Salon: False Prophets (Excerpt)

Somewhere along the way Bush swapped his hereditary spirituality for the stronger medicine of the Western plains – a personal evolution that echoes an earthquake in American spirituality. I refer, of course, to the early 19th century transformation called by historians the Second Great Awakening. It must have had its appeal as spiritual armament in a howling wilderness where parsons in gaiters seldom penetrated. But it signaled the abandonment of a style of spirituality peculiar to the genius of the American founding generation: an 18th century view called deism.

The deists, influenced as they were by the French Enlightenment, pictured a God majestically indifferent to the pettier vanities and ambitions of humankind. We lived, they said, in a Newtonian universe whose creator had wound it up and set it ticking on its own like a great clock, then stood back. How important was deism at America’s founding? Very. Whatever claims are now made about American religious origins and doctrines, it can’t be denied that deism was the overriding persuasion of our great founding generation – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and many others. Nor that under the benign influence of this outlook they designed a constitutional system in which church and state were to be eternally separated.

They foresaw that a nation of radically different religious outlooks (where heresy hunters were already zealously at work) would need vigorous safeguards against fraternal jihads and crusades. They witnessed the ruinous force of internecine religious conflict all about them and sought to protect against it. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” – the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – was the result.

Today, alas, those words and their meaning have grown foggy in the minds of many. I was startled, some years ago, to discover that even the great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had remembered them incorrectly. He thought the clause read: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion” – a consequential mix-up of definite and indefinite articles. There are even Supreme Court justices who think, or pretend to think, that what the Establishment Clause does, and all it does, is forbid an established church – a view that scants the clause’s scope no less than its original intent. It was apparently the hope of Madison and other draftsmen to forbid any federal meddling whatsoever with religion, even in those states that still maintained church establishments. But as Madison’s auxiliary writings make abundantly clear, the phrase “an establishment of religion” also embraced any and all programs of subvention to religion.

At this late date, 213 years after the First Amendment became basic law, this should be American History 101 and duly respected as such. In fact, however, the sentiments that animated Washington, Jefferson and Madison have diminishing resonance in America. History has been supplanted by an imaginary past – and no less by a bloodthirsty imaginary future. Millions profess to expect the lurid scenarios forecast by biblical prophecy and colorfully reimagined at a sub-Stephen King level in the “Left Behind” novels. In this heavy-breathing world what force do antique constitutional words retain?

Was the founding fathers’ deism ever popular with anyone outside of these intellectual elites? Sounds like a typical philosopher’s religion to me.

Quite honestly I’m not an expert on the subject. However, the point is that the religious right and their fundamentalist footsoldiers are part of a phenomenon that postdates the founding of the country. The subtext would indicate the author believes deism is an older and truer form of the faith practiced by the founders and presumably the people of the time whom they led. The right reinterprets the intent of the founders based on this more radicalized version of Christianity and overlooks the actual intent of the authors of the Constitution.

So let’s see what the Founders really had to say about religion and religious freedom.

“But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1810. ME 12:345

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813. ME 14:21

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:119

“In the arguments in favor of a declaration of rights… one which has great weight with me [is] the legal check which it puts into the hands of the judiciary.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:309

“No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to New London Methodists, 1809. ME 16:332

As you can see, from actual quotes with sources, Jefferson was not a fan of religion meddling in the affairs of government. Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by a European Enlightenment philosophy that also recognized the Creator as being an uninvolved Deist God and not the God of Christianity. Jefferson actually wrote he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. You can check out his version of the New Testament, called the Jefferson Bible.

Maybe in their exact present incarnation, but doesn’t that view completely ignore the fact that many of the immigrants from the Mayflower era belonged to rather extreme Christian sects?

Extreme in both good and bad ways. Along with the witchburning Puritans you also had other exiled groups that protested slavery among other things. However, I’m not sure how much influence they really had when it came time to write the Constitution or what meaningful role that brand of religiousity had during the Revolution. Remember The Puritans landed about 150 years before the Declaration of Independence. How relevant they were, or how their faith changed over time, I’m not at all sure.

Perhaps some of our more historically minded forum contributors might address this?

It’s true. A lot of the people who left England for America were the free thinkers who had hoped the civil war in England would have produced a free republic, rather than the puritanical version it became under Cromwell’s later years. Thomas Paine could be counted among those.

Maybe in their exact present incarnation, but doesn’t that view completely ignore the fact that many of the immigrants from the Mayflower era belonged to rather extreme Christian sects?[/quote]

Yes, but they were a totally different brand of X-treme.

Maybe in their exact present incarnation, but doesn’t that view completely ignore the fact that many of the immigrants from the Mayflower era belonged to rather extreme Christian sects?[/quote]

Yes, but they were a totally different brand of X-treme.[/quote]

How so? I am pretty sure you would find the old school City on the Hill Puritans at least as obnoxious as the modern breed of Christians you so loathe.

Anyhow, it is pretty obvious that the majority of the Founding Fathers were highly skeptical of any established form of Christianity. The numerous Christian revivals that occurred were largely cultural phenomenons with political implications, not the other way around. That, however, does not make any less of an American precedent and tradition, as sad as that may be. It is still amusing to see people grasping at straws, when the Fathers were often so humorously blunt.

Today’s political evangelicals are largely defined by Southern Baptist-style theology, which ended up in its quasi-Calvinist state when the Baptist church split over the civil war. At least I think that’s right.

But Puritans were pre-second great awakening and had all sorts of views christians today would find bizarre.

To take a random page off google:

Someone here can probably explain it in more detail. Anyway, not all non-boring religious sects are the same.

It must be noted that Puritans would not advocate religious interference in our lives. They were of the opinion that their laws only applied to those in their community.

Tell Charles I

Marx is laughing.