Monday, September 7, 2009

Religion of American Enlightenment

"In the French Revolution, religion was scarcely less an issue than politics, a fact which was bewildering to American admirers of French liberty."--Religion of the American Enlightenment by G.A. Koch

The American liberal thinker of the 18th and 19th centuries, while able to behave as a Republican in political matters, found himself (keep in mind that only males of age and land owning could vote in this period) unable to wholly accept the radical terms of the 'new religion' of that "great and glorious sister republic," France. John Trumbull of Connecticut commented that "still worse than the beheading [of King Louis XVI] was when the National Assembly [Assemblee Nationale francais, roughly equal to the British parliament, or the US Congress] formed a procession to the church of Notre Dame, Paris, and in mock solemnity bowed to the graces of a common courtesan, basely worshiping her as 'a goddess of reason.' Yet not a few in America threw up their hands crying out to the glorious sister republic."

American patriots revolted at the events of that 'sister republic,' France, who had likewise shucked off her monarch; they were, meanwhile, repugnant at the resulting "religious implications of Revolutionary thought, quickly submerged into 'freethinking," writes G.Adolf Koch in his book, Religion of the American Enlightenment. The Founding Fathers, as they are often called, those men who hammered out the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they who demanded liberty from the king of England, and which war resulted in the triumph of the new United States of America, those individuals are often called the Founders, or Founding Fathers, of the nation that is the United States of America.

While not having directly to do with the religions of the world, American Enlightenment has exerted a profound impact around the world, altering the perceptions and religious practices everywhere. In a large measure, other nations today fight against "American Imperialism"; that imperialism necessarily includes our religious ideas and expressions. Many who engage in the various forms of American Enlightenment do so without the slightest cognizance that they, too, directly or indirectly practice this same sort of Imperialism through their behavior and actions. Those are actions which they then take around the world, part of a natural flow of ideas.

"I limit my scope to deism as a religious cult," writes Koch. Men such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer and many others were closely involved in the practices of Deism. Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, was an active member of the Deistic Society of New York. Deism and corresponding societies popped up throughout the new nation.

Eschewing traditional religious assemblies, Deists, nevertheless, met regularly; ultimately these meetings resulted in the formation of churches, one which came to be known as the Unitarian/Universalist Church of America. The Philadelphia Deist Society closely associated with the New York Society. In contrast to the 'Kentucky Deists', those living west of the Alleghenies, the New England Deists engaged in a far more extensive re-purposing and a re-configuring manner of Reasoning. It was "militant... The movement to establish meeting houses, services, and other attributes of a religious institution is not synonymous with the religious liberalism of Benjamin Franklin," who was deeply influenced by French thought.

Deism in the second half of the 18th century was characterized by a scepticism "among the upper classes... it did not preclude affiliation with Christian denominations, but did tend to cool religious ardor. Deistic influences broke down the distinctions between one's own true religion and all other 'false' religions. Deists view the deity as 'author of the universe,' their belief is in immortality, but not salvation. Natural religion is more important than revelation... It is an attitude of mind, rather than a specific creed."

Thus as American Republicanism took hold, correspondingly the Enlightenment which spawned it in a public, political sphere spawned a private, individual, creed adverse, spiritual rather than religious mind that entered forcefully into a world of burgeoning scientific reasoning. In this same time period interestingly, the 'Industrial Revolution' is inaugurated; here some argued that man was to become one with the machine, that his life came to be ruled by the clock, the growing merchant class, the industrialists, the capitalists, the profiteers and the resulting ills of it all coalescing into a modern government, a modern political process and retaining all the spiritual ills of mankind.

Others argue the opposite. That Rational thought, Deism has in fact freed men for the constraints of foolish superstition; that men live better, longer lives due to science and advances of technology. They are healthier and more profitable than ever before with more opportunities, time and leisure to assist the world in the struggle for the same. The Deists remarks Koch, "were not theologians... they were common men, had much in common with the average American, past and present."
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' are gifts which men are endowed by their Creator," who is also called 'Nature's God'. These basic, religious principles of the American Enlightenment have over the centuries constituted an acceptable religious foundation that all Americans can share." Today it has been vogue to call this the 'Civil Religion'.

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