Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Faith, politics, and the founders


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For the better part of 70 years, the courts, the media, educational institutions, and popular culture has steadfastly attempted to remove public pronouncements and displays of faith to the closet; at best, they insist that it be kept to oneself in the privacy of your home—like smoking.

That was not always the case. In fact, faith, especially the Christian faith, has been the centerpiece of American culture and politics since long before the American Revolution, in which Christians and Christian clergy played a major role. The Judeo-Christian traditions that brought the Pilgrims to America while fleeing religious persecution from Britain's King James formed the foundations of the American Republic.

The Mayflower Compact, written to govern the Pilgrims as they approached the shores of the American continent, was drawn from principles laid down by men who had a deep understanding of the Bible and lived it in their daily lives. From that document, strong traditions of self-government developed among the colonists, and by the time King George III ruled England, colonial leaders were chafing at the king's refusal to acknowledge their basic rights as Englishmen and at his arbitrary rulings.

Faith governed the daily lives of most colonists and the center of village life was most often the local church and its clergy who assumed major leadership roles in local affairs. When the king interfered with the lives of local villagers, enforcing his edicts through appointees with no feeling for colonial tradition, resentment turned from friction to outright resistance. Further aggravating the conflict was the king's insistence that the colonists had no rights other than those he granted, a concept at complete odds with people who had governed themselves for 150 years, with little help from the crown and considering themselves the equal of any native-born Englishman. The king and his parliament saw the Americans as little more than serfs obliged to serve the interests of the crown.

Matters of faith created significant sources of conflict, for instance the king prohibited the printing of English-language Bibles in the colonies and overturned colonial policies affecting issues of morality by royal decree, such as slavery in the colonies.

The issue of slavery was a major issue among a majority of the colonies; they wanted to abolish the slave trade. The colony of Pennsylvania actually abolished both the trade and the institution of slavery via their colonial legislature in 1774, two years before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. King George overruled them, reinstating slavery as vital to the economic interests of the crown. During the "Age of Exploration," the British Empire enslaved indigenous peoples and participated in the African slave trade to supply labor in their West Indian sugar-cane plantations, a mainstay of British international trade. The British Empire supported slavery, therefore the American colonies would be forced to continue the practice regardless of colonial objections on religious grounds.

When Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, his first draft presented to the Continental Congress abolished the slave trade. Strong objections from delegations from South Carolina and Georgia forced this provision's removal and a weaker reference placed within, setting up the new nation for two centuries of conflict. The Congress faced the British Empire, a military and economic superpower; there would be dire consequences for failure. Colonial unity was essential to achieve independence; the issue of slavery would have to wait for other generations to resolve.

But wasn't the real issue among the colonists "taxation without representation"? At least, that's what we've been taught in school since the 1920s when the "economic theory of history" was adopted by revisionist historians, excluding 135 years of education history that included the deep religious factors of the American Revolution. Among the 27 issues listed in the Declaration of Independence for separation from Britain, "taxation without representation" was number 17. Before that were listed first and foremost, abuses of representative, military and judicial powers, issues of immigration and forced quartering of troops in private homes. The king had imported foreign mercenaries to suppress colonial protests: This and outrages against colonial women were at the top of colonial grievances. Crimes of murder and rape against colonists went unpunished as occupying troops were sheltered from colonial justice by British commanders.

During the Revolutionary War, American clergy played a major role, with pastor Peter Muhlenberg of Woodstock, Va., being a prime example. On Jan. 21, 1776, after completing his sermon, Muhlenberg removed his clerical vestments, revealing the uniform of an officer in the Continental Army. He ordered drums to call recruits to the colors; 300 men of his congregation joined the revolution that day. British Gen. Gage, at the close of the war referred to Gen. Washington's secret weapon, the "Black Robed Regiment" of American clergymen who played a major leadership role in the American fight for liberty. It wasn't just about taxes. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career. Send comments through the editor at[email protected].


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