Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Nation strikes again

Some time ago, I took up for Jim Wallis against the onslaughts of Katha Pollitt. His crime? Taking religion too seriously, which would bring back the Spanish Inquisition or the wars of religion.

Now The Nation is at it again, publishing a crude farrago, consisting mostly of snippets and quotations from Washington, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson, Tom Paine, and John Adams, all in an effort to expose the Bush Administration’s "lie" that America was founded on Christian principles. I must have missed something, since I don’t recall the President having made such a claim. Or is Brooke Allen taking as her point of departure the oft-repeated claim that liberty is God’s gift to humankind and making it much more robustly sectarian than it is. (Indeed, it would be ironic to invoke, as she does, Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, against this notion.)

Ann Althouse begins the demolition of Allen’s argument by noting that many of the Madison quotes are wrenched out of context from his "Memorial and Remonstrance," hardly an anti-religious work. I’ll add my two cents’ worth by noting Washington’s "Farewell Address":

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.

I could go on at great length, but I’ll cite only one additional piece of evidence, a provision of
the "Northwest Ordinance", passed under the Articles of Confederation and repassed by the First Congress, which had a high proportion of constitution signatories:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Allen is surely right that some of the Founders were not conventionally religious men, but many more were. And even some of the "godless" founders thought that religion had an important public role to play. Hence the First Amendment enjoined the establishment of a national religion, but did not operate in any way, shape, or form to disestablish state religions. I think that it’s important to have a debate on the role of religion in American public life, but the folks at The Nation need to do more homework before they can hold up their end of the argument credibly.

By the way, most of the documents I cited in this post can be found on this totally wonderful Ashbrook site.

Update: Ramesh Ponnuru can’t remember examples of the Bushian political rhetoric of which Brooke Allen complains either. And please see my response to David Tucker’s post. I don’t think we’re as far apart as he thinks.

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