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Journal of No. 118


November 11th, 2013

Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman @ 02:33 pm


A splendid book by one of the founders of beliefnet.com

It fits in well with Ye Will Say I Am No Christian and Moral Minority. Founding Faith follows a neat approach interleaving bios of the principal FF's with relevant history pertaining to church-state issues. It works really well, and provides great context. One of his main theses is that both sides of the current 'culture war' on church/state separation misunderstand (willfully or not) the founding fathers. I think he's largely right, and the reason is that the culture has changed so much. When Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance against Virginia using public moneys to fund religious teachers, his most numerous supporters were not secularish people like him, or Deists, but rather the evangelical Baptists of his time, who circulated and signed copies of Madison's document.

Madison championed individual liberty of conscience, while most religious denominations were largely worried about what would happen if those heretics over there got their hooks into government. And so the First Amendment is something of an interesting compromise. It didn't make the US government secular at all levels (as Madison would have preferred). And most of the states at that time did have established churches, and they didn't want the federal government tinkering with them or forbidding them. So the establishment clause was protecting the state churches from the federal government, while also ensuring there would never be a national church. Waldman also goes to great pains to show that Madison and other FF's considered 'establishment' quite broadly to include any state support of religion, not just the establishment of a preferred denomination.


One of the eye-opening things was just how rancorous was the battle between different denominations in different colonies. Maryland was (quite uniquely) Catholic (with Catholics being everyone's favorite hated religion). The state had a Toleration Act, and to repay them for their magnanimity, there were several Protestant Revolts, and ultimately Catholics were forbidden to vote in Maryland (unless they swore allegiance to the Anglican church).

And it's not just the Catholics. Name a sect, and there was a place where they were persecuted. Baptists? Quakers?

John Adams was speaking of predestination, but it goes as well for YE creationism: "[Merely] touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands and fly into your face and eyes."

Baptist preacher Isaac Backus: "Now who can hear Christ declare, that his kingdom is not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?"

Washington: "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and previleges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment."

In 1783 (before the Constitution), a papal nuncio asked the US to allow the Church to appoint a bishop in the US. Ben Franklin was instructed to decline because "being purely spiritual, it is without the jurisdiction and powers of Congress, who have no authority to permit or refuse it, these powers being reserved to the several states individually."

"The ban on religious tests raised fears among some that the Constitution would allow for a heathen takeover. One conflicted writer from western Massachusetts complained that the document didn't guarantee religious freedom enough -- but then, without sensing any contradiction, griped that 'there is a door opened for the Jews, Turks, and Heathens to enter into publick office.'
...
Most vividly, a writer in the New York Daily Advertiser offered this creatively paranoid analysis...
1st Quakers who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defense.
2dly Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity.
3dly Deists, abominable wretches.
4thly Negroes, the seed of Cain
5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil.
6thly Jews etc. etc."

Speaking of various drafts of the Establishment Clause that were defeated.
Prohibiting Congress from
"establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others."
"establishing any religious sect or society."
"establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another"

This, or something very like it, is what many on the mingling side of the church-state issue claim is the meaning of the Establishment Clause. But these were all defeated. The framers of the Constitution meant something more than this.

Waldman also correctly points out that, whatever the Founders meant, it doesn't mean they were necessarily right. Indeed, he points out that some 'horsetrading' occurred. "The Senate conferees agreed that if the House would accept the Senate versions on some of the other amendments, the Senate would follow the House wording on religious freedom."

The anti-Obama crowd coulda probably dusted off some of the Anti-Jefferson material from the 1800 election: "Though there is nothing in our constitution to restrict our choice, yet the open and warm preference of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christianity, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and a rebellion against God."

Some background on the Danbury Baptists, to whom Jefferson's 'wall of separation' letter is written. "Connecticut, it should be remembered, had established Congregationalism as its official state religion. The Baptists therefore had to pay taxes to support the salaries of Congregation ministers. Baptist ministers were not legally authorized to conduct marriages." Although all the state churches were gone by 1830 or so, it still points out how the incorporation of the Bill of Rights to cover state laws was really a momentous thing. And in many ways made the Founders' views on church-state relations somewhat academic.

Adams, hoping for a day when the texts of the "Persians, the Chinese and the Hindoos" became more widely available: "our grandchildren and my great-grandchildren may compare notes and hold fast all that is good."

Madison on the effectiveness of the religious freedoms in the Constitution: "this country, which has given to the world the example of physical liberty, owes to it that of moral emancipation also. For, as yet, it is but nominal with us. The inquisition of public opinion overwhelms in practice the freedom asserted by the laws in theory."
 
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Journal of No. 118