Jefferson, Madison, Bush, and Separation of Church and State

Jefferson, Madison, Bush, and Separation of Church and State

I just listened to a particularly interesting show about Jefferson, Madison, and their attitudes on the separation of church and state. Go listen to it.

The Infidel Guy‘s guest on May 14 (yeah, I’m a little behind) was Lenny Brenner, historian and author of a book on Jefferson, Madison, and the separation of church and state.

Now I don’t know Brenner from Adam, nor am I a constitutional historian, but I did google some of the stuff he talked about (one of the advantages of listening to an archived show is that you can pause it and look stuff up), and it seems to check out.

There’s a movement right now among the religious right to dispel the notion that there’s any constitutional basis to the separation of church and state. As far as I’ve been able to determine, their best argument is that the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” does not appear in the US constitution (which is true. It’s from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut). There are some who say that the US is a Christian Nation, that the founding fathers never intended for religion and government to be separate.

Then we find James Madison :

Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?

The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected by the majority shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches.

In short, the guy who wrote the bill of rights and who therefore might be expected to have an informed opinion on what it means, thought it was illegal to have federal funds pay for the congressional chaplain. Stick that in your Christian Coalition pipe and smoke it. He goes on to voice his opposition to the government paying for army and navy chaplains as well.

Lest anyone think he was some kind of anti-religious fanatic, further down, he writes:

The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Xn religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected thro’ the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives.

So it’s just as we (should have) learned in civics class: the establishment clause of the first amendment really is there to keep religion and government separate. If you want to worship, knock yourself out. If you and your church want to get together and help the needy, have at it; heck, you can even tell people at your soup kitchen that they have to convert before you’ll help them, you’re allowed to do that. Pray? Sure. Go to church? Sure. Preach to the unbelievers? Go right ahead. But if you do, you’re not entitled to any help from the government.

The US Supreme Court drew a lot of flak for not handing down a definite yea or nay on religious displays in courthouses. But as it happens, I agree with the SCOTUS. The decision was actually pretty clear: historic and civic displays are okay; pushing religion is not. The reason they couldn’t boil this down into a simple yes or no is not that they couldn’t make up their minds or were waffling, but rather that the real world is too complex to be carved up both fairly and simply.

Obviously religion has played a huge role in America’s and the world’s history. It would be foolish to deny this. So should one say that the government should studiously avoid all mention of history, simply because most of the people who shaped it were obviously religious? That seems crazy, too.

At the same time, Judge Roy Moore’s monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse was a clear violation of the establishment clause. If he thinks that the Ten Commandments are the best laws since Hammurabi mandated building codes, he can say that, but not in his capacity as a US government official.

In between the SCOTUS frieze and Moore’s monument, there’s a lot of gray area. So I’m sorry, but sometimes it’s gonna take a judgment call.

Sorry, but I seem to have strayed a bit from my original point, which was to go listen to the Infidel Guy’s May 14 show. Yes, you theists too. The religion-bashing is kept to a minimum, and is eclipsed by Republican-bashing, Democrat-bashing, and general electorate-bashing. It’s a longer episode than usual, but you can skip the last 45 minutes or so, when they stop talking about Jefferson and Madison.

One thought on “Jefferson, Madison, Bush, and Separation of Church and State

  1. As I read your essay I was in total agreement with everything you said until you made the claim that James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights. If you are going to citizen the Religious Right, I beg of you not to adopt their tactic of distorting the historical facts.

    James Madison drafted and introduced the amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights. He chaired the House Committee that studied and modified the proposed amendments and then reported them to the floor. He co-chaired the six man joint Congressional Committee that framed the final version of the First Amendment. But to say that he wrote the Bill of Rights is an exaggeration.

    Madison’s claim to authority on the meaning of the First Amendment is second to none There were six men who framed the final version. Not one of them, except Madison, is known to have expressed any interest whatsoever in perpetuating an interpretation of the amendment. Perhaps they thought that Madison spoke for them and was so damn good at it that no more needed to be said.

    Roger Sherman died three years later. That might explain why he never offered an opposing opinion. However, Oliver Ellsworth lived until the last half of President Jefferson’s administration.

    Shortly after the Danbury Baptists exchanged letters with Jefferson, Ellsworth wrote a report for the Connecticut General Court defending the very thing the Baptist complained of in their letter – The Connecticut Certificate Law of 1791.

    Ellsworth was politically active in 1802 and opposed the Total Separation of Church and State, yet he never challenged Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment during the 1800 election or thereafter. In 1801, everyone in the United State knew how Jefferson read the First Amendment.

    In their letter to Jefferson, the Baptist indicate that they already knew that Jefferson read the First Amendment to give Congress no authority over religion except to punish the man who commits a crime claiming it was a religious duty. The Baptist also knew that Jefferson read the First Amendment to deny Congress the power to “destroy” the Connecticut Certificate Law because Jefferson read “shall make no law” to mean make no law to advance religion as well as no law to hinder religion.

    My point is that if there is one man who earned the right to claim authority over the First Amendment’s interpretation it is James Madison. That is what the Supreme Court thought in 1878 when, in the case of Reynolds vs. U. S., it had to interpret the religion clauses for the first time. The 1878 Court did not consider any other man’s view of the religion clause even worthy of mentioning, except Thomas Jefferson’s.

    Thomas Jefferson was cited only has a backup authority for Madison’s views. The Court made it clear, despite the lies spewed by the Religious Right, that Madison (not Jefferson) was the primary authority on the meaning of the First Amendment.

    Friday Slice

  2. So what you’re saying, basically, is that I should have written “practically wrote” rather than just “wrote”, right?

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