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May 06, 2010


The blueprint for the country is the Constitution. The Declaration was a piece of war propaganda. Read it. King George claimed a divine right to rule the rebels. So, for balance, the rebels claimed a divine right to be free of him. Then they called him a criminal. (I'm not saying he wasn't.)

Take the Jefferson Bible into account when you estimate what Jefferson believed. At the time, some called him an atheist.

Where the Constitution mentions religion it is in the negative except to say the people should be free to believe and practice or not as they see fit.

The Constitution doesn't merely ban a state religion. It bans any "law respecting an establishment of religion". In other words, the government should take no legal step in that direction. In other words the government shall show no preference.

Yet, the original 1952 NDOP law told the President to declare a day of prayer - showing a preference for citizens that pray over those who don't. The NDOP couldn't be on Sunday - showing a preference for Christians.

The government is by, for, and accountable to the People. That is why the Constitution begins, "We the People."


Not a founding father, but Abraham Lincoln is respected as one of the best presidents we've had:

"And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord." - Abraham Lincoln, March 30, 1863.

Ron, why do you think the founders were so poor at following through with their mandate (in your opinion) to have all of gov't free of religion and/or God? Meeting of Congress regularly opened in prayer. Is it possible that non-establishment does mean that they would not make any state religion and want/encourage its citizens to practice freely, even going as far as encouraging its citizens to pray? On the other hand, I can see why your wrong interpretation (in my opinion) of the founders' intention violates the constitution. I would say you should be mad at the founders first for not practicing what you thought they were preaching, maybe you are.

Meeting of Congress regularly opened in prayer.

Perhaps the courts should look back and see what else the founders allowed, or participated in. Maybe that would help curb some of these silly lawsuits.

You can't legitimately argue, as the New Atheists do, that the founders intended that government and religion NEVER mix, when they themselves started their meetings with prayer.

America's history isn't merely steeped with Christian influence, it is it's bedrock. This would make me reel if I were a fervent American athiest. But my emotional response has no bearing on fact. As to our nation's foundations and founders' intentions, one can deny, reject, and even oppose the truth of our heritage (which is not to say we have exemplified our Christ as best we ought)...but to them I would say, "...the earth is really a sphere, too." They are as credible as flat-earthers, Vermont's secede-from-the-U.S. club, and Al Gore.

An aside: If America's founders genuinely had a secular nation in mind, there'd be no such thing as a group with a desire to call themselves "The Freedom FROM Religion Anything."

They're trite;...reminiscent of a childhood treehouse club that sticks up a wooden sign reading, "No girls (or boys) allowed."

And the heart of the problem (from a socio-political perspective) isn't that these guys are persuasive or even credible...it's that we have a smattering of "pseudo-enlightened" narcissists in positions around the country who've infested the courts and the legislature. They inject their ideologies into the culture at the tap of a gavel, get the lonsesome applause of a few humanist whackjobs sitting in the back...

...and...pathetically...largely go unchallenged by a Bible-based nation whose citizens contemporarily "cling to a form of Godliness, yet deny His power"...continuing to slumber, continuing to indulge their jaded apathy.

There are a couple intermingled questions here. One is, regardless of the Constitution, is it a good idea to have a mixing of religion and the State? The other question is about the legality of such a mixture, which is where the Constitution comes in.

If it's a bad idea, then even if it's allowed under the Constitution, then we shouldn't do it. If it's a good idea, but not allowed under the Constitution, then we also shouldn't do it (but we may seek to change the Constitution in such a case).

I often see discussions of this topic switch between these questions haphazardly, which makes it difficult to get to any clear understanding. I think it's helpful if people specify which particular question they are dealing with in their discussion.

You've created an interesting silence here.

RonH: in point of fact, the Constitution isn't the blueprint for the nation. The states pre-exist the nation, and the states agreed to the articles of confederation before they ratified the constitution. The nation began before the constitution was agreed to (and then changed multiple times).

eric: very well said. However, "mixing" is a nebulous term. One might have a religious conviction that the government ought to be neutral with respect to religions. Is that mixing religion and government, for the government to act out of the people's religious conviction that religious freedom should be respected? This, of course, goes to the question of what should the law be, not what the constitution says or means now. (I actually prefer the latter debate, because most people haven't the foggiest clue what the constitution says or means, especially with respect to the religion clauses.)

I submit that without a theistic foundation for a notion of legal "rights," the government will always devolve into despotism. Rights from God are incumbent upon governmental leaders. Rights created by man are only extended by man-made government and may be revoked by man at any time for any reason where there is power to do so. The Declaration of Independence essentially states that when a government violates its duties to God (i.e. the "Natural Law"), it ceases to be a legitimate government. Without a theistic worldview, there is no legitimate or illegitimate government. Just an exercise of power.

"The Declaration was a piece of war propaganda."

Well, if you say so. Unfortunately for your position, the day on which it was signed, July 4, 1776, is the day on which our country was founded.

Also, the Constitution was not ratified until over a decade later, which means that U.S., as a nation, is chronologically prior to its Constitution. The country produced the Constitution, the Constitution did not produce the country.

As you may or may not know, the Founders were deeply influenced by John Locke, a Christian philosopher who defended the idea of natural rights and divided government and the separation of powers. Those ideas were clearly shaped by a Christian understanding of human nature, one that was dubious of our ability to not act in our self-interests when power was at stake.

It is also clear that the Founders would have thought incomprehensible to think of extra-legal rights as having their origin in anything but a divine mind.

No doubt that America is not a Christian country in a normative establishment sense. No intelligent person claims otherwise. Rather, Christianity was the cultural grammar that strung together the vocabulary of natural rights, divided government and the separation of powers, as well as the idea of the free exercise of religion.

You should read my article: “The Courts, Natural Rights, and Religious Claims as Knowledge.” Santa Clara Law Review 49.2 (2009): 429-458. You can find it here: http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/SCLR.pdf

RonH said: "The Constitution doesn't merely ban a state religion. It bans any "law respecting an establishment of religion". In other words, the government should take no legal step in that direction. In other words the government shall show no preference."

Your summary is remarkably off the mark. At the time that the Bill of Rights was passed, some states had *state churches*, which were not affected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment in the Constitution was only intended to bar the *federal* government (not all government as such) from choosing sides between the different state churches (one state can be Congressional and another state can be Anglican, but the federal government cannot choose between them by making a law "respecting an establishment of religion"). The First Amendment's "establishment of religion" clause was not held to restrict the states until 1947! And that Supreme Court decision was nothing more than an abuse of judicial power. It certainly had nothing to do with the framers' intentions or the actual original meaning of the First Amendment.

Ok, last one I promise (I just love legal history lessons...).

Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian and he did want religion and government to be a little more separate than did some of his peers. However, he wanted that separation *because of rights he believed God had granted*. He authored the The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom [http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/vaact.html], which begins:

"Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do..."

In other words, he believed that government should keep its hands off religion because his religion required that it be so. He clearly was mixing his religious beliefs (far from atheistic) with his political beliefs. Even as a non-Christian, his beliefs about God were the bedrock for his governmental philosophy.

Additionally, the VAERF concludes:
"the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

To believe in natural rights, you've got to have more than a scientific-atheist worldview. You've got to have a natural law-Giver.

Ooh, an article by Mr. Beckwith on the subject. Brain candy! :-)


I work with blueprints all the time (except we don't call the blueprints) anymore. Here are three categories we work with: as designed, as built, and renovation. Carrying the analogy through (which is quite reasonable in this case), the Articles of Confederation would be as designed drawings. The Constitution might be called either renovation or as built drawings, the Declaration would be neither.

Time for one more.

To believe in natural rights...[y]ou've got to have a natural law-Giver.

Depends on what you believe natural law is or, put another way, depends on what natural laws you believe in. You want to deny that?


RonH: not physical natural laws, but metaphysical Natural Law, which is to say, a universal code that covers everyone. It doesn't fit with a strictly empirical worldview because Natural Law provides non-material "oughts." At bottom, the most basic "oughts" (e.g., you ought to do good and avoid evil) cannot be derived from anything else. Now, why is it that I "ought" to obey these "oughts" if they are accidental and come from no one? To truly be "oughts," they must come from someone, otherwise we can just ignore them like we ignore the rocks and trees.

Also, the Declaration was seen as a final and definite act. It was passed without any intention of producing a "constitution" a decade later. Same with the Articles, though they were later deemed deficient. Who does design drawings and leaves it there? Each of these documents were seen as final and definite, not as a step in a progression to something else. In any event, it is clear that the Declaration was a legal act declaring the states' independence from Britain, analogous to you giving your boss a letter of resignation ("I'm now on my own, you have no more authority over me"). Turning in a letter of resignation is a legal act with legal effect, whether or not you find another job. It's not just propaganda.

The Decl. was signed by all the colonies jointly as one nation turning in its resignation *as a new union* ("I resign, you have no authority over me, I am now a partner at X, and you can reach me there; and I'm taking my clients with me"). The Continental Congress ironed out the contents of the Declaration for two years before they asked Thomas Jefferson to draft it. It was an act of joint government. Further, it was a joint statement of theology.

Actually, to correct myself, the Decl. may have been passed with the intention to pass the Articles of Confederation (I'm not sure one way or the other), but not with an intention of passing the Constitution as we know it today. Either way, the Declaration was a legal act, more than just propoganda, and the legal support for that legal act was theological.


"I submit that without a theistic foundation for a notion of legal "rights," the government will always devolve into despotism"

I submit that the phrase, " without a theistic foundation for a notion of legal 'rights'", is at best superfluous. There have been, and currently are, States with a "theistic foundation for a notion of legal rights", which have either devolved into, or began in, full-fledged despotism. I don't see the historical evidence that theistic notions are a reliable protection against this.

Let's not forget that the Founding Fathers also thought women were inherently incapable of participating on political decision and that is was entirely appropriate for one person to own another. They were also able to find support for these ideas from their "theistic foundation".

We are not bound to adhere to the ideas of historical persons simply because they were influential in their time. We can, and should, scrutinize their ideas, keeping the good and discarding the bad. It is not enough to argue that the Founders agreed with your ideas.


I didn't have in mind physical laws.

If you define natural law to imply a law giver then, by jove, they require a lawgiver.

If you define 'ought' to imply a lawgiver then, by jove, it requires a lawgiver.

If you claim we are not free to define either of these things then, by jove, that requires a lawgiver.

Our nature and situation establish real constraints on our behavior. I call these constraints real because they have real consequences. By nature we sense them and behave accordingly. Well, most of us do most of the time. These constraints can be summarized as follows: If we don't recognize them then we'll have a short run as a species.

These constraints are real even if some of us as individuals aren't very aware of them. They are real even if we are not individually punished for failing to recognize and act on them. All that is necessary for these constraints to be real is that they have real consequences.

I can think of no better name for these constraints than 'natural law'.

OK the Declaration was seen a 'a final and definite act'. So? There are lots of final and definite acts that are not blueprints for a country. This is one of them.

The idea was of the Declaration was to declare independence, justify revolution (to the world and to internal doubters), and demonstrate unity among the Colonies. Everything they said served those ends. There is no, "By the way, we think, blah, blah, blah." Given the stakes to have gone off topic would have been irresponsible.

"Joint theology" I doubt it.

Here's one for you: If, it is valid for us to try interpret the Constitution by getting to know its writers and reason toward WWFD (What Would the Founders Do), then is it not also valid to ask WWFBT (What Would the Founders Believe Today?).

If Jefferson was a Deist then, what would he be today?


It seems to be common for judges to try to ascertain what the 'intent of Congress' was in writing a law even if the law is the Constitution. They may be required to. I don't know. NL? But that gets the lawyers started and that gets others started.

I'm no more into Framer worship than any other kind of worshiper. But it seems if we want to say we live under law sometimes we have to try to figure out what the lawmaker meant.



"But it seems if we want to say we live under law sometimes we have to try to figure out what the lawmaker meant."

Re-reading my comment, I can see that I left room for a couple interpretations. I am solidly in the "original intent" camp when it comes to understanding laws, including the Constitution. What I am opposing is the idea that whatever the authors of the Constitution thought is necessarily correct. Whether or not the Continental Congress included prayer in their sessions is irrelevant when determining if it's a good idea for the modern US Congress to mandate prayers.

eric: your logic is off a bit. If I say abandoning God leads to despotism, it's not a counter-argument to say embracing God sometimes leads to despotism. The latter is conceded, but it certainly does not rebut the former.

RonH: eric's comment at 2:31 is spot-on. Thus, to respond to your comment that... "If, it is valid for us to try interpret the Constitution by getting to know its writers and reason toward WWFD (What Would the Founders Do), then is it not also valid to ask WWFBT (What Would the Founders Believe Today?)" ... the correct question is "what did the founder *mean*," not "what would the founders do". I think that what they would do today, or what they would believe today, is really beside the point when it comes to interpreting the constitution.

As to... "'Joint theology' I doubt it." By theology I just mean understanding about God. Seeing as how they agreed to the Declaration, and the Declaration says stuff about God, that's joint theology. Not the same as religion, because there is no sacred text directly being invoked.

"If Jefferson was a Deist then, what would he be today?"
A Deist. There are still Deists today. Why wouldn't he be one if he had remained alive until now?


I would say that, given the respective sample sizes, I don't think we can say with confidence that the probability of despotism given theism is less than the problem of despotism given no theism.

oops... change "problem" to "probability" in my previous comment.

Government and everything is a terrible mix.

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