Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First Amendment/Religious Liberty as a Protestant Document/Concept

I want to make some points that clarify my American Creation co-blogger's valuable contribution to the American Founding/religion debate.

He writes:

The First Amendment was meant, as Justice Joseph Story says, to level all Protestant religions with each other, but not to equalize Christianity with Judaism and Islam. Alternatively, it did level all religions, even Judaism and Islam. But either way, it was only on the federal level.

First Joseph Story may have been an authority; but he was not *the* authoritative source for the First Amendment. He had nothing to do with its drafting and ratification. My friend Phillip Munoz of Notre Dame (and Princeton), who is about as authoritative a modern scholar of the F.A. as it gets, compared Joseph Story's commentaries to the actual sources of the drafting and ratification of the First Amendment and concluded Story misreads the Founding record. Similar to how scholars sympathetic to the secular left "read in" Jefferson's and Madison's "Virginia view" to define the meaning of the religion clauses, Story unfairly reads in the "Massachusetts' view."

Now, Story's quotation about the First Amendment being concerned, generally, with Christianity, not other religions, may shed light on the underlying aim of its religion clauses (which, in turn, may have had multiple underlying aims). However, it still cannot trump the TEXT of the Constitution, which uses the term "religion" not "Christianity."

This is an aside: I want to make sure we don't fall into the Christian Nationalist trap of concluding the First Amendment somehow was meant to cover, privilege or establish "Christianity generally," but not other religions. We all agree that, as originally conceived, the FA applied to the Federal government only. Whether the EC can be "incorporated" demands synthesizing evidence from the framing of the original bill of rights (late 18th Cen.) with the 14th Amendment (mid 19th Cen.). Munoz has concluded that, unlike the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause is impossible to incorporate. He may be right; however, as Akhil Amar argued, the original Equal Protection Clause -- which would demand government treat Christianity equal with Islam, Judaism, and other religions -- could do quite a bit of what SCOTUS currently has the Establish Clause doing.

Next, I want to clarify what it means to say the F.A. is undergirded by "Protestant Christianity." I argue that a "Protestantism" but not necessarily "Christianity" undergirds the notion of religious liberty. Protestantism meaning "to protest" or "dissent." The idea of freedom from ecclesiastical, authoritative interpretations of the Bible, most notably freedom from the Magisterium, but also freedom from non-Roman ecclesiastical authoritative teachings. Taken to its extremes -- which America's Founders did -- this means freedom from the very creeds that define the essence of what it means (historically, to many folks) to be a "mere Christian."

I wrote about this implicit Protestant establishment here. I quoted Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University and one of the premier scholars of Religion and the Founding Era, describing the theology of Charles Chauncy, a key theological influence on the American Founding:

Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston’s First Church for sixty years (1727-1787), is the most prominent example of an exclusive appeal to Biblical authority in order to unravel theological orthodoxy. Chauncy was persuaded to emphasize Bible study by reading the works of English divines, such as Samuel Clarke’s The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712) and John Taylor’s The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (London, 1740). Both authors used a “free, impartial and diligent” method of examining Scripture to JETTISON, respectively, the doctrines of the Trinity and of Original Sin. [8]

During the 1750s, after the Great Awakening, Charles Chauncy spent seven years engaged in the approach to Bible study expounded by these English authors. In the spring of 1754 he wrote to a friend,

“I have made the Scriptures my sole study for about two years; and I think I have attained to a clearer understanding of them than I ever had before.”

His studies led him to draft a lengthy manuscript in which he REJECTED the idea of eternal punishment and embraced universalism.

Now, I point this out because terms need precise meaning. Perhaps I am being pedantic in claiming a "Protestant" but not necessarily "Christian" political-theology; but when some/many folks see terms like "Protestant Christian" or "reformed Christian" they sometimes improperly "load" or "read in" things. If "Protestant Christianity" can unite a Chauncy with a Calvin against Rome's monopoly on biblical interpretation, then the term is apt. However, to some/many, "Protestant Christianity" excludes Chauncy. And that's not what America's Founding political theology was all about. Perhaps I attack strawmen here. But my co-blogger to whom I respond has cited American Vision authoritatively. And it's precisely these folks who engage in such a misreading of the American Founding's political theology.

To them "reformed Protestantism" means Sola Scriptura, orthodox Trinitarianism, and TULIP. The "political Protestantism" of the American Founding does not necessarily include any of this. Again, it's something that can unite a Chauncy with a Cavlin, a Jefferson with a Henry (both Anglicans), the unitarian John Adams with his trinitarian cousin Sam (both Congregationalists).

Indeed even Joseph Story who seems a key figure for the "Christian Americanists'" attempt to read in a common law "general Christianity" to the American Founding was a biblical unitarian-universalist, and hence "not a Christian" according to minimums that "Christian Americanists" adhere to for what it means to be a "Christian."

And that highlights the problem with trying to argue some kind of "Christianity generally" was to be privileged by the American Founding. In order to privilege "Christianity generally" you had to agree on certain minimums of what it meant to be a "mere Christian" eligible for such privilege. As James Madison argued in his notes for the Memorial and Remonstrance, that was a task impossible for politics.

Finally, I note the idea of religious and political liberty as authentically reformed Protestantism is debatable. Calvin had Servetus put to death for denying the Trinity. The Puritans certainly didn't recognize religious liberty, but rather enacted a theocratic code that demanded the death penalty for, among other things, worshipping false gods. And when the proto-Baptist Roger Williams articulated his novel ideas on liberty of conscience, the dominant view of reformed Protestants/Calvinists reacted to Williams' ideas like Dracula does to a cross.


Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

I don't have time to read this now, but I'm commenting so that the bombardment in my inbox reminds me to later.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is no wonder that the FF wanted to prevent or guard the New Republic from the religious wars! Insanity.

It seems the FF spoke out of "both sides of their mouths", as they wanted to tolerate religious conscience, but not establish it formally, as religion was not an empirical science!

bpabbott said...

Jon's post has some parallels with that of another blogger discussing Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment, Smoke and Mirrors Protected Adam Smith From Religious Persecution.

Unknown said...

This is really well argued Jon. The founding did include Chauncy and those that do not think so have not studied it. I am starting to see that we have been saying the same thing from different angles. At least I think so.


bpabbott said...

Hi Joe!

Re: "we have been saying the same thing from different angles"


Jonathan Rowe said...


Yes. Your "rational Christianity" that doesn't make original sin, the trinity, and eternal damnation essential tenets of the creed IS the political theology of the American Founding.

Phil Johnson said...

I'm not exactly sure; but, I think we're fortunate to have Jonathan Rowe here as a blogger.
In particular point, I am impressed by the comments he makes regarding Chauncey. One of my main complains against "mainstream christianity" (small c) is how its adherents put so much effort into claiming they have the right to define what it means to be a Christian.
I am a Christian.
And, coincidentally, I'm a lot of other things as well.

Jonathan Rowe said...



Tom Van Dyke said...

This is an aside: I want to make sure we don't fall into the Christian Nationalist trap of concluding the First Amendment somehow was meant to cover, privilege or establish "Christianity generally," but not other religions.

Well, that's Story's argument, that it was the general perception, and I think it's generally true. However, the text doesn't support it, and legally, that's what matters.

For the record, only a small number of "Christian Nationists" argue for a "privileged Protestantism" today. I don't exactly know who the people being refudiated here even are. Not David Barton or Glenn Beck, I know that much anyway.

As for non-Trinitarian Christianity, we can see that by the immediate post-Founding period, it was no longer an issue, and men like Story and John Marshall could call themselves Christians with little dissent from the general public. [I'm sure there were some clergy, who were always making trouble].

This highlights the distinction between Christianity as a socio-historical definition vs. as a theological definition. As a history blog, we are only concerned with the former.

Not that that stops us from conflating the two definitions daily, so we can keep up our culture war against the [mostly nameless] fundies. We would not want to get all caught up in doing history.

The World Net Daily article is of course theology, not history. The problem with this "unitarian" argument continues to be that our WND-type villains and ignoramuses are quite aware that at least Jefferson and Franklin were non-orthodox, and in the socio-historical sense are comfortable using "Judeo-Christian" interchangeably with "Christian."

Jews, like unitarians of course, don't believe Jesus was God either, which makes the whole "controversy" here sort of moot.

Phil Johnson said...

Tom, have you found any information on how any of the Founders felt about Carrolton? I have read that he financed much of the needed support for the Revolutionary War. But, as he was a Catholic he could not be elected to office. I have to think that must have been a problem for--at least--some of the Founders.
I'm wondering how men like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson must have felt about that situation.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Do you want me to start naming "them" or will you accuse me of attacking strawmen?

I figure when I DON'T name them I am being polite. I have named many of them; not sure if you want me to keep picking on them by name.

Bryan Fischer is probably the most notable of the ones I recently named. I think you are right that Barton is more careful in his claims than they are. That's one of the things I like to point out to our readers: Barton's winks and nods to their even greater errors.

Likewise, I "see" what we do here as more than just history but interdisciplinary. History, politics, theology, law and philosophy.

Even the, what may seem painful picking on folks, affects the public discourse (probably). One of Barton's minions, I see, isn't citing him anymore and may have had a falling out with him over Glenn Beck, in the "I'm going to put my faith before politics" sense. I have emailed him and called him out by name. And I can't take credit for what went down between him and Barton (Hell I'm not even sure what happened other than Barton now seems persona non-grata there and the Christian Nation talking points have lessened or stopped); but it does seem he is at least starting to follow suggestions Dr. Frazer has made for evangelicals, which I/we here at AC may have facilitated. If it's more than just detached history but something that affects people's lives and how they view their faith and politics: so what? Why is that not a very good thing?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, if we want to rename the blog "Bryan Fischer Sucks" instead of "David Barton Sucks," I'm not sure that's progress, since the fish we're frying are getting even smaller.

What is the potential impact of Fischer going unrefuted? The nation isn't going to get more "Protestant" or Calvinist than it was pre-Everson.

It's like that cartoon

I mean, this is a tiny corner of the historical-political universe.

Yes, I would like you to name your victims, so we get get some sense of importance and proportion.

Fischer is fringe, like saying "Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler." Further, his AFA has its fingers in so many culture war pies that Fischer's mis-musings on American history are but a small part of his output. He's no David Barton.

One of the reasons I laugh at that Dispatches blog is because it seeks out the dumbest MFers it can find to dress down. And scraping the bottom of the barrel for foils like that is what keeps that blog strictly minor-league.

Do you want me to start naming "them" or will you accuse me of attacking strawmen?

I figure when I DON'T name them I am being polite. I have named many of them; not sure if you want me to keep picking on them by name.

Yes, I certainly do want you to name them instead of the vague "some" or "many." Then we can get an idea of just how close to the bottom of the barrel you're scraping.

bpabbott said...

We all have different perspectives/world-veiws. When I saw this cartoon I immediately thought of Tom ... but I'd guess that Tom doesn't see himself that way ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, I have all the time in the world for the folks at AC who come in good faith. Here I make a stand. However, I don't troll the internet starting fights with people who believe the FFs were all deists. And I can't even bear to look at the aforementioned other blog anymore. Dealing with the ignorance just there would be a full-time job and would get me nothing but hate and spittle.

The folks at AC get nothing but my private stock, top-shelf stuff. I love youse guys.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I love you, too, Tom :)!
Since the Founders didn't have the knowledge we have now about the "human" regarding brain/environment and we are still seeking to understan the "mind", wouldn't they be geared toward a more "moral/behavioral" mode of thinking about religion? I think of Ben Franklin in particular, who was not particularly "warm" toward religion. But, he was geared toward habit formation, as behavior was the "empirical evidence".

Their religion was "civil" religion. The FF were not governing from ritual, the Bible, or Church doctrine, but from "common sense" or "practical reason". And they wanted to protect and provide a government that was liberal enough to
incorporate diversity. But, they recognized that most of "the people" were religious, in some sense of the word. And they were politicians, in that sense.
The Founders didn't face such pluralism that we have today, other than the tribal religions of the Indians. Theirs was a world of the "Judeo Christian".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, "virtue is a habit" goes back to Aristotle. Nothing new under the sun.

I do follow the new advances in the study of the human mind/body/wiring, etc., but I'm not sure they tell us anything new. I see it as mostly confirming the guesses of the ancients [and the medievals and the Founding era dudes] about human nature.

And if there's one thing that the moderns from Rousseau on have been wrong about is that the human being can be "educated" into anything we want. Human nature is only so malleable: it can be tamed by inculcating virtue, but it cannot be transformed.

And based on getting to know you and other refugees from fundamentalism, they can only beat you and your mind into submission for so long until you revolt. And when you do, it's lights out, Louie!

bpabbott said...


I've noticed a change in your habits. My joke was largely at the expense of someone from a prior time.

Your response to my joke is a good example of how to firmly hold ground in civil manner.

If you continue this progression, you will take all the fun of the AC ... we may never hear from Raven again ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

No, Tom,
Education shouldn't be indoctrination, or geared toward manipulating people into certain areas. Education should be to develop the individual, as it should prevent individuals from such propaganda. Education should liberate, not enslave.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, I'm not sure what "develop the individual" means. It's sort of New Age-y or something.

The state's interest in education is to develop good, ideally productive, citizens, no more or less.

As always, Ben, you see right through me. But sometimes I miss me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

NEW AGE??? Education is NOT New Age! The individual has certain interests, that needs development, meaning "content" of that subject matter. This is what the university does, isn't it? Not the Church!

Tom Van Dyke said...

I can't deal with your anger, Angie. This is the New Me. Neither can the university or the church deal with your anger.

I recommend you email

for an appointment, a TV booking, or at least tickets for his next taping.

The individual has certain interests, that needs development, meaning "content" of that subject matter.

That is not my problem, not is it the government's. We call your problem "liberty."

Phil Johnson said...

Tom, Tom, the piper's son. Dissed poor Angie and away he run.
Come on, Tom. That was entirely uncalled for and you owe her a public apology. I think maybe your enzymes might have been out of balance. And, you have been doing soooo good.

Angie's comment about education was precisely correct!! Otherwise, you are the product of someone's indoctrination and have no claim on you own being.

Good on you, Angie.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I Wasn't angry. I was incredulous! I didn't know whether to take you seriously or not.
Unvortunately, wrting without knowing the person can breed miscommunication, for sure!

I just saw where the President is to make education his focus, now.

bpabbott said...

Regarding "education", there are many in our society that see it as synonymous with indoctrination. Many also see indoctrination as synonymous with brain-washing.

I think there can be some amount of truth in both statements. However, that isn't to say that education and brain-washing are synonymous, at least not for me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...


Education isn't brain-washing; unless it isn't open to another side of the story, as we consider different prorities when we approach a problem. Sometimes these priorities aren't even conscious "choices", but are assumed, as foundational. This doesn't happen so much in scholarship, I would imagine, as they'd be more geared to understand different methodologies.

What I think is interesting is interdisciplinary approaches to problems.

Every discipline has an agreed upon "consensus", but what of "new discoveries", "new information", "new needs" or theories that aren't according to the 'norm' or "standard"? If the discipline is open to new information, then it cannot be considered "brain-washing".

The question then becomes when and how and what determines the boundaries about what is to be kept from the past and what is useful for the future? The soft sciences are harder to "define".

Phil Johnson said...

THIS is what Angier wrote:

Education shouldn't be indoctrination, or geared toward manipulating people into certain areas. Education should be to develop the individual, as it should prevent individuals from such propaganda. Education should liberate, not enslave.
Of course, education can be used to indoctrinate--it happens all the time and we all know it. And her comment allows for that.
But, that cannot detract from what Angie wrote. She is spot on. She spoke of SHOULDS and SHOULDN'TS.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Cool your jets, people. "The inculcation of virtue" was seen as the purpose of education by everyone from Aristotle to the Founders.

As for "indoctrination," it's vague and undifferentiated, and not particularly relevant to religion and the Founding. If you get me started on the leftist bent of the academic establishment and its "indoctrination" of their principles into our young skulls full of mush, I'll never stop.

It makes me quite angry. ;-)

bpabbott said...


Please don't get angry, or let my question lead to a rant ...

... I grew up as a college brat (one campus to the next) ...

I'm curious about the aspect of education that inspire anger.

(1) Mathematics
(2) Humanities
(3) Engineering
(4) Physics
(5) Social Sciences

If your up to the request, I'd like to know your feelings toward each.

I'm not leading you to a debate, only interested in your perspective.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"If my students show conservative bias, I steer them away from the academy," a professor of English at the University of Virginia, Paul Cantor, said. "They have no future — they will not get jobs. If they want to teach traditional works in a traditional matter, they have no future in an English department today."

The trend is worrisome to many conservative scholars. "It hurts academia," a professor of Political Science at Villanova University, Robert Maranto, said. "It limits the questions we academics ask and the phenomenon we study, limiting the ideas which undergraduates are exposed to during their college education."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Now to move to my own experience [and it's been decades since I saw a classroom], what jumps out at me is how alien "conservative" thought is to the very educated folks I run across on the internet, erudite folks who are clearly products of the modern academic system.

And by "conservative," I only mean the Greeks, Stoics, Locke, Burke and the like.

For instance, I recently read a complaint that in philosophy class, they spent 2 or 3 weeks each on Kant and Rawls, but only one day on Aquinas! [One philosophy prof told me Aquinas had been "disproved," so he never bothered with him. A PhD, mind you.]

Another thing that jumped out at me was reviewing the changes recently made to the Texas state school curriculum [the actual changes, not the hysteria surrounding the debates].

The study of history had been almost completely taken over by sociology/anthropology, in other words the "Marxist" view of history---the study of peoples and cultures [famous women & Hispanics, etc.] and the emptied of the concepts behind what made America what it is [in my view, a great nation].

Wherever "people" appeared in the curriculum, the changes put in "citizens" or "good citizens." This quite meets with my approval. Civic virtue.

There's a war going on in the academy, Ben, specifically against Gordon Wood and the "consensus"/normative view and study of America, in favor of the "marxist" view of gender and class.

Find Yourself in American History. the study of yourself, not history, perfect for our narcissistic age.

The recent American Historical Association meeting had papers that are beyond parody like

Environmental Morality and Artisanal Pork: Local
Food to Save the Planet
Thomas R. Dunlap, Texas A&M University

and of course,

“Up against a Stone Wall”: Gender, Power, and the
National Catholic Community Houses
Jeanne Petit, Hope College


Social and Political Utilizations of Gender and
Sexuality in African American Religion and
the Black Church
Marriott Boston Copley Place, Wellesley Room

etc. Etc. Take a look.

To return to Gordon Wood, nobody took up my challenges to [Harvard professor] Jill Lepore's hatchet job on the Tea Party. But they had their knives out for Wood.

[That's this year's Cliopatra winner, BTW. No wonder we have no chance. Not marxist enough.]

And from another place on that blog, on Arizona's banning of "ethnic studies" as divisive:

I’m not necessarily advocating for ethnic studies. I think solidarity is in order, but one that cuts across the lines of race and ethnicity. What we need in our current age of disorder is a little class solidarity (which, for a Marxist, is the same as saying human solidarity).

Got that? Class, not America. The poor kids will leave school never knowing why America's great and Mexico sucks so much, because they "cut across" things like the study of history!

NB: I don't use "Marxist" pejoratively; as we see, it's an approach to history by race, class and gender, etc., and is used by those historians themselves, who clearly are the large majority judging by the AHA roster of papers.

It's actually much worse than I thought, Ben. I read academic blogs like this one

and don't want these folks anywhere near our children or our tax dollars.

And so, it's no wonder that when we mention things like "natural law," perhaps THE bedrock of the Founding's political philosophy, the products of our modern educational system have zero idea what we're talking about.

And that's scholarly malpractice.

Tom Van Dyke said...

So here's a "professor of the philosophy of religion" quitting religion studies, saying that "theism

"I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position..."

OK, you got that? Keith Parsons has been teaching the philosophy of religion to the young skulls full of mush for a decade or two at the University of Houston, a subject he's completely hostile to.

Well, you got me started, and this is what took me 5 minutes to find. I can't turn around without finding scholarly malpractice, and if that became my thing, I'd have no time to pursue the truths out there. I'm not a polemicist. You asked, I answered, and I'm glad this isn't going to become a debate, because I gotta get away from this before I blow a fuse.

Prof. Ed Feser kicks Dr. Parsons' incompetent ass to the curb here, BTW.

"At this point, I imagine Parsons might, like so many other atheists under the delusion that they’ve mastered the arguments of the other side, indignantly demand an explanation of all this obscure “act and potency” and “essence versus existence” stuff that he’s never heard of, and of how it is supposed to show what the thinkers in question say it shows. (Or at least he might if he wasn’t retired and all. Sorry if I’m keeping you off the links, Keith!) If so, my response would be: If you really need someone to explain all that to you, then with all due respect, it’s a good thing you have given up philosophy of religion, because you are simply not competent to speak on the subject."

Etc. Like the man says, read the whole thing.

Phil Johnson said...

There are elements of ignorance in every discipline.
It looks like Tom and Angie are in basic agreement that education should be used for the edification of healthy citizens and that both of them are against manipulation of the individual for any reason.
It's good to operate with clearly defined goals.

bpabbott said...

Thanks for the detail Tom.

I'm not a fan of how "what ought" occasionally creeps into history classes, and am of the opinion that the effect on social studies is often so substantial that economics, psychology, anthropology, civics, etc often resemble sub-disciplines of philosophy :-(

I think the "soft" sciences require a special well reasoned discipline to keep the corrupting influences out. Perhaps we are in need of a few more Jon Lockes and a period of enlightenment for the social sciences.

On the other hand, mathematics, physics, engineering, etc are hard enough that the "what ought" is easily dismissed for "what is". These are the subjects that come to my mind when I think of education.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I strongly question whether the "soft sciences" are even especially well-reasoned disciplines. But that's another story.

Neither can I go all the way in agreement that their creep is only "occasional."

bpabbott said...

I think we're deep enough in comments ... so ...

Regarding "soft science", I think the problem is with a lack of attention to empirical data. Too much effort is invested in a philosophical "ought", rather than the objective "is".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, my argument---which completely infuriated a certain social scientist/statistician named Hanley---heh heh---is that social scientists largely only measure what they're looking for in the first place, and what they look for is confirmation of their biases, not negation.

the problem is that the academy is dominated by lefties; therefore the "empirical data" almost always supports the liberal/progressive proposition.

Now this isn't to say that a right-wing researcher would be free of bias: I'd fully expect the door to swing both ways; people are people. But the empirical problem is that the empirical data simply lacks enough scope, depth and breadth for it to be used as a reliable barometer about what is, let alone advise us what ought to be.

Yet our arguments from the left, having largely shed philosophy in favor of "science," largely cloak themselves in the authority of the "empirical" social sciences.

jimmiraybob said...

Of course the classic argument regarding the right-left balance in academia is that the "righties" are in greater haste to get out the door and seek their fortunes rather than grind it out at academic salaries.

Just reporting.

Tom Van Dyke said...

My first quote from Paul Cantor disputes that, JRB.

But even if true, that means the academy is left not with the best and brightest, but the dregs.

I take these fellows on now and then, and they've appeared here at AC as well. They do not appear inclined or able to defend their views. You'd think they'd be able to dispatch an amateur like me with a fact or two, a comment or one. They used to be able to win pretty easily, at least before I joined AC.

This blog is a helluva crucible.