The paragraphs below begin a sermon by William L. Hawkins on Christian disestablishment, preached at a meeting of New Hope Presbytery on October 15. In a time of increasing, irreversible religious pluralism, Hawkins exalts the value of congregational life. He argues that because we have long been unable to rely on the institutions of government or education to under gird a Protestant or Christian culture, the congregation has become the place where everything we do matters as it never has before. You will read this engaging, inspiring sermon next week in the Thanksgiving issue of the Outlook. But it is the origin of our nation and Constitution, described here, which illumines the present religious divide that troubles our nation’s soul.
Though our U.S. Constitution was produced by a congress consisting mostly of Christians, the first clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion. The apparent irony goes deeper when we acknowledge the contributions of Christians in the formation of our government, beginning with the revolutionary war itself. This was something particularly true of Presbyterians. Historian Lefferts Loetscher said that the fires of the American Revolution were fanned from Presbyterian pulpits sufficient for the British to describe it as “the Presbyterian Rebellion.”
Whatever you may think of the disestablishment clause, the biblical wisdom and Reformed theological stamp that shaped our Constitution is unmistakable. James Madison, educated at Presbyterian Princeton where he was a student of John Witherspoon, was its principal author. Remembered as “The Father of the United States Constitution,” Madison helped produce what Lutheran historian Martin Marty has called “a thoroughly Calvinist document.” Marty claims that the Constitution supplies the checks and balances any Presbyterian would love, for the unspoken implication found throughout, “is the conviction that while humans have a great capability, self-interest would always turn them against the common good if left to themselves.”
What this historical review reveals is that the religious/political rhetoric to which we have been relentlessly subjected in recent years is neither Reformed nor Presbyterian. The “Christianity” that clamors to reclaim the vacant public square is often grounded in fantasies from apocalyptics and fundamentalists who exult in vengeance, rob the poor, and corrupt public life, even while they “starve the beast of government” to death. And they claim righteousness.
John Calvin, on the other hand, reformed the moral and social life of Geneva while preaching more than 200 sermons from the book of Deuteronomy. He was not issue oriented, but focused on the common good. He had no patience with those who would not work, but he believed (in keeping with the Law of Moses) that the truly needy were the responsibility of all citizens, not voluntary contributors. Calvin further argued that accumulated wealth was not only for those who earned it, but for the up-building of public life. We Presbyterians call that “the promotion of social righteousness.” He believed that the vocation of government service was as high a calling as that of pastor — and neither was given to us for our own enrichment.
Many of you have raged against my anti-Bush editorials. What I sadly regret in him and his minions, and what I have attempted to address, perhaps not always responsibly, is the misuse of our common Christian vocabulary for what appear to be economic and political ends. Phrases like: “the wonderworking power in the hearts of the American people” not only distort the saving blood of Jesus; in the presence of the living God, they are dangerous.
Further, the framers of our public documents would see that language as the religious arrogance from which the religious disestablishment clause was designed to protect us.
Can our political leaders, and media savants relearn the founding documents of this nation? It is one thing for Protestant and Reformed peoples to lose establishment power; it is quite another for this great nation, with its powerful Calvinist origins, to be hijacked by the naked self-interest of libertarians against the common good.