Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Godless Constitution

We've talked about this book a number of times on my blogs. It's David Barton's bête noire. It's a good book and both of the scholars who wrote it are the real deal who know and cite the record, in my opinion, better than Barton does.

I don't agree with its thesis completely. But here is what I value in it. What I take from it for my thesis: The political theology of the American Founding represented a loss for the forces of "religious correctness" (a term they use). What the authors then do, which is perhaps a step too far, is bring that battle into today's culture wars and associate the late 18th Cen. forces of religious correctness with today's religious right, and America's Founders with today's secularists. I wouldn't do that. Rather, I'd stick with the more modest thesis that the American Founding and its political theology represented a loss for late 18th Century religious correctness.

So who were the losers? Among them Timothy Dwight, William Linn, John Mitchell Mason, and Jedidiah Morse. The religiously correct were the ones who thought the US Constitution should invoke the Triune God, probable in the form of a covenant as the central anchor of the document. It doesn't do that. Also, it would be helpful if, as Mason wanted (when discussing the Articles of Confederation), America's governing document invoked the "law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,..." It doesn't do that either. So what we are left with is victory for religious liberty and pluralism where the religiously heterodox and heterics like the Swedenborgs, Unitarians, Universalists, etc., have their place at the table right next to the orthodox. That's my thesis.


Michael Heath said...

I'm not sure I knew who David Barton was in 2005 when I read and reviewed Godless Constitution; especially given I didn't list him in my review of the frauds I knew of then. But I think it was fairly obvious even back then that the authors' lack of
footnotes was reason for criticism; precisely because the Christian Nation frauds would leverage that defect in the book to falsely project their own behavior onto historians - that they were propagandists and liars.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The lack of footnotes, albeit accurate, is a chickenspit criticism. But then again, Barton's critics aren't beyond flaying him for bringing it up!

Now that's chickenspit about schickenspit.

mr. heath and our AC readers will find Gordon wood's review of a new Roger Williams biography interesting. Wood, one of our sharpest historians and one who is relatively unsullied by the culture wars, argues that Roger Williams has been quite romanticized by the secular left.

"Wood observes that Barry’s book overreaches, noting the title, which suggests that Williams was the creator of the American soul, is surely exaggerated.

Barry, however, is not alone in linking Williams with the founding of American democracy. Robert Bellah appealed to Roger Williams as the fountainhead of radical American individualism. More recently Martha Nussbaum, in her book Liberty of Conscience, similarly appealed to Williams as the progenitor of American democratic liberalism. It is an old thesis, forgotten but not dead, first voiced by Vernon Lewis Parrington, in his 1927 Main Currents in American Thought. Parrington presented Williams as a seminal thinker, describing him as an individualistic mystic and forebear of Transcendentalism, but most importantly as a political philosopher and forerunner of democratic liberalism. Parrington portrayed Williams as a proto-Jeffersonian who anticipated Locke and the natural rights school, thus becoming one of the great heroes in the progressive vision of American intellectual life.

But it is not just academics that have bought into the view of Williams as a civil libertarian. Denominational newspaper editor and church-state separation advocate, J. M. Dawson, claimed Williams as a representative of the historic Baptist position of church-state separation that was transmitted through Isaac Backus and John Leland to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Dawson’s panegyric account in his 1956 book Baptists and the American Republic makes for a nice story, if it were only true. It is not the fact that Williams was only a Baptist for a few months that makes Dawson’s claim unbelievable. It is that Dawson showed no historical connection of the appropriation of Williams by Jefferson. There is, however, historically demonstrable evidence to indicate that John Locke, not Roger Williams, was the principle source of religious liberty for Jefferson and Madison."

As for Locke's part, it's quite a simple but elegant theological argument, that the government can't save your soul, and neither can a government puzzle out "true" religion from the erroneous.

Quentin Sedney said...

I only recently came across your blog/website, the timing of which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate in that I am completing my master’s thesis on the religious views of the founding fathers and your discussion are of interest; unfortunate because I am completing the thesis it and I would have valued time discussing the topic with your contributors.

Regarding the book mentioned above, I found it useful only in the negative due to their lack of footnotes, selective citations, and blatant one view on the topic. I used them as an example in a discussion on church adherence. Kramnick and Moore refer to Finke and Stark (1992) when they state “The highest estimates for the late eighteenth century make about 10-15 percent of the population church members…” , completely ignoring the work by Bonomi and Eisenstadt (1982). Kramnick and Moore are not the only one who cite/refer to the Finke and Stark numbers (e.g. Wills, Butler), data and analysis that does not appear solidly founded.

Before finding your blog/website I had read Dr. Frazer’s paper on Alexander Hamilton in The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (2009) and found his concept of ‘theistic rationalism’ appealing in describing the views of many founders. I notice that there was a thread on that topic several years ago. I have a question pertaining to Dr. Frazer’s concept. Is the old threat still active, or is there another place I should post my question.

Thank you,
Quentin Sedney

Jonathan Rowe said...


That thread is no longer active. You can post there, but it probably won't be read. I almost missed this one.

You can email me the question and I'll see if I can do something with it.

Catherine White said...

Tom van Dyek says: 'lack of footnotes is merely a chickenspit criticism?'

You can keep telling yourself that, but try telling that to the professor who's student dares to present a paper without without footnotes.