Sunday, May 07, 2006

History Running Backwards


Keeping the Faith at Arm's Length by Alan Wolfe is an excellent review of three books that tackle the question if the Founders were religious, or not, or how much, or in what way:
It is one of the oddities of our history that this very religious country was created by men who, for one brief but significant moment, had serious reservations about religion in general and Christianity in particular.
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Washington "is better understood as a man of honor than as a man of religion," Henriques concludes.
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Because today's religious right is determined to read the present back into the past, historians who write about faith and the founding find themselves on disputed ground.
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Henriques deals with Washington's life as a whole and spends only one chapter on religion. But he is fair-minded and thoughtful, and because he possesses no other agenda than a desire to uncover the real man, he is convincing when he concludes that "if one defines 'Christian' as the evangelicals do . . . George Washington cannot be properly referred to as a Christian."
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Holmes, to his credit, never falls into the trap of judging 18th-century figures by 21st-century standards. He also offers exceptionally insightful guidelines for judging the faith of the founding fathers. Do not ask whether they were baptized, he suggests, since nearly all Christians at the time were baptized at birth; ask instead whether they baptized their children.
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For one thing, America is not now divided between fundamentalists and secularists, at least not in anything approaching equal measure. No atheist could ever be elected president, while extremists associated with the religious right, like James Dobson, are routinely consulted by the White House. Meacham, by implication, concedes as much; when he discusses the religious right he mentions specific figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but when he turns to the secularists, the only name he comes up with is that of the militant atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who died 11 years ago.
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Men of the Enlightenment, they feared what Washington called "the horrors of spiritual tyranny." Their conception of religious liberty made room for non-Christians and even nonbelievers, and their language deliberately avoided sectarian terminology. They were intellectual radicals, willing to push the idea of religious tolerance further than it had ever been pushed before.
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Still, these three books present irrefutable evidence that our greatest leaders and thinkers knew where the work of God stopped and the need for human creativity began. We often want to believe that history moves forward. When we compare the role of religion in politics at our founding to its role today, we just might conclude otherwise.
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[bolding is mine] Read the whole thing...

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 7:00 PM | permalink | (2 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink