With the Founding Fathers as Our Press Gang
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 12:25:18 PM EST
This post seems as relevant today as it was when I first posted on May 6, 2008. -- FC

Jill Lepore has a wise and erudite article in The New Yorker about four recent books about the Founding Fathers and their approach to religion and government.  All four books debunk Christian nationalism, and Lepore takes a whack at a little historical revisionism from Tim LaHaye along the way herself.  But most importantly, Lepore has a useful and illuminating take on the tricks history plays on us, as various of us attempt to press characters from history to score contemporary points.

Whether the mail should be sorted on Sundays, whether "In God We Trust" belongs on our coins, whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include "under God," whether our children should pray at school, whether we can have crèches on town commons at Christmas, everyone wants to know: What would the Founders do?

It's a question Thomas Jefferson found ridiculous. In 1816, when he was seventy-three and many of his revolutionary generation had already died, he offered this answer:

"This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. . . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
The Founders believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed was to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. Jefferson put it this way:
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."

The four books achieve a kind of consensus in four related lines of argument. First, the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular one. Second, by the standards of Evangelicals of both their day and ours, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were not Christians; they wrestled, often profoundly, with religious questions, but, as Church points out, "they all doubted the divinity of Christ." Third, the disestablishment of religion is itself responsible for Americans' unusual religiosity, which (these writers all believe) is something to celebrate. Fourth, notwithstanding the Founders' own remarkable secularism, the liberation of religion from government as much as the reverse was their aim. "The separation of church and state has greatly benefited religion, as Madison and Jefferson predicted that it would," Wills writes. Nussbaum argues that because "the separation of church and state is, fundamentally, about equality, about the idea that no religion will be set up as the religion of our nation," in the end "separation is also about protecting religion." Waldman writes, "Madison, I suspect, would . . . be delighted by surveys showing that, compared with most developed nations, Americans believe in God more, pray more, and attend worship services more frequently."

Because this debate is an argument about how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, people who enter it begin their investigation with the Founders; quite often, they end it there, too. Somewhere along the way, they almost always fall to wondering what James Madison would make of the latest Gallup polls or whether Benjamin Franklin would get along with Christopher Hitchens. That's how this debate works; that's the pack of tricks this history plays on the past. The problem is that constitutional jurisprudence, however essential it is to the rule of law, will always tend to produce a history in which the entire eighteenth century is reduced to the intellectual lives of a handful of men. And, because our tradition of constitutional jurisprudence is so important, that history can be all the history most Americans get. Needless to say, it's a history that leaves out a lot--not least, every other American who ever spread, advanced, or challenged the idea of religious liberty: people like printers turning out newspapers, mothers rearing children, pastors preaching to small towns, and, even, now obscure novelists. Maybe it's time for another pack of tricks.

are an ongoing important element of the struggle with the Religious Right. It is an area where most of us can use some improvement.  This article contains some important lessons.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed May 07, 2008 at 02:42:59 PM EST
especially when you consider how difficult coming to an understanding of historical events can be - and that we never will really know "the whole story".  It's been encouraging that historians have returned to source documents for their evidence in the past few decades, and also consulted with archaeologists (who find physical evidence - either supporting, disproving, or illuminating other aspects of the time) and other specialists to try to comprehend what actually happened.

Understanding the thinking of the people of the time... that can be even more difficult (in archaeology, trying to understand ideology from physical evidence is problematic), although their prolific writing helps a lot.  I'm sure that there are nuances scholars have missed and which we never will know.

That being said, I also think that we can come to some knowledge of history (and the thinking of the people in question) - and the work of the people you've referred to is part of that struggle.

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 06:33:38 PM EST

No matter how hard scholars try, we can never go back and know exactly what the Founders' writings meant to them and to their readership at the time. As a conductor friend of mine observed in a lecture on "period instrument" performances, we can put a lot of effort into recreating instrument construction, vocal technique, performance style, etc., but what we can never do is give our audience 18th century ears.

In the same way, we who live post-Freud and Marx and Keynes (to name just three seminal writers whose work profoundly influences modern thinking, no matter whether you agree or disagree with them) simply cannot turn off the messages and assumptions of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. If Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison were writing today, I am confident that they would use a whole different vocabulary to express their ideas. I appreciate the careful work that scholars are doing, but we have to remember that everything is interpretation filtered through modern-day understanding.

by MLouise on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 07:16:49 PM EST
Having the understanding and "ears" of the hearers of the time is one of those nuances.  

We will never be able to really grasp that, but at the same time I do believe we can have some understanding of history - just not the whole picture.

Most people of this age also don't grasp what life was really like during that period... except maybe in some sort of glorified "movie" sense (from watching movies and TV) - which is usually more wrong than right anyway.  That understanding is another point where we (the people today) can never get the whole picture... but I'd quickly argue that we can get part of it (through hard work and careful scholarship).  Scholars have to have some level of that understanding - and when we're talking about people like Lahaye, they don't even try (because it's not "scriptural" - doesn't fit with the myopic and error-filled idea of Christianity and the Bible anyway).

Since we don't "know it all" and can't, we should also be careful...

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Feb 17, 2013 at 12:56:01 PM EST

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