Judging from a Nov. 17 Times Viewpoint article, the debate about "what role religion played in the founding of the United States" goes on and on and on and on ... While the writer makes a valid point in saying that religion - and Judeo-Christianity in particular - played an important part in formulating American principles, he strays from the path of both history and factuality by suggesting that the nation's founders intended that one religion, and one religion only (or even no religion), should hold supremacy over all others ... I readily admit (as The Northwest Ordinance states) that "religion, morality, and knowledge" are "necessary to good government," but seriously doubt that any one religion holds a monopoly on either morality or knowledge - and certainly not on good government (i.e. the Spanish Inquisition or current-day Iran).
The writer cherrypicks some out-of-context quotes from Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin to "prove" his point - ignoring the fact that these men were, above all, politicians, and, like public figures from that day to the present time, often said one thing in public and expressed their real beliefs in private. After his election as president in 1800, Jefferson (who, during the campaign, had been characterized by Federalist clergymen as a "godless atheist") wrote to Benjamin Rush saying that "the clergy believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes - and they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man!" In his famous 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, Jefferson emphatically stated that the "wall separating church and state" was constructed within the First Amendment itself - somewhere between the words "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" and the words "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The writer likewise forgets that Jefferson produced the "Jefferson Bible - Or the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," a "cut-and-paste" edition of The New Testament in which all references to "miracles" and "supernatural" events were deleted. ... And what about John Adams? The 1796 Treaty with Tripoli (written and signed by Adams to assure the Barbary States of North Africa that the U.S. had no intention of starting a "holy crusade" against Islam) contains the following words: "The United States of America is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion." Was John Adams a "liar"? Was he "apologizing" for America? ... In "Poor Richard's Almanac," Ben Franklin said that "lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
The writer also ignores the fact that these men were products of the period in which they lived. The era in which the United States was founded is historically known as "The Age of Reason" because the majority of the nation's founders were self-described "deists," who believed in an amorphous "Creator" (i.e. "God") but also believed that "man's sense of reason" was the final arbiter of his own spiritual and temporal destiny. While some New Englanders like Samuel Adams were Congregationalists (i.e. Puritans), none of the founders held views that could be described as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist"! The type of ardent, "born-again" beliefs held by some Christians today (and I assume by the writer) were rare in late-18th century America, and only became widespread with the rise of the "revivalist" movement in the 1820s that allowed "unorthodox" sects like the Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and other denominations to thrive, mostly on the western frontier. A point might also be made that what the founders believed is not really that relevant in 2012, because, despite their lofty principles, some of these men (Jefferson, Washington, Madison) owned slaves, and denied voting-rights to women, free-blacks, Native-Americans, and anyone who didn't own property.
While I consulted a variety of sources - including Jefferson's "Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association" - a main source for my views about the beliefs of the founders was "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes (Oxford Press, 2006). Holmes is not a "liberal" writer, but is the Walter D. Mason Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
The writer correctly stated that "The Constitution does not explicitly refer to God." There is a reason for this! Madison and the other authors of this document had a profound respect for all forms of belief and/or disbelief. As for the term "Creator," one might ask "which one"? Yahweh? Zeus? Vishnu? Gitchee-Manitou? Freemasons like George Washington called their deity "The Master Architect of the Universe." Jefferson used the term "Nature's God" ... None said much about "Jesus" or "Christianity"!
Some of what the writer implied was either dishonest or misleading. The facade of the Supreme Court building shows Moses and the Ten Commandments but it also depicts Hammurabi, the Pharaoh Menes, the Greek lawgiver Solon, the Roman emperors Augustus and Justinian, and (despite criticism from Moslems who forbid likenesses of their prophet) Mohammed ... The phrase "under God" was added to the "Pledge of Allegiance" in 1954 to please Congressional anti-communists like Joe McCarthy; its original author, Francis Bellamy, was a Christian-Socialist author ("Looking Backward") and Baptist minister who believed that "Christ was a socialist"! ...
Some of what the writer said was also a bit nastier than one might expect from a "man-of-the-cloth."
Ben Franklin said, "if we look back into history for the character of the present sects of Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors and complainers of persecution." The writer of The Times article fits well into both categories! Can he provide us with any real example of how he or his followers are being "persecuted" by so-called "belligerent non-believers"? ... By using pejorative terms like "so-called educators," this self-proclaimed "Christian" defames teachers and joins the ranks of rightwing phonies like Mike Huckabee and revisionist-textbook author David Barton who routinely demonize - and attempt to defund - a system of public-education that guarantees all young citizens the right to express unfettered intellectual-curiosity and obtain a wider diversity of learning regardless of class, color or creed!
Fred O'Neill lives in Marietta.