Sunday, February 10, 2013

Telos Conference Paper | Christianity, the Founder’s Intent, and Post-Secular Society: Analyzing the Contrasting Use of Religious Rhetoric Between Common Sense and the Federalist Papers

The following is an excerpt from our recent paper prepared for The Seventh Annual Telos Conference: Religion and Politics in a Post-Secular World (Feb. 15-17, 2013).

Please visit our page to read the paper in it's entirety.

Reflecting on the last decade of Presidential campaigns, we may comfortably assert that politics in the 21st century embodies a post-secular relationship between the public, religion, and politics. Whether it is George W. Bush placing his personal relationship in Jesus Christ at the forefront of his presidential identity,[1] Al Gore struggling to assert his commitment to Christianity,[2] Mitt Romney fusing his Mormon tradition with the evangelical tradition[3], or Barack Obama being forced to defend his faith in Christianity against accusations of him being a Muslim; religion has seemingly emerged from enlightenment secularization to occupy a prime seat at the table of American governance.

We need not look much further than our television screens to understand how the founding fathers are recreated as a homogenous whole and employed to persuade the public that the Republican, Democratic, or Libertarian party represent the authentic will of the founders. We can trace the genealogy of political language by understanding how President Obama’s public affirmation of his Christian identity appeals to the historical concept of American Exceptionalism consisting of God’s provision for his chosen nation to be victorious, prosperous, and moral[4], follows the legacy of the early colonialists whom envisioned themselves as the Israel of old[5] and George Washington as Moses[6], and imitates President Lincoln’s appeal to God’s sovereign plan in his Second Inaugural[7]. However, when Obama affirms the liberty of homosexuals to marry and denies Catholic hospitals the liberty to withhold contraception from its patients, he follows another legacy of the founding generation, one of the enlightenment principle - affirmed in Jefferson’s wall of separation and solidified in the Federalist 10 - which sought to protect the oppression of individual liberty from zealous factions, such as religious groups, seeking to codify religious beliefs into national law.

The questions remain, how did American politics transcend Jefferson’s wall to arrive at Bush’s war on terror as a declaration of God’s will? Moreover, what does it mean that the public seems to push a profession of Christian faith on presidential candidates? Does this reflect the general will of the people or has Christianity been co-opted by political PR campaigns to add moral legitimacy to political decisions? Is the argument of what the founding father’s intended useful in this debate? Can we look back to their words and make a definitive statement on whether they intended the US to be a Christian or a secular nation?

My purpose is not to argue whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation, rather I posit that any appropriation of the founder’s words is a rhetorical strategy based on writings that should be read rhetorically. To structure our conversation, I discuss the contrasting use of religious rhetoric between Common Sense and the Federalist Papers. Considered to be the most important documents of the revolutionary and constitutional generation,[8] they become useful tools to understand how the intentions of the authors, writing at different times, led to different utilizations of religious rhetoric. Thus, I argue that any simple reading of a particular text in isolation can be rewritten, in a Derridean sense, to support an argument defending a secular or Christian government. The consequences of each argument need not be discussed today but my interrogation may provide us a third way of thinking about religion and politics - more useful for public discourse in a post-secular society. This third way is a historical understanding of political and religious rhetoric that can be read to defend either side. Stated in another way, America is a nation with a Christian heritage and one that protects the liberty of religious and nonreligious individuals and communities. In a sense, I am attempting the lofty task of preparing a foundation for a Habermasian “ideal speech situation”, in which competing positions can discourse within a common linguistic understanding. Ultimately, this ideal speech situation is impossible to achieve as both groups stand outside the historical context of the founding generation, leading us to play language games while interpreting the writings of a group of men playing their own language games. As Caroline Berkin acknowledges:
It takes a conscious act of imagination to see America through the eyes of its founding fathers and to share their perspective may be disturbing. These men inhabited a world alien to modern Americans, a world in which the United States was a fragile, uncertain experiment, a newcomer, and to some degree a beggar at the gates of power and prestige among nations[9].
Despite our inability to transcend time and space and the undecideable nature of language, I believe this task to be worthy of our undertaking.

The fusion of political and religious language has created a confused legacy of religion in America[10] as American’s continue to appeal to the founding fathers to argue that the United States is a either a Christian or a secular nation. In order to deconstruct both versions of this narrative, we must liberate the founding texts by situating them within their socio-historical context, objectives, and intended audience. 

Writing from the post-blog society,

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