Columns » Ernest Dumas

Libeling the Founding Fathers

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Expropriating the names of great Democratic presidents was bad enough, but now Republicans are imputing to them thoughts they never had or at least never uttered. If you could libel a dead man, the descendants of the Founding Fathers, though not all were Democrats, would have a sure-fire judgment. Since Ronald Reagan, Republican national conventions have quoted Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy for inspiration but rarely the bellwether Republican presidents, even the highly quotable Dwight Eisenhower, maybe because Ike considered himself a liberal. There is nothing wrong with that, but lately Republicans have been tweaking history to suggest that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe and maybe even Andrew Jackson were not really Democrats but were, if they could be identified with either current party, Republicans. Even President Bush’s White House website seems to claim Jefferson as a Republican. The changing nomenclature of the first political parties and the shifting alliances through the first five decades of the republic gives them a little cover, but it is still a deceit. The website of the state’s largest county GOP organization, the Benton County Republican Party, doesn’t claim Jefferson and his pals as Republicans but says the Democrats can’t have them either. The brains behind the Benton County party have good reason to keep their distance from the early Democrats and, for that matter, the rest of the Founding Fathers. Their religious ideas did not comport with current fundamentalist thought. You would never know that from following debate in the Arkansas General Assembly or in statehouses across the South, where the Founding Fathers are regularly invoked on behalf of one scheme or another to install Biblical precepts in state law or statuary. The Arkansas House of Representatives last week stomped a nonbinding resolution that would have reaffirmed the legislature’s acknowledgment of the doctrine of separation of church and state. One Republican legislator said the Founding Fathers intended for laws to follow Christian teachings. Opponents of the resolution said separation of church and state was merely a remark made by Thomas Jefferson well after the Bill of Rights with its establishment clause was ratified. All the establishment clause meant was that the government could not establish an official state religion, they said. Even President Bush, who invokes his faith at every turn, doesn’t believe that. When the doughty Helen Thomas badgered him at a news conference about not respecting the doctrine of separation of church and state, the president shot back, “I strongly respect the separation of church and state.” For sure, the Founding Fathers did. Drawing a bright line between government and the affairs of churches was not the idle musing of a vegetating ex-president, as it is often portrayed. Madison, the father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had joined with Jefferson in blocking Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Delegates from appropriating money to support the church. It became the basis of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. So proud was Jefferson of having written it that he wanted it on his headstone instead of any reference to his having been president of the United States. Madison thought that it drew the line between church and state forever. He enshrined it in the First Amendment through the simple establishment clause. “And I have no doubt,” Madison wrote, “that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Both the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions have strong statements about religious freedom and staying the government’s hand from religious affairs and both bar any religious qualifications for holding office. The fact is that the people we most commonly think of as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin — did not practice much religion. They were influenced by the skepticism of John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Voltaire. Deism was the intellectual fad of the day and they subscribed to it. All of those men — all, that is, except Washington, who simply did not speak publicly or write about his religious beliefs — said some pretty demeaning things about Christianity in their private correspondence, not their public utterings. There is no point in raising temperatures by repeating any of the Fathers’ skeptical maunderings here, well, except maybe for one by Ben Franklin on his deathbed. He wrote that he had always doubted the divinity of Jesus but then again he had never actually studied it “and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.” Madison would have been furious but Franklin highly amused by the debate in the Arkansas House.

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