The Magazine

A Little Learning

The left-wing contribution to the shouting match.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JOSEPH KNIPPENBERG
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 Of course, I do not regard a few lines here as dispositive of the issue; I mean only to indicate that matters are not as simple as Garrett Epps makes them seem. Indeed, in this respect, he mirrors some of the oversimplifications of his targets. Rather than laying the groundwork for a reasoned consideration of the issues, he simply provides ammunition to one side and prolongs the shouting match.

One more example of his method will suffice. In his discussion of religion and the Constitution, Epps takes as his target the hucksterish David Barton, who relentlessly popularizes the notion of the United States as a “Christian nation.” Epps is right that Barton needs to be discredited, but he is hardly the man to do it, for all he would do is replace Barton’s exaggerations and distortions with his own. For Epps, the criticisms of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation”—a distinction that was read into the First Amendment by Justice Hugo Black in his 1947 Everson opinion—“ignore a historical fact” that, more than a century before Jefferson, the great Baptist dissenter Roger Williams used the same language.  

Yes, that is indeed a fact; but its bearing on the matter at hand is far from clear. To be sure, Jefferson was telling the Danbury Baptist Association what it wanted to hear, and James Madison might have had his own reasons for opposing any kind of governmental connection with religion. But there were many equally distinguished Founders on the other side of the question, George Washington and John Marshall among them. More than once, Epps makes a point of arguing against the invocation of the Founders’ authority, but when it suits his purposes, he is not above playing the same card.  

What is important, in this case as in others, is not what one or another of the Founders thought, but rather what the language meant to those who voted to adopt it in the state legislatures and conventions. Indeed, we have an excellent indication of the meaning of the First Amendment religion clauses to those who proposed them. The First Congress, which proposed the Bill of Rights to the states, also re-passed the Northwest Ordinance. Rather inconveniently for Epps’s argument, the Ordinance contains the following language: 

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.


Whatever the prohibition of “laws respecting an establishment of religion” means, it was thought by those who voted for it to permit public support for schools that teach morality and religion. While Epps might prefer that the plain language of the Constitution squarely support his favored position (and squarely oppose the positions he does not like), it is not that simple. That the proponents of the “Christian nation” thesis are wrong (as they surely are) does not make the strict separationists right (as they just as surely are not).

Epps regards those with whom he disagrees as “not living on the same planet.” He is right. There are, indeed, some fantastic elements in their constitutional world—nullification, for example, and the assumption that if senators were elected by state legislators we would make great progress in restoring the balance between the states and the federal government. But sober students of the Constitution do not inhabit Epps’s planet, either, as I hope I have begun to demonstrate. Furthermore, they do not have to resort to name-calling, exaggeration, and distortion to correct the misapprehensions of Tea Party constitutionalists.

The Constitution deserves a central place in our political discourse. Of course, partisans on both sides will always be tempted to find what they want in it. If there is no better antidote to partisanship on one side than on the other, then we are in much worse shape than I had thought. I would be quite happy if sound education would correct the fallacies of the partisans on both sides. Garrett Epps’s effort gives me less confidence about the prospects that we can teach and learn our way out of this conundrum.

Joseph Knippenberg is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University.