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One Historian’s Questionable Use of the Founding Fathers

Click here to read John Fea’s response and Brent Aucoin’s reply.

A historian’s central concern, as Gordon S. Wood so ably argued in The Purpose of the Past, is to “understand the past on its own terms.” However, there are times when it is appropriate for historians to use their knowledge of the past to explicitly address contemporary issues. One historian who has done this well in recent years is John Fea, the chair of the History Department at Messiah College (PA). For instance, in his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Fea uses history to speak to a present controversy, and in the process conclusively demonstrates that no one could rightly answer the question in his title with an unqualified “yes.” Likewise, he oftentimes uses his knowledge of the past to speak intelligently to current events on Twitter and on his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

I am an avid reader and admirer of his works, and therefore was surprised when I read a recent essay of his that was troubling on a number of levels. The essay was entitled “Why the Founding Fathers wanted to keep ministers from public office,” which appeared on the Religious News Service (RNS) website on August 15, 2016. In the essay Fea reported that Donald Trump spoke to the American Renewal Project, a group that is spearheading a movement to get 1,000 pastors to run for political office by 2018. Fea responded to this event by asserting that the Founding Fathers would oppose the American Renewal Project’s effort. More specifically, he claimed that the Founding Fathers “thought it was a good idea for ministers to stay out of office.” My problem with Fea’s essay is not that he is critical of Trump and the American Renewal Project. My view of Trump differs little from Fea’s and I question the wisdom of the American Renewal Project’s strategy. My concerns stem, rather, from what I perceive to be Fea’s failure to abide by some of the most basic standards of historical analysis and interpretation that one would expect of a professionally-trained historian, even when he is writing for a general audience.

First, in the title and at least twice in the essay itself, Fea indicates that he is revealing what “the Founding Fathers of America” thought about a particular topic – in this case, that of ministers holding public office. Historians of the United States, more so than anyone else, should be aware of the problems associated with that particular phrase. Scholars disagree on exactly who belongs in this group of individuals we call the Founders, but generally agree that they should not always be treated as a single, monolithic entity. This is true even when one narrows the membership of the Founders down to the Big 6 – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and Adams. Virtually no one would claim that these men alone were the Founders, or assert that all six thought the exact same thing about most (if not all) controversial topics of their day. How much more difficult must it be to definitively identify what the Founders thought when membership in that fraternity is expanded to not only include the Big 6, but also those who served in the Continental, Confederation, and the first US Congresses, as well as those who were delegates to the Constitutional and state ratifying conventions? This does not preclude us from ever making generalizations about the beliefs of those we call the Founders, but reminds us to proceed cautiously and to qualify our assertions

Astonishingly, Fea bases his assertion that the Founding Fathers of America wanted to keep ministers from public office not on the actions of individuals who served in the offices listed above, but on an entirely different group of Founders: those who wrote the constitutions of 8 (of the 16) states in the Union before 1799. Are there any scholars of early America who would assert that the framers of these constitutions constitute “the Founding Fathers of America”? Even in the one instance in which Fea refrained from using the phrase “the Founding Fathers” and instead referenced “The founders who crafted the original state governments,” he still deceives his readers. His statement implies that all of the original state constitutions barred ministers from office when actually only 4 of the original 13 states (and 8 of the 16 before 1799) had such provisions.

Likewise, Fea oversimplifies the situation by ignoring the differences that separated state Founders from the Founders of the nation. While there was clearly much overlap and agreement between the members of the two groups, it is undeniable that those who created the federal government in 1787 did so partly in response to the objectionable actions of those governments created by the state Founders. For instance, those who framed the US Constitution reacted to the majority of states that imposed ecclesiastical taxes and religious tests for office by prohibiting the federal government from following suit. There were notable differences of opinions between the framers of the state constitutions and of the federal constitution, and historians who fail to acknowledge this do a disservice to their readers and to the craft of history.

A second way in which Fea’s essay fails to live up to the standards of a historian using the past to speak to the present, as opposed to a mere partisan doing the same, is by failing to qualify one’s conclusions or adequately address evidence that is contrary to one’s argument. If one is going to assert that the Founders wanted to keep ministers from public office and have their argument taken seriously then he should address and explain those instances in which acknowledged Founders took a different position. Of the Big 6 Founders, it appears that only two of them left any evidence of their opinion on this question of whether ministers should hold public office. Notably, both of them believed that ministers did have the right to hold office. James Madison, the so-called “Father of the Constitution,” asked in his “Remarks on Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson’s draught of a constitution for Virginia” (1788) “Does not the exclusion of Ministers of the Gospel as such violate a fundamental principle of liberty by punishing a religious profession with the privation of a civil right?” Jefferson, on the other hand, actually sought to ban ministers from public office in 1783. But in 1800 he wrote a letter to Jeremiah Moore, a Baptist pastor, saying he had completely changed his opinion on this matter, and considered ministers to be on the same “footing with lawyers, physicians &c.” Therefore, he said, “they ought to possess the same rights.”

Likewise, when arguing that the Founders wanted to keep ministers from public office, one should at least attempt to explain how this could be the case when some of the Founders were ministers. These particular individuals were certainly not the most influential members of this group, and they made up only a fraction of the Founders. However, their presence can’t simply be ignored. Surely the fact that John Witherspoon, who was an ordained Presbyterian pastor who served in the New Jersey colonial and state legislatures, the Continental and Confederation Congresses, and in the New Jersey ratifying convention, undermines the contention that the Founders wanted to keep ministers from public office. The same is true when one considers the fact that ordained ministers made up nearly 7% of the members of the first United States Congress. Sure, they were a distinct minority in that first Congress, but one of their number, the Reverend Frederick Muhlenberg, an ordained Lutheran pastor, was elected as the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives. These men were Founders, and they clearly did not object to ministers holding public office. Nor does there seem to be any evidence of hostility towards them on the part of their colleagues. In addition, if the Founders opposed ministers being able to serve in public offices, then how does one account for the fact that a large number of “the Founding Fathers” were responsible for Article VI, Clause 3 in the Constitution which says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” as well as the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from passing any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Granted, neither of these Constitutional provisions explicitly address nor promote ministers serving in federal positions, but they seemingly eliminated any barriers to them doing so. These two clauses, it must be noted, were inserted into the US Constitution at the very time that some states had constitutional provisions prohibiting ministers from public office. The framers of the Constitution were aware of the state prohibitions on clerical office holding. If they wanted to keep ministers from holding public office then why didn’t they insert one of those state constitutional provisions into the US Constitution? These are questions, I believe, that a historian writing on this topic can’t ignore, even when writing for a general audience. To give the impression that the Founders uniformly and seemingly unanimously opposed ministers in public office when there is significant evidence to the contrary is misleading .

This does not mean that Fea is completely wrong, or that he does not have a valid point to be made. As he indicates, there is no denying the fact that some of the men who can be considered Founding Fathers of America (specifically those who wrote some of the state constitutions), supported and instituted a ban on ministers holding public office. The problem with Fea’s essay, in addition to what has already been mentioned, is his failure to provide an accurate (as opposed to simplistic) explanation of why this occurred. The only explanation offered by Fea is that “they [the Founders] thought that the ‘separation of church and state’ was important.” This is problematic on a number of fronts.

First, the phrase “separation of church and state” is quite vague and clearly means different things to different people. Both Baptists and the ACLU claim to support separation of church and state, but what they mean by that differs wildly from one another. Secondly, Fea fails to take into consideration the historical context of the state constitutional bans when making his argument. A proper understanding of the historical context makes it impossible to simply assert that the desire to exclude clergymen from office is unquestionable evidence of support for the separation of church and state. The fact of the matter is that most of the states that included a clerical ban in their 18th century constitutions had been, before 1776, colonies where the Anglican Church was the official, established church of the colony. What is notable is that these colonies also had laws on the books prohibiting ministers from holding public office. Thus, the exclusion of clergy from political office, in the American colonial context at least, was more associated with the intertwining of church and state rather than an indicator of a desire to separate church and state. In fact, according to the United States Supreme Court, a ban on clergy in public office is more logically connected to an established church, than a society where church and state are separated. When the Court in 1978 struck down as unconstitutional the last state law prohibiting ministers from holding public office, the justices rejected the state’s contention that the law was necessary to maintain a high wall of separation between church and state. Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote the unanimous opinion (McDaniel v. Paty), asserted that such a ban would only be justified where an established church existed. Historians have not only shown that prohibitions against ministers holding office were usually associated with governments with established churches (or the legacy thereof), but that these prohibitions stemmed from a number of possible motives. For instance, some have pointed out that most of the states with such bans were not only Anglican, but did not have much of an evangelical presence yet. These bans, therefore, were likely designed to punish Anglican Church officials, who not only had a reputation for abusing their power in colonial America, but who also supported the British during the American Revolution. Anson Stokes theorized that some delegates to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention (1799) added a clerical ban to that document to protect the institution of slavery, as some of the leaders of the anti-slavery forces in the state were Presbyterian ministers. Philip Hamburger, Professor of Law at the Columbia Law School, said “Americans barred clergymen from civil office for many reasons, including an odd combination of Calvinism, anti-Catholicism, theories of taxation and representation, solicitude for the clergy, and suspicion of the clergy. Strikingly,” he concluded, “Americans did not exclude clergy on grounds of separation.”

I personally don’t fully subscribe to Hamburger’s conclusion regarding separation, but I am citing it to make the point that both the historical evidence and reputable scholars demonstrate that the state constitutional bans on ministers in public office can’t be explained by simply saying the Framers thought separation of church and state was important. When historians, as perceived experts of the past, seek to explain what happened in the past they are obligated to do so faithfully and accurately, regardless of their intended audience. Writing for a website does not provide a historian the license to make overstatements or reach overly-simplistic conclusions. If a historian is going to use his or her prestige as a member of the guild to give his or her arguments about the past greater credibility, then that historian should generally abide by the standards of the profession. In this particular case, those standards, I believe, would compel one to assert only that some of the men who founded this country, specifically those who wrote some of the state constitutions, thought it was unwise (for a variety of reasons, including separation of church and state) for ministers to hold public office. In going beyond that assertion, one risks moving from using the past to bring some perspective to a present controversy, to abusing the past for one reason or another. Whether Fea is guilty of this I do not know. But I do hope that the revelation of the flaws in this particular essay will serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers historians face when mining the past to support certain positions in current political controversies. As we do so, particularly in a period of heightened political tensions, let us not lose sight of the complexities and nuances of the past, and of our obligation to be faithful to the historical record.

Click here to read John Fea’s response and Brent Aucoin’s reply.