Friday, February 11, 2005

Was America founded on its Ideals or its Compromises with its Ideals?

Reacting to The Nation's article on America not being founded on Christian Principles (an article I think that was unfairly hostile to religious folks and misused history to score points against Bush), Gary Demar does his best to rebut with the "Christian Nation" argument.

Demar does better than most theocrats. For instance, he manages not to cite any of the phony David Barton quotes.

He does cite, however, some outright falsehoods:

There is much more to America's founding than the Constitution. America was not born in 1877 [sic] or even in 1776. The Constitution did not create America, America created the Constitution. More specifically, the states created the national government. The states (colonial governments) were a reality long before the Constitution was conceived, and there is no question about their being founded on Christian principles.

The fact is America as a nation was not born until 1776. Before that we were British colonies ruled under the doctrine of the Divine Rule of Kings. We declared our independence not by looking to the past but by looking to the newly discovered "laws of Nature and Nature's God," which repudiated much of the old, pre-1776 order, for instance, not only Divine Rule of Kings, but also slavery and state establishments of religion.

However, Demar must erroneously argue that America as a nation existed before 1776 because many of those colonies did indeed begin by making "covenants" with the Christian religion. From another page on his website:

Despite what you may hear from the media and public school textbooks, America was founded as a Christian nation. In 1620, long before the United States won its independence from England, the Pilgrims came to America's shores with this mission statement,

“[W]e all came to these parts of America, with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – New England Confederation of 1643

Sorry, but we weren't a nation in 1620 and the principles which founded America's government were just beginning to be formulated by the philosophers at that time. "America's philosopher," John Locke hadn't yet even been born.

Demar even manages to cite a reputable scholar, Daniel Dreisbach, who wrote:

The U. S. Constitution’s lack of a Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Indeed, it had little to do with religion at all. The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the framer’s personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as “godless” or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.

Then Demar demonstrates that many of the states did indeed establish the Christian religion and the Constitution permitted such things as:

Pennsylvania’s 1790 constitution declared, “That no person, who acknowledges the being of God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this commonwealth.”

The Constitution of Massachusetts stated that “no person shall be eligible to this office, unless . . . he shall declare himself to be of the Christian religion.” The following oath was also required: “I do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have firm persuasion of its truth.”

North Carolina’s 1868 stated that “all persons who shall deny the being of Almighty God” “shall be disqualified for office.” The 1776 constitution, that remained in effect until 1868, included the following (XXXII): “That no person, who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.” North Carolina describes itself as a “Christian State” in the 1868 constitution (Art. XI, sec. 7).

Yes, our original Constitution did indeed permit all of this. But here's the problem and it is a problem of political philosophy: The Constitution also permitted slavery; in fact, we wouldn't have had enough states to ratify the Constitution had we not made concessions for slavery. And because of the constitutional permission of slavery, many prominent scholars -- mainly Leftists, but some conservatives as well -- declare that we were "founded" on slavery, that the Constitution was a "pro-slavery" document.

But the United States also has as a founding ideal in its natural (organic) law, that "all men are created equal." Thus we see a conflict with between our ideals and our practices. If we were founded on our compromises with our ideals, as opposed to being founded on the ideals themselves, then indeed the United States was founded on "slavery" and the Constitution was a "pro-slavery" document.

Harry Jaffa in Crisis of a House Divided most prominently made the case that America was not founded on slavery, but rather on a repudiation of slavery because we were founded on our ideals, not on our compromises.

The same natural law that holds slavery to be wrong everywhere and at every time also holds that men have unalienable free and equal rights of conscience. And as such, state constitutions like the ones above cited conflict with such rights of conscience as much as slavery conflicted with the natural rights of blacks. It is important to note that the Declaration's organic law, more explicitly detailed in Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance and Jefferson's VA Statute on Religious Freedom holds that all men, including "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination," by nature, have free and equal rights of conscience.

It is often said that we are a "Judeo-Christian" nation and many religious Jews and Catholics take heart in that. Under Massachusetts' and North Carolina's constitutions, Jews were not full citizens; Catholics were not full citizens under North Carolina’s constitution. These constitutions clearly violated their unalienable rights, to say nothing of the rights of Hindus, Muslims and Infidels.

If we were founded on our "compromises" with these principles then indeed, we were founded on slavery, on Christian establishments, on denying Jews, Catholics, Pagans, & Infidels full citizenship under state constitutions (but not under the Federal Constitution, see Art. VI). If on the other hand we were founded on our ideals, then our founding repudiates not only slavery but also state Christian establishments, religious tests, and prohibitions on the free exercise of religion.

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