Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jeffrey Sommers Defends David Kalivas

First off, let me thank both distinguished professors of history for engaging in debate at American Creation. Like me they are both community college professors. It's nice to see CC profs so well represented here.

Sommers notes:

I have followed this debate with great interest. On the one hand, as some rightly declare, the central government was much weaker at our nation's founding than at present. To be sure there have been some guilty of projecting their biases on the past with regards to Federal power and the issue of religion. Conversely, I would argue that many on this list also project their preferred understanding of the past in a kind of presentism that also fails to capture an understanding of our nation at birth.

Indeed, we need to be mindful that in New England only 84 years before the Declaration of Independence was penned by Jefferson, religious zealots still busied themselves by burning witches at the stake. Indeed, the jihadist beheaders of American journalist Daniel Pearl might have felt quite comfortable in that America rather than our present United States.

As we know our original founding document, the Articles of Confederation, restricted Federal power by design. The great fear of many founders, especially the Anti-Federalists, was the hijacking of the republic by the military and/or by a charismatic leader that would impose his/their will (which could include a religion) on the people.

It is also clear that many (not all) founders were influenced by the Enlightenment and Deism. Among those were Jefferson. Jefferson has endless quotes pronouncing his relegation of religion to the states and as many to the individual. For Jefferson, the question of individual rights was best protected by local government, and the more local the better. That said, the Anti-Federalists were keen to ensure that neither states nor the Federal Government would impose state religions and would protect individual liberties.

Indeed, writing on the topic of religious tolerance and protection of such rights to “Hindoo (sic) and Infidel of every denomination”:

Where the preamble (to the Virginia Constitution) declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

In conclusion, some general points:

1) ironically, it was the more (not total, but more) secularist Anti-Federalists who were the chief advocate of States’ Rights. Whereas the more religious, Federalists, were for increased central control in government generally. This is, of course, the opposite of today, with today’s religiously minded projecting their present view of states’ rights onto the past regarding States’ Rights.

2) the state churches referenced, such as in Mass. (entrenched bureaucracies with powers to tax) were all gone by the 1830s. The Federal government was fairly weak at its inception, but what is interesting to note is not the persistence of state religion, but how with a few short decades of the Constitution’s pronouncements against state religion, that even in the land of the Salem Witch Trials, state churches were gone. Rather than being in the ascendant, state churches were on the way out.

3) Jefferson support for all beliefs reflected his libertarianism on such matters. He himself worked to secularize Christianity through the publication of his own Bible that reduced it to an enlightenment book of moral philosophy that cleansed it of all supernatural acts. No mere flip comment, it represents a serious, sustained document of his personal philosophy, and he makes it very clear where he stands.

4) Lastly, regarding Jefferson as a Christian, the Federalists in the 1800 election most certainly did not think him one, and made Jefferson’s “deism,” as the Federalists saw it, their central attack in that campaign. Of course, some of this was political opportunism. The Federalists lost this election, which provides further evidence of weakening religion among elites, who at this time constituted most voters.



King of Ireland said...

Dr. Sommers,

What specifically do you think is poor understanding? I agree with jon I feel blessed to have had an opportunity to exchange ideas with 4 phd's this week

David Kalivas said...

(I posted this in another section, but thought it should be here as well.)

Understanding the past and present is always a challenging process fraught with bumps and curves, but engaging issues, whether we agree or not, works best when it makes us think more about those things we haven’t thought much about, or those things we need to think more about. I believe Dr. Sommer's comments offers a critically valuable perspective on the early period of the Republic.

Additionally, I agree with the comments regarding federalism during the early period of the Republic that many have made here. The Anti-Federalists were certainly not as greatly concerned about individual liberties as they were with the protection of states’ rights. This is the case for the Bill of Rights, which was designed to protect the states from encroachment of their sovereignty by the national government and was quite specific about those powers not granted to the national government being left to the states and the people (9th and 10th Amendments). The jurisprudence that would develop into the present day has interpreted the words of the Constitution, more specifically the various justices on the Supreme Court and lower courts, and it is that body of jurisprudence that is ultimately critical for understanding the meaning of our Constitution as amended over the past two plus centuries regardless of the intentions of the Founders.

In this long discussion there is an area of inquiry that is of interest to me, but that I have not been able to explore, nor expressly focus on until now. Namely -- what was happening within the national political culture and the cultures of the states regarding religious freedom and individual conscience? Was there a political cultural shift taking place that led to the cessation of established and privileged churches in states that amended those practices out of their pre-Federal Era Constitutions by1830s? It was not an era of increasing state encroachment or interference in religious beliefs and worship, quite the opposite was happening. So I have to wonder, did the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights provide a cultural context that in turn helped shape a political culture of individual liberty, including the freedom of religion, that in turn helped shape the tone and substance of future jurists and interpreters of the Constitution?

Something to think about

King of Ireland said...

Dr Kalivas stated:

"what was happening within the national political culture and the cultures of the states regarding religious freedom and individual conscience? "

Bpabbot linked a site in the first or second post about on this topic that has an exchange that is too long to copy and paste to here but you may want to check out.

It is the NC ratifying convention debates fairly far down the page under the Ist Amendment. If you're are interested and cannot find it then give me your email and I will send it to you.

I think Locke's writings on tolerance are really seen in the one debater's words. I think that spirit allowed for the big tent that became America that could have never happened in the early years because they are thought they were so write they did not listen to anyone else. The same crap goes on in churches today. No one has all the truth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

David, it wasn't that big a deal, and not as polarized as the culture wars make it. The Founding era hated church establishments ["ecclesiastical" is a word you'll find often in Madison] and churchmen even more, who could always be counted on to sow theological discord. On the other side of religious tests, there were also states like Tennessee who banned clergymen from public office!

[Not a terrible idea atall...]