July 4 reflection: What enduring values unite Americans of all religious outlooks?

July 4 reflection: What enduring values unite Americans of all religious outlooks? June 4, 2020

THE QUESTION:

What enduring values unite Americans of all religious outlooks?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Fourth of July 2020 will be a sober as well as socially-distanced observance amid the COVID scourge, resulting economic devastation, and cities’ racial unrest. Nonetheless, it provides an opportunity to reflect not only on the nation’s sins and sufferings but permanent values these United States have upheld through it all.

The American Revolution was first and foremost about ending dictatorial rule so that government is based upon “the consent of the governed.” Freedom of religion and conscience over against government compulsion reinforced this principle and was an equally extraordinary innovation in the 18th Century. Admittedly, courts and politicians continually joust over what this means in particular cases.

Today’s Americans should consider how many regimes have not caught up with either of these concepts 244 years later.

 Those  principles have united the citizenry across old religious lines. Religious liberty – including freedom to doubt — could only have arisen with broad support from conventional Christian believers in the colonial population and among the Founders. (A “Loyalist” faction among Anglicans still obeyed king and crown, and Quakers desired independence but opposed taking up arms to achieve it.)

Why did orthodox Christians unite on freedom of conscience with, for instance, the three skeptical Founders who are especially interesting figures: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine? Many Christians embraced this freedom in principle, while others saw that government control over religion was essential to the monarchy they spurned. And then, unlike in the Old World, America’s profusion of denominations meant no one Christian branch would dominate so all benefited from government neutrality.

Tumultuous 1776 kicked off on January 9 with the publication of a pamphlet titled “Common Sense,” written by an anonymous author who turned out to be Paine, a laborer-turned-polemicist who had recently emigrated from England. His amazing life story is recounted in the recent “Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence” (Da Capo Press) by veteran biographer Harlow Giles Unger.

Paine’s major theme was the superiority of democracy over monarchs who ruled only because of the accidents of their parents and birth order. That defied – yes – common sense. His pamphlet also stated, accurately, that “this new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled. . .” Soon the new nation’s Bill of Rights would list religious liberty first among five primary and interrelated civil rights.

Chances are that the American Revolution would have occurred at some point without Paine’s words. Some historians say the evangelical “Great Awakening” just beforehand fostered  the process by uniting the colonies spiritually and thus culturally. But his argument electrified the population into a rebellious mood. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence soon followed,  with its immortal belief that people are “endowed by their Creator” with natural rights, not as a grant by government.

Jefferson went on to be an ambassador, secretary of state, vice president, and president, and is the far better-known of the two men. But “Common Sense” was “in many ways the most important publishing event since Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses’,” Unger writes, and Paine became “the most widely-read political writer of his generation.” His pamphlet sold a remarkable 150,000 copies in the first year and 500,000 worldwide by the year following.

Paine continued to write polemics the rest of his life. His two major works were “The Rights of Man” (1791) and then “The Age of Reason” (1796). The latter, mostly written while in a Paris prison under threat of execution, was a contemptuous attack upon the Old and New Testaments and the Christian church. Publication of such ideas was unthinkable in the culture of  the time and it ruined his reputation.

Yet even the radical Paine, much less Jefferson and Franklin, would not fit comfortably with modern anti-religious forces. In their own individualistic ways, all three were believers of a sort though not orthodox Christians.

Paine was raised by a devout Anglican mother and a Quaker father who regularly took him to meetings. Along the way Paine, who had little formal education, memorized major chunks of the Bible he relied upon when he turned to religious attacks, and he briefly tried to earn a living as a self-appointed preacher. He agreed with his Quaker heritage in opposing slavery but rejected its pacifism when the Revolution beckoned.

He viewed atheism as irrational and called himself a “Deist,” meaning that an ineffable Creator devised the laws of nature that then proceeded on their own minus divine involvement. “The creator of man is the Creator of science [nature] and it is through that medium that man can see God,” he explained. “I believe in one God and no more,” and not in “any church that I know of.”

Jefferson was no “atheist,” despite that accusation during the raucous 1800 presidential election, and no Deist either. Although he left the orthodox Anglicanism of his childhood, he believed in a benevolent and “Infinite Power, which rules the destinies of the universe” not only in the creation but as an active force in human affairs. He did not view Jesus as divine and embraced only the Nazarene’s moral teachings, and quite literally cut passages about miracles out of his New Testament.

Jefferson specified that his tombstone would say three things, that he wrote the 1776 Declaration, founded the University of Virginia, and authored Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786, with its opening declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” The statute barred all government coercion in matters of faith, including “tyrannical” public funding to aid beliefs an individual citizen might abhor.

Elder statesman Franklin was pretty much of like mind. He was raised in a devout Congregationalist Puritan home in Boston, tried out Deism, but then rejected that concept in favor of an active and present God.

Franklin endorsed Christianity’s moral influence but not its doctrines. He contended that most people needed religion to “restrain them from Vice and to retain them in the practice of [virtue] till it becomes habitual.” He quipped, “If Men are as wicked as we now see them with Religion, what would they be without it?”

Franklin’s beliefs are surveyed further in this Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission item: phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/religion-early-politics-benjamin-franklin.html

For more on Jefferson, see a posting by the Monticello historical site:  www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs

Info on the Paine biography: http://www.harlowgilesunger.com/


Browse Our Archives