Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Am I Tackling a Strawman? (Or Why I Do What I Do):

One of the niches that I have carved out in the blogsphere is a thorough (but I think ultimately fair) examination of the key Founders' religious beliefs, done in the context of refuting the "Christian Nation" thesis. Note, refuting the "Christian Nation"* myth (as I think I have aptly done many times over) is not the same thing supporting a modern, 20th Century, post-Everson, ACLU style notion of the Separation of Church and State. Indeed, it's far easier to refute the Christian Nation thesis than to demonstrate that the Founders would have seen eye-to-eye with the ACLU's absolutist notion of the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.

Indeed, one can understand that the key Founders were not orthodox Christians (arguably, as theological Unitarians, not Christians at all) and that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution have little if anything to do with creating a "Christian Nation," but still vehemently disagree with the Court's modern Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Fair enough.

And indeed, few if any in the historical academy (including the relatively small number of conservatives in respectable positions in the Academy) take the "Christian Nation" claim seriously.

So one big question that I often ask myself is, "Am I tackling a strawman?"

Yes and no. Why is tackling the Christian Nation thesis necessary? Based on my meticulous studying of this issue over a number of years, I have concluded that millions of people are being mislead by the likes of D. James Kennedy, David Barton, Rod Parsley, William Federer and others into believing the "Christian Nation" myth. If it weren't for the millions who believe this twaddle, I would indeed be tackling a strawman. In terms of the practical effect of exposing their myth -- if they realize that the US wasn't "founded" by Christians to be a "Christian" nation, that indeed the key founders were theological Unitarians, thus not Christians as they understand that term, that they never "owned" the Founding as they were (mis)taught, they'd be less zealous about trying to "Reclaim America" and perhaps adopt a more "live and let live" attitude about culture and society.

And if religious conservatives are being treated unequally by the Courts or public institutions, I'll back them in their dispute. But, as many have pointed out, the "war against Christians" in many ways is a loss of privilege, NOT real unequal or unfair treatment. When it comes to hate-crimes laws that might stifle their freedom of speech, I'm entirely on their side. When it comes to expression of religion in the public square, I'm all for it as long as it's done pursuant to a generally applicable, neutral program where their traditional religious speech is given no special privilege against non-traditional, unorthodox, religious or atheistic speech.

But whatever the legitimate gripes of religious conservatives, our Founders didn't establish this nation so that we could be ruled by revealed religion. America was founded under the rubrics of "Nature" and "Reason," and in the ideal, our Founders desired that we be ruled by self-evident principles ascertainable by Man's Reason alone.

*Whether America was founded by "Christians" (meaning orthodox evangelical/fundamentalist types), for "Christians" to create a "Chrisitan Nation" (in a public/governmental sense, as opposed to a private/demographic sense). For instance, in a demographic sense, we are predominantly white. Yet, our public institutions are ideally neutral on matters of race. Thus, those who thunder that America is a "white nation" are certainly attempting to make a much larger (and nefarious) point than merely describing America's racial demographics. As the Christian Nation myth goes (I'm exaggerating a little bit for rhetorical flair; but not too far off from the way Barton, Kennedy, Demar, et al. tell the story), the Founders "opened" their Bibles and "found" the Declaration and the US Constitution in there. Moreover, the US was "founded" so those Christians could write as much of the Bible as they wanted into the civil law and the citizenry be ruled by (their interpretation) of revealed religion. This is what it means to be a nation "Under God" according to their understanding of the phrase. In short, the "Christian Nation" crowd has a theocratic agenda that distorts history to suit that agenda.


The Gay Species said...

Jonathan Rowe is trying, quite successfully I might add, to disabuse the fundamentalists' claim that America was ever a "Christian Nation." He identifies six of the Founders as Unitarians or Deists. And if one carefully culls the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one would be hard pressed to identify anything that is even covertly "Christian" about them. "Providence" is not a Christian appellation for God, and "Creator" is a widely-used term in the lexicon of almost everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike. Language may hide, but a careful examination of texts usually reveals any "hidden" agenda a person or persons might have. Just a textual analysis of both documents fails to "reveal" any sense of Christianity; even it's foremost precept, "love your neighbor as yourself," is nowhere to be found, not even suggested or hinted.

I am aware of the Reclaim America movement that wants to Christianize the United States, despite the First Amendment's prohibition of conflating Church and State. If it were only "Christian" features, such as concern for the poor, orphaned, homeless, prisoners, etc., I find much that is compelling. After all, even an atheist, such as myself, finds much about Vatican II's Gaudium et spes to like. If that communitarian agenda is what the fundamentalists had in mind, we might have some common ground.

Alas, that is not what they have in mind. Rather, they want to impose the 318 Old Testament Laws they've culled from the Bible and impose them on everyone else. Many of these demand obedience and fealty to Yahweh, while those that don't speak to Yahweh only impose a crude Old Testament morality on everyone else. Such precepts may have worked for a nomadic tribe 3,000 years ago (much of the Levitical Code of Holiness is nothing but hygiene matters), but almost none of those precepts apply, much less will work, in a pluralistic liberal democracy of today. It may be coincidental that the Levitical Code is the only Old Testament mention of homosexuality, but other confused notions include prohibition on mixed fabrics (which every homosexual knows is bad form), eating of shellfish, intercourse during menses, consuming meat and milk at the same meal, eating any meat "rare" or "medium rare" (only "well-done"), and similar nonsense.

Let me quote one passage that I'm sure even fundamentalists ought to have a problem with: "If someone has a rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him . . . then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear, and be afraid" (Deut. 21:18ff.). It won't just be Israel that will be afraid, everyone will be. And, the rhetorical question arises, What about rebellious daughters? These are the kinds of laws these fundamentalists want to impose on America, because they (1) haven't understood the liberation from the old law through Jesus, and (2) they confuse draconian laws for a nomadic tribe 3,000 years ago for what is appropriate in the 21st C.

These religious zealots haven't a clue about authentic Christianity, otherwise they would understand that the Old Testament was included in the Christian Scriptures to prophesy about the coming Redeemer. Only in the prism of the Gospel can the Old Testament be understood, and likewise the Epistles and Revelation. The Gospel trumps everything else, but the fundamentalist only sees one book, the Bible, and believes everything in it is the literal and inerrant word of God for all time. That has never been the Christian understanding of the Bible, and that they get this so intolerably wrong, only makes them heretics and wingnuts.

The real Christian values are to be found in the Gospel, and many of those values are rightly esteemed. But those values must be individually acquired, not legally imposed. America has always been a nation predominantly of Christians, even the heretical kind, but it has never been a Christian nation. And with Yahweh's help, it never will.

Jim Babka said...

Dear Gay Species,

Your comment is interesting. It has a surprise twist ending. But I think your advice to Christians is largely accurate (what the real purpose of the Old Testament is, what real Christian values are, etc.).

That said, you extol the virtues of the Gospel. You realize that the Gospel is...

Jesus is God (see John 1), and he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; No one comes to the Father, but by me."

Are you really sure that you want to advise the fundamentalist "heretics and wingnuts" to get off their moral high-horse and devote themselves to that message? If tolerance is a virtue, what do you do with Jesus?

The Gay Species said...


Thanks for the feedback. You ask a pertinent question: If tolerance is a virtue, what to do with Jesus?

Jesus is unquestionably an enigmatic personality. The Gospel portrays him as extremely tolerant for his times, and yet he displays fits of anger (such as trashing the temple vendors). He certainly upsets the inherited traditions, which is repeated throughout the evangelists, by his repudiation of the Sadducees and Pharisees (some commentators think he extols the latter, however). In many ways, he can be difficult to understand, precisely because he shows so many different aspects to his personality. I could list the "apparent" conflicts, but most of us know them. How does one reconcile these matters? With patience!

As far as his claim to divinity, that's a matter of faith or choice. I personally don't believe in God, so Jesus as the Son of God makes even less sense. But the "faith" quotient is always available to anyone who wants to believe, just don't force that belief onto others.

The "values" that Jesus extols, however, I generally share: forgiveness, civility, hospitality, care and concern for the less fortunate, repudiation of judgmentalism, sharing with others, turning the cheek, and so on. These values I suggest bespeak of a civilized world, and if for no other reason, ought to be esteemed. Indeed, for that very reason, should be esteemed.

So one can share his "values" and not accept him as the Christ or Son of God Incarnate. Several "Christian" sects do precisely this. I also do it and reject God altogether. Just because a very good man has some very civilized ideas does not merit my faith, but his values are merited in their own right, not because Jesus gave them, and not derided because Jesus gave them, but because they instruct us to be civil.