Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Religion, the State and the Founding Fathers

OK, we've done a few postings on how the Religious Right selectively and arbitrarily emphasizes the Bible. As US West pointed out in her comment, right wingers also make a big deal about "strict construction" of the Constitution without fully understanding it or admitting that what it says is a matter open to debate. Intransigent ignorance is a big part of life for these people.

One of the biggest red herrings these people like to throw at us is that "the Founding Fathers never intended strict separation of church and state." This is a-historical nonsense. Strict separation of religion and civil life is EXACTLY what the Founding Fathers (at least the ones who wrote the Constitution) intended! Our Constitution was written largely by James Madison - a protege of Thomas Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence, another document that gets tortuously interpreted to score political points). So what did Madison and Jefferson think about the relationship between religion and politics? Let's stop assuming that all people back in "olden times" were more religious than today and actually read what they said.

Madison: You can find an excellent summary of Madison's thoughts on the subject here.
See especially his letter to Edward Livingston.
"Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it in some parts of our country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported. Such, indeed, is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against. "
Here Madison is clearly calling for us to be suspicious rather than trusting of the blending of religion and government.

More telling still is this quotation, "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In the strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?... If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents shd discharge their religious duties, let them like their Constituents, do so at their own expense. "
Here Madison is taking a position on a matter very similar in its apparent triviality to the "under God" passage of the pledge of allegiance (which Madison probably would have objected to in the first place). Anyway, people often argue that the founding father's would never have objected to Congressional prayers, or other more or less routine references to religion by Government institutions. Yet here is a passage where James Madison himself does object and strongly too!

You may also enjoy reading the rest of the quotations. There is one regarding religion at public universities that is very interesting.

Jefferson: Religious conservatives' claims to follow in Jefferson's footsteps are even more absurd than they are with regard to the Founding Fathers in general. Jefferson though most organized religion to be little more than superstitious "demon worship." He even went so far as to edit the Bible because he thought it concentrated too much on the mystical and too little on the genuinely spiritual. Editing the Bible is hardly the work of someone who thinks like a fundamentalist!

Here are some other quotations on religion by Jefferson.
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
It is often said by Religious Conservatives that the Founding Fathers never intended such a sharp division between religion and government. However, Jefferson clearly saw the 1st Amendment as proscribing exactly that kind of division.

"To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
Jefferson was not a Christian in the definition of Religious conservatives. In their generous moods they define it as anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior and lord. Jefferson did not even recognize the divinity of Christ. In that sense, he is more of a Unitarian than anything.

"They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion." -Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

I think it is clear from a number of Jefferson's writings that he was not only in favor of a strict separation of religion and government (as was his protege, Madison) but he was openly hostile to organized religion.

Go here for a discussion debunking one conservative's attempt to argue that Jefferson never intended a sharp division between religion and government.

The two concepts the Founding Fathers held to be most important were LIBERTY and REASON. Neither was seen as being guaranteed by faith!

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