Friday, February 12, 2010

How Christian Were The Founders?

An article in today's New York Times asks, "How Christian Were the Founders," reporting on efforts of the state Board of Education in Texas to re-cast the nation's as fundamentalist Christians.

One member of the Texas Board, Don McLeroy, is a dentist rather than an historian, but declaims that "The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible.."  McLeroy thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, and thinks that the 47 millions textbooks his state purchases each year should reflect that Biblical "fact."

But facts are stubborns things--and history shows that America's founders and framers were not fundamentalists, by any stretch of the imagination. Ben Franklin re-wrote the Lord's Prayer. Jefferson edited his own version of scripture, eliminating the miracles. Washington was never a formal communicant in the Episcopal Church, and avoided attended services on Sundays when communion was served, probably because he didn't believe in the all the doctrines required of orthodox Christians. John and Abigal Adams were both Unitarians, .who rejected notions like original sin and eternal damnation. The Constitution never mentions God, because the framers believed government was based on the consent of its citizens, not upon any divine mandate. 

Yet the founders were not secularists or opposed to organized religion. They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives. Unfortunately, today's evangelicals want their own brand of dogma to receive government recognition and support, eliminating the barrier separating church and state. This is a recipe for sectarian conflict. America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth, where Buddhists outnumber Presbyterians and Muslims may outnumber Jews. There is no creed or confession that can unite these various religious systems. Only a philosophy of mutual tolerance and forbearance will enable us all to live together as Americans, inhabitants of a land that--as the founders intended--welcomes people of all beliefs.

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