Religion and politics in the United States

On the Compuserve US Political Debate Forum a message has been posted in reply to claims that respect for religion as the foundation of all morality was at the heart of the philosophy of the founding fathers. The message, posted on 1 December by ‘ynnubrettilg’, sets out without comment some splendid quotations. Here is the pick of them:

Following are several quotes attributed to Benjamin Franklin regarding religion.

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
— Benjamin Franklin, _2000_Years_of_Disbelief_ by James A. Haught

Religion I found to be without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another.
–Benjamin Franklin

That wise Men have in all Ages thought Government necessary for the Good of Mankind; and, that wise Governments have always thought Religion necessary for the well ordering and well-being of Society, and accordingly have been ever careful to encourage and protect the Ministers of it, paying them the highest publick Honours, that their Doctrines might thereby meet with the greater Respect among the common People.
Benjamin Franklin, On that Odd Letter of the Drum, April 1730

And this is what several of the other founding fathers had to say on the subject:

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”
– James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785

“Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
– James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785

“The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. And ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality, is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes and hand, and fly into your face and eyes.”
– John Adams, letter to John Taylor

“In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer engine for their purpose.”
– Thomas Jefferson, to Horatio Spafford, March 17, 1814

“History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.”
– Thomas Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt, 1813

“On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.” – Thomas Jefferson to Carey, 1816.

Cheers (three at least)

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Let us with caution induge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”.G. Washington. I know you grasp the difference between The Church meaning an established Church and Religion meaning the recognition in a creator. The Declaration of Independence clearly did. The rights that were self evident were granted by the Creator.

    The founding fathers were clearly against an established church they had seen it’s effect in England but most were deeply religious men. Madison appointed the first Deacon for Congress.

    No doubt you would prefer another perhaps more modern quote.”We do not believe in everlasting morality and we denounce all this lying rubbish about it”Thus spake Lenin in 1920. And the result-over 100 million people killed by communists since 1920.
    Happy New Year

  2. Brian says:

    Anonymous wrote:
    >> I know you grasp the difference between The Church meaning an established Church and Religion meaning the recognition in [of? — BLB] a creator. The Declaration of Independence clearly did. The rights that were self evident were granted by the Creator.< < Yes, I recognise that difference without difficulty. You in turn will recognise the difference between saying on the one hand that “Only those holding religious beliefs can be relied on to behave morally”, and on the other hand that “If we are to have decent and respectful behaviour in society, it’s expedient that the people should be encouraged to have a religious commitment as the basis for their good behaviour, whether or not one is a believer oneself.” Your George Washington quotation looks to me more like the latter than the former. As for the ‘Creator’, I’ve always been struck by the rather vague reference to ‘the Creator’ in the Declaration of Independence, which I’m tempted to think may have been intended to leave it open to us to interpret in whatever way we choose — a suspicion strengthened by the fact that there was no reference even to a ‘Creator’ in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration, still less of course any reference to ‘God’:
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles and organizing it’s power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.â€?

    (I hope that rogue apostrophe can be ascribed to Duke University rather than to Jefferson.)

    As to Lenin’s repudiation of ‘everlasting morality’, which you have ‘no doubt’ I would prefer, I can’t attach much meaning to the phrase. I don’t believe in a morality imposed by a supernatural authority and therefore not subject to evolution as circumstances change, nor to human scrutiny and challenge: in practice, even the most fundamentalist of Christians don’t, either, whatever they might say (see for example I do believe that any human society needs to have rules to enable its members to co-exist to mutual advantage and in reasonable peace, that some of these rules have to be adapted to changing and differing circumstances of varying societies at different times, but that other rules are probably permanent and universally applicable: if you choose to call these an everlasting morality, go ahead. I also believe that virtually all humans develop from a fairly early age an instinct for recognising the kinds of behaviour of which they can be proud, or at any rate which seems acceptable; and for distinguishing it from that which makes them ashamed or uneasy, although relatively little of the resulting code appears to be either permanent or universally applicable to all humans at all times in all societies, even if you accept that this personal code can meaningfully be distinguished from the social one.

    One kind of behaviour which is a no-no in my own personal code, incidentally, is the (especially when anonymous) public assertion that anyone who questions the necessity of a link between religious belief and personal morality (a link which neither history nor personal experience can possibly sustain) must ‘no doubt’ share Lenin’s views on morality and therefore responsibility for ‘over 100 million people killed by communists since 1920’. That kind of McCarthyite smear seems to me to do little credit to a religion-based morality on the part of the believer, and even less to advance the discussion.

    Happy new year to you, too: may those faithful believers George W Bush and Tony Blair behave a great deal better in 2005 than they did in 2004.

    3 January 2005

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