According to an increasingly popular and influential narrative, the Founding Fathers were mostly crypto-atheistic deists who, as Christopher Hitchens is fond of pointing out, did not mention God in the Constitution, and gave us a First Amendment because they were, at best, suspicious of Christianity and wished to limit its influence. And it’s a good thing they did, because Christianity is a font of ignorance, violence, and superstition, mankind did not begin to achieve much of anything until we had thrown off most of its shackles, and once we throw off those that remain, we can look forward to greater levels of peace, freedom, and rationality. This narrative is believed by perhaps a majority of educated people in Europe and a growing number of educated people here, and can be found in the best-selling books of such “new atheists” as Hitchens (god Is Not Great), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation).
This is pure nonsense. As Mel Bradford pointed out in A Worthy Company, the Framers of the Constitution were
with no more than five exceptions (and perhaps no more than three) . . . orthodox members of one of the established Christian communions: approximately twenty-nine Anglicans, sixteen to eighteen Calvinists, two Methodists, two Lutherans, two Roman Catholics, one lapsed Quaker and sometime-Anglican, and one open Deist, Dr. Franklin, who attended every kind of Christian worship, called for public prayer, and contributed to all denominations.
What is more, “approximately thirty of the Philadelphia Framers were greatly involved with the growth and administration of their own particular denomination.”
Nor was the purpose of the First Amendment to drive Christianity out of public life. Perhaps the most influential constitutional-law treatise before the Civil War was written by Joseph Story, a professor at Harvard and a member of the Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845. Here is what Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States had to say about the First Amendment and the role of Christianity in American life:
Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, . . . the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. . . .
The real object of the [First Amendment] was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.
Indeed, the Framers saw religion as an indispensable part of the constitutional order, whose role was to foster the virtue necessary for republican government to work. As John Adams said, “The Constitution was written for a moral and religious people and is wholly unsuited for the governance of any other.” And George Washington emphasized this theme in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Even Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s most trusted aide, who helped him write the Farewell Address, opposed Jacobinism because he saw it as a threat to what he frankly termed “Christian civilization.”
Perceptive foreign observers also have recognized the importance of Christianity to America. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that
there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is profoundly felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.
Indeed, Tocqueville recorded that the Catholic priests he spoke with in America were unanimous in their conclusion that America’s absence of a national church was conducive to religious sentiment, not injurious to it. Tocqueville also echoed Washington and Adams in concluding that Christianity undergirded America’s constitutional order:
The imagination of the Americans, even in its greatest flights, is circumspect and undecided; its impulses are checked and its works unfinished. These habits of restraint recur in political society and are singularly favorable both to the tranquillity of the people and to the durability of the institutions they have established. Nature and circumstances have made the inhabitants of the United States bold, as is sufficiently attested by the enterprising spirit with which they seek for fortune. If the mind of the Americans were free from all hindrances, they would shortly become the most daring innovators and the most persistent disputants in the world. But the revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their designs; nor would they find it easy to surmount the scruples of their partisans even if they were able to get over their own. Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.
Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.
A century and a half after Tocqueville, the great Russian writer and prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his address at Harvard, sought to remind Americans of what the Framers knew and what our intellectuals were even then busily trying to forget:
However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. In the past decades, the legalistically selfish aspect of Western approach and thinking has reached its final dimension and the world wound up in a harsh spiritual crisis and a political impasse. All the glorified technological achievements of Progress, including the conquest of outer space, do not redeem the twentieth century’s moral poverty which no one could imagine even as late as in the nineteenth century.
Thus we come to the moral poverty of the early 21st century, when the educational and media establishments are increasingly devoted to subverting the truths recognized by Washington and Adams, Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn. The new atheists and their followers take civilization and morality for granted, and expect both to be unaffected by the eclipse of Christianity they so fervently desire.
Last year, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, P.Z. Myers, attracted a fair bit of attention when he asked on his website,
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them—my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure-—but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.
Myers proceeded to do just that. When a Catholic journalist asked him afterward whether Christianity had played a role in fostering Western civilization, Myers simply denied it: “No, people made those contributions to civilization,” which is rather like saying Nazism cannot be held responsible for the holocaust, because “people” ran the death camps. In fact, crediting Christianity with a role in the achievements of Christendom is “like saying that because for so many years people got smallpox, smallpox is to be credited for all the virtue men have done.” So much for the profoundly Christian imagination of Michelangelo and Giotto, Bach and Handel, not to mention the architects of Chartres and St. Peter’s.
Another of the new atheists, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, displayed ignorance as breathtaking as Myers when she dismissed the notion that religion had anything to do with morality:
Most insulting is the idea that morality comes from the rulebook of an external God: the Godless are without moral compass. Yet morality is plainly inborn in every child as soon as it cries “Unfair.”
The fact that there is an innate sense of right and wrong does not mean that religion is unnecessary. (In fact, thinkers from Aquinas to C.S. Lewis have argued that the existence of such a “natural law” points to God.) The trick is how to get people to do what is right when it appears to be against their own interest to do so, or when no one is watching. The Framers thought that was the role played by Christianity; Polly Toynbee seems to think we can rely on the exclamations of toddlers to make sure men do what is right.
Neither Myers nor Toynbee is a marginal figure. Myers’ blog was voted the best science blog on the web and is widely read, and Richard Dawkins came riding to Myers’ defense when he was criticized for desecrating the Eucharist. Toynbee is a leading columnist in Britain’s premier left-wing newspaper. But Toynbee lives in a country far more in line with her views than does Myers, and what is happening in that country today is a vindication of the wisdom of the Framers. According to polling data compiled by Steve Sailer at VDare.com, 84 percent of Americans believe Jesus was the Son of God, 70 percent believe in Hell, and nearly 45 percent of Americans attend church once per week. The comparable polling data for Britain shows that only 46 percent of her people believe Jesus was the Son of God, only 28 percent believe in Hell, and just 13 percent attend weekly services. More recent figures show that weekly attendance at religious services in Britain has fallen to under seven percent of the population, many of whom are recent immigrants.
One of the reasons for this is that many of the people Britain regards as her best thinkers are not merely nonbelievers but anti-Christian zealots who regularly attack Christianity as the embodiment of evil. Prospect voted Richard Dawkins, a man who authored a British television series arguing that religion was “the root of all evil,” Britain’s leading intellectual. The Independent’s Johann Hari called Dawkins’ series “heroic” and argued that what Britain needs is more open hostility to religion:
It is only as you watch the film that you realise how rare it is to hear clear arguments against organised superstition, even in this, the least religious country in the world. . . . Dawkins shows that our genuflection to superstition . . . is causing terrible problems.
Toynbee tells her readers that “religion is not nice, it kills: it is toxic in places where people really believe in it,” and that, “When absolute God-given righteousness beckons, blood flows and women are in chains.” And Hitchens senses that more and more are willing to denounce religion. When promoting god is Not Great, he told an interviewer on Irish radio, in reference to Mother Teresa, “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” Later, he told The Atlantic, “You couldn’t have said that a few years ago. You would have gotten a terrible pasting for it. But now, everybody knows it’s true. They see through this stuff.” British intellectuals who loudly proclaim that religion is “evil” are beginning to argue that people should be protected from exposure to such “evil,” just as Dawkins likens religious education to child abuse; similarly, children’s novelist Philip Pullman lobbied to prevent The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from being made into a movie on the grounds that the book was “morally loathsome” and “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic, and reactionary prejudice.”
The effect of such thinking was foreseen long ago by Jonathan Swift, who recounted in his “Argument Against Abolishing Christianity” how a villager, after hearing an argument against the Trinity, “most logically concluded” that, “if it be as you say, I may safely whore and drink on, and defy the parson.” And so do today’s Englishmen, exhibiting levels of loutishness unseen among comparable populations in America.
On August 24, 2008, Sarah Lyall reported in the New York Times on the escapades of British tourists. Konstantinos Lagoudakis, the mayor of Malia, Greece, said of British visitors to his town that “They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit. It is only the British people—not the Germans or the French.” According to Lyall, a pair of drunken female British tourists returning to Manchester from Greece this summer, yelling, “I need some fresh air,” attacked the flight attendants with a vodka bottle and tried to wrestle the airplane’s emergency door open at 30,000 feet. On the Greek island of Zakinthos,
where a teenager from Sheffield died after a drinking binge this summer, more than a dozen British women were charged in July with prostitution after taking part . . . in an alfresco oral sex contest.
Lyall also recounts how a 20-year-old British woman visiting Greece gave birth to a baby in a hotel room after a night of public drunkenness and was charged with infanticide after the baby died. And she reports on two Britons in Dubai who met during a drinking bout and “were arrested and charged with having sex on a beach, after repeatedly shouting abuse at a police officer who ordered them to stop.” But the British tourists interviewed by Lyall saw nothing wrong. Chris Robinson, 21, in a succinct summary of post-Christian morality, defended British tourists in Greece: “I’ve never seen anyone get stabbed the whole time I’ve been here.”
The moral collapse of post-Christian Britain is evident from statistics, as well as anecdotes. The illegitimacy rate among white Britons is 46 percent, double the rate among American whites, and the crime rate is 40-percent higher in Britain, even though minorities, who account for a disproportionately large number of crimes in America, are only one fourth as numerous in Great Britain as they are here. Steve Sailer has argued persuasively that “the most striking and important difference” between America’s white working class and its far more troubled British counterpart is “the strength of Christianity here.” This point was brought home by an article last year in the City Journal, in which Theodore Dalrymple focused on a recent UNICEF report that indicated “Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child.” Among the statistics buttressing this conclusion were that
British children have the earliest and highest consumption of cocaine of any young people in Europe, are ten times more likely to sniff solvents than are Greek children, and are six to seven times more likely to smoke pot than are Swedish children. Almost a third of British young people aged 11, 13, and 15 say they have been drunk at least twice.
Dalrymple traces the pathological condition of many of Britain’s young people to “the nonjudgmental attitudes among elites,” which, in turn, is merely a reflection of the collapse of traditional Christianity in Britain.
The de-Christianization of Britain is producing other problems. One is an appalling ignorance of Britain’s cultural heritage: 43 percent of Britons could not identify what Easter celebrated and, according to Polly Toynbee, art galleries “now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what ‘agony in the garden,’ ‘deposition,’ ‘transfiguration,’ or ‘ascension’ mean.” Another problem is that the disappearance of Christianity does not mean the elimination of public morality, but its misdirection. In Britain’s case, that misdirection takes the form of a bizarre desire to erase the nation’s heritage and replace it with a bureaucratically mandated “multiculturalism.” In July 2008, the British papers reported that a government-funded advisory group recommended disciplining toddlers for “racism” if they “react to a culinary tradition other than their own by saying ‘yuk.’” The Daily Mail reported that the Institute for Public Policy Research, a leading Labour think tank, was advocating that Christmas be “downgraded.” Such a downgrading would be part of an “urgent and upfront campaign” to promote a “multicultural understanding of Britishness.” A reader from China wrote, “A sinking nation with no sense of national pride—glad I left.” Nations that replace the true Faith with multiculturalism die, even as Britain is dying today. In 2006, 207,000 Britons emigrated, the highest number since before World War I, when Britons had a vast empire to emigrate to. And a BBC poll in 2006 showed that over half of Britons have considered emigrating in their lifetimes. We Americans, who owe so much to Britain and are more like the British than any other people in Europe, ignore at our peril the problems Britain is encountering from effectively abandoning Christianity and the rest of her heritage.
We need to remember, as our founders knew, that we are indeed part of what Hamilton termed “Christian civilization,” and that what that civilization achieved was made possible by the beliefs that animated it. As Charles Murray, an agnostic, concluded after his exhaustive study of human accomplishment,
it was the transmutation of [the classical] intellectual foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and that pushed European accomplishment so far ahead of all other cultures around the world.
We need to remember that, even today, Christianity is conducive to virtue. According to University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, an atheist, religious believers in the West are “happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and each other than are secular people.” Indeed, a study by the Barna Group revealed that religious Americans give seven times as much to charity on a per capita basis as do non-religious Americans.
Above all, we need to remember, as Evelyn Waugh wrote, “It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis on which it rests.”