Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 3

Before I get started on this next installment, please note that I have tried to arrange the links at the right in a more logical order (Baptist links, peace links, progressive religious links, and other social justice links). I hope that makes more sense of the blog as a whole. I’m still getting the hang of this whole blogging thing.

Okay, I now want to begin working toward contemporary issues of religious pluralism, religious liberty, and church/state separation. Although there have been strains, especially in recent years, I want to argue that the U.S. arrangement codified in the First Amendment, keeping the institutions of government and religion separate while giving as wide a protection to the free exercise of religion (including public expression and political influence), has been a major encouragement to the growth of Christianity and other religions. The U.S. arrangement might be called “benevolent neutrality”–unlike state religions which have involved either national indifference (formalism) or repression of minorities, but also unlike other forms of church/state separation that are more aggressively secularist, such as in France (where they just banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in the public schools) or Turkey (where the army works to keep religious parties out of parliament).

I want to begin to work toward contemporary issues with this post (it’ll take several to plow through them all), but I must pause first to address a claim made by many on the religious right. Many members and leaders of the Religious Right would claim to hold to liberty of conscience and religious liberty, but they argue against its corollary, the separation of church and state (that is, the separation of the institutions of religion and government, separating synagogue and state, mosque and state, etc.) Pat Robertson, for instance, repeatedly says things like, “There was never any intention [by the Constitution’s Framers] that our government be separate from God Almighty.” [“700 Club” broadcast 19 July 2005.] Or take Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Right’s American Center for Law and Justice (based at Regent University), “The fact is the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not found in the U.S. Constitution. . .” Ministry Magazine, Fall 2004. Likewise Jerry Falwell, elder statesman of the Religious Right, claims, “Separation of Church and State has long been a battle cry of civil libertarians wishing to purge our glorious Christian heritage from our nation’s history. Of course, the term never once appears in our Constitution and is a modern fabrication of discrimination.” [Falwell Fax, 10 April 1998.] Such examples could be repeated endlessly.

I answer, it is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. That hardly means that the concept is missing. The phrases “separation of powers,” or “checks and balances” don’t appear in the Constitution either, but few legal scholars (with the exception of John Yoo and other “unitary executive” nuts whose reasoning was just rejected by our very conservative Supreme Court–and if you can’t get a rightwing idea to fly with THIS, Supreme Court, probably the most conservative since the 19th C., you might as well hang it up) would say that those concepts are not central to our Constitution’s concept of us as a democratic republic. The phrase “separation of church and state” has, indeed, been a battle cry for civil libertarians, but its origins are not recent. The first use of the phrase in U.S. history was by old Roger Williams, himself, who warned that if people worked to create a gap or hole “in the hedge or wall between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” then God would allow the wilderness to take over the church’s garden completely. (1650). One then finds the phrase again in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, CT where Jefferson (the Deist) says that he shares with the Danbury Baptists a “sovereign reverence” for the wall of separation between church and state. Likewise, James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment), wrote in 1819 in a letter to Robert Walsh, that both the number of churches, their liveliness, and the morality and devotion of their members has been “manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.” Even the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville whose observations on the U.S. form one of the roots of the discipline of sociology, and who is often cited by conservatives AGAINST church/state separation, wrote in the mid-19th C. that everyone he met in America was agreed that the reason why the nation was so religious “was the complete separation of church and state.”

Toqueville, as a practicing Catholic, especially interviewed Catholic priests in the U.S. on the topic. Now, today, Catholics make up a plurality, if not an outright majority of the U.S. population (at least, they are the largest religious group). But this was not true in Toqueville’s day–indeed, not until after WWII. This was still “Protestant America” in terms of numbers of believers, and Catholics were seen by most in negative terms. Nevertheless, American Catholics, both priests and laity, all told Toqueville that it was America’s church-state separation which allowed faith to so influence the nation and for various religions to flourish in relative peace with each other–unlike the religious wars of Europe and the empty churches which resulted from people’s disgust with such religious wars. So, while the phrase, “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it is very clear that the concept is there and the “battle cry of civil libertarians” was there throughout U.S. history.

Conservatives also often claim that the “no establishment” clause only ruled out a national church, in the way that the Church of England (what the rest of the world calls Anglicans or Episcopalians) is the national church of England, Presbyterians are the national Church of Scotland, or Lutherans the state church of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc., and Roman Catholicism, the state church of most of Latin America, much of Africa, and much of Europe. The U.S. doesn’t collect taxes to support a national church and doesn’t repress or politically punish those who are members of some other church, but we are, in this view still a Christian nation.

No, we are a nation whose majority consider themselves Christian and a nation in which Christian groups (e.g., the Puritans of New England) have played a major part in shaping our history and institutions. But, our government, has been intentionally secular from the beginning. (Whether or not our society is secular is up to the people and however much influence churches or other religious groups can bring–government as government can have no role in promoting either religion or secularism.) Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says that there will be NO religious test for public office. Our office holders have included every stripe of Christian, Jews, Muslims (though I don’t think any Muslims have yet been elected to Congress), 2 Unitarians have been U.S. President (John Adams and John Quincy Adams), some who joined no church (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, who beat the popular Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright for the office of President), and doubtless much else. The only thing stopping an atheist from a successful run for U.S. President would be public opinion, but there is no LEGAL bar to the office. The oath of office for the presidency does not have to be sworn on a Bible, nor are the words “so help me God” part of the official oath–both were innovations thought up on the spur of the moment by George Washington at his inauguration. In the 1796-97 Treaty of Tripoli, by which the U.S. made peace with Muslims in Libya at the end of George Washington’s presidency (and the treaty was ratified under John Adams’ presidency), Art. XI assures the citizens of Tripoli and the Barbary Coast that they need not fear a religious war with the U.S. since “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” (The Treaty was read aloud on the Senate floor and each senator got a copy and it was passed without any controversy, meaning that, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th C., the idea that ours was NOT a Christian nation, was not controversial.)

Government may not promote religion through tax credits for religious schools (parochaid), tax money for faith-based charities in which spreading the religion of the charity is a vital part of the charity’s mission (and when Bush’s “faith based initiatives” are ruled unconstitutional, as they will be either in this or a later court, those faith based charities that have begun to rely on government money will be hurting), or religious instruction in the public schools. (One can teach ABOUT religion in the public schools, even have courses in comparative religion, but not teach that any religion is true or that religious belief is preferable to lack of belief.)

If churches, synagogues, or other religious groups wish to influence public policy, they need to be able to offer reasons other than “my Bible tells me so.” In my next post, I will try to outline the religious liberty dimensions of the abortion debate (without debating the rights and wrongs of abortion itself). For now, I want to affirm the Supreme Court’s decisions in the early 1960s that banned organized, mandatory, teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools. This does not prevent students from reading Bibles in their free time, praying over their lunch or before tests (as long as they are not disturbing others) or gathering before or after class for “meet me at the pole” prayer meetings. IF schools allow non-curriculur after school clubs (e.g., The Young Republicans or Young Democrats, Key Club, etc.), then they must allow religious clubs on the same non-partisan basis (e.g., Young Life, Youth for Christ, or, for that matter, “Future Jewish Leaders” “Young Muslims,” or “Wild Wiccans” if such clubs were to form). The problem with teachers leading these activities is that they are agents of the government. But my public high school had an advanced English course which I took which spent one semester on Greek, Roman, and Norse Mythology and another semester on “The Bible as Literature.” There was also an elective on biblical history. Such courses are perfectly constitutional as long as taught in an objective manner, like any other subject matter.

The Theory of Intelligent Design could be a valid topic in a philosophy course, but, since it is not a scientific theory, putting it in science textbooks is wrong–it is promoting religious belief disguised as scientific instruction.

This post has become too long, but the preliminaries are over, now, and we can begin to get to some of the contemporary applications that many of you have asked about from the beginning.


June 30, 2006 Posted by | religious liberty | Comments Off on Liberty of Conscience, pt. 3

Liberty of Conscience, pt. 2

The word “conscience” comes from the Latin meaning “to know together,” which points to the truth that our deepest convictions (religious, political, etc.) are seldom simply a product of isolated reasoning or navel gazing. We usually come to our convictions in community–as a child of a particular family, living in a particular village, as part of a particular culture, going to a particular church (temple, mosque, synagogue, etc.). But if our convictions are truly ours, we have to be able to mentally distinguish ourselves from our context enough to reflect on our convictions and claim them. When we do this, we sometimes (often?) find ourselves modifying (slightly or more than slightly) one or more of the convictions of our family or village, etc.

Sometimes the change is so great that it amounts to a conversion (religious or otherwise) and this can either (a) draw us deeper into the community, maybe even bringing us to a position of leadership, (b) push us to the margins of the community as we are still recognized as “one of us, but a bit odd,” (c) send us to a different but related community which houses a different strand of our tradition(s) (recognized by us as spiritually or politically or philosophically related, but no longer immediate “family,”), or (d) remove us from the home community entirely–either to join another or to remain isolated and outside–a stranger in a strange land.

The principle of “liberty of conscience” recognizes that beliefs cannot be imposed from without–and should not be. Let us take religious convictions as our primary example: Any faith that is authentic, must be free. Attempts to impose faith by physical force either result in religious wars or in hypocrisy as nonbelievers in whatever is the ruling orthodoxy pretend to views they do not hold in order to avoid persecution. As Overton and other early modern defenders of liberty of conscience pointed out, Jesus did not, in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) command the making of disciples from all nations by means of coercion, but by teaching–leaving the conscience free to accept or reject the truth presented. This was a departure from the Medieval view that “error has no rights.”

One reason that religious faith has flourished so much in the U.S. compared to Europe has been the legalization of this view in the First Amendment, denying any law even respecting an establishment of religion, and protecting the free exercise of all religious views? Are there any limits to this? Only where the common good would be threatened. Thus, one can believe all one wants to that one’s god demands human sacrifice, but any attempt to put it into practice will run afoul of laws against murder and the courts will not accept the First Amendment as a defense.

That one is an easy call, but other cases it is harder to weigh the common good against religious practice: The State of Florida tried to outlaw animal sacrifices, particularly chickens, but since poultry may be killed for food or other purposes, the Supreme Court decided (rightly in my view) that the law was deliberately trying to stamp out the religion of Santeria (a Carribbean import that combines elements from African traditional religions, Native American traditions, and popular/unofficial Roman Catholicism) and thus was an unconstitutional violation of the free exercise clause. In any case where the state feels compelled to constrict the conscience of any individual or group, it must show that the public is harmed–not merely inconvenienced or, as in this case, revolted.

Another difficult example was the Mormon practice of polygamy. (This is no longer official teaching by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but many Mormons continue to practice polygamy in secret in Utah and surrounding states. The Reorganized Church of JC of LDS–recently renamed the Community of Christ–which claims to be the original church and is headquartered in Missouri, has never accepted polygamy.) Clearly the practice of multiple wives offended the majority culture (including me), but did it harm society? I find this a very tough call. There is some evidence that the 19th C. Mormons pressured young girls into these marriages at ages that would now be illegal, but no younger than many girls of the day were married off. (It is worth remembering that, for most of history, including biblical history, girls were married as soon after the onset of puberty as their menstrual cycles were regular!!) There is no reliable evidence that spouse or child abuse happened in polygamous Mormon households more often than in other households. I find polygamy offensive–it grates against my understanding of the marriage covenant, but it was practiced throughout the Bible and never condemned in any Scripture I can name. Even if I could demonstrate that Scripture condemns such marriages ( the closest text may be 1 Tim. 3:12 if “husband of one wife” is not a condemnation of allowing divorced men to be deacons but of allowing men with multiple wives to so serve), I do not think my conscience should rule others–unless harm could be proved.

If this sounds strange, I contend that it is the same strong view of liberty of conscience that was held by early Baptists, Quakers and some others. They defended the liberty of conscience of people with whom they disagreed–and sometimes disliked very strongly. Thus, Thomas Helwys, pastor of the first Baptist congregation on English soil wrote in 1615 to defend Catholics from persecution by King James I (yes, that King James). He didn’t like Catholics. Like most Protestants of his day, he considered them idol worshippers rather than true Christians and called them by the slur-word “papists.” But, he told King James I that he had no right to rule over Catholic consciences than he did over “ours,” “and that is none at all!” The King is a mortal man and not God, said Helwys, and therefore hath no authority over the conscience.

Likewise Roger Williams, briefly a Baptist and then a Seeker, defended the liberty of conscience of Catholics, Jews, Turks (a slur-word meaning Muslims), and pagans (probably referring to the Native Americans). He couldn’t stand Quakers whom he considered both irrational and very unbiblical, but he defended their religious liberty and Rhode Island was a safe haven for Quakers. Did Williams not think the gospel should be defended? Only using spiritual weapons, he replied. (This may be why the Roger who commented on part 1 thinks that spiritual warfare is germane to this topic.) So, he constantly challenged Quakers to public debate–he attempted to persuade them that they were wrong. (If polygamy were practiced in this country and I could not find a real public harm to justify seeking its outlawry, I would still work to persuade those who practiced it to give the practice up.)

The Virginian Baptist John Leland, who worked hard to get both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to push for a Bill of Rights that included religious liberty, even defended the rights of witches. Make no mistake. In the 18th C. of Leland, no one thought of “Wiccans” as weird but harmless new agers with a minority religion. They were believed to be in league with the powers of darkness and able to inflict real harm through spells on their neighbors. Leland believed that if any so-called witch could be found guilty of harm to neighbors, they should be punished for that–but not for their non-Christian beliefs.

Roger Williams argued the case by dividing the Ten Commandments into two sections or tables. Table 1 consisted of duties to God. The government was NEVER to be in charge of enforcing anyone’s idea of what duties were owed God–including belief in one God, many gods, or no god. That was between an individual and her conscience–even God would only use persuasion and not coercion. But the 2nd table of the Law, with duties owed between humans, could be enforced. (Yes, even laws against adultery could be theoretically enforceable, but the wisdom of doing so would lessen as the community or nation became even more pluralistic.)

End, pt. 2 because of length. More to come.

June 30, 2006 Posted by | religious liberty | 3 Comments