Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contribution to Original Intent.
"No provision of the Constitution," Justice Wiley Rutledge opined in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), "is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment." In the last half century, mountains of literature on American church-state history have been written in search of the elusive meaning of the religious clause. Much scholarship has focused on church-state relationships in the old world and colonial America and the deliberations on religion in the First Congress, which framed the First Amendment.
Missing from this literature has been a comprehensive examination of the proceedings and official acts of the Continental Congress respecting religion. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent, by Derek H. Davis, is thus a significant and welcomed addition to the literature. Davis is interested in the ways religion informed the work of the Congress and the light case by this history "on the intended meaning of the Constitution and the First Amendment as they relate to the desired relationship between religion and government in the United States" (p. xiii). He ar, gues that the original intentions of the founders, while not always clearly discernible, are an important foundation of constitutional interpretation, and an examination of the Continental Congress's activities might elucidate the constitutional framers' original intent regarding the interplay of religion and the civil state.
According to Davis, the Continental-Confederation Congress, which functioned from 1774 to 1789, presided over an era of transition. An old paradigm in which "religion served as the glue of the social and political order" slowly gave way to a new paradigm that thought "both religion and government might function best if constitutionally separated from one another. So while the Continental Congress operated essentially with religion as an important support to its overall function, separationist elements can be detected as well" (p. 64).
Davis investigates most actions taken by Congress on matters pertaining to religion. The book delves into many topics, including the congressional appointment of legislative and military chaplains, observances of public thanksgiving and fasting, creation of the nation's official seal, and promotion of an American edition of the Bible; the contributions of rationalism and pietism to the American Revolution and nationhood; religious dimensions of the Declaration of Independence; and congressional promotion of religious liberty and virtue. A neglected topic that might yield interesting insights is the Congress's dealings with, and policies toward, Native Americans, especially those involving public funds for Christian missionary societies working among Native Americans. Another topic not discussed is the personal piety of individual members of the Continental Congress. This body had an extraordinary number of deeply devout men who were leaders in religious, as well as in national legislative, affairs.
Davis readily concedes that it is not easy, based on the records of the Continental Congress, to make conclusive statements about the founders' model for church-state relationships. The founders, he writes, "were on the whole themselves unclear and in some disagreement about the role that religion should play in national life" (p. 212). The Congress did not always project a coherent policy on religion because, after all, its primary mission was to prosecute a war for independence, not "to forge national principles respecting the desirable relationship between government and religion" (p. 26). Moreover, as Davis perceptively notes, the former colonies jealously guarded their jurisdiction over church-state matters and declined "to relinquish to a federated body ... the fight to set and direct the course of religion within their own boundaries" (p. 27).
Davis argues that many religious activities of the Congress, such as religious proclamations and the appointment of chaplains, were "precipitated by the special circumstances and demands of the Revolutionary War" (p. 91), and they expressed a genuine but unreflective popular piety. David confesses that "he had expected to find considerably more evidence than he did from the confederation period that would support separationist arguments and help to explain the 'non-establishment' restriction in the First Amendment" (p. 202). Instead, his investigation "revealed that the notion of the separation of church and state, at the federal level, was virtually nonexistent in the confederation period" (p. 199). His conclusion, in this respect, differs little from earlier studies of religion and the Continental-Confederation Congresses in Edward Frank Humphrey, Nationalism and Religion in America, 1774-I789 (1924), and James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (1998). Davis identifies a few nascent expressions of separationism. The Congress, for example, refrained from prescribing religious tests for officeholders in the confederation government; endorsed, but did not subsidize, the domestic printing of the Bible; and on several occasions pulled back from policies of direct governmental promotion of :religion.
The author tends to characterize facts in a light favorable to a separationist position. For example, in ascertaining James Madison's views on the propriety and constitutionality of thanksgiving day proclamations, he gives much greater attention to Madison's statements condemning the practice made long after he left public life than to Madison's issuance of such proclamations as a public official accountable to an electorate. And he completely ignores Madison's introduction of legislation in Virginia in October 1785 authorizing religious proclamations and requiring ministers to "attend and perform divine service and preach a sermon" on days appointed for "public fasting and thanksgiving."
Religion and the Continental Congress traverses important historical terrain unfortunately neglected by most scholars. Davis makes a compelling case that this history can teach us much about the prudential and constitutional relationship between religion and the civil state. His book identifies and examines the enduring themes and perennial questions of the bold American experiment in church-state relations. His writing is clear and engaging and, for the most part, avoids the tired rhetoric that often polarizes students of church and state. Davis draws on diverse sources--both primary documents and secondary literature--to illuminate the past and advance his thesis. This book should be read and studied by every student of religion in the founding era.
DANIEL L. DREISBACH American University Washington, D.C.
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|Author:||Dreisbach, Daniel L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Church and State|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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