As I hope this blog has very fully demonstrated, I believe that one of the central principles of any AmericanStudies scholar should be that our national history is complex and multi-layered, and concurrently that one of our central goals should be to do justice to, rather than simplify or elide, such complexities. Yet with that said, it’s also true that some attempts to complicate our historical narratives are just plain inaccurate to everything we can learn and understand about the history, and usually such attempts at complication stem directly from a present, political purpose that creates a need to find precisely such new details in our past. And without a doubt the most exemplary, and perhaps most demonstrably false, of such attempts is the current drive to argue that the Founders/Framers did not intend to create a national separation between church and state.
The only piece of evidence to which those who make that argument can point is the fact that the Founders, as individuals, held and professed religious beliefs; they certainly did, although those beliefs were hugely diverse and distinct across even this relatively homogenous community of late 18th century white male property owners. But the question of what kind of government and national relationship to religion they sought to create is of course an entirely separate one, and there the simple fact is that the most striking aspect of the Constitution and the government it created is the entire and thorough absence of God and religion. In an era when every government and nation of which the Founders could possibly have been aware was defined explicitly and centrally through a connection to a particular religion and church, the Founders created a document that not only includes no use of the word “God” or any other spiritual phrases, but that does include, in Article VI paragraph 3, the overt statement that, while all government officers “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Even before the addition of the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment establishment clause, this particularly phrase represents, again, a striking deviation from any and all existing nations and forms of government, signaling just how fully this new nation and government would exist without any state connection to religion.
It’s hard for me to believe that anyone can read that clause, alongside again the thorough absence of God or religion from the document (among other such contemporary evidence), and remain unconvinced. Yet if they can, the first two presidential administrations, those of George Washington and Jon Adams, would produce an even more explicit piece of evidence along these lines. In the nation’s early years, America fought a small and somewhat undeclared but not insignificant war with the so-called Barbary Pirates, a group of North African raiders. That war was resolved by the Treaty of Tripoli, drafted and signed first by a hand-picked representation of the Washington administration in late 1796, witnessed in early 1797, unanimously ratified by the Senate later that year, and signed into law by the new president, Adams, shortly thereafter. Most of the Treaty’s details and sections are very specific to its situation, but then we get to Article 11, which makes clear that the war has not been religious in nature and that there will be going forward no hostilities between America and Muslim North African nations, and which begins, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This Treaty was, as was the custom in the era, read aloud in its entirety before the Senate (composed largely of Constitutional signers in these early years), again was ratified unanimously, and was signed without comment or objection by one of the most prominent Founders, John Adams.
In a post a while back about Glenn Beck’s Beck University, I mentioned David Barton, the minister and “scholar” who has taught Beck’s courses on Faith; Barton has made his name and career by arguing that the Founders intended for America to be a Christian nation. Again, AmericanStudies scholars can and should differ on a wide variety of complex topics, and mostly can and should try to recover and analyze with complexity our history and identities, rather than focusing on our own differences in any case. But on this particular topic, Barton and any who make that case are either partisan hacks or profoundly ignorant of that history. More tomorrow, another tribute post!
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Full text of the Treaty: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/treaty_tripoli.html
2) A collection of great Jefferson quotes on the separation of church and state and related issues: http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/qjeffson.htm
3) OPEN: Any other historical debates we should, y’know, stop debating?
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