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Founding Fathers were deists, not Christians

Founding Fathers were deists, not Christians

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Frederick L. Fuller

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Fuller is a retired theater director at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke.

Tom Taylor's commentary, "The 'religious right' began with the founders, (Dec. 7)," is quite well-written and very interesting in its selective use of statements from the Founding Fathers of our nation to support his thesis that they were what we call today "the religious right," implying, I think, that they were Christians.

Indeed, he begins with George Washington, stating that our first president believed that one could not govern the world "without God and the Bible." Also, Washington is quoted as having said we should live by the example of "the Divine Author of our blessed religion," Jesus Christ. My question is, why isn't Jesus Christ within the quotation marks? Did Washington say "Jesus Christ" or was it added by Taylor?

Now, let me select a couple of quotes from Washington: "The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy." And, in the Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11, Washington said, "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Actually, we must consider two facts about the most influential of our Founding Fathers: They were politicians and they were deists. The first is complicated, I think we would all agree. The second refers to those who believe the universe was created by a God and then abandoned by that God. They believe he, she or it wound up the universe like a clock, set it ticking, then went away to do better things.

Indeed, politicians, as we know all too well, will say anything to anyone to get a vote. We just went through an election where both sides were guilty of that.

But Thomas Jefferson, politician and deist, is quoted in a letter to John Adams, dated April 11, 1823: "One day the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in the United States will tear down the artificial scaffolding of Christianity. And the day will come when the mythical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

Furthermore, Jefferson in his autobiography explained why an amendment to the preamble of the Constitution that would have included "Jesus Christ" - so that the preamble would have read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion" - was rejected. Jefferson said, "they [the creators of the Constitution] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel of every denomination."

That doesn't sound like "religious right" to me.

Others of our Founding Fathers who were deists were John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine. Paine, perhaps, was the most radical of all: "Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity." That is from Paine's "The Age of Reason."

All this shows is that, as do all human beings, the Founding Fathers struggled with their faith. The fact that we have taken up religion as a question in our political life and have made some laws to curb it, as the Founding Fathers apparently wanted, proves, I think, that we are growing up.

Remember, the United States in the 18th century and before was not a tolerant nation, especially to religions. Ask Roger Smith, founder of Rhode Island, about tolerance. Oh, you could worship as you wanted, but not here. Not in my back yard. Those who came to this land because of religion wanted freedom to practice their own; they were not necessarily tolerant of other religions.

Today, we are more tolerant. Thinking people recognize the place of religion in people's lives and the need for many faiths. A wonderful scene in the television drama "Joan of Arcadia" has Joan asking God why she (God is a woman this time) allowed all these religions to be created. God says, "People have different ideas of who I am, and religions are just their way of expressing those ideas."

In fact, no religion is right. No religion is wrong. Religion is to give us peace of mind in a way that we find satisfying. Christianity is not the only religion and is not the only religion that all people should espouse, despite what Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell say. Indeed, those who say it is the only religion are as intolerant and as ignorant as those who cast people out of the colonies because of religious differences. Any time any religion takes up the sword to advance its faith, it is not working for any god. It is in league with evil.

And the Bible? You should read what some of the Founding Fathers said about that. What I say is that the Bible is not the word of God. It is a record of humankind's struggle to understand the word of God, and it is as flawed as humankind. To bludgeon people with the Bible goes right along with those who would take up the sword.

Finally, to all those Bible-whacking fundamentalists out there, prayer and Bible-reading have not been banned from public school. I was a teacher at Patrick Henry High School for a lot of years, and most every morning students and teachers gathered at the flagpole and prayed. Kids and teachers can pray any time they want, and they can read the Bible any time they are free. No one can restrict that.

I think our "religious right" are actually the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized, who prayed loudly on the street corner for everyone to hear: "Thank you, God, for not making me like him, a publican." Now the publican goes into his room and humbly asks God's forgiveness. Jesus liked publicans. Prayer is private, not something to be led loudly and sanctimoniously in a school or anywhere else, except maybe at church, or at temple, or at prayer in a mosque.

We are a nation that has grown up considerably since the time of our Founding Fathers. I, for one, thank God for that, whoever he, she or it is.

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