Fear of Clowns

"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."
- H. L. Mencken
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Friday, March 04, 2005

Question & answer with James Madison: separation of church and state 

So here you are, the Father of the Constitution. Good to have you with us, so let's get right into it. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." What does that mean?

The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.1

What's wrong with something "like" a governmental establishment of religion?

It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance.2

What if government just acknowledges God? What might you say about that?

Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.2

But people would still be free to believe anything they want. Government acknowledgment of God doesn't force or compel anyone to believe anything.

Governments ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms.1

But what exactly may be wrong with proposed legislation, although not establishing a state religion has something to do with religion?

Because the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.2

Some people note that this is a democracy and it sometimes seems like a minority wants to run roughshod over the rights of the majority.

We maintain that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.2

To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers. or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.1

Are you really saying there should be a complete separation of church and state?

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, and the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government and Religion neither can be duly supported.

Every new and 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 shewing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.3

Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: it is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.2

Wow. "Tyrants" and "slaves". Why are you freaking out over anything "like" an alliance between church and state?

Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entagled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.2

James, I mean, aren't you being a wee bit hypocritical here? I mean, as President, you issued Thanksgiving proclamations yourself!

Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith and forms.3

Come on, man! America is Christian nation!

The idea of a union of all to form one nation under one government in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that if all the individuals composing a nation were of the same precise creed and wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through their religious not of their political representatives.1

1 Detatched Memoranda, After 1817, date unknown
2 Memorial and Remonstrance , June 20, 1785
3 James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

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