Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Church and State and all that

Image hosted by Everyone is talking about Church and State these days. Is America a secular nation, imperiled by a new breed of religious radical? Or is our proud religious and Christian tradition under assault from an unprecedented liberal, anti-religious agenda? As the above straw men make clear, neither is true. This is a nation founded by and composed of mostly religious Christians, yet with a deeply secular governing tradition. Forces promoting and opposed to religion, and promoting and opposed to the mingling of church and state, have been battling for the past two centuries. These latest kerfuffles are pretty mild in the context of the controversies that have riven the nation before. An early debate in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 was whether and how a religious oath should be required of national leaders. The Massachusetts Constitution extended the equal protection of the law, and right to hold office, to any Christian (though Catholics had to swear to renounce papal authority "in any matter, civil, ecclesiastical or spiritual.") The 1777 New York Constitution implicitly permitted Judaism, but required immigrating Catholics to renounce papal authority, and prohibited Catholics from holding office. The 1776 Maryland Constitution extended "protection in their religious liberty" to "all persons professing the Christian religion" but not Jews or deists. Only Virginia's constitution established complete freedom of religious opinions and belief, and explicitly separated civil duties from religion. So it was a matter of some controversy that the Constitutional Congress modeled the federal constitution after Virginia's, explicitly stating in Article VI that federal officials "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." In 1794, Thomas Paine, popularizer of the American Revolution, wrote The Age of Reason, a treatise on religion. While he disavowed atheism, he embraced a deist worldview and viciously attacked Christianity and clericalism of all stripes. This did not make him a popular man in America. The book was written in a French jail (where Paine sat because he rejected the overzealous heights of the French Revolution), and Paine stayed in France until 1802. He returned at the personal invitation of Thomas Jefferson, who had been elected president in 1800. Jefferson himself was not a Christian — he wrote, but declined to publish, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a version of the New Testament with all miracles and theology removed. Paine's reputation as a radical and anti-Christian preceded him; Jefferson came under furious attack from Federalists for his invitation:
If, during the present season of national abasement, infatuation, folly, and vice, any portent could surprise, sober men would be utterly confounded by an article current in all our newspapers, that the loathesome Thomas Paine, a drunken atheist and the scavenger of faction, is invited to return in a national ship to America by the first magistrate of a free people. A measure so enormously preposterous we cannot yet believe has been adopted, and it would demand firmer nerves than those possessed by Mr. Jefferson to hazard such an insult to the moral sense of the nation. If that rebel rascal should come to preach from his Bible to our populace, it would be time for every honest and insulted man of dignity to flee to some Zoar as from another Sodom, to shake off the very dust of his feet and to abandon America.
Makes Tom Delay look positively civil. (source: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby)


Post a Comment

<< Home