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Thursday, January 20, 2005
Founding Fathers and Innauguration Prayers  
And so forth. I posted this to LiningUp.Net's message boards, in the context of a discussion re: the recent Newdow attempt to bar prayer at the Innauguration. It took over an hour to write this, because I was gathering quotes. Therefore, I'm giving it to you all to enjoy. Or not. It's here, either way. I've edited some stuff out, qualifed three statements (quick! Which ones are they?) and changed some codes around (e.g. instead of listing a URL below a word, I've linked the word itself).

The comment that spurred this on was in response to someone saying that all of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to profess a belief in God before being accepted (I'm not sure about the historical accuracy of that claim, and I'm NOT investigating it this afternoon). One person, Peter, replied simply: They might have lied.

And that spawned this monstrosity:

"At the time things ummm... different than today. Seriously, guys. Even the folks who were rampaging through France, ripping apart Catholic properties and killing Church officials, still had a semblence of religiousity swirling about themselves (see bottom of this post).

The Enlightenment produced Deists -- people who believed in an impersonal God not directing the daily affairs of men, or something similar -- not atheists. I should point out here that John Adams, who's sometimes discussed in this context, was a Unitarian who rejected 'trumpery and Creeds' in the same spirit that some more vocal Quakers did, and he was not a Deist -- I used to get a real kick out of the fact that I was distantly related (out of all the Presidents) on to him and his son John Quincy Adams, and that I was in his same religion, too, if you considered the UU church to be effectively the same as the old Unitarian and Universalist churches. The modern-day Deists say the following about themselves:

"What is the basis of Deism?
Reason and nature. We see the design found throughout the known universe and this realization brings us to a sound belief in a Designer or God.

Is Deism a form of atheism?
No. Atheism teaches that there is no God. Deism teaches there is a God. Deism rejects the "revelations" of the "revealed" religions but does not reject God.

If Deism teaches a belief in God, then what is the difference between Deism and the other religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.?
Deism is, as stated above, based on nature and reason, not "revelation." All the other religions make claim to special divine revelation or they have requisite "holy" books. Deism has neither. In Deism there is no need for a preacher, priest or rabbi. All one needs in Deism is their own common sense and the creation to contemplate."

All of which is VERY in line with the Enlightenment.

As much fun as it is to find Jeffersonian quotes about hating the Bible, what you usually find is that he's railing against... well, just the Bible itself, or Christianity in the form of the organized churches of the day (he'd probably dislike all of them today, too) -- specific doctrines and the like. Many of the Deists believed in Jesus historically, and even as a Divine Being of one sort or another. Some didn't; they didn't seem to argue about it amongst themselves (at least not in their letters to one another that I can find on short notice -- you guys are much more challenging than my college professors).

But the vague, near-secular references to God that we do find in our public documents, as well as the generic sorts of prayers often given at public occasions including innaugurations, sessions of Congress, and so forth (NOT the National Prayer Breakfast -- I believe each denomination takes turns; same goes with semi-public occasions such as the national political conventions, where they even let Mormon women pray... heh), are pretty much perfectly in line with this kind of religious belief, which many (though not all) of the Founding Fathers most often pointed to in this kind of discussion (e.g. Jefferson, Paine, Washington, Franklin, and maybe Madison -- can't remember offhand about him) really DID espouse, even in private.

The Quakers also produced the same sort of negative dialogue regarding pomp, ceremony, and so forth (the rugged simplicity espoused by the Puritans -- who said the same kinds of things about Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church that the Deists said about Protestant churches in the colonies -- had largely faded, IIRC, from American religious life by the 1760s, except in Quaker gatherings and Deist meetings).

Jefferson and the other Deists in particular tended to say things that boiled down to: "Through the powers of my own reason I know there is a God out there -- but it's up to each and every man to go out and use his own powers of reason to figure that out for himself, and it is not my affair nor the affair of this government to insist that they must believe or not believe in anything at all."

Jefferson (who didn't seem to like Trinitarianism):
"It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one;…. But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all, then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition."

Jefferson on the Quakers:
"How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair their love of their brethren."

Benjamin Franklin on religious tests (meaning, generally, that you would have to espouse the beliefs of a particular creed -- Baptists or what have you -- to join a legislature or other government entitity):
"I am fully of your opinion respecting religious tests; but, though the people of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that people were 100 years ago, we must allow they have gone great lengths in liberality of sentiment on religious subjects; and we may hope for greater degrees of perfection, when their constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. If Christian preachers had continued to teach as Christ and his Apostles did, without salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine tests would never have existed; for I think they were invented, not so much to secure religion itself, as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, 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."

Patrick Henry:
"I cannot but wish well to a People, whose system imitates the Example of him whose Life was perfect. And believe me I shall honour the Quakers in their noble Effort to abolish Slavery. It is equally calculated to promote moral & political Good."

Franklin on Churches:
"I wish it (Christianity) were more productive of good works ... I mean real good works ... not holy day keeping, sermon-hearing ... or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity."

On the other hand, and more specifically, if you take a look at the last 70 years, Presidents in general have been unremittingly religious during and around their innaugurations, in a public way. Every one of them attended a religious service in a church immediately before or after the innauguration, with three exceptions:


Nixon went to church like he normally did, the day after his second innaugural; he went to an "official prayer breakfast" at the State Department immediately after his first. Carter did an interfaith prayer service at the Lincoln memorial before his innauguration. And FDR, who went to the same church for his first three innaugurals, was too sick to sit through a public service in 1945. So they had a private one in the White House (almost everyone after JFK had private services in their church of choice, when they went to church; JFK and those before him appear to have gone to ordinary ones -- and yes, JFK went to Holy Trinity church in DC)

Oh, and Eisenhower did one better on the others for the public display of respect for Christianity thing. Jan. 20th in 1957 was a Sunday, so he took a private oath of office that day, after going to church like normal, and then the next day had a public one. After all, he didn't want to compete with all the churches for audience members... Reagan solved that problem by doing a very public service in the National Cathedral in 1985, getting innaugurated, and then going to his regular church (the same one both Bush men attend in DC: St. John's Episcopal) later that same day. Can't wait to see what happens in 2013 (the next Sunday innaugural, AFAIK).

Which meshes nicely with an overall ascendency within our culture of a fairly generic, "nearly everyone who calls themselves Christian can at least find SOMETHING they don't hate" public Christianity.

Having said ALL OF THAT UP THERE (which has taken the better part of the innauguration ceremony), let me just add that I'm not a huge fan of secular-nominal Christianity. I'm not sure that young children "get" the God thing in the Pledge, and that in this particular case having them say it every day demeans the meaning behind the words. I recall kids trying to say it as fast as possible, as a game, in school. I'm still torn between wanting people to believe in what I know to be the truth, and wanting them to decide it for themselves as a matter of personal reflection and investigation -- and I'm not sure which of those goals, if either one, is served by generic, standardized, prayers-as-a-matter-of-this-is-what-we-always-do-because-we-have-always-done-it. As a religious person it bugs me.

However, as a historian and a libertarian, it doesn't. Let the President and whoever he's invited to his innauguration say whatever the heck they want, and let the chips fall where they may. Most of this is political, anyway, and always has been: Don't annoy the majority who minimally profess a Christian faith, and try not to offend or bore everyone else while you're at it, because your opponents, who do NOT take Innauguration Day off thank you VERY much (after all, they lost), will use any offense, annoyance, or boredom to their utmost advantage. Meanwhile, I've sat through more than a few religious displays I disagreed with -- even as a young child; remember, I was a Unitarian Universalist before I was Mormon -- and I can assure you that the difference between elementary school Pledge recitals (where the Jehovah's Witness kids were actually instructed by the teachers to remain seated, to obey their parents' wishes) or listening to the prayers at the start of a session of Congress, and what happened to me in the Sea Cadets (see below) or other officially-mandated acts of religious oppression are... ummm... quite large. If the President wants to pray and invite 6,000 of his closest, richest friends to pray with him, whoohoo! If you want to whip out your GameBoy, well, ummm, that's a little silly -- dude, it's cold out there, at least find a warm spot in like, the Library of Congress or something -- but go ahead. Not like I'm going to hell because of your disbelief. I don't even believe in the whole fire-and-brimstone thing, let alone in your power to send me there. ^_^

(Sea Cadet story: I was 14, and at Sea Cadet boot camp for 2 weeks, including one full Sunday. We were told to select a religious service to attend for that Sunday; when I requested to go to the LDS services [this was NAS Miramar, and they actually had LDS services at the base chapel], the commanding officer over our training corps (a US Navy reservist doing his two weeks of training as a Sea Cadet officer -- they allowed that, at least at the time), stood up in front of the entire group of 80 or so cadets and said, "The US Government does not recognize that as a religion. Sit down, cadet." I was sufficiently annoyed at him that I went to the Catholic service rather than sit through the Protestant service he was going to go to -- which is where all the cadets without a preference went -- that's the only Mass I've ever been to, actually.)

(As to the French:"The National Assembly, meanwhile, was moving to put all religion under its authority. Deputies to the National Assembly were mostly Christians. They saw the message of Jesus supporting liberty, tolerance and against despotism. In their opinion the revolution they were making conformed to Christian principles. They believed, as had Voltaire, that the masses needed religion, that religion was a civilizing force and that the Gospels had a moral and humanistic value. They believed there was no conflict between reason and religion, that both were directed toward human welfare and happiness. They also favored putting organized religion under the control of the revolution. They wanted a church for the nation that was less opulent than the Catholic Church. They wanted the government to oversee the elections of pastors and bishops, and they wanted clergymen to swear loyalty to this plan. About half of the clergy refused. In places across the country, violence broke out between supporters of the revolution and defenders of the Church. In March, 1791, Pope Pius VI damned the attempt to apply state authority over the Church. Louis XVI was a devout Catholic, and he was troubled by it all. More suspicion was heaped upon him by the public, and he was accused of sheltering priests who had refused to take the oath of loyalty to the state. In April, Louis wanted to perform his annual Easter devotion at Saint-Cloud, ten miles west of Paris, but a mob surrounded his carriage and prevented his departure." So, they weren't quite principled Deists -- actually, their attitudes were probably more in line with what you were thinking, Peter)"


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