When the Founders used the word “religion,” they used it much as we did on the playground when I was growing up in America a generation ago. We’d asked each other, “What religion are you?” By the term “religion” we meant some variety or brand of the Christian religion, since that was all that was represented among us. We were Baptists, or Lutherans, or Methodists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics, etc. The question essentially had to do with what brand of Christianity you wore. Such was the case at the time of the Founding.Now this is quaint, almost charming in a smarmy sort of way. Because schoolkids where he lived didn’t know anything about religions other than Christianity, neither did the Founders. There’s logic for you, as Humpty-Dumpty might have observed. Now as Brian Fischer and I seem to be about the same age, maybe my experience growing up could serve as a contrast. Even when I was in grade school nobody would have been so ignorant as to suppose that “religion” was restricted to “some variety or brand of the Christian religion”; we had Jews and Buddhists and unbelievers amongst us, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and other exotica. To imagine that men like Charles Thomson (who translated the Septuagint), Thomas Jefferson (who studied the Koran), or John Adams were as uninformed as Brian Fischer’s retarded (and probably imaginary) schoolfellows is something of a stretch.
And why does Brian Fischer make this outlandish claim? It’s part of an argument that
the First Amendment was written neither to guarantee freedom of religion to Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus nor to prohibit their free exercise of religion. It wasn’t written about them one way or another.And what is his evidence that the Founders mistakenly wrote “religion” when they meant “Christianity”? It’s a weird out-of-context quotation from Justice Joseph Story to the effect that the First Amendment did not intend to place some other religion in Christianity’s place, but only “to cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and the power of subverting the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age.” Joseph Story went on to observe that as far as the Federal government was concerned, “the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.” Note the presence of the Jew and the Infidel at that common table—there is no suggestion here that “religion” in the Constitution was restricted to Christianity.
It was written for one specific purpose: to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion.
This Founders as boobs scenario really doesn’t hold water. The idea that they mistakenly wrote “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” when they meant “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of the Christian religion,” etc assumes that they weren’t capable of expressing the concept in words intelligible to later times. But it is in fact quite clear that they could have given some form of theism a special place in the Constitution—if they’d wanted to. Founder William Williams, for example, wanted the preamble to read,
We the people of the United States, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governour of the world, in his universal providence and the authority of his laws; that he will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct; that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God; therefore in a dependence on his blessing and acknowledgment of his efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union…This notion did not gain favor. Actually, even for suggesting this William Williams had to clear his name from the accusation of having proposed a religious test for the Constitution. Oliver Ellsworth, who had criticized him on that front, accepted his explanation—after a fashion:
It had been represented in several parts of the state, to the great surprise of your friends, that you wished some religious test as an introduction to office, but as you have explained the matter, it is only a religious preamble which you wish—against preambles we have no animosity. Every man hath a sovereign right to use words in his own sense, and when he hath explained himself, it ought to be believed that he uses them conscientiously. … though the honourable gentleman doubtless asserts the truth, there are a great number of those odd people who really think they were present on that occasion, and have such a strong habit of believing their senses, that they will not be convinced even by evidence which is superior to all sense. But it must be so in this imperfect world.Well, it may well be that every man hath a sovereign right (in the manner of Humpty-Dumpty) to use words in his own sense—but some people carry that sovereign right way past sensible and well into outre. When Humpty-Dumpty put a word to extra labor, he paid it extra. Does Brian Fischer, I wonder.