History Remembered


With the church ' state issue making headlines again, I wasn't surprised to receive an essay from a friend reminding me of the nation's Christian roots. The anonymous composition, History Forgotten, resides on dozens of web sites and is hitting the inboxes of concerned Christians. [1] It says that without Christianity there would be no America, and revisionists are to blame for hiding this fact. History Forgotten likes to talk about the founders' Christian beliefs ' as if Christianity led us to Revolution, which led us to a limited state. But how does one reason about the many Christians who opposed the Revolution? Or does natural rights philosophy rather than Christianity better explain the logic of events? History Forgotten begins by asking: 'Did you know that 52 of the 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence were orthodox, deeply committed Christians? The other three all believed in the Bible as the divine truth, the God of scripture, and His personal intervention.' At last count 56 men signed the Declaration, but let's move on. Most colonists were Christians, but nowhere does the Declaration mention Christianity. Yet all 56 Christians of the Continental Congress put their names on it after two days of intense debate. The Declaration refers to all men being endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. 'Creator' could be nature or the creative force of deism ' or it could refer to the personal God of Christianity or any other religion. The Declaration was inclusive ' it did not ostracize non-Christians. If indeed most or all of the signers were Christian, the Declaration's inclusiveness is all the more significant. Jefferson wrote the Declaration as an expression of popular conviction. His purpose, he said, was 'not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of.' All its authority, he said, rests 'on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right . . . .' [2] The harmonizing sentiments were the Enlightenment's notion of natural rights, not biblical pronouncements. Christians may have signed the Declaration of Independence but not because it was an outpouring of Christian ideology. History Forgotten cites an inscription on the front of Jefferson's bible as saying, 'I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.' Yet in 1787 Jefferson recommended to his nephew Peter Carr: 'Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." [3] Monticello researcher Rebecca Bowman notes that 'Jefferson believed in the existence of a Supreme Being who was the creator and sustainer of the universe and the ultimate ground of being, but this was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. He also rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ . . . .' [4] History Forgotten says that James Madison thought the future of our country depended on how well each of us governs 'ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.' Madison's verbal precision is admirable: Each of us governs our own morality. He was rightly obsessed with keeping the state removed from our spiritual lives. In 1785, he opposed a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have taxed people to support teachers of religion. He regarded it as a 'dangerous abuse of power' and wrote a powerful remonstrance against it. [5] One founder History Forgotten forgets is Thomas Paine, without whom we might still be working for England. Paine's Common Sense included a plea for religious diversity. But by 'diversity,' he apparently meant only the variety offered by the different Christian denominations. Did he mean to exclude non-Christians? If he did he should have left the country instead of fighting in Washington's army. His later writings reveal a strong distrust of church and state: 'All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. 'I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what [one] does not believe.' [6] For Paine, Madison, and Jefferson, individual choice in spiritual matters is a necessary condition for personal fulfillment. As John Locke said, 'men must be left to their own consciences.' [7] As long as we tolerate any government at all, the state has no business promoting any religion. Nor should the state be involved with education. If enough people want schools to include a particular slant on history, Christian or otherwise, the market will fill the need. The free market lets us choose; the state chooses for us.

1 History Forgotten 2 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 3 John E. Remsburg, Six Historic Americans 4 Rebecca Bowman, Jefferson's Religious Beliefs 5 James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments 6 Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason Part One 7 John Locke, A letter concerning toleration

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.