A nation founded on Reason

george_washington.jpgI suppose I’m a little behind the times. At the advanced age of 46 I it is a challenge keeping up with the nanosecond-paced world of the modern blogosphere.  So it is only recently that I’ve come across the bizarre phenomenon of “Conservapedia”.  Bizarre because, being old-fashioned, I was still under the same impression that I grew up with, that the purpose of an encyclopedia is to provide the most authoritative and objective information available on a subject. 

Alas, no.

“Conservapedia” offers a brave new new model: an unabashedly (and often inadvertently hilarious) partisan version of the world presenting itself as The Truth.  I’m exaggerating, of course — it’s not such a new model.  If the old Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were still around, he would recognize fondly the transparent rewriting of history that was his distinctive modus operandi.  Mike Dunford at the “Questionable Authority” blog, among many others, has begun cataloging some of the knee-slappers that pass for encyclopedia entries on Conservapedia. 

But my subject here is a specific one, relating to the NP’s solemn duty as a guardian of patriotism.  During a cursory surf of Conservapedia, I chanced on the entry for George Washington, which immediately raised a fishy smell by (1) mentioning in a somewhat ambivalent but clearly approving way the old cherry-tree story, which was dismissed decades ago by historians as a complete fabrication, and (2) making the bold claim that our first President was “a devout Christian”. Evidently, the authors were (rightly) anticipating skepticism on this latter claim, since this was followed by the somewhat defensive-sounding warning that “his adopted daughter once [stated] that if you question Washington’s faith you may as well question whether or not he was a patriot.”

Well, I can’t think of anyone from any part of the political spectrum that would question George Washington’s patriotism.  But the extensive historical record provides little evidence that Mr. Washington was a Christian in any more than name, and considerable evidence that he was quite distrustful of organized religion generally.  In that respect he shared similar views with Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison.  Indeed the historical record is pretty clear that the the founding fathers of the United States were archetypal sons of the Enlightenment, and that their unprecedented experiment in democracy was founded solidly and very deliberately on reason, justice, and liberality in the original, general sense of that much-maligned word.  In other words, what we would today call secular humanist values, based on reason.  They were Natural Patriots.

How do we know this?  Well, one of the most telling pieces of evidence is that most of the founding fathers, and the Consitution they produced, were angrily denounced for their irreligiosity during their time by the same flavor of fundamentalists that are today trying to repaint them posthumously on propaganda sites like Conservapedia. For those interested in this history, I recommend the excellent, scholarly treatment of this topic in “Moral Minority. Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” by Brooke Allen.

Certain partisans make much of the fact that Washington was a vestryman in his church.  He was indeed.  Belonging to a church was of course a political necessity for a public figure in that time, as it is today, regardless of one’s private views.  But Conservapedia suggests that  “Washington frequently invoked Christianity in his work.” 

Um, no.  According to Allen:

“What exactly were Washington’s religious beliefs?  General A.W. Greely, whose extensive study of the first president . . . concluded that ‘the effort to depict Washington as very devout from his childhood, as a strict Sabbatarian, and as in intimate spiritual communication with the church is practically contradicted by his own letters.’  In those letters, Greely pointed out, ‘even those of consolation, there appears almost nothing to indicate his spiritual frame of mind.’  Greely found it especially striking that ‘in several thousand letters the name of Jesus Christ never once appears, and it is notably absent from his last will.’ . . . All this can hardly be an oversight.  Washington was a methodical, meticulous man. . . . It is interesting to note that the occasional leters of advice Washington penned to various stepchildren and nephews contained no injunctions whatsoever on religious observance and indeed no mention of religion at all, though he proffered considerable advice on moral and ethical subjects.”

Tempting as it may be to frustrated ideologues, trying to rewrite history to one’s own liking is a losing battle, whether it be the religious views (or lack thereof) of the American founders, or transparently preposterous explanations of the history of life on earth.  For one thing, the sun eventually shines in and withers these tricks.  But, more importantly, they can do tremendous damage in the meantime.  Stalin largely destroyed Soviet agriculture by putting the politically sympathetic but scientifically misguided geneticist Lysenko in charge of it.  Some prominent African politicians rejected the scientific understanding of the AIDS virus and adhered instead to a crackpot conspiracy theory that AIDS is caused not by a virus but by some secret weapon of the developed world; by doing so they allowed thousands of people to die of AIDS from lack of treatment.  Similarly, fundamentalist Christian antipathy to evolution is watering down America’s public education system and making it a laughing stock among civilized countries.  This has real consequences, and will bleed our economic competitiveness for decades to come as scientifically illiterate students ascend to leadership roles in American life and are forced to make momentous decisions without the ability to separate objective science from mythology and ideology.

George Washington and the other founding fathers left religion out of the Constitution quite deliberately, as extensive historical evidence makes clear. The new colonies, like America today, were a milieu of many competing sects and the founders knew from intimate experience that most religion was a divisive, fractious, and intolerant force hostile to their cherished ideals of democracy.  They intentionally erected a “wall of separation between church and state” (to use Thomas Jefferson’s own words) both to protect all citizens’ ability to practice whatever religion they choose (including none at all), and to protect citizens from the dark side of religious persecution and coercion that was all too evident in the colonies, and in the European countries from which many colonists had fled. The wisdom of their secular philosophy is just as evident today in a world dominated by headlines about religiously motivated suicide bombers, ghoulish gay-bashing protesters at military funerals, and the political rise of belligerent fundamentalist ayatollahs and televangelists.

Just for the record, I have nothing against conservatives or Christians generally, though I often disagree with them.  There are smart, creative, patriotic people on both sides of the aisle working hard to fix the probems this world faces.  More power to ’em.  But pretending that the founders of the USA were fundamentalist Christians is a disservice to this country and to history.  If I were a rational conservative, I would be pretty queasy about this trend.  Wake up, guys — hacks are trying to rewrite history in your name!

How about a new bumper sticker: WWWD?  Or Jefferson, or Madison or Franklin?  I suspect that the answer would often be quite different than the contributors to Conservapedia would like it to be.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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One Response to A nation founded on Reason

  1. John Bruno says:

    Really nice blog and an excellent essay. Now please get back to your day job and edit our manuscript on algal and herbivore biodiversity!

    JB