Monday, July 08, 2002
Beliefs of The Founders

In comments on N. Z. Bear's site responding to this log entry (which links backs to my comments below), Howard Owens says (his post here also referred to in N. Z. Bear's entry), "Furthermore, the mingling of piety and government matters didn't end with the Declaration, but was carried out by every Founder throughout his life of public service. The minglings are numerous and well documented."

Well, let's have the documentation then. I'm saying this with a mix of ignorance and of my own sense that things are not so simply stated. I am not personally aware of a single work that describes this claimed mingling of piety and civic contribution, but I'm not in the social stream that views such a perspective as essential to the progress and civic virtues of The Republic. I'm not claiming such a work doesn't exist: just that I don't know what it is. I'd be happy to check it out if it does, and if it doesn't, it'd probably make a good read for someone to research and write.

I've read biographies of a few of the Founders, and I'm generally aware of the history of the nation from the late colonial times into the beginning of Constitutional government. My own sense of the Founders' relationships with public and private expression of their own beliefs regarding the existence or lack thereof with Divinity -- or even with divinity -- is that it, like almost everything else in this world, has a distribution. In time and across the members of the class.

If Howard is claiming as much uniformity across the class of Founders as I'm reading him to be, then I'm openly skeptical that that was or could've been the case. And we haven't really defined who the members of that class are too well for the purposes of this discussion. There are several options: the small set (e.g. _Founding_Brothers_: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay), the Constitutional set (member of the Convention), the Revolutionary set (members of the Continental Congresses), the governing set (members, or even just leaders, of the state legislatures at those times). Surely the chosen set will have different distributions regarding the attitudes of the members towards relationships between civic action and religious expression. Tom Paine anyone? Jefferson?

Furthermore, we only have to look at several individual members of any definition of The Founders to see that their personal religious beliefs and their willingness to express those beliefs sometimes changed over the course of their lives. Take Franklin, with whom I am most knowledgable, as an example. From those initial comments of a young skeptic who was oppressed by Boston's Puritan heritage and beliefs, Franklin's beliefs held the form of largely unarticulated deism over most of his life, with increasing instances of a kind of evolving Theism as he aged. And, in Franklin's case, you can't discount the statements he made about the practical utility of belief in the existence of a divine entity as a reason for people to behave in productive and civil ways as being components in his evolving beliefs.

Again, I may be misreading the degree to which Howard is claiming uniformity in the beliefs or statements of The Founders regarding the mixing of religious and civic natures.

Let me raise a second issue, then: What is the proper degree to take The Founders' attitudes and wishes into consideration in our making of contemporary choices? Surely it is very important to try to understand what The Founders were thinking and saying in the times of The Revolution and The Convention. There is a wealth of insight into the laying of the national foundation in those writings. The Founders, as an ensemble, were aware of Posterity; many of them as individuals approached their actions with an eye on history. For that we can only be grateful, because they have left behind a record (well, excepting the debates at The Convention) of what they were thinking -- or of what they decided they wanted to say they were thinking -- at the time. As we make our choices in our own times, being aware of what their attitudes were is a great resource.

But numerous aspects of this nation haven't exactly evolved the way The Founders (or, more usually, some subset of The Founders; e.g., Hamilton, Jefferson) hoped. We should give essential and respectful consideration to The Founders' attitudes and hopes, but no more than that. And we should be very careful that we give the consideration to what The Founders actually said, not to what our own contemporaries say that The Founders said or believed.

But what The Founders believed and hoped then doesn't trump or inordinately determine our own choices now. We are free, and we are responsible, and we are accountable. Just as it is ridiculous in my opinion to even discuss whether The Declaration should include reference to a creator -- it does -- or whether the National Anthem should include reference to trust in God -- it does, even claiming that it's the motto of the nation -- the real question to me is how do we move forward in a nation of close to 300 million people with an incredible diversity of beliefs.

My own opinion is that references to a single divinity in contemporary national statute law is more centrifugal than it is centripetal. We are a nation of individuals of various beliefs: some believe in one god, some in three-in-one god, some in zero gods, and some in many gods. There is no one-size-fits-all way to describe that situation. To accurately reflect the history of belief in this nation as being overwhelmingly Christian, or to accurately state the state of belief in this nation as being predominantly Christian (the old "what would a Martian say?" approach) doesn't mean that we should have statutory (or, "heaven forbid", Constitutional) statements regarding religious belief as law of this land.

Previously, I suggested "rolling back the clock" to undo the mid-1950s introduction of "In God We Trust" on money and the addition of "under God" to The Pledge of Allegience. I still think those would be wise actions. But I also think that to go back and change -- or even make much comment on -- the existence of references to divinity in The Declaration or The National Anthem would be too ridiculous to consider. The time frames are sufficiently different to make treating my suggested roll back and messing with The Declaration easily distinguishable.

Let's make our world one that respects the rights of individuals to believe what they will, not one that in any way uses governmental authority to promote one flavor (or several versions of one flavor) over any other.

Finally, this is an issue that reasonable people can and will disagree on. A respectful attitude towards those who hold differing views regarding this is, in my opinion, a sensible and appropriate way to behave. Those who want to frame this kind of discussion in terms that denigrate the beliefs and opinions of those who disagree should be denounced. Believing differently about an issue of importance is not necessarily (not even likely) a matter of ignorance or "lack of education". It is about having different individual histories. It is about true diversity. If we want a world that respects diversity, we start by respecting diversity.