Sunday, April 29, 2007

Founding Ideals, a Bait and Switch?

Commenter John left the following response to my post on Michael Novak's response to me:

[Rowe:] They wanted our nation to be religious, and probably preferred the Christian religion dominate, but would have had no problem with the flourishing of exotic non-Judeo-Christian religions

I assume you are using “they” to refer to the “key founders”. If so this may be correct, but I doubt the validity of the “key founders” formulation. The Revoultion was fought and the Article’s and Constitution ratified by a much broader base of people than four or five people whom you select as key founders.

The State Constitutions adapted by many States explicitly singled out Christianity for protection, and made it a requirement for office in some cases.

Maryland Constitution; “That, as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him; all persons, professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty,”

Delaware: “Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath, or affirmation, if conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath, to wit: ” I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”

Pennsylvania: “And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration. ”

I’ll stop there rather than fill this comment section. You can certainly pick out certain individuals from the era who felt differently, but it seems pretty clear that the mass of Americans at the time were quite religious, and that they were religious in an explicitly Christian sense, not in considering Christianity one good religion among many.

As I noted in my reply, I agree there was a difference between what the “key Founders” thought and the masses. However, I dispute that this formulation is not valid. Indeed, I try to stress this tension as a particular not too well understood nuance of our Founding — that the ideas upon which we were founded, at the outer level were consistent with the traditional beliefs of the masses; but at the inner, specific level, they were very heterodox and controversial beliefs, not consistent with the dominant view in traditional orthodox Christian cicles. The Founding itself left much up to the states where illiberal traditions were allowed to continue. The few things that the federal government had power over represented a compromise between our heterodox key Founders and the orthodoxy which ruled the masses. (I should note that some studies have shown many of the founding era masses to be unchurched or otherwise nominal Christians; however, orthodox Christianity was firmly entrenched institutionally at the state level in said era.)

But the tension between the liberal Whig ideals of the Founding and traditional illiberal practices, like imposing religious tests which seek to use the state to protect the Christian religion, existed and over time tended to be resolved in the direction of those liberal ideals (especially after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment).

This can lead to a criticism that the masses were the victims of a “bait and switch,” that the Founders got them to sign onto a “project” without fully understanding its implications. Indeed, that’s exactly what Michael Zuckert of Notre Dame argues (and he is not alone -- Robert Kraynak, Thomas Pangle and Gary North all hold similar positions. North, a Christian Reconstructionist, argues such in the context of calling for an overthrow of the US Constitution and a return to the “theocracies” of the colonial order; he is thus viewed as a crank with little academic authority; Zuckert, Pangle, and Kraynak, however, have well deserved academic reputations).

Regarding whom the key Founders were, they included, at the very least, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. Those five happen to be the first four Presidents, the majority of the drafting board of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Declaration, and the prime architect of the Constitution. Dr. Gregg Frazer also puts in his Ph.D. thesis G. Morris, Hamilton, and Wilson as of like mind with the other five. Those additional three also played leading roles, along with Madison and Washington, at the Constitutional Convention. And Hamilton and Madison wrote almost all of the Federalist Papers (with John Jay contributing only a handful). As Brooke Allen points out, these men are also the Founders on our currency. There is thus nothing “cherry picking” about focusing in on these 5-8 Founders; they were the “key Founders," primarily responsible for the ideas upon which we declared independence, constructed the Constitution, and then governed the newly formed nation.

As far as those religious tests in the state constitutions, our key Founders could not pass many of them. THAT should tell us something about the profound difference between our liberal Founding ideals as expressed by Whig thought and the compromises with those ideals. I blogged about Ben Franklin’s problem with PA’s religious test here. Among other things, he noted he had a problem with the test because he couldn’t pass it! Then, he became effective governor of PA and helped to get rid of it.

The Founders' liberal enlightened thought profoundly transformed our nation; many back then would have had big problems with those Founders if they really understood what the key Founders personally believed and did not support non-orthodox Christians in office. Currently, if any national politician called for the return of religious tests like those above featured, they'd likely lose all political credibility. Gary North and his fellow recons do so openly and are written off as cranks. Some on the right wing of the religious right, D. James Kennedy and David Barton for instance, may believe similarly, but can be quite coy and seemingly inconsistent on the matter. A typical Republican religious conservative reacts much like Michael Novak -- he is not in favor of implementing formal religious tests at any level of government and believes in granting full formal religious rights for all faiths generally (though he may not be above trying to use the state to privilege Christianity or Judaism and Christianity; such privileges, though, are likely to involve mere religious acknowledgements and not tangible $$ issues) and attempts to credit the Christian religion itself for being uniquely tolerant of other religions. Though, as this post on Samuel Rutherford should remind us, the notion that traditional Christianity is consistent with granting other religions full rights to worship and speak their mind is of relatively recent invention and was quite controversial when such ideas were first introduced. The successful transformation of Christianity into a more tolerant religion was truly remarkable indeed and represents the success of our key Founders' hope that the Christian religion further reform and enlighten.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

The challenge is puttiing ourselves in the mindset of the time: they left the central government stuff to those who were really into it, the "key" Founders, if you will.

To the rest of the Signers/Founders, what really mattered was their own states and federalism, and if the constitution mostly left them alone, they were OK with it.

The central government would manage trade and the common defense, but the real power would rest with the sovereign states.

(Note "sovereign.")

What Jefferson thought or furtively scribbled to his friends was of zero consequence as long as he dealt with the Barbary pirates.

Of course, when the central government bought all that land from Napoleon, the real trouble started. Everything became a federal case...