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Faith in the Larger Liberty: American Deism
Picture this: Our president in the White House takes scissors to Bible, cutting out of the New Testament all that makes Jesus more God than human. Out goes the virgin birth story, the miracles, even the resurrection. When preachers object, he calls them “soothsayers and necromancers.” To top it off, he is having an extended affair with his half-black servant, fathering children with her. Such a scandal would leave Fox News sputtering, unsure how to begin the spin.
How prissy and protected we are. The irony is that this is what one of our founding fathers did, the same founding fathers that conservative Christians say we should get back to as a way of instituting a Christian America. A bible-based Christian America is pure Orwellian doublespeak. The founders were wary of Christianity. Their souls were inspired by Deism, a natural religion that spurned the scriptures in favor of Nature itself. It was not judgment that guided them, but compassion and ethical living. It was not Judgment Day that motivated them, but living so well in our days as to create a Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Christian sectarianism, especially when allied to state power, had proved to be somewhere between problematic and disastrous.
Fresh from the slaughter of Protestants and Catholics by each other in France and the British Isles, the residents of the colonies had only partially subdued such murderous zealotry. The Puritans did not tolerate toleration. Thomas Dade had imposed church attendance in Virginia by sword. Only Trinitarian religions were allowed in Maryland, permitting an uneasy minority of Catholics to exist. Only in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania was there any measure of religious pluralism.
Not one of our early presidents was an orthodox Christian. They put up with church more than promoted it. Washington tolerated Christians but didn’t identify himself as one. He was more Roman than Christian, concerned more for duty and practical ethics than salvation. He would regularly stand for prayers, but leave for the Eucharist. When orthodox pastors demanded he run the Universalist John Murray out of the chaplaincy for being a heretic, he promoted Murray in rank. Along with the non-established Baptists and Methodists, he backed the Bill of Rights for affirming the right of individual conscience. John Adams, a Unitarian Christian, rejected the doctrines of original sin, predestination and atonement. (However, being conservative by nature, he sided with the Puritans of New England in their pursuit of order and godliness as against the new American “Jacobins,” who, like the recently successful and radical French, rallied in red, white, and blue for “Liberty” and “Equality.”)
Thomas Jefferson (perhaps the single most influential philosopher in defining the new nation) was infamous and reviled for not attending church. Like Washington, Jefferson held that government should concern itself only with a person’s actions, not her or his beliefs. Proud though he could be in his inventions, advances in agriculture, stints as Secretary of State and President, and authorship of our founding documents, he was proudest of earlier securing religious liberty in Virginia.
Jefferson described himself as a Deist (as well as a Theist, Unitarian, Rational Christian, and Epicurean). Importantly, he didn’t write “Jesus” or a Christian God into our founding documents, but rather, “Nature and Nature’s God”. These were clearly more innovative deist terms than orthodox Christian ones. As with John Chrystom’s take on Genesis One, Jefferson claimed, “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” This faith in humanity was far more radical and hopeful than orthodox assumptions that we are wretched and need to have God’s biblical laws imposed. (Jefferson was no god. He believed dinosaurs to have existed along with humans because of assumed Bible time frames. He held slaves. He crossed racial and class lines to love his mulatto slave Sally Hemmings (possibly the illegitimate daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law), fathering children with her, a scandal that was used against him in the election. It could be he did not free her because freed slaves were required to leave the state within one year. He did free and support their children. It is perhaps the most infamous and untold love story in our American heritage.)
Jefferson’s acolyte Madison engaged Great Britain in war, much to the dismay of the New England clergy, some of whom even sought succession over their loyalty. When he issued a patriotic call to prayer, beseeching God’s aid in prosecuting the war, the standing order of the New England clergy chastised him for the very praying they earlier had wanted other presidents to do.
Monroe enjoyed some relief from the New England Federalist clergy when they lost their monopoly; Methodists and others succeeded in disestablishing them from state support. Religious fervor went private and voluntary, away from governmental favor or involvement.
A secular state is not a godless one. A secular state allows freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In the U.S., religious forms flourished. Far from what has happened in Europe, where state and church are often aligned and attendance ranges from five to ten percent, voluntary church affiliation in the United States nears fifty percent. The second fifty percent are as worthy as the first.
Curiously, Deism is not a significant part of that. Deist churches don’t dot the towns and cities like Protestant and Catholic ones do, and their teachings aren’t even known as a religious option. Why? Some claim this is due to their rational view of God seeming too distant and cold. People need personage, story, and the advice on behavior that arises from their mix. “Jesus loves you” is more companionable and comforting than the mathematics of the spheres. Obeying “Thou shall not steal” is more direct than knowing how the Golden Rule works in us and between us. Also, not believing in priests having magical ability to baptize us for heaven or pardon sin, there was no priesthood or other clergy to tend a budding religion.
The irony grows to tragedy when we realize how defrauded we have been religiously. The very human Gospel of Thomas (called Jesus’ twin) was cast out of the Canon by Iranaeus (as were other gospels), and the Nicene Creed effectively replaced the Sermon on the Mount with a faith fantasy formula. Earlier even than Mark, Thomas never has Jesus performing miracles, never has him calling himself the Son of God, and never says Jesus claimed to die for our sins. Not until 1945 did we realize what a humanistic system the early Jesus movement had offered until Paul, Iranaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine imposed their own version. Obedient faith overwhelmed intelligent humaneness for nearly two thousand years.
So Christianity wasn’t what Jesus taught and modeled, and what he taught and modeled had more deistic elements in it than Christianity anyway. Deists didn’t believe in giving up our minds and hearts to the scriptures or the priests and preachers who wield them. Deists looked directly into Nature for the laws and links to the divine. Deists believed in living intelligently and ethically, not faithfully and obediently. It fit a young, rebellious, creative country.
Deism fit the pastoral democracy Jefferson envisioned. Farmers would intuit the laws of God right in the nature they so practically tended. Inquisitive and free thinking, they would be resourceful, neighborly, and independent. The manufacturer, by contrast, as Eric Reece pointed out in Harper’s, is a specialist and cog, fit to be a consumer in an oligarchy more than a citizen in a democracy. The organic rooted-ness of Jefferson’s rural democracy withered, as did his deism. America has inherited the wasteful and poisonous industrialism of guilty sinners toiling in a fallen world, tended by a faith in faith. An organic wisdom, a counter-cultural wisdom – a love of this world, these waters, this air, our shared soil, our fellow creatures – has arisen more in spite of our religions than because of them. Reece put it thusly: To live by Jesus’ teachings would be to live virtuously as stewards of the land; it would be to create an economy based on compassion, cooperation, and conservation; it would be to preserve the Creation as the kingdom of God. Jefferson was proposing a country of countrysides, a pastorale in which we would want to live; Hamilton was giving us a nation of factories from which we would want – perhaps in the end need – to be saved. (Jesus without the Miracles, Harpers, Dec. 05)
The factories have won, delivering to us all the “goods” of a limitless, consumerist society where citizens are swayed by ensnaring stuff and silly snippets as we lunge into endless war and global environmental upheaval. Commenting on the “willed oblivion” of failing to limit our American Way of Life, Wendell Berry says: We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves… But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity… a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Faustian Economics, Hell Hath no Limits, Harper’s, May, 08)
Indeed, we do live as kings and queens in our little castles, castles by the million. We run the heat high in the winter and the cooling low in the summer, extracting resources, polluting the common air, taking it all for granted. We rush about town in our four-thousand pound easy chairs to get feasts brought to us from the other side of the planet. Our wastes are tossed or flushed away. There is no sense of replenishing the earth, as advised in Genesis One as any organic farmer knows. Berry says our national faith has been the sort of autistic industrialism that there is “always more.” The free market favors an unlimited power for the few at the cost of scarcity, strife, and powerlessness for the many. That “many” is not just human, for most plants and animals are also threatened by the poisons and weather disruptions our industrial habits create. Depletion pays, temporarily.
We’ve been flattered lately that we are a “people of faith.” Compared to Europeans, we’re far more churched, up towards fifty percent. That leaves a full fifty percent who aren’t churched. Yes, many believe in “a power greater than them selves,” but is that power a God defined and owned by scriptural fundamentalists, or is it the power of existence as it is, known by all? If it is the latter, all who live in and love Nature are related to those laws that limit all allow.
Our faith needn’t be confined to the formula Paul fashioned and others imposed. There is a larger faith – a faith in nature, both outer and inner, a faith in our abilities beyond our fallibilities, and our responsibilities nourishing our freedoms. It is a faith fashioned by philosophers and scientists, by free thinkers and artists. It is a faith in Nature as Creation makes it, including us and our ability to know, love, protect, and further this good earth. It is a faith in our own inner nature, our reason and conscience, our vision and resolve. It is a faith dearly held and hard-won by prophets and rebels, by those well-known and those lonely. It is a faith our little religion has favored and furthered for four hundred years. Moreover, it is a faith enshrined in our country’s sacred foundation, not just in the past, but in us as we find the ways to live up to ourselves. For now, we incarnate America.
In a moment we’ll sing “Faith of the Larger Liberty” celebrating our liberal religious heritage. Appreciative and inspired though we can rightly be by this, it is singing of the faith of a tradition. Wider than our claimed faith religion is the promising faith already alive and waiting to be named and furthered, the American Faith in Nature and human nature. We are of this too. So are our fellow Americans who have forgotten this hard-won blessing of the founders. So are all humans who choose to live up to themselves.
When we use our humanistic abilities, when we live by compassion and ethics, when we delve into the mysteries and potentials of matter, energy, life, and culture, we are actualizing a faith in the larger liberty. The cosmos, nature (and all of us in it) are so amazing and precious as to be our actual connection with the divine. With birth come unalienable rights, a divine promise built into us by Creation, natural laws that limit and allow. Our faith is in this larger liberty.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU’s of Grants Pass Grants Pass
© Oregon May 4, 2008.