Sunday, November 25, 2012

#2: How Religious Were Our First Four Presidents?

#2:  How Religious Were Our Founding Fathers? The First Four Presidents and Ben Franklin

Listen to the entire sermon here.

George Washington, 1795:  “In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved.  If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.” 

John Adams 1812:  “There is no special Providence for us.  We are not a chosen people that I know of.  Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good; but never presume to comprehend.”   

Thomas Jefferson, 1819:  Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect.”  
In this half of this sermon I’ll cite quotes indicating the religiosity of our first four presidents, (and Ben Franklin) but first I want to say something about the use of language and cultural references in any public discourse.

The main point of Protestantism was that each believer could and should read the Bible for himself or herself instead of relying on the interpretation of a priest.  So the religion walked hand in hand with literacy training.  I am sure that the illiteracy rate in America today is higher than it was in 1780. So while books were expensive, every home that could afford even one book owned a Bible.

Wealthier, educated people also studied and owned classic works of historians and philosophers.  So if you wanted to make a point in metaphorical language to a rich person, you might cite Cicero or Thucydides, but if you wanted to speak to a broad demographic, what was the one repository of cultural reference that the entire population recognized? The Bible. 

What might this be comparable to today?  It seems to me to be sports and media references.  How many of you have attended meetings where the speaker said something like, “Let’s get that ball down the field,” or “let’s try to get this one to first base.”  Companies don’t even have employees anymore; they have teams with teammates.   Similarly, we pepper conversations with phrases from ad campaigns or movies, like “Where’s the Beef” or “May the Force be with you.”  The point is that people within a cultural group get that sort of short hand, which is very useful to a writer or speaker.   So I’m not being dismissive when I say that I do not regard public speeches thanking God for success in battle as evidence of great piety (any more than you should envision me as a great athlete if I make some sports reference).  Rather, such public pronouncements offered a dose of gravitas.  So, it is useful to look at other writings by leaders to ascertain how religious they were.  The writings of our first four presidents and the unelected but influential Ben Franklin, indicate that they were more religiously liberal and intellectually egalitarian than many of their contemporaries.  And that, for me, is certainly something I celebrate this Presidents’ Day weekend.

George Washington’s religious behaviors set the tone for subsequent national leaders.  He was hugely respected, not just as the first president, obviously, but also as the leader of the first truly national entity (in the highly regionalized colonies) – the Revolutionary Army. 

Like all Virginians, he was Anglican, but not a very good one.  This very tall, very famous man routinely left services (and his wife) before Communion.  This is significant as Communion is the central sacramental act of the denomination.  And he refused to kneel during prayers.  Several of his priests in Virginia commented on this in their writings.  Other ministers noticed that although he often thanked God after battles or in his presidential speeches, he only mentioned Christianity in generalities, such as for his men to conduct themselves as “good Christian soldiers.”  One minister asked how he could as “a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, die without one expression of distinctive belief or Christian hope.”  Maybe it is because Washington expressed such views as these:  “the bosom of America was open to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”

As General and later as President, he never pushed his Anglicanism on others, nor was his religious leadership just by omission.  Instead, he was actively pluralistic:  he recruited chaplains from all regions, and hence all denominations, largely allowing his units to nominate chaplains from the communities they knew.  When some chaplains tried to get him to evict others from denominations they considered illegitimate, like Quakers, Baptists, and Universalists, Washington refused, in writing, several times.  His egalitarianism was personal as well as political.  His second in command and perhaps his best friend was Catholic at a time when Catholics still lacked civil rights in 11 colonies. 

My general impression is that like Adams and Franklin, he regarded religion as a practical good for people if it comforted them and instilled virtue, but he was probably not particularly religious or spiritual inclined himself.  When it came time for the states to ratify the national Constitution, many were astonished by the secularity of it and asked the President to intervene.  President Washington responded quietly but pointedly, that perhaps citizens should look to their religious leaders rather than to government for spiritual inspiration and teaching.  

The second president, for one term, was John Adams.  He never had an opinion he did not put in writing, and so, over his lifetime, you can find changing views on many subjects.  He was, at least before his time in France, rabidly anti-Catholic. 

Religiously, he started out Congregationalist and then his congregation voted to become Unitarian, so of course he found the idea of the Trinity illogical.  He did not believe in Original Sin.  Though he believed that the Bible was based on revelations from God, it got mixed up with “millions of fables, tales, and legends” to create “the most bloody religion that ever existed.  He absolutely rejected the idea that salvation resulted from faith in Christ rather than from good deeds because he thought the purpose and value of religion was practical – to create “good men, good magistrates and good subjects, good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children, good masters and good servants.”  He was in favor of tax supported local churches as an effective way of instilling “morals and decency” because he thought that Christianity offered a more effective carrot and stick for behavior, in the form of heaven and hell, than any civil institution could offer.”   In a treaty signed by President Adams with Tripoli, the language read:  “The Govt of the USA is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen… the said states never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation.”    In his dotage he wrote, “Ye will say I am no Christian:  I say Ye are no Christians.  There the Account is balanced.  Yet I believe all the honest men among you are Christians in my sense of the Word

His successor was Thomas Jefferson, for two terms.  Jefferson is often identified as a Unitarian, and many UU congregations and an entire regional district are named for him, but he never actually belonged to a Unitarian congregation.  There were none in Virginia that I know of during his lifetime.  Like all other Virginians of his era, he was raised Anglican, but like Washington, he was not much of a church goer.  A New Englander seeking to demonize him as an atheist during his election campaign observed: “It is a well-established fact that Mr. Jefferson never has attended public worship during a residence of several years in NY and Phila.”

Of all the Founding Fathers, he is the most ferocious critic not only of organized religion but of the Bible itself, with the most startling quotations on the subject.  Unlike Adams and Franklin, who saw practical benefits to religion, Jefferson thought organized religion, particularly if required, was not only unnecessary but utterly dangerous.  It was he who wrote the phrase about “a wall of separation between Church and State.” He regarded the New England clergy as “a formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man” and throughout history “the priest has been hostile to liberty.”  Like the others, he believed that, “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.” 

In  Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom, which became law for the state of Virginia in 1780, he wrote the following words.  Listen to the extent of it, given the religious climate of the time described in the first part of this sermon:

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words, he disallowed religious tests for any civic office in the state.   Of all the things that this impressive man accomplished, he referred to only three on his epitaph, and one was this law (the others were the Declaration of Independence and the Univ of VA).

Listen to some of his stinging indictments of the Bible. Regarding the New Testament he wrote: “A short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state.  He castigated the authors of the Gospels as “ignorant, unlettered men” who laid “a  groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.”   “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”.   Jefferson had no faith in the Trinity: “It is mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus” and the “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads.” 

Initially, he didn’t even want theology taught at the Univ. of VA he founded.

I hope that you have a copy of the Jefferson Bible in your library.  This is based on his cut and pasted revision of the Gospels.  Like Franklin, who cut the virgin birth and resurrection out of the Nicene Creed, Jefferson cut whole passages out of the Gospels that sounded like fairy tales.  The angels, miracles, resurrection all ended up in the trash.  Naturally, he came up with a very slim book indeed, one that is remarkably similar to what the 20th and 21st c. theologians have done in the Historical Jesus Project. 
As a result of these quotes and actions, we know a lot about what he did not believe; what did he believe?  He seems to have been a Deist who believed in a distant creator god, although, as he neared his death, he wrote about heaven.  Whether he believed in it or used the concept metaphorically is open to interpretation.  But perhaps what is more to the point, he allocated time throughout decades of his life to ask religious questions and think deeply about them.  Of all the founding fathers, I think he was most interested in the philosophy of religion.

James Madison was the fourth president, for two terms.  He is considered the “Father of the Constitution” because of his leading role in writing it, advocating for its passage, and then championing the Bill of Rights.  Like Adams, he was a voluminous writer, but we don’t have many private letters unless they were advancing policy issues.  However 40 of those letters stress the importance of separating church and government powers. He wasn’t as critical of religion per se as Jefferson or Adams.  I haven’t found any writings in which he commented on particular creeds or beliefs.  His issue was this.  He believed that religion and government, if segregated, could be benign or useful, but, like glycerine and nitrogen, if combined, they were doomed to be an explosive danger.  He went further than any of the other Founding Fathers to try to limit religious interference by government, not just nationally, but in states, as well.  

He, too, was a Virginia Anglican, but he had more pluralizing experiences than most people of his era.  He attended Princeton in NJ, which was at the time a Presbyterian college and seminary, and his wife, Dolly Madison, was Quaker.  As a young attorney, he defended the Baptists who sought to congregate in peace in VA and ensure licenses for their ministers.  He wrote early and often statements such as “religion has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.” He expressed confidence that the diversity of religious and non-religious belief is exactly what would preserve religious liberty and enhance the religious climate.  In this, as in many things, he was right.  The percentage of Americans belonging to churches was much higher after the 1830s, when tax support of regional religions ceased.  Before he worked with Jefferson on writing and passing the Religious Freedom bill for VA, he solicited from a Pennsylvania minister friend the history of that state’s religious toleration.   Like Jefferson, he fought not just for the right of multiple denominations and religions but also for the right of people to embrace NO religion whatsoever.  Listen to how graciously he made his point to an audience of churchgoers:  “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” 

Madison’s preserved writings document not just governing and legal battles he won, but those he negotiated and lost.  For example, he was against having the government appoint and pay congressional and military chaplains.  He voted against donations of land to churches.  His proposed freedom of religion language for the Constitution was rejected as too expansive.  Here is what he wanted: “the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”  He also wrote a clause allowing people the right not to bear arms in war if their religion or conscience forbade it.   

Such language was watered down or excluded, but Article VI does read that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  Based on the Virginia law that Madison and Jefferson wrote, this statement is far more liberal than those of 11 other states which still DID have restrictions against public service by people of various religions (or lack of one). 

Benjamin Franklin was never president, but since he is the only non-president pictured on a currency bill, let me shoehorn him in here since he is my favorite of the Founding Fathers. He grew up in a restrictive, Puritan home but spent his adulthood in Quaker Philadelphia, Catholic France, and in a highly eclectic social and intellectual sphere.  He described himself as a “thorough Deist” but elsewhere expressed views of a more personal deity (and even deities) which may be metaphorical or not.    He rewrote the Nicene Creed, stripping it of the miraculous birth and resurrection.  About Jesus he wrote, “I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity.”   He did not believe that the Bible was written by God.

Among his writings on religion, my favorites are those in which he skewers hypocrisy.  “Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service and therefore is more generally chosen.” He wrote a whole series of newspaper articles about a minister he couldn’t stand.  He dubbed the minister “Reverend Asses,” whom he described as reciting scripture to avoid rational thought.    Franklin often attended the lectures and worship services of various ministers and even collaborated on a subscription series with at least one very popular English minister who gave a lecture tour in America advocating a practical use of Christianity. He built the first non-denominational hall in which any minister of any denomination could speak. 

Franklin was a man who worked at developing personal virtues and encouraging them in others, but by reason and effort and action rather than by prayer.   He certainly agreed with Adams that religion should demonstrate practical gains but it wasn’t the only route to achieving them.  “Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End; And if the end be obtained, it is no matter by what Means.”   As the publisher in the largest city of the colonies, and a man of prestige among politicians, scientists and the hoi polloi, his logic and wit wielded enormous influence. 

I really enjoyed researching this sermon for you.  I learned so much.  It made me aware of many things I take for granted, including the influence of individual, charismatic leaders.  Look at us, gathered here today.  Think of all the people throughout the country this morning, gathered to worship in other churches, of various denominations – or not – out on the golf course or in bed – with no fear of physical, legal, or financial reprisals. I approach this President’s Day with terrific respect for the brilliant men I’ve mentioned this morning.  Without them, I am absolutely sure that our country’s history of religion and politics would be markedly different, and for their roles, I am truly thankful.    
(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)  

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