Monday, November 16, 2009

Founding of US Constitution: Scott Horton & References

Portrait James Madison from Wikipedia (left)

Portrait John Calvin from Wikipedia (right)

Since Scott Horton's name has come up in the most recent (long yet terribly interesting) Ray McGovern video on current US participation in torture right above McGovern's recent article on this blogsite and also at

So, I was reminded that Horton also has some crucial perspectives and study to add to the mix of seeking balance and understanding in these times, I want to his blogsite and I pulled this interesting piece from his latest. (I am posting here for my own record and possibly for some dialogue now or later.)
Calvin and Madison on Men, Angels and Government by Scott Horton

It’s an article of faith among the religious right that the U.S. Constitution is a vessel of their religious values. On the other hand, the view of mainstream constitutional historians has been pretty consistent to the effect that many of the Founding Fathers were deists and the Constitution itself rested on a firm belief in the separation of church and state designed to create a matrix in which all religions would be equally welcome and the state firmly disentangled from all of them.

Easy as it is to pick apart many of the claims of figures on the religious right about the role of Christianity in the Constitution, it’s undeniable that theological considerations played a vital role in the crafting of the Constitution and in the process of building popular support. This passage from The Federalist Papers might just be the most often quoted because it so forcefully summarizes the key animating principle that drives the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances—the essential innovations of the American Constitution. But, as a friend on the faculty of the Army JAG School in Charlottesville recently flagged for me, these lines were not original to James Madison. They were lifted almost without change from a sermon written by John Calvin.

Can we be certain that Madison did not arrive upon this image on his own? Yes. Recall that Madison, though a Virginian, traveled north to Princeton, New Jersey to get his education—at an institution that rested firmly in the bosom of Presbyterianism and made the teaching of Calvinist doctrine an essential part of its curriculum. Guiding the process at this time was Dr. John Witherspoon, a stern son of the Scottish Kirk and simultaneously a Founding Father who served for New Jersey in the Continental Congress. Witherspoon had a favorite student with whom he collaborated closely throughout this period: James Madison.

Calvinist doctrine about the nature of man, about man’s inherent fallibility, had a strong influence on political philosophy as it was taught and discussed in Princeton. And there was a second very practical consideration: unlike its name-brand Protestant competitors Lutheranism and Anglicanism, Calvinism was not, by and large, a state religion. This led Calvinist philosophers, particularly those operating in the English-speaking world, to advance the notion of separation of church and state and ideas of religious liberty–as a matter of pragmatic self-interest. A number of historians, pointing to the overlap between pockets of Calvinism and democracy, convincingly argue that Calvinist thought propelled Enlightenment values including respect for the dignity of humankind and democracy. That argument may be made clearest in the United States, in fact.

But saying that Calvinist theory helped support the architecture of the Constitution is different from saying that it rests on Calvinism or indeed any theology. And indeed, that point may be made most effectively by looking at James Madison himself. Was he the “stern Calvinist” that Witherspoon sought to make of him? Biographers who want to make Madison into a model Presbyterian can scour his life and find some evidence of it, particularly from his younger days. He actually wrote and told friends in 1773 that he had a “transient inclination” to enter the ministry. He was a pewholder in a Presbyterian church. On the other hand, he married in the Anglican church and often attended Episcopal services as well. But as Madison turned to the world of politics and emerged as an important public figure, he seems to have drifted steadily away from organized religion. His religious views were so carefully guarded that his political adversaries attacked him, just as they attacked Jefferson, as an atheist. An Episcopal bishop recorded his sense, following a dinner time conversation with Madison, that he held a skeptical view of organized religion and was probably a deist, like Jefferson. In 1815, a visiting merchant from Boston has Madison expressing enthusiasm for the Unitarian ideas then sweeping New England. On other occasions he bragged about not having attended religious services for “many years.” But overall, Madison is so tight-lipped about his religious convictions that it is impossible to draw any ultimate conclusions about his faith or lack of faith. As to Constitutional politics, by contrast, that task is an easy one.

James Madison may be the most important of the Founding Fathers on questions of Constitutional theory. But he also plays a vital role in helping us understand how theology indeed influenced the United States Constitution—and also in allowing us to chart the limits of that influence.

Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestles with an Angel (1852)
Found on Scott Horton's "No Comment" page at Harper's Magazine

posted November 14, 2009 here

The US Contitution
James Madison - Wikipedia

John Calvin - Wikipedia

For the best current news source on matters constitutional I watch along with reports and action - try Bill of Rights Defense Committee's usually daily offerings: . For the isolated news GO:

If interested in a deeper look at current US activity in US and around the world pertinent to US Constitution and US Bill of Rights, be sure to check out the periodical reports and suggested actions often on the home page. GO:

You can also sign-up for free e-mailings which I find invaluable on a daily basis with longer reports that also show up in your box.

Personally, I doubt that one needs to know much of anything about the Bill of Rights and the US constitution to see the inhumane - war crimes litany practiced by US leaders day after day after day. So glad at least we have some of these standards and resources with which to hold up these travesties and some of the founding history and perspectives - however flawed - with which to remind those among us who claim to be practicing and supporting these principles whether from a totally deist original framework or one pulled from some Christian principles - even famous sermons or a position of complete separation from the gitgo. At the same time, what matters most of all is how we are treating our fellow humankind as well as the earth which sustains us all or could if we let her.

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