The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

John Adams Under the Historical Microscope

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One of the difficulties in answering Brooke Allen’s “Our Godless Constitution,” which appeared on The Nation’s website on February 3rd, is that her sources are not footnoted.[1] There’s no way of identifying the context. Any piece of literature can be made to say anything if it’s taken out of context. The most famous, of course, is the biblical statement, “There is no god” (Ps. 14:1). In addition to making some baseless comments about the Constitution and the Treaty of Tripoli and ignoring reams of other pertinent historical sources, she offers up John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine as witnesses for her case. I can understand Adams and Jefferson, but Paine? Paine’s Common Sense (1776) was popular in the colonies, but his anti-Christian polemic the Age of Reason wasn’t published until 1795, six years after the Constitution was ratified. He played no Part 1n the establishment of the new nation.

A few years ago, I responded to an article by Barbara Ehrenreich that was written for Time magazine in the same style as Allen’s article for The Nation. Of John Adams, Ehrenreich wrote: “Adams once described the Judeo-Christian tradition as ‘the most bloody religion that ever existed.’”[2] Like Allen’s use of Adams, Ehrenreich never referenced a source for her quotation. So I did a little digging and found the following that appeared in his Diary dated July 26, 1796:

The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern Times, the Religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and humanity, let the Blackguard [Thomas] Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to Man.[3]

There is no need to reconcile these two quotations because Ehrenreich quotes Adams out of context. Adams actually stated, “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”[4] In this letter, Adams defended biblical revelation against its many corruptions, certainly a worthy and needed enterprise even today.

Norman Cousins, in introducing the religious views of Adams, writes that he “could be as eloquent and rhapsodic about the principles of Christianity as he could be scathing about the abuses carried on in its name.”[5] Again, there is nothing unusual about this. It happens today. In fact, I could be depicted in a similar light if someone picked through the thousands of pages I’ve written over the years. I’ve said a number of harsh things about the way Christianity is practiced today, but none of these would be an indictment of Christianity itself.

Adams was not able to peer far enough into the future to see what political regimes would accomplish in the name of atheism, but he certainly had his suspicions. He believed that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation,” and that God “ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe,” which he believed “to be the great essential principle of morality, and consequently all civilization.”[6] Adams understood that the legal system of Israel was a model for the nations. Those nations that throw off the laws of the Bible are doomed.

Adams believed that republican governments could be supported only “by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private [virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” As for his sons, he told his wife to “Let them revere nothing but religion, Morality and Liberty.”[7] And what about clergymen who spoke out on “social issues,” an anathema to Allen? What was Adams’s opinion? While Adams believed in liberty, he also recognized that only a moral people can live in a condition of liberty.

It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions?[8]

Adams chides those who laud and praise a clergyman “as an excellent man and a wonderful preacher” when he supports their cause, “[b]ut if a clergyman preaches Christianity, and tells the magistrate” something that the magistrate does not want to hear, then the clergyman is castigated for his views. Not much has changed in more than two-hundred years. The critics of the Right never seem to condemn those clergymen on the Left who support liberal causes in the name of religion. A double standard exists, and Allen refuses to admit it.[9]

Endnotes:

[1] Brooke Allen, “Our Godless Constitution,” The Nation website (February 3, 2005). www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050221&c=1&s=allen
[2] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Why the Religious Right Is Wrong,” Time (September 7, 1992), 72.
[3] John Adams, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 3:233-34.
[4] Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, December 27, 1816. See Norman Cousins, ed., ‘In God We Trust’: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 104-105.
[5] Cousins, ‘In God We Trust,’ 74.
[6] Letter to F. A. Van der Kemp, February 16, 1809. Quoted in Cousins, ‘In God We Trust,’ 102-103.
[7] Quoted in Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and Self in Early America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 346.
[8] John Adams, “Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America, from its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time (1774).” Reprinted in Cousins, ‘In God We Trust,’ 89–90.
[9] Gayle White, “Whatever Happened to God’s Left Wing?,” Atlanta Journal/Constitution (October 30, 1994), R1, 3.

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