Is America Slowly Losing The Values it Was Founded Upon?
There are two very distinct and conflicting views of “America” among its citizens, views that tend to fall at least in some sense on political grounds. The contemporary conservative rhetoric espouses an “America” that was founded on Christian values, a country as pious as it is obsessed with nationalism, the type of country in which a Christian is free to live his or her (more the former than the latter) life to the reverent degree that they see fit. In this particular view the country’s glory days are of course in the past, the days before homosexuality, abortion, secularism and multiculturalism, the modern age being characterized by the nations decent into godless and immoral culture. While this view is almost entirely unfounded on a reality contingent view of history it is nonetheless characteristic of the view that a vast amount of American’s have. Per this view there is renewed concern in the rise of modern American secularism among the nations conservatives. Do these conservatives really have grounds upon which to be worried, is the United States really transitioning into a much more secular zeitgeist and if it is what sort of impact will that have on the America to come? In the interest of being detail oriented it seems important to evaluate the basic claims in the conservative statement of concern, namely:
1. America is transitioning from a nation founded on faith and religion to a nation of secular belief.
2. Secular belief structures will degrade the American ideals.
In an attempt to stay fairly ordered let’s take a look at these premises in numerical order, beginning with the belief that America was founded on religious and specifically Christian values. While it may seem insulting to say that the conservative view that the country was founded on Christian values is as groundless in reality as unicorns, a simple look at the evidence will provide us with an answer. The United States was the first and until the 42nd amendment to the Indian constitution in 19761 the only country with an expressly secular constitution. In Article VI of the Constitution of The United States is written, “No religious test shall ever be required as qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”, essentially the only mention of religion in the document is to the effect of expressly forbidding it as being either restrictive or assistive to any individual in seeking or execution of public office or trust. This should unequivocally settle the debate as to whether the nation or at a minimum the laws of the nation are founded on religious and to a further extent Christian ideals. The debate minded conservative, of which there are many will quickly respond by saying, “But the founding fathers were very religious! They were true believers who wanted a nation of Christian freedom to escape British religious persecution!” This is a common counterpoint and one worth consideration for there to be any semblance of intellectual integrity in the discussion.
What Kind of Religious Attitudes Did the Founding Fathers Have?
The founding fathers as described by Richard B. Morris in 19732 include the notable names of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington though I think Mr. Morris is quite remiss in excluding the inclusion of Thomas Paine. While there is little disagreement to the religious beliefs some of the founding fathers there is a little historical president for categorizing the group as “religious”. Let’s take for our first consideration the religious beliefs of the man I am lucky enough to take my name from, Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography published in 17283 he openly states that he is a deist, far removed from the theist and more narrowly Christian theist. A deist is as far removed a position that one could intellectually hold at that time as Charles Darwin had not yet discovered the scientific principle of evolution. Benjamin Franklin held that organized religion was patently false, there being no intervening god, the concept of a god only serving to be the initial mover and creator of the cosmos and the world and beyond that lacked any intervention, particularly in human affairs. Benjamin Franklin is by no means a unique case among his colleagues, the irreligiousness of Thomas Paine needing no detailed description to those familiar with his writings or his philosophy.
. 1 “The Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976”. Government of India. Retrieved 1 December 2010.
. 2 Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries (New York: Harper& Row, 1973)
. 3 Franklin, Benjamin (1771 (1958)). Autobiography and other writings. Cambridge: Riverside. p. 52.
Jefferson The Political Aficionado & Deist
Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the most recognizable political figures in American history, being figured on our nations currency. The admirable Mr. Jefferson was a pioneer of secular ideology and intellectual integrity in his time and viewed his achievements in establishing a barrier between state and religion more important than his presidency or his contributions to the United States Constitution. In his time, particularly around the year of 1746 Mr. Jefferson investigated the historical accuracy of the Bible and finding it lacking both in historical truth and moral value he rejected it, embracing a moral philosophy based on classical literature.4 What Jefferson viewed as his most important contribution to the human condition and the American people was the introduction and subsequent passing of The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed in 1777 which would later become the foundation for the continued separation between “church” and state, a selection of which reads as follows:
“The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose the on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”
“That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.”
“And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear form the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
While it is obvious to any that would sit at a computer and make any attempt to research his work that he was irreligious you might be wondering why I would claim that he valued this work above all others. On Mr. Jeffersons gravestone, the object that would stand as a physical and intentionally eternal testament to the man, he wished only the following to be engraved,:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson.Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom Father of the University of Virginia
4 Malone, Dumas, ed. (1933). Jefferson, Thomas Dictionary of American Biography 10. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. pp. 17–35.
Even on the eternal testament to his work he espoused the values of rejection of authority, secular government and education, the values that the American conservatives claim are new to this nation. In this evaluation it is clear that the modern American conservative is either ignorant or slanderous in their statement that the nation of The United States of America is in any way founded upon religious values or Christian theology. The question does remain however as to whether theses secular values will have a degrading effect on the American ideals.
But Is The Shift Toward Secularism a Turn For The Worst?
An objection from the religious conservatives of this country is that secular ideology is “destroying ideals and morality”, a belief that is as unfounded as it is dangerous to espouse. While it would require an essay written on every subject such as abortion, contraceptives, gay rights and so on and so forth it seems a fair response to consider the success of the alternative position, that being how has religious ideology fared in maintaining a moral high ground in the societies in which it is exercised? It seems no oversimplification to claim that the majority of Islamic culture is morally abhorrent with its objectification of women including the genital mutilation of young girls, the treatment of those of other faiths particularly those of the Jewish faith, or their pursuit and seeming obsession of violence towards apostates or as they refer to those of even more deplorable position the kafir. Our fair weather friend of the debate minded Christian conservative would agree with us in our denouncement of Islamic ideals, claiming the superiority in their moral values taken from the Bible though these are just as rife with injustice and morally abhorrent behavior as is the Koran.
The Roman Catholic Church seems to easy a target to comment on in regards to the lack of moral fortitude in Christian conservative thinking with it’s institutionalized concealment and transport of individuals that are euphemistically referred to as “child abusers” when the only accurate portrayal of them would be to refer to them as child rapists. It’s largely held as common knowledge that the church objectifies women and in a conceivably worse pronouncement its denunciation of condoms, even in cases where the use of such a device would serve to stem the tide of the virulent and horrible disease of AIDS in nations like Africa, to say nothing of it’s lies and execution to Galileo. Any discussion by the religious conservative must first start with a rather long list of apologies both for the actions of their brethren and the commandments of their religion, which include genocide5, rape6, genital mutilation7 and slavery8 on the short list. It may be unfair though to pick on a specific religion as their commandments are often blatantly absurd and often violent, perhaps it would be more fair to the competition to merely evaluate the ever encouraged and consistently overrated value of faith.
Because I’ve Got To Have Faith!
Faith is commonly viewed as a largely religious ideal, encouraged by systems of organized faith but in principle and practice is the act of believing something when there is no evidence to support that belief. As a value faith has led to the largest abuse of human rights, a value used even organizations that expressly rejected organized religion, most notoriously the National Socialist Party of 1933. While Hitler was clearly a nonbeliever in Christianity or any organized religion for that matter, in his treatment of the Jewish people, blacks, homosexuals, and any other non-Aryan was founded solely on faith. There has never been any evidence to suggest that being of a particular race (the idea of such a word betrays its genetic truth, that being that the boundaries of such a category are nonexistent in genetic terms) is inferior to any other. Hitler was as ignorant of the truth of genetics as he was stupid in his reading of Frederich Nietzsche and brought about arguably the most deplorable violation of human rights since the religious inquisition. References to faith can be seen in nearly any totalitarian government, being a nearly necessary feature for such an ideology and even present in Soviet Russia with the groundless claims of Lysenko’s biology. It is clear that the religious and the faithful have failed in their claim that religious and faith based ideology enhances the moral constitution of its adherents but that says nothing to the effect of whether or not secularism will make America a more moral society.
. 5 Exodus 17:16
. 6 2 Pet.2:7-8. 19:8
. 7 Genesis 17:14
. 8 Titus 2:9-10
. 9 http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
Rendering A Verdict
The religious conservatives are correct in their claim that America is becoming a more secular society; a pole by the Pew Research Center in 20129 demonstrated that as many as 20% of Americans are now unaffiliated with any religion. In an overly terse answer to the question as to whether secularism will lead to a more morally upstanding society the answer is unequivocally no. Secularism has no ideals to espouse other than the rejection of the arguable delusions of religion, it contains within it no express value system. Where then will the American people turn for their moral education? It is hoped that though education the new generations will be exposed to the values of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, Socrates, Aristotle and others, providing them with the means by which to critically asses moral questions and provide meaningful and informed responses to those questions.
The religious conservative are delusional in their view that the American state was founded on Christian values, and correct in thinking that America is moving in an ever more secular direction. Secularism is by no means a cure all to the moral questions of today but it is at a minimum a step away from the wrong direction, the direction of persecution, prejudice and ignorance.
What do you think? We’d love to hear you sound off with your thoughts in the comments below!