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Posts Tagged ‘first amendment’

This blog has been lurking around in the corners of my mind for quite a while now, ever since July 1, 2016 when I passed a church bulletin calling for all to come to its celebration of God and America. This sign bothered me for several reasons.  Of course, me being an atheist will probably cause most to figure out some of the reasons it bothered me. But only some. As for the rest, well, the rest I thought would be surprising and I hope interesting.

It bothered me because not only is such a mingling of church and state bad for the state, but it is just as bad for the church.

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Let me first say that this church, and the many others that I saw with a similar message, have every right to do so.  However, not everything that is legal and that people have a right to do is also wise. And in this blog I plan to discuss why it is not wise for a religion, in this case Christianity, to mix religion and nationalism. To do so, I will speak as if I were a much younger me, young enough to still be a Christian.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of the Church?

Answer, to spread the good news of the Gospels, the news about Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection.  The church was also meant to provide support and teaching to fellow Christians, and to those who come to its doors seeking. And the church was also meant to serve as a moral guide and conscience of people, of societies, of nations, of the world.

While spreading the news of the Gospels might be easier done when part of a government, as part of the inside group, it does so at the expense of corrupting the church, and of causing great pain and suffering to others outside of that church.

A church is not the state.  Nor is it meant to be.  It is not meant to be a supporter of the state, an auxiliary of the state, a co-ruler with the state.

A church is meant to be an outsider in regards to government.

Christianity was born an outsider.

Jesus was born an outsider with Mary being pregnant before being married

Jesus was born into and preached to a people who were outsiders, the Jews.

Jesus served the outsiders among the Jews; tax collectors, the lepers, the unclean, the sinners.

An outsider preaching to a people of outsiders, that is part of what gave Jesus’ message its power.   His message was not to the rich and powerful, although it was theirs for the taking should they choose to listen.  His message was to the poor and powerless.

His message was not how to create a civil society, how to govern a country or state or city.  His message was about God’s love for humanity and how best to receive and spread that love.  It was a message of hope, not political positions.

Jesus, as the outsider, accepted all, but did not change his message, his standards, nor himself for any.

Jesus changed the world.

From its birth to its early years, Christianity was a religion off outsiders looking in.  Often ridiculed, sometimes persecuted, they nonetheless still for the most part, held firm to their standards and beliefs.  And they grew.

And then came the great split. No, not the Catholic and the Protestant split. Nor the disagreements among Christians, which had been present since the beginning as can be seen in the arguments about the nature of Jesus and his relation to God.

No, the great split I am referring to concerns the split from being outsiders to becoming insiders. The conversion of Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from being a religion of outsiders to being a religion of the insiders, of those with power and money. Or rather, one particular set of Christians became insiders.  As part of the bargain, with Constantine, they had to have a uniform set of beliefs.  So, one set modified some of their beliefs and won, the others became persecuted and died, along with the pagans.

As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of Christianity:

How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”

Now, instead of criticizing the government and society, Christianity and the government tyndale-martyrdom-resized-600were one, and actions against the government were also actions against Christianity, and actions against Christianity were also actions against the government.  Given this, how could most Christians criticize any government action, no matter how bad or how flawed?  How could any government allow any deviation from the established religion, no matter how well argued and supported?

They couldn’t

An attack on the religion supported by the state was an attack on the state, and an attack vc006367on the state was an attack on the religion.  Such was the root cause of most of the religious violence and persecution throughout the years; the Inquisition, the forced conversion and persecution of the Jews, Catholics vs. Protestants, Protestants vs. Puritans, Puritans vs. Quakers, and on and on and on.

In addition to the violence against people, was the violence done to beliefs and morals as Churches assumed stately power. Compromises with principles and beliefs were common, as were the flat out ignoring of such principles and beliefs.

This violence against people and against the teachings of Jesus and of God is probably why the first person to propose an absolute and total separation of church and state was a Puritan theologian and the founder of the Baptist Church in America – Roger Williams. And he lived up to that ideal when he founded the state of Rhode Island.

The United States was the first secular government in the world. Something that the writers of the Constitution did intentionally, and with great forethought.

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Their foresight and awareness of history is something lacking today by too many Americans, and is evidenced by so much more than just the signs I saw that inspired this blog.  This lack of forethought and awareness is seen whenever anyone:

  • Claims that the United States is a Christian country. And then advocates for laws to make it so – prayer in the schools, recognition of the Bible as the state book, etc.
  • Work to limit or take away the rights of those who are not the right sort of Christian or believer.
  • Tells Muslims to go home, even those who were born in the United States. And then tries to make it so.
  • Whenever permits are denied to religious groups due to their beliefs.
  • When President H. Bush commented that atheist could not be patriots due to not believing in God.
  • When Trump sends out a White House bulletin in which he states “America is a Nation of believers. As long as we have faith in each other, and trust in God, we will succeed!”

We, as a nation, as a people, have never been very good at remembering. But, today, that

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lack of memory, of awareness, seems stronger than ever.  The evangelical support forTrump shows how far too many Christians and Christian organizations, are willing to go in dealing with the devil in order to gain political power.  And how many of their values and morals, and how much of the teachings of Jesus they are willing to ignore or give up in their quest for political power.

 

I think that they need to go back and read the history of religion, and of what happens when it becomes part of the state.  Some Madison, or Jefferson, or several others would be good.  But, perhaps, it would be best if they rediscovered the writings and thought of Roger Williams.  Before they manage to harm not just people, but the Constitution that will allow such harm to, eventually, be redressed.

 

 

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Words. I am amazed at how many people seem to believe that words mean something apart from how we interpret them. Yes, sometimes the interpretation is easy. Most often though, especially with those words whose groupings are considered to be among the most important, they are not.

Power of Words

Two recent claims of a belief in a literal view of words was brought to my attention recently. Or rebrought rather since I was already aware of them. And both dealt with the U.S. Constitution.

The first dealt with the 2nd Amendment and its use of the word “infringe”. As in “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This person had posted the dictionary definition of infringed in an attempt to show that our Constitution is against any sort of gun control and that all laws regulating the purchase of firearms is an attack on one of our most fundamental rights. Now, I don’t remember exactly which dictionary this person used, but its definition was similar to if not exactly like this one from the Merriam Webster dictionary.

“to wrongly limit or restrict (something, such as another person’s rights)”

Of course, this person was focused on the words “limit or restrict” and interpreted “wrongly” as meaning all attempts to limit or restrict. However, I had a different take on this definition. Mine, and I believe most people’s, interpretation would be that “wrong” described a type of attempt, not that all attempts at limiting or restricting are wrong. In other words instead of any attempt then, wrongly means that some attempts are wrong but also strongly implies that there are also correct ways to limit or restrict.

I also pointed out to this person that they were ignoring the first part of the amendment, “well regulated”. Words when used in sentences or any other larger grouping cannot be understood fully in isolation Those other words can and usually do change or modify their meanings.
In this case, the dictionary definition supports the idea that there are ways to correctly “limit or restrict” this right, and when added to the words “well regulated”, then gun control laws are not unconstitutional. Some can be, others are not. This is recognized even in the recent Supreme Court case, McDonald v Chicago, that recognized an individual right to own a gun.
The other words under dispute was the phrase “separation of church and state”. As is usual for so many extreme conservatives, they like to point out that this phrase is not in the constitution. They then point out that what is in the Constitution instead is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Words known as the establishment clause.

And they are quite right about this. However, where they go wrong is in claiming that the establishment clause of the Constitution has a plain and literal meaning at odds with that of the phrase separation of church and state. They act as if the establishment clause needs no interpretation. And to add to the fun, they then often then go on to interpret it as meaning to establish a state church and nothing more.

To cap it all off, their interpretation flies in the face of how the word establishment was used during the time of the writing of the Constitution.

It ignores the fact that the man most responsible for writing the establishment clause and getting it passed, James Madison, also used this phrase of Thomas Jefferson to describe the intent of this clause.

They also ignore the history of the ratification of the Constitution and how, although its writers and promoters were justifiably gravely concerned about it being ratified, they did not respond to the many criticisms hurled their way that the Constitution did not contain a reference to Christianity or Jesus or even to just God.

They further ignore the historical fact that even after its ratification attempts were made to correct this supposed deficiency, attempts which were always defeated both during the time immediately after the Constitution and for all the years afterwards – during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency, during President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and on into the 20th century.

So, in their attempt to say that it does not need to be interpreted, they interpret it in a way at odds with the writer of those words and with history. Seems to me that their view is more the result of their ideology than any sort of reality. Or laziness. After all, it is much easier to look at a word, put your interpretation to it, pretend it is THE literal meaning of the word, and then be happy that it confirms your own biases and prejudices. Look at how much easier that process is than the one I used in the last paragraph above, wherein I had to find out how the word establishment was used in regards to religion at that time, at who wrote those words and how he described the meaning of what he wrote, and at the history of the Constitution.

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Of course, the greatest argument against this idea of a literal reading is the fact that those who claim to believe in such so often disagree on what those words mean when applied to life and when enacted in the world. This is true whether the words in question are those of the Constitution, the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other set of words.

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In a crowded room and noisy room, the person with the loudest voice is the one most likely to be heard and listened to. Today the Supreme Court handed down a ruling to allow those with loud voices to speak even louder, drowning out the voices of those who speak more softly even though they are by far the most numerous and, supposedly, having an equal right to be heard.

 

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Being a member of a religious minority group, one that is not highly regarded by the majority of Americans, I have a strong interest in the separation of church and state.  In looking at all the legislation being proposed and sometimes passed across all 50 states – creationism, prayers in school and city councils, laws outlawing Sharia, abortion, school vouchers, etc. – , there are times when it becomes rather discouraging and all to easy to be pessimistic about the state of the “wall of separation”.    However, I would be wrong in feeling this way.

Looking only on the problems and challenges can give one a biased view of reality.   It is natural to focus on the problems because that is where our attention needs to be in order to prevent or correct bad laws and practices that would dismantle this wall.   However, while doing so it is important that we also look at and acknowledge the many victories that have also been won.

Constitution

With this in mind, I thought it would be good idea to go over just a few of the many victories attained over the last year in regards to maintaining the wall.  So, here are a few victories pulled from different news outlook and from the Americans United For Separation of Church and State’s magazine “Church and State”.  In no particular order, they are:

–  The Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA.   While not a complete victory it did accomplish a much needed and very important first step by eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation on the federal level.   This now needs to be extended to the states, and given what the polls show in regards to American’s views on homosexuality and marriage, this will happen.   It will take time and work, but it will happen.

–   The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee voted 14 – 8 against an amendment that would have allowed states to use federal funds for vouchers.

–   South Carolina’s Senate rejected a measure that would have given tax credits for donations to scholarships meant to send students to private, and overwhelmingly religious, schools.  It also would have given $4,000 tax deductions to parents for tuition at private schools and $2,000 for home schooling costs.  It was a decisive vote of 23 – 18 against this proposal with nine Republicans voting against it.

–   The parents who prayed over their daughter until she was dead instead of taking her to the doctor were properly convicted of negligent homicide by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  It was a very firm 6 – 1 decision.

–   Creationists failed, again.   Eight states that had bills supporting creationism being sneaked back into the schools were defeated.

— Arizona’s “academic freedom” bill that would have targeted subjects such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and cloning died in committee.

— Colorado’s bill was similar to that of Arizona’s both in content and in fate.   It too died in committee.

— Indiana considered and rejected a bill that would have compelled teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions and theories being presented in a course being taught by a teacher.”   It too never made it out of committee.

— Missouri’s bill that would have required that both intelligent design and evolution be taught as equal also died in committee.

— Montana’s bill requiring schools to encourage “critical thinking regarding controversial scientific theories”, like its siblings in the other states, died in committee.

— Oklahoma’s bill also required teachers to encourage critical thinking and to look at both the strengths and weaknesses in regards to certain scientific theories.  This one actually managed to crawl out of committee, but never received a vote on the floor.

—  Texas, of course, had a bill that would have forbade colleges and universities from discriminating in regards to employment or academic position anyone who supported research relating to “the theory of intelligent design or other alternative theories of the origin and development of organisms.”   It too never made it out of committee.

— Virginia’s bill would have given students a religious exemption from completing or participating in “academic assignments or education presentations.”   Again, failed in committee.

–   “A public school in South Bristol, Maine, cancelled a prayer that was to be included in a maritime – themed event after receiving a complaint from Americans United.”

–   In Oklahoma a public high school student, Gage Pulliam, protested the Ten Commandments display at his school.   School officials decided to remove the displays rather than fight a losing case.

–   “A New Hampshire state court has struck down a tax-credit scheme that funds religious schools.”

— A Wisconsin school district that was holding high school graduation ceremonies in churches lost their case when the Seventh Circuit federal appellate court ruled against them.

— A school district near Detroit has ended the practice of coach involvement in pre-game prayers before high school football games.

Many more cases and examples could be listed, but this should suffice to show that while the wall of separation may get battered every now and again it is still very much standing.  This is even more evident in the number of people and organizations that work hard to defend this American innovation.   Organizations such as:

–           Americans United, whose executive director is Barry Lynn, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. 

 

–          Texas Freedom Foundation, a non partisan, grassroots organization consisting of over 60,000 religious and community leaders.

 

–          Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who carry on the work of Roger Williams, who founded the Baptist Church in America, in fighting for a strong wall of separation between church and state.

 

–          American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought for the separation of church and state as well as protecting other civil liberties since 1920.  

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While there have been, currently are, and will continue to be attacks on the whole idea of separation of church and state, the wall still maintains.  In fact, I would argue that it is even stronger and higher today than 60 years ago when states still freely supported religions in various ways.  There have been defeats, but nothing that cannot be changed or remedied, and nothing that has destroyed this wall.

So, on this July 4th let us remember a distinctly American creation – the Separation of Church and State.  Long may the wall stand.

 

 

 

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