Monday, December 30, 2013

The Connecticut Model

As I have noted before, a number of scholars make a good case that whereas the Free Exercise Clause neatly incorporates via the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Establishment Clause does not. During the time of the American Founding, religion (as well as the rest of the Bill of Rights) was left to the states.

Perhaps the following observation is incorrect, but the states seemed arguably more unified in their commitment to Free Exercise principles than on Establishment policy. To emphasis the differences America's states had on Establishment policy during the Founding era, V. Phillip Munoz invoked "Virginia" and "Massachusetts" as book ends. Virginia, after T. Jefferson, J. Madison and their evangelical Baptist allies, was more secular (or disestablishmentarian). Massachusetts, after J. Adams, not only had a state establishment system, but was the last state to disestablish (it did so in 1833).

But I discovered some interesting things about Massachusetts' establishment. From the very beginning, unitarians were in positions of power in that state. Indeed, the defender of Massachusetts' establishment, President Adams, was himself a fervent unitarian when he termed it "[A] Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion."

Further illustrating the religious liberalism of Massachusetts during this time was the trial of Universalist John Murray in 1783 where Judge Dana construed the State's religion clauses in a most liberal way to cover not just unitarians and universalists, but also non-Christians. It was ultimately the inclusion of unitarians that acted as a "poison pill" for Massachusetts' establishment that led to its end in 1833.

What I'm leading up to is, perhaps, we need to rethink the model of Virginia as a Secular Left and Massachusetts as a Religious Right state on Establishment policy during the time of the Founding. Perhaps Massachusetts had, for their day, a Religious Left establishment policy model.

A better candidate for a Religious Right model during America's Founding is Connecticut. See here. Perhaps Timothy Dwight, that great foe of "infidelity," exercised his political power to influence his state's religion policy towards illiberality. John Adams, himself, would have been prosecuted under Connecticut's laws for his anti-Trinitarian sentiments.

It's no wonder then in 1817, the year of Dwight's death, when Connecticut elected as Governor, Republican, Oliver Wolcott who would help his state finally disestablish the next year, Jefferson and Adams rejoiced.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Daily Beast: "How George Washington Celebrated Christmas"

I know. Arguably a day late. Read it here, featuring the research of my friend Mary V. Thompson. A taste:
First, soak in this description of Christmas Pie, a traditional British dish that makes a Turducken seem modest. Heaped inside a sturdy crust were layers of meat—“a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge and pigeon”—seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, mace, pepper and salt and slathered with four pounds of butter, all cooked together for at least four hours. Then there was Martha’s recipe for “great cake”—40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of powdered sugar, 5 pounds of fruit and a half pint of wine and brandy thrown in for good measure. Add in Washington’s extended family and a few select friends, at it was a welcome respite after nearly a decade on the run in more than 200 encampments.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas as a party in revolutionary America

Thomas Kidd gives some of the background on the festive nature of the Christmas holiday in colonial and revolutionary America here: Was Christmas in Revolutionary America a Drunken Bash? As Kidd writes:
In the 1700s, Christmas was notorious for drunken bashes more reminiscent of Mardi Gras than our family-friendly holiday. An account from New York published during the "twelve days" of Christmas in early 1787 (the same year Americans would frame the new Constitution) paints a picture of a deeply conflicted holiday. As one might expect, some people focused on the religious meaning of the season, setting aside the time "for a most sacred purpose." Others, however, spent the twelve days "reveling in profusion, and paying their sincere devotions to merry Bacchus," the Greek god of wine and festivity.
The overt partying that was part of Christmas celebration back in the day certainly adds context to George Washington's eggnog recipe!

On another note, since Jon has wished everyone a merry Unitarian Christmas, I would like to extend best Christmas holiday wishes from a papist perspective.  If you think it is important to keep Christ in Christmas (and I do), consider how important it is to keep all of Christmas -- Christ + Mass!  A merry Christmas to all -- Christus natus est!

Thockmorton: "Politifact Debunks Bryan Fischer’s Christianity Only View of the First Amendment"

Here is Dr. Thockmorton's post and here is the referenced article. A taste from the Politifact article:
Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, said "the founders were certainly aware of other religions besides Christianity, and discussed them at length in their writings." 
Kidd pointed us to a 1818 letter from John Adams: "This country has done much. I wish it would do more; and annul every narrow idea in religion, government and commerce," Adams wrote. "It has pleased the providence of the first cause, the universal cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews, but to Christians and Mohomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world." 
Benjamin Franklin also weighed in on the subject. Jan Ellen Lewis, professor of history at Rutgers University, cited Franklin’s autobiography, when he praised a new meeting house built in Philadephia. [sic]
"The design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general," Franklin wrote. "So that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."

Merry Unitarian Christmas

It's a tradition for me to wish everyone a Merry Unitarian Christmas every Christmas. See the post here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christian faith and the American founding: the evangelical-deist alliance

Historian Thomas Kidd, one of the sharpest evangelicals working as a professional historian today, has a well-worth reading post over at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission website asking the question: Founding faiths: Was America founded as a Christian nation? This nuanced and deeply thought out post examines the alliance of devout evangelicals and more skeptical deists that brought about the unique American experiment in ordered liberty, especially religious liberty. As Kidd writes:
Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist hailed as a hero of today’s secularists, took a generous approach toward the public role of religion after disestablishment. For example, Jefferson routinely attended religious services in government buildings as president. Jefferson was the author, of course, of the 1802 letter in which he argued that the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation” between church and state. But the same weekend he sent this letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, a Baptist minister named John Leland preached before a joint session of Congress, with the president in attendance.

The actual history of faith and the Founding, then, confounds our expectations. Evangelical Baptists were the staunchest advocates of church-state separation, and their union with deists like Jefferson made the Baptists’ vision of religious liberty a reality. You could hardly imagine this collaboration of skeptical politicians and traditional believers today. Their partnership worked, however, because deists such as Jefferson realized that religious liberty did not require rigid secularism. The Baptists, for their part, knew about Jefferson’s personal skepticism, but they supported him because he was the champion of real religious freedom.

Not all America’s Founders were devout Christians, but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals – one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists – was an expansive concept of religious liberty.
Read it all.

Monday, December 23, 2013

HNN: "Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?"

Here. A taste:
Now, this tiring “Christmas is a pagan holiday” stuff goes around every year, but most of the assertions that accompany it (like kissing under the mistletoe is a druidic fertility ritual) are never backed up by historical evidence: we’re just never informed where these assertions come from. This is because the historical evidence for non-Greco-Roman pre-Christian European religions is scant indeed. What we have been able to piece together comes mainly from the following: ....

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dale Tuggy: "Does Mark teach that Jesus is God?"

I've argued or observed on these pages that the prevailing political theology of the American Founding was theologically unitarian (or at least, a lot of leading light Founding Fathers and their theological influences seemed to sympathize with it).

One argument goes, since the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, an endorsement of unitarianism is necessarily rationalistic, or something that relies on man's reason as opposed to what the Bible really says.

That may be valid. Others assert the pages of the Bible itself, properly understood and interpreted teach theological unitarianism.

The distinguished theologian of classical theism -- Samuel Clarke -- was a theological unitarian of some sort (how Clarke exactly understood the doctrine of the Trinity is a subject for another post; at the very least he didn't hold to what the classic ecumenical creeds taught on the Trinity).

Clarke was a rationalist. But was it his "reason" or the pages of the Bible itself that led him to his views on the Trinity? That's a question I'll leave unanswered for the moment.

Dale Tuggy, a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, was influenced directly by Samuel Clarke's arguments to reject the classic doctrine of the Trinity, for something that might be more aptly called "biblical unitarianism." Or perhaps Dr. Tuggy, after Rev. Clarke is coming to unitarianism because his own reason so concluded. Anyway here is the link to the above mentioned title.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

American History from the Mouths of Babes

Truer words are never spoke:


Megaprops to for my best laughs of the year.  See the whole thing.  Thx, guys, I needed that.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fea: Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?

By John Fea. See here and here. A taste:
The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

Anniversary of Washington's Death

Today, that is. Mount Vernon has an excellence primary source documented account here. A taste:
... Craik went to him and Washington said, "Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long." Soon afterward, Washington thanked all three doctors for their service. Craik remained in the room. At eight at night more blisters and cataplasms were applied, this time to Washington's feet and legs. At ten at night George Washington spoke, requesting to be "decently buried" and to "not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead." 
Between ten and eleven at night on December 14, 1799, George Washington passed away. He was surrounded by people who were close to him including his wife who sat at the foot of the bed, his friends Dr. Craik and Tobias Lear, housemaids Caroline, Molly, and Charlotte, and his valet Christopher Sheels who stood in the room throughout the day. According to his wishes, Washington was not buried for three days. During that time his body lay in a mahogany casket in the New Room. On December 18, 1799 a solemn funeral was held at Mount Vernon.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Freemasonry on 'CBS This Morning'

It’s an exciting day for Freemasons in the United States, thanks to a long-awaited Mo Rocca package broadcast on the CBS News program Sunday Morning several hours ago. The point of the segment is to dispel the untruths, malicious and benign, with the simple, calming facts that make the Masonic fraternity much easier to comprehend and even relevant to men today.

It is fun seeing a number of friends on television, but I bring this to American Creation because it is quickly, but clearly, stated by UCLA history professor Margaret Jacob, an author of several books on Freemasonry and a favorite on the fraternity’s lecture circuit, that Masonry was not the engine driving the American Revolution. Yes, plenty of individually famous Freemasons were involved—from Continental Congress to Conflict to Constitution—but the Masonic Order as an organized body of men was not where policy was debated nor pamphlets printed nor battle plans formulated.

The segment, which takes us inside the Grand Lodge of New York and Saint John’s Lodge No. 1 in New York City; and the House of the Temple and Colonial Lodge in Washington, DC; and sites elsewhere, runs eight minutes, is below. The text of the segment can be read here, and “9 Things You Didn’t Know About Freemasonry,” also from Sunday Morning, can be read here. (And for Rocca’s humorous self-promotion of the piece, see his Twitter feed here.)

Religion and the Contrast Between the French and American Revolutions

Over at Thomas Albert Howard takes a look at the French and American Revolutions' differing approach to religion: July 4, July 14, and the Religious Questions. America's relative religious pluralism and diversity served to prevent a radically secular regime from arising from our revolution, while the situation in France with a religious tradition overwhelmingly allied with the ancien regime helped to foster a powerful anti-religious prejudice in that country's revolution. 

Another example of the truth that America's Revolution built on customary principles of order, traditional rights and freedom of conscience, while the French Revolution began in abstraction and quickly degenerated into tyranny and and terror.

Was Thomas Jefferson a Conservative?

One of the leading paleo-conservative websites has three posts detailing the place of Thomas Jefferson in the conservative pantheon. While not much of a fan of Jefferson myself, these reflections are passed along to stimulate thought on the role of the Jeffersonian tradition in American conservatism:

Post #1: historian and defender of the Old South Clyde Wilson writes this staunch and stalwart defense of Jefferson as a conservative: Thomas Jefferson, Conservative. Wilson views Jefferson as a conservative reformer, dedicated to the principles of life as he found them in his Virginia planter-society, but also committed to broadening the base of that society in an effort to improve its stability. As Wilson observes:
Who, then, was the real Jefferson? What were these constant themes? They are clear. None offer comfort to the contemporary left. First of all, Jefferson stood for freedom and enlightenment. That he is our best symbol for these virtuous goals is Malone’s central theme. That does not mean, however, that his thought can be twisted to support something that very different men with very different goals postulate to be freedom and enlightenment. His concepts of freedom and enlightenment were always rooted in the given nature and the necessities of his Virginia community and always balanced harmoniously against competing claims.
Post #2: an early essay from Russell Kirk on efforts by progressive historians to distort Jefferson's views, combined with an earnest plea for Jeffersonian principles to form the basis of American renewal: Thomas Jefferson and the Faithless. As the young Kirk writes from the midst of the New Deal era:
To plan effectively the nation’s future we must foster Jeffersonian principles. We must have slow but democratic decisions, sound local government, diffusion of property-owning, taxation as direct as possible, preservation of civil liberties, payment of debts by the generation incurring them, prevention of the rise of class antipathies, a stable and extensive agriculture, as little governing by the government as practicable, and, above all, stimulation of self-reliance. If we are to have a planned economy, collective action, we must have these forces to maintain it. And as yet the national administration, or any other national administration, has been unable to reconcile Jeffersonian ideals with authoritarian methods. If one of these two standards must fall, for the happiness of mankind let it be that of the authoritarian.
Post #3: Ross Lance explains the rhetorical and philosophical grounding of Jefferson's use of natural rights to support American independence: Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence: The Power and Natural Rights of a Free People.

Looking to Read Up on the Father of Our Country?

Historian Thomas Kidd has posted some book recommendations for those interested in learning more about the indispensable man in the American struggle first for independence and then for constitutional government:  Five Great Books on George Washington. I've got three of the books already, and am going to order the other two just as soon as I finish my next law review article.

The Founders and Classical Education: It Wasn't Just About Latin, It Was About Virtue

To a degree difficult for many modern Americans to understand, the Founding Generation was heavily shaped by classical literature from ancient Greece and Rome. Virtually every literate person had at least passing acquaintance with the stories, myths and literature of the ancient West, and a surprisingly large percentage of Americans could read those works in one or both of their original languages -- Greek and Latin. Yet, classical education in colonial and early republican America wasn't primarily about learning Latin, it was about training people in virtue and civic responsibility. E. Christian Kopff explores this aspect of early American education over at The Imaginative Conservative: Inspired by Liberty & Virtue: the Classical Education of the Founders of the American Republic. Tolle, lege.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

When Government Mandates Lead to Tyranny....

"To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." -Thomas Jefferson

Should the federal government have the authority to require private companies to provide insurance coverage that violates the owners' religious beliefs? Supporters of the Affordable Care Act, including President Barack Obama, say "yes," and most conservatives, especially those with Christian beliefs, say "no." The latter group includes Hobby Lobby Stores, a privately held company owned by the Green family, who are committed Christians. The case before the Supreme Court, known as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, confronts the question of whether government-mandated insurance coverage must give way to religious freedom, even if we're talking about the religious beliefs of owners of secular, for-profit companies.

Whenever the government passes laws or issues regulations affecting the conduct of citizens or private enterprise, it does so with a net increase to its own power and authority and a net decrease to the amount of freedom enjoyed by its citizens (as well as by the organizations and/or businesses consisting of its citizens). It is a fantasy to conceive of an organized society where the people exercise unlimited freedom, but those who cherish the ideals and principles enshrined in our nation's heritage desire a nation that errs more on the side of individual freedom than government power. And while most Americans recognize the need for government to protect people from harm, those who cherish freedom rightly believe such protections should extend to their own families, convictions, and values.

When the Constitutional Convention concluded its business in September 1787, their president George Washington sent a letter to the president of the national Congress addressing the delicate balance between individual liberty on the one hand and community needs (and government authority) on the other. In the letter, Washington wrote: "Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest." It's an easy argument to make that Washington foresaw the need for individuals to support a national government with their tax dollars, accept a standing army, submit to certain trade regulations, etc. It's inconceivable, however, to argue that Washington and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention would've been okay with the federal government mandating that companies pay for birth control, especially when the owners of such companies believe some of those birth control options include abortion-inducing drugs. On the contrary, it's quite reasonable to conclude that had the Federalists intended to give the government that much power, there would've been a whole lot more anti-Federalists opposing the Constitution - and such a Constitution never would've been ratified!

My liberal or "progressive" friends will likely respond with arguments that the nation has evolved since the days of our Founding Fathers and will point to selective court decisions which seemingly support such expansive government mandates. First, not all change is good. Second, when it comes to making changes, there's a right way to go about it - and a wrong way to go about it. And third, the courts are not always right. (Dred Scott anyone?)

Of course, liberals don't like to be pointed back to the Founders. They certainly don't like to hear talk about how we should still (even in 2014) respect the principles and ideals our nation was founded upon. They typically respond with a barrage of predictable, worn complaints: the Founding Fathers didn't give women the national right to vote; the Founding Fathers didn't allow for the direct election of US senators; it's 2013 (almost 2014) and not 1787; blah, blah, blah, blah. I've heard it all. And the Founders weren't the backward, primitive bigots so many of their left-wing detractors today would have us believe. If you're in that camp, put away the Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and actually read what the Founding Fathers themselves wrote. But if you aren't comfortable digging into original source material, then pick up a copy of Vindicating the Founders by Thomas G. West. It puts everything in a much fairer context. Think West is too favorable? Then grab a copy of Jefferson's Pillow by Roger Wilkins. For that matter, you can also read Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech or his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, where he appeals to the founding principles of our nation, rather than condemn the Founding Fathers.

But even if you persist in believing the Founders were mean, bad, primitive, blah, blah, blah, the fact is that they built into the Constitution the means for it to expand and adjust to changing circumstances. It's called the amending process. And that's how our nation abolished slavery (something many, if not most, of the Founders wanted to do even back in the founding era), nationalized the right of women to vote, and provided for the direct election of US senators (instead of via the state legislatures). What the Founders did NOT provide for was allowing the national legislature or the national judiciary to ignore or redefine the Constitution. For this reason, the original intent of the Founding Fathers is relevant to understanding how much authority the federal government today should have when it comes to regulating the conduct and spending of individuals or private enterprise.

While the Founders understood that citizens and organizations (non-profit or for-profit) must surrender some rights in order to be a part of an organized community, they nevertheless believed strongly in the rights of speech, religion, and conscience for all citizens. If those rights were not to be respected, what's the point of having a community? What's the point of having a government if such a government can't protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

"Progressives" will often point to the "general welfare" clause of the Constitution and argue that, in order for the government to provide more in the way of social services, health care, etc, people must surrender even more rights and privileges, especially when they enter the public square or the marketplace. But the Founders would've considered this argument to be anathema. It is not the government's responsibility to make sure I'm healthy and wealthy -- and get tucked in at night! It's my responsibility to pursue those things. It's the government's role to protect my right and ability to pursue those things. The government isn't a provider; it's a protector!

I grant that there are some individuals unable to provide for themselves, no matter how much they are protected. And I fully support the community stepping in and helping those people. I'm no libertarian, and neither were the Founders. The Founders understood that some people need help, and the community should help. But somewhere in the last 200 plus years, we've lost our sense of balance and perspective. As conservative Dinesh D'Souza points out in this hilarious YouTube clip, when more people are in the wagon than are pulling the wagon, you have a serious problem! What's more, there's a big difference in arguing that the government should pay for food and shelter for those who need it. It's something else entirely to say the government should pay for birth control or (worse!) an abortion! Or...even worse...requiring a private company to pay for an abortion!

Bringing this back to the issue at hand...I agree that people need to give up a measure of their liberty and resources in order to live in a community. But when the government starts mandating that people and organizations must engage in activities or spend money (in addition to basic taxation) that violate their own convictions (particularly when we're talking about religious convictions), a line has been crossed! And that line is being crossed today. It's definitely being crossed with the Affordable Care Act and its mandates concerning contraception. This isn't a situation where tax dollars are being used to finance medical procedures or drugs which terminate a pregnancy (rather than merely prevent one). That's bad enough. Now, we have the government telling a private company that it must finance such procedures or drugs. This is tyranny...pure and simple! And the Founders would be appalled!

If the United States doesn't pause and reflect on where we're headed, we will cease to be anything close to resembling the great nation our Founders created and conceived of. When that happens, we will cease to be a great nation.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mount Vernon: GW's "Spurious Quotations"

From Mount Vernon here. The most notorious as it relates to America's founding political theology: "It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from President Washington

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Religious Freedom Must Extend to the Marketplace or it's Not Religious Freedom

Diversity makes Religious Freedom Essential
The new front in the Culture Wars isn't over prayer in schools or the definition of marriage. While those and other hot-button issues continue to consume media and social attention (and will for years to come), the most serious battles, according to a recent article in the progressive American Prospect, are now being waged in the arena of religious freedom. I believe the editors of The American Prospect are correct. Religious freedom is now the most important political fight being waged in the public square. And religious freedom is a subject on which our Founders had a lot to say.

For most of American history, those who generally embraced a Judeo-Christian moral framework enjoyed decisive majority status. This doesn't mean they all shared the exact same faith or were in agreement on every issue. Far from it. But it does mean that, for most of American history, there was a general sense of familiarity with and mutual respect for the religious underpinnings of our nation's politics and culture. Within that context, Christianity enjoyed somewhat of a seat of honor at the proverbial table. This isn't to suggest that most Americans were Bible-believing evangelicals, but most Americans did profess some measure of affiliation with a Christian church, denomination, or belief system - or at least a genuine (even if somewhat nominal) respect for Christianity.

All this began to change in the 20th century, particularly after the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. I'm aware of the cultural changes in the Roaring Twenties, but those changes were somewhat arrested by the Great Depression, World War II, and the renewed push in the 1950s for religious conservatism as evidenced, among other indicators, by the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. The bottom line is that the United States stood firmly on a Judeo-Christian foundation heading into the 1960s. Since then, things have changed considerably. While I would never argue that the United States was "Christian" in any official or legal sense, there was a time when it generally favored Christianity. No more. We now live, for all intents and purposes, in a post-Christian America.

Much has been written in this blog over the specific nature of the personal and political views of the Founders when it comes to religion. We will probably never fully agree on questions concerning the true nature of the faith of men like Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and so forth, but the historical record is quite clear that all of our Founding Fathers believed in religious freedom. To the extent they differed on religious freedom, it was over what degree the government (at the state level) should favor religion and/or to what extent atheists or those without a religious belief should participate in public life. The consensus that emerged from the founding era is perhaps best represented by the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which provided for the institutional separation of Church and State and affirmed an individual's freedom of conscience.

Recognizing that the United States was never officially Christian and the culture is rapidly transforming into a post-Christian reality, many Christians today have largely abandoned any desire to impose their religious beliefs on others through public policy, but they are nevertheless hoping (even demanding) that their freedom of conscience be respected by this new post-Christian society. I believe they are right to insist on this. In fact, I will count myself among them by saying we are right to demand this.

In a famous 2006 speech on the role of religion in public life, then-Senator Barack Obama declared: "[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." What President Obama said then (as a senator) is just as true for the marketplace as it is for the public square. People of faith should not be expected "to leave their religion at the door before entering" the marketplace or their place of work.

Should they be expected to perform the duties to which they agreed under the terms of their employment? Of course. But the difference between employment and slavery is that the employer owns the worker's labor (within mutually agreed-upon paramaters) not the worker himself or herself. Yet I see things happening today that challenge that social contract between employer and employee - and threaten to undermine the very idea of religious freedom in our society. There are many examples which I could cite. So this article isn't too long, I will confine myself to three:

  • Federal Insurance Mandates on Corporations - Forcing employers, such as Hobby Lobby, to provide insurance coverage that includes "morning after" or "week after" contraception which the owners consider to be abortion and therefore deeply repugnant to their religious beliefs concerning the sanctity of life
  • "Civil Rights" Laws on Small or Home-Based Businesses - While no business should be allowed to discriminate against someone solely on the basis of that person's race, gender, color, or sexual orientation, a distinction MUST be made between an event and a person. If a photographer hired by a school to do senior portraits refuses to photograph a gay senior, that's blatant discrimination against a person and should be disallowed. But if a wedding photographer refuses to take pictures of a same-sex wedding, that's "discriminating" against an event. There is a difference, and given the First Amendment's clear affirmation of a person's right to freely exercise his or her religion, such a difference should be respected in our society. We are seeing the erosion of religious freedom in America when it comes to people of faith who own businesses. 
  • Going After Employees or Contractors for Off-Duty Religious Expression - When Cisco and Bank of America terminated leadership consultant Frank Turek's contract with their respective organizations, it wasn't because of his performance on the job, but rather because Turek wrote a book (on his own time) against same-sex marriage. Turek is a Christian author. Cisco and Bank of America would've been justified to issue respective statements distancing themselves from Turek's religious beliefs AND would've been right to fire him had he been proselytizing Cisco or Bank of America employees to his religious views on marriage when he was supposed to be teaching them principles of teamwork, leadership, etc., but that's not what happened. He was fired for things he said and wrote outside of his duties with Cisco and Bank of America. If it's wrong for Cisco or Bank of America to discriminate against employees and contractors for their race, gender, or sexual orientation, it should also be wrong to discriminate against them for their religion. If you disagree with that statement, then it only serves to show how much trouble our nation is in when it comes to the freedom of religion and conscience.

If the American people want to leave behind their Judeo-Christian origins and become an even more secular society, that is their right. We can argue over what the consequences of that will be or whether the Founders would approve. I'll leave that for another article. For this blog post, I'm simply saying this: If the American people wish to become more secular, that's their right. But if we want to stay true to what it means to be the United States of America, we must do so with a high degree of sensitivity and respect for those men and women of faith who wish to practice their faith.

The Founders never believed that a person's faith should only be exercised in the home or in their place of worship. They believed in the free exercise of religion - one that reached into the public square and the marketplace. The day we, as a society, reject this idea and relegate religion solely to the home and place of worship is the day we reject the most important freedom we have - the freedom of belief and conscience. When we do that, our nation will no longer resemble anything the Founders gave us.

Throckmorton: "What’s behind David Barton’s war on Christian colleges?"

Read about it here. A taste:
Since evidence actually contradicts Barton’s accusations, why would he make them? Perhaps connecting the dots a bit, Barton also recently accused his Christian academic critics of being recruited by unnamed “secular guys” to critique his book The Jefferson Lies. Well that explains that. The reason Christian professors are coming out against his approach to history is because they have gone to the dark side, being recruited by shadowy “secular guys.” 
In fact, in the past couple of years, dozens of unrecruited Christian professors have raised public objections to many of Barton’s claims, historical and otherwise. For instance, Barton told Crossroads Church in Oklahoma City that there has been a “694 percent increase in violent crime since we took the Bible out of schools” in 1963. However, Barton failed to tell his audience that the post-1960s rise in crime peaked in the early 1990s. The crime rate has dropped dramatically since then. The murder rate now, for example, is about what it was before that Supreme Court case.

Marcotte: "5 Christian right delusions about history"

By Amanda Marcotte here. A taste:
Barton has convinced the right to believe in their fervent wish that the Founders were religious and even theocratic with quote-mining and outright lying. He likes to whip out this John Adams quote: “There is no authority, civil or religious — there can be no legitimate government — but what is administered by this Holy Ghost.” Problem? Adams was summarizing the opinion of his opponents; that wasn’t Adams’ view at all.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The "Other Guy" Assassinated 50 Years Ago Today

***I realize that this post doesn't have anything to do with America's founding, but in light of today's anniversary I think we can make an exception.  Cross-posted at my personal blog***
In the early afternoon hours of November 22, 1963, the Dallas Police Department received word that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Details were sketchy, but early reports stated that the alleged gunman was a slender white male, in his mid-thirties, about 5'10' and 175 lbs (Oswald was 24 years old, 5'9'' and 150 lbs).
Responding to the call that afternoon was Officer J.D. Tippet, an 11-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department.  Tippet was also a U.S. Army veteran, a husband and a father of three children (at the time ages 14, 10 and 5).

According to official police reports, along with reports issued by the Warren Commission, Tippet responded to a radio call to help set up a perimeter around the central Oak Cliff area, just outside where President Kennedy had been shot.  While in route to the area, Officer Tippet pulled alongside a pedestrian who resembled the vague description of the gunman that had been provided just minutes prior.  According to witness reports, Officer Tippet opened the door of his patrol car and exchanged words with the man.  Just seconds later, witnesses stated that the man suddenly drew a handgun and fired three shots at close range, all of which struck Officer Tippet in the chest.  The gunman then approached Officer Tippet, who had fallen from the first three shots, and fired a final round into his head.  Officer Tippet was dead before help arrived.

Shortly thereafter, responding Dallas police officers took a young man named Lee Harvey Oswald into custody.  It was reported that Mr. Oswald was "acting suspiciously" when approaching units arrived in the area.  After finding his gun and obtaining positive witness identification that he was indeed the shooter, Dallas Police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald for the murder of Officer J.D. Tippet.

It wasn't until later that police officers and Secret Service personnel were able to piece together the facts and conclude that Oswald was indeed the man who had assassinated President Kennedy. Had it not been for the quick response and thinking of Officer J.D. Tippet, who stopped Oswald just 20 minutes after having shot Kennedy, Oswald might have had the serious chance of fleeing from Dallas before being caught.

Kudos to a forgotten hero who gave his life but in the process caught one of the most notorious villains in American history.

Officer J.D. Tippet
Age: 39
Tour of Service: 11 years, 4 months

End of Watch: November 22, 1963 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Throckmorton: "David Barton’s Biblical Constitution: What If The Constitution Really Quoted The Bible?"

Here. A taste:
If the Constitution included such language, immigrants would have rights they don’t have now and there would no need for immigration reform. Rather, the Constitution invests Congress with the powers to make laws and establish policies (which could do what this verse suggests if the political process leads to that end). 
If the Constitution quoted Deuteronomy 17:15, the nation would need to discern somehow who God had chosen to be king. Also, in Deut. 17:20, the Bible notes that the chosen king’s descendants will rule a long time if the king follows God’s instructions. Clearly, our Constitution does not reflect those Bible verses. Furthermore, one does not need the Bible to see the reasonableness of requiring citizenship as a condition of political leadership.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John Fea & Daniel Dreisbach

John tells us about it here. A taste:
On Friday night, following McKenzie's talk, the teachers were treated to a lecture by Daniel Dreisbach of American University. He discussed the ways the Founding Fathers used the Bible in their revolutionary-era discourse. Dreisbach made a compelling case that the Bible was very important to the founding generation as one of the sources (along with Whig political thought, Enlightenment thought, the classics, etc...) that influenced their political ideas. They quoted it, referenced it, and even appealed to its language without directly referencing it. Dreisbach did not dwell on whether or not the Founders used the Bible correctly (at one point he said that their constant appeal to the Book of Deuteronomy was "tortured"), but that was not his assignment.

Friday, November 15, 2013

America’s Moderate Liberalism: Rediscovering Montesquieu, Recovering Balance

By Paul O. Carrese here. A taste:
... But Montesquieu also argued that we are social beings, and naturally open to religious belief. We are shaped by culture and history, but philosophers and statesmen can push back. Thus he condemned slavery, harsh penal laws, religious persecution, and other forms of despotism. Montesquieu is neither a historicist liberal nor a Frenchified Lockean liberal. He embodies the moderate Enlightenment, and moderate liberalism.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Shain on Zuckert on Locke

Found here. A taste:
In Part Two, a section of three essays, we are introduced, although far more subtly, to another plank in the Straussian system of belief—that is, that anyone as clever as Locke could not possibly have been a believer in a different system of belief, one including a belief in God. The cornerstone to this contention rests on Zuckert’s insistence that Locke’s “‘official theory of revelation’ has many difficulties,” in particular, that “in order to verify any alleged revelation as a real revelation, reason must have rational knowledge of the existence of a revealing God…. But it is Locke’s view that reason is not in possession of such rational knowledge of the existence of a revealing God…. Since Locke lacks rational knowledge of a revealing God, he knows of no authentic revelation, including of course the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Forster: David Barton’s Traveling Medicine Show

By Greg Forster here. A taste:
Uh-huh. Given Barton’s history of outrageous fabrication, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that “actual number.” In fact, it’s noteworthy that in National Review’s coverage of the story, the quotations most effusively praising Barton come from anonymous sources; the quotes from named sources mostly complain about the incumbent and lament that we need a real conservative. I can’t help but wonder why those sources felt the need to stay anonymous. If it turned out that the massive grassroots groundswell for David Barton consisted mostly of the same old David Barton Traveling Medicine Show hyping itself, my world would not exactly be turned upside-down.

Rodda: The Lies Used by Jay Sekulow to Defend an Oath Against Lying: An Open Letter to the Superintendent of the Air Force Academy

Writing at Huffpo here. A taste:
Optionally adding the words "so help me God" is, of course, anyone's right. These words, however, should not be a part of the official oath, where they inevitably lead to situations in which cadets are forced or coerced to say them. Therefore, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has demanded that the words be removed. This, of course, has cause a media firestorm, and even proposed legislation to prevent the oath from being changed. 
The defenders of "so help me God" are claiming that things like this were the intent of the founders and have deep historical roots, and, as expected are using quite a few lies about American history to support this claim -- ironically lying to defend an oath in which cadets swear not to ... um ... lie.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Those Bloody Papists?: Why, Even the Term "Roman" Catholic Was an English Insult

Bloody Papists!
An interesting tidbit I ran across the other day—”Roman” Catholic was a term spread by the English in the 1600s as a pejorative. The church’s name is the Catholic Church, “catholic” of course meaning “universal.”  The English “Protestants” wanted to claim the word “catholic” for themselves, though as we know it didn’t really stick.
The "Four Marks of the Church" that appear in the revision of the Nicene Creed of 381 CE are that the Church is
Well, after Henry VIII takes over the Catholic Church in 1536, it's hardly "one" or "catholic" anymore--unless Henry's is true and the "Roman" one is the fake.  In fact, the Anglican Church's "Thirty-Nine Articles" makes exactly that claim, calling its doctrine "catholic" over 200 times while distinguishing itself from the "Romish" church 27 times.
Which is where all of Protestantism went in its theological claims---"Rome" and its "Papism" is the fake, and Protestantism is the "true religion"---a phrase used countless times by the American founding generation to refer to themselves as opposed to Catholicism.  So whenever you read the term "true religion" in the Founders' documents, now you know what they mean.
Although it may previously have appeared elsewhere sporadically, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia*, "Roman" Catholic came into its now common use in the English-speaking world as a result of the Anglican schism, of circa 1600s British politics.
Who knew?  I bet not even 1 Catholic in 100, let alone everybody else these days.  Stupid bloody papists. They don't even know when they're being insulted!
*"A study of these and other early examples in their context shows plainly enough that the qualification "Romish Catholic" or "Roman Catholic" was introduced by Protestant divines who highly resented the Roman claim to anymonopoly of the term Catholic. In Germany, Luther had omitted the word Catholic from the Creed, but this was not the case in England. Even men of such Calvinistic leanings as Philpot (he was burned under Mary in 1555), and John Foxe the martyrologist, not to speak of churchmen like Newel and Fulke, insisted on the right of the Reformers to call themselves Catholics and professed to regard their own as the only true Catholic Church. Thus Philpot represents himself as answering his Catholic examiner: "I am, master doctor, of the unfeigned Catholic Church and will live and die therein, and if you can prove your Church to be the True Catholic Church, I will be one of the same" (Philpot, "Works", Parker Soc., p. 132). 
It would be easy to quote many similar passages. The term "Romish Catholic" or "Roman Catholic" undoubtedly originated with the Protestant divines who shared this feeling and who were unwilling to concede the name Catholic to their opponents without qualification. Indeed the writer Crowley, just mentioned, does not hesitate throughout a long tract to use the term "Protestant Catholics" the name which he applies to his antagonists. Thus he says "We Protestant Catholiques are not departed from the true Catholique religion" (p. 33) and he refers more than once to "Our Protestant Catholique Church." (p. 74)
On the other hand the evidence seems to show that the Catholics of the reign of Elizabeth and James I were by no 
means willing to admit any other designation for themselves than the unqualified name Catholic."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rodda: "In the Interest of Historical Accuracy and Honesty, I Must Correct Myself"

Chris Rodda writing at the Huffington Post. A taste:
What is relevant about the members of that 1781 Congress who attended that church service, however, is that many of them were the very same men who, in 1778, wrote the oath signed by the officers of the Revolutionary Army -- an oath that not only didn't include the words "So help me God," but also left a blank space for each officer to fill in for themselves whether they were choosing to "swear" or "affirm."

West Coast Straussians, Harry Jaffa, Bad Originalism, and Teleocratic Fantasies

By Peter Haworth. Here is part 1; here is part 2.

From part 2:
If the sphere of religion was NOT viewed by the Framers to be within the legal jurisdiction of the Constitution’s Federal Government and if the Framers clearly understood religion to be the proper institution for inculcating virtues, then it follows that the Framers probably would not identify Jaffa’s identified virtues to be part of an explicit purpose of the Constitution’s positive law.

This conclusion is even further corroborated by the lack of evidence from the Philadelphia Convention that advancing virtue was implied by the “Blessings of Liberty” in the Preamble (or that it was otherwise a purpose in the Constitution). Again, the delegated-powers structure of the Constitution helps explain why this was the case. As mentioned previously, advocates of the Constitution (like Hamilton in Federalist 84) understood (at least in their public statements) the limited nature of the Federal Government’s powers. This entailed recognition that the States would retain the police powers involved in regulating morals. Since, then, advancing virtue was not seen as a Federal-level concern, the Framers naturally did not focus on this in their deliberations about the character and content of the Federal Government that they were creating in the Convention. Thus, even if the Framers did see some role for government in advancing virtue (e.g., even if they did not believe that religion alone was sufficient for inculcating the virtues), they would have viewed this as a function that properly belongs to the States, not the Federal Government.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Shain on Jaffa

Originally published in 2007, it was just recently re-published here.
According to Jaffa, then, the poorly defined natural-law doctrines embodied in the Declaration are fully incorporated in the positive law of the United States Constitution. It is, therefore, to the Declaration, and its condensed natural-law holdings, that Supreme Court Justices should turn for guidance in properly interpreting the constitutionality of positive law.29

Missing from this part of Jaffa’s account, though, are two things: facts and common sense. Simply put, Jaffa’s claimed connection between these documents is offered wholly without evidence. As Lino Graglia reminds us “the Constitution makes no mention of the Declaration of Independence, and Jaffa has not produced a single statement by anyone at the constitutional convention or during the rati-fication debates indicating that it was intended to incorporate the Declaration.”30 Of great interest here is the ex-change between Justice Scalia and Jaffa. Jaffa writes that “in response to a question of the relationship of the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence— and to ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God’—Scalia responded as follows: ‘Well unfortunately, or to my mind fortunately, the Supreme Court of the United States, no federal court to my knowledge, in 220 years has ever decided a case on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. It is not part of our law.’ … [As Jaffa then explained] Scalia is simply mistaken when he says that the Declaration of Independence is ‘not part of our law.’”31 ...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jefferson and the Real Meaning of the "Wall of Separation"

Today's Americans might be surprised that government buildings were used for religious services during the construction of Washington DC, but not even Thomas Jefferson envisioned America as a secular, "naked" public square, where religion is to be kept as a private, not a public, matter. 

As we see in the punchline of historian Thomas S. Kidd's new essay, Evangelical Christians, Deists and America’s Founding, the Founding principle was not "freedom" from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things:

Did Jefferson envision a secular public sphere, as his liberal admirers might imagine today? Clues to Jefferson’s intentions came the weekend that [Baptist Rev. John] Leland delivered the mammoth cheese, a weekend, as it turns out, that was one of the most significant in America’s history with regard to church-state relations. For this was when Jefferson sent his famous “wall of separation” letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, an evangelical group of Baptists who, like Leland, admired Jefferson. In his letter, Jefferson reminded them of their common commitment to the principles enshrined in the First Amendment, which built a “wall of separation” between church and state.
The evangelical New Englanders did not interpret “wall of separation” to mean rigid secularism, and indeed, neither did Jefferson. That Sunday, Jefferson attended a church service in the House of Representatives chambers, with John Leland giving the sermon. Whatever “wall of separation” meant to Jefferson, it could include holding church services in government buildings, a practice which Jefferson routinely allowed as president. This does not mean that Jefferson was personally devout, but that Jefferson was generously appreciative of the significance of faith in American public life.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thomas Kidd: Evangelical Christians, Deists and America’s founding

Read about it here. A taste:
As I show in my book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, the relationship between John Leland and Thomas Jefferson offers a more accurate picture than does the polarized choice of either a wholly devout or wholly secular American Founding. There was real spiritual diversity among Americans in 1776; not as much as one sees today, to be sure, but there was a significant range of beliefs. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find more sharply different faiths than those of Leland and Jefferson. Leland was an evangelical preacher of incredible endurance and commitment, who traveled America’s byways telling thousands of listeners to put their faith in Jesus, the Son of God. Jefferson, by contrast, tried to keep his skepticism private, but in his retirement it became abundantly clear that Jefferson saw Jesus not as the Messiah, but only as a great moral teacher. For Jefferson, Jesus was not divine, and he did not rise from the dead. Jefferson even produced an edition of the Christian Gospels to this effect, with the miracles and resurrection of Christ literally snipped out with scissors.

THROCKMORTON: David Barton: There Are About A Dozen Colleges That Are Right

Check it out here. A taste:
What I get out Barton’s statement is that if you question Barton’s claims, then you are not right biblically, not pro-America, pro-Constitution, or right on American history. Reminds me of his claim that those who question him are just repeating our pagan training.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why We Must Sue Native Americans This Columbus Day

521 years ago, Cristóbal Colón stepped off his ship and onto the shore of San Salvador (Bahamas). This first step, which was arguably the most influential "first step" in world history (rivaled only by Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon), inaugurated a new era of European settlement and discovery in what became known as the "New World." It also sparked a debate that has, for good and for bad, continued with us for over half a millennia.

The paradox that is Christopher Columbus is one of the most polarizing and puzzling in all the annals of human history.  He is loved and hated by millions across the world who hail him as both a brave explorer and a cruel tyrant.  Speaking for myself, I have, over the years, had my own struggles when trying to reconcile Columbus with my own interpretation of what is right and wrong (you can read a couple of older posts here and here).  But regardless of how we may feel about Columbus, the truth of the matter is that none of us will ever truly be able to know or understand the man who has become synonymous with controversy.

Over the past five centuries, Christopher Columbus has been accused of a plethora of crimes ranging from theft to genocide.  Columbus' prowess as a navigator was matched only by his ineptitude as a governor.  And make no mistake; Columbus' inability to effectively lead is a catalyst for much of the controversy that surrounds his legacy today.

But there is a far deeper and uglier controversy that has gone overlooked these past five centuries. It's a controversy that has evolved to become a corporate conspiracy involving billions of dollars in revenue, at the cost of millions who have died horrible deaths.  It is a conspiracy that ushered in centuries of slavery and addiction and despite our best efforts, has no apparent end in sight.

In his journal entry of October 15, 1492, Columbus wrote:
We met a man in a canoe going from Santa Maria to Fernandina; he had with him a piece of bread whice the natives make, as big as one's fist, a calabash of water . . . and some dried leaves which are in high value among them, for a quantity of it was brought to me at San Salvador (my emphasis).
A few days later a landing party Columbus had sent ashore returned to report that the natives "drank the smoke" of those curious dried leaves. This was astonishing to the Europeans who had never seen anything like smoking before. For a long time they were puzzled and disgusted by this strange habit. But soon they, too, would be drinking smoke from those leaves, and spreading the plant and the habit of smoking it all over the known world.

Yes, it was the innocent Native Americans (whom Columbus later pillaged and subjugated to the yoke of slavery), who first introduced tobacco to the European world, inaugurating an era of chemical dependency and lung cancer.  For future generations of European settlers, it was tobacco that became the dominant cash crop that sustained these communities, many of which employed imported Black slaves to plant and care for this new found addiction.

And, as we are all aware, tobacco has remained to this day, evolving to become a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  Thanks to the Native Americans, more than 5 million Europeans die every year due to tobacco use.  Tobacco-related illnesses cost the American economy, on average, $193 billion a year ($97 billion in lost productivity plus $96 billion in health care expenditures). Yes, thanks to these first Native Americans, who clearly bamboozled an innocent and naive Christopher Columbus, we today must suffer from the physical, financial and psychological impact caused by their poisonous product!

It is for this reason that I call for an unprecedented class action lawsuit against all Native American people.  If they would have only kept those dried leaves to themselves instead of sharing them with our guiltless ancestors, we today would not have to suffer from the bondage that is tobacco addiction! Clearly the fault rests with them and compensation for this atrocity is more than overdue.

Let's Keep It Real Now

Ok, hopefully my tongue-in-cheek commentary won't be taken literally by too many people.  I'm not advocating that we sue Native Americans, nor do I blame them for the millions of cases of tobacco addiction that have plagued humanity over the centuries.  But I do hope that this ridiculous argument will help to highlight some of the nuances of the history of "first contact" between Columbus and the native people of the "New World."

It is both easy and convenient for us to place all of the blame for the atrocities committed against Native Americans at the feet of Christopher Columbus.  After all, he's a PERFECT scapegoat. Like any significant figure from history, Christopher Columbus was a complicated character.  He exudes characteristics that are both admirable and appalling.  As stated earlier, Columbus' prowess as a navigator is only matched by his ineptitude as a governor.  He is both fire and ice; saint and sinner; hero and villain.  The hero who "discovered" a new world and ushered in an era of exploration and colonization was eventually destined to die as a poor and destitute scoundrel whose legacy was never fully understood by his contemporaries or by subsequent generations of scholars who both revere and rebuke his accomplishments.  
Much of the problem with understanding Columbus' true nature and legacy has to do with the historical sin of "presentism."  To project modern day standards of morality and conduct onto those of the past is akin to contaminating a crime scene.  Our desire to play Monday Morning Quarterback with Columbus' legacy actually does more to distort true history than anything.  In the same way that each individual is to blame for his/her own tobacco addiction, we must judge Columbus by the standards of his time and according to the world as he saw it.

Columbus was a religious fanatic.  He believed that the end times were just around the corner and that it was his job (and the job of all other good Christians) to vehemently defend the Kingdom of God.  His quest for a new route to the "Indies," which he effectively sold to Queen Isabella, was also motivated by his desire to finance a new crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims (who had just been kicked out of Spain a year earlier).  Columbus was also a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The pious Spanish crown was eager to take advantage of his zeal, and a newly-invented Gutenberg press was more than ready to spread his story far and wide.

Columbus represents the end of Medieval thinking rather than the dawn of early Enlightenment thinking.  His mystical world must be understood through the lens of his quest to do God's will more than anything else.  And make no mistake, Columbus believed he was on a mission from God.  As he stated in a letter to Queen Isabella:
With a hand that could be felt...the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses...Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Scriptures.
During his 3rd and 4th voyages, Columbus composed his "Book of Prophesies" which he believed proved his role as "Christ-bearer."  Many historians dismiss these writings as proof of Columbus' insanity but such a dismissal is irresponsible.  These writings help us to better understand the man v. the cultural myth. As Historian De Mar Jensen points out:
The Book of Prophecies was not the ranting of a sick mind. It was the work of a religious man who was not afraid to put his ideas into action and his own life into jeopardy. Columbus knew the scriptures as well as he knew the sea, and he saw a connection between the two. The central theme of his book was that God had sketched in the Bible His plan for the salvation of all mankind and that he, Columbus, was playing a role assigned to him in that plan.
In the book’s first section, Columbus presents a collection of sixty-five psalms that deal with his two major themes: the salvation of the world and the rebuilding of Zion. He calls special attention to several verses in the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah that speak of the Gentiles as a people chosen to inherit the Holy Temple, their conversion in the last days, and the gathering to Zion. The inheritance of the Gentiles is further cited from St. Augustine, whose quoting of Ps. 22:27 is paraphrased by Columbus as “All the ends of the earth and all the islands shall be converted to the Lord.” After quoting Matt. 24:14, Columbus comments that the gospel has been preached to three parts of the earth (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and now must be preached to the fourth part. The second section of the Book of Prophecies concerns prophecies already fulfilled. The theme is the ancient greatness of Jerusalem and its subsequent fall.
In the next section, Columbus deals with prophecies of the present and near future, emphasizing the theme of salvation for all nations. Isaiah is cited frequently. Columbus then furnishes several texts from the New Testament: Matthew 2:1–2; 8:11 [Matt. 2:1–2; Matt. 8:11]; Luke 1:48; and notably John 10:16, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
The final section of the book deals with prophecies of the last days, which Columbus introduces by calling attention to Jeremiah 25 [Jer. 25], where the prophet predicts the restoration of Jerusalem prior to the Final Judgment. Finally, he quotes twenty-six scriptures that refer to the islands of the sea and their part in the last days.
With this construct in mind, I believe we can better understand why Columbus was the way he was and why both his successes and failures carried with them so much weight.  Whenever you invoke the name of God and hold yourself up as one of His chosen servants, you carry with it serious and long-lasting repercussions.  It also help us to see that painting Columbus with wide (and modern day) brush strokes is about as idiotic as blaming Native Americans for tobacco addiction.  

I for one am grateful for the legacy and contributions of Cristóbal Colón, for they remind us that the line between success and failure, hero and villain is thinner than we think.  Columbus Day serves to remind me that judgement really is in the eye of the beholder.  It is easy (and perhaps in some instances appropriate) to cast stones at Columbus for his mistakes, but in the end, it was he who had the foresight to cross a frontier that all others saw as too daunting.  Such is the case with heroes.  Heroes receive all the praise and acclaim when they make the last second shot, but also reap all the blame when they miss; a reality that Columbus understood all too well.

The legacy of Christopher Columbus will probably always be shrouded in controversy and mystery. In no way is my humble little blog post going to fix that.  But I do hope it helps to illustrate that the true history of Columbus is found in the nuances of history as opposed to the grandiose claims of heroism and villainy.  To throw out blanket claims of genocide, racism and brutality is akin to blaming Native Americans for all tobacco addiction.  It's our luxury to analyze the man with 500+ years of history at our disposal, but in the end, it was Columbus who had the vision to venture out into the undiscovered country. As Columbus himself stated:
You cannot discover a new world unless you first have the courage to lose sight of the shore.