Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Founders' Religion

[This is the first of several posts to follow that draw from the History Carnival post just above.]

It's a tenet among conservative Christians that the Founding Fathers were a religious lot. In a general sense, that's true, but as this post on Madison’s and Washington’s Silence shows, they were heretical in their day. The people who wrote our Constitution were Enlightenment Deists, unitarians, and folks who didn't see the Bible as inerrant words from God. The constant refrain of "Nature's God" you find in the founding documents is a largely misunderstood phrase today, but had a very real meaning at the time. It meant not the God of the Bible, as revealed within it, but the God of nature as revealed to men of reason who studied and learned from nature. They valued reason and study above all.

Also, apropos of the discussion in posts below about the role of government, I want to quote from our fourth President, James Madison, speaking in 1799:
Pledged as we are, fellow-citizens, to these sacred engagements, we yet humbly, fervently implore the Almighty Disposer of events to avert from our land war and usurpation, the scourges of mankind; to permit our fields to be cultivated in peace; to instil into nations the love of friendly intercourse; to suffer our youth to be educated in virtue, and to preserve our morality from the pollution invariably incident to habits of war; to prevent the laborer and husbandman from being harassed by taxes and imposts; to remove from ambition the means of disturbing the commonwealth; to annihilate all pretexts for power afforded by war; to maintain the Constitution; and to bless our nation with tranquillity, under whose benign influence we may reach the summit of happiness and glory, to which we are destined by nature and nature’s God.
As the highlighted phrase, read within context, shows, the Founders meant for government never to be the means by which ambitious men could enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the public. It was intended to remain small in its reach (though fundamentally broad in effect, as a Federal government would be) and specific in its powers, to prevent its co-optation by the greedy and tyrannical. These people all had first hand experience with that kind of government and knew its evils well. Something for us, in our comfortable and safe lives, to think about today.

So there.

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