During the course of a tedious debate over at The American Conservative with Davis Lindsay, the British fantasist and blogger for the London Telegraph, it occurred to me that in my trove of never to be published reviews was one singularly appropriate to the topic. So here goes.
THE FOUNDERS ON RELIGION
Thomas O. Meehan
Thoughtful conservatives are caught in the crossfire between militant atheists and militant fundamentalists over the proper role of religion and government in the minds of The Founding Fathers. This is a big question, going to the very nature of our society, and the future shape of our society depends on which side prevails
Atheists like Christopher Hitchens portray the founders as Deists or agnostics, setting their faces against any recognition of religion by the government. Their claims are largely based on a few writings of Jay and Jefferson, including the now famous “Wall of Separation” phrase. They also observe rightly, that the founders neglected to write Christianity into the Constitution. On the other hand we have various religious figures citing a few instances of the founders praising religion, the Lord, or enacting laws that would have drawn the disapproval of the Warren Court. Neither side marshals a lot of scholarship on its side of the debate.
Princeton University Press has corrected this state of affairs by publishing James H. Hutson’s invaluable book, The Founders on Religion. Hutson’s gift to we who want to know the mind of The Founders on the matter of religion and its place in our republic is to painstakingly search through mountains of correspondence to find the founders actual quotations touching on faith, morality, and how they saw their faith in relation to the foundation of our country. In this, he made several wise choices. First, he organized them by topic rather than by source. He went beyond Washington and Jefferson to include several less well-known founders who were central to events but who are largely forgotten now due to the degradation of our educational establishment. Among these were Benjamin Rush, Elias Boudinot, Roger Sherman and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. He also included Abigail Adams and Martha Washington in an attempt to glean what he could contemporaneous female opinion. He also attends to the evolution of the views of those quoted, so the more mature and settled opinions of the founders are used wherever possible. The author states “ Conservative and evangelical readers who consult the book will, I hope, be persuaded that sound scholarship is not their sworn enemy, as many have been led to believe.” Those of us who are willing to take the founders as they were will have to agree
Hutson employs rigorous historical methodology, avoiding pitfalls such as reliance on unreliable sources that bedeviled earlier quotation books assembled by well meaning amateurs. By organizing the book by topic rather than name, he creates a more coherent gloss of the founder’s world-view in all their variety, for it’s important to note that the founders were not all of a mind on many topics.
The scope of the topics is more than broad enough to serve as a tour de horizon of the founder’s views beyond the role of religion alone. In fact the book is a tantalizing invitation to speculate on the Founders likely reactions to current events. The Founders wrestled with the problem of addiction, child rearing, death, and war, and their thoughts delivered through their correspondence are all here. The founders expressed opinions on Comparative Religion, American Indians, Law, Islam, slavery and a host of things that go well beyond the central question of the role of religion in the new republic. This is of more than passing interest as only by absorbing the founders patterns of reasoning and their norms can we avoid the more unlikely speculations presented now as to their original intentions.
Indeed the most valuable service of this book is to show us not only what the Founders said, but what they accepted as normal and what they took as needing little explanation.
So what, based on Hutson’s quotations, did the founders think about religion and religion's role in society?
The Founders were not a pack of deists sequestered in their mansions reading philosophy. They were all immersed in Christian religion. Almost all were regular churchgoers. All were educated in, and continued to read and refer to, both the New and Old Testaments. They used biblical references in their public and private speech. They modeled their behavior on biblical exemplars. In short, they completely internalized the gospels as a template for understanding and proceeding in the world. They also referred to History and literature but on matters of morality and prudent conduct, the bible was their compass.
The most direct answer to the question of how the founding personalities of our republic viewed religion is that they found the religion indispensable to the survival of all they created. This is not hyperbole. Washington in his farewell address states, ”Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.” There are similar quotes from Hamilton, Rush, Franklin, Henry Campbell, Adams, Boudinot, Carroll and Jefferson.
The unanimity of all quoted on the indispensability of Religion to public life and the survival of a free state is striking, particularly so in that Franklin, Rush and Jefferson are now portrayed as Deists or even crypto-atheists. Here is Jefferson on being challenged by a friend on his way to church. The friend accuses him of not believing a word of what will be preached. Jefferson responds, “ No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that can be given to man and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” All those mentioned above see Christianity as a necessary foundation to orderly government. And they say it many times over.
All quoted were Protestants of one variety or another except for Charles Carroll who was the sole Catholic founder. Repeatedly they cite the nexus between thoughtful reading of the bible and the spirit of liberty. For them The Reformation leads to the American Revolution by virtue of The Reformation’s overthrow of Roman superstition. Superstition and monarchy are seen as brothers in arms. So for them, literacy and free churches are both the cradle and the home of republican freedom. Over and again they seem unable to imagine a non-churchgoing public as having sufficient morality to govern themselves without descending into vice and despotism. Hamilton states this explicitly in response to the French Revolution. “The politician who loves liberty sees…a gulf that may swallow up the liberty to which he is devoted. He knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall without religion) the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty.” Benjamin Rush writes that he would rather his countrymen adhere to the Islam or Confucianism than have no faith at all. So it seems that the founders, whatever their private doubts, thought religion was necessary to society and that government had a responsibility to promote it’s survival. Or as John Adams observed, of the French claim that “ The science of the Rights of Man is a new science. The Americans have invented it…..“The Americans did not invent this foundation of Society. They found it in their religion.”
So why did The Founders leave the church out of the Constitution? One answer from these quotes is that living in a wholly Christian society, it didn’t occur to them to create a special status for what they already took for granted. The more pressing reason was their awareness of serious rivalries and animosities existing between their several denominations.
Jefferson and others distrusted the Quakers, stemming from their ambivalence toward the revolution. All save Carroll despised the Roman Catholic Church as a sinkhole of vice and subversion. Adams sees Catholicism and Liberty as incompatible. John Jay agrees with the opinion that the Pope is the Antichrist. Washington has to stop the ritual burning of the Pope in effigy as a regular army celebration. And this took place a time when the Revolutionary Army was recruiting French Canadians. Of Calvinism, Jefferson says, “Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new absurdities that it’s leader purged of the old ones.” Adams intimates that the Church of England is essentially just the Roman Church by other means.
Furthermore they were well aware of the history of persecution of one denomination by another within the protestant communion. Even Carroll, the only Catholic, admits the intolerance of his church although he also states it is not alone in this. He is a Catholic but his toleration and his worldview are New World Protestant to a large degree. Madison found it impossible to issue a simple proclamation recommending a day of thanks without offending at least one sectarian sensibility.
Their Protestant world-view gave them an adamantine belief in freedom of conscience and the freedom of churches to preach as they pleased. Their experience of the Church of England, with their enemy the King as its head, left them in no doubt that there was to be no established church. Not just because they could not all agree on which, but because they wanted none. They understood that any established church would soon become no church at all, but an organ of the establishment. As church-going men they were not about to allow a government to impose either an orthodoxy or a clergy on themselves. For them, only free Protestant men reading their bibles under the guidance of freely elected clergy could resist vice and the contaminations of power.
This is not to say, as the ACLU would have it, that power did not flow between church and state. Rather, The Founders wanted a republic in which the first men in the established churches filled the ranks of government, and in turn the government made the society safe for the church. The idea that the government might work to wall the church in, or deny the essentially Christian character of society and it’s government, would have seemed unnatural and immoral. For The Founders, the government had a stake in encouraging Christian faith in the interests of social order and morality.
The founders never anticipated a time when large numbers of both non-Christians and non-believers would make up the population. Washington does say that he welcomes immigrants as long as they are good workmen even if they are Mohammedans and non-believers. But elsewhere he says they must adopt our customs and morals. As we have seen, Adams and others think Catholics are unfit for citizenship. Toleration is strongly expressed in many quotes as part of freedom of conscience. Elsewhere Adams and Jay seem to say that it is the duty of citizens to vote for fellow Christians.
Given this, it is reasonable to suppose that the founders were more than content to let things play out in a Protestant society with the understanding that the people would protect the interests of their churches from civil government interference.
As to the rest, The Founders held many idiosyncratic and to us, quaint opinions. The Book is worth reading just to learn that Adams excoriated Plato and viewed Greek philosophy as obscurantist mumbo-jumbo that gave the Romish Church power of men’s minds. Franklin anticipated welfare reform in observing that Catholic countries he visited fostered improvidence in the poor by their excessive charity. Liberals will find it interesting that while John Jay approves the death penalty, Benjamin Rush does not. Jefferson thought that by the time the young men of his generation grew old they would all be Unitarians. John Adams wrote to a distinguished Jew of his time that he wished his people settled in Palestine, where they would in due course lose their “peculiarities” and become “liberal Christian Unitarians.” (He didn’t mention Arab Unitarians). Benjamin Franklin reflected on the possibility that God had brought rum into existence in order to eradicate the Indians and infers that some Indians agree with him!
So the founders were already showing that mixture of quirky do-it-yourself practicality and optimism that we recognize as characteristically American. They were more jealous of their liberty than desirous of security. They took for granted a basically Christian polity that would, if truly Christian as they understood it, keep the government in bounds. The reader can judge for himself if this is still working. But let’s let John Adams have the last word. “ Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”