Thursday, October 09, 2008

Three Founding Fathers Walk Into a Bar...

In this season of taking things out of context for political spin, I thought I would direct you to 200 years of taking things out of context.

As y'all are aware, there are those that would have us to believe that all the founders of this country were conservative Evangelical Christians. (Ain't so.)

And there are those that would lead us to believe that the Christian faith had no influence on our founding. (Ain't so.)

Below is from a discussion over at Art & Faith, commenting on quotes used, in this case, by Bill Maher in his new movie to prove that founders hated religion.


Just my thoughts,


The film offers three frequently quoted (or misquoted) lines attributed to founding fathers:

"Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man." -- Thomas Jefferson

"This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it." -- John Adams

"Lighthouses are more useful than churches." -- Benjamin Franklin

Jefferson and Franklin were deists (not agnostics or atheists) who praised Jesus as a moral teacher but were critical of Christian doctrine. Adams, though, was much more positive about Christianity and religion, and his line has been ripped bleeding out of context. Taken from an 1817 letter to Jefferson, the line represents a sentiment with which Adams rhetorically expressed some sympathy -- but explicitly rejected:

"Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [figures from Adams's youth mentioned earlier in the letter]. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society, I mean hell."

FWIW, in an earlier letter to Jefferson, Adams specifically affirmed what Maher quotes him to debunk, that the founding fathers of the United States were united by "the general Principles of Christianity":

“The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.

“Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”

Even the Jefferson line is also somewhat inaccurate, having been conflated to omit positive language about "Christian philosophy," which Jefferson describes as "the most sublime and benevolent, but the most perverted system that ever shone upon man."

(FWIW, this line was later cross-examined by Adams in another letter to Jefferson, in which Adams wrote: "That it is the most sublime and benevolent, I agree. But whether it has been more perverted than that of Moses, of Confucius, of Zoroaster … of Mahomet, of the Druids, of the Hindoos, etc., etc., I cannot as yet determine…")

As for the Franklin line, it is often quoted but never sourced that I've been able to find, so I have no clue whether Franklin said it (or something like it) at all.

1 comment:

David Goulet said...

The American founding fathers sure said a lot of profound things. Compare that to our first Canadian PM, Sir John A Macdonald. His most quoted one-liner?

At an outdoor debate he was waiting for his opponent to end his speech. The guy went on and on, so Sir John started sipping from his water glass, which was actually stocked with gin.

The combination of strong sun and strong gin made poor Sir John rather green in the gills. When he finally stepped to the podium for his rebuttal, he threw up. He calmly wiped his mouth and stared seriously at the shocked crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the speech given by my opponent has made me sick!" Thunderous applause.

Sean, you can use that line if you ever hurl while accepting an Oscar for best screenplay. :)