thread: 2007-02-13 : Exorcism

On 2007-02-26, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

The funny thing about "Congress shall make no law..." is that the Founders had a fairly specific idea of what was permissible religiousity in public life and what wasn't—it just doesn't track easily to our conceptions 200 years later.

Enlightenment Anglicans like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, routinely talked about "Divine Providence" and assumed the world was ordered according to a fundamental logic of which political freedom (for white male landowners, at least) was a part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...." We have "In God We Trust" on our currency; we swear on the Bible in court. Christmas is a public holiday, Rosh Hashannah and Ramadan aren't.

But the Founders were not fervently Christian, as a rule: They tended to believe in a fairly impersonal and distant Deity who set the clockwork of the universe in motion and then stood back. They tended towards a rationalist Deism, a kind of crypto-Unitarianism, in which religion was a matter of public ethics and personal philosophy.

But modern American religion is intensely personal and emotional—especially Evangelical Christianity, with its powerful feeling of connection to Jesus the Savior. We Americans in general have developed a tendency to share our passionate personal feelings with everyone in range(ideally via reality television or talk radio) in a way that would have made George Washington grind his wooden teeth in acute embarassment. We have developed a converse tendency to not want to have to hear anyone else's personal stuff if it bothers us. I think it's this conflict that makes people so bitterly combative about prayer at highschool football games or Christmas creches: It's not the Founder's civic Deism, it's more like bad couples therapy or Jerry Springer:

"Let me tell you about Jesus! He is my personal Friend! He cured my groin boils! He can be your Friend, too!"

"No! I do not wish to hear about your boiling groin, or your Jesus. Other people's ideas annoy me."

"Jesus is sad you do not wish to be His friend. You made Him cry!"

"You are bothering me with your strong personal feelings about stuff. This is a form of genocide!"

"No, your unwillingness to listen to me is a form of repression!"

"Help, help, I'm being repressed!"

"No, I am being repressed! Me! How dare you equate your repression to my repression? This, also, is a form of repression!"

"I will sue you with many lawyers!"

"Ha! I will sue you also! For money! Because of my feelings!"


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