February 16, 2006

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The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited and introduced by James H. Hutson (Princeton University Press, 2005, 244 pages)

The Founders on Religion, compiled by historian James H. Hutson, who is Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, presents excerpts from the public speeches and personal correspondences of George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, James Madison and many other colonial hot shots.

Hutson says he created the book to counteract statements proffered by today’s religious zealots, notably Tim LaHaye. The colonial men and women display their own undeniable zeal, though; many are ardently Christian and clearly expect their fellow citizens to follow suit.

They sometimes sound elitist, as when Benjamin Rush calls Christianity “the only true and perfect religion,” John Adams says that even “with all the superstition that attends it, I think the Christian the best that is or has been” and Ben Franklin refers to “the Excellency of the Christian Religion above all others antient [sic] or modern.”

But Jefferson and Madison both point out that people don’t need anybody between them and God, and many of these guys give much weight to the principle of freedom of conscience. James Madison, another who calls Christianity “the best religion,” is most outspoken on separation of church and state; he says that not only is government better when it is free of religion, but religion is better when it is not involved in government.

And in a turn of phrase that might provoke a double-take today, Elias Boudinot (a Presbyterian and President of the Confederation Congress) says, “He who is not against us, is for us.”

Some 230 years ago they were debating the same things theologians debate today: Is it faith or good works that will get you into heaven? Is capital punishment allowed? What does this passage in the Bible really mean?

Ben Franklin, scientist and inventor, argues that religion is the only thing that makes people behave themselves, but Jefferson says it is possible to be both atheistic and moral (and cites examples).

Speaking of morals, one of the most intriguing quotes comes from John Adams in 1798. He said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (All the more interesting in light of a comment I heard on PBS’ American Experience, which I paraphrase as “John Adams had a particular genius for saying things in such a way that they would almost certainly be misconstrued.”)

Hutson offers no commentary on that quote or any other, save his introductory remarks. He’s organized the material, which ranges from single brief sentences to long passages, into chapters by theme: “Atheism,” “Catholicism,” “Grief,” “Jews,” “Native Americans,” “Islam,” “Slavery,” “Prayer,” “Law,” and so on. The reader doesn’t know what was left out intentionally or unintentionally, and of course the founders had more to say on these subjects than what’s here; still this book is mercifully spin-free, relatively speaking. Hutson says he wrote as objectively as possible for “readers of all religious persuasions – or of none” and it is a fine little collection to ponder A-

—Lisa Parsons

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