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Politics and Passions - Winter 1995-96

Part 29
May the Secular State Prevail

Some nations, such as the former Soviet Union, have expressed outright hostility towards religion. Others, such as Iran ("one nation under God"?), have welded church and state. America wisely has taken the middle course--neither for nor against religion. Neutrality offends no one, and protects everyone.

Regardless of any cherished personal beliefs we may hold, bringing unprovable religious creeds or texts such as the Bible into the secular political arena is comparable to bringing "Grimm's Fairy Tales" into a Strategic Defense meeting. America was not founded upon Christianity, nor were all its founding fathers Christian.

According to Isaac Kramnick, a professor of government at Cornell University, America was founded as a secular state--completely neutral towards all forms of religious expression.

"In 1787," Kramnick writes, "when the framers excluded all mention of God from the Constitution, they were widely denounced as immoral and the document was denounced as godless, which is precisely what it is."

Opponents of the Constitution challenged ratifying conventions in nearly every state, calling attention to Article VI, Section 3: "No religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

An anti-federalist in North Carolina wrote: "The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. Pagans, Deists and Mohammedans might obtain office among us." Amos Singletary of Massachusetts, one of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution, said that he "hoped to see Christians (in power), yet by the Constitution, a papist or an infidel was as eligible as they."

The United States Constitution is a completely secular political document. It begins "We the people," and contains no mention of "God" or "Christianity." Its only references to religion are exclusionary, such as, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust." (Article VI), and "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (First Amendment).

The presidential oath of office, the only oath detailed in the Constitution does not contain the phrase "so help me God" or any requirement to swear on a Bible (Article II, Section 1). In 1797, America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

We are not governed by the Declaration of Independence. Its purpose was to "dissolve the political bonds," not to set up a religious nation. Its authority was based upon the idea that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," which is contrary to the biblical concept of rule by divine authority. The Declaration deals with laws, taxation, representation, war, immigration, etc. and doesn't discuss religion at all.

The references to "Nature’s God," "Creator," and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration do not endorse Christianity. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a Deist, opposed to Christianity and the supernatural.

"Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus," wrote Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson admitted, "In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds..."

According to Isaac Kramnick, it was Thomas Jefferson who established the separation of church and state: "Jefferson was deeply suspicious of religion and of clergy wielding political power."

Jefferson helped create the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, incurring the wrath of Christians by his fervent defense of toleration of atheists: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pockets nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson advocated a "wall of separation" between church and state not to protect the church from government intrusion, but to preserve the freedom of the people:

"I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught;" he observed, "but I hold in the most profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and established by kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of mankind."

Jefferson and the founding fathers were products of the Age of Enlightenment. Their world view was based upon Deism, secularism, and rationalism. "The priests of the different religious sects dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight," wrote Jefferson. "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 classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter...we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this..."

As late as 1820, Jefferson was convinced everyone in the United States would die a Unitarian. Jefferson and Paine’s writings indicate that America was never intended to be a Christian theocracy. "I have sworn upon the altar of God," wrote Jefferson, "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

The first colony of English-speaking Europeans was Jamestown, settled in 1609 for trade, not religious freedom. Fewer than half of the 102 Mayflower passengers in 1620 were "Pilgrims" seeking religious freedom. The secular United States of America was formed more than 150 years later.

The words "under God," did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, when Congress, under McCarthyism, inserted them. Similarly, "In God we Trust" was absent from paper currency before 1956, though it did appear on some coins. The original U.S. motto, written by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, is E Pluribus Unum ("Of Many, One"), celebrating plurality and diversity.

American law is not based on the Bible or the Ten Commandments. The first four Commandments in the Old Testament are religious edicts having nothing to do with law or ethical behavior. Only three (homicide, theft, and perjury) are relevant to American law, and have existed in cultures long before Moses. If Americans honored the commandment against "coveting," free enterprise would collapse! The Supreme Court has ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools is unconstitutional.

Public schools exist to educate, not to proselytize. Horace Mann, the father of our public school system, championed the elimination of sectarianism from American schools, largely accomplished by the 1840s. Bible reading, prayers or hymns in public schools were absent from most public schools by the end of the l9th century, after Catholic or minority-religion immigrants objected to Protestant bias in public schools.

As early as the 1850s, the Superintendent of Schools of New York state ordered that prayers could no longer be required as part of public school activities. The Cincinnati Board of Education ruled in 1869 that "religious instruction and the reading of religious books, including the Holy Bible, was prohibited in the common schools of Cincinnati." Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt called for "absolutely nonsectarian public schools." Roosevelt stated that it is "not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in those schools."

In McCollum vs. Board of Education (1948), the Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in public schools. In Tudor vs. Board of Education of Rutherford the Court let stand a lower court ruling that the practice of allowing volunteers to distribute Gideon Bibles at public schools was unconstitutional.

In Engel vs. Vitale (1962), the Court ruled that prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. In Abington Township School District vs. Schempp (1963), the Court ruled that Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools are unconstitutional. In Stone vs. Graham (1980), the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms was also declared unconstitutional. In Lee vs. Weisman (1992), the Court ruled that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies are an establishment of religion.

"A thousand signs proclaim that Christianity is undergoing the same decline that fell on the old Greek religion after the coming of the Sophists and the Greek Enlightenment," wrote historian Will Durant (1885-1982). According to Durant, the cause of Christianity's decline began with "the Protestant Reformation, which originally defended private judgement. Then the multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies, each appealing to both Scriptures and reason. Then the higher criticism of the Bible...Then, the Deistic movement in England, reducing religion to a vague belief in a God hardly distinguishable from nature. Then the growing acquaintance with other religions, whose myths, many of them pre-Christian, were distressingly similar..."

Go on to: Part 30: Conflicting Beliefs and Interpretations
Return to: The Next Distraction

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