Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life

Here's an interesting book review that I thought I would share. It's written by a colleague of mine, one of my former law professors. The review was originally published in the American Journal of Legal History, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Enjoy!

American Journal of Legal History
April, 2012

Book Review


David K. DeWolf
Gonzaga University

Copyright © 2012 by Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law; David K. DeWolf

In The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison have set about to correct a truncated representation of what the Founders thought was the proper relationship between religion and public life--particularly the place of religion in politics. There is plenty of scholarship already available to challenge the claim that Jefferson's metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state was reflective of some sort of consensus among the Founders, and this volume offers additional reflection on the topic.

Before delving into the contribution that this volume offers, it would be helpful to answer the question, “Who cares?” Or perhaps more specifically, what purchase on contemporary issues is expected to be gained from an appeal to what the Founders believed? The short answer is that a common trope in contemporary politics is to accuse the “Religious Right” of betraying the vision of the Founders by failing to observe a distinction between the private dictates of religion and the public obligations of government. As pious as some of our Founders may have been, so goes the claim, they created a form of government that relegated religion to the realm of the personal and private, relying upon more universal principles to animate the structure of government. In fact, some claim that the Founding Fathers adopted a radically different conception from that of the “Planting Fathers,” rejecting their religious vision in favor of a form of government that prohibited any alliance between church and state.

To be sure, there is an equal and opposite claim on behalf of the so-called Religious Right: not only is the wall of separation metaphor misleading, but by attempting to exclude religion from the public square, “separationists” are ignoring the wisdom of the Founders. As even William 0. Douglas, an icon of the modern civil liberties movement, recognized in Zorach v. Clausen, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Critics of the separationist position argue that, leaving aside the prospect of divine retribution, failure to recognize the wisdom of the Founders will erode the foundation upon which the success of the American experiment has been built.

Thus, the reason that we are properly interested in the views of the Founders is to help resolve the dispute over who is more entitled to speak for the Founders on the question of how the spheres of religious belief and government are related. And in using the phrase “Forgotten Founders” in the title, the authors are suggesting that the subjects of the individual essays in the book have been relegated to undeserved obscurity in the usual presentation of the Founders. To be sure, most of the names are well known: Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Abigail Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Thomas Paine. These are names that most educated people could recognize as playing significant roles in the Revolution and its aftermath. The other names would be harder to pick out: Oliver Ellsworth, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren. These individuals are known to scholars of the era, and in some cases had a more decisive influence on the public understanding of religion's role in public life than those with greater name recognition.

Each essay is interesting in its own right, because in the life history of each subject there is a mixture of extraordinary opportunity combined with daunting personal hardship and challenge. For example, Alexander Hamilton's brilliance and public success combined with personal limitation and moral failure. Three years before his death he returned to the piety of his youth. As with many (perhaps most) people, the encounter of unexpected misfortune, or acknowledgement of serious personal failing, leads to a conversion of the heart. Even if the individual (in most cases) is already a Christian believer of a traditional variety, there is a renewed appreciation of how profoundly dependent each individual is upon the continued mercy of God.

It would be one thing if the essays merely documented the personal piety of the Founders. That would be consistent with the vision of the separationists-- religion as an uplifting and useful activity, but optional and private. Instead, each of the essay subjects assumed that a proper relationship to one's Creator was necessary not just for individuals, but for nations as well. In the same way that an individual, forgetful of his status as a creature, and inclined to assume that he is entitled to make his own rules, will soon discover how painfully inadequate he is to live without divine assistance, the nation that loses its sense of dependence upon a Divine Governor is likely to fall victim to the various ills that have plagued governments throughout history. Worse yet, unlike individuals, who may be rescued from a wayward path by concerned friends or acquaintances, nations tend to acknowledge their wrongdoing only after calamity has struck. Whereas King David took advantage of the Prophet Nathan's rebuke to mend his ways, the nation of Israel ignored the Prophet Jeremiah and wound up in the Babylonian Captivity.

In this context the controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance comes to mind. Whereas no one has made a claim that it is unconstitutional to invite schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the United States, there is a well-known challenge to saying the Pledge with the words “under God” inserted after the words “one nation.” With the essays of this book in hand, one can appreciate why it might be seen as a mistake to pledge allegiance to a country before there was some assurance that the country was properly restrained by an acknowledgement of higher duties.

The Founders could certainly have been wrong in their understanding; but this volume is an important contribution to an accurate representation of what they actually believed, and it may help strengthen the judgment that they were correct.


Tom Van Dyke said...



Jonathan Rowe said...
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Jonathan Rowe said...
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for this. I not only know the three principal authors, but have broken bread with each of them. (And with Gregg Frazer who wrote the chapter on Hamilton).

This is absolutely a book of solid scholarship.

On a different note ...

Re the planting v. founding fathers, I think there's certainly a kernel of truth in the notion that what went down in 1776-1791 differed from what went down when the early colonies were founded.

Although, the "separation" issue is more complicated than the "religious liberty" issue. The early planters -- except for William Penn's PA and Roger Williams' RI -- were not good on religious liberty. And in many ways what America's Founders (of the 1776-91 era) radically broke with the "Shining City on a Hill" view of religion, law and politics as represented by Winthrop.

The Founders, both key and non-key, seemed more united on religious liberty issues. On "establishment" issues, they more differed, complicating the analysis.

Phil Johnson said...

Excellent post.

Jason Pappas said...

I find this most unconvincing and perplexing. This is mostly because terms are not defined. There is no doubt that the Founders were religious and publicly so. The question is in which way were they religious in respect to public policy. Did they deduce policy from revelation (i.e. commandments) or where they empirical (and saw natural law based on empirical studies as revealing His will)?

Now, Mark, you correctly argued that they undertook an empirical examination of history for the basis of their principles instead of relying on deduction or “Reason” (as Forrest McDonald puts it). (Correctly if my memory is wrong.) And Tom argued that they weren’t doctrinal in their approach to religion in the public sphere. (Tom, will correctly if my memory fails here.) Thus, can we agree that their religion isn’t the “heed the word and follow” kind but the “nature and history tells of of our Creator’s will” kind? Or something to that effect?

Phil Johnson said...

All this talk makes me wonder if Pericles truly believed in Zeus as well as the rest of the gods of Greece. Or was he just a smart politician?

Tom Van Dyke said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

And Tom argued that they weren’t doctrinal in their approach to religion in the public sphere. (Tom, will correctly if my memory fails here.)

Pretty much.

Since according to Grotius, "natural law" [the laws of nature and nature's God] functions without scripture---although alongside it*---"doctrine" is unnecessary, as is the business of salvation [sole fide or by "works" or by grace, etc.].

"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other."
Founder James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, 1804

Thus, can we agree that their religion isn’t the “heed the word and follow” kind but the “nature and history tells of of our Creator’s will” kind? Or something to that effect?

"The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end."---Wilson, ibid.

So although God is in the mix there, religion-as-a body of doctrine isn't. But Wilson, and most of the Founders, whether they be the "2nd tier" ones of the Dreisbach/Hall book or the Big Six, either believed the Bible was divine writ or believed it was a pretty wise book, so nobody sought to do things that contradict it.

On that much they agreed, and the civil peace depended on it.

Jason Pappas said...

Yes, that's it ... an excellent summary of what you've argued for some time now. Thanks.