Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Andrew Sullivan joins the Flat Earth Society

Andrew Sullivan's recent post will get him a life-time membership in the Flat Earth Society (yes, there really is one). Sullivan writes:

People have this strange idea that Americans are much more secular today than they once were. In fact, the kind of religious fundamentalism we see today, while always part of the American fabric, has rarely been as dominant. The faith of the founders' was a drier, more Enlightened type; and it's fair to wonder whether some of them were believers at all in the modern sense of the term. That's why a defense of secularism is by no means un-American. It is the essence of what made the United States such a radical experiment in its time: the separation of government from God. Just don't tell that to the theocons.

Did the Founding Fathers affirm separation of church and state? Of course.

Separation of the government from God? Not a chance. But maybe Sullivan has never read the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Or this: "We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that 'except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel." Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention, 28 June 1787.

Or this: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever." Thomas Jefferson, 1781.

The key point is that for the Founding Fathers the existence of God was a fact, amply supported by 2000 years of Western philosophy and proved to a moral certainty by Newtonian science. This God was the necessary basis for both human morality and human rights, hence their concern in the Declaration of Independence for "the laws of Nature and Nature's God".

Religion was something else, a matter of faith; something the government could encourage, but not require. Hence this early repudiation of the notion of "Christian America":

"As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." President John Adams, Treaty of Tripoli, 1797.

But this same John Adams could also say:
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." John Adams, Address to the Military, October 11, 1798.

The Founders distinguished between the pair of Reason/God which were the foundation of government; and that of Faith/Religion which were left to private belief. It's not a difficult distinction to grasp.

Maybe some day Sully will catch on.


At Thursday, 30 March, 2006, Blogger Tyler Simons said...

Let me get this straight, Andrew Sullivan is delusional because he doesn't want to keep American democracy tied to an 18th century deist cosmology?

Do you think John Adams is right, and that the US Government is totally ineffective with regard to atheist citizens? He said "Moral and Religious people." What about non-religious people who are also moral? You're not going to argue that people who aren't traditionally "religious" can't possibly be moral, are you?

Now, I'm inclined to say that every moment of life testifies to the reality of God, and I think Andrew Sullivan is too, actually, but are we wrong for not thinking that people who disagree with us on that point aren't necessarily corrupt to the point of ungovernability?

At Thursday, 30 March, 2006, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...


If Sully wants to junk the classical tradition of metaphysics, that's his right, although I think he's profoundly wrong.

But when he tries to falsify American history by pretending that the Founding Fathers tried to separate God from the government, he's delusional.

He's creating a myth about American history that has no more historical truth than the notion that the earth was created in six literal 24 hour days.

As for the points you raise: I do think that atheists can be moral as individuals and in fact often are: but, on average, atheism lowers the moral level of a society as cigaret smoking lowers a society's health.


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