Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Twenty gods or none

Kathleen Parker has written a piece critical of last Saturday's Saddleback forum. She opens her article in this fashion:

"At the risk of heresy, let it be said that setting up the two presidential candidates for religious interrogation by an evangelical minister — no matter how beloved — is supremely wrong. It is also un-American."

If Parker wanted to call the event "unwise" or say that "there are more appropriate forums" I wouldn't object. But I'm very uncomfortable with Parker describing it as "supremely wrong" and "un-American." Question for Ms. Parker to ponder: would it have been "un-American" if in 1964 the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, had held a similar forum asking candidates Johnson and Goldwater their views on civil rights? (See chapter V of Jon Meacham's wonderful American Gospel (2006) for an engaging discussion of King's political work, plus Billy Graham essentially endorsing Nixon, and Jerry Falwell first being critical of pastors going political, then riding down the same highway himself.)

Parker brings up Thomas Jefferson near the end of her article:

"For the moment, let’s set aside our curiosity about what Jesus might do in a given circumstance and wonder what our founding fathers would have done at Saddleback Church. What would have happened to Thomas Jefferson if he had responded as he wrote in 1781: 'It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.' Would the crowd at Saddleback have applauded and nodded through that one? Doubtful."

The Jefferson quote is from his Notes on the State of Virginia, p. 159 of the University of North Carolina Press edition.

I've written before about people writing erroneously that Jefferson was one of the framers of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. While not quite irritating on the same level, there is another thing people sometimes do that they shouldn't, namely, treat one of the guys from the Revolutionary era as typical of the entire group. Jefferson in particular gets used a lot in this manner. Note that Parker ponders what the founding fathers would have done at Saddleback Church, zeroes in on the third president, quotes him, and leaves it at that as though TJ could speak for everybody.

And frankly, it's a bit hard to find other prominent American statesmen of the day saying it's okay for his neighbor to think there is no God or a score of them. Mostly you find a lot of statements more in line with what Benjamin Franklin said on June 28, 1787 at the Constitutional Convention:

"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? ... I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service..."

Remember now, this is Ben Franklin; he of intellect and fame equal to Jefferson's.

But never mind bringing other famous men of the time into the discussion; we should note that Jefferson himself often didn't write like a man who honestly believed the sentences Parker quotes. Indeed, look at the words Jefferson wrote right before the bit Parker quoted:

"But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

The emphasis is mine, of course; I've highlighted it to show Jefferson's use of the phrase "our God" in close juxtaposition with the twenty gods or none remark. Notice that it's not "the god some people believe in," with god in lowercase, but "our God" with the deity capitalized.

Even in the famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson employed religion to make the point that government shouldn't involve itself with religion--and he sounded quite devout doing so, beginning the legislation in this manner:

" Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do . . ."

I can't go back in time and ask Thomas Jefferson what he would think of the Saddleback forum; perhaps he would agree with Parker that it wasn't appropriate. That's not my point in writing this essay; I simply want to show that there are inherent problems with treating Jefferson's twenty gods or none remark as being typical of either the Revolutionary thinkers or of Jefferson himself.

And I can't let this close without acknowledging a clever rebuttal to Jefferson made by a contemporary of his, the Reverend William Linn (see Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 1987, p. 239):

"Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck. If there be no God, there is no law, no future account; government then is the ordinance of man only, and we cannot be subject for conscience sake."

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