Things I Thought I Knew — Part 3: The Antifederalists and Religion


In the last few decades, the Antifederalists have surged, partially because they look like the patron saints of small government, and, for our purposes, because they have been held up as recognizing the importance of religion for the health of a republic.

“[M]any Antifederalists,” according to Herbert Storing, “were concerned with the maintenance of religious conviction as a support of republican government.” And he should know. Storing was not only the dean of Antifederalist scholars, he created a 7 volume canon called (perhaps over-optimistically), The Complete Antifederalist.  Since Storing’s book is all about the constitutional debates, it’s hard not to assume that he meant that they were looking for ways for the federal government to support religion.

But, what I found perplexing, when I looked into it, is that even he has trouble documenting his statement about “many Antifederalists.” In all 7 volumes, he only has one Antifederalist, Charles Turner of Massachusetts,” talk about the importance of “Christian piety and morals” to the country.  Storing bolsters this statement with a letter by another Massachusetts writer who wasn’t an Antifederalist, and a Virginia writer who wasn’t talking about the Constitution.

To be sure, many Antifederalists did think religion was important to republican government; they shared that belief with many Federalists. The point is that very few Feds or Antifeds thought it was a federal issue.  At the state level, there had been – and would continue to be – battles over just how much the government needed religion. But what is most impressive about looking for religion in Storing’s Complete Antifederalist is that it’s rarely there – just an occasional comment about protecting religious freedom, and a few statements both for and against a religious test for public office.

In short, the Antifederalists – in their discussions of the federal Constitution – really didn’t have much to say about religion.  If they had thought it was an issue, they probably would have had a lot to say.  But it wasn’t, and they didn’t. So anyone who wants to enlist them in a push for more recognition of the importance of religion at the national level must first remember what is abundantly clear from Storing’s collection — that the Antifederalists didn’t want a “national” (a word they hated) government to have power over anything.

Don Drakeman

Movsesian on Laws Prohibiting Religiously Offensive Speech

CLR Forum Director Mark Movsesian appeared this week on Voice of America’s “International Edition with Avi Arditti and Kate Woodsome” to discuss the regulation of religiously offensive speech in the United States, Europe, and around the world. Click on the player below to listen. 

Fleming & McClain, “Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues”

This November, Harvard University Press will publish Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues by James E. Fleming and Linda C. McClain (both Boston University School of Law). The publisher’s description follows.

Many have argued in recent years that the U.S. constitutional system exalts individual rights over responsibilities, virtues, and the common good. Answering the charges against liberal theories of rights, James Fleming and Linda McClain develop and defend a civic liberalism that takes responsibilities and virtues—as well as rights—seriously. They provide an account of ordered liberty that protects basic liberties stringently, but not absolutely, and permits government to encourage responsibility and inculcate civic virtues without sacrificing personal autonomy to collective determination.

The battle over same-sex marriage is one of many current controversies the authors use to defend their understanding of the relationship among rights, responsibilities, and virtues. Against accusations that same-sex marriage severs the rights of marriage from responsible sexuality, procreation, and parenthood, they argue that same-sex couples seek the same rights, responsibilities, and goods of civil marriage that opposite-sex couples pursue. Securing their right to marry respects individual autonomy while also promoting moral goods and virtues. Other issues to which they apply their idea of civic liberalism include reproductive freedom, the proper roles and regulation of civil society and the family, the education of children, and clashes between First Amendment freedoms (of association and religion) and antidiscrimination law. Articulating common ground between liberalism and its critics, Fleming and McClain develop an account of responsibilities and virtues that appreciates the value of diversity in our morally pluralistic constitutional democracy.

Aikman, “One Nation without God?: The Battle of Christianity in an Age of Unbelief”

This September, Baker Books published One Nation without God?: The Battle of Christianity in an Age of Unbelief by David Aikman. The publisher’s description follows.

Christianity in America is under siege. From litigation over coaches starting games with prayer to expulsion from college for refusing to endorse beliefs at odds with the Christian faith, hardly a week goes by without news of the declining influence that Christianity has in the public square. Can Christianity in this country survive the advances of secularists and remain influential in our culture? And if a new spiritual awakening is possible, what form will it take?

Supported by an astonishing parade of concrete examples and direct quotes from reporters, judges, bloggers, and influencers, David Aikman turns a journalist’s eye on the rise of hostility toward Christian expression in America and the alarming decline of orthodox belief among those who call themselves Christians. He explores the inspiring history of Christianity in America, the powerful cultural influences that have weakened the church, and the bright spots of hope he sees across the country, suggesting possible ways Christian influence in America might be refined–and revived.