Inalienable Rights

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 “traditional values” 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 – 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….

…I’m all for controlling our borders. I’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 person’s interest in the “traditional values” of America. There are plenty of Muslims here today – second and third generation Muslims – 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.

21 thoughts on “Inalienable Rights

  1. I don’t know what he’s worried about … it’s not like they’re going to put up statues of Mohammed.

  2. Speaking about preserving our social values.. we have leagalize torture, and we condone it through our silence.

    the Irish became respectable…. 🙂 The Volstead act?

  3. Which two?

    “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.)”

  4. There is a curious conundrum about the holy book hysteria. Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that our representatives are actually sworn in with their hands on a book. If I understand the “reasoning” of Prager et al, a person who does not hold the Bible to be sacred should none the less lay his hand on it when he takes an oath. To my mind, there are only two ways to read that: either it’s a religious test, or it’s a meaningless gesture. Meaningless because, if you don’t believe in the holiness of the book you lay your hand on when you swear, the gesture adds no force to the oath, and may even trivialize someone else’s belief in the book’s sacredness. The idea of swearing on a book one holds sacred is tied up in notions of blasphemy, serious religious stuff. If it’s just about tradition and not belief, then what’s the point?

    That just leaves us with a religious test. I guess that’s fine, unless someone knows of some kind of specific rule against it somewhere in the crazy arcana of American law. Maybe I should google it to be sure.

  5. There is indeed a bar on any religious test — in the Constitution itself (Article VI):
    “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
    Cannot get much more specific than that. So a yahoo like Goode, who has taken oaths (presumably on a Bible) to defend the Constitution (both as a state and federal elected official and as a lawyer) either is knowingly kicking the Constitution in the crotch or is dumber than a sack of hammers and should not have been given a driver license, much less a law license. (Sob! He went to U. Va. law school, too. Mr. Jefferson must be spinning faster than a neutron star.)
    One quibble, Maha: (And not about my Irish side) It is not the nature of just any society to have social evolution. Arch-conservative societies (the Maya maybe?) freeze in place until revolution from without or within changes them as violently as a temblor when the very plates of the planet discharge the force built up along a fault. It is free societies, such as the one we are trying to preserve, that have the ability to evolve. Authoritarian societies do not allow it as long as they can prevent it. And authoritarian societies based on religion have been pretty good at preventing it for 10,000 years.

  6. Once a long time ago when I was little and living among those of my faith I thought it was important that I bring the good news of my faith to others. It was hard for me to believe that once the news was received the others would not quickly accept my faith. I never had much of an opportunity to do this until I entered the Marines and interacted with many with differing beliefs. What a surprise to find others had as much belief in their faith as I had in mine. Quickly I recognized that what one person believes is his or her business and what I believe is mine. I no more wanted them to tell me what to believe than they wanted me. Hell, I realized it was so simple. What they believed did not interfere with my belief nor did mine their’s. That is what the Founding Fathers recognized and what history taught them. Things have changed in the 200 years plus since those days and one can only be pleased that Representatives Goode and Prager were not involved in the writing of the Constitution. Good article.

  7. It’s interesting to me that we’ve found some agreement with Rick Moran on this issue. I’ve had conversations with some GOP family members who are likewise alarmed at how the “religious enthusiasts” have taken over their party. There’s an opening here, a chance to dialogue and maybe to begin to work together with a faction of our American family who’ve been alienated from each other for quite awhile.

  8. Please, everyone check their religion at the door.

    Mahablog is a religion-friendly blog, so long as no one tries to prosyltize.

  9. It is not the nature of just any society to have social evolution. Arch-conservative societies (the Maya maybe?) freeze in place until revolution from without or within changes them as violently as a temblor when the very plates of the planet discharge the force built up along a fault.

    That’s true to an extent, but I think your example proves my point — that if a society tries to halt the natural evolution of society it can do so for a time, but eventally the society will either stagnate, implode, or be overrun.

    And authoritarian societies based on religion have been pretty good at preventing it for 10,000 years.

    Nah, not that long. Not even Confucian China kept it going that long, and it probably has the record.

  10. By the way, speaking here as a Charlottesvillian, you should know that Jefferson died broke, victim of ways so irresponsible that he, unlike Washington, could not provide for the liberty of his slaves because they were collateral for his defaulted debts. He escaped being evicted from Monticello only because no creditor would bear the public outrage. After Jefferson’s death in 1826, Monticello was purchased in 1831by a druggist intent on turning it into a mulberry plantation and who held no particular interest in it as a historic home. Then, it was bought from him in 1836 by Uriah Levy, who did so with the intention of preserving it purely on account of Jefferson’s championship of religious liberty, grateful to be a naval officer in a republic that could not officially hold his Jewish heritage and faith against him. Eventually, his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, would sell the property to the foundation that keeps it today. As for Washington himself:

    “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

    “It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

    -Pres. George Washington, Letter to the Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel (Touro Synagogue), Newport, Rhode Island, 1790

    Damn. There was a Virginian.

  11. You are right as usual, Maha. I should have said that “Over the past 10,000 years, authoritarian societies using religion as their chief hold over the masses, have generally managed to hold on the longest.” Egypt. Mesopotamia. Various Hindu states. Pre-Christian China. Japan. Maya, Aztec, Inca et al, in the New World. Christian Europe before the Reformation (and Renaissance). Tsarist Russia. And, since Muhammed, virtually every Koranic nation. Greece, republican Rome, Great Britan after Henry VIII, America after the Revolution, France after the revolution, Russian after the revolution, tend to be able to evolve (sometimes in even more awful directions), but evolve nonetheless. That was the point I was attempting to make. Religion, particularly dogmatic (and often monotheistic religion) tends to keep a society in stasis, or so it seems.
    By-the-by, if someone should ask you what the sound of one hand clapping is, slap him/her in the face.

  12. By-the-by, if someone should ask you what the sound of one hand clapping is, slap him/her in the face.

    There’s a better answer that I got from an actual Zen monk — hold up one hand and “clap” by smacking your fingertips into your palm. Do this with a straight face. It’s not the answer to the koan, of course.

  13. I don’t know why it is so hard for RightWingAuthoritarians to grasp the concept of a “secular state,” but it is. Partly because of the propaganda they are being fed by a bunch of demagogues — it’s like the Nation has bred a thousand Father Coughlins — some Americans who yearn for a return to some fantasized Golden Age when All Was Right With the World glom on to the prattlings of hucksters like Prager and assume that his pseudo-religious con-game is “right” because it goes against Conventional Wisdom and Political Correctness. Funny. Those who are so desperate to be ruled by Godly Authority are the present day Rebels. And they will fall for anything.

    Meanwhile, Prager himself — caught in his con-game — has walked back his “Demands on the Heathen” considerably. For he was thoroughly thrashed by a whole bunch of Republicans for his inappropriate commentary over who should and who should not be allowed to serve in Congress and what “test” they should perform. He’s lied repeatedly about his original demands, but in the end decided all he ever really wanted was that a Bible — the source of American “Values” he says, not Law — be in the room when Ellison takes his Oath for the Pictures. That’s all. Is that so much to ask? By having the Bible in the room, you see, Ellison is “honoring the sacred source of American Values.” Or something like that.

    This is where the Pragerites seem to be very confused. They don’t seem to comprehend the nature and purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and Prager’s hucksterism doesn’t help (although he has been at some pains to explain). They are told repeatedly that American Values derive directly from the Overwhelmingly Christian Founders, and those Values were (somehow) codified in the Christian (but Secular?) Constitution of the United States which does not separate Church and State. It’s all a muddle. And the fact that several states at the Founding, and for some decades afterwards, had Established Churches which were perfectly legal makes the current efforts to force religious belief down everyone’s throat somehow all right.

    It’s nonsense, but there you are.

    Apparently the hucksters and authoritarians want their flocks to believe that the Oath of Office — sworn by all federal officials — to Protect and Defend the Consitution of the United States is somehow meant to be an oath to Protect and Defend American Values Based on the Bible. No such thing has ever been the case.

    Thus, Ellison is violating the Basic Principle of American Social Value by refusing to swear his oath in the presence of the Bible. This is utterly absurd. But that’s the thinking.

    Meanwhile this Goode fellow has succeeded in conflating the Ellison swearing in with the Muslim Horde he is sure will swamp the Nation unless Ellison is Stopped. Immigration must be reduced, illegal immigration ended, or the Muslims will swarm the whole country and get elected and stuff. All because of Ellison and his Filthy Koran.

    Never mind that Ellison is a tenth generation American.

    That Brown Horde is just outside the gates!

    Thanks for highlighting some more of the historical context of the issues involved.

  14. Pingback: The Mahablog » This Is Rich

  15. If you have visited the Jefferson Memorial in DC, you have seen the quote from TJ graven in stone.

    “…. for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

    The quote is powerful – and pure Jefferson, but they take on a totally new meaning in context.

    “The clergy…believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.” –Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1800. ME 10:173

  16. Hi, maha & all.

    Joe: Actually, Mohammed is already in a pretty conspicuous place — he’s one of several people, real & mythical, in the freize going around the Capitol. (Ironically, Jesus is not.)

    To avoid the whole issue, we ought to end the practice of swearing on the bible entirely. The only document that matters is the Constitution, so let’s swear on that, if people feel a need to swear on anything.

  17. jay: there is no need to “end” a practice that is, although traditional, entirely voluntary. Washington swore in on a Bible after the very laws legitimizing his presidency were specifically constructed such that he not be legally obligated to do so.

    The constitution is unambiguous in its rejection of religious litmus tests to hold public office. This is not an issue that should be avoided to allow bigots to be more comfortable with themselves.

    Interesting these days how many so-called conservative “values voters” promote values that do not uphold, but openly contradict the Constitution.

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