Constitutional Perspective: The Anti-Federalist View of Religion in and for Government

May 2, 2010

History, politics

…many Anti-Federalists were concerned with the maintenance of religious conviction as a support of republican government.  “Refiners may weave as fine a web of reason as they please, but the experience of all times,” Richard Henry Lee wrote to James Madison in 1784, “shews Religion to be the guardian of morals.”  The opinions of men need to be formed “in favour of virtue and religion…”  Religious support of political institutions is an old idea, and here again the Anti-Federalists tended to be the conservatives.  The view was well expressed by an anonymous Massachusetts writer in 1787.  He explained that there are but three ways of controlling the “turbulent passions of mankind”: by punishment; by reward; and  “by prepossessing the people in favour of virtue by affording publick protection to religion.”  All are necessary, but especially the last, “[I]t is not more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the public protection of religion.”  By 1787, however, the opinion seemed to be growing that organized religion could be dispensed with or taken for granted.  This was, at any rate, the Anti-Federal reading of the situation.  The indifference of the Constitution and its main defenders to organized religion was striking.  In the words of Federalist writer Elihu, “the light of philosophy has arisen,” and “mankind are no longer to be deluded with fable.”  “Making the glory of God subservient to the temporal interest of men, is a worn-out trick….”  Anti-Federalists saw quite clearly the implications of such arguments and challenged them.  They would have agreed with an annymous Virginian who urged that steps be taken to revitalize religion: “Whatever influence speculative vanity may ascribe to the indefinite principle termed honor, or political refinement, to an artful collusion of interest, sound reason as well as experience proves that a due sense of responsibility to the Deity, as the author of those moral laws, an observance of which constitutes the happiness and welfare of societies as well as individuals, is the mean most likely to give a right direction to the conduct of mankind.”  The Anti-Federalists feared that the Americans would follow the example of the  Europeans as described by Mercy Warren: “Bent on gratification, at the expense of every moral tie, they have broken down the barriers of religion, and the spirit of infidelity is nourished at the fount; thence the poisonous streams run through every grade that constitutes the mass of nations.”  Warren insisted that skepticism is not, as some hold, necessarily fostered by republican liberty.  Indeed, the history of republics is the history of strict regard to religion…

The above paragraph was taken from Herbert J. Storing’s book “What the Anti-Federalists Were For” (1981, Chicago Press).  The players in the unfolding drama of the Constitutional convention are the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  The Federalists consisting of John Adams, James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, et all, our famous founding fathers and the primary architects of the Constitution proper, were “pro” a federal republic with a strong national government.  The Anti-Federalists, being of the lessor known framers, Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Richard Henry Lee and others were not against Federalism.  They were merely given the name to denote that they carried the opposing Constitutional argument.  Actually and ironically they were very much in favor of States rights and a small government.

A multiplicity of thoughts come to mind as I read this.  First you should know that Storing’s book attempts not to describe the Anti-Federalist view in a vacuum.  I felt it was relatively unbiased and fair and presented a “whole” view of the debate.  The quote above is a micro-view and only one facet of the discussion.  Tap into his book for a broader perspective.

One of the main things of note is that the bluster of freedom of religion and government in the news today is just “surfacy” stuff that has little resemblance to what was being said two-hundred years ago.  Clearly a large majority of the framers were concerned with the need to keep religion (assumed and unsaid, the Christian faith) within the government/populace interface.  It was a given in both camps that if a Federal Republic of and by the people were to succeed, then the people had to be of sufficient character and moral stature.

Another glaring observation is that the main thrust was to keep in the forefront the Christian law, the moral guidance, and the Christian example if you will.  Had this document, our Constitution, been crafted a hundred years prior, I believe the emphasis would have been the need for our Union to entrust our wealth and prosperity to a Just and Holy God and to infuse within all our activities the desire to give the Lord the utmost Glory.  It would be an interesting historical study to see how our Reformed Faith degenerated into a Deistic form of religion.  Clearly, too, from the author Elihu’s comments, “manishness” and secular philosophy is ever maintaining it’s foothold and creeping into the framer’s thoughts.

Something that troubles me is that from God’s perspective we were receding (dying), while from our own perspective our nation was just getting started.  The framers timidly dipped their feet into the pool of total depravity by acknowledging that checks and balances, along with specified rights, were needed to ensure the rights of the individual against the flux of the majority.  For those of us who understand what God communicates to us through His Word, though, we readily submit that the inherent depravity of man will lead to a naturally corrupt system apart from the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit.   How revolutionary would it have been to name the Triune God and his over-arching will as the driving force behind our new Republic.

We feel good about ourselves that the words G-o-d and C-r-e-a-t-e-r are present in the framer’s writings and our nation’s documents.  But, really, if we are faithful to Christ, our national effort is froth with manism; in line with our nation’s embrace of Arminianism.

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