On the Founding Fathers and “Religion”: a Response to the Tea Partying Nullifiers

This response is under moderation at the Missouri Tenth site: it answers a post that tries to maintain that the Founders were Bible folk.

The good people at this site (and they are good if at times those boys can be dumber than a box of rocks) continue to permit me to have my say and continue to be more tolerant than Chomsky. But I sense some movement. I think Occupy Wall Street is what they really want but were diverted and deluded by the well-funded Tea Party movement.

Well, I do agree that “end times” thinking prevents Christians from taking care of the future. For example, why pay taxes for public schools OR tuition at charter schools if you believe we live in “end times”? Why make provision for public goods or private goods? So we agree on something.

However, your myriad quotes, which try to show the Founders as Fundamentalist Christians, are copied and pasted without historical insight from Web sites which advance the false idea that we are or should be a Christian and Protestant country.

Note what Adams is really saying, first of all. He is saying that Christianity is essential to the survival of the new Republic: “Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free governments, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society. Science, liberty, and religion are the choicest blessings of humanity: without their joint influence no society can be great, flourishing, or happy.”

This view was derived from Hobbes, who was not an orthodox Christian although a preacher. It is the “utilitarian” view of religion that is espoused today by upper class Anglican believers in Britain. Hobbes believed that the common folk needed religion so they would obey the secular power, and Adams, in the Congregationalist branch of the same tradition, believes the same, with the addition that religion would cause Americans to obey the only political party of the late 18th century in America.

This was the pro-British and anti-French Federalist party, to which opposition formed only after 1795, when President Adams overreached himself. Adams was horrified by events in France.

An understanding of these events is something you need, badly. In France, there were no Protestants to speak of, since at the end of the 17th century, King Louis XIV had “revoked the Edict of Nantes” which had about a hundred years before allowed French “Huguenot” Protestants to practice their faith. As a result, in 1789, France had (like Russia today) a national church: everyone had to belong to it, nominally, and (somewhat like Russia today) actual religious feeling was somewhat spotty and restricted to old women and rural people…when you force people into a religion (perhaps something even so broad as a “Christianity”, advocated by some Tea Party members, that excludes Catholics) many “believers” believe for cynical and secular reasons…to get those well-paid jobs, for example, in those charter schools.

As a result of the identification of religion and nation under France’s *ancien regime* in 1789, the revolutionaries mostly rejected all religion. This (and many other factors include severe shortages of both bread and information, as rural peasants refused to feed revolutionary Paris, and newspapers made up news to support the beliefs of their owners) caused people to feel that there was no foundation for anything, and to act out of fear.

The monarchists triggered a war by other European powers on their own country which enraged the anti-monarchists. Louis XVI was caught in the middle and, as I hope you know, executed in a measure which shocked John Adams.

In Paris, drunkenness, sexual license and violence prevailed during the Terror. Because the Paris mob rejected the only “religion” they knew, Adams decided that events in France proved Hobbes right. While the upper classes could be permissive and “latitudinarian” in their Episcopal or Congregational or Unitarian churches, questioning the Trinity and allowing divorce, the 99% needed a firm and strict form of religion.

For Adams, the *monstrum horrendum* was Tom Paine, who was not religious and went to France (where in fact Robespierre and Ste.-Juste, the Revolution’s most extreme figures, found him too moderate in his views). Although Washington had used Paine, and thrown him away, by disseminating Paine’s writings during the Revolution, Paine, like an Occupy Wall Street happy camper, was a radical democrat who did not believe in one set of rules for the 1% and another for the 99%. And, Paine rejected religion.

It was commonly thought in that time, as it is by some today that IF you rejected religion or even just orthodox religion, THEN you would be a libertine on the order of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade (or some other *monstrum horrendum* who simultaneously shocked and titillated the readers of trashy books).

For example, in the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza, who in fact lived a quiet and decent life as a lens-grinder and philosopher, was thought to be a monster. Today, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (who does believe that abortion is licit in some cases but also believes that Westerners should more than “tithe” a good part of their income, not to some church in some mall, but to the wretched of the earth) suffers the same fate, with the sort of people whose reading is restricted to Web sites and trashy novels about “monstra horrenda” such as Hannibal Lecter.

But here’s the bottom line. It is not a “religious” view to justify religion, as Adams seems to be doing, and as Hobbes did, by saying that it’s a terrific foundation for a well-ordered secular society.

From the Biblical standpoint, and from the viewpoint of the Roman Catholic Church in which I was raised, and in the view of many Protestants, that gets it backwards because it makes religion serve secular ends!

Isaiah 40:

“Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”

“And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.”

“All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.”

That is: religion is about eternal salvation and not the survival of society. I realize that this may be close to “end times thinking” but it isn’t quite the same thing. It’s really the answer to why one is religious.

Gibbon accused Christianity itself of destroying Rome: Gibbon was probably wrong, since Rome by the 2nd century AD needed a national religion to survive, and Christianity arguably gave Rome a few extra centuries.

But St Augustine thought man was made for eternal salvation, not to be a good citizen.

As I have said before (and I will repeat myself because that’s what a good teacher does), people are religious or spiritual because they are good, not the other way around. Religion has destroyed societies as well as preserved them.

As I have said before (and I will repeat myself because that’s what a good teacher does), the most fervidly religious areas of the USA today are also the regions with the largest amount of family violence and divorce.

Houston, you have a problem. Dallas, you too. And tremble, Little Rock, for thou talk’st a good game on Sunday but forgettest what it was you did in the parkin’ lot on Saturday night.

In the short term, the Founders wanted Americans to be pious, and, they counted themselves fortunate that purely as a statistical accident, we were a Protestant society.

But in the long term they counted on public education. As I have said before, and I will repeat myself, George Washington wanted to use part of his fortune to fund a national university. And private, but NOT for profit schools flourished in America outside the slave states starting in Adams’ time. These schools paid unmarried women a tiny wage and were supported by the community (that is, by taxes). They were nothing like for-profit schools which in my direct experience as a professor at DeVry do a good job, but only because they are constantly audited by the state; to properly justify grades in my classes I had to develop a data base and work 24/7.

Go and open up the complete Gutenberg text of the Federalist Papers and search case-independent for the word “god”.

It occurs exactly three times.

Two are references to the gods of antiquity because the Founders took the Roman Republic and the Greek city-states as models…despite the fact that none of these societies were Christian.

One is to “nature’s god” which in the 18th century referred either to the god of the Deists or a conception of God shared, along with the natural law, by all good men.

Clearly, then, Adams was talking, in the passage you quote, about a utilitarian religion, a tool, and, from the standpoint of religion, a blasphemy. The nations of the earth are as dust, and nothing, and this includes America. It’s a great place but only because it allows us to have our own religion, or no religion, or the Church of the Subgenius “Bob” if we so choose.

Note that after posting at Missouri Tenth I searched the Gutenberg text of the Federalist papers for “christian” and “religion”, and added this comment:

The only reference to Christianity: “In the early ages of Christianity, Germany was occupied by seven distinct nations, who had no common chief.” Zzzz…

There are seven references to “religion”:

“The controversies on the subject of religion, which in three instances have kindled violent and bloody contests, may be said, in fact, to have severed the league.” Oops…religion can be trouble at times.

“The INFINITE DIVISIBILITY of matter, or, in other words, the INFINITE divisibility of a FINITE thing, extending even to the minutest atom, is a point agreed among geometricians, though not less incomprehensible to common-sense than any of those mysteries in religion, against which the batteries of infidelity have been so industriously leveled.”


“For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword.”

Hmm…maybe this implies that it’s not a good idea to force us all to be Christians, for example by laying off teachers who must apply to charter schools in which their “Christianity” is a qualification for employment.

“With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”

Lucky us, in other words. We’re all bozos on this bus. Not exactly a ringing defense of religion.

“To the People of the State of New York: QUEEN ANNE, in her letter of the 1st July, 1706, to the Scotch Parliament, makes some observations on the importance of the UNION then forming between England and Scotland, which merit our attention. I shall present the public with one or two extracts from it: “An entire and perfect union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: It will secure your religion, liberty, and property; remove the animosities amongst yourselves, and the jealousies and differences betwixt our two kingdoms. It must increase your strength, riches, and trade; and by this union the whole island, being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interest, will be ENABLED TO RESIST ALL ITS ENEMIES.”

Oops, a quote from a fat dyke who happened to be a rather forgettable Queen about the Act of Union of 1707, and in it, the well-ordered state supports religion and not the other way around.

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Dang. Is religion good or bad?

“The Amphictyons were the guardians of religion, and of the immense riches belonging to the temple of Delphos, where they had the right of jurisdiction in controversies between the inhabitants and those who came to consult the oracle.”

WTF… hmm, perhaps a classical education in the ways of them non-Christian Romans might be necessary to understand the Federalist papers.

OK, enough is enough. Some of the signers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were Bible folk. But while none of the leading figures were libertines like Danton or the Marquis de Sade, they all were as well-read in classical authors who weren’t Christian as they were in the Bible.

In the Bible alone, they probably could beat some megachurch preacher hands down: many Americans who profess to be Fundamentalist and Christian cannot name the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And it’s game, set and match as regards Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. These guys believed, more or less, in the Roman gods in some incomprehensible way, and, like Adams and the rest of the Founders, believed strongly that the common folk should believe in Jove and their household lares and penates so as to keep the 99% in line.

But the mere fact that they used pre-Christian models MEANS that nobody can seriously maintain that the Founders wanted to found America on Christian principles.


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