Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Our Christian Founders

When I first lost my primary job in January, I started sending letters to both the Philadelphia Inquirer and my local paper, the Perkasie News Herald. As a reader of the Herald for many years, I was used to reading opinion letters and columns that generally leaned right in terms of political and social perspective. My viewpoints lean somewhat to the left so I was pleasantly surprised when the following letter, in response to a particularly "radical right" opinion column was published. Find below that letter.

To the editor:

Thanks for last week's article by Dr. Gary Scott Smith. While he clearly presented a viewpoint emphasizing the evidence that points to the founders' religious convictions as in concert with today's religious right, he did so without demonizing those who lean towards an historic viewpoint that suggests that the founders advocated a more secular outlook. While it would seem obvious that discussing religion and Christian values would be of a civil nature, I have seen far too many of these articles become heated and hate filled.

But there are some points that Dr. Smith does not emphasize, points which don't contradict the basic idea that the founders "maintained that morality depended on religion", but do remind us to always be aware of the context of those beliefs.

First, the founders were a product of their time. They were men of business, land owners, educated men. They had both monetary as well as moral reasons for advancing the idea of independence. Their new home was virtually a world away from England and presented them with opportunities without bounds. It was not God or Christian values they wished to remove from their new country, but the oppressive effects of a government supported religion. This was especially true for the Quakers among them.

Yet, despite their use of the noble and inspiring words "all men are created equal", the Christian values of the time defined all men in a much narrower way than we do today. We can call them devout Christians because they went to church regularly, prayed and read the bible, but women were not considered a part of the governing process and many of the founders owned slaves. Clearly, in today's society, their attitudes towards women and blacks would not be considered Christian and would certainly not be legal. In the intervening 234 years, we ran the American Indian from their land, almost exterminating them in the process. It took almost 150 years before women were even granted the right to vote. And as recently as 50 years ago, a proposed amendment to grant civil rights to blacks was fought against by the various Christian religions. I would certainly think that no one today would advocate the treatment of Indians, women or blacks that occurred in our history but in most cases the movements to correct this behavior were not well received by many of the Christian religions of the time, many quoting from the bible in the process.

Yes, the founders were a remarkable bunch. But not because they were Christian or deists or rationalists, but because they were able to put merge their various religious perspectives and create a body of laws based on reason as well as morality. While they certainly believed in God, they also drew on the great intellectual writings of the day. And by specifically not endorsing any one religion they spoke volumes about the direction they wished the country to follow.

For me, the debate should not center around whether the country was founded as a Christian nation but should be more concerned as to whether we are advancing the vision of the founders by incorporating into our laws our evolving understanding of "all men are created equal".

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