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Old Presidents and New Theocrats

On the editorial pages of U.S. newspapers, proponents of an impregnable wall between church and state intermittently clash with modern theocrats who would delve beneath the wall and, as Hamlet might say, “blow it at the moon.” Whether the immediate provocation be placement of the Ten Commandments in statehouses, Bible classes in public schools, school prayer, school vouchers, public display of the cr’che, tax exemptions for churches, federal funds for faith-based initiatives, or judicial interdiction against the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance–the new theocrats seek through various stratagems, to undermine the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. A favorite ploy is to cite pious remarks by the first U.S. presidents. The remarks are supposed to demonstrate that the most eminent founders of the nation approved furtherance by the state of religious interests.

Hence, in his farewell address to the fledgling nation, George Washington, the theocrats like to point out, warned that when the body politic is devoid of religious sentiment, the nation must suffer: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” On the same score, John Adams is customarily cited: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” A local guest columnist theocratized Washington in a most brazen way. “The mission of America and the church is one and the same: to further the cause of Christ,” the father of our country supposedly said. (I have been unable to verify this remark, however.)

The early presidents, it seems, were all devotees of Scripture who deemed the Bible a desideratum for both governor and governed. Did not Washington postulate that “it is impossible to rightly govern without God and the Bible”? Did not Adams eulogize the Book: “I have examined all religions, as well as my narrow sphere, my straitened means, and my busy life, would allow; and the result is that the Bible is the best Book in the world”? In the theocratic-eye view of American history, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was an ideological forbear of Judge Roy Moore. After all, it is alleged, Madison once remarked, “We’ve staked our future on our ability to follow the Ten Commandments with all our heart.”

Do such testimonies to the worth of religion validate a liaison between church and state?

Hardly. Even if it could be shown that the “religious principle” heightens civic morality and nourishes polity, it doesn’t follow that the state should conspire with the church to inculcate the principle. The state has no expertise in soul-making; that is the bailiwick of the church. If the church falters, it shouldn’t expect the state to bail it out.

Notwithstanding the above quotations, some of which were probably self-serving, the first presidents weren’t exactly gung ho for institutionalized religion, supported or unsupported by the state. In an 1831 sermon delivered in Albany, New York, the Reverend Doctor Bird Wilson, an Episcopal minister and historian, advised parishioners that “the founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels.” Certainly, the first five or six presidents fill the bill.

In their private correspondence, they inveighed against “superstitious” or “dogmatic” Christianity. In an 1816 letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Adams mused: “How has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?” In a similar vein, Thomas Jefferson told Adams: “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded upon fables and mythologies.” Jefferson concocted his own version of the Gospels, excising the miraculous, legendary, and dogmatic elements. Vetoing a bill granting public lands to a Baptist church, Madison observed: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” James Monroe was a loyal friend of Thomas Paine, author of the incendiary Age of Reason, which skewered the Bible and national religions.

Given their distaste for clericalism, it isn’t surprising that the presidents wanted to quarantine the national government from sectarian contamination. Washington reminded members of the New Church in Baltimore that the nation had no religious bias: “In this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition. In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” The Treaty of Tripoli, carried unanimously by the Senate and signed into law by John Adams in 1797, specifically disavowed any proprietary influence of Christianity on shaping the guiding principles of the new government: “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen [Muslims].”

The first presidents left ample evidence that they favored a broad interpretation of the Establishment Clause. The testimony of James Madison, since he was the prime moving force behind both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is especially revelatory. In an 1803 letter objecting to the use of government land for churches, Madison wrote: “The bill in reserving a certain parcel of land in the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and a precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'” As president, he vetoed an 1811 bill giving a charter to an Episcopal church to dispense charity and education in the District of Columbia. He said the bill would blur “the essential distinction between civil and religious functions.” In an 1822 letter to Edward Livingston, Madison noted that strict separation of church and state benefits both: “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion & Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Despite the demurrals of wistful theocrats, separation of church and state is an even better idea today than it was in 1791, when the First Amendment was duly ratified. The nation is far more pluralistic now than it was in its formative years. Once, an intrusion of Christian baggage into the affairs of state was prejudicial to only a few since nearly all citizens were at least nominally Christian. Now that the nation includes twenty to thirty million (estimates vary) agnostics, atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, and secular humanists, state aggrandizement of theism, even when stripped of the last vestige of sectarianism, is inevitably discriminatory.

In his most recent State of the Union Address, George W. Bush brazenly plumped for legislation allowing religious organizations to receive federal funds even when they pursue religious agendas and engage in discriminatory hiring practices. In a January speech in New Orleans, Bush characterized the Bible as the ideal handbook for carrying out child-care services at a local church. In the same speech, he enunciated the messianic goal of his administration’s faith-based initiatives: “We want to fund programs that save Americans one soul at a time.”

Instead of plumping for an amendment to ban homosexual marriages, the new theocrats should reexamine an amendment heeded by old presidents and trampled by the latest avatar to High Office.