Thursday, June 06, 2013
How religious were America's Founding Fathers?
I wrote this in 2010. I have done some editing on the contents of the original posting.
My brother and I are non-religious, as were our parents. My wife’s family is mostly non-religious except for a couple of people who are evangelical types, born again Christians. I’m all right with that. I think people should find comfort and solace — or even answers to the age-old questions, “Why are we here?” and “What can I do to make life as painless as possible?” — where they can find answers. I just don't want them trying to convince me they have the answers for me.
I usually don't need answers because I don’t have the questions. Being non-religious means I don’t go looking for answers by supernatural means.
Note that I said non-religious and not atheist or agnostic. My personal feeling, based on dealings with some atheists is that they can approach their atheism with a religious fervor. In the same way a zealous Christian might try to convince me to bring Jesus into my life so do some atheists try to convince me there is no God. An agnostic is a person who doesn't know. I could fall into that category except that not only do I not know but I don’t care. So I guess I’m more comfortable referring to myself as non-religious and letting it go at that.
Because this is America, where free expression of religion is allowed — as long as it doesn’t involve human sacrifice, that is — many religious people like to mix their religion in with politics. I’m also all right with that as long as they understand this is a secular nation, and the taxpayers don't have to support religion. But, these religious people say, our nation was founded on religious principles. Well, perhaps. The men who founded our country were very much a mixed bag when it came to religion. To say they were all devout is misinformation by the patriotic religious people who propound such talk.
In a July, 2010 article by Peggy Fletcher Stack in The Salt Lake Tribune, “How religious were they?” some of the American founding fathers are examined. There were some very religious members of the group, Patrick Henry for instance. There were some for whom religion was more or less accepted, but not practiced. For instance, according to the article, George Washington “. . . was a Freemason who embraced a deistic view of God as Providence but rarely mentioned Jesus.”
John Adams “. . . rejected the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, human depravity and predestination, like most deists, believed reason was a gift from God to find the truth.”
Thomas Jefferson “. . . revered Jesus as a moral teacher but did not see himi as Son of God or Savior . . . but [Jefferson] regularly attended and liked church services.”
Benjamin Franklin “ . . .declared ‘some doubts’ about Jesus’ divinity. He prudently contributed to every sect in Philadelphia, including a Jewish synagogue.”
Sounds to me like Ben wanted to cover the bases.
Every time there is political turmoil in America the religious right demands that America return to “Christian values,”which are defined as being what they, the religious right, point to and say are the Christian values. They like to point to the Founding Fathers, whom they imbue with spirituality those FF's probably didn't have. But who cares? Most Americans couldn't name three Founding Fathers, much less know how religious they were.
When I see a cringe-inducing painting like the one above, I’m reminded of the power of propaganda. Depicting Jesus with the U.S. Constitution is implying it came to us through divinity. There wasn’t anything divine about it. It was based, like most things, on human experience. What has worked in the past, what hasn’t, and how can we improve the lot of our citizens without making them subjects? It ignores the fact that even though we had such a document we didn’t always believe what it says, especially if it disagreed with our personal prejudices. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are the holy grails of freedom-loving Americans, but they were framed during a time when it was legal to own fellow human beings.
The Founding Fathers were a group who had a lot to lose with a revolution, made a big gamble and luckily it turned out in their favor. They could have easily turned out footnotes in the history of the American colonies, hung for insurrection. That was a combination of a lot of factors that had little to do with divine intervention. Read some history or even watch the History Channel. When they tell the story of the American Revolutionary War Jesus isn’t usually mentioned.