Monday, August 30, 2010

Religion and the Founding

It was the first meeting of what would be called the Continental Congress, 1774. Just some guys in a room. Doesn't look very impressive, even in the painting. The Declaration of Independence was two very long years away. But America as we know it today had to start somewhere, and here it started, in "Phyladelphia."

"S. Adams" is John Adams' cousin Samuel. By most accounts Sam Adams was a Calvinist's Calvinist, as pious and orthodox and Protestant as they come.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams

September 16, 1774

[Paper was expensive back then, and they used fewer paragraph breaks. I took the liberty of inserting a few, for readability.---TVD]

Having a Leisure Moment, while the Congress is assembling, I gladly embrace it to write you a Line.

When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a Motion, that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of N. York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Aanabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship.

Mr. S. Adams arose and said he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country. He was a Stranger in Phyladelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that Character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an episcopal [Anglican, i.e., Church of England---TVD] Clergyman, might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress, tomorrow Morning.

The Motion was seconded and passed in the Affirmative. Mr. Randolph our President, waited on Mr. Duche, and received for Answer that if his Health would permit, he certainly would. Accordingly next Morning he appeared with his Clerk and in his Pontificallibus, and read several Prayers, in the established Form; and then read the Collect for the seventh day of September, which was the Thirty fifth Psalm. -You must remember this was the next Morning after we heard the horrible Rumour, of the Cannonade of Boston.-I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning.

After this Mr. Duche, unexpected to every Body struck out into an extemporary Prayer, which filled the Bosom of every Man present. I must confess I never heard a better Prayer or one, so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervour, such Ardor, such Earnestness and Pathos, and in Language so elegant and sublime-for America, for the Congress, for The Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the Town of Boston. It has had an excellent Effect upon every Body here.

I must beg you to read that Psalm. If there was any Faith in the sortes Virgilianae, or sortes Homericae, or especially the Sortes biblicae, it would be thought providential.

It will amuse your Friends to read this Letter and the 35th. Psalm to them. Read it to your Father and Mr. Wibirt.

I wonder what our Braintree Churchmen would think of this?-Mr. Duche is one of the most ingenious Men, and best Characters, and greatest orators in the Episcopal order, upon this Continent- Yet a Zealous Friend of Liberty and his Country.

I long to see my dear Family. God bless, preserve and prosper it.


John Adams

Psalm 35:

Plead my cause, O LORD, with them that strive with me:
fight against them that fight against me.

Take hold of shield and buckler,
and stand up for mine help.

Draw out also the spear,
and stop the way against them that persecute me:
say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
Let them be confounded and put to shame
that seek after my soul:
let them be turned back and brought to confusion
that devise my hurt.

Let them be as chaff before the wind:
and let the angel of the LORD chase them.

Let their way be dark and slippery:
and let the angel of the LORD persecute them.


Let them shout for joy, and be glad,
that favor my righteous cause:
yea, let them say continually,
Let the LORD be magnified,
which hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.

And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness
and of thy praise all the day long.

The rest of Psalm 35 can be found here. You get the idea.

There was some sort of prayer meeting the other day in Washington, DC. Some people didn't like it. So be it. But the one thing in America, 2010 or 1774, is that if you want to pray publicly, you can't be no Bigot. We pray together, or not at all.


Unknown said...

Great job!

Phil Johnson said...

Tightening the screw.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Loosening it.

Phil Johnson said...

Just wondering.


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Tom Van Dyke said...

I'll leave this spam up, in case someone wants to look at an administration-friendly website.

Daniel said...

Interesting letter. Thanks.

I hadn't realized that rally last weekend was primarily a religious event until I heard an NPR report after it was over. And I was more suprised to hear that it included prayers by its Mormon leader, Evangelical Christians, rabbis, and immams. I didn't know they could all worship together.

I probably would have sided with Jay and Rutledge, out of fear of some terrible offense.

jimmiraybob said...

There was some sort of prayer meeting the other day in Washington, DC.

So, that's what that was.

Tom Van Dyke said...

By every account I've read, yes it was, JRB, which is why I posted this post. That, and I just ran across this John Adams letter as a response to one of Jonathan's posts. It all fit.

I have no interest in discussing Glenn Beck here on this blog. Me, I don't know what to make of him except he zags when his critics expect him to keep zigging.

By all accounts, even from his critics, his 8/28 thing was nonpartisan, nonpolitical and nonsectarian.

At this point, I'm more inspired and more instructed by the first day of the First Continental Congress, and how Samuel Adams handled and diffused what could have been a religious obstacle to the American Founding.

I don't get into my own religious beliefs around here much, but I believe in America and its religious pluralism and religious tolerance. God doesn't clue me in on anything. For all I know, the Mormons are right about everything. That's how we do things. Love God, love your neighbor, all men are created equal, unalienable rights come from God, sovereignty rests with the people, that's Christian enough for me, even if you're Muslim.

And if you're atheist, just go with the flow, even if you can't stomach the "God" stuff. In practice, the American political theology protects you too.

King of Ireland said...

"And if you're atheist, just go with the flow, even if you can't stomach the "God" stuff"

If they want their right not to worship respected then they have to respect others rights not too. So many of them correctly point out that once the Pilgrims got religious freedom they did not extend it to others.

I wonder how long it will take for atheists to do the same if they achieve majority? It seems to be part of the nature of man to cry to tolerance when in the minority and oppress when in the majority.

I cannot speak for all atheists, and would not dare to do so, but some of the persecution we see if Christians in academia would seem to point to what at least some would do in an atheist world.

I know I felt worried about mentioning that I was a Christian around some of the people I worked with when I was a public school teacher.

bpabbott said...

Re: "If they want their right not to worship respected then they have to respect [other's] rights [...] too."

I think that's a non-sequitur. Few object to the freedom of individuals to choose their own faith.

Its not about the individual right to worship.

Its about the government taking sides.

Re: "I cannot speak for all atheists, and would not dare to do so, but some of the persecution we see if Christians in academia would seem to point to what at least some would do in an atheist world."

When I read such things, I get images of individuals wishing to insert religious instruction into a science class. That's certainly not something you've support, so I'm curious ... What do you refer to?

King of Ireland said...


I am not talking about you or the 90 percent or more of the atheists I know. It is a small vocal minority that thinks freedom of religion means freedom from it and would stamp out all remants of religion in this nation if given a chance.

The persecution in Academia is real. This small minority seems to resides mostly there and anyone that believes in God seems to be in need of medication the types I am talking about.

You would have to read Dispatches from the Culture Wars for the better part of a year to see what I am talking about. These types seem to congregate there and at PZ Myers blog. Though I do not think that either author even really agrees with them in total.

King of Ireland said...

I should say that I Ed does not agree with them at all it seems. I need to clarify that. Myers is more sympathetic it would seem. Though I have not read enough of him to draw any serious conclusions.

My point here is that it is hard to tell what atheists, or any minority group for that matter, would do if they were the majority until they become the majority. In other words, maybe some atheists are not as really tolerant as they seem.

jimmiraybob said...

Ya know that to be non-theistic is not the same as being hostile to religion, faith or those who practice a faith. Just as I don't think that anyone should be coerced into faith I don't think that anyone should be coerced out of faith.

jimmiraybob said...

...maybe some atheists are not as really tolerant as they seem.

Stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, disingenuousness are equal opportunity afflicters. A profession of religious faith or lack thereof is no automatic indicator of character.

bpabbott said...

Joe, no offense, but when you speak of your personal speculations regarding atheists your words are indicative of offensive prejudice.

No doubt such words feed the flames of some fanatics ... both of the atheist and theist variety :-(

JRB makes a good point; "Atheism" is not an indication of an individuals character, but your words are in indication of yours.

There just isn't any upside. You words insult many who read you comments (self fulfilling?), and build a poor reputation for yourself and the blog in the process.

Brian Tubbs said...

Good job, Tom, in poiting out that public prayer is a solid American tradition, one I hope doesn't go away.

King of Ireland said...


If you carefully read what I wrote I am not talking about all atheists. In fact, I stated that the people I am talking about are a small minortity. Furthermore, it is a small minority that the Religious Right paints as the majority not I.

I liken it to some of the Islam discussion here lately. Most Muslims want nothing to do with the fanatical side of Islam. A small minority do and those that want to smear Islam as a bunch of terrorists say it is a majority. There is another more fundemental group that is not terrorist but most certainly does not believe in religious freedom.

There are different kinds of atheists too. It does not good to paint them all the came color BUTTTTT to ignore the ill intent, IMO, of the small stream of fanatics is foolish.

I have nothing at all against atheists I was one. I do have a huge problem with the people I am talking about. They would take my right to worship away in one second if allowed to.

I hope that helps Ben. I do not want to offend you and am not in anyway talking about you or JRB. Though I am not sure he is an atheist.

jimmiraybob said...

I came across a discussion that I thought was timely of Beck and civil religion and lowest common denominators starting at James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix Blog (Quote of the Day) and then following a couple of links (passages below).

Beck started out an AM radio shock jock and moved up to the conservative political talk radio and television scene. He has been a decidedly right-leaning political figure but appears to be transitioning to an apocalyptic messianic leader of a conservative restorationist political movement. When Beck selectively uses Christian references and imagery to enlist a limited vision of a civil religion, sans any reference to social justice - a foundation of many Christian traditions, as a wedge political device in a campaign it is different than when MLK Jr. used a universal Christian appeal to social justice - our civil religious heritage - to right an inequality that had been a recognized bane of the nation since its inception. Or is it different?

And a point that I’ve made here before is, what does blending religion and politics into a kind of McReligiotics do to the religion itself not to mention our national politics. Is Jesus’ message really about election to temporal politics and wielding the coercive powers of the state toward an end? Is the Christ’s message really about American nationalism? Should non-believers and those of different faith traditions just, as has been suggested, go with the flow?

Anyway, enough about me….

Robert Cargill

"Beck’s rally was little more than an attempt to cast himself as the new leader of an American civil religion (similar to how Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan used the 1995 400,000 Million Man March to cast himself as the new leader of the U.S. civil rights movement). Blending nationalistic themes with a piecemeal selection of biblical passages and ‘American Scripture’ (i.e., passages from famous U.S. founding documents and speeches given by U.S. politicians), Beck attempted to craft together an American civil religion that equates belief in God with belief in country – specifically, belief in political conservatism.

"The problem with American civil religion is that it reduces faith to a particular brand of nationalism, which is precisely the opposite of the message preached by Jesus and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. By ignoring passages about social justice and community and highlighting appeals to individual liberties, Deuteronomistic theology, the Exodus, and conquest narratives, Beck attempted to weave together a generic, nationalistic religion that he hopes will appeal to the lowest common denominator of both faith and politics – personal ‘salvation’ via individual liberties – and overlook the more pervasive themes of social justice, equality, and community – which all people of faith are called to do! We are called to live together in community together as one body, not as rugged individuals."

(cont below)

jimmiraybob said...

Robert Parham

"Not surprisingly, Beck only uses the Bible to point toward the idea of a God-generic. He does not listen to the God of the Bible who calls for the practice of social justice, the pursuit of peacemaking, the protection of the poor in the formation of community. Beck has little room for God's warning about national idolatry and rejection of fabricated religion.

"For Beck, God-generic is a unifying theme and religion is a unifying force for what appears to be his revivalist agenda for Americanism - blended nationalism and individualism."

--Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

bpabbott said...

Joe, you personal speculations about what one minority or another might do if theirs became a majority is an intellectually void, and antagonistic to minority you speculate about.

I did exercise care in reading your comments. To me they genuinely appear stereotypical and prejudiced ... the sort of stuff that feeds culture wars. In the future I'd like to ask you to be more careful about what you write.

King of Ireland said...

I disagree but will take what you said into consideration. I do not want to offend anyone needlessly.

King of Ireland said...

It still seems that those outside of the religous right try to split it with wedge issues that there be no wedge over. If they are not going to let soteriology affect the poltical theology who are we to try and put that on them.

Is it really any different, in principle because I see several practical political or ideological differences, than what they did at the founding? I think not. They put doctrinal issues aside to unite under a moral banner based on liberty and limited government.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, surely you see the irony that the Religious Left uses "social Gospel" as support for progressivism, a mixing of faith and politics that they decry on the Religious Right.

This gentleman Robert Parham, for instance, called Al Gore a "Baptist prophet" for his environmental views.

For the record, I'm in favor of people using faith to inform their politics one way or the other.

As for what King of Ireland's trying to say, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the militant non-theist left would prefer that America something closer to the ultrasecular laïcité of France.

Just a clarity break here. I think Parham's attack borders on slander. Beck favors a social safety net, like the other 99% of Americans, and his 8/28 thing was no more or less religious than the prayers at the opening of the First Continental Congress.

bpabbott said...

Thanks Joe, I can't ask for more than that.

jimmiraybob said...

JRB, surely you see the irony that the Religious Left uses "social Gospel" as support for progressivism, a mixing of faith and politics that they decry on the Religious Right.

For the record, I'm in favor of people using faith to inform their politics one way or the other.

For the record I'm also fine with people using faith to inform their politics one way or the other. I'm less thrilled when I see faith being manhandled for a specific political ideology or cause - although I'll admit that it's hard to tease out a break point. And yes, I do see the ironies. Which, leads me back to wondering if it's strictly faith that informs or if faith bolsters predisposition or some combination of the two where study leads to new insights.

It's something like slavery/the civil rights movement, I cheer the rallying cry of religious imagery when used against slavery and/or for the justice of extending full citizenship regardless of race. I boo the rallying cry of religious imagery when it's used in the other direction.

...the militant non-theist left would prefer that America something closer to the ultrasecular laïcité of France.

I will have to look into this laïcité of France thing. Is it a movement to abolish religion?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not exactly, but in my view it falls well short of genuine American religious pluralism, in practice and in spirit.

Plus, when push comes to shove, laicite has its own set of problems.

Very relevant tot he our current line of discussion, as it puts the abstractions we're kicking around into real-life practice.

bpabbott said...

The wikipedia article (h/t Tom) contains a section comparing the French Laïcité and the American Separation of Church and State.

Laïcité: Contrast with the United States.

It appears to me that French Laïcité is what some Americans have come to perceive is implied by the Constitutional principle of Separation of Church and State.

jimmiraybob said...

I think Parham's attack borders on slander. Beck favors a social safety net,...

I don't know, but Parham's take could come from Beck statements like, "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!" And, then alluding to Nazism and communism.

I'm guessing that Beck's not a fan of Social Security. What safety net do you refer to? Or is it best just to drop the Beck thing?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't think Beck can be discussed just by getting quotes from his critics without context. I flicked on his show this morning and he explicitly endorsed the "safety net," which is why I wrote it.

I've been studying the Old Left, the Religious Left, lately---once upon a time, there was no "Religious Right"---and it seems to me that the Old Religious Left seems to take "social justice" [and by that you can read "progressive politics"] as a Biblical given.

At one time, in the days of robber barons and no unions, that may have been more self-evident, but the equilibrium has changed, and the Old Religious Left is going to have to re-justify their presuppositions.

And attacking Glenn Beck or the Religious Right is not the way to go about it. Even if they do get a gotcha on Beck, it does not make "social justice" via progressive politics Biblically self-evident.

And boy, does Beck have their panties in a bunch. I think he's shaken their complacent theological tree bigtime.


Ben, the Wiki is not worth parsing, it's only a lazy starting point. Laicite is far more selcular and restrictive than the American pluralism of most of our history.

Phil Johnson said...

You gotta hand it to Beck. He has worked his way into the mainstream of politics. I remember when I first saw him on (I think it was) Headline News. He seems to have the ability to snag conservatives and liberals alike.
Quite curious.
I think he's headed for a burnout and tailspin.
Time will tell.

King of Ireland said...

"Thanks Joe, I can't ask for more than that."

Ben, I think you know me by now and can tell anyway, but just to make sure I did not say I would consider it in a trite way. I meant it and any criticism coming from you gets added weight because you are reasonable and very seldom complain. So when you do we should listen.

bpabbott said...

Joe, no triteness was inferred on my part. Thanks for the compliment.

bpabbott said...

Tom, I don't think this particular Wiki-page is very good, but it did give me a taste of what Laïcité is, and how it compares to American pluralism. I expected you've inferred that I appreciate and value American pluralism. However, I often wonder if the growing number of fanatics/pundits from the left and right extremes are (1) ominous of an impending end to our pluralism, or (2) a testament of it ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

My growing opinion is that the Old Religious Left has had a stranglehold on the narrative of religion and the Founding, and are quite miffed that it's slipping from their grasp.

They really are losing it, and since Beck is giving them little rope to hang him with, it's back to the race card.

And as desirable as laicite might seem to the more militant non-theists in America, I think it's hitting the wall in Europe, unable to accommodate the challenge of Islam, which let's say for starters, takes up a lot of room with ritual prayer 5 times a day, ritual washing, and hate of Piglet.

jimmiraybob said...

Having done an exhausting reaserch on the laicite in France [almost an hour of Googling :)] I've come to the conclusion that what you bring up is far too complex, especially in light of the religious-political history preceeding it, for light speculation. Also, in not living in France it's hard to gauge the whole story.

I suspect that this is an issue with the religious right in America?

Here's a snippet of life in pre-laicite France when Roman Catholocism was the state religion:

Jean-François Lefevre de la Barre (September 12, 1745 – July 1, 1766) was a French nobleman, famous for having been tortured and beheaded before his body was burnt on a pyre along with Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary".

...Voltaire notably emphasizes the role of the Church, although the prosecution was entirely secular (albeit based on Old Regime law, which assumed Catholicism as the state religion and so defined a number of offenses based on religion, such as sacrilege and blasphemy). Whatever the general influence of religion in the affair, the only specific efforts by the Church hierarchy were in favor of a pardon for La Barre (requested by the Bishop of Amiens, among others.)

On February 20, 1766, Duval de Soicourt and two other local judges handed down the sentence:

"Regarding Jean-Francois Lefebvre, chevalier de La Barre, we declare him convicted of having taught to sing and sung impious, execrable and blasphemous songs against God; of having profaned the sign of the cross in making blessings accompanied by foul words which modesty does not permit repeating; of having knowingly refused the signs of respect to the Holy Sacrament carried in procession by the priory of Saint-Pierre; of having shown these signs of adoration to foul and abominable books that he had in his room; of having profaned the mystery of the consecration of wine, having mocked it, in pronouncing the impure terms mentioned in the trial record over a glass of wine which he held in his hand and then drunken the wine; of having finally proposed to Petignat, who was serving mass with hin [sic], to bless the cruets while pronouncing the impure words mentioned in the trial record.

"In reparation of which, we condemn him to make honorable amend, in smock, head bare and a rope around his neck, holding in his hands a burning candle of two pounds before the principal door of the royal church... of Saint-Wulfram, where he will be taken in a tumbrel by the executioner who will attach before and behind him a sign on which will be written, in large letters impious one; and there, being on his knees, will confess his crimes...; this done, will have the tongue cut out and will then be taken in the said tumbrel to the public marketplace of this city to have his head cut off on a scaffold; his body and his head will then be thrown on a pyre to be destroyed, burnt, reduced to ashes and these thrown to the wind. We order that before the execution of the said Lefebvre de La Barre the ordinary and the extraordinary question [that is, torture] will be applied to have from his mouth the truth of several facts fo [sic] the trial and revelation about his accomplices... We order that the Philosophical Dictionary... be thrown by the executioner on the same pyre as the body of the said Lefebvre de La Barre."

(cont below)

jimmiraybob said...

I can see why there is great concern in France over mixing state and government. Given the timing, this event certainly had to have been on the minds of the Americans as well - at least those in the know, so to speak.

It does seem that laicite in France constitutionally protects complete freedom of worship as the individual sees fit and Catholocism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddism seem to be represented among the major religions.

Also, minority religions appear to include: Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, Evangelists (Assemblies of God, Christian Open Door...), Mormons, Scientologists,Soka Gakkai,Antoinism, Christian Science, Invitation to Life, Raëlian movement, Mandarom, Hare Krishna, Unification Church, New Apostolic Church, Universal White Brotherhood, Sukyo Mahikari, New Acropolis, Universal Alliance, Grail Movement.

While it seems that the state is still too invloved in deciding religious issues*, at least from my American perspective, I don't see that there's a bar to worship as the individual sees fit.

*for instance deciding what is a dangerous cult (unacceptable) and what is a religion (acceptable). But then again, it's their system.

jimmiraybob said...

I can see why there is great concern in France over mixing state and government.

While mixing state and government may be a concern, I meant to write state and religion. :)

jimmiraybob said...

"...he explicitly endorsed the 'safety net,'"

But what safety net?

jimmiraybob said...

While I'm on a roll, does laicite in France prevent, a Glenn Beck from having a public rally like the one in D.C.?

And, to spread a little love, I found this in my intertube travels:

VATICAN CITY (RNS) In an apparent criticism of France's mass deportation of Roma (Gypsy) immigrants, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday (Aug. 22) urged French-speaking Catholics to "accept legitimate human diversity" and practice "universal fraternity."

I think that this is a good example of bringing the moral authority of the Church to bear on a secular state problem where the state (and the Church) is not hamstrung by civil codification of religious doctrine as was the case in the execution of de la Barre (above).

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, the laicite riff is my own. I comment on religious pluralism, not as a parrot of any "Religious Right."

I certainly understand how France got to its militant secularism. Cardinal Richelieu was France's "First Minister" in the 1600s. very cozy church-state thing.

However, Laicite 2010 is becoming problematic, to the point that wearing large crucifixes in public buildings is banned. It carries its own set of problems, and may I say, tyrannies.