Sunday, December 13, 2009

Welcome to the Harvard Narrative [and its critics]

Great to see history profs David Kalivas and Jeffrey Sommers grace our pages, following and [even better!] participating in this blog.

Based on their contributions so far, I do believe both are under the impression that this blog is unfamiliar with their quite familiar arguments, which historian Allen C. Guelzo labels the "Harvard Narrative"---that the secular forces of reason and Enlightenment liberated America-in-the-womb from oppressive religion and superstition, and deserve the lion's share of the credit for the establishment of the new American republic.

However, it appears it's the defenders of the "Harvard Narrative" who are unfamiliar with the counterarguments to their position, counterarguments often presented on this blog.

Thus, Dr. Sommers begins his reply with a reference to the quite limited "witch scare" in New England some 80 years before, followed even more unfortunately with "the jihadist beheaders of American journalist Daniel Pearl might have felt quite comfortable in that America rather than our present United States."

Oy. One scarcely knows where to start. I can only hope that Dr. Sommers employs such indefensible hyperbole as a necessary antidote to the fringe who argue America was founded as some sort of Christian theocracy. But that indefensible position is not offered anywhere on the American Creation blog.

As to Jeffrey's "defense" of Dr. Kalivas, here's the story: David objected to the assertion [shared by Jefferson and Justice Joseph Story], that "religion was left to the states," a rather simple formulation. Historical evidence was offered in support, that established state churches continued after ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as did religious tests for statewide office. David was asked for, but has not yet given, historical proof that his reading of Article VI's Supremacy Clause was ever understood as giving the central government authority over religion ["Congress shall make no law..."].

So that's that issue, and no more. This is not jihad, and we leave the "culture wars" to other blogs.

As for the prevailing theology of the Founding, there was one, but it was not Jefferson's, Jefferson often trotted out by the Harvard Narrative as representative of the Founding theology.

Because Jefferson took great pains to conceal or divert attention from his rather idiosyncratic religious unorthodoxy, and in the very 1800 election Dr. Sommers cites, when the Federalists accused Jefferson of atheism, Jefferson's supporters took great pains to assure the American people that wasn't true!

Indeed, it's that concealment and denial by his supporters that presents the more probative view of America at the Founding. [Not that Jefferson was an atheist atall, acknowledged in the above link.]

So, I do hope the aforementioned Drs. Kalivas & Sommers stick around this blog, as they assuredly have much to offer. I also wish to assure them that this is no turnip-truck blog, unfamiliar with any of their arguments presented so far in our comments sections. These arguments make up the prevailing narrative of America's history taught in our schools and colleges.

But the Harvard Narrative has its critics, and those critics like Dr. Guelzo [also Dr. Gregg Frazer as well as your humble narrator] do bring historical facts to underpin their [counter]arguments, as well as the views of near-contemporaries of the Founding like Tocqueville and Justice Story, author of the first comprehensive analysis of the Constitution.

Gentlemen, I for one don't disagree with a single fact you've offered in evidence; again, they are quite familiar, and facts are facts. In fact, I'll happily add historical corroboration to most of your submitted evidence, particularly on Jefferson. I submit simply that there are many more relevant facts than that, many now off the beaten path in 2009 precisely because they're egregiously overlooked by the prevailing narrative, as Dr. James Hutson strenuously objects here, in yet another challenge to the Harvard Narrative.

Please just be open to the challenges, or at least address your objections directly, with your own counterarguments and counterfactuals, and in this way we can all learn. This blog is committed not to "winning" debates, who's right and who's "wrong," but to cooperative inquiry and discussion. There's no "wrong" as much as one argument might hold greater truth than another. We surely agree that it wasn't cut-and-dried, black/white, when it comes to religion and the Founding. It was more a sliding scale.

Unfortunately, the academic world reflects the world of politics these days, as "bloodsport," but this groupblog is one of the few that---at least so far---has accommodated all views with courtesy and good ol' American pluralism. We got yer Catlicks, yer Calvinists, yer ex-Catholics and ex-Calvinists, yer agnostics, yer atheists, and even a Mormon or two. [No Hindoos yet.]

In short, welcome.



King of Ireland said...

James Huston stated:

"from their traditional scriptural view that Christ's kingdom was not of this world rather than from a Lockean theory of the social compact."

This is the same thing I keep saying. Both were Christian thought. Locke's ideas come right from the Bible. Many of the other authors of the documents from the English revolutions that are praised by John Adams do as well. It is clear as a bell and most cannot see it because it never comes up.

It is exactly like home the home schooled Christians that secularists complain about only learning one side of things and have closed ears to anything that goes against what they were indoctrinated into. If one wants to read bias propaganda all one has to do is open a Public School History book. It is one of about 5 main reasons I will not teach ever again.

King of Ireland said...

Tom stated;

"This is not jihad, and we leave the "culture wars" to other blogs."

I am not sure if the latter part of this statement is settled yet. I have taken your thoughts on this into consideration but I think discussion of the issues that divide in the proper spirit and context is proper dialogue for a History class. This is for all intents and purposes a big interactive History class. If it does not apply to our lives it is just a big discussion about dead guys and things we cannot change. I speak for a somewhat professional opinion of one who has been told more than once that my History class was not like any other because I related it to relevant issues in the kids lives.

Just food for thought. I do not want to get us off topic.

David Kalivas said...

Article VI

"...but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Certainly this does give some authority to the national government over excluding religion from public offices.

King of Ireland said...

Dr. Kalivas,

I would say that "Under the United States" would seem to mean the National government. I may be biased because I come from a Libertarian bent but at best this is a tie and I believe the tie goes to liberty. I guess one could make an argument that liberty might mean that of the individual being oppressed by state laws at the time. I hear your argument.

Do you have any evidence that anyone took Madisons writing in the Federalists papers about the need for Federalism as a guardian of minority rights against the tyranny of the majority whether the tryanny come from the national or state government. I think it was number 10 about an extended republic. Obviously from the quote I produced Madison wanted the power to negate states laws but his own words say that that was defeated.

I think Tom's point is that the same discussion was carried over to the Ist Amendment debates were the Madisonian point of view took more of a beating in that it became even more clear when Congress was invoked when stating that no government could establish religion. I guess he is saying they could have put state in their too.

This is where I defer to your expertise of the details and facts. I hope you add more so I can fully understand where you are coming from. I am quite simpathetic to the more modern case for the National government to protect individual rights from oppressive state laws That is within reason because I think certain hot button issues are used to power grab. Nonetheless, I do not see these same arguments in concrete case law back then. Only some abstract words from Madison in his propaganda peace to win NY called the Federalist Papers.

I am open to any evidence you may present that contradicts what I have stated in that I am no where near having made up my mind on this issue because I think my knowledge has only scratched the surface.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I understand what you are saying and am probably more sympathetic to your point of view than the others. The FFs had certain "ideals" that no government -- federal, state, local or international -- could rightly violate. And the unalienable rights of conscience were central to those ideals. So with religion, it was not federalism for the sake of federalism (i.e., religion being left to the states as an ideal) but rather a matter of jurisdiction.

Likewise, today we argue over giving an international legal body sovereign rights over the US. Religious conservatives tend to be more concerned with such issues of sovereignty. But pose them the question: What if said international organization were to overrule Roe v. Wade? That puts them in a dilemma that parallels the "religion left to the states" v. natural right ideals on religion.

But there is no question that according to such natural right ideals, the American Founders hated religious tests. They viewed said tests as, if anything, un-Declarational at the state level in addition to being un-Constitutional at the Federal level.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Do you have any evidence that anyone took Madisons writing in the Federalists papers about the need for Federalism as a guardian of minority rights against the tyranny of the majority whether the tryanny come from the national or state government.

I know you posed the question to him, but Madison's proposed First Amendment would have made it binding on states.

King of Ireland said...


Where can I read about this. The whole federalism thing is a real interest of mine. Not to get off topic but Hunington's whole theory on the death of the Nation-State(which I see as tragic if it happens) will be from the tug of war between tribalism and globalism.

Nation-States were the fruit of the Liberal movement in Europe that dealt a blow to statism(See my comments about Marx in your post). If one was to seek to undermine Classical Liberalism in favor of statism it would be in his best interests to create pressures from both sides.

In my little bit of reading of Madison he feared it more from the local governments than National from his study of Confederacies. That was part of his letter to Jefferson I quoted from the U of Chicago site. He studied the history of government more than anyone it seems and knew his stuff.
This is how the Roman Republic fell from what I understand in limited reading as well.

You can message me on facebook with any insights or good material for the layman to read.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Article VI

"...but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Certainly this does give some authority to the national government over excluding religion from public offices.

Perhaps, David. Still, it's a purely legal argument and theory, not one wielded anytime in the Founding or immediate post-Founding era.

Religion was left to the states, in legal theory, history and practice, right or wrongly.

I don't see any reason we should continue to butt heads on this minor issue. Let's let it go. I'm far more interested in your greater knowledge of world history, [Silk Road, etc.---I paid you the courtesy of reading your CV], because that's where the uniqueness of the Founding meets the road, in comparison to all other of man's belief systems.

That's the greater, grander and most important discussion. No bloodsport here. We're all in this together.

King of Ireland said...

I want to hear about the Silk Road.

David Kalivas said...

Yes, debates over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were, for the most part, focused on national and states's rights, and what was not enumerated in the Constitution was left to the states. Naturally, views on the application of rights have changed as jurisprudence developed over the years. Of course some of the biggest changes happened straight away with the Marshall Court and continued to occur as the social-cultural context of the jurists changed with the passing of time. However, from my reading on this subject, it is difficult to ignore that we are dealing with many founders who set the national example for freedom of religion with the First Amendment.

This is not my area of specialty, but it is an interest and I've decided to do a bit more reading on this material over the semester break as time permits.

The Silk Road, now there's another story ...

King of Ireland said...

Dr. Kalivas stated:

"Certainly this does give some authority to the national government over excluding religion from public offices."

I would say this was the one exception to the religion left to the states ideas in theory. In practice how were they going to enforce it? Does anyone know if any states tried to keep religious tests? I read on another blog recently that NC still has a law on the books that an atheist cannot hold office. They seated the guy anyway but I do think it is a law.

With that I would say we could drop this and move on to some other things. I for one would like to see Dr. Frazer, Dr. Kalivas, and Dr. Sommers be regular contributors. Maybe once a month or two weeks? I learned some things I would have never known from all three of them.

jimmiraybob said...

KOI - Does anyone know if any states tried to keep religious tests? I read on another blog recently that NC still has a law on the books that an atheist cannot hold office.

You also may have noticed it in the comments here.

If by religious test you mean having to swear that you believe in God (presumably the Judeo-Christian God), then I would refer you to what I cited earlier (RE: Maryland and North Carolina):

TORCASO v. WATKINS, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), in which the U.S. Supreme Court (unanimous) ruled that Maryland's requirement for officials to declare belief in God violated the freedom of religion guaranteed by the 1st and protected by the 14th Amendments. From the case summary:

"Appellant was appointed by the Governor of Maryland to the office of Notary Public; but he was denied a commission because he would not declare his belief in God, as required by the Maryland Constitution. Claiming that this requirement violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, he sued in a state court to compel issuance of his commission; but relief was denied. The State Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the state constitutional provision is self-executing without need for implementing legislation and requires declaration of a belief in God as a qualification for office. Held: This Maryland test for public office cannot be enforced against appellant, because it unconstitutionally invades his freedom of belief and religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from infringement by the States. Pp. 489-496."

And then the current case described in this article in which a claim has been made that a duly elected citizen (Cecil Bothwell) should not be seated on the Asheville City Council because Bothwell violates the North Carolina Constitution by refusing to take an oath attesting to his belief in God (he is suspected of being an atheist).

--Article 6, section 8 of the state constitution says: “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”

So yes, states may have an establishment of religion in their constitutions but it is trumped by the U.S. Constitution. I would bring up Article VI of the U.S. Constitution but I'm sure people are getting tired of hearing about it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Torcaso gets its authority from the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, on the basis of individual rights. It's not relevant to the Founding.

Unknown said...


I think the first amendment settled the debate that Article 6 started. Madison admitted he lost in the Article 6 debate in his letter to Jefferson that I cited. I think it was Jon who stated that Madison lost the battle to make the 1st Amendment binding on the states as well.

Bringing in the 14th brings no clarity on the debates back then. It is like Jon saying that Calvin said that impeaching a President was what "interposition" is like. It is taking a modern way of looking at something and interpolating it on that era.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I really don't have time to write the post; perhaps I'll get to it in a day or two. If we are going to discuss religious tests and the states, there are some quotes from Benjamins Franklin and Rush on how they are "un-Declarational." Yet Franklin replaced an explicitly Christian religious test in PA with a deistic-theistic minimal one.

jimmiraybob said...

Also, regarding the inquiry I was answering regarding states and religious tests, in 1997, South Carolina's Supreme Court on appeal from a lower court summary decision upheld that the state's constitution violated the U.S. Constitution regarding religious establishment (Silverman v. Campbell, et al., 1997):

FINNEY, C.J.: This is an appeal from an order which, in pertinent part, denied appellants' summary judgment motions and declared two parts of the South Carolina Constitution violative of the United States Constitution. We affirm the constitutional ruling and dismiss the appeals from the summary judgment rulings.


All parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The circuit judge denied the appellants' motions, denied respondent's to the extent it sought mandamus, but granted respondent summary judgment on the declaratory judgment request, holding the State Constitution's "Supreme Being" provisions violative of the First Amendment and the Religious Test Clause [jrb - Article VI]. See Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S.Ct. 1680, 6 L.Ed.2d 982 (1961)


We affirm the circuit court's holding that South Carolina Constitution art. VI, § 2 and art. XVIII, § 4 violate the First Amendment and the Religious Test Clause of the United States Constitution. The appeals from the denial of summary judgment are dismissed, and the matter remanded for further proceedings."


Since 1868, the South Carolina Constitution has said, "No person who denies the existence of the Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution." At least six other states -- Arkansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas -- have similar clauses in their constitutions, but do not enforce them.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB, Silverman v. Campbell, et al., 1997:

We note appellants do not argue that the decision of the circuit judge was wrong on its merits, and in fact cannot make such an 'argument in light of Torcaso v.Watkins supra.

Torcaso is decided on the First via the 14th---which wasn't adopted until 1868---via Cantwell:

"In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303 -304, we said:

"The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws. . . . Thus the Amendment embraces two concepts, - freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be."

Unless you can offer evidence that your and/or Dr. Kalivas' argument via Article VI had constitutional traction before 1868, we're just going in circles here. Nobody's disputing you or David, least of all me.

No 14th, no Torcaso. That's it. "Congress shall make no law" gets translated into "no state legislature shall make a law." There's no disagreement here.

King of Ireland said...


I think the whole "undeclarational" idea is fascinating.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - at this point I wasn't making an argument and was only passing information that KOI had asked about state religious tests.

King of Ireland said...


I am going to link Ed's post on the current debate in the Carolina's and copy and paste the debate from the ratifying convention later this week. It is amazing how similar the debates back then were to now.

For the record:

I am not in favor or religious tests. I am also pretty much in agreement with incorporating the 14th. I just think it has been abused as an excuse to increase the power of the National government. Federalism was put into the structure of our government for a reason. Look NCLB which has destroyed the schools. No one agrees with it but if you question it you are fired. Bigggggggg problem most do not know about.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Cheers, JRB.

jimmiraybob said...

KOI - "It is amazing how similar the debates back then were to now."

I prepared this comment to an earlier thread but decided not to post it - it was more to work out my thoughts than anything - but find some of the language absolutely consistent with arguments made at the ratification conventions:

TVD – “Jefferson's argument is elegant, though: The Constitution was understood to give only limited powers to the "general" [federal] government, and religion was not one of them. Further, the First Amendment [amendments supersede what comes before, we must keep in mind, so that would include Article VI] explicitly says the federal government must keep its hands off religion.”

It explicitly says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech....”

I don’t see how the 1st amendment negates/nullifies either the supremacy clause or the religious test clause (Article VI).

By restricting religious tests across state and federal lines the federal government doesn’t impinge on the individual’s religious rights-of-conscience nor does it impede the state government’s civil ability to function. In fact, eliminating religious tests increases the rights of the religious as well as the non-religious by not having to fear government discrimination, disenfranchisement, religious monopoly and tyranny – fears which were amply expressed at the time in the conventions*.

Religious matters were contentious at the time but Article VI was none the less was included in the Constitution and formed part of the theoretical legal basis of the new nation (as has been pointed out) – even if the 1st Amendment assuaged the immediate concerns of some of the states that the federal government would interfere in religious matters. It may have remained dormant for a while due to pragmatic considerations and compromises that were made during the ratification process and early national period (in effect allowing de facto establishment) but the ground work was laid** and it has come alive even if it took the Civil War, the 14th amendment and 20th century sensibilities and circumstances to do it (turn theory into reality).

It’s still my opinion that after framing and ratification the practice of religion was left to the people of the states to follow as their consciences led but that the question of religious establishment and the states was deferred rather than “left to the states” (i.e. state governments) in perpetuity.

That the states should dictate religious beliefs (either between the various sects of Christianity or against other faiths), and thus favor one group over the other and disenfranchise American citizens, was the antithesis of the pre-revolution, revolution and founding zeitgeist in the matter.

My thought after writing the above: What may be left open is that the states (as opposed to the US Congress) were left free to establish state religions (not explicitly barred and tacitly allowed) but were not free to impose religious tests for civil government participation (via Article VI). This would be an odd arrangement and would seem to contradict any intent on behalf of the state government to establish a religion and then not mandate that officials be of that religion.

*Madison to Jefferson (24 Oct. 1787 Papers 10:207--15) - "3. Religion...The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts agst. which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets."

continued below

jimmiraybob said...


**The time will come - Noah Webster (Mar. 1787 Collection 151--53 ) - "The revisal of the test law has at length passed by a respectable majority of the Representativs of this State. This is a prelude to wiser measures; people are just awaking from delusion. The time will come (and may the day be near!) when all test laws, oaths of allegiance, abjuration, and partial exclusions from civil offices, will be proscribed from this land of freedom."

I think that it was understood at the time, at least by some, that things would happen pretty much as they have happened.

King of Ireland said...

I think religious tests may be the exception I would agree. So what about the "Godless Constitution" motif? I think the small non-*visible cracks in the liars for Jesus movement is starting to show a little as the discussion is raised.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don’t see how the 1st amendment negates/nullifies either the supremacy clause or the religious test clause (Article VI).

Oh well.

"...but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Under. Not in. But now this is getting unhelpful.

True, JRB, the wisdom of this seeped out into the individual states, and some nearly-immediately dispensed with religious tests. This is historical fact.

However, the dynamics were a) Two sects could gang up on a third, declaring the third "not" Christian.

b) There certainly was a respect for "freedom of conscience." Recall the max-Calvinist Samuel Adams writing

" "Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty," in matters spiritual and temporal, is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature, [Page 418] as well as by the law of nations and all well-grounded municipal laws, which must have their foundation in the former.

In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practised, and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind. And it is now generally agreed among Christians that this spirit of toleration, in the fullest extent consistent with the being of civil society, is the chief characteristical mark of the Church..." The Rights of the Colonists in 1772.

Also note that he presents it as a Christian philosophy, not a secular one, as the Harvard Narrative argues about Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, which followed many years after. I mean, what do you want from the Christians? Sam Adams was as Xtian as they come!

Sometimes I think we're going backwards here. Sorry, JRB. But it always seems to be back to Square One.

jimmiraybob said...

But it always seems to be back to Square One.

Some people would call it getting back to the basics.:) Or, in a nod to the teachers here, it's just like the first day of the new school year/semester.

It may seem regressive but by having a chance to refine my understanding, by thinking through the problem and trying to better articulate my position, and by eliciting comments that are contrary to that position, I stand to learn something. I'm selfish that way.

I always appreciate the feedback and all the shared information.

Speaking of heading toward square 1, I've been concentrating my reading/videoing on first century Rome/Christianity up through Augustine and into the 4th/5th century. Fascinating stuff you don't learn in a survey course and a bit broader history* than I learned in my early Catholic church/Bible school days (of course I was only a young, low-level, fidgety, seat-filler at the time).

I also try to keep up with the reading here. Oy, my kingdom for twice the hours in a day.

*slight understatement

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I read an interesting thought that Aquinas tried to negotiate a "third way" between Aristotle and Augustine. My Augustine is weak, so I have some catching up to do meself.