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Thursday, April 19th, 2007

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7:57a
A really good book ...
Every now and again I run across a book which is a perfect fit for a "need" I've had, and Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers is one of these. Over the years I have had some knock-down-drag-out on-line arguments with assorted Xtian fundamentalists who have been trying to "sell" the notion that the U.S.A. is a "Christian Nation" ... to which my response has been that they are either blatant liars, knowing that this is not the case, yet promoting the falsehood willingly, or absolute morons that have no idea of the history/personalities involved! It would appear that Ms. Allen has had some similar run-ins with the Fundies in her past, as this book is clearly intended to shed some light on the subject.

Now, it obviously is true that many of the initial English groups making the journey over to settle in The New World were various sorts of religious fanatics (my own ancestors on the Mayflower being possible examples), who were simply looking for a place where they could practice their particular brand of lunacy, unfettered by the official "loyalty tests" (for one favored sect or another) present in nearly all countries in The Old World. However, these initial settlements have more in common with the Guyana suicide-cult of Jonestown than they do with the founding of the United States.

The concept of America, and its governance, came from minds deeply steeped in the Enlightenment, Deists, Masons, Unitarians, and the like. Yes, there were partisans of various sects (most of the Protestant churches were mutually quite hostile, and constantly jostling for governmental influence) involved in the Revolution and represented among the leadership of the new nation, but these were, by and large, not the main players. Moral Minority takes a look at six of "the leading lights", Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, along with some key supporting documents (as well as fascinating references to source materials). Lest the theocracy fans say "well, maybe those six were an aberration" (despite including our first four Presidents), the author only peripherally touches on the extreme "anti-Christians" involved in the Revolution and the Founding, men like Thomas Paine, Ethan Allan, and assorted followers of the atheistic Hume, the barely deistic Voltaire (a close friend of both Franklin and Jefferson) and the other intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Unfortunately, the Fundamentalists these days have the woeful state of American education as an ally. Just as Carl Sagan was lamenting the lack of scientific literacy in the previous book reviewed here (also leading to some of the bi-polar newage/fundy idiocy in our culture), a sub-text to Allen's book could be the near total lack of historical literacy in the USA. I doubt that two of ten people stopped on the street would be able to give a "thumbnail" description of the Enlightenment, let alone naming its major figures. Is it any wonder that the Xtian theocrats are able to blatantly claim that English common law has a Christian basis, when it dates back at least to Queen Martia (and the book of "Martian Law" ... no relation to Valentine Michael Smith's dictates, I'm sure) in the mid-4th Century B.C.E.? Needless to say, I wish that this book could become a "social studies" classroom standard!

As much as I like Moral Minority, I do have some caveats. The first is that, when finished, I felt like I wished the book had been half again as long, and covering much more of the "source material" which inspired the Founders. Yes, this is well referenced in the notes (and I have sought out a number of these texts), and it would have, perhaps, watered down the impact of the book as being about these six men, but I still felt like I "wanted more". The second caveat is that I believe that the author does herself a disservice (in a book that could well be a resource for decades of readers) in taking little pot-shots at George Bush (5 or 6 times) and Ronald Reagan (at least once). In most cases, these aren't even part of substantive arguments (for which the "Christian" bent of the current conservative movement could certainly provide valid talking points), but casually dropped barbs. Even today, these give the text a "dated" feel, and I really wish her editor had excised those before allowing the book to go to press!

That being said, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Moral Minority, either as ammunition in the fight against religious fundamentalism, or to open one's eyes to the deeply secular intent of our Founding Fathers! As this is a new book, you can no doubt find it at your local bookstore, but Amazon has the hardcover at nearly ten bucks off of cover price, and you can get the softcover edition directly from the publisher for about what you'd be paying for a used copy via the Amazon Marketplace. This is definitely one that everybody should read!


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