I do not like or agree with this so-called interpretation of the the first half of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Thanks again to Mike Church, who I respect as a very thoughtful conservative and [r]epublican, and seeks diligently to make more Americans think (yes, actually think) about our country’s constitutional roots and basis. But Mike, I must again disagree.
The main historical argument (and pretty much the only one) I have heard to support that the First Amendment is (in part) about so-called “Separation of Church and State” (which for the benefit of unaware readers – is not in its text), is Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 writing to the Danbury Baptist Association.
This 1802 writing must immediately be discarded as the basis, because it quite simply, is not. The 1802 writing is not the Constitution and it is not the First Amendment.
Let’s critically look at the text. The First Amendment says (in part):
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof:…”
It doesn’t say God must be absent from government. It would be fully constitutional to have crosses or other religious items present in congressional chambers, Christmas trees at the White House, etc. etc. etc.
First, “Congress shall make no law…” – That is pretty straight forward. There is nothing about secularism in that text, or separation. And this part of the amendment is, I believe, the basis for the “separation” part of the interpretation. Many (perhaps, but not certainly including Jefferson) seem to interpret this language as meaning “separation”.
The second part of my disagreement stems in part from a poor contextualization. It seems like those who seek to secularize American government do so based only on the first half of the above (partial language of) The First Amendment. They remember so well (in support of their presuppositions and religious views) that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,…” but forget the seconf half of the above (partial) First Amendment clause “…or prohibiting the FREE exercise thereof…”
There is so much secularization focus in modern society. So many pundits, talk show hosts, other “Talking Heads” and certainly many Marxists (another topic related to the First Amendment), that they very conveniently forget that government is not to restrict the free practice thereof. Wow!
I choose to believe that this amendment is based on assuring for perpetuity our contry’s RIGHT to religious freedom – to follow what ever religion each person chooses to believe. Congress shall not have the right to pass any law that interrupts that right, nor shall they pass any law (that also interrupts that right) by creating a state church. That is a much different presupposition than the view that the purpose of the amendment was to secularize the government.
Government can be as religious or as secular as it wishes. But what it can not do is pass laws that in any way interfere with the rights of citizens to follow what ever religious path they choose.
Although I am a Biblical Christian, and believe the Bible to be the only and final inerrant teaching for my faith, I believe that, for example, if Congress was one day filled with 100% devout muslims, that if they wanted to pray five times a day in congressional chambers toward Mecca (as muslims do), that is their constitutional right. If Congress was 100% Atheist, and they chose to pray five times a day to “The Big Bang” (humor intended), that would be their constitutional right. If (as I personally would wish) if the U.S. Congress was filled with 100% Christians, and they wanted to pray five times a day, that would also be their right.
Government can be as religious or secular as it wishes. And American society can be as religious or secular as it chooses. This, I believe, is what the language and intent of the FirstAmendment (as regards religon) says and means.
There is the argument based on Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 writing mentioned above, which, with all due respect, I must disagree. Most (if not all) modern arguments favoring Constitutional “Separation of Church and State” are based on Jefferson’s writings which have somehow been related back to the original Constitutional Amendment’s language.
I would contend to such people – if we are truly constitutionalists, and seek to help in returning this great nation back to it’s constitutional roots, then let’s do just that. We should not seek to return to Jeffersonian writings from nearly three decades later. That is a whole generation after the constitution. What happened between those times? What were Jefferson’s views at that time? And here’s a very important question: how many of those who approved the First Amendment itself, actually approved and/or ratified Jefferson’s statements in 1802? That is actually a new thought to me as I am writing. Wow. That one hadn’t occurred to me. Jefferson’s statements in 1802 were never ratified as a Constitutional Amendment. But somehow, modern view of the first phrase of the First Amendment is based not so much on the RATIFIED language of the amendment itself, but Jefferson’s 1802 writings.
This brings to mind an anecdotal story (which I’ll have to dig up again). I remember reading in the Reader’s Digest many years ago about a book entitled something to the effect of “The Secret Zionist Papers” (may not be correct – just from my memory). These were purported to be proceedings from a secret Jewish conference held in the 1890’s, and said to have included radical statements about how the Jewish community had the intent of taking over the world. (According to my failing memory) This book was researched by an investigative reporter from the London Times in the 1920’s and found to be a complete fabrication (completely untrue). But a young German man, Adolf Hitler, apparently got hold of a copy of this book, and it became some of the basis of his now infamous anti-semitism that led to the deaths of millions.
Ironic how writings can remain with such impact. I certainly would in no way equate Thomas Jefferson – not at all. But I use this to illustrate how important critical analysis of the truth of writings is very important. Thomas Jefferson wrote about his views of the Constitution, decades after the fact, and with no review or ratification. Yet Jefferson’s presonal views in 1802 remains as a dominant interpretation of a Constitutional Amendment.
My advice – read the amendment for yourself. Do not use someone elses writings to do your thinking for you. Look at the language in the amendment. Thomas Jefferson I will presume was a very intelligent and partiotic man. He wrote some great things, and contributed greatly to the development of this country ((the U.S.A.). But although a great and respected founding father of these United States, his 1802 writings were not, and are not, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.