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May 08 2012

Debunking D’Souza, Part 3: Christianity and the Founding

In part 2, I quoted Dinesh D’Souza claiming, as he did over and over in his debate with Susan Jacoby, that, “If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left? If you were to subtract it from America, no founding, no Declaration of Independence.” But he did little to support that point. He repeatedly talked about Jefferson grounding inalienable rights on a “Creator” without bothering to mention that Jefferson rejected every important element of Christianity.

That was his primary equivocation, of course, conflating Jefferson’s theistic rationalism with Christianity. The other two primary authors of the Declaration, John Adams and Ben Franklin, had similar views. Were there Christians there as well? Of course there were. The majority of the men who wrote the Declaration and the Constitution were Christian (though the frequent claim about 52 or the 55 framers being ministers is just nonsense). But to claim that there would be no founding without Christianity, that the core principles of America’s founding were based upon a Christian viewpoint is absurd. And if I had been able to question D’Souza directly I would have asked questions like these:

1. If America is “founded on Christian principles,” where are they found in the Constitution? If this claim is true then it shouldn’t be difficult to point to particular provisions of the Constitution and find clear analogs to those ideas in the Bible. Where is the Biblical support for the idea of inalienable rights? Where is the Biblical support for freedom of religion? Or for the concept of political liberty at all? Where is the idea of democracy found anywhere in the Bible? The answer, of course, is that not only are none of those ideas in the Bible, there is a good deal of argument against most of them in the Bible.

2. If America is founded on Christian principles, then why did it take 1700 years for those ideas to appear? There is not a single example of a Christian country, from the time of Constantine’s conversion and the ascendance of Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire to all of the governments of Europe, that had anything resembling freedom of religion or conscience. All were Christian establishments that had none of the ideas that animated, on paper if not in practice, the founding of this country. If those ideas were part of Christianity to begin with, why was they never discovered to be there until the Enlightenment?

3. If America is founded on Christian principles, why were the only people quoting the Bible and Christian tradition at the time of the founding on the wrong side of those principles? Almost the only ones who were quoting the Bible at the time were the Anti-Federalists who opposed the passage of the Constitution, and they did so often on explicitly Christian grounds. At the ratification conventions, the religious right of that day railed against the ban on religious tests for office and ministers all over the country delivered sermons and wrote pamphlets about the evils of not requiring officeholders to be not only Christian, but the particular flavor of Christian that they preferred. Absent religious tests, they argued, a “papist” or a Quaker or even — gasp! — a Jew might be elected. An article that appeared in newspapers in several states in 1788 gave a list of those who might hold office if the Constitution was passed with that provision in Article 6:

“1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence – 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity – 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches – 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain – 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil – 6thly. Jews etc. etc.”

Attempts were made to change this in many of the state conventions. In Virginia, a proposal was made to change the wording of Article 6 to say that “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil.” Also in Virginia, an amendment was offered and defeated that would have required the establishment of academies “at every proper place through the United States” for young people to learn “the principles of the Christian religion without regard to any sect, but pure and unadulterated as left by its divine author and his apostle.”

And it wasn’t just the ban on religious tests. The fact that the Constitution broke with tradition by not making any statement at all of fealty to God in its preamble was also a major concern at the time. Without it, declared many ministers and delegates to the ratification conventions, we risked bringing down the wrath of God. As historians Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore said in their book The Godless Constitution:

No surprise, then, that a frequent claim heard in 1787 and 1788 was that the Constitution represented a deistic conspiracy to overthrow the Christian commonwealth. This view was most powerfully put by the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, pamphleteer “Aristocrotis” in a piece aptly titled “The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution.”

Aristocrotis contends that the delegates in Philadelphia have created a govemment that for the first time in world history removes religion from public life. Until 1787 “there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion.” But this was no problem for the Constitutional Convention intent on creating “a government founded upon nature.” What, he asks, “is the world to the federal convention but as the drop of a bucket, or the small dust in the balance! What the world could not accomplish from the commencement of time till now, they easily performed in a few moments by declaring that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, under the United States? ” This, Aristocrotis suggests, “is laying the ax to the root of the tree; whereas other nations only lopped off a few noxious branches.” He argues that the “new Constitution, disdains . . . belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgement, or a future state of rewards and punishments,” because its authors are committed to a natural religion that is deistic nonreligion…

An Anti-Federalist writer wamed in a Boston newspaper on January 10, 1788, that since God was absent from the Constitution, Americans would suffer the fate that the prophet Samuel foretold to Saul: “because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee.” In short, if Americans in their new fundamental law forgot God and His Christian commonwealth, God would soon forget them, and they would perish. The same apocalyptic theme was picked up by the Massachusetts Anti-Federalist Charles Turner, who feared that “without the presence of Christian piety and morals the best Republican Constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin.” …

Like this Virginian, those opposed to the godless Constitution did not just complain; their advocacy of a Christian commonwealth led them to propose specific changes in the Constitution at various state ratifying conventions, all of which were rejected. In Connecticut, William Williams, a delegate, formally moved that the Constitution’s one-sentence preamble be enlarged to include a Christian conception of politics, He proposed that it be changed to read, “We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc.”

For more than a century after the Constitution was ratified, attempts were made over and over again to add a “Christian nation” amendment to that document; all of them failed. The conservative Christian position from the very start was that the Constitution was a godless document that would bring down God’s wrath upon us all. The National Reform Association tried for decades to add language to the Constitution to avoid that inevitable result. In 1863, they held a conference and proposed the following language be added to the Constitution:

We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The following year, they submitted a slightly different version:

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This went on from the late 1700s to the late 1900s; the last attempt to add a Christian nation amendment to the Constitution was in 1980. So the opposition to the Constitution at the time was largely Christian. What of the advocacy of it?

4. If the Constitution is based on Christian principles, why did the men who wrote it, advocated and explained its meaning to the people during the ratification debates ever say so? We have the Federalist Papers, written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to explain each provision of the Constitution. In those essays they explain the origin of many of those provisions and there is not a single reference to the Bible or to Christian theology. Given that the Federalist Papers were written to explain and defend the provisions of the Constitution to a predominately Christian populace, it would certainly have helped their cause to cite Biblical support for those ideas; they could not, because none exists. The men who wrote the Constitution referred to many sources, most of them Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Algernon Sydney and others, and also to Cicero, Plato and other Greek and Roman thinkers. The entire process was an exercise in the use of reason, as John Adams made clear in an essay called A Defense of the Constitution of the United States:

The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses…

Once again, D’Souza is shown to have ignored nearly all of the relevant history in order to make a blatantly dishonest point.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk

    He repeatedly talked about Jefferson grounding inalienable rights on a “Creator” without bothering to mention that Jefferson rejected every important element of Christianity.

    The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God
    That doesn’t resemble anything in Christianity.

  2. 2
    keithb

    “There is not a single example of a Christian country, from the time of Constantine’s conversion and the ascendance of Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire to all of the governments of Europe, that had anything resembling freedom of religion or conscience.”

    Well, the Dutch – as described in Tuchman’s _The First Salute_ – come pretty close.

  3. 3
    John Hinkle

    D’Souza’s reply:

    Well yeah, that’s a lot of stuff you said there, using a lot of fancy words. But you know what? If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left? If you were to subtract it from America, no founding, no Declaration of Independence. That’s what! So there!

  4. 4
    The Lorax

    Excellent post, and lovely sources. You really can’t spell it out any clearer than that, especially with regards to changing the wording of the Constitution.

  5. 5
    Christoph Burschka

    “1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence – 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity – 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches – 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain – 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil – 6thly. Jews etc. etc.”

    How quintessentially Christian.

  6. 6
    tommykey

    There is one American Constitution that mentioned God in its Preamble:

    We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

    Of course, they were the ones fighting to preserve the institution of slavery.

  7. 7
    footface

    That’s all you got? A pile of evidence and citations and a coherent argument based on fact?

  8. 8
    matty1

    “1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence – 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity – 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches – 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain – 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil – 6thly. Jews etc. etc.”

    Beggar and Negro used to be religions?

  9. 9
    tommykey

    Further to my comment @ #6, invoking God clearly didn’t help the Confederacy win the war.

  10. 10
    Michael Heath

    Dinesh D’Souza is falsely laying claim to a legacy his type were the enemies of exactly like some of his ilk, e.g., Sean Hannity and Glen Beck, falsely claim they’re from the legacy of those who passed civil rights legislation in the late-1950s and 1960s.

    The primary set of Christian framers’ approach, including Franklin and Jefferson, utilized human reason channeled through enlightenment thinking which arrived at the promotion of a secular government. That’s in opposition of orthodox Christians of that time, and conservative Christians today, who premise their position on holy dogma and divine revelation which has them demanding we submit to their idea of God whose sovereign over our government and our people.

    These two completely different, and competing, systemic approaches is the primary reason today’s science-literate freethinkers have much in common with the theistic rationalists of that day while conservative Christians are stuck making arguments using the same failed dependence on dogma, revelation, and now – lies given how much we empirically understand about reality. They remain opposed to the very type of thinking Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton used in spite of its success then and now. And in spite of the fact Mr. D’Souza and all fundamentalists and evangelicals enjoy the fruits of such thinking via the political liberty and technological innovation it provided – while remaining fiercely opposed to such thinking.

    Do any conservative Christian so-called colleges and universities do scientific research?

  11. 11
    otrame

    Further to my comment @ #6, invoking God clearly didn’t help the Confederacy win the war.

    Thoroughly OT, but I had a history professor that insisted that Antoine Jomini lost the Civil War; that if the Jomini had never been taught as the ultimate authority on “How Napoleon Did It” in West Point while all those generals were there, then George Washington’s methods might have been taken seriously and the South would have hunkered down and fought a purely defensive war and they would have worn out the North’s will to fight pretty quickly. But since Jomini told them that you win wars by winning battles, they fought battles. Washington (and Sam Houston, for that matter) knew that when you were out-gunned, out-supplied, and out-populated, your army was your country and you should spend every man like precious gold. Lee threw men away to win battles. He won a lot of battles and in do so killed his army and his country.

    I don’t think it is quite as simple as that, because the “gentlemen” of the south would have hated fighting such a war and treated Lee like dirt when he actually tried it, early on, but it is an interesting idea that one French historian could have had that much effect on the course of American history.

    ____

    As for the OP, I’m with footface, Ed. I don’t know why you expect to be taken seriously if your are going to go around citing facts and that crap.

    It does remind me that I’ve been meaning to re-read Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men, which is a day-by-day history of the Constitutional Convention, with a short history of the ratification. It is an amazingly compelling story that I recommend.

  12. 12
    DaveL

    Where is the Biblical support for the idea of inalienable rights? Where is the Biblical support for freedom of religion? Or for the concept of political liberty at all? Where is the idea of democracy found anywhere in the Bible?

    Actually, much of the work of enlightenment philosophers consisted of finding (or rather, constructing) arguments for exactly that. The idea of natural equality between men goes back at least to classical times and pagan philosophers like Aristotle. For example, in Locke’s 2nd Treatise on Civil Government, the beginning of chapter 2 consists of a very Aristotelian appeal to the natural state of man. Nor were these origins unknown to the defenders of the Divine Right of Kings, as can be seen in the 2nd chapter of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha.

    So yes, one can certainly find many arguments from that period for equal unalienable rights based in Christian theology. However, they clearly do not represent the genesis of a new idea from Christian roots. Rather, they are attempts to make an old pagan idea palatable to a Christian society.

    A “compatibility patch”, as it were.

  13. 13
    otrame

    Ack!!!

    …if you are not your are.

    Damn it.

  14. 14
    'Tis Himself

    The separation of church and state dates back to Friedrich Barbarossa’s Drang nach Südden and his struggles with Pope Alexander III over primacy in Europe. The post-Roman collapse Europeans had been trying since Charlemagne to re-establish a Christian empire, Roman style, by hadn’t quite got it right. One of the major questions about this empire was who should ultimately be the supreme ruler, the secular emperor who achieved his position through conquest and blood lines, or the Pope? In other words, should ultimate power rest with the church or the state. Should there be a difference between the two? With Barbarossa’s failed attempts to bring Italy under his sway, the two remained separate. The Protestant Reformation led to two centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in the big finale of the Thirty Years War, leaving a lot of people in Europe wondering if religion was a good idea or not.

    This was the mindset of the first English settlers in the Americas. The English Civil War, Cromwell’s tyranny, and the “Bloodless Revolution” of 1688 left a deep impression on English colonists. They created a movement called Deism. The Deists; beliefs were that though they believed, often strongly, in god, they distrusted religions as imperfect human attempts to define and understand god. They looked on the Catholic Church as a bloated, corrupt bureaucracy that wanted power and Earthly wealth. They were committed Protestants who believed that Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church was absolutely necessary but they also saw the resulting Church of England, the Anglicans, as having become just as corrupt as the Catholics. The lesson they drew from the Anglican experience was that religion mixed with government inevitably led to the defilement of both. This is a source of confusion for many modern American religious extremists who can’t seem to bridge the understanding that the American Founding Fathers being devoted to god (except for some atheists like Ben Franklin) and yet distrusting religion. American Christian fundamentalists love to quote religious citations from the Founding Fathers without knowing the context of these remarks.

    The American Constitution was framed with a strict separation between state and religion. It is not anti-religious but it says that while religion has a place in society, that place cannot be connected with the government. Anyone can practice any religion or lack thereof, but they cannot force anyone else to practice that religion and the government cannot endorse or support any particular religion.

    American religious zealots have a convoluted logical that says they should be able to express their religion in any way they want, including putting symbols on government property, disregarding the Constitution and local laws. If they can’t impose their religious views on everyone else then their religious rights are being abridged. Since their religion says they must proselytize, any attempt to stop them from doing so, all laws and the Constitution be damned, is against their rights.

    The point about separation of church and state that seems to be missing is that it’s not about majorities, it’s about all of society. Clearly, even if we are a minority, there are those of us who do not want religion imposed on us and especially don’t want government to aid in the imposition. The zealots don’t get it and, what’s worse, don’t want to get it.

  15. 15
    Pierce R. Butler

    tommykey @ # 6: … invoking God clearly didn’t help the Confederacy win the war.

    Of course not: Lincoln’s guys had chariots of iron, lots of ‘em.

  16. 16
    Chiroptera

    …2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity….

    Really? In 1788, that was the most serious complaint against the Muslims?

    Ah, simpler times.

  17. 17
    slc1

    Re otrame @ #11

    A number of historians have raised the issue of Jomini as being influential to both sides, in particular, T. Harry Williams, “Lincoln and his Generals”. In particular, a professor at West Point, Dennis Mahan (the father of the naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan), who was a student of Jomini’s writings, was most influential in influencing the thinking of the generals on both sides, all of whom were former students.

    The most interesting proposal I have read was by the British military historian Major General J. F. C. Fuller who wrote a couple of books on the Civil War. He proposed that the strategy that had the best hope of success for the Confederacy was to form 2 armies.

    One in the East that would pursue a Fabian strategy of retreating south to draw in federal forces and attack their extended supply lines. The other in the west that would fight offensively, using the vast space between the Appalachians and the Mississippi for maneuver. The trouble was that Robert E. Lee, who really only cared about events in Virginia, would never have gone along with such a strategy which would have resulted in the State of Virginia being under Federal control.

    Thus evolved the Confederate strategy which was to defend everything everywhere together with offensive operations in the North with the expectation that a victory won there would cause the intervention of Britain and France in the war. The result was two invasions of Pennsylvania and Maryland that resulted in two tactical defeats at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg with resultant heavy causalities that the Confederacy could ill afford. Had more aggressive generals been in command of the Union armies at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg, those tactical defeats almost certainly been strategic defeats with Lee’s army cut to pieces.

    Another problem for the Confederates was the incompetence of President Davis who, despite his extensive military experience, West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran, Secretary of War in the Fillmore administration, turned out to be a dud as a military strategist. This was in contrast to his opposite number, Abraham Lincoln who had no military experience but turned out to be a great military strategist. As Fuller put it, in military matters, there is no substitute for a fine mind. Lincoln had a fine mind, Davis did not.

  18. 18
    jamesredekop

    “If you were to subtract the influence of Christianity from the west, what would be left?”

    More than would be left if you subtracted the influence of paganism in the form of the Greeks and Romans.

    For that matter, if you accept the idea that the stagnation of Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire can be laid at least partially at the feet of the Church, subtracting the influence of Christianity may leave you with 500 more years of progress than we have now…

  19. 19
    Nemo

    If America is “founded on Christian principles,” where are they found in the Constitution?

    Maybe in the bits about slavery, before they were stricken out?

  20. 20
    Scott F

    IANAHistorian, but my understanding is that one could reasonably argue that many of the original American colonies were found on religious principles; that many of the founding charters and constitutions of the original states had explicit references to God and His Son, and several of the Colonies had official state churches. But after the ratification of the US Constitution, these state constitutions were rewritten, or amended, to conform to the Federal charter, and the state-supported churches were thrown on their own resources.

    Assuming this is reasonably accurate, one might reasonably posit that the individual States were founded on religious principles. But, the federal Nation most certainly was not.

    My vague understanding was that part of the problem with trying to insert any kind of religious language into the Constitution was that no one could agree on what it should say. It was partly a states-rights issue, and no one State (or one denomination) wanted another State’s (or denomination’s) religious language to predominate. The only thing that everyone could safely, ultimately agree on was to have no religious language; to make the Constitution religiously neutral. And of course the Deists used these religious divisions among the States to push each side to the “middle of the road” solution.

    Again, I don’t know how accurate this is, but it has a certain appeal.

  21. 21
    reasonbeing

    Great post Ed. One of, if not the best blog I have read on this topic. You do a nice job asking concise questions that not only challenge D’Souza, but also shed light on various truths. Well done!

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