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The Constitution and the Congregation: Time to Celebrate

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 3-10, 1987, p. 523. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Bicentennial celebration of the United States Constitution has begun and will last through September 17. It should have enough momentum to carry through much of autumn. And since religious forces benefited most from the Bill of Rights, which was drafted in 1789 and ratified in 1791, believers will be able to prolong the party another two or four years.

It is more difficult to toast a piece of parchment than a statue, so we won’t be seeing Tall Ships in New York Harbor as we did when the Statue of Liberty reached 100 years of age. Indeed, the Constitution, left to itself, is a dull document. Nonetheless, Christian (and Jewish, and other) congregations can take pleasure and find value in observing the occasion. They need not treat the Constitution as a sacred document. Nor need they agree with Representative Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.) , who recently declared that "God is the author of the Constitution." In fact, congregational celebration of the event can take the document off the Graven Images shelf, helping people to see its imperfections (slaves, women and others did not get much out of it at first, though their heirs can now) and to find ways to make it work better.

These days many people wail about the absence of "Judeo-Christian" voices in public spheres. From the highest echelons of government, the highest ivied chambers of the academy, and the highest towers of televangelism one hears complaints from the "We’re in Monopolistic Postures" school (in German, WIMP-Theologie) What are they saying? Secular humanists have taken over. Pluralism is doing us in. We need legislation giving Judeo-Christians privilege in public schools and other institutions where we used to have the monopoly.

Heed not such calls, O latter-day Israel, "God’s Almost Chosen People," as Abraham Lincoln put it. Reliance on persuasion is better for church and for state than the subtlest coercion. The "voluntary principle" was ratified between 1787-1791, and even the slightest whisper of a hint of a breath of a tilt toward a reminiscence of theocracy will do no good for things of the Spirit and the City. We’re big boys and girls now, and might as well understand that pluralism is here to stay.

A study of the past can reveal the limits of nostalgia. When we hear that all would be well for morals and civic virtue if we privileged the Bible and the J-C tradition, we might recall that the moment when there was most agreement within the Monopoly on God, Jesus, Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Order and the Bible was, roughly, the same moment that gave us slavery in part of the Union and Civil War in all parts of it. Will we have consensus if we privilege the Bible in public institutions? We can agree to that as soon as we get consensus on its public and moral meanings from the four best-known Baptists in America: Jesse Jackson, Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell and Harvey Cox.

If we don’t get Christian amendments, anti-secular humanist court decisions, the right to write the textbooks or to post the Ten Commandments on the schoolhouse wall, that does not mean that Jews and Christians are silenced. No law keeps them from prime-time media, literary and intellectual life, the decision-making institutions of a free enterprise economy -- board rooms, foundations, advertising -- or the public sector, including the gallery, the concert hall and the town forum. If they are to be at home in such places, they have to be interesting, have something to say, and have the motive to say it. The Constitution’s bicentennial is a fine occasion on which to remember that fact, and congregations are ideal places to celebrate it. They are more or less united around their creeds and more often than not predictably determined by their locations and social class. Yet they also harbor political diversities and can serve as miniature town meetings.

As Americans probe the roots of their consensus, of the "cohesive sentiment" that, Justice Felix Frankfurter once said, must be the binding force of a free society, they will find that constitutionalism is a major element. At first glance the Constitution is a disappointing document to commemorate religiously. Were it not for a reference to Sunday. to the Year of Our Lord, and to the (very important) prohibition of religious tests for office, it would be as religionless as it is Godless. (Not "In the name of God. Amen," as the old compacts always had it, but "We the people of the United States. . ." is its substitute invocation.) The First Amendment keeps religion at some distance. Not much to note there.

The people of the 13 colonies-turned-states were morally shaped by the Bible more than by any other book, and its tradition was available for producing the public virtue on which the founders relied. But the founders themselves did not quote or refer to the Bible, did not use its God-talk for their moral talk, whether at Philadelphia or in most of their personal and public papers. You will hear much about how Benjamin Franklin thought they should pray during a dark day in Philadelphia. Note that they did not. They didn’t know what to say, how to humor the old Deist, or what to do if the oath of secrecy were broken and the public heard they were in so much trouble that they decided to pray. They dismissed the idea because they had no money to pay a chaplain. It is only legend that has Alexander Hamilton explaining that there was no prayer because they saw no reason, on a domestic issue, to call in foreign aid. Churchly piety was simply not part of convention proceedings.

Once the founders took out references to Almighty God as judge and lawgiver, they had to depend upon an informed and virtuous people to ensure compliance with the law. Anxiety resulted, and it lives on. During the current fit of "values crisis" talk, serious people again explore the religious groundings behind the moral talk that undergirds this search for public virtue. This search informs the consensus juris out of which meaningful arguments about the City can grow. Congregations can bring fresh voices to the discussion. Lawyers, laypeople, women and men of commerce, academicians, schoolteachers and pastors can reflect on their situations and their reading. Then they can present their thoughts in the public forum called the congregation.

Let me make a few suggestions to promote that reading and reflection. Among the basic works, Michael Kammen’s The Origins of the American Constitution (Penguin, $8.95 paperback) is handy, for it reprints the Constitution and other official documents, along with excerpts from letters between the drafters. Have a treat for summer hammock-reading by boning up on the narrative. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia (Little, Brown, $8.95) is back after many printings beginning in 1966. (The Book of the Month Club helped bring it back.) There’s an updated narrative by Charles L. Mee, Jr.. The Genius of the People (Harper &,Row, $19.95) While he’s not at his best here, Mortimer J. Adler in We Hold These Truths (Macmillan, $16.95) engages constitutional ideas and ideals.

Stage-two reading goes beyond content and narrative to argument. The neoconservative argument has seldom been better set in narrative context than by A. James Reichley in Religion in American Public life (Brookings, $11.95 paperback) A notable Christian (Roman Catholic) celebration of life-in-pluralism (America thinks it may become "the Catholic book of the decade") is Richard P. McBrien’s Caesar’s Coin: Religion and Politics in America (Macmillan, $19.95) , an excellent introduction to debates, in the John Courtney Murray tradition. While I am on the Catholic track, let me also endorse Christopher F. Mooney’s essays in Public Virtue: Law and the Social Character of Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, $22.95)

Those who would like to probe deeper into historical roots and keep the argument going will add another shelf. William Lee Miller’s The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic (Knopf, $24.95) brings the Roger Williams and the James Madison traditions together. The best recent account of church-state affairs through First Amendment times is Thomas J. Curry’s The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (Oxford University Press, $24.95) The "real" religion of the founders, which was not orthodox Christianity but that of the moderate Enlightenment, is best expounded by Henry F. May in The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, $10.95 paperback) and Sidney E. Mead in The Lively Experiment (Harper & Row, $6.95 paperback) You might also track down Henry Steele Commager’s The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, $9.95 paperback) For two violently different interpretations of the First Amendment, consider Leonard W. Levy’s The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (Macmillan, $16.95) , which is an argument that (to my taste) disputes "Nonpreferentialists" -- the people who believe the First Amendment tradition allows and even charters governmental support of religion on a "nonpreferential" basis -- and then a Bill Buckleyesque book by Robert L. Cord, Separation of Church and State:

Historical Fact and Current Fiction (Lambeth, $19.95) , which is Nonpreferentialism writ large.

Here’s a possible sequence of events:

1. Schedule a ministerial keynote. Give the minister some free time this summer so she or he can bone up on the subject and provide leadership.

2. Let a church member who is a history or political science or law or religion professor, whether in high school, community college or university, hold forth. When has your congregation called on such talent? It’s likely to be there, even in small places.

3. Then give a lawyer -- most congregations have lawyers -- the joy of skipping a day of tort talk to show how to read the Constitution and discuss what it means to work in the constitutional tradition.

4. Devote a fourth evening or weekend day to a panel on religious freedom, followed by:

5. A panel discussing education and civic virtue and the role of families and congregations in promoting these.

6. This is a good time for an ecumenical event, especially one uniting church and synagogue, since there is so much discussion of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

The variations on that plot are countless, of course. And what do we expect of it all? Sorry, there will not be agreement between the Levyites and the Cordites, between the "Judeo-Christian" element that wants law and the biblical tradition that wants to risk all on "voluntaryism." The final settlement of thought about church-state issues will not occur, because the issues are insoluble (though addressible) Yet there may arise more understanding of why courts have such a difficult time in this impatient republic.

In A Machine That Would Go of Itself The Constitution in American 6’ulture (Knopf, $29.95) -- the title draws on a phrase by James Russell Lowell -- Michael Kammen makes the point that the Constitution regularly demands attention. Giving it attention in the churches does not, or need not, mean feeding the idolatrous side of a civil religion. The founders were friendly to religion, not necessarily because they believed it was true or saving but because they believed it was useful. As William Lee Miller says, "Citizens of this now very liberated country may find it stunning and amusing that once upon a time some of their forebears thought of religion as a kind of public utility like the gas or water works, but they did." Some still do -- promoting religion because it is useful for morals and virtue and thus for republicanism. Some of religion may be, but it’s degrading and distorting to start with this "public utility" concept of religion. The Constitution and law are, however, of intrinsic interest to all citizens, among whom are believers inside biblical traditions. They have special reasons for reflecting on the ways of God and humans in respect to law and the state. Nothing prevents the churches from adding to the bicentennial celebration some good parties of their own.


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