Posts tagged with: founding fathers

The debate over the separation of church and state as well as religion’s role in politics has been intense and ongoing for years. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Tony Oleck seeks to add clarity to the debate. In his commentary, Oleck balances the desires of the Founding Fathers with what it means to be a Christian. Get Acton News and Commentary every Wednesday in your email inbox. Click here to sign up today.

Controversial Christianity: Understanding Faith and Politics

By Tony Oleck

As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship. . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church & state.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

I am reminded of something a former English teacher once told me about religion and politics.  “It’s like when I go to get my car fixed,” he said, “I don’t determine which mechanic to go to by what religion he practices.”  While I would agree, I tend to take the leadership and future of my country a little bit more seriously than whether or not my radio works.  Granted, a candidate should never be excluded from office for solely religious purposes, but a Christian nevertheless need not feel ashamed for supporting a particular candidate because of his or her religiously-based position on certain social issues.

Why did our founding fathers describe man as “being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”? And why were the words “In God We Trust” and “One Nation under God” added eventually to our currency and our pledge of allegiance, respectively? It was because they realized that only in recognizing man as having been created in God’s own image as a species set apart could America grow and prosper.  It was this common Christian heritage that allowed the state to grow in the first place.  While not all of America’s founding fathers were necessarily practicing Christians, they understood that for the American experiment to succeed it must at the very least be founded on Christian principles; on both faith and reason. They understood the transformative nature of Christ’s teachings and the dignity and truth which they expounded to human beings.

This is not to say, of course, that the United States only has room for Christianity as a system of belief.  Religious freedom is a necessary condition for a just and prosperous society.  As Pope Benedict XVI said in his World Day of Peace address this past New Year’s, “Where religious freedom is acknowledged the dignity of the human person is respected at its roots and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral conscience and institutions are strengthened.  For this religious freedom is a privileged path to peace.”

But while religious freedom is necessary for peace, it is never an excuse for inaction.  Christians often feel the need to separate their religious beliefs from their political views so as not to “impose” their beliefs on others, but this separation is contrary to the Gospel message.  Because acceptance of the Gospel and the subsequent sharing of the Gospel go hand-in-hand, a Christian who is content to confine his faith to the walls of his own home may be a Christian by name, but he is an atheist by practice.

Christianity is more than a moral code. It is by its nature both transformative and truth-seeking. And if Christianity is meant to transform our lives and to expound truth (whether that truth is culturally attractive or not), then it becomes necessary that we allow our faith to inform our politics.  It offers the lens of a true enlightenment, through which we can understand the meaning and purpose of political action in the first place.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped “There is properly no history; only biography.” It’s a line that lends to exaggeration for effect but speaks to the centrality of narrative and story. One of the great books I had the pleasure of reading about in regards to our story of independence is Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. It was fascinating to read about how a group of men came together to defend their property, way of life, and community against the British Crown. Fischer does a good job at pointing out how many of the leaders of the skirmish on the roads to Lexington and Concord were Christian ministers. Ministers were often the most educated in a community and the colonists looked to them first for leadership, especially in a situation so grave where the taking up of arms was considered.

One of the experiences that shaped me deeply in my appreciation for this country was living overseas in Egypt. When you see deep subjugation of people and heartbreaking poverty it humbles you and helps you appreciate the opportunities and blessings freedom can provide. Right now, there is understandably a lot of uncertainty about the future of this country. This includes our massive debt, economic health, prosperity, and certainly the moral order. One of the things I think I try to articulate through some of my writing and talks here at Acton is the importance of getting back to first principles. It is something all of us here at Acton are intentional about focusing on in the work we do. A great example is our discussion about the budget and the proper role of government. It is evident that as government intrusion grows it becomes even more clear that politics and politicians are unable to solve our national ills.

In speaking about America and the story of America, another book that has had a tremendous impact on me and really is an essential story for thinking about what it means to be an American is When Hell Was in Session by Admiral Jeremiah Denton. For some, his story may appear to be one that has faded with time or was more important in a Cold War context. But as Christians know, while believers wouldn’t willingly choose suffering, there is something powerful that happens to us in Christ when we suffer. Denton suffered brutal beatings and mental anguish during his almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1965-1973. He had plenty of time to grow in his faith under his communist captors. Under those extreme circumstances, he also came to a deeper understanding about the foundations, ideals, and way of life he was defending as an American and why they were so valuable.

In the colonies during the Revolution a common cry was “There is no king, but King Jesus.” It was certainly a slap at the Crown, but it also showed the revolution was grounded in first principles and freedom flows from God and not from a monarchy, or human power. Scripture declares, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” It of course refers to spiritual liberty and not political liberty. It’s ultimately a majestic reminder that through trials, breakdown of society, and all of our national despair on display so well in Washington and across this land, that our hope and grounding is found in Christ.

Many of the men, many of them not unlike us, afraid for their future and the direction of their colony, nervously huddled together on the Lexington and Concord road with muskets in hand to deliver the “shot heard ’round the world.” They understood that spiritual truth and that God was their hope and anchor. Edward Mote summed up the situation we all face well when he penned the hymn “My Hope is Built.” His simple words: “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Blog author: ken.larson
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There have been many published articles lately about school curriculum, school performance, school choice, and the Obama dictates that are aimed at pumping more money and asserting more control of an already mediocre performing public school industry. In The Wall Street Journal, University of Dallas professor David Upham comments on a revised Texas school’s U.S. History curriculum that has been proposed and awaits approval. It’s caused a stir among the educrates but that’s partly due to a longtime feud between academic types and the parent types that are found on school boards when things are working as they were meant to.

Teaching kids is supposed to be a family responsibility. At the least, schools were meant to be locally run with advice from elected boards from the community. Sadly, some school boards in the past – too many I think – have become entrenched with careerists and political types with their eyes on higher office or sinister agendas. Don’t believe me? Look at the resumes of some of your county, and state officials in various positions.

Texas is a big, populous state and to put it crudely a major market for school books; and only a week or so before the WSJ article appeared, I saw another published piece in Education Week on text book content and publishing costs that suggested that innovative digital and online sources would allow greater flexibility in the fine tuning of content to a school district’s proclivity in telling a story – in the matter we are addressing here – the story of America. Many big city liberals don’t like having to take what a publisher gives them when the content reflects a pro-Constitution, pro-middle America mindset. And the reverse is also true.

What is emphasized at school sometimes works to the disadvantage of the truth. I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s and one thing I’ve noticed in my post graduate work as a functioning adult is that The Progressive Era didn’t get taught back then. Woodrow Wilson was characterized as the hero of the innocuous “14 points” – not the promoter of a one world righteously enlightened order. And that story about FDR’s advisers – that some of them had met with the USSR’s Stalin and were strong advocates of collectivized farming – didn’t appear in any text books I ever saw: not in grade school, not in high school, not in college.

When I watch ACTON’s film The Birth of Freedom – the part where Rodney Stark talks about being “taught the dark ages” – I nod in agreement. A lot of U.S. history and history in general has a thin outline as far as school texts are concerned. I was taught “the dark ages” too. Yet if they were so dark, how did the sea compass get invented; the plow, the axle, harnesses? Somebody must have turned on a light somewhere.

As historian John Lakacs writes in the ISI volume A Student’s Guide to the Study of History, history is where we “re-mind” ourselves of what happened in the past. Unfortunately, curriculum choices and wrong emphasis has created at least three generations in The United States that need to be “re-booted” after some significant software downloads. (In that we’re taking Lukacs more literally than he had figured.)

And it’s not just Texas that’s having curriculum battles. In South Carolina, a revised curriculum proposed by the academics was going to ignore American History before 1877 until parents started shouting NO when it occurred to them that 1877 is a convenient date to start only if you want to leave out the founding of the country and all the founding documents.

One of the downloads in this re-minding project all families need to consider is another UD professor Tom West’s book Vindicating The Founders, wherein he takes on the misrepresentations of our history that are often promoted in today’s classrooms. In his chapter “Women and the Family” West does a good job of addressing the oft lamented despair of today’s feminists concerning women’s rights during the Colonial period. West’s is an explanation that considers times long past and relies on the reader’s understanding of human nature and the context in which society functioned.

Then, the family was a unit of special and particular value for which there was an ideal example – Adam and Eve. A husband was a protector, a provider. A wife was the nurturing partner who bore and raised children and knew how to shoot when his absence required it. They had become “one flesh” in the sacrament of marriage and made decisions as a unit within God’s ideal. Voting and property and “rights” were bound to that ideal. It’s understandable for those times, but today….

May 9th is coming up fast. It’s Mother’s Day just in case you needed a re-mind-er. There’s a Father’s Day too. They are meant to be family celebrations, not phone calls to two different area codes or glances at photos of people you never got to know.

So much for rights.

denton“We can add our testimony to that of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who have vividly related what Communism is really about.” – Admiral Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr.

World Net Daily Books has republished the classic When Hell Was in Session, the chilling account of Admiral Jeremiah Denton’s almost eight years as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese (1965-1973). The book, cowritten with Ed Brandt, was reissued in November 2009 with a new epilogue. A naval aviator, Denton and his navigator Bill Tschudy were shot down over North Vietnam in 1965.

One of America’s greatest heroes, Denton became the face of the prisoners because of two events: he spelled out the word torture in morse code through eye blinks in a North Vietnamese propaganda film; He was also the first POW off the first plane upon their 1973 release. As he stepped off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, he spoke for all the former prisoners:

We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.

“Under difficult circumstances” was an understatement. Denton and his fellow military captives faced extreme torture and brutal beatings because of their insistence on following the military code of conduct and not giving in to their captors. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his hard line defiance against the North Vietnamese propaganda machine and his courageous leadership despite prolonged physical and mental agony.

Denton’s account is more than a record of his imprisonment and torture, it is a deeply spiritual chronicle about his unshakable commitment to America and its ideals. He wonderfully contrasts this with the evils of atheistic communism. It is also a window into his own heart, as he depicts his faith in God despite extreme suffering. Denton spent over four years of his captivity in solitary confinement, with his hands and feet in chains during much of that time. During one heinous torture session Denton declared:

I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I repeated my vow to surrender to Him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-wracked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.

Denton talks about how many of the prisoners embraced their faith and it was what sustained them in their captivity. It has been chronicled on the PowerBlog before in a review of General Robinson Risner’s The Passing of the Night.

The obvious reason that makes this account such a tremendous defense of freedom is because of the extreme price that was paid for defending it. But with words, Denton too is skilled in discussing the rarity of freedom and the significance of the American experiment. The updated epilogue discusses his work with President Ronald Reagan as a United States Senator from Alabama in defeating Marxist dictatorships in Latin America. In 1980 Denton was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama since reconstruction and also the first Roman Catholic. In the new epilogue Denton offers a defense of the founding principles of the nation and laments the moral decay and secularization of America. He calls these factors a situation that is making America’s survival “extremely perilous.”

In his book there is another contrast that depicts his shock about the moral and cultural decline of America. After he left the Navy much of his work has focused on defending religious liberty and working to deliver global humanitarian aid through the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation. 85 years old now, Denton spoke at The National United States Marine Corps Museum in February of this year, where he quoted the Marine mottoSemper Fidelis,” in telling the assembled to stay faithful in the fight for the future of this country.

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, February 19, 2010

Jordan Ballor’s recent post “What Government Can’t Do” contained a quotation from Lord Acton worth revisiting:

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

On February 18th Barack Obama announced a “Debt Panel” – officially termed a Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – to be headed by former government veterans Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles of the Clinton White House years by way of Morgan Stanley; and the university at Chapel Hill. (Wiki terms Bowles an “American Businessman” but the only business he’s been in is financial services. Bankers are money lenders. I know it’s a peculiar distinction but that’s hardly on a par with entrepreneurial spirt or creating wealth with an idea and a lot of sweat.) Bankers use OPM — other people’s money — and put it out for a fee.

Obama wants the debt panel to come up with a solution for dealing with too much government outflow versus what citizens are willing to pay in taxes. It’s a CYA venture and the two guys “leading” the discussion and the fellow appointing them are illustrative of what is wrong with what passes on multiple levels for both elected and hired government leadership in The United States of America these days.

The conceit that brings us debt panels starts with the presumption inherent in such concepts as “schools of government” that are fixtures in many of our leading universities throughout the country. At Texas A&M, there’s a school of public service with former President Bush’s name over the doorway. At Harvard there’s the Kennedy School of Government. At University of Maryland the department is called “Business, Government, Industry” — an interesting ordering of words don’t you think with “government” at the center. And on the left coast, The University of Southern California touts their school of Public Administration as being responsible for training more bureaucrats for city, county and state government jobs than any other in the region.

After three terms in the U.S. Senate Alan Simpson left to take a job as lecturer and Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School whose mission is “studying public policy and preparing its practitioners.” They boast 27,000 graduates in 137 countries. The effort was “born in the midst of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. As government grappled with historic challenges both domestic and international” and no doubt has helped bring us such innovations as The World Bank and other drains on our national checkbook.

The cumulative graduate classes from these places has contributed to the burgeoning number of municipal jobs throughout our country. Think about the job fair at your kids’ high school. How many private businesses were there? Okay, maybe a major aerospace company came or JOHN DEERE, but mostly these assemblies are catered by the police and/or fire departments, local public works departments, a county hospital, or Teach for America. The private sector is conspicuous in its absence and that’s too bad because I think it’s one of the reasons the size of government and government’s workforce has become so large, intrusive and demanding on our nation’s treasure.

In a recent post former Bush guy Rich Galen puts the total cost of running Congress at $4,656,000,000 per annum and moans that they can’t or won’t do their job. I did some research last year and was told by the Congressional Budget Office that annual operating costs of the Senate is $800 million and the House $1.2 billion plus security. That’s half of what Galen writes but if you do the math even with the smaller number you get $3.7 million per Congress member. They make over $175,000.00 a year. In fact 19% of all federal employees make over $100K per year. In Los Angeles, California more than a dozen City Council members make $195,000 annually and the city is going broke.

In a neat little book titled Liberty And Learning, author Larry Arnn chronicles among other things, The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and The Homestead Act in an effort to illuminate the importance of education to the American Founders. He adroitly makes the point that education was never given the high priority it had in the Founder’s lives in order to “provide skilled workers for a changing economy” or insure that citizens would “make more money.” Education, especially knowledge and understanding of this nation’s founding principles was acknowledged by the Founders to be a prerequisite for the insurance of individual freedom and their constitutional republic.

But where are we in this? In the shame of survey and test results such as provided by Intercollegiate Studies Institute that testify to our Civic Illiteracy, many citizens vote present at a time when our nation’s economic and spiritual solvency are at risk. And every day we are told by a fawning news media that Obama and his administration – which does not include one high level official formed by some private sector experience – are the most intelligent assemblage in our country.

Recently I had the chance to read and discuss a story by Flannery O’Connor – The Enduring Chill. In the story a 25 year old son named Asbury has returned to his mother’s farm from an attempt as a writer in New York. There’s an older sister. He’s sick and if you know O’Connor you’re likely to be able to guess what’s missing in his life. While they wait for a country doctor to examine Asbury and make a prognosis the narrative provides us this:

When people think they are smart – even when they are smart – there is nothing anybody else can say to make them see things straight, and with Asbury, the trouble was that in addition to being smart, he had an artistic temperament. She did not know where he had got it from because his father, who was a lawyer and businessman and farmer and politician all rolled into one, had certainly had his feet on the ground…. She had managed after he died to get the two of them through college and beyond; but she had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do.

I think we have to do more for ourselves. And it needs to begin NOW.

Blog author: rnothstine
Monday, April 20, 2009

patriots-day Patriots’ Day commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. It is officially celebrated in Massachusetts and Maine, and is now observed on the third Monday in April to allow for a three day weekend.

Patriots’ Day is also the day upon which the Boston Marathon is held and the Boston Red Sox are always scheduled to play at home with the only official A.M. start in Major League Baseball.

My Patriots’ Day post last year references an excellent book that studies the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord titled Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. This is a terrific account that can’t be recommended too often. I can think of no other book that does a better job of capturing the intensity, seriousness, and overt bravery of the men who took up arms against the British Crown.

The history of colonial American militias is in fact unique. All the men who took up arms that day may not have been able to envision a final outcome or even a final political solution for their grievances, but they knew they were living in a historic time of change. The idea that rights were bestowed not by man but by God had already taken root in the colonies. Furthermore, if government was empowered, it’s purpose in empowerment was to protect the people not to subject them. It’s important to remember Patriots’ Day and ask ourselves about its relevance today.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, August 29, 2008

Laura Ingraham, the popular talk radio host, will be in Grand Rapids for an event sponsored by the Acton Institute on September 17. Please make plans to join us for this exciting event. Currently there are still tickets available and you can purchase them online through the Acton Institute here.

The event will take place at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, where Ingraham will speak, followed by a question and answer session. Also, there will be a book signing of her newest book Power to the People, and a dessert reception.

Ingraham is a refreshing conservative voice with great intellectual depth. I have always enjoyed listening to her commentary. Here is an excerpt from Power to the People:

Too often we have believed that “freedom” means that we have no duties or responsibilities to others. That “anything goes” mentality may appear to be empowering, but it is not. Instead, it creates a sense of anarchy that makes most Americans very unhappy.

The Founding Fathers did not risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor so we could become spoiled, pampered, narcissistic and focused solely on our own pleasure. An ordered society was the Founders’ goal — a place where we could live our lives in limitless possibility — but only if we fulfilled our obligations. They wanted us to have the liberty to tap into our creative powers, for our own good and for the good of our countrymen. This is the pathway to true happiness. But that society is only possible if we, the people, have a shared set of values, a common set of beliefs that bind us together. The Founders did not view liberty as a license, but as a sacred responsibility to be used for the good. They understood that liberty cannot be separated from virtue.