Nel's New Day

January 29, 2012

Today’s Conservatives Would Reject Reagan, Founding Fathers

As the conservatives move farther and farther to the right, more and more venerated people of our history would have no chance of getting elected. Pundits like to talk about how Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be good enough for today’s conservative—although his name is tossed around to prove some points that candidates make. Even the early leaders of the United States would be considered far too liberal to make the cut, especially in their religious beliefs.

Unlike all the candidates who claimed to be chosen by the Christian God to represent the people—Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum come to mind—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine thought of their faith as a private matter and lacked a “pure” enough faith to satisfy current conservatives.

George Washington, an Anglican, followed the philosophy of Deism, believing in a god that set things in motion and then stayed out of the effects. As such, this god was a “supreme architect” of the universe. Widely tolerant of other religions, Washington wrote a letter to Touro Synagogue (1790) promising the Jews that they would enjoy complete religious liberty in America and described a multi-faith society with freedom for all beliefs. “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” Such stories about his praying in theValley Forge snow are myths created after he died.

John Adams, a Unitarian raised as a Congregationalist, refused to believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. His writings show that he found parts of Christian dogma to be incomprehensible. In his diary he wrote, “Thus mystery [Trinity] is made a convenient cover for absurdity.” When President Adams signed the famous Treaty of Tripoli, it stated, “[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion….”

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.” He did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin, and other core Christian doctrines, once saying to Adams, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Admiring Jesus as a moral teacher, he edited the New Testament, eliminating the stories of miracles and divinity and leaving behind a very human Jesus, whose teachings Jefferson found “sublime.” Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and fasting, saying that such religious duties were no part of the chief executive’s job.

James Madison, nominally Anglican, was probably a Deist like Washington. The strictest church-state separationist among the founders, he opposed government-paid chaplains in Congress and in the military. He also opposed government-issued prayer proclamations, declaring them unconstitutional.

Thomas Paine, also a radical Deist, infuriated fundamentalists with “The Age of Reason” in which he  opposed institutionalized religion and all of the major tenets of Christianity, rejecting prophecies and miracles while calling on readers to embrace reason. The Bible, Paine asserted, can in no way be infallible. He called the god of the Old Testament “wicked” and the entire Bible “the pretended word of God.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that religious groups should be able to choose their leaders without governmental interference. In doing so, it rejected arguments by the Obama administration that government regulations trump the free exercise of religion when denying people civil rights.

Surprisingly, no justice mentioned the obvious tension between this decision and the 2010 case Christian Legal Society v.Martinez. In the latter, justices held 5-4 that a public university could refuse to recognize a Christian organization because the group wished to practice discrimination in its members.

Which of the Republican religious leaders will win this year in their desire to impose their “Christian” beliefs on the nation? In my crystal ball, I think that Santorum won’t last  more than a month, and the Republican establishment will help Romney rise over Gingrich–despite Herman Cain’s and Sarah Palin’s endorsements of the latter.

Stay tuned this week for the Florida and Nevada primaries (1/31 and 2/4 respectively unless Nevada decides to make another change). I’ll be away from the computer for that time but be back in a week.


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