Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Value of Debate

The recent post by Tom Van Dyke, One of the First Things America Did, and the book I'm currently reading, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes, have given me some fresh perspectives on the perpetual arguments waging over religious freedom in this country.

While all of us have our solid arguments for or against the many aspects of the old debate, it is often refreshing, and even necessary, to take a step back and respect just what we are arguing for – and to appreciate the ability to do so. A new outlook on an old stance does everyone some good, and an appreciation for the opponent's argument is something to always be mindful of. For as Aristotle once wrote, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

The truth is none of the great men that founded this country can be pigeon-holed into a one-way street of beliefs and ideals. Likely they were as complex as the rest of us and even their own views would have changed throughout their lifetimes. All that we can hope to do is make our very best assumption about what they would have to say about today's current dissertation, and make our best guess as to what they meant when they originally penned their thoughts centuries ago.

Obviously this all leaves a great deal of wiggle room; hence blogs such as this one where the debate rages on. It's a topic, I believe, that will be discussed and danced around until the end of times.

Yet I'd like to think that our founding fathers would have welcomed such discourse – such open-ended and free-willed discussions on what they meant and how they meant it, with everyone chiming in and sharing their own thoughts and opinions.

In fact, it is just such deliberations that took place for weeks on end in 1787 at the First Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and that – in the end – created our great Constitution.

Even then it had its opponents. Patrick Henry was opposed to the Constitution before he even finished reading it and became a vocal antagonist against its ratification. He and the Anti-Federalists work is what led to the passing of what is now our Bill of Rights.

You see, opposing viewpoints are more a necessary evil than any real roadblock in public discourse. They are the meat and bones of what constitutes the very heart of the American ideal – free will and, most importantly, freedom of speech. Not a one of us may agree on exactly what our forefathers meant in relation to religion and its place (if any) in government and politics; yet each of us has the ability, nay the freedom, to speak out and publicly share our views on the topic. That is the beauty of being an American; a vision that our founding fathers all shared – regardless of their opposing viewpoints on how to get there.

We may never all fully agree on the separation of church and state issue or government's role (again, if any) in religious matters. Yet, I don't believe that all of our founding fathers ever even agreed wholeheartedly on the same issue. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a legendary friendly rivalry that often included long discourses on religion and its place in government via the letters they wrote to one another in their later lives.

While our differences in agreement may seem trivial and even irritating at times, it is important to remember that these arguments – and our ability to publicly indulge in them – are part of the rights we, as American citizens, have and should be proud of. We should recognize that even the great men whose minds we try to dissect years after their deaths, too, had some of the same arguments and take heed of the fact that some of those arguments resulted in the great works of our government – The Constitution of the United States, The Bill of Rights, and so on. We will not always agree, but that is not always a bad thing. We can either agree to disagree, or we can work with our opponents in creating a bigger, better, and greater shared ideal. That is one idea, I believe, that all of our founding fathers did agree upon.


Phil Johnson said...

Seems like a great article for the provocation of some different discussion on the subject of American mindsets during the Founding Era..
I do not believe we can compare the way the Founding Fathers worked out their thoughts with the way we do that today.
We live in a very different culture than that theirs and one separated by nearly 250 years--seven or eight generations...
There is a global deluge of information coming down on even the least educated among us that is far, far beyond what our Fore-bearers could even have imagined. Included in that deluge are cultural changes such as transcendentalism, the Civil War with its impact on America's religious values, electrification, the invention of the telegraph, electronic recording devices, the telephone, radio, and television--just to mention the most obvious. Major changes affect our thinking and, finally, we live in post modern times.
The last impact, post modernism, comes down on us like a sledge hammer and just about obliterates our ability to be discerning about how the Founders thought about anything.
But, we can and must try--that's what we can do. Even if we were able to interview each Founder on a one-on-one basis, I doubt we could agree on what we might learn. Because we are so individually separate from one another; which is--after all--the mark of our post modern condition. I think we must continue to debate and uncover every grain of history so we can learn how it is that we have come to be who it is that we are coming to be. Otherwise, we're up for the grabs of whatever ideology comes along that strikes our fancy.

Brad Hart said...

"The truth is none of the great men that founded this country can be pigeon-holed into a one-way street of beliefs and ideals. Likely they were as complex as the rest of us and even their own views would have changed throughout their lifetimes."

Well said, Shanna. We would all do well to remember this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ace post, Shanna, especially that a) we are each unique and complex---except for ultra-orthodoxy, no two of us share identical beliefs. b) that our views change over a lifetime [see Alexander Hamilton] and c) the Founders weren't unanimous, even on the constitution and Bill of Rights.

I disagree with Phil that the fundamental questions change for man, although "progress" in philosophy or technology may lead to them being asked in new ways. And I think it's easy to put a pangloss that "we can work with our opponents in creating a bigger, better, and greater shared ideal." As we find with religious doctrine and the resulting proliferation of sects in Christianity, bigger is not better, and it actually obscures the foundations of agreement. We around here kind of poke through the weeds and branches around the Founding, in search of the trunk.

Thx for the HT.

Shanna Riley said...

Thank you all for your comments and kind remarks.

@Phil: You pose some interesting thoughts, and it is true that we live in a very different age and culture than our founding fathers. Still, I'd like to believe that at the very core of it all, in some ways, we are all still searching for the same types of things - peace, goodwill, and all of that jazz.

We will never be able to see the world exactly through their eyes unless we happened upon a time machine that would zap us back a few centuries. Until that time we can only - as you said - continue to debate and do the best we can. History is nothing if not something to be learned from.

@Brad: Thank you very much. It's a reminder that no one can deny is vital to remember from time to time.

@Tom: I sincerely appreciate the commendation. I have recently started looking more into the life of Hamilton, as a matter of fact. What a fascinating and brilliant man he was! I am enjoying learning more about him and hope to feature him in an upcoming post.

You have a point - bigger is not always better when you point it out in a sense such as that. I think that the video in the previous post - Religion and the Public Square by Brad - had some very sound discussions about religion and government/public life. I really came away with a different perspective on things, and like the idea that less religion as opposed to no religion - and less radicalism on *both* sides (secular and skeptic) - would benefit us all.

Phil Johnson said...

Shanna sez, "I'd like to believe that at the very core of it all, in some ways, we are all still searching for the same types of things - peace, goodwill, and all of that jazz."
Shanna, that's a pretty name.
Yupper. Since the ancient Greeks, we're still in search of the good, the beautiful and the true.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Shanna, I'm sure there's value in his book, but I'm quite underwhelmed by this interview with David L. Holmes.

His use of "Deism" is quite flabby, as it's a flabby term---Tom Paine's deism imagines a creator God who remains cold and distant; this is fundamentally incompatible with the God whom the Founders prayed to and whose Providence they credited with winning the Revolution!

Holmes blandly asserts that Franklin became a Deist as a young man. True, but Franklin uses the term correctly in its Tom Paine sense in his Autobiography: "I soon became a thorough Deist." But Holmes completely misses [or elides] that on the same page in his autobiography, Franklin also writes that later, "I began to suspect that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not very useful."

And Franklin never said he thought Jesus "probably" wasn't divine, as Holmes put it: Franklin actually wrote "I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it."

When asked again as an 84-yr-old man, the wry Ben simply observes, "I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble."

Now, I'm quibbling here, but Holmes puts himself out as a historical authority, and this interview shows a lack of scholarly rigor. This suggests his work may contribute more noise than clarity, echoing "common knowledge" instead of the uncommon knowledge that we need so sorely to work on this puzzle.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree that Holmes biggest flaw is his embrace of the term "Deist" to describe America's key Founders. But he does, in his book, recognize the existence of the hybrid belief system with his term "Christian-Deism" to describe the key FFs as opposed to the non-Christian Deism or Paine and Allen.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Odd then, that Holmes doesn't use the term "Christian-Deism" in the interview, then. The interview spreads more fog than it dissipates.

"Christian-Deism" works fine for me. If God intervenes in human affairs and smiles on the good and just but withholds his favor from the wicked, for all political purposes, it doesn't matter too much if his name is Jesus or whether He died for our sins or is present in the Eucharist.

But the interview is puzzling to me. Perhaps it was the editor's or interviewer's fault. However, I think Holmes' misrepresentation of Franklin's actual statements cannot be attributed to higher [or lower] powers. Franklin did say he began to find deism as "not very useful" and he did not say that Jesus "probably" wasn't divine.
Therefore, I recommended caution in reading Holmes' book.

And I proposed a little thought experiment in exegesis in the post below this one, Jon, on what Franklin might have actually believed. Perhaps you'd like to participate...

Jonathan Rowe said...

I might actually do some posts further elaborating what Franklin believed. For one, I believe he was more likely to think of himself as a "Christian" than a "Deist."

Phil Johnson said...

A recently read definition:

Deist; one who believes the only true bible is nature herself.