Thursday, July 3, 2008

Remembering Our Roots

Would Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin have been in church on Sunday? The short answer is yes, no, and maybe.

During that hot summer of 1776 in Philadelphia, when you try to imagine the core leadership of that Continental Congress, without whom the Declaration of Independence might not have been written and approved unanimously by the delegations from the thirteen colonies, what names come to mind? I know that we and historians could debate this for a long time without consensus, but I suspect few would leave out these three: John Adams from Massachusetts; Thomas Jefferson from Virginia; and Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania. Would you agree?

This takes us back to the question I asked at the outset: would these three patriots have been in church when Independence Day fell on a Sunday? There is much made of “the faith of our founding fathers” that is much more a myth of how some folks wish it had been with these giants in our history than how it actually was.

In an email that a number of folks sent to me over the past few days was a copy of an illustrated article titled,
“Forsaken Roots.” In fact, I have received email copies of it every year for the past seven or eight years, as people seek to remember and reclaim their roots. The claim in the article was made that 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were “orthodox deeply committed Christians,” the first in a long list of “facts” demonstrating that our nation was in its beginnings a “Christian nation.”

There was no author nor were there references to support the claims. Those of you who know me, know that it makes me very uneasy when anonymous documents make claims I don’t think can be supported by fact and when I see history being misconstrued and used as propaganda. In truth, there was such a diversity of faith perspectives among the “founding fathers” and “founding mothers,” some despaired of ever agreeing on the status of religion in the new country. Because the three giants I mentioned represent this diversity, I thought it perhaps useful on this Independence celebration week to be reminded of their religious perspectives and what they contributed to the nation that came into being on July 4th, 1776.

John Adams and Abigail, his wife and best counselor, were devout Christians and independent thinkers who saw no conflict between the two. As well as the Bible, John loved the classics and scholarly reflection. He always carried a book of poetry in his pocket, telling his children, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” He was one of the most sensible and powerful forces at the Continental Congress; it was John Adams that persuaded Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence and John who persuaded the Congress to allow Thomas to do it. Adams became the second president of the United States. John was
in church at least once on Sundays and often two or three times. He visited Anglican Churches, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Moravians, and at least on one occasion a Roman Catholic mass. But his own was a Congregational Church in the Puritan tradition in Massachusetts. Adams was committed to the principle of everyone’s having the freedom to worship as they chose, but felt it was everyone’s duty to worship. There really had to be a crisis for the Adams’ not to be in church on Sunday. I think we would be safe in saying that the Adams family would have been in church, even when Independence Day fell on a Sunday.

Thomas Jefferson, unlike Adams, would not likely have attended church on July 4th any more than he attended any other worship services. Jefferson was the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the third president of the United States. Those who put religious labels on would consider Jefferson a Deist, those who believe that God created the world and then left it to run on the laws God had created. As suspicious as he was of the unchecked power of government, and he was, Jefferson was even more suspicious of the power of unchecked religion to coerce others. He knew well the history of the intolerance of churches that were “established” or identified with the state in Europe and he feared for what might happen in America. He wanted a high “wall of separation” between church and state so that neither infringed on the responsibilities of the other. In 1817 when Congress passed the Elementary School Act, Jefferson
insisted on this provision:
"No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced {in the elementary schools} inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination."
Given this founding father’s deep suspicions of organized religion, I think we can safely conclude that he would not have been in worship on a July Fourth that fell on a Sunday.

Benjamin Franklin, was more casual about faith than Adams but not nearly as wary of it as Jefferson. Franklin’s creed was simple: serve God by serving others. Much has been made of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 open its morning sessions with prayer. His motion was turned down, however, and not again taken up. Franklin
himself noted that
"with the exception of 3 or 4, most thought prayers unnecessary."
What distinguished Franklin from Adams and Jefferson was his “good-natured religious tolerance.” Franklin was not a member of any church but supported them all. In his hometown of Philadelphia whenever a new church would be built he would give to their building funds. It is little wonder that on July 4th, 1788 when Franklin was seriously ill, two years before his death, and couldn’t get out, the clergy of the city of Philadelphia including a Jewish Rabbi paraded arm in arm right under his window, a first not only for Philadelphia but perhaps a first in the history of Christianity.

Franklin biographer, Walter Isaacson,
concludes that Franklin’s
“good-natured religious tolerance was in fact no small advance for civilization in the eighteenth century. It was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, more indispensable than that of the most profound theologians of the era… In a world that was then (as, alas, it still is now) bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, {Franklin}] helped to create a new type of nation that could draw strength from its religious pluralism. As Garry Wills argued in his book Under God, this ‘more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth.’”
Those who are interested in examining the accuracy of the claims in “Forgotten Roots” can check
George F. Smith’s “History Remembered” or the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (not to be confused with the Southern Baptist Convention).

Remembering our roots is a good exercise for observing Independence Day, but we do ourselves no service if we remember them as we wish they had been and not the way they were. We will also do well to remember some of our other roots that we are still working to overcome: the way our nation treated Indians, slaves, and women. We might recall the words of
Frederick Douglass, freed slave and newspaper editor:
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year the gross injustice to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license…”
Unlike whoever wrote “Forgotten Roots” and those who are fearful about what has happened to our “Christian nation,” I believe that we will have forgotten our roots if we adopt their view of our nation’s history. An honest reading of our history will better equip us to understand how we could have invaded Iraq and how precious civil liberties have been sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorists.

I am grateful that the heritage from our “founding fathers and mothers” had within it the seeds of diversity and tolerance. Can we respect those who don’t worship the way we do, and those who don’t choose to worship at all? Can those who don’t worship respect those who do? Diversity and tolerance are precious gifts. Cherish and nurture them.

Remember that tomorrow as you and your friends barbeque ribs, grill brats or TVP burgers. Happy Fourth of July!
- Milo


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