Sunday, May 10, 2009

Is Britain a Christian Nation?

There can be no doubt that the United States is, in many respects, a "break off" of Great Britain. Many of our customs, holidays, traditions, politics, etc. are the same as those of our "Mother Country." Even many of the established government structures of the United States were inspired by Great Britain's example.

When the founders established this country, the primary model was Britain. Historian Gordon Wood even states in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution that:

In our enthusiasm to contrast the "traditional" society of the mother country with the "modernity" of the colonies, we have often overlooked how dominantly British and traditional the colonists' culture was; indeed, in some respects colonial society was more traditional than that of the mother country. Most colonial leaders in the mid-eighteenth century thought of themselves not as Americans but as Britons. They read much of the same literature, the same law books, the same history, as their brethren at home, and they drew most of their conceptions of society and their values from their reading. Whatever sense of unity the disparate colonies of North America had come from their common tie to the British crown and from their membership in the British empire. Most colonists knew more about events in London than they did about occurrences in neighboring colonies. They were provincials living on the edges of the pan-British world, and all the more British for that. Their little colonial capitals resembled, as one touring British officer remarked of Williamsburg, nothing so much as "a good Country Town in England." Philadelphia seemed only a smaller version of Bristol. Most English visitors in fact tended to describe the colonists simply as country cousins -- more boorish, more populist, more egalitarian perhaps, with too much Presbyterianism and religious nonconformity -- but still Englishmen, not essentially different from the inhabitants of Yorkshire or Norwich or the rest of rural and small-town provincial England.
Simply put, the colonists were proud to be British. When the debacle over the Stamp Act caused a revolt, and American colonists were "compelled" to take to the streets in protest, most of them saw the Stamp Act's repeal as proof positive that their rights as Englishmen were in fact being protected. In fact, many became even stronger supporters of British law, believing that the Stamp Act was the quintessential example of how Englishmen could petition their government for redress, and that the government would heed their call.

Now, it's obvious that much of this changed during the early years of the American Revolution. However, it would be foolish for us to completely reject the massive impact that British history, culture, etc. had on the shaping of the American republic. And since Britain was/is a "Christian Nation" -- A Christian Nation in its history, established state religion, etc -- might we need to start here in our search for America's Christian/non-Christian heritage?

The way I see it is like this: clearly the cultural impact of the "Mother Country" cause Christianity to be at the forefront of American life. However, the founding fathers also knew their history and were well aware of the difficulties that religious strife had brought their British brethren across the Atlantic. Thomas Jefferson captured this sentiment when he wrote:

"Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites." ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, Query #17.
And the "Father" of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote:

"Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together."
~James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

"The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries."
~James Madison letter to Congress rejecting the use of government land for private churches, 1803

"We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion Flourishes in greater purity , without than with the aid of government."
~James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

"Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
~James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785
So what are we to make of this? Did the influence of the "Mother Country" lead our founding generation to embrace its Christian heritage by establishing another "Christian Nation" across the sea? Or did history tell the founders that such an enterprise would only reap destruction and violence in the "New World?"

With this in mind, I present to you the following video. It is a British forum on the question, "Is Britain a Christian Nation?" It includes the likes of Richard Dawkins and Kelvin Mackenzie.


Part I:

Part II:


Tom Van Dyke said...

A rather appalling discussion. "The press is the mirror" of the public? Oh my, what crap. [Especially the British press.] Or the bland statement that secular values ended slavery. Apparently, they never heard of William Wilberforce over there.

With that said, I think Britain started to get away from whatever was Christian about it hundreds of years ago, in contrast to America. These days, David Hume---pretty much a classic deist-atheist Enlightenment type---was voted Britain's greatest philosopher. Edmund Burke and John Locke are footnotes, unlike in America, where they're in the mainstream of political philosophy discussions.

The question in Britain now is whether their Enlightenment secular humanism, where tolerance is the highest civic virtue, is a cohesive enough force to withstand being subsumed by Islam and sharia. Already, Britain spends a great deal of its time accommodating Islam in ways it would never accommodate Christianity. The irony is clear and palpable.

As for your Madison quotes, Jon, each can be read as an opposition to sectarianism within Christianity and need not be a blanket for all "religion." Now, Madison's argument in the statute of religious freedom debates was indeed that to establish Christianity even in the most expansive definition would still result in squabbles. But the nature of this argument doesn't cut to the core: it was useful to turn the sects against each other to support the statute, a Machiavellian tactic that is at the heart of Madison's principle of deconcentration of power---to set competing factions against each other to ensure no single faction got absolute power.

But it's far from clear that Madison's personal view of a blanket "no religion" dynamic carried the day in the drafting of the First Amendment, as a study of the debates will show, I believe.

[See also the very orthodox Roger Sherman's role in getting the Ninth and Tenth Amendments through, ensuring a federalism that among other things, supports the individual states' prerogatives over religion.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Brad wrote this. Are we that likeminded? You should have been able to tell by the blue font which I don't use.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ooooops. I missed the blue but should have got the Gordon Wood. Sorry, Brad.

I did mean to add support to one of your points, that many historians maintain that the difference between the French and American revolutions was that the latter preserved its institutions and culture, and just changed management, but the French one was truly a revolution, a society reinventing itself from scratch.

[The Americans simply called theirs not a revolution, but the "War with Britain."]

Jonathan Rowe said...

Straussians that there 1) there are parallel ideals between the two revolutions, and 2) those ideas planted their seeds in America and let to subtle changes over time. One reason why we are the way we are today is BECAUSE of those parallel ideals. Though I think the modern Left got the Founding really wrong when they tried to throw out Property. I suppose you can argue they got it wrong when they threw out Providence as well. But the Founding boils down to about four ideals 1) Liberty, 2) Equality, 3) Property, and 4) Providence (generically defined of course).

The French Revolution, at the beginning at least, was done in the name of these ideals.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The "Straussians" are wrong, because they try to make Locke into a radical instead of a Christian.

But even if their deep textual analysis of Locke is correct---and people like Voltaire thought the same way about Locke---the Americans didn't understand Locke that way.

"The consequence has been, that the writings of Mr. Locke, one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of christianity and true philosophy, have been perverted to purposes, which he would have deprecated and prevented, had he discovered or foreseen them."---James Wilson, "Key" FounderBut Voltaire did, and that's why the French Revolution turned into such a mess.

But the Founding boils down to about four ideals 1) Liberty, 2) Equality, 3) Property, and 4) Providence (generically defined of course)...

or as you write elsewhere, quoting somebody or other,

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

I'm getting dizzy now, Jon. But égalitarisme is NOT part of the Founding, on that we should be able to agree, and that fact makes at least a tenuous bridge between the first four and the latter four. I'm trying to help your argument out here, although the French Revolution using politics and the coercive force of the state to remake its underlying society by force is precisely what I've been whining about lately, and it highlights the difference with the American revolution, which left its underlying society preserved.

I appreciate your attempt at a lingua franca with me via Leo Strauss, but although I admire his mind, method and clarity, I'm no Straussian.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Re Locke, again, we aren't done (and we should be glad we aren't done, that we have years of discussion ahead of us). Wait till we get to Lord Shaftesbury who arguably was Locke's heir and someone quoted by the American Founders. And he was one of those softer infidels like Priestley.

Re the mirroring 4 points; yes those are founding ideals v. compromises with founding ideals. How we view the founding depends in large part whether we view it thru its ideals or compromises with those ideals. When folks discuss things like how the states could establish Christian sects and impose this or that kind of harsh treatment on individual X or group Y of the founding, they may as well be talking about how the Founding stands for the proposition that blacks can be enslaved. And if it does, like the non-respectable left so believes, then originalism is morally indefensible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When folks discuss things like how the states could establish Christian sects impose this or that kind of harsh treatment on individual X or group Y of the founding...

Oooops. I don't know what folks are arguing that. Surely not "respectable" people.

they may as well be talking about how the Founding stands for the proposition that blacks can be enslaved.Back to slavery again. Oy.

The Founders postponed the reckoning on slavery, and it was something they hoped would just go away. But the holocaust of the Civil War was beyond their imagining.

There is nothing to compare the deaths of a half-million American dead to---not even the World Wars. Slavery is sui generis, although it would be fair to widen the topic to race in general, as Jim Crow took slavery's place.

But still, we cannot say that women's suffrage was some compromise made; it wasn't even on the table or in the public discussion. Neither is religion and the Founding at issue here: religion was left to the states not as a compromise but as a Founding principle, that of federalism.

like the non-respectable left so believes, then originalism is morally indefensible...

Well, Jon, we're finding agreement, perhaps. If the left, respectable or otherwise, wants to mutate the Founding principles into radical egalitarianism---and can do so democratically and constitutionally---that's the American system. But short of respecting that process, and regardless of whether they end up succeeding---they have zero claim on the Founding principles.

[As for Lord Shaftesbury, I believe he was Locke's patron more than his heir. Or perhaps you're speaking of a later successor. Even still, Shaftesbury was a player, altho not one quoted by the Founders to my memory. But rock on.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

I meant "heir" in an intellectual, not a financial sense. We've still got a lot to discuss regarding Shaftesbury and Locke.

Jonathan Rowe said...

After guest blogging at Ed Brayton's site I was invited to be on an Oxford Roundtable with Richard Dawkins this summer. But then I noticed there was controversy associated with it. It really was at Oxford, Richard Dawkins really is there at the roundtable and they really do publish a journal to which participants are encouraged to submit articles.

The rub was 1) it was a for profit venture, that 2) was not actually part of the college, just that rented space from it, 3) that charged invited participants a couple of grand for the "honor," and 4) the journal which they published is hardly subscribed to by any colleges.

I decided not to take them up on their offer. It didn't sound like a complete scam, but a gray matter. I guess they get guys like Dawkins to participate by paying him big bucks.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Go for it, Jon. And if they try to cut you off, paraphrase Ronald Reagan and say, I paid to be at this microphone!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. I already turned it down. If I had more $$ to throw around, I might have taken it up. The seats are limited; they only make the invite to about 30-40 or so folks. Apparently they target profs. from less prestigious colleges who want the publicity of an "Oxford" invite or connection.

BTW: That was a classic moment from Reagan.