Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More on the Founding Fathers.

On my list of rules to live by, right above "Never get into a land war in Asia," is "Never get into a history argument with Fausto."

But rules were made to be broken. Fausto pointed out in the comments on my previous Founding father post that much of the Founding Father snark could be taken to be against specifically Catholicism rather than Christianity in general.

He's right to a point. The Fouding Fathers seemed to have saved their sharpest snideness for the Catholic Church, but several of them were frequently critical of Christianity in general.

Ben Franklin was, like me, an ex-Presby. He wrote in his autobiogrpahy, "I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian, and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc, appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from public assemblies of the sect."
For another example, in a letter to William Short, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"The Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, most intolerant of all sects; the most tyrannical and ambitious, ready at the work of the law-giver, if such a word could be obtained, to put their torch to the pile and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle, Calvin, consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not subscribe to the proposition of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to the Calvinistic Creed! They pant to re-establish by law that holy inquisition which they can now only infuse into public opinion."

Jefferson especially doesn't seem inclined to let the protestants off the hook, particularly given the prostestants' treatment of deists, Unitarians and anabaptists.

He also wrote several things, too long to quote easily here, that implied that his founding of UVA was based in part on his distaste for the Anglicanism of William and Mary, which at that point wasn't accepting non-Anglican students and had memorizing Anglican catchecisms as a required part of the curriculem.

I should mention here that while if I were to write, say, "Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise," the way Madison did to William Bradford in 1774, I think my friends would assume the sentiment came out of intolerance for Christianity that is the mark of textbook asshat Humanism.

Though I am, I think, more inclined to draw connections from the ideas of the Age of Reason to Humanism and consider them two aspects of the same idea than Fausto is, I still don't think that asshat humanism was the true inspiration for the Founding Fathers' lack of enthusiasm for religion, and Christianity in particular.

The reformation, and the terrible violence that followed it, were fresh in the minds of the Founding Fathers. Ben Franklin's grandfather had hidden his bible in a secret compartment in a stool so it wouldn't be visibile to those enforcing religious laws. They were honestly committed to doing something different.

If someone were to come out of Eastern Europe or Northern Ireland today with a cynicism about religion and what those in power use it for, I think we would be inclined to cut them some slack.

We should also keep that context in mind when reading what the founding fathers had to say.

CC

11 comments:

fausto said...

On my list of rules to live by, right above "Never get into a land war in Asia," is "Never get into a history argument with Fausto." But rules were made to be broken.

Hell, you're no fun at all. (There's a Humanist for you.) But thank you for making an exception; I accept the challenge.

Ben Franklin was, like me, an ex-Presby. He wrote in his autobiogrpahy, "I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian, and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc, appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from public assemblies of the sect."

I'm disappointed in you. Who's a rationalist skeptic like yourself gonna believe: a shameless self-promoter like Franklin, or your own two eyes?

In fact, Franklin was raised at the Old South Church in Boston, which was Congregational both then and now. I even took you there on our walking tour of Boston and commented on the Franklin connection in particular, and his early defection from the Congos. "Yay us", you replied.

Back then, long before there was a UCC or a PCUSA, "Presbyterian" was as much a synonym for "Calvinist" as a specific denominational designation. Many of the originally Puritan churches were called "presbyterian" then but "Congregational" today. To make things even more confusing, some of them even belong to the UUA.

Moreover, I'm sure the religious milieu of your childhood was rather more benign and affirming than that of Franklin's.

Though I am, I think, more inclined to draw connections from the ideas of the Age of Reason to Humanism and consider them two aspects of the same idea than Fausto is.

Humph. No, you're not.

Chalicechick said...

((I'm disappointed in you. Who's a rationalist skeptic like yourself gonna believe: a shameless self-promoter like Franklin, or your own two eyes? ))

Well, technically, you're asking who's a rationalist skeptic to believe: Franklin's own autobiography or what Fausto said on that walking tour and Wikipedia.

Actually, I will trust you on that one. But just sayin'...

(((Moreover, I'm sure the religious milieu of your childhood was rather more benign and affirming than that of Franklin's.)))

Excepting perhaps when my Great Aunt Bertha came to visit, I will agree.

(Aunt Bert's a whole 'nother post. But a good one.)

I admit I was rather sloppy in my implication that Franklin might as well have been sitting next to me in the Church of the Pilgrims for his youth. (I bet he squirmed, too.)

(((Back then, long before there was a UCC or a PCUSA, "Presbyterian" was as much a synonym for "Calvinist" as a specific denominational designation. Many of the originally Puritan churches were called "presbyterian" then but "Congregational" today. To make things even more confusing, some of them even belong to the UUA.))

All of this is true, but I believe my central point, that the Founding Fathers were not averse to criticizing protestantism and that their criticisms were not so much an asshat ruling-class Protestant thing as an asshat rationalist thing, still stands.

The Age of Reason versus Humanism question is better hashed out tomorrow, when I will complete the series with a discussion of the age of reason itself.

(Boy, I'm sounding like PBS all of a sudden.)

CC

fausto said...

Oh, and this too:

Fausto pointed out in the comments on my previous Founding father post that much of the Founding Father snark could be taken to be against specifically Catholicism rather than Christianity in general.

I only said that about John Adams' contempt for the power of the Mass, and his mock surprise (but evidently real admiration) at Luther's success in toppling it, not about the religious consensus of the Founding Fathers as a group (which I don't think ever existed).

My point was not that all the FF's considered Catholicism bad but Protestantism laudable, though some, like Adams, did. Rather, it was that whenever you see a Protestant disparaging Catholicism, even if said Protestant is (like Adams) an otherwise intellectual rationalist, it is more likely that the scorn is directed against Catholicism in particular than Christianity in general.

(Boy, I'm sounding like PBS all of a sudden.)

All of a sudden?

LinguistFriend said...

I'm not quite sure why the framework of these comments is in Russian on my computer and has been for several days, but no doubt CC can explain. Thank heaven that true Christianity self-destructed during the age of Constantine, or I might to have to take this discussion seriously.
LinguistFriend

fausto said...

And thank heaven also for giving us the gifts of first Thomas Jefferson and then Bill Clinton in our own time, since among some Christians the it's-all-Constantine's-fault argument was beginning to lose its persuasive power.

PG said...

The Constantine comment reminds me to interpose a question for any Christians here: how does Jesus's advice not to pray in public as the hypocrites do comport with organized religion and religion as a communal experience? I always thought of that Biblical line in high school when they'd do stuff like "Meet Me at the Pole," where students would gather at the flagpole in front of the school for a big group prayer session. But perhaps it is difficult to walk the line between excessively public piety and the formation of a religious community. Christ, after all, was hardly hiding his religiosity; had he not been so overtly public and challenging of the existing religion, he might not have been crucified. But somehow that seems like a necessary kind of publicness, given that he was starting a new religion, whereas people who are very public with an established, majoritarian faith somehow seem more like the hypocrites.

fausto said...

I see Jesus' prayer admonition more as an warning about pride versus humility than as instruction on collective versus personal worship: Don't be like the smug Pharisee who thanked God publicly for making him so virtuous. Do be like the contrite tax collector who privately confessed his shortcomings and sought strength to overcome them. Pray in a way that subordinates personal will to the Divine Will, asks only for what we need and not what we desire, asks forgiveness only in the same proportion that we are willing to grant it, and asks for freedom from temptation.

kim said...

how does Jesus's advice not to pray in public as the hypocrites do comport with organized religion and religion as a communal experience?

doesn't this depend on your definition of "public"? Perhaps "public" was like showing off, in the public square, where people were sure to see you (i.e. politically) versus praying in church or temple where only your co-religionists see you, silently or all together, so that you're not putting yourself above others? Something like that. but what do I know?
Does trying to pass laws that are from your own religion but will enforce your religion on others of other religions, sortof qualify as "praying in public"?

PG said...

Well, the text is: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

So it's not just the public square; it's the temple as well. fausto may be right that I am reading this too literally, but it seems like a pretty specific recommendation: do not pray in this place nor that place, but instead pray in secret.

fausto said...

And it continues:

"But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

But I'm thinking also of the following bit from Luke 18,, which contains a similar theme of public vs. private piety as a sign of pride or humility:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Emphasis added.]

fausto said...

Kim said:

Perhaps "public" was like showing off, in the public square, where people were sure to see you (i.e. politically) versus praying in church or temple where only your co-religionists see you, silently or all together, so that you're not putting yourself above others? Something like that.

Actually, exactly like that.

but what do I know?

Evidently, more than you realize!

Does trying to pass laws that are from your own religion but will enforce your religion on others of other religions, sort of qualify as "praying in public"?

I would say it's somewhat analagous, but not exactly what these Bible passages warn against. In Jesus' time those laws and more (all the 613 commandments of the Torah) were already on the books, but they weren't necessarily applied to followers of other religions. Jesus was all about applying the strictness of the Law to those who recognized its autority through an overriding filter of mercy and compassion, not about applying it strictly, and especially not to those who did not recognize its authority in the first place. ("They have their reward", he frequently said.) The part that's analogous is the public self-congratulation for one's own superior virtue and condescension toward others for their perceived cravenness -- an attitude that has come to be called "Pharisaism".