Saturday, August 13th | 16 Av 5782

August 7, 2011 2:07 pm

A (Nicer) Letter to a Christian Nation

avatar by Adam Jacobs

Sam Harris speaking in 2010. Photo: Steve Jurvetson.

My dear Christian cousins,

Though it was written more than five years ago, I have just gotten around to reading “Letter to a Christian Nation” by professional atheist, Sam Harris and while I think he is a decent writer, I was disappointed with his content, tone and overall attitude. For whereas you and I disagree on some fundamental issues of theology, I feel that what we share greatly outstrips our differences at this point in history. I can easily relate to the unjust accusations, malignment based on poor comprehension, and near total lack of ability or willingness to give credit where credit is due. And it’s not just professor Harris. The world over, Christianity has become a magnet for the opprobrium of self-proclaimed masters of reason whose contempt for you is just a notch above what they reserve for child abusers (which in fact they claim that you and I are since we choose to educate our children with the values we think are best). As a fellow theist, I feel the need to speak up on your behalf.

I think it important to acknowledge that it was Christians (some anti-clerical) – with names like Jefferson, Franklin and Adams – who conceptually gave birth to this nation along with its unprecedented tolerance, freedoms and openness. The Jewish people had been, at one time or another, expelled by virtually every country in Europe and subject to pogroms, ludicrously long army conscription, oppressive levels of taxation, forced poverty, ghettoization and worse. A new incarnation of Christianity in the United States, early on, welcomed us and threw open the doors of opportunity and equality that at the time and since has been without precedent in the history of the world. As Washington himself wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants–while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” How can this obvious good be so flippantly repaid with secular scorn? We Jews have a very long memory, and not all of us have forgotten what Christian America did for us.

Sam Harris is a man of science and, like most contemporary scientists, seems to have forgotten the debt that science owes to you, to Christianity. The vast majority of the thinkers who set the stage for our greatest leaps of scientific comprehension were devout Christians. The theologically steeped minds of Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and others were responsible for the invention of the scientific method and built the ramparts upon which the anti-theists now stand and conduct themselves as if they lived there all along. In other words, none of our scientific advancement would have been possible were it not for the theological fertility afforded by the now despised principles of European Christendom. People should feel free to disagree with various tenets of your faith, but not act as though the entire corpus of your knowledge and achievement is a worthless (and evil) pile of trash.

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Yes, there have been some tough times between us and we have not always appreciated how you have treated us – especially when it comes to missionizing – which we profoundly dislike. But despite it all, it is unwise to compare our relationship as it was expressed in medieval Europe with the way it is here and now. Time and again we saw you searching your hearts and seeking avenues of reconciliation. I happened to be only yards away from Pope John Paul as he entered the gates of Jerusalem for the first time and thought about Vatican II and its remarkable reversal of attitude towards us. As a religious American Jew with deep ties to Israel, I cannot think of a better friend than we have in you. In Congress, your voices defend us against totalitarianism and injustice. In small and large towns around the country you actively support Jews everywhere who would like to fulfill our age old dream to resettle our ancient homeland. You are happy to visit Israel and seem to naturally take pleasure in it (sadly, in a way that many of my co-religionists do not). Our rapprochement can and should serve as a global model for interfaith harmony and tolerance. Imagine not John Lennon’s “no religion too,” but rather religions such as ours – despite the irreconcilable differences – learning how to get along in the way that we have, based on an acknowledgment of our shared histories, values, and interests. The relationship found its fullest flower in this country. That is the true legacy of this Christian nation and any honest observer will note it as such.


Rabbi Adam Jacobs

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