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If we were like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise
perfect self-control, we would not need rules or regulations. Why,
then, do we have so many laws and statutes? Because of man’s
wickedness, for he is constantly overflowing with evil; this is why a
remedy is required.
–John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 3:19-20, “The Many Functions of God’s Law” (1558) in the volume Sermons on Galatians (Edinburgh 1997).
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
–James Madison, The Federalist No. 51 (1788).
It’s an article of faith among the religious right that the U.S. Constitution is a vessel of their religious values. On the other hand, the view of mainstream constitutional historians has been pretty consistent to the effect that many of the Founding Fathers were deists and the Constitution itself rested on a firm belief in the separation of church and state designed to create a matrix in which all religions would be equally welcome and the state firmly disentangled from all of them.
Easy as it is to pick apart many of the claims of figures on the religious right about the role of Christianity in the Constitution, it’s undeniable that theological considerations played a vital role in the crafting of the Constitution and in the process of building popular support. This passage from The Federalist Papers might just be the most often quoted because it so forcefully summarizes the key animating principle that drives the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances—the essential innovations of the American Constitution. But, as a friend on the faculty of the Army JAG School in Charlottesville recently flagged for me, these lines were not original to James Madison. They were lifted almost without change from a sermon written by John Calvin.
Can we be certain that Madison did not arrive upon this image on his own? Yes. Recall that Madison, though a Virginian, traveled north to Princeton, New Jersey to get his education—at an institution that rested firmly in the bosom of Presbyterianism and made the teaching of Calvinist doctrine an essential part of its curriculum. Guiding the process at this time was Dr. John Witherspoon, a stern son of the Scottish Kirk and simultaneously a Founding Father who served for New Jersey in the Continental Congress. Witherspoon had a favorite student with whom he collaborated closely throughout this period: James Madison.
Calvinist doctrine about the nature of man, about man’s inherent fallibility, had a strong influence on political philosophy as it was taught and discussed in Princeton. And there was a second very practical consideration: unlike its name-brand Protestant competitors Lutheranism and Anglicanism, Calvinism was not, by and large, a state religion. This led Calvinist philosophers, particularly those operating in the English-speaking world, to advance the notion of separation of church and state and ideas of religious liberty–as a matter of pragmatic self-interest. A number of historians, pointing to the overlap between pockets of Calvinism and democracy, convincingly argue that Calvinist thought propelled Enlightenment values including respect for the dignity of humankind and democracy. That argument may be made clearest in the United States, in fact.
But saying that Calvinist theory helped support the architecture of the Constitution is different from saying that it rests on Calvinism or indeed any theology. And indeed, that point may be made most effectively by looking at James Madison himself. Was he the “stern Calvinist” that Witherspoon sought to make of him? Biographers who want to make Madison into a model Presbyterian can scour his life and find some evidence of it, particularly from his younger days. He actually wrote and told friends in 1773 that he had a “transient inclination” to enter the ministry. He was a pewholder in a Presbyterian church. On the other hand, he married in the Anglican church and often attended Episcopal services as well. But as Madison turned to the world of politics and emerged as an important public figure, he seems to have drifted steadily away from organized religion. His religious views were so carefully guarded that his political adversaries attacked him, just as they attacked Jefferson, as an atheist. An Episcopal bishop recorded his sense, following a dinner time conversation with Madison, that he held a skeptical view of organized religion and was probably a deist, like Jefferson. In 1815, a visiting merchant from Boston has Madison expressing enthusiasm for the Unitarian ideas then sweeping New England. On other occasions he bragged about not having attended religious services for “many years.” But overall, Madison is so tight-lipped about his religious convictions that it is impossible to draw any ultimate conclusions about his faith or lack of faith. As to Constitutional politics, by contrast, that task is an easy one.
James Madison may be the most important of the Founding Fathers on questions of Constitutional theory. But he also plays a vital role in helping us understand how theology indeed influenced the United States Constitution—and also in allowing us to chart the limits of that influence.
Listen to the fourth movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major, written to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, and the birth of Protestantism, and based on Martin Luther’s hymn, “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” here in a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.
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More from Scott Horton:
No Comment — November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm
An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath
No Comment — August 12, 2013, 7:55 am
How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?
No Comment — July 29, 2013, 11:36 am
Is it possible to simply disband the partisan FISA court?
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Average portion of its yearly household expenditures that a South African family will spend on a funeral:
Neuroscientists were hoping to use rat brain waves to find people buried by earthquakes.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature