Saturday, June 12, 2004

The Godless Constitution:

I just came back from Borders with a copy of Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, and right now I am finishing up reading The Godless Constitution, by Isaac Kramnick and L. Laurence Moore. The latter was a truly superb read, and I seriously wonder if Jacoby’s book will break much new ground that wasn’t already done in The Godless Constitution (I’m sure she will).

Let me say a word on what I’ve understood about America’s Founding & Religion after reading Kramnick's and Moore's book. (Note, this is my original analysis/understanding of what they wrote. The authors don’t quite break it down this way).

We can categorize competing views regarding the proper way religion ought to be situated with government into three different groups of thought (or maybe I should say, three groups of thinkers). (Note—these are my crude categorizations—some historical figures might not be so easy to pin down.)

1) The Enlightenment Disciples: This view was arguably dominant among the framers. Just about all framers were influenced by the Enlightenment to some significant degree, some more than others. The Deistic-Unitarian religious philosophy was very influential here. John Locke was the initiator of this view and Jefferson was probably its most “pure” follower. “Christian” founders followed the Enlightenment as well. However, many were Christians in the most nominal sense (Jefferson professed to be a “Christian” at times!). Some professed orthodox Christianity though. I’d place Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Adams, and many, many other framers in this category. These men appealed to modern (relatively new at the time) principles of natural and political right in founding this nation, and these principles are ascertainable by Man’s Reason, unaided by Biblical Revelation. As I said, this view was predominant among the “intellectual class” from which the framers were derived, but ultimately the Constitution was ratified by “the people,” many of whom might not have understood or endorsed the Enlightenment so keenly. So it’s necessary to inquire about those Christians who clearly weren’t Enlightenment Disciples.

2) Orthodox Christians committed to secularism or the separation of Church and State, because of the way secular government would benefit religion. Yes, I learned that there were strong forces within orthodox Christianity committed to separation of Church & State and they did so without appealing to Lockean theory. In fact, Roger Williams (the founder of this point of view) came forth with a defense of secular government shortly before Locke formulated his teachings! Williams, who once famously said, “No civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christians be in it,” gave wholly practical grounds as to why religion (the Christian religion in particular) would be better off in a wholly secular state, one that takes no stance on religion. He truly believed that religion would better flourish, out of politics and under a secular state (with the caveat that orthodox Christians be absolutely free to practice their religion). And although Williams couldn’t appeal to the Bible for versus and chapters mandating secular government (after all, where does the Bible speak of “natural rights” like “liberty of conscience”?), nor could he appeal to the historical practice of Christianity—since time immemorial Church & State in Christendom were inexorably intertwined—he did explain why the Christian religion was wholly compatible with secular government, (Jesus did effect a separation of things spiritual & temporal—when they tried to make him a King, he replied “My Kingdom is not of this Earth”) and why secular government would serve Christianity better than any other form (you'll have to read the book for that explanation in full).

Those religious sects who were most sympathetic to this argument were the dissident sects, the ones most persecuted. And what do you know, America just so happened to be made up of many dissident sects. The Baptists—one of America’s most persecuted sects—pretty much threw their weight behind secular government. And Williams’s notion that religion would better flourish in the private sector under a secular state influenced our founders as well.

When Williams formulated his view of secular government, he was pretty much alone among orthodox Christians in his thoughts. The other orthodox Christians, those from group number 3, responded to Williams’s notion of secular government by banning him from Massachusetts, so he founded Rhode Island.

The Baptists of today have broken with their tradition of staying out of politics. The Amish sort of represent this tradition (most expositors of this philosophy at the time of the founding would not wish to exist so far outside of society as the Amish). The Amish could care less about imposing their religious point of view through government laws. In fact, Amish are perfectly comfortable with and prefer a secular set of laws, SO LONG AS THE GOVERNMENT LEAVES THEM ALONE TO PRACTIVE THEIR RELIGION ENTIRELY. If Christians don’t like the way society is going, don’t impose your religious opinions regarding living the virtuous life on everyone else thru the laws, but rather drop out of politics and society, and live your own lives as shining examples of Christian virtue. Cal Thomas to his credit seems to be coming around to this point of view. The Jehovah's Witnesses endorse this view as well -- but in an extreme way; they don't even vote.

3) The Forces of Religious Correctness. The orthodox Christians who didn’t believe in separation of Church & State and desired all governments to endorse the notion of a Christian Commonwealth or Republic. These folks represented “the old order.” Many religious institutions who compromised the dominant sects in each colony would fall into this category. This was the tradition in which the Enlightenment was attempting to break. These forces successfully got most of the colonies to official vet the notion of a Christian commonwealth—many colonies during the founding had state-established Churches and religious tests for public office—and that’s because this is the way it had been for hundreds of years, since these colonies existed. However, much to the chagrin of these folks, our Declaration of Independence and Constitution broke with this view. Our Declaration of Independence appealed to Enlightenment dogma, and “Nature’s God” was clearly an Enlightenment, not a Biblical reference to God. The Constitution failed to mention God or Christ altogether. It was truly a Godless Constitution (hence the title of the book), and this ticked off the folks in this category mightily.

While these Christians were comforted by the fact that the Constitution didn’t disrupt their ability to maintain their state establishments, they were nonetheless infuriated by the fact that the Constitution didn’t appeal to God or Christianity in the way their state Charters did.

President of Yale, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, was a shining star of this movement of religious correctness. He sums it up perfectly: “The nation has offended Providence. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of His mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of His existence. The [Constitutional] Convention, by which it was formed, never asked even once, His direction, or His blessing, upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God.”

Another expositor of this view, Reverend Mason complained in 1793 that “from the Constitution of the United States, it is impossible to ascertain what God we worship or whether we own a God at all.” The book has many other such quotes. Many of these Christians saw the Civil War as God’s punishment for a nation that slapped him in the face by leaving him out of the Constitution.

These forces of religious correctness repeatedly tried to amend the Constitution to correct this error…and failed. Here is one example of a proposed Constitutional Amendment—led by the Presbyterian laymen John Alexander—tried to pass. It would reword the preamble to the Constitution to say:

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, The Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the Nations, and his revealed will as of supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

All such attempts to amend the Constitution failed. Kramnick & Moore argue and I agree that today’s religious right are the true heirs to this group. And here's how today's Christian right engage in historical revisionism: All three groups that I reference above realized that our federal government was a Godless secular one. Groups 1 and 2 supported it this way, group 3 didn’t. But all three understood that our system was not “founded on God and the Bible” as Roy Moore puts it. The religious right of the day wanted to change the system, and after repeatedly failing to do so today's religious right now rewrite history and fraudulently argue that the Declaration and Constitution were “Christian” documents, and that we had a Christian founding all along.

And as far as the state governments are concerned, most of them, within a very short period of time, voluntarily disestablished their Churches and separated Church & State. Then, in the middle of the 19th Century, the 14th Amendment was passed and the Federal government now had jurisdiction over the state violations of the rights of conscience, just as Madison (and presumably Jefferson who was in France when the Constitution was written) wanted it from the beginning.

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