February 4, 2005

The Nation, not helping the argument for separating Church and State.

There's an article called "Our Godless Constitution" in the current issue of The Nation. The author, Brooke Allen, sets out to expose a Bush Administration "whopper about America having been founded on Christian principles." If you're going to begin an article by accusing the President of being a big liar, it's probably a good idea to show a lot of fidelity to the truth, so let's see what we've got here. The article is largely a collection of decontextualized quotes of various founding fathers saying things that are antagonistic to religion. I'm not going to pick through this whole article, just point out one egregious distortion that jumped off the page at me. Allen writes:
James Madison ... spoke of the "almost fifteen centuries" during which Christianity had been on trial: "What have 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."

Here is the real context of that quote, from James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, which is not an argument against religion but an argument against the government establishment of religion:
Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have 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. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
Madison was not denouncing Christianity, but government established Christianity. He's arguing for the separation of Church and State. It's not Christianity that produces "pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, [and] in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution." It's the government's alliance with a single, chosen religion! The Nation has outrageously misrepresented Madison's quote, in this bizarre effort to expose Bush Administration's lies.

What is so pathetically sad about this effort is that there is no need to push away religious believers to justify the separation of Church and State. This article is harmful to its own cause, by making it seem as if one has to hate religion to support the separation of Church and State. Atheists and devout believers alike should want the same thing. Look at Madison's argument: he's saying Christianity had its "greatest lustre" back when it lacked the support of government. At the beginning of his Memorial, Madison premises his argument on religious values:
Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, "that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." [Virginia Declaration of Rights, art. 16] The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.

That is a religion-based argument against compelled religion, not a hate-spew against religion. Elsewhere in the Memorial, Madison argues that establishment isn't needed to support the Christianity, and in fact it is "a contradiction to the Christian Religion":
[E]very page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
Madison's Memorial makes a brilliant appeal to religious people to see the importance of separating Church and State. Convincing religious people to want to see religion separated from the government remains one of the very most important efforts in the world today. The Nation is not helping!

UPDATE: Jim Lindgren at Volokh Conspiracy takes me to task for using the expression "separation of Church and State" instead of "disestablishment": "What Madison wanted in the 1780s was disestablishment of religion and equal liberty for different religions, not a 'wall of separation.'" Of course, I did not mention a wall, and I am only trying to read Madison's "Memorial" closely, not bring forward any more elaborate history. But I do I stand by my position that Madison's "Memorial" is a brilliant argument for the separation of Church and State. I am not attempting in this post engage over the subject of how extreme the separation ought to be, but I don't see the ground for objecting to the word "separation" simply because it may not be absolute. We refer to "separation of powers" when speaking of the three branches of government in constitutional law, even though the Constitution permits some interplay between the branches. Lindgren refers to recent historical work that attempts to tie modern day notions of separation to 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry. I'm in no position to refute that story -- I'll leave that work to historians. I'm only reading Madison's text and connecting it to the debate about religion and government that exists today. I won't hide the fact that I think the separation of religion and government is one of the most powerful and important ideas, both in the United States and in the world.

No comments: