While the ULC Monastery believes strongly against religious influence in government, it also believes in a healthy discourse on the matter with the ultimate goal of keeping intact a “wall of separation between church and state”, with emphasis on the argument that this maxim is an injunction against any sort of religious legislation. Therefore, on occasion, we provide commentary which may seem political, but is only political insofar as it seeks to hold the government responsible for keeping its promise to maintain a secular government. Indeed, if an organization’s aim is to preserve such separation, it is only natural for it to comment on political affairs where this separation appears to be threatened.
So when Bill Maher discussed the Tea Party’s religiosity in the “New Rules” segment of a recent episode of his HBO series “Real Time”, it only seemed appropriate to respond. In the segment, Maher confronts the party’s insistence that the U.S. founding fathers deliberately modeled the country’s legal principles on fundamentalist Christian doctrine. The founding fathers, he argues, would have despised the Tea Party, because the values held by the former were diametrically opposed to those of the latter. He gives several examples why the Tea Party is mistaken in their belief that the founding fathers would have been on their side.
The founding fathers, Maher argues, consisted largely of the religiously skeptical literati which Tea Partiers deplore. They were classically educated, he points out, and were influenced not by conservative religious values, but by the humanist thought of Enlightenment philosophy. “You would have hated them”, he says. “They were everything you despise. They studied science, read Plato, hung out in Paris, and thought the Bible was mostly bullsh-t.” Pointing out the irony of Glenn Beck’s impersonation of republican (a believer in republics, as opposed to monarchy) Thomas Paine, he reminds the audience that Paine was “an atheist who said that churches were human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind”. In addition, Maher states, John Adams said that this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it, suggesting that the founding fathers got their moral code not from the Bible, but from ethical reasoning.
Maher also challenges the Tea Party ethos that there should be no standards or qualifications for wielding power in a democracy. “…the one thing [the founding fathers] never argued about”, he says, “was that political power must stay in the hands of the smartest people, and out of the hands of the dumbest loudmouths slowing down the check-out line at Home Depot”. Mocking Sarah Palin’s claim that America needs “a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at a lectern”, Maher further builds up the irony by noting how many of her revered founding fathers were in fact scholars of law: “I hate to break it to you, but: Thomas Jefferson, lawyer; Alexander Hamilton, constitutional lawyer; James Madison, lawyer; John Adams, constitutional lawyer. They were not the common man of their day.” He then points out Benjamin Franklin’s study of scientific phenomena such as electricity and electro-magnetism, ending with the quip, “were [Franklin] alive today, he could probably explain to Bill O’Reilly why the tides go in and out.”
Such wrangling between religious conservatism and secular liberalism has been a frequent topic of discussion here on the ULC Monastery blog. In recent posts, we have discussed Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association as well as John Adams and Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, and explained how such documents support the argument that the prohibition against religious influence in government does not end merely with the wholesale establishment of a state religion, but also in the incremental legislation of individual religious tenets. Further suggesting that the founding fathers were wary of uneducated religious zealots is Thomas Jefferson’s 10 August 1787 letter to Peter Carr, in which Jefferson asks his reader to,
question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Jefferson echoes this same principle in his 6 December 1813 letter to Alexander von Humbolt, which at one point reads,
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
Finally, there is Thomas Jefferson’s 1782 Notes on Virginia, in which he explains,
Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.
Reading the quotations in context should only reinforce the claim that the authors were cynics with respect to religion in government. If anything is clear, it is the notion that the founding fathers were wary of the government passing laws on the basis of religious sentiment.
Many will fault Maher for his smugness and condescending approach, but to focus on these would constitute an argumentum ad hominem. If we ignore these character traits and focus solely on the argument he makes, as well as the additional evidence provided above, it would seem we have a convincing case against the religious zeal of Tea Partiers, who claim to be “libertarian”, but only in the fiscal sense. Liberty with regard to freedom from religion is conveniently overlooked. What do you think? Does Bill Maher make a good case against the Tea Party’s seemingly erroneous identification with the U.S founding fathers, and should they re-think the role of religion in government, if it has any role at all?