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.