05 July 2012

Church and state: building a wall, or breaking it?

An Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores, Hobby Lobby, celebrates Independence Day in profligate fashion annually by buying full-page ads in newspapers across the country to promote store founder David Green's understanding of the United States as a Christian nation. For the first time, as far as I can recall, the July 4 ad has appeared in one of my local papers, the Albany Times Union. This year's ad boasts citations from Founders, Framers, foreign observers, and federal judges affirming the country's devout foundations, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1892 affirmation that the U.S. is a "Christian nation." The selections may reflect input from David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders, a website credited as an associate in the production of the ad. Barton's website promotes a book in which he argues that Thomas Jefferson has been incorrectly portrayed as an anti-Christian deist. In general, the site claims an educational function, reminding readers of supposedly-suppressed facts about the country's foundation on faith. Its provocative name, taken from the Old Testament, is an ironic reversal on the secular "wall of separation" concept, since the wall Barton has in mind is a Christian foundation for the republic.

Unlike in many cases when quotes have been trotted out to prove the Founders' piety, all of the quotations in the Hobby Lobby ad look authentic to me in terms of language and grammar. Context is, as ever, another story. It might be right to note how we always talk about the separation of "church" and state, not "religion" and state. Some may think the terms synonymous, but the Founders might not have agreed. It might be one thing for individuals to deduce that there must be a Divine Providence or a First Cause to which they should show gratitude or fealty. It would be another to assume from that that any priesthood has special authority to instruct or govern humanity. As is often the case, James Madison makes a good example. He's quoted in the Hobby Lobby ad to this effect: "Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe." It's a suspiciously short quote -- the Framers didn't work in sound bites -- that should alert our context detectors. The sentence itself is authentic; it comes from Madison's Remonstrance to the Virginia legislature against "Religious Assessments" -- taxes to support an official religion. The quote used by Hobby Lobby is embedded in this clarifying excerpt.

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. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. 

In effect, Madison affirms what we think of as a separation of church and state. In his view, it isn't government's business to tell people how to -- or whether to -- worship the Creator. "Religion is wholly exempt" from the cognizance of civil society; that sounds like a wall of separation to me. The larger quote also corrects an impression Hobby Lobby may have wanted to create. Standing alone, Madison's sentence might be taken to mean that subjection to the Governor of the Universe is a precondition for membership in civil society. In its original contest, it becomes more clear that Madison is actually affirming a notion of natural rights. As a "subject of the Governour of the Universe," that is, man has rights, particularly rights of conscience, that have priority over his obligations to civil society. That notion itself may be problematic to some modern readers, but it should be more problematic to Wallbuilders and Hobby Lobby because it counters the impression they mean their quotes to create. For reasons ranging from the pious to the cynical, the Founders expected people to fear God before they could live morally. They debated amongst themselves the proper relationship between people and religion, but they pretty consistently wanted to keep the state out of that relationship. The most they might do is call for days of prayer, fasting, thanksgiving, etc., but they never contemplated compelling anyone to pray, nor were they greatly concerned about the form of the prayers. If many Americans seem less indulgent of religion today than the Founders were it may be because we have a less cynical or condescending opinion of common people's capacity for reason. Even the Founders, however, would not have given political power to the churches -- they abhorred the idea. Yet that's really what groups like Wallbuilders want; they want the nation's self-appointed spiritual leaders to be its moral arbiters as well, with their will having the force of legislation or the support of it if necessary. Their ad boasts, "In God We Trust," but "In Church We Trust" is their real goal. If I'm right, I feel pretty certain that the Founders would stand against the Wallbuilders the way they stood against the King and Parliament. That would be something to celebrate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These people need to just be shot in the head. This nonsense of attempting to force their barbaric superstitions down the throats of reasonable human beings will not be tolerated for much longer.