The estimable John Mark N. Reynolds sparked a discussion on the proper way to understand religion and the American Founding and picked fellow Drs. in the American Christian academy Warren Throckmorton and Hunter Baker as worthy discussants.
Here is Dr. Reynolds' introduction. A taste:
Christians in the academy disagree on many things, but nearly universally reject the historical analysis of David Barton. This is not because they are liberal (though some are) as many of his critics are very conservative politically. It also is not because the “guild” is protecting anything: good high school teachers who compare what Barton claims to the source material one can Google are disappointed in his work. Barton is, at the very least, incompetent.Here is Dr. Throckmorton's first. A taste:
Let’s move past Barton. How should we view the Constitution?
Despite Sherman’s confidence in the liberal times, the delegates approved the motion without opposition. Pinckney later wrote that he included the no religious test clause because it was “a provision the world will expect from you, in the establishment of a System founded on Republican Principles, and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present.”Here is Dr. Baker's first. A taste:
Compared to many of the states at the time, Christianity was not denied, but rather dethroned by the national Constitution. The rule of law and the liberty of conscience was elevated. People of any and no religion can believe what they want in their hearts but the Constitution is the law of the land. In my opinion, the Constitution is neither godless nor biblical. Rather, it is god-neutral, where the believer and unbeliever stand on equal ground before the law.
But what did the founders think of religion? I’ve made a case that they largely avoided the matter in the federal constitution in deference to the states. But what about the men, themselves? They are a mixed bag. Jefferson was more of an enlightenment deist. Thomas Paine certainly continued to move in that direction. Benjamin Franklin probably fits there is some sense, too, but he was also highly pragmatic and was a great friend of the Great Awakening mega-preacher George Whitefield. Patrick Henry was quite devout. Benjamin Rush was a Christian. George Washington sounded like a deist, but also was careful to observe the Christian faith by attending the Falls Church. I think Philip Hamburger is correct in his assertion that the founders believed different things but were practically united in their conviction that a free people need to be virtuous and religion is critical to virtue. For that reason, I doubt they intended to found a model secular republic.Here is the link to Drs. Throckmorton and Baker responding to one another.
I think I could find my way toward agreeing with this statement if we were talking about the second half of the twentieth century. My view is that the founders intended nothing so grand (or outrageous in the minds of the people of 18th century America) as “dethroning Christianity.”Next Throckmorton:
As I have stated before, the U.S. Constitution is not a document about ultimate truth or even something that sets out the proper course of law and religion. It had the specific purpose of navigating this new type of government in which the states (traditional governments of inherent authority) would coexist with a federal government that possessed only limited powers delegated by the states and the people. Surely, it has grown into the type of thing Dr. Throckmorton talks about, but it wasn’t that sort of thing at the time.
... However, I don’t believe the historical record supports a view that the delegates were united in believing that state governments ought to maintain religious tests or have a state religion. For instance, Jefferson opposed that view. He authored and Madison supported Virginia’s statute on religious freedom which passed in 1786.
In 1780, Ben Franklin wrote to Richard Price about religious freedom in Massachusetts:
I am fully of your Opinion respecting religious Tests; but, tho’ the People of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that People were 100 Years ago, we must allow they have gone great Lengths in Liberality of Sentiment on religious Subjects; and we may hope for greater Degrees of Perfection, when their Constitution, some years hence, shall be revised.Seven years prior to the Constitutional Convention, Franklin took the long and liberal view and hoped Massachusetts would revise the state Constitution to eliminate religious tests for office. This was the liberal and enlightened view adopted by the national Constitution in 1787 and which is true in the states today.