Of all the arguments that seem to complicate this year's election, religion is at or near the top. Whether it comes in the form of Mitt Romney's Mormonism, Mike Huckabee's Evangelical beliefs, or allegations of Barack Obama's ties to Islam and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the religion of our candidates has taken center stage. To further complicate this messy conglomeration of religious fervor, both the Democrats and Republicans have chosen to passionately invoke the memory of our Founding Fathers to bolster support for their respective causes. From Mike Huckabee's assertion that the majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen, to Barack Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech, this season's crop of presidential hopefuls have fully embraced the time-honored tradition of "piggybacking" the memory of the Founding Fathers with their individual political agendas.
This is, of course, nothing new to the world of politics. Over the centuries virtually every politician has appealed to the legacy of the Founding Fathers to rally support. What has changed, however, is the fanatical desire to polarize the religious sentiments of the Founding Fathers. These extremist views between the secularism of most liberals and the Christian zeal of most conservatives, has created opposing doctrines on how religion influenced America's founding. As Steven Waldman points out in his new book Founding Faith:
In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.
Waldman's bold statements are virtually echoed by those of author John Meacham, who writes in his book American Gospel the following:
Both sides feel they are fighting for the survival of what's best for America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture...The conservative right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument...the secularist arrogance that religion played no role in America's founding is equally ridiculous.
So where does this leave us? Despite all of the "historical" arguments of the Democrats and Republicans, we can conclude three truths about the role of religion in the lives of the Founding Fathers, and its influence on America's founding:
1.) The Founding Fathers were religious individuals, in the sense that they believed in a "divine Providence," which oversaw and assisted in the efforts of mankind. Very few can or should be classified as Atheist. In one form or another, the majority believed in a higher power.
2.) The "Major" Founders (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton) had a strong distrust of organized religion. The Founders were more than aware of the religious atrocities that had occurred in the colonies (the Salem Witch Trials and English Civil War were still fresh in the minds of almost everyone). The ideology and doctrine of the Enlightenment, though not opposed to religion, did convince many within colonial society that an individual did not need organized religion to commune with deity. Thus the birth of Unitarianism became the premiere mode of worship and belief for these founders.
3.) The United States of America was NOT created as a CHRISTIAN nation. Though this is often an offensive statement to many Christians, I would remind them that virtually every major founder supported religious pluralism in the early years of the republic. Though the Founders embraced Christian ideals, this does not suggest that they created a Christian nation. As John Adams himself stated, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."
Though this argument is likely to continue for many years to come, perhaps some sense of it could be made by merely taking a trip to Washington D.C. There you will find the Washington Monument (built in the style of the Egyptian Obelisk). Egypt, as we all know was hardly a Christian nation. Then there is the United States Supreme Court building, which is build after the manner of the Greek Parthenon (Greece, as we all know, was a deeply pagan society at the time of the Parthenon). The Supreme Court building is also adorned with an elegant statue of Moses (which, of course, has angered many secularists). Perhaps the secularists should give the statue a further examination, for they will find that Moses is accompanied by a statue of Confucius (the great Chinese philosopher) and Solon (the great Athenian poet, statesman and leader in early Greece). Inside the Supreme Court building you are also likely to see the pagan statues of Britannia and Mars. Again, the Founding Fathers sought to create a nation where we would embrace and accept ALL beliefs, which is a perfect example of their Unitarian leanings.
This "Temple of Justice" as it was called, has become a symbol of America's religious diversity, which is one of its greatest strengths. It would do both the conservatives and liberals a great deal of good to remember these truths before making their partisan claims. After all, only damage can come from distorting history to fit one's agenda. As John Meacham states, "If totalitarianism was the great problem of the twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."