"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Does it matter if any of the American founders were Christians?

Some time ago, I used to post over at the American Creation blog, and one of the major recurring topics over there regards the religious beliefs & practice of the American founders. Were they Christians? What kind of Christians? Devout? Lax? Nicene orthodox? Unitarian? You get the idea.

Apart from the very real difficulty of accurately describing the religious views of some of the founders (who, for example, can coherently describe whatever Thomas Jefferson happened to believe at any given moment?), this kind of questioning is quite popular. It shows up quite a bit in constitutional law scholarship discussing the First Amendment's religion clauses and the role of faith in public life. I myself wrote a law review article* awhile back that spent a little time looking at some of the religious beliefs held by Jefferson & Madison that likely influenced their views on church-state separation, for example.  And yet...

Over at The American Conservative online, writer Paul Gottfried argues that this whole line of questioning is mistaken: Was George Washington a Christian? According to Gottfried's approach the relevant question isn't what did the founders believe? rather it is what kind of social and political order did the founders intend to create?  Gottfried has some thoughts on both questions, and his ideas are well worth pondering.  I particularly am struck by his framing of the debate about religion and the Founding Era. Worth a read.

* = Mark DeForrest, The Use and Scope of Extrinsic Evidence in Evaluating Establishment Clause Cases in Light of the Lemon Test's Secular Purpose Requirement, 20 Regent U. L. Rev. 201 (2007-2008). Also worth a read, even after the passage of years since its publication.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

what kind of social and political order did the founders intend to create?

Quite.

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.---GWash, Farewell Address, 1796


And even more worthless than speculating on Washington's private beliefs is the endless fascination with the drunken fatuousness of the copious post-presidential private correspondence of theological dilettantes Adams and Jefferson.

Not only is it irrelevant because they were retired from public life [and had done their best to conceal their heterodoxies when they were public men], but neither even had a hand in drafting the Constitution. These things

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2016/03/papers-from-jefferson-adams-symposium.html

are like looking for your keys not where you dropped them, but over by the streetlamp, where the light's better.