Friday, July 25, 2008

Talking Past One Another

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

-- George Washington, Farewell Address.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

-- John Adams, October 11, 1798.

This preamble [to the laws of ZALEUCUS] instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration [My emphasis].


The laws of ZALEUCUS were supposedly revealed by Athena 600 BC. When Washington et al. stated "religion" was necessary to support republican government, they meant "religion" not "Christianity." Though they weren't familiar with all world religions, they did mention Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Unitarianism, Deism, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, pagan-Greco-Romanism, and Confucionism as "sound" or valid religions.

The interesting dynamic -- the kernel of truth in the Christian America crowd's argument -- is that many in the masses of that time, especially many orthodox leaders, probably did hear "Christianity," or "Protestant Trinitarian Christianity," when for instance George Washington stated "[a]nd let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." Indeed, the much spread spurious quotation of Washington's, "It is impossible to rightly govern without God and the Bible," is a paraphrase of some pious figure's interpretation of Washington's Farewell Address. The problem is, that's not what Washington said, and it's not what he meant. But Washington did not, for instance, when the pious clergymen wrote him, correct their misimpression by stating, "I know you believe in the Trinity and there is only one way to God, but I believe all religions are valid." That would just cause needless trouble.

So the systematic use of generic and philosophical religious language did well serve the Founders in their need to thread the needle between their heretodoxy and the orthodoxy of the masses (or at least the orthodox ministers who held great positions of institutional social power; arguably the masses were nominal not orthodox Christians). However, it did lead somewhat to "talking past one another" when discussing broad abstract concepts. People often agree on broad general concepts like that of "religion." Who doesn't think we have "rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? But when right to life means things like abortion, or right to liberty means whether to legalize drugs, that's when the disagreements begin. America's Founders needed to unite, not divide. So it would have been unwise for them to publicly pick fights with the orthodox. Thomas Paine did and paid a great cost for it.

Though there is a big difference between "religion" meaning "orthodox Christianity" on the one hand and meaning "religion generally" on the other. Over time, those differences would play themselves out in profound ways. America for instance, became a nation where the law (indeed fundamental rights in the US Constitution!) treated non-Christian religions equally with Christianity because of America's Founding principles.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,
At Lunch today I read you post “Talking Past One Another”. There is no question America has been and will continue to be a melting pot of nationalities and religions. When a person has a relationship with the Lord God, what takes place in that person’s life is matter of personal faith rather than religion.

There is no question that all religions are valid; the question is what the religions validate. Asking a question or taking a stand does not make a person pious. The God of Scripture has allowed America as a nation to be established for His purpose. It is by His grace that people are allowed to worship as they please in America. People argue because they do not have a clear understanding. As a Christian it is not a requirement to bash people over the head with the truth… Just share the truth and let the individual decide using the free will God has provided them.

A question come to mind what is justice to you or a person reading this reply. And better yet has the law perverted it.


bpabbott said...


I find that the word "religion" is too often used in place of "doctrine".

There are many (Einstein for example) who used the word "religion" to represent philosophical sentiments that had nothing to do with the mysterious miracles, or supernatural claims.

I've often wondered about the specific context of the use of the word "religion" by many the founders (you've provided some nice examples in your post).

Are you aware of any respectable effort to examine what the founders intended to imply by the word "religion". No doubt they each had thoughts on the subject, but it would be interesting to review a thorough examination of the subject.

bpabbott said...

AV1: "A question come to mind what is justice to you or a person reading this reply. And better yet has the law perverted it."

Interesting question. The word is often used in place of vengeance, which I find to contradict my concept of the word. For me a system of justice is one that seeks out harmony/fairness in as just just a manner as possible.

Wikipedia has a nice page on what Justice is. The concept is quite diverse.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, even Plato couldn't nail down justice. The Jews and Christians, of course, go even further, with mercy.

See Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:12-13. Those who like to make the God of the Bible out to be a real prick find these, um, enlightening.

Phil Johnson said...

Plato may not have nailed the idea of justice down; but, he did a pretty good job of investigating it.
Justice would be a good subject for some good thought. How would it fit the context of American Creation?