America’s National Origin Myth

September 10, 2019 Category: American Culture

George Orwell noted that totalitarian regimes are not concerned with uncovering (that is: elucidating) actual history; they are solely concerned with creating (that is: fabricating and/or obfuscating) pseudo-history—usually, some sort of hyper-romanticized national origin myth—in order to suit their interests.  A gilded legacy—no matter how farcical—is employed to rationalize a glorious destiny (as defined by whatever ideological agenda proponents happen to be touting).  We encounter this phenomenon around the world; and across all of history.

In his classic “The Crowd”, Gustav Le Bon noted that “the masses have never thirsted after Truth.  They turn from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error if [that] error seduces them.  Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master.  Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

One might re-word this as follows: The masses are unconcerned with objective truth.  They tend to reject any evidence that does not comport with their preferred worldview, opting instead to sanctify falsehoods that suit them.  Whoever supplies them with palatable illusions becomes their hero; anyone who debunks those illusions becomes the villain.

Niccolo Machiavelli—and Leo Strauss after him—did not see this as a necessarily bad thing; as they recognized it could be used to the advantage of those in power (that is: to serve a purpose).  This is about engineering a false consciousness; or, as Noam Chomsky phrased it, manufacturing consent.  It involves what Carl Jung dubbed a palliative “psychic epidemic” (whereby we are our own worst enemies).  Such collective psychosis (replete with mass mania and mass hysteria) is based on a delusive perception of ourselves and our place in the world; though one that satisfies certain needs.

False consciousness involves a widespread—one might say, collective—misapprehension; and it is often constructed en masse.  It is rarely arbitrary; and is often BY DESIGN.  The catch is that the masses are typically unwitting participants.  After all, for false consciousness to work, it cannot be SEEN AS false.  (This is especially true when it is COLLECTIVE false memory.)

The masses, then, must be kept in a state of (smug) obliviousness—that is: heedlessly immersed in chronic delusion.  After all, the point is to sustain gratification.  This is accomplished by deploying an array of psychogenic triggers (having to do with golden ages, glory days, and pending rewards).  Such triggers are conveyed via a memetic vehicle: a compelling narrative replete with flash-points—both etiological and eschatological.  When designed well, this memetic regime engenders a siege mentality…while instilling false pride (in a hallowed legacy) and false hope (in an enticing destiny).  The key is that such delusion is CHOREOGRAPHED.  The illusions offer that which the existentially disoriented crave: a sense of direction / purpose.  The appeal lies in the false certainty conferred by the (quasi-plausible) illusions being proffered.  The lesson: No more need to inquire; all the answers to your questions have already been figured out.

But what of the obduracy of the ideologue?  For those smitten with a sanctified narrative, sticking to one’s guns becomes a source of (false) pride; thereby serving a psychical purpose.  It is also a sign to one’s brethren that one is committed to the cause; thereby serving a social purpose.  To abandon one’s deeply held belief would not only lead to a bruised ego, it would come off as a kind of betrayal to fellow believers; thereby jeopardizing the in-group acceptance on which one has come to depend.  Hence committing to a narrative is not only a personal issue (saving face), it is a tribal issue (retaining a much-needed support network).

The utility of a sanctified narrative is also at stake; as it can be used to justify one’s favored worldview; and thus one’s political agenda.  So one will stick to one’s guns even in the face of an alluvion of countervailing evidence.  (The tendency to dig in our heals when certain dogmas are debunked is known as the “backfire effect”.)  Such obstinacy is made possible by the illusory truth effect, whereby the intensity with which one professes one’s beliefs seems to validate those beliefs.  Hence one will be snookered by one’s own biases; and so see only what one wants to see.  (We are often convinced that what we believe is true due to the ardor with which we believe it.)  We might recall that blinkered thinking does not announce itself as blinkered thinking—just as delusions aren’t recognized as delusions by those harboring them.  The point of an illusion is that it doesn’t SEEM to be an illusion.

Another way that illusion is sustained is by having a utility that people would much rather not do without.  In other words, the illusion serves an important purpose.  In such cases, utility is mistaken for veracity.  For right-wing ideologues, America’s national origin myth (that is: the proposition that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation) buttresses their current political agenda.  So they run with it.

To ensure the subsistence of sacrosanct dogmas, ideologues often peddle self-serving pseudo-histories. When the genesis of a nation is the issue, the ideology at stake is typically some form of national Exceptionalism with a theocratic bent.

National origin myths are useful, as they imbue the consecrated ideology with a veneer of legitimacy.  The purpose of myth, after all, is not to explicate what literally happened; it is to notify the audience what it is supposed to believe happened…so that whatever they are exhorted to believe is given the appearance of justification for a wider audience.  When this is done successfully, the distinction between what is actually true and what people decide should be treated as “true” is often lost. {1}

The canard that “America was founded as a [Judeo-]Christian nation” is a case in point.  At first blush, this sounds plausible; yet those who make the claim are wildly off-base.  The claim is erroneous not only in terms of historical fact, but in terms of the basic principles of liberal democracy.

Alas.  This popular trope continues to enjoy prominence in American discourse amongst those who fashion it as a form of flattery.  The myth that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” (and that the Constitutional Republic was somehow based on Mosaic law) has become so fully ingrained in the American consciousness, it is now rather difficult to dislodge.

As is usually the case, Revisionists are captivated by–and so married to–a compelling narrative that serves their ideological agenda.  Consequently, when it comes to cultivating an understanding of the circumstances in which the vaunted “Founders” laid the groundwork for the American Republic, we find ourselves navigating a morass of obscurantism and confabulation.

In a letter to his friend (William Roscoe) in 1820, Thomas Jefferson noted that we mustn’t ever be “afraid to follow Truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error–so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  It is in this spirit–the spirit of open and free inquiry–that any worthwhile analysis proceeds.  Evaluate the evidence, and let the chips fall where they may.

The founding of the U.S. was not in any way predicated on Pauline Christology.  This fact is obvious to anyone who has a firm grasp of the relevant history.  However, the well-varnished myth of America’s [Judeo-]Christian founding is still taken seriously across large swaths of the country simply because it hits the right notes for its target audience.

Given the vested interest in sustaining this fiction, it is no surprise that True Believers become incensed when the historiography undergirding the claim is debunked.  How, then, shall we address this?

We might start by asking: From where does such a mis-impression come?  One possibility is the fact that the first settlers in New England were Puritans (read: theocratically-minded Christian fundamentalists).  Perhaps some are thinking of the first settlers of Mary-land (centered at Saint Mary’s City; named after Henrietta Maria of France), who were hidebound Roman Catholic theocrats.  In any case, to conclude from such episodes that the establishment of the United States was predicated on doctrinal fealty–to any particular creed–is a gargantuan non-sequitur.  Suffice to say: John Winthrop’s navel-gazing asseverations played no role in the vision of a new Republic put forth in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

Why is this topic so rife with controversy?  As with so many other national origin myths, nescient Americans cling to a vaunted legacy that is more farce than fact; but it has utility for those propounding it.

When ideologues encounter anything that threatens their dogmatic edifice, they tend to dig in their heals.  And so it goes here: Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, delusive Christians insist that the United States was founded as a [Judeo-]Christian nation; and so feel at east pushing their religious agenda in the present day.  Claims of divine ordinance are USUALLY at the root of Exceptionalism.  To reiterate: A cherished myth can be stupendously resilient, especially when it serves an important purpose.  By positing Providential provenance, the nation is granted license to do whatever it sees fit.  In this case, hubris operates under the aegis of “Manifest Destiny”. 

So by dispelling the myths surrounding America’s founding, a key buttress of American Exceptionalism is eliminated.  Shorn of Providentialism, Manifest Destiny is deprived of its primary ideological fulcrum; and that is a problem for those who covet that leverage.

It is not for nothing this historiography is gilded.  The notion of divine sanction gives license to impresarios of domestic and foreign policy to do whatever they see fit, as even the most odious act of imperialism is simply seen as doing god’s work.  And who can argue with that?  With the (purported) imprimatur of the godhead, anything goes.  Without this rationalization, though, one is forced to fall back on (universal) moral principles.  And that is the last thing the theocratic-minded want.

Even after setting the record straight on this matter, large swaths of the American public still subscribe to Christianized myths about America’s founding.  Take, for instance, George Washington’s fabled “prayer” at Valley Forge during the most dire winter of the war for American independence.  This tale was almost certainly apocryphal, as the celebrated general actually commissioned the unabashedly anti-religious Deist, Thomas Paine to do a reading.  (Washington knew Paine’s soaring oratory and passion would increase morale amongst the soldiers, and galvanize the beleaguered cause during a grueling winter.  He was correct.)  In no uncertain terms, Washington attributed his soldiers’ inspiration to Paine’s oratory.

So what of the alleged “PRAYER”?  The farcical account seems to have been concocted by Mason Weems, the same man responsible for the tale about Washington chopping down the cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie”).  Other apocryphal tales soon abounded–from Paul Revere’s midnight warning, “The British are coming!” (many townsfolk thought of THEMSELVES as British) to the pilgrims breaking bread with Native Americans for “Thanksgiving”.  In Americans’ eagerness to romanticize their heritage, they are apt to find heroes in the most ironic of places (as with, say, the bold “last stand” at the Alamo, by a cadre of white Texans who wanted to keep slavery legal).

When it came to the establishment of the new Republic, one might ask: Which of the founding principles, exactly, was grounded in the Abrahamic creed?  The answer: none. {2}  All the key insights of which the Founders availed themselves–and boldly proffered in the face of countervailing historic precedent–would have been available to them just the same had Judaism or Christianity never existed.

So if not doctrinal fealty, from whence did the Founder’s ideals come?  The “separation of powers” was based on Montesquieu’s 1748 “The Spirit Of The Laws”, a work that explicitly called for the elimination of three facets of government: feudal lords, the aristocracy, and the clergy.  For Montesquieu recognized that democracy could not abide so long as feudalism, a moneyed elite, or religious doctrine held sway in the affairs of State.

We might recall that the ENTIRE ENLIGHTENMENT was, at root, a process of secularization; and was in no way dependent on religionism.  Indeed, the Enlightenment zeitgeist–of which all the Founders were an integral part–was secular through and through (which is to say: it was a matter of emancipating thought from religion-based dogmatism).  Thomas Paine corroborated this in 1776 (during the lead-up to the American revolution) when he wrote “Common Sense”.  It was by recourse to our innate moral intuitions that the case for independence could be–and indeed WAS–made.  (This point was even clearer with Paine’s “American Crisis” essays…and clearer still with his “Rights Of Man”.)  The notion that humans are all equipped with a moral compass goes back the ancient notion of “genius”: the Latin term for the divine nature that inheres in any given individual.  And so it went with Immanuel Kant’s exaltation of “the divine law within” each and every one of us (an idea he articulated in 1784 in a landmark essay).

The Declaration of Independence says nothing about religion having a role to play in government.  The signatories swore not to a deity, as supplicants; instead they swore upon their sacred honor, as men of integrity.  The drafters of the U.S. Constitution felt so strongly about this that they deliberately left any mention of a deity out of the document.  Religion PER SE is mentioned only to make it clear that, in a genuine democracy, it was incumbent upon the State to never promote any given creed…while ensuring that each person was free to practice however he liked (of his own accord).  Thus the Founders of the new Republic were focused on–more than anything else–ensuring that each individual was at liberty to conduct himself according to the dictates of his own conscience.

By “self-evident” Truths, Jefferson was clear he didn’t mean obvious to everyone, but something that would be self-evident primarily to those whose minds were unclouded by superstition (that is: those who were not held captive by dogmatism, addled by ingrained biases, or stymied by ignorance).  In other words: Jefferson recognized that the axioms he put forth in his famous letter to the British crown would probably not be evident to those who were Reactionary.  (He may just as well have said: “If you are overly doctrinal, this will probably NOT be obvious to you.  For Freethinkers, this is plain to see.”)

Jefferson was an avid reader of “natural law” theory, which had come from the School of Salamanca during the Renaissance.  The idea was that ethics (specifically, rights and mandates for liberty) inhered in nature itself rather than having been issued (as decrees) from “on high”.  Such thinking was inspired by the new humanism, which found human dignity in the natural order rather than in holy writ.  Inspiration for such thinking had come from Deists like Locke and Montesquieu, not from church doctrine (which was man-made).  The ideation of a “natural order” could be found across the ancient world–from Egypt (“Ma’at”) to China (“Tian-ming”). {13}

When surveying the historical record, we find that various articulations incorporated idiomatic expressions–phraseology that were standard in the lofty rhetoric of the period.  This included locutions like “divine Author”, “the Creator” / “our Creator”, “the Almighty” / “Almighty God”, “Nature’s God”, and–of course–simply “God”.  Such practice was nothing new; it went back to ancient Athens.  Aristotle also referred to the gods in decidedly NON-theocratic ways; yet was ultimately concerned with the natural order of things.

In the Revolutionary precincts of the American colonies, when composing heightened exposition, it was fashionable to pay lip service to the moral messages found within what was the only relevant religion of the time (and thus the only one worth referencing).  For American colonists, that happened to be Protestant Christianity.  The vernacular of Christendom was employed because THAT was the narrative most known to the general audience.  Consequently, it provided the most poignant language.  Noticeably absent, though, where terms like “Christ”, “Messiah”, “resurrection”, and “Holy Spirit”…or, for that matter, ANY terminology that was distinctly [Judeo-]Christian.  There was no talk of miracles or of sin or of salvation (in the soteriological sense).  There was never any mention of a trinity or of a crucifixion…let alone of vicarious redemption.

Speaking in grandiloquent Providential terms enabled one to abstract from–nay, transcend–phrasing that was indicative of a specific creed.  No particular dogmatic system was ever endorsed.  Soaring oratory and flamboyant rhetorical flourishes were typical of disquisition during this period–which is why we encounter idiomatic expressions involving such things as “Providence” and “the better angels of our nature” during the 18th and 19th centuries.

When seeking to couch ideas in familiar terms, the Judeo-Christian idiom was the obvious choice.  Savvy expositors at the time recognized this–which explains why we sporadically encounter locutions like “divine author”, “the Almighty”, “Our Creator”, etc. in their discourse.  It comes as little surprise, then, that such locutions cropped up in the Founders’ disquisition.

Be that as it may, the Framers were adamant about extolling personal prerogative (viz. religiosity) even as they espoused such things as “Christian virtue”.  (“Christian virtue” was a catch-all term for the canon of virtues associated with Jesus of Nazareth–such as kindness, temperance, and forbearance.)  In the idiom of the time, describing someone as “Christian” or “religious” was a way of saying the person championed estimable values, and so could be counted on to conduct himself ethically.

So far as the Founders were concerned, to be “Christian” was simply to be an upstanding citizen.  They used the term as more of a colloquialism than as a tribal designation.  (It most certainly was not an endorsement of a specific doctrine.)  The whole point was neutrality on the part of the State, which was to be categorically secular.  It makes no sense to construe a prescription for anti-theocracy THEN as a clarion call for theocracy NOW.

The supposition that the locution, “good Christian” might have any connection to sacred doctrine is belied by the fact that so many self-proclaimed “Christians” have not qualified as “good Christians”…even as plenty of non-religious people have been referred to as “good Christians” over the generations.  Such modish turns-of-phrase are germane to demotic language.  Over the years, admirable people have been described in a host of ways–from “god fearing” to “true blue”.  This is not to insinuate that morally upstanding people are either neurotic or azure.

At the time, such wording was prudent if for no other reason than it had profound resonance with the general populace.  And it would CONTINUE to have resonance in certain circles long into 20th century.  But for most of us now, this is no longer the case; as such vernacular seems antiquated. {12}

The metamorphosis of demotic language is a reminder that the meaning of some phrases fluctuates over time.  And so it has with the qualifier, “Christian”, which–in political theater–has been used more colloquially than formally.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked about how he thought of himself, he responded: “A Christian, an American, and a Democrat in that order.”  Yet his administration was characterized by ANYTHING BUT a doctrinaire Christian approach to governance…or by any religiosity AT ALL, for that matter.  (His policy was impelled by a sense of compassion for the downtrodden, the primary trait with which Jesus of Nazareth was associated.  He railed against avarice, which was considered a very “Christian” thing to do by most Americans.  Had he been in the Far East, it would have been considered a very “Buddhist” thing to do.)

Roosevelt was not pushing anything remotely close to a “Christian” agenda as we might know it today, yet he fashioned himself a “Christian” above all else.  So what’s going on here?  Clearly, Roosevelt was using the term colloquially, not in an attempt to proselytize.

Even the most secular expositors are apt to do this. {4}  Theodor Adorno’s disquisition was the epitome of secularity.  Nevertheless, he routinely made use of religiously-charged language for rhetorical effect.  Oxford don, A.J. Ayer–an adamant atheist–was known for always saying Grace before dinner–invoking “god” and blessings and all the rest.  Idiomatic expression has always played an integral role in eloquent speech.  Shall we suppose Adorno and Ayer were giving ringing endorsements to fundamentalist Christianity?

When Karl Jung (who was not even a Christian) averred that “the soul is naturally Christian”, he was obviously not referring to an adherence to specific doctrinal points. {7}  Such colloquialisms eventually came to be somewhat of a cliché.  As qualifiers, they were euphemisms for having a “tried and true” moral compass.  They often simply meant “someone like us”, which–in turn–meant “someone who can be trusted”.  To be Christian wasn’t to be dogmatic or tribalistic; it was simply to be morally upstanding.

At the time of America’s founding, whatever was considered an admirable character trait was often associated with being a “good Christian” (that is: hewing to virtues that were generally extolled throughout Christendom).  The gist was that MORALITY MATTERS; not that it was necessary to be a Christian fundamentalist.  In his inaugural address, George Washington illustrated this point, stating: “The foundation of our national policy is laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”  This was hardly a mandate for religious zeal. {12}

Whenever the Bible was cited by the Founding Fathers, it was invoked as a familiar literary source, not as a holy book to which all were beholden.  Certain passages were quoted for didactic purposes (that is: simply because a largely Christian audience could relate to them).  We might note, though, that rarely did any of those passages convey points that were necessarily–or distinctly–Judeo-Christian; they were usually making larger points that could have been made in other ways.  (Good will toward one’s fellow man can be conveyed using myriad allegorical digressions.  For a Buddhist audience, references to Siddhartha Gautama would have been the prudent choice.)

Another example of how idioms change over time is the Enlightenment sense of “the pursuit of happiness”.  Said pursuit was more akin to an adjuration to pursue the good life (to live a life of virtue) than it was an invitation to avarice and cheap gratification.  It was human excellence (what Aristotle referred to as “eudaemonia”), not the trappings of opulence, that such thinkers had in mind when they spoke of “happiness”. {5} 

This was the point of stipulating that the State must ensure the ability of every person to pursue “happiness”.  As one of the Founders, James Wilson put it: “The happiness of the society is the first law of government.”  John Adams reiterated the point: “The happiness of society is the end of government.”  Hence the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble declares that the raison d’etre of the State is, in part, to ensure “the general welfare”–that is: to facilitate the commonweal, not to engender widespread gaiety.  Hubris had nothing to do with it.  (The notion that avaricious plutocrats are simply “pursuing happiness” as the Founders stipulated is absurd.)

And so it went with the metamorphosis of myriad popular locutions.  This is a reminder that to convey a message, people simply employ different idioms at different times–based largely on resonance.  In the 19th century, some men referred to their wives as their “rib”; and in much of the 20th century, women referred to a menstrual period as “the curse”.  Both are obsolete religious idioms.  No sane person today holds that women are somehow derivatives of men or that menstruation is punishment for Eve’s impertinence.

Rhetorical flourishes involving the Abrahamic deity were standard amongst Deists throughout the Enlightenment period–from Spinoza to Kant.  But why the use of the above locutions as opposed to, say, Odin or Zeus?  To reiterate: The geo-political context at the time was ENTIRELY that of Christendom.  So discourse was festooned with those turns of phrase, as they resonated most–be it in Elizabethan England (as with Biblical phrases in Shakespearian verse) or 18th-century Philadelphia.  (I explore another prime case-study of such locution in footnote 4.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that in Enlightenment exposition, the Christian idiom was so prevalent.  And so it went with the American Declaration of Independence, with the invocation of the DEISTIC “Nature’s God” (as opposed to the Biblical god).  The phraseology was in keeping with the zeitgeist.  Regardless of the message, one was apt to use such locutions for rhetorical purposes if for no other reason than that people can RELATE TO that articulation.  Deists like Franklin, Washington, Paine, Jefferson, Madison (and even liberal Christians like Adams and Hamilton) would have surely agreed that religious ideology played a negligible role in the formation of the fledgling American government. {8} 

Ironically, Hamilton and Adams were Federalists–at the time, the political party most AGAINST putting so-called “states’ rights” above centralized government.  This would have positioned both men in diametrical opposition to the agenda of today’s Christian revisionists, who’s fetishization of “states’ rights” echoes the platform of the (adamantly “Christian”) Confederacy.  (The fetishization of “states right” suffused the rhetoric employed in the subsequent fight AGAINST civil rights throughout the Jim Crow south, and was inextricably linked to Christian doctrine.  I explore this point in my essay on “The Universality Of Morality”.)

So how are we to approach the historical record?  In trying to distill the essence of a text, ANY text, fixating on the idiosyncrasies of a particular phraseology is a surefire way to miss the point.  It makes sense, then, to ask of any document: What were the authors coming from; and what were they ultimately getting at?  Answering such questions requires us to abstract from certain quirks in the vernacular of the time and place of composition.  Our ability to do this presumes that we are not slaves to our own–or anyone else’s–language games.  Insofar as we manage to do this, we see how ideas could possibly be couched in alternate terms; and thereby ascertain why authors of a certain time and place opted to couch their ideas in the particular ways they did.

Looking back at the late 18th century, we find that it was incumbent upon (astute) statesmen to phrase things in a manner that would resonate with the target audience.  Strident discourse is routinely conducted using the prevailing idiom of the time; as doing so is the most potent way to convey meaning.  It stands to reason, then, that important points were made by couching them in Christian terms (that is: in FAMILIAR terms).  To read this as a mandate for Christian theocracy is to mis-read history.

Perspicacity means repudiating the exegetical shenanigans so often encountered by Christian revisionists, who construe every religious-sounding locution as evidence of doctrinal fidelity.  Those of us who are dispassionately committed to assaying the available evidence can see the myth of America’s Judeo-Christian origins for what it is: an enchanting farce.

Could the Founders of the new Republic have phrased their message in another way?  Indubitably.  Had the idiom of the time been different, their mode of articulation would have reflected that.  Had their audience been accustomed to–or been moved by–alternate turns-of-phrase, the authors would have surely adjusted their wording accordingly.  That’s what good writers do.  The point, after all, is to be compelling.  And any savvy statesmen takes care to employ phrasing to which the target audience can relate.

We encounter this in the 19th century as well.  As it turned out, even those who were most suspicious of religious dogmas nevertheless spoke using religious idioms.  Abraham Lincoln expressed these sentiments in a letter to Judge Wakefield (in the advent of his son, Willie’s death): “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason in thinking that I shall ever change them.”  Lincoln even felt it necessary to declare: “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”  Nevertheless, he opted to use the locution, “under God” in the triumphant conclusion to his address at Gettysburg in November of 1863.  Why?  Because such turns of phrase RESONATED with his audience.  The point was to be relatable, not to talk over everyone’s head.

Similar phrasing is found in statements by Albert Einstein–as when he quipped that “god doesn’t play dice” when inveighing against the indeterminacies of quantum mechanics.  He also averred: “The more I study science, the more I believe in god” when marveling at the sublime wonders of the universe.  Such phrasing is no more striking than more quotidian rhetorical flourishes like “god-speed”, “god bless”, “god willing”, “god only knows”, “god have mercy”, and “god help us”…none of which have any necessary religious connotation.  After all, Einstein was a DEIST…just like Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, et. al.  Indeed, Einstein was very clear that, in employing this idiom, he did NOT mean the personal god of Abrahamic religion.  This made sense, as he was not in the least religious.

As it turns out, many colloquialisms are lifted from Biblical passages.  When one notes that one made it “by the skin of my teeth”, one is not necessarily citing Job 19:20.  And when one admonishes against casting pearls before swine, one is not necessarily thinking of Matthew 7:6.  When Shakespeare employed the adage that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Sonnet 59), he was not paying tribute to the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Idiomatic expressions can’t help but be heavily influenced by scripture, as scripture has played such a prominent role in our history (sometimes for the better, usually for the worse).  To take this as an implicit endorsement of theocracy is to engage in a non-sequitur that could span the known universe.

So it went with familiar locutions found in America’s founding documents.  Yet some revisionists would suggest–against all common sense–that by dating the U.S. Constitution “the Year of our Lord 1781”, the signatories were issuing a mandate for Pauline Christology.  Shall we pretend that the use of “anno Domini” on the Gregorian calendar were a declaration of fealty to specific Christian doctrines?  According to that logic, the interjection, “oh, my god!” is a profession of theism.

Pursuant to the normalization of ingratiating tropes, the American ethos has been re-engineered to resemble more theocratic nation-State (super-saturated with super-patriotism) than a genuine democracy.  A few seemingly minor adjustments were emblematic of this normalization.  “In God We Trust” was first introduced on coinage during the Civil War, yet became standard on currency when Eisenhower sanctioned it in 1956.  (At the behest of Freemasons and the Knights Of Columbus, Eisenhower had already inserted “under god” into the pledge of allegiance in 1954.)  And the cliche, “God bless America” was not standardized in presidential oratory until Nixon popularized the rhetorical flourish during the Vietnam War.  (Isaiah Berlin had written the song “God Bless America” during the First World War, implanting it in the America psyche.)

In each case, a fashionable idiom was at play.   Such was the case with Abraham Lincoln’s use of “under god” in his soaring oratory.  To mistake an idiomatic expression for a formal declaration is to fail to understand how language works. To this day, in common parlance, “god-given X” means that one is naturally endowed with X–whether X is a physical feature, a talent, or a RIGHT.

We could go on and on: “I swear to god” and “so help me god” and “god be with you” and “god bless you” and “god help us” and “god knows” and “thank god”.  Such utterances are not declarations of religious zeal…any more than are turns-of-phrase like “heaven help us”, “heaven knows”, or “thank heavens”.  For those who are NOT religious, they have as much to do with sacred doctrine as the interjection, “Holy Toledo!”

So where does this leave us?  Any exegesis must correct for the metamorphosis of demotic language.  Historical context is key.  When the ancient Romans invoked “Providentia”, it was a matter of thinking of things occurring in accordance with a divine plan.  (“Providentia” was revered alongside “Libertas” and “Salus”: Liberty and Security.)  So it is no surprise that statesmen of the modern era often pontificated–and made their case–in terms of “Providence”.

As colonel during the pre-Revolutionary years, Washington once averred: “Providence has directed my steps and shielded me.”  When Benjamin Franklin once quipped that “god governs the affairs of men”, he was simply speaking in the argot of Providence.  And when “In God We Trust” was first added to coins in 1864, it was likely intended as a way to galvanize the union–and, of course, invoke Providence–in the heat of the Civil War.  When the (semiotically-charged) motto was inserted into the pledge of allegiance during the Eisenhower administration, it was not carrying out a legacy that went back to the nation’s founding.  Rather, it was a way of asserting a stark geopolitical contradistinction: emphasizing the contrast between the (purported) forces of democracy and a (purportedly) godless Soviet “communism”.

Alas.  It has come to pass that false impressions stem–in part–from people misconstruing idiomatic expressions as, well, something other than idiomatic.  What it heaven’s name is going on here? (!)  As we’ve seen, it was only natural that, during the Founding era, men of letters expressed themselves in the prevailing idiom of the time.

But the question remains: What were they REALLY getting at?  George Washington provides us with a great illustration.  Washington was especially fond of the locutions mentioned above (“the Creator”; “the Almighty”; “God”; etc.); and he invoked them with alacrity.  Such grandiose oratory is sometimes referred to as “ceremonial Deism”.

It is folly to interpret the use of such rhetorical flourishes as evidence for doctrinal fidelity or religious zeal; let alone to construe it as a sign of fealty to a specific INSTITUTION.  In fact, even as he made use of such language, Washington was extremely wary of religion making incursions into politics.  Just after being sworn in as the first president, he stated that “no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny.” {6}  In expressing this sentiment, Washington’s aim was simply to warn his fellow Americans against “religious persecution” (as he put it).  His talk of barriers echoed Jefferson’s well-known use of the metaphor, “wall of separation” from three years earlier…and portended Madison’s stipulation of “the total separation of the church from the state” thirty years later.

It might be noted that this principle goes back to Tacitus’ declamation: “deorum injuriae diis curae”: leave offenses against the gods to the care of the gods.  In other words, the concerns of religion are not to be treated as matters of State.  This was echoed with Jesus’ admonition (in the Gospel of Matthew) to leave unto Caesar that which is Caesars; and leave unto god that which is god’s.

Washington believed that morality, not piety, was the ultimate standard by which good citizenship was determined.  To reiterate: In his first speech as president, he stated: “The foundation of our national policy is laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”  He clearly did not mean that the nation’s founding principles derived from the edicts of the Abrahamic deity (or were in any way validated by divine command theory).  Instead, Washington made clear that the principles that he espoused came from the moral compass with which we are all endowed.  As with Aristotle in ancient Athens, Washington tied virtue (esp. civic duty) with happiness. {5}  He asserted that the “indissoluble union” between virtue and happiness stemmed from the “course of nature”.  He could just as well have said that said union stemmed from “Nature’s God”; as that would have meant the same thing. {12}

Washington also noted that “religious controversies are always more productive of acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than [disputes] which spring from any other cause.”  To mitigate such controversies, Washington ordered all commanders of the Continental Army to “protect and support the free exercise…and undisturbed enjoyment of…religious matters.”

Like Benjamin Franklin, Washington’s reason for attending church services was to be involved in the community.  For both Washington and Franklin, the concern was the communal, not the doctrinal.  While they articulated themselves in the idiom of “god”, their approach to Faith was not dogmatic.  As with virtually everyone else, he often used locutions like “thank god”, “god knows”, and “for god’s sake”; and, during the Revolutionary War, purportedly appealed for “the blessings of heaven” on the army (while having Thomas Paine read aloud his secular benediction).  Never once, in his storied career, did Washington ever mention Jesus / Christ. (!)  If he’d been Christian, this moniker would have eventually been used at some point—at least in passing.

We might also consider the pastors from Philadelphia who knew Washington best: James B. Abercrombie (Episcopal), Bishop William White (Episcopal), and Ashbel “Asa” Green (Presbyterian).  All three made quite clear that they did not consider him a Christian. {16}

Granted, Washington seems to have been involved in FreeMasonry—a cult that was vaguely Abrahamic in some respects.  (In some of his letters, he referred to the “Great Architect of the Universe”, a common Masonic moniker that had palpably Deistic undertones.  He used other Masonic phrasing—as when he stated that the new nation “was under the special agency of Providence.”)  When writing to fellow Mason, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington refers to things in distinctly Masonic terms, specifying that he often “indulged” Christians.  Clearly, he did not think of himself as a Christian.  He was merely using the same phraseology that we encounter with other avowed Deists—from Voltaire and Montesquieu to Paine and Jefferson.  All of them believed that a degree of religiosity had some practical virtues (i.e. maintaining civility in day-to-day affairs, encouraging temperance and forbearance, etc.)

In a letter written in February 1800 (about two months after Washington’s passing), Jefferson wrote in his personal journal: “Dr. [Benjamin] Rush told me (he had it from Asa [Ashbel] Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion…  I know that Gouverneur Morris [drafter of the U.S. Constitution] …has often told me that General Washington believed no more in [Christianity] than he did.”

It is telling that Washington refused to take communion when he attended church.  When he was compelled by the clergy of Philadelphia to make a public confession of Jesus Christ, he refused to do so (see “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson” vol. I; p. 284).  And he adamantly rejected the presence of clergy when he was on his death bed.

Arguably the most important Founding Father of the new Republic was Thomas Paine.  (George Washington even averred that the colonies would not have prevailed in the Revolution but for the galvanization effected by Paine’s inspiring oratory.)  So it is worth heeding Paine’s perspective on the matter.

While a Deist, Paine harbored extreme antipathy toward religion (qua institutionalized dogmatism; especially insofar as it was tribalistic and atavistic).  His “Common Sense” was a significant catalyst for the American Revolution; and it provided the primary articulation of the colonists’ REASONS FOR seeking independence.  Suffice to say: It had nothing whatsoever to do with religion.  Paine actually devoted his masterwork, “The Age of Reason” to an argument AGAINST atheism AND religionism (that is: institutionalized dogmatism).  Why?  Because he championed Deism.  He knew that the greatest enemy of civil society was a Reactionary mindset; and that dogmatic thinking was antithetical to societal progress.

For this reason, Paine recognized how crucial it was to separate religious matters from matters of State. He was clear on this point: “Mingling religion with politics” was to be “disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America.”  Note that this was from the man of whom John Adams–no fan of Deism–said: “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or its affairs for the last thirty years than [Thomas] Paine.  Call it, then, the Age of Paine.”

YET, in spite of all this, the “Christian basis of the U.S. government” myth persists to the present day.  This is a claim that the Founders of the Republic would have certainly found baffling.  We might think of it this way: Had the authors of America’s founding documents been thoroughly convinced that Judeo-Christian lore was entirely mythical, they would have articulated themselves IN THE EXACT SAME WAY.

Lo and behold, many of them actually did take such lore as myth, and–as it happened–actually did articulate themselves in the manner we find in the historical record.

The point, then, is to look at the underlying message.  Doing so involves culling the spirit behind the exposition from the myriad quirks of the specific phrasing employed by the authors (who were, after all, themselves products of their own time and place).  This requires one to get beyond the stylistic choices that the authors made when crafting the documents-in-question.

In sum: Elucidation of “original intent” is only possible by understanding the vernacular of the time and place.

When it comes to the era in which America’s Founders lived, we find that many prominent figures employed the prevailing idiom of the time.  To contend that this is a sign of staunch religiosity misses the point.  Such special pleading fails to recognize idiomatic expression AS IDIOMATIC; and elides the amorphous nature of semantics.

Imagine, then, that we were to pose the question to the Founders: In which ways did you base your case for democracy on Judeo-Christian doctrine?  Ben Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison would have been bewildered by such a question.  Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson would have been utterly flabbergasted by it.  Even John Adams, a New England Congregationalist (i.e. proto-Unitarian), would have found this query rather peculiar.

It makes sense, then, to continue our survey with the most religious of the major Founders: John Adams.

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