GODLESS IN AMERICA
11:00 PM, Jan 21, 1996 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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.
What Kramnick and Moore want to demonstrate is not that Christian conservatives are poor scholars but that their ambitions are beyond the bounds of what our constitutional traditions can tolerate. In a more forthright era, this charge was described as "un-Americanism." Kramnick and Moore settle for saying that religious conservatives today are in a direct line of descent from the people who denounced Jefferson. But in the end, their charge against the contemporary religious right is not really a matter of history but of ideology. To make the charge plausible, they must ignore history and present today's religious conservatives without any reference to the immediate historical background of present-day controversies.
First, the authors never acknowledge the constitutional novelty that has hdped to provoke the contemporary "religious right." The peculiar wording of the First Amendment -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- was quite deliberately crafted to appeal not only to Jeffersonians, but to those of"the opposing tradition." The prohibition applied only to the federal government, and the phrasing was designed to prohibit Congress not only from establishing a national religion but equally from interfering with existing religious establishments in the states (which endured in some states well into the 19th century). It is only since World War II that the Supreme Court has decided to enforce the "non-establishment" prohibition on states and localities. The rationale for doing this (that the Fourteenth Amendment had somehow intended to apply the whole bill of rights to the states) is quite weak on historical grounds. The court itself has never ventured any serious justification for this approach. Yet, since the late 1960s, it has lowered standing barriers to legal claims against "establishment" in a way it has prudently declined to do for any other constitutional claim.
In recent decades, therefore, the Jeffersonian outlook has been given an intrusive legal reach it simply never had in all of previous American history. It is one thing to dispute whether the federal government should deliver the mails on the Sabbath (as Jeffersonians insisted it should in the early 19th century). It is rather a different thing to unleash federal courts on every schoolhouse in the land that posts the Ten Commandments in the hallways or against every local public park that accommodates a Christmas display in December. It may be true that what the courts are enforcing parallels, in some sense, the strict separationism endorsed by Jefferson. But Jefferson never thought to urge that central authorities be brought in to correct the failings of every little village in Virginia.
There is a much deeper point, however, about which the authors are equally silent. Even strict separationists like Jefferson never doubted the authority of government to enforce basic moral norms. Contemporary liberalism has challenged traditional understandings about a whole range of moral norms, on the grounds that they are improper impositions of religious belief or unnecessarily repressive. Abortion is, of course, the most notorious example. Kramnick and Moore say that "in a democratic society abortion advocates and abortion foes can legitimately debate the issue."
In the contemporary United States, however, the issue cannot be settled by or dinary democratic debate. The "abortion advocates" have their views enforced by judicial edicts -- so that, at one stroke in 1973, the United States was given the most permissive abortion laws in the Western world. And Kramnick and Moore, while treading lightly around the basic fa ct, do seem to endorse this system: "In light of the godless Constitution," they say, it is "unacceptable... for government policy in any way to privilege or codify religious belief in ways that preempt pluralist democratic process."
In other words, for the sake of "pluralist democratic process," policy preferences of religious believers may need to be forcibly withdrawn from democratic process. Krarnnick and Moore cannot quite bring themselves to attribute this remarkable doctrine to Jefferson, but they do not acknowledge how far it stretches anything that Jefferson could actually have endorsed. Kramnick and Moore want to rescue Jefferson's anticlerical enthusiasm and leave the rest of his liberalism back in the 18th century.
The Godless Constitution keeps insisting that Christian conservatives are wrong to imagine that America was more Christian or more wholesome in the past. But it is Kramnick and Moore who seem to display the greatest longing for a sim pler past -- those good old days when a liberal knew that religious intolerance was the enemy and freedom the answer. And only naughty religious demagogues wou ld disturb their complacent slumbers.
Jeremy Rabkin teaches government at Cornell University.