Constitutional Conservatism, The “Return” to Christian Values, and Mutual Exclusivity

I’m hoping someone can explain this to me, because I’m a little bit confused.

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on the confounding nature of the Tea Party. It emerged from a collective discontent, was usurped by socially conservative idealogues, and scares the living daylights out of me.

Here’s where my confusion stems from- they claim to want to return to basics and the ideas of the Founding Fathers when it comes to how the government functions. Let’s take a look at some of the quotables, shall we?

Michele Bachmann:  “We have to recapture the founders’ vision of a constitutionally conservative government, if we are to secure the promise for the future. […] As a constitutional conservative, I believe in the founding fathers’ vision of a limited government that trusts in and perceives the unlimited potential of you, the American people. I don’t believe that the solutions of our problems are Washington-centric. I believe they are with every-American-centric.”

Newt Gingrich: “Congress Has the Power to Protect the Constitution. It Should Use It.”

Rick Perry: “I am reminded of James Madison’s perspective from Federalist number 45. He said that the powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few, and they are defined. Those which are to remain in the state government are numerous and indefinite. I like that. I am a Madisonian.”

Herman Cain: “I define a Tea Party candidate as anyone who believes in fiscal responsibility, the free market system, and enforcing the constitution. That’s the mantra of the Tea Party movement. I have been a believer in that mantra from the beginning.”

Sarah Palin: “I want to tell ’em, ‘Nah, we’ll keep clinging to our Constitution and our guns and religion—and you can keep the change.'”

They seem to have a lot of respect for the U.S. Constitution, and, not trusting my own expertise, I decided to revisit the cornerstone of our government. The First Amendment reads, and I quote:

” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But let’s be real- the language here is vague. So I went to case law for further clarification. The landmark case of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971 contains this nugget in the court’s decision:

” Under our system the choice has been made that government is to be entirely excluded from the area of religious instruction and church excluded from the affairs of government.”

Ok, so I know this case has withstood the test of time- we’re still abiding by it 40 years later- but these candidates think the courts are participating in “judicial activism.” Instead, they say we should rely on the interpretations formed by the Founding Fathers. So I started researching their opinions on separation of Church and State. Let’s ignore the fact that the whole point of our “forefathers” coming across the Atlantic was to escape religious persecution and that their “Christian” affiliation was loose in most cases and completely absent in some, and instead look at what they said (because words speak louder than actions, clearly):

“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.” (Thomas Jefferson, Draft for a Bill to Establish Religious Freedom in Virginia, 1779)

“The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.” (James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, Dec 3, 1821)

“…the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.” (George Washington, 1789, responding to clergy complaints that the Constitution lacked mention of Jesus Christ)

“As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.” (Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1771)

” “The [president] has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction. . . .” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper LXIX, 1788)

So, in summary, the Founding Fathers, Supreme Court and Constitution seem to mandate that religion and politics not intermix. So explain to me why these Tea Party leaders, so devout in their adherence to the Constitution, have the following words to their name:

Michele Bachmann: “We need more biblical world view to let people know what is it that the principles of God stand for. If people understand the principles of ours, it won’t be difficult to understand who would best represent those values in the White House and in Congress. And as I encourage people, go to my website. I am happy to have people know exactly where I stand.”

Newt Gingrich: “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

Rick Perry: “America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is going go to be: Whose values? And David Lane and I, and I would suggest most of the people in this audience, believe it’s those Christian values that this country was based upon.”

Herman Cain: “Our Founding Fathers recognized a higher power in the formation of this nation when they said in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and that they are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” It was no accident that in some of our earlier years as a free and independent nation that our leaders added “In God We Trust” to all of our currency. And to send a message to the rest of the world when Communism was on the rise in the 1950s, Congress added the words “under God” to our pledge of allegiance. They were not just words. It was a collective reaffirmation that we know the ultimate source of our greatness as a nation.” America’s moral foundation does not need to be rewritten. It needs to be respected and taught to our children and grandchildren.

Sarah Palin: “Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant– they’re quite clear– that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandents, it’s quite simple.”

Can you see why I’m confused? All these self-proclaimed Tea Partiers, who have made their absolute faith in the Constitution very public, are the same people who advocate its violation in spirit- if not in policy and day-to-day governance- above and in a vast array of other instances.

Look, I’m not knocking Christianity. I classify myself as a Christian, though my beliefs are very personal in nature and not affiliated with a specific denomination. Christians are awesome. But I do not believe in a national religion, or a country being run as though there is one. The only way to protect the nation from mob rule is to protect the rights of the minorities. To borrow heavily from someone far wiser than me, I may not hold the same beliefs as you, but I will defend to the death your right to hold them.

And before you start talking about your rights being infringed upon, I don’t want to hear it. Just because the government does not govern from a pulpit does not mean your ability to practice your faith is inhibited; it only means that your ability to institutionalize your faith is limited. The same applies for the “radical Islamists” referenced by Newt above, and Athiests, and Buddhists, and Wiccans…. the list goes on.


Even in a world where I didn’t believe in the separation of Church and State (or its mandate wasn’t spelled out in black and white), there’s another big problem here- staunchly conflicted agendas. If you can provide me a logical explanation as to why the concepts of “constitutional conservatism” and the statements of the candidates above are not mutually exclusive, I’m all ears.

Until then, I’m still scared. And you should be too.


One comment

  1. I applaud your research into the separation of church and state, which is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s