Monday, February 15, 2010

The Founding Fathers: Were They Even Christians?

Montage by Carin Goldberg, based upon “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull (1756-1843) and used to illustrate the NY Times article mentioned in the Wasserman essay.

There is a man who eats sparingly, but is never hungry.
There is a man who always is eating, but is never full.

---Zen riddle

Your inside is out and your outside is in.

---John Lennon

God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the school board.

---Mark Twain

The downfall of the evangelicals...or Pentecostals or fundamentalists---whatever it is we call them---must be their pushiness. The difficulty we have naming them is because they call themselves Christians. When they say, "I'm a Christian," they mean something different than other denominations when we say I'm Christian. In fact, they disparage "denominations" altogether. They mean they're "born again," and that means they're at a different, higher level than the rest of us. There are privileges and obligations with such a stunning resurrection. The Truth has been engraved into their psyches, and now life is but a matter of spreading the word. When the End comes, they will go and we will be left behind. When Christ returns, they will be in his arms, but we will burn.

Bring this philosophy into politics and the schools and what do we have? Well, we seem to have the United States in 2010, that's what. This showdown has been coming for a long time, most of my lifetime anyway. I was 13, I think, when somehow (legislative? executive order by Ike?) the Pledge of Allegiance got "under God" added to it. In my upstate New York hometown, I didn't even know a Democrat. I wasn't a normal kid, but I surely wasn't politically radical---yet. I hated the addition. I refused to say it...and still do. The Pledge is ruined for me. At that time it was instinct, something about how I understood the country. But now, all these years later, finally historians are standing up to teach us about the Founding Fathers (and mothers...although we may have to wait a week or 2 for those monographs).

Yesterday The New York Times magazine carried a major article about the current spiritual "revolution time." Anticipating its publication, Harvey Wasserman wrote an op-ed with his own version of who were the Founding Fathers. In his inimitable style he may go a bit over the top, but it's a concise list and I think it's useful. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at Wasserman is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for

Our founders were NOT fundamentalists
February 14, 2010

Today's New York Times Sunday Magazine highlights yet another mob of extremists using the Texas School Board to baptize our children's textbooks.

This endless, ever-angry escalating assault on our Constitution by crusading theocrats could be obliterated with the effective incantation of two names: Benjamin Franklin, and Deganawidah.

But first, let's do some history:

1) Actual Founder-Presidents #2 through #6---John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams---were all freethinking Deists and Unitarians; what Christian precepts they embraced were moderate, tolerant and open-minded.

2) Actual Founder-President #1, George Washington, became an Anglican as required for original military service under the British, and occasionally quoted scripture. But he vehemently opposed any church-state union. In a 1790 letter to the Jews of Truro, he wrote: The "Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistances, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens." A 1796 treaty he signed says "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Washington rarely went to church and by some accounts refused last religious rites.

3) Washington was also the nation's leading brewer, and since most Americans drank much beer (water could be lethal in the cities) they regularly trembled before the keg, not the altar. Like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, virtually all American farmers raised hemp and its variations.

4) Jefferson produced a personal Bible from which he edited out all reference to the "miraculous" from the life of Jesus, whom he considered both an activist and a mortal.

5) Tom Paine's COMMON SENSE sparked the Revolution with nary a mention of Jesus or Christianity. His Deist Creator established the laws of Nature, endowed humans with Free Will, then left.

6) The Constitution never mentions the words "Christian" or "Jesus" or "Christ."

7) Revolutionary America was filled with Christians whose commitment to toleration and diversity was completely adverse to the violent, racist, misogynist, anti-sex theocratic Puritans whose "City on the Hill" meant a totalitarian state. Inspirational preachers like Rhode Island's Roger Williams and religious groups like the Quakers envisioned a nation built on tolerance and love for all.

8) The US was founded less on Judeo-Christian beliefs than on the Greco-Roman love for dialog and reason. There are no contemporary portraits of any Founder wearing a crucifix or church garb. But Washington was famously painted half-naked in the buff toga of the Roman Republic, which continues to inspire much of our official architecture.

9) The great guerilla fighter (and furniture maker) Ethan Allen was an aggressive atheist; his beliefs were common among the farmers, sailors and artisans who were the backbone of Revolutionary America.

10) America's most influential statesman, thinker, writer, agitator, publisher, citizen-scientist and proud liberal libertine was---and remains---Benjamin Franklin. He was at the heart of the Declaration, Constitution and Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution. The ultimate Enlightenment icon, Franklin's Deism embraced a pragmatic love of diversity. As early America's dominant publisher he, Paine and Jefferson printed the intellectual soul of the new nation.

11) Franklin deeply admired the Ho-de-no-sau-nee (Iroquois) Confederacy of what's now upstate New York. Inspired by the legendary peacemaker Deganawidah, this democratic congress of five tribes had worked "better than the British Parliament" for more than two centuries. It gave us the model for our federal structure and the images of freedom and equality that inspired both the French and American Revolutions.

It's no accident today's fundamentalist crusaders and media bloviators (Rev. Limbaugh, St. Beck) seek to purge our children's texts of all native images except as they are being forceably converted or killed.

Today's fundamentalists would have DESPISED the actual Founders. Franklin's joyous, amply reciprocated love of women would evoke their limitless rage. Jefferson's paternities with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, Paine's attacks on the priesthood, Hamilton's bastardly philandering, the grassroots scorn for organized religion---all would draw howls of righteous right-wing rage.

Which may be why theocratic fundamentalists are so desperate to sanitize and fictionalize what's real about our history.

God forbid our children should know of American Christians who embraced the Sermon on the Mount and renounced the Book of Revelations…or natives who established democracy on American soil long before they saw the first European…or actual Founders who got drunk, high and laid on their way to writing the Constitution.

Faith-based tyranny is anti-American. So are dishonest textbooks. It's time to fight them both.

HARVEY WASSERMAN'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is at, along with PASSIONS OF THE POTSMOKING PATRIOTS by "Thomas Paine." This article is written in honor of the spirit of Howard Zinn.

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