religion. These statements have been printed and are easily available to any literate person. Still not a believer? Let’s look at some direct quotes from the founding fathers themselves:
Thomas Jefferson (from a review of legal cases and a letter to Joseph Priestly):
- “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
- “…this was the real ground of all the attacks on you: those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy, the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man, endeavored to crush your well earnt, & well deserved fame.”
John Adams (in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 1796):
- “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Thomas Paine (in The Age of Reason):
- “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent than we called it the word of a demon than the word of God. It has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”
James Madison (letter to Edward Livingston, 1822):
- “Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last Centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others, a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion, neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a Coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger can not be too carefully guarded against. And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness & stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical & Civil matters is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all Sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law was right & necessary; that the true Religion ought to be established in exclusion of all others; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true Religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of Sects dissenting from the established Sect, was safe and even useful. The example of the Colonies now States, which rejected Religious establishments altogether, proved that all Sects might be safely & advantageously put on a footing of equal & entire freedom. And a continuance of their example since the Declaration of Independence has shewn, that its success in Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent Country. If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States which have abolished their religious Establishments. I can not speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virginia, where it is impossible to deny that Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood, than it ever did when established and patronized by Public authority. We are teaching the World the great truth, that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson, that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.
So there you have it. It is plain that the founding fathers never declared or inferred that this would be a Christian nation. That people still insist on claiming the country was founded with the intent of being anything remotely resembling a theocracy should be cause for alarm. Instead, it is the norm. This precedes the Trump post-truth era and is as much a characteristic of the Republican Party as it is the Christian right. It has become a central part of their playbook. Set a goal and use any means to achieve it.
Self-interest is the theme here. We are all pro-choice and pro-life when it comes to ourselves. I want to live and I want to make choices for myself. The difference and the problems come with the desire to make choices for others. If there is one thing Christians and Republicans love more than anything else it is controlling the behavior of others. A system of belief that wants to control what others can do with their bodies has no claim to liberty or freedom. We are all interested in ourselves and our personal welfare, the key is in how we interact with others. I believe compassion and empathy are what sets apart the major political parties in the United States. Sure, we all think about and take care of ourselves but some can consider others. Although a central tenet of Christianity, you will find it lacking in most of its adherents. Altruism is rare on the left side of the political spectrum, but it is entirely absent on the right. In short, Democrats care about the welfare of others and Republicans just don’t give a shit.