If we’re to believe most social conservatives today, America’s Founding Fathers were Bible-thumping, fire and brimstone spewing evangelicals who didn’t make any decision without first seeking guidance from prayer. Yet this view of U.S. history has little basis in fact.
Instead, all available evidence suggests that George Washington, Ben Franklin and company held a diversity of views about God and religion, which might be why they insisted on including the legal doctrine of separation between church and state in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the establishment of a national religion by Congress or the preference of one religion over another, or — and this is the part most often overlooked today — religion over non-religion. In other words, U.S. citizens are free to believe whatever they want, including nothing at all, when it comes to supernatural explanations for reality.
Washington used to attend Sunday church services with his wife, Martha, but refused to take communion; historians say George likely was a deist who believed in God but rejected the concept of divine revelation and thought God’s will could be gleaned from reason and observing nature.
Franklin, though raised a Presbyterian, also was a deist who wrote a letter about a month before he died that praised Jesus’ teachings but added that they had “received various corrupt changes” over the years. Moreover, Franklin wrote, “I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity.”
Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, believed in divine Providence, not a personal God, and warned of clergy interfering in matters of government. In 1787 he famously wrote, “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make half the world fools and half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the world.”
Sorry, Rick Warren and Pat Robertson. That’s gotta hurt.
And the Founding Fathers reflected the newly born nation surrounding them. Historian Robert T. Handy has written, “No more than 10 percent — probably less — of Americans in 1800 were members of congregations.”
If those examples don’t make it clear enough for today’s Religious Right about the founders’ intent, there’s always the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams.
To ensure the Muslim nation that it wouldn’t try to impose differing religious views upon it if trade and relations began with the United States, the treaty stated:
“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 tranquillity, 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.”
“Musselmen” is an antiquated term for Muslim people, while “Mehomitan” is another term for Islamic.
This crash course in American history wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t for all the groups that try to drag their religion into my government on an almost daily basis.
Earlier this month, the Liberty Counsel — an ultra-conservative political group based at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia — filed a legal brief in a Kentucky case that, if successful, would pave the way for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings.
This dispute arises from the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against McCreary and Pulaski counties, which displayed the Judeo-Christian document in courthouses as part of a larger display called the “Foundations of American Law and Government.” Besides the commandments, it also featured copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta and other documents.
The U.S. Supreme Court has a mixed record about allowing such displays, generally prohibiting them if it’s determined there’s a predominately religious purpose in their installation.
All of this is occurring at the same time as the group that organized Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage amendment in California, is suing to shield its financial records from public scrutiny and the same disclosure laws required of other politically active groups. Raw Story, an investigative Web site, reports that the Protect Marriage Coalition is eager to conceal the identities of its top contributors, perhaps because of their unusual and vile agenda.
One such donor is billionaire Howard Ahmanson, a Christian Reconstructionist. In the past, he’s supported a group that wants to replace the U.S. Constitution with the teachings of the Old Testament, including the execution of homosexuals, adulterers and disobedient children.
Ahmanson isn’t alone. Ken Blackwell, the former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio Secretary of State who’s now seeking the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, holds similar bizarre views. Blackwell once compared gay people to “arsonists and kleptomaniacs,” describing their lives as a “transgression against God’s law.”
Time and again, religious zealots have worked in fits and spurts to remake the United States in the image they see fit, then rewrite the past. “In God We Trust” didn’t become the national motto until 1956; the phrase “one nation, under God” wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus warned against the dangers of self-righteousness. He chastised those who stood in synagogues and street corners just so they could be seen by others praying.
Some of his followers should remember those lessons.
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