Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Nation article

I read the Nation article about which Joseph Knippenberg blogged. His characterization of it is wrong. Most of what it says is accurate, although it, like Knippenberg, misses the point. The issue in the founding was not the status of religion but the status of revealed religion or religion beyond the bounds of reason. It is undeniable, I think, that the Founding was at best neutral to revealed religion. Religion as subordinate to the needs of politics, what Knippenberg’s snippet from the Farewell Address discusses, was fine with the Founders but that is religion within the bounds of reason. It was not revealed religion, which is always some particular religion. Anyone is free to follow particular religions, according to the Founding, but none has any political authority. Madison in fact wanted lots of sects, as he called them, so that they would counteract one another. As a historical and political fact, the Founders’ understanding of religion turned out to be wrong. This is not my opinion but that of John Quincy Adams, who, unlike the Founders he knew personally, was an orthodox Christian.

Discussions - 7 Comments


I’m not sure exactly how we disagree.

Yes, Franklin and the Virginians were not orthodox, though Madison is harder to figure, for example, than Jefferson, who is transparent on these matters. Adams I don’t know well enough to assess one way or the other.

There was also widespread agreement regarding the social utility of religion, as witnessed by the passages I adduced from Washington and the Northwest Ordinance. I will add, as I should have in my post, that the Northwest Ordinance stands as a powerful piece of evidence against "no aid separationism" as a reflection of the original intent of the First Amendment.

But aren’t there many people in the founding generation who are much more theologically orthodox? It seems to me that when we’re speaking, say, of the First Amendment, we can’t just go by what Madison says (let alone Jefferson, who was in France at the time of its drafting), but we have to take into account the sentiments of all of those who had a role in adopting it.

I’m not arguing that the U.S. is a Christian nation, or founded on the principles of Christianity. But I am arguing that the Founding is much friendlier to religion, and that many of the Founders are much more orthodox, than the evidence adduced by Brooke Allen would lead one to believe.

It might help prove your point if you included the words of JQA to show us what his argument about religion and politics was.

England once had an official church doctrine. This law infringed on the freedom of other religions to worship as they saw fit. The founding fathers were trying to prevent the same mistake. In other words, the founding fathers were trying to protect religion from government, not government from religion. It worked in America until judges, rather than representatives, started making law.

It is easy to sell the concept of fear of religion to people ignorant of real history. The founders were much more afraid of government than God.

One can only argue that the Founders were "neutral" towards reveled religion if one defines Founders in a very narrow way. The "minimalists" typically quote Franklin, Jefferson and (sometimes) Madison (and a handful of others) in drafting the Founders to defend their opposition to religion in the public square. Unfortunately for them, there are more than a handful of men who can legitimately claim to be Founders. Given the number who participated in the Continental Congresses, State legislatures and the Constitutional convention, the number is easily several hundred. Numbered among those - John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Indpedence and certainly not "neutral" on revealed religion.

Mr Maddox -- Baptists wanted to save revealed religion from government, so James Madison, who wanted to save government from revealed religion, worked with them to disestablish the Anglican church in Virginia.

Mr. Kohler -- I said the Founding (not the Founders) was at best neutral to revealed religion. This is what it means to have a separation of Church and State. No particular religion gets the support of the government. Hence, the founding is neutral with regard to all the different revelations in the world. None has political authority.

Mr. Knippenberg -- You are a hard man to argue with. But I think the Founding was suspcious of revealed religion rather than friendly to it because a revelation makes distinctions among citizens (those who believe it and those who do not) that are destructive politically. That is what history taught. Among the Founders, attitudes varied but by and large those who most fully deserve the title Founder were supporters of rationalized religion to one degree or another. As far as I can tell, at the time of the Revolution but certainly even more so in the decades following it, the broad mass of the American people were not as committed to rational religion as were the Founders. It is the broad mass of the American people who have made America friendly to revelations not the Founding.

Mr. Tucker,

First of all, please call me Joe. (I’ll reciprocate, or not, as you wish.) My hesitation about your line of argument flows from my unwillingness to take the opinions of even a prominent part of the Founding generation as reflective of the opinions of the whole.

Joe -- On one point, as Monty Python might say, it is not a question of the opinion of the Founders, it is a simple question of the separation of church and state, as I explained to Mr. Kohler. The founding was neutral with regard to revelations. In addition, many of the Founders were suspicious of, if not hostile to, revealed religion.

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