Saturday, December 03, 2005

Sloppy Scholarship from a Secularist Professor:

(This is really bad.)

Since most of the time, on religion and the founding, I attack the sloppiness we often see coming from the religious right, David Barton, et al., let me now attack someone from the other side.

Writing in Liberty Magazine, Robert Sandler, professor emeritus of history, University of Miami, writes about the making of the Constitution in 1787 and an attempt (of which I've never previously heard) to get the name "Jesus Christ" put into the original Constitution. Supposedly, a group of orthodox Christians asked George Washington (president of the Constitutional Convention) and company that an “explicit acknowledgment of the only true God and Jesus Christ be included in the Constitution." [quotes in the original]

Sandler writes:

After deliberation the delegates denied the request.

Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had written the Declaration of Independence, was in France at the time the Constitution was written. He knew most of the delegates. Upon his return he made it a point to contact as many delegates as he could. He had, of course, met and worked with most of them before. Thomas Jefferson, a fine writer, had been keeping a journal of these important days, and he was interested in writing about the appeal of the religious group. He wrote the following description of the delegates’ response to the clergy: “The insertion [the only true God . . . Jesus Christ, etc.] was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they [the delegates] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its [the Constitution’s] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Those are the words that the writers of our Constitution gave to Thomas Jefferson for his journal (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I, p. 45).

Now, as I said, I was not previously aware that a group of orthodox Christians had pestered the Constitutional Convention to include a reference to Jesus Christ, which was subsequently voted down by the delegates. I do know that after seeing that the Constitution lacked any kind of invocation to God or the Christian religion, many orthodox clergy fulminated against this "Godless" document and warned that we would suffer God's wrath for "forgetting" Him in our Founding document. (See this article by Susan Jacoby).

And the passage on Jefferson is totally wrong. In the quote that Sandler features, Jefferson was actually referring to his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, where there was indeed a proposed amendment to insert the word "Jesus Christ," which was subsequently voted down. But Sandler has Jefferson speaking as though he was discussing the US Constitution.

Now, one could indeed draw a connection between Jefferson's VA Statute and the US Constitution, arguing that they were both part and parcel of the unalienable natural rights of conscience approach, and that such theory applies universally to orthodox as well as unorthodox beliefs, that the US Constitution followed the Virginia model of complete religious neutrality and not the model of other states where a Christian sect was officially established and had greater rights granted to it than other religions. As Jacoby puts it:

The influence of Virginia's law, enacted less than a year before the writing of the federal Constitution, cannot be overstated. The delegates in Philadelphia could have looked for guidance to a crazy quilt of conflicting state laws, rooted in religious prejudice and incestuous Old World church-state entanglements. Instead they chose the Virginia model, which, as Jefferson proudly stated in his autobiography, "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

However, that's not what Sandler is stating. He is stating that Jefferson's quote was directly speaking on the religion clauses of the US Constitution! It wasn't.

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