SUMMER READING ON CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION

There were two department stores in the small southern town where I grew up.  My grandmother preferred Woolworth’s, on the town square across from the courthouse, while my mom always shopped at K-Mart, right next to the A&P on the highway heading out of town.  This time of year I despised them both equally.  You couldn’t enter either without being accosted by signs announcing “Back to School” sales, usually accompanied by cardboard cut-outs of yellow school buses or of school-age children inexplicably delighted by new no. 2 pencils and a spiral notebook.  Such signs always made me angry.  Like death-row convicts, we kids already knew that our time was running short, and it just seemed cruel to rub our noses in it.

It’s forty-five years later and I still feel that way when the 1st of August comes around.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love teaching at Wheaton and feel unbelievably privileged and blessed to work here.  And yet . . .  I just spent the morning on my favorite bench out at Lake Ellyn Park reading about American history.  The temperature was in the mid-70s, there was an occasional breeze through the trees, the sun felt good on my back, and I didn’t want it to end, ever.

I still hope to squeeze in a few more books before the summer ends, and thinking that you might be looking for something to read as well, I thought I would make a few recommendations.  Last month I shared my suggestions on works related to faith and the American founding, and because I have been blogging recently on Christianity and the Constitution, I thought I would suggest a few books that I have found helpful in thinking about the creation of the Constitution.  Not all of the authors mentioned below are Christian or especially concerned with the relation of Christianity to the Constitution, but each has valuable insight to offer.

If you’re game for some eighteenth-century prose, I would recommend that you start with the Federalist Papers, a source that I alluded to in my last post.  These originated as a series of essays written primarily by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in 1787-1788.  Published serially in New York newspapers, they were written intentionally to sway public opinion in favor of ratification.  They are hardly unbiased, but the authors appealed to the reason of their readers more than their emotions and produced a body of reasoned commentary that today still stands among the most important political writings in American history.  (Supreme Court justices have cited the papers over three hundred times in their rulings.)  If this is a bit ambitious, consider at least reading essay no. 10 (“arguably the most famous writing in the field of American political science”), or no. 51, my personal favorite.  It is no. 51 that contains Madison’s haunting rhetorical question–“What is human nature itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”–followed by his trenchant observation, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Having recommended the Federalist Papers, I would recommend also a modern work about those essays: Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World (2008), by Michael Meyerson.  Meyerson is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore.  The author provides much of the back story of the Federalist, exploring the relationship between Hamilton and Madison (allies in 1788, they would soon become bitter enemies), the ideas that shaped their thinking, and the arguments that they articulated with such effect.

Countless books have been written on the Constitutional Convention itself, but I think my favorite is Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009).  Beeman is a distinguished historian of early America at the University of Pennsylvania.  Although it is a skill too lightly valued by historians these days, one of Beeman’s strengths is bringing the historical moment to life through a compelling narrative.  He is masterful at recreating the physical setting (you will learn much about the sights, sounds, and smells of late-eighteenth-Philadelphia) and adept at crafting engaging sketches of the leading characters.

As I tried to convey in my last post, nailing down the personal religious beliefs of the Framers is far more difficult than is commonly supposed, and many well-meaning popular Christian writers make dogmatic arguments on the slenderest of foundations.  The titles that I have found to be most helpful do not focus exclusively on the Constitution but speak more broadly to the religious beliefs and objectives of leading Americans from the Revolutionary Era through the end of the eighteenth century.  Two such works I have already recommended in previous posts: John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011) and Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010) both have chapters on the Constitution.  Both Fea and Kidd are wonderfully able Christian scholars.  Although its author is not a historian, I also like Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008), by Steven Waldman.  A former editor at U.S. News and World Report, Waldman went on to serve for a decade as editor-in-chief of the online news service Beliefnet.

Check one of these out if you have the time.  Better yet, turn off your phone, log out of Facebook, and make the time.  Summer’s almost over.

5 responses to “SUMMER READING ON CHRISTIANITY AND THE CONSTITUTION

  1. Thanks very much, Professor McKenzie, for recommending John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? As a naturalized citizen coming to the US 40 years ago, I found it fascinating to study the US history from a Christian perspective, especially at this time of continuing rift among the three branches of our government that would require us to gain a deeper insight into the founders’ ideal of the American Experiment. Beside, I am very blessed that God provided me with the luxury of retirement so that I could “redeem the time” by becoming a student of history.

    Regarding Anti-Ferderists, I thought John Fea’s book offers this helpful insight (p. 163):

    Anti-Federalist demands for a formal statement defending the right to liberty of conscience in matters of religion came to fruition when the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1791. … The First Amendment stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

  2. Makes sense. The opposition is by its nature a coalition of necessity, usually lacking the uniformity of the other side. There were Christian Republicans–during the debates over ratification in Virginia several opponents mentioned the Constitution’s lack of a religious test clause as its fatal flaw–those who distrusted centralization, some who just didn’t like the particular compromises on large v. small state balancing, and many other qualms, which often had little to do with each other.

  3. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  4. Dr. McKenzie,

    You have a high opinion–and I agree–of the Federalist Papers. I’m curious as to your opinion of the Anti-Federalist Papers, which I’ve not read in full.

    I’ve read enough to presume that the anti-federalists tended to have a very different (more positive) view of human nature, although I assume that quite a few evangelicals were anti-federalists at the time.

    Thanks,

    Paul

    • Good question, Paul. I wish I were more knowledgeable about the Anti-Federalist Papers. I have ready selectively in them rather than systematically. I have always found them much harder to characterize than the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were written essentially by two individuals (John Jay withdrew from the undertaking due to illness) who were working closely in cooperation. In contrast, what historians refer to as the Anti-Federalist Papers encompasses the work of a much larger corps of writers who were responding individually to the proposed Constitutions from a variety of perspectives. Thus the result (which runs to seven volumes of writings) lacks the clear argument and internal coherence that is one of the hallmarks of the Federalist Papers.

      Regarding the the view of human nature that the Anti-Federalist Papers reflects–I think it is a little hard to generalize. Yes, there is a sense in which there is a more positive view of human nature, but certainly not when it comes to the expected effect of power on virtue. Just like the Federalist, the Anti-Federalist writers agree that power corrupts, and that those who wield it will be prone to forget their public trust.

      For Christians, one of the interesting aspects of the whole ratification debate is that the strongest, overt expressions of Christian conviction come from the Anti-Federalists. As John Fea has pointed out, Anti-Federalist writers frequently insisted that the United States was a Christian republic and berated the Constitution for its failure to declare that.

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