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article imageOP/ED: God of Our Fathers

By John Rickman     May 13, 2007 in World
God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!
Speaking at the celebration marking the 400th year since the founding of Jamestown President Bush hailed the town as “where it all started.” For many Americans this may come as a surprise since there is a persistent misconception that American History started at Plymouth Rock. Of the two early settlements, Jamestown, founded May 14 1607 was the first, while Plymouth Colony, founded November 19 1620 came almost a full generation later.
The reason for Plymouth’s popularity, at least among some Americans, is not hard to discover. For many Plymouth is associated with the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving while all that Jamestown has to show for it is Pocahontas and greed. Jamestown was a commercial settlement pure and simple and its only reason for being was to make money, which has proven to be the true essence of American culture. The quest for “religious freedom,” on the other hand, makes for far more appealing mythology.
And mythology is exactly what it is. Whatever the passengers on the Mayflower were looking for religious freedom was not on the list. In fact not even all the original settlers at Plymouth were Pilgrims. Of the original 102 settlers almost half were non-religious “strangers,” as the Puritans called them and the freedom loving Pilgrims had to pass laws making church attendance mandatory. Throughout the rest of colonial America’s history there was a constant battle between the forces of religion and those of secularization with the secular side in almost constant ascendancy.
So few early settlers went to church, or indeed belonged to any known religion, that by the 1730’s and 1740’s a desperate effort was launched by Evangelicals to “bring the Colonies to God.” This was known as the “First Great Awakening" and it was part of a great international Protestant upheaval that proved to be the first signs of the eminent death of European Christianity.
So ineffective was this Evangelical undertaking that in 1775, on the very eve of the American Revolution, there were only 1,800 Christian ministers in all the colonies combined, giving a ratio of one minister for every fifteen hundred adults. At the end of the American Revolution the new US Government conducted its first national census and discovered that barely 17% of the population listed themselves as Christians or as even belonging to a church of any sort. A poll conducted of the students graduating from Yale University in 1796 revealed that only one member of the entire class professed a belief in God. What makes this poll significant is that Yale was, at the time, a divinity school.
When Thomas Pain, writing on a drum in the snows of Valley Forge, penned the lines “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot may, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country…” he may have had no idea just how true his words were because most Americans stayed away from the fight in droves.
After the fighting was over, however, a great clamoring arose in the land for the fruits of victory. The Revolution sparked a vast transformation of American culture away from the “Enlightenment and classical republicanism towards vulgar democracy and materialistic individualism…” This, according to many American historians, was the real American Revolution and nowhere was this revolution’s effects more clearly seen than in the matter of religion. Following the Revolution a spirit of egalitarianism coupled with a strong anti-intellectual backlash and a capitalist ethos, led to the rise of populist institutions including self-proclaimed doctors, lawyers and, above all, clergymen.
Soon wagon loads of snake oil salesmen were crisscrossing the country calling themselves “doctors” and peddling all sorts of unregulated nostrums. They were joined by legions of self-proclaimed lawyers who would, for a fee, plead cases before what passed for courts in most frontier settlements and self-anointed clergymen who would preach from any pulpit that would have them. When they could not find an open pulpit they would hold revivalist camp meetings and preach from atop stumps in the forest.
Eventually such learned professions as medicine and law were able, with the help of the government, to form medical and bar associations with the power to regulate who could practice these professions and establishing standards for their education. This, however, was not the case in the field of religion nor, given the Constitutional protections afforded to freedom of religion, could it be. In his The Principle of Protestantism, (1844) Swiss theologian and historian Philip Schaff, describing the anarchic nature of American Christianity wrote:
Tendencies, which had found no political room to unfold themselves in other lands, wrought here without restraint . . . . Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false ware at pleasure. What is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen.”
For all practical purposes religion, in America today, has become whatever its adherents say it is. The government is almost powerless to set any standards for what is a religion and who is a minister of that religion. As an example of this I once convinced an Army chaplain that a silver medallion in the shape of a double edged razor was a religious symbol and that that Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge” was my scriptures. During his theological interrogation I asked him from which Gospel the following line was drawn:
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
(Shakespeare, William The Merchant of Venice act 1, sc. 3, l.)
He smiled in a condescending manner and gravely informed me that it was not in the Gospels—it was from the letters of Paul!
Alas this was not an isolated incident. In over thirty years of wedding photography I have encountered ministers who could not identify the Pentateuch and were frankly skeptical that such a book was in the Bible. Other ministers have carried Biblical literalism so far as to stoutly maintain that the Parables of Jesus “were not made up…” but “…were stories about real people who Jesus had known.”
Often the exact same lines of scripture were given diametrically opposite interpretations from one church to another and once, when I tried to demonstrate the variety of contradictory incidents in the story of Noah’s arc, I was actually accused of having a “trick” Bible printed!
The sad fact is that in this country today the Bible is seldom read and even when it is only carefully selected passages, chosen to support a given ideology, are studied. This has lead to what some have called “Salad Bar Christianity,” which some define as:
Name given to Christians who "pick and choose" the parts of the bible they deem important. For example, believing the part about homosexuality being an abomination, while discounting the directive to kill your children if they are disrespectful to you. Applies to most every Christian not already in prison for killing his own children.
It is a popular boast among Fundamentalist Christians that the Bible is the foundation of American Civilization and government and some of the more extreme members of radical sects have tried diligently to have the Ten Commandments put on public display in Government buildings.
Given the history of Biblical illiteracy in this country however, and the current dismal state of Biblical knowledge, it is hard to see how anyone can argue that the actual Bible has had very much impact on American culture at all. Evidence would suggest that if the Bible is not actually dead in this country it is at least severally wounded. While its name still carries some weight in some circles its teachings are almost completely unheeded. Even worst, they are almost unknown. How can a book that almost no one actually reads, a book which charlatans can, with a little effort, make say almost anything, be said to have an impact on a society?
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