Faith and Reason

As we slouch toward another presidential election year in which GOPers fall all over themselves to put religion back in government (well, except Rudy) and Democrats give the idea a meek “me too”, it’s worth remembering the views of the country’s founders. From David Ignatius column today:

A bracing text for this Christmas week is the famous correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their letters are a reminder that the Founders were men of the Enlightenment — supreme rationalists who would have found the religiosity of much of our modern political life quite abhorrent.

It’s not that these men didn’t have religious beliefs: They were, to their deaths, passionate seekers of truth, metaphysical as well as physical. It’s that their beliefs didn’t fit into pious cubbyholes. Indeed, the deist Jefferson took a pair of scissors to the New Testament to create his “Jefferson Bible,” or, formally, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” which cut out the parts he regarded as supernatural or misinterpreted by the Gospel writers.

It’s useful to examine the musings of these American rationalists in this political season when religion has been a prominent topic. Politicians and commentators have suggested that for the Founders, the very idea of freedom was God-given — or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Yet this famous passage begins with a distillation of the Enlightenment’s celebration of human reason: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

My Christmastime reading of the Adams-Jefferson letters was prompted by this year’s most interesting political speech but one I also found troubling — Mitt Romney’s Dec. 6 speech on “Faith in America.” It was a fine evocation of our twin heritage of religion and religious freedom, until he got to this ritual denunciation of the bogeymen known as secularists. “They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.”

Anyone who reads Adams and Jefferson — or for that matter, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or other voices of the American Enlightenment — can make their own judgment about what the Founders would say about Romney’s broadside against secularism. My guess is that their response would be something like: “That is bunkum, sir.”

The true believer politicians of our day are entitled to their views—evolution didn’t happen; the earth was created 6000 years ago; global warming isn’t happening; every word of the Bible is literally true. In essence they stop their ears and cover their eyes and say “I know the truth, and scientific inquiry should be distrusted and ignored”.

As I say they are entitled to that view, but they can’t also claim to be defending the form of government invented by men of the Enlightenment.

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