Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"The notion of a Christian commonwealth ..."

" ... should be exploded forever ..."

That's how the rest of the quote above goes. Here is the whole thing in its fuller context:
No national church, can ... be the Gospel Church. A national church takes in the
whole nation, and no more; whereas, the Gospel Church, takes in no nation, but
those who fear God, and work righteousness in every nation. The notion of a
Christian commonwealth, should be exploded forever, without there was a
commonwealth of real Christians. Not only so, but if all souls in a government,
were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that
society could not be a gospel church, but a creature of the state.

Those words were written in 1790 during the ratification process of the Bill of Rights. Who wrote them? Some deistic politician or Unitarian minister? No, it was Baptist minister and leader John Leland and his sentiments were typical of Baptists in that day.

These days many Baptist ministers argue fiercely that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and thus it should be today. But Baptists of the early days of this nation believed that efforts to establish a "Christian nation" were efforts to set up something that would not really be Christian at all.

It seems to me that Leland and his fellow Baptists had it right on this point. As I recall Jesus rejected the offer of government power to accomplish his ends--rejected it as a temptation of the devil.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What James Madison believed the religious clause accomplished

When James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights in 1789, his wording of the religious clasuse went like this: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretext infringed.” In course of the debate in both the House and the Senate, this wording was modified several times until the final phrasing of the religious clause of the First Amendment was settled upon: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

As Donald L. Drakeman points out, “it is possible to debate interminably over the linguistic difference between Madison’s original proposal and the final version of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.” Whatever may be said about Madison’s view concerning the final wording of the religion clause, Madison biographer Irving Brant maintains that “there is no need to guess” about what Madison believed the phrasing accomplished. One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, Madison explained why he excluded an enumeration of those in professional occupations from an amendment to the census bill. He did not think it proper to list religious professionals because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel” (emphasis mine) As Brant says, this represented “the broadest conceivable definition of the constitutional guarantee, made publicly … to the same group of men who had approved it … [and] [n]obody challenged his statement.”

In his first inaugural address, Madison promised “to avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience, or the functions of religion so wisely exempt from the civil jurisdiction” (emphasis mine). While Madison was president, the plight of a Baptist church in the Mississippi Territory came before congress in 1811. The congregation had accidentally built its meeting place on federal land due to “an error in surveying.” Congress addressed the problem by passing a bill granting what was considered a “trivial” piece of land to the church, but Madison vetoed the bill. He explained in his veto message that “reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of [a] Baptist church comprises a principle and 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.’”

In retirement Madison wrote in his “Detached Memoranda” that “the appointment of Chaplains to the Houses of Congress” is unconstitutional because “[t]he constitution of the U.S. forbids anything like an establishment of national religion.” Paying ministers with tax dollars to serve as chaplains involved the principle of a “national establishment.” Furthermore, the appointment of chaplains was “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because the beliefs of the chaplains selected “shut the door of worship [against] the members whose creeds [and] consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority.”

Repeatedly Madison interpreted the language of the First Amendment to provide for the separation of church and state in the strictest terms. This was certainly pleasing to his Baptist allies in the struggle for religious liberty. John Leland, an influential Baptist minister of that day, believed, with his fellow Baptists, that “the religious opinions of men [should not be] the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beyond toleration

On April 25, 1776, two delegates were chosen from Orange County, Virginia to participate in the general convention where the state would formally declare its independence from Britain and draft a new frame of government. One of those delegates was 25 year old James Madison whose “Baptist neighbors may have helped him to win election,” according to historian Lance Banning. Madison was not a Baptist, but he actively protested the persecution of Baptists at the hands of the state Anglican establishment. Indeed, numerous historians claim that Madison, the father of the United State Constitution, got into politics to protest the persecution of Baptists.

The young legislator arrived in Williamsburg for the convention on May 6, 1776, “a stranger to most Virginia leaders,” according to Irving Brant. Yet this newcomer to state politics was nonetheless responsible for a great leap forward in thinking on religious liberty.

George Mason was late arriving as a delegate to the convention and he was immediately placed in charge of drafting a Declaration of Rights. Mason was widely respected in the state for his opinions on government and Ralph Ketcham says, “Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson always deferred to him as their mentor in matters of political theory.” However, Madison was not content with Mason’s wording on religious freedom in the Declaration of Rights which included a clause saying “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...” Madison prepared a change which he convinced Patrick Henry to present, but the body rejected the amendment because it was feared that the replacement language would disestablish the Anglican Church. Madison prepared a substitute amendment, this time asking Edmund Pendleton to bring the motion. The new wording passed, replacing Mason’s language on toleration with the radical new thinking that “all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...”

According to Banning, Madison’s “final phrasing ... erected an ideal that no society had ever written into law.” Madison thus went a step further than John Locke’s advocacy of toleration and he was ahead of Thomas Paine who later called toleration a type of despotism. According to Ketcham, Madison’s “experience at Princeton and his struggle against persecution of Baptists in Virginia convinced him that ‘toleration’ was an invidious concept.” Ketcham also maintains that Madison’s success in replacing toleration with equality and free exercise in matters of religion “made possible complete liberty of belief or unbelief, and utter separation of church and state.”

And so James Madison, who got into politics to protest the persecution of Virginia Baptists, took his first step in a lifelong crusade for religious liberty.