Who Are We? We’ve Abandoned our Heritage of Individual Rights for Religion

by | Mar 9, 2002

One of the conditions associated with neurosis is a weakened sense of personal identity. Nations, too, sometimes suffer from not knowing the values they live for and defend. Our rallying cry is “freedom,” but what exactly does that mean? If we turn back to the Fifties, we notice our fear of communism was based more […]

One of the conditions associated with neurosis is a weakened sense of personal identity. Nations, too, sometimes suffer from not knowing the values they live for and defend. Our rallying cry is “freedom,” but what exactly does that mean?

If we turn back to the Fifties, we notice our fear of communism was based more on its godlessness than its suppression of personal freedom. Indeed, the American New Deal and Fair Deal followed in principle the Communist Manifesto’s “step-for-step transformation of capitalism into socialism,” as Ludwig von Mises observed. In pushing government further into our lives, demagogues, particularly FDR, claimed their measures were attempts to “save capitalism,” a lie so big people believed it. Intervention begets more intervention, as Marx knew and our leaders knew not to admit. With the country steeped in economic ignorance and the worship of altruism, it was fully prepped for slave state legislation.

But it was who the slaves served that was the crux of the Christian objection. Desperate to distance themselves from the Reds, Congress in 1956 adopted “In God We Trust” as its motto and ordered the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to put it on the government’s fiat money. “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), which had been our motto since 1776 and referred to our colonies uniting as one country, had its roots in our revolt against tyranny, a sentiment at odds with our growing fascination with compulsion.

“From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need,” Karl Marx proclaimed. Could Christians disagree? In Acts 4:33-35, we read that “from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Though the biblical allegory suggests consent, the government, alienated by that notion, forced its “deals” onto the backs of the able with the fervor of a moral ideal. The means don’t count as long as the ends are sublime.

Our founders emphatically rejected the morality of sacrifice and suffering. If they had thought man’s place was to serve others and tolerate abuses, bowing to the king would have been just fine.

Where did they get their ideas? The spirit of their revolt began in late medieval times with the re-discovery of Aristotle’s works in Spain. From this intellectual awakening, men got more involved in the real world, both in thought and deed. Exploration and trade flourished, as did discoveries. In trading with China, for example, the West learned the Chinese had records of eclipses that predated the Flood, calling in question the Bible’s reliability.

After Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the solar system in 1543, science took off on a run. Some of the greatest scientists did their work in the two-and-a-half centuries following Copernicus — Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Boyle, Cavendish, Priestly, Lavoisier, Hutton, Linnaeus, Buffon, and many others.

Challenged by science’s success, philosophers developed a doctrine called empiricism in which “experience” was reputed to be the source of all knowledge. In 1690, the first major empiricist, John Locke, derived a consent theory of government from this thesis that our founders later embraced. In a state of nature man has certain rights, Locke asserted, namely “life, liberty, and estate.” Men form a commonwealth with others to protect those rights — that is government’s sole purpose. Though Locke was evidently a Christian, especially in his last years, he believed the truth of God’s existence could be ascertained through reason.

Our leading founders shared with Locke the supreme value placed on reason. As deists, they accepted the view that the world we see implies a Creator we can’t see. But we know nothing beyond the fact that He exists. As part of the creation, men were endowed with reason to understand the world and guide them in making a good life. This leaves no room for miracles, which they viewed as incompatible with the Creator’s natural laws. Jefferson, in fact, found the idea of miracles so intolerable he constructed his own New Testament in which all mention of them was removed, including the resurrection.

“Fix reason firmly in her seat,” Jefferson wrote, “and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

At the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., a panel beneath his statue features excerpts from his writings, one of which reads, “I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

As it stands, it makes Jefferson sound like a Christian repudiating oppression. But the wider context of his words changes that picture significantly. The quote came from a letter, written to his physician friend Benjamin Rush, in which he expressed his displeasure with the Philadelphia clergy’s opposition to his political candidacy. Jefferson wrote: “They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition of their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the alter of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion.”

Perhaps a more fitting quote for his memorial, and a message to the clergy, would be “the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Jefferson was hardly alone in wanting religion separate from government. In 1797, President John Adams signed a treaty which stated, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Some religionists today want to add God to the Constitution or to areas of our lives under government control, just as Congress did to the pledge of allegiance decades ago. Aside from threatening a fundamental protection, what will that accomplish? By saying “One nation, under God” did we prevent the rash of assassinations, wars, Watergate, higher taxes, a presidential impeachment, bloated government, declining education, the failed wars on drugs and poverty, and Terrible Tuesday? People who say reason isn’t enough usually have it in short supply.

If we want a moral society we have to kick government out of our lives. The heart of moral behavior is the acceptance of self-responsibility and the absence of compulsion in human relations. Our government today violates both these conditions. If neither one of us has the right to break the other’s leg or pick the other’s pocket, on what basis do we give that permission to the people we elect?

The only way to differentiate ourselves from statism is to come home again, by reclaiming our fundamental values of individual rights and free markets.

References and suggestions for further reading:

  • http://www.greatseal.com/symbols/unum.html – e pluribus unum
  • http://www.ustreas.gov/opc/opc0011.html – In God We Trust history
  • Von Mises, Ludwig, Planning for Freedom, Libertarian Press, South Holland, IL, 1962.
  • http://www-hoover.stanford.edu/publications/digest/991/bethell.html – Pilgrims’ attempt at communism
  • http://www.radicalacademy.com/lockebio.htm – Locke theory of individual rights and government
  • http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Paine/AOR-Frame..html – Age of Reason, Paine
  • http://sc94.ameslab.gov/TOUR/jeffmem.html – Jefferson Memorial
  • http://www.theology.edu/journal/volume2/ushistor.htm – founders deists, not Christians
  • http://members.aol.com/TestOath/deism.htm – founders Christians, not deists
  • http://religion.aynrand.org/quotes.html – founders deists, not Christians
  • http://www.youdebate.com/DEBATES/founding_fathers_religion.HTM – founders deists or Christians: pro and con.
  • http://www.unc.edu/~pinaula/enlight.htm – The Enlightment in Europe and its effect on young America.
George Smith lives in Atlanta where he is busy writing screenplays and articles on liberty. In addition to parenting, he enjoys staying fit, tomato gardening, and making the occasional "killer sandwich."

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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