Friday, May 6, 2011

Rough Intro - Did the Founders Create a Christian Nation?

I have a mean case of writers block... Thoughts?

Sunday evening May 2nd at 11:35 pm EST, President Barack Obama addressed the people of the United States on national television. The purpose of the address was to inform the nation that Osama Bin Laden had been assassinated in Pakistan. He concluded his speech by saying:
The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.
Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America. (Obama 2011)
President Obama grounded this speech in an American exceptionalism that consists of God’s provision of his chosen nation to be victorious, prosperous, and sacrificial. Utilization of religious rhetoric can be traced back to before the American Revolution. The early colonialists envisioned themselves as the “Israel of old”. (Gaustad 1987, 7) George Washington was regarded as a Moses like figure that led the Americans into a new world just as Moses had led the Israelites out of the wilderness (Gaustad 1987, 75). President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural speech was inundated with religious rhetoric as he appealed to God’s plan for the salvation of the union (White 2003).
Despite the continued incorporation of God into political language, the nation remains divided over whether or not the founding fathers of the United States intended for the republic to be governed by religious ideals or by secular reason. The tension between the religious and secular foundation of the United States was present before the American Revolution and after the Constitutional Convention. Normal Cousins comments on the paradoxical relationship between religion and the founding fathers in his 1958 book, In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers:
"And though most of them resisted the literal Biblical view of creation, they maintained respect for the Bible as the source of Judeo-Christian religious belief. They were opposed to legislation that sought literal acceptance of Biblical interpretation of the universe and man’s place in it. Similarly, they were opposed to laws – which actually existed in several of the American states – making church attendance compulsory. Man’s approach to God, they believed, was as personal as his soul." (Cousins 1958, 9)
"As a group, they reflected a fair degree of diversity in their individual creeds. Certainly, Samuel Adam’s Puritanism was in stark contrast with Thomas Paine’s Deism. Where we find a large measure of unity is in the positions or attitudes of the Founding Fathers towards religions on general. It is therefore necessary to make a distinction between their personal articles of faith and their historical role with reference to the development of religion in America." (Cousins 1958, 9)
Two questions remain unanswered. Is the United States a Christian nation and did the founding fathers intend for the United States to be a Christian nation? Unfortunately, both of these questions lack a clear and precise answer. Each question is left to the interpretation of the individual. Further, the question is left to which founding father they are interpreting, which speech or writing they are interpreting, and which time period the work being interpreted is set in.
Because of the variability of this individual interpretation, I posit that the two questions are the wrong questions to ask. They are the wrong questions to ask because there is no clear answer as to the intentions or desires of the founding fathers concerning the religious foundation of the new nation. Furthermore, there is no clear consensus among the people concerning the role of religion in the new nation. Thoughts on religion differed between individuals within states, churches within states, and states within the colonies (Gaustad 1987, 1-11, 12-35). The founding fathers represented their states and the people within their states. When we mix the diversity of religion and religious beliefs of the people with the diversity of the founders beliefs concerning personal faith and the role of religion in government, we can conclude that there is no one unified consensus concerning the role that religion should play in the governing of the new nation.
Instead of continuing to determine whether or not the nation was founded on Christian principles, we should interrogate what each founder wrote, when it was written, and the purpose of the work. I contend that the founding fathers used religious language rhetorically as a means  to achieve the goal of the specific time within the specific cultural context. By situating the writings within a socio-historical context, we can liberate the words from a literal reflection of the writers intention therefore allowing us to understanding why they chose to you use or not use religious rhetoric when speaking to different crowds, at different times, and with different goals.
Approaching the writings of the founding fathers from this direction allows us to better understand what the writers were doing rhetorically and how lifting their words outside of the specific context they were intended for leads us to the opposing positions about the founding of the nation. The goal of this inquiry is not to conclude whether the founders wanted the United States to be Christian or secular, but to understand how the founders employed religious rhetoric for different purposes and therefore effecting our understanding of the founding of the nation.
For this project, I will use two time periods to illustrate how writers use or don’t use religious rhetoric to achieve their objective. Although not an exhaustive comparison of the literature of each time period, I will use analyze the documents that have been considered the most influential of their time periods. To show how religion was used by writers of the revolution, I will analyze Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; and to show how religion was used by writers for the ratification of the constitution, I will analyze the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

Interpreting others words is never easy,


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