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Friday, March 21, 2008

First Principles, Part 1

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House has written a small book called “Rediscovering God in America.” In this easy to read, informational best-seller we are informed of the beliefs and temperament of the Founding Fathers when laying the foundation of the fledgling United States of America. The task was no small undertaking. It involved thinking “out of the box,” though that idiom had yet to be coined. All previous governments, certainly in the West, had been organized around a monarch, some benevolent, some not so much. In most cases the king or queen was held as appointed by God as their ruler and so had the absolute authority to rule as they wished. The monarch was the source of any rights and privileges that the people enjoyed and these were subject to suspension or revision on the whim of the king. The idea of a basic individual right was novel and yet to be truly exercised until the time of the Declaration of Independence. Further, there were few responsibilities of the monarch toward his subjects, except in so far as they benefited the king and his court.

The exceptionalism of our country rests upon the assertion that all rights come from God bestowed on each individual; this is the “first principle.” These rights, as enumerated in our founding documents, are granted by our Creator and cannot be amended or suspended except by a legal process specified in the Constitution that is designed to help maintain order and security for all citizens and guarantee the God-given rights to all law-abiding citizens.

Was it a nebulous, figurative “god” or God, Jehovah of the Bible that the founders thanked and appealed to in the Declaration of Independence and other central documents? All the evidence is for the latter. Most of the framers of our government were unabashed, practicing Christian men, though some, like Jefferson and Franklin expressed some philosophical doubts in some of their writings. Even so, they recognized that the American experiment could only be validated by asserting God-given rights, thus subordinating government to the people. Neither Franklin or Jefferson ever claimed to be anything other than Christian.

If you search “separation of church and state” you will find numerous sites devoted to the “constitutional principle” of a “wall of separation of church and state.” Most readers of this blog are already aware that there is no such article or wording stated in the Constitution, yet there are innumerable organizations that will have you believe that it is the foundational principle of the Constitution. (The origins of the phrase are explained in this short piece by Robert Meyer at Renew America.) The “wall of separation” was used in a context virtually opposite of how it is currently used, in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists reassuring them that there could never be a religion sanctioned by the federal government. The Baptists were fearful that Methodists and Congregationalists (majority denominations) might become favored and too influential in civil matters in Connecticut. Jefferson purposefully did not address the Baptists' fear of state intrusion in religious matters.

But those wishing to eliminate any trace of our Christian heritage are determined to revise history and claim that the founders were mostly atheists (e.g., Franklin) or, at best, Deists (e.g., Jefferson), but at any rate they most assuredly were not Christians of the “born again” variety. Jefferson, Hancock, Madison, Franklin, et al didn’t take this God-talk seriously but used such language as a form of embellished rhetoric common at the time, such as “purple mountains majesty,” in which case the mountains aren’t really purple, are they?

Rediscovering God in America” takes a close look at the beliefs of several of the founding fathers as expressed in their many letters and writings. Next, the reader is taken on a walking tour of several sites in Washington, DC including the Jefferson Memorial, the U.S. Capital and the Supreme Court, and others, and the expressly Judeo-Christian symbols and engraved words are pointed out and explained. Examples of the Christian references in writing and in the buildings and monuments of Washington will be the topic in Part 2 of this post.


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