Monday, October 22, 2007

Did the Founding Fathers Follow Jesus?

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo gets grumpy with Mike Huckabee because of Huckabee's claim that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were clergymen.
I've sort of gotten tired of explaining that, no, the Founding Fathers actually weren't all born-agains and bible thumpers. Not hardly. (Probably better to say that the great majority ranged from believers in an entirely impersonal God -- Deists -- to believing Christians who nonetheless viewed popular religious enthusiasm with a polite and paternal disdain.) But presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, himself a Baptist minister, actually told a crowd yesterday that "most" of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were "clergymen."
Actually, it turns out that only one signer of the Declaration was a minister.

But Marshall doesn't go nearly far enough. In fact, it's extremely difficult to imagine Jesus supporting the American Revolution. The British were certainly the leading tyrants of the age, but the Palestine of Jesus' time was occupied by much worse tyrants in the form of the Romans. Did Jesus criticize Roman rule, countenance revolt, or support those who did revolt. Did he value either personal liberty or the liberty of the Jewish people?

The answer is a resounding "no" on all of these counts.

The Revolutionary period in American history began with resistance to the new taxes associated with the Stamp Act--"No Taxation without Representation." To the contrary, Jesus specifically endorsed paying what would have been far more onerous taxes to Rome. "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:13-17).

Of course, the British committed other kinds of tyrannical acts besides imposing taxes. They tried to set up elites around royal governors, quartered troops in colonial cities, and killed colonial militiamen at the battles of Lexington and Concord.

However, Jesus counseled against resisting these kinds of tyrannies on several levels. If the colonists considered the British to be enemies as Thomas Paine argued they should in Common Sense, Jesus was emphatic in proclaiming that people should "love their enemies."
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse yo, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Emphatic indeed.

Perhaps the British weren't just our enemies. Perhaps they were evil. However, Jesus says to "resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39)

Of course, we could argue that the values of freedom for which the American revolutionaries were fighting were "Christian values."

But not if Christianity has anything to do with Jesus.

What Jesus valued and lived in his own life (at least according to the New Testament) was suffering and especially suffering that led to martyrdom for his sake. That's why he opened the Sermon on the Mount with blessings for "the poor in spirit," "they that mourn," "the meek," and "they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." (Matthew 5:3-6)

From the point of view of Jesus, it's the poor, weak, suffering, and lost who will inherit both the earth and the kingdom of heaven. It's those people who were best suited to follow his own path toward martyrdom.

If Jesus had used the rhetoric of freedom (and there's no record that he did), he would not have meant freedom in terms of protecting liberties, rights, and property or avoiding various kinds of subordination. In other words, Jesus would not have meant the freedom that the colonists fought for during the American Revolution.

Instead, he would have meant the freedom of having nothing left to lose--A "Me and Bobby McGee" kind of freedom.

Let me be clear. I don't mean to criticize the American Revolution here. But Jesus would have been the last person to endorse revolt and revolution of any kind, including the American Revolution.

And Mike Huckabee is kidding himself if he thinks the American Revolution can be associated with either the Christian god or Christianity as a religion.

1 comment:

Todd Mayo said...

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt"-Unkown

This quote perfectly describes Governor Huckabee. I do not know whether he is unaware that his statement is incorrect of not. What I do know is that the men who lead the United States in its revolution against England, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and put together the Constitution were not Christians by any stretch of the imagination. Merely believing in God does not make a person a Christian. I do consider myself a Christian but one of the tenets of my faith is that all people should have the right to "worship how, where, or what they may."

The extreme religious right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States as part of their campaign to force their religion on others. They try to depict the founding fathers as pious Christians who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, with laws that favored Christians and Christianity.

This is patently untrue. The early presidents and patriots were generally Deists or Unitarians.

Some examples:

Benjamin Franklin: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion...has received various corrupting Changes." (Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in his Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming).

George Washington: Never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance. (George Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127).
John Adams in his later years wrote, "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!" It was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion." (The Character of John Adams by Peter Shaw)

Also, consider in reference to this the 1797 American treaty with (Muslim) Tripoli, declaring that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The treaty was written under Washington's presidency, and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

Finally here is what Roger Williams,Founder of Rhode Island and a devout Baptist wrote:

"The Church and State need not be, Williams insisted, inextricably linked: 'A Pagan or Antichristian Pilot may be as skillful to carry the Ship to its desired Port, as any Christian Mariner or Pilot in the World, and may perform that work with as much safety and speed.' 'God requireth not an Uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any Civill State,' he declared. Rather, the tares in the field of Christian grain must be left alone; let man hold whatever religious opinions he chooses provided he does not 'actually disturb civil peace."

So there we have it. Over and over again. These people were not hostile to Christianity at all. It is clear that they were hostile to no faith. It is equally clear however that in affairs of state, religion was not to be a consideration and the state was, under no circumstances to interfere with religious observance assuming that observence did not harm others or involve human or animal sacrifices.

So Ric, when you point out in your post that: "Jesus would have been the last person to endorse revolt and revolution of any kind", you are correct. A large portion of Christ's teachings center around obedience to the law of whatever land in which one is a resident. So revolution would not as a rule, be part of His program.

An interesting topic. I had to do some research to compose this comment.