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America’s Creation as a Secular Republic – Long May It Stand

While on tour for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis often heard variants of the question “Why must we choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush, whereas American voters two hundred years ago could choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?” According to its foreword, he wrote American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies At The Founding of The Republic to answer the question “how did the American founding happen?” given that the founders were neither saints nor demigods.

The book tells the stories of what Ellis believes were the triumphs and failures of the founders. Literally, Ellis recounts these historic events as stories so that he can illuminate the characters of the founders who sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed but “somehow managed to establish a set of ideas and institutions that, over the stretch of time, became the blueprint for political and economic success for the nation-state in the modern world. ... representative government bottomed on the principal of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion [emphasis mine], and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens. What seemed so improbable at the time has become the accepted global formula for national success. The only alternative, apart from North Korea’s and Cuba’s last-stand versions of communism is Islamic fundamentalism. And its essentially medieval values appear to be fighting a desperate rearguard action against modernity itself.”

Ellis doesn’t give a definitive answer to his question. Among the possible answers, he quotes George Washington: “the foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Suspicion but an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.” In other words, as Ellis explained, the Enlightenment had happened and the founders were Enlightenment men (and at least Abigail Adams was certainly an Enlightenment woman).

The founders were not religious– far from it. Jefferson said that men were endowed by “their creator” with “certain inalienable rights” but he was deliberately vague as to who or what that creator might be. They were not as radical as Thomas Paine who “believed that a society of genuine equality and justice would materialize naturally once the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest” but they “created the first wholly secular state…[at a time when] it was broadly assumed that shared religious convictions were the primary basis for the common values that linked together the people of any community…” They did their best to make sure the new republic would be ruled by neither kings nor priests nor, worst of all, the combination of the two.

Ellis’ book is about much more than the secularism of the republic which the founders created. In fact, because a secular republic was one of the very few things they actually agreed on, it doesn’t get much attention in the book besides the phrases I’ve quoted. However, I think that this separation of church and state and the prohibition of a state religion were essential to success then and, more to the point, are essential to our success now.

Almost as if by induction, the rise of religious fundamentalism in one society or country seems to give rise to fundamentalism in other societies and countries as well. As a liberal in the sense the founders used the word, I can’t be in favor of denying other people, even fundamentalists, their religious beliefs – but do face the liberal conundrum that, when fundamentalists of almost any stripe get what they want, among the first casualties are liberal beliefs and, not far behind that, those who hold them.

It sounds like prejudice, it may be a prejudice, but I won’t vote for the likable Mike Huckabee BECAUSE he was a Baptist Minister. I also wouldn’t vote for a priest, rabbi (I’m ethnically Jewish) , or inman. It’s way too dangerous to let church and state get intertwined; it’s way too dangerous to have leaders who have even the faintest suspicion that they get their orders directly from God (whatever god). Too much horror and too much terror have been committed on the orders of “God” (as interpreted by his priests).

Chinese and Eastern European communism proved that Thomas Paine was wrong: you don’t need priests to have a tyranny; Karl Marx to the contrary, religion is not the only opiate of the masses.

But religion has no place in politics. That was one of the things, one of the most important things, the founders got right. We can’t let the dangerous political power of Islamic fundamentalism draw us into remingling church and state or giving political power to our own fundamentalists. If we do, the fault will be “intirely” our own.

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I'm not a religious person. It's not that I don't believe in God - I do - but I'm smarter than the average Joe, and, well, I don't need someone [Read More]

Comments

Jacob

Tom,
Totally agree that for America the complete separation works, and is at the foundation of the state. Question, what is the right mix for countries that do not have clear separation...like Israel, where religion plays a central role in the establishment and existential foundation of the state.

And then beyond simplistic view of religion, there is higher level of conversation as to identity--is there anything that can be considered "American" outside of the written down contractual framework (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and then every law since then)? What is American culture?

You yourself threw out a definition of "ethnically Jewish." What does that mean? How are you connected to an Ethiopian Jew? What is "ethnicity?"

These are much bigger questions that a single blog posting or comment, but central to some of the major conflicts in the world right now.

In peace,
Jacob

Thai McGreivy

Question for all of you. I have been trying to find information on whether there has been a fractal breakdown of public education spending per pupil, etc...but as yet I have been unable as yet to find any research on this. I was wondering if any of you knew where I might look?

Thanks

Thai

cameron

I have to agree with the bottom line. The previous poster said it well: "In conclusion, you are right, religion has no place in politics. However, religious values most certainly have a place in politics, and there is a distinct difference between the two."
Religious values have a place in life period.
P.S. I'm not religious but believe in those values.

Robert Hacker

I don't think the risk is in being religious. The risk is in confusing "being moral" with being an advocate for a morality. I would like any President to be moral and he can be religious or not, but he can not advocate or legislate for a particular moral or religious system. The President's job is not to be an advocate for a particular morality. That's not why we elect them.

sprague

Next week (and every January) Americans celebrate a national holiday that commemorates the birthday of another ordained Baptist minister. Do you oppose that too?

Chris

Panoptical2,

I don't think there is a problem with Christianity or its values. However, it IS a problem when it becomes a litmus test for nominees; and, sadly, it HAS come to this for today's GOP.

Panoptical2

BTW, I just noticed a typo. I disagree that the founding fathers were not religious, not religions. ^_^

Isaac Garcia

Tom - while I agree that Jefferson was key to founding a secular state, etc. (and I am a strong supporter and believer in such a state) we need to be careful not to classify Jefferson as a "modern day secularist."

Afterall, how many secularists do you know who wrote their won version of the Gospels (The Jefferson Bible), attended church services regularly in the House of Representatives, allowed church services in executive branch offices (Wikipedia) and stated that "I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its conscience to neither kings or priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian."

Panoptical2

I think that you are correct in saying that the nation was founded as a secular state, with the freedom of the people to worship any religion. If the state were to support any religion, other religions would naturally be hindered in their freedom of religion. However, most of the debate concerning separation of church and state concerns the people within government (should government workers be allowed to wear cross necklaces at work?), as well as government policies concerning the people (should students be allowed to pray, on their own behalf, inside a public school?).

Now, I do disagree with saying that the founding fathers were not religions. Thomas Jefferson was a well-renown deist (not a Christian), while I'm not entirely sure about Thomas Paine.

Moving on, just what are "liberal beliefs?" Are they that there is no absolutes concerning morals, and you should be able to do, essentially, anything you want to, as long as its legal?

As for Mike Huckabee, did you know that every one of the 43 presidents that we have had were Christian, with all except John F. Kennedy being some Protestant denomination? Just because he is a former priest doesn't really mean that he will make the state support Christianity. He will support Christian values and morals, but those values and morals aren't Christianity. Mitt Romney is a mormon, which uphold excellent values and morals, but it isn't Mormonism. Finally, as for that "horror" and "terror" inflicted in the name of God, most of that was committed in the 11th to the 16th centuries. Christianity is past that violent period. Islam and Judaism are still going through their violent periods, especially in the middle east.

In conclusion, you are right, religion has no place in politics. However, religious values most certainly have a place in politics, and there is a distinct difference between the two.

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