As one of the taxpayers who contributes to the Smithsonian Institution’s nearly $900 million annual budget, I finally got around to visiting its new exhibit on “Religion in Early America.” I had no idea how appalling it would be.
At the time of America’s founding, organized religion was in a tailspin. The best estimates are that church affiliation among the colonists was well under 30 percent (not even counting the slaves, who were generally forbidden to congregate in church or anywhere else). North Carolina had the greatest proportion of “nones,” as they’re sometimes called today. William Byrd of Virginia declared in 1740 that North Carolinians had “the least Superstition of any People living. They do not know Sunday from any other day.” Samuel Mather estimated church attendance in Boston at about one person in six. Ben Franklin sold a zillion copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack with sayings like, “Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful” and “Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service and therefore is more generally chosen.” Vermont’s Ethan Allen rallied his Green Mountain Boys to the astonishing capture of Fort Ticonderoga in the opening days of the Revolutionary War in part through the strident anti-clericalism he expressed in his book Reason: The Only Oracle of Man.
Some of this irreligion had to do with the close association between the established church and the increasingly despised British monarchy. Some of it reflected the stunning decline in Enlightenment Europe’s religiosity that helped bring about the French Revolution. Regardless of its cause, it was massive, and you can’t talk about “Religion in Early America” without dealing with it.
Unless, that is, you’re the Smithsonian Institution, where facts don’t matter and your mission is to reinforce the politically correct.
When you first walk in to the new exhibit, you’re confronted with a bar chart showing how many Americans at the time of independence were Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, what have you. How many of us had no religion, according to the chart? None. We didn’t exist. Or if we did exist, we weren’t really American, and didn’t deserve to clutter up a bar chart.
As you wander through the exhibit, you’ll notice an immense Torah scroll, an artifact of New York’s early Jewish community, next to another section picturing an early American Muslim. How significant were these populations? Well, at the time of American independence, there were about a thousand Jews in America—well under a tenth of a percent. The book that accompanies the exhibit explains that it’s important to show the tiny roots of populations that are more significant now. So how about the nonreligious? A quarter of today’s population? What do they show about our roots? Again, the answer is easy: nothing.
I had heard that the exhibit included the original Jefferson Bible (officially called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth), an anti-religious book if there ever was one. And it did—but with a caption that would have Jefferson rolling in his grave, if that were possible, by calling the work Jefferson’s “rational approach to faith,” à la Thomas Aquinas or Maimonides. Jefferson had no rational approach to faith because he had no faith. He categorically disbelieved in the divinity of Jesus and expressed his admiration solely for the words of someone he called an entirely human philosopher and teacher. The most interesting fact about Jefferson’s Bible is that even though he produced its first edition while serving in the White House, he felt the need to keep it hidden from view because of the viciousness of the God industry—facts you won’t learn from either the exhibit or the accompanying book.
Tucked between the Torah and the Jefferson Bible is a first edition of the Book of Mormon, with an extraordinarily sanitized summary of early Mormonism noting simply that it was “in frequent conflict with the federal government.” Is “in frequent conflict” what they would say about the Mafia, or the Klan, or any other organization that practiced financial fraud, brutal debasement of women, violent destruction of free speech, unflinchingly explicit racism, and an armed attempt to steal vast chunks of territory previously purchased by the government?
The book they don’t display or ever mention in the accompanying volume is the one I consider to be the most important work on religion ever written by an American, or by anyone else for that matter: The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine. If you’ve never read this book, do yourself a favor and start it today. Be prepared, though, for the fact that it’s not an atheist book. “I believe in one God, and no more,” Paine starts off saying. What he disbelieves is every con artist trying to make a buck off selling “truth” about the supernatural. If you want to know about God, he says, just open your eyes:
It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.
You can draw a straight line from that eloquent passage through Universalism, Ethical Culture, and the 1930s “religion of humanism” to today’s notion of “Good without a God” that informs the moral lives of tens of millions of Americans—far more than all the nation’s Muslims, Mormons, and Jews combined. Unless you’re in the Smithsonian, where we don’t exist.