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Although written in 1985, in light of the power and significance of the Falwell/Robertson forces within the Republican Party, this essay should be useful for those today who encounter the claim that America is a "Christian nation." RN
A Critical Response to Bernard Katz On Our Founding Fathers
by Robert Nordlander
As published in the January-February 1985 issue of The American Rationalist: The Alternative to Superstition.
Because of the recent promotion of religion by political means it is important to show what the Founding Fathers of our country had in mind when establishing the beginnings of our democracy. To prevent the European problems of their past they intended to make sure that religious oppression was not dominant in our new nation. Whether they made the wall of separation strong enough is to be proven by the protectors of that wall to ensure a secular government rather than a ruling theocracy as is evident in countries today such as Iran. [Gordon Stein, editor].
The present issue is largely devoted to a subject which has occupied our pages off and on for the past six months. The present article takes the opposite position from the previous ones by Bernard Katz. THIS article marks the end of our treatment of this subject for the forseeable future. Some may think we have devoted far too much space to it already. Perhaps we have, but we feel that the issue is both important and far from settled. While none of our articles will end the controversy, we think that they will show that a case can be made for both sides, perhaps, only by selective quoting from the voluminous writings of the founding fathers..
What we HAVE done, if nothing else, is to show the objective reader that the arguments so glibly given by the fundamentalists that separation of church and state is a fiction made up by the Supreme Court, but not found in the Constitution, is a fiction of their own deluded brains. No matter whether you support Katz's or Nordlander's position on this controversy, the fundamentalist case is unsupportable. GS
A Critical Response to Bernard Katz On Our Founding Fathers by Robert Nordlander
Bernard Katz deserves credit for the scholarship he displayed in presenting the readers of the March/ April 1984 issue of The American Rationalist the first part of his essay "Was Ours to be a Christian Nation." Although the essay was replete with quotations from most of the Founding Fathers indicating various degrees of religious belief ranging from orthodox Protestant Christianity of a somewhat Calvinist persuasion to the frankly anti-Christian views of Deism with various shades of "rational" Christianity standing between these polarities, the conclusion that Bernard Katz arrived at did not follow logically from the data he served up to us in his presentation, i.e., that this country was to be in the expectations of the Founding Fathers, "a Christian nation."
It should be noted that the phrase, "a Christian nation," is quite a nebulous expression and means absolutely nothing until it is defined precisely. Bernard Katz showed us the wide divergence of religious belief among the Founding Fathers discussed in his article and he chose to tack the adjective Christian on many of them because many of the people quoted wanted that adjective attached to any noun that was supposed to denote their religious orientation. The fact that the kind of Christianity espoused by so many of the Founding Fathers is hardly recognizable as Christianity as that term is generally understood apparently was not taken into account by the author of this essay when he made his sweeping conclusive generalization. One can see a literate fundamentalist reading Bernard Katz's conclusion and exulting with a shout, "That's right! It's about time that those Atheists 'fessed up to the truth!" Should any fundamentalist actually set eyes on this essay, he will immediately conclude that Falwell's version of Christianity is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. The point of all this is that "Christianity" is simply in the eye of the beholder regardless of what this term can be shown to mean objectively as Bernard Katz so ably demonstrated. The Christianity of most of the Founding Fathers cited in the article simply would not be recognized as Christianity by most of the people in America professing variants of that faith today. If Katz had argued that the Founding Fathers had wanted this country to be a Unitarian nation, he would have been on more solid ground as this undoubtedly would have represented the majority position as Unitarianism today represents what could be called today the only species of rational Christianity that can be said to exist.
Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, in Volume I of The Rise of American Civilization, chose to eschew the term "Christian" as the word to use when describing the religious beliefs of the leading Founding Fathers of this country.
This is how they put it:
"When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among either the Unitarians or the Deists. It was not Cotton Mather's God to whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed,' it was to Nature's God.' From whatever source derived, the effect of both Unitarianism and Deism was to hasten the retirement of historic theology from its empire over the intellect of American leaders and to clear the atmosphere for secular interests." (p. 449). (My emphasis).
A question that must be asked if we wish to examine more critically the Bernard Katz thesis that the Founding Fathers had great expectations for this country as a Christian nation is why one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, did not object to the following language that was placed in a treaty with Tripoli during his tenure as President of the United States?
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,--as it has itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen "(The Great Quotations edited by George Seldes, p. 45).
President Adams certainly had every opportunity to press for the removal of the first clause quoted above found in the treaty with Tripoli as we have a deposition to this effect from the same source cited above which reads as follows:
"Now be it known, That I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same and every clause and article thereof" (Ibid.} (My emphasis).
I would like to turn to another part of the Bernard Katz essay where, in my opinion, he does the memory of Thomas Jefferson a grave injustice. Katz seems to think that Jefferson favored a Christian theological presence on the campus of the University of Virginia when this is simply not the case. What he did favor was the establishment of a Christian theological presence close to the university. It is usually forgotten that the noun "confines" means a boundary or a border. Jefferson wanted this presence to be very close to the university because he thought that the liberalizing influence of the university would have a softening effect upon the dogmatism and bigotry so often displayed by those who claim to have an exclusive monopoly on truth. It might be helpful to quote a segment of Jefferson's November 2, 1822 letter which was ignored, for the most part, by Bernard Katz.
"In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of its own tenets on the confines of the University, so near as that its students may attend lectures there, and have the free use of the library, and every other accommodation we can give them: preserving, however, their independence of us and each other.
"This fills a chasm objected to in ours as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted by some sects from candid intentions and by others out of jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason and morality." (Church and State in the United States by Anson Phelps Stokes, Volume I, p. 338). (Last emphasis was mine).
We see in this letter that Jefferson was very serious about the wall of separation that he told the Danbury Baptists ought to separate church and state. The Jeffersonian "wall of separation," in the eyes of Jefferson, was not a "curbstone" as Bernard Katz so sarcastically and mistakenly asserted, Moreover, it should be noted that Jefferson wished to overwhelm the sectarian dogmatists with kindness and the humanistic influence that only a good liberal arts college can manifest thereby perhaps converting the irrational Christians into rational Christians, i.e., Unitarians.
Lest any doubt is still lingering in the mind of the reader that the Jeffersonian "wall of separation between church and state" was reduced by Jefferson to a "curbstone," it is absolutely necessary to quote, in tow, a letter addressed by the Sage of Monticello to Arthur S. Brockenbrough, who had requested that certain Charlottesville churches be allowed to use the rotunda, the central University of Virginia building, for church services on Sundays. This lengthy quotation is necessary because it should lay to rest once and for all the Bernard Katz view of Jefferson's view of the "wall of separation" as nothing but a "curbstone," and to provide another source for interested persons for a very significant letter written by Thomas Jefferson on religious access to educational institutions maintained by funds collected by the tax-collector. Religious access to publicly-funded tax-supported educational institutions has been an issue very much in the news these days as every reader of The American Rationalist knows. Let us note some further words of Thomas Jefferson on the issue of religious access to public educational institutions. The letter to Arthur S. Brockenbrough was dated April 21, 1825.
"In answer to your letter proposing to permit the lecture room of the Pavilion No. I to be used regularly for prayers and preaching on Sundays, I have to observe that some three or four years ago, an application was made to permit a sermon to be preached in one of the pavilions on a particular occasion, not now recollected. It brought the subject into consideration with the Visitors, and although they entered into no formal and written resolution on the occasion, the concurrent sentiment was that the buildings of the University belong to the state, that they were erected for the purposes of a University, and that the Visitors, to whose care they are committed for those purposes have no right to permit their application to any other. And accordingly, when applied to, on the visit of General Lafayette, I declined at first the request of the use of the Rotunda for his entertainment,' until it occurred on reflection that the room, in the unfinished state in which it then was, was as open and unenclosed, and as insusceptible of injury, as the field in which it stood.
"In the Rockfish Report it was stated as probable that a building larger than the Pavilions might be called for in time, in which might be rooms for a library, for public examinations, and for religious worship under such impartial regulations as the Visitors should prescribe, the legislature neither sanctioned nor rejected this proposition; and afterwards, in the Report of October, 1822, the board suggested, as a substitute, that the different religious sects should be invited to establish their separate theological schools in the vicinity of the University, in which the Students might attend religious worship, each in the form of his respective sect, and thus avoid all jealousy of attempts on his religious tenets. Among the enactments of the board is one looking to this object, and superseding the first idea of permitting a room in the Rotunda to be used for religious worship, and of undertaking to frame a set of regulations of equality and impartiality among the multiplied sects.
"I state these things as manifesting the caution which the board of Visitors thinks it a duty to observe on this delicate and jealous subject. Your proposition therefore leading to an application of the University buildings to other than University purposes, and to a partial regulation in favor of two particular sects, would be a deviation from the course which they think it their duty to observe. Nor indeed is it immediately perceived what effect the repeated and habitual assemblages of a great number of strangers at the University might have on its order and tranquillity.
"All this, however, in the present case, is the less important, inasmuch as it is not farther for the inhabitants of the University to go to Charlottesville for religious worship, than for those of Charlottesville to come to the University.
"That place has been in long possession of the seat of public worship, a right always deemed strongest until a better can be produced. There too they are building, or about to build proper churches and meeting houses, much better adapted to the accommodation of a congregation than a scant lecturing room. Are these to be abandoned, and the private room to be preferred? If not, then the congregations, already too small, would by your proposition be split into halves incompetent to the employment and support of a double set of officiating ministers. Each, of course, would break up the other, and both fall to the ground. I think, therefore that, independent of our declining to sanction this application, it will not, on further reflection, be thought advantageous to religious interests as their joint assembly at a single place. With these considerations, be pleased to accept the assurance of my great esteem and respect." (Ibid, Stokes, Volume II, pp. 633-634). (Two paragraph indentations were mine).
The impression that Bernard Katz gave of Jefferson favoring the promiscuous use of taxpayer-supported educational institutions by religionists of all stripes was absolutely unwarranted as the two quotations from the pen of Jefferson given above clearly show. Thomas Jefferson did not turn the "wall of separation" into a mere "curbstone."
One aspect of the Bernard Katz discussion of Thomas Jefferson and his alleged inconsistency in the area of church-state relations which cannot be ignored was Jefferson's alleged" support of religion, religious education, and a priest among the Kaskaskia Indians, who were mostly Catholic." What Katz failed to tell us in his discussion was that this took place as a result of a treaty between two sovereign nations, the United States of America and the Kaskaskia Indians. The Kaskaskia Indians were not bound to obey Jeffersonian conceptions of church-state relations. They undoubtedly negotiated this financial support for Catholicism into the treaty probably with the counsel of a priest which was their prerogative as an independent and sovereign nation.
Perhaps it might be worthwhile to take a look at the clause in the treaty signed at Vincennes On August 13, 1803 which provided for the financial support of religion that Katz cited.
"And whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic church, to which they are much attached, the United States will give, annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for said tribe the duties of his office, and also to instruct as many of their children as possible, in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church." (/b/o[, Stokes, Volume I, p. 704).
Anson Phelps Stokes points out in the source just cited that Congress, in 1802, had created a fund to be used to maintain peaceful relations between the United States and the various Indian tribes and that Jefferson did not hesitate to financially aid an occasional missionary with public funds as these persons "were frequently used in making treaties with the Indians and in quieting disturbances." Jefferson was merely using any means at his disposal to deal with the Indian nations of his day operating under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution which says in part, "The Congress shall have power... To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." Religion was one tool which could be used, among others, to maintain amicable relations with the Indians as it is not specifically forbidden by the provision in the Constitution just cited. Before Katz criticized Jefferson's financial support of missionaries with public funds, he should have taken a look at the social context in which this was done and the constitutional provision which sanctioned it.
There is a legend concerning the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that is being promoted by various spokespersons for the politically active fundamentalists among us that appears to have been "bought" by Bernard Katz. In his essay, Katz refers to a revision of the Lord's Prayer that was allegedly read by Benjamin Franklin to the Convention. One wonders if this is supposed to be one of the prayers allegedly prayed at the Convention when Franklin once made the suggestion that prayers might assist the delegates in their deliberations. The truth of the matter is that no prayers were said at the Convention and Franklin's suggestion came to nought. Leo Pfeifer, in his Church, State and Freedom described what happened thus:
"It is perhaps symbolic of the difference in the relationship of state and religion between the Continental Congress and the new government established by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, that whereas the Continental Congress instituted the practice of daily prayers immediately on first convening, the Convention met for four months without any recitation of prayers. After the Convention had been in session for a month, the octogenarian Franklin, who in earlier years had been pretty much of a Deist, moved 'that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.' The motion was received politely though not without embarrassment. According to the records of the Convention, 'After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion!" (pp. 121-122).
One wonders what the source of Bernard Katz's assertion that Franklin indeed did get to subject the delegates to the Convention to at least one prayer was? This reader was still wondering when Katz raised this issue in Part III of his essay.
While Katz informed us of Jefferson's toleration for chaplaincies whether congressional or military, he failed to inform us of the principled opposition of James Madison to these institutions. It seemed as though Bernard Katz was trying to show us as many instances of the alleged "Christianity" of the Founding Fathers as he could, and to fault them for any violations of the principle of church-state separation as perceived by Bernard Katz. Why Katz chose to ignore the thinking of Madison on this question is beyond comprehension for if Jefferson's alleged dereliction was worthy of note why was Madison's fidelity to constitutional principle not worthy of mention.
There were many shortcomings in the Bernard Katz article which I undoubtedly missed and which others more informed on those shortcomings may choose to discuss in these pages, e.g., how could George Washington be a truly orthodox Christian if he were a member in good standing of a Masonic lodge? Katz's provocative essay served to remind us that our Founding Fathers could not be put into one easily marked theological bag. Unfortunately, by attaching the label "Christian" to them, he made the attempt to do just that thereby negating the value of his essay to the understanding of the Fathers of this country with respect to their opinions about religion. Moreover, it should be noted that he totally ignored Ethan Allen, whose Reason, the Only Oracle of Man preceded Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason by ten years. Allen was as much opposed to Christianity as Thomas Paine was. Inclusion of a discussion of Ethan Allen's theology would not have contributed to Katz's thesis but would have served to help negate it.
As Bernard Katz virtually closed Part I of his essay with Thomas Jefferson's remark to Thomas Pickerlng made in a letter dated February 27, 1821, it seems only fitting that the quotation ought to be repeated with the thought that follows, a thought that Katz chose to omit:
"No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances toward rational Christianity. When we shall have done away (with) the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one and one is three..." (Seldes, p. 374).
If Christianity as perceived by Jefferson was the goal to be reached by the citizens of this country then historical Christianity as it is known and practiced would be dead--the Vatican would be viewed with disdain by all Americans; and Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of that gang would be unknown to the American public. The Christian nation, if it can be called such, that Bernard Katz alleges the Founding Fathers were intent on establishing, would, for all practical purposes, be a Humanist nation. It would contain nothing that could be historically described as Christian.
Let us hope that Bernard Katz's first article will not be used by the religious fascists among us to justify their vision of theocracy in the name of the Founding Fathers should the March-April 1984 issue of The American Rationalist penetrate that part of the population of this country. In the final analysis, it must be concluded that the Katz essay did next to nothing to broaden our understanding of the religious views of the Founding Fathers and probably did some harm in obscuring their contributions to the problem of church-state relations. By and large, the first Katz article was a minus, a negative that will undoubtedly receive the critical attention of other readers of The American Rationalist. Let the discussion continue!
The American Rationalist January-February 1985
A Critical Response to Bernard Katz On Our Founding Fathers by Robert E. Nordlander
In Part II of Bernard Katz's "Was Ours to be a Christian Nation?" one can find very little to criticize as a great part of the colonial period of American history was dominated by a dogmatic form of Protestantism. Of course, the virulence of this dogmatic control over the minds of our colonial ancestors varied from one part of the colonies to another as did the degree of state control over the religious conscious of the individual. What was deplorable about the Katz effort was his neglect of those forces in colonial society itself that were pushing towards secularization, e.g., no mention was made of Roger Williams and his fight for a government that would leave the religious conscience of the individual alone. It was amusing to note that Benjamin Franklin appeared to be called upon by Katz in order to prove his questionable thesis that the Founding Fathers wanted this country to be a Christian nation when Franklin himself was a principal force in the struggle on the part of enlightened minds to end the suffocating influence that theology had on the mind of colonial humanity. If anyone typified secularism, Benjamin Franklin would have been that person.
Let's take a look at what the Baptist preacher cited above had to say on the subject of religious liberty as given in his The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience:
"It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of His Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences be granted to all men...God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state...An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."
Again affirming that the conscience of the individual was sacred and inviolable in religious matters, Williams responded to the charge that he favored allowing the individual to behave licentiously without any social restraints whatsoever in an epistle with the title: "To the Town of Providence."
"It hath fallen out sometimes that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges - that none of the papists, protestants, Jews or Turks, be forced to come to ship's prayers or worship, not compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship's course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and the passengers."
What could more eloquently capture the essence of the kind of secular government that was established by our Founding Fathers well over a century after Rogers Williams made a plea for a government that would be neutral in matters of religion. Of course, Williams hoped that the people would exercise their liberty of conscience and become the kind of civilized Christian that he was, i.e., a Baptist. But regardless of the religious or anti-religious preferences of the people, government, in the view of Roger Williams, was to be absolutely uninvolved in religious matters, government was to be secular.
That Bernard Katz should have chosen to ignore such a significant personality as Roger Williams in his discussion of the colonial mind was a sin of omission that cannot be forgiven.
In his review of colonial institutions of higher learning, Katz noted that they were primarily preachers' colleges founded by Christians with the exception of the University of Pennsylvania. It is unfortunate that Katz did not choose to discuss that exception for had he done so, he would have been obliged to discuss an institution that ultimately proved to be a model of secular learning for other institutions yet to be born. Originally known as the College of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania served to foster secular learning in the sciences and other useful subjects as opposed to the kind of academic endeavors necessary to produce theological drones. The driving force behind the establishment of the College of Philadelphia was none other than Benjamin Franklin.
The significance of the creation of the College of Philadelphia along with a brief description of its curriculum can be found in The Rise of American Civilization by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. We have first a description of the curriculum.
"So firmly fixed was the grip of tradition upon learning that Franklin, with all his twisting and turning, could not work a complete revolution in the course of study planned for the College of Philadelphia. In the interest of peace and endowment, a compromise was made. Latin, Greek and the scholastic subjects of the age, were provided for boys who wished to prepare for law, medicine, or divinity. Unto these things were added, for the benefit of those intending to follow other paths, such practical studies as mathematics, surveying, navigation, and accounting; scientific branches - mechanics, physics, chemistry, agriculture, and natural history; instruction in history, civics, ethics, government, trade, commerce, and international law; and finally, for the worldly wise and curious, training in modern languages." (Volume I, pp. 172-173).
The significance of all this is discussed in the following terms by the Beards:
"Such was the plan worked out by Franklin in cooperation with the first provost, William Smith, for the college launched in 1755. To suggest that it anticipated the most enlightened program evolved by the liberal university of the late nineteenth century is to speak with caution; in fact, it stands out like a beacon light in the long history of human intelligence. Nor is it without significance that the first liberal institution of higher learning in the western world appeared on the frontier of civilization - in colonial America where an energetic people were wrestling with the realities of an abundant nature and the problems of self-government. Though a Scotch clergyman gave academic form to the course of instruction at Philadelphia, the spirit and concept came from Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated, provincial workman whose mind had never been conquered by the scholastics." (p.173, my emphasis).
Undoubtedly, the Newtonian revolution in science played a role in creating the kind of intellectual atmosphere in which the College of Philadelphia was possible if not inevitable. Unfortunately, Katz was so intent on showing us how Newtonian science was used by some people to buttress Christian theology, he failed to appreciate that it also served to knock the underpinnings out from under orthodox Christianity by giving us a universe presided over by a deity who made the rules and who does not deign to break them for anyone. The miracle-mongering demonic deity of the Bible was retired to the oblivion where he belongs. Newtonian science gave birth to Deism in England and America while it undoubtedly inspired the Atheism of many of the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, viz., Diderot, d'Holbach et al. Unfortunately, Katz gave us a one-sided view of the impact of Newtonian science on the colonial intellect. We were not given "the rest of the story."
While the American colonial mind in the eighteenth century may have believed that "the most elevated system of morals the world has ever known" was produced by Jesus Christ, a sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, it was not the incarnation of "God" in the person known as Jesus of Nazareth that produced this phenomenon. This latter belief was being abandoned by the American intelligentsia of the eighteenth century. Bernard Katz gives us the impression that Newtonian science had little or no effect on this belief whatsoever. Perhaps it might be helpful to view Thomas Jefferson's admiration for Jesus in this light and then to take a look at his objections to the theological nonsense that has surrounded the name of Jesus. We find Jefferson's admiration for Jesus expressed in a letter to W. Short dated October 31, 1819.
"But the greatest of all reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his own from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man."
In a footnote appended to this letter, Jefferson identified that to which he referred to as rubbish thus:
"The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc."
It should be obvious that Jefferson kicked the god of Calvin into the garbage can of history and opted for the god suggested by Newtonian science, a god that Newton himself perhaps was not aware. Jefferson even had the audacity to write his own Bible using selected passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which emphasized the humanity of Jesus and not using anything from the Gospels that suggested miracle-mongering or divinity. This is the little-known Jefferson Bible.
Although Jefferson admired the character of Jesus, as he defined him, he did not hesitate to express his disagreement with Jesus whenever it appeared to him there was a need to do so. In a letter to W. Short, written in 1820, Jefferson put it this way:
"It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it."
Turning to Benjamin Franklin, as perhaps the most representative American intellect of the eighteenth century, let us take a look at his religious beliefs as expressed in a letter to Ezra Stiles dated March 9, 1790. First we have his opinion on the question of a god.
"You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it. But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavor in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet with them."
Now we come to Franklin's thoughts about Jesus.
"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire. I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some Doubts as to his Divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence, as probably it has, of making his Doctrines respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Unbelievers in his Government of the World with any peculiar marks of displeasure."
Franklin's Deism is certainly well-stated in the first passage quoted from his letter to Stiles while his tolerance, common sense and Yankee pragmatism come through loud and clear in the second passage quoted. There is no union of Newtonian science and Calvinism here. Franklin's god is not offended by the fact that there are people who do not believe in his existence. There is no room for the Christian god in the mind of Franklin, particularly the Christian god as defined by John Calvin.
While Bernard Katz's essay on the colonial mind did give us some relevant history to chew on, e.g., the religious history that led up to the development of the colonial mind and his discussion of the history of science that flowed from the Renaissance, it failed to really buttress his thesis that the Founding Fathers of this country wanted their creation to be a Christian nation.
Perhaps the premise from which flows the conclusion that our Founding Fathers wanted our country to be a Christian nation advanced by Bernard Katz ought to be examined. He stated that premise quite succinctly in Part III of his effort to Christianize the Founding Fathers. According to Katz, "They all accepted the new synthesis of Newtonian science, Lockean psychology and politics, and Calvinistic theology as it worked out in practice in the New Israel." (My emphasis).
No one can deny the importance of Newtonian and Lockean thought to the leading intellects of the colonial and the revolutionary period of our history. But to suggest that the Founding Fathers of this country also accepted "Calvinistic theology as it worked out in practice in the New Israel" is to suggest that which is simply not true. Katz started his discussion by pointing to some very significant political documents in order to prove his thesis. He starts his tour de force with The Mayflower Compact, a political constitution obviously drawn up by people who received their theology from John Calvin and finishes it with the Constitution of the United States of America with an aside to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Along the way, he shows us various political documents that are obviously permeated with expressions of dogmatic Christian belief such as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and various state constitutions written after 1776. There is no doubt that these documents quite explicitly promote what we know is historic Protestant Christianity loosely called "Calvinism" by Katz.
It is when Katz moves on to political documents that have a reference to a god or Supreme Being that he resorts to a little theological LEGERDEMAIN. He immediately tells us that it is the god of Christianity that is being cited. When Katz cites the promotion of religion in these documents, he claims that it is Christianity that is being promoted. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my earlier discussion of The Declaration of Independence, I have already shown that "it was not Cotton Mather's God to whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed." Is Bernard Katz seriously trying to tell us that Thomas Jefferson had the historic Christian deity in mind when he wrote The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty or that Jefferson had reference to Calvinism when he cited religion as one of the virtues to be cultivated in The Northwest Ordinance of 1787? Katz is quite quick to label as Christian or Judeo-Christian any general reference to a god that he finds in a political document drawn up during the historical period under discussion.
That Katz was enunciating nonsense in his discussion of The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty will be obvious when we review a comment of Jefferson on the preamble to this statute which Katz quoted in an effort to prove that it was "flooded with Christianity, including a veiled reference to Jesus Christ." This is what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the statute, had to say about this subject:
"Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words `Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."
Apparently those who wished to insert the words "Jesus Christ" into the statute did not think the preamble contained "a veiled reference to Jesus Christ" nor that it was "flooded with Christianity." The generic god, the god of brand "x" - if you will - or the god of Deism was the god mentioned in The Virginia Statute of Relgious Liberty. The Christian God had no place in it whatsoever.
It would seem that Bernard Katz is most insistent upon subjecting us to the myth that Benjamin Franklin actually read a prayer to the Constitutional Convention, a version of the Lord's Prayer composed by Franklin himself. In my earlier discussion, I pointed to Leo Pfeffer's discussion of what actually happened at the Convention. Perhaps it might be better to invoke the testimony of a person who was present at the Convention, a person who can tell us what actually happened. James Madison is being called as a witness at this point in order to put forever at rest the nonsense that has been written about the Constitutional Convention with respect to Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that prayer be a part of the daily ritual. The entire report of the incident by Madison is being presented and also to create another reference source for those interested in this particular topic. We first have Franklin's plea as recorded in Madison's notes on the Convention, a plea which was made on June 28, 1787.
"The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other - our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
"In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the struggle with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. - Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind of providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that 'except the Lord build the House they labour in vain those that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
"I therefore beg leave to move - that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.".
"These were the exact words of Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention as recorded by James Madison. No prayer at all was uttered or read by Franklin. Now let us take a look at the final scene of this comedy as recorded for posterity by James Madison..
"Mr. Sherman seconded the motion..
"Mr. Hamilton and several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of this convention, it might as this late day, 1. bring on it some disagreeable animadversions, and 2. lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure. It was answered by Dr. Franklin, Mr. Sherman and others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission - that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of affairs within, would at least be as likely to do good as ill.
"Mr. Williamson observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds..
"Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on [the] fourth of July, the anniversary of Independence, and thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Doctor Franklin seconded this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing this matter by adjournment, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion."
It should be obvious that the delegates had been put in an embarrassing position by Franklin. They obviously didn't want prayers but they did not wish to offend Franklin or those of their political constituents who might have looked with favor on Franklin's proposal for prayer. Pleading poverty might have been the way out of the dilemma, as one delegate suggested. It is obvious that Williamson's suggestion was not adopted as Katz implies in his article for the excuse would not have been believed by anyone. True, the Convention may not have had public funds for such an expenditure of funds for the services of a clergyperson but most of the members were wealthy and affluent individuals in their own right, and they could easily have paid for the services of a clergyperson out of their own personal resources if they had really believed such services were really necessary to launch the new "empire." Moreover, it would appear that no search was made for a clergyperson whose patriotism would have been insulted had he been offered money for the privilege of calling upon "God" to bless the new "empire" in its birth-pangs. Finally, it should be noted that Katz was mistaken when he said that "Edmund Pendleton, governor of Virginia and delegate to the Convention, suggested that on the 4th of July they all could go to church. As noted in Madison's Notes, Randolph suggested that a sermon be preached at the Convention's request on the fourth of July in conjunction with daily prayers for the rest of the Convention. This motion remains in parliamentary oblivion to this very day. The deficiency of the scholarship of Bernard Katz in this instance should be obvious.
We have already noticed how Franklin felt about religion in general and Jesus in particular. In light of the plea Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention for daily prayer, it might be helpful to our understanding of this complex personality to note his attitude towards governmental financial support of religion as expressed in a letter to Dr. Richard Price on October 9, 1780.
"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."
Turning to Bernard Katz's discussion of the religious clauses of the First Amendment, we again find him deficient in his research. To gain a proper understanding of those clauses, we have to understand the historical circumstances of the people involved in the authorship of the First Amendment. It is not an accident that the religious clauses of the First Amendment read as follows:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
James Madison had been recently victorious in preventing the State of Virginia from taxing the people of that state for the support of all Christian denominations. This would have had the practical effect of making a legal establishment of the Christian religion had not Madison and Jefferson, along with the support of Christians who did not wish to be forced to pay for churches they did not attend and the dissemination of religious doctrines with which they disagreed, been successful. The distinction between Christianity in general and Christian sects in particular was made very explicit by James Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.
"Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever."
Bernard Katz's citation of Wilbur Katz's contention that "it is very difficult to say what the Senate finally intended when it approved the version which was ratified by the states" is ludicrous. Although the Senate did on one occasion turn down one version of the First Amendment which only prohibited the congress of this country from establishing a particular sect or denomination as a national religion and then later passed another version of this concept, common sense would direct us to the final version dealing of the clauses dealing with religion in the First Amendment as we know those clauses today. The First Amendment, in its final version came about as a result of a joint House-Senate conference committee in which James Madison was one of the principal participants. Why just the opinion of the Senate appears to perplex Wilbur Katz and by inference, Bernard Katz, is hard to understand. Why not discuss the attitude of the House of Representatives? In the final analysis, one can reasonably infer that the Senate was ultimately brought around to the perspective of that delegate from the House of Representatives to the Joint House-Senate conference committee, James Madison, who is said to have written the committee report.
We have already commented previously on Bernard Katz's contention that Thomas Jefferson had reduced the wall of separation between church and state to a "curbstone." It might be instructive to view the language of James Madison as applied to this subject as it reflects his broad view of the issue of governmental involvement in religion.
"Strongly-guarded as is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history." (Detached Memoranda).
It is only fair to point out that Madison did not have a naive faith in constitutional or legal guarantees. He was always conscious of the realities of political power and the threat that the misuse of political power posed to our civil and religious liberties. Speaking of religious liberties in a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1788, Madison made the following observation:
"I am sure that the rights of conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition, would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power. One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests, opened a door for Jews, Turks and infidels....In Virginia, I have seen the bill of rights violated in every instance where it has been opposed to a popular current. Notwithstanding the explicit provisions contained in that instrument for the rights of Conscience, it is well known that a religious establishment would have taken place in that State, if the Legislative majority had found, as they expected, a majority of the people in favor of the measure; and I am persuaded that if a majority of the people were now of one sect, the measure would still take place, and on narrower grounds than it was then proposed notwithstanding the additional obstacle which the law has since created. Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression."
To what then can we truly attribute religious freedom? Madison answered this question in an earlier letter to Patrick Henry dated June 12, 1788.
"This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest."
James Madison knew that it was unlikely that one sect would be able to gain the exclusive support of government; hence, his support of the religious clauses of the First Amendment that could serve as an obstacle to a collective support of all religions on the part of government. Needless to say, the Bernard Katz view of the religious clauses of the First Amendment is the view of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Moral Majority and other reactionary religionists who believe government ought to aid their efforts in imposing their particular sectarian religious perspectives upon the rest of society. Until very recently, we have been most fortunate in having a Supreme Court that rejected, for the most part, the Katz view of the First Amendment. The spirit of James Madison lives on!
Bernard Katz concludes his essay with a number of quotes from George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, arguing that their "godtalk" was Christian "godtalk." The truth of the matter is that. with the exception of the quotation attributed to John Adams, the "godtalk" is generic "godtalk" delivered by people who were essentially Deist in their theological outlook.
As for the explicitly Christian statement made by John Adams during his inaugural address, we are obliged to remember that it was made shortly after the reign of Robespierre and Madame Guillotine in France for which Dame Reason and her critique of religious orthodoxy were given the blame. It was a period in history comparable to the 1950's when "God" became America's ally in the Cold War. We have to remember that the Christianity of John Adams was Unitarianism. When he was not on public display, he expressed himself quite explicitly on the subject of orthodox Christianity in a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson dated April 19, 1817.
"From the bottom of my Soul, I pity my Fellow Men. Fears and Terrors appear to have produced a universal Credulity. Fears of Calamities in Life and punishments after death, seem to have possessed the Souls of all Men. But fear of Pain and Death here, do not seem to have been so unconquerable as fear as to what is to come hereafter. Priests, Hierophants, Popes, Despots, Emperors, Kings, Princes, Nobles, have been as credulous as Shoeblacks, Boots, and Kitchen Scullions. The former seem to believe in their divine Rights as the latter. Autos da fé in Spain and Portugal have been celebrated with as good Faith as Excommunications have been practiced in Connecticut or as Baptisms have been refused in Philadelphia..
"How is it possible that Mankind should submit to be governed as they have been is to me an inscrutable Mystery."
It should be obvious that the Christianity that John Adams was talking about in his inaugural address was not the familiar species of Christianity which has plagued humanity for centuries.
The Katz thesis that our Founding Fathers were essentially a species of Christian created by Newtonian science and Calvinism is essentially humbug. It should be instructive to note how Calvin was really perceived by one of the Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson - and also to note that the person with whom he was corresponding - John Adams - was in essential agreement with him. This is how Jefferson disposed of John Calvin in a letter to John Adams on April 11, 1823.
"I can never join John Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I never can be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his five points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."
Thus Atheism was preferable to belief in the god of Calvin, according to Thomas Jefferson. So much for Bernard Katz's effort to saddle the Founding Fathers of our country with even the shadow if not the substance of John Calvin. In the words of Jefferson, they did not subscribe to his religion of "daemonism." They created a secular nation as a result. Ours was not to be a Christian nation!
By Robert E. Nordlander, email@example.com