Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hmmmm. Yeah. About That Whole "Religious Nonsense" Thing...

Arrogance and historical ignorance rarely combine well

Readers of the Nexus will almost certainly remember Audrey, the proprietor of Enormous Thriving Plants, hanging her intellectual rear end out for a good flogging.

In the post in question, Audrey takes aim at One Nation Under God, a painting by Jon McNaughton featuring numerous American historical figures receiving the US Constitution from Jesus Christ.

In particular, Audrey dismisses the painting as "religious nonsense", as if that alone were enough to dispell the message it promotes.

Some other responses to the painting accuse it of being historically inaccurate, as if McNaughton would be shocked to learn that Jesus himself hadn't written and delivered the American Constition to that country's founding fathers.

It's a facetious argument, and clearly intended to be as such. But with metaphor so frequently proving to be the lifeblood of art, one couldn't accuse the painting's criics of reading too much into the work. Indeed, they could be accused of reading far too little into it.

Factually, Jesus Christ did not deliver the US Constitution in person, and most certainly not before George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, JFK and various archetypical characters. But Christian values were deeply imbedded in the establishment of the United States from the very conception of the British colonies.

As it turns out, Audrey and the sleaze who tend to populate Wonkette are only a few among the many, many people who could benefit from familiarizing themselves with the work of Molly Worthen.

Worthen's historical work has traced the influence of Christianity through the development of the United States in the form of the civil religion.

A civil religion is a political discourse that takes on the sacred elements of religion.

According to Worthen, the American civil religion is built around establishing the American colonies, and later the United States, as "God's model society", a social bluepint that could then be exported back to Britain and to the rest of the world. She identifies Reverend John Winthrop, the original Governor of Massachussets, as a central figure in the establishment of the American civil religion, the first man to speak of the American colonies as a "shining city on the hill", that enduring vision of American exceptionalism.

The spread of the Puritan religion westward in the wake of the Puritan's disillusionment with Britain led first to the undermining of religion as the central focus in people's lives by more imperative matters of survival, but eventually to various religious revivals -- which, according to Worthen, actually originated in Canada -- and eventually to the rise of Evangelical Christianity.

The influence of Evangelical Christianity can be found in notions such as the separation of Church and State -- Evanglical faith did seek to conversions, but demanded voluntary conversions, as opposed to conversions mandated or encouraged by the state.

In this, Secular Humanists and Evangelical Christians worked closely together.

As many of the critics of McNaughton's painting have pointed out, the US Constitution indeed doesn't explicitly refer to God or Christianity at any point.

But this doesn't mean that Christian principles -- particularly those promoted by Reverend Winthrop -- didn't deeply embody these values.

For example, in his speech "A Model of Christian Charity", Winthrop called upon his congregation "first to hold conformity with the rest of his world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of his power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole."

There is clearly a message of religious tolerance -- which is enshrined within the US Constitution in its support of religious freedom -- in this message.

Winthrop continued: "as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, so this great king will haue many stewards..."

Herein there is clearly support for the division of powers between the branches of government, as mandated by the US Constitution.

"That every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy, out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man."

If one were surprised to find how similiar this seems to "all men are created equal", as it is written in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, they really shouldn't be.

In fact, the influence of Christian thought -- especially that of Reverend Winthrop -- runs deeply through the Declaration.

As others have noted, this doesn't justify any use of the Declaration to suggest that the United States should inherently prefer Christianity to any other religion, or that Churh and State should be intertwined. Once again, American Evangelical Christians of the 18th century worked stridently to prevent this.

Uniting the various figures appearing in the painting -- many of whom are notably atheists, or are at least suggested to be believers in other religions -- is a religious inclusivist view of the United States, written in the tradition of not an American thinker, but rather of a British one: CS Lewis.

Lewis' philosophy regarding other religions was that any good work performed by the believer of another religion contributed to the Christian God's benevolent purpose, and so was actually done in the name of that God, even if purportedly done in the name of another.

What emerges from this particular strain of thought is the notion of multiple paths to the same God -- one that McNaughton hints at with his explanation of the intended meaning of the archetypical immigrant featured in his painting.

For those well-educated enough and open-minded enough to examine McNaughton's work for what it is, it becomes evident that McNaughton's work is not in favour of "theocracy" (as the sensationalist charge has been), but is rather simply symbolic of what Jon McNaughton sees as the state of the United States of America, both at present and historically.

Not everyone will agree with him. Not everyone will agree that Roe v Wade or Everson v Board of Education have been damaging to the United States.

But to ignore history is to forfeit heritage, and vice versa. To pretend that Jon McNaughton should be faulted for painting about the demonstrably deep Christian heritage of the United States is to demand that the history books be rewritten.

As much as the knee-jerk reaction to McNaughton's painting carries deep streaks of Philistinism, it's also akin to historical revisionism, and that is the real nonsense.

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