and Historical Extremism at its Best
by Brad Hart
Over the past couple of months I have been accused of unfairly levying attacks on Christian nation apologists like David Barton, Peter Lillback and others. While I maintain my previous stances with regards to their "scholarship" on America's founding fathers, I do recognize that I have been a little one-sided.
In an effort to remedy such a label, I offer up the renowned author and atheist, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins -- who most certainly is the antithesis of Barton and others -- argues that America's founding fathers -- particularly the "mainstream" founders -- were agnostics at best, and quite possibly atheists. To defend his argument, Dawkins sites a number of popular quotations from our founders, which he believes serve as ample evidence to prove that our founders were anything but religious.
The following is a video in which Dawkins attempts to offer up these historical quotations, in an effort to affirm his notion that the founders were agnostic secularists at best:
Dawkins -- like Barton and other extremists -- takes an uncompromising stance of simply accepting small tidbits of history that he can easily fit to his personal argument. As is the case with most "manufactured" history, Dawkins ignores historical content when adopting the sources of the founding fathers to fit his own agenda. For example, Dawkins quotes from James Madison the following:
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."This quotation is a perfect illustration of why understanding historical context is so very important. Madison was never against the PRACTICE of religion. Instead, he was opposed the TYRANNY of religion, which led Madison to this open attack on the practices of Christianity of his day. Dawkins, however, would lead you to believe that this wasn't simply an attack but a renunciation of all religion.
Dawkins is wrong.
As we all know, this popular quotation comes from Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which Madison wrote in response to the religious persecution taking place in his native Virginia. What Dawkins fails to mention is that Madison was not attempting to eradicate religion but to advocate for the fair treatment of all faiths. As Madison states in the same document that Dawkins sites:
We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." [Virginia Declaration of Rights, art. 16] The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.America's founding fathers were never in favor of eradicating religion from society. In fact, most passionately believed that religion could help safeguard the virtue and morality of the citizenry, which was, in their minds, an essential component to republicanism.
Now, in Dawkins' defense, I will point out that he is right when he states that our founders would likely be upset at the fact that atheists are the unfortunate recipients of bigotry and hatred today. Clearly the founders hoped that the American republic would be one of mutual acceptance -- from a religious perspective -- in which people could believe -- or disbelieve as the choose. As Thomas Jefferson stated in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
From the dissensions among Sects themselves arise necessarily a right of choosing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform. But if we choose for ourselves, we must allow others to choose also, and so reciprocally, this establishes religious liberty...This virtual "custody battle" for the legacy of the founding fathers, which pits secularists like Dawkins against Christian zealots like Barton is a perfect example of how both sides misrepresent the historical record. This extremist view is best illustrated by Steven Waldman and Jon Meacham, who point out in their respective works just how destructive these extreme views are to actual history. As Steven Waldman states in his book, Founding Faith:
...The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
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 Jon 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.In today's supercharged political and religious world I am certain of at least one thing: we haven't seen the end of historical extremism.