Chapter One: Is America a Christian Nation
Americans seem to fight about many silly things: whether a copy of the Ten Commandments can be posted in a city courthouse; whether a holiday display that puts an image of the baby Jesus next to one of Frosty the Snowman violates the Constitution; whether fidgeting grade-schoolers may stand for a minute in silent "spiritual" meditation before classes begin. Common sense might suggest that these are harmless practices whose actual damage is to trivialize religion. Otherwise they threaten no one. Not children, who ignore them as the incomprehensible designs of absurd grown-ups. Not atheists, who may find them hypocritical and vulgar but hardly intimidating. Not Buddhists and Muslims, who in these small areas of daily practice can demand equal access to the public landscape. So why do they raise ideological storms?
The answer lies in what history has done to us. Some Americans have inherited extravagant hopes about what religion, specifically Christianity, may accomplish in solving social problems through moral instruction. Others look to a different legacy, one that suggests how easily partisan religion in the hands of a purported majority can become a dangerous form of intellectual and political tyranny. Both groups have become masters of hyperbolic language. However, their quarrels are not about nothing. If Americans have learned to make constitutional mountains out of religious molehills, it is because crucial principles may become endangered. The creche or the menorah on public property becomes the nose of the camel sneaking into the tent where Americans have carefully enshrined the constitutional separation of church and state.
Should we be worried? The answer given in this book is yes, at least with respect to one area of ongoing controversy. The authors are concerned about current pronouncements made by politically charged religious activists, what is called in journalistic parlance the religious right. Their crusade is an old one. Now a prime target is abortion clinics. Before it was mail delivery on Sundays, or Catholic immigrants, or Darwinian biology in school curriculums. Whenever religion of any kind casts itself as the one true faith and starts trying to arrange public policy accordingly, people who believe that they have a stake in free institutions, whatever else might divide them politically, had better look out.
What follows, then, is a polemic. Since before the founding of the United States, European colonists in North America were arguing about the role of religion in public and political life. Broadly speaking, two distinct traditions exist. We intend to lay out the case for one of them--what we call the party of the godless Constitution and of godless politics. In brief, this position recognizes that the nation's founders, both in writing the Constitution and in defending it in the ratification debates, sought to separate the operations of government from any claim that human beings can know and follow divine direction in reaching policy decisions. They did this despite their enormous respect for religion, their faith in divinely endowed human rights, and their belief that democracy benefited from a moral citizenry who believed in God. The party we defend is based on a crucial intellectual connection, derived historically from both religious and secular thinkers, between a godless Constitution and a God-fearing people.
We will call the other side in this debate that runs through American history the party of religious correctness. It maintains that the United States was established as a Christian nation by Christian people, with the Christian religion assigned a central place in guiding the nation's destiny. For those who adhered to this party in the past, it followed that politicians and laws had to pass the test of furthering someone's definition of a Christian public order. Recently some who belong to this party have suggested that the stress upon "Christian" be downplayed in their political pronouncements. By referring more ecumenically to the United States as a religious nation, they invite other religious traditions to join a family-values crusade launched originally by a particular form of Christian faith. However, whether the present-day religious right has really moved beyond earlier pronouncements suggesting the forms of American government can be entrusted only with a Christian people is, with respect to the issues raised in this book, beside the point. A shift in rhetorical strategy to widen political appeal does not affect the substantive issues at stake.
The label "religious correctness" is pejorative and is obviously intended to turn the tables on those who imagine that the only danger to our free political institutions lies in something they, pejoratively, call political correctness. Still, it is usefully descriptive. The two parties we designate both have plenty of historical legitimacy behind them. Our intent is not to prove that the tradition we oppose never existed in the mind of any respectable or learned American. Nor is it to demonstrate that our party has been universally composed of farsighted geniuses who have battled mean-spirited ignoramuses. Some proponents of religious correctness are misinformed and cynically manipulative. Some on the other side, our side, are arrogant and condescending. Most on both sides speak for points of view that have had large and articulate followings.
Important issues are at stake. We believe, we believe passionately, that the party of religious correctness represents an approach to public policy that is damaging--damaging to the American Constitution, damaging to political debate, and damaging to American children whose social and educational needs are seriously misstated by the programs of religious correctness. We argue with some confidence because over the long years of American history the party of religious correctness has lost most of the major wars. It lost because it was wrong, not because Americans despise religion.
The authors both recognize that religion is important in American life. We are sympathetic in broad terms with Stephen Carter's position, articulated in his Culture of Disbelief, that there is a difference between reinforcing Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state and seeking to silence any expression of religious values in public life. Granted, this difference is notoriously difficult to define in many specific disputes that come before the courts. We do not in this book attempt to settle the judicial controversies that rage over the religious clauses of the First Amendment. The extensive attention given to these judicial debates has tended to obscure the more general theme that is the concern of this book: that is, the intentionally secular base on which the Constitution was placed. However, since we will make reference to some First Amendment issues that have been politicized, it's worth noting that we both recognize that if Americans want to honor Thomas Jefferson, the first thing they must guard against in interpreting his famous metaphor of the wall of separation is overzealousness.
Thus, while neither author favors classroom prayer, however nonsectarian, in the public schools--because if the First Amendment means anything, it means that government should not sponsor or encourage a particular form of religious expression--neither views the issue as one of the burning social dilemmas of our time. The heated debate declaiming the damage on the one side and the benefits on the other is ludicrously overstated. So is the general debate about tax money for parochial schools. Both authors favor allowing, not requiring, local school districts to vote aid to parochial schools for the courses they teach that follow the curriculum of other certified schools. Among other benefits, it will help eliminate the category of politicians who make political capital out of purported religious hurts. Faith-driven politics is able to do the worst damage to America's political agenda when anyone can plausibly claim that government is going out of its way to put religion at a disadvantage. As will appear, the authors will be happy when religion has the same rights in the public sphere as General Motors, no more and no less.
So let us be as clear as we can be at the outset. We are aware of the crucial role that religion played in America's revolutionary struggle, of the importance that many Constitution makers attached to it, and of the energy it gave to many American crusades for social justice. We both in fact have written about these points. Our attitudes toward the proper and improper roles of religion in contemporary public life is a subject we will take up fully in the last chapter, after we have laid out the historical antecedents for our party's point of view. Suffice it to say that our intention is not to marginalize religion. If anything, it is to warn against the ways that some aggressive proponents of religious correctness are doing exactly that in their political battles, even as they try to lay the blame elsewhere.
Americans are a people who like to argue about their origins. We think that if we could just get straight what the founding fathers really thought, we might do everything right. This is an illusion. However, there are far worse intellectual exercises than arguing about the founding fathers. They were uncommonly bright people. One problem, however, is that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison said a variety of things. A handy quotation plucked from this or that letter can serve a lot of partisan causes. It is not the purpose of this project to prove that all the founding fathers would agree with everything we say. Nonetheless, a little attention to a few hard facts can clear away phony arguments on both sides.
For example, the endlessly repeated claim that the Americans of 1776 were a devoutly religious and especially Christian people, that in the words of Governor Kirk Fordice of Mississippi ¨the early days of this Union . . . were totally based on not only religion, but one particular religion--the Christian religion," is nonsense. It is of the same order as fanciful assertions made at the other extreme that none of the founders took God seriously. You can do many spins on Jefferson. But you cannot turn him into a Protestant evangelical who believed that Christianity was the only basis for moral systems, that only Bible-based ethics taught people the difference between right and wrong and showed them how to be good citizens in a democratic republic. Jefferson was certainly interested in the Bible and wrote about it. However, he was equally interested in, and better informed about, the classical moral philosophers of Greek and Rome who predated the Christian era. His famous Declaration of Independence invoked "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," a phrase that avoided particular Christian reference. Jefferson's God spoke to men and women through nature rather than through scriptural revelation. In the Declaration's long list of complaints against the English crown, not one was about religion.
Some of the founding fathers fretted that Americans weren't much interested in religion and most definitely weren't securely Christian. They had reason to be concerned. Although some versions of our national myths tell us that the English colonists to North America were more religious than the people who stayed behind in England, that they carried Christian crosses ashore, fell on their knees, and dedicated themselves to the Christian God, the fact is that most English Protestants acted in these matters with less fervor than Spanish and French Catholics who had preceded them into many parts of the New World. In the middle of the seventeenth century many more zealous Puritans lived in London than in New England. And run-of-the-mill Anglicans, who always outnumbered Puritans in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tended to be lazy church organizers, especially indifferent in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia to the problems of staffing outlying parishes with competent clerics.
It is no surprise, then, that Americans in the era of the Revolution were a distinctly unchurched people. The highest estimates for the late eighteenth century make only about 10-15 percent of the population church members. The proportion varied from locale to locale, but Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, the French visitor to America, had ample evidence to justify his observation that "religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other." Churches would have been almost completely empty had it not been for women who were there largely because they could not participate in the political business of the Continental Congress and other secular arenas of public disputation. So much, then, for the claim of the television evangelist D. James Kennedy, who cited the small American Jewish population of 1776 as proof that the United States was intended to be "a Christian nation." It is not that early Americans were by the standards of the day particularly irreligious. In a general way most of them were Christian. Certainly they were not Muslim or Buddhist. However, Americans in 1776 had a long way to go before making themselves strongly Christian or strongly anything else relating to a religious persuasion.
The figure of church affiliation has gone up dramatically since the early years of the Republic. To be sure, if we are to judge from the biblical literacy of Americans (in a recent poll fewer than half could name one of the four Gospels), the doctrinal investment of most Americans in organized religion is light. Yet that is scarcely the result of a secularist-led conspiracy. Christian churches, in fact, have no cause to complain about their public visibility. In numerical terms they are doing as well as or better than anything else that engages Americans' interest and energy. Professional sports is possibly a close competitor among men. Politics for either sex is not. These days dire warnings about the marginalization of religion come usually from the religious right. How seriously can we take such warnings if the religious right can claim anywhere near the constituency that its literature boasts, about a quarter of the American voting population--24 million Protestant evangelicals and a large proportion of America's 58 million Catholics? Most groups would relish marginalization of that sort.
The truly curious thing about some of the complaints from the Christian Coalition, the most vocal group of religious activists on the scene today, is that the last two Democratic presidents in this county, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have been Bible-quoting Southern Baptists. Rather than welcoming them as spiritual allies, the Christian Coalition has turned to far more dubious men of faith: Ronald Reagan, whose odd California blend of Armageddon prophecy, astrology, and un-family values was largely indifferent to church institutions; and George Bush, who manipulated his old-line Episcopalian faith so weirdly to serve political opportunism that even the Christian Coalition blushed.
Ralph Reed, the director of the Christian Coalition, who has lately been hard at work to organize a religious voting bloc, wants to uproot Protestant fundamentalism from its formerly narrow ethos, which was hostile to Catholics and Jews. Much of what he says we can agree with. When he writes that ¨people of faith have a right to be heard, and their religion should not disqualify them from serving in office or participating in the political party of their choice," he makes perfect sense. However, he risks becoming disingenuous when he adds that the Christian Coalition in asking people to subscribe to its public policy views is not asking them to subscribe to its theology. Perhaps when Reed declares that religious conservatives do not want a "Christian" nation, he means that Christianity will never be made an established religion. Yet, given the evangelical Christian commitment to converting the heathen, a lot of what is said in the name of Christian politics easily becomes troubling to non-Christians. In any case, too much rhetoric emerging from the Christian Coalition suggests that disclaimers about the goal of a Christian nation amount to hedging bordering on hypocrisy. The issue is not whether a Christian church is tax supported. The issue is whether Christian faith is de facto a religious test for high political office.
When Reed, who has a Ph.D. degree in history, turns to the past, he asks us to admire the people who once called America a Christian nation. These examples are not irrelevant to the present climate of religious politics. The implication is always that only Christians and other religious people who agree with Christians (why otherwise retain the label Christian Coalition?) care about strong families and basic goodness. Only a party of religious correctness committed to a religious perspective that separates decent Americans from people who believe that a moral case can be made for abortion passes muster. When the political Christians of Texas took over the state Republican party, they defeated a resolution stating, "The Republican party is not a church. . . . A Republican should never be put in the position of having to defend or explain his faith in order to participate in the party process." Within the party of religious correctness, such a proposal amounts to intentional heresy.
We hear with little sympathy the complaints about the satirical abuse heaped upon many religious leaders who have ventured into the arena of political debate. To be sure, they have been lampooned. H. L. Mencken was not the first person to satirize religion and biblical literalism. Nor was Tom Paine, one of our revolutionary heroes, although he was especially good at it. Many jabs at the religious right are cheap shots. But cheap shots make up much of what in America passes for political debate. For ourselves, we would like to see that whole arena cleansed of what Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys leave behind. But we will not in these pages indulge in that utopian fantasy. Religious leaders who enter politics can demand no more than the same treatment accorded to business leaders, hot dog vendors, and jubilant proponents of a "Queer America." That's the liberalism of free expression that all Americans supposedly profess. If you want to go public with your opinions, then someone is going to judge you a moron. And there is always the risk that you may be. The First Amendment offers no protection against being wrong.
Many religious people keep their opinions to themselves and don't proselytize. That policy isn't the prescription here. American society especially invites a religious perspective in public debate. We only observe that if you want respect for your ideas, you have to earn it. As many members of the party of religious correctness note, Martin Luther King Jr. and Father Daniel Berrigan used religion to further what are viewed as left-leaning reform protests. Many people who attack Pat Robertson admire King and Berrigan. They once sent generous donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Are these people incapable of being consistent? That is a question that we certainly must address. We simply note now that neither King nor Berrigan escaped savage criticism for his actions. One of them went to jail. And the other was killed. Before anyone tries to wear the halo of martyrdom, he or she had better consider carefully the relative weight of the grievance.
Ralph Reed likes to quote Alexis de Tocqueville on religion's central place in American democratic society. The quotations are not always accurate, but he is right about one important thing. Tocqueville, like Benjamin Franklin, believed that religion is essential to the health of republican liberty. However, Reed apparently closed the pages of Democracy in America too soon. Had he read further, he would not have missed Tocqueville's point that it is dangerous for religion to tie itself to political institutions and t˘ topical political controversy. Religion's considerable influence, Tocqueville insisted, lies in directing "the customs of the community" and in "regulating domestic life." Involvement in political debate about partisan issues is death to this mission. Tocqueville's reasoning was simple and very much to our point. "Agitation and mutability are inherent in the nature of democratic republics." Political wisdom changes overnight as Americans change their president every four years and their legislature every two years. If religion were to throw itself into this fray, "where could it take firm hold in the ebb and flow of human opinions? Where would be that respect which belongs to it, amid the struggles of faction? And what would become of its immortality, in the midst of universal decay?"
If Tocqueville is correct, and we think he is, then any effective marginalization of religion in public life cannot be blamed on people who are hostile to religion. Any such marginalization that may be part of our times has just as much been caused by those who would have us think that religious leaders who witnessed for their faith over the long course of history, who struggled and suffered, did so that we may know how to vote on a balanced-budget amendment, a plan to reform health insurance, or a proposal to deny welfare payments to teenage unmarried mothers. Such friends of faith measure the power of religion by how many votes are delivered to private lobby groups. They make the work of dime store atheists ridiculously simple.
Before Tocqueville many of this country's founding fathers knew that "agitation and mutability" were the stuff of democratic politics and that religion had best stay away from the insincere pandering of political speeches, the unbelievable nastiness of party newspapers, and all the posturing that drove "the struggles of faction" if it were to maintain respect and influence. While many at the birth of America advocated a Christian politics, the principal architects of our national government envisioned a godless Constitution and a godless politics. One would never know this, however, by listening to the Christian right today, which has an utterly different take on the American past.
Pat Robertson, one prominent spokesman for the Christian right, insists that America was founded as a Christian polity, which persisted until subverted by a cabal of twentieth-century liberals and freethinkers who replaced it with an un-American secular state. The rhetoric of the Christian right repeatedly calls for a return to America's lost Christianhood, as shaped by its founders. Ralph Reed proclaimed, before political realities modified his tone, that "what Christians have got to do is to take back this country" and "make it a country once again governed by Christians." Pat Robertson uses the same imagery of return. All Christian people work together," he urges, "they can succeed during this decade in winning back control of the institutions that have been taken from them over the past 70 years."
America's original founding as a Christian state is central to the Christian right's conspiratorial theory of American history. The Dallas Baptist minister who delivered the benediction at the Republican National Convention in 1984 insists "that there is no such thing as separation of church and state. It is merely a figment of the imagination of infidels." The founder and president of the religious right's Rutherford Institute writes that "it's of little surprise then that . . . the entire Constitution was written to promote a Christian order." One of the Christian right's most visible spokesmen, the evangelist-psychologist James Dobson, distributes through his organization Focus on the Family a set of history lessons that seeks to show that ¨the concept of a secular state was virtually non-existent in 1776 as well as in 1787, when the Constitution was written, and no less so when the Bill of Rights was adopted. To read the Constitution as the charter for a secular state is to misread history. . . . The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order. Many of America's disorders, Dobson argues, stem from abandoning this unity of state and church. "This really was a Christian nation," he claims, "and, as far as its founders were concerned, to try separating Christianity from government is virtually impossible and would result in unthinkable damage to the nation and its people. Much of the damage we see around us must be attributed to this separation."
This reading of the mind of the men who wrote the godless Constitution is wrong. The principal framers of the American political system wanted no religious parties in national politics. They crafted a constitutional order that intended to make a person's religious convictions, or his lack of religious convictions, irrelevant in judging the value of his political opinion or in assessing his qualifications to hold political office. As we shall see, they were not quite able to do that. Otherwise, we would not be writing a book that concedes the existence of a strong countertradition that also dates back to the founders and that has had many able defenders. Yet, so successful were the drafters of the Constitution in defining government in secular terms that one of the most powerful criticisms of the Constitution when ratified and for succeeding decades was that it was indifferent to Christianity and God. It was denounced by many as a godless document, which is precisely what it is.
Those who crafted American national government as a secular institution called upon two traditions. They used the strong vision of separate spiritual and worldly realms found in the American religious thought of Roger Williams and the Baptists of the founding era. They also enlisted the English liberal tradition, which put at the center of its political philosophy individuals free of government, enjoying property and thinking and praying as they wished. From these two sources came America's Constitution in 1787, today still our fundamental law. Pat Robertson may think, as he claimed in 1993, that the wall of separation between church and state is ¨a lie of the left" and that "there is no such thing in the Constitution." History and victories won through the course of our American past tell us that he is wrong.
The paradox we confront in telling our story is the one we mentioned in the beginning. The creation of a godless constitution was not an act of irreverence. Far from it. It was an act of confidence in religion. It intended to let religion do what it did best, to preserve the civil morality necessary to democracy, without laying upon it the burdens of being tied to the fortunes of this or that political faction. The godless Constitution must be understood as part of the American system of voluntary church support that has proved itself a much greater boon to the fortunes of organized religion than the prior systems of church establishment ever were.
The argument of the book proceeds in the following way. Chapter 2 reviews the central arguments that were made for and against the godless Constitution in the late eighteenth century. In the next three chapters we follow the religious and secular sources that provided the proponents of the godless Constitution with their winning arguments. Roger Williams, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson are the key figures. In Chapter 6 we turn to the fortunes of American Baptists, who have had a powerful influence on American attitudes toward religion and politics from the colonial period to the present. This chapter moves the story beyond the period of the writing of the Constitution. So does Chapter 7, which treats what proved to be defining episodes in the American history of church-state relations--the Sunday mail controversy and efforts to adopt a Christian amendment to the Constitution. In the final chapter we survey the contemporary contours of the heated controversy between the proponents of the godless Constitution and the proponents of religious correctness. In that chapter, and doubtless elsewhere, we allow ourselves an editorial voice. We trust, however, that by then the voice will have been earned and will seem as something other than a volley of cheap shots. One of the authors grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. The other is descended from Irish and German Catholics on his mother's side and Calvinist Protestants on his father's. They write with a deep respect for America's religious traditions, traditions that prescribe tolerance but also the obligation to offer sharp dissent from whatever opinions and practices seem wrong and unjust.
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