Last week the New Yorker had an interesting review of several books about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, and how they have played out in the formation of the Constitution and the First Amendment. When it comes to the topic of law and religion, I have several possibly contradictory currents competing within me:
I have been the beneficiary of American religious freedom for most of my life, since I have struggled with meaning of religion and faith personally and even organized others to do the same in the Self Knowledge Symposium. So it's a darn good thing I don't have to put up with a state-mandated religion.
At the same time, lots of like-minded "spiritual seekers" of my generation are frustrated with the degree to which religion and spirituality have been divorced from public life and public discussion. If spiritual and religious values are supposed to be the bedrock of our world-view, then why is it treated like kryptonite in academia and politics? Why is even the mere mention of religion raise everyone's anti-establishment hackles? The outspoken atheists of our day, the Christopher Hitchens and Robert Pullmans of the world, make no secret of their desire to completely outlaw religion. Somehow it seems contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment to give people the freedom to practice their religion, but then forbid them to have a public opinion about it.
Like many conservatives, I have a distaste for using the interpretive power of the judicial branch to enact change. While I agree that legal understandings might evolve over time, I find myself more in the camp of Clarence Thomas and Anton Scalia, defending the "original intent" of the Constitution against the "judicial activism" of those who would, with post-modern deftness, redefine the meaning of the law to whatever strikes their fancy â€“ oops, I mean, the demands of their conscience. So, yes, it matters very much to me what the Founding Fathers had in mind with the disestablishment clause, and the separation of Church and State.
So what does the New Yorker's literature review have to say about it? Firstly, they cast some doubt in both directions, both for those who would claim we were founded as a "Christian nation," and those who would elevate secularism as the highest value in society. The founding fathers were not the sort of Christians your average fundamentalist would identify with â€“ they were deists, who recognized a spiritual reality and at the same time were skeptical of dogma and superstition. (They were, I dare say, not that different from me.) At a time when most states explicitly established an official religion in their constitutions and had religious tests for holding office, the Constitution is remarkable for explicitly refusing such tests, and, for that matter, not even mentioning God at all. It is an emphatic exclusion â€“ they clearly wanted Reason to be the foundation of their political system, and to keep religion out of it.
At the same time, they Founders were not anti-religion. They were explicit in saying the purpose of the disestablishment clause was not so much to protect secularism from religion, but rather to protect religions from each other. They very much wanted the free expression of religion, and thought it most likely to happen if no religion could establish itself above any other. And so far they have been right: America has been significantly more religious than its European peers since its independence, and indeed even more religious than the founding fathers themselves.
In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers had faith in freedom. They believed that people, and institutions, would arrive at the truth if given the freedom to do so. The coercion of an official religion was antithetical to their notion of religion itself, which had to be the individual's free and direct recognition of the Deity. Most interestingly, the Founding Fathers were not even that thrilled that we should care what they think. As Jefferson put it: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."
"If spiritual and religious values are supposed to be the bedrock of our world-view, then why is it treated like kryptonite in academia and politics?"
George, we must live in two different worlds. While I agree this may exist in academia, this is anything but in politics. Our democratic candidates are tripping over themselves to demonstrate their greater religiosity. And this is the democrats; the republican litmus test for faith often reeks of fundamentalism. There is only one minority class that is more unelectable than muslims and gays (according to several polls): atheists. So how exactly is religious and spiritual discussion missing from political discourse? If anything, it is sickening how much our politicians kowtow to the religious faithful in this country. One recent illustration: on April 14th Hillary and Barack had a "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College, billed as a dicussion of "faith and values" and yet they both refuse to attend a proposed science debate (www.sciencedebate2008.com) that most university presidents, nobel laureates, and other noteworthy secular individuals have endorsed.
I'll also take this posting to comment on your Glenmary sisters story. I find the term "moral entrepreneur" (I recognize as not your term) a complete mislabeling of their conduct. As if their choices to work, wear different clothes, marry, or have families is somehow a moral one. This is a great illustration of how we, as a society, have been conditioned to assume that issues arising in a religious context must necessarily have some moral overtones. Usually, I find it to be the opposite. They are typically petty squabbles based on superstition and ritual that have little practical moral relevance.
With that said, I do agree about your general theme of unintended consequences. That is always fascinating to see, as it was with these nuns.
Some of my response to your comments on religion are in the next post.
Regarding the Glenmary sisters: I was using the word "moral" in a broader sense than maybe you're used to, maybe more synonomous with the Greek notion of ethics: "How shall we live?" For most people, what to wear or who to associate with may not be a "moral" issue, but you must understand that people who join religious orders deliberately make them moral issues. They have consciously decided to be literally counter-cultural, to sublimate every aspect of their life towards a particular spiritual goal. For them, what to wear IS a moral decision. It isn't a black-and-white, "this is right, that is wrong" sort of decision, but it is definitely a decision that has consequences for their chosen way of life, and is therefore a moral decision.
The sisters have only consciously recognized and acting upon what is true for everyone. EVERY act is a moral decision, or at least a decision with moral consequences.
The following comments are sort of random responses.
From what little reading I have done, I think it's a mistake to try to describe what "the Founding Fathers" believed in this area. The question seems to imply a category of men who all believed the same thing. If you were to really read up on Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams (which I haven't), I think you would find they all agreed that the government should not have a faith test for public office, but beyond that, not necesarilly much agreement. I also think that you would not find they have too much in common with you and me on these matters.
It's also interesting to note that the "original intent" argument started almost as soon as the country did. In one of the Congressional debates in the 1790s, one Congressman argued "Look, I was there at the Constitutional Convention, I know what we meant when we wrote this." Someone else argued "This country isn't governed by what you meant, it's governed by what you wrote." (Neither of these is a verbatim quote.)
I think you are doing a disservice to Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. I don't think they want to outlaw religion or prevent its free expression in any way.
Finally, I think it's great to read your take on things and then Justin's, because there is a lot of truth in both. Every candidate is obliged to declare his undying faith in God and love of the Bible, and at the same time, none would dare suggest that we go back to calling it "Christmas vacation" in the schools. We're walking a very odd line in this country.