With Presidents Day often comes a wistful nostalgia for the country we imagined America was back in its early, formative years. Kind of like middle-aged people reminiscing about their heyday as teenagers. Back then always seems so much better than it really was.
Teach Your Children Well
In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, historical writer Russell Shorto touches on the penchant for historical nostalgia in his essay “How Christian Were the Founders?” Now, read the title carefully: you’ll notice Shorto isn’t debating whether the Founders practiced the Christian religion, but whether they were faithful Christians. Any evangelical will have to admit that is the question all of us face. For his part, Shorto mostly reviews the personalities and practices of the Texas State Board of Education, which approves content for schoolbooks bought for Texas pupils, but whose decisions are emulated by state school boards across the nation.
The subject of whether or not America’s Founding Fathers possessed strong Christian faith takes on various degrees of legitimacy and urgency depending on who you talk to. Some people vehemently advocate an embrace of what they consider to be a purer, more moral form of civic deportment, like what they believe the Founding Fathers emulated. These advocates, generally with the support of faith-based organizations, champion a return to the guiding principles they contend the Founding Fathers intended as fundamental pillars of our society. Others scoff at what they consider to be a naïve notion that the Founding Fathers were the religiously fervent, Biblically-motivated, and spiritually stalwart leaders portrayed by today’s far right wingers (FRW’s).
And while some Christians may dock me some patriotism points, I'm skeptical that America was ordained by God to be a city on a hill, the beacon for truth and hope as taught in the Bible. Ronald Reagan was fond of the imagery, but as good a politician as he was, that’s as much weight as the analogy carries – political rhapsodizing. I’ve never understood the fervor so many evangelicals have to wrap the Declaration of Independence within the pages of the Bible. They’re two distinct documents – one is divine, and the other is not.
These were Fallible Men, Not Saints
By most accounts, George Washington was what people of any faith would consider to be a good man. His peers wrote of his integrity, even though they were white and owned slaves – one of our country's most despicable legacies. While a lot of evangelicals like to sweep that bit of uncomfortable truth under the rug, it is part of the public record. So before we go submitting Washington for sainthood, let’s be realistic about the Founding Fathers.
Are any of them more worthy than Christ to be followed?
Why do so many evangelicals spend so much time, effort, and money trying to move the United States of America back to 1776? Was that year so pure and undefiled in our country? Was religion really the harmonious entity that provided the solid base for sociopolitical theory? How much of this historical romanticizing – even if it’s 100% true – is valid enough to re-craft today?
Women couldn’t vote then. Slavery was legal. Native Americans were being slaughtered. Ethics of the Revolutionary War were being debated in churches. Sure, the Ten Commandments got a lot more lip service then, but Thomas Jefferson fathered more children with his slaves that he did his wife, and Benjamin Franklin was by many accounts a dirty old man.
I’m proud to be an American, and I’m thankful to God for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy here today. We all owe the Founding Fathers a debt of gratitude for the cornerstone they laid upon which our republic could be built. But Washington, of all people, would probably be aghast at the reverence many FRW’s bestow upon his memory.
What Are We Really Talking About?
Sometimes I wonder if the FRW’s live in ivory palaces and wear rose-colored glasses. Are they so bent on their brand of Americana that they’ve turned it into their own religion?
Before you burn me at the stake, consider:
- Before Washington, there were the Puritans, who came to American to practice their strict interpretation of Christianity. If today, our country were to pursue a return to the Christian “roots” of our country, why don’t we go all the way back to Plymouth Rock? Or is the faith practiced by the Puritans too, um, stoic for us?
- In his essay, Shorto describes the poor treatment early 19th Century Connecticut Baptists faced from Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Is that the type of religiosity upon which our country should be based, and of which we should be proud?
- Many evangelicals today say that Thomas Jefferson taught against the separation of church and state, and they call for a return to government endorsement of Christianity. Why would Jefferson advocate a religion whose tenets he himself chose to defy?
- We all know that you can’t legislate morality. What makes evangelicals think they can legislate Christianity?
- America’s evangelical church has had one of the most remarkable opportunities in history for believers to model a Christian worldview. However, what kind of example has the evangelical church provided our country in terms of morality and ethics? What is the divorce rate among your church membership? How sexually active are the teens in your church youth group? How many people in your church live beyond their means, refuse to tithe, dishonor their employees or employer, dabble with pornography, and know more trivia about their favorite sports team or movies than they do scripture references?
- What kind of example has the evangelical church provided our country in terms of living in harmony and community? How many different churches of the same denomination are in your city today? How liquid is your church’s benevolence fund? How often do widows in your congregation go home to a lonely lunch after Sunday morning services?
(By way of disclaimer, while I've got my index finger pointing at you, I've got 3 other fingers pointing back at me.)
Not That There's Anything Wrong With It
The type of country for which some far-right-wing activists pine might actually be a nice place to live. People would respect each other, they would care for each other, they would hold each other accountable through the tough times and the easy times, they would work hard and help those who can’t. Their children would grow up in safe neighborhoods and respect their parents. I'm assuming people of all races and ethnicities would be treated equally as fellow members of humanity. Companies would insist on integrity as they invent, produce, sell, and service products of benefit to the community. There would be no sexual impurity, no divorce, no teen pregnancies…
Ain’t gonna happen, is it? And why not? Because we’re all fallen people. We’re not going to do anything good apart from God’s working in our lives. And besides, what’s happening in our country today that prevents FRW’s from practicing all of these principles themselves? Nothing… except sin.
Why is our country in its current mess? It can't be because Washington's faith hasn't been transferred to our public consciousness, because nobody's faith is transferable. Is it because the evangelical church hasn't maintained an effective witness to our society, even though we've been here all this time? Hmmm...
Are FRW's engaging – perhaps unwittingly – in a massive smokescreen obscuring the real reason for our country's problems? Turning back the clock isn’t going to fix anything. Falling on our faces in repentance just might.
Today, our country exists as an amalgamation of over 300 million individual lives, the result of choices people have been making since Adam and Eve. Even if July 4, 1776 was the zenith of sociopolitical perfection, it cannot be perpetuated throughout history, nor can it be re-created in a country whose trajectory was unleashed that summer by mere mortals and has been manipulated by sinful mankind ever since.
Don't Wait for Washington
Actually, I don’t have a problem with schoolbook committees portraying our Founding Fathers in a manner that highlights positive accomplishments at the expense of personal weaknesses. And if a void is created by FRW's backing out of the schoolbook content debate, you know far-LEFT-wingers are chomping at the bits to indoctrinate kids with their version of reality. But I wonder the extent to which FRW's secretly fret over changing demographics in our country that are destabilizing the economic dominance of WASPs. While that doesn't bother me, I do see America's increasing pluralism as a reason to support the separation of church and state – as the Christian religion continues to melt from prominence, I don’t want to risk symbols from faiths other than mine taking center stage at City Hall, and I can understand why peoples of other faiths feel the same.
Here is the rub: faith isn’t what you see at City Hall or what politicians tell you it is. Faith is what you believe and how you act every day. It’s the worldview with which you interact between people and reality. It’s what shapes your values and morals. And in the context of today's discussion, all of this becomes the sum total of your contribution to our country.
Yes, evangelicals have good reason to be concerned by the erosion of “family” values and morality in our society. And we should be thankful that we have the opportunity to participate in the democratic processes afforded to us to make our opinions heard. But our country is where it is today because of choices people inside and outside the church have made. Merely championing select morals from our Founding Fathers won’t bring any change unless our society embraces the principles behind the ethics. And before we expect the people outside our faith communities to respond, we ourselves, as people of faith, need to change how we live.
Act your faith. Don’t let school textbook committees do it for you. Don’t expect politicians to set the example. Don’t regret that today isn’t yesteryear – people of faith are placed in their generation for a purpose. What is yours – today, here?