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Re: Ch. 7 - Fundamental errors
This chapter takes on the claim, often made by the Religious Right, that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation or on Christian principles. While it's true that Christians of various denominations make up the majority of the population today, a study of the founding documents and the early history of the United States of America suggests a government founded on secular and not sectarian values. In today's America, rebuilding the wall of separation between church and state is critical if we are to preserve the rights of conscience of all Americans, the religious and non-religious alike.
"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."
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This chapter seems to go much more directly to what I took the heart of the book to be, although, there is, I think, a misstep in the early attempts to paint the "Christian values" that did contribute to the formation of the nation as those negative values which we have since wholly expunged -- ie. an interest in slavery and against women's rights. That church pulpits were used to denounce socially progressive movements, I won't deny. The evidence presented by the book in support of the idea that the majority of religious leaders were opposed, however, seems lacking. Where is the sort of statistical analysis lent to the question of what proportion of early America was Christian? Byond that, where is a consideration of the part that Judeo-Christian ideology played into the changing attitudes that allowed for emancipation and sufferage, particularly on an international level, since that provided the context in which American attitudes were shaped? That there was a concerted opposition within American Christian institutions is certain, but the fact of that opposition does not make it indicative of "Christian values". There are so many historical contingencies involved, and so much variation in Christian opinion, that the paragraphs that take this perspective come across as hyperbole. It's a rhetorical device, of course, of the sort popularized by Enlightenment writers like Thomas Paine, and I can see how the mechanics of it might be employed to set the stage for a more reasoned examination of the role religion did or did not play in the drafting of the documents at rot in the development of the nation, but I think it more likely to put the Christians segments of the bookOs audience on the defensive.
From there, however, the chapter makes a fairly strong case. I've argued before that the concepts that informed the Declaration, the Constitution, and the corpus of U.S. law were incubated in an intellectual tradition developing out of Judeo-Christian thought. And while I do think that said contingency has the tendency to grandfather into the American political tradition some religious content, it seems clear to me that the intent of those who drafted those founding documents was to establish a secular government. Which seems to me to serve as the weight of the argument in this chapter -- that whatever religious biases may have slipped into the structure of the nation, any arguments to the effect that America was designed to institutionalize religion is in direct contrast to the evidence we have of the process that went into that formation.
The view offered by some religionists to the effect that, while the law of the land does not provide for a state religion, it likewise does not provide for freedom from religion seems like a pretty obvious retreat position. Did they not feel their position embattled, I can't imagine that many dogmatic demonimations would really make an argument that indirectly supported anyone's decision to join some other religion or denomination. Political interest seems to have gotten the upper hand on that one; if it weren't politically convenient to do so, I'm not sure why a fundmantalist denomination -- many of whom preach that other denominations are just as likely to wind up in hell -- would argue that it doesn't matter what church people chose, so long as they have a church.
All of which, I think, points to a historical and cultural question, particularly in the case of Christian advocates for religious incursions into state powers. The simple form of that question is, why do they think it in their religion's best interests to take on the mantle of state? The answer that seems, to me, most patent is that their reason's have a historical impetus, rather than anything intrinsic in the religion itself. The Bible obviously presents the religions it has fostered as most often taking the form of a minority position within the context of a government not premised on either Judaism or Christianity. In the context of explicitly Judaic religion, there does the remain the example of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but paradoxically, Judaism seems to have contented itself for the better part of two thousand years to act as a self-contained tradition with no aspirations towards government control; even the Zionist movement didn't really pick up steam until the Holocaust made having a Jewish nation-state seem like the only practical defense against violent anti-semitism.
But in the Christian portion of the Bible, the nationalist aspirations of messianism have been toned down until they're practically non-existant. Jesus' own teachings tend to be in support of the Christian's removal from the state ("render unto Caeser what is Caeser's"); the "kingdom of heaven" is relocated to a cosmological or eschatological remove; and the early Christian communities described in the Pauline writings seem to have no greater political ambition than to escape the notice of a potentially hostile government. It doesn't seem likely that modern Christianity would take from those source a trust of political entanglements, let alone a vocational perspective with ambitions on political hegemony.
It seems more likely that the political inroads made by fundamentalist Christians are, to a large degree, inspired by the example of nascent Catholicism during the feudal period -- paradoxically so, since most such groups are Protestant, a movement initiated as a reponse to late-medieval Catholic hegemony.
The proper antidote, it seems to me, is educational. If you look back on your own childhood education, I think you'll find that, like mine -- probably like that of most Americans -- the foundation for understanding the reasons our nation took the shape it did is lacking, to say the least. In a nation premised on the political involvement of the individual citizen, a thorough education in civics would seem like a a necessary component of the fabric of national interest. Any intimation that you can understand the shape America took without also examining the historical factors that went into its development is idealistic to the point of absurdity. (Literally idealistic, it seems to me; idealistic in the sense of interpreting American ideology as the expression of timeless, universal values, rather than as a perspective rooted in historical contigency. Needless to say, a deep vein of utopianism runs through even the most secular of American political traditions.) To that end, I'd suggest making an examination of the history of Western religious dissent an important part of the compulsory educational system, at least that part of it devoted to civics. That may seem like anathema to some of the secularist tendencies of the past hundred years or so, but it seems to me that for lack of insight into the historical reasons that even religionists preferred to keep religion and government unmixed modern Americans have lost the pioneering scepticism the founders felt for anything resembling theocracy.
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Mad, I think I noted there is fairly scant data for any sort of head count. I took my lead from The Churching of America, cited in the text, which is generally regarded as one of the most accurate studies of the subject. But I freely concede, as I did in the text, that all such estimates are problematic at the outset since in frontier societies there might not be such a high premium placed on accurate membership numbers. As to why I didn't talk about the international influence of religious ideas on the practice of slavery, I did note that evangelical Christians played a significant role in ending slavery in Britain. My book isn't about the international slave trade.
That said, you and I are in agreement that the best long-term corrective to the problems cited in the chapter is education. Unfortunately, our public schools are under considerable pressure these days to present a version of American history that is more favorable to the fundamentalist version of events.
The understanding of most Americans of the history of this nation is woefully inadequate. Unfortunately such ignorance has real world consequences.
_________________ George Ricker
"Nothing about atheism prevents me from thinking about any idea. It is the very epitome of freethought. Atheism imposes no dogma and seeks no power over others."
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