Monday, July 15, 2013

Religion and the American Republic

By GEORGE F. WILL writing for National Affairs. A taste:
Some of the founders, such as Benjamin Franklin, subscribed to 18th-century Deism: a watery, undemanding doctrine that postulated a Creator who wound up the universe like a clock and thereafter did not intervene in the human story. It has been said that the Deist God is like a rich aunt in Australia: benevolent, distant, and infrequently heard from. Deism seeks to explain the existence and nature of the universe. But so does the Big Bang theory, which is not a religion. If a religion is supposed to console and enjoin as well as explain, Deism hardly counts as a religion.

George Washington famously would not kneel to pray. And when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his characteristically austere manner: He stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity's "benign influence" on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were said when he died a stoic's death. This, even though Washington had proclaimed in his famous Farewell Address (which to this day is read aloud in Congress every year on his birthday) that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" for "political prosperity." He said, "Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." He warned that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

The longer John Adams lived, the shorter grew his creed, which in the end was Unitarianism. Thomas Jefferson wrote ringing words about the Creator who endowed us with rights, but Jefferson was a placid utilitarian when he urged a nephew to inquire into the veracity of Christianity, saying laconically: "If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comforts and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you."

James Madison, always commonsensical, explained — actually, explained away — religion as an innate appetite: "[T]he mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause and effect." When the first Congress hired a chaplain, Madison said "it was not with my approbation." 
Yet even the founders who were unbelievers considered it a civic duty — a public service — to be observant unbelievers. For example, two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter endorsing a "wall of separation" between church and state, he attended, as he and other government officials often would, church services held in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Services were also held in the Treasury building.

Jefferson and other founders made statesmanlike accommodation of the public's strong preference, which then as now was for religion to enjoy ample space in the public square. They understood that Christianity, particularly in its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government. Protestantism's emphasis on the individual's direct, unmediated relationship with God and the primacy of individual conscience and choice subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few. 
Beyond that, however, the American founding owed much more to John Locke than to Jesus. ...
I think Will -- like a lot of folks -- doesn't quite get Franklin who was more theistic than deistic. Likewise, "Unitarianism" wasn't just John Adams' ending creed; it was the creed he held for his entire adult life.

4 comments:

wsforten said...

Wow! There are so many errors in this excerpt that I am cringing in expectation of reading the full article tomorrow. So, let's see if I can give just a brief run down.

Franklin was definitely not a Deist at the time of the Revolution. He left Deism decidedly behind him after a brief experiment with it during his teen years and appears to have converted to Christianity at the age of 29.

According Nelly Custis, Washington stood during public prayer because that was the custom of his day, and several individuals have provided first hand testimony of observing him kneeling for his private prayers. Also, Washington did not stay away from church on communion Sunday. There are multiple testimonies of Washington receiving communion prior to and during the war, and while he chose for unknown reasons to refuse communion afterwards, he did not avoid church on communion Sundays. Instead, he attended the service and left at the end when the communion was given.

Jefferson was neither utilitarian nor laconic in his letter to his nephew. He was encouraging the young man to give careful study to the arguments both for and against Christianity, and he supported that encouragement by pointing out that such a study would produce benefits regardless of the outcome. After giving the benefits that even an atheist can obtain from the Scriptures, Jefferson then listed the benefits that his nephew would gain if his study led him to become a Christian.

Madison was not in the least explaining away religion. He was actually affirming the existence of God while giving his opinion on a particular author's attempt to prove God's existence.

And of course, Locke's philosophy of government was nothing more than a retelling of the same philosophy that Christians had been writing about for centuries.

matt s said...

Visiting Christ's Church in old city, Philadelphia, opened my eyes to the fact that religion did in fact play a role in the founding father's lives.
Pews were purchased by Washington, Adams, and Franklin and the plaques bearing their names remain to this day. Realizing that none of these men were regular church goers, I wonder if they viewed belonging to Christ's Church truly good for their spiritual soul or was it more the idea of not wanting to be left out. Was it done out of certainty of their individual mortality or was association with the church important for their place in history --- something they all viewed as being very important.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm still trying to determine whether Mr. Fortenberry's review of Will's piece is a well executed hatchet job or a smear.

I need not get into every detail, but op ed space is limited and most of Dr. Will's assertions that WS disputes are defensible in historical context.

For instance, when Mr. Fortenberry writes,

-- Also, Washington did not stay away from church on communion Sunday. There are multiple testimonies of Washington receiving communion prior to and during the war, and while he chose for unknown reasons to refuse communion afterwards, he did not avoid church on communion Sundays. Instead, he attended the service and left at the end when the communion was given. --

he leaves out that after Washington was publicly rebuked by Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie for turning his back on the Lord's Supper, Washington indeed stopped coming to church on communion Sundays.

Thus, Will's statement that "[GW] stayed away from church on communion Sundays" is accurate.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous matt s said...
Visiting Christ's Church in old city, Philadelphia, opened my eyes to the fact that religion did in fact play a role in the founding father's lives.
Pews were purchased by Washington, Adams, and Franklin and the plaques bearing their names remain to this day. Realizing that none of these men were regular church goers, I wonder if they viewed belonging to Christ's Church truly good for their spiritual soul or was it more the idea of not wanting to be left out. Was it done out of certainty of their individual mortality or was association with the church important for their place in history --- something they all viewed as being very important.


MattS, in Washington's case it was his strong feeling that religion was necessary for the health of the republic, and he wanted to set an example. Strangely enough, Jefferson felt the same way, attending the religious services held in the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court during the construction of Washington DC. [The "halls" were lent to all comers.]

In Adams' case, he set an example of ecumenicalism, attending every church regardless of denomination, although he did refuse to set foot in Joseph Priestly's denomination. [But although quite the anti-Catholic, he even visited a Romish service at least once I know of!]

As for Franklin, he was a supporter of all religions, but formally an adherent of none. He might buy/sponsor a pew, but I doubt he sat in it much.