Are Conservatives Really More in Touch with the Founding Fathers?

I’ve observed a strong tendency among religiously-affiliated conservatives to assume that their viewpoints are most closely matched to the moral perspectives of the Founding Fathers. One pastor I spoke with stated that the legalization of gay marriage in California by “activist courts” betrayed the will and intention of the founders, who were “moral” and “religious” men. Cleon Skousen, whose “originalist” views of the US Constitution have been tremendously influential on Glen Beck and his followers, also encourages contemporary conservatives to assume an identity between their moral worldviews and those of the founders.

Who thinks more like the founders? Progressives? Conservatives? I put these questions to Vincent Phillip Muñoz, Tocqueville Professor of Religion and Public Life at Notre Dame University and author of the noted book God and the Founders:  Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (2009).

RD:  As a scholar, how might you respond to the idea that religiously-affiliated conservatives better understand the moral dispositions of the founding fathers?

PM:  Your question is a good one. It is also an enormous question. Of course, it is far too simple to suggest that modern conservatism and the founding fathers go hand-in-hand.  But insofar as modern liberalism embraces the idea of the necessary and inevitable progress of history, it breaks from the moral horizon of the founders. 

RD:   Right.  That’s the Hegelian view of history. And Hegel was born too late for the founders.

PM:  Yes.

RD:  One of the hallmarks of God and the Founders is that it makes a very strong case against thinking that the founders as a group espoused a singular, consistent point of view on the question of religion and the state. It sounds like you’re saying the same here: no one, left or right, can simply “claim” the founders. True?

PM:  On any particular issue, for example, church and state, we have to examine the Founders on their own terms. On church-state issues, the leading founders disagreed. But at a different level of generality, one can find agreement among the founders. For example, all the Founders agreed that individuals possessed a natural right to religious liberty (what they disagreed about was the meaning of that right). All the founders agreed that nature (i.e. “nature and nature’s God” to paraphrase the Declaration of Independence) offered a standard by which just government might be measured. To say the same thing differently, the founders’ world view held that there was an objective standard of right and wrong and that that standard was tied to nature. Modern conservatism and modern liberalism are complicated. To the extent that either ascribe to a standard of right and wrong tied to nature (or nature and nature’s God) they lie in agreement with the founders’ world view.

So who better channels the founders? Who has a greater claim to their legacy? Those who have studied their worldviews remind us that the founders were men of their times, with perspectives informed by eighteenth century philosophy, not to be confused with or neatly assimilated to 21st century political partisanship. Thus, from the halls of academe, no fireworks–but rather a modest, reasonable cautionary note to kick off your Independence Day weekend. Very founding father like.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.