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GODLESS IN AMERICA

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 1996 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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In the run-up to the 1994 elections, Democratic spokesmen frequently warned of the sinister influence of the "Christian right" on the Republican party. But warnings about an impending theocratic tyranny did not make much impression on the voters. Such alarums seem to have been quietly dropped by professional politicians. The academy works at a slower pace, however, and professors are less nimble in shifting their direction of attack. Or perhaps it is the vanity of professors that leads them to think that failed appeals just need a bit more intellectual grounding to make their mark.


At any rate, Isaac Kramnick, professor of political theory, and Laurence Moore, professor of American history, try to gain some new traction in The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (WW Norton, 224 pages, $ 22). They employ the term "religious correctness," as they explain, " to turn the tables on those who imagine that the only danger to our free institutions lies in something they, pejoratively, call political correctness." Take that!


The bulk of this book is a tour -- a carefully guided tour -- of early American history. The authors remind us in one chapter that Roger Williams, founder of the renegade Puritan settlement in Rhode Island, had already sought to implement a complete separation of government from religion in the mid-17th century. Williams, an intensely pious man, feared the corrupting effects of worldly political concerns on true religion. The Philadelphia Convention endorsed a similar view, as Kramnick and Moore tell us in another chapter, when the framers offered a constitution that makes no mention of God but does include a blanket prohibition on religious tests for any federal office. Successive chapters then trace the way Jefferson's demand for strict separation of church and state was carried forward in national politics, in the early 19th century, by ornery Baptists (suspicious of other church authorities) and by insistent Jeffersonian democrats (eager to purge government of any taint of partiality or mystical sanction).


To give the authors their due, they highlight some little known and quite interesting episodes in each chapter, and they move their story along at a very readable pace.


But what does it all mean? Kramnick and Moore acknowledge at the outset that there has always been an opposing tradition that emphasizes the need for governmental encouragement of religion. They disclaim any intent to "prove that the tradition we oppose never existed in the mind of any respectable or learned American." They do not trouble to explore what the "respectable or learned" defenders of the "opposing" view actually thought or said, however. Instead, they tell us about various evangelical clergymen, bigots, and cranks who battled the Jeffersonian creed at the founding and through much of the 19th century. In a concluding chapter, they take aim against Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Pat Buchanan, suggesting that their professions of tolerance are merely tactical ploys and lambasting these figures for their continued intolerance toward gays and unwed mothers.


The Godless Constitution does score points against the claim that America was founded as a "Christian order" by a generation of intensely pious Christian s. Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice are cited as makin g this claim, and one should grant that Kramnick and Moore are better historians than they.


But Kramnick and Moore are hardly scrupulous historians themselves, even on the selective sampling of American history they choose to rehearse in this volume.


If it is telling, as the professors say, that the framers omitted any mention of God from the Constitution, it should be noted, too (as they fail to do), that George Washington himself (after presiding over the constitutional convention) remedied this defect by inserting "so help me God" into the prescribed presidential oath in Article II. Every one of Washington's successors as chief executive (coached by successive chief justices of the Supreme Court) has followed this informal amendment as if it were an unalterable part of the text.


The professors might also have noted, as they fail to do, that even Jefferson, the staunchest advocate of secular government, frequently graced his presidential speeches with religious appeals and Biblical allusions (as in his Second Inaugural address, which concludes with an appeal to "the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life").


But all this is beside the point.