Monday, March 12, 2007

"the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions"

As a big fan of rational thought and as someone troubled by the incursions made by the members of the faith-based community into realms which I think should be evidence-based (science, politics, economics, etc), I have read and listened to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins with a feeling best described as relief. I have come to learn that poputonian, who's been blogging at Digby's, seems to be a kindred spirit in these matters and this latest post is especially welcome as an antidote to the poison being injected by revisionist re-writers of history.

One of the most common examples of this revisionism is the claim that the founding fathers intended to establish a Christian nation. As David Greenberg said in Slate in 2002:
It's an old shibboleth of those who want to inject religion into public life that they're honoring the spirit of the nation's founders. In fact, the founders opposed the institutionalization of religion. They kept the Constitution free of references to God. The document mentions religion only to guarantee that godly belief would never be used as a qualification for holding office—a departure from many existing state constitutions. That the founders made erecting a church-state wall their first priority when they added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution reveals the importance they placed on maintaining what Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore have called a "godless Constitution." When Benjamin Franklin proposed during the Constitutional Convention that the founders begin each day of their labors with a prayer to God for guidance, his suggestion was defeated.

Given this tradition, it's not surprising that the original Pledge of Allegiance—meant as an expression of patriotism, not religious faith—also made no mention of God. The pledge was written in 1892 by the socialist Francis Bellamy, a cousin of the famous radical writer Edward Bellamy. He devised it for the popular magazine Youth's Companion on the occasion of the nation's first celebration of Columbus Day. Its wording omitted reference not only to God but also, interestingly, to the United States:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."


Flashback to 1786, the year before the Constitutional Convention, and to the passage of a Virginia law and what Susan Jacoby describes as "the unequivocal guarantee of freedom of thought at the heart of the statute."

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we will know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the purpose of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be infringement of natural right.

Jacoby continues in Freethinkers to describe the uniqueness of Virginia's statute and why it alone was chosen as the model for the U.S. Constitution:

In America, where the great debate over the federal Constitution was just beginning, Virginia's law was hailed by secularists as a model for the new national government and denounced by those who favored the semi-theocratic systems still prevailing in most states. As the Constitutional Convention opened in 1787, with George Washington as its president, legally entrenched privileges for Protestant Christianity were the rule rather than the exception in most states. The convention could have modeled the federal constitution after the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, which extended equal protection of the laws , and the right to hold office, only to Christians. And not all Christians: Catholics were only permitted to hold public office if they took a special oath renouncing papal authority "in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual." Even that restriction was not enough for the most committed descendants of the Puritans; sixty-three of Massachusetts towns registered official objections to the use of "Christians" rather than "Protestant," bearing out a prediction by Adams that "a change in the solar system might be expected as soon as a change in the ecclesiastical system of Massachusetts." State religious restrictions were grounded not only in old prejudices but in the relative political strength of various religious constituencies. The 1777 New York State constitution, for example, extended political equality to Jews -- who, though few in number, had considerable economic influence in New York City -- but not to Catholics (who were not allowed to hold public office until 1806). Maryland, the home state of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, guaranteed full civil rights to Protestants and Catholics but not to Jews, freethinkers, and deists. The possibility of equal rights for non-Christians had not even occurred to Carroll. In this old age, he wrote, "When I signed the Declaration of Independence, I had in view not only our independence of England, but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all equal rights." In Delaware, officeholders were required to take an oath affirming belief in the Trinity, and in South Carolina, Protestantism was specifically recognized as the state-established religion.

But the framers of the Constitution chose Virginia, not the other states, with their crazy quilts of obeisance to a more restrictive religious past, as the model for the new nation. The Constitution is a secularist document because of what it says and what it does not say. The first of the explicit secularist provisions is article 6, section 3, which states that federal elective and appointed officials "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." No religious test. This provision, much less familiar to the public today than the First Amendment, was especially meaningful and especially sweeping in view of the fact that the necessity of religious tests and religious oaths for officeholders had been taken for granted by nearly all the governments of the American states (not to mention those of the rest of the world) at the time the Constitution was written. The addition of the affirmation is significant, because it meant that the framers did not intend to compel officeholders to take a religious oath on the Bible. The intent could not have been clearer to those who wanted only religious men -- specifically, Protestant believers -- to hold office. As a North Carolina minister put it during his state's debate on ratification of the Constitution, the abolition of religious tests for officeholders amounted to "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us."

So how did the world react to the secular politics of Virginia and America? Jacoby continues:

The significance of Virginia's religious freedom act was recognized immediately in Europe. News of the law was received with great enthusiasm -- not by the governments of the Old World, with their entrenched state-established religions, but by individuals who wished to promote liberty of conscience in their own countries. The Virginia law, translated into French and Italian as soon as the text made it across the Atlantic in 1786, was disseminated throughout most of the courts of Europe, and, as Jefferson wrote to Madison, "has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports which stated us to be in anarchy." Expressing his pride in Virginia's leadership, Jefferson observed that "it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions."

Amen to that.


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