Geoffrey Stone: “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”


OK, for those of you who don’t
know me, I am Geoff Stone. A little bit about me, since I
guess I can introduce myself. I’m a graduate of
law school, 1971. After serving in Washington
for a couple of years as a law clerk, I came back here
in 1973 and joined the faculty. And I’ve basically
been here ever since. I served for a while as
dean of the law school and as provost of
the university, but most of my career has
been as a professor here. I teach primarily in the
field of constitutional law, although like most
of my colleagues, I occasionally teach
around the curriculum. And this quarter, for example,
I’m teaching evidence. And we tend to value
that as a way of both keeping ourselves engaged
in a wide range of subjects and also enabling us each to,
sort of, know about new things, so we can talk to one
another as well as to you about things other
than the small niche that we might otherwise
tend to specialize in. I should also say that I’m
going to be making this as a somewhat more formal
talk than, I think, is usual for CBI talks. And there’s really
two reasons for that– that is I’m using a text–
and two reasons for that. One of them is that I gave
in a more extended version of this talk as a
formal lecturer at UCLA about a month ago, and since
I had already prepared a text, it seems silly not to use it. And second, as you’ll see, I’ll
be invoking a lot of quotes, and for the sake
of accuracy, it’s probably better to
actually use the words of the people I’m quoting than
to make them up as I go along. So that also led me to err
on the side of using a text. This talk grows out of a
book that I’m currently writing with a working title
Sexing the Constitution, which explores the intersection
of sex, religion, and law. The work as a whole,
and this small piece upon which I’ll draw in
this afternoon’s talk, is always potentially relevant
to many constitutional issues, including not only the
freedom of religion, but also various aspects
of sexual freedom, such as issues concerned
with abortion, contraception, sexual orientation,
and the like, as well as issues of equality
and free speech and so on. So the title of this
talk is the World of the Framers: A
Christian Nation? And let me begin with a
story I came across recently in the New York Times,
which read as follows. On Sunday at the Naval
Academy Chapel in Annapolis at a few minutes past
11:00 AM, the choir stopped singing
and a color guard carrying the American
flag strides up the aisle. Below a cobalt blue stained
glass window of Jesus, a midshipman dips the American
flag before the altar cross. Evangelical Christians
and the Navy defend this practice
on the grounds that it represents the
highest Christian traditions of this country. Another Navy officer, however,
objected to this practice stating that the oath that
he and others had taken is to protect and to defend
the Constitution not the New Testament. The question I want to ask is
whether there is a difference? And in approaching that
question, I begin– as do the evangelical
Christians who maintain there is not a difference– with the world of the Puritans. And when the Puritans first
arrived in the new world, they clearly established
rigidly theocratic societies. As they declared in 1639
in the fundamental orders of Connecticut, the
word of God requires that there should be an
orderly and decent government established according to God. Without any ambiguity, they
established their churches as the official state
religion, which was directly supported by tax revenues
and defended by the course of arm of the state. The laws of the early
Puritan colonies were expressly
justified by reference to specific biblical passages. The state punished blasphemy
and aggressively enforced religious doctrine. Citizenship was tied
directly to religious faith, and the Puritan settlements were
designed with the expectation that only godly
Christians would rule. Invoking that past, modern
day Christian Evangelicals often assert that the
United States was founded as a Christian nation, but
that in recent decades out of control secularists have
broken faith with our most fundamental traditions. Nothing, I believe, could
be further from the truth. In fact, long before
the American Revolution, the Puritan vision of a unified,
orthodox, religious community had proved unattainable. In the generations leading
up to the revolution of 1776, the American colonies
grew dramatically in population, ethnic
and religious diversity, economic production, and
cultural sophistication. The small, insular,
self-selected Puritan communities of the
early 17th century were literally blown apart
by the forces of change. And as people were released from
their traditional social roles, they were made free in
new and unexpected ways. Throughout the 18th century,
conventional sources of authority were
called into question. As the Harvard historian
Bernard Bailyn once observed, mid-18th century
Americans sought to achieve a profound
transformation in their society, their personal
lives, their government, and their religion. This transformation was, of
course, shaped in large part by the Enlightenment. Under the influence of
enlightenment ideals, the American colonists
converted their frustration with overbearing British rule
into a bold new conception of freedom. A conception that involved
new understandings of God, man, human rights,
the state, and history. With the Declaration
of Independence, these understandings
became a cornerstone of the American
political tradition. A tradition that was born
in the full illumination of the alignment. Thomas Paine reminded Americans
of the Revolutionary Era that they had boldly thrown off
the prejudices of the old order and had embraced a new,
enlightened, more rational conception of man. We see, he said, with other
eyes, we hear with other ears, and we think with other thoughts
than those we formerly used. The ignorance and superstition
of the old world, he declared, had finally been expelled,
and the mind once enlightened can not again become dark. The United States was conceived
not in an age of faith, but in an age of reason. The framers viewed issues
of religion and politics through a prism that was
highly critical of what they saw as Christianity’s
historical excesses and superstitions. In fact, the
Revolutionary Era was a period of serious decline
for American Christianity. By the time the framers began
drafting the United States Constitution, church
membership dropped to a point that not more than
10% of the people were members of
Christian churches. Evangelicalism as defined by
its contemporary exponents, played at most a negligible
role in the founding era. Indeed it’s quite striking
and certainly no accident that unlike the fundamental
orders of Connecticut, the United States Constitution
made no reference whatever to God and cited as its
primary source of authority not the word of God,
but we the people. The stated purpose
of the Constitution was not to create a government
established according to God, not to establish a
Christian nation, but to create a secular state. The only reference to religion
in the original Constitution prohibited the use of
any religious tests for holding office. And the First
Amendment made clear that there would be no
Church of the United States. From the Declaration
of Independence through the adoption
of the Bill of Rights, no one of any consequence
referred to the United States as a Christian nation. One illustration of
the profound shift from the fundamental
orders of Connecticut to the Constitution
of the United States can be seen in the transition
in higher education from what was called the old learning
to the new learning over the course of
the 18th century. The pre-enlightenment,
old learning emphasized theological study. At an institution
like Harvard, which was Puritan in its origins,
17th century tutors taught students the received
truths of the Puritan divines. A central goal of
the old learning was to instruct students
in biblical interpretation, and students were
directed to accept the absolute
authority of the Bible as the sole repository of truth. The new learning, which was
rooted in the Enlightenment, taught students to
question authority, including the
authority of the Bible. It taught that there
were truths that lay outside the
scriptures– truths that could be discerned through
careful observation and reason. Much of the intellectual
impetus for the new learning derived from the work of Francis
Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. Bacon had insisted
that reasoned argument must proceed from the
concrete data of experience. Newton had demonstrated that
the universe was knowable, because it was rational. And Locke, who’s writings
most directly shaped the intellectual and political
world view of 18th century Americans, warned against
sacred claims of truth. Almost all the framers were
educated in the new learning, and this does not mean that
they were anti-Christian. Most of the founding fathers,
at least occasionally, attended church and
identified with one or more of the Christian denominations. But as men of the
Enlightenment, few of them put much stock in
traditional Christianity. Indeed as we’ll see,
many of the leaders of the revolutionary
generation were not Christians in any
traditional sense. They were broad-minded
intellectuals who viewed religious passion
as divisive and as irrational, and who consistently
challenged both publicly and privately the dogmas of
traditional Christianity. The most important religious
trend of the mid-18th century, the belief in deism
or rational religion, had a profound influence
on the founding generation. The roots of deism are
ancient, but the modern revival can be traced to a
series of British writers in the late 17th and
early 18th centuries. John Toland, for example, argued
that in order to be credible, a religion must
be logical, and it must be consistent with
the laws of nature. Thomas Wisden
challenged the doctrine of miracles arguing
that the New Testament’s account of Jesus’ miracles
was, quote, broken, elliptical, and absurd. And Matthew Tyndale charged that
revealed theology was nothing more than wishful thinking. The Deist were not atheists. They challenged
religious beliefs they could not
reconcile with reason, but they accepted the
idea of a supreme being. But the Deist god was not
the Judeo-Christian god who intervenes in
human history, and who listens to personal prayers. It was rather a
more distant being whom the Deist referred to as
the creator, the first cause, the grand architect,
and nature’s god. The Deist believe that
the Supreme being who created the universe,
including the laws of nature, was a benign god. That the creator had
revealed both his existence and his nature in
the laws of nature. And that he’d given
man the capacity to understand those laws
through the exercise of reason. They believed further that
the creator had embedded both the meaning of
morality and the existence of inalienable human rights
within the laws of nature, and that they too
could be discerned through the use of reason. Most Deists did not accept
the divinity of Jesus, the truth of miracles
and revelation, or the doctrines of original
sin or predestination. They rejected these concepts
as antithetical to the dictates of reason and argued that
such doctrines had not only kept mankind in the shackles
of superstition and ignorance, but also insulted the
majesty and dignity of God. Most Deists believed
the people had no need to read the Bible, pray,
be baptized or circumcised, attend church, or conform
to any of what they regarded as the irrational beliefs
and practices of Christianity or indeed of any religion. Of course, there were more and
less radical versions of deism. Some Deists flatly
rejected Christianity. Others regarded themselves
as enlightened Christians. To understand our
national origins, it’s essential to
understand that deism had a powerful impact
on the colonists. Many of our founding fathers,
including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin,
Ethan Allen, and Gouverneur Morris were flat out Deists. And many others, such as John
Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe,
and George Washington were at least partial Deists
who accepted most elements of the Deists critique. The significance of deism for
the creation of the United States can hardly be overstated. From roughly 1725 through
the end of the 18th century, Deistic beliefs
played a central role on the framing of the
American republic. Of course, not all of them
from the founding fathers were Deists. Many such as Patrick Henry,
Sam Adams, and John Jay were traditional Christians. But on the whole, the
founding generation viewed religion through
an enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical
of Orthodox Christianity. And it’s instructive
to consider some of those who were in varying
degrees influenced by deism. And to that end, I’d like to
explore with you the beliefs of five key members of the
founding generation, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson,
John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Paine. Franklin was, of
course, the embodiment of the American Enlightenment. He had a deep dislike
of religious enthusiasm. And in his autobiography,
he revealed at an early age he’d become
a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine. Revelation, he said,
including the 10 commandments, has no weight with me as such. As Franklin made clear
in his autobiography, he was a thorough Deist. Franklin dismissed much
of Christian doctrine as unintelligible, and was quite
critical of how Christianity had affected mankind. He said, if we look
back into history for the character of the
present sex in Christianity, we shall find few that
have not in their terms been both persecutors and
complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought
persecution extremely wrong in the pagans, but then
practiced it on one another. The first Protestants
of the Church of England blamed persecution
on the Roman church, but then practiced
it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong
in the bishops, but fell into the same
practice themselves. Only days before his
death, in response to an inquiry about
his religious beliefs, Franklin replied,
here is my creed, I believe in one God, the
creator of the universe. That he governs the
world by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable
service we can render to him is doing good to
his other children. These, he added, are the
fundamental principles of all sound religion. With respect to Jesus,
Franklin observed, I think his system of morals and
religion is he left them to us. The best the world ever
saw or is likely to see, but I apprehend
that over time it has received various
corrupting changes. Turning to the question
of Jesus’ divinity, Franklin wryly concluded, I have
some doubts as to his divinity though it is a question
that I do not dogmatize upon having never studied it. And think it needless to
busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an
opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. Like most Deist who rejected
the doctrines of original sin and predestination,
Franklin believed in a deity who delights in man’s
pursuit of virtuous behavior, which Franklin defined as
knowledge of our true interest. That is of what is best to be
done in all the circumstances of human life. In order to arrive at our main
ended view, which is happiness. In Franklin’s opinion,
man achieves happiness both by satisfying his own needs
and by promoting the well-being of his fellow man. He believed that for man
to pursue his own happiness pleases the creator, because a
truly benevolent deity delights in the happiness of
those he’s created. Franklin believed that people
serve God best not when they obey irrational dogma, but
when they perform good works on behalf of humanity. He faulted Christianity for not
being, quote, more productive of good works than I
have generally seen it. I mean real good works. Works of kindness, charity,
mercy, and public spirit. Not holiday keeping, sermon
reading, or making long prayers filled with flatteries
and compliments. In sum, Franklin
regarded all religions as more or less interchangeable
in their most fundamental tenets, which he believed
required men to pursue their own happiness
and to treat others with kindness and respect. He regarded Jesus as a wise,
moral philosopher, but not necessarily as a divine or
divinely inspired figure. And he had no particular
use for Christian doctrine in so far as it deported from
the core teachings of Jesus. Longtime friend
despaired that a man of Franklin’s general character
and great good influence was such an unbeliever
in Christianity. No member of the
founding generation embodied America’s
democratic ideals more than Thomas Jefferson. The principles of
Jefferson, said Lincoln, are the definitions and
axioms of a free society. Like Franklin, Jefferson was a
true enlightenment philosoph. A Thoroughgoing
skeptic Jefferson subjected every religious
tradition, including his own, to scientific scrutiny. He had little patience for
talk of miracles, revelation, or resurrection. Jefferson saw his age as a
unique opportunity for man to push back the
forces of darkness, and to unleash man’s
reason in order to comprehend the true
order of the universe. Jefferson believed that the
universe was comprehensible, and that in the long run,
the application of reason would reveal and
explain its mysteries. On the subject of
religion, Jefferson cautioned his nephew Peter
Carr to quote shake off all the fears and prejudices
under which weak minds are [INAUDIBLE] crouched. He urged Carr to question with
boldness even the existence of a god, because
if there be one, he must more approve
of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. Like Franklin, Jefferson admired
Jesus as a moral philosopher. He wrote John Adams that the
moral beliefs espoused by Jesus reflected the most sublime
and benevolent code of morals, which has
ever been offered to man. And on another occasion, he
described Jesus’ character as the most eloquent that has
ever been exhibited to man. Although Jefferson
clearly denied Jesus’ divinity, he
ascribed to him, quote, every human excellence
and maintain that Jesus himself
never claimed any other. But Jefferson insisted
that Jesus’ teachings had been distorted out
of all recognition by a succession of corrupters. He described such doctrines
as predestination, the efficacy of good
works, and original sin as demoralizing dogmas,
nonsense, dross, distortions, abracadabra, insanity,
a hocus pocus, phantasm, and a deliria of
crazy imaginings. In a letter to John
Davis, Jefferson disdained the, quote,
metaphysical abstractions, maniac ravings, and foggy
dreams of Jesus’ followers who he said had so burdened
Christianity with absurdities and incomprehensibilities as to
drive into infidelity men who had not the time,
patience, or opportunities to strip it of its
meretricious trappings. Jefferson referred
to Christianity as our peculiar
superstition and concluded that ridicule was the
only rational response to its unintelligible
propositions. The clergy, he wrote, were
false shepherds and usurpers of the Christian name. Who were like scuttle
fish, which used darkness to make themselves
impenetrable to the eye of a pursuing enemy. Jefferson was not,
however, a godless man. Though deeply committed to the
separation of church and state and fiercely
anti-clerical, he was also a man of deeply felt private
religious conviction who believed in a benign creator
whose only revelation to man was made through
nature and reason. Like other Deists,
Jefferson believed that the creator had endowed
man with a moral compass, an innate and natural
sense of right and wrong. Man’s moral sense or
conscience, Jefferson reasoned, it’s as much a part of
man as his leg or his arm. All people, he
wrote, have implanted in our breast a moral instinct
and a love of others, which prompts us to feel and
to succor their successes and their distresses. Jefferson praised this moral law
as the brightest gem with which the human characters
is studded, and he believed that it was these
natural moral dispositions that made self-governance possible. To Jefferson then,
the nature of virtue was neither depended upon
nor to be comprehended through Christian
revelation, but was clearly evident in
nature and discernible through the exercise of reason. The dogmas of religion,
he wrote Matthew Carey, are quite distinct
from moral principles, and Jefferson had no
difficulty with the proposition that even atheists
could be moral. Indeed, Jefferson viewed most
claims of religious dogma not as principles of morality,
but as sectarian bids for power. As he wrote Thomas
Leiper, most dogmas that differ among religions
do not instruct us how to live well,
but are designed to gain power and support
for those who inculcate them. For Jefferson, the fundamental
precepts of morality, which he believed were held
in common in all religions, were captured by Jesus’
maximus, treat others as you would have
them treat you, and love thy
neighbor as thyself. As Jefferson never tired of
saying, the essence of virtue is in doing good to others. Jefferson was, of course,
the primary drafter of the Declaration
of Independence, and in the light of
his views as a Deist and the light of the
similar views held by many of the
other signers, it’s important to note the precise
language of the declaration. It does not invoke Jesus
or Christ or the Father or the Lord or the
Almighty, or any of the other traditional
characterizations of the Christian deity. Rather it invokes nature’s god,
the creator, the supreme judge, and the divine providence. The Declaration of
Independence was a document of the Enlightenment. It was not a Puritan or
Methodist or Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical
Christian statement. It was rather a statement
that deeply and intentionally invoked the language
of American deism. It was a document
of its own time, and it speaks eloquently about
what Americans of that time believed. John Adams saw the world
as a rather hostile place, both to himself and to the
American cause, which was the great passion of his life. None of the founders
read more and thought more about law and
politics than Adams. And none was more attuned
to the hopes and promise of the Enlightenment. Like Jefferson, Adams believed
that the original teachings of Jesus were
sound, but that they had been corrupted
by the various creeds and philosophies that have
been grafted onto them. As Adams grew older, he
became increasingly suspicious of religious dogma. As he wrote to Benjamin Rush,
there was a germ of religion in human nature so strong
that whenever an order of men can persuade the people
by flattery or carer that they have salvation
at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud,
violence, and usurpation. Noting the rise of religious
fundamentalism early in the 19th century during
the Second Great Awakening, Adams warned that instead of
the most enlightened people, I fear we Americans
shall soon have the character of the
silliest people under heaven. Religion and churchgoing
were important to Adams and to a greater
extent than either Franklin or Jefferson. He believed in a personal god. But like other Deists, he
substituted a simpler, less mysterious form of
Christianity for the dogmas he’d inherited from his
Puritan forebearers. His reading and
reflection lead him to reject such doctrines
as predestination and original sin. The creator, he
declared, has given us reason to find out the
truth and the real design and true end of our existence. Though a congregationalist,
Adam’s more closely identified with Unitarianism. A religious movement that
had developed in England in the 17th century,
Unitarianism was closely related to deism. Unitarians understood
Jesus as a moral teacher rather than as a
divine and rejected the traditional Christian
tenets of predestination, original sin, scriptural
revelation, and atonement. The chief 18th century
proponent of Unitarianism was the English scientist
Joseph Priestley. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson,
and many other Americans of this era were avid
readers of Priestley’s works. Reflecting these beliefs,
Adams wrote to Jefferson that his religion could be
contained in four short words, be just and good. Adams is acutely
aware of the need to separate religion
from politics. Nothing, he wrote,
is more dreaded than the national government
meddling with religion. As Adams wrote
Benjamin Rush, I mix religion with politics
as little as possible. His dissertation of the canon
and feudal law written in 1774 was a sharp attack against
the civil and ecclesiastical tyranny of earlier Catholic
and Protestant establishments. And in his defense of the
American Constitution written in 1788, Adams devoted
several chapters to condemning the horrors
of religious wars, crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms. He warned that given
the opportunity, 19th century evangelicals
would whip and crop and pillory and
roast in America just as they had earlier in Europe. In 1775, one of the delegates to
the Second Continental Congress was a clergyman
who wanted Congress to focus on what he called
America’s Christian identity. Adams wrote his wife, Abigail,
that as he is the first gentleman of the clothe who
was of Puritan Congress, I cannot but wish that
he may be the last. Mixing the sacred character
with that of the statesman is not attended with
any good effects. When Adams was president,
he signed the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which had
been unanimously approved by the Senate, and in which
the United States emphatically affirmed, quote, the
government of the United States is not in any sense founded
on the Christian religion. 20 Years later, Adams
wrote to Jefferson 20 times in the course of
my late reading, I’ve been put upon the
point of breaking out. This would be the best
of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it. But he then added,
without religion this world would
be something not fit to be mentioned in
polite company, I mean, hell. The ambivalence reflected
Adam’s lifelong belief that all of history proved that
the people unrestrained tend to be unjust, tyrannical,
brutal, barbarous, and cruel. This view of man posed a
serious problem for Adams as a political theorist. For like the other
founders, he knew that self-governance
ultimately depends on the character of the people. No Republican government
can last, he observed, unless there is a positive
passion for the public good. Given his skepticism about
man’s tendency to misbehave, he doubted whether
the people had the integrity necessary to
make the Republican experiment in self-governance successful. As he told Mercy Warren
on January 17, 1776, there is so much rascality, so
much venality and corruption, so much avarice and
ambition, such a rage for profit and commerce among
all ranks and degrees of men that the very idea of
republicanism seems precarious. Adams rested his
hopes for the future on the regenerative effects
of Republican government and on the emergence
of politicians who could mold the
character of the people extinguishing their
follies and vices and inspiring their virtues
and their abilities. The American
Revolution, he believed, had to reform the culture,
or it would not succeed. He warned that unless
public spirited virtue could be inspired into our
people, they will not obtain a lasting liberty. It was here that Adams,
like many of the founders, believed that religion could
play a positive role in helping to shape the people’s moral
conduct, and their ideas about justice, decency,
duty, and responsibility. Religion, he believed, could be
a source of Republican virtue. But neither Adams nor
most of the other founders meant traditional Christianity
with all of its complex dogmas and tenets when
they invoke religion as the foundation of
Republican government. Rather as Adams wrote
Jefferson, the essence of sound religious
belief was captured in the phrase be just and good. And as Jefferson replied, would
all agree in is probably right. The vast majority of
the founders believed that the principle
be just and good could play a critical
role in nurturing the sort of public
spiritedness that they deemed essential
to self-governance, and they believe
that some version of what was so-called
civil religion, and what Jefferson referred
to as nature’s god, would be salutary and
foster in the spirit of American republicanism. But this was a far cry
from endorsing the sanctity of Christian doctrine. Compared with Franklin,
Jefferson, and Adams, George Washington was not
particularly learned man. He was a man of affairs
rather than a man of ideas. His greatness lay
in his character which left an indelible
mark upon the nation. Washington’s public
conduct epitomized the sort of public spirited and
disinterested Republican integrity that the
new nation needed. A man of the
Enlightenment, Washington was liberal on
matters of religion. He was in his own
words, no bigot myself to any mode of worship. Unlike Jefferson
though, he was not contemptuous of
traditional Christianity. He believed that an unseen,
but benevolent power guided both the universe
and human affairs, and he variously referred
to this force as providence, the almighty ruler
of the universe, the great architect
of the universe, and the great
disposer of events. Washington was reticent about
his own religious beliefs. He paid little attention to
religion in his personal life and was not an avid churchgoer. He was neither
religiously fervent nor theologically learned. He described his own religious
tenets as few and simple. His biographer, Joseph Ellis,
observed that at his death Washington did not think
much about heaven or angels. The only place he knew his body
was going was into the ground. And as for a soul, it’s ultimate
location was unknowable. He died as a Roman stoic rather
than as a Christian Saint. It is not even clear
that Washington considered himself a Christian. Although he maintained
a connection with the Anglican church,
this was certainly prudent behavior for a
cautious political leader. Washington’s personal papers,
however, offered no evidence that he believed in biblical
revelation eternal life or Jesus’ divinity. In several thousand letters
he never once mentioned Jesus, and the name of Jesus was
notably absent from his will. All in all Washington’s
practice of Christianity has aptly been characterized
as limited and superficial at best. Clergyman who knew Washington
bemoaned his skeptical approach to Christianity. The Reverend Dr. Bird
Wilson acknowledged that Washington was not
a professing Christian, and Bishop William
White admitted that no degree of recollection
will bring to my mind any fact which would prove
General Washington to have been a believer in
Christian revelation. Washington has
variously and accurately been described as a cool
Deist, a warm Deist, a theistic rationalist, a
stoic, and a Christian Deist. As President,
Washington was always careful not to
invoke Christianity. His official speeches, orders,
and other public communications scrupulously reflected his
perspective of a Deist. His references to religion
omitted such phrases as Jesus, Christ, Lord,
Father, Redeemer, and Savior, and he invariably
edited such terms out of his official documents
whenever his subordinates attempted to insert them. Instead he used such
theistic phrases as providence, the supreme
being, and the deity. Like Adams, however,
Washington believed that some form of religion was
useful both to public morality and Republican government. In his farewell
address, Washington warned that reason
and experience forbid us to expect that
national morality can prevail in the exclusion
of religious principle. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
helped catalyze the colonies and inspire the Declaration
of Independence. After the revolution,
Paine returned to England and published The Right
of Man in forceful defense of republicanism
based upon the theory of natural rights. He soon followed up
with The Age of Reason, which sharply criticized
Christian doctrine and declared that reason not
supernaturalist creeds or dogma must be man’s sole guide in
moral and religious matters. In The Age of Reason,
Paine announced I believe in one
god and no more. I believe in the
equality of men, and I believe that
religious duties consist in doing justice, loving
mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. I do not believe in the creed
professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church,
by the Greek church, by the Turkish church,
by the Protestant church, nor by any church
that I know of. My own mind is my own church. Paine maintained that
the religion of deism is superior to the
Christian religion, because it is free from those
invented and torturing articles that shock our reason. Deism’s creed, he wrote, is
purely and sublimely simple. It believes in God,
and there it rests. It honors reason as
the choices gift of God to men and the
faculty by which he is unable to contemplate
the power wisdom and goodness of the creator
displayed in the creation. It avoids all
presumptuous beliefs and rejects as the fabulous
inventions of men or books pretending to revelation. Paine was merciless in his
attack on Christian doctrine. He denied that
quote, the almighty ever did communicate
anything to man by any mode of speech
in any language or by any kind of vision. He characterized Christianity
as a fable, which for absurdity and
extravagance is not exceeded by anything
that is to be found in the mythology
of the ancients. He castigated the
Bible as a fraud, pointed out its
internal contradictions, contrasted its teachings
with the findings of science, and harangued for
its immorality. It is, he charged, a
book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy. For what can be more
blasphemous than to ascribe the wickedness of man to
the orders of the Almighty? Pained derided Christianity’s
acceptance of miracles as ignorant, and he charge
that the postulation of miraculous
interventions by God degrades him to the
character of a showman who plays tricks to amuse
and to make the people stare in wonder. Paine maintained that by
demanding unquestioning belief in the miraculous revelation,
insisting that believers accept superstition as truth,
and denying believers the right to criticize
religious dogma, Christianity has
fundamentally undermined the freedom of
conscience and encouraged intolerance and persecution. Paine’s works Common
Sense, The Right of Man, and The Age of Reason
became the three most widely read political tracts
of the 18th century. Paine was the greatest
spokesmen of popular day deism, and to orthodox
American Christians, he was a villain and an infidel. Indeed throughout the second
half of the 18th century, Orthodox Christianity
worried deeply about the impact of deism. As already noted,
the Revolutionary Era was a period of decline
for American Christianity and the rise of deism was
seen as a continuing threat. By the latter years
of the 18th century, colleges like Yale,
William and Mary, and Princeton had
become hotbeds of deism. And even staid, Puritan
Harvard had become enmeshed in free-thought. The Christian establishment
responded with a vengeance. As early 1759,
Ezra Stiles warned that deism has got such head
that it is necessary to conquer and demolish it. 30 years later, Timothy
Dwight, the president of Yale, published a biting
anti-deist work, The Triumph of Infidelity,
and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
was literally put to the torch
at Harvard, because of its uncomplimentary
interpretation of early Christianity. In 1784, Ethan Allen, the leader
of the Green Mountain Boys and the hero of the
battle of Ticonderoga, published a book length
argument for deism. This work, Reason:
The Only Oracle of Men was furiously condemned
by the clergy. Timothy Dwight accused Allen
of championing Satan’s cause. Ezra Stiles charged that
Allen was profane and impious, and the Reverend Nathan
Perkins called him one of the wickedest
man that has ever walked this guilty globe. Did the framers intend
the United States to be a Christian nation? Clearly they did not. The Declaration of Independence
marked a fundamental shift in our history. Before 1776, public expressions
of faith in the colonies were often overtly Christian. But in declaring themselves
independent of Britain, the American founders invoke
the language and spirit of Enlightenment. The Declaration
was signed by men of widely diverse
religious beliefs ranging from traditional
Christians to committed Deists. But in acknowledging
nature’s god, the creator, and divine providence, the
Declaration clearly and quite consciously eschewed
any invocation of Christian doctrine. At the same time,
and as we’ve seen, the framers were acutely
aware that a republican form of government presupposes
certain qualities of civic virtue
among the people. And many believe that there was
a direct link between religion and civic virtue. This was certainly
true of those who held traditional religious beliefs. Phillips Payson, for example,
an influential congregationalist minister, maintained
that religion is of the highest
importance to civil society as it keeps alive the best
sense of moral obligation. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian
clergyman and a signer of the Declaration, warned that
even a good form of government cannot protect the people
against their natural profligacy and corruption
unless religion and informs their values. Benjamin Rush wrote that for
the new nation to succeed, Americans would have to adhere
to the religious principles and moral habits of
the first settlers. Rush expressed its
fear that attempts to produce political happiness
by the solitary influence of human reason
will be fruitless. Although conceding that reason
produces great and popular truths, he cautioned
that it affords motives too feeble
to induce mankind to act agreeably to them. Religion on the other hand, he
argued, unfolds the same truths and accompanies them with
motives agreeable, powerful, and irresistible. Even those founders
who were not committed to the religious principles of
the first settlers, generally agreed that religion could help
to foster Republican virtue. In a letter to Rush, John Adams
opined that religion and virtue are the necessary
foundations of republicanism and of all free government. And in a letter
to Abigail Adams, he noted, statesman may plan
and speculate for liberty, but it is religion
and morality alone which can establish the
principles upon which freedom can securely stand. Alexander Hamilton also
believed that religion could promote civic virtue. Hamilton reasoned that
liberty depends upon morality, and that morality must
fall with that religion. Because religion
alone, he said, can curve the impetuous
passions of man and confine them within
the bounds of social duty. Even Benjamin Franklin
thought that religion had a role to play in
sustaining the morals of ordinary citizens. In a letter admonishing
a young writer who’d made a particularly
strident attack on religion, Franklin cautioned,
you yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous
life without the assistance afforded by religion. You possessing a
strength of resolution sufficient to enable you
to resist commendations. But think how great a
proportion of mankind consists of weak and
ignorant men and women who have need of the
motives of religion to restrain them from vice,
to support their virtue, and to retain them
in the practice of it until it becomes habitual. If men are so wicked as we
now see them with religion, what would they
be if without it? Not all of the founders
believed that religion was necessary for an orderly
and virtuous Republican society. Jefferson, for example,
believed that religion was not essential for moral conduct. But even Jefferson
acknowledged that the liberties of our nation are more secure
when the people see them as the gift of the creator. In light of these views,
it should be evident that the framers treatment of
religion in the Constitution was not an act of reverence. Rather the framers recognized
that religion could and should play a role in helping to
preserve the civil morality necessary for democracy. But the framers view
a sharp distinction in their understanding
of the proper relation between religion and
law in a free society. They valued religion,
but given their knowledge of the religious
strife that has plagued man’s history and their
appreciation of the importance to individual liberty of
both freedom of and freedom from religion,
they saw the wisdom of distinguishing between
private and public religion. In churches temples,
and homes anyone could believe and practice
whatever he wished, but in the public
business of the nation, It was essential
for the government to speak of religion
in a way that was unifying, not devisive. Now you may wonder what
ever happened to deism? With the French
Revolution following hard on the heels of the
American Revolution, it seemed for a
moment that the world was on the cusp of a new
era of individual liberty based on a commitment
to human reason. But as the violence of
the French Revolution collapsed into a
fearsome reign of terror, Americans were shocked to
see self-styled rationalists transformed into a new breed
of tyrants, ideological rather than religious in nature. As the guillotine
became the public image of the French
Revolution, the terror came to be linked
in popular opinion with the religious skepticism
of the Enlightenment. Doubt and reaction
soon set in everywhere, and the Enlightenment
project began to be viewed with increasing
suspicion and alarm. With the excesses of
the French Revolution, people increasingly
became fearful of the possible consequences
of a less directive religious culture. And for many, the appeal of
a more distant and impersonal deity began to cool. With the anxieties created
by the French Revolution compounded by the dramatic
social dislocations caused by early 19th century
immigration, urbanization, and industrialization,
people increasingly longed for a more personal
relationship with the divine. They wanted a god
who was responsive to the supplications,
fears, insecurities, and hopes of humanity. The backlash, in both
Europe and America, pushed the rationalism of the
18th century off center stage. And at the turn of
the 19th century, the Second Great Awakening
burst upon the United States, as a wave of conservatism and
religiosity swept the nation. Deism was simply
overwhelmed by the surge of Christian revivalism. By the end of his life
in 1826, Thomas Jefferson could look back with a sense of
despair, because, in his view, American society
was going backward. Instead of becoming
more enlightened, Americans now seem
to be returning, he said, to the
superstitions of the past. The ordinary people,
in whom Jefferson had placed such confidence,
now seem to him less rational than they had been at the
time of the revolution. And what, you might ask,
is the point of all this? Well, it is, I think,
simply this, that whether you fancy
yourself an originalist or an interpretivist,
a champion of a living constitution or a dead
hand, when you puzzle over the meaning of the Establishment
Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, the Ninth Amendment, the
Due Process Clause, or the Free Speech Clause, when you consider
whether the Constitution allows the government to have
faith-based initiatives, deny homosexuals
the right to marry, prohibit obscenity, forbid
abortion, ban stem cell research, teach creationism,
or dip the flag to Jesus, it helps to know the truth about
the Framers, about what they believed, and about what
they aspired to when they created this nation. Thank you. Good. Questions, comments? Yes. STUDENT: I was wondering
if you could elaborate on the frequency and
content of any prayers that were out there during the
Constitutional Conventions and which of the Framers
participated or instigated these prayers [INAUDIBLE]. I’ve heard of them, but
I really don’t know. GEOFFREY STONE: During the
Constitutional Convention, there was one moment when
the convention was stuck. And Benjamin Franklin, of all
people, then in his dotage, I should say,
suggested a prayer, a suggestion that was
met with complete silence and rejected by the convention. And so there was
no prayer actually stated or agreed to within
the Constitutional Convention itself. After the Constitution
was enacted, in the first several
decades, there was constant give and take about
the question of whether it was appropriate for the
nation, for example, to recognize the
declarations of Thanksgiving or whether it was appropriate
to commence meetings of the Congress with prayers. And some presidents,
like Washington, issued declarations
of Thanksgiving. Others, like Jefferson and
Madison, refused to do so. So there was an ambiguity
and disagreement about whether those kinds
of symbolic statements were appropriate. Madison went so far as president
to veto even legislation that would have funded
neutrally activities that included religious activity
But Adams was more supportive of that. But throughout the
first five or six terms, the general view
was certainly one reflected in what
I’ve stated here, which was an effort, within
the context of their times, to keep government quite
separate from religion. Now, it’s important to
note that, in these times, Protestantism was so ever
present in day-to-day life that the line between law and
some aspects of Protestantism was almost invisible to the
members of the generation. So let’s see. What are good examples? Mail delivery, for example,
was allowed on Sundays. And in the early 19th
century, movement was made to ban mail delivery
on Sunday by the government, because it was thought
to be unseemly. And it took several decades,
during the Second Great Awakening, before the government
was willing to ban Sunday mail delivery. But before that,
Congress, basically trying to enforce the
idea of separation, refused to adopt the practice
of no mail on Sundays. That didn’t occur
until the [INAUDIBLE]. STUDENT: Given Jefferson
[INAUDIBLE] recognition of growing religion
amongst society, why did he also then want a
revision of the Constitution or rewriting of the Constitution
with each generation? GEOFFREY STONE: Well, first
of all, he said that early on, before this happened. But in any event, Jefferson’s
basic point of view was he rejected the
idea of the dead hand. So his view is
that a Constitution is an agreement that a given
generation makes for itself. But it has no moral authority
to bind future generations. So I don’t think Jefferson
particularly believed that if future generations
made their own Constitution, they would necessarily be
better or worse by his lights. His thought was simply that,
in terms of legitimacy, one generation didn’t
have a moral authority to bind a subsequent generation. So I don’t think
his view would have been that if we did have
a new Constitutional Convention every 20 years,
that would necessarily produce better or worse law. I think Jefferson
hoped for progress. By the time he died,
he’d come to bemoan that. But in any event, his view
was one about legitimacy. He was very focused
on this question of, why can people
writing a document in the late 18th century control
what people do in 21st century? STUDENT: So he found
legitimacy more important than his
own deist beliefs versus religious beliefs then? GEOFFREY STONE: I don’t
think this question about redoing the Constitution
had anything to do with his religious beliefs. I mean, I think
it just has to do with his notion of political
legitimacy and the sense that we should all
govern ourselves. And that includes
each generation writing its own Constitution. STUDENT: I’m curious, since most
originalists would say, well, we don’t really care about the
intentions of the Founders. What matters was the original
public understanding, I’m wondering how you can
[INAUDIBLE] an argument that 18th century American
intellectuals were no more representative of the average
American’s religious beliefs than they are today
and that, therefore, what we need to look at is how
the average American understood the document that
they were ratifying. And they may have been swept
up with the First Great Awakening and things that
these intellectuals were not really sympathetic to. And they may have
understood the document in very different
religious terms than the Founders themselves. GEOFFREY STONE: Right. So, OK, first of all,
I’m not that kind of originalist at all. But putting myself
in that role, I think what they would find
is that, as I said, only 10% of people were affiliated with
a Christian church by the 1780s. So during the First
Great Awakening, 30 years earlier, there
was a much greater movement of Christian revivalism. But that had passed. And I can’t say I know what the
average person on the street thought of with respect
to these issues. But what’s clear is that
they were not evangelicals. And they didn’t believe that– and again, religion
was established in 11 of the 13
states at the time that the Constitution
was adopted. So the idea in each
state about having their own religion, the
majority religion of each state connected with public
authority was still accepted in the vast majority
of the states at that time, although it was in the
process of disappearing. So I don’t think that
they would have had quite the same resistance to– quite the same approach
to non-establishment at the state level
that the government did at the national level. But this was not due to any
particular religious fervor. It was largely due
to the fact that it was the law, had been the
law from the beginning. And it takes a long
time to change law. And it all did get changed
over the next 25 years. So the bottom line
is I think if you look at what the average
person on the street believed, deism was increasingly popular
by the late 18th century. I think the main
view among people was simply religion wasn’t an
important part of their lives, one way or the other. They were not even as
thoughtful about religion as deists, who
were intellectuals and quite thoughtful about it. Nor were they, however,
living their lives according to any particular
belief in Christianity. STUDENT: About this statement
that 10% of the population [INAUDIBLE] Christianity,
could you explain a little bit about what that means? Does it mean official
membership in a church? If so, did the church
have to [INAUDIBLE] have to [INAUDIBLE]
late 18th century. And if you were not in
favor of the established church in your state,
to what extent would you have had access to your
preferred church, whatever it may be? GEOFFREY STONE:
The data on this is based upon obviously historical
records of church membership and church attendance. And the numbers range from
under 10% to about 15% or 17%. But the most reliable figure,
according to the literature, is about 10%. And I think it’s based
on the combination of formal affiliation
and attendance. And beyond that, I can’t
vouch for the numbers. But they seem to be pretty
well-respected among people who are historians of this field. STUDENT: Could you know what
degree of active affiliations it represents? GEOFFREY STONE: I think
it includes regular church attendance. STUDENT: OK. GEOFFREY STONE: Yeah. STUDENT: So I was wondering,
since [INAUDIBLE] such a close connection between
religious study and secular study [INAUDIBLE]
education [INAUDIBLE] wouldn’t that [INAUDIBLE]
do you think there was still a pretty strong sense
among the Framers that education, at
least, [INAUDIBLE] secular education should
be necessary [INAUDIBLE] and political life,
whether its voting or running for office,
[INAUDIBLE] religious test [INAUDIBLE] running for office
and for voting and so forth. Would they have supported that? Or just a universal right
to political [INAUDIBLE] GEOFFREY STONE: Well, they
didn’t believe in either. I mean, they didn’t believe in
universal franchise, certainly. But they also– I’m not aware
of any formal legal standards that required education to
be elected to public office. I mean, initially, they– that
is the Jeffersons and Adams and so on– assumed and hoped
that the people who would be elected to hold
positions of responsibility would be people
like them, that is, people who, in their own
view, were public spirited, who were interested
in the public good, did not have their
own self-interest at stake, who
understood the necessity to look out for the
whole, rather than for individual self-interest. And they were generally
appalled by what they saw in the states
between their Declaration of Independence and the time
the Constitution was enacted. That is, they were
appalled by the extent to which self-interest
had run rampant in the electorate and the
quality of state elected representatives. So they were very concerned by
the time the Constitution was enacted about whether this
whole notion of republicanism would actually work. And there’s a lot
of talk, actually, about education being
important to the success of republicanism. But at least in the
first iteration, they kind of assumed that the
people who would run things would be like them. They’d be educated. They’d have the time. They’d basically
be kind of wealthy. And they saw
themselves, of course, as being disinterested
and appropriate governors. And quickly they discovered that
the people didn’t necessarily think they were the right
people to be their leaders. And this caused
considerable dismay. But yes. I mean, Franklin, for example,
and Adams both very distinctly talked about
education as important to the operation
of self-governance. STUDENT: It seems clear– I think almost
everyone in this room would agree that central
Christian tenets, such as Jesus’ divinity
and predestination, were not a major part of the
founding of this country. However, it seems
that every person you mentioned either explicitly
or implicitly, perhaps with the exception
of Thomas Paine, really put a lot of stock
in Christian philosophy. So if I’m arguing about stem
cell research or abortion or gay marriage
with someone who’s milking the idea that
this nation was founded on Christian
principles, I mean, how do they not win that argument,
if the Christian philosophy was such an important part– I mean, it seems
like everyone you mentioned seemed to think
it was a great philosophy. Why is the
distinction important? GEOFFREY STONE: Well, but
again, the philosophy, I think, that most of
the deists embraced was at this very high
level of generality, kind of the golden rule. And it did not include
specific tenets that might be invoked
in debates over issues like abortion or
gay marriage or stem cell research and the like. I think the question
they would ask themselves about those issues
is not what is the Christian position on these
issues, but what does be just and good require, and
wouldn’t be interested in what the Christian position
on those issues were, and would regard appeals
to the Christian position as illegitimate to
political decision making. That’s very hard to
implement in practice. But I think, as an ideal,
that’s where they were headed, that their sense was
that what they regarded as civic religion
was essentially this notion of the golden rule. They attributed that
to Christianity. They thought that was great. And that’s completely
consistent with and should drive republicanism. But beyond that, I
think they basically thought you should be
thinking about what it is to be good and kind and
to respect your fellow citizen, rather than appealing
to religious sources to resolve specific disputes. STUDENT: I don’t remember when
the first American currency was printed, but how do you
construe the reference to God on the dollar? GEOFFREY STONE: It
came much later. I don’t remember
exactly when it came. But it came much later. I mean, the world
changed after 1800. So after 1800, with the
Second Great Awakening, then the battle between the
new Christian revivalism and the idea of separation
was put under enormous strain. And that’s when you had issues
about Sunday mail delivery and you had efforts
to put “in God we trust” on dollars and
money and the efforts to prosecute blasphemy. It became much more
aggressive again. But that’s already past
the world of the Framers. And those changes very
definitely took place. And we inherit a world. And part of the
point I want to make is most Americans kind of think
that the world of the Framers was the world of the
early 19th century. And they’re not. There’s a dramatic
change in the world, as both Adams and Jefferson
commented to their regret. And so if we attribute
to the Framers the world of the
Second Great Awakening, we’re making a terrible mistake
about what that world actually was. The Second Great Awakening
was about Christian revivalism and evangelicalism. And it was a powerful
shift in American culture. But it was not the culture
that existed 30 years earlier. STUDENT: I was curious
what is your idea in terms of what role federalism
might play in this idea that the national government
can’t do certain things? So national [INAUDIBLE]
government [INAUDIBLE] anything to do with
religion, but the states can do what they want. GEOFFREY STONE: So obviously,
the Framers of the First Amendment were acting out
of their understanding of federalism. And although Madison wanted
the equivalent of the First Amendment to bind the states,
the Constitutional Convention rejected that and felt that
it would be overbearing of the federal government to
be dictating to the states, particularly at a time
when 11 of the states had established churches. And so his effort to get the
Congress in the Constitutional Convention– I’m sorry, to get
the first Congress, because it was actually
the first Congress that adopted the Bill of Rights, not
the Constitutional Convention. His effort to get
the first Congress to adopt the equivalent
of religious freedom at the state level was rejected. So they were clearly
understanding that freedom of religion,
freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable
searches and seizures, those were rights against the
federal government only. And the states were
free to do whatever they please with respect
to any of those issues, insofar as the federal
Constitution was concerned. Now, insofar as what
they thought was right, I think the same arguments
that they basically invoked about non-establishment,
as a matter of principle, they would have
invoked in the states about getting rid of the
established churches. And again, they were
all gotten rid of over the next several decades. But there was a
critical difference. And that’s that at
the federal level, you didn’t have a single
church that had enough power to become established as
a single Methodist Church or Baptist Church or
Congregationalist Church. And, therefore, all of
them were kind of nervous about the possibility
of an establishment ever coming into
being, because they didn’t know what groups
would get together and would try to
establish something that may be disadvantageous to them. So there was a
particular support for the non-establishment
in the federal constitution, because it wasn’t
clear who, if anyone, would wind up getting control
of the federal government, in terms of being able to use
it to dictate religious belief at the national level. Whereas in the
states, you already had establishments in 11 states. And they knew who
the majority was. And there was a
majority in each state. And that was reflected in
who basically controlled the established church. So the point is
part of the ability to enact the
Establishment Clause in the federal government was
the product of principle, which would have been applied by
many of the framers neutrally in the states, if they
could have implemented it. And part of it was the
product of political reality that was fairly easy to
adopt non-establishment at the federal level,
because all the sects were nervous about who would get to
do the establishing if there was a national establishment. Does that answer your question? But their basic view was
that state governments had establishments, and
there was nothing in the federal
Constitution and nothing they would do at that time
that would interfere with that. Now, constitutionally, of
course, the 14th Amendment has been understood
to have changed that and to have essentially
made most of the guarantees in the Bill of Rights, including
the religion clause, as applicable to the states. But that’s a development
that occurs obviously many years later. But the Framers themselves of
the original First Amendment did not have any expectation
that it would interfere with the freedom
of the states to do what they wanted with
respect to their own citizens in terms of religion. STUDENT: I’m amazed at
the size of the change that you’re describing
was going on at the beginning of
the 19th century, where we went from a fairly
skeptical, rational society to one where [INAUDIBLE]
we’re completely saturated with Protestantism. And I just wanted to make clear
or ask you to clarify what caused that change [INAUDIBLE] GEOFFREY STONE:
Well, asking what causes a social change like
that is a difficult question and not one lawyers have
any particular comparative advantage on. But when I look at
historians and sociologists and so on, what they say is
it was basically a combination of several factors. One of them was the reaction
of the French Revolution, which was very powerful, which
scared the hell out of a lot of people, in terms
of where are we headed. And are we following
them off the same cliff? So that was a powerful factor. The second one was the enormous
disruption in American society that was brought about by
immigration and urbanization and movement in the
early 19th century. It was a period of rapid
transformation of society and families breaking up and
uncertainty and leading people to want something that
they could latch onto. And the third factor
was probably really just the coincidence of having
a group of individuals who were extraordinarily effective
revivalist preachers, who managed to sort of
capture the moment. And again, I don’t want to
overstate the effect of this. I mean, I think that
even at its height, the Second Great
Awakening didn’t involve more than maybe 20%
or 30% of the American people. But that’s a lot of
people to suddenly be moving in a certain
direction at the same time. And it had a large
impact on, as I say, issues like blasphemy
and putting “in God we trust” and stuff like that on the coins
and on Sunday mail deliveries and all those issues. That’s a huge political block. And it became a very active
and powerful political block between 1800 and roughly 1840. OK. Thank you very much.

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