Two hundred and
seven six years ago, three members of the Danbury Baptists Association composed a letter to President Thomas Jefferson regarding religious discrimination in the state of Connecticut. Connecticut had established Congregationalism as the official state religion, and the Congregational Church was supported by state taxes. Connecticut law provided that people of other faiths could file exemptions to have their religious taxes routed to their own churches, but the exemptions often were not approved.
Some background: In 1801 Connecticut had not yet adopted a written state constitution, but instead was operating under a government derived from its old colonial charter, received from King Charles II in 1662. Charles’s policies were more tolerant of religious diversity than was often the case in those days, but religious establishment, politics, and government were tightly knotted together in Britain, as illustrated by the history of the Puritans. Charles’s charter assumed the colonists would work diligently to convert the “Natives of the Country to the Knowledge and Obedience of the only true GOD, and He Saviour of Mankind, and the Christian Faith, which in Our Royal Intentions, and the adventurers free Possession, is the only and principal End of this Plantation.”
The Bill of Rights had been adopted in 1791, but the First Amendment prohibited only the Congress of the United States from establishing religion. It would be many years before the Fourteenth Amendment extended this prohibition to the states.
Anyway, the Danbury Baptists were pretty fed up with religious discrimination in Connecticut, so they wrote to President Jefferson:
Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty–that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals–that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors;
“The legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors.” That’s a point we might want to discuss sometime.
But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.
I included the historical background about the charter because some right-wing religious historical revisionists have claimed that the “ancient charter” the Danbury Baptists referred to was the U.S. Constitution, even though the Constitution was hardly ancient at the time and had not even been written, much less “adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution.” The revisionists try to claim that the Baptists were OK with government getting entangled with religion as long as it did so in a non-preferential way.
But that’s bogus. The Baptists continued,
It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men–should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.
Jefferson famously wrote back in 1802:
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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
What this exchange amounted to was that the Danbury Baptists wrote Jefferson complaining about legislators in Connecticut who “assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ,” and asking for his assurance that the feds wouldn’t do the same thing. And Jefferson wrote back saying, damn straight we won’t, because the First Amendment doesn’t allow it.
So now it’s more than two centuries later, and some Americans are still struggling to wrap their heads around the idea that government may not be used to enforce or coerce religious beliefs and practices, and that a person’s religion ain’t none of the Gubmint’s damn business. Such a person is U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) who sent a letter to constituents
… warning that unless there is an immigration crackdown “many more Muslims” will be elected to public office. And these Muslims, Goode noted, would take the oath of office with a hand resting on the Koran. In a December 7 letter, a copy of which you’ll find below, the Republican congressman warned that if “American citizens don’t wake up” and adopt the “Virgil Goode position on immigration,” there will “likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”
The Congressman actually wrote,
I fear that in the next century there will be many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.
Alan Dershowitz writes about a Jew, Jacob Henry, who was elected to the North Carolina state legislature in 1808 but was blocked from taking his seat because of a state law that required legislators to accept the divinity of Christ. And now almost two centuries later another Jew, Dennis Prager, is leading a campaign to keep a Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from being sworn in on a Koran.
As they say — the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I already wrote about Dennis Prager and how he hates America, here. Since then I’ve heard from a number of people that U.S. Representatives don’t put their hands on anything when they are being officially sworn in, but sometimes pose with Bibles at photo-op swearings-in at another time. So this whole swearing-in controversy is bogus on several levels.
(However, during my recent detention at the Westchester County Supreme Court as a jurist for the Dumbest Trial of the Century, I observed a whole lot of swearing-in of witnesses on the Bible, and I have some thoughts about that I want to put into another post soon. And since two of our new congress critters are Buddhists, I want to explain why the practice of swearing on sacred books of any sort is problematic for Buddhists.)
I’m pleased to report that not everyone on the Right agrees with Rep. Goode’s letter. For example, blogger Rick Moran of Right Wing Nut House wrote,
But beyond the shameless, shallow pandering by Goode is a revealed truth; that too often Republican politicians are using this â€œtraditional valuesâ€ theme to capitalize on some unimagined fear as in the case of Goode and his phantom Muslims. We also see other individual groups like gays targeted as somehow being in conflict with traditional American values â€“ as if these values are practiced by people solely as a result of their religion, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, or any other qualifier that a politician seeks to use to drive a wedge between us….
…Iâ€™m all for controlling our borders. Iâ€™m all for enforcing the law. But I am also in favor of increasing legal immigration. If someone wishes to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole that it takes to get here legally and then work toward citizenship, that alone should denote a personâ€™s interest in the â€œtraditional valuesâ€ of America. There are plenty of Muslims here today â€“ second and third generation Muslims â€“ who embrace the same values you and I do and are no more a threat to those values than my pet cat Snowball.
For Goode to posit the notion that Muslims are incapable of adopting and embracing traditional values not only flies in the face of history and everything we know about immigrants but also bespeaks a shallow and corrupt mind, incapable of grasping the shining truth about America as a melting pot that embraces all cultures and ethnic groups.
And that may be the most traditional of all American values.
Probably the last thing Mr. Moran wants is praise from me, but I’ll say it, anyway … Amen.
On the other hand, there are plenty of righties who live down to our expectations. The blogger of Riehl World View writes,
Founded, to a degree by Deists, or not – American tradition and the root of her social values is Judeo-Christian belief. That is a fact and no amount of protestation is going to change it. Though certainly a large influx of, say a Muslim or Hindu population most certainly would.
Which takes us back to Mr. Jefferson, who wrote in his autobiography of the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. 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 the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.
Heh. But blogger Riehl is less worried about religious liberty and inalienable rights than he is about preserving our “social values.” The fact is that our “social values” have already changed enormously since Jefferson’s time — slaves were freed, women got the vote, the Irish became respectable, etc. If we could go fetch Mr. Jefferson in a time machine and bring him here, he’d be shocked out of his stockings. So many of the social values of Jefferson’s time have disappeared that the nation would be as alien to Mr. Jefferson as Mars. And social values will continue to change whether large numbers of Muslims move to America or not, because that’s the nature of human society.
That said, I would insist that Muslims or anyone else who move here be advised of the Wall of Separation and warned not to try to tear it down. It protects us all from the likes of Rep. Goode.