Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why the "Christian America" Thesis Hurts Religious Conservatives:

Ed Brayton points to this article by Al Bedrosian, former political candidate for the Virginia General Assembly arguing against the notion of religious freedom.

If devout Christians honestly want to argue against religious freedom for non-Christian faiths, that's fine; but religious conservatives make fools of themselves when they try to drag the Founding Fathers as on their side. If they understood history better, they wouldn't do this. But they've been misled by the likes of David Barton, D. James Kennedy, and William Federer into believing the Christian Nation nonsense, where a central part of the myth is the Founders intended the religious rights to protect Christian sects only. As he writes:

When reading the writings of our Founding Founders, there was never any reference to freedom of religion referring to a choice between Islam, Hindu, Satanism, Wicca and whatever other religions or cults you would like to dream up. It was very clear that freedom to worship meant the freedom to worship the God of the Bible in the way you wanted, and not to have a government church denomination dictate how you would worship.


Ed Brayton points to the irony that this man is from Virginia and ran for Virginia General Assembly. That state, in 1786, passed Jefferson's landmark statute establishing religious liberty, a statute which claims to be based on "natural right," which is shorthand for "the laws of nature and nature's God." And Jefferson, in no uncertain terms, told which "religions" were protected under the statute:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.


Further not only did the key Founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin -- believe all religions were protected under the "unalienable rights of conscience," they also believed practically all of these religions were valid ways to God. As John Adams put it discussing how Hindus worship the same God Christians and Jews do:

Where is to be found Theology more orthodox or Phylosophy more profound than in the Introduction to the Shast[r]a [a Hindu Treatise]? “God is one, creator of all, Universal Sphere, without beginning, without End. God Governs all the Creation by a General Providence, resulting from his eternal designs. --- Search not the Essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; Your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough that, day by day, and night by night, You adore his Power, his Wisdom and his Goodness, in his Works.”

-- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, December 25, 1813.


As I've shown in the past, Ben Franklin thought it appropriate for Muslims to preach Mohammedanism in Christian Churches. And Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, when they spoke to unconverted Native Americans used the term "The Great Spirit" for God, suggesting the Indians' Pagan God was the same one they worshipped.

The notion that all religions worship the same God and that all religions ought be endowed with equal rights sort of connects their theology with their politics; if all religions lead to the same God, it makes sense that all religions should have equal rights.

Indeed, as Mr. Bedrosian informs:

Christianity, by its own definition, does not allow freedom of religion. A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Jesus clearly states all through Scripture that he is the way and the only way to God the father. The Bible is clear in teaching us that we should have no other gods before him. Our God is a jealous God.


I've read the Bible carefully and I'd say Mr. Bedrosian's interpretation is fair and reasonable. The problem, for him, is that it's not what our Founders believed. Their nature's God granted men the unalienable right to freedom of religion, not just to worship the God of the Bible, but to worship false gods or even no God at all. Indeed Mr. Bedrosian's view illustrates how Christians viewed the proper relationship between government and religion before America's Founders changed things.

How Christians like Bedrosian might want to reconcile the Founders' view of a nature's God who grants men the right to worship false gods with traditional Christianity is their dilemma. Students of political philosophy know this as "the theological-political problem." And, I think that the Bible can be reconciled with the notion of freedom of religion for all. Certainly nothing in the New Testament requires (or forbids, I might add) Christians to persecute non-believers if they should be in charge of government.

This information also helps demonstrates the extra-biblical character of "the laws of nature and nature's God." Whether Christians can permit non-believers to worship as they please, nothing in the Bible requires them to do so. The notion of a nature's God who grants men the unalienable right to break His First Command seems, to me, entirely extra-biblical, more characteristic of a benevolent, non-jealous, unitarian Deity, not the God of Scripture.

Finally, religious conservatives have legitimate arguments to make in terms of how to properly interpret religion clauses of the Constitution. I'd suggest the works of Daniel Dreisbach, Philip Hamburger, and Phillip Muñoz, or even some of Justice Thomas' thoughtful Church-State opinions.

Commentaries, like Mr. Bedrosian's, which rely on an abominable understanding of the history and political philosophy of America's Founding certainly do nothing to advance religious conservatism. I wonder what are the politics of the The Roanoke Times. Could it be that they featured this op-ed to make religious conservatives look bad?

13 comments:

Tim said...

Bedrosian can make himself look bad without any outside interference.

Hercules Mulligan said...

"If they understood history better, they wouldn't do this. But they've been misled by the likes of David Barton, D. James Kennedy, and William Federer into believing the Christian Nation nonsense, where a central part of the myth is the Founders intended the religious rights to protect Christian sects only."

Yeah, those justices on the Supreme Court during the 1890s must have REAL dumb and REALLY mislead by David Barton and Doctor Kennedy, especially after spending 10 years of research on the subject. Maybe Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) was the most ridiculous ruling by the Court in its whole history, because the Court UNANIMOUSLY RULED:

"And in People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns. 290, 294, 295, Chancellor KENT, the great commentator on American law, speaking as chief justice of the supreme court of New York, said: 'The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order. ... The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community is an abuse of that right. Nor are we bound by any expressions in the constitution, as some have strangely supposed, either not to punish at all, or to panish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama; and for this plain reason, that the case assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those impostors.' And in the famous case of Vidal v. Girard's Ex'rs, 2 How. 127, 198, this court, while sustaining the will of Mr. Girard, with its provision for the creation of a college into which no minister should be permitted to enter, observed: 'It is also said, and truly, that the Christian religion is a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.'

"If we pass beyond these matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find every where a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters note the following: The form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, 'In the name of God, amen;' the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing every where under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation."

This Court cited TONS of precedent to support its case (see the text) -- much more precedent than did the justices in the 1947 who ruled that suddenly there was a "separation between church and state," so that now the rights of everybody except CHRISTIANS to express their religious beliefs and customs are fully protected.

One note to your bias: Christians are NOT arguing AGAINST the rights of other people from other religions to have their religion and express it without government interference (so long as it does not promote immorality, which is dangerous to society). Christians are only contending that while others' rights of expression are being protected, the rights of Christians to express their faith and religious views in public (as the Scripture commands us to do) are being grossly violated, even on the most minuscule level. Christians like Barton or Kennedy or Federer are NOT advocating a theocracy -- they have said that they aren't, and the Bible commands us not to speak falsehoods. It is BECAUSE this nation was founded upon Biblical principles (such as "love thy neighbor as thyself") that other religious faiths find tolerance here. America is not a "church/government," and it was never intended to be by our Founders (the Bible does not command any such thing, until Christ comes back to earth). America has a government which relies upon the Christian church to promulgate the Scriptures so that the American people, who are responsible for the success of the constitutional experiment, may understand the source of law and live lives that will preserve the moral infrastructure of our republic. THAT is OUR definition of a Christian nation.

Jonathan said...

On the Holy Trinity decision, as was noted here, they didn't spend 10 years researching the case; that's another one of D. James Kennedy's falsehoods.

As someone noted in the comments to my above linked post: "The first paragraph of the court's opinion states that Holy Trinty and Walpole entered into the contract in Sept. 1887. The Supreme Court issued its opinion on Feb. 29, 1892. Thus, less than 5 years passed from the time of the contract until the court issued this opinion."

I'm sure you've also seriously contemplated the fact that the Supreme Court is capable of getting is drastically wrong. There is nothing infallible about for instance, the Supreme Court's dicta (and I use the word dicta, because that's all it was, whether America is a "Christian Nation" was not the issue or holding in that case) in Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas, so I wonder why, this opinion should be invoked as though it were gospel. This was the same Court which, a few years later, gave us Plessy v. Ferguson.

Holy Trinity pretty clearly got things wrong, as was often the case in the 19th Century.

You may be interested to know Justice Scalia, certainly no secular liberal, discusses this case in his book "A Matter of Interpretation." Because the "Christian Nation" claim was a matter of dicta, he deals with that only tangentially. Rather, he deals with the direct issue -- how court applied the facts to the law in question, i.e., whether the minister's contract violated the federal statute -- and concludes that that decision was a textbook case of piss-poor, activist legal reasoning.

There is a kernel of truth in the "Christian Nation" claim on which I plan on doing more future scholarly explication: Even though the Founders clearly intended to grant rights to "religion" generally, not the Christian religion in particular (indeed, the writings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin undisputably show this to be the case) and indeed, even though they carefully worded the Constitution's text to grant rights to "religion" not "the Christian religion," many in the population, and indeed, even some notable scholars of the time, caught up in paying homage to the hagiographic spirit that ruled the day, did equate "Christianity" with "religion." It's interesting that even the Supreme Court got caught up in the spirit. History, though, proves Holy Trinity court wrong.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Ok. Maybe I am getting the "10 years of research" mixed up with another similar case. But nevertheless, you denounce the Court as wrong because they don't agree with your opinion and your expertise. I agree with you that the Supreme Court can be drastically wrong, but the Court is only wrong when THEY DRASCTICALLY DEPART FROM THE PRECEDENT OUR FOUNDERS SET!!!!! And yet this Court cited previous state court cases and tons of other precedents to support their decisions. Before I accept the ridiculous and prejudiced idea that this decision was erroneous, I want to see a logical explanation of how the precedent that they cited was irrelevant or a crock. I want to see why the much earlier court cases they cited , who ruled the same way this Court did, were also wrong. And BTW, James Kent, whose decision the Court cited, was one of the two fathers of American jurisprudence, with Joseph Story, who was one of Alexander Hamilton's best friends and political allies, who believed that this country was a Christian nation -- NOT A THEOCRACY, but a nation based upon basic Christian principles. On my blog, I shall explain the WHY in more detail in the future.

Jonathan said...

Christians are only contending that while others' rights of expression are being protected, the rights of Christians to express their faith and religious views in public (as the Scripture commands us to do) are being grossly violated, even on the most minuscule level.

I've examined a lot of these claims. Some of them are true (Chrsitians are most likely to have their rights violated on college campuses, and, as a libertarian, I support the work of groups like F.I.R.E. who defend Christians in this regard); but in most other areas of life, many of these complaints like "The War on Christmas," turn out to be hype.

But since you wrote that you want the same rights everyone else has, I'll agree with you: Christians ought to have no greater or no less rights than those of other religions or secular interests. As such, the law should treat Christianity, as a religion, and Christians as individuals no better or worse than Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics.

The "morality" issue raises a whole new can of worms. I'm not going to fall into the trap of saying that "we can't legislate morality," but will note that our Founders' conception of political liberty included, in principle, the unalienable right to commit acts which the Bible forbids, for instance, the right to break the first tablet of the Ten Commandments which must be granted, in order to grant religious liberty to non-Christians. Second, besides that, most Christians ought to agree that even taking into account only Christian lives -- because to "sin" is part of human nature -- a great deal of what the Bible forbids as "immoral" (for instance, gluttony, greed, pride, envy -- all of the seven deadly sins) would be completely impractical to attempt to outlaw in our civil laws.

Jonathan said...

What do you think of the logic in BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CINCINNATI, plaintiff in error, v. MINOR at al. (28 Ohio St. 2ll), which states:

The real claim here is, that by "religion," in this clause of the constitution, is meant "Christian religion," and that by "religious denomination" in the same clause is meant "Christian denomination." If this claim is well founded, I do not see how we can consistently avoid giving a like meaning to the same words and their cognates, "worship," "religious society," "sect," "conscience," "religious belief," throughout the entire section.

[...]

I do not say that such a reading of the sections in question is literally contended for; and yet I see no fair escape from it, if the word "Christianity," or the words "Christian religion," or "the religion of the Bible," are to be interpolated or substituted for the word "religion," at the place indicated.

If, by this generic word "religion," was really meant "the Christian religion," or "Bible religion," why was it not plainly so written?...The same word "religion," and in much the same connection is found on the Constitution of United States. The latter constitution, at least, if not our own also, in a sense, speaks to mankind and speaks to the rights of man. Neither the word "Christianity," "Christian," nor "Bible," is to be found in either. When they speak of "religion," they must mean the religion of man, and not the religion of any class of men. When they speak of "all men" having certain rights, they cannot mean merely "all Christian" men.

Jonathan said...

Re the "precedents" in the Holy Trinity, I have to further examine them, but I'll note off the bat, 1) some of them do not support the "Christian Nation" claim -- the Declaration is cited as key; yet the Declaration contains no explicit Christian language, rather, it is generically theistic; and 2) some of those authorities either pre-date the Founding or [like Ruggles] rely on past common law cases which predate the Founding. This is important because common law contained some principles inconsistent with Founding ideals and America's Founders made clear when there was a dispute, either the Constitution or America's organic law [the laws of nature and nature's God, discover from reason] trumped.

I don't quite agree with how Walter Berns understands Ruggles, but I do agree with his overall analysis of the tension between the "old" common law and the "newer" principles upon which America was founded, and how that tension ought to be resolved:

Liberty of conscience was widely accepted at the time of the Founding, but this did not prevent some jurists and legislatures from insisting, at least for a while (and given our principles it could be only for a while), that Christianity was part of the law, meaning the common law. So it had been in England, and so, it was assumed by some (but not Jefferson), it would continue to be in America. But there was no disagreement about the place of the common law. Indeed one of the first things done by the states after independence was to declare (here in the words of the New Jersey constitution of 1776) that “the common law of England, as well as so much of the statute law, as have been heretofore practiced in this Colony, shall remain in force, until they shall be altered by a future law of the Legislature; such parts only excepted, as are repugnant to the rights and privileges contained in this Charter [or constitution].”

But if the “rights and privileges” contained in the various state charters or constitutions included the right of liberty of conscience, and if, in turn, this right required, in Madison’s words, “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters,” what did it mean to say that Christianity was part of the common law? Very little, as it turned out; and it turned out as it had to turn out. Consider, for example, the case of blasphemy in America…. ("Making Patriots," pp. 32-33.)


Berns then notes how blasphemy laws remained on the books, but in post-Founding America, the judges, in maintaining their consistency with the rights of conscience, had to “redefine the offense” to include utterances against any religion that would tend to cause a breach of the peace. In other words, the policy behind the offense was now to protect the peace, not the Christian or any religion. These state courts had effectively “stripped blasphemy of its religious character.” Leading Berns to ask, rhetorically, “who can quarrel over a blasphemy law that protects one and all [religions] alike”?

But the bottom line of all this is that our founding principles presuppose religious neutrality. And to the extent that old common law decisions contradict this, the common law gets trumped.

Hercules Mulligan said...

In the Ruggles case, which relied upon the idea that our American government and society rested upon the basic principles of Christianity, not necessarily the common law of England. Remember, Hamilton said that an attack upon "the Gospel" and "the Christian revelation" was an attack upon the foundations of "religion, morality, and society."

And as to the common law:

Not only did the common law of Enlgand differ in some respects from the Founders' ideas, but from the Scriptures. Hamilton said in a speech in the case People v. Croswell (1804), concerning the common law:

"No tribunal, no codes, no systems can repeal or impair this law of God, for by His eternal laws it is inherent in the nature of things." (Law Practice, ed. by Julius Goebel 1:821)

The Founders believed that a blatant, public attack upon Christianity should not be treated lightly, because an attack upon Christianity was an attack upon "religion, morality, and society," and therefore threatened the public peace and order.

Jonathan said...

One thing I'll say about the Ruggles case, judge Kent seems to intimate that non-Christian religions are "imposters" and that the law has a duty to protect the Christian, as opposed to other religions. I'm sure many lesser know Founding Fathers believed this, and to tell you the truth, determining what the Founders really believed is such a meticulous task that I'm not sure if anyone knows what they the two hundred and some odd men, as a group, believed in such disputed areas; but I do know in studying what the key Founders -- the men whose faces grace US currency believed -- and it is nothing like Kent's opinion.

They believed "religion" meant all religions and as such the law would equally protect Islam and Hinduism with Christianity. Madison and Jefferson believed it violated natural right for tax dollars to support the Christian religion (or any religion). Washington differed. Yet, because Judaism and Islam -- two religions he mentioned by named -- had equal rights with Christianity, such believers, Washington noted, by right were entitled to exemptions or accomodations from laws which would take their tax dollars to support Christianity.

These Founders indeed seem to go even further than merely believing all religions should be equally protected by the law, but that they all lead to the same God.

But I agree with Walter Berns on this point (Berns by the way, doesn't believe Free Speech was intended to prohibit censorship, but rather prior restraints -- a point with which, I, as a libertarian, strongly differ), that blasphemy laws would only be consistent with our Founders' republican ideals to the extent that they prevent "breaches of the peace" (like fighting words) and not for the purpose of protecting the Christian religion from harm. Indeed, the secular rational for blasphemy laws demands they protect whatever religion -- be it Islam, Buddhism, etc. -- in which the people so happen to believe.

Jonathan said...

I would also caution against exclusively equating Christianity with "religion, morality, and society." Again, no doubt, many in the Founding era population believed exactly this. And certainly, the Christian religion is "included" in the broader rubric of "religion" generally.

But the men who predominantly gave us the republican ideals upon which America was founded believed most if not all world religions, including some extremely surprising ones, were also included in the broad rubric of "religion, morality, and society."

See for instance this publicly published book by John Adams he notes pagan greco-roman worship qualified:

In this preamble he declares, that all those who shall inhabit the city, ought, above all things, to be persuaded that there is a God; and if they elevate their eyes and thoughts towards the heavens, they will be convinced, that the disposition of the heavenly bodies, and the order which reigns in all nature, are not the work of men, nor of chance; that therefore they ought to adore the gods, as the authors of all which life presents us of good and beautiful; that they should hold their souls pure from every vice, because the gods accept neither the prayers, offerings, or sacrifices of the wicked, and are pleased only with the just and beneficent actions of virtuous men. Having thus, in the beginning of his laws, fixed the attention of his fellow-citizens upon piety and wisdom, he ordains, above all things, that there should never be among them any irreconcilable enmity; but, on the contrary, that those animosities which might arise among them, should be only a passage to a sure and sincere reconciliation; and that he who would not submit himself to these sentiments, should be regarded as a savage in a civilized community. The chiefs of his republics ought not to govern with arrogance nor pride; nor should the magistrates be guided in their judgments by hatred nor by friendship.

This preamble, instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration.
[Bold mine.]

Adams is talking about a code that was supposedly revealed by Athena 600 years BC. Likewise, Lycurgus, father of Sparta supposedly descended from your namesake, Hercules.

Hercules Mulligan said...

"I would also caution against exclusively equating Christianity with "religion, morality, and society." Again, no doubt, many in the Founding era population believed exactly this. And certainly, the Christian religion is "included" in the broader rubric of "religion" generally."

If you take the phrase "religion, morality, and society" in the context Hamilton used (he said it in the context of "the Gospel" and "Christian revelation"), then "religion" in Hamilton's definition meant Christianity.

Let me also point out that just because the faces of certain Founders don't appear on our currency doesn't mean that they were "lesser" Founders. There are many other Founders who did much more for formulating our political philosophy than Jefferson and Franklin (and btw, let remind you that the faces on our currency have changed, as you probably well know).

Um, lemme clear up one other misunderstanding. The mythical Hercules is not my namesake; I get my pseudonym from "Hercules Mulligan," an American patriot.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Oop. Forgot to link "Hercules Mulligan" here.

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