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Ralph Waldo Emerson and Our Temples of Doom (1987)

Falwell, Robertson, Roberts, and the Bakkers: not a clue between them

On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School. So moving the speech, so appreciative the audience, Emerson was banned from Harvard for nearly 30 years. His offense? Emerson had suggested that the "doctrine and memory" of Jesus had been "distorted," because the church could not tell the difference between prose and poetry. This explained, Emerson concluded, the abominable state of Christian preaching.

Emerson's assessment of Christian preaching in 1987 can only be imagined, but alive, to view Oral Roberts on a roll or Jim and Tammy Bakker between convulsions, the erudite Mr. Emerson might conduct his presentation to Harvard's current crop of divines with hand puppets. Were he to stay around for the next election, he might have a more serious charge to level against the flowers of grace: Not only do they distort Jesus, they distort the views of our nation's founders about Jesus. Emerson was 23 when fellow New Englander John Adams died, just hours after Thomas Jefferson passed on July 4, 1826. The views of the Founding Fathers were well known to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

To listen to Jerry Falwell, one might conclude that the conceivers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution believed as he does: That the Bible was perfect and written with God's guidance, that Christ would come again, and that the Soviet Union and Nicaragua figure prominently in certain Biblical passages of warning. In their effort to make prayer mandatory in schools, the politically active preachers of 1987 intimate, when they don't actually state, that, somehow, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin anticipated the desired Republican platform by 200 years. Not in writing, but that's what they wanted. And like Falwell and possible presidential contender Pat Robertson, our sacred Fathers would hold unfit for public office any politician who would describe the Savior as "...a man of Illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart...(and an) enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions of divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to Roman Law."

How odd that those sentiments are found In the handwriting of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, in fact, spent much time "…abstracting what is really his (Jesus') from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill." Confusing writer, Jefferson. So difficult to interpret.

In 1820, Jefferson returned to his theme in writing a treatise titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." In this work, what Jefferson meant by "dross" becomes evident. Gone from Jefferson's Jesus are the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, angels appearing to shepherds and the Resurrection. A man who believes in a mortal Jesus who is still dead somehow conflicts with what the Evangelicals tell us.

Unlike many of us, Emerson would not yield to the faddish view that the current scandal involving the Bakkers will peel back the skin of respectability that coats the American Evangelicals. The damage they do, by exerting pressure on school boards, by trying to equate government with God (and thus provide divine forgiveness and excuse for failure), is far more serious than the continued corruption of a religion founded upon lies and forgeries. Despite their relatively small number, the looming threat of their wrath stifles dissent. How is it that President Reagan could compare such giants of ethics and vision as Suicida and Krill to Thomas Jefferson without a nation removing him from office? Has the United States ever suffered such slander from its enemies? Why do we tolerate it from our president?

Our nation's founders were, for the most part, deists, which is meant they believed in a creator of indistinguishable and unimportant characteristics who mlght judge them by their works. "As to Jesus," wrote Franklin, "I have...some doubts as to his divinity." Those are not the words of a Christian.

The religious right talks often about returning to the nation's roots, to the faith of our fathers. As long as they can count upon mounting generations of children to be utterly unaware of what that faith was, they can suffer any number of Jim and Tammy Bakkers. It is important that criticism of the legions of Falwell's liars is not limited to sexual improprieties.

Emerson wouldn't let them get away with it. Neither should you.