The Faith of our Fathers

There is another fundamentalism to worry about.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

For those Democrats still licking their electoral wounds, a soothing narrative has emerged among the liberal commentariat. According to this tale, the Republicans triumphed because they were able to “energize their base”—that is, all those “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” Christians—by appealing to their irrational intolerance and hatred of everything in modernity that frightens them, particularly “gay rights.” Only by such exploitation of the neuroses and ignorance fostered by religious belief and expressed by opposition to social issues such as “gay marriage” can the Republicans trick so many middle-class and working-class people into voting against their true interests, all of which center on economic issues.

After all, enlightened people know that religion is just a quaint superstition that flourishes among the unenlightened and undereducated, a projection of neuroses and fears more efficiently treated by modern therapeutic intervention or maybe a few courses at the local community college. The enlightened can tolerate Christians, as long as their beliefs remain a private lifestyle choice, one spiritual option among many, no better than Hinduism, Scientology, or Wicca.

But whenever Christians actually dare to make political choices on the basis of those beliefs, then the enlightened gatekeepers of American secularism in the academy and in the media rise up in righteous wrath and rush to the barricades to defend us against the barbarian hordes of true believers who if unchecked will transform our republic into a “theocracy” and impose their intolerant bigotry on everybody else. And when the President himself is one of these religious fanatics, then the prospects for the republic and the Constitution are dark indeed—even the usually rational New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman whined after the election that he was depressed “because Bush’s base is pushing so hard to legislate social issues and extend the boundaries of religion that it felt as if we were rewriting the Constitution, not electing a president.”

Apart from its sheer bigotry, which is itself based on ignorant stereotypes and underlying beliefs warranted not by reason but by faith (for example, the assumption that spiritual reality does not exist), this view of religion in public life demonstrates as well a misunderstanding and distortion of America’s founding and the important role Christianity played in the creation of the U.S. republic. This combination of bigotry and ignorance of history has recently surfaced in a fifth-grade class in Cupertino, California, an affluent Bay Area suburb.

Fifth-grade teacher Steven J. Williams started all the trouble last May when he gave his students a proclamation from President Bush about a national prayer day. A parent complained that there was too much religion in the classroom, particularly since Williams had earlier discussed with his class the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and had to have his principal stop him from discussing Easter. The upshot of these complaints was that Williams had to have his class handouts screened in advance for religious content. Williams in a lawsuit claims that this requirement led to several documents from American colonial history being excluded from his class; the district responds that it was Williams’ use of those documents that led to his handouts being excluded.

Whether or not Williams was using these documents from American history as an excuse to proselytize his students will be determined by the lawsuit, assuming it ever even gets to trial. Making such a determination will be difficult, for often even neutral discussions of religious ideas are interpreted by some people as advocacy for them. I know from my own experience in teaching the classics of Christian literature such as Augustine, Boethius, and Dante that any mention of Christian belief even in a scholarly context will incite complaints about “preaching” from those students who have been trained by public education into thinking that the Constitution bars any mention of religious belief in the “public square.”

There’s also a bad odor of hypocrisy surrounding some of these complaints about “teaching religion,” given that often the same complainers will not mind a bit if other unscientific or irrational beliefs and values are preached in class-much of what is passed off as “environmentalism” in public schools, for example, is actually a sort of nature religion based on irrational belief and myths that have nothing to do with facts, reason, or logic. Political ideologies like socialism, feminism, or multiculturalism that have evolved into pseudo-religions complete with proscriptive creeds and foundation myths are taught all the time in the same classrooms that are supposed to be sanitized from any mention of the religion that for 2,000 years has defined Western civilization.

What I find more interesting is the official statement of the Cupertino school district, which said that district administrators are required “to uphold the First Amendment which mandates the separation between church and state.” The Anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment, of course does no such thing. Rather, it prohibits the federal government from establishing a particular denomination as a part of the government; the point of the anti-establishment clause was not to protect the government from religion, but to protect religion from the federal government. State governments were free to “establish” churches, and many did so well into the 19th century.

The idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” that so many think is written into the Bill of Rights actually resulted from later court decisions that reflected the growing secularization and scientism of American life, not to mention at times anti-Catholic-immigrant prejudice. But such views had nothing to do with the intent of the Founders, even the most irreligious of whom would have been shocked to see our current anti-religion fundamentalism. For these thinkers “believed mightily that of all philosophies and religions, the Jewish and Christian religion is the best foundation for republican institutions,” as Michael Novak puts it in On Two Wings, his study of the role of faith in the Founding.

Anyone who has any doubts about that role should peruse the numerous quotations Novak assembles. The tradition of a Presidential proclamation to thank God for his blessings was started by George Washington, who created our November Thanksgiving Day not to commemorate Squanto saving the Pilgrims from starvation but “to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor.” In this Washington was following the model of the Continental Congress, which issued numerous such proclamations; that of 1782 recommended that all “testify their gratitude of God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by protecting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and natural happiness.” I don’t know what would anger the ACLU more, the reference to God or the use of the masculine pronoun.

Even the most tepid of believers among the Founders assumed that the health and success of the American republic depended on the vitality of religious belief. As George Washington put it in his “Farewell Address”: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Famed deist Thomas Jefferson once asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gift of God?” Thomas Paine, accused of atheism, wrote at the beginning of The Age of Reason, “I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” So too another Enlightenment hero, Benjamin Franklin: “Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That he ought to be worshipped.”

And of course, the works of the many more numerous orthodox Christian Founders could provide an endless supply of quotations to show that teaching the Founding without taking into account the powerful role that Christianity played is an act not just of historical but of pedagogical malfeasance. Many of the Founding generation believed that it was impossible to teach republican virtue without teaching religion: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic,” Benjamin Rush wrote, “is to be laid in religion. Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

If Judeo-Christian belief is so central to the ideals that created our government in the first place—if, as de Tocqueville wrote, “Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights”—then the current anti-Christian fundamentalism strikes at the root of our political order. For if we are, as the secularists tell us, mere material creatures bound to one another only by contractual relations to be dissolved or altered at will, then what will provide the basis for all those selfless actions and emotions that any community depends on for its cohesion, and that keep freedom from degenerating into mere license, the power to do and consume whatever gratifies our selfish will and appetites? Where will fundamental values come from, all those beliefs that bind us into a community, and that we are willing to die and kill for, not because they have been scientifically proven but because we believe passionately that they are right and true and will benefit the greatest number of people?

The secularists have failed to provide an alternative for the religion that they have discarded. Into this vacuum has rushed any number of pseudo-religions, from Marxism to scientism to environmentalism, that are infinitely more irrational and mischievous than traditional Christianity. Yet this secularism is the creed dominating the schools, one more dogmatic, more intolerant of dissent, and more prone to self-righteous hypocrisy—in short, more fundamentalist than the beliefs of most Christians. For those concerned about the dangers of religion to our political life, then, look to these creeds, which are passed off as the fruits of science and reason, rather than to a Christianity that has been banished from the political culture it helped to create.

©2004 Bruce Thornton

Share This