Sunday, February 14, 2010

So what if the Founders were Christian?

The NY Times Sunday Magazine today has an interesting feature article about the faith of the Founders and the brewing culture wars over the content of textbooks in Texas. The main argument of the conservative bloc on the state board goes along these lines: The Founders were Christian, therefore the US is a Christian nation and consequently... Okay, so I got lost there somewhere.
If the issue was all about putting religion back in history, that is all well and good. Perhaps there is even some grain of truth in the allegation that religion has been unfairly excluded from contemporary histories. How could you even talk about the rise (and fall, certainly) of Western civilization without religion? The pioneers and Pilgrims who landed and founded Plymouth colony in the 17th century were raised and in fact lived within the context of the European Enlightenment and the many struggles within to define just what the proper relationship between religion and state should be. It was natural to find several religious references in the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower compact and in fact in most political documents in New England until well into the 18th century.
There were many strands of opinion about this relationship back then. By the time we get to the time of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the rest of the Philadelphia gang, strict theocratic Puritanism had run its course (Massachusetts would continue to have a state religion until 1832, being the last state to disestablish). The dominant views are now simply called the Jeffersonian (separation for the sake of the state) and the Williams' view (named after Roger Williams - separation for the sake of religion). These views ironically would play out in the wildly different contexts of Massachusetts and Virginia, but it led to the same conclusion: a faith coerced is no faith at all.
So even if we indeed accept the premise that the Founding period was awash with Christianity, what is the point? The NY Times article quoted Martin Marty, retired president of the American Academy of Religion, saying "The more you can associate Christianity with the founding, the more you can sway the future Supreme Court. That is what Pat Robertson was about years ago. Establish the founders as Christians and you have it made." Conservatives say that they merely want the truth. Their critics say they are out to establish a fundamentalist state. If that is so, changing how kids see history would be the best way to go about this long-term goal indeed.

It is interesting that they pointed that one of the intended effects of this long-term plan is to sway the future Supreme Court. After all, many scholars agree that Justice Hugo Black seemingly pulled out the Jeffersonian wall metaphor out of the blue (or as the NY Times put it, from the dustbin of history) back in 1947 in the case of Everson - the first modern case under the Establishment clause. (Philip Hamburger famously argued that this was an anti-Catholic move by Black in his 2002 book Separation of Church and State). For better or worse, the Supreme Court has made the Religion clauses jurisprudence an incoherent mess. Ironically, this is also what gives the Court power because it will try to define what the most contentious terms mean along the way, not necessarily tethered to any precedent or historical understanding. It also means the cultural and ideological circumstances at a particular period of time will play a big role in deciding huge cases. That's precisely what the conservatives may be waiting for.


  1. very interesting, Anna. One question: is the hope of conservatives not just to illuminate the religious background, but also to tie to constitutional interpretation methodology, in particular originalism? It seems to me that their argument would have force only if someone is also committed to originalism as an interpretational theory and not, for example, if someone is a living constitutionalist or a textualist.

  2. It would seem that way, Adam. For instance, in the article, some conservatives managed to convince the editors at Prentice-Hall to refer to the Constitution, not as a living document, but an enduring one. Viewing history as determinative in a certain way reinforces one's conviction that originalism is the best way to go about constitutional interpretation. If you control the history, then you will certainly call for the kind of methodology that gives precedence to it.

    But even so, you can cite the same history, even use the same kind of interpretation methodology and probably still arrive at different results. Consider the Citizens United decision. The conservatives are fighting a culture war here and they are not giving up this fight any time soon. If they succeed in making this kind of history prominent in mainstream cultural consciousness (i.e. Not just the East Coast liberal elite one), then given the right circumstances maybe 10 years down the road, they can find another Hugo Black of their own and another Everson. And then the wall comes crumbling down.

  3. I haven't yet read this NYT Magazine article, Anna. But I will. Thanks for pointing us to it.

    One question that occurs to me from your exchange with Adam is whether you think there is anything wrong with an established religion? If you think the answer is yes, just what precisely is wrong about it?

    Imagine the United States Constitution were amended to add a statement recognizing that the United States is, has been, and will remain a Christian state. If the First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and equality continue to be robustly enforced, what would be the problem with this constitutional amendment? Anything?

  4. I am actually on record elsewhere that I don't see anything wrong with an established religion, given religious freedom guarantees for minorities. My thinking on that is yet to evolve as of the moment.

    I did not mean this post to convey any hostility to having an established religion of any sort. At least in the US context, my only concern is that the Supreme Court is not as autonomous as it may seem, which is not really new I guess, and is definitely easy prey to the prevailing ideological climate.

    My title is a response to the efforts of conservatives to frame the US as a Christian nation. They are deliberately being vague (at least from the article) about what the ultimate consequences of that would be - my guess as I alluded to my post is something along the lines of a theocratic state, of only having Christians as leaders, etc. Is that good or bad? The answer, as always, is, it depends.


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