Man Without Qualities

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Who Were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison?

Chris Mooney of Idea Log thinks the United States Constitution is "Godless":

"Idea Log knows full well that Jefferson was no atheist. Nor is the argument that we should ignore those famous lines in the Declaration of Independence -- "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Nevertheless, around now it's crucial to remember that the U.S. Constitution, the binding document of our government, is a markedly secular text that explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office. That's because men like Jefferson and James Madison, two central figures in the founding, were very concerned with preserving the separation of church and state in the new nation."

Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly a political genius of the highest order - and he had a lot to do with the Declaration of Independence, the reconstruction of the laws of Virginia following the Revolution and many other important things in American history. So Mr. Mooney it is not wrong to describe him as a central figure in "the founding."

But Jefferson was not a central figure in the writing of the original Constitution of the United States for the simple reason that he was living in France while that drafting job was in progress in Philadelphia. In fact, he had intense - and obviously correct – concern that the original (Pre-Bill of Rights) Constitution was perfectly compatible with broad involvement of the central government in religious affairs. That is, Jefferson was convinced that the original Constitution was anything but Godless. His concern is one of the big reasons Jefferson insisted on adding a Bill of Rights. As Jefferson wrote to Madison in 1788:

"The general voice from north to south... calls for a bill of rights. It seems pretty generally understood that this should go to juries, habeas corpus, standing armies, printing, religion and monopolies. I conceive there may be difficulty in finding general modifications of these suited to the habits of all the States. But if such cannot be found, then it is better to establish trials by jury, the right of habeas corpus, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, in all cases, and to abolish standing armies in time of peace, and monopolies in all cases, than not to do it in any. The few cases wherein these things may do evil cannot be weighed against the multitude wherein the want of them will do evil."

Jefferson's letter above (and the linked site includes many more such Jeffersonian concerns) makes clear that anyone like Mr. Mooney or Isaac Kramnick (author of a book Mr. Mooney cites as discerning a "Godless Constitution") who purports to find the original Constitution "Godless" will have to contend with the strong disagreement of Mr. Jefferson. Focusing on the original Constitution's prohibition of religious tests for office - as Mr. Mooney does - is just silly. Any reasonable interpretation of the Commerce Clause, for example, would permit Congress to ban Catholic religious figures from "interstate commerce," whatever scope is given to that concept. Jefferson, Madison and the other advocates of the Bill of Rights saw that clearly. Lots of people did at the time – and they didn’t like it one bit. The absence of a Bill of Rights - especially in the area of religion - became a major popular obstruction to the adoption of the Constitution. The proponents of the Constitution eventually promised that a Bill of Rights - especially a guaranty of religious rights - would be added. And it was.

So, if we have a "Godless" Constitution from the time of Mr. Jefferson, it must have been the Bill of Rights that killed God off - specifically, it must have been the First Amendment that killed God off. This assassination is unlikely, to say the least, since the structure of the Jefferson-Madison approach to individual liberties depended on the existence of "natural rights of man" (including religious rights) that God created and included in a divine plan which legislatures were prohibited by God from modifying. That is, in the Jefferson-Madison approach, the Bill of Rights and natural rights generally reflect the plan of a universal God. It's not that hard to locate plentiful evidence of this. For example, Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, and he had previously written his "Memorial and Remonstrance" in 1785, which opposed a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia to impose a tax to support Christian teachers. That bill was defeated and in 1786 the legislature instead enacted Jefferson's "Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Liberty." Jefferson’s bill is in many ways the precursor to the First Amendment. It reads in part:

"Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations ... are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion ... that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right...

"Be it therefore enacted ... That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

"And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

We are to believe that this Bill reflects the theory - and its authors are the men – that supposedly eliminated God from the Constitution through their Bill of Rights? The reader may decide for herself.

Madison and Jefferson WERE opposed to the idea that the United States was founded on Christianity. Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" is very specific about that. It is also worth noting that Jefferson was not a Christian, although he regarded Christ as a sublime philosopher. But, then, so did Mohammed.

It is not necessary to base a theory of "natural law" on the existence of God – but it is possible to do so. Writings such as those quoted above make clear that both Jefferson and Madison did exactly that. Their writings and religious and political thinking all reflect that choice. Messrs. Mooney and Kramnick apparently don't like everything they find in the Jefferson-Madison mix. But that is the mix that forms the foundation of this Republic. And it is anything but “Godless.”

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