Friday, January 12, 2007

The Godless Constitution:

I read the original version while on loan from a library a few years ago (see my original review). I had no idea that the authors, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, reissued the book in 2005 with a new chapter on George W. Bush. I bought the paperback edition and am rereading parts of it.

It's a good book, though I think the authors, two very distinguished scholars, made a mistake by doing away with the normal footnoting method (just gives fodder to critics).

I've learned that the Founding, like most historical events, can be looked at from different perspectives, and the perspective advanced in this book is certainly valid. And such is, even before the First Amendment, the Constitution, for its time, was a remarkably secular document. With a Constitution of strictly limited enumerated powers, religion is nowhere empowered. Article VI's "no religious test" clause radically broke with the tradition in the colonies of requiring belief in the Biblical God for holding public office (and various other rights and privileges). And, most notably, God was not mentioned at all in the Constitution, whereas the colonies had a tradition of covenanting with the Biblical God.

Only one serious scholar in the academy of which I am aware (Donald Lutz) argues that the Constitution is largely a product of this earlier tradition of "covenanting." While covenant theology may have had some qualified influence on our Founding, that the Constitution forgets to covenant with the God of the Bible or any God, and doesn't mention Him at all (other than in the customary way of stating the date), makes Lutz's assertion downright baffling.

However, another perspective, contra Kramnick and Moore, is likewise valid and that is the perspective of federalism. The Constitution may have been a "Godless" document, but it was also a document which left the federal government very few powers over any area of life, including religion, while leaving much in the hands of state and local governments. And as originally conceived, state and local governments had great power to endorse and establish religion. Though, by 1833, the last establishment in Massachusetts had been abolished (and without the need for a civil war or constitutional amendment). Daniel Dreisbach defends the federalist perspective against Kramnick and Moore here.

Finally, there is a great line in The Godless Constitution which perfectly captures my libertarian (as opposed to leftist) idea of secular neutrality: "[T]he authors will be happy when religion has the same rights in the public sphere as General Motors, no more and no less." p. 15. This suggests that equality/neutrality/non-discrimination -- as opposed to driving religion from the public square -- should be the real driving force behind the secularism as Founders like Jefferson and Madison understood it.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

"It's a sin not to do [stem cell] research," declared Rep. Al Green (D-Texas)...

Now, I don't know where this leaves us on secular neutrality, but for a congressman to argue it is a sin would have gathered far more notice and opprobrium, I think.