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It is ironic that in defense of introducing God into schools, evangelicals are promoting the godliness of George Washington. In fact, several important biographies have been written about our great leader and none of the suggests he was a religious man. He did, however, speak out for the separation of church and state, vigorously supported the Bill of Rights and delivered several of America's most forceful statements advocating religious freedom.
Steven Williams, a self-styled orthodox Christian, a teacher in the fifth grade of a public school in Cupertino, California, claims to have found a George Washington prayer journal, a document no Washington biography in recent times has featured. Backed by Christian Right groups, he has attempted to represent Washington as a devout man and to put a religious spin on our constitutional history.
Williams has been criticized by his school board, and for good reason-his scholarship is thin. He does not take into account the Federalist Papers, various state declarations on religious freedom and The Constitutionitself, which does not mention God. He misread the Declaration of Independence, which promises the right of all people to the "pursuit of happiness" and does not mention Christianity, Jesus, a personal god or any one religion. Williams does not discuss the religious beliefs of our Founding Fathers, which were decidedly not evangelical.
Organized contention is wired into the evangelical cause and, predictably, an angry chorus of right-wing radio and cable commentators jumped all over the school district for being godless. They did not comment on the accuracy of Williams' scholarship or the paucity of his evidence. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian Right legal resource, also came to his support. The issue to them was publicity and political pressure.
Fortunately, Washington's attitude toward Christianity is well documented. At his death, "there were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life," writes Joseph Ellis in His Excellency: George Washington, a biography of the great leader. Inevitably, religionists sought to sanctify Washington's life by depicting him as ascending into Heaven surrounded by a chorus of angels. He died, however, as a "Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint," says Ellis.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Washington professed no belief in the afterlife. The concern was for achievement and recognition in the real life. Only the aggressive distortions of the Christian Right reduces them to caricatures of religious piety.
Ellis also points out that Washington believed that several apparently dead people, perhaps including Jesus, had really been buried alive. He therefore requested a delayed burial to avoid this possibility. He had no appetite for the supernatural.
Washington had a profound sense of importance of the moment in which our independence occurred. The Christian Right, to confect Christianity as the sense of our government and its primary source, ignores the momentous trends at the time and fails to grasp the significance of what was going on. Here are Washington's words:
The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and suspicion but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.
He then, says Ellis, proceeds to identify the treasure trove of human society and government that had accumulated over the past century-what was soon to be called the Enlightenment-and its provident arrival on the scene just as Americans launched their experiment with independence. "At this auspicious period," he observed, "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."
Conservative historian, Richard Brookhiser, in his book Founding Father, essentially agrees with Ellis. "Morals were the way he governed himself," writes Brookhiser. Washington acquired a copy of Seneca's Morals in his late teens and often quoted lines and phrases from it and also from Cato, a play by Joseph Addison.
Washington's guiding code was "The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation." There were 110 such rules, none of which were religious. They were a distillation of the virtues of humanity and guidelines for dealing with others. Throughout his life, Washington was concerned with reputation, character, and especially civility, a quality not respected by the Religious Right in its dealings with homosexuals, nonbelievers and forceful opponents.
He was born an Anglican, but later became an Episcopalian when the church changed. He never took communion. His references to the Bible, says Brookhiser, support "the impression of an 18th-century squire serving as a vestryman and attending church because it was what one did, and seeing that others did it, too." Many legends grew up about his devotion, including the one repeated today about his praying in the snow at Valley Forge. This is an incident not cited in Washington's Crossing, a book by David Hackett Fischer, or other recent works about him. But Fischer points out that when the British tortured or killed captured American soldiers, Washington did not respond in kind. He ordered that British captives be treated with humanity and decency, which set the basic framework of American policy in dealing with the enemy. In view of the practice of humiliating, torturing and even killing Iraqi prisoners, it has to be said that the standard set by our greatest Founding Father has been trampled.
He used religion pragmatically. When talking to Jewish groups, he referred to "Jehovah," to Cherokees he invoked the "Great Spirit." He wasn't above using variations on The Ten Commandments to help sell real estate in the Ohio Valley. He made few references to Christ throughout his life, but he did borrow from biblical thinking if he thought it would help his political rule. Washington's second inaugural address did not mention the word God and it remains the only one in our history that does not.
Besides the Episcopal church, Washington was a member of the Freemasons, a group who believed in God but not in the traditional Christian forms. The Congregationalist divines, who were the religious Right of the day, considered the Freemasons irreligious. To this date, evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson consider the Freemasons a sinister group.
Our government had very clear ideological underpinnings, implicit in the Declaration of Independence, and fully worked out in the Constitution. In 1797, the United States entered into a treaty with the Barbary States specifically acknowledging we were not a Christian state. The Senate ratified the treaty, and President John Adams signed it. Now, as Steven Williams attempts to rewrite the religious history of our Founding Fathers, others like evangelical leader Jerry Falwell are attempting to subvert the language of our Constitution and develop a cadre of believers who will attempt to legalize doctrine inimical to the core values of this country.
Our rights are derived from the consent of the governed, as our Declaration of Independence makes abundantly clear. This is what it says:
We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed ...
The Declaration of Independence was, in Thomas Jefferson's words, "an expression of the national mind." The actual law of the land was laid out in the Constitution It's only reference to religion precludes a religious qualification for office. The Constitutional Convention specifically refused to pay for a minister to attend its sessions.
Gregory Schaaf, in his book, Franklin, Jefferson & Madison: On Religion and the State, quotes James Madison, our fourth President and father of our Constitution, as saying, "... religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect." It was Madison who wrote the Federalist Paper on religion, pointing out the devastating effect of factionalism which it produces.
Jerry Falwell, who established the once powerful Moral Majority, operates a law school whose ultimate goal is to maintain religion in public life through the courts, and to feed conservative judge into the court system. He is attempting to co-opt the high ground of American political achievement by attributing what he calls "biblical values" to the Constitution. That is a gross misrepresentation of fact for, if the Constitution is sacred, it is because of the separation of church and state. This is enshrined in our Bill of Rights and is our safeguard against intellectual tyranny.
Not a single Founding Father involved with the Bill of Rights believed in the literal nature of the Bible. Not James Madison, our fourth President and the Father of our Constitution; not Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president; not George Washington, our first president who presided over the Constitutional Convention and not Benjamin Franklin, our foremost scientist-statesman. Our Constitution was a great political invention, unencumbered by religious dogma or past prejudice, and it demeans the achievement of our Founding Fathers to suggest otherwise.
The genius of our Constitution comes from striking a balance between the power of a central government and the states. It is a consensus product. There is no better example than our Constitution's condoning slavery for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, we could not resolve slavery under law. Abraham Lincoln, who never belonged to any church, said northerners and southerners pray to the same god, but the god of the South endorsed slavery, while the god of the North considered slivery a sin. Religion offered no way out of this bloody war, and proved useless in resolving conflict.
Americans are, if anything, pragmatic and wise enough to see the value of projecting perpetual rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion, along with the adoption of an amendment process, a way to admit and address error or to keep up with changing time. And we have used that process, on the average, every twelve years. Over time, we have fine-tuned our amendment process and learned to make the system work. Does anyone know of an amendment process in a religion based on the inerrancy of the Bible that could periodically revise its beliefs or find away to alter long-standing practice?
The mind of an evangelical is geared to proving its beliefs are correct, never to questioning them. That is profoundly un-American in government. It is antithetical to the deliberative process. If history teaches us anything, it is that our Constitution is sacred because it is based on the consent of the governed, the openness of mind needed to compromise difficult problems, and the ability to recognize and correct errors.
Falwell is mashing totalitarianism as biblical. He undermines our mast valued heritage when he says about the American people, "We are turning their attention to understand the Bible is the infallible word of God, that the American Constitution is a sacred document, and that the Christian world view is their matrix for service."
There is barely a single authoritative biblical scholar who will agree that there no inerrancies in the Bible. It is full of admonitions to kill, to practice immorality (i.e., polygamy or slavery), of reports of events that could not possibly have happened, of misattributed writings, and contradictory reports on the same happening. Some will read this theologically and still claim inerrancy. But if the judgment of fact is subject to personal interpretation, preconceived notions, or even deeply felt delusions, there is no basis for law based on the common good. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: "We are entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts."
The Jesus Seminar, an association of distinguished divinity scholars who have studied the authenticity of the Bible for over twenty years, concluded that about half of the statements attributed to Jesus could be clearly proved. They have, along with other scholars produced many studies based on significant archeological discoveries and the finding of ancient documents that show much of so-called religious belief is contentious, symbolic or based on arbitrary facts.
Donald Sharpes, author of Lords of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels, and professor at Arizona State University is one of the several scholars who study legends, myths, and literary themes from which Christianity is derived, i.e., Greek, Egyptian, and Persian sources. Those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible deny the validity of such historic research if it violates their dogma. They question the application of scientific methods and scholarship and rely on faith. Thus, we have two sharply contracting mind-sets with polarizing intellectual and political consequences for our nation.
Decisions of state concerning the disposition of human life must be fact-based to the fullest extent possible. This is the only way to ensure fairness, justice, and pound policy. Our Constitution succeeds because it invents a government that balances many interests, prevents power from concentrating in a few hands, blazes a peaceful path for ongoing resolution of issues, and protects the free flow of even controversial information necessary for reasoned decision-making.
Our founders strongly believed in morality. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin, our first great scientist and diplomat, left his church in a dispute in which he held that morality was more important than religion. James Madison agreed, and argued that one need not be religious to be moral.
Franklin defined morality in terms of personal responsibility and service to people in this world. He advocated honesty, frugality, industriousness, attentiveness to family and community obligation, and a sense of caring in dealing with people.
The evangelicals today have abandoned the primacy of these concepts, conflating morality with the acceptance of what they consider Christianity: opposition to abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, evolution, etc. This is ideology, not morality. This is arbitrary religious belief, not a caring concern for people or respect for knowledge or belief in God.
The critical problem today is to get back to the basic ideology of our Founding Fathers which was to protect the people from a bullying, arbitrary government. We should be freedom's advocate. This means confining shaman politicians, who preach a righteous form of crotch politics, to the dustbin of history. It means focusing on issues that help people and their communities to reach their full potential in thin world. We must not succumb to the flimflam of righteousness as an excuse for thinking. If God gave us our brains, it is our responsibility to use them.
Excerpted from The Devil's Own Politics by Joel W. Harnett Copyright © 2007 by Joel W. Harnett . Excerpted by permission.
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