Monday, June 26, 2006

Founding Father

Who was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence?

Here's a hint: Among his direct descendants (allegedly) is Reese Witherspoon.

Give up? You're not alone. John Witherspoon is perhaps the most forgotten of the forgotten Founders. And it's no wonder; his views and his centrality in the cause will upset some settled notions.

Here Roger Kimball attempts a resurrection. His conclusion:

For us looking back on the generation of the Founders, it is easy to deprecate the religious inheritance that, for many of them, formed the ground of their commitment to political liberty. Theological skeptics and even atheists there were aplenty in late eighteenth-century America. But for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible. Witherspoon believed that religion was “absolutely essential to the existence and welfare of every political combination of men in society.” Madison agreed. As did even the more skeptical Washington, who in his Farewell Address observed that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.” For many, perhaps most, of the Founders, Morrison observes, the chain of reasoning ran thus: “no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion.” John Witherspoon did as much as anyone to nurture that understanding. Which is perhaps yet another reason he is less known today than other figures from the period. Whether that is a sign of our maturity and sophistication or only, as Witherspoon might put it, our pride and natural depravity is a question we might do well ponder.

The so-called Religious Right has put forth long and loud claims that America's Revolutionary roots are entirely Biblical and that the American legal system is entirely a product of its "Judeo-Christian heritage." This is demonstrably false.

Yet the push-back against that should not prevent anyone from acknowledging that the Founders' hostility to bigoted sects and authoritarian preachers was not identical to a postmodernist sneer at spirituality or morality in general. And that religion, and Christianity, as it was felt in that generation played an important role in America in 1776 and 1787. And that it shared that privilege with an Enlightenment rationalism that itself was marbled with Christian ideas and arguments.

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