How well do you know your American History? I am most referring to the formation of this republic that celebrates the 4th of July as its birthday. Who were these people? There has been a barrage of history revisions over the last few decades by people who want the founders of this nation to look more like them and less like the radical and liberal people that they were.
It is said that History is written in the view point of the victors and this is true about our history as well. If the British had succeeded and squashed the rebellion of the colonists, we might still be called the United States of America but we would be placing Benedict Arnold on our currency and not George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. These men would have been placed as footnotes in the pages of history as rebels, as anarchists, as terrorists because that is how they were viewed by King George.
There is a push by the religious right to claim the founding fathers as one of their own and not recognize that the founding fathers were as diverse politically and religiously as we are today. These people have this idealized perspective that the founders were harmoniously united in not only in what strategies to take in seeking their liberty but also united in their vision for what was to become the United States of America.
Nothing can be further from the truth. So who were the founders of this nation? Looking at the two highest offices of this nation and who filled these posts during the first six administrations, we find that of the eleven individuals filling these positions, four were Unitarian, three were deists[i] [ii] [iii] [iv], three were Christian, and one apparently was agnostic[v]. The three who were Christian were not evangelical Christians[vi]; they were Episcopalian[vii] and Presbyterian[viii].
The four Unitarians were: Our first Vice-president and second President, John Adams[ix]: Our second Vice-president and Third President, Thomas Jefferson[x], Our Sixth President, John Quincy Adams[xi] and his vice-president, John C. Calhoun[xii].
Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia and during that time, if you were born in Virginia you were automatically Anglican (Episcopal). That was the colony recognized religion, any other faith was considered reprobate. We claim Thomas Jefferson because he espoused Unitarian views. He was mostly influenced by the writings of Rev. Joseph Priestly founder of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. And depending on the historian you speak with, the first or second Unitarian Church in the nation. Jefferson attended this congregation whenever he was in Philadelphia. He believed that reason was the arbiter of faith. During his presidency he removed all the passages in the New Testament that were supernatural or miraculous in nature. This testament is now known as the Jefferson Bible. He also believed that someday everyone in the Americas would be Unitarian.
But even those who did claim the Christian nomenclature were not like the conservative Christians today who seek to create the kingdom of God here in the USA. They were firm in their stance on religious liberty. Vice President Elbridge Gerry, also one of the signers of the Constitution wanted the first amendment to read: “No religious doctrine shall be established by law [xiii].” No, the Christians of the revolution and the birth of this nation were liberal in their theology, tolerant of other religious beliefs, who knew the dangers when religious authority blends with governmental powers.
While Thomas Jefferson is given credit for the concept of building a wall of separation between church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he is not the only founder who espoused such ideals. James Madison said: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries. [xiv see footnote]”
Thomas Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, and a person who was raised Unitarian said, “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.”
In the treaty of Tripoli of 1797, then President John Adams stated in Article 11, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.[xv]” There is some speculation that the Arabic version of this treaty does not contain Article 11 but nevertheless, the English version does contain it and it was the English version that was ratified by the Senate.
While Unitarians and Universalists were a small minority faith during the founding of our nation, we were influential in ensuring and building upon the freedoms that we enjoy today. Unitarians and Universalists that followed these founding parents of our republic added their voice towards freedom. Judith Sargeant Murray pioneered women’s education. Theodore Parker penned ideas of justice and democracy that would resound through the ages and be quoted by President Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King. Clara Barton established the American Red Cross. Rev. Olympia Brown and Susan B. Anthony and others fought for the women’s right to vote. Jane Addams founded modern day social work. Mary White Ovington was a founder of the NAACP. On these shoulders we stand today.
From the founding fathers of this nation to those who marched side by side during the civil rights era, these are our religious ancestors; some by nomenclature and others by their insistence on religious liberty from governmental control. Our 5th principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process,” has its beginnings in the hearts and actions of these revolutionaries quest for freedom and democracy. We echo their desire for liberty and justice for all.
Today we have history revisionists, like David Barton, who claim that all of the founding fathers were not only Christian but fundamentalist Christians. Fundamentalism developed in the early 20th century pertains to the literal reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures through an evangelical Christian lens. Fundamentalist Christians were not even at the table in 1776. Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists were but not Southern Baptists, not Pentecostalists, not Latter Day Saints. It is these last three groups who are seeking to revise history. But they were not there; they did not even exist as an expression of faith. Their faith expression did not develop in this nation until later in American History. Mormons developed in the early 19th century, Southern Baptists after the civil war, and Pentecostalists in early 20th century.
Barton takes quotes out of context from Unitarians John Adams and John Quincy Adams and quotes from Deists such as James Madison and twists them to his revisionist history. Barton has gained influence in recent years and has been given platforms by Tea Party gurus Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee[xvi].
He has been a consultant on the Texas Board of Education Social Studies curriculum. This is our present reality as Unitarian Universalists. Almost 240 years after our radical and revolutionary founders declared their independence not only from monarchical tyranny but also religious tyranny, our nation is once again facing the specter of religious tyranny.
We are hearing Barton’s revisionist history being quoted by judiciaries in Alabama and in the US Supreme Court. Judge Roy Moore recently declared that the first amendment is only to protect Christians. When judges sworn to uphold the constitution declare a religion to be supreme, the very fabric of our nation is being torn asunder.
Here is some history to place his statements into context. Several years ago, Chief Justice Moore was removed from his office for refusing to obey a court order to remove his stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the Rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. A few years later, he is voted back into office as Chief Justice. The State legislature then seeks to pass a bill that would make a constitutional amendment allowing such displays in public buildings, including schools and court houses. It passed the house but died in the Senate. I guarantee it will resurface again because separation of church and state is being systematically dismantled in Alabama and in the Federal Government. In Alabama, this is a non-partisan dismantling.
Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision, a decision divided between the Christians on the court and the non-Christians on the court, that opening prayer at a town meeting is constitutional. The courts majority did not see Christian prayers as being coercive. Judge Scalia “suggested that there’s no harm in a little “subtle” pressure on those who don’t choose to pray in public places at taxpayer expense.[xvii]” Of course he would think that, he has religious or Christian privilege in this nation. It is no coincidence that three of the four judges in dissent were Jews. They have lived under Christian privilege in this nation their entire lives. They recognize its coercive forces upon their daily lives.
Regardless of where one lives but perhaps most especially in the south, Christian privilege holds sway over non-Christians. Ask our students if they are excluded in school events because they are not Christian and the answer sadly is yes. Ask them how often they are told by their peers they are going to hell because they do not accept Jesus as God and the answer is frequently.
I know many have joked that when moving here from another town or state, the first question asked after introducing yourself at work is; “Where do you go to church?” The assumption is that you must be Christian. If you are not, then something is not right and in their mind it wasn’t asking the question.
We see Christian privilege rearing its head in the Hobby Lobby Case which the Supreme Court may soon rule on. If corporations are given the right to ignore federal laws based on religious beliefs, then this is another form of coercion on their employees to conform to their employers’ religious beliefs. This court case extends further than a sincerely held belief albeit erroneous that contraceptives are abortifacients and therefore violates ones religious practice. A company could publicly state that it is against their religious beliefs to hire gay or transgender people[xviii]. It is already legal in Alabama simply by its absence in law to fire an employee for their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. If this court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, it would give legal teeth to enable other religious beliefs to be acted upon such as the refusal of hiring members of the LGBTQI community. We are already seeing conservative Christians demanding a right to discriminate against sexual minorities in communities throughout the south.
This is our present reality in this country. And Unitarian Universalists across the country are involved in these issues as part of our campaign to Stand on the Side of Love.
In 21st century America to protect our ability to the right of conscience and the use of democratic process we are called to become advocates and be active in the community arena. We are still a rather small faith in this country. We may never reach Jefferson’s vision of all of America being Unitarian. But the followers of our faith from this nation’s infancy until now have proven to be consistently on the forefront on issues of justice.
From the earliest days of this republic, Unitarians have spoken up and influenced the direction this nation needs to go. We have consistently sought to bend the arc of history towards justice.
Not everyone of us is able to take the initiative to speak up especially when we are alone in whatever setting we find ourselves. But we can match our behaviors to our values. We can listen before we speak. We can emphasize in our presence the honoring of others inherent worth and dignity. We can seek to say the kind word of encouragement instead of the criticizing word. And when others notice that our behaviors match our words, and they ask us about our lives. Then we can state, I am a Unitarian Universalist and we believe to be gentle with one another. Or we believe that loving our neighbor as ourselves is not just a suggestion. Or we believe that everyone has worth and dignity.
In our own small way we will be joining those who have gone before us and paving the way for those who come after us to live in a community of peace, liberty and justice. May it be so. Blessed Be.
Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on May 25 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.
[xiv] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/James_Madison In preparing for this sermon to be posted on this blog, I realized I had not posted my source for this quote from James Madison. In searching for a source, discovered that while this quote has been attributed to James Madison, no credible source has been found. This site lists the quote as misappropriated.