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TEN TORTURED WORDSHow the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America ... and What's Happened Since
By Stephen Mansfield
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Stephen Mansfield
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHAT THE FATHERS FOUNDED
The revolution is well underway. And the people rejoice. "Liberty" is the cry heard on the streets, and with every blow against the king, with every stab at the old order, the electric sense of a new age dawning fills the already charged air.
Now it is time for the real enemy to fall: religion. It is religion, after all, that dulls the minds of the people and religion that justifies the corruptions of monarchs and churchmen. Now, finally, the tyranny of faith over the minds of men will be brought to an end.
Already steps have been taken. The Christian calendar has been replaced by a new one in honor of the revolution. Now, instead of a seven-day week with a Sabbath, there will be a ten-day week with a day of rest. Churches have been declared State property, clergymen have been forced to swear allegiance to the nation, and laws based on Christian ethics have been revised.
Today, though, the grand transformation will occur. Today, a new faith fit for a new nation will arise.
In the greatest church in the land, which sits proudly at the heart of the capital city, the president and the secretaries, the people's representatives and the generals, have already gathered. They, like the thickening crowd, are nervous with anticipation. Fortunately, they are not made to wait long. The ceremony begins, signaled by the eruption of dancing. It is ecstatic, convulsive. Throughout the pillared sanctuary, bands of dancers gyrate, their movements accented by their near nakedness. Bare-breasted with only the slightest clothing at the waists and their stockings gathered at their feet, these nymph-like beings leap and swirl, the flash of a sweat-glistened breast visible here, the arch of a well-muscled buttock rising there. It is erotic and thrilling to the crowd. Some, able to withstand it no longer, quickly steer an unsuspecting partner to a dark corner of the church to answer their rising lust.
Then, the soar of trumpets, and all eyes turn up the center aisle of the church to the ornate entrance at the rear. It is the grand procession. The dancing grows more frenzied and into view comes a woman seated upon a chair that is borne aloft by poles on the shoulders of a dozen men. The woman wears a red cap and is framed by a bright blue cape. She is heavily rouged and nearly naked, and as she seems to float above the heads of her attendants, the crowd begins kissing the air in her direction. It is their due act of worship, for this woman is the Goddess of Reason.
The adoration rises to shouts of ecstasy, the explosion of voices deafening in the great, stony expanse of the church as the procession continues to the front of the crowd and slows. The goddess's chair is moved by her bearers from their shoulders to the large, high table that is the object of every seat in the church. This was once the high altar of a Christian church. It is now the throne of the Goddess of Reason, and as she takes her place the assembly erupts into full-throated singing of the "Hymn to Liberty." There are tears as hands are raised aloft in honor of the moment.
With the "Hymn" completed, the joyous celebration begins. Hypnotic pulsations of music explode at full volume, and there is mad, heated dancing both within the church and around the bonfires outside. The crowd surrounding the building grows, pulsates, thrills. A form of liturgy is observed within. Canoneers, with pipes of tobacco jutting from their mouths, serve at the altar of the goddess. Wheelbarrows of objects formerly used in Christian worship-censers, communion plates, crosses, and chandeliers-are offered to the goddess, her reward for victory over all previous gods.
Liquor is soon introduced into the celebration, and even children stumble about under its influence, much to the raucous amusement of the crowd. Young girls don the vestments formerly used by Christian priests and dance about the room, taking the hands of men who were once clergymen but who now are nearly entranced in the worship of the goddess. Some-believing that the more the Christian God is renounced, the more the Goddess of Reason reigns-shout obscenities to the Christian God and curse Him as a fraud.
As the day drifts into the dim light of evening, the revelry spreads throughout the city, the gathering dark of night broken by fires splashing light on ecstatic, dancing throngs. There is much to celebrate. All men know the truth now. The Revolution is complete. The secular State is born. Reason reigns and religion is dead. Long live the Revolution!
It was Karl Marx who said that "a people without a heritage are easily persuaded." He might also have said that a heritage forgotten or misremembered has the same effect, and in few countries on earth is this more starkly illustrated than in the United States.
Under the press of world events and a nagging sense of internal aimlessness, America today is struggling to define who she is. Not surprisingly, this struggle often takes the form of a war of remembrance, a contest of competing visions of history. The combatants understand that while the past is indeed prologue, as Shakespeare wrote, it is also prophecy. The nation will ultimately be defined by what she remembers herself to have been-whether that memory is factual or not. Nowhere is this proving truer than in the national memory of religion.
In the vignette that opens this chapter, a secular State arises, purposefully casting off the shackles of traditional religion. Faith is outlawed, churches are confiscated, and clergymen are made to renounce their vows. Society is cleansed of all religious influence, and the foundation is laid for a legal system that will jealously guard the people against the encroachment of all gods.
This is how the American Revolution is often remembered. In fact, it is not going too far to say that for those who seek a secular America today, this is the founding vision. The United States, they believe, was intended at least in part as a rejection of European Christianity. Accordingly, the founding documents were carefully crafted to assure that the tyrannies of faith would never do to the new nation what they had done to the beleaguered kingdoms of the Old World. That the First Amendment should erect an impenetrable wall of separation between the sacred and the secular, assuring that the former should never trouble the latter, is exactly what the founding fathers hoped.
Yet the scene that opens this chapter is not taken from the American Revolution. Nor did anything of its kind ever occur during the American Revolution. It is, instead, an episode from the French Revolution. It was the French Revolution that angrily rejected Christianity, that enthroned a Goddess of Reason on the high altar at Notre Dame, and that sought to eradicate every vestige of Christian influence upon the law, the government, and the culture as a whole. Indeed, it was in the French Revolution that the secular State was born.
Nothing of the kind would have crossed the minds of the majority of the American founding fathers, though. By November of 1793, when Notre Dame was renamed the "Temple of Reason" and an actress was enthroned as a goddess upon her altar/throne, the Americans had already issued their Declaration of Independence to the world, fought their revolution, and crafted their Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Indeed, as news of the revolution in France reached the American founders, most were repulsed. Writing to his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette-who was embroiled in the events of the French Revolution at the time-Alexander Hamilton captured the horror of his generation of Americans:
When I contemplate the horrid and systematic massacres of the Jacobins ... when I find the doctrines of Atheism openly advanced in the convention and heard with loud applause ... I acknowledge that I am glad to believe there is no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France; that the difference is no less great than the difference between liberty and licentiousness.
Of course, not everyone of Hamilton's generation felt as he did. Founding fathers like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen would later embrace the French values and may have looked back upon the reign of Notre Dame's Goddess of Reason with longing. Still, the majority of the American founders viewed the French experience as the very sort of excess that they sought to guard against in their own revolution.
Despite such protests, the American Revolution is often misremembered as the French Revolution. From the classroom to the courtroom, this widespread fiction lives on, transforming the American Revolution into the antireligion upheaval of a secularist's dream. One of the most absurd expressions of this distortion came in the 1985 movie Revolution. Though it starred the brilliant Al Pacino and was directed by Hugh Hudson, fresh from an Oscar win for Chariots of Fire, the film almost ruined the careers of both men. Perhaps part of the reason for this was its peculiar portrayal of the American Revolution in French terms. Characters went about addressing each other as "Citizen" and sporting the red caps of the Jacobins-who came to power in France nearly a decade after the events depicted in the film! Property was confiscated and sons of colonists were conscripted at gunpoint. Clergymen were treated with disdain, and the script goes to great pains to portray the decline of religion among the people. Clearly, this is the French experience transplanted to American soil with dramatic license, but it is not history.
One suspects that such fabrications are the result neither of accident nor of ignorance. One suspects, instead, that the French revolutionary experience is often overlaid upon the American experience because some wish it were so, because such revisionism is essential to creating a secular America. As the dean of American conservatism, William Buckley Jr., has said, "What we are up against, in both the academy and the judiciary, is a felt disappointment that the American Revolution was not the French Revolution, and a consequent attempt to Jacobinize the Constitution until religion and its influence are wholly banished from our public life."
The truth is that the American colonial experience, the American Revolution, and the American founding documents were so shaped by traditional religion, and intended as extensions of traditional religion, as to be an embarrassment to the advocates of a secular American State. Thus the revisionism. Thus the borrowing of the French legacy. Thus the fabricated national memory that not only seeks to distort the official history of the nation but which has also fueled a radical and destructive misreading of the first ten words of the American Bill of Rights.
This said, it is not hard to understand why most Americans today have difficulty appreciating the depth and grandeur of the religious passion that shaped the world of our founding fathers. We live in an age that partitions and privatizes religion, that is suspicious of zeal and hardened by the cynical religious gush employed by public figures to cover a multitude of sins. We are an age hungry for God yet suspicious of how He is invoked by our neighbors. When we listen to the religious language of our founders, then, we find ourselves tempted to doubt them. It is hard for us to trust that they believed what they wrote and that their great adventures were the offerings to God they said they were.
Yet consider this: In 1620, some one hundred Pilgrims, one-third of them children, boarded a ship no larger than a volleyball court and sailed it for sixty-six days across the North Atlantic. They had departed late in the year, so they arrived in the howling wilderness of New England during winter time and were only kept alive by the help of some friendly Indians and their few remaining supplies from the ship. Still, half of them died during a starving time so severe that not one family was untouched by the loss of a loved one. They passed the first winter, changed their farming methods in the spring, and brought in a good harvest in the fall of 1621. And they survived. We remember them every Thanksgiving and are ennobled by their story.
Naturally, our age wants to know: Why did they do it? Was it to escape religious persecution? No, they weren't being persecuted in Holland where they had lived the twelve years before they sailed. Was it for riches? No, there is no mention of this as a motive in their journals, and they had no reason to expect that wealth might come to them in the New World when they considered the stories of the earlier settlements like Roanoke and Jamestown.
Why did they do it, then? Well, they told us, but we have difficulty believing it. It is rarely mentioned in the textbooks and is scoffed at in the more scholarly publications. Yet before these Pilgrims disembarked their ship, the Mayflower, they signed a compact in which they said they sailed "for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith." Given the evidence, it seems that it really was just that simple: a band of a hundred Christians from a congregation in exile decided to try to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to the New World. So they did the unimaginable: they crossed a stormy, freezing ocean for the glory of God. Our age longs to grasp such heroism, but we find ourselves skeptical and searching for some other, more accessible story.
The same is true of the famous voyage to the New World spearheaded by John Winthrop. Leading a flotilla of five ships filled with Puritans across the Atlantic to build a "Bible Commonwealth," Winthrop ordered the ships tied up together a few days off the shore of England and then preached the most defining sermon in American history. His words framed what has come to be known as the "American Covenant."
Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with him for this work; we have taken out a commission; the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles ... Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath he ratified this covenant and sealed our commission. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.
Modern Americans read these words and are hard pressed to believe that their forefathers seriously thought they had made a covenant with God for the new nation. Even more difficult to accept is that the words and the covenant lived on, renewed in the faith of passing generations of Americans. Indeed, when Ronald Reagan spoke with misty eyes about an American city upon a hill, he was out of step with his generation, and so he was roundly criticized, but he was very much in step with the faith of the founding generations.
What we quickly come to understand is that when we delve into the founding era of America, we are visiting a foreign country of faith that is far removed from our own. The modern American views his faith as a private matter that makes no claims upon his neighbor. For those who settled the English colonies of America, though, faith was not merely a matter of the heart to be lived out in seclusion without disturbing anyone. For them, faith was a commitment to God that came with a blueprint for changing the world, and it is this very matter of the muscular reach of colonial faith that helps us to understand what was intended by the first ten words to the American Bill of Rights.
We must remember that when the Mayflower sailed in 1620, it had only been 103 years since Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle and 56 years since the death of John Calvin. The titanic matters of faith in question during the lifetimes of these giants were far more than matters of the heart alone; they were matters of the truths by which men might live in the world. What Calvin and Luther engineered transformed men's understanding of government and law, church and education, even language and art. They battled for worldviews that had implications for every area of life.
Excerpted from TEN TORTURED WORDS by Stephen Mansfield Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission.
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