Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fleming on "Christian America"

Hard right paleo-conservative Thomas Fleming explains why America was not founded to be a "Christian Nation." He writes:

Despite the number of religious fanatics who landed on our shores early on, America has never been a Christian nation. Conservative evangelicals are fond of saying that the Founding Fathers were all pious Christians, but few of the men who led the Revolution or drafted the Constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. George Washington was an ordinary Episcopalian who showed no conspicuous attachment to religion. His biographer Parson Weems has preserved touching stories about Washington’s faith, but Weems was a notorious liar, and his morale-building stories have repeatedly been debunked. The chaplain to the First Continental Congress knew Washington well and respected him, but, when asked in 1832 about the first president’s religion, he replied, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which will prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”

Revelation, miracles, and mystery were a stumbling block to John Adams, who was an undoubted Unitarian, like his wife, Abigail. Ben Franklin turned deist at the age of 15, before turning into a freethinker and Freemason. He was also a notorious philanderer who fathered bastards and wrote a famous essay on how to get and keep a mistress. Small wonder that Newt Gingrich says Franklin was “great in the way he lived his life.” Thomas Jefferson was also a mildly anti-Christian deist.

As Tocqueville told us 150 years ago, we are a conventional people, afraid of controversy. Going to church, in most periods of our history, has entailed fewer social complications than a reputation for atheism. No known atheist has ever been elected president: Lincoln learned to keep his skepticism to himself. America’s tradition of toleration—a peculiar blend of public hypocrisy and personal indifference to religion—is often explained by the First Amendment. Anti-American Catholics and ACLU liberals agree that the development of a Christian social order (much less a religious establishment) was prevented by the so-called wall of separation between Church and state. The phrase comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson addressed to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802....


To be fair to that good man, Jefferson was in something of a bind. His indifference (at best) to religion was well known, and he knew that anything he wrote could and would be used against him by political rivals who had always tried to represent him as the enemy of Christianity. Cleverly, Jefferson did not even answer the Baptists’ main point: He wrote nothing about the rights of Baptists in Connecticut or the power of the legislature but spoke only of the national legislature—that is, the U.S. Congress—which is forbidden to establish a church or interfere in the exercise of religion.

Jefferson’s wall of separation cannot honestly be used to justify the government’s campaign to eliminate Christianity from public places. The President thought, rightly or wrongly, that he was merely restating and applying the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is not easy today to get the point of this clause, since so few of us have lived in a country with an established religion....

The First Amendment, then, forbids Congress either to establish a national church or to interfere in the exercise of religion. Why Congress, specifically? Because Congress, elected from the people, is the supreme lawmaking body. As Jefferson understood, it was up to Congress to pass laws, which the president executed. The president could not have his own policies on religious freedom any more than he was entitled to have his own policies on war (much less the special “war powers” that Lincoln invented and subsequent presidents have abused): For a president to impose his own ideas on the nation would be tyrannical. Nor did anyone (except possibly Jefferson) ever think the federal courts would get involved in such an issue, since their role was to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, and they had virtually no authority to intrude themselves into the affairs of the separate sovereign states.

The fears of the Danbury Baptists were legitimate: Under the First Amendment, the states could, theoretically, interfere in the exercise of religion or establish a church, whether Anglican or Congregationalist. The fear of a national establishment came natural to Americans. What sort of national church could America have that would unite the Anglicans of Virginia and South Carolina with the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania? Even the Southern states were religiously diverse. The Carolina backcountry was dominated by Presbyterians and, eventually, Methodists, Baptists, and Campbellites, while Charleston had a significant Catholic population even in the early 19th century, and eventually the number of Irish Catholics in the lower South and, after the Louisiana Purchase, French and Spanish Catholics in Louisiana was too great to be ignored. So, although Christianity held a privileged position, it was, for practical reasons, virtually impossible for states to maintain a church establishment.

Although the Bill of Rights is interpreted today as a guarantee of individual and minority rights to exercise freedoms of expression and religion, this was not the original reading. In this respect, Jefferson’s letter points in the wrong direction. The primary object of the Bill of Rights was to restrain the national government, particularly the Congress.



Angie Van De Merwe said...

This may be an ignorant question, but I think it is pertinent to the discussion...

If Congress is to represent the people, who elect them, then isn't there a conflict of interests when it comes to state's that are bidding for federal monies so that their local economies might grow, then, States have a vested interest in the federal agenda, don't they?

And what happens when a religious organization gets monies from the government, whether state or federal and it conflicts with religious conscience? Is it considered "establishment of religion" when these monies are used in religious organizations? What stipulations concerning minority rights are pertinent to religious organizations? Does the religious organization have exclusion from federal regulations concerning discrimination?

If as religious organization claims their "conscience" as a trump card against discrimnating, then is there any "control" in Congress for such occurrances?

King of Ireland said...

I am no lawyer but I would say the federal money probably creates an unhealthy dependence on the part of the religious institutions as it does on the state governments. Most federal money I have seen invested in programs gets wasted because there is an incentive to do so or not get more.

I would also say that if the institution does not want to do what the entity that is giving it tells them to do with it and folllow that entities guidelines that the state or religious institution should not take the money.

Phil Johnson said...

What gets politicians elected to any office is their popularity with the voters in their particular district or state or, in the case of president, with the entire national electorate.
You know that and you also know that, when it looks like they might witn their race or once they are in office, they are approached by individuals with interests to pursue. Some have big money and others have great influence with the electorate. The rest is just plain common sense.

A democracy is a system representing the voice of the electorate--whoever and whatever that is.

But, our system has, pretty much, been taken over by special interests with great influence and deep pockets.

Think about the influence an individual might have who controls a large private army that has infiltrated the highest levels of our government.
Go fish....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Big deal. Fleming cites Washington, Jefferson, and John Adams, the usual suspects, and ignores the other 100 Founders.

Yet he himself writes:

From the President

For 30 years, The Rockford Institute has carried out its mission of defending and advancing “the principles of a free society.” Founded in the year of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, the Institute has worked to preserve the institutions of the Christian West: the family, the Church, and the rule of law; private property, free enterprise, and moral discipline; high standards of learning, art, and literature.

What is America if not the leading light of the "Christian West?"

Dr. Fleming's opinions are contradictory, and unauthoritative. I don't know what he's doing on our mainpage.

Brian Tubbs said...

You passingly describe Fleming as "hard right" and "paleo conservative." First, how do you define "hard right"? Is that anyone to the right of you? :-) And, second, would Fleming describe himself as "paleo conservative" - keeping in mind that most voters have no idea what that means? :-)

Couldn't you have simply described Fleming as "conservative"? Might that have been more fair?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brian, I think Jon's description is accurate, having taken a look at

Paleo-con isn't necessarily a pejorative, and Fleming's crowd is populated with folks like Paul Craig Roberts, who's so far to the right that lefties like agree with him.

Phil Johnson said...
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Phil Johnson said...
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Jonathan Rowe said...


Flemming describes himself as "hard right" and a paleoconservative.

If you look at some of the positions he takes, you'd probably want him described in a way that distinguishes from ordinary "conservative."

Jonathan Rowe said...


He's on our mainpage because, like it or not, Fleming is an important paleocon intellectual and I'm trying to feature the way as many different ideologies and sources view this issue as possible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, you're using fringe characters from the right with theological agendas that have no place in historical inquiry.

Fleming calls the First Amendment "hypocrisy." That's fine theologically, I guess, but it's more theocratic than anything. It's certainly not legitimate history.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Paleoconservatives and how they approach history get equal opportunity here as well as any other ideology.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jon, these are advocates, not historians, and this particular stripe of fringe theocrats dominates our mainpage far more than serious historians.

If you wanna take on the "right," then do it with major leaguers like Dreisbach and Hamburger, not these mooks.

Look, if you want to turn this into a freak show, I can't stop you. But as noted above, Fleming says this isn't a Christian nation on one hand, and speaks of preserving the "Christian West" on the other. He is incoherent.

This is starting to resemble that other blog, with its obsession with the Orly Taitz types, to the exclusion of serious thinkers and to the detriment of serious discussion.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well Tom, instead of "poisoning the well" (the genetic fallacy) with where these sources come from, why don't we just deal with the substance, like, for instance, what you think is "incoherent" about Fleming's (or whoever else's) assertions.

paul said...

this is a great site about mystery religion!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Where in the World did you get these articles? They sound very dubious to me...