My Turn: Nation's Founding Fathers were thinkers and subversives

Posted: Wednesday, July 02, 2003

I was happy to read Guy J. Crockroft's first line of his letter last week thanking me for making him think, but acknowledging he often disagreed with my opinions. I was disappointed when I got to the end of his letter about the Pledge of Allegiance, because I actually didn't find much critical thinking in it.

The end of the letter said we should use history to remind us that "denying the exercise of religious freedom is a bad thing." However, it seems like the logic of the rest of his letter was jumbled and confused with reactionary clichés that advocate extinguishing religious liberty, such as "godlessness never did anyone any good." Free exercise of religion means just that: freedom not to share Mr. Crockroft's beliefs.

As I finished the letter, I wondered why, after 9/11, the biggest casualty of the American public square seems to be critical thinking. Our raw nerves have taken over our capacity to think and speak rationally. The best traditions of religion and our country are about something much better than this knee-jerk insecurity and anxiety we hold.

When we are not mindful of our own fear, faith and patriotism can easily be turned into aggressive distortions. In their best expressions, each is a building block of admirable character. Faith, as implied by the phrase "under God," ought to signify our collective commitment to live by such sacred principles as justice, mercy and compassion as best we can understand them. It should not mean an endorsement of any particular religious faith, or a forced oath. Patriotism ought to advocate thoughtful participation in civic duties, volunteering our service, and aiming to celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens.

The exalted status of "one nation under God" is not achieved merely by claiming it, much less by forcing grade-school citizens to follow suit. The faith for which America would have any right to claim godliness is achieved through civility and justice, through the encouragement of diversity and generosity, through national security as opposed to collective insecurity. This faith dares to speak unpopular truth and to listen to unpopular opinions. It lives up to inconvenient responsibilities, for restraint as well as for action. It advocates thoughtful consideration and diplomatic solutions to conflict, in wartime as well as in peacetime. It only means something if we do it when it's hard. To insist on civil orthodoxy by condemning the voices of conscientious dissent is a failure of both patriotism and faith.

Back to Mr. Crockroft's version of history. This conscientious dissent, after all, is what our Founding Fathers operated on. They were subversives. Having escaped from the state-established religions of Europe, only 7 percent of the people in the 13 colonies belonged to a church when the Declaration of Independence was signed. When Mr. Crockroft asserted this country was founded by Christians, he was repeating a misconception that many of us hold. Upon reading primary source documents from that time period, it is clear that most of the Founding Fathers held strong spiritual beliefs, but they were Deist or Unitarian, not Christian.

I leave you with some selected and admittedly limited quotes to consider for yourself and hopefully to inspire you to read up on history for this Independence Day:

" ... that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian." - Mortimer Adler

"Religion I found to be without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another." - Benjamin Franklin

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

"Allegiance to the Creator and Governor of the Milky Way and the Nebulae, and Benevolence to all his Creatures, is my Religion." - John Adams

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded project." - James Madison

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, not by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church." - Thomas Paine

"The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy." - George Washington

Mary Noble holds a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in political science. She teaches world history.

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