Saturday, April 14, 2007

History Behind Library of Congress' Religion Page:

James H. Hutson is chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. I became aware of and interested in him when I began studying the topic of religion and the Founding over the past few years. I saw his work being used in what I thought a politicized manner by D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge group; but when I further inquired on Hutson's work, I found him to be a learned and eminently fair scholar. Indeed, I ended up positively reviewing his book of quotations for First Things magazine and I now have a blurb on the book's page at Princeton University Press.

Hutson is responsible for the LOC's page on Religion and the Founding and it's clear that Hutson approaches these issues from a more conservative/religious accommodating perspective. But given that all historians unavoidably approach their pet issues through some ideological lens, this is fine as long as the canons of historical scholarship are respected. A few lines on the LOC's website strongly challenge the standard "separation of Church and State" view of history, especially as it relates to Jefferson's Presidency (given that his Danbury Baptist letter is responsible for the connection between the phrase "SOCAS" and the religion clauses in the Constitution, this is especially apt).

This page is especially provocative. It claims:

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House--a practice that continued until after the Civil War--were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson's actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state." In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

The page then ventures into a controversial analysis of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, comparing the edited and unedited versions of the letter (indeed Hutson brought in the FBI to discern the contents of the unedited draft).

I discovered an interesting response to Hutson's work by prominent historians on religion and the Founding, more sympathetic to a secular leftist view of history. Here is a taste:

There may be several possible explanations for Jefferson's excision of certain material, but the most obvious to any experienced writer is that he was editing while composing. Although scholars may differ as to the reasons for Jefferson's editorial selections, there is no basis for arguing that these omissions indicate that the reply was not "conceived to be a statement of fundamental principles," but rather "was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more."

It is also inaccurate to claim that the reply to the Baptists was "political" and not "a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement." Supporters of a broad understanding of Jefferson's Danbury letter have never denied the relevant and pertinent political considerations; however, that fact does not negate either the significance of this statement or his commitment to the principle. Jefferson's two most prized examples of his authorship -- the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia -- could not have been more political, even as every line was laced with principles concerning democracy and freedom.

The scholars who challenged Hutson include some heavy hitters:

Robert S. Alley
Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, University of Richmond

Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.
Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies,
Baylor University, and Editor of Journal of Church and State

G. Scott Davis
Lewis T. Booker Professor of Ethics and Religion, University of Richmond

Norman Dorsen
Stokes Professor of Law, New York University School of Law

Robert F. Drinan, S.J.
Georgetown University Law Center

Ronald B. Flowers
Chairman of Religion Department, Texas Christian University

Edwin S. Gaustad
Professor of History, Emeritus, University of California at Riverside

Philip E. Hammond
D. Mackenzie Brown Professor, Department of Religious Studies,
University of California at Santa Barbara

Peter Irons
Professor of Political Science, University of California at San Diego

Gregg Ivers
Professor of Government, American University

Isaac Kramnick
Professor of Government, Cornell University

Bill J. Leonard
Dean, Divinity School, Wake Forest University

Henry S. Levinson
Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Robert S. Michaelsen
J.F. Rowney Professor of Religion and Society, Emeritus,
University of California at Santa Barbara

James Robert Miller
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern Kentucky University

R. Laurence Moore
Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies, Cornell University

Robert M. O'Neil
Professor of Law, University of Virginia

Richard V. Pierard
Professor of History, Indiana State University

Robert A. Rutland
Professor of American History, Emeritus, University of Virginia;
Senior Editor of the Papers of James Madison, 1973-1985

Robert E. Shepherd
Professor of Law, University of Richmond Law School

George Shriver
Professor of History, Georgia State University

Paul D. Simmons
Clinical Professor, University of Louisville

Ruti Teitel
Professor of Law, New York Law School

William Van Alstyne
William R. and Thomas C. Perkins Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law

This event may have made Hutson more sensitive to being fair and balanced when he compiled his book of quotations. Though the book does ignore the strict deist outliers, Paine and Allen, it pulls no punches when showing the heterodoxy of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. And his paper on Madison's religion shows him most likely not an orthodox Christian, but rather a theistic rationalist just like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I find the routine use of government buildings for religious services far more probative as to the church-and-state landscape of America at its founding than any of the various blatherings of individual Founders.

I cannot think of any more clear rebuttal of the denuding of the public square of religious expression on originalist grounds.

Actually, I'm amazed that it doesn't come up more often in the debate, but in academia (and leftism), as opposed to real life, actions do not speak louder than words.