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It’s been said (by me) that two half-truths don’t make the whole truth. Geoffrey Stone’s response to Mitt Romney’s “religious assurance” speech begins by stating that it “called to mind a disturbingly distorted version of history that has become part of the conventional wisdom of American politics in recent years." If there was ever a distorted version of American history, it’s Professor Stone’s recollection of our nation’s religious history in his article “Romney’s Founders.” Part of the distortion comes because there is no neatly packaged history of the past. Like a watermelon grown in a square bottle that takes the shape of its container, historical summaries take the shape of those doing the summarizing. To change the analogy, Professor Stone, I believe, is engaged in a bit of historical trimming, selecting and “massaging” the historical data he needs to fit a desired outcome.
“Grateful to Almighty God” in Illinois
Stone, professor of law at the University of Chicago, takes issue with the claim that “the founders intended to create a ‘Christian nation,’ and that we have unfortunately drifted away from that vision of the United States.” Actually, the Founders inherited a nation founded by Christians and built on, to use a phrase from John Adams, “the general principles of Christianity.” Part of the problem with Professor Stone’s argument is that he views America’s founding as a fixed point in time. The colonies that became the states that created the national government would object to the late-date founding of America. There was a worldview prior to 1787 that did not pass into oblivion when the Constitution was finally ratified in 1791. Many of the state constitutions were specifically Christian, and all were generally religious, an omission on Professor Stone’s part of enormous significance. None of this changed with the ratification of the Constitution. In fact, today the 50 state constitutions mention God using various terms such as “Supreme Rule of the Universe” and “Almighty God,” being the most common. (The claim is that West Virginia is the exception. This is not the case.) For example, the Preamble to the constitution of Professor Stone’s home state of Illinois includes the following: “We, the People of the State of Illinois—grateful to Almighty God for the civil, political and religious liberty which He has permitted us to enjoy and seeking His blessing upon our endeavors. . . .”
Faith AND Reason
There is a long history of the relationship between the Christian religion and civil government in our nation. Professor Stone seems to place that relationship in the distant past when he writes,
Those who promote this fiction confuse the Puritans, who intended to create a theocratic state, with the Founders, who lived 150 years later. The Founders were not Puritans, but men of the Enlightenment. They lived not in an Age of Faith, but in an Age of Reason. They viewed issues of religion through a prism of rational thought.
Space does not permit me to deal with his faith-reason dichotomy. Anyone having any background in Puritan studies knows it is absurd. Reason was considered to be a tool, not the final arbiter of truth. Reason was valued because its source was God. The reason-alone approach was displayed in all its raw consistency when the Enlightenment came full circle during the French Revolution when reason was absolutized and given god-like status. Heads rolled and blood flowed in the streets. America’s dance with the Enlightenment was held in check by the underlying moral tenets of Christianity.
Where to Start
If we begin with 1620, the arrival of the Separatist Puritans at Plymouth, and add 150 years to that date, we come to 1770. Let’s see if Professor Stone’s thesis holds up. Beginning in 1774, Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the army. It sponsored the publication of a Bible. Christian morality was adopted by the armed forces, and public lands were made available to promote Christianity among the Indians. John Adams, representing Massachusetts, and George Washington, representing Virginia, were present. On March 16, 1776, “by order of Congress” a “day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer” where people of the nation were called on to “acknowledge the over ruling providence of God” and bewail their “manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”
Congress set aside December 18, 1777 as a day of thanksgiving so the American people “may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor” and on which they might “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” Congress also recommended that Americans petition God “to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consists in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
Professor Stone is correct that there were traditional Christians and deists among the Founders. I don’t know how this helps his case since there are few card-caring members of the ACLU who would accept the religious tenets and political applications of eighteenth-century deists or even Unitarians. Deists and Unitarians believed in a personal and transcendent God and appealed to Him frequently in political discourse. If a candidate used deistic and Unitarian language in a political speech today, the ACLU would be the first to proclaim that such an attribution was a clear violation of the “constitutional doctrine” of the “separation of church and state.”
I doubt that few Christians would disagree with Professor Stone’s statement that the Founders “believed that a benevolent Supreme Being had created the universe and the laws of nature and had given man the power of reason with which to discover the meaning of those laws.” I wonder if he would allow such a view to enter into the discussion of human origins in a public school classroom. If it was good enough for the Founders of our country, it certainly ought to be good enough for the young citizens of our country.