Our Founding Fathers

On July 4, 11776, our founders declared in the Declaration of Independence: “we hold theses Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty,pursuits Pursuit of Happiness.”  With these words, they began the process of shaping a government that obtains its powers from “the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution continues in a similar fashion, professing the desire of the people of the United States to “establish Justice”, and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to ourselves and our posterity.”  These are powerful words, and the goals expressed in them have shaped this nation.  What kinds of men authored these documents?

When I read Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, her brief description of the philosophical and religious perspectives of our first Presidents intrigued me.  Albright’s own belief in religious tolerance may certainly impact her vision of our founding fathers.  Particularly pertinent is her belief that religion should not be  a source of conflict and hate.  It is reasonable that she focuses on similar attributes in our founding fathers.

What were the beliefs of the men who shaped these documents?  What is it that inspired George Washington and others to create our Constitutional form of government?  How is that these men created a government based on concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy?  What caused them to enact a Constitution that gave so much power and dignity to the common man?  Albright believes they considered themselves to be like the Israelites, guided by God through the wilderness, presumably to the promised land, the a United States.

Almost certainly, the vast majority of early colonial leaders were closely associated with clearly defined religious denominations: Primarily Congregationalists, Puritans, and Anglicans. In contrast are the less clear cut beliefs of a small group of pivotal individuals who took center stage as authors of the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.  Their letters and speeches suggest they were deep thinkers, wise and thoughtful, “primarily political–not spiritual theorists” who focused  on “civil concepts: democracy, liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, jury trial, all of the fundamental rights we hold dear.”

Consistent with their own political and philosophical beliefs, these men were highly respectful of the wide scope of religious and philosophical beliefs found among the citizenry.  What do we know about their beliefs?  Their religious beliefs appear not to have been stagnant.  They grew and changed as they faced the challenges of building a nation.  Historians describe them as very religious, not very religious, atheists or Deists, depending at least in part on the perspective of the various historians who write about the, while relying on whatever quotes fits.  Without question, they seem to have believed that this new nation should welcome people of different beliefs.

Our first President, George Washington, often acknowledged the importance of a supreme being, while advocating “scrupulous support for religious tolerance” including “Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or Atheists”.  In Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., he wrote: “The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  He made frequent references to a deity, nonetheless, ministers of his time, including the Rev. Bird Wilson, Episcopalian, and Rev. James Abercrombie, Rector of Washington’s church, described him as a “Deist”.  Certainly as Secretary Albright indicates, he was committed to the right of every citizen to worship “according to the dictates of his own conscience”, as he did himself.

Our second President, John Adams, is described by Secretary Albright as a Unitarian who considered liberty “a gift from God” and democracy “a creation of man”.  She describes him as having had little use for the concept of the Trinity.  A prolific writer in the area of philosophical and religious issues, his various writings provide little clarity as to his personal beliefs. Like Jefferson, his religious and philosophical views were intertwined.  His primary concerns appear to have been civil rather than religious.  As a statesman he was dedicated to religious tolerance. Treatises about him quote him as inconsistently stating both that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” and in contrast that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  I wonder whether this statement was in response to world events of his time.  He expressed concern that people “are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority”, as demonstrated by “every page of the history of the whole world.” Almost certainly a reference to the French Revolution which occurred almost simultaneously with our own, but with a level of brutality we never experienced.

Albright describes Thomas Jefferson, our third President, as a student of science and ethics.  The controversial nature of his beliefs is evidenced by his opponents’ attacks against him, labeling him an atheist. His own words make this suggestion highly suspect. In his letter to Benjamin Rush, in 1800, he acknowledges God, stating: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  But he certainly ascribes to a very personal system of beliefs: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any part of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.  Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”  He had little good to say about Christian clergy, describing them as the “greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus”.  Ouch, my dad would loudly protest against any suggestion that his life’s work is an obstacle to the teachings of Jesus!!

Jefferson is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  He and George Mason, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776.  In addition to codifying rights including freedom from excessive bond, separation of the powers of the three branches of government, the right to freedom of the press, and the right to jury trial, the document states that: all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience”; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Jefferson wrote respectfully of atheists in a letter to Thomas Law in June 1814: “If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him whence arises the morality of the Atheist? … Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”  In a speech to the Virginia Convention in June 1778, he proclaimed:  “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects…For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”  Finally he states: “Say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my God and myself alone.”  Letter to John Adams, January 1817.

James Madison, the fourth President, and often identified as the “Father of the Constitution” authored major sections of the Federalist Papers, advocating for the passage of the Constitution.  He was certainly one of the greatest champions of that document. Because his early expressions of his religious views are said to have varied greatly from his private statements late in his life, it is difficult to set forth a concise statement of those beliefs.  Early in his political life he described that the “democratic will” is subordinate to the commands of God, but clarified that those commands are “heard and understood in the individual conscience”. Advocating for the Constitution’s language on the separation of church and state, he stated that “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance;…in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”  Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.  Madison spoke and wrote frequently on the issue of religious freedom. He authored Federalist Papers #51, in which he wrote a slight variation of his theme, stating that: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

 Last, but not least, of our best remembered colonial leaders is Benjamin Franklin.  Never a President, and always somewhat apart from the main stream even of the late 18th century, his thoughts about faith, only months prior to his death are witty and plain-spoken: “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe…That the soul of man is immortal…As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”
What does it matter? It is apparent that they were respected by their peers, that they were able to define themselves as men of integrity who embraced people of good will where ever they found them.  Certainly, in forging a government of people from such varied backgrounds they were able to shape the original “big tent” of which President Ronald Reagan spoke.  But further, they constructed a government in which people were able to come together as equals, with the interests of the majority and the interests of the various minorities all considered and given worth.  They gave respect to the individual, created a government based democratic values and expectations of liberty.  Most important, they gave our citizens a Constitution and Bill of Rights that became the basis for a government that has thrived for over 200 years.  Sadly, they did not protect us from the inhumanity of  slavery or insure the equal treatment of women and minorities.  But over the course of U.S. History. the concepts of liberty, equality and justice have prevailed and these fundamental rights were extended to all citizens.
                                                                                          Out of Many, One
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A Place Like No Other–Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

The old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in Europe.  It sits in what is considered the best preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in Europe, including the Jewish Town Hall and six synagogues. It is a monument to the Jewish Golden Age in Prague.   It was established in about 1439, with the last burial in about 1787.

Unique among cemeteries, the tombstones are so tightly packed that many literally rest one on top of another. The ancient trees wrap themselves around the tombstones as though born from the stone.

For 350 years the Jews of Prague were buried here. It is the resting place of Jews who made Prague their home  when Prague was the cultural center of Jewish Europe.  Especially during the 16th century, Jewish intellectuals throughout Europe gathered in Jewish Town. Many of these greats rest here, in the same cemetery that served the community in times of repression.

The cemetery is surrounded by a massive stone wall, as though the wall alone is sufficient to protect the remnants of this rich culture that extends nearly 650 years into the past.

Madeleine Albright visited this ancient cemetery on a visit to Prague in 1997.  This was not just any trip, but a pilgrimage of sorts.  Within the year, she had learned of her Jewish heritage, a heritage hidden from her family who fled Czechoslovakia in fear of the Nazis and again, years later, the communists.  When she explored the cemetery, she must have learned of the leaders buried here, who, like herself, exercised great power and influence in their times.

Secretary Albright will have been told of the first burial about April 25, 1439, of Avigdor Karo, the “chief rabbi” of Prague, a poet and a scholar of the Kabbalah.  Rabbi Karo lived through the destruction of Prague’s Jewish community in the 1389 Easter massacre in which over 3000 Jews died.  She will have been told of  Mordecai Marcus Meisel, (died 1601), a Philanthropist and leader in Prague, who lived through the persecutions of Jews in the mid-1500’s, financed the construction of Meisel synagogue in 1590-92.  Meisel built a hospital, expanded the cemetery and paved the Jewish ghetto. She will have heard the stories of Rabbi Loew Ben Bezalel, Chief Rabbi of Prague, a significant Talmudic scholar and philosopher,  buried there in 1609. Perhaps she will have been told of Rabbi David Ben Abraham Oppenheim, Chief Rabbi of Prague prior to his death in Sept. 12, 1736. Rabbi Oppenheim, a highly successful business  man, a prolific author and a student of the cabal is said to have had a library of more than  7,000 books.  Many of these books are now housed in Oxford’s library. These are only a few of the 100,00 people buried in these walls.

As powerful as these images must be, with the cemetery symbolizing both life and death, there was more for her to experience. The Pinkas Synagogue sits in the same complex.  Now serving as a museum, the synagogue’s walls identify over 77,000 Czech and Slav holocaust victims.  Among those names are Secretary Albright’s paternal grandparents.  Her grandfather Arnost Korbel, died at Theresienstadt in 1942.  Her grandmother, Olga Korbel, died in Auschwitz in 1944.

My husband I visited the Cemetery and Pinkus Synagogue in 2007.  The list of the dead is a visual testament to those killed in the holocaust.  I  cannot imagine the profound sense of loss that Secretary Albright must have felt, on seeing her Korbel names on those walls. But I wonder, what might happen if I awoke on some future day to learn, as she did, that my heritage was not what I had been raised to believe.  What if I learned I was Chinese, or African,  or Persian, or Jewish.  Would I develop a better understanding of the struggles, hopes and challenges of people of other races and other religions? Can I do that anyway?

Madeleine Albright–Reflections on Religious Diversity in Colonial North America

A good place to start a discussion of Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, is at the beginning.  For purposes of this post, a better place to start is page 16, page 44 in my e-book.  Here she begins her exploration of the religious differences of the earliest colonies.  This precedes  her exploration of the role of faith in the formation of our nation, the United States of America.  While much of my commentary is based directly on The Mighty and the Almighty, I explored some of her references to understand a little more indepth (I know, it is only a post!) the issues she raised.

Differences in Faith in Colonial America

U.S. History 101 teaches us that the Pilgrims came to the New World to escape persecution in Europe and to build better lives.  Secretary Albright focuses on the way the patterns of that migration, and the related early religious conflicts, impacted the development of the colonies.  It is apparent that the English, Dutch, Spanish, French and other colonists brought with them differing views of religion and that their beliefs, and the conflicts among them concerning their beliefs, helped shape the political landscape then and now.

1) The Puritans arrived in the New World fleeing religious persecution in England.  John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left England in hopes of building a community that would be a model for “how to live a righteous life,” “escape God’s judgment on the corrupt churches of Europe” and find a refuge from poverty and overpopulation in England while spreading the gospel.   Despite persecution by Anglicans in England, his Puritan colony determined to exclude from full citizenship in their community all but a select view within their own faith.

2) Roger Williams was a theologian in England. Ordained into the Anglican church, he became a Puritan at Cambridge.  Forced out of England, he settled briefly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In 1636 he established Providence Plantation after being banished by the Puritans from Salem/Boston.  His transgression, in the eyes of the leaders of that community, was to oppose taking the lands of Native Americans without compensation and advocating for the separation of church and religious functions. He opposed slavery and advocated for freedom of religion for all groups–Jews, Papists and Mohammedans.  He specifically said about the treatment of Jews elsewhere “for whose hard measure, I fear, the nations and England hath yet a score to pay”.  Like-minded settlers and minority groups, joined him in Rhode Island where they found a safe haven.  (This is important to me because my ancestor, John Lewis, was a founder of Westerly, Rhode Island, formed in 1661.)  Williams is said to have established the first Baptist Congregation in the colonies.  Williams renounced the practice of taking land by force from Native Americans and, instead, entered treaties with them.

3) Reverend Thomas Hooker, a popular Puritan preacher, founded the Hartford Settlement in 1636.  He first came into conflict with other Puritan leaders when he opposed the decision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to limit voting rights to an elite group within the Puritan faith. He drafted portions of Connecticut’s Constitution which declared the “God given” right of people to pick their own leaders.  On May 31, 1638, he presented a sermon in which he espoused the belief that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people” and declared that “God has given us liberty, let us take it.” He also attracted followers who settled portions of Connecticut.

4) William Penn, was born Anglican.  He became a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) at age 22.  He was imprisoned in England for his beliefs, eventually relocated to the colonies, after authoring a “charter of liberties” for Burlington Settlement in New Jersey. The charter guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections. He eventually settled in Pennsylvania Province where he drafted a“Frame of Government” that addressed such rights as freedom of worship, trial by jury, free election, fair trial and fair taxes.  In addition to Quakers, the province attracted Amish, Jews, Huguenots, Mennonites and others. Penn, like Williams, befriended the Native Americans and bought his lands from them rather than taking land by force.

6) While not part of the original 13 colonies, and not a focus of Secretary Albright’s book, Catholics colonized the Southern states and California beginning with the founding of missions in the late 1400s Spanish missionaries and by French traders as early as the late 1600s.  Catholics were also among the founders of Maryland.  Identified as “papists” Catholics were subject to persecution in some colonies until at least the late 1700’s.

There is, of course, far more to this early history than I can presume to understand or to research for my brief summary.  But the ways in which the colonies formed, and the close proximity of these varied and sometimes conflicting religious communities impacted their lives and ours.  The tragedies of their time are truly that–tragedies: the introduction of slavery into the new world, the early wars with native American populations on the East Coast, and the Salem witch trials.  The great successes include, first and foremost, that the colonies became an incubator for the values important to us today: liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion and democracy that were nurtured and grew, for over 100 years before the “forging of one nation.”

Next:  From the wisdom of a few men, a great document. The United States Constitution.

The Mighty and the Almighty–Diplomacy and Faith

In my quest for greater understanding of the role of faith in government and diplomacy, I have focused on two books.  Senator John Danforth’s Faith and Politics and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty.  Senator Danforth is a lifelong Republican.  Secretary Albright has been a Democrat since college.  Both are Episcopalian.  Each served as Ambassador to the UN.  Both advocate that people of faith should be active in government.  Both believe it is essential that there be respect for diversity both within the Christian community and that this respect must extend to those of other faiths and philosophical beliefs.

I focused on Senator Danforth in an earlier post.  Now I will focus on Secretary Albright.  She was born in Czechoslovakia.  Her father was a diplomat.  She was a child when Adolf Hitler was in power.  She emigrated with her family from Czechoslovakia to the United States after communists seized power in her homeland.  Educated at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, she received her PhD from Columbia University.  Raised Catholic, she converted to the Episcopal faith and, as an adult, came to learn of her Jewish heritage.  Appointed United States Secretary of State during President Clinton’s administration, she served with great distinction from January 1997 to January 2001.

Her unique family history and academic and professional experiences give her a unique perspective on the subject of her book, the role of faith in international diplomacy.  Because of her childhood experiences, she also has special insight into what a privilege it s to live in a free and democratic society.

Secretary Albright’s book is dedicated to “those of every nation and faith who defend liberty, build peace, dispel ignorance, fight poverty, and seek justice.”  Secretary Albright weaves this dedication, and her personal family history, into a scholarly but easily readable narrative of the role of faith in the earliest years of colonial America, through the founding of the Republic and through to the challenges of international diplomacy in a nuclear age.

She discusses separately and together the roles of religious belief and morality.  Her definition of what is moral as essentially that which “we associate with good:  life, liberty, justice, prosperity, health, and peace of mind.”  She describes these characteristics as the opposite of “death, repression, lawlessness, poverty, illness, and fear.”

She worries about the dangers and challenges resulting from the increase in religious passions throughout the world.  She shares the wisdom of religious scholars that effective diplomacy requires that government leaders become more knowledgeable about the faiths and cultures of the countries with whom we interact.  She believes such knowledge is essential in our endeavors to work toward reconciliation rather than toward armed conflict.  Even as she identifies herself as an optimist, she worries “the prospect of a nuclear bomb detonated by terrorists in purported service to the Almighty is a nightmare that may one day come true.”

The Mighty and the Almighty is a goldmine for those who want a brief history of the role of religious conflict on the founding of some of the earliest American colonies, about the religious perspectives of our first four Presidents, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Because there is no way to do more than touch the surface of the issues raised by Secretary Albright.  It is wonderful material for further posts.

The Politics of Faith–Who Speaks for God

I’m a preacher’s kid (that is “PK” for short).  I was raised in church, or it seemed that way.  We were taught that we were part of the one “true” church.  But we were also raised to believe in loving one another, treating others with respect, working hard and following the adage that “to whom much is given, much is expected”.  God was the center of the family.

My family history is replete with relatives who were part of minority Christian religions.  My Mayflower ancestors , Thomas Rogers, John and Francis Cooke were Separatists who moved to the Leiden, Netherlands because of religious persecution in England, before sailing to a better life in Plymouth.  More recent ancestors participated in the Seventh Day Baptist Church, the Free Will Baptist Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church.  I was always mindful of the ways in which my beliefs compared, and contrasted, with those of more vocal participants in public life.

My grandparents were “God-fearing” people, active in their religion. Unique for their time, they believed, as part of their faith, in equality of the sexes and equality of people of different races.   With the benefit of a rich religious heritage I have been privileged throughout my life to interact with people representing a wide variety of religious and moral perspectives. Many of my closest friends are not Christian.  I have been privileged to see glimpses of the world through their eyes.  I do not find their faith or their morality to be in any way deficient.

As an observer in the political process, I ask myself, what is the role of faith in public life?  How do we remain true to our beliefs, whatever they are, while also remaining true to the other teachings I remember from childhood about respect for others?  How do we  work for a better world when our own understandings of how to make such a world are so limited.  How do we appropriately show respect for the beliefs of others while remaining faithful to our own world views and beliefs.  As I struggled with these issues, it occurred to me that there were two books in my collection I could turn to for wisdom. They are Faith and Politics, by former U.S. Senator John Danforth, and The Mighty and the Almighty” by former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  I hope  that my exploration of these books will be of interest to our followers.