Dennis Prager and those on the religious right may have some valid complaints about the current historical understanding in the academy weighing too heavily on the "secular" and "deist" side of America's Founding. However, it does him/them no good to attempt to replace one misunderstanding with another. And this is exactly what he does in this column. He writes:
In fact, the Founders regarded America as a Second Israel, in Abraham Lincoln's words, the "Almost Chosen" People. This self-identification was so deep that Thomas Jefferson, today often described as not even a Christian, wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Jews leaving Egypt at the splitting of the sea. Just as the Jews left Egypt, Americans left Europe.
There has been a concerted, and successful, attempt over the last generations to depict America as always having been a secular country and many of its Founders as deists, a term misleadingly defined as irreligious people who believed in an impersonal god.
It is also argued that the values that animated the founding of America were the values of the secular Enlightenment, not those of the Bible -- even for most of the Founders who were religious Christians.
This new version of American history reminds me of the old Soviet dissident joke: "In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it's the past that is always changing."
Once almost universally acknowledged to be founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the average college graduate is now ignorant of the religious bases of this society, and certain that it was founded to be, and has always been, a secular society that happens to have many individual Christians living in it.
This country was founded overwhelmingly by men and women steeped in the Bible. Their moral values emanated from the Bible, and they regarded liberty as possible only if understood as given by God. That is why the Liberty Bell's inscription is from the Old Testament, and why Thomas Jefferson, the allegedly non-religious deist, wrote (as carved into the Jefferson Memorial): "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"
The evidence is overwhelming that the Founders were religious people who wanted a religious country that enshrined liberty for all its citizens, including those of different religions and those of no faith. But our educational institutions, especially the universities, are populated almost exclusively by secular individuals and books who seek to cast America's past and present in their image.
A few comments. First regarding Jefferson's (and many other Whigs') use of Ancient Israel. They in no way needed to use the Bible to argue for political and economic liberty because the Bible is wholly unconcerned with these matters. Such were relatively novel concepts which Jefferson and company helped to pioneer. From my past post quoting Dr. Robert Kraynak's work in Dr. Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis:
"[T]he Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses....[T]he content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors rather than establishing protections for personal freedom." Finally, the combination of judicial, civil, ceremonial, and dietary laws imposed on the people "regulate all aspects of religious, personal, and social life."
Rather, Jefferson et al. needed to get the Christian masses to sign on to their revolutionary cause. And in doing so, Jefferson and his fellow Whigs radically rewrote the history of Ancient Jews. Arguably, this was an abuse of the Bible, intimating that passages having to do with spiritual liberty were really about political and economic liberty!
Second, it was never universally acknowledged that the United States was "founded by religious men whose values were grounded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures." After the Constitution was written without mentioning God in its text, fundamentalist preachers of the day thundered that we would see God's wrath for leaving Him out of the document. When Jefferson was running for President many of these same men thundered America would be ruled by an absolute Enlightenment infidel and further predicted God's wrath. George Washington's own ministers accused him of being a deist. The Christian ministers knew well that the elite Whigs from which our Founders were drawn were teaming with "infidels" -- that is deists and unitarians. Indeed, the universities and even seminaries and pulpits of Churches professing orthodoxy had been infiltrated by such "infidels." Consider what Bishop Meade, a Founding era figure said of the College of William and Mary during that era:
The intimacy produced between infidel France and our own country, by the union of our arms against the common foe, was most baneful in its influence with our citizens generally, and on none more than those of Virginia. The grain of mustard-seed which was planted at Williamsburg, about the middle of the century, had taken root there and sprung up and spread its branches over the whole State.
Or what Bird Wilson (James' son) said about the Founders in 1831: "[A]mong all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." He went on to say "the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] _not a one had professed a belief in Christianity_" (Remsberg, p. 120, emphasis added).
Third Prager's use of the term "Judeo-Christian" is anachronistic. The Founders themselves never used such a term. And though it does have some useful meaning -- for instance, Christianity grew out of and has its roots in Judaism -- the way Prager uses it -- to build a Lowest Common Denominator between conservative Christians and Jews in the Old Testament -- would be totally alien to them. The key Founders were actually far more influenced by the New Testment than the Old because Jesus' character seemed to them to be far more benevolent than the wrathful, jealous God of the Old Testament. And reason told them God's main attribute was His benevolence.
These Founders were no doubt influenced by the Bible, as well as by the Pagan Greco-Roman characters. But the key Founders predominantly were men of the Enlightenment who used man's reason to take from the Bible what they thought valid or "reasonable" and discard the rest. They believed in an active personal God and were thus "religious"; but to ignore this Enlightenment element -- the reliance on man's reason over revelation, the rejection of orthodoxy and embrace of what Founding era orthodox Christians termed "infidel" principles -- as Prager and the religious right do, leaves out a major element of their history. Without the full story, Prager's followers are just ignorant.