The guys at American Creation are fired up about an old review posted on the Wallbuilder’s website. In case you don’t know, Wallbuilders is the website of David Barton, one of the leading advocates of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. The review in question is Daniel Dreisbach’s assessment of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore’s The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington D.C. I am a big fan of his work. Earlier this evening Tom Van Dyke posted part of the review at American Creation and the “regulars” over there are chomping at the bit. What a way to spend New Year’s Eve!
Dreisbach challenges Kramnick and Moore’s view that the Constitution created a secular nation. (In fact, in the most recent edition of their book, the subtitle has been changed to “A Moral Defense of Secular State.”). He argues from the position of federalism, or the idea that the framers of the Constitution left matters of religion up to the states. He writes:
The U. S. Constitution’s lack of a Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Indeed, it had little to do with religion at all. The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the framer’s personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as “godless” or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.
Dreisbach also chides Kramnick and Moore for practicing what he calls “law office history”:
The book illustrates what is pejoratively called “law office history.” That is, the authors, imbued with the adversary ethic, selectively recount facts, emphasizing data that support their own prepossessions and minimizing significant facts that complicate or conflict with their biases. The professors warn readers of this on the second page when they describe their book as a “polemic” that will ” lay out the case for one” side of the debate on the important “role of religion in public and political life.”
The suggestion that the U. S. Constitution is godless because it makes only brief mention of the Deity and Christian custom is superficial and misguided. Professors Kramnick and Moore succumb to the temptation to impose twentieth-century values on eighteenth-century text. Their book is less an honest appraisal of history than a partisan tract written for contemporary battles. They frankly state their desire that this polemic will rebut the “Christian nation” rhetoric of the religious right. Unfortunately, their historical analysis is as specious as the rhetoric they criticize.
It is not my intention in this post to argue with either Dreisbach or Kramnick and Moore. I agree with Dreisbach: the framers of the Constitution left religious issues to the states. (See my most recent post on this subject). I also agree with Kramnick and Moore: the United States Constitution is “godless.” I have learned a great deal from The Godless Constitution and Dreisbach’s Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State.
I am particularly interested in Dreisbach and his work because I have been asked of late to comment on the current debates in Texas over the state social studies standards. (See some of my commentary here). Dreisbach was chosen by the conservative members of the Texas Board of Education to serve as an expert reviewer of the state standards. The other two members chosen by the conservative members of the Texas board were Barton and Massachusetts minister and providential historian Peter Marshall.
When reporters call me, I tell them that Barton and Marshall are not historians or social studies experts and are not qualified to be judging how students in Texas learn history. (Again, I have made my views known on this topic). Yet I always make sure to separate Barton and Marshall from the work of Dreisbach, a legitimate scholar. This is not always easy to do when Dreisbach writes reviews for Barton’s website and goes on Barton’s radio program. When reporters see this, they tend to clump Dreisbach together with the other two guys.
Yet there are two lines in this review that makes it clear that Dreisbach wants to separate himself from the Christian America crowd.
In the first paragraph, when referring to Kramnick and Moore, Dreisbach writes:
Their argument, while an appealing antidote to the historical assertions of the religious right, is superficial and misleading.
While Dreisbach has a bone to pick with Kramnick and Moore, he also makes it clear that their arguments are an “appealing antidote to the historical assertions of the religious right.” Wait a minute–doesn’t he have Barton and others like Barton in mind here? Marshall?
And then there is this line in the final paragraph, again making reference to Kramnick and Moore:
They frankly state their desire that this polemic will rebut the “Christian nation” rhetoric of the religious right. Unfortunately, their historical analysis is as specious as the rhetoric they criticize.
Dreisbach is suggesting that the the “Christian nation rhetoric of the religious right” is “specious.” Again, a clear statement that he is not on board with Barton.
Dreisbach’s attack on Kramnick and Moore’s “law-office history” can easily be applied to Barton as well. Barton regularly claims that he approaches the past through a “legal standard” that is “superior” to the way most historians work.
After reading this review closely, one might wonder how Dreisbach’s review ended up on the Wallbuilder’s website in the first place. Barton is apparently willing to tolerate Dreisbach’s references to his “specious” history and his assault on “law-office history” in exchange for Dreisbach’s shot at the Kramnick and Moore’s Godless constitution.
And now I direct you back to the guys at American Creation where I am sure a spirited and informative debate is going on.