Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution – Lecture 6

Lecture Six: Religion, Morality, and Property

It is often argued that our founding documents were products of the times during which they were written. The founders were men of principle, but are not relevant to our more complex, modern times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The ideas of the founders are timeless innovations that recognize pre-political rights granted by the Creator. No government gives these rights, and no government can legitimately take them from us. God bestows reason uniquely on man, and creates all of us with equal natural rights. We know man is neither perfect nor perfectible. Both reason and revelation combine to teach us virtue. Families, churches, and communities must support our choices of the good over the evil. Inattention to the laws of nature and nature’s God must inevitably lead to loss of our liberties. The founders, with their clear-eyed view of unchanging human nature, understood the link between the preservation of rights and a reliance on religion and morality to chart our courses. Our modern situation merely underscores the wisdom of the founders.

Within a few months of our declared independence, the Congress issued the following proclamation: “Resolved that it be recommended to all the United States, as soon as possible, to appoint a day of solemn fasting and humiliation; to implore of Almighty God the forgiveness of the many sins prevailing among all ranks, and to beg the countenance and assistance of his Providence in the prosecution of the present just and necessary war.” Such proclamations were common in Congress and in the states. This Fast Day proclamation was written by John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration and president of the school that became Princeton. He understood the connection between religious virtue and rights preservation. As did Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports….A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Without exception, the founders understood the importance of religious sensibilities and moral conduct. The Declaration invokes God four times. There were no attempts to remove religion from the public square. Indeed, it was hoped that religiously informed citizens would influence government to act in morally responsible ways.

What the founders did oppose was religious coercion. Section 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights put it this way: “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” The previous section had noted that liberty depended on adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue. Yet, the religious underpinnings required each man’s rational choice of belief.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution went even farther. Laws establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion were proscribed. The founders considered religious liberty an unalienable right. Other governmental systems had tolerated minority religions, but this was something new to the world. Government should have nothing to say about religion one way or the other. Religion and morality are freely chosen supports for our liberties, and government is the protector of our liberties—not the source of the grant. A policy of toleration can always be revoked; a right exists forever.

Toleration was a common policy in the states, but many states had established religions–Congregationalism in several New England states and Anglican in the other states. In 1779, Jefferson introduced Bill 82 to end state support of the Anglican, or any, religion. The bill included the following provision: “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion…” This was controversial in Virginia. Some such as Patrick Henry, George Washington, and John Marshall were concerned over a decline in public and private morality. Henry suggested an alternative “multiple establishment” bill that would fund the teachings of various Christian denominations. After many struggles, the Virginia legislature in 1786 passed Jefferson’s Statute For Religious Freedom. By the early 1800’s, religions had been disestablished in all thirteen of the original states.

Madison played a huge role in the success of the Virginia statute, both politically and intellectually. In his highly influential though anonymous essay, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, he argued that religious liberty is a pre-political natural right, that religious observance is a matter of individual conscience, that religion is endangered by ties to the state and does not require state support, that established religion often supports the state over individual liberties, and that the establishment of religion often drives away citizens of good character. This essay stimulated popular support for the statute, which eventually passed by a vote of 60 to 27.

Jefferson’s famous “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association” is widely misunderstood. His “wall of separation between church and state” referenced the First Amendment provisions dealing with non-establishment and free exercise. The main point of his letter was his hope that such provisions would spread to the states. He was not empowered to act to remedy religious liberty issues in Connecticut. It was not until post-Civil War jurisprudence that there was incorporation of federal constitutional protection of rights into state law. Jefferson’s own Virginia statute had recognized the freedom to profess religious arguments. He never believed that religious attitudes were irrelevant to state actions. Citizens brought these sensibilities with them as they engaged in public policy discourse. Jefferson would have been outraged by judicial prohibition of a voluntary prayer in a state sponsored setting. There was wide agreement that one purpose of education was to inculcate religious sensibility and moral virtue into imperfect humans. Jefferson’s concerns were the use of coercive measures, and material support (including official state recognition and sanction) to specific religions. Despite the modern confusions in the case law of the Supreme Court, somehow elevated to our national school board, the First Amendment makes no demands for balance in public religious celebration, and certainly does not require severance of state actions from all considerations of religion and morality.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 captured the importance of both civil and religious liberty to constitutional government, provided freedom of worship in any chosen manner, and recognized the need to encourage education in the religion, morality, and knowledge necessary to good government. These were aspirations in the governance of the new territories that reflected the principles of the founders. There is epistemic humility in the belief that truth will win out; religious humility in the aversion to coercion of belief; and political humility in religious liberty as a pre-political, unchangeable natural right.

Madison tied the very concept of property to natural rights and the right of conscience. In his essay, “On Property”, he wrote in 1792: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights….Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions….Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” Violations of religious liberty and of free speech are examples of disregard for property in rights. So too are arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest, or the imposition of arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies. While Madison advocated no special rights for the poor to the fruits of others, he did recognize the harm both of excessive taxes on the poor and of arbitrary taxes on the rich. Government frugality is a virtue.

We’ll give George Washington the last word on religious liberty. Washington always supported free exercise of any religion. As revolutionary general, he chastised his men for ridiculing Catholic ceremonies. He also wrote in 1790 a famous letter to a Hebrew Congregation that ended with this benediction from Micah: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

So, here are three basic understandings of the founders. Religious liberty is a matter of right, not permission or preference. Morality must be connected to national purpose. Property is not merely the exclusive possession of things, but is also the exclusive possession of one’s own natural rights. Quite a piece of work by complex men discovering universal truths for all times.

Stephen Zierak, CPCU/ARM, graduated from Boston University with a BA in Political Science in 1969. After a forty year career in property casualty insurance underwriting, Mr. Zierak retired as a Vice President of Swiss Re America in 2010. At that time, he relocated to Hawaii, a move he had always wanted to make, but had delayed due to lack of appropriate professional opportunities here. Mr. Zierak plans to continue his studies in Political Science, never really abandoned even during his professional career, and to write on matters of public policy. Recently, he produced for Grass Root Institute summaries of Hillsdale’s ten part internet course on our Constitution. Stephen Zierak is married to the love his life, Teodora, and they reside in Honolulu.

This lecture is taught by Dr. David Bobb, Director of Hillsdale’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, located in Washington, D.C. Dr. Bobb also teaches American politics and political theory to students participating in the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program. The Kirby Center seeks to inspire citizens to lives worthy of the blessings of liberty. From 2001 to 2010, Dr. Bobb directed Hillsdale’s Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence, providing a program of civic education for high school teachers. He received his BA from Hillsdale College and his PhD in Political Science from Boston College. This lecture was posted on the internet March 26, and those interested may register at Constitution.Hillsdale.edu. There is no fee. There will be four more lessons, available weekly on Mondays.

The next lecture in this series is Crisis Of Constitutional Government, taught by Dr. Will Morrisey. It will be available on the internet Monday, April 2.

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