April 21, 2005
checks and balances
In the wake of the Terry Shiavo story (aka our springboard for judicial "reform"), I've recently been hearing politicians attribute things to the American Founding Fathers that strike a slap in the face to what I was taught in my American History courses. How they can do so without the media ripping them to shreds frightens me more than any individual display of willful ignorance. (Not that I have high expectations of the mainstream media, but for some reason I still have ideals...)
Needless to say, I'm getting so sick of politicians on all sides of the aisle who let evidence, expertise, and record take a back seat to ideology. When the folks engaging in such relativist enterprises then claim to be serving a singular source of truth, the scent is all the more putrid. Not that this is a new phenomenon, but it's about time we made it regular practice to start calling them on it... preferably in highly uncomfortable, highly public situations.
Read the extended entry to see what some Founding Fathers really had to say.
The following quotes were taken from Daily Kos. To be fair, I have not verified them myself.
"Creeds have been the bane of the Christian church...made of Christendon a slaughter-house."-
"The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy, absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classified with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind."
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church."
"My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."
Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society. George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 726]
The American Revolution, the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were fought for explicitly to uproot the traces in American soil of ecclesiastical power in government, which the Founders to a man regarded with horror, revulsion and foreboding.
The Founders were the ultimate representatives of the Enlightenment. They were not anti-religious, though few if any of them were orthodox or pious. Washington never took Communion and refused to enter the church, while his wife did so. Benjamin Franklin believed that all organized religion was suspect. James Madison thought that established religion did as much harm to religion as it did to free government, twisting the word of God to fit political expediency, thereby throwing religion into the political cauldron. And Thomas Jefferson, allied with his great collaborator Madison, conducted decades of sustained and intense political warfare against the existing and would-be clerisy. His words, engraved on the Jefferson Memorial, are a direct reference to established religion: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
But now Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay threatens the federal judiciary, saying, "The reason the judiciary has been able to impose a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution is that Congress didn't stop them." And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will participate through a telecast in a rally on April 24 in which he will say that Democrats who refuse to rubber-stamp Bush's judicial nominees and uphold the filibuster are "against people of faith."
But what would Madison say?
This is what Madison wrote in 1785: "What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not."
What would John Adams say? This is what he wrote Jefferson in 1815: "The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?"
Benjamin Franklin? "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
And Jefferson, in "Notes on Virginia," written in 1782: "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."
The Republican Party was founded in the mid-19th century partly as a party of religious liberty. It supported public common schools, not church schools, and public land-grant universities independent of any denominational affiliation. The Republicans, moreover, were adamant in their opposition to the use of any public funds for any religious purpose, especially involving schools.
A century later, in 1960, there was still such a considerable suspicion of Catholics in government that the Democratic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy, felt compelled to address the issue directly in his famous speech before the Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12.
What did Kennedy say? "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference ... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."
When men of God mistake their articles of devotion with political platforms, they will inevitably stand exposed in the political arena. When politicians mistake themselves for men of God, their religion, however sincere, will inevitably be seen as contrivance.