A Critical Response to On Our Founding Fathers 3

Robert Nordlander

Part III

Perhaps the premise from which flows the conclusion that our Founding Fathers wanted our country to be a Christian nation advanced by Bernard Katz ought to be examined. He stated that premise quite succinctly in Part III of his effort to Christianize the Founding Fathers. According to Katz, "They all accepted the new synthesis of Newtonian science, Lockean psychology and politics, and Calvinistic theology as it worked out in practice in the New Israel." (My emphasis).

No one can deny the importance of Newtonian and Lockean thought to the leading intellects of the colonial and the revolutionary period of our history. But to suggest that the Founding Fathers of this country also accepted "Calvinistic theology as it worked out in practice in the New Israel" is to suggest that which is simply not true. Katz started his discussion by pointing to some very significant political documents in order to prove his thesis. He starts his tour de force with The Mayflower Compact, a political constitution obviously drawn up by people who received their theology from John Calvin and finishes it with the Constitution of the United States of America with an aside to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Along the way, he shows us various political documents that are obviously permeated with expressions of dogmatic Christian belief such as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and various state constitutions written after 1776. There is no doubt that these documents quite explicitly promote what we know is historic Protestant Christianity loosely called "Calvinism" by Katz.

It is when Katz moves on to political documents that have a reference to a god or Supreme Being that he resorts to a little theological LEGERDEMAIN. He immediately tells us that it is the god of Christianity that is being cited. When Katz cites the promotion of religion in these documents, he claims that it is Christianity that is being promoted. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my earlier discussion of The Declaration of Independence, I have already shown that "it was not Cotton Mather's God to whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed." Is Bernard Katz seriously trying to tell us that Thomas Jefferson had the historic Christian deity in mind when he wrote The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty or that Jefferson had reference to Calvinism when he cited religion as one of the virtues to be cultivated in The Northwest Ordinance of 1787? Katz is quite quick to label as Christian or Judeo-Christian andy general reference to a god that he finds in a political document drawn up during the historical period under discussion.

That Katz was enunciating nonsense in his discussion of The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty will be obvious when we review a comment of Jefferson on the preamble to this statute which Katz quoted in an effort to prove that it was "flooded with Christianity, including a veiled reference to Jesus Christ." This is what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the statute, had to say about this subject:

"Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words `Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

Apparently those who wished to insert the words "Jesus Christ" into the statute did not think the preamble contained "a veiled reference to Jesus Christ" nor that it was "flooded with Christianity." The generic god, the god of brand "x" — if you will — or the god of Deism was the god mentioned in The Virginia Statute of Relgious Liberty. The Christian God had no place in it whatsoever.

It would seem that Bernard Katz is most insistent upon subjecting us to the myth that Benjamin Franklin actually read a prayer to the Constitutional Convention, a version of the Lord's Prayer composed by Frankling himself. In my earlier discussion, I pointed to Leo Pfeffer's discussion of what actually happened at the Convention. Perhaps it might be better to invoke the testimony of a person who was present at the Convention, a person who can tell us what actually happened. James Madison is being called as a witness at this point in order to put forever at rest the nonsense that has been written about the Constitutional Convention with respect to Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that prayer be a part of the daily ritual. The entire report of the incident by Madison is being presented and also to create another reference source for those interested in this particular topic. We first have Franklin's plea as recorded in Madison's notes on the Convention, a plea which was made on June 28, 1787.

"The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

"In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the struggle with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind of providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, SIr, in the sacred writings that 'except the Lord build the House they labour in vain those that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to cahnce, war and conquest.

"I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service."

These were the exact words of Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention as recorded by James Madison. No prayer at all was uttered or read by Franklin. Now let us take a look at the final scene of this comedy as recorded for posterity by James Madison.

"Mr. Sherman seconded the motion.

"Mr. Hamilton and several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of this convention, it might as this late day, 1. bring on it some disagreeable animadversions, and 2. lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure. It was answered by Dr. Franklin, Mr. Sherman and others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission — that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of affairs within, would at least be as likely to do good as ill.

"Mr. Williamson observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.

"Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on [the] fourth of July, the anniversary of Independence, and thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Doctor Franklin seconded this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing this matter by adjournment, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion."

It should be obvious that the delegates had been put in an embarrassing position by Franklin. They obviously didn't want prayers but they did not wish to offend Franklin or those of their political constitutents who might have looked with favor on Franklin's proposal for prayer. Pleading poverty might have been the way out of the dilemma, as one delegate suggested. It is obvious that Williamson's suggestion was not adopted as Katz implies in his article for the excuse would not have been believed by anyone. True, the Convention may not have had public funds for such an expenditure of funds for the services of a clergyperson but most of the members were wealthy and affluent individuals in their own right, and they could easily have paid for the services of a clergyperson out of their own personal resources if they had really believed such services were really necessary to launch the new "empire." Moreover, it would appear that no search was made for a clergyperson whose patriotism would have been insulted had he been offered money for the privilege of calling upon "God" to bless the new "empire" in its birth-pangs. Finally, it should be noted that Katz was mistaken when he said that "Edmund Pendleton, governor of Virginia and delegate to the Convention, suggested that on the 4th of July they all could go to church. As noted in Madison's Notes, Randolph suggested that a sermon be preached at the Convention's request on the fourth of July in conjunction with daily prayers for the rest of the Convention. This motion remains in parliamentary oblivion to this very day. The deficiency of the scholarship of Bernard Katz in this instance should be obvious.

We have already noticed how Franklin felt about religion in general and Jesus in particular. In light of the plea Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention for daily prayer, it might be helpful to our understanding of this complex personality to note his attitude towards governmental financial support of religion as expressed in a letter to Dr. Richard Price on October 9, 1780.

"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

Turning to Bernard Katz's discussion of the religious clauses of the First Amendment, we again find him deficient in his research. To gain a proper understanding of those clauses, we have to understand the historical circumstances of the people involved in the authorship of the First Amendment. It is not an accident that the religious clauses of the First Amendment read as follows:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

James Madison had been recently victorious in preventing the State of Virginia from taxing the people of that state for the support of all Christian denominations. This would have had the practical effect of making a legal establishment of the Christian religion had not Madison and Jefferson, along with the support of Christians who did not wish to be forced to pay for churches they did not attend and the dissemination of religious doctrines with which they disagreed, been successful. The distinction between Christianity in general and Christian sects in particular was made very explicit by James Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religous Assessments.

"Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever."

Bernard Katz's citation of Wilbur Katz's contention that "it is very difficult to say what the Senate finally intended when it approved the version which was ratified by the states" is ludicrous. Although the Senate did on one occasion turn down one version of the First Amendment which only prohibited the congress of this country from establishing a particular sect or denomination as a national religion and then later passed another version of this concept, common sense would direct us to the final version dealing of the clauses dealing with religion in the First Amendment as we know those clauses today. The First Amendment, in its final version came about as a result of a joint House-Senate conference committee in which James Madison was one of the principal participants. Why just the opinion of the Senate appears to perplex Wilbur Katz and by inference, Bernard Katz, is hard to understand. Why not discuss the attitude of the House of Representatives? In the final analysis, one can reasonably infer that the Senate was was ultimately brought around to the perspective of that delegate from the House of Representatives to the Joint House-Senate conference committee, James Madison, who is said to have written the committee report.

We have already commented previously on Bernard Katz's contention that Thomas Jefferson had reduced the wall of separation between church and state to a "curbstone." It might be instructive to view the language of James Madison as applied to this subject as it reflects his broad view of the issue ofgovernmental involvement in religion.

"Strongly-guarded as is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history." (Detached Memoranda).

It is only fair to point out that Madison did not have a naive faith in constitutional or legal guarantees. He was always conscious of the realities of political power and the threat that the misuse of political power posed to our civil and religious liberties. Speaking of religious liberties in a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson on October 17, 1788, Madison made the following observation:

"I am sure that the rights of conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition, would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power. One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests, opened a door for Jews, Turks and infidels....In Virginia, I have seen the bill of rights violated in every instance where it has been opposed to a popular current. Notwithstanding the explicit provisions contained in that instrument for the rights of Conscience, it is well known that a religious establishment would have taken place in that State, if the Legislative majority had found, as they expected, a majority of the people in favor of the measure; and I am persuaded that if a majority of the people were now of one sect, the measure would still take place, and on narrower grounds than it was then proposed notwitstanding the additional obstacle which the law has sice created. Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression."

To what then can we truly attribute religious freedom? Madison answered this question in an earlier letter to Patrick Henry dated June 12, 1788.

"This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest."

James Madison knew that it was unlikely that one sect would be able to gain the exclusive support of government; hence, his support of the religious clauses of the First Amendment that could serve as an obstacle to a collective support of all religions on the part of government. Needless to say, the Bernard Katz view of the religious clauses of the First Amendment is the view of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Moral Majority and other reactionary religionists who believe government ought to aid their efforts in imposing their particular sectarian religious perspectives upon the rest of society. Until very recently, we have been most fortunate in having a Supreme Court that rejected, for the most part, the Katz view of the First Amendment. The spirit of James Madison lives on!

Bernard Katz concludes his essay with a number of quotes from George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, arguing that their "godtalk" was Christian "godtalk." The truth of the matter is that. with the exception of the quotation attributed to John Adams, the "godtalk" is generic "godtalk" delivered by people who were essentially Deist in their theological outlook.

As for the explicitly Christian statement made by John Adams during his inaugural address, we are obliged to remember that it was made shortly after the reign of Robespierre and Madame Guillotine in France for which Dame Reason and her critique of religious orthodoxy were given the blame. It was a period in history comparable to the 1950's when "God" became America's ally in the Cold War. We have to remember that the Christianity of John Adams was Unitarianism. When he was not on public display, he expressed himself quite explicitly on the subject of orthodox Christianity in a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson dated April 19, 1817.

"From the bottom of my Soul, I pity my Fellow Men. Fears and Terrors appear to have produced a universal Credulity. Fears of Calamities in Life and punishments after death, seem to have possessed the Souls of all Men. But fear of Pain and Death here, do not seem to have been so unconquerable as fear as to what is to come hereafter. Priests, Hierophants, Popes, Despots, Emperors, Kings, Princes, Nobles, have been as credulous as Shoeblacks, Boots, and Kitchen Scullions. The former seem to believe in their divine Rights as the latter. Autos da f� in Spain and Portugal have been celebrated with as good Faith as Excommunications have been practiced in Connecticut or as Baptisms have been refused in Philadelphia.

"How is it possible tha Mankind should submit to be governed as they have been is to me an inscrutable Mystery."

It should be obvious that the Christianity that John Adams was talking about in his inaugural address was not the familiar species of Christianity which has plagued humanity for centuries.

The Katz thesis that our Founding Fathers were essentially a species of Christian created by Newtonian science and Calvinism is essentially humbug. It should be instructive to note how Calvin was really perceived by one of the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson - and also to note that the person with whom he was corresponding — John Adams — was in essential agreement with him. This is how Jefferson disposed of John Calvin in a letter to John Adams on April 11, 1823.

"I can never join John Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I never can be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his five points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin."

Thus Atheism was preferable to belief in the god of Calvin, according to Thomas Jefferson. So much for Bernard Katz's effort to saddle the Founding Fathers of our country with even the shadow if not the substance of John Calvin. In the words of Jefferson, they did not subscribe to his religion of "daemonism." They created a secular nation as a result. Ours was not to be a Christian nation!