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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religion Left to the States?

Or Were the State Constitutions
Hated by the Founding Fathers?


One of the common practices of the "Christian Nation" crowd is to try and argue that America's "Christian founding" is to be found in the verbiage of the various state constitutions (examples can be found here). Of course, they do this because the federal charters (i.e. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc.) have ZERO references to Christianity of any kind. In fact, they were kept religiously neutral on purpose. On occasion they will try to say that the language of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, etc. is somehow, in a roundabout way, related to some obscure biblical or Christian teaching. This argument, however, holds little water and most "Christian Nation" advocates worth their salt don't really bother with them, which leaves them with the state constitutions as the only cannon fodder for their argument.

But it's mostly smoke and mirrors.

And though there are some good arguments to be had with these state constitutions (here's one I particularly like) I maintain that they still don't prove anything of substance. It's not that the state constitutions are irrelevant. Quite the contrary. They are incredibly important to America's founding. However, they do not have any basis in establishing America as a Christian nation.

Now, it is not my intention to dispute the Christian Nationalists in this particular post. Instead, I want to simply site what I see to be a strong counter-argument to the "religion was the domain of the states" thesis. In his book, Unruly Americans, historian Woody Holton's central thesis is that the federal constitution was created primarily out of a disdain for the state constitutions -- which were seen as being "too democratic" and "too misrepresenting" for a legitimate republic to function. Holton writes:
The textbooks and the popular histories give surprisingly short shrift to the Framers' motivations. What almost all of them do say is that harsh experience had exposed the previous government, under the Articles of Confederation, as too weak. What makes this emphasis strange is that the Framers' own statements reveal another, more pressing motive. Early in the Constitutional Convention, James Madison urged his colleagues to tackle "the evils...which prevail within the States individually as well as those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation."

Madison, preoccupation with what he later called "the internal administration of the States" was by no means unique. On the eve of the convention, expressions of concern about the weakness of Congress, numerous as they were, was vastly outnumbered by the complaints against the state governments. "What led to the appointment of this Convention?" Maryland Governor John Francis Mercer asked his colleagues. Was is not "the corruption & mutability of the Legislative Councils of the States?"

Once the Constitution had been sent out to the thirteen states for ratification, its supporters affirmed that some of the most lethal diseases it was designed to cure were to be found within those same states. William Plumer of New Hampshire embraced the new national government out of a conviction that "our rights & property are now the sport of ignorant and unprincipled legislatures." In the last of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution for placing salutary "restraints" on the "ambition of powerful individuals in single states."

What was wrong with the state assemblies? Given the modern perception that the Founding Fathers had devoted their lives to the principle of government by the people, it is jarring to read their specific grievances. An essay appearing in a Connecticut newspaper in September 1786 complained that the state's representatives paid "too great an attention to popular notions." At least one of those Connecticut assemblymen thoroughly agreed. In May 1787, just as the federal convention assembled, he observed that even the southern states, which under British rule had been aristocratic bastions, had "run into the extremes of democracy" since declaring independence.
Simply put, if Holston's thesis is correct (and I believe he is) it means that state Constitutions became of little consequence, since they were esteemed to be a threat to effective republican government. Having a Christian text or invocation of God would be nothing more than just that...text. Now, I still remain unconvinced that the Founding Fathers' sole purpose for establishing a new Constitution was to eradicate the evils of state power. In addition, the Founders did compromise some power in the federal constitution to the states (not originally but later in the Bill of Rights). So clearly not everyone had such a powerful disdain for state power. But it is clear that the Constitution was created because the delegates felt that the states were too powerful...too free. A strong federal system (which did not sanction Christianity above all else) was seen as essential to preserving the new nation.

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