Monday, February 15, 2010

How Christian Were the Founders?

Russell Shorto has a lengthy article about the battle being waged over how religion is to be included in future American history textbooks. There's some major conservative, fundamental (so-called) Christian players who are in a position to insert their peculiar interpretation of the Founding Fathers into what children are taught across the country. Their leverage arises out of the fact that the choices made for the state of Texas influence what the publishers print for the rest of the country. The only way this sad state of affairs will change is when the rest of the states muster the intestinal fortitude to refuse to buy books containing this narrow and patently inaccurate point of view.

After all, there is no reason to accept that these biblical-literalists have the final word on either religion or history. To let them establish the standard is to give our education over to an American Taliban of religious fanatics.

But let's set the argument about the past aside. What is the appropriate place of religion in our society for the future? It's a common thought that the fundamental basis of morality is found in religion. But the fact of the matter is that the morality has been brought into religion from the outside. It's we humans who have built up moral codes in various places and times and then attributed them to God or the gods as the case may be. The moral pronouncements of God would not be the least bit appealing if they didn't resonate with our own internal sense of justice and fairness. The reason there have been and continue to be such struggles over such things as gender equality or the place of homosexuals in society is because our sense of justice is in conflict with traditional religious morality. Eventually human-centered justice will prevail because tradition by it's very nature is, over the long run, malleable.

If we are all going to be able to live together as a united society there has to be a common moral code that serves as a check on our diverse religious codes. We don't allow murder in the name of religion. The boundaries between the jurisdiction of the common code and the religious will always be under constructive tension. A patient can refuse a life-saving blood transfusion if he has a religious objection against it but is it proper to refuse the transfusion to a child who has yet to develop a particular religious viewpoint of her own? Who should be the subject of prosecution in such a case?

Regardless of what was in the mind of the founding fathers we should be asking what makes moral sense today and tomorrow? Do we want to have a society in which women are second-class citizens as they were in Old Testament times? Do we want to have a society in which our beloved children who happen to be homosexual are prohibited from experiencing society's approval and support of their long-term loving relationships? Do we want to have a society in which there are different rules for the rich and powerful than there are for the disadvantaged? These are more important questions than whatever it was Thomas Jefferson or John Adams thought.

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