Ethan Allen on politics and religion

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(Host) As VPR’s exploration of the Great Thoughts of Vermont continues, commentator Nick Boke revisits the philosophy of Ethan Allen to examine his thoughts on religion and politics.

(Boke) Ethan Allen. What a feisty son-of-a-gun. Rugged mountaineer. Courageous military leader. Visionary real estate speculator. A real can-do kind a guy. But there’s another side to this Vermont paradigm. You see, Ethan Allen also fancied himself an Enlightenment philosopher, a sort of Vermont Voltaire.

In 1785 he published a book called “Reason: the only Oracle of Man,” which came to be known as Allen’s Bible. In the book, Allen was very critical of revealed religion, religion that rests on faith, mystery and scripture. He figured most of the stories in the Old and New Testaments were just that – stories, including everything from Moses being handed the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop to the virgin birth.

This legendary leader of the Green Mountain Boys was especially contemptuous of people who would expect god to intervene in human affairs – if what you’re going to do is in accordance with natural law, he thought, it’ll turn out right. If it doesn’t, it’s because you’ve got it wrong – and no amount of prayer is going to make it any better. God just doesn’t take sides. The last thing Ethan Allen wanted was for fervent believers to be running the government, and he firmly supported the complete separation of church and state.

I’ve been reminded of Allen’s opinions about the place of religion in politics a lot lately. There’s the controversy surrounding Lieutenant General William Boykin, the guy who tells evangelical Christians that his god is on his side in the war against terrorism, and that Muslims are idol-worshippers and who still has his job. Then there’s the upcoming Supreme Court decision about the consititutionality of the 1954 addition of the words under god to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The author of a recent letter to USA Today was very concerned about the possibility that “under god” would be stricken from the Pledge. What next? he wondered. Will we take “in God we trust” from our money and eliminate opening prayers from our Legislatures?

Sound like good ideas to me. And I think Ethan Allen would have agreed with these changes – might even have thought them long overdue. I think he’d have liked the approach to theology expressed by the bumper sticker our daughter put on our station wagon. It reads: “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.”

Allen’s Bible didn’t sell very well: Only about 200 copies. He wasn’t surprised. He knew the ideas it contained were very controversial. Just as they remain controversial today, when suggesting that God doesn’t take sides invites horrified responses from true believers in Teheran, in desert hideouts in Afghanistan, and in parts of Washington, DC.

This is Nick Boke in Weathersfield, Vermont.

Nick Boke is a reading consultant and free-lance writer living in Weathersfield. He spoke to use from our studio in Norwich.

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