"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Religion and the Presidents (Sunday, November 4, 2012)

We make a big ballyhoo about the “separation of church and state” these days, and for good reason. But back in the early days of this Commonwealth—back when we were still a colony, actually—there was no such thing. Rather, there was, believe it or not, a state church (which Massachusetts would have until 1833, the last state in the country to do so). The “First Parish” in each community was the “established” church in town—and its minister, as you might imagine, a real “Big Wig” (often literally, in the real old days). Back in the Colonial period, he was (and it would have been a “he”), the “guardian of public morals”, and even Superintendent of Schools. Neither of those are jobs I would especially want to have now.

Church attendance was pretty much mandatory back then (now that’s not such a bad idea; only kidding!) and the official Town Minister was often asked to preach (at length—what other kind of preaching is there?) at various community events like important anniversaries, and days of thanksgiving and fasting—and, on Election Day. The “Election Day Sermon” was a common aspect of community life in mid-18th century New England, and Election Day itself was observed as a sort of public festival. It started with the firing of a canon and the mustering of the local militia; then, there would be a procession of town officials, from the Town Hall to the local First Parish Church; then, there would be a church service and a sermon—a long Election Day Sermon, in which the local minister would pontificate upon the importance and meaning of civic virtue and choosing the right men (it would have always been men, back then) and while he would not have told people for whom to vote, he might have hinted, fiercely, in one direction or the other—and everyone in town would have to listen!

Well, the “Election Day Sermon” (or, in this case, the “Two Days Before Election Day Sermon”) here in Stoughton has evolved into our little gathering here this morning, and a sermon only a fraction in length of what it would have been back in 1750! So who can say there hasn’t been progress?

Still, somehow, as much as things have certainly changed over the years, in election after election there still seems to be an awful lot of influence placed on the question of the relationship of the candidates’ religious beliefs and their suitability for office. Last time around, there were questions about Barack Obama’s relationship to his Black Nationalist pastor in Chicago, and lingering doubts about whether or not he was “really” a Muslim in disguise. This time around, the questions revolve around Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith (along with those lingering imbeciles, who still think that President Obama is “really” a Muslim in disguise). We also have two Vice-Presidential candidates who both are called, sincerely, “devout Catholics”—even though they disagree on abortion, gay marriage, the social safety net for the poor, and just about everything else. As most “devout Catholics” do.

We’ve never had a President who was a Mormon, or a Muslim. Still, more than fifty years after John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, we’ve only had one Roman Catholic President (and, interestingly, since then there has been only one other major party candidate who was a Catholic—John Kerry in 2004; Michael Dukakis was close; he is Greek Orthodox).

I hope we have a Mormon President. Some day. It doesn’t have to be anytime soon.

And I hope we have a Muslim President some day, too. (Wouldn’t that be interesting?)

And a Jewish President. (With a Muslim Vice President perhaps. Or maybe vice verse. They’d have to work that out!)

I wouldn’t even mind a Jehovah’s Witness becoming President. Though the fact that they don’t vote or hold public office would make that difficult.

I wouldn’t mind any of these things, because, you see, I (like the Almighty) have this personal prejudice in favor of diversity. The wider the array of differences among people, the more glorious the world is, and the wider the variety different perspectives we have representing this great land of ours, the better off we will be in the long run. That’s my philosophy.  

It would even be nice to have a Unitarian Universalist President, someday. We’ve never had one of those either (mainly because there have, technically, only been Unitarian Universalists since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961). Just give us time. Maybe one of the kids in our church school? Wouldn’t that be grand!

In the years before that, there never was a Universalist President of the United States. There has been, as far as I know, only one nominee of a major party who was Universalist. That was Horace Greeley, the Democratic nominee against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Greeley, a well-known journalist, who had coined the phrase “Go west, young man!”, was overwhelmingly defeated by Grant. He then had the bad manners to die even before the Electoral College met (the only candidate ever to do so), so that his electors (paltry as they were) were split among four other individuals.

The last Unitarian nominee for President was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Some people even attacked Stevenson for his Unitarian faith. They said that because he wasn’t a “real Christian”, Stevenson was unfit to be President. When asked by a reporter if a non-Christian could be President, Stevenson replied, a little tongue-in-cheek, “The problem with democracy, you see, is that anyone can become President.”

Two of the first six U.S. Presidents stand firmly in the Unitarian tradition—John Adams, our second President, and his son, John Quincy Adams, our sixth. But even though they are in our tradition, their brand of liberal religion was very different from that which we practice today.

The elder Adams, especially, was a committed Christian, in the sense that he was a firm believer in the life and teachings of Jesus. But he was also an ardent free thinker, who sided time and again with the Liberals against the Calvinists in the battle that was then splitting New England congregationalism (and which would lead to the formation of the American Unitarian Association some years later, in 1825).

“My religion is founded upon the love of God and my neighbor, on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of struggling with patience against the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can,” Adams wrote.

Adams attended and supported his home church in Quincy faithfully (indeed, both he and his son, as well as their wives, are buried in the crypt of the First Parish Unitarian in the center of Quincy, the “Church of the Presidents” as it is called). But Adams had little patience with the trappings and pretense of most organized religion. He once told a friend that he saw in most members of the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, he wrote: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’” As President, in signing the Treaty of Tripoli with the Muslim Barbary state in 1797, he declared in no uncertain terms: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.” The Religious Right would have John Adams tarred and feathered for such statements today!

The next “official” Unitarian to hold the Presidency was none other than the illustrious Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was an active member of the First Unitarian Church of Buffalo, New York, where his memory is, apparently, still held in high esteem. (You do not make fun of Millard Fillmore in Buffalo!) Fillmore enamored himself to many fellow Unitarians early in his career when, as a young lawyer, he argued in favor of overturning a New York state law which required all witnesses in court to swear an oath saying they believed both in God and in the existence of a hereafter. But Fillmore also angered many fellow Unitarians later on when, as President in 1850, he signed the notorious Fugitive Slave Act which required runaway slaves in the North to be returned to their Southern masters.

Likewise, the next Unitarian President, William Howard Taft, faced controversy within our own denomination. In 1917, Taft, a former President by then, was serving as Chief Justice of the United States, and was also the Moderator of the American Unitarian Association at its annual meeting in Boston. At that gathering, Taft locked horns with John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, and an ardent pacifist, over American entry into the First World War. Largely through Taft’s insistence, a resolution by Holmes opposing the war was defeated by the delegates present. So, it’s not just Catholic Vice-Presidential candidates who disagree about various social issues.

So, officially, there have been four Unitarian U.S. Presidents. Of course, sometimes we claim those who were “like us”, even though they were never officially “one of us”. The most notable of these, perhaps, was Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was, officially at least, Anglican (Episcopal). But he seldom attended Anglican services, and like his sometimes friend/ sometimes rival John Adams, Jefferson had a deep appreciation for the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth—if not for his divinity. Jefferson called the teachings of Jesus “the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught.” But he rejected the Virgin Birth, all the miracles credited to Jesus, as well as the entire supernatural structure which the years had appended onto what he called “pure Christianity”.

To counter all this, Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (sometimes known as The Jefferson Bible), which presented Christ as a kind and gentle moral sage, freed from all dogma and superstition. An historian describes the process Jefferson used in producing his “Bible”:

“…Jefferson did most of his work [on the Jefferson Bible] while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and a glue pot, physically splicing out miracles and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.”

Indeed, as the same observer has written:

“If today, a President sat up late at night cutting passages out of the Bible, the Right would go ballistic, claiming sacrilege, while the Left would be disgusted that a President would take religion so seriously as to be tormented by a thirst to find a version of faith he could believe.”

There is little doubt, though, that Jefferson was an ardent Deist, who looked for evidence of God’s handiwork not in the pages of scripture, but in the works of nature. The references to “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson authored were not mere turns of his literary pen. They were, rather, clear statements of what Jefferson and most of our other founders believed.

While he never became a Unitarian officially (indeed, there was no official Unitarian organization until two years after Jefferson’s death), Jefferson did hold Unitarian beliefs and practices in high affection. In a very interesting letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson wrote:

“I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priest, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.

Well, about the prospects for Unitarianism in the New World, Jefferson was a bit overly optimistic. But about his hopes for our new nation, and his faith in its liberty and freedom, he was not.

We should rejoice, it seems to me, that our Presidents have approached matters of faith from such a diversity of directions. For it is in this diversity of belief that our strength as a nation truly lies. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between [a] man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “He owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

As it is for each of us, so it should be for our President. His faith is his own, and may it guide him ever toward justice and wisdom. May we judge our government’s policies not on the basis of creed, but on the basis of their fairness and efficacy and whether they serve the cause of human need and help to usher in a better and more peaceful world.

It is the separation of Church and State which keeps our state free and our churches strong.

And it is the workings of the mystery of faith within each one of us, as private individuals and as public servants, which make us complete and whole.

As President, Harry S. Truman (who was a Southern Baptist, by the way) would regularly recite the following prayer:

Oh! Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of Heaven, Earth and the Universe:
Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right; make me truthful, honest and honorable in all things; make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving and patient with my fellowmen - help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings -- even as Thou understandest mine! Amen, Amen, Amen

There are certainly worse prayers that a President could pray. There are certainly worse prayers that any of us could pray, as we make our decision this coming Tuesday.


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