Monday, July 17, 2017

Was America Founded to be Secular?

Joshua Charles, on behalf of PragerU, tackles the question of whether the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be secular. The Founders and religion is of course a perennial topic of frustration and confusion. It also opens the door for some nuance that is often missing. Rejecting full secularism doesn't necessarily mean support for a theocracy. Sadly, many today fail to see any meaningful difference between a monotheistic framework on the one hand with leaders who encouraged Judeo-Christian thinking versus a

Mr. Charles is a researcher with the Museum of the Bible and is the author of the recent bestseller Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders. 



I'm sure the video will spark much discussion.


13 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

ooops you left off in mid-sentence as though you

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think we may need a dialog on what "secularism" is and the sentiments of the American Founding that are sometimes/often used to argue for it.

If it's lets encourage everyone to be like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, I think you are dead on right. However, I also think there's much more to the story.

Thomas Paine still devoutly believed in the God of Nature, while disbelieving every single bit of revealed religion.

But even folks like Jefferson, J. Adams, Washington -- all of them have quotations about the need for "religion and morality" in society to provide support for a virtuous citizenry. And though Washington tended to be generous in not bitterly criticizing the forces of institutional religion, others not on the list "key Founders' -- someone like William Livingston had very critical words for a certain kind of "institutional" creedal religion.

I've seen people sympathetic to the Christian America thesis try to pawn it ALL off Roman Catholicism. But that's disingenuous. A great deal of the criticisms were launched at institutional Protestantism itself. It was the entire artifice of established orthodox Trinitarian ecclesiastical Christianity.

And I think some of the resultant policies that this sentiment drove were things that secularism argues for.

Art Deco said...

IIRC, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont were the only components of British North America which lacked a religious establishment, though in some cases (e.g. Newfoundland) the official religion was notional because there were hardly any clergymen present (and Delaware required certain affirmations in order to hold public office). The 1st Amendment required the federal government not adopt a preferred establishment from among the extant Anglican and Calvinist establishments. Why is this question asked?

Jonathan Rowe said...

AD: You also had many like Jefferson who thought states should disestablish as all of them did by around 1830. You had John Adams -- like Jefferson a militant unitarian -- endorsing a mild Christian establishment, which turned out to be too mild for the orthodox because it encompassed theological unitarianism (the reason Mass. disestablished around 1830).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous Art Deco said...
IIRC, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont were the only components of British North America which lacked a religious establishment, though in some cases (e.g. Newfoundland) the official religion was notional because there were hardly any clergymen present


I have to jump in here for provincial reasons. My great-great-great-great-great grandmother Mary Ann Dyke [she was pretty great] brought the first preacher into Salvage, Newfoundland.

No church, no town. No community, eh? This goes back to the city of Ur.

yes, those are their tombstones. No cemetery, no town?

https://www.geni.com/people/William-Dyke-I/6000000008307431323

Roots.

Art Deco said...

AD: You also had many like Jefferson who thought states should disestablish as all of them did by around 1830. You had John Adams -- like Jefferson a militant unitarian -- endorsing a mild Christian establishment, which turned out to be too mild for the orthodox because it encompassed theological unitarianism (the reason Mass. disestablished around 1830).

You've named two politicians from the Revolutionary and Federal periods. Their personal preferences expressed in epistolary literature are not obligations encoded into law. Political intention is manifest in law and practice.

What they preferred to have in 1813 is a matter of academic interest and academic interest only.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous Art Deco said...

You've named two politicians from the Revolutionary and Federal periods. Their personal preferences expressed in epistolary literature are not obligations encoded into law. Political intention is manifest in law and practice.

What they preferred to have in 1813 is a matter of academic interest and academic interest only.


True dat. In fact neither was even a Framer of the Constitution.

Jon Rowe said...

If we are going to talk about policy, I don't think this is correct or even if it is, more needs to be said:

"IIRC, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont were the only components of British North America which lacked a religious establishment, ..."

Virginia disestablished in the 1780s before the US Constitution was written. And it was Jefferson and Madison who did it.

It's true that the effect of the First Amendment was that it "required the federal government not adopt a preferred establishment from among the extant Anglican and Calvinist establishments."

But it did that by forbidding a federal religious establishment. It also, in an era when the doctrine of limited enumerated powers was taken very seriously, gave the federal government no power over "religion."

This isn't good evidence for the notion that America was founded to be the opposite of "secular."

Saying that "religion was left to the states," where a state like VA could disestablish likewise isn't good evidence for the notion that America was founded to be the opposite of "secular."

Art Deco said...

This isn't good evidence for the notion that America was founded to be the opposite of "secular."

That's not what your proposition stated. Your proposition was "Was America Founded to Be Secular". Given that your colonies had religious establishments, the answer is 'no'. Given that a number continued to have religious establishments in 1788, the answer (if you continue to play this game of pretending an extant society was 'founded' when it merely adopted institutional adjustments) is still 'no'. Not having a continental establishment is a pragmatic adjustment to the reality of local religious cultures and establishments. You can make the argument from contemporary diaries, journals, and transcripts that it was 'intended' as something else, but that intention is not manifest in the text.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Saying that "religion was left to the states," where a state like VA could disestablish likewise isn't good evidence for the notion that America was founded to be the opposite of "secular."

The question here is that the "Godless Constitution" thesis argues just that, that the US WAS founded to be secular--although the book itself admits infra all the religion in the states, including the fact that virtually every state had religious tests for statewide office!

Religious tests were the rule; the "secular" banning of them was the exception.



"[D]espite the framers’ and ratifiers’ willingness to ban religious tests at the federal level, such tests were rife at the state level, before, during, and after the ratification of the Religious Test Clause. We might read that fact as having purely jurisdictional significance: the ratifiers were willing to see such a test at the federal level but not the state level. But I think it also adds to our understanding of the federal clause. It makes us understand just how revolutionary the federal clause was (a point several commenters have already recognized), and that may lead us to favor a somewhat narrow meaning for the clause. We might be more inclined to read the Clause as focusing more specifically and narrowly on the kinds of historical evils it was aimed against, rather than lightly assuming that, to quote Laurence Tribe, the framers and ratifiers were moving to “prioritize[] the secular over the religious in the [federal] public realm.

"...Finally and relatedly, I point to the fact that, as the historical record makes clear, notwithstanding the Clause, the founding generation widely agreed that moral character was highly relevant to the holding of federal public office -- and for many or most of these individuals, moral character was largely synonymous with religious character. Whatever else they may have meant by the Clause, it is not likely they thought that those who nominated and approved such office-holders were required to treat religion as a forbidden or irrelevant factor."


http://volokh.com/posts/1174921246.shtml

Jon Rowe said...

I can't believe it was over 10 years ago that I made this comment.

http://volokh.com/posts/1174921246.shtml#199655

Tom Van Dyke said...

doing the unitarian controversy as always

although none of the religious statewide tests got particular about Jesus Christ's divinity

none

http://people.smu.edu/religionandfoundingusa/us-constitution-and-first-amendment/religious-tests-for-office-and-voting-in-the-states-revolution-to-constitution/

Jon Rowe said...

The one in Delware comes pretty close. Richard Price seemed to think so. Likewise the other tests that discussing affirming "Christianity," ... as Price observed, that's an invitation to litigate whether those who are open unitarians qualify as "Christians" even as they assert they do.

http://tinyurl.com/ybgnrxpp