Monday, May 31, 2010

Gordon Wood on the Current Christian Nation Controversy

Over at his excellent blog, historian Jon Fea cited the following quote from Gordon Wood:
We can’t solve our current disputes over religion by looking back to the actual historical circumstances of the Founding [sic]; those circumstances are too complex, too confusing, and too biased toward Protestant Christianity to be used in courts today, and most of them are remote from or antagonistic to the particular needs of the twenty-first century. We do not, and cannot, base American constitutional jurisprudence on the historical reality of the Founding [sic]. . . . What Founders’ [sic] intent should we choose to emphasize? That of the deistic Jefferson and Madison? Or that of the churchgoing Washington and Adams, with their sympathies for religion? Or that of the countless numbers of evangelical Protestants who captured control of the culture to an extent most of the Founding [sic] elite never anticipated?
Wood, who is a surefire winner for this year's Pulitzer Prize, is not alone in feeling that the recent culture wars over church and state, the founders and religion, etc. has clouded the truth. In his book, Founding Faith, author Steven Waldman states that:
In battles over prayer in school, courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments, and other emotional issues, both sides follow a well-worn script: The "religious" side wants less separation of church and state, and the "secularists" want more...For starters, many conservatives believe that if they can show that the Founding Fathers were very religious, they thereby also prove that the Founders abhorred separation of church and state...Some liberals, meanwhile, feel the need to prove the Founders were irreligious or secular and therefore, of course, in favor of separation...But in the heat of this custody battle over the spiritual lives of the Founding Fathers, BOTH SIDES DISTORT HISTORY...In fact, the culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty.
And Jon Meacham, in his book American Gospel states:
Both sides feel they are fighting for the survival of what's best for America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture...The conservative right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument...the secularist arrogance that religion played no role in America's founding is equally ridiculous.
Yes, the virtual tug-o-war over America's "true" founding seems to be about everything except history! And is it possible that if we set aside the politics, religion, etc., we will find that the history doesn't prove a darn thing? In other words, perhaps these culture wars have nothing to do with the founders or early America but instead should be seen through a modern lens? Without the convoluted heritage of the founding?

Perhaps such a claim comes off sounding too unpatriotic, but I think Dr. Wood is right. Maybe we really "can’t solve our current disputes over religion by looking back to the actual historical circumstances of the Founding."


JimM47 said...

"We do not, and cannot, base American constitutional jurisprudence on the historical reality of the Founding [sic]. . . . What Founders’ [sic] intent should we choose to emphasize?"

1. Modern originalist theories of constitutional interpretation look to public meaning, eschewing the intent of individuals who wrote the document to look at what words would have meant to the public who ratified the document.

2. When it comes to state establishment questions, the Founding has to take backseat to Reconstruction. It is only the Fourteenth amendment that plausibly has the effect of mandating universal disestablishment. What the Founders thought doesn't matter; what the Reconstructors thought the Founders thought does.

bpabbott said...

Brad, nice post!

JimM47, you're comment illustrates a good reason why interpretation is so complex/clouded. I expect many cases will be required before the USSC is able to clarify the picture.

Tom Van Dyke said...

My longtime blogbrother Hunter baker, an evangelical, comes to the same conclusion in his excellent The End of Secularism

HOWEVER, this is not quite the whole story. The modern narrative, by humping on Jefferson's leg, is that the Constitution and the Founding demand a rigid separation of faith and politics [note I don't slip into the "church and state" trap].

This is wrong.

Equally wrong, some such as I argue, is the Harvard Narrative, or "Whig theory," which argues we got through 1776 and to 2010 largely on the wings of the Enlightenment and secularism.

And so I [we] write on places like this blog, not that we must bind ourselves to a religious Founding, but to fully understand where we came from, so that we can more properly decide where to go from here.

So I reject the "none of it matters anyway in 2010" riff, which is ignorant and epistemolically nihilistic. It matters a great deal, if we're not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Pinky said...

Re: Gordon Wood:


John Fea said...

Maybe Wood is right. But I worry that this might come across to mean that the study of the past is unimportant or useless. this is no excuse for not studying

As one of the commentators at my blog noted, the Supreme Court, Christian nationalists, and secularists of all stripes are constantly using "original intent" as a means of shaping policy. Sometimes we must study the past for the purpose of making sure it is used correctly in contemporary debates.

Brad Hart said...

I don't think Wood is suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater or that studying the past is irrelevant. Rather, I think he is saying that we can draw whatever we want from America's founding, particularly its views on religion. In other words, I think Wood is trying to say that even the founding era couldn't figure this stuff out so its no wonder we can't either. You have your Thomas Jefferson's and your John Jay's then and now.

I seriously doubt that Wood would view these debates as a waste of time. Heck, he's had a few of his own, most recently with historian Mark Noll. But what I do think Wood believes (along with Waldman and Meacham) is that the culture war tends to FORGET the history. Both sides are so entrenched and unwilling to bend that any amount of historical firepower will not be able to make them budge. Simply put, this has not become a debate but a standoff to see which of the two extremist sides has the most stamina to endure the night. Nobody (at least on the extremes) seems to give a damn about the pursuit of historical truth, which is why I think some detected a defeatist tone in Woods' comment.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Rather, I think he is saying that we can draw whatever we want from America's founding, particularly its views on religion. In other words, I think Wood is trying to say that even the founding era couldn't figure this stuff out so its no wonder we can't either. You have your Thomas Jefferson's and your John Jay's then and now.

As you can see in the full quote from Wood, Part Deux [now on our mainpage], what he really said was that the 20th century courts have taken over the question with their interpretation of the 14th amendment.

It's clear that the separationist Jefferson view was in the minority, despite the secularist narrative of people like Jon Meacham.

That's what Wood really said.

Anonymous said...

The term "founders" doesn't mean very much. There was no single entity to which you can apply the term. This is why both secularists and evangelicals can find plenty of quotations that seem to support their position. Sometimes, both sides can quote the same guy because individuals back then, like now, could sometimes change their views.

Brad Hart said...

Excellent point, Anonymous, and I think that is part of what Wood was getting at. The "founders" can be construed to have believed in almost anything. This is at least part of the problem with the culture warriors.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's nonsense, and completely unsupported by what Gordon Wood actually said in the full essay.

A young historian, Johann N. Neem, in a soon-to-be published paper has argued very persuasively that Jefferson’s wall of separation was not the crucial point of the letter. For Jefferson, the wall was simply a means toward a larger end. It would give time for reason and free inquiry to work its way to the ultimate enlightenment he favored. In other words, the wall might protect the Baptists from the Standing Order of Connecticut Puritans in the short run; but Jefferson thought that in the long run both the Baptists and the Standing Order, like all religions based on faith and not reason, were slated for extinction. Indeed, as late as 1822 Jefferson continued to believe that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”

Of course, he could not have been more wrong. He didn’t seem to understand the political forces behind his and Madison’s success in getting his bill for religious freedom through the Virginia legislature. He may have thought that most Virginians accepted the enlightened thinking in his preamble, but the bill would never have passed without the overwhelming support of growing numbers of dissenting evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists in the state who hated the Anglican establishment so much that they didn’t care what the preamble said. The principal source of our separation of church and state was never enlightened rationalism, important as that is to us today, but rather the growing realization by the various competing religious groups that it was better to neutralize the state in matters of religion than run the risk of one of their opponents gaining control of the government.

Brad Hart said...

Nope, not nonsense, not atall.

And what the hell do I care about Johann N. Neem?

I fail to see any of your points on this matter. All we are saying is that exteme ends of the culture wars are able to construe whatever they want from the historical record because they aren't actually interested in history. I believe this is what Wood is getting least in part.

Pinky said...

Wood wants us to put the Founding in the context of the times.

“…contractual imagery between two equal parties, not to mention the familial imagery of a patriarchal king and the mother country, suggests that for many eighteenth century Anglo-Americans the public and private realms were still largely indistinguishable. Indeed, the colonists never regarded the struggle between the rights of the Crown and the rights of the people as one between public and private rights. For even as late as the eve of the Revolution, the modern distinction between public and private was still not clear.“

But a lot of things evolve once a war has begun.

Cross Culture said...

I think Wood is right in his analysis. As a "conservative" (what does that word really mean?) and a Christian, my argument is that we are playing the wrong game, both historically and politically. When stepping into these debates, otherwise sensible people with minds of their own start acting like scripted robots. If they deviate from the script they are trashed by their "side" as a traitor, thus forcing them back into the script.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite so. I get equal flack from the ultra-religious who find the source of republicanism in the Book of Isaiah.

If you read Wood carefully, which few seem to, his point is that the Founding was far more religious than today, and we cannot go back to it for socio-political reasons: the culture has changed. The modern philosopher Jurgen Habermas says the same thing.

However, both gently remind us that the idea that the nation---and the notions of liberty and rights---were built on Enlightenment secularism is a modern fiction.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for the Butterfield, David. I shall follow up. I especially liked Judd's comparison of Whig theory to marxist and feminist history, which are our current epistemological crisis.