Humanism is as American as Apple Pie


by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University
of Idaho">(


Liberalism and the Founding Fathers


Humanism, one of the greatest achievements of western civilization, has
become a dirty word. Humanism, one of the essential aspects of our American
heritage, has become an un-American word. Something is terribly wrong when a
good term like this is abused by people who ought to know better.


It used to be that all of America’s ills were blamed on a
communist" conspiracy, but now this has been
replaced by a "humanist"
conspiracy. Humanists are being targeted as the source of every
evil," from homosexuality to one-world
government. The fact that the American Communist Party had become fossilized
and a laughingstock did not deter earlier conspiracy theorists. And now to
propose that the 3000member American Humanist
Association has a stranglehold on our minds is an insult to all intelligent


Communism, by and large, deserves the bad press
that it receives. One can understand how Communism has become a dirty word.
Many lives and much freedom have been lost in the name of Communism, just as
formerly many were lost in the name of Christianity. But as far as I know, no
one has ever been killed in the name of humanism.


This attack is truly incredible if one considers
that the humanism of Socrates has become the basis for our ethical
individualism; the humanism of the Greek Sophists gave law its adversarial
system and inspired Renaissance humanists to extend education to the masses as
well as to the aristocracy; the Christian humanism of Aquinas and Erasmus
helped temper negative views of human nature found in the biblical tradition;
and the humanism of the Enlightenment gave us political rights, representative
government, and free market economics. It has been said that
"the pluralistic, democratic, secular, humanistic
state…is one of the greatest political inventions of all time
. . . "


Why has this innocent name been blackened? Why has the humanist become
the new Satan and antiChrist? The Religious Right
must certainly take most of the blame, even, regrettably so, some of the best
evangelical theologians. John Jefferson Davis, who otherwise makes some
positive contributions to systematic theology, claims that an
"ntirevelational" humanism
is the cause of mental illness, international terrorism, and other evils.


Some of the blame also lies with narrowminded
humanists who have insisted that only their views are
humanism. When some humanists say that only those who reject a belief in God
and put their trust squarely in the scientific method are real humanists, they
are distorting the meaning of humanism. When someone like B. F. Skinner, one
of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto, claims that human beings have no
freedom nor dignity, this is also a significant deviation from traditional


The late
Jerry Falwell charges that humanism "challenges
every principle on which America was founded. It advocates abortionondemand,
recognition of homosexuals, free use of pornography, legalizing of
prostitution and gambling, the free use of drugs… and the socialization of
all humanity into a world commune." 
Needless to say, traditional humanism is not bound at all to any of these
positions. Many of the humanists in the Libertarian Party would agree with
most of this list, but as laissez-faire capitalists, they would definitely
reject the world commune idea. There are also many Christian humanists who
would disagree with most of these points. I shall also demonstrate that,
contrary to Falwell’s claims, America was founded on humanist principles.


The development of modern humanism went hand-in-hand with the rise of
what I call Aclassical
liberalism.@ Our word
comes from the Latin adjective liberalis, which means
Apertaining to a free
person.@ In feudal
times a free person had to be born from noble stock, so that the liberi
were then contrasted with the servi, the feudal serfs. Classical
liberals challenged this distinction and declared that all human beings,
whatever their social status, were from the same universal, noble stock.


Classical liberals viewed individuals as
self-legislative beings, moral agents who, by the use of reason and
experience, decided for themselves how their lives were to be fashioned and
led. Classical liberals challenged the authority of governments and churches
to interfere unnecessarily in individual lives. These first liberals were
responsible for the basic freedoms that many people now enjoyreligious,
intellectual, economic, and political.


Our Founding Fathers were definitely part of this
liberal, humanist tradition. Norman Cousins even suggests that Enlightenment
philosophers like John Locke and David Hume were the "invisible
Founding Fathers." All of them retained a belief in
God, but Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Paine, and Franklin rejected major
Christian doctrines, including original sin, the deity of Christ, the Trinity,


The famous Jefferson-Adams correspondence is filled with references to
their common reading in the Greeks and the humanistic philosophers of the
Enlightenment. It is also replete with criticisms of orthodox Christianity,
especially Calvinism. In one letter Jefferson said that "it
would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme Him by
the atrocious attributes of Calvin."


Other early Americans like John Jay, Patrick
Henry, and Samuel Adams had much more conservative views about Christianity,
but they too agreed to put personal religious views aside and to establish a
secular state free from all religious doctrine. The most striking proof of our
Founding Fathers’ belief in a secular state was the Treaty of Tripoli, whose
eleventh article begins: "As the government of the
United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…."
President Washington negotiated this treaty, the Senate ratified it without
any recorded debate, and President Adams signed it.


I was surprised to find that Jerry Falwell appears to agree with this
position. In an interview in Christianity Today (September, 1981) he
stated that "America is not a Christian nation, it
has never been a Christian nation, and it is never going to be a Christian
nation." Then, with very few intervening words, he
manages to Christianize America as a nation "under
God" which has survived by following divine
principles. Falwell completes the full circle of a logical contradiction by
concluding that "God has raised up America in these
last days for the cause of world evangelism and for the protection of his
people, the Jews. I don’t think America has any other right or reason for
existence other than those two purposes."


One would look in vain in the documents of our Founding Fathers for
such a parochial reason for America to exist. America exists not for the
protection of the Jewish state or the evangelizing of the world. America does
not exist as a mere means for any specialized interests, religious or secular.
The humanist ideal for America is that America exists as an end itself: to
allow for the greatest fulfillment of human freedom and dignity.


We have seen that traditional humanists believe
that human beings have intrinsic value and are autonomous centers of value
with free-will and moral responsibility. They hold that all persons have
inalienable rights, including free expression and inquiry. They also use
reason, not divine revelation, as the guide for moral action and education;
but this does not mean that humanism is anti-Christian or antireligion
in general.

The fundamental principles of humanism turn
out to be the principles of our state, not of any particular church. To ban the
teaching of humanism in pubic schools would be to effectively ban the teaching
of basic American values. The political philosophy taught in civics classes
would also have to be rejected as "humanistic religion."
The idea of free market capitalism is yet
another contribution of classical liberalism and humanism. It too would have to
be banned from our schools.  Reductio ad absurdum!


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