A Reviewers Notebook: Faith and Freedom
APRIL 01, 1989 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Ben Hart, the son of Dartmouth’s Professor Jeffrey Hart, is one of those editors who got theft training on the off-campus Dartmouth Review, a conservative publication that has turned out more good newspapermen in recent years than any of our graduate schools of journalism. He is also an indefatigable scholar in the off-hours when he is not working for the Heritage Foundation in Washington. In a writing regime that has begun for him daily at six every morning he has produced an excellent book called Faith and Freedom: The Christian Roots of American Liberty (Lewis and Stanley Publishers, 384 pp., $18.95).
The book makes a case for the claim that our constitutional liberties are historically rooted in the Christian faith. But Thomas Jefferson, who wavered between Deism and Christian beliefs, preferred to speak of a nondenominational “Creator” who had endowed us with “certain unalienable rights.” The common people in the colonies who objected to taxation without representation could have been secular in demanding that the “rights of Englishmen” going back to Magna Carta must be respected. But in any case there was a consensus: individual citizens had the right to representative government.
“We are fortunate,” says Ben Hart, “that the American Republic was created at a time when there was such unanimity of opinion on what constitutes good government. The disagreements were over specifics, not fundamentals; means, not ends.” Whether it was Jefferson’s deistic “creator” or the God of the Bible who was the source of our liberties did not really matter.
What was important, in Hart’s view, was that America, at the end of the eighteenth century, “was overwhelmingly Protestant, and of the dissident variety.” In 1775 there were 668 Congregational churches, 588 Presbyterian, 494 Baptist, 310 Quaker, 159 German Reformed, 150 Lutheran, 65 Methodist. The Anglican Church, with 495 congregations, was in decided minority. Only 1.4 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, and three-twentieths of one percent Jewish.
Fully 75 percent of all Americans at the time of the Revolution belonged to churches of Puritan extraction. These Americans believed they had the right to face their God directly, without institutional barriers intervening. The greater part of Hart’s book is devoted to exploring the faiths of churchgoers who looked back to John Wycliffe’s and William Tyndale’s tradition of translating the Bible into contemporary English and reading it for themselves. In America the pivotal document in the development of constitutional government was the Mayflower Compact, which was signed by almost all of the adult men on the Pilgrims’ voyage. This, says Hart, disproves the impression left by historians that the “social compact” was an idea invented by John Locke in 1688, when the Era of the Enlightenment was dawning. Locke’s “social compact” theory, says Hart, “was not really a theory at all, but was derived mainly from Scripture and his experience with the Congregational church.”
What really mattered was that Locke and the Mayflower Compact people came from the same source. The Puritans, who sailed to the Boston area ten years after the Pilgrims had settled in Plymouth, had a leader in John Winthrop who wanted to build a government on biblical principles. Winthrop, who envisioned a “shining city on a hill,” was a republican rather than a democrat. He believed there must be safeguards preventing a tyranny of the majority. Winthrop’s way of avoiding a tyranny was to divide his law-making body into a House of Assistants and a House of Deputies, which represented the first bicameral legislature in North America.
Winthrop’s hopes that his “shining city” would hold Puritans close to the Boston area were doomed by what Edmund Burke at a much later date would refer to as the “dissidence of dissent.” The Reverend Thomas Hooker, though a good friend of Winthrop, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to allow his congregation to move to Connecticut. Winthrop said Hooker was breaking a covenant in leaving, but he couldn’t stop him.
The Fundamental Orders
The Puritans in Boston had their own charter, which they had had the foresight to take with them from England, well out of the reach of Smart monarchs. In Connecticut, Hooker established his Court without a charter. His General Court inspired the so-called Fundamental Orders of Connecticut which was the first written constitution in America. The Fundamental Orders created a pattern for the Federal Constitution.
The Fundamental Orders set up a working government by the people themselves, without any concession from a previously existing regime. The Orders provided for regular elections but set strict limits on the power of those elected. Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson, the Founding Fathers, had a lot of precedent to go on when the final break with England came in the late eighteenth century.
What Hart is intent upon doing is to establish the idea that the American and French revolutions were two entirely different things. The American revolution was really a counterrevolution, aimed at preserving a dispensation that had been in effect since Winthrop’s and Hooker’s day. It was George m, with his archaic divine right of kings, who was the revolutionist in 1776. The French revolution, coming out of the Enlightenment, had no ancient roots in Protestant insistence on the right to face God directly. It collapsed into Bonapartism after Robespierre’s guillotine had done its nefarious work.
The majority opinion in America was Protestant, but there were so many sects that it was necessary to create a government which would not favor one Christian sect over another. Hence the separation of church and state that is found in the First Amendment. Modern judges get it all wrong when they say that the First Amendment means that government forbids State encouragement of religion in general. All that the Amendment says is that there shall be no specific religion.
Some of the states, in 1787, had official churches, but this didn’t last. In 1786 Jefferson’s and Madison’s state bill in Virginia dis-established the Anglican Church, which had become a minority sect in Virginia anyway.
Hart wonders how the posting of the Ten Commandments on school walls, or how publicly expressing thanks to our Creator for all He has given us, threatens the liberties of anyone. He hopes that different judges appointed by President Bush will bring an end to petty squabbling about such things as a moment of silence in schools. As he puts it in a concluding chapter on “the true Thomas Jefferson,” “. . . one would have to have a very warped perspective on American history to believe the Founding Fathers intended or foresaw the federal government being used to bludgeon Christianity.”
The clear intent of the First Amendment, says Hart, “was to protect a religious people from government.”