Thursday, July 24, 2008

Founding Faith

Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
Steven Waldman
Random House
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6437-3

Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation or did the founders intend to erect a strict barrier between church and state? Steven Waldman explores this question by examining the lives, work and writings of five of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Not surprisingly, Waldman discovers that the founding fathers disagreed with each other on the subject.

The chapters on Madison are the most enlightening. Madison was deeply involved in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, was the author of much of the Federalist Papers and, again was one of the authors of the bill of rights, including the first amendment and it's prohibition of the establishment of religion by Congress. His own view was that state support of religion weakened the church. Making the church lazy and dependent and making the people contemptuous of it. Madison felt that separating church and state made both stronger.

Madison built an alliance between enlightenment intellectuals and evangelical Christians to gain votes to ratify the Constitution in Virginia. He promised those evangelicals a bill of rights which wold guarantee them freedom to worship as they pleased, in order to get their votes. It's almost as if James Dobson and Diane Rhem were to join in common cause to guarantee their Constitutional rights.

Evangelicals, at that time were worried that state support would go the the Episcopal Church and/or the Congregational Church, the two dominant denominations at the time. Such support did exist in most of the colonies and many of the new states. In Virginia, until the passage of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, the Church of England was supported by taxes, and until 1833 the Congregational Church was state supported in Massachusetts. It was not until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868 that the provisions of the Bill of Rights applied to the states and not just the national government, thus making state support unconstitutional.

All of the founders studied in Waldman's book used conventional, nondenominational Christian language in letters and, four of them, officially as President of the United States. All of them had evolving sets of religious beliefs, none of which were particularly conventional. Jefferson and Adams became more and more Unitarian in their outlook. In fact the Congregational Church which Adams belonged to all his life, became officially Unitarian during his lifetime. Washington was a conventional Episcopalian in outward appearance but didn't attend very often. He believed that religion was needed in order to promote god behavior in the citizenry and appeared to be more concerned with outward appearance than inward salvation. Franklin postulated a supreme creator who delegated each solar system to an attentive subordinate gods. Franklin would fit right in in California. Madison mostly kept quiet about his personal faith but was comfortable with Baptists, Unitarians and Jews as well as the Episcopalians and Congregationalists who dominated the scene at the time. He wanted them all to be independent and self supporting. He even got along with the Catholics, who were almost universally hated in eighteenth century America.

The term "Wall of separation between church and state" was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a Baptist coalition in Connecticut, who wanted Jefferson's help in ending the state funding of Congregationalism there. The letter was meant to reassure them of Jefferson's support for their cause. How deliciously ironic that the descendants of those Baptists now deny the existence of such a wall.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

HaltinG StatE

Charles Stross
Ace Books
ISBN: 978-0-441-01498-9

The latest in my light summer reading series is a cyberpunk novel. You will note the cool, trendy, inappropriate capitalization in the title. It has a blurb from William Gibson on the cover. William Gibson is the Pete Seeger of cyberpunk. All the cyberpunks go to him for his blessing, just like the folkies get their records blessed by Pete.

Halting State is a near-future novel. One in which, not surprisingly, the internet has penetrated every facet of people's lives. It starts with a virtual reality bank robbery committed by a bunch of orcs and a dragon. The poor non-gaming cop, in Edinburgh, Scotland of all places, who takes the call, is nonplussed, even though she wears he interfacing glasses and operates in "cop space" all the time. Everyone wears these glasses that give them access to GPS, their address book, email, virual reality games, etc. through their web 3.whatever mobile phones. Cops have their own channel which gives personal information, including rap sheets, of everyone everywhere.

There is a bit of fantasy roll playing, some techophiliac nerdlings, a bit of international intrigue, some cyber crime, quite a lot of action and violence, a touch of love, a bit of implied sex, tastefully handled in a 1940 Hollywood sort of way, something for everyone. I particularly liked the way people were slightly disoriented when the net went down and they didn't have their GPS stream telling them were they were. Just think 20 years ago people could find the bus stop on their own.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Another Thing To Fall

Laura Lippman
ISBN: 978-0-06-112887-5

Laura Lippman lives in, and writes about, Baltimore, Maryland, just across the Bay from me. I don't often get over there but there is a kind of appeal to reading a novel with a setting that is sort of familiar. Another Thing To Fall is the latest in her Tess Monaghan series of crime novels. Tess Monaghan may be the only fictional female private detective who rows a racing shell as a hobby. She is also a fictional graduate of Washington College, which is within walking distance from my house.

Another Thing To Fall
is not so much a whodunnit as a "What the heck are they doing?" story. There are several people who commit crimes ranging from vandalism to faking a kidnapping to, of course, murder. They all revolve around the filming of a silly sounding TV seriec called Mann of Steel. It's fairly clear, even before the crime is committed, who the perp is going to be, but hard to figure out why. The motives ov the various characters are revealed in the end and the book moves forward on a series of revelations about each of them.

Lippman uses the filming of a television show as the setting for her story. Baltimore has become known as the setting of gritty cop shows with The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Steets having long runs on the air. There is a new medical docudrama coming out called Hopkins, too. Baltimore really is a film industry town.

In the fictional show, Mann of Steel, the male lead is transported to the early 19th century by receiving a head injury and somehow is able to bring the female lead back to the 21st century with him. One of the themes of the novel is the difference between homage to earlier writing and theft of intellectual property, yet Lippman does not acknowledge the previous, and best known, example of time travel by head injury in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. This may be an oversight, or a very subtle irony, I'm not sure which.