November 9, 2019


Founding Deists and Other Unicorns (JAMES BRUCE, 10/28/19, Law & Liberty)

The Enlightenment is, of course, a heavyweight contender for the title of Most Influential to the Constitution. Matthew Stewart, for example, claims that Benedict de Spinoza was the architect of the political philosophy that flowered in the United States, and that John Locke was the acceptable face of the movement. Hall calls such an adventure in revisionist history "pure fantasy."

Few scholars claim Spinoza for the American founding. Many more claim Locke, and so, Hall turns his attention to him. In a sentence, the reports of Locke's influence have been greatly exaggerated. Donald S. Lutz's survey of 15,000 works from 1760 to 1805 says only 2.9% of citations reference Locke, in contrast to 34% of all citations referencing the Bible. (And Hall notes that, if anything, "Lutz undercounts references to the Bible because he excludes from his sample political sermons that do not contain references to secular authors. If he had included these sermons, references to the Bible would have absolutely dwarfed any other grouping of texts.") This difference in frequency should not surprise us: Locke's Second Treatise was first published in the United States in 1773 and was only republished in 1937--hardly what one would expect for the seminal political work by a leading figure of the British Enlightenment who was supposed to have substantial influence on the American founding. "If Locke's works were late to arrive on America's shores," Hall writes, "the Bible was virtually omnipresent from the first days of the Puritan settlement."

Let's consider one concrete case in order to illustrate Hall's method. In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a bill to tax individuals for the support of their local churches. James Madison wrote his celebrated Memorial in the summer of 1785 in the hopes of preventing the bill's passage that autumn. On a standard telling of the American story, an Enlightenment Madison saved the country from religious fanatics. Is that, in fact, what happened?

Not at all. Hall notes that "an earlier evangelical petition" received far more signatures, by a margin of 4,899 to 1,552 (out of 10,929 Virginians who signed any petition on the matter). That petition said Henry's bill was "contrary to the spirit of the Gospel" and that the church was not helped "when Constantine first established Christianity by human laws." Lest we think Madison's Memorial spawned the other petitions, including this evangelical one, Hall notes that the evangelical petition was written at least seventh months before Madison wrote his Memorial. Furthermore, Madison's Memorial itself includes "a number of overtly religious arguments," suggesting a broader purview than the unaccompanied Enlightenment. And let's be clear: almost half the Virginians who signed a petition signed the evangelical one, thereby endorsing its Christian appeals for religious freedom. The Memorial by itself, based on its share of signatories, could not have carried the day. The evangelical petition, all by itself, could have.

Why? Concerns for religious liberty did not commence in the 1780s. William Penn, writing in 1675, said "force makes hypocrites, 'tis persuasion only that makes converts." Though Quakers could not testify in criminal trials in England until 1828, Quakers could do so in Rhode Island as early as 1647, due to an enacted law that allowed them to offer "solemn profession or testimony" instead of an oath. To be clear, Spinoza and Locke were teenagers in 1647; though undeniably precocious, they were hardly the inspiration for Rhode Island's religious accommodation.

In addition to concrete cases, Hall considers the question of broad support for Christianity itself. That makes sense. After all, a basket of disparate ideas does not a Christian founding make. So Hall considers the founders' self-conscious support of religion. Following James Hutson, he delivers a founders' syllogism. Here are the premises: republican government requires a moral citizenry; morality needs religion. The conclusion is thus that republican government requires religion. And Hall goes further. "When America's founders spoke about 'religion,'" he writes, "virtually all of them--even those most influenced by the Enlightenment--meant Christianity." He quotes Chief Justice John Marshall to great effect: "Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity."

Not everyone believed the syllogism, of course. But few championing a godless founding would find them all comfortable bedfellows. "For instance, in one remarkable case, slavery led John Rutledge of South Carolina to reject the almost universal consensus that religion and morality should inform public policy." And, besides, most founders did endorse the syllogism: "Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both religion and morality are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely." the Christianity of Locke's political philosophy.

Posted by at November 9, 2019 12:00 AM