Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Scholarly Malpractice" and the Founding

A heady warning from one of America's leading historical scholars
by Tom Van Dyke


James H. Hutson [Ph.D in history, Yale '64] is chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and is a particular hero to the sincere readers of this blog.

In this worthy Hutson essay on James Madison, I was struck by the section below:

"The story of how Madison and a diverse band of evangelicals and civil libertarians mounted, in 1785, a successful public relations campaign against [Patrick] Henry's bill, highlighted by Madison's celebrated religious liberty manifesto, the Declaration and Remonstrance, is a familiar one in American church-state literature, especially since it resulted in 1786 in the passage by the Virginia Assembly of Jefferson's landmark Statute for Religious Freedom.

The downfall of the general assessment bill is usually depicted as a kind of slow moving Armageddon, in which Madison and his followers, representing the forces of light and progress, gradually vanquish the legions of reaction who would have dragged America back into the dark ages of religious persecution and bigotry."


Oh, we know that story quite well. Theocrats at the gates!, then and now. The heroes of Enlightenment beat them back. But Hutson continues:

"There are several things wrong with this interpretation, one being that it can not explain why, if the general assessment bill was so wrong-headed and regressive, it was supported by "most Protestants in Virginia," not to mention several of Virginia's most eminent patriots and champions of human liberties, including Henry himself, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, Edmund Pendleton and George Washington.

Nor can it explain why similar general assessment bills were supported, after 1776, by the legislatures of five other states and by a galaxy of revolutionary heroes, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman Oliver Ellsworth, and in neighboring Maryland, Samuel Chase, William Paca and Charles Carroll."

I see a couple presidents, a Chief Justice, and a guy whose name appears on some very good beers, but who are all these other guys? Has the secular academy made them all nonpersons? Well...mebbe!

"This explanatory failure is the result of a form of scholarly malpractice that Herbert Butterfield denounced early in the last century as the Whig interpretation of history. According to Butterfield, "Whig" historians regularly succumb to the temptation of concentrating on precursors of present day "progress" and denying their opponents the benefit of "historical understanding."

Butterfield warned that Whig historians will fix their eyes on "certain people who appear as the special agencies of...progress." In Whig eyes Madison and his supporters deserve to be explained and extolled because they are the pioneers of what is currently regarded as the "progressive" doctrine of strict separation of church and state. No time need be wasted on their opponents, as an offhand remark by Irving Brant, a prime example of Butterfield's Whig historian, indicates."


Aha. No wonder we've hardly heard of all those other guys, or anything of their arguments. No wonder so many people these days think the Founding's public square was pretty "naked" of religion. Some scholars are just more subtle than Christian Nationists---instead of putting stuff in, they just leave it out.

"Brant noted that Henry's 1784 speech, advocating "religious assessments," had not survived but that this was not a matter of regret, since it would have contained nothing worth reading; "a plea to unite church and state is not," wrote Brant, "of the sort on which libertarian fame is built." Ignoring the case for general religious assessments does not alter the reality that in post-1776 large numbers of Americans, great and small, approved them."


And that's the point, dear Brothers & Sisters, gentle readers, good Americans all. By focusing only on what some call the "key" Founders [and I prefer "marquee" Founders, the guys they tend to make HBO miniseries about] and ignoring the rest, we might see the valleys and mountains, but not the streams and roads that weave through them. The "eureka" moment of a Madison quote that's congenial to our position isn't checkmate after all.

A couple historical notes refine Hutson's argument. Although Madison's words are cited as a milestone separating religion and politics in the Founding era, they're of more scholarly value than historical:


"Madison's Memorial circulated as a petition during the summer and fall of 1785 and was eventually signed by over 1500 Virginians, an impressive figure but less than one-fifth of all signatories of anti-assessment petitions. The most popular petitions came from the pens of Baptists, who agreed with Madison's position on the total separation of church and state but argued for it from different premises, from their traditional scriptural view that Christ's kingdom was not of this world rather than from a Lockean theory of the social compact."


And although we return often to Madison's thoughts in a similar vein, Hutson notes that

"When Madison became president in 1809, Congress had been employing and paying chaplains for more than thirty years, ample time, he evidently thought, to give the sanction of precedent to a practice he personally deplored."


...a practice that continues to this day. Although we always want to improve the road, we don't always need to tear up the sidewalks in the process. I mean, Christmas has only been a federal holiday since 1870, but I still like having the day off.

When we contemplate the Founding, whether our purpose is to "restore" it or "update" it, let's first admit the difficulty of knowing where all the zigs and zags are. None of us were there, and Lord knows you can't believe everything you read.

And, oh yeah, God bless James H. Hutson. This Sam's for you, dude.

19 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Man o' man, that is my all time favorite beer.

bpabbott said...

When you come to rely on crutches, they are had to go without.

Religion is a profoundly effective tool for manipulation of the population.

Relying on reasoned arguments to compel men to embrace your position only works well for articulate and bright minds ... it is more difficult and less effective, but it is more proper (imo).

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Thank you for reminding us, Tom, that America's Baptists once were our most stalwart proponents for strictly separating church and state.

I dare say that Roger Williams likely deserves far more attention, for his experiment in Rhode Island, than he gets in these pages.

And despite my Whiggish pride in Massachusetts' liberal Unitarianism, the truth is that Massachusetts delayed until 1833 before doing away with public assessments to support the Standing Order of Congregationalist Churches -- both Unitarian and Trinitarian. Who agitated for disestablishing religion in Massachusetts? Baptists, and Universalists, and Quakers, if I'm not mistaken.

Baptists in particular then believed that civil and religious authority ought not to be merged. For they could read that when the devil offered to Jesus power over all the kingdoms of this world (which apparently was the devil’s to give) Jesus flatly refused, saying: “Get thee behind me Satan.” See Luke 4:5-8 (KJV); Matthew 4:8-10. And again, when brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus solemnly declared: “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36 (KJV).

Eric

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me note that my key Founder Washington and J. Adams were not strict separationists like Madison and Jefferson, but rather accommodated government support of [the Christian] religion while still trying guarantee the liberty and equality religious rights for all.

And even those separationists Madison and Jefferson thought "religion" good for republican government and the flourishing of society as a whole.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As time goes on, btw, I think the proper idea for the public square, religion & the constitution, isn't a naked public square but one in which diverse religious viewpoints have an equal shot at coverage. More religious talk (but of diverse and incompatible religious viewpoints) not less.

Let the different sides come together with lowest common denominators (like "Providence" or "Nature's God") and when it gets to specifics, permit and even constitutionally demand specifics of incompatible claims Truths to have their say in the public square (i.e., "we pray in the name that Jesus IS God," along with "we pray in the name that Jesus is NOT God," along with "we think there is NO God"). Get the public square as clothed as possible.

Our Founding Truth said...

Let me note that Madison was not correct about everything, especially the point on separation of church and state. All the framers disagreed with him on it, showing his interpretation of that doctrine was incorrect.

Henry made clear the assessment was for SECULAR education, with the CHOICE of a particular denomination. Madison was deceived in believing that choice was establishing a church.

Most likely some framers rebuked him, Joseph Story comes to mind.

I've recently read Henry basically controlled Virginia because of his great speaking, and personality, the historians are correct, if Henry would have stayed in the House of Delegates Madison's bill would have died a bloody death.

OFT

Pinky said...

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Being no expert on American history, it looks like efforts to prove the story of America's Creation as being either Christian or Secular must be at a peak in scholarly circles.
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What seems to be true when it comes to the Founders is that some did and some didn't. Today it is still some do and some don't.
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In any event, what counts is the good work being done by the searchers as they uncover more and more of what we can know about our beginnings.
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Thanks to TVD here and to everyone else for your good work.
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Discovery is great!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Pinky.

When you write

What seems to be true when it comes to the Founders is that some did and some didn't. Today it is still some do and some don't.

...surely you're not saying it's a coin flip.

Pinky said...

Tom Van Dyke sez, "...surely you're not saying it's a coin flip."
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No, I'm not. My thoughts are that the Founders had been so close to religious bigotry in their personal and public experiences and in how it affected individuals in society that they wanted to make sure it was outside the purview of government to even give it a definition and that is why the First Amendment specifically states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." I think almost every one of them was dead set against a continuation of any government that either controlled or was controlled by religion other than the civil religion created by the Founding. I think they desperately wanted to break the back of a church state and what it did to free expression and so, they created our federal government as the beginning blow against a state religion or a religious state. And, their work has stymied every attempt to create a state religion for over two hundred years now. I think it will continue to do so until and unless our society is seized by some military coup. That's my opinion.
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It's all about self actualization. Our Founders had a genius among them and we owe them an unfathomable debt and we can thank our lucky stars for what they did.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

In future, we shall explore religion-as-belief vs. religion-as-sectarianism. I think there's a vital difference, and that it was the latter they most feared.

In my view, we lose all perspective by thrusting both in the same crucible. In fact, I believe Hutson is arguing here that "scholarly malpractice" has focused on the former, at the expense of truth and understanding.

Publius said...

Thanks for the post TVD. I just finished reading Steven Waldman's "Founding Faith", and as you may know, he strongly sides w/ Madison as the founder who's views most represent the flavor of religious freedom coming out of the founding period.

In the book, Waldman does spend considerable time on Henry's assessment bill - albeit in a short book - but don't think he gave the other viewpoints (the assessment's view) a fair shake.

Also, He didn't fully pursuade me of the thoroughness of Madison's primacy in America's religious freedom though that may be the case? But I still think Waldman did a very good job of vetting out various founder's faiths. While I'm not a historian, his treatment seems more forthcoming and religiously practical than most treatments but because of it's brevity doesn't take the time to get into details that might give a clearer picture.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "In future, we shall explore religion-as-belief vs. religion-as-sectarianism. I think there's a vital difference, and that it was the latter they most feared."

Tom, would that parallel religious-sentiment vs. religious-doctrine/dogma?

Meaning desires/inspirations vs material claims/law?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I'm referring to sectarianism as a brute grab for power. Not terribly complicated, little to do with theology. Base, us vs. them. A very real phenomenon in the Europe our Founding Fathers [and their fathers] fled.

The same motivation that will power most voters in the coming election, unfortunately.

Pinky said...
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Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

Triplicate posts--two deleted.
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"..sectarianism as a brute grab for power..."
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Maybe so...
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When followers so completely identify with group norms they can be blinded to their own true beliefs and often act in ways that look like a lust for power. Instead, all the while, they are just lemmings tumbling to their own destruction.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I think there's something pejorative about "lemmings." They're plotting the other guy's destruction, and frequently succeed, at least in the short term.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "They're plotting the other guy's destruction, and frequently succeed, at least in the short term."

and yet ... might does not make right ... a point that is lost on most (I think), in particular the lemmings :-(

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not remotely near the right v. wrong question, Ben. Sectarianism-as-political power is a long way from religious freedom of conscience. Just trying to keep them out of the same mindless, tasteless gruel where you vote for Barack Obama and I vote for Sarah Palin. Hutson, too, I think, if I may again attempt a return to the topic...