America’s National Origin Myth

September 10, 2019 Category: American Culture

In crafting a sacred history to suit a given purpose, wrinkles in a narrative (technicalities that complicate the desired flow) are often “ironed out”; and any events that threaten to undermine the desired schema are glossed over, or even elided.  For example, when most of us think of the American Revolutionary War, that the British technically surrendered to the FRENCH (thereby rendering the Colonies the DE FACTO winners in September of 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia), not to the Colonies themselves, is generally disregarded as a (dispensable) technicality. {14}

It would seem to be a straight-forward question: To whom did the British surrender to bring the Revolutionary War to an end?  And it is; though Americans infected with super-patriotism don’t like the actual answer.  (They have a need to proclaim, “WE did it!”)  Indeed, for many a proud citizen of the U.S., it seems unseemly to point out that, but for the arrival of France’s powerful navy (thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s prodigious skills of persuasion back in Paris), the American colonies would likely not have prevailed in their noble war for independence. {15}

The fact that most Americans are blissfully unaware of this is testament to the fact that sacred histories are made-to-order; tailored to suit our sensibilities and gratify our egos.  We usually tell a story the way we WANT it to be told; Reality be damned.  We want to leave ourselves in a flattering light; to heck with anyone else.  And to heck with Truth.  We regale ourselves with tales of past glory–thereby leaving our forebears looking marvelous.  Thus OUR heroes are the only REAL heroes.

This ornery posture is a staple of tribal chauvinism; and the lifeblood of American Exceptionalism.  Once infused with the conceit of divine Providence, we wind up with fascistic pathologies like American “Christian Dominionism”.

Americans are inclined to ignore the fact that the biggest genocide in world history (somewhere between 20 and 100 million eradicated) was perpetrated by settlers of European descent in the so-called New World.  Americans likewise pat themselves on the back for “winning” World War II in the European theater (even though the tide had already turned against the Nazis, thanks to the Russians) and in the Pacific / southeast Asian theater (even though the U.S. government committed genocide gratuitously, in Japan).  And, of course, Americans are told that they “won” the “Cold War”, never mind the genocide in Vietnam / Lao / Cambodia and the fictional “missile gap” used to justify an obscene military build-up during the Post-War era.  America, so the story goes, is only a force for good in the world.  End of story.

The point here is not to knock American history per se; it is to show that massive amounts of people can get history egregiously wrong (or, at least, severely misunderstand it); especially when the farce is self-serving.  People collectively remembering events that never happened has been dubbed the “Mandela Effect”.  Such collective “false memory” often emerges organically (that is, it is not necessarily of a calculated plan to deceive).  However, sometimes it is orchestrated–as it can be surprisingly easy for impresarios of the Grand Narrative to exploit the susceptibility of people to the Mandela Effect.  In such cases, the mis-remembering is constructed in accordance the interests of those in power.  The result is False Consciousness (BY DESIGN) at a societal level.

Actual historical scholarship is animated by perspicacity and a dedication to elucidating Truth (stating the facts, whatever they might be).  By contrast, sacred history is animated by fealty to an ideology (that is: an urge to rationalize it by concocting a “just so” story).  Put another way: Actual history stems from erudition; whereas sacred history stems from sentiment.  The former is a matter of understanding Reality; the latter is a matter of being attached to certain ideas (esp. coveted myths).  The pivotal difference, then, comes down to vested interests.

In “How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience Of Our Addiction To Stories”, Alex Rosenberg explained it thus: “The same science that reveals why we view the world through the lens of narrative also shows that the lens not only distorts what we see but is the source of illusions we can neither shake nor even correct for most of the time.”  Here’s the catch: “It is people’s beliefs about history that motivate [them], not the actual historical events.  So, even if we get the facts right, that may be irrelevant to understanding people’s [perception of] the present or their future…”

When it comes to unscrupulous hagiographers, the standard approach is as follows: Extol any ethereal verity (read: anecdote), countenancing whatever salutary “truths” happen to be in fashion, whilst coyly disregarding inconvenient facts…all in the name of upholding some program of mass consolation.  That way, no toes are stepped on; and we can all carry on with our day, unperturbed.  After all, consoling fables are–well–CONSOLING.

Disrupting this homeostasis is considered unseemly, as challenging sacred histories involves upsetting sacred apple-carts.  But disrupt we shall.

In May of 1797, John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” (Article 11).  Here is a statement that could not possibly have been more straight-forward.  President George Washington, who was an avowed Deist, approved the wording of the document; and for good reason.  He concurred with what it said.  It is very telling that Adams–arguably the most religious of the major Founders–endorsed the statement without reservation.

It is difficult to imagine a more unequivocal statement than that “the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”…written by the man who was arguably the most Christian of the Founders.  What could possibly explain this?  Adams was able to separate his own convictions from the jurisdiction of the State.  Whatever beliefs he may have harbored, he recognized something quite simple: Such a personal matter had no bearing on matters of public policy; and should play no role in governance.  Religiosity was no more a prerequisite for deliberative democracy than was, well, ANY form of dogmatism.

The Treaty of Tripoli was approved by both the first and the second Presidents of the United States (Washington and Adams)–reflecting a view that was propounded by the other major Founders–notably: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (all Deists).  The Senate approved the wording of the treaty UNANIMOUSLY.  In other words, all Senators present (23 of the 32 were in session) ratified the declaration without so much as questioning this bold statement.

The key statement, adamantly repudiating the notion of a Christian basis for the new Republic, did not even raise eyebrows.  Why not?  It was patently obvious to all statesmen at the time.

And so it went: The entire Senate agreed with the proclamation that the United States was not founded IN ANY WAY as a Christian nation; and saw fit to announce this fact to the world.  In his signing statement, John Adams then took care to make explicit that he viewed every point made in the document as having set an important precedent; and so was to be honored by all citizens of the United States thereafter.

The thinking behind this position is well-documented.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams pointed out that “the general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”  This meant that there was a correlation between such GENERAL PRINCIPLES (i.e. moral messages that could be gleaned from scripture, as was often the case in Christendom) and the guiding principles of civil society.  He was not referring to the theology; he was referring to the didactic utility of religious parable.

With this in mind, Adams stated that “the principles of nature and eternal reason [are] the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”  Again: He was not referring to Christian doctrine in particular…or even to Mosaic law.  “Principles of nature” and “eternal reason” are clearly not referring to revelation.  Scripture was useful for didactic purposes, insofar as it conveyed certain moral messages; not for theological purposes.  (Thomas Jefferson’s redaction of the Gospels illustrates this fact.)

Theocratic governance was the LAST thing John Adams–or any of the other Founders–would have envisioned for the new Republic.  Nothing in Adam’s seminal work, “Thoughts On Government” indicates that he supposed the foundation of the federal government rested explicitly on Judeo-Christian tenets. {2}

While a professed Christian, it is important to bear in mind that Adams was assiduously anti-dogmatic, and had few sympathies for many of the institutionalized (that is: dogmatic) versions of the Faith.  He openly rebuked doctrinaire treatments of the creed.  In another letter to Jefferson, Adams wrote: “The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.  Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”  Thus he noted the disconnect between the moral lessons found in the Gospels and the institutions that operated under the auspices of “Christianity”.  In any case, it is obvious that Adams garnered his insights on democracy—and civil society generally—from places other than holy books.  Civil society was no more predicated on sacred doctrines than astronomy was predicated on astrological charts.

In a letter dated 1822, James Madison wrote: “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance.  And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

What of Adams’ political rival, Thomas Jefferson?  A frequent attendee of the local Anglican (i.e. Episcopalian) church who openly denied the divinity of Jesus, Jefferson was surprisingly frank about his suspicions of institutionalized dogmatism; and so was careful to avoid leaving the impression that any of the ideals he espoused were in any way grounded in doctrinal thinking.  It was not for nothing that he was viciously pilloried for being a de facto atheist by his political opponents, for whom his reticence to identify as a Christian was seen as problematic.

When he drafted “A Summery View Of The Rights Of America” in 1774, Jefferson opted to quote Cicero rather than the Bible.  For it was Cicero’s disquisition, not Christian scripture, that made the case for civil rights.  In Jefferson’s telling, those rights were deemed “god-given” (as was the colonialists’ liberty and dignity).  This was the standard conviction of a Deist.  Indeed, such things could be said to have been “god-given” just as were the leopard’s spots and the zebra’s stripes and blueness of the sky.

In putting forth his case, Jefferson asserted recourse to the laws of “nature and of nature’s god”; not of the Biblical god.  Just as with John Locke before him, he spoke of “natural rights” (as with, say, the freedom of conscience), which were not derived from any catechism; they could be gleaned from the natural order of things.  Again: This was an echo of Renaissance Humanism.  Consequently, Jefferson invoked “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”, not for the revelation of prophets.  MORALITY was the sine qua non; not religiosity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Jefferson proudly asserted: “If ever the morals of a People could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.”  The basis for government, that is, did not proceed from divine commandments, but from our own moral faculties.  Again, the appeal was to our innate moral compass, not to the diktats of this or that scripture.

In fact, the inalienable rights Jefferson enumerated could not be found anywhere in the sacred texts he had on his library.  Rather, they were to be found in the exposition of Locke and Montesquieu.  Jefferson had a strong case to make about democratic principles; and–most would agree–he made it as eloquently as possible.  Religion had nothing to do with it. {9}

In assaying his choice of wording, we might bear in mind that Jefferson was especially known for poetic stylization–as were both Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin.  (Such florid rhetoric might be contrasted to the more dry, turgid prose of the Federalist Papers.)  It should come as little surprise, then, that Jefferson made use of the prevailing idiom of the time.

The point here is worth reiterating: When idiomatic expression is used to convey an idea in a maximally poignant way–as savvy writers tend to do–the astute reader is able to abstract the underlying message from the particular phraseology employed. {10}  So it stands to reason that Jefferson–with the approval of Ben Franklin–opted to use the locution, “Nature’s God” in the opening statement of his letter to King George III of England in 1776, whereby he declared independence of the American colonies from the crown.  After all, such an invocation was prudent when seeking to articulate one’s intentions to a royal cynosure who thought ENTIRELY in Providential terms.

Providence was, after all, part of the zeitgeist.  This is why Jefferson CONCLUDED the letter to the British monarch with an invocation of “Providence”, intimating a divine imprimatur for the revolutionary cause (as people often did when employing soaring oratory).  Such wording was designed to ensure maximal resonance with George III and his advisors.  It had nothing whatsoever to do with Messianism.

Also in that propitious letter, Jefferson referred to “Nature’s God” as “Creator” when he posited the endowment of inalienable rights.  Such wording was often used when discussing NATURAL RIGHTS in the tradition of John Locke.  Deists did, after all, believe in a Creator; though no particular doctrinal points followed from that precept.

As a Deist, it was only natural for Jefferson to employ the genteel locutions of his era–as Deists often did.  Along with the vehemently anti-religious Thomas Paine, Jefferson invoked “Nature’s God”…which, he was careful to point out, correlated with “the natural rights of mankind”.  None of this had anything to do with any particular sacred doctrine.  To ensure this was clear, the common locution “we hold these truths to be sacred”–with its theological connotations–was changed to the more naturalistic “we hold these truths to be self-evident”.   After all, the idea was to appeal to REASON, not to divine ordinance.

This point is crucial to understanding how and why the “Founding Fathers” articulated themselves as they did.  When Jefferson employed the Lockean locution, “Nature’s God” in his letter to king George III, he was speaking the language of the Enlightenment–a language embraced by non-religionists like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Henry Saint John of Bolingbroke.  The phrase was standard in the argot of “natural law theory”, of which Jefferson was an aficionado.

In fact, considering his familiarity with Locke, it would have been surprising had he NOT used the phrase “nature’s god”.  What he did NOT say was “the god of Abraham” or “the Christian god”.  For–clearly–he did not have in mind the god of one or another CHURCH.  This is evidenced by the fact the some of the more religious signatories to the Declaration of Independence PROTESTED such phrasing, as they deemed it sacrilegious.  They were–after all–well aware that “nature’s god” had nothing whatsoever to do with their creed. (!)  It was commonly understood to be non-religious terminology.

That George III–a pious man–was considered head of the Church of England meant that Jefferson was obliged to speak his language.  And so he did.  Thus it was a RHETORICAL strategy to phrase things in a way to which the target audience (the British monarchy) could relate.  Hence Jefferson spoke of “divine providence”, and articulated things accordingly.  We might bear in mind that kings / queens of England were convinced that they ruled according to divine right; so–in seeking to convey a point as poignantly as possible–Jefferson would have been remiss NOT to couch things in providential terms.

And so it went: Jefferson was–effectively–a Deist; though he eschewed that particular label, as he associated it with Judaic theology, which he saw as derelict.  Tellingly, he opted to use “Nature’s God”, which was a patently Deist locution; as it was held in contra-distinction to SCRIPTURE’S god, which was supernatural and interventionist.  To reiterate: Jefferson was no oddity.  His contemporary mentors were all Deists–most notably: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Henry Saint John of Bolingbroke.

In keeping with the rest of his writing, Jefferson’s tactful use of certain turns-of-phrase was largely about waxing poetic.  It was only natural, then, that he included such rhetorical flourishes in this propitious letter.  Obviously, such phrasing went far beyond mere colloquialisms like “Oh, my god!”  The loaded wording Jefferson employed was intended to hit a nerve; and it a nerve it did.  By using such super-charged locutions, there were surely connotations that would have struck a chord with the British.  It should go without saying that the letter resonated with its intended audience not only because of WHAT it said, but HOW it said it.

For Jefferson, religiosity was a matter of personal prerogative.  In his 1784 “Notes On Virginia”, Jefferson wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  He recognized that a person’s freedom OF (his own) religion entailed that person’s freedom FROM (the next guy’s) religion.  One freedom is, indeed, the logical corollary of the other.  (In other words: One cannot have freedom OF one’s own religion without a guaranteed of freedom FROM another’s religion.)  I am not infringing upon your liberties when I prevent you from infringing on my own liberties.

The matter here, then, is simply one of omni-symmetrical liberty: Freedom OF the exercise of one’s own Faith entails freedom FROM others’ exercise of their Faith.  MY practice of religion must in no way encumber anyone else’s ability to do the same.  For any given party, the rule of thumb amounts to: On your own time, on your own dime. {11}

Such boundary conditions are required for maintaining a condition of omni-symmetry with respect to personal prerogative.  Any given person’s freedom to exercise his own Faith stops the moment it places a burden on any bystander.  To recapitulate: A corollary of freedom OF religion is freedom FROM religion.  One can’t have the former without the latter.

This means that genuine religious liberty cannot exist without a patently secular (read: religiously neutral) government.  Protection of one person’s religious prerogative requires protection from mandates by any and all other religions.  One person’s exercise of religion cannot ever be allowed to inhibit or constrain–in any way whatsoever–the next person’s ability to exercise his own religion (or, for that matter, to simply refrain from exercising ANY religion).

This means no religious favoritism on the part of the State.  But for Christians who’d much prefer to enjoy favor, the best way to countermand this precedent is to pretend that the American Republic was founded as a “Christian nation”; then begrudge anyone who doesn’t play along with this ruse.

Secularism entails something quite different, as the American Founders recognized.  It is not within the jurisdiction of the government to enforce piety…in ANY form; nor is it the government’s place to curtail anyone to exercise piety of their own accord (so long as it in no way infringes on anyone else’s prerogative to do the same for himself).  With this in mind, Jefferson drafted Virginia’s statute for religious freedom, wherein he explicated the principle of separation of church and state.

Jefferson was crystal clear on the matter: No person should be compelled to support any religious institution with taxes; nor compelled to subsidize any religious ministry–be it evangelism or worship.  (One might call this the “on your own time, on your own dime” principle.)  Jefferson’s primary rational for this position was an inviolable freedom of conscience (couched in terms of an endowment by the Creator).  The point wasn’t to propound this or that theological position; the point was to recognize the ENDOWMENT.

As a (purported) virtue, “religious” was used (by Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et. al.) in the non-dogmatic sense.  The key was to always treat Faith as a personal affair, never as public policy.  The vision was of a polity in which each citizen participated in any given religion of his/her own accord.  (I won’t burden you with my religion; you don’t burden me with yours.  And we can both go about our business.)

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia statute for religious freedom in 1777, he characterized the document as having “within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”  For Jefferson, this landmark charter was not an enjoinder for theocracy; it was a mandate for personal prerogative.  (The statute would serve as the basis for the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution twelve years later.)

The Virginia’s statute for religious freedom was ratified by the state’s General Assembly in 1786, three years before the Constitutional Convention; and so would serve as precedent thereafter.  In the parlance of the Founders, “religious freedom” was not about imposing one’s creed on others; it was about freedom of conscience…so long as it put no obligation / restriction on one’s neighbor.  In other words: “To each his own.”  It is folly to construe this as an exhortation to be “religious” in the (dogmatic, tribalistic) sense we often use it today.  The notion of a certain party’s creed being used as the basis for public policy would have struck the Founders as perfidious.

Revealingly, Jefferson was sometimes strikingly straight-forward about his disdain for religious dogmatism.  He once wrote to John Adams: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”  Scorned by devout Christians at the time (who derided him as an “atheist”, just as they did with Paine), Jefferson never budged when it came to his unorthodox views of Faith; and never wavered on his anti-theocratic stance.  (Thomas Paine, another Deist who held religion in abeyance, was also inaccurately derided as an atheist.  In reality, nobody embodied the ideals of the American Revolution more than Paine.)

When he bowdlerized the New Testament, Thomas Jefferson compared removing all the passages involving dogmatic nonsense–and accounts of the supernatural–to “extracting diamonds from a dunghill.”  Hence his “The Life And Morals Of Jesus Of Nazareth”.  So what, exactly, DID Jefferson cull from the Gospels after this extensive textual pruning?  In treating the source-material as an allegory rather than as a chronicle, he highlighted the moral messages that were conveyed–thus abstracting from the Christological hocus-pocus in which it had been embedded.  Jefferson was astute enough to recognize the DIDACTIC value of scripture; no dogmatism required, nothing supernatural involved.  In other words: The moral messages could be divorced from all the soteriological musings.

As with his fellow Founders, Thomas Jefferson saw religiosity as a private affair.  Consequently, so far as he was concerned, the separation of church and state was paramount.  This was made clear when Virginia’s statute for religious freedom was made law.  Later that same year (1786), in a letter protesting a proposed “general assessment” in Virginia (a move to levy taxes to fund certain religious activities), Jefferson expounded:

“[T]he impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.”  In sum: Any move to use public funds to subsidize the promotion of religion was antithetical to democracy.

In the same letter, Jefferson was careful to point out that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”  That is to say: participatory democracy does not depend on religiosity.  Quite the contrary: Democracy is predicated on a clearly-demarcated boundary separating matters of Faith from matters of civic life.  This is precisely why Jefferson saw fit—in a letter to Baptist leaders in Connecticut on New Year’s day, 1802—to make it crystal clear that there must be an un-breach-able “wall of separation” between the State and any church.  His point: The State should no more meddle in a congregation’s affairs than the followers of a certain doctrine should meddle in the affairs of the State.  The Christians in Danbury wholeheartedly concurred. (!)

Was this position inimical to the Founders’ vision?  Of course not.  Jefferson even went so far as to claim that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is what BUILT this wall of separation; and pointed out that this was perfectly in keeping with “natural rights”…which were themselves consummate with civic responsibility (“social duties”, as he put it).  Jefferson concluded the letter by reciprocating the congregation’s “kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”  Why phrase it that way?  Well, why not?

In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson clearly saw the 1st Amendment as “building a wall of separation between church and state.”  For most, this was interpreted as an integral part of the intent of the Amendment—a fact that was affirmed by Reynolds v. United States in 1878.  Jefferson saw religion as a personal matter “which lies solely between man and his god.”  The prospect that anyone might have the audacity to use personal Faith as a justification for public policy was beyond the pale.

It is plain, then, that the 1st Amendment was an explicit repudiation of the Puritan mini-theocracy established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the two centuries leading up to the American Revolution (not to mention the explicitly Catholic colony established in Mary-Land).  The point of the Revolution—as envisioned by Thomas Paine—was to emancipate the people from religious control, not to alter the brand of that control.  It was obvious to (almost) everyone involved that freedom OF religion meant freedom FROM religion.  That is: To each his own.  This entailed something quite straight-forward: No party’s exercise of Faith could in any way impost burdens / obligations on any other party.

Jefferson was adamant that religiosity and governance were to remain in their appropriate purviews.  He saw how important it was that each mode of human activity be relegated to its own (delimited) domain.  And that was perfectly fine for the Faithful.  For Jefferson insisted that–in the end–the truth will out (that is, so long as free inquiry was allowed to run its course).  In the same letter, he reminded his fellow Virginians that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.”  He added that truth “has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate–errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

In sum: Jefferson recognized that the only TRUE democracy was DELIBERATIVE democracy.  Hewing to the edicts of ancient texts was NOT the basis for this process.

Critical thinking (that is: independent thought) always trumped the dogmatic tendencies of religion in its fundamentalist form.  Jefferson was emphatic in a letter to Peter Carr in 1787: “Question with boldness the existence of god.  Because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage to reason than that of blindfolded fear.” {10}  It is indubitable that the author of the “Declaration of Independence” did not predicate his vision for the new Republic on religious doctrine…let alone prescribe doctrinal fealty as a condition for democracy.

One of the most fundamental elements of civil society is freedom of conscience.  It was for this reason that–in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association–Thomas Jefferson emphasized that “religion is at all times and places a matter between god and individuals.”  Public policy has no place in such affairs—just as such affairs have no place in public policy.

To reiterate: Thomas Jefferson was wary of the dogmatic tendencies of religionism.  This was made especially clear when he wrote: “The caliber of people who serve [the Christian god]…are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites.”  Elsewhere, he wrote: “Religions are all alike: founded upon fables and mythologies.”  To top it all off, he conceded: “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.”

Jefferson was also careful to point out that morality and doctrinal fealty often did not coincide; and that we conflate the two at our own peril.  In a letter to Unitarian minister, Richard Price in October of 1788, he wrote: “There has been in almost all religions a melancholy separation of religion from morality.”  For him, as for the other major Founders, morality trumped religiosity.  And the glaring disjuncture between morality (as propounded by Jesus of Nazareth via parable) and the institution known as the Christian church was important to recognize.

In that same letter, Jefferson went on to list all the formal rituals of Roman Catholicism (“Popery” as he called it), including “getting to heaven by penances, bodily mortifications, pilgrimages, saying masses, believing mysterious doctrines, burning heretics, aggrandizing Priests”.  He also rebuked Protestantism, what with its “fastings and sacraments” and other fatuous rigamarole.  Regarding all those liturgical shenanigans, he then asked: “Would not society be better without such religions?”

Such pontification was no anomaly.  In a letter to James Fishback in September of 1809, Jefferson noted the myriad sects “in their particular dogmas all differ, no two professing the same…[consisting as they do of different] vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations.”  He pointed out that all this Tom-foolery–pompous and mawkish–existed independently of moral precepts (which are, he noted, what REALLY matter).

As he put it in a letter to Patrick Henry in October of 1776: “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or estate, which more nearly relate to the state? Will the magistrates make a law that he shall not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”  Thus freedom of conscience is paramount in a genuinely democratic society.  Faith was a matter of personal prerogative, not public policy.  Again: “On your own time, on your own dime.”

Jefferson left no doubt that dogmatism was inimical to deliberative democracy; and that religiosity was a personal affair.  As if this point were not already clear enough, Jefferson once wrote: “I have always thought religion a concern purely between our god and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him and not to the priests.  For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.  But this does not satisfy the priesthood.  For they must have a declared assent to all their interested absurdities.  My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest.”  Then, in a letter to Thomas Law in June 1814, he stated that “our moral duties…are generally divided into duties to god and duties to man.”  The former was a private spiritual matter; the latter was a public matter.

This distinction made perfect sense, as the Faith Jefferson espoused was categorically “natural” (in contradistinction to institutional).  We might recall that “natural religion” was the sense of “religion” touted in David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”.  This conceptualization was patently secular in nature (Hume was an atheist). {9}  That is to say, “natural religion” was only “religion” in the sense of the (non-dogmatic) Faith espoused by Deists like Denis Diderot and Thomas Paine; and, later, by Johan von Goethe, John Stuart Mill, and William James.  At the time, the most notable exemplar of “natural religion” was Immanuel Kant, who explicated how “religion” might exist “within the bounds of reason”; and in no way rested on dogmatism. {3} 

Here’s the key: For Jefferson, “NATURAL religion” (as opposed to institutionalized religion) was synonymous with morality.  For he recognized that religion QUA INSTITUTION (sectarian, dogmatic, and prone to clericalism) often led to dysfunction.  This fundamental distinction has been espoused by all the great Deists of history–from Spinoza to Einstein.

Jefferson’s position should not come as a surprise.  It was widely recognized at the time that sanctified dogmatism had often been the skein of civil society.  To make the point clear, in June of 1822, the elderly statesman wrote in a letter to the reverend, Thomas Whittemore: “I have never permitted myself to mediate a specified creed.  These formulas have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention which through so many ages made Christendom a slaughter house, and to this day divides it into [sects] of inextinguishable hatred of one another.”

Thomas Jefferson evinced contempt for religion in the institutional sense even as he harbored respect for a liberalized notion of “religion” in the non-institutional sense.  Faith was a private matter; and was only sullied when institutionalized.  Other liberal thinkers would concur on this point–from William Sloane Coffin Jr. to Martin Luther King Jr. to Johan Rawls.

Governance, then, must never be at the mercy of religious doctrine.  Jefferson was crystal clear on this point: “The legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who does ill toward his neighbor.”  In other words, it was not the government’s place to enforce any given group’s sacred doctrine, nor to enact policies designed to promote this or that religious dogma.  The State’s sole role was to attend to secular jurisprudential matters.

The principle of separation of church and state was first posited EXPLICITLY by the progressive pastor, Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) in the 1630’s.  (For earlier instantiations of this tenet, see my essay on the history of legal codes.)  Williams noted that no worthwhile religion seeks collusion with the State, let alone demands State support.

Benjamin Franklin also recognized this basic fact.  Franklin stated: “When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and god does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to seek the support of the civil power, it is a sign…of its being a bad one.”

Of course, leaving religion out of politics goes back to Jesus himself, who abjured to “leave unto Caesar that which is Caesar,” where the Roman Imperium represented the affairs of State.  The point of democracy, of course, is that authority is accorded–and thus derives its legitimacy–from the bottom up; NOT from the top down.  In other words: There is no imperium–theocratic or otherwise.

Along with Franklin, Jefferson recognized that keeping religion in its appropriate place poses no problems for a genuinely democratic society.  Indeed, civil society is not a function of any particular theology.  In his Bill For Religious Freedom, Jefferson articulated this position–even as he opted to use the familiar idiom, “Almighty God”.  But WHAT OF this “Almighty God”?  Jefferson is clear: “[He] hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain.”  How is this possible?  Jefferson specified: “By making [each person’s mind] altogether insusceptible of restraint.”  These are the words of a Deist, not of a religionist. {10}

Regarding Jefferson’s auspicious letter to King George III, it is difficult to take every word seriously AS IT WAS–considering the exigencies of the time.  This is–after all–the same document that proclaims that “all men are created equal” even though it meant ONLY males, and did NOT mean anyone who wasn’t white.  If all humans qua humans were truly endowed (by their Creator; a.k.a. “nature’s god”) with certain inalienable rights, then surely such an assertion encompassed women…and African Americans.  (We’re ALL supposedly made in the image of god, are we not?)  That “all men” actually entailed “only white, land-owning men” rather than “mankind” is rather disheartening; as Jefferson surely had “mankind” as his ideal.  Alas, in practice, “The People” referred to landed gentry…even as it may have referred to all civilians IN PRINCIPLE.

The point here is that the phrasing of even the most vaunted historical documents must be taken with a rather hefty grain of salt; and the exposition’s deeper meaning considered in terms of its historical context.  Surely, Jefferson was fully aware that the SPIRIT OF his letter was the thesis that all of mankind–rich and poor, male and female, black and white–was entitled to enfranchisement.  Consequently, he would have conceded that the vision of the groundbreaking Declaration could not be fully realized at the time (the LITERAL reading of what he wrote notwithstanding).  So for those who are hung up on the locution “our Creator”, it suffices to say that they are completely missing the point.  To fixate on this as a tacit declaration of Christian fealty is to be heedless of how exposition works in the real world.  In considering the underlying message that Jefferson was trying to convey, this locution is rather beside the point.

For us to now fixate on Jefferson’s use of “our Creator” in articulating his point is to miss the entire forest for a single fig-leaf. {4}

It should also be noted that whenever the buzz-term, “religion” / “religious” was used, it was typically coupled with “morality” / “moral”, as devout-ness was typically associated with self-discipline and noble character. {12}  Common-folk could relate to such terms; so those were the terms savvy orators tended to use.  Up until the late 20th century, to be described as a “religious” man in the American vernacular was equivalent to being called an upstanding member of the community.  The plaudit had nothing to do with hewing to a particular doctrine.

During the founding era, never was Christology tied into these judiciously-employed rhetorical flourishes.  In a statement repudiating the desire–held by certain Christians at the time–for “an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States”, Jefferson stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush: “I have sworn upon the alter of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  He recognized that any effort to base the governance of the nation on a particular religion entails a tyranny over the minds of its citizens.  (That is: A theocratic regime borne of unbridled religionism was synonymous with despotism.)  This declamation is all the more poignant because he conveyed his adamance by swearing “upon the alter of god” (like, say, swearing “on my mother’s grave”).

As if the point were not clear enough, in a letter to Major John Cartwright, Jefferson said of the (unfounded) notion that “Christianity is part of the common law” that “the proof TO THE CONTRARY…is incontrovertible.”  He decisively denounced such a notion as “a conspiracy…between Church and State” that was being perpetrated by perfidious “rogues”.  In sum: Jefferson’s ideals were diametrically opposed to even the slightest hint of Christian theocracy.  Religiosity (in the doctrinal sense) could only ever undermine the integrity of deliberative democracy.  The scourge of institutionalized dogmatism was antithetical to a vibrant demos.

James Madison echoed this sentiment when he said: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind; and un-fits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect” (letter to William Bradford, April 1,1774).  For Madison, it was quite clear that there must a wall separating religion from governance; and vice versa (as is the case with walls).  Keeping the State out of religion entails keeping religion out of the State.

Madison recognized that doctrinal thinking was inimical to deliberative democracy.  In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer (Dec 3, 1821), he stated: “The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers: That without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported.  A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”

Along with Jefferson, Madison recognized that in a genuine democracy, there could be no theocratic element whatsoever.  After all, the point of democracy was for the State to remain categorically neutral on religious (read: personal) matters.  The upshot of this was neither to advance nor to inhibit religious practice.  So long as it in no way placed a burden on bystanders, practicing one’s own religion of one’s own accord needn’t be opposed to civic-minded-ness.  (On your own time, on your own dime.)

Again, we see that the assurance of personal prerogative–for EVERYONE–is the essence of individual liberty.  Madison’s stance on the STATE’S freedom from religion could not have been clearer: “If religion be not within cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establishment be said to be necessary to Civil Government?”  How indeed.  Religion, Madison recognized, is NOT the basis for (“within the cognizance of”) the maintenance of civil society.

Hence Madison’s advocacy for a wall of separation–harking back to Roger Williams’ aforementioned insight from the 1630’s.  He recognized that when that wall is breached, democracy suffers: “What influence–in fact–have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?  In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people.”  He noted elsewhere “a strong bias towards the old error”: the erroneous conception that “without some sort of alliance or coalition between government and religion neither can be duly supported.”  He concluded: “An alliance or coalition between government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against… [Therefore] every new and successful example of a PERFECT SEPARATION between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance” (letter to Edward Livingston, Jr.; 1822).

In a letter to Baptist Churches in North Carolina (June 3, 1811), Madison put it more bluntly: “Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself.”

Madison also did not mince words when it came to the deleterious effects of institutionalized dogmatism.  Two years prior to the Declaration of Independence (January of 1774), in a letter to William Bradford, Jr., he wrote: “Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.”  As if that weren’t enough, Madison saw fit to conclude with a plaintive observation: “Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries.”  Meanwhile: “A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate [liberty], needs them not.”  Clerics did not comport with deliberative democracy.

Madison echoed Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation of a wall of separation between religious observance and the business of the federal government–stating in 1819: “The civil government operates with complete success by the total separation of the church from the State.”  In other words, democracy abides insofar as this wall of separation is maintained.  He reiterated that the U.S. Constitution forbade ANYTHING like the establishment of a “national religion”.  As President, Madison elaborated on the matter:

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people.  Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries.  A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”  He continued: “The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and that it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

Madison concluded thus: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial.  What has been its fruits?  More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution” (A Memorial and Remonstrance; addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785).

Later, in a Boston address in 1819, Madison noted that “the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE.”

In sum: A genuinely democratic government is a meta-religious institution, exercising even-handedness toward all Faiths…as well as toward a complete lack thereof.  Such a (secular) State serves to minimize the negative effects of religious discord in civil society; not to mention its tendency to sabotage deliberative democracy.  Just as importantly, it mitigates religion’s disruptive effects on democratic governance.  Madison was well aware that importing religion into civic affairs was a recipe for disaster.

It is true that Christianity happened to be the majority religion in the American colonies–and the subsequent Republic–at the time.  The “catch” here is crucial to note: The most ardent Christians in the American colonies during the era leading up to the founding of the Republic were fanatical Puritans.  As the generations came and went, the balance of Christians came to be Anglicans (i.e. those who remained with the Church of England; a.k.a. “Episcopalians”), New England Congregationalists (proto-Unitarians), Quakers, and Presbyterians.  Not coincidentally: ALL of these were what are now the most liberal denominations.  (Reactionary constituencies emerged pursuant to the “Great Awakenings”; a development that had nothing whatsoever to do with the vision of the Founders.)

When it comes to the demographic breakdown of the American colonies, we might pose a question: Would Christian apologists today suggest that we use the (patently ridiculous) doctrines of 17th and 18th century Puritans as a model for our society?  Indeed, if anyone references “Christian” influence in American historiography, then THAT is implicitly the primary point of reference; as it was the most vocal Christian presence at the time.  Doctrinal Christianity (which, it should not be controversial to point out, is anti-democratic at its very core) was the most outspoken part of the religious landscape during the era preceding the American Revolution.  Therefore that is the only thing one could possibly be referring to if one were to cite the role religion played amongst the rank and file in the 18th century as justification for present policies.

What else could Revisionists TODAY be referring to?  Certainly not Adams’ and Hamilton’s decidedly liberal Faiths.  (Are we to suppose, then, that they have in mind the preachments of the fanatical Puritan, John Winthrop?)  Shall we still be burning witches?  Shall women still be obliged to wear bonnets and remain silent in the public square?

The fact of the matter is: The Founders wanted no part of such a Reactionary mindset.  So they took decisive measures to ensure that religiosity played no role in the establishment of the new Republic.  To hold that Christianity was the basis for America’s founding is like insisting that racism or genocide (ALSO incipient phenomena during the nation’s early eras) were a basis for its founding.  The credibility of the Republic was established IN SPITE OF–not because of–such exigencies.

This included attributing the slave trade to CHRISTIANITY.  Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence (the letter addressed to King George III of England in the summer of 1776) included the following indictment:

“This king has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred right of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, capturing them and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere to incur miserable death in their transportation.  This warfare on humans is the opprobrium of infidel powers.  The CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain is determined to [maintain] an open market, where men should be bought and sold” (caps in the original).

In other words: Jefferson saw Christianity as the salient feature of the monarchy’s iniquity on this score.  (The passage was omitted from the final draft due the pre-established condition of unanimity.  2 of the 13 colonies–South Carolina and Georgia–dissented because they did not want the trans-Atlantic slave-trade to be listed as a grievance.)  The heinous practice was begrudgingly tolerated by the Founders; and adamantly opposed by Thomas Paine.  While this certainly falls short of a complete repudiation, it indicates that there was a will to MOVE AWAY from the enslavement of Africans, however attenuated at the time.

In his “Notes On The State Of Virginia”, Jefferson weighed in on the iniquities of slavery, which would regrettably continue to be practiced (for the time being): “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep for ever; that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune–an exchange of situation–is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference!  The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

(The mis-guided notion that the American Republic was FOUNDED UPON slavery is tremendously disingenuous.  Not only is it historically fallacious; it imputes motives to the Founders that clearly did not exist.  The sentiments of the Southern states on the matter is hardly indicative of the principles that impelled the Founders–least of all Thomas Paine.  The contention that the revolution was done IN ORDER TO SUSTAIN slavery would have come as a surprise to Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton…who were adamantly against the practice, and actively took measures to mitigate it as they championed the revolutionary cause…and in the years after.)

Think of it this way: It does not follow that because only white men were enfranchised at the Founding, the Republic is to be characterized as being ONLY FOR white men.  Legacy is not destiny–be it real or contrived.  The same goes for the religious zealotry of the Puritan settlers in New England, or–for that matter–for ANY Christians during the Republic’s germination.

In recalling the fallibility of 18th-century thinking, we might bear in mind that Thomas Jefferson was aware that certain elements of the founding charter would eventually become obsolete.  He recognized that THAT meant that the Constitution may need to be revisited from time to time (as often as every generation, he once averred) to reflect new insights and accommodate for new developments.  It was NOT to be considered holy writ; it was a historical artifact, subject to emendation as society evolved.

(I conjecture that if either Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson were to take a time machine to the present, they would say: “What’s this?  You STILL haven’t updated this stuff?”)

Living up to timeless ideals does not require revanchism; it means moving onward and upward.  Remaining mired in “received wisdom” is a recipe for stagnation, not progress.

And so what did Benjamin Franklin think of all this?  In his autobiography, Franklin–a freethinker if there ever was one–stated: “I have found Christian dogma [to be] unintelligible.”  Elsewhere, Franklin announced that “revealed religion has no weight with me.”  Nor did it with any of the other major Founders of the American Republic.  This was no anomaly.

Franklin observed that, “The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”  This from a man who regularly attended the services of myriad denominations as a gesture of solidarity–and good will–to his fellow citizens (many of whom were devout Christians).  As with Jefferson and Madison, Franklin recognized that Christianity was an integral part of the new American culture; yet he also recognized that the foundations of the new Republic existed independently of any specific doctrine.  For he recognized that there was a distinction to be made between piety and probity.  It is for precisely this reason that the sagacious Franklin criticized all religions for making “orthodoxy more regarded than virtue”.  In other words: The sine qua non was MORALITY, not religiosity.  Religion was valued INSOFAR AS it was often the vehicle for promulgating virtue.

Clinging to this faux history entails remaining mired in a daze of Reality-denial.  As I hope to have shown here, the suggestion that the U.S. Constitution could not have been formulated BUT FOR Judeo-Christian doctrine is entirely spurious.  It depends on eliding the fact that Judeo-Christian doctrine really had nothing to do with anything that the U.S. Constitution asserts.  Those who persist in touting the trope that “America was founded as a Christian nation” are grossly ill-informed; and merely parroting a piece of gilded lore they find tremendously gratifying.

Such ignorance is not benign.  A danger of religiously-charged national origin myths is that they are often deployed to rationalize morally questionable enterprises.  As we’ve seen, a dubious historiography can be put in the service of an even more dubious destiny.  The non-sequitur goes as follows: “This is where we came from; therefore this is what we shall do henceforth…to fulfill our destiny!”

In the case of America, Judeo-Christian identity has been invoked to justify “Manifest Destiny”–from the jungles of Indo-China to the jungles of Latin America.  This candy-coated hubris continues to be the main source of American Exceptionalism.  Such delusive thinking, based as it is on a Christian theocratic mindset, also comes in handy for those who insist that the zygotes of homo sapiens are full-fledged humans, that religious institutions should enjoy tax exemption, and that evolution should not be included in the curricula of public schools.  Such positions are all based on farce; but it is EXTREMELY USEFUL farce.  For all such positions serve an ideological purpose.  The more people become educated on this matter, the less purchase faux histories will have on credulous minds.

Consideration of “original intent” should not be merely a matter of where we started; it must be a matter where we are headed.  After all, civil society is not as much about this or that legacy as it is about possibility. 

Democracy is not something to be preserved, as if a corpse kept in a vat of formaldehyde; it is something to be maintained, like a living body that is exposed to the elements and given a steady flow of nutrients (even as it is being constantly subjected to stress tests).  Put succinctly: Democracy is not a destination, it is an on-going process.

Civil society is never on auto-pilot, as it requires active participation from a well-informed citizenry.  (Any genuine democracy is a PARTICIPATORY democracy.)  The vaunted “Founders” of the American Republic knew that civil society is not sustained via interminable revanchism, but sustained by perpetual improvement.  And so it went: The Constitutional Convention was seen as a point of departure, not a fait accompli.  The participants all recognized that democracy is aspirational, not atavistic; a progression rather than a retrogression.  Revanchism plays no role in this on-going process.

The Constitution isn’t just about where we came from; it’s about where we’re going.  The U.S. is, after all, a work in progress.

Understanding what liberal democracy REALLY IS entails coming to terms with history–our own and others’.  One might even go so far as to say that being honest about the origins of the United State is the Christian thing to do.

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