- Defending Government, the Secular State, and the Founders
As any reader of the opinion and editorial pages in U.S. newspapers knows, citing “the founders” is a significant part of American political discourse. And as any serious student of American political thought knows, politicians, pundits and political activists often cite “the founders” in support of positions they actually opposed. Garry Wills, in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, and Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, in The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness, attempt to set the record straight with respect to two positions in particular. In Wills’ case, he takes issue with the claim that “the founders” held a deep distrust of government and sought to create a Constitution that would hamstring the national government. In Kramnick and Moore’s case they take issue with the claim that “the founders” were strong advocates of Christian politics and sought to create a Constitution that would make, or keep, America a Christian nation. In both cases, the authors attack what have come to be hegemonic interpretations of “the founders” in American politics. If this were the extent of both works, they would still be worth reading. But both works go beyond this terrain. Wills makes a case (albeit a rather brief one) for government as a necessary good, and Kramnick and Moore set out a substantial defense of a secular politics.
Wills’ book is devoted primarily to the history of American distrust of the government, with sections on nullifiers, seceders, insurrectionists, withdrawers and so on. In these sections, Wills gives us an admittedly sketchy typology of American distrust of the government. His goal, he writes, is simply “to show the persistence of trends and attitudes”(20). As a collection of (at times, painfully brief) examples of distrust of the government, the work is unfulfilling. Wills’ work in these sections is fuller when he addresses the issue of Constitutional appropriation, taking on “academic insurrectionists” like Akhil Amar and Sanford Levinson, or the NRA.
As a foreground to his history of governmental distrust, Wills devotes the second section of his book (the strongest section, in my opinion) to six “Constitutional myths.” The basic point of the section on Constitutional myths is to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Constitutional interpretations that present the document as internally subversive, a governmental document written to undermine the very power of government. Wills’ argument in this section that James Madison was not the standard bearer of “states rights” and a weak national government is convincing. But his tendency to equate Madison with the Constitution itself is problematic. As Wills himself points out, the document that was eventually produced in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 was not the document Madison wanted. Madison wanted a strict nationalist system of government, where the national government would have the power to disallow state law. The fact that he was unable to realize this goal undercuts Wills’ position when he attempts to take the step from the thought of Madison to the meaning of the Constitution. I am not arguing that Madison’s compatriots at the Constitutional convention drafted a document wholly at odds with Madison’s overall vision. I am arguing, however, that attempts to paint Madison as virtually the lone author of the Constitution, or at least the sole source for deriving the “original intent” of the document are problematic.
Kramnick and Moore have written a self-proclaimed polemic against “religious correctness.” I must say, I’m glad someone did. Writing against the arguments of many from the “Christian right” who claim that “the founders” sought to create a Christian nation and as such were opposed to the politics of secularism, Kramnick and Moore make a compelling case that the authors of the Constitution consciously drafted a godless document. To back up their argument (aside from simply pointing out the absence of references to God in the document) Kramnick and Moore provide an illuminating discussion of the religious criticisms raised against the Constitution when it...