Dispelling Christian Nation Myths


Dispelling Christian Nation Myths
by Ed Brayton

In the comments on a previous post there has been a conversation about separation of church and state and the Christian Nation myth that is worth moving up here to its own post. All comments in blockquotes are from commenter James Goswick, coupled with my responses.

Then why did the framers allow prayer in schools and themselves pray in Jesus’ name? Obviously, modern separation doctrine is wrong.

They didn’t allow prayer in schools; they had nothing at all to do with public schools at the time. The establishment clause did not originally apply to the states at all. The states were even free to have official churches and many of them did. That changed with the passage of the 14th amendment.

How could the framers design a secular govt. when the States mandated Christianity for office holders:

Because they were designing a federal government, which had almost no power over the state governments at the time. The federal government was explicitly secular and religious tests for office were specifically forbidden at the federal level.

Modern separation is wrong. TJ himself said modern separation is wrong.

No he didn’t. There are two separate questions here: how the establishment clause should be interpreted and whether it should be applied to the states or only to the federal government. At the time it was applied only to the federal government. But Jefferson’s interpretation of the establishment clause was pretty much identical to the modern judicial interpretation. He was opposed to all government endorsement or support for religion, even when entirely non-coercive and merely suggestive.

The framers believed in separation as a national church ruling the state as in the Church of England. That is the context. Now, it’s all whacked out. TJ left States to establish whatever religion they wanted.

And for the second time, that changed with the 14th amendment, which applied the Bill of Rights to the states. You see, constitutions can be amended. And those amendments change reality.

If adminstrators lead prayer, it was mandated until the 1961 SC decision.

1963, actually. And again, the federal constitution had nothing to do with what state-funded public schools could and couldn’t do until after 1868.

None of the States had state religions. The point is all Christian sects were equal–others were not. If the federal laws contradict TJ’s et al. words, they are wrong, and the Supreme Law of the Land (the Constitution) has been subverted–which it has.

Actually, many of the states had state religions at the time. The letters between Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists was all about the fact that Connecticut had an established church — Congregationalist. Virginia was officially Anglican until Jefferson and Madison led the fight to disestablish the church with the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Massachusetts was officially Puritan. Only Rhode Island lacked an official church originally. After the passage of the Virginia act, which formed the basis for the First Amendment, the states disestablished their state churches one by one, the last one (Massachusetts) being removed in 1833.

The very fact you brought this up proves my point. The founding fathers executed homosexuals, which proves the bill of rights did not protect them.

And as wingnuts always do, you continue to ignore the 14th amendment as though it didn’t exist.

It is the founding fathers you are opposing, which they said you weren’t supposed to do. The Constitution is only to be amended not contrary to Christianity. They set up the Christian nation, not me.

Please provide a single provision of the U.S. Constitution that establishes a Christian nation. Your ancestral wingnuts at the time were opposed to the passage of the Constitution precisely because it didn’t do that. They railed against the ban on religious tests and the lack of a declaration of belief in God in the document, claiming that this would bring down the wrath of God on the nation. They tried and failed to amend those things in the state ratification conventions and they tried and failed more than a dozen times to pass amendments over the course of the next hundred years to do the same thing. Then suddenly, in the early 20th century, the argument changed. After a century of arguing that the Constitution was a godless document that had to be amended to make us officially Christian and avoid the wrath of God, they suddenly started arguing that it was intended to be a Christian nation all along.

The Father of the 14th Amendment, Sen. Bingham from Ohio, makes it clear in the ratification debates, the 14th referred only to giving rights to slaves. How its applied now is disgraceful–flying in the face of TJ’s “religion is left to the States.”

This is false. Bingham repeatedly said during the debates over the amendment that the purpose was to apply the first 8 amendments in the Bill of Rights to the states. On Feb. 27, 1866, he said that the amendment was intended to “arm the Congress … with the power to enforce this bill of rights as it stands in the Constitution today.” In a similar statement he said that the amendment would “arm Congress with the power to … punish all violations by State Officers of the bill of rights.” More importantly, the language of the amendment is clear. It was not limited to former slaves, it was much broader. It says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Those privileges and immunities were those found in the Bill of Rights.

I then added another comment:

Yeah, this notion that religious freedom is a Biblical idea simply couldn’t be any more ridiculous. How many times are slaughters justified in the Bible because the targets of the attack worship different gods? There isn’t a single verse in the Bible that even suggests the concept of religious freedom. And it was the long history of officially Christian governments destroying religious freedom, including in the original colonies, that prompted the push to disestablish the churches and forbid the federal government from establishing Christianity. This is what Jefferson was talking about when he wrote:

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.

And one thing I forgot to add to my previous comment was that the notion that the only thing the Establishment Clause was intended to prevent was the official establishment of a national church is clearly contradicted by history. During the debates over the Bill of Rights, Congress considered and rejected several alternate wordings for the religion clauses of the First Amendment that would have done exactly that. Here’s one:

Congress shall not make any law, infringing the rights of conscience or establishing any Religious Sect or Society.

Here’s another:

Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.

Here’s a third:

Congress shall make no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others.

If they had wanted only to prohibit the official establishment of a specific sect or denomination, they could have done so but they voted such wordings down in favor of the much broader one that was ultimately ratified, which forbids any even “respecting” an establishment of religion.

There were disagreements over the exact requirements and boundaries of that prohibition, of course, but none of the men involved believed that it only prevented the official establishment of a specific denomination. There was famously a split between the first four presidents. Washington and Adams believed that the government could give rhetorical support to religion in general (not to Christianity specifically; they always used broader theistic language) as long as it was non-coercive and they issued many proclamations of thanksgiving and urging people to fast and pray. Jefferson and Madison argued forcefully that the First Amendment forbid the federal government from saying anything at all on the subject, even if it was merely rhetorical and suggestive. Madison, the man in charge of actually writing the First Amendment, believed that it even forbid the military from having chaplains unless they were paid for by the churches rather than the government (a position not taken even by the ACLU today).

And a third round:

Ed, since the Bible was mandatory reading to promote religion in schools, do you have proof the Founding Fathers prohibited prayer?

I didn’t say they prohibited prayer. I didn’t say anything like that. I said they didn’t have anything to do with the subject. Because the First Amendment didn’t apply to the states and the federal government had nothing to do with public schools at the time, what public schools at the time did or didn’t do has no bearing at all on how the First Amendment should be interpreted (which, again, is a separate question from whether it should be applied to state and local government actions — interpretation and application are distinct issues that you insist on combing).

And incorrectly so as you yourself claim, “The establishment clause did not originally apply to the states at all. The states were even free to have official churches and many of them did.”

WTF are you talking about? You do realize that later amendments supercede the previous text, don’t you? The 14th amendment is obviously not in line with what the founding fathers intended; that’s why it was necessary. If it had been consistent with what was originally intended, there would be no need to have the amendment. So no, the 14th amendment didn’t apply to the states “incorrectly” — it changed the nature of the Constitution and asserted the Bill of Rights as binding on the states as well as the federal government.

The framers prayed in Jesus’ name.

Some of them undoubtedly did. Thomas Jefferson certainly didn’t because he didn’t believe Jesus was anything but a man. But this has nothing at all to do with what the government can do. Like all wingnuts, you confuse personal practice with the meaning of constitutional provisions.

I wrote:

And for the second time, that changed with the 14th amendment, which applied the Bill of Rights to the states.

And you replied:

Violating every branch of govt, including the Judiciary:

These amendments demanded security against the apprehended encroachments of the General Government — not against those of the local governments. In compliance with a sentiment thus generally expressed, to quiet fears thus extensively entertained, amendments were proposed by the required majority in Congress and adopted by the States. These amendments contain no expression indicating an intention to apply them to the State governments. This court cannot so apply them –Chief Justice Marshall. Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833)

Holy crap, you are a moron. You cited a Supreme Court decision from 1833 explaining that the Bill of Rights did not originally apply to the states — which is true, of course — as evidence that a later constitutional amendment “violated” that ruling. But as I said, amendments change the constitution itself. That’s the whole point of amendment. The 14th amendment didn’t “violate” Barron v Baltimore, it changed its result. In 1833, the Bill of Rigths did not apply to the states; after 1868, it did. The 14th amendment changed that, quite intentionally.

Which ones? No State had an established religion. All Christian sects were provided equal protection.

No they didn’t. In Connecticut, for example, all people, regardless of their religion, had to pay taxes to support the Congregationalist church. Until the early 1700s, it wasn’t even legal for any other church to exist. After 1708, the state would exempt certain churches from that law — ones they called “sober dissenters” — but not others. This is not equal protection by any coherent definition.

I wrote:

Please provide a single provision of the U.S. Constitution that establishes a Christian nation

And you replied:

The Constitution leaves religion to the States and the States formed non-denominational Christianity as their religion. Moreover, The Constitution neither abolished nor replaced what the Declaration had established; it only provided the specific details of how American government would operate under the principles set forth in the Declaration.

So much stupid in one paragraph. yes, the constitution originally left religion to the states. For the millionth time, the 14th amendment changed that. And some of the states had established religions, but following Virginia’s example they removed them one by one. And the Declaration of Independent didn’t establish anything. While I’m among those who think the Declaration is an important document for interpreting the Constitution (many disagree, even on the right; one of the big distinctions between Justices Scalia and Thomas is that Scalia rejects the Declaration as an interpretive tool while Thomas thinks it is a necessary one. I agree with Thomas), it had and has no actual legal force. It did not create a government, or even attempt to create one. But even so, bear in mind that it was written by a man who explicitly rejected Christianity.

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