American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. There, as in his public appearances and journalism since, Meacham argued that the United States were founded on a Madisonian vision of secular government. Meacham of course did not blaze any new trail making that argument. In fact, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), Americans have lived under a system in which local and state ordinances recognizing the traditional Christianity of their culture are apt to be invalidated by federal courts. Usually, the decisions striking such ordinances down come wrapped in decisions purporting to instruct the hoi polloi in the error of our ways." /> American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. There, as in his public appearances and journalism since, Meacham argued that the United States were founded on a Madisonian vision of secular government. Meacham of course did not blaze any new trail making that argument. In fact, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), Americans have lived under a system in which local and state ordinances recognizing the traditional Christianity of their culture are apt to be invalidated by federal courts. Usually, the decisions striking such ordinances down come wrapped in decisions purporting to instruct the hoi polloi in the error of our ways. " />
April 13, 2009
Were the Founders “Post-Christian”?
Two years ago, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham published American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. There, as in his public appearances and journalism since, Meacham argued that the United States were founded on a Madisonian vision of secular government.
Meacham of course did not blaze any new trail making that argument. In fact, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), Americans have lived under a system in which local and state ordinances recognizing the traditional Christianity of their culture are apt to be invalidated by federal courts. Usually, the decisions striking such ordinances down come wrapped in opinions purporting to instruct the hoi polloi in the error of our ways.
Thus, the pre-game prayers we said before we went out under the Friday night lights in the little Texas town where I graduated from high school in 1981 supposedly now would be unconstitutional. Ditto the invocation at the annual baccalaureate exercises, led by local ministers on a rotating basis. The same holds for traditional Christian imagery in long-standing city seals, Christian symbols on public land, and myriad other nods to the base of most Americans” conception of the cosmos.
Just in time for the Easter holiday, Meacham gives over his magazine’s cover and prime pages to a story under the title “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Here, Meacham explains that recently, Christianity’s political and cultural influence in America has been waning. Now, he notes, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of Americans claiming to be Christian: from 86% to 76% in the last 19 years. He adjudges this “good for our political culture.”
Claiming high secular authority, Meacham says that political culture is “as the American Founders saw, … complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance.” Reading this assertion, my antennae pricked up. Which Founders? Compel how? What does he mean by “religious belief or observance”?
People familiar with the Revolution and Early Republic”the period when the American tradition of writing constitutions was born”can guess easily enough, even without prior familiarity with Meacham’s argument, which figures he has in mind: perhaps Tom Paine, possibly Benjamin Franklin, and certainly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Sure enough: there they are, two pages later:
By the time of the American Founding, men like Jefferson and Madison saw the virtue in guaranteeing liberty of conscience, and one of the young republic’s signal achievements was to create a context in which religion and politics mixed but church and state did not.
Hmm. What does Meacham mean by that? The half-educated (think of Justice Hugo Black writing for the Court in Everson) might conjure up a mental image of Jefferson with Latin, Greek, French, and English editions of the Bible, carefully excising anything his to-this-purpose-feeble mind could not explain. This, he might think, was The Founding Fathers” Attitude Toward Church and State.
Well, yes, it was Jefferson’s attitude”in private. For some reason, Jefferson kept his biblical bowdlerization to himself. Only after his death did his favorite grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, publicize Jefferson’s account of Christ’s life. And what was the reason that Jefferson did not publicize his hostility to the Bible far and wide? As he explained to an acquaintance in another context, Jefferson had several irons in the political fire, and to make himself obnoxious on a question about which he was not going to persuade his compatriots would only defeat his other efforts. Discretion, in other words, was the better part of valor: Jefferson knew that his fellow Virginians would have drummed him out of political life if he had told them what he thought.
Besides which, as then-Justice William Rehnquist noted in dissent in the Wallace v. Jaffree “moment of silence” decision, Jefferson had nothing to do with drafting the federal Bill of Rights. Indeed, he didn”t help write his own state’s declaration of rights or constitution, not to mention the federal Constitution, either. It thus is difficult to see what his private conception of the proper relationship between church and state, Christianity and government, has to do with the U.S. Constitution.
Yet, on the other hand, James Madison favored the project of abolishing legislation to govern the human mind. He, unlike Jefferson, played a significant role in drafting not only Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (the church-state article), but also the U.S. Constitution and the federal Bill of Rights. Surely if he favored secular government, as he certainly did, that proves that the Founding bequeathed us a system in which Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Ginsburg are within their rights, indeed doing their duty, when they say that high school students in, say, Belton, Texas cannot constitutionally be led in the Lord’s Prayer by their coach after a football game.
Well, no. For James Madison’s private opinions, even his public positions, are not equivalent to any particular provision of the U.S. Constitution. (This is a good thing, since Madison was about as consistent as the weather in a Texas spring.) In fact, one of the most common errors in scholarship about the Constitution is to elevate Madison’s every private jotting and utterance to the status of the Constitution itself. Like Jefferson, Madison knew that his private preferences were unpopular in Virginia. It is to his public position that we ought to look, and then only when it was consistent with that of the body that gave a particular constitutional text effect.
Madison said in the Philadelphia Convention that wrote the Constitution and, and this is what counts, in the ratification campaign thereafter that a bill of rights was unnecessary. In fact, he said that amendments along that line could be dangerous.
But Madison did not reckon with public opinion, specifically with Baptists” opinion, in his home community, Piedmont Orange County, Virginia. His neighbors (read: the local electorate) insisted there be a religious liberty amendment, because they feared a revivification of the colonial Episcopalian establishment if there wasn”t. Besides the Baptists, Madison’s elite political friends Edmund Randolph, Jefferson, and George Mason all insisted that there must be a bill of rights. That’s why Madison promised that he would propose amendments in the first federal Congress: he disliked the idea, but popular and elite pressure in Virginia squeezed grudging support for it out of him. Having promised to sponsor amendments, Madison was narrowly elected to the first U.S. House after being rejected as too nationalist”too much in favor of centralization”in Virginia’s election for the first Senate.
Madison did not believe that the First Amendment banned state actions such as having local ministers give invocations at public-school events. Meacham is right to say that he and Jefferson favored such a prohibition, but he is wrong to imply that anyone in the Founding era wrote one into federal law.
The supposed location of this prohibition in the Constitution is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, however, says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (emphasis added), and it means precisely that: that Congress shall make no such law. Far from fortuitously, this language was intentionally about Congress, and not the state legislatures. As the Preamble to the Bill of Rights shows, the entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was further to delineate the limits on federal authority, because Antifederalists insisted that the unamended Constitution had not made those limits clear enough. The phrase “respecting an establishment of” was chose instead of “establishing” because the former could be read as banning congressional disestablishment of states” established churches, as well as congressional attempts to establish a national church.
Why, you might ask, would James Madison, the chief author of the Bill of Rights, have omitted a provision allowing the federal government to police states” policy-making in this area? After all, as we”ve seen, he favored secular government, and the unamended Constitution already included some provisions”most notably but not only the Contracts Clause”empowering federal officials to police state behavior.
The answer is that he tried. The First Congress’s Bill of Rights included twelve proposed amendments, of which ten were ratified in 1791 and one was ratified in 1992. It did not include the one that Madison ever after insisted had been the most important one: his proposed amendment stating that “No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience….”
Madison had attempted to use the Philadelphia Convention to create a national government, and he had been disappointed. He then vowed to sponsor amendments clarifying the limits of federal power, but this characteristic subterfuge yielded a proposed amendment to empower federal officials to intervene to regulate the states” religion policies. Pace Meacham, Madison not only failed to write a federal ban on state religion legislation into the Constitution, but he could not even get it out of the House.
Meacham notes that Christians have endeavored sporadically since 1962 to overturn the Supreme Court’s opinion that year banning prayer in public schools. He omits that so unpopular was that decision in its day that all but one governor insisted it should be countermanded. The Constitution makes amendment difficult, except in the case of amendment via judicial legislation; that kind of amendment, which is far the most common kind, is virtually impossible to correct. The Supreme Court can foist off upon us a decision such as the School Prayer Decision, with which Americans never agreed and to which they never consented, and there is essentially nothing that can be done about it.
Yes, our culture is becoming less Christian. I attribute this in large part to the success of the Supreme Court in wiping Christianity out of our public life. The Court’s campaign to do so has been aided and abetted by other significant actors in American intellectual life, such as the editor of Newsweek. When people like Jon Meacham tell us that the attenuation of the Christian element in our culture is simply a trend, perhaps like the weather, and that it is in consonance with what the sainted Founders wanted, who can contradict them? Who knows any better? It is in the interest of the government to aid in divinizing the government, including its creators. The cult of Madison and Pals may well replace the old one, Christianity, in Americans” affection. If it does so, that event will mark the success of a long-standing propaganda campaign by figures such as Jon Meacham and Hugo Black, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Ginsburg.