The United States of Christians

Let me just start by saying that this post will probably offend some people. Maybe a lot of people. Even friends and family. I’m sorry if it does, so I’ll apologize up front.

OK, here goes…

I read a rather long article in the New York Times recently: “How Christian Were the Founders?” It’s about the growing tendency in the United States (especially Texas) to rewrite school curriculum history books to have more focus on Christianity, sometimes fundamentalist. One of the more powerful arguments in favor of these changes lies in the fact that many of the founding fathers of the US were devout Christians — a fact that has often been disputed or even ignored by many scholars and scientists. The argument in favor of renovating the teaching methodologies and school books goes something like: “The US was founded on Christian beliefs, by Christians, and we need to get back to our roots!”

Living in Europe, which is even more profoundly rooted than the United States in all things old-fashioned, I can understand and respect traditional thoughts about maintaining a strong connection to cultural history. We stand on the backs of our forefathers, and the freedoms, rights, and privileges we enjoy today (and take for granted) are borne on the shoulders of those who fought for them.

But, wait a second. Some things in the past are pretty bad. Really bad. Downright awful. Off the top of my head, I can name just a few heinous cultural pasttimes: sacrificing virgins; burning witches; slavery… And a lot of these things aren’t even that long ago. Ouch. Humans suck, apparently. (And a lot of this stuff happened after Christianity was founded. What does that say about us? But that’s another discussion.)

Heck, just go back a few hundred years, and we see that Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Cardinal of Rome for being a proponent of the Copernican theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Scandal! Sacrilege! Scientists are clearly evil conspirators, who are hell-bent on undermining the very fabric of our lives. Sinners!

My point is really twofold: Not all things historical are necessarily good things. And almost all progress is good progress. If we decided to ignore science over the millennia, we’d certainly be in one big heap of a mess, living on our Flat Planet and coveting fire. Here be Dragons. Beware.

Think of all the incredible progress in science since the 1700’s alone — all the amazing things that we take for granted now. And I don’t just mean luxury comforts like cars and computers. I’m talking about fabricated components that make our lives safer. Improvements in medicine that save lives and cure the sick. Understanding of Newtonian physics so we can build better structures. Navigation of the oceans so we can explore, meet, and learn.

So, what irks me about how the founding fathers may or may not have been practicing Christians is that, for me, ultimately, it makes no difference whatsoever. The original Pilgrims left Europe due mainly to religious persecution. Their devout Puritan ways were just not tolerated by the British in the 1600’s. So, they came to America, set off a wave of annihilation of the natives, bought Africans to do their chores, and just over a 100 years later, their descendants claimed independence from the UK. They forged a fantastic set of documents for “how it should really be done”. Bravo! As an American, I am quite proud of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and more importantly, the Constitution. (Not so proud about the American Indian part. Or the slavery.)

Whether or not the folks who birthed the U. S. of A. were Christian fundamentalists makes no difference to me. They could have been heathen pagan idol-worshipers for all I care. The beauty is that they drafted some revolutionary ideals for how to establish a country.

Let’s simplify things. Let’s say that we accept the argument that many of the founding fathers were devout Christians. Ergo: today’s modern American society should emphasize Christian ideals and notions. Pretty simple argument. Now, if we take this one step further, we can also point out that many of the founding were slave owners. Ergo, we should all own slaves. (I’m fairly sure you can lease them over the Internet.)

Progress is good. It always has been. It always will be. And almost all progress historically has met backlash from religion, which has single-handedly undermined science over centuries. Galileo is just one example. The recent step backward regarding Darwinian evolution and the rise of creationism is another. And now, even climate change is under fire by religious zealots.

And what about other religions? Why should we emphasize the Christianity of our founding fathers? Didn’t the original Pilgrims ditch Europe because of religious persecution? So, wouldn’t denigrating other religions be a bad thing, as seen from the perspective of those who were themselves victims of exactly the same thing? Should we elevate Christian ideals in our textbooks, so that we can look down upon the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and Atheists that make up the rich tapestry of America? (Yes, we should — they are all surely terrorists anyway.) Is Christianity so much better than the rest that we should focus on it as a universal truth in American society? This stinks of prejudice and intolerance to me. Call me nuts.

Let’s take a parting look at those grand ol’ documents that those Christian, slave-owning, British-hating, fatherly figures wrote up. How about the First Amendment? Mmm, yummy! And I quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What does it all mean? Constitutional scholars are in agreement:

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion.

So, the founding fathers had a pretty strong principle in mind: a clear separation of church and state. Even though they may have been good little Christians, they had the foresight, probably because of their unique Pilgrim history, to outline the importance of this separation. And the crowd goes wild with applause.

This whole tendency to emphasize Christianity in school books smells of taking giant leaps backwards. And it looks exactly like what religion has often done so often in the past — a backlash against scientific progress, and an argument that the old ways are the only ways.

I’m OK with people teaching their children religion. That’s why we have churches (or synagogues, or mosques). But public school, paid for by public tax dollars, is not the place for this.

Christian or not, I think the founding fathers would be appalled.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t.html
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