David Barton is a mess. No scholar I know, no matter how conservative, will defend his views of the American founding. Despite this, he is influential in some Evangelical circles. If you doubt his incompetence, start Googling his quotations of founders and see if they match the source documents.
They do not.
Two scholars I trust, Warren Throckmorton and Hunter Baker, gave us advice in understanding the Founding if we assume Barton is wrong. Now we shall hear these fine men respond to each other’s primary arguments. My son rolled a die to determine who goes first and Baker won. He will be followed by Throckmorton. I am thankful to both men for this illuminating dialog. I will reflect on it in the next post.
Baker responds to Throckmorton:
Warren Throckmorton ends his piece with the following statement:
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.
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.”
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.
I recommend people study the early to mid 19th century in the United States and see whether they can really find the resonance with what Throckmorton claims. I agree with a scholar such as Edwin Gaustad who sees that period as one in which the Bible gained increasing preeminence. What caused the fall? Was it Darwin? Maybe so, but I tend to think Mark Noll is more correct when he traces the decline of Christianity’s dominance in the U.S. to the Civil War. Two sides claiming to be on God’s side and fighting the bloodiest war in in our history was extremely damaging to the nation’s faith.
In any case, I can’t help but point out that states regularly had prayer and Bible reading in schools well into the second half of the twentieth century and that such practices did not stop so much because of a change in the people as because of a change in the minds of jurists. Certainly the judicial interpretation of the constitution seemed to have required no such result until quite recently in our history. And, of course, we still see echoes of our religious heritage in the Supreme Court, in Congress, in state legislatures, etc.
I certainly agree with Throckmorton that Barton’s claims go much too far, but I decline the take the opposite view that our Constitution brought about some friendly version of the French Revolution. We overthrew the throne, but not so much the altar.
Throckmorton responds to Baker:
I enjoyed Hunter Baker’s piece regarding Christianity and the Constitution. We are not far apart in our views. We both agree that David Barton’s view of the Constitution is counterfactual and that the founders were a diverse bunch religiously speaking.
In my own study, I want to explore Baker’s view that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention paid little attention to religion because they believed it to be within the jurisdiction of the states. Certainly Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Constitution in that way. As an aspect of explaining why he didn’t proclaim days of prayer and fasting, Jefferson told Rev. Samuel Miller:
Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.
At first glance, this statement could be used to support the mixing of government and Christianity at the state level. An appeal to state constitutions of the day has also been a popular retort of Christian nationalists. 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.