Thursday, August 21, 2008

Will the Real Founding Fathers Please Stand Up?

Virtually everything that can be known about America’s founding generation can now be known--virtually. The digital archives containing the writings of our first four Presidents are accessible to anyone with a modem. Despite that, their innermost thoughts about God and faith remain an enigma to most people, simply because biographers have given the subject short shrift.


John Adams, for example, was featured this March in a seven-part HBO mini-series based on David McCullough’s portrait of the figure whom Ben Franklin called “an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” Adams was an eccentric genius. But readers of McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning bio learn only that Adams was “both a devout Christian and an independent thinker.”

The 751 page book never mentions that young John originally intended to enter the ministry, or that he grew cynical about the church when Rev. Lemuel Bryant, minister of the local parish in Braintree, was subjected to a heresy trial in the Adams family living room: “I perceived very clearly that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow-men.” Readers don’t realize that Adams was studying at Harvard at the height of the schism, his attention was drawn increasingly to science, especially astronomy, where the discovery of deep space was beginning to stretch traditional notions of divinity in strange, unexpected directions.


Enlightened thinkers in the eighteenth century were starting to understand the cosmos was teeming with stars and planets, many of them presumably inhabited, some undoubtedly with civilizations superior to our own. As a student, John wondered whether it made sense to suppose that the Creator of “Newton’s universe” had really taken flesh as an earthling—or found it necessary to morph into the form of Martians, Moon Men, or other extraterrestrials—to accomplish the work of salvation? Trying to square doctrine with plain arithmetic, he questioned the Trinitarian formula that three could equal one, any more than two plus two could make five. If he was not exactly “a devout Christian,” he was certainly an idiosyncratic one.

David McCullough is a great historian, but on the subject of religion, it is important to set the record straight, precisely because the founders were so complex. Dumbed-down depictions of them as red state Bible thumpers, on the one hand, or secular humanists, on the other, harness their memory in the service of culture wars our nation’s architects would have deplored. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all believed faith should be a cohesive force in public life. Portraits that are one-sided, or oversimplified, undermine that goal.

So it is nice to know that Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of separating church from state, recommended “Death to Tyrants is Obedience to God” as a motto for the nation’s great seal. That Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion to open the Constitutional Convention each morning with prayer was countered by Alexander Hamilton’s quip that the delegates didn’t need any “foreign aid.” That George Washington, who called religion and morality the “indispensable supports” of political prosperity in his Farewell, frequently skipped Sunday worship. Men this complicated are hard to categorize on the spiritual spectrum as right or left, and that is a healthy corrective.

The time for mythologizing is over. So what if Washington never knelt in supplication in the snows of Valley Forge? By all historical accounts, the General liked to stand erect at prayer, even warm and dry inside an Episcopal church where bending the knee is customary. Knowing the truth, we respect the Father of our Country no less, and appreciate the diverse, irreducibly messy religious identity that characterizes our country all the more. So please. Will the real Founding Fathers stand up?

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