It’s not easy to pin down what acolytes of the Christian Right mean when they assert that our nation is founded on “Judeo-Christian principles.” Who, exactly, are these “founders?” No consistent answer is given. Sometimes it is the 17th-century pilgrims, other times the general public after the Revolutionary War, but most often it is those who signed the Declaration and ratified our Constitution.
You can be sure that anyone, when put to the task of defending this, will reveal how hollow his thoughts are concerning the true boldness and bravery of our secular beginning, which I believe was the height of human political achievement.
Quickly take the case of the early English settlers (along with the Dutch, Swedes and Finns) who instituted governments along the Atlantic coast, and ask whether it sounds plausible to say that this scattered grouping of economically, politically and religiously distinct colonists deserve credit for what was to be written in our God-absent Constitution over a century later. Implausible, I say. If we truly were a nation grounded on the clarity of Jesus Christ’s principles and preachings, then at that time there ought to have been some consensus among religious Americans as to what His teachings were. Yet there were the Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Shaker, Congregationalist and Roman Catholic conceptions. There was no understanding of any single “Christian” nation.
The American gentlemen of the Enlightenment who crafted our state were, the Bible-swallowers claim, dutiful adherents of the Nazarene Jew. This, however, is also fatuous because the ones who were religiously Christian left their superstitions out of the country’s design. Our Constitution, brothers and sisters, makes no favor for, nor mention of the Christian religion. And our Declaration, written by Jefferson, mentions God only as “the Creator,” a deistic title, neutral towards further arbitrary divine details. Moreover, the Treaty of Tripoli, submitted by Adams in 1797, unequivocally states, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
God had no role in our nation’s founding. And if the patriots who gave birth to this country heard the dense and empty Christian rabble today, I hope they would be irate. It was reason in the proceedings of government that they cherished, not faith.
Brian Gallagher is a fourth year philospohy major.
One often hears that “this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian work ethic,” or “our morality comes from the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, etc.” This is a large claim, and the question of whether we owe a debt to the religious traditions that have contributed to our current moral and philosophical traditions is a complex one. One must ask what is meant by our “owing” and whether it confers some obligation.
To begin with, the assumption is that the religious traditions of the past are responsible for the morality of today. But do we “owe” yesterday for today? Does the number 10 “owe” the numbers five and two because they are its component parts? I don’t think so; instead, numbers “owe” their existence to the fact that we evolved to be creatures that have brains large enough to invent numbers. In the same way, morality and social structures owe their existence to the fact that our ancestors were evolutionarily advantaged by having brains that saw value in following a set of rules that came to be called morality. In the same way that a hive of bees will follow suicidal rules to protect the community, humans follow moral rules. These bees “owe” their own evolutionary pressure for their current form, they do not “owe” the hive of bees that begat them, or the hive before that. In the same way, we do not “owe,” in a grand sense, one aspect of the past for its role in shaping the greater future.
However, there is something compelling about the sequential argument as to the origin of morality. The past did lead to the present, after all. The “sequential” notion is intuitively powerful. But take alchemy: We owe many important scientific discoveries to the misguided work of alchemists. Does this mean, however, that alchemy is valuable, to be treasured or respected? This is the question of what the debt or obligation to a religious past looks like. Should alchemical societies be given tax exempt status, as churches are? Should we admire a president who claims to turn to alchemy to solve problems, as many presidents say they turn to prayer? No, obviously. And the same goes for “owing” religion just because it is old.
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.
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