So the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has decided to begin the 112th Congress by reading aloud the entire U.S. Constitution.
I'm a big fan of the Constitution and I'm all for reading it — publicly or privately, silently or aloud. If almost anyone else were proposing this stunt, I'd say it couldn't hurt. But I pay attention, and after years of seeing this lot disrespecting national symbols and institutions by reducing them to tribalist slogans and playground taunts I don't relish the idea of these idiots doing the same to the Constitution. I don't want to see it distorted and disrespected the way the John Birchers of the tea party movement treat the American flag, the national anthem, the names and memories of the founders and every other symbol they can usurp for use as a culture-war weapon while failing utterly to comprehend its meaning.
I'm also worried that some member of the GOP's growing Bircher contingent — Michelle Bachmann, maybe — will come away from this reading convinced that President Obama should be impeached because he only counts as three-fifths of a person.
What I'm most interested in watching for during this stunt, however, is to see if any of the more theocratically minded members of Congress notice what the Constitution does not say. Unlike these pious politicians, the Constitution never mentions God. At all.
The intellectual ancestors of the evangelical religious right once regarded this as the most glaring and dangerous supposed flaw in America's governing document. But the godlessness of the U.S. Constitution was not an oversight, it was a matter of deliberate design — a principled choice for which the framers fought passionately.
I'm reading a lively and insightful account of that fight in Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore's The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. (Thank you, Ed Brayton, for the recommendation.)
I was very pleased to see the authors give Roger Williams his due as an essential American advocate of the Baptist principle of separation of church and state. Kramnick & Moore provide a fine overview of that doctrine, which is the central distinguishing tenet of Baptist Christianity. Actually, it's the only distinguishing tenet of Baptist Christianity. It's what "Baptist" means, with everything else Baptists tend to believe flowing from that (including the unwieldy individual freedom of conscience that allows us only to speak of what Baptists "tend" to believe). The teaching about voluntary, adult believer's baptism developed as a rebuke and rejection of mandatory state-church baptism as a rite of citizenship.
But what is most valuable to me in this unfailingly interesting book is the collection of voices from the opponents of America's "Godless Constitution." I had read most of the other side of this argument — the side that won the argument because it was right. But I hadn't previously read the vehement objections of the losing side.
The viewpoint of that side is echoed today in the voices of the evangelical right calling for religious hegemony. Then, as now, the argument was that such hegemony was necessary to provide social order and a basis for morality without which the nation would be ungovernable. Then, as now, the advocates of a sectarian Constitution believed that only sectarian religion could provide a basis for such morality. And only their own sectarian religion at that.
So for the sectarian opponents of the Godless Constitution, then as now, the stakes were enormously high. The Constitution proposed by the framers in 1789, they said, was a form of national suicide. That Godless document — with its separation of church and state, its disregard for the overarching sovereignty of God, its absolute prohibition against religious tests for public office and against the establishment or privileging of any official sect — would bring rapid calamity and doom. Their warnings of the consequences of such a Constitution were dire, apocalyptic and unambiguous. If the Constitution did not establish an official sectarian Christian religion, they believed, then Christians would find themselves subjugated to some other established sect.
This is the great fear of all religious hegemons and it arose, then as now, from the great incomprehension of such believers. They could not conceive of the world that Roger Williams imagined and advocated — a world in which religious belief is voluntary. They believed that religious rule, involuntary belief, was inevitable and unavoidable, and that if it was not explicitly staked out for their sect then it would be claimed by some other.
The "no religious test" clause was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state's ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution's not requiring men in power to be religious "and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they." In New Hampshire the fear was of "a papist, a Mohomatan, a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government." Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, warned that "the exclusion of religious tests" was "dangerous and impolitic" and that "pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us." If there is no religious test, he asked, "to whom will they [officeholders] swear support — the ancient pagan gods of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?"
More specific fears were clearly at work here. The absence of religious tests, it was feared, would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics and Quakers. The Rev. David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina, worried that the Constitution now offered an invitation to "Jews and pagans of every kind" to govern us. Major Thomas Lusk, a delegate in Massachusetts, denounced Article 6 of the Constitution and shuddered "at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America." A delegate in North Carolina waved a pamphlet that depicted the possibility that the pope of Rome might be elected president.
The fear drives the incomprehension. Gripped by this fear, they simply cannot comprehend the meaning of no establishment — responding always, then as now, that if they are not permitted to establish their official sect, then someone else's sect "may be established in America."
No establishment just baffles them.
Fear of Quakers, and of their pacifism and antislavery views … helped fuel the debate. In Charleston, South Carolina, a writer in the City Gazette warned on January 3, 1788, that "as there will be no religious test," the Quakers "will have weight, in proportion to their numbers, in the great scale of continental government." An anticonstitutional article written for the New York Daily Advertiser that same January and widely reprinted within days in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts papers pulled no punches about the social repercussions of Article 6. No religious tests admitted to national lawmaking: "1st Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence — 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity — 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches — 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain — 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil — 6thly Jews etc. etc." Not quite finished with the last, the newspaper writer feared that since the Constitution stupidly gave command of the whole militia to the president, "should he hereafter by a Jew, our dear posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem."
The prohibition of religious tests was seen by many opponents as the operative sign of the Constitution's more basic flaw — its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion. Disputants around America complained, as the writer "Philadelphiensis" did in November 1787, of the framers' "silence" and "indifference about religion." … This view was most powerfully put by the Carlisle, Pa., pamphleteer "Aristocrotis" in a piece aptly titled "The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution."
Aristocrotis contends that the delegates in Philadelphia have created a government that for the first time in world history removes religion from public life. Until 1787, "there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion." … This, Aristocrotis suggests, "is laying the ax to the root of the tree." …
Other critics of the Constitution shared Aristocrotis' demand for the retention of a Christian commonwealth, with a similar desire to see religion be an integral part of public life. In New Hampshire, "A Friend to the Rights of the People," writing against "the discarding of all religious tests," asked in an interesting shift, "Will this be good policy to discard all religion?" The answer was, of course, no, for despite the Constitution "it is acknowledged by all that civil government can't well be supported without the assistance of religion." No man, he concluded, "is fit to be a ruler of protestants, without he can honestly profess to be of the protestant religion." During this same New Hampshire ratification debate, a delegate argued that to ratify the Constitution would be to overturn all religion and introduce a godless America, suggesting even that if the Constitution were adopted, "congress might deprive the people of the holy scriptures." An Anti-Federalist writer warned in a Boston newspaper on January 10, 1788, that since God was absent from the Constitution, Americans would suffer the fate that the prophet Samuel foretold to Saul: "because thou has rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee." In short, if Americans in their new fundamental law forgot God and His Christian commonwealth, God would soon forget them, and they would perish. The same apocalyptic theme was picked up by Massachusetts Anti-Federalist Charles Turner, who feared that "without the presence of Christian piety and morals the best Republican Constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin."
These objections contain two strains of thought that are also echoed in the arguments of the contemporary evangelical religious right. On one level there is the incorrect, but principled argument that sectarian Christian morality is necessary for successful government and the prospering of any nation, and that therefore this Christian morality must be engendered and promoted by the state as an official, established religion. At the same time, on another level, there is the gross violation of that very Christian morality through sordid and fanciful lies deliberately told to stoke fear, agitation and resentment. The two things always seem to go hand in hand. Then as now, those arguing for the necessity of sectarian morality in government always go on to then say, "ZOMG!1! — the Congress is going to take away your Bible! Aieeee!"
It is not always the case that history provides us with a clear winner and a clear loser in a battle of ideas, but that is the case here.
The Anti-Federalists, and especially those who argued for a sectarian Constitution with religious tests and established religion, were wrong. Demonstrably wrong. More than 200 years later, the Constitution still stands as the guiding document of a free and democratic nation and none of the calamities and apocalyptic consequences that they prophesied have come to pass. "If X, then Y," they said, without reservation or qualification. If the godless Constitution is ratified, then America will break apart into ungovernable anarchy, or it will be subjected to the tyranny of Jews or pagans or some other established official religion. That is what will happen, they said, what will certainly and inevitably happen.
And it did not happen. They were wrong. They were proven wrong. And their heirs, the hegemonic evangelicals of the religious right, are just as wrong today.
Even more wrong, actually, since the Anti-Federalists of the 18th Century were at least arguing for an idea that had not yet been proven wrong, while the 21st-century evangelical hegemons are arguing for an idea that has already, for generations, been proven conclusively and laughably wrong. The sectarian Anti-Federalists were not fools — they believed their idea would eventually be proven true. They were merely wrong. But the hegemons of the evangelical religious right are fools. They are attempting to resurrect an idea they know is wrong, repeating a failed argument that they know has failed and will fail and fail and fail and fail again.
This foolishness is, now as then, a product of fear and the incomprehension and hate that it breeds. The religious right is still convinced that if they are not allowed to establish their religion, then some other sect will get to establish theirs instead. And the religious right is still wracked by fears of saucy blacks, Jews and beggars.
That's why someone like Gary Bauer can write, without irony, that he wishes Christians in America had all the rights and privileges, respect and deference, that Mohomatans Mahometans Muslims now enjoy in this country. "In a variety of contexts," Bauer says, with apparent sincerity, "American Muslims are treated better than American Christians."
That's insane, but one tends to make insane assertions when one starts out from a premise of an idea proven false for centuries.