Clayton Cramer, in the midst of taking on Jonathan Rowe and Randy Barnett on the matter of judicial activism, paused to address, rather badly, the issue of whether America was “conceived as a Christian nation”. Cramer begins:
Rowe has a very long blog entry trying to debunk the notion that the United States was conceived as a Christian nation. He claims that a book by a guy named David Barton has passed around a lot of incorrect quotes from the Founders, and that someone named Brayton has caught this guy Barton:
Brayton also informs us that there is no evidence that George Washington ever said this: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
George Washington did say something quite similar, however:
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 great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Strangely, Cramer equates “religion and morality” with “God and the Bible”. Given that there are lots of religions other than Christianity, and lots of ways to reach moral conclusions without religion, this seems rather presumptuously in favor of his own beliefs. Washington always spoke in such broad terms, virtually never referring specifically to Jesus or to Christianity specifically, because he was himself a Deist and because he was a politician who understood that most of his constituents were Christians. He also understood that he presided over a rather combustible coalition of Christians and Deists who had great disagreements between them, so best to use language that could appeal to both. To a man, of course, all of the founders believed that religion provided a necessary control on human behavior, as Washington expresses above, even those who were not religious themselves. Alas, that’s not really the area of dispute I have with Cramer’s post. Cramer further writes:
As for the question of the religious basis of the American republic, look at the documents of the time. State constitutions from this early period included some fairly astonishing language.
He then goes on to quote the following lines of evidence for his supposition that the United States was “conceived as a Christian nation”:
1. The Pennsylvania state constitution (1776), which required an oath of belief in the bible and Christianity as an eligibility test for public office, as well as the fact that it still has a similar test without an oath attached to it, which is of course entirely unenforced and unenforcible.
2. The North Carolina state constitution(1776), which required not only that one be a Christian in order to hold public office, but a Protestant as well.
3. The Maryland state constitution (1776), which required a declaration of belief in the Christian religion in order to hold public office.
4. The Massachusetts state constitution (1780), which declared belief in God to be a necessity and empowered the state legislature to require church attendance and to publicly support specifically Protestant teachers and clergy.
5. Delaware’s requirement that their legislators acknowledge a belief in the inspiration of the bible
6. A Connecticutt declaration of a day of prayer and fasting in 1776 on the occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence from England
7. A similar declaration in South Carolina from 1775.
8. Another such declaration from New Hampshire in 1775.
He then finishes:
Now, I understand that perhaps this guy Brayton has caught Barton with some serious mistakes. But Barton’s claim–that the United States was founded on Christian ideas, and was from the beginning a Christian nation–is so easily demonstrated that only a leftist could dispute this with a straight face.
Well, as “this guy Brayton”, I suppose I really ought to respond to this oddly argued diatribe. A couple of obvious points come to mind immediately. The first is that every example he quotes is from before the founding of the United States as a nation, which means it has no bearing whatsoever on whether the United States, which was founded first by the Articles of Confederation and later by the US Constitution, was “conceived as a Christian nation”. The second is that he seems to think that laws that limit public office only to adherents of one religion – an idea that was quite explicitly rejected by the founders when they wrote the Constitution – somehow make the nation more “Christian”. Does he actually regard religious tests for office as a good thing? Would he still regard them as a good thing if the required religion was something other than his own? Somehow I doubt it.
At any rate, let’s talk a bit about this notion of state constitutions and declarations that predate the Constitution somehow establishing that the US was conceived as a Christian nation. The first government of the United States ruled under the Articles of Confederation, which was ratified in 1781. This document contained no provisions that prevented the government from declaring an official religion or requiring religious tests for public office. The US Constitution, however, which was written in 1787, expressly forbid religious tests for office in Article 6:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Something obviously changed between 1777, when the Continental Congress finished writing the Articles of Confederation, and 1787, when they wrote the Constitution. What was it? Well for one thing, a powerful movement for disestablishment of state churches had begun, fueled largely by events in Virginia in 1785-1786. The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson and pushed through by Madison while Jefferson was serving as our ambassador to France, was an enormous victory for the forces of church/state separation, and Madison’s powerful defense of disestablishment and separation, his Memorial and Remonstrance, was widely distributed among the several states thereafter. The first amendment’s religion clauses, which established the principle of separation at the federal level, were modeled directly on the ideas found in that bill. With the passage of the Bill of Rights, the movement to disestablishment grew stronger, and by 1833, all of the original 13 states had done away with their official religious establishments, though some vestiges of that earlier era can still be found in unenforced and unenforcible language in some constitutions.
For some reason, Cramer seems to want to freeze frame a time period before the passage of the US constitution, which was an enormous sea change in the relationship of state and church in a thousand ways, and pretend that documents from that time show the conception of the constitution more accurately than the constitution itself. And remember, the advocates of establishment greeted the constitution with howls of opposition, calling it a godless document that would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. Clearly, this was a major change from the conceptions of government found in earlier documents, not only around the world but within the states themselves as well. It should also be borne in mind that the legislative overreach of state governments prior to the constitution, all of whom at one point or another had violated the freedom of conscience in ways ranging from despotic to downright barbaric, helped fuel the movement to establish a secular government that would take no position on religious matters. Madison’s own zeal for separation was famously born from his experience of seeing Baptist ministers jailed in his home state of Virginia when they had committed no crime other than to be of a different denomination than the official Anglican church established in that state. And this was by no means unusual prior to the Constitution. In Maryland, for example, denying the trinity subjected one to punishments ranging from forfeiting all of one’s property to imprisonment to having a hole burned in your tongue. Quakers who left Pennsylvania for Massachusetts or New York were subject to imprisonment, as were Puritans in many places and Catholics in most states. This is how they treated their fellow Christians, so imagine the punishment for being a Jew, a Muslim or an unbeliever. The laws waxed and waned, but in many places at many times, they were quite barbaric and were always oppressive of religious minorities. The founding fathers wanted a way out of that and that is why they passed the first amendment and the ban on religious tests for public office. Does Cramer want to return to those days when only those of one religion were allowed to hold public office, vote, or enjoy freedom of thought? Would that make us a more “Christian nation”? Madison argued quite the opposite, that religious establishment were un-Christian and opposed to the “sacred principle of religious liberty”. I think I’ll go with Madison on this one.