Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Roman Baptists & Danbury Catholics

I want to comment on the Charleston, SC shooting and the related Confederate flag controversy, but that will require a longer post. Instead, as a place holder, I am writing a post on the religious right.

Conservatives work very hard to ignore or misconstrue historical documents that contradict them. One that "strict constructionists" cannot honestly grapple with is Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he spoke of the wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Conservatives ignore (or don't know about) two highly ironic facts about the exchange's historical context.

First is the fact that Baptists were always all about keeping religion between the individual and God. It is a liberal principle to be sure - which is why Jefferson was agreeing with them - but it is also a bedrock Baptist principle that many Baptists had unfortunately forgotten. It goes back to the origin of their sect. Under Henry VIII, England broke from the Catholic Church in 1534 and formed the Anglican Church. But for many English Protestants, the Anglican Church still had too many leftover Catholic trappings so they formed their own splinter sects. Since the Anglican Church is a state church, with the English monarch at its head in place of the pope, the English government began stamping out such heresy.

Which brings us to the second ironic fact. The Danbury Baptists were writing to Thomas Jefferson because they feared for their religious freedom. They were then still a minority and they were worried about their rights. In his reply, Jefferson was saying that their belief aligned with his and clarified that this liberal constitutional principle defended their rights. Thus, the Danbury Baptists wrote Thomas Jefferson for two inter-related reasons that conservatives overlook.

Do you object to my using the word liberal? Well, then let me show you a similar exchange of letters between revolutionary era Roman Catholics and George Washington. Just like the Danbury Baptists, these Catholics wrote George Washington with the same concern. Maryland, you may remember, was founded to be a haven for persecuted English Catholics just as Pennsylvania was founded as a haven for Quakers. Washington wrote back, assuring them that rising liberalism would protect their rights:

As mankind become[s] more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.

Conservatives say that the establishment clause was only meant to protect religion from government - not to protect government from religion. Basically, they argue that the wall of separation has a one-way door in it. It is an absurd argument because once any religion gets a hold of government, the door will open the other way. That is both obvious and undeniable. As James Madison asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion to all other sects?”

Today, both Catholics and Protestants have been free from persecution for quite some time. In fact, the conservative ones have joined forces to legislate where they think their religions overlap - to the injury of liberal Christians, atheists, and people of other faiths such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Of course, this ecumenical enterprise does not include feeding the poor, turning the other cheek, or refraining from throwing the first stone. They legislate their morality oblivious to any irony, hypocrisy, or history - all of which are obvious to everyone else. As Ben Franklin remarked, "If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution."  The difference is today they can be both at the same time by claiming that Christians are oppressed in America.

Of course, big tent conservative Christianity is nothing new. It has tried to subvert secularism in America from day one. Thomas Jefferson illustrated this in his Autobiography where he discussed the passage of Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom:

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 [sic] and Infidel of every denomination.

-  Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 1:67.

This is what America was always meant to be and conservatives have often sabotaged and postponed it. Our constitution is full of safeguards designed to protect us from ourselves - from our foolishness, forgetfulness, hypocrisy, and tyrannic tendencies. The establishment clause should be the most obvious safeguard of all.

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