Who Doesn’t Understand the First Amendment (or History)?


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church_stateDr. Walter Brasch writing at The “Moderate” Voice wasn’t so moderate in his criticism of the religious right.  He claims that the religious right intrudes on the Constitution and doesn’t understand the First Amendment.  Starting off he complains about the Catholic bishops political advocacy surrounding religious liberty issues and whining about Franklin Graham’s endorsement of Mitt Romney he then called the religious right “bigots.”

Then he made the claim that most of the Founders were deists, not Christians… proof?  Ah we’ll just take his word for it.  I won’t subscribe to David Barton’s claim, but Brasch is definitely taking the opposite extreme.

Then he cites this…

Several distinguished historians (including Drs. James McGregor Burns and Richard Hofstadter, each of whom won the Pulitzer Prize for history) have pointed out that in 1776 and much of the 19th century, as much as 90 percent of the population did not identify with the Christian church.

Considering the First Great Awakening that took place earlier in the 18th Century (1730s-1740s) that is extremely difficult to believe that by 1776 that many people didn’t identify with the church.  You don’t have that even today and we are a much more secular society.  Then you had the Second Great Awakening that started around 1790, so it’s hard to take Burns and Hofstadter seriously.

He also said that George Washington said, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”  The problem is there is absolutely no evidence that he said such a thing.  He then cites the Treaty of Tripoli signed by John Adams and then ratified by the Senate.  The statement that he attributes to Washington is language that is included in a draft of the Treaty, but Washington never said that.  There is debate as to whether that language passed into the final treaty, and some have said that Article 11 wasn’t even in earlier translations of the treaty.

Then there’s this explanation by Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University:

By their actions, the Founding Fathers made clear that their primary concern was religious freedom, not the advancement of a state religion. Individuals, not the government, would define religious faith and practice in the United States. Thus the Founders ensured that in no official sense would America be a Christian Republic. Ten years after the Constitutional Convention ended its work, the country assured the world that the United States was a secular state, and that its negotiations would adhere to the rule of law, not the dictates of the Christian faith. The assurances were contained in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 and were intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers, (“IntroductionThe Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, Princeton University Press, 2005)

Then there is Adams himself who was quoted saying this to Thomas Jefferson discussing the conflict with the Barbary Pirates. “The policy of Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors before the standard of Mahomet. It would be heroical and glorious in us to restore courage to ours,” (John Adams, Works, Vol. VIII, p. 407, to Thomas Jefferson on July 3, 1786.).

Interesting.  Anyway, my point isn’t to establish that America was or is a Christian nation.  I think reasonable people can agree that our Founders were influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and the Bible – John Locke and Moses.

What I really take issue with is his statement on the First Amendment:

There is another aspect to the First Amendment, often overlooked by those who don’t know history or Constitutional law, yet believe they do. Jefferson, in his first year as president, in a letter to a Baptist congregation, referred to the intent of one of the five parts of the First Amendment as “building a wall of separation between church and state.” Numerous times, the Founding Fathers had reaffirmed this separation, creating what became known as the “establishment clause” in 1787. Several rulings by the Supreme Court reaffirmed this doctrine.

The problem here is that the Danbury Baptist Association were writing Jefferson out of concern about state laws in Connecticut could pass that would diminish their religious freedom.  While the federal government could not establish a church – states could and did.  The Danbury Baptists referred to an “ancient charter.”

They wrote:

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.

What were they complaining about?  Connecticut had, at their original charter, established the Congregational Church as the official church of Connecticut.  The constitution of Connecticut didn’t address it.  They were afraid that the State (Connecticut) was going to pass laws that would be at odds with their religious liberty.  That puts Jefferson’s response in a different light.  Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

He affirmed religious liberty and affirmed that the State would not interfere with the Church.  The Church would be protected from the State.  This says nothing about a public expression of faith by the Church.  It doesn’t address people of faith being involved with politics.  It doesn’t mean you have to separate your personal faith from your public life.  No law is passed in a moral vacuum – the question is whose morals?

Perhaps Dr. Brasch should take another look and admit his view of history is just as biased as he claims the view of the “religious bigots” is.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Myers/1024026834 Brian Myers

    Man does this tripe get old. In another generation or two these guys will rewrite history so effectively that no one will believe there ever existed a Christian culture in America.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Levi/1580899777 Christopher Levi

    Nice reply. Brian’s right. This point of view seems more than abject ignorance. It is the careful packaging of a lie. The Johnny-come-latelies want us to think that they made this culture great. Hrumph!