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August 7, 2011 2:07 pm

A (Nicer) Letter to a Christian Nation

avatar by Adam Jacobs

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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.

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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  • What a garbage article. Have you gotten so desperate that you are just being flagrantly disingenuous now?
    This claptrap was a waste of five minutes in my life spent reading it. Please do not write another one, that really was painful.

    R J Walker

  • Mark Tiborsky

    If we continue with Rabbi Jacobs’ method of reasoning, it would follow that his ability to publish this article online owes a great debt to atheism (Alan Turing- father of computer science, atheist & also gay).

    Also, our knowledge of mathematics must owe an enormous debt to Zeus-worship.

  • Paul the Apostle, a Jew, said, “Brothers, my hearts desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

    If I get the opportunity to share the Gospel with someone who is Jewish, I consider it a privilege, and do so with the hope that that person will come to faith in their Messiah.

  • Tim Campbell

    Christianity, or more accurately, “religion” was an unfortunate but probably inevitable link between the Early Age of Man–the Age of Unrelenting Terror, Confusion, and Dawning Consciousness and the Age of Science and Reason. Equally unfortunate, this archaic mass of superstition and wishful thinking has not realized that it was dead and no longer needed.

    And btw, Gallileo was imprisoned and sentenced to a life sentence of house arrest for his efforts to introduce scientific discovery to a corrupt instituion based on subservience and ignorance.

  • Sally

    While Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomson Jefferson were all Christians, all of them questioned the religion throughout their lives. Like most intellectuals, they pondered spirituality, but did not buy into organized religion. They all believed in a single god, and valued relgion for promoting morality. However, none of them were the kind of Christians that you seem to be targetting with this open letter. In many text books, our founding fathers are referred to as “diests.” The separation of church and state has been a value since the earliest days of the country.

    Here are some quotes from Franklin, Adams and Jefferson demonstrating their questioning of religion (This is not to say you can´t find quotes from any of them in supoprt of religion, but I do not think they are contradictory. As I said, they were all spiritual men who sought meaning in life and believed in a creator of the universe. However, none of them seemed to be fans as organized Christianity).

    In 1790, just about a month before he died, Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, who had asked him his views on religion:

    “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals 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 corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble….”

    John Adams in a letter to Thomson Jefferson in 1812:

    “My Adoration of the Author of the Universe is too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight, Joy, Tryumph, Exaltation in my own existence, tho’ but an Atom, a molecule Organique, in the Universe, are my religion.” He continues by revealing his Universalist sympathies, rejection of orthodox Christian dogma, and his personal belief that he was a true Christian for not accepting such dogma, “Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is ballanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you, are Christians in my Sense of the Word.”

    While Jefferson was a devout Christian, like any intellectual, he questioned the religion. He was also critical of organized religion.

    Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Styles, Esq., 25 June 1819 (L&B 15: 203-4):

    “In that branch of religion which regards the morality of life, and the duties of a social being, which teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do good to all men, I am sure that you and I do not differ. We probably differ on the dogmas of theology, the foundation of all sectarianism, and on which no two sects dream alike; for if they did they would then be of the same. You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, so far as I know. I am not a Jew, and therefore do not adopt their theology, which supposes the God of infinite justice to punish the sins of their fathers upon their children, unto the third and fourth generation; and the benevolent and sublime Reformer of that religion [Judaism] has told us only that God is good and perfect, but has not defined Him. I am, therefore, of His theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after this example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good, and eschewers of evil. No doctrines of His lead to schism. It is the speculations of crazy theologists which have made a Babel of a religion the most moral and sublime ever preached to man, and calculated to heal, and not to create differences. These religious animosities I impute to those who call themselves His ministers, and who engraft their casuistries on the stock of His simple precepts. I am sometimes more angry with them than is authorized by the blessed charities which He preaches.”

  • Robert Smith

    Gallileo and Copernicus were both persecuted by the Church for heresy. Their discoveries owed ZERO to Christianity. The church obstructed them at every opportunity. If you want to wax lyrical about a religion advancing science it would be Islam NOT christianity.
    This article is complete bollocks. Pull it down!

  • Robert Smith

    Christian church in the Middle Ages (aka Dark Ages) destroyed scientific progress of the Greek and Roman world and imposed a rigid bible-based dogma in its place.
    I believe the Moslem world retained some of the great advances of the earlier civilisations until they were rediscovered by the western world during the renaissance when church totalitarianism was overthrown and science was liberated from the church.
    There is so much wrong with the Rabbis article. Is it due to his ignorance of European history or is he wilfully setting out to rewrite history? The article is ridiculous and just plain wrong .
    The trouble is the Glenn Beck crowd will lap it up.
    Ah, now I see where the Rabbi is coming from.

  • Sally

    The US is not a Christian nation… even Jefferson, Franklin and Adams would disagree with you on that.

  • Robert Smith

    A Rabbi speaking up on behalf of oppressed US Christians?
    Poor oppressed Christians need the Jews to speak up for them because those nasty atheist bullies are calling them hurtful names. Please! The whole article is kind of ridiculous. Patronising, dishonest and ridiculous.

  • Robert Smith

    Surely Rabbi Jacobs doesn’t believe all this?
    America didn’t welcome Jews the way the Rabbi suggests. Didn’t one of those founding fathers he mentions propose that no Jews be allowed into the USA?
    If the Holocaust hadn’t been perpetrated by Germans the next in line would have been the Americans.

    Some of what he writes about Christian civilisation comes across as forced and patronising.
    He is just trying to curry favour with US evangelicals.

  • Rabbi Jacobs,

    By your reasoning we owe the movie camera, phonograph, and the workable light bulb to atheism (Edison was of course a nonbeliever).

  • “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.”

    Please, Rabbi! A Jewish guy born of a virgin, rising from the dead, and “residing” in a mythical realm as a nifty 3-in-1 “entity”, who will “come again” to judge the living and the dead… has exactly WHAT to do with anything scientific? Please- “pray” tell! 🙂

  • Charlie

    Well said Rabbi Jacobs