April 7, 2010

The Myth, part II

Continued from part I

In Part I, we discussed the majority religious philosophy of our founders... Deism.

Deism was a philosophy widely accepted by the enlightened intelligentsia of the American Revolutionary era. Many of those who founded this country, especially the revolutionary leaders, can be counted among those philosophers. Certainly there were Christians among our founding fathers, but even the majority of those men recognized, or were convinced of the need for the separation of church and state.

Colonial Deists believed in human reason as the most reliable means of solving social and political problems. They acknowledged a some sort of creator who removed itself entirely from our universe after creating it, never interfering with natural or human affairs. The obvious consequence of these beliefs was rejection of Christian doctrine.

The philosophy of Deism was well described by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason, a book that rankled the theists of the time and caused Paine to be tossed into a French prison. The nation that had once revered Paine as the father of the American Revolution, turned its back on this great philosopher. To this day, many mistakenly believe Paine was atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of Deism. Unfortunately, most Christians do not recognize the difference.

We've discussed Thomas Jefferson in depth, and Jefferson was only one of many early American Deists. Others were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe. Christian revisionists try to convince us that these Founders and others were Christian, and that they intended to establish this country on "biblical" or “Judeo-Christian principles,” but history simply does not support that view. The overwhelming majority of the men and women instrumental in founding this nation were in no sense Christians… nor theists of any stripe. We shall try to discuss each of our founders to some degree, pointing to evidence refuting these theistic claims.

Early in his first term as President, Jefferson declared his philosophy of church and state separation in a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

Before sending that letter, Jefferson asked Attorney General Levi Lincoln to review it. Lincoln was a contemporary of the founders, and he was also a Deist. Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the letter a means of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."

If this was indeed Jefferson's wish, he was successful. In two cases before SCOTUS, Reynolds vs. the United States (1879) and Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), the Court cited the Danbury letter to be an authoritative declaration of the scope of the First Amendment. Both courts agreed that the intention of the First Amendment was to erect “a wall of separation between church and state.” [1]

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson's political ally and close friend, was as vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs as Jefferson. In 1785, when the Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill "establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion," Madison wrote his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in which he offered fifteen reasons why government should not be come involved in the support of any religion. This paper is considered a landmark document in political philosophy, and was cited in the majority opinion in Lee vs. Weisman (1990).

The views of Madison and Jefferson prevailed in the Virginia Assembly in 1789 when the Assembly adopted the statute of religious freedom. The preamble to the bill, crafted by Jefferson, said that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."

The Madison/Jefferson statute was far more specific than the establishment clause of our Constitution, stating: "Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities".

Jefferson realized that legislation enacted by an elected body could be later repealed. For that reason he ended the statute with a statement of contempt for any body that would attempt to negate the statute: 

"And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right." (Emphasis mine).

The evidence appears irrefutable the neither Jefferson nor Madison were Christian, they intent to found our country on Christian values, and they wished to prevent future lawmakers from compromising the secular nation they helped craft. 

So what about the religious philosophies of our other founders? We will continue the discussion of The Myth in Part III.

[1] Boston, R, Myths and Mischief, Church and State, March 1992


Labrys said...

Thank you for the well-written post. Now, if we could only make it required reading. Of course, it made me spit ash again to recall my recent case of anger at Newsweek magazine for comparing the current "Tea Partiers", George Wallace and Strom Thurmond to Thomas Jefferson.

Listing nutjobs along with a non-nutjob does not dignify nutjobs; they obviously missed the Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" exercises. Your detailing of the mental prowess and philosophical nature of Jefferson and other deists just made the alleged comparison more tenuous still.

Old NFO said...

Excellent post MD! Thanks for the elucidation and references!

jbrock said...

Kudos. This is turning out to be an interesting, well-written, and well-sourced series of posts. Looking forward to the next installment.

Regarding your point that many Christians don't recognise the distinction between Deism and Atheism: that failure is unfortunate, especially if it results from ignorance or systematic deception.

At the same time, I do wonder how much practical difference there is between 'God is irrelevant' and 'God is imaginary'.

(My distillation of the Deist viewpoint here may or may not be fair; I'll have to revisit it while--and after--actually reading Paine's Age of Reason.)

At any rate, your primary point stands: the architects of US governance clearly never meant for this to be, politically or philosophically, a Christian nation. Furthermore, I wonder if they assumed that religion, deprived of State sponsorship, would wither away within two or three generations.