Monday, May 21, 2007

The Founding Fathers as asshat humanists.

OK, perhaps "Humanists" is the wrong word as a lot of them were deists.

But when I hear a UU saying rude things about Christianity, I frequently think to myself "asshat humanist." Though I am a humanist, I try really hard not to be an asshat humanist.

For example, I would never describe a Catholic mass in mocking terms, finishing my essay off with the words "Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear and imagination--everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell," the way John Adams did in his diary in the early 1770's.

In fact in reading Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers I am frequently amazed at how the Founding Fathers saw religion in many of the same ways I do on a bad day, they were just way more blunt about it.

I am delighted by this exhaustively-researched book that presents example after example of Founding Father snark revealed through primary sources.

Not every Founding Father was like this. George Washington faithfully attended church when he was in office and expected to, then promptly quit as soon as he was less prominent in the public eye, going to church only three times in the last three years of his life. (One could call this the "ChaliceDad method.") He never seems to have mentioned religion when he didn't have to and historians note that he would frequently edit references to Jesus out of his speeches and proclamations when they were put there by more zealous speechwriters.

Now the Founding Fathers were as diplomatic as anyone else in public. Most of the snark comes from diary entries and their letters to each other.

I've heard people posit that arguments about abortion, gay rights, etc, are the concerns of the lower and middle classes. The folks truly in power don't really care about them, but keep them just stirred up enough to keep poorer people fighting each other instead of working for a more egalitarian society.

Though I don't think the founding fathers fit this mold, I got a whiff of it as they wrote about their own indifference to the sorts of matters of doctrine that still cause dramatic church divisions today. Some were more sympathetic than others, but religious difference as what the lower classes do to amuse themselves was something of a pervasive theme.

And I'm only halfway through the book. I'll let you know if I continue noticing this pattern.

And yes, as Joel Monka reminds me, I owe you guys a SpiderMan review.



SC Universalist said...

I found David L. Holmes "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" (2006) to be useful. Although, I cant figure out if these sorts of books go on my religious bookshelf or my history bookshelf (FWIW: it went on my American Revolution shelf).

so whats the difference between an asshat and a snark?

Jay said...

Great post, CC. You've got me wanting to read Moral Minority.

I sometimes wonder if we Humanists are always going to seem—to somebody or other, anyway—like asshat humanists. When we're too skeptical, we seem rude. Like you, I try to keep that in check. Recently, when I was too complimentary about someone else's religious practice/theology (and I really meant it!), though, I was criticized as condescending—apparently because the recipient knew I was one of those dang non-theists.

So it's a Goldilocks World, and I'm having a hard time finding the porridge that's neither too hot nor too cold.

fausto said...

In defense of Humanists, John Adams was mocking Catholicism specifically and not all Christianity, and he was doing so as an asshat ruling-class Protestant, not as an asshat Unitarian proto-Humanist.

fausto said...

BTW, it's long out of print, but if you can find an anthology in some library, check out "Bibliolatry" by the sainted Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell, whom we lionize for his authorship of "Once to Every Man [or "Soul", to revisionists] and Nation". It's the creme de la creme of UU assshatdom in my estimation, but once again it's ruling-class Protestantism rather than Humanism that makes it so unctuous.