Christianity and Liberalism before the Fall

Nathan Chapman (Georgia) has posted a very interesting new paper on SSRN, Forgotten Federal-Missionary Partnerships: New Light on the Establishment Clause. His paper relates to a specific, historical example of federal funding for religious schools, but has implications for much broader Establishment Clause issues as well.

Chapman explains that, for much of the 19th Century, the federal government gave significant financial support to Christian missionary schools that educated Native Americans. Even more: virtually no one saw the financial support of these schools as an Establishment Clause problem. Evidently, Americans at the time–or at least the elites whose opinions mattered–did not perceive public support for instruction in Christian morality as a constitutional issue. That is so, Chapman argues, because elites at the time did not perceive basic Christian morality as sectarian and threatening in the way their counterparts do today. Borrowing from sociologist Charles Taylor, Chapman writes that “elite white Americans shared a ‘social imaginary’—or social paradigm—of ‘civilization’ that merged education, republicanism, and at least a modicum of Christianity.”

This is an extremely important insight for understanding American culture, and, therefore, American law. Historically, Americans have seen Christianity, especially its Protestant iteration, as consistent with liberalism and progress. Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville observed that in the Old World, everyone understood that Christianity and liberty were rivals; but Americans had so completely run the two together in their minds that it was impossible for them to conceive of the one without the other. The conflict between Christianity and liberty that informs today’s culture wars simply did not exist for most of our history. As a consequence, the issues that preoccupy us today had little salience.

Of course, things are very different now. Maybe something went wrong, or maybe, as Patrick Deneen argues, the conflict was always there, waiting to hatch out. Anyhow, American elites today, especially legal elites, do not see Christianity and liberty as natural allies. This makes “translating” (Chapman’s term) the nineteenth-century practice into contemporary constitutional law rather tricky–even assuming translation is appropriate. The Establishment Clause was fashioned in a very different culture from our own, one that assumed a harmonious relationship between revelation and reason and that little relied on law to mediate conflicts between them. That is no longer the case, and the implications for our law have yet to be worked out.

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