25 July 2011

Glory 2—The Quickening

A few more thoughts on Archbigot Fischer’s novel exegesis of the word religion, based on his remembrance of the notions of the backward schoolchildren of his youth.

Actually it can’t possibly be correct. The First Amendment reads in part:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
If the term religion is here supposed to mean Christianity, then the meaning of this passage has to be only that Congress is restricted from establishing some brand of the Christian religion as the state church, leaving it free (apparently) to go ahead and establish (say) Buddhism or Islam as a state religion just so long as Christianity is tolerated, and its “free exercise” not prohibited. Surely that can’t be the intention.

The only way to make the Archbigot’s notion work is to assume that religion in the first clause means, well, “religion”, while in the second clause it suddenly changes its meaning to “the Christian religion”. That’s a lot of extra work to put the same damn word to—and it is actually the same word, used once and only once, making this construction in point of fact impossible.

What about the Constitution’s only other mention of religion, that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”? Again, if religious applies only to the Christian religion, then the absurd proposition appears that the Constitution prohibits the government from requiring adherence to some particular Christian creed, but allows it to enjoin some Islamic or Hindu set of injunctions. This concept does not seem to me to have been well thought out. I would say that it is quite clear that—whatever the use of the word may have been in their time—the Framers meant religion in its broadest sense.

But is the Archbigot correct that “at the time of the Founding” the term religion “essentially had to do with what brand of Christianity you wore”? We’ve already seen that his own witness, Justice Story, let him down. What if we examined some other specific examples of the term in its native habitat? Consider this observation, written by James Madison to a Dr. Motta:
Among the features peculiar to the political system of the U. States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect. … Equal laws, protecting equal rights, are found, as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty & love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect & good will among Citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony, and most favorable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your congregation brings them fully within the scope of these observations.
Note here that the Jews are included in Madison’s understanding of the phrases “religious sect” and “religious denomination”. There’s no indication here that he shares the Archbigot’s playground definition that makes religion exclusively Christian.

Let’s take an example from Dr. Benjamin Rush. He wrote in his essay “On the Proper Mode of Education: in a Republic”:
Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.
So it appears that when Benjamin Rush used the term religion, he would include “the opinions of Confucius or Mohamed” in it. Are we to suppose that he mistakenly thought Confucius and Mohammed were Christians? No; as his very next words make clear he preferred the “truth of the Christian revelation” to other religious doctrines. In other words Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity were all included in his notion of religion.

And here’s one from John Adams, written to Mordecai Manuel Noah, 31 July 1818:
It has pleased the Providence of the “first cause,” the universal cause, that Abraham should give religion, not only to Hebrews, but to Christians and Mahometans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world.
So it seems that when Adams used the word religion, he included Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity in its compass.

Even a quick survey shows a number of counter-examples to Brian Fischer’s claim, and these among key players in the Founding of the United States. Further, there’s no way of making sense of the Constitution if his implausible suggestion be accepted. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse to a bloody pulp here, but—get real, man. It’s pretty clear that when the Framers wrote of an establishment of religion, they meant what they said—not merely that no Christian sect would be established as a national religion over others, but that no religion of any kind should be established. And if they did indeed mean disestablishment all round, then it’s clear that they meant free exercise across the board as well. It was the same damn word, for God’s sake.

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