American Journal of Legal History
DANIEL L. DREISBACH, MARK DAVID HALL, AND JEFFREY H. MORRISON (EDS.). THE FORGOTTEN FOUNDERS ON RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE. NOTRE DAME, IN: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME PRESS, 2009. 352 PP. $28.00 (PAPER)
David K. DeWolf
In The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison have set about to correct a truncated representation of what the Founders thought was the proper relationship between religion and public life--particularly the place of religion in politics. There is plenty of scholarship already available to challenge the claim that Jefferson's metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state was reflective of some sort of consensus among the Founders, and this volume offers additional reflection on the topic.
Before delving into the contribution that this volume offers, it would be helpful to answer the question, “Who cares?” Or perhaps more specifically, what purchase on contemporary issues is expected to be gained from an appeal to what the Founders believed? The short answer is that a common trope in contemporary politics is to accuse the “Religious Right” of betraying the vision of the Founders by failing to observe a distinction between the private dictates of religion and the public obligations of government. As pious as some of our Founders may have been, so goes the claim, they created a form of government that relegated religion to the realm of the personal and private, relying upon more universal principles to animate the structure of government. In fact, some claim that the Founding Fathers adopted a radically different conception from that of the “Planting Fathers,” rejecting their religious vision in favor of a form of government that prohibited any alliance between church and state.
To be sure, there is an equal and opposite claim on behalf of the so-called Religious Right: not only is the wall of separation metaphor misleading, but by attempting to exclude religion from the public square, “separationists” are ignoring the wisdom of the Founders. As even William 0. Douglas, an icon of the modern civil liberties movement, recognized in Zorach v. Clausen, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Critics of the separationist position argue that, leaving aside the prospect of divine retribution, failure to recognize the wisdom of the Founders will erode the foundation upon which the success of the American experiment has been built.
Thus, the reason that we are properly interested in the views of the Founders is to help resolve the dispute over who is more entitled to speak for the Founders on the question of how the spheres of religious belief and government are related. And in using the phrase “Forgotten Founders” in the title, the authors are suggesting that the subjects of the individual essays in the book have been relegated to undeserved obscurity in the usual presentation of the Founders. To be sure, most of the names are well known: Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Abigail Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Thomas Paine. These are names that most educated people could recognize as playing significant roles in the Revolution and its aftermath. The other names would be harder to pick out: Oliver Ellsworth, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren. These individuals are known to scholars of the era, and in some cases had a more decisive influence on the public understanding of religion's role in public life than those with greater name recognition.
Each essay is interesting in its own right, because in the life history of each subject there is a mixture of extraordinary opportunity combined with daunting personal hardship and challenge. For example, Alexander Hamilton's brilliance and public success combined with personal limitation and moral failure. Three years before his death he returned to the piety of his youth. As with many (perhaps most) people, the encounter of unexpected misfortune, or acknowledgement of serious personal failing, leads to a conversion of the heart. Even if the individual (in most cases) is already a Christian believer of a traditional variety, there is a renewed appreciation of how profoundly dependent each individual is upon the continued mercy of God.
It would be one thing if the essays merely documented the personal piety of the Founders. That would be consistent with the vision of the separationists-- religion as an uplifting and useful activity, but optional and private. Instead, each of the essay subjects assumed that a proper relationship to one's Creator was necessary not just for individuals, but for nations as well. In the same way that an individual, forgetful of his status as a creature, and inclined to assume that he is entitled to make his own rules, will soon discover how painfully inadequate he is to live without divine assistance, the nation that loses its sense of dependence upon a Divine Governor is likely to fall victim to the various ills that have plagued governments throughout history. Worse yet, unlike individuals, who may be rescued from a wayward path by concerned friends or acquaintances, nations tend to acknowledge their wrongdoing only after calamity has struck. Whereas King David took advantage of the Prophet Nathan's rebuke to mend his ways, the nation of Israel ignored the Prophet Jeremiah and wound up in the Babylonian Captivity.
In this context the controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance comes to mind. Whereas no one has made a claim that it is unconstitutional to invite schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the United States, there is a well-known challenge to saying the Pledge with the words “under God” inserted after the words “one nation.” With the essays of this book in hand, one can appreciate why it might be seen as a mistake to pledge allegiance to a country before there was some assurance that the country was properly restrained by an acknowledgement of higher duties.
The Founders could certainly have been wrong in their understanding; but this volume is an important contribution to an accurate representation of what they actually believed, and it may help strengthen the judgment that they were correct.