Harvard graduate and St. John’s University law professor Mark Movsesian writes for First Things regarding the contribution of Alexander Hamilton to religion in America. Since Hamilton helped Washington write his famous “Farewell Address,” Movsesian argues Hamilton “wrote one of the most important texts on the place of religion in American public life.” But the principles he draws from that “most important” document for “our religion” are a startling admission, if unwittingly, as to the religious nature of our constitutional settlement. In short, it wasn’t Christian, it was pagan pluralism.
Movsesian quotes the famous “religion” passage from the Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
The First Things author then leads us in a review of what this actually means. In doing so, he does more damage to “Christian America” than its proponents, and many conservative readers of First Things, would want. He writes,
Note the generic reference to “religion,” as opposed to Christianity. . . . [O]ur public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery.
Really, nothing else need be written beyond this point. The author makes “very American” religion very clear: it is generic religion as opposed to Christianity. This means it was not Christian. Christians are welcome to attend, but not to be too publicly vocal, and not to expect the distinctives of Christian faith to ascend in the public square.
In short, the state is not here to serve Christ, Christians are here to serve the state.
From the beginning, American public religion has had a non-sectarian cast. Most Americans in 1796 were Christians, as most are today. Most would have understood the reference to religion to mean the Christian religion. But our public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery. In part this reflects the Deism of many of the Founders. But it also reflects an Evangelical faith that is comfortable with biblical non-sectarianism. In America, religious conservatives demand public display of the Ten Commandments. In Europe, they demand public display of the crucifix.
Even though then and today, most Americans are Christians, nevertheless Christianity is not allowed a public expression beyond generic morals. America’s tolerance brigade not only started early, but is anti-democratic. No matter how many Christians were to dominate the system under our Constitution, it would take only a minority of pagans and idolaters, or skeptics and atheists, to keep public expression of the faith censored legally and judicially.
This is patently elitist with the humanist in charge of the elitism. It is dictatorial and anti-democratic. Of course, we are not a “democracy,” we are a republic. But republicanism has a democratic element in it, and we do, but only in regard to some laws. In regard to religion, we are constitutionally forbidden from having any influence from the people in regard to explicit Christianity in the public square.
Movsesian refers to “the Deism of the founders.” This is, of course, inaccurate, as there were few actual deists at the time among the framers. Nevertheless, the point stands: the American religion as understood by Hamilton/Washington was expressly generic and non-Christian despite being erected amidst a vast majority of Christians.
In my mind, this was an Enlightenment swindle: the language of religion and morality pacified complacent Christians in such a way as to forbid official Christianity with their own approval. Aww; “religion and morality”; how nice. Gotcha!
Movsesian makes this point with something he calls “biblical non-sectarianism”—a strange and equivocatory term he never defines for us. Does he mean a non-sectarianism among Bible-believing Christians? Or does he mean a non-sectarianism found in Scripture which allows for any and all religions to flourish, even leading people away from Christ and blaspheming God? Or what? He doesn’t say.
His examples here refer to an American mentality of Christianity versus a Roman Catholic European mentality—in broad generalities anyway. But he does not press this to its logical conclusion. If we are dealing with “non-sectarian” “religion” as opposed to explicit Christianity, then it makes sense that any religion goes as long as it supports the morality of the state. This view not only puts the state (instead of the Bible) in charge of defining public morality, but it then opens the door to the “tolerance” of any religion—even Satanism, Wicca, Islam, or Hinduism—that agrees to abide by the state’s morality. This is a recipe for statism, the marginalization of Christianity, and the influx of many religious perspectives that bring hidden agendas to leverage the tolerance crusade against Christianity. In short, “anything but Christianity” goes.
While Movsesian neglects to extend his examples to such perspectives, he does come around and openly admit this is the case. He continues:
Note, too, the practicality of Hamilton’s appeal. Why is religion important? Because it’s true? Because people need salvation? No—it’s because of the pragmatic benefits religion provides, benefits even the “mere politician” can understand. To work properly, republicanism requires citizens to be moral; and to be moral, citizens require religion. To be sure, every now and then, one might find an exceptional person who is moral without religion. But that can never be true for most people. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is. This, too, is very American. As a twentieth-century American president famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
Get that and get that well: the morality and religion to which our founders appealed was pragmatic for statist reasons, and it was indifferent to the type of religion adhered to, as long as that religion kept the individual in line with the values the state wants them to have.
Of course, any talk of “morals” in such a system is a joke, because when morals are defined by the state, there is no end to the perversity and prevarication, not to mention redefinition, double-standards, and a host of violences and thefts built on fallacies, to which the state will stoop. We need an objective morality defined by the objective lawgiver, or else morality is a sham.
And it is here that one of the author’s commenters made the correct appendix:
One recalls Gibbon: “The policy of the emperors and the senate, so far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”
Exactly. Gibbon was the most famous historian of the founders’ era. They all knew him and all read his massive work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He was a skeptic who despised Christianity. He blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on the rise of Trinitarian Christianity.
Yet Gibbon was correct to note how the secular humanist, state-worship system of the Roman Empire valued all religion—generic religion—as “useful” to the state. Thus the policy was one of tolerance of all and ascendancy of the truth of none. Get this clear: this is a pagan Roman view of government, not a biblical one. Yet this is the view observed and preferred by the skeptic Gibbon, and which perfectly comports with that of Hamilton and Washington and our own Constitution. Movsesian recognizes this. You should too.
In other words, in order to be a true strong Hamiltonian conservative, you have to adopt a pagan view of politics and government, and you have to abandon any hope of genuine Christian influence in the public square. You must have an explicitly and expressly non-Christian, non-sectarian tolerance of all religions which stifles Christianity. Morality will be defined by the state, and religious expressions that are in any way connected with the public sphere will be made to conform to that state’s “religion and morality.” They must leave their own distinctive values in the closet.
When we understand Hamilton and Washington’s religion to be a generic public morality in service to the state, and we see, now, that our Harvard trained law professors, writing for one of the perceivably premier conservative publications in our nation, approve of such a system, then we can realize why our education system is a sham, our welfare system is a sham, our military is ought of bounds (on steroids), our constitution is a wax nose, our police are growing more violent each day, our money and banking systems are entirely built on fraud and theft, and we could go on and on. Even our businesses are being shackled by the state, because we have a view of the state that is anti-Christian in principle. We should not be shocked that, eventually, the practice catches up with the principle.
The only remedy for such a problem is to change the principle: at the level of ourselves, our families, our churches, our local governments, and beyond. All individuals, corporations, and institutions must be free to follow God’s Word and God’s Laws. The moment any government forbids that, then we do not have tolerance but rather a clash of religions. We have a clash of the pagan statist religion with that of Christianity. One will win and one will lose. It becomes a question of how faithful we Christians will be, or to whom we will give obeisance.
This reformation of principle must begin in our hearts and minds. As for me, I don’t mind leaving the Washington-Hamilton complex at the door, and calling it the paganism that it is. I don’t mind shucking the silly emotional allegiances that come with such parties and their foibled historiographies. I don’t mind forging ahead in faith and braving the fears erected by the praetorians of our modern Roman Emperors and the Gibbons who teach them.
I don’t mind at all. And I am grateful for the writers like Movsesian who make my points clear for those who claim to want a Christian American and a biblical society, but for some reason still do mind those fears.