Church and State HUU service 7.17.’16 –
Robin McNallie: Intro of Ben Fordney
When Ben Fordney was alive, he on a number of occasions would introduce me as a guest speaker in the history classes he was teaching at Blue Ridge Community College and JMU’s Lifelong Learning Institute. So I now, with some real sadness, get briefly to do the same for him. Before his first retirement, Ben had a distinguished career in the foreign service, including a posting to South Vietnam in the ‘60s during the war there. No career could have suited him better, for he was, I can sincerely say, one of the most gracious, reasonable, and civilized men I have known in my long life. After that, Ben came to Harrisonburg and earned a master’s degree in American history from JMU. He was a leader in the local Democratic Party, serving at once time as chair of the city Dems. Besides himself running for political office, he helped campaign for other candidates. He unflaggingly promoted liberal causes, most especially tighter gun legislation. This morning’s presentation, “Church and State,” includes an abridged version of a talk that Ben gave to the local interfaith association some years ago which Chris and I attended. We thought then that it would be good to have him do a Sunday service here addressing the same issue, and Ben sent us a copy of his lecture. Somehow that service never quite materialized. Although Ben is not here to read his words, I believe the wit and reasonableness of the living man are still present.
Reading of Ben Fordney’s paper:
RELIGION OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
Ben F. Fordney
Two questions come to mind: What were the religious beliefs of the Founders, and perhaps more importantly, what kind of nation did they want to create: a Christian America or a secular nation? One common thesis that some historians advance is that they were Deists who wanted a secular state. They embraced a radical Enlightenment philosophy that considered religion only in terms of religious freedom Others believe the Founders were evangelical biblical literalists Christians who created a Christian nation. Out of this comes the belief of American exceptionalism – the idea that America has a divine mission- a City Upon a Hill, as governor John Winthrop said at the time of the Puritans.
When you delve into this question and read the extensive historical treatment of the faiths of the Founders, you begin to understand that there are no simple answers to these questions. Most of the Founders were complicated men and it is impossible, in the case of most of them, to put them into definite categories.
Most historians but certainly not all, do not believe that most of the Founders accepted all the tenets of Christianity, in fact some scorned and mocked it. Few, however, were outright deists, in other words, believing in a clockmaker God who allowed the world to run by natural forces.
When they met in Philadelphia in 1787, not only to reform the Articles of Confederation but to create an entirely new framework of government. They had many models to choose from if they considered the role of religion in the former colonies. Several required Christian qualifications to hold public office, meaning Protestant Christian beliefs. Even after the First Amendment was adopted that prohibited Congress, but not the states, from interfering with “the free exercise” of religion.” The states could and did place or maintain religious qualifications to hold public office.
Mass. And Conn. provided tax support for Congregational churches. Many states outlawed blasphemy, which was defined as a way to defame Christianity. Five states-New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia required office holders to be Protestants. Maryland (established as a refuge for Catholics by Charles the 1st in 1632 by means of a land grant to a Catholic convert, George Calvert. who persuaded the assembly of that colony to allow tolerance for all, except blasphemers and Jews). Delaware said they must be Christians and believe in the Trinity. South Carolina officials had to believe in heaven and hell.
The Founders rejected all of these religious qualifications for office and eventually established the free exercise of religion — as far as I know, the first founding document of its kind.
Were they all, then secular humanists, to use a term we hear these days? Many were orthodox Christians, including Samuel Adams, John Witherspoon (a Presbyterian Minister) Patrick Henry, and Roger Sherman. But what of the superstars: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton? Historian John Murrin, who taught at Princeton for over 30 years, concluded that they were not anti-religious but were humanists who created a secular state with solid constitutional principles, such as checks and balances, that would provide a republicanism that would protect citizens’ property and rights. The question was how to ensure public virtue. They were students of the Enlightenment and believed in the principle that the ideal society was one where reason prevailed and rational men obeyed “the laws of nature and nature’s God. Religion was to them the best way to foster virtue and public morality necessary for a republican form of government
Their view of God sounds a lot like Deism and there is no doubt that Deism was a powerful intellectual force among the well educated in the colonies and beyond. Thomas Paine declared that “It is free from all those invented and torturing articles that shock our reason…with which the Christian religion abounds. Its creed is sublimely simple. It belives in God, and there it rests. It honors reason as the choicest gift of God to man…”
When we say that the religious views of the Founders are hard to discern, we can prove that statement by examining the beliefs of George Washington. Sometimes, historians or religious commentators try to make him one of theirs. For example, some say he had a devout evangelical faith and was a devout believer in Jesus Christ and accepted him as his Lord and Savior. They might refer to the famous painting of Washington on his knee praying at Valley Forge. The story concerned one Issac Potts who was said to have come across Washington praying and kneeling in the snow. Trouble is this story came from Parson Weems’s biography, the same person who came up with the cheery tree story. There is another story that holds that Washington saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary at Valley Forge and that Washington made a death bed conversion to Catholicism as a result. One might wonder why he waited over 21 years to do so. I think we can put that tale in the extremely doubtful category.
Other historians and religious skeptics note that Washington rarely referred to Christ and used deistic or Masonic language such as Providence, Nature’s God, The Great Architect, etc. in his writings. His lack of Christian terminology was not lost on religious educators of the day. He did say he hoped his soldiers would be good Christian soldiers and told some Indian chiefs they would do well to “follow the religion of Jesus Christ,” but these Christian references were rare. There are two ways of looking at this. You could say he had reservations about traditional Christian dogmas or he was just avoiding confrontation by using religiously neutral language.
Washington was raised and married in the Anglican Church. He owned two pews in the Pohick Church, seven miles from Mt. Vernon and also attended Christ’s Church in Alexandria, but did not regularly receive communion and apparently never kneeled. Communion was usually offered at the end of the service and Washington would leave and send the carriage back for Martha. Dr. James Abercrombie of Christ’s Church mentioned the responsibility of leaders to set an example in his sermon. Washington knew who he was talking about and refrained from going to services where communion was offered.
Washington’s church attendance was spotty and one historian, putting it in modern terms, said he went unless there was the equivalent of a good football game on to divert him.
Historian Gordon Wood points out that Washington was as ecumenical as any American of his time. After his inauguration as president, he exchanged salutations with 22 religious groups and attended the services of various denominations. He expressed tolerance for all religions, including Jews and Muslims. Muslim were few in number and lived mostly around Charleston, S.C.
Washington also acted to purge anti-Catholic bias in the ranks. On Nov. 5th, he scolded troops in Cambridge, Mass. for celebrating “Pope’s Day” (Guy Fawkes Day: Please remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot) The colonies were soliciting help from Canadian Catholics at the time.
It is interesting to note Washington’s interest in the classics which is also true of other Founders. Instead of a message of Christian fortitude, Washington ordered Joseph Addison’s “Cato,” his favorite play, be performed at Valley Forge. Some historians refer to Washington as a Roman Stoic. In the play, Cato’s men demonstrated extreme selflessness in the struggle for liberty. The Founders’ principal Roman heroes were Cato the Younger, Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero, statesmen who sacrificed their lives unsuccessfully to save the Republic, according to Carl J. Richard’s “The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment.”
Washington was not a Deist. He believed that God had intervened in his life . He spoke of death with resignation and stoicism. He did not ask for an Episcopal clergyman on his deathbed. His last words were “Tis well,” and taking his own pulse, died peacefully on the night of December 14th, 1799. He was buried following Episcopal and Masonic services.
When we say the religious views of the Founders were complicated, we can prove that statement by looking at Thomas Jefferson. Gordon Wood points out that although Jefferson frequently attacked orthodox Christianity, “he took the possibility of an afterlife seriously.” He remained an Anglican and then an Episcopalian all of his life. He attended church services in government buildings, was baptized and married in his parish and served on his local vestry.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he made his often quoted statement: “It does me no injury to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” In his 1786 bill for religious freedom in Virginia, he stated: “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” These statements by Jefferson were used against him in the election of 1800 when he was called a “French infidel and atheist” by New England Federalist clerics. Jefferson dismissed them with the comment, “I wish nothing but their eternal hatred.”
Then we have what is now called “The Jefferson Bible,” although Jefferson called it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” His project started when he received Joseph Priestley’s “Socrates and Jesus Compared,” which impressed Jefferson and reflected his views . One modern commentator wrote that it must have been a strange sight to have seen Jefferson in Monticello cutting the Bible into pieces, a cut and paste affair. As Jefferson wrote Madison. It was easy to know what to keep because it was “as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” What remained was “the most benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Professor Martin E. Marty, of the University of Chicago, commented “No miracles, no metaphysics, no mystery. All that’s left are parables and aphorisms. He made a Socrates out of Jesus.”
Then we have the famous letter to the Danbury Baptists which I note has surfaced recently in various political debates in this election season. He declared that the First Amendment of the Constitution erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” Wood has an interesting interpretation of how Jefferson used that phrase. Perhaps he meant that the wall was a means to a larger end. “It would give time for reason and free inquiry to work its way into the enlightenment he favored.” Perhaps freedom from the Puritans Standing Order in the short run would enable the Baptists, like all religions based on faith, to change to religions based on reason. In fact, as late as 1822 Jefferson believed that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” He was wrong about that, of course, and shows Jefferson’s lack of understanding of the religious views of the general populace. Most were Bible-believing fundamentalist-leaning Christians. Franklin advised a friend in 1786 not to publish anything attacking traditional Christianity. Thomas Paine ruined his reputation in America when he returned from Europe in 1802 after he published his “Age of Reason” in 1794, in which he made scathing comments about Christianity. Paine was attacked as a “lying, drunken, brutal infidel.”
Alexander Hamilton was a case of a man who moved away from youthful religious feelings to deistic beliefs and was at best an irregular churchgoer. When Franklin made a request to invite a minister to lead the delegates in prayer during the Constitutional Convention (“I have lived, sirs, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God governs in the affairs of men.) Franklin’s motion was defeated. Most were unmoved except three or four, Franklin grumbled. Franklin identified himself as a Deist but was tolerant of Christian belief. He admired Jesus and said he saw “no harm” in people believing Jesus was the son of God, “tho it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it.” Hamilton, it is said, replied that we don’t need any “foreign aid.” When asked after the convention why God had not been mentioned in the Constitution, he allegedly replied, “We forgot.”
Later in life, Hamilton became quite religious; some say he reacted to the atheism of the French revolutionaries. In 1802, he proposed the creation of a Christian Constitutional Society devoted to doing good works and advancing the Federalist Party. On his death bed, he received holy communion from an Episcopal minister.
John Adams is another example to support the thesis that the Founders were men who held conflicting views and were influenced by different philosophies. While at Harvard, Adams studied Locke and Newton. Newton insisted that one understands matter through observation and experimentation. Locke extended that to the human mind. Ideas are not inborn but are understood through an individual’s experience gathered through observation. Religious truth, therefore, was not defined by preconceived beliefs but must be tested by reason.
Therefore, you might be puzzled by Steven Waldman‘s assertions in his “Founding Faith” who wrote: “of the first four presidents, John Adams was the most overtly Christian.” However. in his inaugural address, he expressed “a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians.” He said: “Christianity [was] among the best recommendations for the public service.” Just before the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts which severely restricted writing and speaking anything of a “false, scandalous, and malicious” nature against the government, Adams asked God to “withhold us from unreasonable discontent, from disunion, sedition, and insurrection.”
Adams was not above asking God to side with the Federalists as they battled with the Jeffersonians, especially in the debate over the French Revolution. Adams urged a national fast and said that the United States was still held in jeopardy by the hostile designs and insidious acts of a foreign nation” that was ”subversive of the foundations of all religions.” Madison later expressed his problems with the inclusion of particular policy issues and political jabs in prayer proclamations.
When it comes to religious freedom, we owe the greatest thanks to James Madison. Walderman points out that both Adams and Washington believed in religious freedom, but believed that religion was so important that it should be encouraged by government in the interest of a virtuous society. Patrick Henry thought that government should support religion. Jefferson and Madison became so upset with Henry that Jefferson wrote Madison: “What we have to do is devoutly to pray for his death.” Madison believed that any state supported assistance to any one denomination meant that other faiths would suffer. He and Jefferson even disapproved of presidential proclamations of fasting or thanksgiving because they assigned a religious role to the president. They believed in the free-market place of ideas and that religion would not only survive but would prosper.
What is their message to us today? I think most of them would not define us as a Christian nation but would agree we are a religious people. Their guiding philosophy, above all else, was religious liberty. I think if Madison and Jefferson were here today they would look at the religious diversity of our nation and the religious nature of our people and say to each other, “You know, we got it right.”
I will end from a quote from Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation at New Port, Rhode Island, written in 1790 eighteen months into his presidency:
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree (First book of King’s 4:25) and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
“May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths…”
“American Gospel” John Meacham
“Founding Faith“ Steven Waldman
“The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America“ Frank Lambert
“The Religion of the Founding Fathers“ David L. Holmes
“The Founders and the Classics“ Carl J. Richard
“Empire of Liberty” Gordon S. Wood
Thank you, Robin – and thank you, Ben Fordney.
So…What can those dead, white and of course imperfect men tell us in the 21st Century? Well, they certainly knew about the holy wars and other evils related to mixing religion with worldly power. They wanted to do better.
When we talk about religion we can’t leave ourselves out. Years ago, at a G.A. talk by Peter Tufts Richardson, whose book on Unitarianism is titled “The Boston Religion,” I heard something that shocked me. Unless I heard him wrong, Richardson said that for a while, before the Bill of Rights was understood to limit state as well as federal power, Unitarianism was the state religion in Massachusetts! I just tried, but couldn’t find that in his book. Ben Fordney said Congregational churches were tax-supported in early Massachusetts, though. The American Unitarian movement grew from them.
Anyhow, the following quotes by James Madison, both dated 1819, say that keeping church and state separate keeps each institution more honest, doing what it should do:
“[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
“The civil government … functions with complete success … by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
This is still controversial – in fact, religion seems more infused into politics now than earlier in our lifetimes. Thanks to the “religious right,” we can forget religion has also strongly motivated progressive movements. Think of Gandhi, Thích Nhất Hạnh, or our Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course, another well-known Baptist minister, from the same generation, sharply criticized Dr. King for his activism. A pastor should forget all that worldly stuff and just work on bringing souls to the Lord, preached that other minister, Jerry Falwell.
How much is religion the cause of holy wars and persecution? We can argue for tribalism, not spirituality, as the troublemaker. Think about the first hominids who walked upright: what if one of them said to his, or her, companions, look over at that tribe – they’re ugly, they talk funny, and they’re fishing in our river? Let’s go fight. Could it be they got their gods involved later … shaping history all the way up to Islamic State terrorism, or, in this part of our nation not so long ago, Ku Klux Klan terrorism? (The Klan killed many, called themselves Christian and burned crosses to intimidate.) Tribalism can start a silly conflict and turn it ugly. Why does anyone get angry when someone wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” – is it the reminder that people of different faiths live among us? Like the uncomfortable feeling they get hearing conversations in a foreign language at the mall? We can ignore all that, but now, a political candidate has vowed, “If I’m president, you’re going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me, believe me. You’re going to see it.” That individual has no evident values, ethics or principles, but may get voters from the “religious right” because they see him supporting their tribe.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” said Thomas Paine. But human souls keep getting tried.
Many conservatives say we need public religion to sustain virtue, but do moral principles depend on religion? Religions differ in many ways: theology, rituals, culture — but most religions and civilizations subscribe to some ideas of justice, mercy, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Practicing them is the tougher challenge! Humanists as well as theists adhere to values – in fact, humanists can claim they (that is, we) don’t need divine, eternal reward or punishment as a motivator.
Recently, some issues in the news have involved what one side calls “religious liberty” while others ask, “Should your ‘liberty’ allow you to suppress our rights?”
In 2014, the Supreme Court in a split decision allowed Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. to be exempt from a requirement to provide employees with contraception coverage under the ACA. The corporation had claimed its religious liberty was violated.
More recently, several local court officials around the nation have disobeyed the Supreme Court’s ruling that upholds same-sex marriage, including the clerk in Kentucky who cited her “religious liberty” when she refused licenses to same-sex couples last year. This June, a US District judge prohibited courts in Mississippi from denying licenses.
Some local news: last week, the Staunton School Board ended Weekday Religious Education. That’s the program that takes children from public schools for Christian lessons near, but not on, school property – as per the limit the Supreme Court set when WRE was challenged in 1948. Its lessons, from what I hear, have varied from innocuous to scary, but as Dahlia Lithwick said in Slate magazine, more parents have begun insisting their children should not have to choose between being “evangelized or ostracized” on school time. Harrisonburg dropped WRE several years ago, and that seems to be the trend.
Church/state issues keep going on. (Our friend Ben Fordney, by the way, was a devout Catholic.)
What are your thoughts?