Epiphanyblog

All about ideas…

Government vs. the modern Promotion of Christianity

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My son-in-law and I enjoy many animated but mild conversations on the Constitution and the intent behind the Founding Fathers wording of the Bill of Rights. As a committed, devout Mormon and strict Constitutionalist, I suspect his gift to me this year was meant to alter my mind regarding the First Amendment. Or maybe he just wanted to give us something else to discuss.

A year ago, I told him the Queen Elizabeth I outlawed violent persecution of Catholics as revenge for what her sister had done to Protestants by saying that the practice of religion was a matter of conscience. Her words more exactly were that she would not peer into a man’s conscience regarding religion.

So, this year my son-in-law gave me Steven Waldman’s book, Founding Faith. In the book, Waldman uses historical records to elaborate on the faith of the Founding Fathers to explain the religious foundations of the United States and how the First Amendment came into being.

According to Waldman’s research, the U.S. was Christian at its’ conception. I doubt there is any disagreement of this fact as the early settlers were all from England – and later from Germany, Holland and other Northern European nations where one form or another of Christianity was practiced. However, many Christian sects – Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, Congregational, Catholic and others – were practiced and/or violently discriminated against in the colonies. One has only to look at Catholic France to see the extreme violence practiced against Calvinist Huguenots (French Puritans) to understand the enmity that existed between varying Christian sects.

Waldman records that enmity as having existed in the colonies as well: popish Catholics being hated overall; Quakers being considered too anti-American in their pacifisms or too fond of Blacks; Baptists as not legitimate; Massachusetts and Connecticut approving only Puritan Congregationalists, and so on.

In each colony, each dominant religious sect sought to preserve its dominance even as the Revolution proceeded. However, Washington, leading an army of religiously diverse men, recognized that choosing one religious sect over another would be disastrous to the army…and to the country he was fighting to build. Thus, he sought to eliminate religious sectarianism in the ranks of his Army as well as during his years in public office.

Later during the Congressional Convention, men like James Madison, Geo. Mason and Baptist leader John Leland, who fought against religious discrimination in their home states, led the way to prohibit the national government from becoming involved, in any way, in religion. “At the Massachusetts convention, the Reverend Isaac Backus declared that religious tests had been the ‘greatest engine of tyranny in the world’ and praised the revolutionary new document (the Constitution sans Bill of Rights) for recognizing that ‘Nothing is more evident both in reason and Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and, therefore no man or men can impose religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ ‘After Pennsylvania ratified…. Watching from the side, Dr. Benjamin Rush noticed a rabbi [heretofore Jews having been banned in every colony from property ownership, business, and schools] and two Christian ministers marching arm in arm and thought it a perfect symbol of the Constitution’s ban on religious tests.’ “

But as Madison found when he returned home to Orange County, VA, the Constitution did not go far enough to secure the people’s right to religious freedom…or what was commonly called “freedom of conscience.”

What Madison had learned throughout his education at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an evangelical seminary known as both a citadel for republicanism and a haven for dissenting Presbyterianism, and in his travels was that religion was an individual choice – a matter of conscience for each person – and that no other person had the right to abridge that freedom of conscience. To him, the practice of any religion was a God given freedom of conscience. Thus, to say that government had the right or authority to tax or promote one religious sect over another was an abridgment of the freedom of conscience. It was his belief that religion was best served when government stayed out it completely.

What Madison sought from Congress, as he had from the Virginia Legislature earlier in his political career, was an assurance that government would not be involved in the sponsorship or promotion of religion in any way. Even though having been a Christian, he believed that religion was best served if government had no part in it. In this, Thomas Jefferson, who held a mild Christian attitude, influenced Madison. Jefferson believed in Christianity, as did all of his political contemporaries, but he held some purely anachronistic views, i.e. that Jesus was not born of a virgin or was The Son of God. He did believe that the philosophical views of Jesus were the best that had passed down through the ages of the human race.

Jefferson firmly believed that Christianity was best when government left it alone. That is, when government played no part in its recommendation or assistance or promotion.

While this ideology was commonplace in Franklin’s Pennsylvania, it was fairly new and different in Virginia and elsewhere in the colonies – in Massachusetts and Connecticut, in particular, where government sponsorship and taxation promoted and paid for a particular brand (sect) of Christianity.

As a result of Madison’s travels to Pennsylvania and potentially his tutelage from Jefferson, Madison developed the ideal that government – any government, whether national or state – should very strictly stay out of the realm of religion.

Thus, after Madison put the First Amendment to the House of Representatives, he agreed to New Hampshire Representative Samuel Livermore’s rewording: “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” After much argument in the House and the Senate, the final wording is as we know it today: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Moreover, he believed that religion, if left alone without government help or assistance of any kind, would thrive and grow based on it’s own great merits…and that if government interfered or chose to assist it in any way, religion would weaken as had the Catholic Church in Europe. Madison, as most of his contemporaries, was a student of the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening. They understood the religious arguments of previous generations as well as those of their day. And they also knew that when government became involved with religion, by choosing one religious sect over another, that people died: when the rights of the minority are sacrificed to the majority, people suffer.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison argued this point, and in particular that government –keeping religion in mind – should prevent the majority from denying the rights of the minority. Given the violent religious discrimination Madison witnessed in Virginia prior to becoming a member of congress, he firmly believed that religion was best served when government was prohibited from partaking in religious delegation or general designation for the populace.

As he decided from first hand observation, when government becomes involved with a particular religion or religious sect, the majority ends up practicing extremes of cruelty against the minority. Thus, it is best for religion that government, whether national or stare, divorce itself entirely from religion of any sort. Only then will parishioners of religion, of whatever name, enjoy the choice of freedom of conscience. Only when government, in its entirety, is separated from religion will religion thrive.

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Written by Valerie Curl

January 1, 2009 at 5:29 PM

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