Action Alert: I Teach Distorted History


The American Family Association of Pennsylvania has issued an “Action Alert” yesterday in “celebration” of Constitution Day.  Here is a taste of it:

The United States Constitution was signed on this day in 1787. This was our second attempt at a national governing document.  The 1777 Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1781, quickly proved to be inadequate.  In 1786 the Annapolis Convention called for a group to assemble to address the many weaknesses.

After months of sometimes contentious debate, the Constitution was introduced to the citizens of the new nation.   Did you know that many of the delegates involved in the writing of the Constitution were trained in theology or ministry?  Abraham Baldwin, James Wilson, Hugh Williamson, Oliver Ellsworth are a few examples.  The Constitution was then sent to the states for ratification.  Among the delegates selected, the states elected about four dozen clergymen to serve in the ratification process for the Constitution.

U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge stated in 1919:

“The United States is THE WORLD’S BEST HOPE…

Beware how you trifle with your marvelous inheritance … for if we stumble & fall, freedom & civilization everywhere will go down in ruin.”

However, in recent years attacks on our Constitution have increased,  as well as the idea that there is any Christian influence on the founding of this nation or the writing of the Constitution.  Messiah College (Cumberland County) professor  Dr. John Fea has been an outspoken critic of the idea the United States had a Christian founding and recently insisted that the Founding Fathers did not want the clergy to be involved in politics.    Just imagine what distorted history Christian students in that school are being taught!

I am not sure what an “Action Alert” means.  What kind of “action” does the American Family Association of Pennsylvania want to take against me?

The author of this “Action Alert” is referring to this Religion News Service piece in which I showed how many of the framers of the state constitutions formed in the immediate wake of Independence did not permit clergy to hold office.  The site links to a David Barton piece that criticizes the piece.

Just for the record:

  • I AM an “outspoken critic of the idea the United States had a Christian founding.”
  • I am also a Christian.
  • I do not hate the Constitution, but I do not believe it is a Christian document.
  • It looks like the American Family Association of Pennsylvania is located in Franklin, PA.  According to Google Maps, Franklin is located about four hours from Messiah College.  I would be happy to drive up to Franklin to meet with the staff of this organization for a civil dialogue on this topic.

Did You Know That God or the Divine is Mentioned in Every State Constitution?


I knew it!  We really are a Christian nation!  🙂

The Pew Research Center has just released a report showing that each of the 50 state constitutions mention God or the divine.

Here is a taste:

All but four state constitutions – those in Colorado, Iowa, Hawaii and Washington – use the word “God” at least once. The constitutions in Colorado, Iowa and Washington refer to a “Supreme Being” or “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” while Hawaii’s constitution makes reference to the divine only in its preamble, which states that the people of Hawaii are “grateful for Divine Guidance.”

Most state constitutions – 34 – refer to God more than once. Of the 116 times the word appears in state constitutions, eight are in the Massachusetts constitution, and New Hampshire and Vermont have six references each. Perhaps surprisingly, all three of these states are among the least religious in the country, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis.

In addition to the 116 mentions of God, there are also 14 mentions of a Supreme or Sovereign Being, seven mentions of the “Creator,” three mentions of “providence,” four mentions of “divine” and 46 instances of the word “almighty.” While there are 32 mentions of the word “Lord,” all but one refer to “the year of our Lord” and so are not direct references to God. (Indeed, the U.S. Constitution also makes reference to “the year of our Lord.”) There also are seven mentions of the word “Christian.”

Read the entire post.

I am surprised I have not heard more about this report from all those Christian nationalists out there.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 6


Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River, late 18th c.

For earlier installments in this series click here.

It is now time to turn to the text of the Constitution.  What does it say about religion?

The preamble of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states:

We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents, ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth, and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.

If you have been following along with this series, you should not be surprised by this reference to “the great Governor of the universe.”  This is similar to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable Rights or the similar reference to “Nature’s God.”  These are traditional eighteenth-century references to a providential God who rules over the earth and the universe and presides over human governments.  I don’t think we should read anything more into this statement.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 begins with a “Declaration of Rights.”  Article 1 states “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which was written a couple of months earlier and affirmed in the same building–the Pennsylvania State House–the Pennsylvania Constitution does not state that the rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness come from a “Creator.”  (But perhaps the framers believed that this was already covered in the preamble).

Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights focuses specifically on religion:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

This is pretty boilerplate stuff for Pennsylvania.  Religious freedom is afforded to everyone who “acknowledges the being of a God.”  Of course it is worth noting that religious freedom is NOT afforded to people who do not believe in God.  Most likely the framers could not imagine a scenario in which someone who did not believe in God would have a need for religious freedom.

Compare this statement with the two previous (pre-American Revolution) Pennsylvania governments.

William Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government was loaded with religious language, but on the issue of religious freedom the proprietor wrote:

That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

This statement says a bit more about God than the 1776 Constitution. Religious freedom is afforded to those who believe in a providential creator-God.

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which served as the source of government from 1701 and 1776, states:

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship: And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

In this statement Penn says a little bit more about God, but the religious freedom protection is basically the same as the 1682 Frame of Government and the 1776 Constitution.  Religious freedom is afforded to those “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World….”

In our next installment we will discuss the Pennsylvania Constitution’s religious “test oath.”  Stay tuned.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 5

Muhl 2

Henry Melchior Muehlenberg

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In the last installment we discussed a request made to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers George Duffield and William Marshall asking the members to exempt clergy from the “burthen of civil offices.”

On the same day, September 25, 1776, the convention received another letter from two clergymen.  The minutes read:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Muhlenberg and Weynberg, praying for an addition to the 47th article of the proposed frame of government, confirming the incorporations for promoting religious and charitable purposes, was read, and ordered to lie on the table.

The authors of this letter were Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the most prominent Lutheran minister in colonial America, and Caspar Diederus Weyberg, the pastor of the German Reformed Church on 4th and Race St. in Philadelphia.

The “47th article of the proposed frame of government” is a reference to what became, in the final draft of the Constitution, the 45th article.  (A draft of the Constitution was published in the press for the consideration of the people. Muhlenberg read it some time before September 16, 1776).

The 45th article in the draft version of the Constitution that was published for the consideration of the people of Pennsylvania read “Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution.”

Historian J. Paul Selsam, author of The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (1936) picks up the story from here and adds additional context. (I have added a few parenthetical notes):

The Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, senior minister of the united German Lutheran Congregations in Pennsylvania, from whose [October 2, 1776] letter the following account is taken, stated that on Monday, September 16, “The Provost of the College [William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia] came to him unexpectedly “and said that the condition of the Christian religion seemed in danger after independence had been declared and a new form of government was in process of formation; that no care at all had been taken to acquire even the outer ramparts…”  The Provost showed Rev. Muhlenberg a paragraph which he thought should be added to the forty-seventh section.  The latter was pleased with the paragraph but believed they could do little about it.  “What can despised preachers effect with a Rump Parliament?” he wrote.  An informal gathering of a few of the leading ministers was held to discuss the question, and Muhlenberg remarked at the meeting that “it now seems as if a Christian people were ruled by Jews, Turks, Spinozists, Deists, perverted naturalists.”  The ministers “were learned pillars,” he said, “and would have much to answer for if they were now silent.”  The Reverend Dr. Alison [Presbyterian Francis Alison, Vice-Provost of the College of Philadelphia] did not feel alarmed, saying that “it was of no consequence and it would be sufficient if the officials would only give testimony to the Supreme Being as creator and preserver of all things.”  This statement evoked some discussion, but the meeting accomplished nothing.

This group decided to meet again and to invite more protestant preachers.  At a meeting the following day the Provost and Vice-Provost of the College [Smith and Alison] and five ministers decided to request the Convention to annex to the forty-seventh section the paragraph which they had drawn up.  One of their number was appointed to go to Dr. Franklin, and President of the Convention, “to ask permission to wait upon him.”  Franklin “condescendingly sent word,” says Muhlenberg, “that he would come to us.”  he met with them and after being shown the said paragraph, promised to present it to the Convention.  Rev. Muhlenberg discussed the matter with the Lutheran Church Council that afternoon.  He was supported unanimously, so a petition to the Convention was drawn up and signed by the Rev.  Weyberg on behalf of the Reformed.  It was presented to the Convention on September 25, and after being read was ordered to lie on the table. The petition  asked the Honorable Convention to annex or add unto the 47th Section of the proposed Plan the following Words viz: ‘and all religious Societies and Bodies of Men heretofore united and incorporated for the Advancement of Virtue and Learning and for other pious and charitable Purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the Enjoyment of the Privileges, Immunities and Estates, which they were accustomed to enjoy and might or could of Right have enjoyed under the Laws and former Constitution of this State.”  It closed by stating, “A Serious Attention to, and condescending compliance with our our humbler Petition will rendre great Satisfaction, Security and Ease to all regular Christian societies and Denominations in this State and especially to your humble Petitioners…”

The paragraph the ministers suggested was adopted, for section 45 of the final draft (corresponding to the forty-seventh section of the one which appeared in the press) contained their suggestion with only a few minor changes.  The substitution of “religion” for “virtue” was the most important.

Here is the exact text of Section 45:

Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.

So what is going on here?

First, it is clear that Muhlenberg, Weyberg, and the Philadelphia clergy who they represented, wanted to make sure that the 1776 Constitution said something about the importance of religion to a healthy republican government.  It also appears, from Muhlenberg’s notes, that some of these clergymen (Alison excepted) wanted a more overtly Christian statement about the relationship between religion and the new Pennsylvania government in order to prevent it from being run by Jews, Muslims (“Turks”), and other unbelievers.

We don’t know if they were happy with the finished product.  Section 45 of the final draft mentions the promotion of “virtue, and the prevention of vice and immorality” as well as the place of “religious societies” in the “advancement of religion or learning, or other pious and charitable purposes.”  Perhaps these clergy understood “virtue” to mean Christian virtue.  And perhaps they concluded that “religious societies” meant Christian religious societies.  I don’t know.  Whatever the case, as we will see in future posts in this series, they did get an overtly Christian test oath for officeholders.

Second, Section 45 seems to affirm the same religious liberties guaranteed to the people of Pennsylvania in the second section of the Constitution’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania.”  More on that later.

Yes, I Can Do Better

aucoinBrent J. Aucoin is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Southeastern in Wake Forest, NC. He is also the author of a brand new book Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics and Justice in the New South.

A couple of weeks ago Rick Shenkman, the editor and publisher at History News Network (HNN), informed me that Aucoin had submitted a piece to HNN criticizing a post I wrote at Religion News Service titled “Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers From Public Office.”  Rick wanted to publish Aucoin’s piece, but also wanted to publish my response to it.

As you will see from my response, I think some of Aucoin’s criticism of my piece is valid.

I will say this.  It is difficult to write very short historical pieces for public audiences, especially when such pieces are anchored to current events in a heated political cycle.  I hope my response to Aucoin reflects how I could have done better with my original RNS piece.

Here is part of that response:

Aucoin also criticizes me for failing to qualify my conclusions and adequately addressing evidence that is contrary to my argument.  On this point I accept his criticism.  My article is deceiving because it suggests that all of the “founding fathers” wanted to keep ministers from public office when in reality only some of them—in this case some of the framers of the state constitutions—opposed the idea of clergy holding political office.  Though I think today’s political activists who use the founding era to justify clergy running for office still need to reckon with some of these state constitutions, my argument was sloppy on this point.  I wrongly assumed that readers would understand the limitations of my argument based on the evidence I referenced.  I will try to frame my arguments more carefully in future posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.

Read the entire forum here.

Have You Heard About the American Renewal Project?

David Lane (NY Times photo)

I recently talked to Reuters journalist Michelle Conlin about David Lane and the American Renewal Project.  You can read her finished piece here.

The American Renewal Project is a network of 100,000 ministers and pastors (as far as I can tell they are mostly white, conservative evangelical, middle-aged men) who are trying to get 1000 pastors to run for office in 2016.

One look at the American Renewal Project website reveals that this is yet another wing of the Christian nationalist movement.  There are stories about revolutionary-era clergy who supported the American Revolution,  defenses of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and discussions of pastors running for political office to “save the soul” of America.  Lane is a Christian Right activist who believes that we need to “wage war to restore a Christian America.”  His use of history comes straight out of the David Barton playbook.  In fact, Barton is a supporter of this movement.

Here is a taste of Conlin’s article:

Aiming to motivate conservative Christians, they are focusing on smaller political races, local ballot initiatives and community voter registration drives.
At the center of the effort is the American Renewal Project, an umbrella group that says it has a network of 100,000 pastors. It is headed by evangelical Republican political operative David Lane, who wants to recruit 1,000 pastors to run for elected office in 2016.
So far, roughly 500 have committed to running, Lane told Reuters.  
“This is a fundamental shift in strategy,” said John Fea, a history professor at Christian Messiah College, who is nevertheless skeptical the effort will produce the desired results. “Rather than forcing this from the top down, this is about a grassroots approach to changing the culture by embedding ministers in local politics from the ground up,” he said.
In some instances, pastors are trumpeting their candidacies or those of other evangelicals directly from the pulpit, in violation of Internal Revenue Service rules governing tax-exempt churches. Some are launching church-wide voter registration drives.
The American Renewal Project website dabbles in the American past.  It is obvious that Lane has been inspired by the so-called “Black Robe Regiment,” a name given to the eighteenth-century Protestant ministers who used their pulpits and influence to support the American Revolution.  We have written about this movement, and tried to debunk some of its myths, here and here.  The American Renewal Project website has references to Rev. John Peter Muhlenberg and Rev. Jacob Duche. These are clear indicators that Lane and his supporters are drawing on this “black robe” history.
Of course David Lane has every right to encourage ministers to run for office.  But I would urge him to stop manipulating American history to do it.  Frankly, the American history portrayed on his website is a mess.
For example, much of what we know about Muhlenberg comes from mid-to-late nineteenth-century sources, not from eighteenth-century documents. And while Duche did pray before the Continental Congress, he later turned his back on the American Revolution and George Washington and became a Loyalist.  

One part of the website claims that “America’s Founders” established “Christianity as the official religion of America in the State Constitutions of the 13 original colonies.”  In fact, only a few states had religious establishments after the American Revolution (I am thinking here of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and, in a less official capacity, South Carolina).  Moreover, how could the “official religion of America” (whatever that means) be found in the individual colonies or states?”  I am confused.

It is also worth noting that many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices.  These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution

That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.

Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:

The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.

It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America.  I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics. 

Of course there were other states that did not prohibit clergy from running for office. As I have said many times–especially in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introductionthe founding era does not conform very well to the agenda of contemporary politicians. By manipulating the past in this way David Lane and the American Renewal Project look foolish, fail to tell the entire truth, and thus diminish the church’s witness in the world.