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Posts Tagged ‘religion and the founders’

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. (more…)

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ho ho ho

Moving on to the next holiday. May we now anticipate an annual revival of the past few years’ flap about the war on Christmas — i.e., how liberal secularism suppresses Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus by removing creches from village squares and forcing everybody to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”?

[UPDATE: Yes, we may. See J.L. Bell’s comment on the Inhofe holiday parade, below.]

If so, I’d like to bring back those socialist Pilgrims for a reprise role and credit them with starting the war. For of course Pilgrims, and indeed all of Puritan New England, didn’t celebrate Christmas and would have severely prosecuted anyone who did, or at least did so loudly. They hated Christmas, for all the obvious reasons.

No, not because it requires putting toys together at three in the morning on Christmas Eve and having the family over when you’ve just seen them at Thanksgiving. That’s why we hate Christmas. [UPDATE: That’s just a joke.] Pilgrims and Puritans hated it because it was a pagan-based feast of the Antichrist Pope of Rome, a sacrificial revelry, a ceremony of the Harlot, and contrary to Scripture. The whole idea of a “Christ mass” was what they’d been fighting to the death for a long time, the work of the Beast.

The point isn’t, of course, that the Puritans would have been sympathetic to modern secularism. Anything but. The point is that the idea of a “Christian nation” denies the antipathy our founding Christians felt, mainly and most significantly, for other Christians. The Pilgrims came here to get away from Anglicans. If a boatload of Lutherans had pulled into Plymouth harbor, muskets would have come out. And if Samuel Adams came back to life, and were forced to walk past the Roman Catholic churches in today’s North End of Boston, he’d be sure that his entire life’s work had been for nothing, wasted in what had become a horrifying enabling of the forces of utter spiritual evil, staining what he’d once hoped would become a Christian Sparta (meaning to him a Congregational one). The ancestors of Bill O’Reilly and the ancestors of Glenn Beck would have been a lot more interested in trying to kill each other than in trying to kill, say, Jews.

Happy Holidays!

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This is the third in a series of posts about how people from Tea Partiers to pro-choice, anti-gun liberals invoke and rely on what they call “the Constitution,” often without being able to say anything very specific about it. The first post was on the First Amendment and religious freedom; the second was on the Second. Comments on those posts, some related off-blog correspondence about them, some related statements on Twitter, and a remark on my Facebook author page inspire this one.

But first, for context, this mess (anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen my outbursts about it):

In a piece in Saturday’s New York Times, offering perspective on the Tea Party’s reverence for the Constitution, Samuel G. Freedman wrote:

… Constitution worship has not historically been the province of any one political faction. Despite the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass intoned its language about equality and inalienable rights.

The gaffe is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about inalienable rights or equality. [UPDATE: By “equality” I meant anything that Frederick Douglass would have been intoning; the Constitution does of course have things to say about equality in the post-Civil War amendments. But Freedman meant Douglasss’s reference to “all men are created equal.”] That language is found — and pretty memorably too! — in the Declaration of Independence.

Gaffes are gaffes. I’ve made my share. This one is painfully revealing of a significant problem in liberal thinking. [UPDATE: I think I mean “for liberal thinking.” That help?] Freedman nodded, it happens, but so did his editors. A lot of people fussed with that piece before it went out. Nor has the error been corrected since, nor do I see any uproar about it online. That means the Tea Partiers, too, though hairtrigger sensitive to NYT slight (and they would have taken Freedman’s piece as a slight), read right past it.

So what’s the big hairy deal? Why am I knocking NYT and liberals who don’t their Constitution so much harder than I knock Christine O’Donnell for not knowing hers? Or, to put it the way David Tuttle (a cousin, and nice to hear from him even in this weird postmodernist manner) put it on my FB author page: Is the Times error so much worse than what David calls the Tea Party’s effort to deny separation of church and state?

Yeah. It’s a lot worse. (more…)

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[UPDATE: This turned out to be the first in a trio of posts about misapprehensions and misappropriations of the Constitution, across the political spectrum. The second one, on the Second Amendment, is here. ]

Say “first amendment” to most people, and they’ll say “freedom of speech.” They’re right, of course, as far as it goes. But.

The failed Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell drew some laughs a while back when she asked, she hoped rhetorically, where in the U.S. Constitution church and state are separated. Her opponent knew the answer and paraphrased the relevant part of the First Amendment aloud. Her laughing audience were law school students and faculty, so they knew the answer too.

But many otherwise well-informed people, who are sure that there is a constitutional separation of church and state, don’t know where in the Constitution to find it; or know that the First Amendment opens by disestablishing religion, and only then goes on to protect speech; or that the amendment is based on what was known during the founding period as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Jefferson, its author, listed it among his proudest accomplishments).

That ignorance raises some weird questions. One has to do with the inveterate scorn of educated liberals for the likes of O’Donnell. It’s far from clear that many who deem themselves intellectually superior to her could have responded to her challenge (it’s good that her opponent could). The challenge might seem a dopey one, but it would have left plenty of liberals sputtering. And since she is not well-educated, and those liberals generally are (in ways other than law and history), that’s bizarre and disturbing.

“These Tea Party people don’t know any history,” fume some I know, and while in some cases (like O’Donnell’s) that’s true, in others it’s not. A lot of them know American history because they just happen to like it. You could argue with their interpretations — but only if you knew something about it yourself!

I find that it’s liberals, and I mean the kind of liberals who can read Chaucer in Middle English, who really don’t know any American history. (more…)

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Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. (more…)

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I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action – and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

And yet, and yet … When it comes to a post and some comments on George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy, AC reveals some of the limitations that their focus on thought, not action, and on government, not politics, places on a close, critical reading of history. I won’t review the whole Newburgh conspiracy here. It’s an exciting and dark story. There’s a good bit about it in The Whiskey Rebellion, and (free of charge) in my Boston Review article on the cult of Alexander Hamilton. (Problem with reading that article on line is that BR now interrupts it with a promo for a book of my essays. But my two comments in the comment section might help clarify?). And I just remembered: another of my freebie accounts is here.

The short version: In 1783, Robert Morris, the financier of the Continental Congress, his assistant Gouverneur Morris, and their young protegé Alexander Hamilton colluded with disgruntled elements in the Continental Army officer class to threaten the Congress with military coup.

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George Whitefield Preaching

[UPDATE: I always feel a need to note, when we talk about the upscale founders being Christian, the degree to which so many of them were reflexively, traditionally, and virulently anti-Catholic, a feeling shared in most cases by the evangelical working-class left discussed below …]

Smart post from Jonathan Rowe at American Creation (whence the picture of Whitefield preaching) on nuances in the historiography of the question “Were the founders Deists or Christians?” It’s a hot political one. With George Washington getting constructed by the religious right as a fervent born-again evangelical, and secularists hoping against hope that none of the famous American founders would believe in anything they couldn’t repeat under laboratory conditions, Rowe’s thinking is helpful. He says in part: 

I’ve concluded that the “key Founders” — the FFs on American currency — if pushed would have considered themselves “Christians” not “Deists.” Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn’t view itself as incompatible with “Christianity.” Yet many in the academy endorse the line “the FFs were Deists not Christians.” . . . The standard line from “Christian America” is the FFs were virtually all “Christians” and the bad, secularist revisionists “stole” that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously. That narrative, of course, is as phony as “the Founders were all Deists” narrative. 

Rowe tells what really happened: the rational, liberal Christianity that most of the famous founders would probably have signed on to was condemned by evangelical [UPDATE: Probably less evangelical than just old-light orthodox?] clergy of the day as no better than Deism. (Maybe because it wasn’t? I suggest. But that’s another story.) Thus was the founders’ Christianity branded a closet Deism by more fervent [UPDATE: orthodox?] peers. “That kind of irony,” says Rowe, “I dig.” Me too. 

I have a feeling most of the founders would privately have shrugged. They professed a rationalist Christianity, which had some natural connections, at least, with Deism; they were skeptics about “literal truth”; and they may not have cared what the clergy thought about any of it. I don’t get the feeling most of them lost sleep over this stuff. 

What’s most interesting to me, which might interest Rowe too (I don’t know his work all that well yet) is that pace the secularist liberals, there were fervent Christian enthusiasts present and significant at the founding — they’re just not to be found (pace the Christian right) among the famous founders, who even if they were professed Christians, professed a Christianity that many on today’s evangelical right too would condemn (possibly wisely) as no better than secularism.  (more…)

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