Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Novaks on Will on Allen

Michael and Jana Novak respond to George F. Will’s review of Brooke Allen’s book, which I discussed here. They say everything I’d want them to say. Here are a couple of snippets:

Among the 89 signers of the Declaration and/or the Constitution, nearly a dozen had studied theology, were ordained ministers, were preachers though not ordained, were chaplains to a militia unit, or were officers of national Bible societies and the like. Historians of the last hundred years have been remiss in their study of the religion of the Founders. We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.

***

[O]ne must recognize that it is not the “top” six who ratified the Constitution of the United States, but rather “We the people of the United States.” We the people who fought and died in the War of Independence. We the people who count ourselves a religious people, with the manifest and self-evident duties that any conscious creature owes to its Creator. To understand the religion of the Founding, one must also understand the faiths of the American people.

Read the whole thing. Hat tip: Matt Franck.

Discussions - 30 Comments

David,

What I want to stress is that there’s a rather significant gulf between the elite opinion identified by Allen and Will, and the much more orthodox opinion that was more prevalent throughout the union.

Thus Jefferson was at pains to conceal his unorthodox religious opinions. And disestablishment in Virginia was fought hard by men like Patrick Henry and supported by even more pious Presbyterians (and others), a constituency James Madison worked hard to cultivate. I wouldn’t assume, then, that disestablishment even in the states reflected secularism or Deism.

I share your reservations about the Novaks’ possible (mis)construal of "gentlemanly reserve," but that it seems to me also suggests a respect for a substantial reservoir of religious orthodoxy, even if not shared by the figures in question.

The Novaks are right to suggest that we can’t settle on the status of religious opinion at the time of the Founding by examining the views of six men, however prominent and influential they were in many respects.

Joe -- How do you know there was such a gulf between what you call elite opinion (or the opinion of six men) and the opinion of non-elites? But again, this is not important. The important point is that the first amendment and state disestablishment make clear that the public ground of the Republic could not be Christian, except accidentally (i.e., the vast majority of those who practiced religion were Christian.)

David,

You’re right that state disestablishment means that the "public ground" can’t be a single denomination that everyone supported with tax dollars. But state disestablishment was surely understood to permit, for example, prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In other words, state disestablishment was not meant altogether to privatize religion.

On the point of the difference between Jefferson, et al and their non-elite (and elite) contemporaries, the evidence of their "gentlemanly reserve" at least suggests a gap. The Founding era was surely the high water mark of rationalism in America, but I doubt it was even close to a majority opinion.

I would question whether the American public was that religious during the founding era. If I am not mistaken wasn’t there a major religious movement in the early 1800s (was it called the Great Revivial?), I cannot remember what historians call it though. I know it was centered in the frontier areas. Maybe people were religious at the founding, and this historical moment was about changing religious expression. Obviously, preachers would not have had such passion if they thought they were not doing something important, nor would it be called "Great" unless it signified a change.

Joe -- In your last comment you mention "denomination," christianity (the bible) and "religion" as if they were all the same thing. Disestablishment meant no denomination and no Christianity in public schools. After disestablishment, christianity (prayer and the bible) may have been permitted in schools but this does not mean that they should have been. There is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and the American Republic; the connection is accidental. This fact is not dependent on the number of Americans in 1776 who were secular rationalists. If all you and the Novaks are arguing is that the American Founding is not hostile to the public presence of religion, that is true. I believe the Novaks are arguing for something more than that.

Steve -- there was an awakening in the 1740s and then a series of them in the ninteeth-century, particularly in the antebellum period. Some date the second great awakening from as early as 1800 or so, others see it as starting later. The awakenings were urban as well as rural.

David,

Establishment was always taken to mean preference for a particular denomination (e.g., the Church of England). Disestablishment typically meant eliminating preferences for one denomination and disabilities for others. I take contemporary practices as a better indicator of what disestablishment meant (or, for that matter, what the First Amendment meant): in both cases, the "disestablishers" didn’t rule out generalized support for religion (see, for example, the Northwest Ordinance, as well as the common practices in public schools). The perpetuation of these and similar practices is surely not required by our constitutional arrangements, but it just as surely ought to be permitted by them.

Joe -- You began by supporting claims about the facts of the Founding. You are now making an argument that is separable from the historical facts about the Founding. You may be right about your constitutional interpretation but when talking about the Foudning you cite facts selectively, as the Novaks do. The whole business of establishment, disestablishment, support etc was quite complicated and does not support the sort of generalized statement about "disestablishers" that you make. To paraphrase an old saying, you are entitled to your own interpretation but not to your own facts. And to repeat: the most important point given the way that you and the Novaks argue is that there is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and the American Republic.

David-Joe:

David, thank you for clarifying the name of the movement. I think it shows that early Americans were not overly religious, but I guess no one else does.

Didn’t a Jew in Rhode Island write a letter to Washington asking for a promise that Jews would not be persecuted in the new republic. Does anyone know what Washington said? This would seem to show that the 1st amendment allows different RELIGIONS, not just different sects of the same religion. Or are Judaism and Christianty the same for these purposes?

David,

O.K., some "disestablishers" took your approach to what should be permitted in public schools; others took my approach. So far as I know, those who took my approach (permitting Bible reading and prayer) prevailed in most places. Hence the need for Catholic schools, since what Catholics confronted in the public schools was nondenominational Protestantism.

As to the "essential or necessary" connection, I think it depends upon how you look at it. Can the constitutional mechanisms function (or function well) without a morally educated citizenry? Can widespread moral education function without religion (not necessarily a particular denomination)? These, I think, are Washington’s questions, and there seems to me to be an enormous distinction between Washington and, say, Immanuel Kant, who argues (as I recall) that a republican constitution can work even for a nation of devils.

Steve -- Look at http://www.ashbrook.org/library/18/washington/hebrewcongregation.html

Joe -- You persist in confusing Christianity and Religion. There is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and the American Republic. If you are claiming only that an argument that religion was useful politically was popular at the time of the Revolution and Founding, then I can agree with you. That of course is not all that the Novaks argue.

David,

Is there are critical mass of Founders who could imagine the Constitutional system working without a moral, and hence a religious, people? How many in addition to Jefferson expected something like Unitarianism to prevail?

I’m not trying to carry water for the Novaks, but you haven’t convinced me that the Constitution is altogether separable from the cultural and religious setting in which it was devised. Take something as simple as this:

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth....

I think you are missing the point or at least my point, so I will try to be as clear as I can be. At the time of the Founding it was common to argue that religion was politically useful. Do you mean something more than that understanding in what you are saying about religion and the American Republic? There is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and the American Repbulic. The connection is accidental. Are you arguing otherwise? The Novaks do. They say that Madison’s and Jefferson’s arguments for religious freedom necessarily entail belief in the Biblical God. Is that what you are arguing?

David,

I’m doubtful that the Constitution could have been drafted in any other context. And I wonder what you make of the peculiar emphasis on conscience in this document.

I think I agree with David Tucker...but of course I would. I probably also agree with Kant about devils and Republics...or at least the spirit of Sapere Aude and the enlightenment. But... The Enligthenment which informed the Founding would not have occured without a religious context... the ealier features of society shaped by the "schoolmen" sustained it by providing it with something to react against. Simultaneously segments of the church that opposed the enlightment, helped to stimulate it.

Hume’s thougth couldn’t have developed without this opposition...and the thought of Reid couldn’t have developed without Hume...exct... Bottom line the ideas that formed the constitution couldn’t even have formed in a different context. But the important question asked by Dr. Knippenburg:"Can the constitutional mechanisms function (or function well) without a morally educated citizenry?" Is a question that was extremely pregnant in the Scottish Enlightement. Thomas Reid held that the answer was that there are common principles that serve as the foundation of all reasoning and science to include the moral sciences...that such principles do not need to be taught but "they are such as all men of common understanding know; or such, at least, as they give ready assent to, as soon as they are proposed and understood."(Thomas Reid essays On Intellectual Powers, Essay 1)

But supposing that Thomas Reid is quite wrong?(as I believe...common understanding is simply the result of a shared ontological structure)

In what way do the ideas of the enlightment color the claims that self -evident truths exist? In what sense is self-evident truth itself not simply the particular manifestations of the beliefs of a specific age(philosophy?)?

John -- The statement that "the ideas that formed the constitution couldn’t even have formed in a different context," if it means anything, means that the constitution is the product of an age, a zeitgeist; it shows you to be perhaps a Hegelian rather than a Kantian or, if you don’t believe that ages or eras and their unfolding display any rationality, perhaps a nihilist. But your mention of Reid is appropriate because it was Reid and the common sense school of philosophy that helped establish and sustain through much of the nineteenth-century the kind of Christian Republicanism that Joe appears to favor.

Joe -- In your first post on the Novaks article you wrote "They say everything I’d want them to say." I take it then that you have implicilty answered one of my previous questions but that you will not explicilty answer any of the others.

David,

Two things before I rush to class. First, that the Novaks say everything I wanted them to say doesn’t mean that I agree with everything in the article. Second, while I don’t think that Christianity is now a necessary concomitant of the American constitution, I ask again: do you think liberal constitutionalism could have developed in any other context (which of course is different from saying that it’s required by the context)?

Joe -- You want the Novaks to say things but don’t necessarily believe that what they say is true. You believe therefore, I assume, that at least some of what they say, although wrong, is useful. This is consistent with your earlier remark that you do not necessarily agree with their claim that a difference between private thoughts and public expression must be hypocrisy or dishonorable. I assume further that your insistence on confusing religion and Christianity in the Founding and a reluctance to answer certain questions are examples of what the Novaks would call hypocrisy. But is it wise to confuse what must be kept distinct if liberal institutions are to survive? As to your question about context, I don’t know the answer. I also don’t see its relevance.

Joe -- I thought a bit more about your question liberal constitutionalism and context. What about Japan and India?

David,

Japan and India are potentially good examples of places onto which liberal constitutionalism of a sort may be grafted, though I don’t know enough about either to say for sure. (Note, however, that liberal democracy, such as it is, in Japan required defeat in WWII and in India a long period of British imperialism.) My argument was a little more precise, I think: I claimed that liberal constitutionalism couldn’t have arisen (or perhaps have been invented) in a different context, not that it couldn’t be adapted to fit different contexts.

As for the rest of what you, I’ve been trying my darnedest to be as clear as I know how to be. I don’t see how I’ve confused religion and Christianity. Indeed, I’ve tried to be quite precise in my understanding of establishment, which has to do with exclusive support of a particular denomination and disabilities attached to others.

If you’re accusing me now of hypocrisy, esotericism, or (most nicely put) gentlemanly reserve, I plead innocent.

Joe -- Liberal constitutionalism could have been invented without Christianity. Certain traits among a population are necessary for liberal constitutionalism, it seems, but (as the cases of India and Japan show), these are not necessarily connected to Christianity. (In this regard, "arisen" or "sustained" makes not difference.) The connection is historical and therefore accidental, just as the connection between Christianity and American Republicanism is accidental. Are you making the argument that the connection is historical and therefore rational and necessary or are you arguing that it is historical and therefore providential?

Joe -- one more thing, to remove any suggestion of name callin. I was accusing you of hypocrisy but as the Novaks use that term, which means that it should be worn as a badge of honor. I freely admit, at my all too infrequent best moments, to being a hypocrite, as they use that term.

Joe -- Another thought. If you think the context in which liberal constitutionalism arose is the only context in which it could have arisen, then you must think there is a necessary connection between Protestant Christianity and liberal constitutionalism, since it was in Protestant countries that it first arose. Do you think there is a necessary connection between Protestantism and liberal constitutionalism? It is hard to see the difference between the conditions necessary for its invention and the conditions necessary for its sustainment.

How did I miss this tussle? David, hello, and yes, there is a necessary connection between Protestant Christianity and liberal constitutionalism, since it was in Protestant countries that it first arose. Is there any other religion than Protestantism and its reliance on the concept of the individual and the importance of the individual in relation to authority (even to God) that relates so well to a constitutional republic as we have it? India is a prime example of a nation wherein the constitutional principles were not buttressed by the primary religion, and they are still having problems with democracy because of that. This relates to a blog begun earlier in the week.


To my intense frustration, my family needs me right this minute.

Kate -- Glad you joined in since Joe seems to have gone on to better things. In any cse, nice to hear from you, although I can’t say I agree with you. If it is true that there is a necessary connection between Protestantism and liberal constitutionalism (LC), then we should do away with the first amendment and establish Protestant churches, as the South Carolina constitution did in 1778 (changed in 1790 to free exercise of religion). As I said previously, it won’t do, I think, to say that although LC arose in Protestant countries, its sustainment does not now require a Protestant establishment. LC needs to be recreated if not at every election certainly at critical ones (in our case the elections say of 1800 and 1860) and perhaps less dramatically millions of times in every generation. So, if Protestantism is a necessary condition for the appearance or invention of LC, it is always necessary and we should have a Protestant establishment to guarantee the existence of LC. I think this has in fact always been the opinion of some in the United States. But I don’t think it is true. Japan and India are powerful arguments against this claim. I am sure that both have problems with their LC but don’t we with ours? The other problem with claiming that LC requires Protestantism is that there is a vast difference between the individualism of man before God and the individualism of man confronting other men guided by self-interest. The former may have preceded the latter but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing. Or consider this case: Nietzsche may be inconceivable without Christianity. Are Nietzsche and Christianity compatible?

I don’t believe that the constitution is necessarily part of a Zeitgest...but it may be. In point of fact that constitution necessarily arrose from certain ideas. These ideas are the ideas found within and prevalent in the Enlightenment, In particular the thought of John Locke. Reid is important...and is important because if right then this discussion is already solved. What I am saying is that this discussion is not solved. Following Ceaser the unwritten constitution is essentially the thought of Reid. But if Reid is correct then it isn’t clear that we need christianity to sustain common sense. The argument that we need christianity as a support or as part of the "unwritten" constitution then presuposes the Hegelianism you accuse me of. That is common sense is either part of a Zeitgest, or common sense is just common sense...and is always a good foundation and the true "unwritten" constitution. Interesting question about Christianity and Nietzsche the obvious answer is no. Similar questions arrise when comparing the thought of David Hume with portions of Calvinistic moral teaching. I think that the enlightenment was granted permission to exist because protestantism arrose.

Having spent yesterday with my son and his cousin (birthday things), and facing the prospect of 20 student papers to read and one I’m writing to finish, this has to be quick, so here goes.

David seems to have given some ground on the question of the conditions under which liberal constitutionalism arose. I’d at first glance restrict them to two. First, the notion of (the primacy of) inner freedom (conscience), which is difficult to conceive, certainly as a mass, hence potentially political, phenomenon, without Christianity. (If Nietzsche’s superman is a "Caesar with the soul of Christ," then Nietzsche himself needs Christianity as part of his "synthesis.") Second, religious pluralism, which is of course intimately connected with Protestantism. That both these phenomena can be replicated in certain ways in non-Protestant or non-Christian countries may mean that liberal constitutionalism is accidentally connectable with other "cultures," but doesn’t detract from the claim that it’s essentially connected with the ideas and conditions I’ve identified.

Can we agree, or not, that the flourishing of liberal constitutionalism requires a certain character among its citizenry, and that not just any way of life is either compatible with or supportive of a liberal constitutional regime? Can we also agree, or not, that government can do something to foster those ways of life?

John -- What Reid referred to as common sense was an abstraction from what we normally consider common sense. His notion derives from Bacon who was in fact suspicious of common sense, which he identified with "Aristotelianism." Bacon wanted to vex nature because it hid its truths. This is why you could not trust common sense. Reid is part of that tradition, I think. When Reid is talking about common sense he is ultimately saying that we need to rely on a version of the modern scientific enterprise, not common sense in the common sense meaning of that term. I don’t think it is an adequate foundation for liberal constitutionalism (LC).

Joe -- this series of postings began because you posted the comment that the Novaks "say everything I’d want them to say." Apparently, they said a lot more than you wanted them to say, judging by what you are now asking us to agree to. No problem agreeing with either of the positions you state (I proposed the first a number of posts ago) but that represents a significant retreat from what you implied in your original post. My position remains the same. There is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and LC.

TO correct the lack of a paragraph break:

John -- What Reid referred to as common sense was an abstraction from what we normally consider common sense. His notion derives from Bacon who was in fact suspicious of common sense, which he identified with Aristotelianism. Bacon wanted to vex nature because it hid its truths. This is why you could not trust common sense. Reid is part of that tradition, I think. When Reid is talking about common sense he is ultimately saying that we need to rely on a version modern scientific enterprise, not common sense in the common sense meaning of that term. I don’t think it is an adequate foundation for liberal constitutionalism (LC).

Joe -- this series of postings began because you posted the comment that the Novaks "say everything I’d want them to say." Apparently, they said a lot more than you wanted them to say, judging by what you are now asking us to agree to. No problem agreeing with either of the positions you state (I proposed the first a number of posts ago) but that represents a significant retreat from what you implied in your original post. My position remains the same. There is no essential or necessary connection between Christianity and LC.

Liberal Constitutionalism requires that its citizens live according to Sapere Aude. That is it requires that they think...and then do whatever it is that they think is right. Without the anchor of a certain bedrock rationality...which is what I think Reid was after...we get the solipsism that conservatives dislike...that is Reid wanted to spell out concepts that all people at all times could give accent to...as he put it, "they are such as all men of common understanding know; or such, at least, as they give ready assent to, as soon as they are proposed and understood." These self-evident truths that required no further justification and could thus be used as cornerstones to build upon. Without this "common sense" we are left with the observation of David Hume "Nor is there required such profound knowledge to discover the present imperfect condition of the sciences, but even the rabble without doors may, judge from the noise and clamour, which they hear, that all goes not well within." And this becomes the "new common sense". And the "new common sense" is profound scepticism. So in truth I think that either we have a shared epistemic foundation...or we have a shared distrust of all foundations...and this makes up our unwritten constitution. Either Hume is right or Reid is right. If Reid is right then we can start to spell out answers to Joe’s questions...but if Hume is right then we will see those who spell out these answers as trumpeters...not bringers of reason. And we will come to remark that: "Amidst all this bustle it is not reason, which carries the prize, but eloquence; and no man needs ever despair of gaining proselytes to the most extravagant hypothesis, who has art enough to represent it in any favourable colours. The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers, and musicians of the army."

John -- either Hume or Reid is right. Maybe John Lewis is right and that’s the choice. I think there is less difference between Hume and Reid than you (but I confess I last read them in graduate school) and that neither provides the foundation for LC that we both agree is necessary. I am in the midst of a project that will require me to re-read Reid eventually, so I will at some point be in a better position to judge.

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