Monday, November 08, 2004

Two more good articles:

This article by John R. MacArthur deals with the traditions of Roger William’s Protestantism & the Enlightenment v. John Winthrop’s Protestantism and specifically relates it to today’s political/theological debate (just like the article I referenced in this blogpost). Thanks to Justin Katz for the link to the article. Here is the good part:

We liberals sometimes forget that the United States has two sets of Founding Fathers: the Puritans of Massachusetts (inspired largely by the 16th Century French refugee to Switzerland John Calvin) and those remarkable avatars of the American Enlightenment: Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Paine (inspired by, among others, the 18th Century French refugee to Switzerland Voltaire).

From their "City upon a Hill," the ferocious ministers of Boston and Salem, liberated from religious intolerance in England, sought to impose their own version of Protestant intolerance on everyone living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- to such a degree that one of our greatest religious dissidents, Roger Williams, fled south, to found the colony of Rhode Island.

Faced with the radical proposition put forward after the Revolution by Jefferson and Madison -- that of a prohibition against any religious "test" for public officials and trustees -- the mullahs of Massachusett let loose a fusillade of rage. Susan Jacoby, in her book, cites one especially rabid fulmination against the Constitution's Article VI during the ratification debate at the Massachusetts convention: If the chief executive was to be free to take office without swearing allegiance to God, said the orator, "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and, what is worse than all, a Universalist may be president of the United States."

In New York, the Rev. John M. Mason declared that another radical innovation -- the explicit omission of God from the new Constitution -- would have dire consequences: "We will have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the Universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck."

Against this extreme Presbyterianism (in fact, an oversimplification of Calvin's thoughts about church and state) were ranged the humor and common sense of Jefferson: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

But behind the bon mot lay an intellect and determination made of steel. As Mark Crispin Miller, in his book, observes, "it was to keep the people's freedom thus preserved from the oppressive troops of any faith -- and thereby keep religious liberty itself alive -- that Jefferson and his associates deliberately conceived our godless Constitution."

Later, during his presidency, Jefferson found the words that still galvanize the freethinkers among us. Disturbed by Protestant ministers who sought to subvert the First Amendment and establish an official American religion, this "anti-Christ," "French infidel" and "howling atheist" wrote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

More pertinent still -- in light of Bush's crusade against fundamentalist Islam -- is the Treaty of Tripoli, of 1796. Signed by George Washington, this text, better than any other, delineates the secular principles cherished by the political elite of the time:

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion -- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims] -- and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

The treaty didn't immediately end the fighting with Islamic Libya, but the sentiments reverberate down to our day. Do you hear, Osama bin Laden.

And here is this article entitled, “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out,” by Garry Wills.

Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?

America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed "a candid world," as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.

The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from this country in the past. In fact, we now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies.

Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity? Not in France or Britain or Germany or Italy or Spain. We find it in the Muslim world, in Al Qaeda, in Saddam Hussein's Sunni loyalists. Americans wonder that the rest of the world thinks us so dangerous, so single-minded, so impervious to international appeals. They fear jihad, no matter whose zeal is being expressed.

It is often observed that enemies come to resemble each other. We torture the torturers, we call our God better than theirs - as one American general put it, in words that the president has not repudiated.

Of course, I don’t agree with a fair amount much of what is written in these articles (their comments implicate that Enlightenment favors the left-Democrats -- I'd rather see a consensus of acceptance of these universal norms: "we are all liberal democrats now!"). But it is nice to see two Lefties invoking the Enlightenment and Reason, as opposed to Post-Modern, Deconstructionist Relativism.

1 comment:

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