The Magazine

Faith in Government

The strikingly divergent opinions of the Founders.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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God and the Founders

Faith in Government

Photo Credit: AP

Madison, Washington, and Jefferson
by Vincent Phillip Munoz
Cambridge, 252 pp., $85

Everybody wants the Founding Fathers on their side, especially when it comes to First Amendment jurisprudence. Want to promote religion in the public square and the necessity of religion for good morals and politics? Just pull out a few choice quotations from George Washington’s Farewell Address, or his public proclamations of days of prayer and thanksgiving. Want to defend your secularism or rationalism? Just refer to Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” or his redacted Bible. Want to split the difference and push governmental impartiality among religions, and between religion and non-religion? Why, just invoke (incorrectly, as we’ll see) the authority of James Madison and his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance.”

Perhaps this helps explain why questions of religion and politics are so messy in American public life—and even messier in today’s Supreme Court jurisprudence. Consider how, on the same day in 2005, the Court issued two different 5-4 decisions on cases involving public displays of the Ten Commandments. The Court allowed a Texas state capitol Decalogue monument but ruled against Kentucky courthouse postings of the same—repeatedly invoking the Founders in both majority and dissenting opinions. The merits of each case aside, how could educated and intelligent judges repeatedly disagree with each other, all the while claiming that the Founders are on their side?

The answer, according to Vincent Phillip Munoz, professor of political science at Notre Dame, is simple: There is no view that belongs to “the Founders” as such, and any attempt to treat them as one is destined to fail. In what is sure to become required reading for anyone working in the field, God and the Founders, Munoz explains how our misreading of the Founders has led to 60 years of incomprehensible jurisprudence. He carefully studies the historical record to tease out the philosophies on religion of our three most prominent Founders: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Beyond simply noting their intellectual diversity, Munoz does something quite helpful: He interprets them correctly, which is no small feat when it comes to this topic.

Though touted as the Father of our Country, George Washington is regularly overlooked by scholars doing work on church-state relations—in part because the Supreme Court, in its landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, assumed that the Founders agreed on religion and that Madison and Jefferson (themselves agreeing, the Court assumed, on strict separation) therefore spoke for them all. But Washington’s neglect can also be explained by his never having written extended treatises on the topic: His views have to be pieced together from his letters and actions. Trudging through this material, Munoz concludes that “Washington consistently sought to use governmental authority to encourage religion and to foster the religious character of the American people.” Washington’s theory was simple: Since republican self-government was impossible without moral virtue, and moral virtue impossible without religion, the state had a legitimate interest in promoting religion. So long as the state’s action was broadly ecumenical (not favoring any particular sect), and didn’t force anyone to worship against their will, the good of religion could be promoted without violating religious liberty. At the same time, since civic goods and the obligations of citizenship reigned supreme for Washington, an individual’s right to free exercise of religion could be limited as the public order required.

If George Washington thought religion could be promoted for its civic value, Thomas Jefferson took a similarly instrumental approach to church-state relations. The difference is that Jefferson looked askance on organized religion. On his accounting, the state could promote religion, provided it was of the right, rationalist sort. But what, then, of the most famous of all Jeffersonian quips about the wall of separation? As Munoz carefully documents, Jefferson meant it to separate church and state, not religion and state. In particular, the wall was to “impede a specific type of religious belief and to suppress a particular type of religious influence”—namely, ecclesiastical clergy of the orthodox variety. 

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