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Turning the tables on Gingrich

Protzmann is a sophomore philosophy major and can be contacted at kevin.protzmann@drake.edu

During the most recent Republican Presidential debate, a question was posed on the matter of religious faith and its relation to holding the highest political office in this country.  When former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was given time to speak on the issue, one of his comments was “how can you have judgment if you don’t have faith, and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”

Sorry to burst your bubble, Gingrich, but political leadership without theism is what founded this country.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote in a letter to Peter Carr: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”

Jefferson was a consummate deist and opposed notions of prayer and fearful veneration of a cosmic sky wizard. Benjamin Franklin, too, wrote in the “Poor Richard’s Almanac” that “the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason: The Morning Daylight appears plainer when you put out your Candle.”

As the greatest minds of their time responsible for founding our republic, these men did not stand by and let faith soil the gift of reason. Despite this, people like Gingrich insist on using faith as if it were the only legitimate method to govern a society. The Founding Fathers did not want to raise a nation of sheep but a nation of free individuals who used their natural gift of reason to the best of their abilities.

Not only does such theistic talk disregard our history, but it advocates the stance that atheists, agnostics and non-religious people should be barred from holding political office; it is a direct violation of Article VI of the United States Constitution: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

For all its talk of protecting the Constitution, the right wing’s appeal to the religious population has grown out of hand.

There is a deeper challenge that Gingrich makes, however, and that is the notion that we somehow need faith and prayer to be a successful species. This is a notion that ignores reality. The world we live in today is not the product of a deity intervening to help us because we telepathically begged for help. The world is a product of the blood, sweat and tears of countless generations of human beings who have devoted themselves to building a better world through their own hands. When you see a skyscraper, an artistic masterpiece, a great monument, a paved road or a smile on someone’s face, you are not looking at the work of a god but the work of humanity. All happiness and suffering, all progress and failure, are products of our own doing.

When you ask how we can trust the judgment of someone without faith, you are asking if being resolved to act in the here and now is more beneficial than simply waiting for a god to save you. Knowing that all joy and sorrow and all contentment and poverty are products of human action does more to motivate one to act morally toward others than attributing such things to divine sources. The capacity for empathy, compassion and reason in our judgments is at its peak when we are fully aware of our true position in the universe and the power of good and evil that we, as mere human beings, have over each other. Good in this world will never happen of its own accord, but only when humanity, and humanity alone, sets out to create it.

Perhaps if our politicians did not believe in an afterlife, they would be more cautious about sending American soldiers to die in foreign lands. Maybe if our leaders did not believe that earth will be transformed into a paradise because a 2,000-year-old Hebrew came back to life, they might consider doing more to bring about paradise with their own actions. If you doubt the ability of those without faith, I would contend that it is those with the strongest faith that should be doubted. There is a reason why the greatest progress of human civilization has coincided with the decline in such types of faith. Appealing to dying modes of thought will only keep humanity anchored in the past, and it is highly irresponsible for political leaders in the 21st century to be the loudest individuals making those appeals.

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9 Comments

  1. jo blo October 27, 2011

    Why on earth should the pontifications of a snot-nose kid who hasn’t finished college be taken seriously over those of a man who’s actually done something in life? And yet, this crap article came up towards the top of the results on Google for ‘Newt Gingrich’ news. The state of the nation…

    Ya know, anyone can cherry pick quotes to suit an agenda. It would actually require some work and smarts to study the origins of the ideas of men like Jefferson. If indeed Jefferson was as hostile to religion some claim (and indeed as some of his own writings indicate), he was ignoring the rich spiritual tradition whence many of his ideas sprang.

    And as for your comment that the greatest progress of human civlization blah blah blah…

    I suppose that the mass murder of the 20th century, perpetrated by people who had turned their back on ‘such types of faith’ are signs of this great progress.

    1. Josh October 28, 2011

      “And yet, this crap article came up towards the top of the results on Google for ‘Newt Gingrich’ news.”

      So you Google for Newt Gingrich news on what? A daily basis? Damn… The state of this nation…

      Furthermore, I have no idea what you define as “top” results on Google news, but it’s certainly not on the first page, nor the second. So not only do you apparently search for news on dear Newt on a daily basis, you comb through pages of results. How much time do you have on your hands, man???

      “I suppose that the mass murder of the 20th century, perpetrated by people who had turned their back on ’such types of faith’ are signs of this great progress.”

      Really? Is this *really* a road you want to go down? Do we *really* need to count up how many people have died as a result of religious fanaticism?

  2. Drew October 28, 2011

    Jefferson took many of his cues from thinkers of the Enlightenment Movement, a movement that sought knowledge from reason and evidence instead of superstition. The Enlightenment was a rejection of Christianity as it had operated in the past. Many of the founding fathers were similar to Jefferson in their appreciation of Enlightenment thought. Also “jo”, I do hope you realize you are on the website of a college newspaper. Maybe you haven’t encountered one of these so-called “colleges” or even a university, but they are filled with students who spend their time grappling with issues such as this. So, if Mr. Protzmann wants to write an opinion in the student newspaper, he has every right to expect the paper and its readers to take his thoughts into serious consideration.

  3. Robb Lindsey October 28, 2011

    Mr. Blo,

    It is a shame that you make your ridiculous condemnations without the simple courage of attaching your name to such infantile criticism. Of course, a person’s right to anonymity must be protected, but I see it as only common courtesy to allow accountability for your words.

    Firstly, let’s address your modus operandi. You open with three ad hominem attacks – insinuating (in order of presentation) that Kevin is too young to write an article for the university in which he studies, that nobody ought to be taken seriously (let alone have an opinion) until he or she graduates college, and that Kevin has done nothing of note in his life thus far. For the first, bullshit. For the second, on what grounds? Kevin can vote and serve in the military. Any person legally allowed to do those things has a right to speak as he wishes. For the third, produce a bit of evidence showing this to be true. You obviously do not know Kevin.

    Your second paragraph, thankfully, is more pertinent to the article and its claims. But it is equally ignorant. Kevin makes no mention of “the rich spiritual tradition whence many of his ideas sprang” because it is obligatory. Religion was, of course, the impetus and the result of man’s attempts to explain the world before him. The answers it supplied (and continue to supply today) have been overtaken as we continue to expand the results and knowledge of the very reasoning capabilities you damn. As for Jefferson “ignoring” these early contributions you could not be further from the truth. Ever read the Jefferson Bible? It is not the work of a man ignorant of spiritual tradition. He simply acknowledges that we’ve moved beyond the satisfaction given by claims without evidence. We are, as a secular people, evolved beyond it.

    Of your stunning intellectual observation that the ills of the 20th c. were “perpetrated by people who had turned their back on ’such types of faith,’” again, your lack of historical study shows. The National Socialist party was backed by the Roman Catholic church until 1945, until external condemnation rendered this unduly. On Hitler’s birthday, every year, from the pulpit of every Catholic church in Europe (as mandated by the vatican) a prayer was said for the good health of the old bastard. On the belt-buckle of every Nazi soldier read “God on our side.” In Russia, Stalin is now a Saint of the Russian Orthodox church. In Japan, Hirohito was god on earth. I hope you aren’t too ignorant to realize that no church would ever advocate men “who had turned their back on faith.”

    I apologize for the long comment (actually… what am I saying? No, I don’t.) but I simply will not stand by as people such as yourself attack an individual for expressing his right to free speech, produce ZERO evidence in support of your claims, and – in general – disgust me.

    God bless,
    Robb

  4. jo blo October 28, 2011

    Wow, Drew, you blew me out of the water. Your deep analysis and exposition of the background of the Enlightenment has just left me dumbstruck. I’m curious; since you’re such an expert on the Founders, would you enlighten me on the role of Thomas Hooker, John Fortescue, Cicero, Aristotle, various Presbyterians et al. in shaping the thoughts of the revolutionaries? And you’ve veered from this ‘writer’s’ point; he didn’t characterize the Founders as having embraced a philosophy that rejected Christianity, in your words ‘as it had operated in the past’, but as having rejected faith entirely with regards to their formulation of our government. That flies in the face of the opening of the DOI. (Have you read that, by the way?).

    As far as your smart comment about me being near a college; I’m just a few years older than this brat writer (I don’t know about you, and I’m not stupid enough to assume anything about you as you did me), and I’m wrapping up a degree in mathematics. In other words, I’ve studied something useful. I took a number of philosophy classes; aside from logic (Classical, Metatheory and nonclassical), they were a waste of time.

    The struggle that this writer and other students have with these issues stems from lazy reasoning, a incomplete (willing or unwilling) acknowledgement of facts and an unwillingness to accept reality: all characteristic of (a) our failed education system and (b) of our current, corrupt and weakened culture. This article, and your comments, are perfect examples of this.

  5. Benjamin Levine October 28, 2011

    Although I agree that a leader does not need to be religious in order to be successful, I think it helps greatly. The real problem I have with this piece is the condescending remarks about Christianity at the end. It was unnecessary and ruined the little credibility you had before it.

  6. Kevin Protzmann October 28, 2011

    Jo Blo,

    If you wish to engage in a civil discourse befitting the democracy that we live in, I would suggest that you avoid ad hominem arguments in favor of taking the time to seriously consider the points of contention being proposed. If you cannot do this, then we are wasting our time. I would be willing to consider any points that you propose, but this cannot happen until you take the time to address them in a serious manner.

    For example, your first point that I am a “snot-nosed kid” does little to further your case that my arguments are unsound. All this does is establish that you cannot take opposing viewpoints seriously. Telling me that Newt Gingrich has accomplished more in his life than I have only reminds us of the fact that he has lived a significantly longer period of time than I have.

    On the matter of “cherry-picking” quotes to suit an agenda, I must profess that I do not understand how this invalidates what Speaker Gingrich said. He made these confessions on stage with the other GOP candidates, in front of an audience of thousands, in front of cameras broadcasting his words to millions. He made these claims in the presence of the American people with full intent to have them hear him. I was not cherry picking a random or obscure quote he made decades ago to a fringe religious group. He made these declarations in front of the world, and I am holding him accountable for them.

    You also make the claim that Jefferson was making claims grounded in an intellectual tradition that favored faith and spirituality. Let us begin by first sorting out the issue of the Enlightenment. This is a matter of history, and history is one the side that the most influential of the founding fathers were secular. The intellectual tradition that they built upon was established by individuals such as John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), and Denis Diderot. If you read their works, as I have, you will find that they make many references to “natural religion,” or “nature’s God,” or “natural reason.” It is historical fact that these individuals were secular deists. They did not believe in faith as the source of human knowledge, but reason. They may have believed in “god,” but it was not the deity of Christianity they revered. They worshiped Nature’s god that is gleaned through the inquisition of the natural world and the use of human reason, as opposed to faith or revelation that is the basis of Christianity.

    The founding fathers did not find their inspiration in the religious movements of the early 18th century. The First Great Awakening may have had a significant impact on the lives of many early colonials who became Americans in the wake of the Revolution, but the leaders of the Revolution were grounded in Enlightenment thought from Great Britain and the Continental Europe. This is historical fact. Thomas Hooker did not influence people like Jefferson or Franklin. If the John Fortescue you are referring to is the 15th century English jurist, I do not see how his works have any impact on 18th century Enlightenment.

    If you knew anything about the history of philosophy, you would know that the modern period that grew into the Enlightenment began with Rene Descartes in the 17th century. All of the philosophy that followed grew as a rejection of the ancient philosophies of people such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, et cetera. Their writings had been dogma for centuries, influencing medieval thinkers such as Saint Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Descartes, however, began the philosophical revolution that rejected their writings as something that people believed as a matter of orthodoxy rather than careful intellectual scrutiny. Thus, his own skepticism was a bellwether of an intellectual paradigm shift away from established orthodoxy to the standard of conceiving truths with reason and skepticism. The religious institutions, however, held to much of the older traditions. You can still hear members of the Catholic clergy quoting Aquinas. Thus, quoting the ancient philosophers as having direct influence on the thought of Enlightenment and Revolutionary leaders is simply untrue. Rather, their influence was indirect through the rejection of their thought.

    On the matter of accusing secular humanism of perpetrating the worst crimes in human history, let me first enlighten you on a wonderful quote from Adolph Hitler: “In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.” Hitler was not a secular humanist. He justified his actions through National Socialism, an ill-defined pseudo religion that warped various elements of nationalism, despotism, and religion. Nazi Germany was not run by secular humanists, so you cannot accuse secular humanism of perpetrating these horrors.

    Individuals such as Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Il, or Pol Pot may not have believed in any God, but they did not carry out their evils BECAUSE they were atheist. They carried out their actions because they were dictators and despots justifying their actions by wrapping them with various Communist ideologies. The states they ruled over existed as quasi-theocracies with the leaders of the Party as the new demigods. They were not atheist societies for the very fact that atheism is opposed to forcing doctrine down the throats of the masses. Reaching atheism is not a matter of being raised in an atheist household, forced to attend atheist functions as a child, prostrating before scientists as they preach from a pulpit, or conforming to the social pressure of being atheist. That’s religion’s job.

    For the record, I am a history major. The Times-Delphic has yet to update my switch from Philosophy. Therefore, your ad hominem attacks based on what you believe to be my course of study are groundless, unless you believe that history is a useless subject as well. Trying to establish intellectual superiority on the basis of one’s course of study is a simplistic and ineffective method of sorting through the uniqueness of each individual.

    Struggling with the deeper issues of reality is a mode of thought that has shaped the predominate intellectual traditions for the last four centuries. It is you, Jo Blo, that has shown lazy reasoning and an incomplete understanding of human history. It is you that cannot accept reality.

  7. John Carpenter October 29, 2011

    Mr. Protzman, with all due respect you have a truncated and prevalent misconception about the concept of the seperation of church and state. The intention of this article was to insure that the state could not enforce ANY specific religious viewpoint on the public. Nothing more. NONE of the founding fathers, nor anything in the constitution or Articles of Confederation, prohibit the president or anyone from articulating his political beliefs.

    Furthermore, you compound your lack of understanding by insinuating that the quote you employ from Thomas Jefferson supports your belief that Jefferson found religious values toxic to governance and society.

    I would hazard a guess that you are unfamilar with Jefferson’s final paragraph in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802:

    “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

    Th Jefferson

    Jan. 1. 1802.”

    Put simply: Jefferson prayed, stated he did while president, and also referenced the “common father ” –God. Furthermore, he expressed his “high respect and esteem” for the Baptists’ faith. The mistake you make–and it is a grievous one–is to assume that Jefferson’s lack of belief in the diety of Jesus is commensurate with a hostility to the marraige of religious faith and governance.

    You compound your ignoranceof the faith of the founding fathers, which was the true impetus for the founding of this country by again taking one of history’s greatest thinkers, Ben Franklin, and serving up–again in a context to buttress your incomplete understanding–a quote that would suggest Franklin was a man who found “faith” the enemy of reason and thus a detriment to the advancement of humanity. However, on the occassion of his 85th birthday Franklin wrote,

    But he must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro’ his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th Year’s and very infirm.

    “Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children…. I think the System of Morals [devised by Jesus] and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity.”

    Perhaps you can explain how a man can have such a creed without faith. Upon what does he base a belief in a diety and the moral responsibilities that humans have because of this a priori?

    Finally, you completely miss the point of Gingrich’s statement about his capacity to trust a man who does not pray. Upon what grounds do you make the case that he was attempting to advocate such a “test” as a prerequisite of holding office rather than stating his own personal belief in the qualities a man should hold to be trusted with important matters of state?

    Re: Drew: College newspaper or the NewYork Times, there are standards and one of those standards is that if you attempt to make a case by cherrypicking quotes to support your case while ignoring others, you are guilty of second-rate journalism.
    Thia author’s opinion is not the issue: it is his arrogance–the suggestion that he knows more about the history of this country, the founder’s intentions, and the accusation that Gingrich is not merely professing a personal belief but that he is
    advocating a breach of the constitution by making such a statement.

    This piece is not that of a student grappling with an issue: it is a thinly veiled attack on faith. His self-serving misattribution of Franklin’s beliefs makes that quite clear.

  8. Kevin Protzmann October 30, 2011

    Mr. Carpenter,

    I greatly respect that you have taken the time to seriously consider the points of contention in regards to the historical separation of church and state, and that you have done so in a professional and intelligent manner. I disagree, however, on the conclusions you have made in regard to the nature of the secularism our founding fathers espoused.

    I believe we should first distinguish between ethics and theology. The appreciation of “religion” that the founding fathers had was in the realm of the ethical impact it had on man’s decision making rather than the theological notions that come with it. The quote from Thomas Jefferson you selected shows that the respected the Baptist religion. It does not say, however, that he respects them because he agrees with their theological underpinnings, that the deity they worship actively involves itself with the world and that one needs salvation through submission to Jesus Christ. Rather, what we have of Jefferson’s writings reflects the opposite: he believed in God as the supreme architect of the universe, a God that simply set the universe in motion and nothing more. Jefferson was a consummate Deist. The Jefferson Bible itself removes all mention of supernatural events or divine qualities to Jesus, instead focusing solely on his moral teachings. Indeed, the quote that I used in my original article showed this – that he believed that religious institutions had destroyed the benefit of the teachings of Jesus by infusing them with superstitious theology.

    This brings us back to the benefit that the founding father’s believed could be derived from religion. That benefit is purely in the social effect of moral teachings that the church can potentially provide. If people act in good will toward another because they learned their morals in the church, then the founding fathers would say that the religious institution was worthy of existing. If I make the claim that Jefferson found religion toxic to the governance of a society, it is because he found that the superstitious, faith-based theologies run counter to the better society, one governed by reason.

    “My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.” – Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, 1816

    It can be seen here, too, that he believed Jesus taught great morals, and that everything since then had corrupted his moral teachings and degraded the social benefit we could derive from religion.

    The Benjamin Franklin quote you use says essentially the same thing. Though Franklin admits the superiority of Jesus’ moral teachings, he also states that he “doubts his divinity.” You ask me to explain how he could reach his conclusions without having faith, yet the quote itself shows that he doesn’t have faith. The idea that humans have a moral responsibility to act in a certain manner toward one another does not require faith. The founding fathers believed in Nature’s God (deism) and that humans in the Natural State will act according to the principles that Nature’s God puts forth, including the use of reason and good will.

    This is the central point: if religious institutions can be shown to be conducive to the establishment of morality, liberty, and human reason, then they are worth keeping, for they are in line with humanity in the Natural State. If the opposite is true, then they are not worth keeping.

    Jefferson also stated, in his letter to Alexander von Humboldt in 1813, that “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

    The God that the Jefferson and Franklin revered was not a spiritual one, but a deist one. Please, I implore you to read Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. The intellectual tradition our founding father’s built their religious ideas around was one that rejected the very forms of theology so prevalent in our society today. They believed in a secular society where religion and politics were separate realms, where the people would be informed and wise enough to abandon superstitious notions about the world.

    I am not saying that Gingrich truly wished to create a religious test to hold political office, merely that his belief that we shouldn’t trust people who don’t pray is a malicious one which ignores the intellectual history of this country. The fact that a significant portion of the American population would probably agree with him is extremely disconcerting. The current state of religious belief in this country would no doubt send the founding fathers turning over in their graves if they knew how irrational it had become.

    Are “grappling with the issue” and an “attack on faith” really that different from each other? Yes, I am criticizing faith. That is the issue that we are grappling with. The intellectual heavyweights of the Age of Enlightenment, including the founding fathers, struggled with this issue and the majority of them came out against faith in favor of reason, because they saw the malign social impact that irrational faith can have on a people. I see the same problem in our society today, and I am calling those who trumpet such notions of faith out on the problems they are creating.

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