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Monday, May 31, 2010

Gordon Wood on the Current Christian Nation Controversy

Over at his excellent blog, historian Jon Fea cited the following quote from Gordon Wood:
We can’t solve our current disputes over religion by looking back to the actual historical circumstances of the Founding [sic]; those circumstances are too complex, too confusing, and too biased toward Protestant Christianity to be used in courts today, and most of them are remote from or antagonistic to the particular needs of the twenty-first century. We do not, and cannot, base American constitutional jurisprudence on the historical reality of the Founding [sic]. . . . What Founders’ [sic] intent should we choose to emphasize? That of the deistic Jefferson and Madison? Or that of the churchgoing Washington and Adams, with their sympathies for religion? Or that of the countless numbers of evangelical Protestants who captured control of the culture to an extent most of the Founding [sic] elite never anticipated?
Wood, who is a surefire winner for this year's Pulitzer Prize, is not alone in feeling that the recent culture wars over church and state, the Founding Fathers and religion, etc. has clouded the truth. In his book, Founding Faith, author Steven Waldman states that:
In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.
And Jon Meacham, in his book American Gospel states:
Both sides feel they are fighting for the survival of what's best for America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture...The conservative right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument...the secularist arrogance that religion played no role in America's founding is equally ridiculous.
Yes, the virtual tug-o-war over America's "true" founding seems to be about everything except history! And is it possible that if we set aside the politics, religion, etc., we will find that the history doesn't prove a darn thing? In other words, perhaps these culture wars have nothing to do with the founders or early America but instead should be seen through a modern lens? Without the convoluted heritage of the founding?

Perhaps such a claim comes off sounding too unpatriotic, but I think Dr. Wood is right. Maybe we really "can’t solve our current disputes over religion by looking back to the actual historical circumstances of the Founding."

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