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.