Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Church, state, and the original intent of evangelicalism

Steven Waldman reminds us that evangelicals sided with Jefferson, Madison, and other opponents of established religion in the Founding Era and in the early Republic. I can’t quarrel with him as far as he goes. There is a strong separationist strain, especially in the Baptist tradition, which is where much (but not quite all) of his evidence comes from. What’s more, some of the old arguments still have some significant resonance, especially when one speaks of shekels and shackles.

But I wonder if the old arguments didn’t take place against the backdrop of a confidence in a broadly Protestant culture, which would be embodied in public schools, for example. Thus the Northwest Ordinance takes for granted that religion would be taught in public schools. And public schools, where they existed throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, were, in effect, non-denominational Protestant schools. I would be interested to see if Waldman has any evidence that evangelicals explicitly disapproved of such schools, and dissociated themselves from them. I’d be surprised if there is any.

Given the secularized state of public schools today, not to mention the overall change in the public culture, then (if my surmise is correct) it’s not at all surprising that many contemporary evangelicals have opinions that differ from those of their forebears. What might have been an appropriate prudential calculation in 1789 or 1804 might not be an appropriate prudential calculation in 2006.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Arguments based on the Founders’ intent should always consider the background conditions they assumed.
It is only prudent.

When we start doing this, it becomes very clear that we cannot neatly extrapolate from 1787 (say) to our times. What worked for the small, homogeneous society described in Federalist 2 does not always work for today’s America and would not necessarily be endorsed by the Founders today.

Much of it would, of course, and much of it (e.g., checks and balances) is nearly timeless.

But as one of our Supreme Court justices said many year ago: The Constitution is not a suicide pact.

Madison, though clearly a non-believer, spoke eloquently and often about the "most sacred of all property" being, of course, one’s "conscience." Undoubtedly it would come as a shock to any modern-day knee-jerk liberal, that this is one of the most important tenets of evangelical faith. "No king but Jesus" was one of the rallying cries of the American Revolution. While many interpret this desire as a determination to begin forcing the Lord’s Supper down every citizen’s throat, it should be remembered that the seeds of the U.S. Constitution were sown in Luther’s Reformation: a revolution who’s flame against corrupt Church Authority was largely fanned by movable type.

Liberty of conscience, and the free exercise thereof, shall not be abridged. For the same sun rises on both the believing and the unbelieving.

Religion should be taught, but it should be the original religion. Only Judaism should be taught.

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