Tag Archives: Religion and the Founding

Haskell, “For God, King, and People”

This January, University of North Carolina Press will release “For God, King, and People: Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia” by Alexander B. Haskell (University of California).  The publisher’s description follows:

For God, King and PeopleBy recovering a largely forgotten English Renaissance mindset that regarded sovereignty and Providence as being fundamentally entwined, Alexander Haskell reconnects concepts historians had before treated as separate categories and argues that the first English planters in Virginia operated within a deeply providential age rather than an era of early modern entrepreneurialism. These men did not merely settle Virginia; they and their London-based sponsors saw this first successful English venture in America as an exercise in divinely inspired and approved commonwealth creation. When the realities of Virginia complicated this humanist ideal, growing disillusionment and contention marked debates over the colony.

Rather than just “selling” colonization to the realm, proponents instead needed to overcome profound and recurring doubts about whether God wanted English rule to cross the Atlantic and the process by which it was to happen. By contextualizing these debates within a late Renaissance phase in England, Haskell links increasing religious skepticism to the rise of decidedly secular conceptions of state power. Haskell offers a radical revision of accepted narratives of early modern state formation, locating it as an outcome, rather than as an antecedent, of colonial endeavor.

Nelson, “The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding”

Here’s one I will be sure to pick up–Eric Nelson’s (Harvard University) The The Royalist RevolutionRoyalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding published by Harvard University Press later this year. Perhaps not straight down the law and religion fairway, but this fascinating looking book may shed a little ambient light on such issues as the framers’  intent as to the meaning of the religion clauses. The publisher’s description follows.

Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power—driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

Leading patriots believed that the colonies were the king’s own to govern, and they urged George III to defy Parliament and rule directly. These theorists were proposing to turn back the clock on the English constitution, rejecting the Whig settlement that had secured the supremacy of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution. Instead, they embraced the political theory of those who had waged the last great campaign against Parliament’s “usurpations”: the reviled Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies—returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.

Notes on Kabala’s Book About Church-State Relations in the Early Republic

I just read James S. Kabala’s Church-State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787-1846 (2013). I recommend it; it recounts lots of interesting details and debates which Kabala presents very effectively. The book’s general theme is that the unsettled quality of the relationship between church and state in our own time is not new, but part of an ongoing unsettled history whose roots may be traced to the founding and which persisted thereafter.

Here’s a bit from the introduction:

[P]resent-day believers that the United States was founded on Christian principles often claim the Founding Fathers for their cause, while advocates of church-state separation often presume that the issue was a settled matter after the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791.  This book will complicate such assumptions by exploring sixty years of contentious debate in American civic culture over the proper role of religion in public life.  Between the 1780s and the 1840s, clergymen, legislators, jurists, and pamphleteers argued over whether the government could fund Christian missionaries, whether the government should proclaim fast and Thanksgiving days, whether it was proper for Christians to pledge to vote only for Christian candidates, whether there should be religious restrictions on who could serve in public office or testify in court, whether blasphemy prosecutions were legitimate, whether public schools could offer a religious curriculum, whether state legislatures should open each day’s session with prayer and many more such issues.  Instances of the government’s long-standing entanglement with religion, such as the funding of religiously affiliated schools among the Indian tribes, can seem startling today.  In other areas, however, separation between religion and government was more strongly enforced than today.  The mail was delivered on Sundays, and a nationwide petition campaign to end this practice caused a strong backlash.  Several state legislatures, at least for a time, abolished the position of chaplain and the practice of opening each day’s sessions with prayer.  In short, debate over the proper relationship between religion and government was as divisive two hundred years ago as it is today and involved people from all denominations, parties and regions.

Kabala’s focus is not on the First Amendment but on the more general issue of church state relations. Recognizing “the heavy entanglement of the federal government with religion in this period,” he favors the federalism interpretation of well-known episodes such as Andrew Jackson’s refusal to proclaim a day of fasting in 1832 and others.

An interesting later chapter entitled “The Limits of Consensus: The Unorthodox in the Court System,” deals in part with the issue of whether Christianity was part of the common law (a view consistently denied by Jefferson).  One of the final episodes that Kabala recounts involves a Supreme Court case,Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844), which dealt with a rather eccentric French-born resident of Philadelphia who had become extremely wealthy.  The man had been raised a Catholic and had made occasional contributions to Catholic institutions, but his own religious convictions were not clear (apparently, he was a shipping magnate who had given his ships somewhat suspicious names like “Voltaire” and “Rousseau”).  He died in 1831 and his will established a school for orphans.  But the will also provided that “no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister, or any sect whatever” should ever set foot in the school because “as there is such a diversity of opinion amongst them, I desire to keep the tender minds of the orphans who are to derive advantage from this bequest free from the excitement which clashing doctrines and sectarian controversy are so apt to produce.”  Instead, the teachers at the orphanage were to “take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality,” and these noble ambitions demanded the purging of religion.  The will was contested by Girard’s relatives (who were represented by Daniel Webster) and eventually the case made its way to the Court.  Here is Kabala’s description (p.149):

[I]n his oration before the court, [Webster] endorsed the idea that the only true charity was a Christian charity.  According to Webster, Girard’s school was a school of ‘mere, sheer, low, ribald, vulgar deism and infidelity’….Webster cited both blasphemy cases and restrictions on oath-takers as evidence of his claims that Christianity was part of the common law and that the health of society depended upon religious faith.  He did, however, take pains to assert that his was a non-sectarian Christianity, ‘general, tolerant Christianity, Christianity independent of sects or parties, that Christianity to which the sword and the fagot are unknown.’

Many hailed Webster’s oration before the court as a masterpiece….Joseph Story, by now the senior Associate Justice on the court, was less impressed with it.  He wrote to his wife that he was

not a little amused with the manner in which…the language of the Scriptures, and the doctrines of Christianity, were brought in to point the argument; and to find the Court engaged in hearing homilies of faith, and expostulations of Christianity.

Story eventually wrote an unanimous opinion for the court upholding Girard’s will as valid….He later wrote to James Kent, who despite his hostility toward blasphemers and atheists had written to Story supporting his decision, that Webster’s speech had been a mere ‘address to the prejudices of the clergy.’

However, Story’s opinion, while it upheld Girard’s will, was not a repudiation of the idea that Christianity was a part of the common law.  Rather, Story explicitly endorsed the belief ‘that the Christian religion is a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.’ The rest of the decision attempted to enunciate the Protestant non-sectarian consensus as it had developed by 1844, guaranteeing the privileged position of Christianity while preserving the right of polite disagreement from it.

Allitt Reviews Frazer’s “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders”

I’m also a little late in noticing this very well-done review by Patrick Allitt (history, Emory), some of whose on-line courses I have listened to in the car.  He discusses a book by Gregg Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution (2012).  A bit from Professor Allitt’s thoughtful conclusion:

I learned much from The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, but closed it unsure of how the author would address two possible criticisms. First, he offers a narrow definition of “Christianity” likely to offend many readers. Millions of liberal Protestants today would certainly describe themselves as Christians while actually holding to a faith Frazer himself would call theistic rationalism. In his view, it’s not enough to call yourself a Christian; you must also affirm the doctrinal fundamentals. He comes from a circle of evangelical historians that has transformed American historiography in the last 30 years. Its superb leading figures—George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll—have forced American historians to take evangelical religion more seriously than ever before as a major factor in the nation’s history. So far as I know, however, they never denied the term “Christians” to members of the diverse groups that make up most of the American religious landscape.

Second, and on a closely related matter, Frazer never says of most figures in his book whether they did or did not call themselves Christians. It is clear that Washington and Franklin avoided using the term and that Jefferson only occasionally accepted it. But what about Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, or Alexander Hamilton? Frazer admits that the evidence about them is rather more ambiguous but never says outright whether they accepted or applied the term to themselves. In other words, while adding “theistic rationalism” to “deism” and “Christianity” as possible categories of belief among America’s founders, he has shrunk “Christianity” to mean rather less than it did at the time of the Revolution itself.

Olree on James Madison’s Formative Experiences with Religious Establishments

Andy G. Olree (Faulkner U. – Jones School of Law) has posted “Pride Ignorance and Knavery”: James Madison’s Formative Experiences with Religious Establishments. The abstract follows.

Judicial interpretations of the First Amendment’s religion clauses have purported to rely heavily on the history of the American Founding era. Today, it seems no Founder carries more weight in religion clause opinions than James Madison, a seminal figure the Supreme Court has repeatedly credited as “the leading architect of the religion clauses of the First Amendment”—most recently in January 2012, as it relied heavily on Madison’s views in deciding the Hosanna-Tabor case. But courts citing Madison have tended to focus on the short period beginning with his “Memorial and Remonstrance” in 1785 and ending with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Less frequently, a court might refer to particular subsequent events or writings from Madison’s life. But to this point, both scholars and judges have paid relatively little attention to his early, formative years, the years leading to his interest in church-state issues and his entry into politics. This Article posits that his early experiences with the Anglican religious establishment in colonial Virginia played an instrumental role in shaping his lifelong thought on church and state, in particular his interest in religious liberty and his opposition to religious establishments, religious persecution, and laws that strayed into the sphere of religion. Accordingly, the Article examines Madison’s formative experiences with religious establishments in order to provide a fuller understanding of his views of the natural right of religious liberty.

Meyerson on the Founders’ “Spiritual Public Vocabulary”

The last little period of lack of light has brought with it the consolation of catching up on some overdue reading.  One of the books I’ve been enjoying, and learning from, is Michael Meyerson’s recent book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2012).  Professor Meyerson focuses in large measure on Establishment Clause-related questions.  Here is an interesting passage toward the end:

…Washington was not content to use religious speech merely because it “was recognized across . . . a broad and diverse range of the population.”  His vision for the nation was far more inclusive.  “The bosom of America is open,” he wrote, “to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct, they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to treat the religious language employed by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as empty formality.  Their words were carefully chosen to be devout as well as inclusive.  Those in the framing generation were not trying to establish a ‘civil religion.’ . . . . Certainly, the framers never evinced a desire to construct a public religion that was distinct from traditional religions.  They were trying to create a spiritual public vocabulary that could be appreciated by the full range of individuals in a diverse population.  Those from orthodox religions could hear this language not merely as consistent with their prayers but as part of them.  They could recite the official religious language along with that of their own faith and not feel as if they had left their religion behind.

But the framers’ language was expansive enough to permit those who belonged to minority religions, along with those outside the mainstream of religious belief, to join in the experience of a conscientious communion with the rest of their nation.  Some will always decline this invitation, and that is their right.  But the framers’ language was designed to communicate to all, including the Deistic, agnostic, and atheistic, that they were valued members of the political community.  (269-70)

It’s a well-done passage, I thought, inasmuch as it tries to describe accurately the nuances in play in the historical use of religious language and symbolism in the American public context.

Esbeck on Religion During the American Revolution

Carl H. Esbeck (University of Missouri School of Law) has posted Religion During the American Revolution and the Early Republic.  The abstract follows.

This paper is part of an anthology and will appear in volume one under the heading Historical Introduction to Law and Religion in the West. The editor requested an extended essay concerning religion and religious liberty in the American War of Independence and its aftermath. The paper is juxtaposed with another on the French Revolution, providing a comparison for the role religion played in these events that continue to shape the world. In addition to the War itself, which unfolded over 1775-1783, changes within American Protestantism had a leveling effect on society and, by the early years of the republic, the political and religious culture exalted liberty, individualism, and the voluntary church.

The Quebec Act of 1774 illustrates the degree to which American patriots reacted against Roman Catholicism. This act of Parliament preserved the established role of the Catholic Church in French Canada, including public funding and full sanction by the British government. British tolerance of the Catholic establishment drew harsh protests from Congress, even mention as a grievance in the Declaration of Independence. American sensitivity was to Old World political uses of religion. The patriots believed that a fully-empowered Catholic hierarchy to the north and west of them would bring Old World intrigues involving the Roman Church. To be an American was to be in sympathy with Protestantism, to be Protestant was to be republican, and to be republican was to oppose Catholic absolutism. Moreover, the British were departing from their constitutional commitment to representative government when they unilaterally imposed taxes and other oppressive acts on colonial subjects. This was seen as an offense to republicanism and each American’s inalienable rights. The breach of the Lockean social contract legitimated armed rebellion. Continue reading