Monday, June 14, 2004

A Reply to my Previous Post:


A Protestant Fundamentalist reader has replied to my previous post on The Godless Constitution. From my numerous debates with her on other websites, I know that she likes to argue that everything, literally everything, that is great about Western Civilization comes from Christianity ["Jerusalem" if you will], nothing from our secular/pagan source ["Athens"]. I will post a reply later.

She writes:

Your three categories of opinion about the proper relation between church and government take a little sorting out.

1) The Enlightenment Disciples: ...

Interesting implication here is that the Founders put something over on "the people" which I keep finding in what you've been writing -- as if they managed to get an Enlightenment program into the government design without the people's being any the wiser. So much for all those high-flown principles of government of, by and for the people as Lincoln later saw it, hm?

And this Enlightenment-produced vision of government is wholly "secular" according to you, although you haven't yet clearly defined what you mean by that and more than one meaning is possible -- which is going to become an issue when I get to your other categories. In fact defining this is of the essence.

Your reference to the Founders as representative of the "intellectual class" I find interestingly biased I must say especially in contrast with "the people" and the President of Yale, Timothy Dwight, who represents your Category 3, of whom it seems to me you speak in somewhat slighting terms, President of Yale, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, was a shining star of this movement of religious correctness. I guess to a follower of the Enlightenment an educated Christian who taught logic, literature and oratory as well as theology at Yale, wrote an eleven-volume epic, a satire on Voltaire and Hume, poetry and hymns, and was also President of Yale, doesn’t qualify as “intellectual.” The fact is that the intellectual life of Europe and America began with Christians, who founded all the first universities in both places. (Yeah, I know -- history was just biding its time until the superior intellectual understanding of the Age of Reason superseded them etc. etc. etc.)

Now, to your second category. You seem to have just discovered these orthodox Christians who were strongly committed to what you call "secularism or the separation of Church and State:"

2) Orthodox Christians committed to secularism or the separation of Church and State, because of the way secular government would benefit religion. Yes, I learned that there were strong forces within orthodox Christianity committed to separation of Church & State and they did so without appealing to Lockean theory. In fact, Roger Williams (the founder of this point of view) came forth with a defense of secular government shortly before Locke formulated his teachings! Williams, who once famously said, “No civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christians be in it,” gave wholly practical grounds as to why religion (the Christian religion in particular) would be better off in a wholly secular state, one that takes no stance on religion.

Nothing could be more familiar to a Christian than this point of view, although it takes a moment to see it through your categorization as favoring “secular” government, which is not a term we/they use. This is really the view of the First Amendment that most Christians today have in mind as the original meaning of it, not your third category as you claim.

1] The story of the Christian preacher Roger Williams is interesting. I looked him up and get the impression that he was definitely in favor of separation of church and state in the sense of a complete absence of government jurisdiction over the churches – in the same sense that Madison was. On a quick skim-through it appears that he came up against some hidebound Puritans who did not recognize freedom of conscience and were happier with their state-established denominations and rules of religious conduct than he would have liked. At least that is how it is presented at the site I found:

http://www.guam.net/home/wresch/stories/churchhistory/13%20Roger%20Williams.html


2] However, it is hard to judge this, since, according to what I posted earlier about the various state constitutions as presented in the sermon of a New York pastor, they all acknowledged the necessity of freedom of conscience (and I quote this pastor partly to show that the idea of freedom of conscience is a Christian idea although it isn't his focus in the following quotes):

"The Constitution of Maryland ...until 1851 defined freedom of religion this way: “(I)t is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him.” Therefore, it went on, “all persons professing the Christian religion [rather than a particular denomination], are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.”

"The Constitution of Vermont was yet more specific: “(N)or can any man who professes the Protestant religion, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right, as a citizen.” ...In promoting the free exercise of religious worship according to conscience...

"The Constitution of New Hampshire (1784), after guaranteeing the unalienable right to worship God according to conscience ...

"...That our Founding Fathers wanted no national denomination is obvious. That the Fathers who represented the States cited above would have understood the First Amendment as prohibiting States from establishing religions—well, history and fact stand against such a revisionist view."

3] Also consider the following from that same site about Williams:

... with the Mennonites and Separatists, Baptists promoted true religious freedom. In 1614 they declared, "The magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, this or that form of religion, or doctrine; but to leave Christian religion free, to every man's conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions."

This is already in 1614 a statement of the principle that became embodied some 175 years later in the First Amendment -- no meddling of government in religious questions, expanding on it as freedom of conscience.

And it also incidentally makes clear that when they use the term “religion” they had NO notion of any other religion than Christian.

4] I also showed you earlier how the concern with freedom of conscience is derived from the Biblical call to sincere faith and willingness to die for it when forced to deny it.

5] It was one of these persecuted minorities, the Baptists, who appealed to Jefferson to be sure that the Constitution would protect them from persecution at the hands of a federally established denomination, and it was Jefferson's letter to reassure them that contained the one and only reference to the concept of "separation of church and state."

So: Not only Williams but others among the Christians also emphasized the importance of freedom of conscience, which you denied has any Christian roots, claiming it came only from the Enlightenment. This category you call Christians in favor of secular government really amounts to no more than your misunderstanding of what Christians have always understood to be the main objective of the First Amendment, deriving from the concern of the minority churches not to be subject to the theology as well as the whims of a federally established majority creed -- this is understood from the letter of Jefferson to the Baptists. The rest I have added here merely underscores it.

This issue is in fact THE issue of "freedom of conscience." It is first and foremost a CHRISTIAN concern. If John Locke also wrote about it he was far from its originator -- as you yourself do finally acknowledge -- and the Founders did not need to go to Locke to derive it, as it was loud and clear enough from the religious situation in the colonies, and even spelled out in their constitutions, however imperfectly realized.

Parenthetical thought: Why the Enlightenment should make a big deal out of what particularly affects religious people is a question in my mind anyway. The conscience to a Christian is an extremely important spiritual reality, but to a rationalist atheist what is it more than just the right to one's opinion??

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