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Thursday, 5 May 2011
Was GW PC?
The recent post on debating America as a Christian nation prompted some interesting discussion over on my Facebook page. My conclusion was that our country was indeed founded on Christian-Judeo principals, but it was not a Christian Nation. Some of my peers approved of my findings while others vehemently disagreed. Both Facebook friends and fellow historians alike offered up their own interpretations on the topic and one friend specifically asked what I thought about George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in relation to the debate. To be honest, I never thought about this correlation before. Of course it’s purely speculation, but here is my personal ‘take’ on Washington’s Thanksgiving prayer in relation to disputing America as a Christian nation. First, let’s look at the proclamation as it was written by our first president in October of 1789:
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. Go: Washington
At first glance, there is no doubt a heavy religious influence to the verbiage used. This is quite common in decrees from this period. We know for a fact that George Washington was a Christian, so it makes sense that his faith would influence his language in a proclamation this personal. In fact, it is the essence of the holiday as Thanksgiving is an act of offering gratitude to one’s divinity for their blessings.
You may also notice that there is no mention of a Christian God, or more specifically, Jesus Christ. Much like the Declaration of Independence all references to a deity are generic. One can only speculate that this was an intentional move so as not to alienate any non-Christian citizens. It speaks to my previously stated conclusion that the Founding Fathers understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity. Now let’s take this comparison one step further. In 1891, a book believed to be George Washington's prayer journal was discovered. One of the prayers quoted from it follows:
Almighty God, and most merciful father, who didst command the children of Israel to offer a daily sacrifice to thee, that thereby they might glorify and praise thee for thy protection both night and day, receive, O Lord, my morning sacrifice which I now offer up to thee; I yield thee humble and hearty thanks that thou has preserved me from the danger of the night past, and brought me to the light of the day, and the comforts thereof, a day which is consecrated ot thine own service and for thine own honor. Let my heart, therefore, Gracious God, be so affected with the glory and majesty of it, that I may not do mine own works, but wait on thee, and discharge those weighty duties thou requirest of me, and since thou art a God of pure eyes, and wilt be sanctified in all who draw near unto thee, who doest not regard the sacrifice of fools, nor hear sinners who tread in thy courts, pardon, I beseech thee, my sins, remove them from thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of thy son Jesus Christ, that when I come into thy temple, and compass thine altar, my prayers may come before thee as incense; and as thou wouldst hear me calling upon thee in my prayers, so give me grace to hear thee calling on me in thy word, that it may be wisdom, righteousness, reconciliation and peace to the saving of the soul in the day of the Lord Jesus. Grant that I may hear it with reverence, receive it with meekness, mingle it with faith, and that it may accomplish in me, Gracious God, the good work for which thou has sent it. Bless my family, kindred, friends and country, be our God & guide this day and for ever for his sake, who ay down in the Grave and arose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
If this is an authentic Washington prayer it is very telling. You will notice that he specifically refers to “Jesus Christ” multiple times throughout. This reference appears in other prayerful petitions attributed to him. IF America was in fact founded to operate under the premise of a Christian nation would not Washington’s presidential decrees mimic his own Christian beliefs? Why does he repeatedly petition our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in his own prayers, yet refrain from mentioning him in his presidential proclamations? I believe this to be an intentional choice and a case of something that many conservatives would refer to today as “political correctness.”
Does that mean that the Father of our country could have been motivated by political influence to maintain a religious neutrality? Was George Washington...politically correct? Perhaps. There is a definite difference between his private prayers and public proclamations. We do know that Washington carefully crafted his persona as both a military man and politician. What people thought of him mattered. I assume that the leader of a Christian nation would publicly echo its beliefs.
So why didn't President Washington address his constituents as followers of Jesus Christ? I believe that he wanted to acknowledge all American citizens regardless of their beliefs. I will add that even if a majority of them were Christians, they were NOT citizens of a Christian nation. In retrospect, this proclamation may be one of the earliest attempts at promoting religious tolerance and unity among faiths. Isn't that what our country is all about?
Although Washington's Thanksgiving decree is considered to be the first “official” presidential proclamation, it is not entirely unique in the annals of American history. Both John Adams and James Madison also issued similar declarations during their tenure in office. Today, we are very fortunate to have this document in our possession as it was lost for over 130 years. The original was scribed in long hand by William Jackson, secretary to the President, and then signed by George Washington. Shortly thereafter it was lost. It is believed that the document was accidentally shuffled in with some private papers when the United States capitol was transferred from New York to Washington DC. As a result, the manuscript was not placed in the National Archives until 1921 when the assistant chief of the manuscripts division of the Library of Congress, a man named Dr. J. C. Fitzpatrick, discovered it at an art gallery auction in New York. He purchased the document for $300.00 for the Library of Congress where it now resides as part of the George Washington’s Papers collection.
Tuesday, 3 May 2011
A Christian nation or a nation of Christians?
[Inspired by Richard William's post]
Of all the hot-topics debated in our country none seem to ignite more arguments than the premise that America was founded as a Christian nation. As a historian who is also an active Presbyterian, I like to think that I understand where both sides of this dispute are coming from. On one hand, the core concept of “liberty and justice for all” appears contrary to the claim of a formally-established Christian nation. After all, didn’t the earliest settlers flee to our continent in order to escape religious persecution? At the same time, many people (predominantly conservative Christians) vehemently maintain that it was their faith alone that served as the keystone in America’s foundation. Some of these folks even believe that the United States was somehow divinely inspired, perhaps even ordained by God.
I have written about this topic in the past both here on ‘Blog, or Die.’ and over at ‘The Jefferson Project.’ Personally, I don't think anyone with even a basic understanding of our country’s origins would deny that the founding of this nation was definitely influenced by Christian-Judeo principals. I think the point is that they did not intend for the country to be a Christian-Judeo nation, but a nation where all religions (emphasis on the word “all”) could worship freely and prosper. That means liberty, on day-one, for every faith from Catholic and Protestant – to Atheist and Scientologist. I have friends who are devout Christians and friends who are devout Pagans. Is this not equally their nation? Was it not established so that BOTH of them would have an equal opportunity to pursue a life of happiness? Of course it is. That was the point.
So when people say America was founded on Christian-Judeo principals I agree. BUT if they say America was founded to BE a Christian nation I say no. Why? Because I find that statement in itself contradictory to the whole concept of religious freedom. Now I understand that most people have an innate desire to be right and that we all want to have a sense of belonging. Simply put, we want to relate in some way to our past. Naturally Christians want to believe that the Founding Fathers were on their side, while the Atheists wish the same. Historically I believe that America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation. And I absolutely believe that the Founding Fathers understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity.
In April of 2009, President Barack Obama upset some people when he answered the question of whether the country he represented was indeed a Christian nation. He said that America is “a predominantly Christian nation,” but “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He added that “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” I agree with that premise, but I am also aware of the fact that there is conflicting evidence spread throughout the country’s infancy. Let’s look at some historical facts supporting both sides of this debate instead of relying on our differing opinions.
By early 1776, the colonies were religiously diverse, with several Protestant groups, minority Catholic and Jewish populations, and a large number of African-American slaves, many of them Muslim. In July of that year the Declaration of Independence was unveiled. The document contains just four theological references: “nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence.” There is not a single specific mention of either Jesus Christ or Christianity. The Declaration, reflecting their signer’s collective thinking, was carefully written and edited; words were included, or not, so as not to appear as an endorsement of any particular faith.
In 1785 Patrick Henry, Virginia’s governor and an Anglican (Episcopalian), wanted residents to pay a church tax to support the country’s expanding religious institutions. Thomas Jefferson, who was raised in the Anglican tradition, strongly opposed the concept. By enlisting the support of his friend James Madison and Baptist minister John Leland, he was able to lead a campaign that successfully defeated Henry’s bill in the Virginia Legislature. The following year, 1786, the Legislature overwhelmingly adopted Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom by a vote of 74 to 20. Madison, a Presbyterian and future president himself, predicted the rise of a “multiplicity of religious sects” in the U.S., similar to diverse political parties.
On the other hand, Samuel Adams, who has been called ‘The Father of the American Revolution’ wrote The Rights of the Colonists in 1772, which stated: “The rights of the colonists as Christians...may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institution of the Great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.” John Quincy Adams, our sixth president supported this notion when he said “From the day of the Declaration...they [the American people] were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct.”
Additionally, of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention the vast majority were Christians of one form or another: 29 were Anglicans, 16-18 were Calvinists, and among the rest were 2 Methodists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 lapsed Quaker-sometimes Anglican, and only 1 open Deist. The presence of these diverse denominations is undeniable. Still it’s impossible to believe that these brilliant minds would not think that the interweaving of religion and politics is dangerous, even offensive in some ways.
Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, offers some spiritually-practical perspective on the matter. In an article penned for Salon he writes, “The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were -- religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic.” So by Christians insisting that it was absolutely essential for their faith to be the moral backbone of civilized democracy, they are in fact demeaning it by proclaiming it as political doctrine.
Unfortunately, I believe that far too many of my fellow practitioners fail to honestly scrutinize this topic from a purely analytical view. No one has summarized this problem better than John Fea, an American history professor at Messiah College and contributing writer to the History News Service. He writes, “And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today’s evangelical churches.”
How does this argument end? The answer in my opinion is that it doesn’t. It will go on and on and on…because there will never be a distinct verdict on this. The evidence supporting both sides is far too complex and the belief itself is way too personal. I will say in closing that you CAN be a devout Christian (like me) and still maintain that we are NOT a Christian nation. It doesn’t make you any more or less a believer – or any more or less a patriot. I believe in Jesus Christ and I also believe in an equal legacy of liberty for my fellow citizens who don’t. To me that is what America is all about. So if you ask me, I will say that we are NOT a Christian nation. We are a great nation of religiously diverse citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.
Monday, 2 May 2011
Back from the 'Burg
Scott Lang and me at the CarnegieCarnegie's 6th Annual Civil War Weekend
This past weekend I had the honor of participating in the CarnegieCarnegie’s 6th Annual Civil War Weekend in Pittsburgh. My contribution to the festival (which featured re-enactments, musical performances, exhibits, tours, sutlers and a ball) came in the form of a lecture that presented the experiences of the 123rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as well as a screening of our documentary “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” I will post the video of my talk (if the quality is decent), or the transcripts w/ slides in the coming weeks. Personally, I wasn’t that pleased with my delivery, but the audience seemed very receptive and enjoyed it. I was joined in the Music Hall by Pittsburgh author Scott Lang who wrote The Forgotten Charge: The 123rd Pennsylvania at Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Scott shared an extensive knowledge of the 123rd and displayed his wonderful collection of relics. It was great to have a REAL expert on hand.
I was unable to make it down to the new Ben Franklin exhibit at the Heinz Museum as the NRA Convention was in town. Instead I had the pleasure of having dinner and cocktails with longtime friend Maroon David, a tremendously gifted historian and teacher's assistant at Carnegie Mellon University. In addition to providing me with some insights on achieving academic accreditation, Maroon also gave me a copy of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier. One of my interests nowadays is the misrepresentation of the Founding Documents in support of a religious or political agenda. I am amazed at how many folks sincerely believe that the Constitution was somehow inspired or ordained by God and is therefore a sacred document free from scrutiny. Personally, as a Christian, I find it extremely offensive that anyone would equate the Constitution with the Bible, yet it is Christians who are often the guiltiest at propagating this notion. Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson had to say on the matter:
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched; who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816. Page 199. The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia)
Of course the Constitution isn't the only document worth our examination. According to the publisher American Scripture provides a thorough analysis of the Declaration of Independence's origins, influence, and regard. The author also examines the ways in which the Declaration has been revered and redefined by different groups of Americans. In the current ‘Age of Misinformation’ where it has become tolerable for political extremists and fringe groups to misquote and misrepresent our Founders (and their documents), it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about their history. I just started reading this book, so I am not quite sure if Ms. Maier’s interpretations are revolutionary. I will post my own review after I finish reading it.
Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Hope to see you there
Just a reminder: This Saturday (April 30th) I will be participating in the 6th Annual Civil War Weekend at the CarnegieCarnegie Library and Music Hall in Pittsburgh PA. At 11:00 and 1:45 I will be giving a lecture titled “Gallant Boys of the 123rd,” which presents the experiences of the PA Volunteers at the Battle of Fredericksburg. At 12:45 and 3:30 I will be hosting a screening of our documentary “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” which presents the story of Sgt. Richard Kirkland who gave water to his wounded enemies. I will have our traveling exhibit that features a behind the scenes kiosk and movie props. I will also be joined by Pittsburgh author Scott Lang who wrote The Forgotten Charge: The 123rd Pennsylvania at Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Scott has a wonderful collection of 123rd relics that he will be displaying at an adjacent table. Copies of “The Angel” DVD will be for sale ($12), as well as Will White’s soundtrack CD ($10). See the complete weekend schedule
Were the Founding Fathers Socialists?
The textbook definition of Socialism is “an economic and political theory, advocating public or common ownership, as well as the cooperative management, allocation and distribution of resources.” Current socialist parties existing in the United States include the Socialist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, the latter boasting approximately 10,000 members. Despite the longtime existence of these organizations, the modern socialist movement did not get much attention in the United States until the 2009 election of our current president, Barack Obama. Since then “socialism” has become one of the most inflammatory and misused words in our political vocabulary.
Initially, the term was commandeered by the conservative movement, primarily made up of Republicans, to be used as an accusatory campaign tactic. This was in direct response to the then Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s comments alluding to the expansion of government intervention and redistribution of wealth. It was later used to christen the counter-argument against the Obama Administration’s proposed changes such as government-funded bailouts and universal health care reform. Today it has become a permanent moniker used by the right when describing the president and his liberal policies. Unfortunately, it is also misused continually by Tea Party members, disgruntled GOP supporters and conservative political commentators alike.
I was surprised to find that more than a few political scholars maintain that true socialism was in fact, democratic in nature. Proponents of the system add that it properly prioritizes human needs, thus benefiting a broader stretch of the population. Additionally, many citizens who identify themselves as being on the left, support the notion of incorporating a socialist agenda into the country’s fledgling capitalist system. At the same time political traditionalists and Republican nay Sayers passionately protest the concept and liken it to oppressive forms of government including communism and fascism. Both arguments have merit.
As the country moves further ahead into the president’s first term, little change appears to have manifested on either side of the aisle. In fact, things are worse in some instances as neither party seems able to work together for the betterment of their constituents. Solidarity and compromise are now foreign concepts and the very essence of the two-party system appears to be failing. Yet it is the great debate over socialism that continues to dominate the discussion. It is a winless argument, instrumental in fanning the flames of discontent, and furthering the divide between liberals and conservatives.
Perhaps that is why I was even more surprised to find that some academics are preaching that the concept of American-socialism is nothing new, nor is it contrary to many of the Founding Father’s principles. Mark Brown, holder of the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at Capital University School of Law, says that in the midst of the current furor over health care reform legislation we should remember that America's own revered Founding Fathers authorized, and sometimes embraced socialist-like philosophies. In an editorial posted on JURIST he writes, “Many of our Founding Fathers were socialists. They believed that essential services should be provided by government to the public at large for little or no remuneration. The costs of these services would be shared by the whole. This, by most modern accounts, is socialism.”
Several historical quotes have been used repeatedly in these kinds of commentaries to support the notion that although they were not in favor of a total socialist system, some Founders did support the overall principle and as a result, the foundation of which our nation operates has socialist influence and flavor. (That ought to piss the Tea Party off.) Two individuals who are credited with sharing this mindset were Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
In his 1797 pamphlet titled Agrarian Justice, Thomas Paine outlined the concept for a nationwide account (like Social Security) that would be distributed among the people. He wrote: “[I shall] Create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum for life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”
In 1811, Jefferson penned a letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko that outlined the concept of spreading wealth around to those less fortunate. He wrote: “The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied... Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &tc., the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone - without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”
It is important to note that these quotes may be taken out of context. Personally, I don't think the Founders were what we would consider today to be Socialists. I don't believe the current administration is either. That said, I do think that we are just beginning to see what kind of long-term damage partisan stubbornness in government can do. Change is certainly needed. Whether it can be achieved through the broadening of political ideologies remains to be seen. Perhaps by re-examining our history and the diversity of our Founder's principals we can come to some kind of compromise that will be in the best interests of the country instead of the best interests of the politicians.
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