Tag Archives: founding fathers

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE HAS NO PLACE IN MODERN DEMOCRACY

constitution

The electoral college is in the news again, thanks to the outcome of the recent presidential race.  The latest count–now that the final tally is in from Michigan–shows Trump winning the electoral college handily, 306-232, while losing the popular vote by more than two million ballots, or about 1.7 percentage points.  President-elect Trump thus joins a short list of individuals to win the presidency while losing the popular vote–the others being John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and George W. Bush (2000).

Predictably, Republicans have rediscovered a deep appreciation of the Founding Fathers for instituting such a wise mechanism for selecting the chief executive.  Most notably, Donald Trump–who as late as 2012 declared the electoral college a “disaster for democracy–now thinks it a “genius” system.  Democrats, for their part, are incensed that the popular will has been thwarted and respond in one of two ways.  Some, like Nancy Pelosi, are calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution entirely.  Others are encouraging electors to disregard the vote of their states and cast their ballots for the candidate who actually won the popular vote.

Clearly, partisan self-interest is driving supposed principles on both sides, and most Americans will recognize that and respond in kind, i.e., according to their partisan leanings.  This is unfortunate, because the problems with the electoral college are real, and need to addressed.  Partisan convictions will insure that this never happens, however.  According to the Constitution, the electoral college cannot be eliminated without a constitutional amendment, and that would require, not only that two-thirds of both houses of Congress agree to a proposed amendment, but also that three-quarters of the states then go on to ratify the proposed change.  In sum, there is absolutely no way to eliminate the electoral college without sustained and extensive bipartisan support, which is another way of saying that it ain’t happening any time soon.

So for now, all we can do is point out that the electoral college doesn’t remotely function as it was intended to by the Framers of the Constitution, and that neither the defenders or the critics of the institution are interested in seeing that happen.

Precious few of the delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 were eager to see the executive of the new government chosen by the direct election of the people.  There were a few lone voices for this alternative, but most deemed it either unwise or unfeasible.  Whatever they thought about the intellectual faculties of the common man, few believed that the rank and file of Americans would have enough knowledge of national affairs and distant statesmen to choose wisely.

Most of the delegates favored one of two alternatives to direct election.  One camp advocated that the president be chosen by the state legislatures.  The other proposed that he be elected by Congress, much like the prime minister in the British parliamentary system.  The electoral college was a compromise between these options in that the state legislatures were to chose electors who would vote for president, and then when no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes–as the Framers fully expected to be the norm once George Washington had left the scene–the House of Representatives would make the final decision in a run-off.  The result was that, in a “normal” election year, both the state legislatures and the Congress would play a role in the election of the president.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

But what role would the people play?  The best explanation of how the Framers would have answered this question comes from the pen of Alexander Hamilton.  During the debate over ratification in 1787-1788, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned a series of eighty-five essays in support of the Constitution that became known as the Federalist Papers.  In Federalist no. 68, Hamilton offered the fullest discussion of the way that the electoral college would function and the part that popular opinion would play in regard to it.

In explaining the structure of the electoral college, Hamilton began by observing that the Framers thought it desirable “that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”  He then went on immediately to describe the electoral college as a body of individuals who were to apply “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

In an editorial in this morning’s Washington Post, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig quotes Hamilton’s statements as grounds for three conclusions: 1) Barring extraordinary circumstances, the Framers intended that the popular preference should determine the choice of the president.  2) They intended the electoral college to serve as a “safety valve on the people’s choice” that would either affirm or (on rare occasions) overturn the decision of the voters.  3) Given that Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to serve as president, there is no good reason for electors to overturn the people’s choice.  Ergo (I imagine that’s what they say at Harvard), the electoral college would be acting consistently with the intentions of the Constitution’s Framers by electing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Lessig is a Democrat.  (He actually briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president last fall.)  I don’t take issue with his editorial on partisan grounds, however, but on historical ones.  Lessig’s training is in economics and philosophy, not history, and so he may actually believe that his interpretation of Federalist no. 68 is accurate.  It’s not.  Whether intentionally or accidentally, he grossly misrepresents what Hamilton was arguing.

When Hamilton observed that the Framers believed that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice” of the president, he did not have a direct election in mind.  Read in context, it is clear that, to Hamilton’s mind, the public’s role was to have a voice in the selection of electors.  That role might be very indirect.  The Constitution does not specify how the states are to choose electors, and in the early years of the republic the vast majority were simply appointed by the state legislatures.  This means that, to the degree that the average voter had a voice in the selection of electors, it was by voting for candidates to the state legislature, who would at a later time appoint electors.

It is hardly the case that the Framers then charged the electoral college with the job of quality control, overturning the people’s choice when the masses had chosen poorly.  Rather, there was no expectation that the electors would pay any attention to the popular vote for the presidency, or even that there would be a popular vote for president.  Although states gradually began to institute popular elections for the president, this was not immediately the norm, and we do not even have a recorded popular vote for president for the first nine presidential elections in American history.

It is important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the rise of formal political parties (and would have been distressed by the prospect).  The “sense of the people” was not to be registered by voters supporting state legislators of one political party over its rival, nor were electors to be chosen because of their public identification with one party or its opposite.  The people’s role was simply to choose electors (or state legislators, who would choose electors) who were known for wisdom and integrity.  The electoral college that resulted would not refer to the popular vote at all.  Instead, Hamilton explained, it was hoped that they would “possess the information and discernment requisite” to selecting the next president.

Lessig’s contention that the Framers would have wanted the electoral college to be guided in any way by the people’s choice shows a basic misunderstanding of the historical context.  He is right, however, that the Framers wanted members of the electoral college to be “citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.”  On those grounds, it would be entirely in keeping with the values of the Framers of the Constitution if electors from red states cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that Donald Trump lacks the experience, the temperament, the discernment, and the integrity that the office of president demands.

The majority of Americans, would see Clinton’s election by this means as illegitimate, however.  Americans in 2016 share few values in common with the Framers of the Constitution we claim to revere.  Generally, the Framers held to a world view that scholars term “republican” (no relation to the Republican Party): they held a skeptical view of human nature and maintained that the proper function of government office holders was to rule virtuously on behalf of the people’s welfare but not necessarily constrained by the people’s preferences in every matter.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have ascribed to a democratic worldview that rests on a positive view of humans as morally good and insists that the role of elected officials is to serve as a mouthpiece for majority preferences.

Not all of us will celebrate this repudiation of the values of the Framers.  I certainly don’t.  But this doesn’t change the fundamental reality: the electoral college doesn’t belong in our world.  It originated from a set of assumptions that the majority of Americans no longer affirm, and many would now roundly denounce.  It survives because of the difficulty of convincing both major parties, simultaneously, that neither stands to gain from its anachronistic presence.

 

 

DID TED CRUZ SHOW “VIRTUE” IN WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S SPEECH?

One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure.  Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention.  Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.”  Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.

That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.”  Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term.  When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today.  Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses.  First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial.  This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)

Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation.  And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure.  The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for.  The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.

In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence.  The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee.  Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention.  Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it.  In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,

My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty.  I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent.  I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose.  What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed.  I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me.  The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him.  Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God).  As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:

If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy?  Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’?  No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government.  He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.

If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here.  When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post.  Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance.  Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.

Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost.  That view was already dying out by the 1820s.

Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump?  I don’t know.  It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future.  I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.

Your thoughts?

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

HOW JAMES MADISON AND ALEXANDER HAMILTON WOULD COUNSEL REPUBLICAN CONVENTION DELEGATES

No one can know for sure how the country’s Founders would advise the delegates to this week’s Republican National Convention, but it seems likely that they would have little patience with the common claim that it would be unethical to disregard the wishes of primary voters if the delegates were convinced that the people’s preference was ill advised.  In general, the framers of the Constitution expected that occasions would arise when it was necessary for elected officials to stand against their constituents; indeed, the willingness to do so was a litmus test of genuine virtue.  Here are just a couple of example of such belief, drawn from the contemporary commentary on the Constitution called the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays penned in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay:

From James Madison, Federalist no. 63:

James Madison

James Madison

” As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.  In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

From Alexander Hamilton, Federalist no. 71:

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

“It is a just observation that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD.  This often applies to their very errors.  But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. . . .  When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”

Neither Madison nor Hamilton was writing with a party nominating convention in mind, of course, but the underlying principle that animated their observations seems pertinent to this week’s doings in Cleveland.  When a public official is convinced that a popular preference would be disastrous for the nation, there is nothing noble or admirable about yielding to that preference in the name of “duty,” and the GOP shouldn’t have to invent a “conscience clause” to make that apparent.

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS-CONVENTION

ERIC METAXAS ON OUR NEED FOR HEROES

Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.

ERIC METAXAS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF VIRTUOUS LEADERS

There are a lot of folks right now trying to figure out what Eric Metaxas really believes about the importance of character in contemporary politics.  Here’s why:

MetaxasIn the middle of last month, with great fanfare, Metaxas’ latest book was released to the world.  In If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, the prominent radio host and public intellectual makes an impassioned plea to Americans to rededicate ourselves to the perpetuation of liberty and to re-embrace our divinely ordained mission to be a beacon of liberty to the world.

Central to Metaxas’ argument is the Founders’ conviction that liberty could not long survive among any people in the absence of virtue.  Metaxas offers several recommendations as to how we might promote virtue in America today, including the absolutely critical importance of electing political leaders who model it.  In an chapter devoted to “The Importance of Moral Leaders,” Metaxas reasons:

If a virtuous people is vital to self-government, as we have established, their virtue cannot help but be affected, in one direction or the other, by the behavior of their leaders.  So it follows that leaders—whether political or cultural—may encourage or discourage a wider culture of virtue.

From this premise Metaxas goes on to complete the syllogism.  If self-government requires a virtuous people, and the extent of virtue among the people will be influenced, if not determined, by the prevalence of virtue among their leaders, it follows that “self-government cannot exist without virtuous leaders.”  Not much ambiguity here.

metaxas2Almost simultaneously, Metaxas met with conservative journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online to discuss the current presidential campaign.  Metaxas led by echoing themes from If You Can Keep It about the necessity of virtuous leadership, prompting Lopez to ask whether the necessity of virtue would disqualify Donald Trump.  Here is how Metaxas responded:

Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.

So how are we to reconcile these two positions?  For some Trump supporters there is nothing to reconcile.  They know that the presumptive Republican nominee is a man of unimpeachable character–for the very good reason that he has told them so.  But for the rest of us—the overwhelming majority of Americans, according to numerous polls—there is a seeming contradiction here.  When we think of public figures that Metaxas highlights as moral exemplars in If You Can Keep It—George Washington, Nathan Hale, William Wilberforce—we can’t bring ourselves to add the name of Donald Trump to the list.

So what’s going on?  It’s tempting to explain Metaxas’ apparent inconsistency as just so much hypocrisy, to dismiss his appeals to virtue as a cynical rhetorical device deployed for partisan purposes, or to rank him among the host of political and religious figures who have apparently abandoned their principles in the belief that no moral compromise is too great if it leads to the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Are these conclusions our only options?  I’m not sure that they are.  To understand why not, we need to go back and understand what the Founders meant by virtue, a term Metaxas uses relentlessly but doesn’t define as precisely as he should.  The meaning of the word has changed a great deal in the past two-plus centuries.  To the Founders, virtue involved one’s behavior in the public sphere and had nothing to do with your behavior in private life—how you treated your children, whether you were faithful to your spouse, the degree to which you were honest in business.  Virtue was all about behavior that had implications for the welfare of the political community.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue,” but in the 18th century the phrase would have been considered redundant.)  A virtuous citizen was someone (always assumed to be male, as virtue was thought of as masculine) who was willing to deny his own interests for the greater good of the republic.

It’s at least conceivable that Metaxas would argue that some of the aspects of Trump’s personal life that have given some evangelicals pause aren’t relevant to virtue as the Founders understood it.  In this category, we could include Trump’s multiple divorces, for example, his avowed sexual conquests, his previous support for abortion rights, his long-standing connection to the gambling industry, and the misnamed Trump University, among other things.  I suppose he might even try to argue that Trump’s support for the torture of combatants and murder of the families of terrorists as well as his advocacy of discrimination on the basis of religion are not really transgressions of virtue as the Founders conceived of it.  (It would be a stretch, but I’m trying to give him every benefit of the doubt.)

I say Metaxas might be able to make that argument historically, but it doesn’t appear that that’s the argument he made to Kathryn Lopez.  Instead of arguing that Trump’s moral flaws, however glaring, are irrelevant to his qualifications to be president, he instead implied that they’re just trivial.  Look up foible in the dictionary.  It means “a minor weakness or eccentricity.”  A peccadillo (the kind of word that shows up on the SAT) is a “small, relatively unimportant offense.”

That’s not how I would describe bigotry, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.

Your thoughts?

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump??

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump?

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and, given the impending Fourth of July holiday, I’ve been re-posting some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian is both important and controversial.  The essay below is an extended review of one of the most careful and persuasive responses to that question, Gregg L. Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders.]

____________________

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

For Christians interested in American history, probably no question looms larger than this one: Were the men who brought our nation into existence authentically Christian?

This is not inevitable. There are a host of other questions that we could imagine rising to the top: Have America’s wars always been just? Was the defense of the Union scripturally justifiable? What should we think of American territorial expansion? Have we shown mercy to the strangers among us? How has America been influenced by the marketplace? What has been our record in dealing with the widow and the orphan? How should we rate our influence on the world?

All of these should demand our attention if we’re really interested in thinking Christianly about our national heritage. None of them captivates us like the question of the religion of the Founders. It isn’t hard to see why. Over time we’ve come to impute enormous political significance to the question. The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian frames the story that we tell about our beginning as a nation. It becomes central to how we define our identity, not only with regard to our past—who were we?—but also with regard to our present and our future—who are we supposed to be? And so the debate over the religious convictions of a handful of eighteenth-century statesmen is now inextricably intertwined with contemporary debates over the place of religion in the public square. The past becomes proxy for the present.

Predictably, the political stakes make the question almost impossible to approach objectively. Polemics abound. Historians—not to mention armies of politicians, pundits, and preachers—have spilled oceans of ink in addressing the question. But despite some notable exceptions, the debate on the whole has generated way more heat and hyperbole than light and nuance. As is so often the case, the extremes command the most attention. Want to attract a large following? Be dogmatic and simplistic. Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the winning formula in Democracy in America: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex,” Tocqueville observed. He was dead on.

The result is a stark dichotomy:  One side insists that the Founders were born-again believers, men of Christian faith guided by Christian principles to establish a Christian nation. The other side contends that they were apostles of the Enlightenment, radical skeptics determined to purge public life of every whiff of religious superstition and “bigotry.” You can take your pick, in other words, between the Founding Fathers as forerunners of the Moral Majority or as ancestors of the ACLU.

Given the explosiveness of the topic, the safest course is simply to steer clear of it. Barring that, the next smoothest path is to preach to the choir—pick a side and beat the drum for it. Those on the other side will mostly ignore you, while those who agree with you will welcome the affirmation. Few of us relish having our prejudices challenged; not many of us mind having our prejudices confirmed.

Historian Gregg Frazer has not chosen the broad and gentle path. Instead, he has written a book that will offend almost everyone invested in the debate, save a handful of scholars. I recently read his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. The author, professor of History and Political Studies at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, wants nothing to do with either extreme. On the book’s very first page he throws down the gauntlet: “I want to force extremists on the Left and on the Right to make the case for their vision of what America should be on its own merits,” Fraser writes, “without hijacking the fame of the Founders and without holding their reputations hostage to causes of which they would not approve.” It’s a courageous objective, and he’s written a worthwhile book. I commend it to any thinking Christian interested in the American past.

Frazer

In a sense, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is really two books for the price of one. First, Fraser scrupulously scrutinizes the religious beliefs of eight key founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson. (The latter two often don’t make the cut for these kinds of studies, but Frazer includes them because of the significant, if often forgotten roles that they played at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.) Second, in an investigation that anticipates James Byrd’s book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, he offers a careful assessment of the revolutionary era pulpit and the arguments that colonial ministers made in support of independence. (For my review of Byrd’s fine book, click here.)

Frazer arrives at two key conclusions. First, concerning the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers: Frazer determines that the leading Founders were not Christian in any orthodox sense, as the Christian America propagandists would have us believe, but neither were they liberal Deists, as secular academics so often insist. Indeed, no existing category satisfactorily captures the constellation of convictions that Fraser discovered, so he created a new one: theistic rationalism.

There’s a symmetry to the combination of these terms that reflects the two-front war that Frazer is fighting. The noun rationalism underscores that the leading Founders weren’t Christian, as David Barton and others so strenuously insist. (To read my review of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies, click here.) But the adjective theistic emphasizes that they also weren’t functionally atheist, as Matthew Stewart has dogmatically argued, for example. (Click here to read my review of his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

According to Frazer, “Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.” [Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that makes human reason the ultimate arbiter of all truth claims.] If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.

The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

The key Founders that Frazer studied rejected both premises. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that parts of the Bible are inspired. They prayed for God’s assistance, they praised God for His deliverance, and they believed in (or hoped for) an afterlife. Whenever scripture and reason conflicted, however, reason trumped revelation. The Founders’ rationalism led them to deny original sin, hell, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and miracles in general.

So what does this mean for contemporary cultural debates over the Founders’ religious beliefs? To a degree that would make the ACLU shudder, the Founders agreed that “the morality engendered by religion was indispensable to society.” But they simultaneously believed that “many—perhaps all—religious traditions or systems were valid and led to the same God.” They were NOT Christian—Frazer emphasizes this repeatedly—and it is a libel on Christianity when David Barton and others insist that they were.

Frazer stresses that theistic rationalism was primarily limited to intellectual elites and “never became the property of the masses” during the era of the American Revolution. It did find considerable voice among colonial pastors, however, and was widely trumpeted from the Revolutionary pulpit. While “Christian America” proponents exult in the degree to which American ministers backed the cause of independence, Frazer finds in that pattern distressing evidence of the Church’s conformity to the world.

In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.

In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”

In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”

Frazer is not as careful as I would wish in making these contentions. You can read his book and almost come away with a view of colonial pastors and parishioners as coldly calculating, consciously sorting through the Scripture for politically useful proof texts and ignoring the rest. I would add that he is equally critical of twenty-first-century proponents of either extreme in the current cultural debate. The author contends that the secular interpretation of America’s founding is widely accepted in part “because members of its intended audiences want to believe that it is true.” In like manner, he maintains that “the Christian America view has found a huge and trusting audience among those . . . who want to believe that the view is accurate.”

I would qualify these claims a bit more carefully. I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S FAITH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below deals with the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.  For a more direct rebuttal of Barton’s claims about Jefferson, go here.]

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.