Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Contending originalisms

That’s the title of this week’s TAE Online column. I write about efforts on the part of the secular Left and the religious Right to claim the mantel of the founding generation.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Mr. Knippenberg,

I thought your recent article at “The American Enterprise Online” in regards to the original intent of the framers of our constitution was well written and argued, it lacked in several areas.

It is quite true that religion played a major part in the lives of the founders of our country. However the fundamental error of modern day Christians is the failure to realize that they were more ‘Deist’ in religious faith, than any sort of Evangelical Christian. Truthfully, I think you will find a number of them much closer to what we know as “Unitarian Universalist” than any type of fundamentalist Christian today (heck, Jefferson may very well be more Humanist than UU!). Were they recognized as Christians in that time and day? Yes. Did they assume that religion was a fundamental part of their lives? Yes. Did they try and impose that belief upon others through the Constitution? No. They learned their hard recognized lessons from the failed ‘Articles of Confederation’, and made sure they didn’t’ repeat those mistakes.

I think we are very fortunate that the Framers recognized that a pluralistic society HAS to value the ideals and values of all its citizenry, not just the theistic ones. That’s why the ‘godless’ Constitution has such force, and has served our country so well. The founders, especially Madison (who learned from Jefferson) realized that nobody should have the right to force anyone else to endorse and recognize their particular interpretation of ‘god’ (be that in a ’Pledge’ of patriotism, as a cost of using money). By that same token, I should not have the right to enforce any kind of "absence of god" on anyone else, say by forcing people to use coins that say "under NO god". This matter of government neutrality towards religions is a matter of fundamental respect among a religiously diverse nation, and the only way that a religiously pluralistic society can function effectively. It’s a shame the religious right can’t see that, but until they do, they will have a fight on their hands.

Re: The Northwest Passage
First: this ordinance was not written by the Framers of our constitution. It was put forward by The Ohio Company Associates, a Ohio land speculation company of Revolutionary War veterans. The congress wanted these land speculators to have access to the land, and moreover, this bill had the widely regarded lobbying abilities of an ex-army chaplain, Manasah Cutler behind it. It was so much wanted, that the New England delegation supported it completely, even thought it quite explicitly called for governmental support of religious institutions. Note the wording of the bill two days before it was sent to conference committee (“Institutions for the promotion of religion and morality, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”) and what came out of that same committee “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary”. Quite a vacuous statement as it neither required that religion be taught in the public schools, nor did it give preferential aid to religious schools.

So your statement “Imagine: Our Founders, those creatures and proponents of the Enlightenment, fully expected schools supported by their communities to promote religion.” is quite wrong given the facts I have just presented to you.

Re: your quote from George Washington: “[L]et us with caution ...” is quite ridiculous. I respect this pillar of our nation, and recognize and honor the fundamental place he holds in our Republic. However, his views of morality are quite naive and undeveloped, especially for as intelligent a man as he was. To put it bluntly, the day a slave owner lectures me about how necessary "religion" is to morality is the day that I laugh in his face. Obviously his learned mind has never heard of, or had forgotten the concepts of, Virtue Ethics, Kantian Ethics, Utilitarian Ethics, Epicureanism, Stoicism, traditional Buddhism, Confucianism, or any other number of non-theistic worldviews. The quote only shows a man who is too ignorant of other ethical systems to understand that they might very well serve as well, or better, than any theistically based one. What a shame too, because I’ve known Buddhists and Secular Humanists, Hindus and Confucians whose morality shines brighter and is more virtuous than any Christian or Muslim.

Finally, this argument about the Framers and their intent really gets down to nothing more than the value of a pluralistic society. The Framers respected that right, and respected the concept of it. The religious right does not. They see things in “Black or White” terms, and any exception to their particular comprehension of religion is not to be tolerated. To their twisted minds, it isn’t enough that their children can pray in school whenever they want. No, they want to force ALL children to hear their particular version of religion. Give them a mile, and they complain that they wanted two, and just why are you persecuting them anyway. Sad. All I can say is if the religious right wants to make this country something it isn’t, namely a Christian country, then they can expect to have a fight on their hands. As a veteran, and a citizen, I won’t let them take my country away from me.

Joe - A "religion-friendly public square" is not the same thing as a "Christian nation"!! Showing the first does not touch the second claim.

Steve--That’s all Joe claimed to show. But I gotta say I’ve never really liked that George Washington Farewell Address quote; it points pretentiously to the untruth of religion for real minds. I think it’s possible to do even better in showing why our understanding of religion is freedom for religion, which is also not the same as saying we have a Christian nation. (Although our "metaphysics" so to speak might ultimately be Christian--see John Courtney Murray, Orestes Brownson, and me)

I’d always thought that Washington was referring to Jefferson, and not to many others, in that passage from the "Farewell Address." I’m still not sure where I come down on Washington himself. The Novaks make the best possible case for his quasi-orthodoxy (which can be summarized in part by saying that he took particular providence seriously), but Holmes’s book certainly raises questions that I’m not sure they adequately address.

In addition, my point in the column was precisely to insist that there is a common ground between the prudent and sober people, whether orthodox or not. And it goes without saying that the defensive and cultural concerns of the religious right will get more mileage out of references to the founders than will those of the secular left.

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