Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ragosta at the David Library

On April 10, I saw John Ragosta present at the David Library on his book Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed. I now have an autographed copy of the book.

This is how I understand Ragosta's thesis: There may have been multiple understandings of church-state relations during the Founding; the states each had their own way of dealing with religious liberty and establishment issues. Further, there has been recent, notable, effort arguing Jefferson and Madison's influence is exaggerated and disproportionate.

Ragosta seeks to explain and reclaim why Jefferson and Madison deserve that rock star influence and it's because, they were, well, rock stars of church-state issues while others weren't. (Note: Ragosta didn't, from what I remember, use the rock star analogy; that's my language.)

This reminds me of Harry Jaffa's notion of interpreting Founding principles through their ideals, not compromises with those ideals. On the ideals of proper church-state relations, who can hold a candle to Jefferson and Madison?

Daniel Dreisbach, a scholar for whom I have profound respect, suggests Jaspar Adams. The problem is, as Ragosta noted, Jaspar Adams was a nobody. He's not even a Salieri to Jefferson and Madison's Mozart. Perhaps Joseph Story (a somebody). But Story wasn't a Founder like Jefferson and Madison were.

While briefly chatting with Dr. Ragosta I mentioned perhaps John Marshall. Ragosta mentioned Marshall, unlike Story, was a Founder and would make for a better candidate than Story. And Marshall, likewise, corresponded with Jaspar Adams and seemed to sympathize with him more than Madison did.

Though, beyond the singular letter to Adams, I'm not aware of much that John Marshall wrote on church-state relations (doesn't mean it's not out there).

When I presented at a conference with, among others, Daniel Dreisbach, we discussed the concept of "key Founders" -- the notion that certain founders not only get but arguably deserve disproportionate influence over others.  Dreisbach suggested that our attention to the first four Presidents, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin (I don't think anyone questions those six are the most well known today) may be a modernistic phenomenon, that other, more forgotten Founders were bigger in the past than they are today. I remember him suggesting John Dickinson as an example.

Well Ragosta, in his book, takes this challenge seriously. Through the use of search engines and data, he tries to argue that Jefferson and Madison were back then, as they are today, rock stars on church-state ideals and remained so for a hundred years after the founding.

If someone was bigger and more worthy of the attention and influence on church-state matters, who?


Tom Van Dyke said...

If someone was bigger and more worthy of the attention and influence on church-state matters, who?

The states, to whom religion was left by the First amendment. It reads "CONGRESS shall make no law..."

Even if we're to give Jefferson and Madison a preeminence [that perhaps they deserve, but not to the degree that most all other Founders are excluded], I think a number of their letters and quotes are claimed for a "strict separationism" that's unjustifiable.

Madison consistently answers written inquiries in a way that can be read as a clear opposition to any government money going to support churches.* But that's a big step away from separationism.

So too the oft-quoted Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptists is given an authority and a content that's also quite a stretch to be characterized as modern "strict separationism."

Ironically, as NYC tries to withhold public facilities from rental for church services, we know for a fact that Jefferson not only permitted the halls of government to be borrowed on Sundays for religious services during the construction of Washington DC, he attended many of the services himself!

See also

*And as we all know, Madison lost the battle against paid chaplains in Congress, a custom that continues through the present day despite him.

Ragosta said...

Mr. Van Dyke might read the book: The states were also emphatically moving in a Jeffersonian/Madisonian direction (and doing so based on a Jeffersonian understanding).

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - ”Madison consistently answers written inquiries in a way that can be read as a clear opposition to any government money going to support churches.* But that's a big step away from separationism.”

It’s probably helpful to remember that during the founding, the founders were still under the pernicious cloud of blasphemy laws and certainly were wary of the very real and constant threat of religious persecution.

Or, as James Madison lamented(1):

That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the worst of anything whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.”

As to his sentiments regarding the question of separation, the following quotes shed a bit more light(2).

“The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.” (Letter to Robert Walsh, Mar. 2, 1819)

“Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and & Gov't in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.” (Detached Memoranda, circa 1820)

“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. (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

“I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.” (Letter Rev. Jasper Adams, Spring 1832)

“To the Baptist Churches on Neal's Greek on Black Creek, North Carolina I have received, fellow-citizens, your address, approving my objection to the Bill containing a grant of public land to the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, Mississippi Territory. Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself.” (Letter to Baptist Churches in North Carolina, June 3, 1811)

1) Letter from James Madison to William Bradford, Jr. (January 24, 1774), in 1 The Writings of James Madison, at 18 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1900).


2) I haven’t vetted these quotes but have drank from this well before and have little reservation that they are accurate. However, I encourage vetting if you have the time.


Ray Soller said...

When it comes Jefferson permitting the halls of government to be used on Sundays for religious services during the Jefferson administration
here's part of a 2/27/2012 email exchange I had with John Ragosta:

John, you wrote:

Jefferson did not stop church services in government buildings (necessitated by the paucity of large buildings in a budding Washington).

Quite right, but I need to add that public access for religious services held at DC government buildings never received any official endorsement from the executive branch or by legislative authorization.

I've checked with [LoC Chief of the Manuscript Division] Jim Hutson and [House Historian] Fred Beuttler. [They tacitly agreed that] Attendees were simply exercising what [in my words] can only be called "squatter rights."

John's reply:

My understanding is that the House leadership allowed them to use the building, but there was no "joint resolution" or "joint session" as Barton, et al. often claim. Senate was completely uninvolved. Certainly it was not an official function. I cover this in some detail in the upcoming book [Religious Freedom; Section - University of Virginia & Public Spaces]

See also Throckmorton here

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's what they call "accommodation," Ray. Neither establishment nor negation.

Unfortunately, the modern forces of "secularism" insist on the latter in the name of a phony "neutrality."

They still don't get the concept of pluralism. The solution is to let 1000 flowers bloom, not to turn the garden into a parking lot.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And of course, the anti-religious types love to quote Madison after he left the presidency ad nauseum, but leave out or minimize the fact that while president, Madison issued 4 religious proclamations himself.

The Founders' private thoughts are of far less importance than their public acts.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous Ragosta said...
Mr. Van Dyke might read the book: The states were also emphatically moving in a Jeffersonian/Madisonian direction (and doing so based on a Jeffersonian understanding).

True, Mr. Ragosta. But so far as to tear down crosses? Prohibit public prayer, tear out nativity scenes, and the hundreds of other petty anti-religious nonsenses we've been subjected to in the past half-century?

THAT is the question, sir.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD, this is a history blog.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The comments sections are more open to that sort of thing, and this is a general question of principles. If we're not discussing principles, there's really no point to the blog atall. My own objection is to giving anti-religious agitators like the Mikey Weinsteins our front page. In fact, we haven't had a David Barton sucks month in awhile. tickticktick

But thank you for your newfound concern.

jimmiraybob said...

"The comments sections are more open to that sort of thing, and this is a general question of principles."

This is your rule Tom and you've trotted it out in comments before and I'm sure you will again.

Not that I'm surprised at your "rules apply to thee and not to me because I'm me and I made the rule and it's about principles when I don't follow the rule but this can't apply to any one else because, again, I'm me and it's my rule and I'll fight the culture war wherever and whenever and however I want because there are no rules on the battlefield where I'm always right and you're always wrong" rock solidness.

I look forward to future lessons in consistency and principle.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm consistent. I don't post overt politics on the front page, and I object whenever somebody else does. As for the culture wars, I prefer to argue my POV affirmatively, not write posts explicitly attacking those I disagree with.

I'm sure my record is not perfect, but it's better than most.

And now I'm through answering YOUR personal attacks for the time being. Occasionally you have a genuine [counter]argument pertaining to history itself, and those are most welcome.