Every Dollar Matters

U.S. Constitution and Religion, Christianity and the Constitution

image

I made this a web page instead of a blog entry as I wanted to go into greater depth on the subject than one can typically do in a blog. I wish to cover three general areas:

  1. What the Constitution actually says about Christianity and about Religion.
  2. What the Framers of the Constitution and those in power and influence said about Christianity and about Religion.
  3. Provide some context surrounding religion and politics during that general period of time.

I will then do my best to tie it all together and draw some conclusions, ask some questions. As always you should feel free to formulate your own views and explore the subject in even greater detail.

What the Constitution actually says about Christianity and about Religion?

What the Constitution actually says about Christianity?

Not a damn thing. The word is never used. Given that most of the Framers and leaders of the day were members of some branch of Christianity this in itself is quite telling.

What the Constitution actually says about Religion?

There are two references. One which is often quoted, one that is more obscure.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

... and ...

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

What I find interesting is that one seems to be protecting our religous freedoms from the government. The other, seems to be trying to protect our elected officials from religion. When considered together they would seem to form the basis for the separation of "Church and State." Typically, only the former is referenced in debate over whether the framers meant for separation of government from religion and vice-versa.

What the Framers of the Constitution and those in power and influence said about Christianity and about Religion?

While I will add some brief commentary at the end, my goal here is to give you a rather rich cross-section of quotes to work with

As it is a tendency to only provide data that supports our individual point of view, I really want to be as unbias as I can here, though I confess I certainly do have an opinion on this matter.

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen..." -Treaty of Tripoli Article 11 (Signed by President John Adams and members of Congress)

image

Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. -John Adams, Letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State." -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, January 1st 1802

image

"Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites." -Thomas Jefferson, Note on Virginia

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution." -James Madison, April 1st, 1774

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself -- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty." - Chief Joseph, Chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians, Lincoln Hall Speech, Washington, DC January 14, 1879 Lincoln Hall Speech, Washington, DC (January 14, 1879)

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself -- and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty." - Chief Joseph, Chief of the Wallowa band of Nez Perce Indians, Lincoln Hall Speech, Washington, DC January 14, 1879 Lincoln Hall Speech, Washington, DC (January 14, 1879)

"Because finally, 'the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience' is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the 'Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government,' it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis." James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance, Section 15, 1785

"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes" -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to von Humboldt, 1813

"...At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, not any one sect. Any attempt to level and discard all religion would have been viewed with universal indignation." -James Meacham, U.S. Representative from Vermont, 1849-56, Congregational minister, House Committee on the Judiciary (3/27/1854)

"I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, 1781.

"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We've staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity...to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God." -James Madison, 1778 to the General Assembly of the State of Virginia

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own" -Thomas Jefferson, Letter to H. Spafford, 1814.

"Christianity is part of the common law" - James Wilson, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice appointed by George Washington, Course of Lectures [vol 3, p.122]; and quoted in Updegraph v. The Commonwealth, 11 Serg, & R. 393, 403 (1824)

"The Law given from Sinai [The Ten Commandments] was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code." - John Quincy Adams. Letters to his son. p. 61

The politicians of the day were all over the map when it came to religion. Some even seemed to contradict themselves. Of course, we must keep in mind they were politicians.

Context surrounding religion and politics in England during the period leading up to the time the Constitution was written

We like to look at the past through the lens of our world today. We also like to take things out of context to support our positions. During that time period there was a great deal of religious persecution. There still is a great deal of religious persectution going on today, but that is a different matter.

Here are some events during that time period to put things in perspective for you.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ogilvie_(saint)

This ministry was to last less than a year. In 1614, he was betrayed and arrested in Glasgow and taken to gaol in Paisley. He suffered terrible tortures, including being kept awake for eight days and nine nights, in an attempt to make him divulge the identities of other Roman Catholics. Nonetheless, Ogilvie did not relent; consequently, due to his crime of being a traitor, he was convicted of high treason for refusing to accept the King's spiritual jurisdiction. On 10 March 1615, aged thirty-six years, he was paraded through the streets of Glasgow and hanged and disembowelled, according to the penalty of the time, at Glasgow Cross.

source: John Coffey (2000), Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689, Studies in modern History, Pearson Education

page 26.

More than 300 Roman Catholics were put to death by English governments between 1535 and 1681 for treason, thus for secular than religious offenses

p 85

In 1570, Pope Pius V had issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, which absolved Catholics from their obligations to the government.[13] This dramatically worsened the situation of the Catholics in England.

p 92

Mary I had been motivated by a religious zeal to purge heresy from her and, and during her short reign from 1553 to 1558 about 290 Protestants had been burned at the stake for heresy

source: Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 22.

Religious freedom slowly and painfully made progress through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The "Act of Toleration" of 1689 preserved the privileges and unique status of the Church of England, but it brought an end to the long and unhappy history of some of the bloodiest forms of religious persecution--the impact of which was not lost on those English Puritans, transplanted into the colonies of the "new world," who ruled and watched, "between 1658 and 1661, when . . . Massachusetts hanged four Quakers."

A few words in conclusion

The constitution has little to say regarding religion. What it does say seems pretty clear. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." We, the people, are free to exercise our religious freedom. The statement does not mention a denomination or particular religion. If we can agree that our founders had a good historical sense of religous persecution in their day, and that a majority of their constituents were men and woman of faith we can conclude that their words in the constitution we measured and sought to ensure a clear seperation of church and state.

Of course Congress violated the constitution when they allowed churches tax-free status. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Also, this statement can me interpreted a couple of ways.

One, if could be interpreted to mean that Congress will not establish a state religion. This is certainly a plausible explanation given the roles of England in religion during their time. If this is the accepted interpretation, then clearly there was a desire to seperate church from government.

Or, it could be read to mean that Congress will not involve itself in making laws pertaining to a religous establishment. If we accept this interpretation how can certain churches enjoy tax-free status when Congress has not defined what constitutes a religion?

They may well have meant both! The last part of the statement "... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." would seem to make this case. And, if this is not enough for you, the clincher comes in the other reference to religion in our constitution with respect to elected officials.

"but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Why would a group of men, most claiming to be Christian, add such language to our constitution?

When pundants claim that our nation was founded on Christian principles I would contend that the historical record certainly can be used to prove such a statement. The real questions regarding the framers of the constitutions are...

If most were Christians, and most religions in America during their time were some denomination or form of Christianity why did they choose not to use the term Chritianity in the Constitution?

Why is the only language pertaining to religion clearly focused on a) religous freedom; b) separation of church and state?

Freedom of anything always comes at a price. We want to be free, and we want others to be free as long as it subscribes to our definition of freedom. The Glenn Becks of the world would like you to believe that freedom of religion and freedom in general comes only if you subscribe to their definition of freedom as they percieved it defined in the constitution. Yet, they seem to always be a bit short on actually quoting our constitution. And, when I pull out the Constitution and read it what I invariably find is that the Constitution either has nothing, or something quite contrary to say on the matter.