Sunday, May 10, 2009

America: Founded as a Religiously Free and Equal, not a "Christian" Nation

In his excellent book Founding Faith, Steven Waldman notes America was founded not as a "Secular" (the myth of the left) or a "Christian" (the myth of the right) Nation, but a religiously free nation. I think you could add to that a religiously "equal" nation as well. Dr. Gregg Frazer has noted that America was founded to be "religious" not "Christian" and America's key Founders were themselves "religious" but not "Christian" men. And I think that component needs to be understood in the mix as well.

Here I argue that the notion of a religiously free and equal nation is arguably incompatible with the idea of a "Christian Nation." There is a false quotation, widely spread on the Internet attributed to Patrick Henry:

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.

It's this type of sentiment that expositors of the Christian Nation thesis need to rely on to reconcile "Christian Nation" with religious liberty. That's why you see it so widely quoted. But as noted, the quote is a myth and the idea of religious liberty (and equality) applied beyond "the Christian sects" is arguably irreconcilable with the Christian Nation thesis. That's one reason why some (not all) Christian Nationalists argue the religious clauses were meant to apply to "Christianity only." Were that true one could still make the "Christian Nation" claim. And no doubt some/many in the population understood the clauses that way. But not the Founding Presidents. And they wrote "religion" not "Christianity" into the text of the Constitution. So when, for instance, George Washington, as President wrote to a Jewish Congregation at Newport and noted --

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.…May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid."

-- it seems impossible to claim with a straight face that the religion clauses meant "Christianity" only. Likewise if the Free Exercise Clause applied beyond "Christianity" the Establishment Clause, in principle, by logical necessity did as well. Let's look at the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...

The text uses the term "religion" once. The "thereof" in the Free Exercise Clause relates back to term "religion" in the Establishment Clause. As Philip Hamburger noted it is logically impossible for that one term used in one place to mean two different things. The EC and FEC are like Siamese twins who share the same heart. If it's a "religion" for FEC purposes, it is also a "religion" for EC purposes.

With that said, let me address the issue of religious pluralism. The population of America during the Founding era was roughly 98% Protestant Christian in a formal/nominal sense (with men like Jefferson who rejected every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy meeting this minimal definition of "Protestant Christian"). The largest non-Christian population were probably the Native Americans (I think I can safely say they outnumbered Jews). There weren't that many Roman Catholics outside of Maryland. I doubt the Jews broke one thousand in number (I could be wrong). And though Muslims were not non-existent in America, you probably could them on two hands if not one. I know of no Hindus or Buddhists (perhaps they did exist; I'm just not aware of them).

Expounding on this dynamic two of my American Creation co-bloggers Tom Van Dyke and Kristo Miettinen wrote what follows. First TVD:

I object to the current We Are the World sentiment that Muslims and Hindus [or atheists, but that's a different discussion] have any connection with the Founding principles. For the simple reason that there weren't any around.

Although some Founders mention those religions in the abstract, there's no evidence they had any genuine understanding of them.

Then Kristo reacting to my assertion that "[t]here was no alliance of Jews & Christians during the Founding era. It was 'Protestant Christians' in one box - the 'in' box - and Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims and pagans in the other more 'out' box."

I'd say (but you know this) that Jews were respected as a harmless curiosity (rather like the Indians), paleo-orthodox Catholics and (and depending upon which state we're talking about) Presbyterians in the 'out' box, and Muslims (and Buddhists and whatever) not in any box at all - theoretical abstractions of no practical consequence.

My response to both of my co-bloggers is regardless of HOW many non-Christians there were and WHAT the FFs "understood" about them, those "theoretical abstractions" were fundamental to their ideals and had serious practical consequences, not necessarily during the Founding era, but during the years to come. Those "theoretical abstractions" are THE PRIME reason why in 2009 the current President could accurately say America is not a Christian Nation.

Let's turn to the Founding record for evidence. First we have Jefferson's Virginia Statute on religious freedom. A relevant part reads:

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

Jefferson in his autobiography also makes clear who exactly was covered under the act:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

That is a classic sentiment of religious liberty and equality. You are free to practice your religion and you have equal rights as a citizen under the law regardless of your religion. If VA were a Christian State or the US a Christian Nation, only professing Christians would be recognized as full citizens. Now Jefferson and Madison believed in this "Virginia model" on Church & State which was at the "left" end of the spectrum. The "right" end of the spectrum was the Mass. model which permitted more integration of Church & State, indeed a mild religious establishment (which Mass. had until 1833). George Washington and John Adams are the most notable representatives of the Mass. model (Yes, I know GW was from VA).

BUT, here's the kicker -- the Mass. model is still compatible with the notion of religious liberty and equality for all. And I would argue a natural rights republic, what America is, (as opposed to a "Christian state") demands any kind of state establishment be done while respecting religious liberty and equality rights of all, including non-Christians who are by nature equal citizens according to key American Founding thought. So how is this done? George Washington so explained, giving his reasons for why he, unlike Jefferson and Madison, didn't oppose government funding teachers of religion.

I must confess, that I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief. As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated, and as it has gone so far, that the Bill could die an easy death; because I think it will be productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into a Law; which, in my opinion, would be impolitic, admitting there is a decided majority for it, to the disquiet of a respectable minority.

Did you get that? As equal citizens with natural rights under the law if one merely declared himself a Jew or a Muslim he would be entitled to "relief" from having to support a religion in which he didn't believe. If VA were a "Christian" state, the response would be Jews and Muslims are lucky to worship freely here (arguably a "Christian State" wouldn't let them) and "Christianity" is entitled to your tax dollars regardless.


Brad Hart said...

Good post, Jon. Yes, I think it's clear that America's founders (even without the presence or influence of Hindus, Muslims, etc.) established a nation where all religions (or no religion at all) were on equal footing. This quest to promote Christianity above all others, simply because "they were there" doesn't work. It's what revisionists like Barton try to do all the time.

Speaking of Barton, I ran across an interesting quote that refutes Barton's "Christian Nation" claim. If comes from Senator Arlen Specter:

"Probably the best refutation of Barton's argument simply is to quote his own exegesis of the First Amendment: "Today," Barton says, "we would best understand the actual context of the First Amendment by saying, 'Congress shall make no law establishing one Christian denomination as the national denomination.' " In keeping with Barton's restated First Amendment, Congress could presumably make a law establishing all Christian denominations as the national religion, and each state could pass a law establishing a particular Christian church as its official religion.

All of this pseudoscholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Thanks. I am familiar with the last paragraph from Specter, not the entire passage you quoted.

I'd like to read the whole article.

Brad Hart said...

I don't know if you have access to this. My college library does:

Tom Van Dyke said...

This quest to promote Christianity above all others, simply because "they were there" doesn't work.But the argument does work at the state level, Virginia being the exception not the rule.

"All of this pseudoscholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people..."

Specter is merely parroting one side of the discussion himself with the "pseudo-history" line. Because when Barton says that

each state could pass a law establishing a particular Christian church as its official religion.he's quite right, and some states did.

So Specter here is wrong, yet he gets away with slagging on Barton. It's obvious Specter is repeating what he's been told.

As for Virginia's statute on religious freedom, it's often emphasized and the other states like Massachusetts disregarded. Fortunately, you don't do that here, Jon. But what can be said about Virginia [as scholar and Supreme Court justice Joseph Story did 1n 1825 or so], Virginia perhaps held a "veto power" against the stronger establishment Christianity nationally.

But once again, we're fisking Barton, not the whole issue, narrowing the meaning of a "Christian nation" to pure legalities and the veto power of a handful of states.

And I would argue a natural rights republic, what America is, (as opposed to a "Christian state") demands any kind of state establishment be done while respecting religious liberty and equality rights of all, including non-Christians who are by nature equal citizens according to key American Founding thought...

Not at all---this is the core premise of your argument but it's unsupported by the facts. Massachusetts was an explicitly Christian state by any definition, yet it guaranteed the freedoms you discuss.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Three points Tom.

1) Specter may be wrong about states not having the right to establish a particular sect of Christianity; but he's right that "Christianity generally" (or equality of "Christian" sects) was NOT the established national religion which is part of Barton's argument.

2)Mass. may have been a "Christian" state by "some" definition, not by "ANY" definition. The problem of "what is Christianity and does it include unitarianism" is what ultimately destroyed Mass.'s establishment. That's what the Dedham decision was about. I have written about it a few times; but it is still something that needs to be written of further, perhaps in actual in print publications.

3) Joseph Story is not the final authority on the original meaning of the Constitution's religion clauses. He's arguably LESS important an authority than EITHER Jefferson OR Madison.

I didn't mention this on my blogpost but at that lunch with Munoz when discussing his book soon to be published by Cambridge, he slammed Joseph Story. He noted Story just "read in" the "Mass." view of establishment to the federal religion clauses. The REAL view of the EC is that it is UTTERLY agnostic on state religious establishments. VA and MASS get no more or no less a vote. And that means we don't term VA as the outlier. There are SO many more ways to view history. You could note VA got the ball rolling which terminated in Mass.' 1833 abolition of establishment. And that the 14th Amendment then locked in the right to be free from a state establishment as much as it guaranteed the equal rights of blacks.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But Specter IS wrong, yet he gets a pass and Barton is trashed. A double standard.

I cited Story for his central truth: religion was left to the states. Mr. Munoz should have no problem with that.

To view the Christian nation question only through the eyes of Virginia is to cheat the argument. And for the record, Jefferson wasn't there for the Constitutional Convention, and Madison himself lost many battles, including on the wording of the First Amendment.

There were plenty of other Founders, and again, to ignore them and focus only on Virginians is to cheat the argument.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm not too interested in defending the first part of Specter's contention about whether states could establish Christian (or any other kind of) Churches. This might have been permitted in 1791; but it's been a long time since we've had one of those churches and the suggestion that a state could do such a in the late 20th century IS one of those things which mainstream figures balk at. Lot's of things, like slavery and denying women the right to vote were permitted under our original Constitution and subsequently consigned to the ashcan of history. State religious establishments are in that box and we didn't need to fight a civil war to settle the issue. Rather it was settled peacefully in 1833.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, that's changing the subject, Jon. Our topic is religion and the Founding, and Specter had no idea what he was talking about, yet trashes Barton with no hell to pay.

I'm into clarity over agreement, as Prager says. The clarity is that Specter was completely wrong, and Barton takes it in the shorts for points he was absolutely accurate about.

As for end of slavery and women's suffrage, they were accomplished by constitutional amendment, the way things are supposed to be done, by consent of the governed. [And so too, the disestablishment of the state churches, by legislation.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

Whenever we get to this point in the discussion Tom, I keep thinking of that quote from the uber-paleo-conservative (and a Strauss admirer) Robert Locke, from an article on Frontpage mag (which takes a shot at Harry Jaffa):

Crucial facts about what America was founded on are deliberately hushed up by both liberals and conservatives and admitted only by the non-respectable Left and the non-respectable Right. Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. The Constitution, as originally written, holds that our ownership of this land by conquest is just, that Indians are savages, that blacks may be enslaved, that women have no fit role in government, and that the (little-remembered) restriction of suffrage to men of property by state governments is valid.This paragraph is never going to go away.

Like it or not state establishments of "Christian sects" are viewed by "respectable" people of the right OR left as in this box. Specter was just speaking as a man of the "respectable right." When you brag about states having the "right" to establish "Christian sects," as Barton did, it's not unlike bragging about states having the original right to practice slavery or deny women the right to vote.

I remember attending a symposium at Temple Law, my alma matter, presented by the critical legal theorists (the ones who wish to debunk and deconstruct the American Founding). Most of the lectures made me ill but Akhil Amar and Erwin Chemerinsky gave outstanding keynote addresses.

I distinctly remember during the Q&A of Amar, Paul Finkleman immediately noting and getting the audience to understand that the original Constitution was a pro-slavery document. That might have shot too far, but the original Constitution DID make an unacceptable compromise with slavery; perhaps it had no choice; but that doesn't change the morally unacceptable result.

Barton's problem is that he wants to be part of the "respectable" right -- hard right, yes, but still have a respected place within Republican Party politics. And that requires him to take many of the same positions on basic civil rights for blacks and for women that Arlen Specter takes; but also wants to endorse the "Christian Nation" idea and make winks and nods to the dominionists, something that is part of "non-respectable" right politics. That makes him look like a hypocrite. Or at least it puts him in the position of having to, by necessity, make hypocritical arguments.

Barry Shain, from Colgate, like Robert Locke is a more honest member of the non-respectable right. He argues the Protestant Christian Nation thesis and would accept every word of the well-poisoning passage that I above quoted from Robert Locke because he knows he has to in order to make his Protestant Christian claim.

According to Shain's "Protesant Christian Nation" thesis the DOI applied only to white propertied Protestant males with blacks and women, among others, viewed as inferiors.

The Straussians (of the Eastern or Western bent) might acknowledge this unacceptable dynamic of the early Founding but note the abstract ideals of liberty and equality (key to Founding thought) planted the seeds to do away with ALL of the unacceptable results. And those seeds likewise spelled the END of state religious establishments (and the East Coasters at least concede led us into many of the results of modern liberalism).

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, Jon, you're dragging in slavery and comparing it to virtually every other topic of the Founding. It's a tactic, not an argument.

Namely, that this country was founded upon conquest, slavery, sexism, and class rule. ..

Blah blah blah. We know the drill. But the compromise on slavery ended up costing a half-million American lives in the Civil War, and is sui generis. The other terms are 21st century concepts, and to inject them into the Founding milieu is not history, it's moralizing. That the United States was "founded on sexism" is completely inaccurate, if you read your Tocqueville on the American woman. And applying the 19th century Marx to the Founding is complete revisionism. Concepts like "class rule" were in play nowhere in the civilized world at that time---except that people like Madison rejected "senators for life" and the like as unfit for the American "genius." [See Federalist #63.]

That the Constitution left religion to the states is an empirical fact, and that's what we're discussing.

Jonathan Rowe said...

No Tom, not everything is comparable to slavery, just those things involving unalienable natural rights which religion most certainly did. "Religion is left to the states" gives the states the right to violate the natural rights of conscience. That is akin to savying "slavery is left to the states."

Religion is at least something the Founders themselves thought was within the purview of natural rights. I'm not sure whether they thought gender was. But, regardless of what T had to say on gender, women weren't given the right to vote and at common law when a woman and man got married they became one person and the husband was that person. That is sexism plain and simple. The only way around it is to apply a natural right of equality to gender. Make that leap that the founders in their subjective minds didn't make.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Religion is left to the states" gives the states the right to violate the natural rights of conscience.You would have to argue and prove that the individual states' establishments of religion violated the natural rights of conscience.

Perhaps you can, but haven't done so yet.

That is akin to saying "slavery is left to the states."Well, slavery was left to the states, unfortunately, but with great controversy, including the last piece of the puzzle, the nefarious Three-Fifths compromise.

Still, the compromise didn't hold, and never held, as not only the Civil War but the Missouri Compromise controversy of 1821 and "Bloody Kansas" proved.

However, the other issues you're trying to bring in created nothing like that turmoil in genesis or in praxis.

That is sexism plain and simple."Sexism" is a 21st century term, and has no place except in revisionist, anachronistic history. Bad history.

The only way around it is to apply a natural right of equality to gender.Only if we use the coercive power of the state to decree and enforce that there's no difference between men and women.

But there is a difference, Jon. Gender is not an artificial concept. It's a fact of nature.

"Equality," at its best, is a political term, but politics is only valid in the political sphere. But politics---law---is not a complete description of reality. It's a flickering shadow on the wall of the cave, if you recall your Plato.

In fact, the French Revolution---and other tragic regimes---tried to use the power of the state to define or redefine reality.

No go.

Brian Tubbs said...

I'm sure the active participants in this discussion are familiar with the book I'm about to recommend, but for those observing, let me suggest you read....

Vindicating the Founders by Thomas G. West

While I don't agree 100% with West, I think he provides a much-needed counter-balance to the trashing that our Founders so often get on the issues of racism, sexism, etc.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Equality," at its best, is a political term,...You say that Tom. But EQUALITY was viewed, along with LIBERTY, as a central ideal of both the American and French Revolutions. The notion that man is born Free and Equal are what connects both.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What? That all things are equal to all other things? The child molester is equal to George Washington?

"Equality" in the American milieu is the same as égalitarisme in the French?

Non, non, mon ami. Anything but. You must address the vital distinction! All things are not equal! Neither does liberty have 300 million definitions!

Jonathan Rowe said...

But that's not what they did Tom. They (meaning supporters of BOTH the American AND French Revolutions) just declared man was born free and equal and let those principles work themselves out. The French just tried to do it all too fast, too soon.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What they tried to do was use politics to redefine not only society, but reality, all in the name of freedom and equality.

But freedom and equality are disastrous when used as absolute terms.


Mr. Tubbs, I like Thomas G. West meself. The preface to that book: