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God and Country — Either Or? | davelovell.net
Oct 042010

About the mid­dle of the first quar­ter of my Amer­i­can His­tory classes we cover the Intel­lec­tual life of the colonies, look­ing to dis­cover how the peo­ple of the time thought about their world.  Pretty quickly my stu­dents begin to see two very dif­fer­ent schools of thought that formed a divide that impacted our Nation’s birth, and con­tin­ues to do so.

On one hand was the Great Awak­en­ing with the fire & brim­stone preach­ing of Jonathan Edwards (Sin­ners in the Hands of an Angry God).  This was the orig­i­nal get back to god move­ment that began in the burned out dis­tricts of the North and then swept through the rest of the colonies with vary­ing lev­els of effect.  They were react­ing to a per­cep­tion that peo­ple were begin­ning to turn their backs on God, and that they needed to change their ways…and fast!  In large part what they were react­ing against, was/is the other intel­lec­tual side of the bur­geon­ing National char­ac­ter; the Enlightenment.

The Coper­ni­can Rev­o­lu­tion that began the Enlight­en­ment changed Euro­pean atti­tudes about many things and brought about a gen­eral ques­tion­ing of the accepted answers for every­thing. From Voltaire to Descartes, New­ton to Locke — bedrock assump­tions came under scrutiny, among them the divine right of kings and the asser­tions of reli­gious dogma.  Thomas Jef­fer­son and Ben­jamin Franklin were obvi­ous pro­po­nents ofEn­light­en­ment Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy; a quick read­ing of Jefferson’s open­ing to the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence gives clear evi­dence of this.  In fact the only change to Jefferson’s orig­i­nal draft that Franklin sug­gested was to replace “sacred,” with “self-evident” in order to avoid overly reli­gious ter­mi­nol­ogy.  The major­ity of the “founders” were heav­ily influ­enced by this new world­view and all of our Nation’s found­ing doc­u­ments con­tain these ideals.

But to say that these enlight­ened men were with­out faith in God would be to go too far.  Many of them (includ­ing Jef­fer­son and Franklin) were Deists.  They had a per­sonal faith in God, but were highly skep­ti­cal of orga­nized reli­gion.  Their God was Newton’s great watch­maker, a god who put the plan­ets to spin­ning, and then stepped back to see what we might do with it.

Our Nation was founded dur­ing the intel­lec­tual after­math of both the Great Awak­en­ing and the Enlight­en­ment and in many ways these two views have col­ored our pol­i­tics ever since.  The framers of the Con­sti­tu­tion, see­ing pos­si­ble trou­bles from the more reli­gious among them­selves, found a sim­ple solu­tion; sep­a­ra­tion of church from state, stat­ing in the non-establishment clause that no sin­gle reli­gion would have pre­em­i­nence, ensur­ing free­dom for all religions.

The legacy of those who would see this as a nation of the Great Awak­en­ing ver­sus those who see a more Enlight­ened nation is long and, at times, trou­bling.  In many of the great debates of our his­tory one can see these two sides at play, and in our own time the divide between red & blue states seems very clearly to break along these same lines — god-fearers vs. lib­eral elites.

But I just don’t get it… I’m as lib­eral elite as they come, but I still believe in God.  I have no inten­tion of destroy­ing reli­gion, but those on the other side see me as a threat because I agree with the framers and their pro­hi­bi­tion against an estab­lished state reli­gion.  Why do the same peo­ple that decry the grow­ing size of gov­ern­ment as the advent of social­ism want to give it enough power to leg­is­late faith?

To think that learn­ing about the the­o­ries of evo­lu­tion in a pub­lic high school will dam­age someone’s faith says a lot more about the weak­ness of that faith, than the power of the the­ory. Sadly, I doubt the sin­cer­ity of many today who would rail about bring­ing the coun­try back to God.  I per­ceive their motives to be more strongly moti­vated by pol­i­tics and money than by any actual faith.

Why is it that we can­not sim­ply mar­vel at the genius of a gov­ern­ment built on the guar­an­tee of reli­gious free­doms for all, with­out try­ing to sug­gest some Chris­t­ian basis for it that never existed? Many on the right rage at the gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor – what could be more pri­vate than a person’s faith?

The Great Awak­en­ing was wrong; the Enlight­en­ment was not an attack on reli­gion, nor were its adher­ents athe­ists.  If the Enlight­en­ment attacked any­thing it was hypocrisy; espe­cially the hyp­o­crit­i­cal use of reli­gion by the pow­er­ful to keep the unpow­er­ful in their place.   When the rich tell the poor to “…get back to God,” they may really be say­ing, “…get back in line!”

  One Response to “God and Country — Either Or?”

  1. Nicely put. Amer­ica has been a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety since its found­ing, and has always had some level of polar­iza­tion along polit­i­cal and/or reli­gious lines. But has the debate always been this vit­ri­olic? I find the rhetoric quite frightening.

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