Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore
The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness
W. W. Norton, 1996
ISBN 0-393-03961-7
191 pages, $22.00 hb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1996 by Gary McGath

The "religious right" tells us that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that loyalty to the ideals of our founders requires legislative implementation of religious goals. The Godless Constitution provides a convincing rebuttal to that claim and offers some fascinating history. In spite of some flaws, it is a delight to read.

The history covered in the book begins with Roger Williams' founding of Rhode Island. He was perhaps even more strictly religious than the Massachusetts authorities, but he believed that religion was too important to leave in the hands of the government. For this he was banned from Massachusetts. He stood by his convictions as president of Rhode Island, allowing freedom to people of all beliefs.

The book's title points out the fact that there is no reference to a deity in the Constitution, and only one, negative, reference to religion in the original document: religious tests for public office are prohibited. It tells us that the early proponents of church-state complicity were well aware of this fact (unlike today's religious right), and that they were outraged by the lack of a religious foundation in the Constitution.

One of the chief targets of their wrath was Thomas Jefferson, who had helped set the precedent for the ban on religious tests by incorporating a similar restriction in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was arguably the strictest supporter of church-state separation to occupy the White House. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: "... for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The book stresses the context of this passage; while his oath certainly included tyrants on thrones, his immediate concern was with the "genus irritabile vatum [the irritable tribe of priests] who are all in arms against me" because he opposed their efforts at religious establishment.

It is intriguing to look at the alliances for and against the union of religion and government in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The chief advocates of this position were not the fundamentalist churches, but the long-established ones. This is not surprising in its historical context; it was the Episcopalians who won and the Baptists who lost when the government took sides among churches. But the early Baptist record on religious liberty is remarkable, considering their more recent stances. Many of them engaged in civil disobedience, refusing to pay taxes even to support their own church. On the other hand, the Maine Association of Congregational Churches used rhetoric which would make Pat Robertson blush: "We will let Congress know that our rulers shall obey us; that WE are their MASTERS!!" Today we think of Congregationalists as the archetype of the harmless, plain-vanilla church, but they weren't always so.

It is not "fundies" we should be blaming for the attempt to unite church and state; today religious fundamentalists (Christians here and Moslems elsewhere) are prominent in this effort, but at other times the situation has been quite different. It is not the degree of literalism with which people interpret their holy books that should concern us as lovers of freedom, but the degree to which they try to turn them into law books. The book continues to the Civil War, at which time the advocates of a Christian State were gaining in power. Earlier attempts to ban Sunday mail delivery were unsuccessful; it was not till much later that they gained this victory (which they still hold today). In 1863 the National Reform Association sought nothing less than to rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution, proclaiming "The Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the Nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government." Their proposal generated considerable controversy, but never made it out of committee in Congress. It was not till late in the century that the Christian lobby grew powerful enough to have a serious influence on legislation. The book draws an important distinction: the founders of the United States were almost all believers in some kind of God, but they regarded it as vital to keep religion private. "They did not want America to be godless, only its government." Even Thomas Paine, who attacked Christianity powerfully, was fighting against the ascribing of unflattering myths to the deity, not against the idea of a deity as such. The founders' views on religious freedom were largely derived from John Locke, whose radical views are given the full credit they deserve:

In liberal Lockean social theory the function of government is purely negative. It is willed into being by individual men to serve merely as an umpire in the competitive scramble for wealth and property. Government only protects life, liberty, and property... Two thousand years of thinking about politics in the West is overturned in Locke's writings, as the liberal state repudiates the classical and Christian vision of politics.

The authors' description of Locke's philosophy is so glowing that it is surprising to see them later on support the welfare state. Perhaps one of the authors is more libertarian than the other. The more significant problem with the book is that it fully accepts the view that morality is based in faith rather than reason. In accepting this, Moore and Kramnick are unable to provide a convincing answer to the question of why religion should not be the basis of politics. They fully accept the worst of Jesus's altruism:

Most of us are not about to go out and sell our property and give it to the poor. Human beings aren't ready to be that good, at either end of the social scale.

The authors' stated politics does lead them to fumbling attempts to draw "an important difference between the Social Gospel of Christians who have used the ethical teachings of Jesus to warn against class and racial injustice and their own version of applied Christianity that too often seems to be merely an apology for wealth." At one point, they even suggest that they know what was in God's mind on the day that President Johnson signed the 1965 Civil Rights Bill.

This leaves them grappling with a puzzle: Why were the Christian abolitionists justified in denouncing slavery in religious terms, or Martin Luther King in doing the same to racial bigotry, but the religious right not justified in demanding that public schools promote Christianity? The answers which the book offers are grounded in pluralism and relativism, and lack conviction. The following is typical:

However, an argument in the political arena is merely that, a point of view that may be challenged by other points of view that reflect a different morality or a different prediction about the moral consequences of government policy. It is not legitimate for political leaders to mobilize religion in order to invest their argument about moral consequences with certainty, to imagine that their understanding of God's will should be shared by everyone.

How, then, can we determine the validity of any of these points of view? If what is wrong with a point of view is the expectation that others should agree with it, how can we ever get beyond "Says you -- says me -- says God"? The problem can be solved, but only by recognizing that the proper foundation of morality is reason. Insofar as the advocate of a position appeals to the minds of his listeners rather than to divine revelation, his argument isn't affected by whether he believes it ultimately on doctrinal or rational grounds. But if all he can offer is an assertion about God's will, his claim deserves no weight in the scales of justice. This is equally true in science and in morality; and it applies equally to those who invoke divine authority to ban abortion and to those who use it to justify redistribution of income.

These problems primarily affect the last chapter, which discusses present-day politics. Even this chapter has much to recommend it, and the historical discussion which constitutes the bulk of the book is highly enjoyable, and provides ammunition against the claims that America is politically a "Christian nation." I recommend The Godless Constitution with only minor reservations.

Order this book from Laissez Faire Books
Index of reviews