Saturday, February 28, 2009

Joseph Story's Political Theology:

At American Creation my friend Tom Van Dyke points to the learned Joseph Story's commentaries on the Constitution and religion. To his credit, Van Dyke gives us a long excerpt from Story, so we can read it in context. You can read the original here. Included in the longer except is the quotation that Christian Nationalists like to cite on behalf of the "Christian Nation" thesis:

§1871. The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.

As I've noted before, one problem with the use of Story's quotation on behalf of the "Christian Nation" thesis is original meaning constitutional interpretation does not concern itself with the "real object" of various provisions of the Constitution's text, but rather the original meaning of the text itself. And, of course, the Constitution's text says nothing of "Christianity," but rather uses the term "religion." There could be many "real objects" of various texts of the Constitution, which focused on specifically, unmoored from the Constitution's text could take on lives of their own. The Constitution says nothing about "Christian sects" only. That reading is as revisionist and "living" as the Wall of Separation concept.

However original meaning originalists can make a strong case, consistent with what Story writes later, that troublesome questions about "religion" v. "Christianity" and the US Constitution's text are placated by understanding that it was the states who were charged with resolving those nettlesome issues. The Federal government, as it were, would be burdened with a "hands off" restriction on involving itself in religious disputes.

That said, I want to address Story's "political theology" about which he writes in the excepts that Mr. Van Dyke quoted, what Story sees as the "ideal" way government and religion ought to co-exist with one another. Here is the the relevant part of Story's position:


How far any government has a right to interfere in matters touching religion, has been a subject much discussed by writers upon public and political law. The right and the duty of the interference of government, in matters of religion, have been maintained by many distinguished authors, as well those, who were the warmest advocates of free governments, as those, who were attached to governments of a more arbitrary character. Indeed, the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion, the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues;—these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them. And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity, as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects. This is a point wholly distinct from that of the right of private judgment in matters of religion, and of the freedom of public worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience. [Bold mine.]

I want to turn your attention to what it was in Story's quotation that he did and did NOT say. He seems to endorse the idea that there is an Almighty God to whom we are accountable and that publicly policy should be friendly towards "piety, religion and morality" and a "future state of rewards and punishments." In addition this public religion "cultivat[es]...the personal, social, and benevolent virtues." As Story notes these are "the great doctrines of religion." Finally Story intimates these great doctrines are found with the "Christian revelation." Arguably, they are. However, the orthodox argue they are not the ESSENCE of the "Christian revelation."

Story never invokes orthodox Trinitarian doctrine (original sin, the trinity, incarnation, and atonement) as having any connection to this "public theology." Finally while Story invokes a future state of rewards and punishments, he never invokes eternal damnation, certainly not eternal damnation for all non-Christians, as part of this political theology.

Some possible reasons why Story doesn't incorporate these things into his political theology? One is he didn't believe in them and neither did America's key Founders -- the men who wrote the Declaration, US Constitution, Federalist Papers and otherwise posited the ideals of republican government and religion (Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Wilson, G. Morris and others). This is where the personal and the political connect. This is why it's relevant to inquire into the personal beliefs, even in their private letters, of notable Founders.

Here is Story on what he DIDN'T believe about Christianity:


Washington, March 6th, 1824.

...The Unitarians are universally steadfast, sincere, and earnest Christians.

They all believe in the divine mission of Christ, the credibility and authenticity of the Bible, the miracles wrought by our Saviour and his apostles, and the efficacy of his precepts to lead men to salvation....They differ among themselves as to the nature of our Saviour, but they all agree that he was the special messenger of God, and that what he taught is of Divine authority. In truth, they principally differ from other Christians in disbelieving the Trinity, for they think Christ was not God, but in the Scripture language “the Son of God.”

And here is testimony from Story's brother, speaking to and through Story's son:

After my continued absence from home for four or five years, we met again, your father being now about eighteen years old, and renewed our former affection towards each other. At this time we were, from a similarity of sentiment, drawn more closely together. I allude particularly to our religious opinions. We frequently discussed the subject of the divinity and the humanity of Christ, and we both agreed in believing in his humanity. Thus you see that your father and myself were early Unitarians, long before the doctrine was preached among us by any one, unless I except Dr. Bentley of Salem.

In other words, Story was a Socinian Unitarian, believing Jesus was 100% human and not divine at all. And here is what Story thought on salvation:

This faith he retained during his whole life, and was ever ardent in his advocacy of the views of Liberal Christians. He was several times President of the American Unitarian Association, and was in the habit of attending its meetings and joining in its discussions. No man, however, was ever more free from a spirit of bigotry and proselytism. He gladly allowed every one freedom of belief, and claimed only that it should be a genuine conviction and not a mere theologic opinion, considering the true faith of every man to be the necessary exponent of his nature, and honoring a religious life more than a formal creed. He admitted within the pale of salvation Mahommedan and Christian, Catholic and Infidel. He believed that whatever is sincere and honest is recognized of God; — that as the views of any sect are but human opinion, susceptible of error on every side, it behooves all men to be on their guard against arrogance of belief; — and that in the sight of God it is not the truth or falsity of our views, but the spirit in which we believe, which alone is of vital consequence. [Bold mine.]

Now, Story obviously thought his "liberal unitarian Christianity" was "Christianity." Story's private creed informed his beliefs on public political theology. And whether this creed qualifies as "Christianity" is a matter of debate. And certainly the debate is one that no government ought to resolve. And America's Foundations hold that no government ought involve itself in this debate. As Madison believed, it's not government's place -- any government, federal, state or local -- to take "cognizance" of these issues.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Jon, I'm sure that my fellow Unitarians will gladly accept the "Christian nation" crowd's admission that it the nation was founded on the Socinian spirit. Any chance they'll do that? No, I didn't think so.