It always happens around this time of year, when early May thunderstorms ring in the so-called National Day of Prayer. Numerous falsehoods, and even more numerous half-truths, start getting aired concerning the role of religion -- the implication is almost always Christianity -- in the founding of the United States.
One example, revealed by the Prospect Online's very own "Tapped," is a recent e-mail from Commerce Secretary Don Evans to his department claiming that "the first Thursday of May has always been designated as the National Day of Prayer." Actually, this event has only been with us since 1952, and only in 1988 did Ronald Reagan single out the first Thursday in May as its date. Probably some of the Founding Fathers -- particularly Thomas Jefferson, who once advised his nephew, "question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear" -- wouldn't have been particularly comfortable with Reagan's move.
Now, Idea Log knows full well that Jefferson was no atheist. Nor is the argument that we should ignore those famous lines in the Declaration of Independence -- "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Nevertheless, around now it's crucial to remember that the U.S. Constitution, the binding document of our government, is a markedly secular text that explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office. That's because men like Jefferson and James Madison, two central figures in the founding, were very concerned with preserving the separation of church and state in the new nation. They knew well what religious strife had done to Europe. As Cornell's Isaac Kramnick, co-author of The Godless Constitution, has written in the Prospect:
[The Constitution] is intentionally godless, as many of its opponents charged in the state ratifying conventions of 1787 and 1788. Not only did Article 6, in a revolutionary step, abolish any religious test for public office; the preamble to the Constitution also failed to mention God. The United States Constitution was a creation of "we the people." Unlike the earlier Articles of Confederation or the state constitutions, it did not suggest any divine ordinance or divine mission.
These facts are inevitably elided by the National Day of Prayer's monotheistic overtones. Indeed, President Bush's statement on the event actually contained a quotation from Saint Paul, a kind of tip-of-the-hat to the longstanding religious-right claim that the U.S. is, or ought to be, a "Christian Nation." But even if the secular nature of the Constitution doesn't convince you that this is wrongheaded, a 1797 treaty with Tripoli, signed by our fledgling nation, ought to do the trick:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion -- as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, -- and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
This May, however, there has also been a more subtle and sophisticated argument about church and state floating about. Some are arguing that a deeper, more universalist religious faith underlies our constitutional structure, and indeed, props up the entire liberal political and moral enterprise.
This isn't, on its face, an outrageous or obviously incorrect assertion. With respect to particular thinkers, it may be indisputable. But it can also have the unfortunate effect of muddying the waters, leaving us unable to distinguish between John F. Kennedy's claim (apparently with the Declaration of Independence in mind) that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God" and the more overtly theocratic approach of a John Ashcroft.
The above comparison isn't an idle one. Last week, Andrew Sullivan closely likened Kennedy to Ashcroft with respect to religion, writing of a recent remark by Ashcroft:
What he was saying is simply what the Founders clearly believed and what modern liberalism was founded on: the notion that some rights are inalienable, and that the source of their inalienability is God-given.
To boot, Sullivan cited a Wilson Quarterly article by Peter Berkowitz arguing that the form of moral and political liberalism espoused by Immanuel Kant and John Rawls is predicated on a leap of faith. (These Sullivan posting now seem to have been rotated off the site and his archives aren't updated, unfortunately.) Meanwhile, similar murmurings came from UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who criticized the Prospect's "Tapped" on the topic of religion and church and state, and in a second posting wondered "why deeply religious people ought not discuss their constitutional vision with reference to their religious philosophy, when it's OK for us secularists to discuss our constitutional vision with reference to our equally unprovable secular moral philosophy."
Let's take the Sullivan-Berkowitz philosophical claims about liberalism -- and particularly Kant and Rawls -- first. This game of picking out particular religious liberals is certainly an interesting intellectual exercise, but it's also shifting terrain. Among liberal theorists, Idea Log has always preferred the more secular John Stuart Mill to Kant, for example. Going back farther, Idea Log was always offended by that canonical liberal John Locke's rather illiberal claim, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, that
Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all.
But what does all this prove about church and state in this country, the obvious issue at hand here? What do Kant and Rawls have to do with the U.S. Constitution? Locke surely had more influence on it than either of them, but his bit about refusing to tolerate atheists didn't make it into the law of this country. Many religious conservatives today, on the other hand, are with the "liberal" Locke all the way on this matter, at least if their public statements are to be taken at face value. The trouble with selectively emphasizing the religious elements in some liberal thought, especially thought about the Constitution, is that these elements don't exist in a vacuum.
Moreover, it can be misleading to explain the origins of our constitutional government with such unswerving emphasis on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is a highly significant (and eloquent) historical document with lasting relevance to the present day; far better to cite it than the Articles of Confederation. But with respect to religion, one should at least note that both texts precede, and are in some sense trumped by, "We the people" and the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
None of this means religious liberals can't build their philosophy on a platform of faith (though non-religious ones won't bother). Neither does it mean that a non-religious liberal is somehow more right or wrong than a religious one. Finally, Idea Log fully admits, as Volokh observes, that religion can and has inspired great things, including the abolitionist, civil rights, and other social movements.
Still, the whole genre of argument that cites various religious tendencies in liberalism can sends us spiraling off in the wrong direction. This is especially the case so long as people like Sullivan cite the Declaration on religion but ignore the "godless Constitution." The Constitution shouldn't be the elephant in the room of church-state debates; it should be our starting point. And the fact that it so often gets ignored suggests a lingering discomfort with -- if not an outright unwillingness to acknowledge -- what the founding of the United States was really all about.