Meacham is wrong when he says the story of the Founding has “a particular resonance for our era” and that the Founders’ “time is like our time.” Despite all our current concerns about theocracy, religion then was much more powerful and pervasive than it is today, even though the percentage of church membership may have been smaller then than now; indeed, as Holmes correctly points out, the overwhelming religiosity of the Revolutionary era made the Founders appear “less devout than they were.” Jefferson and Madison and other rationalists were on the defensive against the forces of popular Christian enthusiasm. Franklin was only being wise in advising a friend in 1786 not to publish anything attacking traditional Christianity. “He that spits against the wind,” he said, “spits in his own face.” By contrast today it is the devoutly religious people who feel beset and beleaguered by an increasingly secularizing culture.
Despite Meacham’s claim, the Founders did not really “succeed” in assigning “religion its proper place in civil society.” Meacham can make that claim only because judges in the twentieth century have succeeded in incorporating the First Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment and then relating it to the states, which was never intended in 1787. Like so many others who write about these matters, Meacham forgets the acute sense of a limited federal government that most late-eighteenth-century Americans had; and he tends to ignore the fact that the First Amendment then applied only to the federal government and not at all to the states.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Gordon Wood on the Current Christian Nation Controversy, Part Deux
Gordon Wood's FULL essay, a review of Jon Meacham's "American Gospel," presents quite a different picture than Fea/Palermo's excerpt about why the Founding might be unhelpful in our current era. Not exactly what anti-Christian Nationists want to hear. Wood continues,