Saturday, January 08, 2005

E Pluribus Unum

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

First off, [insert amazingly heartfelt and thoughtful though maddeningly generic Happy New Year's message here]. This is my first post of 2005 and my first at IVIC's new address: May 2005 bring you joy unmingled with sorrow, happiness uncontaminated with grief, love devoid of bitterness, and freedom free from fear. And may the next year always be better than the year before.

One of the things I've always found annoying is how many Christians on the Right are convinced that Christians are being persecuted. Hmm, let's see... Christians are able to practice their religion free from government intervention. The currency of the United States says "In God We Trust." Almost 80% of Americans are Christians and most of our leaders are at least nominally Christian. Yeah, we're being persecuted alright. No doubt about it.

This persecution takes many forms, the most onerous of which, judging by the fever pitch of these complaining conservative Christians, is the fact that "Merry Christmas" has been replaced to a large extent in the national lexicon by "Happy Holidays." Don't let the seeming insignificance of this development fool you. It is but the first assault upon the Christian foundations of this great nation. Today, Happy Holiday sales and Winter Break, rather than Christmas sales and Christmas Break, tomorrow forcing all Christians to bow down and worship the golden calf of Baal! Yes, that is their nefarious plan. It must be! For how else could this be explained?

Truth be told, that whole "Happy Holidays" thing used to bug me too, until I realized it wasn't simply political correctness. Who started us saying "Happy Holidays", rather than "Merry Christmas"? It wasn't the PC crowd. It was businesses. When almost all potential shoppers in America were Christian, stores could have Christmas sales and not exclude a large potential group of customers. Now that that is no longer the case, they have "Happy Holiday sales" to get Jews and Muslims and atheists--in fact, everybody--to participate in the celebration of crass commericialism that is truly what the "holiday season" is all about. As annoying as it may be, the "Happy Holidays" trend is not being forced upon us by the ACLU but is being fostered by businesses chasing after every last dollar. After all, what could be more American than that?

I was talking to a Jewish friend of mine a number of years ago about Hannukah. It was never a major Jewish holiday, more of a minor festival, really, until the late 20th century, when businessmen realized its proximity to Christmas made it a perfect way to get Jewish customers to spend more of their hard-earned money. Now they even have Happy Hannukah cards. Jewish customers are encouraged by Hallmark to buy one card for each family member and friend for each of the eight days of Hannukah. And you thought Christians had it bad!

Of course there are things we Americans care about other than money. It's just that money is the one thing virtually all Americans care about. It is the core of our consumerist culture. We value not money, but what we can buy with it... happiness, of course!

Even so, many people still get hysterical when you shine the cold hard light of reason on their rediculous claims of being persecuted. Case in point is a letter in Tuesday's Greensboro News & Record. It's the second letter down.

Not only is it poorly written and overreacting, it is full of inaccuracies. How many logical fallacies can you count? 5 dollars to the winner! It almost seems unsportsmanlike, criticizing this letter. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Actually, that kind of sounds like fun...

But I digress. The most troubling part of this letter is the commonly-spouted nonsense on the Religious Right that this is a "Christian nation." Oh, really? Yes, indeed, most of the people in the United States have always identified themselves as Christian. But most of the people in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, the Phillapines and Spain could say the same thing, and they do not consider themselves "Christian nations." Usually, this argument hinges on a claim that the Founding Fathers set up a "Christian nation." If so, they sure went about it in a funny way. If a Christian theocracy is your goal, why would you insert an amendment into the national charter, listed first as it is the most important, that prevents there from being an established church and keeps the government from meddling in religious affairs? It makes sense only when you consider the fact that the Founding Fathers were not as Christian as the Religious Right would like you to believe.

But, Michael, surely you're not saying the Founding Fathers were anything short of devout Christians?

Sit down. Take a few deep breaths. Brace yourself. The most important leaders of the founding generation--the "Founding Brothers" as one famous contemporary historian has called them--were deists. The best summary of their faith can be found on

"Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws. The supreme God of the Deists removed himself entirely from the universe after creating it. They believed that he assumed no control over it, exerted no influence on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation to man. A necessary consequence of these beliefs was a rejection of many doctrines central to the Christian religion. Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible.

"These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised by the nation that had once revered him as 'the father of the American Revolution.' To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe."

Thomas Jefferson went so far as to take from the gospels only the stories that conformed to this Enlightenment worldveiw and rejected the rest as superstition, thus creating the "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Even George Washington, on his deathbed, requested that he not be buried until at least three days after his death, apparently convinced that Jesus had simply been buried alive and not resurrected at all. As president, Washington even refused to publicly take communion, lest he set a dangerous precedent for the intermixture of religion and politics. Of at least the first seven presidents, none professed any belief in Christianity, as opposed to Deism or Unitarianism.

Indeed, due to their own religious beliefs it is inconceivable that they thought of the new nation they were establishing as a "Christian nation" at all.

As far as the First Amendment is concerned, fundamentalists today seize on the fact that it does not contain the exact words "Separation of Church and State" (they came from a letter written by Jefferson), therefore the Founders did not intend for there to be any separation between the two realms. Even knowing nothing about the Founders' religious beliefs, it is obvious that such a separation is what they intended. How else can the words "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" be reasonably interpreted?

But Michael, if we're not an officially "Christian nation", why does our money say "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance contain the words "Under God"?

Even the most cursory Google search reveals that Lincoln's Treasury Secretary was the first to add the words "In God We Trust" to U.S. currency. Two important things to note about this: First, this was after the Second Great Awakening, when Americans in general were far more religious and far more Christian in the most pious sense, than had been the case in the time of the Founders; thus explaining how this could happen in 1864, yet have been both incomprehensible and anathema to the America of 1776 and 1787. Second, this was in the middle of the Civil War, when both sides invoked the name of God to show that God was on their side. Anyone who might have objected to this new motto on the national currency had more important things to worry about in the midst of the Civil War. In any event, in the almost entirely Christian America that existed from the Second Great Awakening to the 1960s, there were few non-Christians to get offended at an entirely symbolic show of disregard of the separation of church and state.

The Pledge of Allegiance was first published in 1892. The words "Under God" were inserted by an act of Congress in 1954. This was at the height of the Cold War and America was still overwhelmingly Christian. In the McCarthyite rhetoric of the day, the Cold War pitted the "godless Russians" against the "Christian America." This late addition to the Pledge can only be understood in that context.

A little-known but even more troubling fact is that during the 1950s, the traditional American motto since the Foudning of our nation, "E Pluribus Unum" ("Out of Many, One"), a statement of inclusion and unity, was changed to mirror our money: the exclusionary and divisive "In God We Trust." Theocracies have mottos invoking God, not secular nation-states that maintain any pretentions of being democracies. As theocracies have a 100% failure rate in establishing God's Kingdom Here on Earth, emulation of a failed governmental system is probably not the best idea.

In the pluralistic America of today, when more than 20% of Americans identify themselves at non-Christian, it is hard to justify keeping such relics of bygone eras, especially as they seem to be in direct violation of the First Amendment. Which is, of course, why fundamentalists go to such lengths to perpetuate the myth that America is and always has been an officially Christian nation. By now it should be abundantly clear that this claim is complete hogwash.

A final note: My personal religious beliefs, for the record, are more orthodox and traditional than those of the Founding Fathers. But I do not believe that the fact that I am convinced my beliefs are right and I am in the majority gives me or anyone else the right to force their beliefs on the minority. I am secure enough in my faith that I do not feel threatened by the government refusing to shove my religion down the throats of others. If the courts strike the words "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance or the words "In God We Trust" from the quarter, if "E Pluribus Unum" once again becomes our national creed, my faith will not be shaken. I do not need govermental approval of my beliefs. My faith is not so fragile, not so shallow. I endeavor to live my life true to my beliefs and to the sentiment expressed by Jefferson himself: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

God Bless America,

E Pluribus Unum