Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Founding Fundamentalists?

Once again, Sarah Palin has said something outrageous. This time, it's an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on May 6, the National Day of Prayer and the subject, predictably, is the constitutionality of this 1952 statute. To strengthen their positions (both clearly in support), Palin and O'Reilly turn to history:



What are we to make of these claims?

First, Sarah Palin:

I have said all along that America is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. And you know nobody has to believe me, though. You can just go to our Founding Fathers’ early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don’t come from man, they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our right to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.”


Next, O'Reilly:

All I have to do is walk into the Supreme Court Chamber and you’ll see the Ten Commandments. So we know that you’re absolutely correct: the Founding Fathers did base not only the Declaration of Independence but the constitutional protections on what they thought was right and wrong, and what they thought was right and wrong came from the Ten Commandments, which is Judeo-Christian philosophy. That is beyond a reasonable doubt.


But is it? As we'll see, far from it. Finally, Palin again:

I think again that it is an attempt to revisit and rewrite history. I think we should just kinda keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear, that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.


Well, not really.

The historical problems these statements raise are manifold, but let me focus on just one set.

Are Judeo-Christian beliefs "the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course?" Did the Founders, as Palin said "create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments?" And did the Founders, as O'Reilly claimed, base the Declaration of Independence on "what they thought was right and wrong ... from the Ten Commandments?"

Let's leave aside for the moment what "Judeo-Christian beliefs" mean, as this term had no meaning in the 18th century, or even the 19th. The English colonies in America were certainly founded by Christians and the Founders were indeed brought up in a Christian environment of one kind or another, so were the laws they established based on Christian ideas?

Not really. The Founders believed in God, though many of them ultimately rejected, in whole or in part, the practices of Christianity in its myriad manifestations. The religious world of mid-18th century was in flux; on the one hand, it witnessed an evangelical revival beginning in the 1730s and 1740s -- the so-called Great Awakening. On the other hand, the force of Enlightenment rationality forced many religious denominations to question their traditional beliefs and practices, and even the meaning of God itself.

The God of the most influential founders was the God of Deism. Deism had its roots in the 17th century, but never became denomination of its own, never had a formal structure, and never possessed a coherent tradition. It was a way of seeing the world that incorporated Enlightenment ideas of human rationality and rejected what were seen as corruptions of true belief, like a formal Church and its hierarchy, faith in divine intervention in the world, the divinity of Jesus, and the divine authorship of the Bible. Deists instead tried to deduce the original beliefs of Christianity. Americans arrived at Deism from a range of Christian backgrounds -- be it Congregationalist (like Ben Franklin and John Adams) or Anglican (like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe).

Deism itself embraced a range of ideas. Tom Paine and Ethan Allen explicitly rejected the Christian church. Ben Franklin saw the value of church in cultivating morality and encouraged others to go, though he rarely went himself. John Adams was a Unitarian, a member of this liberal branch of Congregationalism that thought Christianity had long ago erred in believing in a holy trinity (though it kept a special, higher-than-man status for Jesus) and rejected the strictures of Calvinism. Adams himself attended Church regularly and believed in some Biblical miracles and an afterlife. Thomas Jefferson publicly remained affiliated with the Episcopal church his entire life, and even enjoyed attending it, but despite his public self-censorship, his unorthodox views became widely known: he believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus but not in the miracles, to the point that he edited a version of the New Testament -- with a razor -- that removed the prophetic and miraculous events and left, as he titled it, The Life and Morals of Jesus.

As for George Washington, the evidence of his religiosity is far more complex -- on the one hand, he attended church when living near one (Anglican or Episcopal); on the other, close friends, relatives, and pastors recalled he did not take communion; his writings uniformly use Deistic terms for the supreme being; and accounts of his orthodoxy only emerge in hagiographic biographies written after his death (most notably, Mason Locke Weems's The Life of George Washington, originally published in 1800 -- this is an 1833 reprint).

Contrary to the claims of Sarah Palin, the God of the Deists was far from the active, intervening God of the Bible. As the historian of American religion David L. Holmes notes in his gem of book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers,

In place of this Hebrew God, Deists postulated a distant deity to whom they referred with terms such as "the First Cause," "the Creator of the Universe," "the Divine Artist," "the Divine Author of All Good," "The Grand Architect," "the God of Nature," "Nature's God," "Divine Providence," and (in a phrase used by Franklin, "the Author and Owner of our System."


Which brings us to the Declaration of Independence. As Holmes notes, the document uses the terms "Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge," and "divine Providence." But these terms need to be understood in their Deistic context: the God of which they refer is precisely not the God of the Bible (or the Ten Commandments) but a more abstract notion, the source of the universe itself, or, as many Americans learn in high school, God as divine clockmaker.

Remember too, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson, the Deist. What could he have meant by the ringing phrase,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them (emphasis added)


Here we turn to I. Bernard Cohen's brilliant investigation of the role of science in the founders' political ideas. In Science and the Founding Fathers, Cohen investigates this phrase and finds variations on it like "Nature's God" and "Nature and Nature's Laws" common expressions of the Enlightenment, where it appears, for example, in the Poetry of Alexander Pope in reference to Isaac Newton:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be, and all was light!


Nature's God and Nature's Laws were largely synonymous, reflecting the divine origins and structure of the universe and allowing that structure to become known to humans through reason. Interestingly, Cohen tracked down a popular and apocryphal story, often reprinted in the colonial press, of "Polly Baker," on trial for fornication, who defended her actions with a a reference to the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" to "Encrease and Multiply." In the account, she's not only acquitted, but her judge becomes smitten and they soon marry. It was only revealed much later that the story was a complete fabrication by the bored and mischievous printer Ben Franklin. Cohen speculates that Jefferson likely knew the story and perhaps unconsciously turned the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" into "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," making Franklin the unwitting contributing author to this passage.

Ok, so how about the Constitution? Well, the Constitution doesn't mention God at all, and in fact, in its very first and most famous line, the document declares that the authority of the Constitution derives not from the deity but from "We the People of the United States."

But maybe things were left out of the text of the Constitution that were widely assumed to be true. Let's look at the Federalist Papers. These were the essays published (anonymously) in 1787 and 1788 by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to develop public support for ratifying the Constitution. They mention God only twice, one (in number 18) in a historical reference to ancient Greece; the other (in number 43), when Madison appealed "to the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed." (Madison was writing here about the legal justification for dissolving the Confederation of 13 states and replacing it with the government outlined by the Constitution when, according to Article VII, only 3/4s of the states were required to ratify the deal.) This usage of "the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God" is clearly a reference to Jefferson's Declaration.

I could go on. The key point is that the religious lives of the founders was quite complex. The founders held a range of views on God, but in no way does the notion of "the God of the Bible" seem appropriate -- this was precisely the God that Deists rejected.

But in a sense, the religious views of the founders is besides the point. Even if they had been evangelical revivalists (they weren't) would that have made the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution documents based on a biblical morality? Hardly. The fundamental problem with O'Reilly and Palin's assumptions is that it wrenches the Declaration and Constitution from their historical contexts. The sad thing is that while for so much of history, our documentation is lacking, for the crafting of these documents we have ample evidence.

When a committee of five, chaired by Jefferson and including Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was assigned by the Second Continental Congress the task of crafting a Declaration of Independence, they didn't do so in a vacuum. They had specific, political purposes in mind: domestically, to articulate the reasons for the revolution and shore up a common, American identity (which prior to this, didn't exist) and diplomatically, to reach out to other European powers like France and Spain in a desperate bid for needed support. Politics and messaging, not biblical morality, was at the heart of the Declaration.

But quickly, a word on the phrase "Judeo-Christian." A quick scan of google book search suggests that the term was not in circulation in the 18th century. By the late 19th century, it appears largely in reference to the early Christians, who were, of course, Jews. The phrase begins to assume its modern connotation -- a common moral and cultural heritage of contemporary faiths -- in the 1930s and only really takes off during and after World War II, a period of tectonic shifts in the nature of American pluralism. In fact, we only begin to see the phrase "Judeo-Christian beliefs" in the 1940s.

I'd argue that it's no accident that "Judeo-Christian" is so frequently paired with the Ten Commandments (as Sarah Palin does in the clip above) -- together they suggest a common bond of religious expression that transcends sectarian and doctrinal divisions. All Christians and Jews -- together comprising over 80% of religious expression in the United States -- believe in the Ten Commandments, right?

For more on the religious views of the founding generation and religious life in colonial and early national America, see:

David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

On the Declaration of Independence, see

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007).

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997).

1 comment:

  1. It should be interesting to note that when the United States signed The Treaty of Tripoli—which was unanimously ratified by the Senate—in 1976, it included the "Article 11" which read,

    "Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

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