January 17, 2005
EDWARD T. BABINSKI'S CRITIQUE OF "BIBLE AND PRAYER IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICA" by PAUL CINIRAJ, SALEM VOICE, DEVALOKAM (P.O), KOTTAYAM, KERALA-686038, INDIA
ED: The author of the article is Indian. Is the history of the Bible and Prayer in America a big topic in India these days? He seems to have merely edited together bits and pieces of "Christian Nation" arguments found elsewhere on the web. Neither is the author aware of Christian scholars and historians who have produced critiques of "Christian Nation" arguments, like noted Church historian, Mark Noll, of Wheaton College (an Evangelical Christian institution). Had Paul sought out the works of fellow Evangelical Christians on this topic, he might have written a different article. *smile*
Speaking of India, I recently learned that in India they don't show people kissing in their movies. The lips of the movie actors may approach one another, but they then may change scenes or have the actors burst into song, and thus avoid showing the kiss. Catholic censors in Italy used to edit out kisses in movies too, according to the opening scene in Cinema Paradiso. Indians also take oaths in court with their hand on the Bhagavad-Gita rather than the Bible. Their families are close and loving. I know Indian students where I work: Parsis, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, all wonderful people. I also still hear from former Parsi neighbors, again, wonderful people. In American we have all heard about Mother Teresa, but there are hundreds of indigenous Indian charities that we never hear about that have done far more charitable work than Mother Teresa and her group. When the Bophal plant exploded, Mother Teresa's group showed up late and did little, yet rec'd most of the media coverage. By the way the 1997 winner of the million dollar Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion was a Hindu, Shastri Athavale, whose spiritual and social activism was inspired by the The Bhagavad Gita. Athavale has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to spend two weeks or more visiting India's poorest villages where they seek to advance the self-respect and economic condition of those they visit. For more than four decades Athavale has taught that service to God is incomplete without service to humanity.
PAUL: The U.S. Constitution was founded on Biblical principles, and it was the intention of the authors for this to be a Christian nation.
ED: What the authors of the Constitution intended was "religious freedom," exactly as the first amendment guarantees. Quite a striking right to guarrantee, especially when compared with the first commandment ("though shalt have no other gods before me").
Also, many Christians despised "democracy" even after America's Constitution was ratified. Some despise it today, and, like Rev. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, would rather see a "limited democracy under God" i.e., under Old Testament laws.
John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called democracy “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.”
In 1800 the Christian president of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, said: “The great object of democracy is to destroy every trace of civilization in the world and force mankind back into a savage state…We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves. [And after giving some horrible particulars he added] Can the imagination paint anything more dreadful this side of Hell?”
Pope Gregory XVI, the head of the Catholic church from 1831-1846, said, “From the polluted fountain of indifferentism flows that absurd and erroneous doctrine, or rather, raving, which claims and defends liberty of conscience for everyone. From this comes, in a word, the worst plague of all, namely, unrestrained liberty of opinion and freedom of speech…It is in no way lawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing, or of religion, as if they were so many rights that nature has given man.”
I have read that many colonists wanted to continue to obey the powers that be, King George in Britain, just as Saint Paul said to do. I've read that a third of people were in favor of a war of idependence, another third still sided with Britain, and the remainder just kept out of the way.
Speaking of the "Ten Commandments," why are Christians so attached to them and want them posted everywhere, rather than say, wanting to post the Beatitudes of Jesus their savior?
The beatitudes of Jesus, according to St. Matthew:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 3)
Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land. (Verse 4)
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Verse 5)
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have
their fill. (Verse 6)
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Verse 7)
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God. (Verse 8)
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (Verse 9)
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Verse 10)
I saw a book recently that points out in detail that America has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth (more diverse than India? I wonder). In fact I have even read that there are now more practicing Muslims in America than practicing Jews.
For a thoughtful treatment of the concept of America as a Christian nation from three of America's best religious historians, see Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, & George Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Helmers & Howard, 1989).
Here is an article on the web that outlines the debate going on between Christians over the "Christian America" question.
Mark Noll, church historian at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Christian college: There is a "Christian America" view which holds that in some unique, providential way, God singled out the United States as really a part of the outworking salvation in the world. That's the view that I don't think it's appropriate to hold. As a Christian, I believe that only ancient Israel is a chosen nation. Once the Gospel came in the person of Jesus Christ, then there was a universal, human applicability to God's revelation, and God's peoplethe people of God, the nation of Godcomes now, as the book of Revelation says, for "every tribe, every tongue, every nation." But I think we can also talk about a weaker sense of "Christian America" and ask ourselves, "Is the United States a place where a significant Christian influence has had a significant Christian impact?" And I do want to take some time to qualify things, but at the end of the day, I would probably say yes.
JT: And how would you qualify that meaning?
Mark Noll: The qualification would come from a number of things. The time in American history that I think we can see the most influence from Christian values, when the churches were strongest relative to other institutions in society, and when the meaning of Christian faith was probably more clearly understood by a large part of the populationthat was a time, unfortunately, when the United States sanctioned slavery as a legal institution. It was a time when very little attention was given to the humanity of Native Americans. It was a time when some concepts of public morality that are taken for granted today simply didn't exist. I don't want to give a blanket endorsement to an earlier period. And I don't want to make a blanket statement about the drift of modern American secularization, even though I do want to stand by the idea that there were significant Christian values influencing a significant part of the Christian population for good in many particulars.
ED: At the very end of my critique of Paul's article I include some lengthy reviews of books that Paul should read. Note especially Mark Noll's essay in the first book reviewed. Noll shows that "evangelicalism as defined by its conservative Protestant exponents today played at best a negligible role in the founding era of the 1770s and 1780s." True, the political leaders of the Revolution spoke of the deity with respect, but they were not born-again Christians or believers in original sin. They were not atheists, but neither were they evangelicals. Nor, for the most part, was the public that they led. Both inside and outside the leadership ranks, the public political discourse during the Revolution was "overwhelmingly this-worldly" in character.
See also, the final essay in the same book with Noll's, titled, "Why Revolutionary America Wasn't a 'Christian Nation'" by Jon Butler, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. Asking if late eighteenth-century America was a Christian country, Butler proposes to "look at government, society, and people to recover what men and women of the time did and believed." He discovers that the answer to his question is complicated.
In some ways, America on the eve of the Revolution was more religious than it had been in the seventeenth century. Revivalism and denominational expansion during the eighteenth century caused a tremendous growth in the number of congregations. Moreover, the "state church apparatus" was also becoming stronger, with seven of the thirteen colonies giving legal support to a single Protestant church. Even in colonies without an establishment, Catholics, Jews, and blasphemers frequently endured legal discrimination and penalties.
But despite congregational growth and legal support for churches, most eighteenth-century Americans remained indifferent to religion. Before the Revolution, about eighty percent of adults did not even belong to a church. America was only nominally and formally Christian. Indeed, Butler argues that the laws establishing state churches and favoring Protestant Christianity were needed "precisely because actual Christian adherence in the population was relatively weak."
After the Revolution, denominational rivalries and Enlightenment objections to religious coercion led states "to withdraw from or greatly reduce government involvement with religion." In state after state, single-church establishments fell after religious pluralism provoked bitter political squabbles over tax support and legislative favoritism. The culmination of Americans' increasing suspicion of government partiality in religion was the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Going far beyond the prohibition of an established church_, the First Amendment "banned government activity in religion generally." Revolutionary Americans understood that theirs was "a society where Christianity was important yet not ubiquitous." It was not a Christian nation. There was too much indifference, heterodoxy, and atheism to call it that. Given their religious diversity and its potential for turmoil, Americans realized that they could preserve civil peace and promote spiritual renewal only by keeping government from meddling in religion. If the United States were ever to become a Christian nation, it would do so as "a matter of practice, not law or governmental encouragement." Besides the Christian historians, above, also read, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
PAUL: There were 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence on the year 1775, of which 52 were orthodox, deeply committed evangelical Christians.
ED: See the January issue of FIRST THINGS magazine, the article, "The Deist Minimum" by Cardinal Avery Dulles for a more truthful and nuanced discussion of what historians know (and don't know) about many of the signer's beliefs. See also the books by Evangelical Christians below.
PAUL: It is the same Congress that formed the American Bible Society.
ED: "Congress" formed the American Bible Society? Then why doesn't the American Bible Society's website brag about that fact? Also, the American Bible Society was formed decades after the Constitutional Congress first met.
1816: Founding of the American Bible Society in New York City. Elias Boudinot was elected its first president.
PAUL: Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of scripture for the people of this nation.
ED: Depends on how you define "immediately." The Declaration was created and signed in 1776, and the subsequent war with Britain cut off the supply of many goods that America formerly purchased from Britain, including Bibles, with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from "Scotland, Holland or elsewhere," i.e., other than from Britain.
PAUL: Patrick Henry, who is called the firebrand of the American Revolution,
ED: He was called many other things besides:
To James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787-88, Patrick Henry was "the great adversary" who sounded "the trumpet of discord" with his implacable opposition to their plans for a powerful new central government. To a considerable extent history has shared their perspective: Henry is remembered for his revolt against the King, but his opposition to the Constitution is regarded as cranky, wrong-headed, and if not precisely seditious, certainly an affront to national progress and historical good order...
The "liberty or death" speech (delivered, by the way, not in the capitol at Williamsburg, but in a church, in Richmond) resonates with Biblical references and cadences, but let's take another look at that famous concluding phrase--"I know not what course others may take but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death." What posterity hears is the devotion to liberty, but what his audience heard, and what we need to hear as well--is the emphasis, as in evangelical religion, on personal choice and individual commitment, here directed toward unorthodox and daringly original political ends. "You never heard anything more infamously insolent than P. Henry's speech," a Tory merchant wrote. "This creature is so infatuated that he goes about praying and preaching amongst the common people."
PAUL: Patrick Henry is still remembered for his words, "Give me liberty or give me death." But in current textbooks the context of these words is deleted. Here is what he actually said: "An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle sir, is not to the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death."
ED: The above version ignores a lot of words between sentences! See all of Henry's words in context: "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death," Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775
PAUL: The following year, 1776, Patrick Henry wrote this: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here."
ED: "Christian nation" propagandist David Barton popularized the above quotation, but after being challenged to provide a reference for it, Barton ceased citing it, and even issued a statement conceding that 12 quotations he formerly attributed to prominent American historical figures are either false, questionable, or unconfirmed.
Patrick Henry advocated taxing the public to support religion, and limiting public office to only "Trinitarian Protestants" (i.e., in other words, no Jews, no Unitarian Christian in public office). However interesting may be Patrick Henry's comments, they represent the losing side of the Constitutional struggle, a fact Barton fails to point out.
"While some of the country's founders believed that the government should espouse Christianity, that viewpoint soon became a losing proposition. In Virginia, Patrick Henry argued in favor of tax support for Christian churches. But Henry and his cohorts were in the minority and lost that battle."
Also, was Patrick Henry, "born again?":
"Henry had grown up partly in the snug and cozy world of the Virginia gentry--his father was a magistrate and his uncle an Anglican minister--and partly in the world of the evangelical dissenters--his mother, grandfather, and many kinfolk had joined the Presbyterian revival of the 1740s. Patrick Henry sympathized with the spiritual force of the revival, though he never experienced the new birth himself, and he sensed the cultural and political challenge to the gentry's aristocratic control that lay behind it. Though he knew the gentry's ways and remained comfortable with tavern and courthouse politics, his father's declining status and his mother's religious alienation made him somewhat of an outsider."
Also note the following book by a Christian who admits that the Constitution we have is not a "Christian" creation but was too secular to begin with! Fundamentalist Christian author, Dennis Woods, a political pollster with credentials in journalism, education and theology, in his book, Discipling the Nations--The Government Upon His Shoulders, poses the question, "Why are documented historical facts routinely being revised and distorted...by evangelical Christians?" This fundamental question leads to a host of other questions that are in turn addressed by the book. For example....
If George Washington was a Christian why did he refuse to take Communion? (p. 31)
If the U.S. Constitution is a Christian document why does it contain no substantive references to God? (p. 19).
Why do the Federalist Papers contain no references to the Bible and almost 30 references to the governments of pagan Greece and Rome (p. 13).
Why does the U.S. Constitution deny a religious test for public office, when almost all of its colonial forerunners required such a test? (p. 27)
What is the critical difference between government by social compact and government by Biblical covenant? Which one is the U.S. Constitution? Does it matter? (p. 134)
Why were the state legislatures excluded from a part in confirming the U.S. Constitution, as required by the Articles of Confederation? (p. 33)
Why did strong Christian statesmen such as Patrick Henry, John Hancock and Samuel Adams explicitly refuse the invitation to attend the Constitutional Convention? (p. 32)
Why was the convention shrouded in secrecy, with all notes sequestered until after the death of the last delegate? (p. 33)
Why does the Constitution rely on "we the people" to "ordain and establish this Constitution" rather than God, as did nearly every one of its predecessors? (p. 21)
Why did James Madison believe that Christianity was a source of faction rather than the unifying factor in civil government? (p. 24)
The author believes that the naïve or simplistic responses typically offered by Evangelicals like John Eidsmoe, David Barton (WallBuilders), Peter Marshall, and D.J. Kennedy damage the credibility of the very cause they are trying to defend. They seem to feel the Constitution must be defended as a Christian document at all costs, to serve as a firebreak against the conflagration of moral/cultural disintegration. Ironically, they end up defending the root cause of the very evil they are trying to eradicate. "We need to take what is good from the Constitution," says Woods, "admit the problems, and then move forward to correct them." After reading this book a state legislator and longtime seminar instructor on America's Christian history had this observation:
Lastly, consider this quotation from Patrick Henry:
"That religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." (Patrick Henry, 1736-1799, American patriot and statesman, Virginia Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776. From Daniel B. Baker, ed., Political Quotations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990, p. 189.)
PAUL: Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote on the front of his well- worn Bible: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our Creator ."
ED: The "doctrines of Jesus" as Jefferson understood them, are not to be confused with the "doctrines of Christianity" as you, Paul, understand them. See the following quotations from Jefferson:
"[Of Jesus] Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the the most lovely benevolence, and others, again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the dross; restore to him the former and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, the roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus."
--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to W. Short, 1820
"To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."--Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, with Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, with Copies; Partial Transcription Available "The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of it's benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind."
--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Moses Robinson, 1801. ME 10:237
"I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists [orthodox Christians], who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great Reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were He to return on earth, would not recognize one feature."
--Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816
The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition.
Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford.
Jefferson also acknowledged:
"Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such Being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814.From Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 358.
MORE THOMAS JEFFERSON QUOTATIONS
"Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you"
--Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson's Works, Vol. ii., p. 217.
The God of the Old Testament -- the God which Christians worship -- Jefferson pronounces "a being of terrific character -- cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust" (Works Vol. iv., p. 325).
In speaking of the Jewish priests, he denominates them "a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob, and the local God of Israel" (Ibid.).
In a letter to John Adams, dated April 8, 1816, referring to the God of the Jews, be says:
"Their God would be deemed a very indifferent man with us" (Ibid., p. 373).
To his nephew he writes as follows regarding the Bible:
"Read the Bible as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example, in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of their statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature" (Works, Vol. ii., p. 217).
In this same letter, he thus refers to Jesus Christ:
"Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: First, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws of Nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven; and second, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, and the second by exile or death in furea."
His own opinion respecting the above is expressed in a letter to John Adams, written a short time previous to his death:
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" (Works, Vol. iv, p. 365).
In the gospel history of Jesus, Jefferson discovers what he terms "a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticism, and fabrications" (Works, Vol. iv, p. 325).
"If we could believe that he [Jesus] really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods, and the charlatanism which his biographers [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,] father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations, and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and the fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind that he was an impostor" (Ibid..).
Jefferson, however, did not regard Jesus as an impostor. He says:
"Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross, restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and the roguery of others of his disciples" (Ibid., 320).
Jefferson made a compilation of the more rational and humane teachings of Jesus, the "gold," as he termed it, which has since been published. Some superficial readers have supposed this to be an acknowledgment of Christ. Orthodox teachers, however, know. better and ignore the book. For the man Jesus, Jefferson, had nothing but admiration; for the Christ Jesus of theology, nothing but contempt.
John Remsburg, Six Historic Americans, Chapter 2
See also "The Dangers of Combining Politics And Religion Examples From Early American History, 1797 to 1800," research by Jim Allison:
This article begins in the last three years of the 1700s in America. In this beginning section you will read how John Adams used religion and later regretted it. Alexander Hamilton recommending the use of religion for political purposes. The Treaty of Tripoli, signed by Adams into law, stating that this nation was not founded on religion. A July 4th sermon by the Rev Timothy Dwight, newspaper reactions to some of these goings on. The stage was being set for what was to come in a couple of short years. Some have said that the dirtiest political campaign in American history was the campaign of 1800. During that campaign religion was brought into it a big way. The Clergy of New England, in particular, used religion as a weapon to prevent Jefferson from being elected president. He was called an atheist, an infidel. Religious prejudices, biases and fears of many of the people were played upon. They used the pulpit, they used pamphlets, they used the newspapers. Many of the Federalist party joined in this tactic. Friends of Jefferson responded defending him and frequently attacking the religion of members of the Federalist party, especially John Adams. In this article you will find a couple of pamphlets that were published at that time that cannot be found anywhere else on the Internet that the general public has access to. The pamphlets are: Serious Considerations on the Election of a President: Addressed to the Citizens of the United States. Rev. William Linn, Rev. John Mitchell Mason (New York 1800) and A Vindication of Thomas Jefferson; Against the Charges Contained in a Pamphlet Entitled, "Serious Considerations on the Election of a President:
Addressed to the Citizens of the United States" Clinton, DeWitt, 1769-1828
PAUL: Thomas Jefferson was also the chairman of the American Bible Society, which he considered his highest and most important role.
ED: False. But presidents, John Quincy Adams and John Jay, did serve the American Bible society either as president or vice-president, after the American Bible Society was formed in 1816.
PAUL: The U.S. Constitution is the form of its government, but the power is in the virtue of the people. The virtue desired of the people is shown in the Bible. This is why Biblical morality was taught in public schools until the early 1960's. Government officials were required to declare their belief in God even to be allowed to hold a public office until a case in the U.S. Supreme Court called Torcaso v. Watkins (Oct. 1960). God was seen as the author of natural law and morality. If one did not believe in God one could not operate from a proper moral base. And by not having a foundation from which to work, one would destroy the community.
ED: Article VI of the U.S. Constitution concludes with these words: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Many state constitutions also added the requirement of a minimal belief in a supreme Being: Article 37 of the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution: "[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God "
So, yes, the case of Torcaso v. Watkins did make a difference, interpreting "no religious test" in the broadest sense possible, including atheism.
PAUL: On July 4, 1821, President Adams said: "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity."
ED: John Adams, great patriot and second President, was a Unitarian, and did not believe in Jesus' equality with God or the doctrine of the Trinity. It is also doubtful that he believed in the doctrine of eternal damnation, since Unitarians had their doubts about that teaching as well. John Quincy Adams was likewise a Unitarian.
PAUL: James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution of the United States, said this: "We have staked the whole future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments."
ED: Robert S. Alley, professor emeritus at the University of Richmond and author of James Madison on Religious Liberty, undertook a dogged effort to track down the above alleged Madison quotation. Enlisting the help of the editors of The Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia, Alley scoured reams of documents, books and writings. After coming up empty-handed, the Madison scholar concluded that the quote was probably fictional. The major purveyor of the quote, David Barton, has admitted it is "unconfirmed."
However, here are some genuine confirmed quotations from James Madison:
Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize [sic], every expanded prospect. (James Madison, in a letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774, as quoted by Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 37.)
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? (James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance," addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, pp. 459-460. According to Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, pp. 39 ff., Madison's "Remonstrance" was instrumental in blocking the multiple establishment of all denominations of Christianity in Virginia.)
Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. (James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788; from Michael Kammen, The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, 1986, pp. 369-370. )
On Feb. 21, 1811, Madison vetoed a bill for incorporating the Episcopal Church in Alexandria, and on Feb. 28, 1811, one reserving land in Mississippi territory for a Baptist Church. (James D. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents [Washington, 1896-1899], I, 489-490, as cited in a footnote, Elizabeth Fleet, "Madison's Detatched Memoranda," William & Mary Quarterly, Third series: Vol. III, No. 4 [October, 1946], p. 555.)
Chaplainships of both Congress and the armed services were established sixteen years before the First Amendment was adopted. It would have been fatuous folly for anybody to stir a major controversy over a minor matter before the meaning of the amendment had been threshed out in weightier matters. But Madison did foresee the danger that minor deviations from the constitutional path would deepen into dangerous precedents. He took care of one of them by his veto [in 1811] of the appropriation for a Baptist church. Others he dealt with in his "Essay on Monopolies," unpublished until 1946. Here is what he wrote: "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them, and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does this not involve the principle of a national establishment ... ?" The appointments, he said, were also a palpable violation of equal rights. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain? "To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the veil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor." The problem, said the author of the First Amendment, was how to prevent "this step beyond the landmarks of power [from having] the effect of a legitimate precedent." Rather than let that happen, it would "be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [the law takes no account of trifles]." Or, he said (likewise in Latin), class it with faults that result from carelessness or that human nature could scarcely avoid." "Better also," he went on, "to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion." ... The deviations from constitutional principles went further: "Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed. Altho' recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers." (Irving Brant, The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965, pp. 423-424. Brant gives the source of "Essay on Monopolies" as Elizabeth Fleet, "Madison's Detatched Memoranda," William & Mary Quarterly, Third series: Vol. III, No. 4 [October, 1946], pp. 554-562.)
And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. (James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822; published in The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings, ed. by Saul K. Padover, New York: Harper & Bros., 1953.) The only ultimate protection for religious liberty in a country like ours, Madison pointed out--echoing Jefferson;--is public opinion: a firm and pervading opinion that the First Amendment works. "Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance." (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 56. Madison's words, according to Gaustad, are from his letter of 10 July 1822 to Edward Livingston.)
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. (James Madison, according to Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. xii.)
This assertion [that Madison was committed to total and complete separation of church and state] would be challenged by the nonpreferentialists, who agree with Justice Rehnquist's dissent in the Jaffree case. Contrasted with the analysis set forth above, Rehnquist insisted that Madison's "original language Ônor shall any national religion be established' obviously does not conform to the Ôwall of separation' between church and state which latter day commentators have ascribed to him." Rehnquist believes Madison was seeking merely to restrict Congress from establishing a particular national church. There are three problems with this contention. First, nothing in Madison's acts or words support such a proposition. Indeed, his opposition to the General Assessment Bill in Virginia, detailed in the "Memorial and Remonstrance," contradicts Rehnquist directly. Secondly, all of Madison's writings after 1789 support the Court's twentieth-century understanding of the term "wall of separation." Third, the reference to Madison's use of "national" simply misses his definition of the word. Madison had an expansive intention when he used the term national. He believed that "religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgiving and fasts ... imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion." He commented in a similar way about chaplains for the House and Senate. Historical evidence lends no support to the Rehnquist thesis. And clearly Jefferson, even though absent from the First Congress, seems a far more secure source of "original intent" than Justice Rehnquist. (Robert S. Alley, ed., The Supreme Court on Church and State, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 13.)
PAUL: Unfortunately, in October 1961 the Supreme Court of the United States removed prayer from schools in a case called Engel v. Vitale.
Was school prayer widespread before 1962? The religious right has a stake in making people think that the Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s destroyed a common and widely accepted practice of school prayer. In fact, laws requiring school prayer and Bible reading were not nearly as widespread as prayer advocates claim, were late-comers to the public education, were frequently and successfully challenged in court, and were on their way out when the Supreme Court handed down it's rulings in Engle v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp. To begin with, research suggests that mandatory prayer and Bible reading were not historically required n the public schools. Robert Boston, for example, summarizes the research of Boardman W. Katham, a United Church of Christ Minister who has researched public education extensively, as follows:
As public schools evolved in the post-Revolutionary War period, there was a general attitude of indifference toward religion among the American public. While the Bible was often used in schools as a reader and speller, formal daily prayers and devotional readings were held sporadically, often only when a local clergyman visited a school (Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State, p. 102).
Rather, the move to require prayer and Bible reading in the public schools didn't gain steam until the Civil War era, and even then didn't generally manifest itself in law until early 1900s:
(P)rior to 1900, only Massachusetts has a law on the books dealing with prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Between 1910 and 1930, seventeen states and the District of Columbia passed similar laws. The movement to get these ordinances on the books was spearheaded by a powerful lobby of conservative church groups, led by the National Reform Association.
Critically, these practices were soon challenged in Court as violating the freedom of religion provisions of various state Constitutions. In 1910, for example, an Illinois Supreme Court struck down religious exercises in its public schools. Wisconsin ruled such exercises unconstitutional in 1890 and Nebraska did the same in 1903 (Boston, pp. 100-101). In total, the issue of religious practices in public schools came up in 22 state courts before 1962, with those practices being struck down in eight cases and upheld in 14.
Nor was Bible reading all that widespread. According to Boston (p. 101), Americans United for Separation of Church and State took a survey of Bible reading in the public schools in 1960, only three years before the Supreme Court's Bible reading decision (Abington Township School District v. Schempp). According to the survey, only five states required Bible reading in the public schools, while twenty five states allowed such practices. Eleven states had declared the practice unconstitutional, and the remainder had no relevant laws on the books.
The fact is that school prayer and Bible reading was only infrequently required by law, and had been declared illegal by a number of states before 1962. The school prayer and Bible reading decisions of the Supreme Court were neither unprecedented, nor out of step with a growing body of laws and court cases that saw these practices as an infringement of our religious liberty.
PAUL: For 185 years prayer was allowed in public and the Constitutional Convention itself was opened with prayer.
ED: I read that Benjamin Franklin stood up and suggested that they pray, but the convention delegates voted down Franklin's suggestion.
PAUL: The 1961 prayer in question was not even lengthy or denominationally geared. It was this: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."
Removing this simple acknowledgment of God's protecting hand dramatically increased the birth rates for unwed girls 0f 15-19 year olds, and sexually transmitted diseases among 10-14 year olds...Moral character has plummetted resulting in a much higher divorce rate, tens of millions of abortions, and a suicide rate among teenagers that is one of the leading causes of death. The Bible, before 1961, was used extensively in curriculum. After the Bible and the prayer was removed from the schools, scholastic aptitude test scores dropped considerably.
ED: Removing that little prayer did all of that? I would like to see exact figures. I read an article on the internet a while back that pointed out that such changes were not "dramatic," but already moving in certain directions, and there were other reasons for such changes, other than no longer repeating a little prayer in school each day or having kids read from the Bible. Also, do you have proof that the Bible was used "extensively" in public school curriculums throughout the entire U.S. prior to 1961?
DETAILED REVIEWS OF SEVERAL BOOKS THAT PAUL NEEDS TO READ
James H. Hutson, ed. Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America. Lanham, Md., and Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Reviewed for H-SHEAR by William Breitenbach , Department of History, University of Puget Sound
I was delighted to read this refreshing comment by Jon Butler in the essay that concludes this volume: "Let's be blunt. It is no longer possible for historians generally, or for a historian--this historian--to pretend that any judgment about this question is merely an exercise of abstract scholarship...Only by acknowledging the sheer partisanship that now invades these matters can we go back to the eighteenth century with any sense of honesty. Perhaps, we ought to return to it with relief" (pp. 188-89).
For the most part, it is indeed a relief to follow this book's seven essayists back in time as they attempt to puzzle out what it was that eighteenth-century Americans thought about religion and government. Not surprisingly, what the essayists have found in the past varies, for, as editor James H. Hutson admits, when the Library of Congress sponsors a symposium on "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," as it did in June 1998, it must take pains "to ensure that a variety of views are represented" (p. vii). (With one exception, the essays in this book are revisions of papers delivered at that symposium.)
As Butler's remark implies, the journey into the past comes with a round-trip ticket. Each of these essayists wants to suggest--some more strongly than others--that what revolutionary Americans thought and did has some relevance to current debates about religion and the republic. The best of the essays, however, return to the present with a complex sense of historical context, a sense which, if widely shared, would hush those clamorous partisans who delight in yelling at one another across the wall. I'll take the essays up in the order of their appearance. John Witte, Jr., is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and the director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University Law School. His essay, "'A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion': John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment," looks at the religious establishment sanctioned by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Witte's main point is that Jefferson's model of religious liberty, which called for the complete detachment of the state from religion, was not the only model blessed by the founders. Jefferson's friend and rival, John Adams, shared with the Virginian an abhorrence of ecclesiastical tyranny and a commitment to liberty of conscience, but he nonetheless believed that "the freedom of many private religions" was perfectly compatible with "the establishment of one 'Publick religion'" (p. 3).
Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution attempted to create, or rather preserve, the type of mild religious establishment that Adams favored. It protected rights of conscience and permitted religious pluralism but it also authorized the state legislature to require towns to institute the public worship of God; to provide tax support for elected "public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality"; and to "enjoin attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers" for residents who could conscientiously and conveniently attend (p. 13). Those townsfolk who regularly worshiped with other denominations could direct their taxes to their own ministers, but everyone else would have his taxes go toward the maintenance of the community's chosen public minister. Although John Adams did not draft Article III and indeed had left the country before the constitutional convention completed its deliberations, he supported the Massachusetts model of religious establishment. He believed that a common religion and a shared sense of morality were essential foundations for liberty and republican government: As Witte puts it, Adams assumed that "too much freedom of religion would only encourage depravity in citizens" (p. 18). Hence, Adams defined freedom of religion as a right to religion: "the right of each individual to discharge divine duties--which duties the Constitution helped to define" (p. 17). According to Witte, Adams considered religious rights to be as much social as individual in character; they were shaped by the needs of society for public virtue and public peace.
Witte observes that the "slender" religious establishment in Massachusetts had three manifestations. In addition to the "institutional establishment" (p. 22) perpetuated by Article III, there was a "ceremonial establishment" (p. 19) that drew upon Puritan covenantalism by invoking the name and presence of God in public rituals, as when public officials swore their oaths of office. There was also a "moral establishment" (p. 20), which took the form of constitutional endorsements of religious morality as the prerequisite for civil liberty. The institutional establishment, controversial even in 1780 and "unworkable in practice" (p. 29), continued to arouse opposition until it was overturned by constitutional amendment in 1833. But the ceremonial and moral establishments, Witte suggests, remain entombed to this day in the Massachusetts Constitution, waiting to be resurrected (p. 22).
Witte's concluding paragraphs reveal the destination to which he wants to return after his journey to the eighteenth century. Jefferson should not be viewed as the exclusive spokesman for the founders. We should also (instead?) listen to Adams, who would "likely insist" that we recognize the "dialectical nature of religious freedom and religious establishment":
"Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption. But too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives" (pp. 30-31). In favoring "a complete disestablishment of religion," the Supreme Court has done a disservice to "a people so widely devoted to a public religion and a religious public" (p. 31). Americans today should follow Adams's example and seek a new constitutional balance "between extremes" (p. 31), by which Witte presumably means judicial affirmation of "modern theories of accommodationism and religious communitarianism" (p. 4).
As I was reading Witte's essay, I kept thinking of a chapter title in Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic: "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams." Why should we follow Adams in matters of religion when we follow him in so little else? Witte is clearly right to note that not all revolutionary Americans wanted a complete separation of religion and government. After all, Massachusetts did retain its institutional establishment for half a century after the Revolution. But Massachusetts was hardly typical or representative in doing so. And even in Massachusetts, the mild establishment was nearly flushed away by "a torrent of objections" (p. 23). Article III actually failed to receive the requisite two-thirds majority from the people when the Constitution was ratified in 1780 (though the constitutional convention ignored the vote). So, if we want to look to eighteenth-century Massachusetts for "noble instruction" (p. 31) on religious liberty, a case could be made for choosing Isaac Backus over John Adams as the Revolutionary whose opinions should count. For that matter, it might make sense to listen to the anti-ecclesiastical Adams of A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765) rather than to hearken, as Witte does, to the cranky old man who spent the 1810s deluging his correspondents with lamentations about the loss of republican virtue. Still, even if Witte does not prove Adams to be the best guide for the present, he does demonstrate convincingly that Jefferson's views on church and state were not universally accepted, not even by other famous founders who shared his Enlightenment culture and his revolutionary experience.
In "The Use and Abuse of Jefferson's Statute: Separating Church and State in Nineteenth-Century Virginia," Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., shows, among other things, that not even Jefferson adhered to Jefferson's principles. Nor did the nineteenth-century Virginians who claimed to be applying them. Buckley, who is Professor of Historical Theology in the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, offers a fascinating discussion of the ways that Virginians regularly transformed the meaning of church-state separation to meet the culturally conditioned needs of their particular circumstances. Like many other commentators, Buckley takes as his central text Jefferson's famous Statute for Religious Freedom (1786). But unlike those who treat it as a timeless precept, Buckley considers it historically, examining Virginians' "lived experience of the Statute in the nineteenth century" (p. 43). In particular, his essay focuses on three issues: the exclusion of clergymen from public office, the legal incorporation of religious organizations, and the place of religion in public education. Jefferson's Statute called for a strict separation of church and state. Declaring that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions," it denounced as a violation of "natural right" any measure that linked public office to religious profession or that diminished or enlarged people's civil capacities because of their religious beliefs (pp. 41-42). Yet when a Methodist preacher named Humphrey Billups was elected to the House of Delegates in 1826, the legislature disqualified him by a vote of 179 to 2. In disregarding the language of the Statute, Billups's opponents appealed to its supposed purpose, which they said was to prevent sectarian domination of government. When the Virginia Constitution was revised in 1830, Jefferson's prohibition against religious tests was incorporated into it but so too was clerical exclusion. The inconsistency was again justified on cultural grounds: the clergy should be excluded lest they be corrupted by "the rough and tumble" of politics. And so it went for forty more years. Ignoring Jefferson's principles of civil and natural rights, Virginians drew the line between church and state according to the current values of their culture. It was only when the culture changed and Reconstruction-era reformers wanted to "elevate the moral tone of politics" (p. 45) that the disqualification of ministers was dropped from the Constitution. Jefferson's notions of natural rights had nothing to do with it.
Buckley makes a similar argument about cultural context trumping abstract rights in his section on the incorporation of religious organizations. After repealing the incorporation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1787, the Virginia legislature routinely refused to incorporate churches, seminaries, or religious charities. Restrictions of one sort or another continued through a succession of constitutional revisions, all the way into the twentieth century. What motivated this policy was not the doctrine of separation but the widespread cultural fear of powerful and wealthy churches. Virginians persisted in their policy even though its consequences seemed to violate the principles of Jefferson's Statute. For example, the state's courts found themselves continually entangled in the temporal affairs of unincorporated churches, and many of the state's citizens found themselves denied rights merely because they chose to gather themselves into religious associations.
Buckley's third case--religious education--reveals how the evangelical culture of the nineteenth century reshaped church-state separation. Jefferson had hoped to eliminate religion from his proposed public university by removing theology from the curriculum. But as evangelical Protestantism came to dominate Virginia's culture in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson realized that he would have to compromise: he accepted nonsectarian religious education at the University of Virginia so long as it was taught under the name of moral philosophy. The separation of church and state apparently did not require, even for Jefferson, an unreligious public education. Jefferson's compromise was reenacted at other colleges, and even denominational colleges were required to be nonsectarian (though they were permitted to be religious). By the end of the nineteenth century, the separation of church and state meant, in Virginia's public school system, the inculcation of nonsectarian evangelical Protestantism, complete with Bible-reading, praying, and hymn-singing. Few seem to have complained, as long as students were not subjected to denominational coercion or compulsion.
Buckley's conclusion sounds like a historian's conclusion, one sensitive to context and change: "The meaning of the Virginia Statute, of separation of church and state, not only unfolded in Virginia, it changed. Its application, like that of the First Amendment, has been and always will be culturally contextualized" (p. 55). The "always will be" is a clue, however, that Buckley, like Witte, returns from his historical journey with a contemporary destination in mind. It turns out to be a destination pretty close to Witte's position on accommodationism. If "culturally contextualized separation" (p. 54) was good enough for Jefferson, Buckley implies, it should be good enough for us. Jefferson and his nineteenth-century disciples in Virginia "refused to follow rigid principles to their logical, absolute conclusions when they perceived that higher concerns and values were at stake" (p. 55). What's at stake--then and apparently now--is the "welfare of the commonwealth," something seemingly so dependent upon religion that "the government should recognize it and support it" (p. 55). Since "most Americans today" would agree, since "we" understand "the important benefits the religious faith of our people confers on our republic" (p. 55), we should presumably tolerate a little cultural contextualizing of our principles. Hmmm, is that sound I hear the wall shifting?
Daniel L. Dreisbach, Associate Professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University, examines Jefferson's wall with the care of a structural engineer. His essay, "Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State,'" discusses the origins of the "wall of separation" metaphor in Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association and the subsequent use of the metaphor by courts and commentators to describe the constitutional relationship between church and state. Dreisbach's purpose is to advance a new interpretation of Jefferson's metaphor, an interpretation consistent with the text and context of the Danbury letter and consistent too with his preferences for church-state relations today.
Dreisbach's essay is long, diffuse, and quite repetitive. Some of the sections seem to bear little relationship to the main point, including the introductory one that describes a half-ton cheese sent from Massachusetts to the White House by Jefferson's Baptist supporters. (This may be my only professional opportunity to urge someone to cut the cheese, so I'll seize it.)
When Dreisbach gets down to business, he makes the following points. The phrase "a wall of separation between Church & State" appeared in Jefferson's reply to a letter written by the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, congratulating him on his election to the presidency. Jefferson wrote his response carefully, even circulating a draft to two New Englanders in his cabinet, because he was acutely aware of its political implications. Indeed, Jefferson's letter was fundamentally a political document, not a theological or jurisprudential one. He wanted to shore up electoral support among the New England Baptists by reassuring them that he was devoted to their religious liberty. He also wanted to cuff the Federalist-Congregationalist establishment that had denounced him as an infidel during the presidential campaign of 1800. His hope was to sow some "'useful truths & principles' that 'might germinate and become rooted among [the people's] political tenets'" (p. 72). As Dreisbach notes, this horticultural wording of the letter's purpose implicitly admits that Jefferson's position on church-state separation did not reflect prevailing public attitudes. Hence it is not legitimate for historians and jurists to use the letter as an epitome of the founders' generally accepted understanding of the proper constitutional relationship of church and state.
When Dreisbach moves from the context to the text of Jefferson's letter, he discovers that it was not as far-reaching as historians and jurists have sometimes taken it to be. Here is the relevant sentence: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State" (quoted at p. 74). Following Jon Butler, Dreisbach argues that Jefferson narrowed the scope of his statement by using the word church rather than the word _religion. Jefferson also narrowed the reach of the other key word, according to Dreisbach, by making it clear that the "State" he referred to was the national government, not the governments of the states. From the restrictive wording, Dreisbach concludes that Jefferson was not using the wall metaphor to announce a universal principle nor was he expressing "his views on the constitutional and prudential relationship between religion and all civil government" (p. 75).
What then was he doing? Dreisbach advances a "jurisdictional interpretation of the metaphor," contending that Jefferson's wall was intended to separate "the legitimate jurisdictions of federal and state governments on religious matters" (p. 75). In other words, Jefferson was offering a gloss on the First Amendment, explaining to the Danbury Baptists the nature of federalism, not the nature of church-state relations. In effect, his letter was alerting them that the federal government might be constitutionally barred from interfering in religion but that state governments were "authorized to accommodate and even prescribe religious exercises" (p. 78).
As evidence for this jurisdictional interpretation, Dreisbach points to Jefferson's own "willingness to issue religious proclamations in colonial and state government settings" (p. 77). From this apparent inconsistency, Dreisbach concludes that Jefferson's wall metaphor applied solely to the federal government. Next, he shifts his analysis from the Danbury letter to the First Amendment, arguing that Jefferson and his contemporaries viewed the Bill of Rights as "essentially a states' rights document" (p. 79). The First Amendment was, he says, a guarantee to the states that the federal government could not interfere with their religious establishments: "The use of a First Amendment wall to protect dissenters' religious rights in the states would have dangerously undermined that other great protector of civil and religious liberty--federalism" (p. 81). Hence those who take the wall metaphor as "the quintessential symbolic expression" of Jefferson's views on church and state are using it in ways that he "almost certainly would not have recognized and, perhaps, would have repudiated" (p. 84).
But to prove this claim, Dreisbach must ignore the three introductory clauses in Jefferson's wall sentence quoted above. And he must also disregard the sentence in the Danbury letter that follows the wall sentence: "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties" (quoted at p. 74). To me at least, these words suggest that Jefferson was attempting to state universal principles about religion and government, principles that the federal constitution had incorporated and that he wished to see extended more generally.
Besides, Dreisbach's argument confuses Jefferson's understanding of his constitutional powers with his personal principles and preferences. It is rather like reasoning that President Lincoln wished slavery to flourish in 1861 because he said that he lacked constitutional authority to free the slaves. Even Dreisbach seems to concede that he has pushed too far. After insisting that the wall metaphor was not a general statement of Jefferson's views on church-state relations, he acknowledges, "It is plausible, even likely, that Jefferson desired each state through its respective constitutions and laws to erect its own wall of separation..." (p. 83).
If so, why all the jurisdictional huffing and puffing? Dreisbach's real quarrel seems to be not with historians who have misunderstood Jefferson's values but with jurists who have misapplied his words. If the courts had not seized on the wall metaphor as the authoritative explication of the First Amendment, it is hard to imagine that Dreisbach or anybody else would have attempted to argue that the Danbury letter was about Jefferson's views on federalism rather than his views on church and state. But if Dreisbach is to get where he wants to go today, he must either change legal doctrine or change history. It is easier to change history.
Unlike judges, historians don't subscribe to the principle of stare decisis.
After three essays that seem intent upon finding historical grounds for a flexible and "accommodationist" reading of the First Amendment, it is refreshing to encounter one that has no obvious policy goals for the present. Catherine A. Brekus, Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, seeks to explain how the Revolution's religious settlement helped to change the status of women. Her essay, "The Revolution in the Churches: Women's Religious Activism in the Early American Republic," makes the following resolutely historical argument. Before the Revolution, when church was closely tied to state, "women were almost universally excluded from positions of religious leadership" (p. 118), and they were disciplined--by church and state alike--if they challenged males' authority in religion. The exceptions were dissenting sects like the Baptists, Quakers, and Separates. Because these sects had divorced religion from politics, they did not view women's public religious leadership as threatening their legal, economic, and political subordination to men. Brekus acknowledges that theology was also a factor, but she contends that there was "a strong correlation between religious dissent and female leadership in colonial America" (p. 121).
When the First Amendment "shattered the traditional relationship between religion and politics" (p. 121), all churches became, in effect, dissenting sects. As voluntary associations that depended on persuasion for their success, they occupied a middle ground "between the private world of the family and the public world of the government" (p. 123). Because they were no longer quasi-governmental institutions, the newly disestablished churches could accept women's religious activism and leadership without seeming to countenance political disorder. Indeed, the notion of republican motherhood suggested that women's participation in church-sponsored reform movements actually secured public order. Thus the ante-bellum churches offered women an entrance into public life. Women of all kinds--Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; blacks and whites; Northerners and Southerners; middle class and working class--surged through the opening. The most striking and controversial examples of women in the public sphere were female evangelical preachers. Although these women preachers typically denied any desire to overturn male authority, it was but a short step from their defense of women's religious rights to feminists' demands for women's political rights: if women could be preachers, "why couldn't they also vote or hold public office?" (p. 130).
Now, one might object that Brekus gives too much weight to disestablishment and the First Amendment (though her emphasis is understandable, given the book's subject). It is quite likely that women's religious activism would have increased had there been no Revolution. After all, religious women in England actively participated in nineteenth-century missionary and moral reform movements. Moreover, in the United States women's activism in religion and reform was greatest in New England, the region where established churches held on the longest. Still, Brekus's essay offers an intriguing, fresh look at some old topics. Although it might seem that she is saying the same thing that Nancy F. Cott said a quarter century ago in The Bonds of Womanhood, Brekus gives her argument a slightly different spin. She stresses women's agency and leadership more than male ministers' control and direction. And she describes religious and reform societies not as sororal extensions of women's domestic sphere but rather as public arenas in which "women worked side by side with men" (p. 124; see also p. 126). Other historians have observed that the women's rights movement had religious roots. But when Brekus says that the political revolution for American women was preceded by a religious revolution (p. 117), she helps us realize that this fact belongs as much in the history of American religion as it does in the history of American feminism.
Finally, this essay is a useful complement to the currently popular argument that the American Revolution constructed a definition of citizenship through gender (and racial) exclusion. Without disputing that claim, Brekus nevertheless restores some revolution to the Revolution by showing that once the "founders set in motion a religious revolution" (p. 130), they inadvertently started a gender revolution as well. This is a nice essay. It made me think anew about matters that I thought I already understood.
The next essay, "Evangelicals in the American Founding and Evangelical Political Mobilization Today," is great. Written by Mark A. Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, it is the one essay that was not delivered as a paper at the Library of Congress symposium. Noll, who is widely admired as an evangelical Christian scholar dedicated to intellectual candor and historical rigor, sets out to correct the misuse of history by contemporary disputants, especially by politically mobilized evangelicals who claim that America's founders embraced evangelical beliefs.
Noll begins his essay with a long, careful doctrinal, sociological, and historical analysis of political mobilization among white conservative Protestant evangelicals during the past twenty-five years. Resentful of "national standards of moral practice" (p. 145) that accompanied the expansion of federal authority, these evangelical Protestant conservatives felt "a sense of historical violation": "the deep conviction that the United States was once a Christian country in a meaningful, if nonestablishmentarian, sense of the term, which in the fairly recent past has been hijacked by secularists in a great conspiracy to negate that historical reality" (p. 145). In reaction to this evangelical myth of the founding disseminated by the New Christian Right, there has emerged a liberal, secularist counter-myth, typified by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick's book The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. Noll explodes both myths. In so doing, he reveals that good history makes for complex truths and that complex truths in turn make for good politics, which is to say politics based on understanding and tolerance.
Noll shows that "evangelicalism as defined by its conservative Protestant exponents today played at best a negligible role in the founding era of the 1770s and 1780s" (p. 146). True, the political leaders of the Revolution spoke of the deity with respect, but they were not born-again Christians or believers in original sin. They were not atheists, but neither were they evangelicals. Nor, for the most part, was the public that they led. Both inside and outside the leadership ranks, the public political discourse during the Revolution was "overwhelmingly this-worldly" in character (p. 147). In fact, what we would recognize as evangelical Christianity did not begin to flourish in America until after 1800; in other words, it emerged after the framework for church-state relations had been set by the decidedly non-evangelical founding generation. The founders had determined that there would be no religious establishment, but they also had assumed that religion would be relied upon to "provide the morality without which a republic would collapse"(p. 151). In the nineteenth century, voluntarist evangelical denominations responded to the founders' challenge, successfully moralizing American culture. But even as they spread their values, they never produced a unified evangelical politics. Throughout the ante-bellum period, evangelicals were divided politically along regional, class, denominational, and doctrinal lines.
Having proved that the founders' guidelines for religion and society emerged in a situation "more theistic than some modern liberals admit" but "much less explicitly Christian than modern evangelicals wish" (p. 154), Noll ends with four contemporary applications. First, he urges Americans to engage in honest political debate rather than search the mythic past for a "constitutional silver bullet" (p. 154). Second, he urges evangelicals to recognize that while political mobilization is traditional in America, a unified evangelical politics is not. Third, he urges evangelical conservatives to consider the dangers of political involvement by reflecting on the lessons of the Civil War, which weakened evangelicalism "as a spiritual force" in both North and South (p. 155). Finally, he urges all Americans to understand that though today's evangelicals are wrong to appropriate the founders, they are right to insist that the founders rested their hopes for the republic on the virtue that religion promotes.
Noll's balanced arguments and judicious tone are models for historians who seek to study a past that has become the present's battleground. This essay should also be required reading for anyone tempted to arm himself with a quotation from Washington's Farewell Address and fire off a letter to the editor about the Faith of Our Fathers. As if to demonstrate, however, that good advice is generally ignored, Noll's sensible contribution is followed by Michael Novak's harangue on "The Influence of Judaism and Christianity on the American Founding." Novak, who occupies the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, has written the kind of essay that Noll's is designed to prevent. To a historian, this essay will seem the weakest one in the book, not simply because it has the most overt political agenda but also because it displays the least concern for historical context. A swashbuckling op-ed style is evident in the deliberately provocative question that begins the piece: "Can an atheist be a good American?" (p. 159). That style is also apparent in the breezy contention that "few historians or political philosophers" possess sufficient familiarity with "the traditions of religious reflection on liberty" to descry the thesis that Novak intends "to lift into view" (p. 159). Once hoisted, however, the thesis does not appear to be all that novel. Novak asserts that the founders drew upon both "Whig and Jewish-Christian theories of liberty" (p. 159). Reason and revelation converged to teach them that liberty required virtue, that virtue required religion, and that all three--religion and virtue and liberty--were precarious and easily lost. To secure all three and preserve republican government, the founders chose not to establish a national church but rather to foster "religious habits of the heart" in the American people (p. 173). Their efforts to build the republic on a moral foundation meant that they accepted and even encouraged the "free exercise" of religion in public life (p. 174). Unlike Noll, who contrasts the unevangelical American Revolutionaries with their nineteenth-century evangelical descendants, Novak contrasts them with their near-contemporaries, the infidel Jacobins. Whereas the future-oriented French Revolutionaries followed the Enlightenment's abstract principles of Reason to their destructive, radical, atheistic conclusions, the American Whigs were traditionalists who shunned utopian abstractions and sought instead to restore ancient Saxon liberties and Jewish-Christian religion. In Novak's version of comparative revolutions, Robespierre bade his countrymen lose their heads in the Terror; Washington bade his bow their heads in prayer.
But, Novak warns, the founders' foundation is being sapped. During the past fifty years "important elites in American life" including political philosophers, law school professors, and judges "have come to regard religion as a force inimical to democracy" (p. 163). They have been "Europeanizing" (p. 163) the American Revolution by denying its religious sources and stressing instead the secular ideas of Enlightenment thinkers, especially Locke, who is being used by certain unnamed "interpreters" to drive our country "down the winding road to Gomorrah, into the decadence that has destroyed many nations" (p. 184, n.37). The first step downward is to define humans in Lockean terms as solitary and atomistic individuals. The second step is to define all obligations and responsibilities as merely volitional. The third step is "to empower the government to root out every vestige of religious expression from every aspect of public life" (p. 176). Novak apparently believes that if these anonymous elites succeed in giving the Revolution a French roll, the "extinction" of Judaism and Christianity "in private life" is sure to follow (p. 176). Can tumbrels and the guillotine be far behind? To avert this apocalypse, Novak pries quotations from their context and hurls them indiscriminately at the "elites." (Much of the ammunition was already assembled for him in William J. Bennett's arsenal for non-elites, Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches.) Passages by Benjamin Rush and Rev. Samuel Cooper are flung out to prove that republics require religion. Utterances by Joseph Story and Noah Webster are plucked from the nineteenth century and heaved. Even Jefferson and Madison, collaborators on Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, have their words seized and shied at the irreligious. Novak's evidentiary standards are not high. If in 1860 John Wingate Thornton declared that "To the Pulpit, the Puritan Pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence" (quoted at p. 164), well then it must be so.
But quibbles about evidence are ultimately irrelevant, for this piece is a jeremiad, not a work of historical scholarship. The quotations that fill it serve about the same purpose that scripture citations serve in a Puritan sermon. Novak's essay begins by asking if an atheist can be a good American. It ends by calling for virtue and vigilance and by promising that "America's experiment in liberty is especially dear to Providence. Looking down on it, God smiles" (p. 178). Perhaps so, I'm not sure. I can't see God's face. I am certain, though, that a historian winced. Editor Hutson has saved the best for last: "Why Revolutionary America Wasn't a 'Christian Nation'" by Jon Butler, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. Asking if late eighteenth-century America was a Christian country, Butler proposes to "look at government, society, and people to recover what men and women of the time did and believed" (p. 189). He discovers that the answer to his question is complicated.
In some ways, America on the eve of the Revolution was more religious than it had been in the seventeenth century. Revivalism and denominational expansion during the eighteenth century caused a tremendous growth in the number of congregations. Moreover, the "state church apparatus" (p. 189) was also becoming stronger, with seven of the thirteen colonies giving legal support to a single Protestant church. Even in colonies without an establishment, Catholics, Jews, and blasphemers frequently endured legal discrimination and penalties.
But despite congregational growth and legal support for churches, most eighteenth-century Americans remained indifferent to religion. Before the Revolution, about eighty percent of adults did not even belong to a church. America was only nominally and formally Christian. Indeed, Butler argues that the laws establishing state churches and favoring Protestant Christianity were needed "precisely because actual Christian adherence in the population was relatively weak" (p. 191).
After the Revolution, denominational rivalries and Enlightenment objections to religious coercion led states "to withdraw from or greatly reduce government involvement with religion" (p. 192). In state after state, single-church establishments fell after religious pluralism provoked bitter political squabbles over tax support and legislative favoritism. The culmination of Americans' increasing suspicion of government partiality in religion was the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Going far beyond the prohibition of an established church, the First Amendment "banned government activity in religion generally" (p. 196).
Revolutionary Americans understood that theirs was "a society where Christianity was important yet not ubiquitous" (p. 197). It was not a Christian nation. There was too much indifference, heterodoxy, and atheism to call it that. Given their religious diversity and its potential for turmoil, Americans realized that they could preserve civil peace and promote spiritual renewal only by keeping government from meddling in religion. If the United States were ever to become a Christian nation, it would do so as "a matter of practice, not law or governmental encouragement" (p. 198).
Looking back, Butler marvels at the "remarkable risks taken by remarkable men and women in remarkable times" (p. 189). In separating government and religion, they boldly devised an arrangement that was, in its day, virtually unprecedented and that became, in the days to follow, notably successful. As Butler comments, their risks and their achievements still "challenge modern Americans who would pretend to exercise equal leadership on still difficult questions of religion, the state, conscience, and faith" (p. 189).
If that challenge is to be issued to modern Americans, it will be historians who deliver it. We should be grateful, I suppose, because we have here a subject--religion and the Revolution--about which modern Americans actually care to hear what we think. There's always a danger, though, when historians are handed an audience, especially an audience eager to act on instruction. The opportunity can bring out the worst in us. We don't do our duty as historians when we oversimplify and overstate, when we ignore historical context, when we disregard the differences between present and past circumstances, when we pretend that the words of a few great men express the convictions of all their contemporaries. We do our duty as historians when we help our contemporaries comprehend a past that was, as Butler shows it to be, more "complicated, fascinating, and historically unique" than they might have imagined (p. 189). Fortunately, in this collection of essays historians can find several models of duty well done.
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-SHEAR @ h-net.msu.edu (September, 2001)
Copyright 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: firstname.lastname@example.org.
to MESSRS. NEHEMIAH DODGE, EPHRAIM ROBBINS, AND STEPHEN S. NELSON, A COMMITTEE OF THE DANBURY BAPTIST ASSOCIATION, IN THE STATE OF CONNECTICUT.
WASHINGTON, January I, 1802.
GENTLEMEN,-The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.