FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Ashcroft Speaks in Tongues

by John Chuckman

John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States, recently repeated an old chestnut about America being a Christian nation whose founders were Christian gentlemen.

The claim is common among the country’s fundamentalist Christians, but it is so ignorant of actual history one wonders whether it should not be taken as another serious indictment of American public education. Some readers may not be aware that Mr. Ashcroft’s background includes familiarity with such arcane subjects as speaking in tongues. As for Mr. Bush, who touched the same theme in China, perhaps no comment on his grasp of history is required.

The late eighteenth century, following on the Enlightenment and waves of reaction to the violent excesses of the Reformation and counter-Reformation over the previous two centuries, was perhaps the lowest point for Christian influence ever. Virtually all educated people in Europe were deists and many were open skeptics.

America was not free of this influence despite its many Puritan immigrants. Indeed, many of the best educated citizens at this time were educated in Europe, and the small number of good libraries owned by educated people often contained the works of Enlightenment authors. Virtually all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and even some of the words of the Constitution derive from these European sources. It is due precisely to the unique qualities of the period that we owe America’s early embrace of religious tolerance. The immigrant Puritans had displayed no religious tolerance, and in fact were some of the worst fanatics from Europe.

George Washington was a deist. He was a member of the Masons, a then comparatively-new, secretive fraternal organization widely regarded as unfriendly to traditional Christianity and reflecting European secular attitudes. He did attend church regularly, but this was done with the aristocratic notion that it set an example for the lower classes, Washington being very much a planter-aristocrat (he used to refer to the independent-minded Yankee recruits in the revolution, who had had the practice of electing their officers before he was appointed as commander, as “a dirty and nasty people.”). This was a time when there was an established church in Virginia, and it functioned as an important quasi-political organization.

Washington always used deistic terms like Great Providence. His writings, other than one brief note as a very young man, do not speak of Jesus, and he died, knowing he was dying, without ever calling for prayer, Bible, or minister. There is a story given by some of his best biographers shedding light on his church-going. He apparently never kneeled for prayer nor would he take communion. When one parson brought this to his attention after the service, Washington gave him the icy stare for which this aloof, emotionally-cold man was famous and never returned to that church.

Thomas Jefferson was accused publicly of being an atheist. More than any other founder, Jefferson was under the spell of European (and particularly French) thought. His writings, and references to him by friends, certainly make him sound like a private skeptic. He belonged to no church. He explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus, viewing him as a great teacher of human values. At best he was a deist referring in his private writings to God as “our god.”

Jefferson who, despite high-sounding words, was something of a hypocrite on many aspects of civil liberties and particularly on slavery, was at his best on the need for religious liberty. Despite his free-thinking reputation, he formed alliances with groups like the Baptists, who deeply resented paying taxes to the established church in Virginia and won a long battle for a statute of religious liberty.

Thomas Paine, whose stirring words in Common Sense contributed greatly to the revolution, was often accused of atheism because of his religious writing, but deism is closer to the truth. His later writing done in Europe, “The Age of Reason,” was regarded as scandalous by establishment-types. France, during the terror under Robespierre, turned to a new kind of state religion. This, the very brave Paine, living in Paris, also rejected, writing,

“I do not believe in the creed professed…by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the protestant church, nor any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”

The great Dr. Franklin, who incidentally lived about a quarter of his life on diplomatic missions in Europe and who as a very young man had run away from a home where rigid religious principles were imposed, was a typical deist of the period. He was an active member of the first Masonic temple in America. His attitudes were so amicable to French intellectuals and society, he was embraced, as no other American has ever been, as a national figure in that country.

Alexander Hamilton, undoubtedly the most intellectually gifted of the founders other than Franklin, paid lip service to religion, but he was known during the Revolution as a rake. Later, his distinguished career in Washington’s cabinet was marred by a great sexual scandal. Generally, Hamilton used religion to promote his political aims, ignoring it whenever it was convenient. In this respect, perhaps he qualifies as a thoroughly modern American version of a Christian.

Gouveneur Morris, who wrote the draft of the Constitution we all recognize from the notes of others, was an extremely worldly and aristocratic man. He was also one of Washington’s most trusted confidants. He was perhaps the most rakish, womanizing diplomat America ever sent to Europe, sharing at one point a mistress with Talleyrand, the most amoral ex-cleric who ever practiced statecraft. In general, Europeans were astonished that a man so worldly and so arrogantly patrician in temperament represented the young republic for a period in France.

Abraham Lincoln, while not a founder, is the most beloved of American presidents. Lincoln’s closest friend and most interesting biographer, Herndon, said flatly that Lincoln was a religious skeptic. This has always so upset America’s establishment historians that Herndon has been accused of writing a distorted book, a rather ridiculous charge in view of a close friendship with his subject and twenty years spent collecting materials.

Lincoln never attended church and when he refers to God in speeches during the Civil War, it is always with words acceptable to secular, educated people who regarded the King James Bible as an important cultural and literary document apart from any claims for its sacredness.

There is reason to believe that as the bloody war continued, Lincoln, who suffered from severe depressions, turned to the Bible for consolation, especially to the story of the struggle of the Hebrews.

Lincoln was also an extremely astute politician who used every means at his command in the great battle with secession, and his references to the Almighty may well have been part of his psychological artillery. He certainly did not invoke the name of Jesus.

Patrick Henry, who incidentally opposed ratification of the Constitution, was a Christian, but he was once described by Jefferson as “an emotional volcano with little guiding intelligence.”

Just a little brush up on history…

John Chuckman lives in Ontario and writes for YellowTimes. He encourages your comments: jchuckman@YellowTimes.ORG

John Chuckman lives in Canada.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 05, 2016
Bill Martin
Stalingrad at Standing Rock?
Mark A. Lause
Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory
Mel Goodman
Mad Dog Mattis and Trump’s “Seven Days in May”
Matthew Hannah
Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
#NoDAPL Scores Major Victory: No Final Permit For Pipeline
Fran Shor
The End of the Indispensable Nation
Michael Yates
Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away
Michael Uhl
Notes on a Trip to Cuba
Robert Hunziker
Huge Antarctica Glacier in Serious Trouble
John Steppling
Screen Life
David Macaray
Trump vs. America’s Labor Unions
Yoav Litvin
Break Free and Lead, or Resign: a Letter to Bernie Sanders
Norman Pollack
Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics
Kevin Martin
Nuclear Weapons Modernization: a New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Voted for it? Who Will Benefit from It?
David Mattson
3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears
Howard Lisnoff
The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State
Dave Archambault II
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Statement on Dakota Access Pipeline Decision
Nick Pemberton
Make America Late Again
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail