Another fine feature of the new issue of the Washington Monthly is a carefully reasoned and solidly researched article by BeliefNet founder Steve Waldman about the all-but-forgotten history of evangelical Christians’ passionate support for the most radical notions of religious liberty during the founding period of the Republic.What makes Waldman’s account especially valuable is that he directly comes to grips with a whole generation of conservative evangelical revisionist history on this topic, particularly the claim that the First Amendment was only intended to prevent establishment of a particular Church, and should not be understood as prohibiting general public support for Christianity. As Waldman explains, Virginia had a very clear and specific debate on this proposition in the years immediately following the Revolution, when Patrick Henry proposed a system allowing citizens to designate a tax to support the church of their choice, and James Madison, soon to become the “Father of the Constitution,” strongly opposed it. Madison ultimately prevailed in this debate, in no small part because of vocal support from evangelicals, and especially the Baptist forefathers of today’s most avid opponents of the “wall of separation” interpretation of the Establishment Clause.Waldman’s evocation of Madison’s key role in promoting a more radical idea of religious liberty is also useful because another revisionist theory often suggests that the whole idea of church-state separatism was little more than a typically heretical quirk of the notoriously heterodox Thomas Jefferson. If Madison, who once trained for the Anglican priesthood, and remained faithful to that communion throughout his life, shared Jefferson’s Deist tendencies, he left little record of it. And for that matter, even Jefferson himself raised his children as Anglicans, and was a vestryman for an Anglican parish outside Charlottesville until his death (I know this personally, having attended a church in that parish for a while). These were not men determined to fight respect for religion.Yet Jefferson and Madison were jointly responsible for Virginia’s radical religious liberty laws, and clearly sought to implement them nationally in the First Amendment. It’s more than slightly odd that the descendants of their strongest allies in that fight have so decisively changed sides.
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By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.