Friday, November 11, 2011

Our Enlightenment Tradition


I truly love a bargain.  My consumer passion is dress shirts. 

Before there were outlet malls I shopped manufacturers’ stores. When I was in college, I travelled 80 miles from Newark, DE, to the Eagle shirt factory in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Ellie’s New York home was across the lake from Burlington, Vermont, where there was a Hathaway Shirt outlet;   when I was in graduate school UVM, I shopped at Burlington's Hathaway store at least once a week. More recently, I bought shirts at the Bachrach outlet at the North Riverside Mall.  Sadly, it’s been closed for a couple of years.

Not only do I not like to pay full price, I loathe the markups that branding and advertising create. Over the years I shaped an occasional sermon about the role of advertising as the slippery slope of deceit.

I preached one of my all-time favorite sermons in the early 1980s. Do you remember when so called generic products first reached the grocery stores? Visually, generic products had a similar look: white packaging and industrial – stencil lettering. No illustrations. Nothing but the generic name, ingredients, nutritional values, and a bar code. 

Thanks to my daughter who lives in Orange County California and who was born to shop, I've developed a fascination with what are called $.99 stores there and dollar stores here. I often visit the dollar store off of La Grange Rd. in Countryside. Typically, I'll buy every day sundries there, including rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and even deodorant and toothpaste.  It’s all a buck.

It takes a little energy to sort the good and substantial from the merely cheap, but the process for me is a little adventure – something of a consumer’s meditation about the meaning of stuff – at least that's how I rationalize it.

I've even bought a few books from that Dollar Store – books I hadn’t known about.  I practice discernment. The Dollar Store’s little pile of books usually contains a bunch of unsuccessful self-help guides and a cache of Christian orientated pap. Now and again there's something worthwhile. A couple of years ago I purchased an outstanding book by a Vietnamese woman, a doctor, who kept a personal diary during the war against American invaders; she died in service to her cause.

The basis of this sermon comes from another book I found in the Dollar Store, Garry Wills Head and Heart: American Christianities, published in hardcover by Penguin Press in 2007, originally selling for $29.95.  I bought a first edition this summer for a dollar.

Having once been remaindered by Penguin press, I had considerable compassion for Garry Wills and what I estimate to be a noteworthy and valuable book.  Consigned to a dollar store is heart wrenching for a Pulitzer Prize winning author. 

Enlightenment Religion

Wills, once professor at Northwestern University, is one of my favorite authors of popular history.  He also is an interested commentator on Roman Catholicism. Wills is sympathetic to Unitarians. One of my favorite monographs is his remarkable Lincoln at Gettysburg, which attributed famous Unitarian minister/abolitionist Theodore Parker as an influence for Lincoln’s memorable phrasing:  “of, by, and for the people.”

In Head and Heart Wills charts the scope of the American experience from the Pilgrims to the present day, relative to two opposing religious points of view: A rational or enlightenment point of view (the head) and an evangelical point of view (the heart.) 

I have all sorts of thoughts regarding the remaindered fate of this well considered and important book. The one that keeps coursing through my mind relates to my general impression that the populace prefers their prejudices to substantiated fact – in this instance, well-researched and well-reasoned fact.  At the heart of Wills’ analysis is the religious foundation of the American Republic.  And yes, Wills confirms there is a religious foundation.
Here's what he wrote in the Introduction. He pulls no punches.

Without the 18th century Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, benevolence, tolerance, and secular progress, there would be no Disestablishment of religion in America. Without it, there would have been no escape from the theological monopoly that governments had always imposed, no rapid proliferation of sects that multiplied as soon as this Disestablishment occurred. Without the Enlightenment, Franklin's humanitarian efforts and Jefferson' s intellectual projects would have had no purchase on the citizenry. Without it, Quakers could not have challenged the Bible' s sanctioning of slavery. It was a great stroke of fortune that the American Republic was shaped at the moment when the Enlightenment was having its full effect on the men who did the shaping. Political freedom and religious freedom arrived together, nudging each other forward. Before then, it had been assumed that a national throne and national altar must be an alliance, to command the necessary ad hoc quiescence of the rule. The United States rid itself of the throne and altar in one inclusive gesture.

Though there was no official religion for the nation, the framers had an enlightened religion. Those who have a different kind of religion said in the past and say now that this is no religion at all, simply a cult of reason. It is true that some leaders of the Enlightenment in France were hostile to religion, but that was not true of the main and most numerous followers in enlightened America. They were friendly to religion and were religious themselves. Even the most secular of them, Tom Payne, believed in a personal God, in divine providence, and in the afterlife.

Enlightened religion was such a strong force in all the founding period that it might also be considered the typical American religion. It is true that this form of belief has assumed the moral leadership of the nation at certain crucial times, and one of its forms – Transcendentalism – set much of the intellectual tone of 19th century. But it has rarely been the religion of the mass of Americans. One reason Enlightened religion had such unchallenged sway the late 18th century was that the other characteristic form of American religion – Evangelicalism – was at its lowest ebb in just that. It came roaring back in the early 19th century, and has been adhered to by most Americans in succeeding ages.

Wills's analysis is a mythbuster, reaching a conclusion that a preponderance of today’s Evangelicals don't want to accept. Their common contention, a popular, perhaps even default mode of the culture, righteously contends that the founders were Evangelical like them, Bible-based, Trinitarian believers of a personal and involved God. 

The Founders Were Deists

Accurately, Gary Wills describes the founders as preponderantly Deists. Their God had set the world in motion, then removed Himself from its operations, including human agency.  The Deist God was essentially disinterested. 

Furthermore, at its founding America was hardly a religious culture as we know it now.  In fact, during the founding of the American nation, Americans were largely unchurched; in 1776 only 17% of the population held to a formal religion.

Now, we UUs are interested in Garry Will’s argument, because we are heirs to Enlightenment Religion – a religion centered in reason that is the head.  Ironically, our way has been marginalized in a popular culture whose religion is of the heart.

You may have heard, and Garry Wills mentions it, that Thomas Jefferson among other Deists of his era proposed that Unitarianism, circa 1800, would become the American religion. Now that obviously didn’t and won't ever happen.  
As a consequence, we modern Unitarians have been by default charged with the task of continually reminding the larger culture about values and principles.  These values and principles have allowed for a lively arena for many religions to flourish, including the Evangelical sects. And so we continue to lift up reason, as well as freedom of belief and conscience, while maintaining the Disestablishment of religion with the notion of strict separation of church and state. Not only were these and the like founding values, they are the components of the best soil for Religion to flourish.  The American Experience testifies to this.
This assertion regarding the American experience and the flourishing of religion is not well understood, nor is it often spoke to. It answers an obvious question. Among all the Western nations in the beginning of the 21st-century, why does religion in America remain so vital, so much a part of so many people's lives?             

The answer, repeat after me, is the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment … as it was institutionalized by a generation of Enlightenment geniuses who head the list of those we call our founders. Without a doubt, this is the greatest generation.

As I said earlier, in Head and Heart Garry Wills looks at the sweep of the American experience, from 1640 through these early years of the 21st century. It is an overview, of course, but also dense with particulars he assumes the informed readers have an acquaintance with.  It’s not so much a book for the uninformed.

He does pause to focus and elaborate on a few of the key Enlightenment-besotted players who shaped the American Republic: Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington. These individuals were Deists, or strongly influenced by Deist thoughts. These men and their like were, after their own fashion, were religious; but they were not religious from the perspective neither of their contemporary Evangelicals nor of Evangelicals today.

These American Deists did not walk in lock-step, though they generally advocated reason, Disestablishment, and freedom of belief when it came to Religion. 

Wills takes a particular interest in George Washington. He wrote:

One founder is often thought of as “something more than a Deist, “ though there is nothing in his writings to indicate that this is the case. The director of Washington's home in Mount Vernon, James Reese, told me that people often inquire why there are no marks of religion in the building – the crucifix, or holy picture, or prayer displayed, or any religious symbol at all, though  Washington was very shrewd of symbolism and carefully chose signs of peace, Republicanism, and agrarian virtue for his home. Jordan has to tell them that Washington was not a devout man in the way they want him to be. The famous 19th century engraving of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is fiction, though bloggers on the religious right protested when it was removed from the classroom. …

The same people who think Jefferson was not religious contrast him with Washington, though Jefferson thought and wrote about religion far more than Washington did. The reverence toward Washington as reverent is not based on history or scholarly treatment but on the early myth mongering including the extraordinary popular (and fanciful) biography by Parson Weems, which ran through 29 editions during its author's lifetime, and extended to many dozens more after he died.…

There is a heavy investment by some modern conservatives in the idea that Washington was devout. This belief has endured despite the work of scholars showing it to be groundless. Washington never himself invoked the name Jesus or Christ in prayer – he referred to Jesus only once, speaking to some Indians. He normally used terms for God that were common parlance of other Deists – “governor of the universe," or the “architect of the universe," or "author of the universe," terms that Thomas Payne would have been quite comfortable with. … There were no clergy called for or prayer said as Washington was dying. "There were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life… He died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint."

Furthermore, Washington went to church with his wife, but he always left before communion was served.  When his minister challenged him on that, Washington thereafter conspicuously didn’t attend services on communion Sundays.

In Head and Heart Garry Wills does a commendable job in setting the record straight: doing decent history and a fair job of demythologizing popular misconceptions. That's what a reputable historian tries to do, to set the record straight according to the best evidence available, while providing a compelling narrative. But such history is a hard sell in American culture embedded in its prejudice and righteousness.

We Are Charged

Here's your take away. We Unitarian Universalists are the heirs of an Enlightenment religion that joins reason and freedom of belief, as embodied in the first amendment freedom of religion. We are scrupulous in maintaining the separation of church and state, the result of the doctrine of Disestablishment in which our founders saw wisdom and made America a model for the world. 

In this Enlightenment scheme, all religions flourish.

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