Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religion and the Founding

George F. Will kinda likes Brooke Allen’s new book on religion and the Founding. It’s hard to dispute her judgments about the figures she chooses, though Michael Novak might at some point give it a try.

I wish that Will had made a couple of relatively simple points in his review. He should have reminded us, first, that the First Amendment originally applied to the federal government and not to the states. Politically, the concern was with a national religion, not with state establishments. The Constitution is silent about religion, not because the Founders thought religion was unimportant, but because they thought that national uniformity was unattainable and undesirable.

The other thing I wish Will had said is that focusing on any small group of leaders is misleading, both about the tenor of the country, and about the meaning of the Constitution. Shouldn’t we be concerned with the thoughts and understandings of those who voted to adopt the Constitution? Were they more "orthodox" in their views?

If the point is to distinguish American religiosity of the Founding Era from its contemporary counterpart, I have little or no quarrel, so long as one also recognizes that the self-presentation of rationalism has also changed a good bit.

I deal with these matters here.

Discussions - 6 Comments

I have come to the conclusion that original intent (like legislative intent) is mostly useless. Hamilton and Madison were already arguing about the limits of the Constitution by the mid 1790s(Example: Hamilton thought the necessary and proper clause would allow the federal govt to build factories since this would free the US from overseas interests which would promote a safer country). The best I can tell, they are the same arguments we have today. Both men were connected with the federalist papers and Constitution. How does one choose between them? By looking at the text.

Have you read Steven Smith’s "Foreordained Failure"? It deals with the impossibility of finding a Constitutional principle (either of originalist intent or theoretical grounding) for religious liberty. He turns to Harold Berman’s ideas on historical law for describing the normative principles of religious freedom and tolerance that we have legitimated over time (in spite of the murkiness of the first and fourteenth amendments). I, on the whole, find this more convincing than Murray’s very Catholic and natural-law laden conception of the founding and infinitely more appealing than Rawl’s emaciated original position, but these alternatives certainly aren’t exhaustive. I’d be interested on your thoughts...

". . . the self-presentation of rationalism has also changed a good bit."

Joe - Do you mean that the rationalism of the founders was more modest? still tinged with an intellectual interest in, and respect for, religion? or what?

By way of comparison, what contemporary rationalists do you have in mind? Rawls? Who else?

You can always start with the book reviewed here and then go to the various efforts by political theorists and "public intellectuals" to marginalize or trivialize religious voices in the public square. (An example: Richard Rorty’s "Religion as a Conversation-Stopper.")

To state it in the simplest possible terms, I think that even the rationalist Founders certainly had more public respect for religion and that the anti-religious enlighteners had to take the religious question more seriously.

Is the freedom of religion clause in the 1st Amendment really murky?

Joe - OK, Rorty is at least sometimes interesting and influential. But Dawkins??? I think of him as a foolish, scientistic extremist. Who takes this stuff seriously? Or is he to you a symptom of a thoughtlessness that mostly doesn’t bother to try to explain itself?

Perhaps Lincoln presents an interesting case, meditating on religion and the founders. His seems to be piety with great philosophical depth but without any theological content. He had learned to be cautious in the campaign against Peter Cartwright, and he had learned to mobilize religious feeling for (to him) conservative ends. But others interested in Lincoln may think differently.

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