- Religious Freedom and the Constitution, and: Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America
Ever since the Supreme Court announced in 1947 that the separation of church and state was enshrined in the Constitution, there has been a [End Page 481] powerful separationist impulse within the Court. It began in the 1940s; picked up steam in the 1960s with the prayer and Bible cases; then came to a crescendo in the 1990s and twenty-first century with such cases as prayer at school graduation ceremonies, Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and most recently, prayer at high school athletic contests. In each of these cases, the Court removed religion from the public sphere but, in doing so, the justices struggled to understand the nature and meaning of the First Amendment. If their divided opinions tell us anything, it is that they could not agree on how much was too much religion in the public sphere.
Scholars have not been much help either, at least in offering the Court a clear roadmap of what church and state meant to the Founders. Witness in recent years the rancorous debate among scholars, as they have argued and debated the religious origins of the nation’s founding. During the last decade, scholars on the right have forcefully maintained that “the United States during the Founding Period was a Christian nation” (James Hutson, Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early Republic, Lanham, MD, 2003, 126), while scholars on the left have steadfastly asserted that it was founded as a secular society. What provoked the debate was the publication in 1996 of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore’s The Godless Constitution, in which the authors, both Cornell University professors, offered a blistering attack on the religious right, vigorously challenging their assertion that the nation was founded on Christian principles. It was not a Christian founding, Kramnick and Moore argued, but a secular one—one where the Founders wanted to keep the church and the state separate.
In their own right (and without fully acknowledging it), the two books under review have added to this debate. Ellis Sandoz, a political theorist by training, reveals the major role that Protestant Christianity played in the formation of the American republic. In Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, he posits a Christian nation where American republicanism was nurtured and sustained “under Providential guidance” (xi). According to Sandoz, republicanism was rooted in key texts of Protestant civilization, including common-law constitutionalism, Latin and Greek classics, and most especially the Bible. The Founders, he argues, were well-versed in Biblical language, which influenced them as they fought a revolution and wrote a constitution. To make his case, Sandoz rummages through the Founders’ speeches and writings, culling certain quotes to support his thesis. We are told that George Washington and [End Page 482] John Adams called for official days of prayer and fasting during their presidencies, Benjamin Rush and Samuel Adams frequently quoted Jesus in their public and private writings, and officials at the Continental Congress were thoroughgoing Christians who attended church during their time in office. All of this, presumably, is proof that, in Tocqueville’s words, the men and women who founded America “brought a Christianity which . . . can only [be] describe[d] as democratic and republican. . . . It was religion that gave birth to . . . America. One must never forget that” (3, 80).
The problem with Sandoz’s argument is that he selectively quotes from the Founders’ writings, ignoring their letters, pamphlets, and public statements that would undercut his position. He loves to cite the “Christian” Founders—Benjamin Rush and Samuel Adams, in particular—but he rarely deals with the more “secular”-minded ones, namely Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or James Madison. Similarly, he does not address interpretations that differ from his. He shows no awareness, for example, of Kramnick or Moore’s arguments, Derek Davis’s...