Quoth Charles: “I hear the horn of Roland cry! He’d never sound it but in the thick of fight!” From The Song of Roland.
Way back in 1985 I was listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on my cheap Emerson rip-off of a Sony Walkman (I was a poor college kid) when something I read in study hall made me guffaw aloud. It was from a book I was required to read at my small Bible college in Dallas, TX. The title of the book was One Nation Under God, by Christian activist Rus Walton (died in 1999).
I cannot recall the exact quote, but it said something very much to the effect that, aside from the Holy Bible, the United States Constitution was the most sacred text penned by men.
Yes, I was at a Christian Bible College and I was at that time a member of the exuberant Reagan Right, but Walton went too far for even me.
And Walton wasn’t the only one. We students were being spoon fed large helpings of Christian revisionist tripe. A thriving industry of these books and videos and tapes were rallying (mostly white) Christians with politically-charged historical material aimed at proving that the United States was a Christian nation founded by Christian men to be a Christian beacon in a pagan world. In short, the “US of A” was the new chosen people, tapped from on high to spread the Good News of God and Good Government to the rest of the planet. WIth Reagan, we did it with a twinkle in our eye, a toothy smile and big silos full of ICBMs.
Those were the glory days, but I wasn’t a lock-step member of the Right even then. Unfortunately for my ideological future I was a stickler for historical accuracy, as far as accuracy can be maintained, and I deeply resented the revisionism that ignored the fully human dimensions of our nation’s founding and the tendency to pull out selected quotations that made even avowed deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson appear as Bible-thumping televangelists. Hooey, I thought then. And I still think so.
That resentment carries over to RIchard Dawkins now, attempting to pull the same stunt in the first chapter of The God Delusion, but for the opposite cause.
I should preface the forthcoming spleen by saying that by attacking this all-too convenient straw man in Dawkins’ arguments, I am fully aware that it has nothing at all to do with his larger statements pertaining to the existence of God. I just need to get this out of my system.
What set me off was Dawkins’ statement, “Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them (the Founding Fathers) would have been atheists in ours” (43). Then he proceeds to pull out a lovely array of mostly isolated, non-contextual quotes from Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Madison demonstrating the deep-seated suspicion these men carried of “Christianity” and “religion” in general. One discovers quickly that these quotes seem largely drawn from Christopher Hitchens, Dawkin’s good friend and fellow devangelist, author of another popular book, God is Not Great as well as a revisionist biography of Jefferson.
A few pages down the road, Dawkins vilifies an argument Bertrand Russell (one of history’s greatest atheists) called “the parable of the celestial teapot.” This is the use of claims impossible to disprove, such as, “there is a teapot in orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars.” If I were to stand smugly and challenge anyone to disprove my statement, I would smile for a long time because the claim is patently unarguable. What interests me is that Dawkins on page 52 attacks this tendency among Christians (and other religious people) and makes the exact sort of teapot claim on page 43.
For that is precisely what his claim about the temporal-shift atheistic Founding Fathers is–a cheap shot as unprovable as it is proof-proof. And, as such, it is worthless.
More helpful is his claim that the Founding Fathers were much more secularists than they were religious. For some men, this is readily provable, particularly for Jefferson and Franklin. But it would not describe either Madison or Adams, if one is to judge by their own non-selective and extensive writings. I cannot in this limited venue go beyond that unsupported claim, but hopefully in a larger context I can address that.
Dawkins, as a British scientist, can be forgiven I think for not being terribly well read in American history. I really don’t say that as condescendingly as it sounds, but the fact remains that he should at least have read his Tocqueville. Contemporaries worship (if I may use the expression) at the feet of Jefferson and Franklin, who are represented fondly as the most forward-thinking men of their age, and one can certainly accept that these two, at least, had embraced more of the French Enlightenment than any of their peers. The French Enlightenment figures were far more critical of the entrenched religious institutions of their time. Jefferson and Franklin were both lionized in France, where they lived for some time as diplomats.
Given short shrift is the Scottish Enlightenment, a much more diverse intellectual field of English speakers with whom many of the Founding Fathers were quite familiar, Scottish works dotting colonial bookshelves. Among the Scots were a broad range of lights, from skeptics like David Hume to pragmatists like Adam Smith and on to moral thinkers like George Campbell. The ideas of most of America’s Founding Fathers can be seen to reflect the Scottish thinkers more readily than those of the French (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and the atheist d’Holbach).
Also forgotten, for whatever reason, is that the 18th century had more than its fair share of religious zealots who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, and who were loud in their advocacy. One has only to read the lively debates surrounding the adoption of the Constitution to hear those voices, voices that were eventually overcome by saner thinkers.
That the United States was founded by religious men with a very high sense of moral and ethical rectitude is undeniable, and a group of atheists, I am sorry to say, would not have been up to the task. That’s a claim almost as big in the opposite direction as Dawkins’, but I’ll stand by it out of sheer cussedness and defend it if I must.
That the United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation is also undeniably true. Many, if not most of the Founding Fathers were what one might call “Ciceronian” Christians, that is, they were faithful church goers who practiced strong community values, values derived largely from a synthesis of biblical ideals and Ciceronian ethics (his “On Duties” was one of the most widely read and followed works of the time). Ciceronian ethics defined the virtuous, educated citizen who devoted himself to the local body politic. In fact, Cicero coined the term “communitas” to describe this concept. This practical synthesis was the rock bed foundation of the constitutions of the individual states that became the foundation in turn of the federal constitution. And, for better or worse, that particular synthesis has all but evaporated, which is one reason it’s so hard for people like Dawkins and Hitchens to understand, not to mention Robertson and Falwell.
What both uninformed groups have been doing instead is to sound Roland’s horn, metaphorically speaking. The Song of Roland is as terrific a piece of propaganda as was ever crafted to justify a religious war against the infidel, the Muslims in the Holy Land. Read it and you’ll see how it fits. Ironically, the central character of Roland is mentioned only once in historical record, as a minor military figure in charge of a supply train that was ambushed and wiped out by Basque guerrillas around the year 800. Yet, by sheer artistry, he becomes the heroic centerpiece, the poster-child as it were, for the kind of righteous fervor that sent the ignorant in their masses to war. The writer of the immortal poem featuring Roland made use of a hero who never actually existed in the form presented.
Today Roland’s horn is a tinny horn, though, representing a logical fallacy known as appeal to false authority. Perhaps I should not have spent so much time and effort on it, since, as I said before, it’s not really central in any way to Dawkins’ argument. I apologize if it was wasted effort.