Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nearer to Thee

"Sean Aqui," by way of a George Will review of a book about the religion (or lack of it) of the Founders, reopens the endless debate. Lincoln, as usual, gets thrown into the mix (in the comments). For once, he belongs there.

Two observations: We regard these men as gods or statues, and forget they lived in real time. Their views and their spiritual expeirence changed over their adult lives. Certainly the experience of the Revolution clarified Washington's ideas about god, as the Civil War turned Lincoln toward a faith he lacked as a young man. Jefferson's religious views got more secular and more confused after he left the White House. To write about "the Christianity of Abraham Lincoln" as a static thing would be a gross error.

Second, we children of the skeptical 20th century continually are dismayed to learn that the Founders held one opinion in private and another in public. From Will's review:

Allen’s challenge is to square the six founders’ often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive.

Well of course. But there's no "a-ha" moment to it, even though we act like we've caught them in a fib. They all knew this about one another. They were not like we expect our politicians to be, hauling all their personal opinions and private faiths into public office as though what they thought about God or no-God ought to be the nation's governing principle.

They were more or less deists, by modern views, who tended to be two-faced about public religion, except to them it wasn't a deception so much as a recognition that they were leaders by virtuous example. What views they held themselves they did not urge on the nation. Instead, they sought to encourage the best of the people's tendencies. It's an elitist practice long since lost in America, and any politician we catch nowadays at it we ride into the ground as a hypocrite.

Jefferson certainly wasn't much different than Tom Paine in his religious views, but Paine published his and Jefferson mostly kept his private and went out of his way to pay respect to Christian views he did not share. That, as much as anything, may be why Paine, who did as much as anyone to set America free, generally is excluded from the pantheon of the Founders.

They were, as Gordon Wood says in "Revolutionary Characters" (the best book this year on the Founders) "self-fashioned performers in the theater of life."

Theirs was not character as we today are apt to understand it, as the inner personality that contains hidden contradictions and flaws. (This present-day view of character is what leads to the current bashing of the founders). Instead their idea of character was the outer life, the public person trying to show the world that he was living up to the values and duties that the best of the culture imposed on him. The founders were integrally connected to the society and never saw themselves as standing apart from the world in critical or scholarly isolation. Unlike intellectuals today, they had no sense of being in an adversarial relationship to the culture.