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The Truth, Mainly - 10/21/1996

Impious questions about Coalition, Founding Fathers, God

I envy the cosmic certainty of the Christian Coalition. Unlike the uncertain bumblers I mostly hang out with, the Coalition can't imagine that anyone as important as God or the Founding Fathers might disagree with them.

Last month, Pat Robertson, founder and political prophet of the Coalition, looked at Clinton's lead in the opinion polls and spake thus:

"Twenty-three points is about as insurmountable an obstacle as I can think of. In my personal opinion, there's got to be a miracle from Almighty God to pull it out, and that could happen."

So we get this image of God as a Dole campaigner coming down to work the key precincts by turning Clintonites into pillars of salt before they can vote.

Maybe it could happen. Ever since Bobby Thompson hit that home run off Ralph Branca back in '51, I've known God has funny tastes in baseball. Maybe He has funny tastes in politics too.

Who, other than Pat Robertson, knows?

But when the Coalition claims our Founding Fathers as their own ("Founding Fathers would have joined the Christian Coalition," LJS, Aug. 10, '96), taffy is being served. So far as I know, God has provided no written record of his political affiliation. But the Founding Fathers left an incriminating paper trail of their religious inclinations.

I'll grant that a few of them (like Sam Adams and Patrick Henry) might feel comfortable today in the Coalition. But many of those who signed the Declaration, led the Revolution, and made the Constitution would be more at home among Unitarians than in Pat Robertson's congregation.

That's because many of them were Deists—believers in an impersonal God as a logical First Cause who set the universe going like a big clock, then stepped back to let it run on its own. And they did not believe Jesus to be divine or the Bible to be divinely inspired. Some concrete examples:

•Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys who captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British, published a book in 1784 called Reason the Only Oracle of Man. In it, he says "I am generally denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious I am no Christian. . . ."

•Philip Freneau, the "Poet of the American Revolution," argues that God is revealed in nature, not in churches or scripture. The religion of nature "deals not curses on mankind,/Or dooms them to perpetual grief,/If from its aid no joys they find,/It damns them not for unbelief."

•Revolutionary General Charles Lee said he didn't want to be buried in a churchyard because he didn't want to keep "bad company" after he died.

•Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography , said that when he was 15 years old "I began to doubt of Revelation. . .and soon became a thorough Deist." He thereafter stopped going to church and spent his Sundays reading and playing with electricity.

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•Tom Paine, the chief propagandist of the Revolution—he who wrote the piece beginning "These are the times that try men's souls" about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots—was also the biggest theological hell-raiser in the country. He wrote "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church."

•And Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, wrote "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." He said he considered the Book of Revelation "merely the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." But he admired Jesus as a moralist and put together a little book of Jesus' words from the gospels. He wrote to John Adams that those words were not difficult to find because they are "as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill."

Those guys don't sound much like Pat Robertson, now do they?

But the strongest evidence against the Founding Fathers being in the Coalition camp is the way their First Amendment to the Constitution flies in the face of the insistence that the U.S. is a Christian country.

Jefferson, especially, felt we should tolerate all religious views, no matter how odd: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

And his view prevailed in the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"—a clearcut denial that any religion should have legal privilege over any other.

All of which leads me to a bumblingly uncertain—and possibly blasphemous—question: If Coalition leaders are wrong in their certainty that the Founding Fathers are their religious allies, could they also be wrong in their certainty that God is their political ally?


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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