Christian Reconstructionism and the Founding Fathers

Jon Rowe has an interesting post up about a new book, available online here, by Gary North, the Christian reconstructionist. The book is called Conspiracy in Philadelphia, and North's primary thesis is that the constitution itself was an illegal document that overstepped the boundaries of the mandate given to those at the convention and replaced the Articles of Confederation without going through the process mandated under those Articles. His secondary thesis is that the constitution itself was a blatantly Godless and atheistic document that not only overturned centuries of tradition whereby Christianity and the state were wed together, but also overthrew the covenental conception of government (very important to Christian reconstructionists) for a social contract conception (which was a product of Enlightenment philosophy, not Christian philosophy). Hence, he views the constitution as a rejection of Christian conceptions of government, which puts him rather at odds with the David Barton/Jerry Falwell "the constitution is a Christian document" crowd. But the Barton/Falwell view is clearly historical revisionism given the fact that the religious right at the time of the constitution clearly considered the constitution to be a godless document that would bring down the wrath of God upon us.

Jon sent me a link to this book a few days ago because he knew I'd want to write about it too. We're both fascinated by this subject. And as he points out, there is much that is accurate about North's book. He is absolutely right to point out that the ban on religious tests for office in Article 6 of the constitution is an enormously important change in the history of government. At that time, all but two of the 13 original states had religious tests for public office, requiring that one be a Christian who believed in the Trinity and the truth of the bible (the wording varied by state, of course). Only Rhode Island, formed under the leadership of Roger Williams, and Virginia, under the leadership of Madison and Jefferson, did not have such tests, and Virginia had just gotten rid of them the year before with the passage of Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.

But on the subject of the constitution having been illegally passed, North undermines his own primary thesis. He notes, for example, that the Articles of Confederation allowed for changes in the articles as long as the changes were "agreed to in a Congress of the United States and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every state." But he admits, on page 15, that the Congress, having received the proposed new constitution from the Convention that it had empowered to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation, forwarded the new constitution to the state legislatures, which then voted to establish ratifying conventions that were separate from the state legislatures to decide whether each respective state would agree to the changes. A supermajority of the states, through those ratifying conventions, did of course agree to the new constitution.

It seems to me that this is quite a strained argument for the constitution amounting to an "illegal coup". The Articles of Confederation said that the federal legislature and the state legislatures had to both agree on proposed changes. The federal Congress accepted the proposal of Washington that the changes be put to a plebiscite before the people and they sent those changes to the states for ratification. The state legislatures chose to transfer their power of assent to state ratifying conventions to give the people a larger voice in whether to accept the new government, and the people decided to accept it, but not before demanding some changes in it, particularly the addition of a bill of rights. This, it seems to me, is pretty much how a deliberative democracy is supposed to work. This was not a dictator imposing his will on the people, the proposed changes were put to a vote, the people had their say and affected some major changes (the bill of rights that resulted was arguably the most powerful limitations on any government ever proposed and has formed the backbone of our entire legal system of limited government), and voted to ratify it.

To call this an illegal coup requires a highly technical and legalistic reading of the Articles of Confederation, a deliberate downplaying of the role of the federal Congress (which could have voted down the changes but chose instead to put this choice before the state legislatures), and a deliberate downplaying of the role of the state legislatures (which could also have voted down the changes but chose instead to put this choice before the people through ratifying conventions). If anything, the manner in which the constitution was ratified was more deliberative and more democratic than it would have been had the federal and state legislatures not decided to hand their power over to the people themselves to decide the future of the country.

North goes to great pains to portray the writing of the constitution as a con played on the public, in particular by pointing out that the negotiations were all done "in secret". It is of course true that when the Constitutional Convention met, they met in private and did not allow the press to report on everything that went on. But the fact still remains that the final document was put to a vote in each and every state and it won. The framers wrote a constitution, they put it before the people, there was a long and detailed public debate in each state that included the writing of both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, the people had nearly 2 years to hear the arguments of both sides and discuss it among themselves, and they voted for the proposed Constitution. And along the way, they demanded and received limitations on the new government. What more would North want than that? Well, he wants his theocratic government back.

I think the real issue here, unspoken by North, is that the people voted for a secular Constitution that did away with religious tests and demanded religious freedom for everyone, not just for orthodox Christians. North prefers the state theocracies that destroyed religious freedom for everyone but those like him to the federal secular republic that protected religious freedom for everyone, including him. His real objection is that he is on the losing side of history, that the Enlightenment rationalists who opposed theocracy won and he lost. Rather than accept that, he has to make the winners out to be usurpers of the popular will. But the history of ratification that he himself admits to undercuts that claim and shows it to be special pleading.

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It makes me wonder, do fundamentalists ever get a grasp of reality? More importantly, do they ever have a moment of honest with regard to the world?

By Guitar Eddie (not verified) on 10 Aug 2004 #permalink

I'll accept his pointless thesis to the extent that he gets other fundamentalists to finally accept the secular nature of the Constitution, and stop making stupid appeals to a "Christian nation" based on a misconstruction of the delegates' religious backgrounds.

You wrote: I think the real issue here, unspoken by North, is that the people voted for a secular Constitution that did away with religious tests and demanded religious freedom for everyone, not just for orthodox Christians.
Did "the people" so vote? Doubtful. Some years ago one Martin Roll Jr. did an interesting article on that topic called "We, Some of the People" [Journal of American History , June, 1969]. What he did was ask how many of the states that held ratifying conventions were fairly apportioned [i.e. could meet modern one-man-one -vote standards], and of those that could not, which side [pro- or anti-constitution] was helped by the malaportionment.
He found that, as I recall, only two states could possibly have met modern fair apportionment standards [PA and DE]. All the rest were malapportioned, eight of them in ways that over- represented areas that supported ratification and under-represented areas that opposed it.
For example, in SC, 63% of the delegates at the ratifying convention voted for the ratification. They had living in their districts only 39% of the population. At the SC convention, 31% of the delegates voted not to ratify, but they had living in their districts, 52% of the population. In the NY convention, delegates who voted to ratify represented only 34% of the state's population... and so on. And of course in the only state that permitted a direct popular vote on the question of ratification, Rhode Island, the Constitution was overwhelmingly rejected. [I know, I know, Rogue's Island can never be taken as representative of anything other than Rogue's Island.]
So, whether "the people voted for" that Constitution, whatever its provisions, is somewhat doubtful. What is not in doubt, of course, is that following ratification, the general populace accepted the ratification process as legitimate. There were nearly no challenges, post-ratification, to its legitimacy.

By Flatlander100 (not verified) on 10 Aug 2004 #permalink

At the very least, the state ratification conventions were no less democratic than the legislatures. It was put before the people to the extent that anything was at a time when a large number of people weren't allowed to vote at all.

Thanks. I've just written a mini-review of this book on my site, noting the similarities in the points that North makes and what I have been arguing on my site the past half year. I'm on semi-vacation now. I won't have time to blog like this once September starts. Sometimes I just don't know why I get on a kick and write and write about such things that amuse me.

Addressing Flatlander's points, I've nearly finished Robert Rutland's Ordeal of the Constitution, which covers the state-by-state ratification processes from the point of view of the Anti-Federalists (without taking their side, that I can tell). Rutland's thesis is that the Anti-Federalists were badly out-organized by the Federalists, and he makes out a pretty good case.

Next up is Samuel Eliot Morison's Intellectual Life in Colonial New England (covering the 17th Century).