Saturday, July 05, 2014

Destroying the Right's "Christian Nation" Myth

Fourth of July weekend is a good time to remember the driving principles of the Founding Fathers that launched the United States as the world's first democratic, secular nation.  And those principles - despite the efforts of the Christofascists and Dominionists to claim otherwise - had little to do with Christian dogma.  Indeed, leading Founding Fathers were widely seen as "infidels" and "heretics" by the professional Christian classes of their day.  Sometimes described as deists, the roots of their principles often derived from pagan Greek and Roman philosophers.  On the celebration of America's founding, it is important to remember this truth and not be duped by the lies  of the "godly folk".  A new book, "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic," looks at the true principles of the founders which would horrify today's bellowing Baptist preachers and Tea Party crowd.  Here are excerpts from a review in the Los Angeles Times:

Matthew Stewart wants to make one thing perfectly clear: The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. The principles that inspired the American Revolution, he argues in "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic," belong to an intellectual tradition dating to ancient Greece and reviled by every variety of Christian — early church fathers, Catholic clergy and Protestant divines alike.

[T]his tradition flowered in the 17th century to produce wide-ranging inquiries into the nature of God, humanity, religion and society that got Benedict de Spinoza labeled "the atheist Jew." Meanwhile, the more circumspect John Locke (careful to mask his iconoclasm with boilerplate declarations of conventional piety) ended up praised by historians as "the single greatest intellectual influence on America's revolutionaries."

Yet Spinoza the radical, no less than Locke the moderate, shaped an agnostic world view that shook America loose from Britain.

Contemporaries called them deists when not calling them infidels or atheists, and Stewart devotes considerable care to explaining that Deism, the philosophical engine of the Revolution, is not the Christianity Lite some 21st century conservatives have proclaimed it.

"America's revolutionary deists," Stewart writes, "saw themselves as — and they were — participants in an international movement that drew on most of the same literary sources across the civilized world." His detailed explication of those sources ranges from Epicurus and his Roman popularizer, Lucretius, through early modern Italian freethinkers Giordano Bruno and Lucilio Vanini (both executed at the stake for their apostasy) to the diverse array of English and French intellectuals reacting to Spinoza and Locke.

"Jefferson's vision for the future of American religion … featured nothing but Unitarian churches from sea to shining sea."

His main point is serious. The tradition the deists honored was opposed to the religious doctrines of their day, and they knew it. Epicurus asserted that nature operates according to laws that can be discovered and defined. As Copernicus and Galileo learned, discovering natural laws that contradicted Catholic dogma was a risky business, and Protestant sects were equally insistent on divine judgment as exempt from explanation.

Jefferson was one of many deists appalled by the Calvinist God, doling out salvation and damnation in a manner human beings must accept but could not understand. In place of this punitive figure, deists proposed "Nature's God ... a God of publicly promulgated laws, not of private and inscrutable acts." For them, Stewart states, "belief [was] a matter of evidence, not choice." When American deists applied that concept to the civil sphere, they found contemporary political systems as unsatisfactory as revealed religion.

Stewart spells out the present-day implications of all this in his closing chapter, "The Religion of Freedom." The government created by our deist Founding Fathers does of course protect religious belief, he writes, "but only insofar as that belief is understood to be intrinsically private. It does not and ought not tolerate any form of religion that attempts to hold the power of the sovereign answerable to its private religious belief."

It's become a conservative commonplace to argue that the Constitution establishes freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, but Stewart's eloquently argued book makes a strong case that freedom from religion is precisely what America's founders had in mind.
The next time you hear some professional Christian huckster ranting that America is a Christian nation, remember the truth and don't hesitate to call the lying ignoramus out for peddling untruths.  They deserve no deference and certainly no special rights whatsoever.  Also remember that ignorance and religious belief are a choice - unlike one's race, national origin or sexual orientation. 

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