Sunday, August 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on Aid to Religion & Originalism

I'm going to come back to yesterday's post on the opinions of Christian Nationalist J. Phillips because Phillips' pithy summary well illustrates the Christian Nationalist view on government aid to religion. As the author wrote: The Founders believed

God exists, we were created by God, the Bible is his word and therefore it should be printed and promoted with government funds and contrary positions are not in accord with the truth....

This is what David Barton et al. leave their followers believing. Importantly, this is what they have them believing the FEDERAL government could do.

"Religion" was originally left to the states. And their approach towards its establishment varied. Jefferson and Madison, in their historic Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom adopted a rule of no direct aid to religion. Indeed the statute (a document they claimed was based on "natural right" like the Declaration of Independence -- no mere statute!) held it was sinful to tax someone to support a religion in which he didn't believe.

George Washington and John Adams on the other hand didn't believe it violated natural right to publicly aid "religion" or even "the Christian religion." However, this was with the caveat that those of non-Christian religions still equally possessed their unalienable rights of conscience. As Washington put it reacting to the controversy in Virginia -- Patrick Henry's plan to publicly aid teachers of the Christian religion:

I am not amongst the number of those who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination of Christians; or declare themselves Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief. As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated, and as it has gone so far, that the Bill could die an easy death;…

You can see right off the bat how Washington's "accommodationist" position is not in accord with the above quoted Christian Nationalist sentiment. Christian Nationalism holds Christianity is Truth and as such should be publicly supported, other religious opinions entirely disregarded.

Washington, on the other hand, held the opinions of Jews and Muslims -- opinions that reject the "Truth" of Christianity -- have some kind of natural right to "proper relief" such that their tax dollars won't be used to aid a religion (Christianity) in which they don't believe.

Regarding how the federal government could aid religion, ours is a Constitution of limited, enumerated powers. And "religion" -- indeed the "Christian religion" -- is left entirely unendowed. Christian Nationalists have taken a few instances of the federal government involving itself in religious matters -- instances that can be explained in nuanced historical context -- and extrapolate a general norm that the federal government saw itself as having the role of supporting (even with public funds!) Christianity, not contrary claims of truth. In short, Christian Nationalists' distortion of history has lead folks to erroneously believe that the federal government was originally in the business of printing and disseminating Bibles and otherwise supporting Christian only claims of truth.

Chris Rodda has done excellent work exposing the nonsense of these claims. She writes about one of those instances in this post at Talk To Action where I sometimes post as well. She addresses the following Christian Nation assertion that actually found its way into a Congressional Resolution:

"Whereas in 1777, Congress, facing a National shortage of `Bibles for our schools, and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches,' announced that they `desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement' and therefore ordered 20,000 copies of the Bible to be imported `into the different ports of the States of the Union';"

And she responds:

First of all, the first two quotes in this statement, which Mr. Forbes claims were "announced" by Congress, were not the words of Congress, but come from the petition of a group of Philadelphia ministers. Second, Congress did not import any Bibles.

In 1777, three ministers from Philadelphia, Francis Alison, John Ewing, and William Marshall, came up with a plan to alleviate the Bible shortage caused by the inability to import books from England during the Revolutionary War. The ministers' request for help from Congress, and Congress's consideration of the ministers' petition had to do with the problem of price gouging during the war.

The ministers' idea was to import the necessary type and paper, and print an edition of the Bible in Philadelphia. The problem with this plan, however, was that, if the project was financed and controlled by private companies, the Bibles would most likely be bought up and resold at prices that the average American couldn't afford. What the ministers wanted Congress to do was to import the materials and finance the printing, as a loan to be repaid by the sale of the Bibles. As Rev. Alison explained in the petition, if Congress imported the type and paper, and Congress contracted the printer, then Congress could regulate the selling price of the Bibles.(4)

The petition was referred to a committee, which concluded that it would be too costly to import the type and paper, and too risky to import them into Philadelphia, a city likely to be invaded by the British, and proposed the less risky alternative of importing already printed Bibles into different ports from a country other than England. If Congress did this, they would still be able to regulate the selling price and be reimbursed by the sales.

What appears in the Journals of the Continental Congress after the committee's report is the following motion.

"Whereupon, the Congress was moved, to order the Committee of Commerce to import twenty thousand copies of the Bible."(5)

The problem for those who claim or imply, as Mr. Forbes does, that the Bibles were imported is that, although this motion passed, it was not a final vote to import the Bibles. It was a vote to replace the original plan of importing the type and paper with the committee's new proposal of importing already printed Bibles. The vote on this motion was close -- seven states voted yes; six voted no. A second motion was then made to pass an actual resolution to import the Bibles, but this was postponed and never brought up again. No Bibles were imported. This little problem is solved in the religious right history books by either misquoting the motion to turn it into a resolution, or omitting the motion altogether and ending the story with some statement implying that the Bibles were imported.

See also Chapter 1 of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, "Congress and the Bible," at


Tom Van Dyke said...

What makes the point entirely moot is that we're talking about the Continental Congress here, not the congress established by the constitution of 1787.

BTW, I object to "Liars for Jesus" dot com [a manifestly rude bunch] intimating that the Religious Right and the "Christian Nation" crowd are synonymous. The latter is merely a subset of the former. By way of illustration, the secular left are not all Marxists.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree Tom that Rodda's title (and her attack mode) are the two things about her work that I find somewhat objectionable. But her research is solid.

bpabbott said...

Tom commented: "[...] intimating that the Religious Right and the "Christian Nation" crowd are synonymous. The latter is merely a subset of the former. By way of illustration, the secular left are not all Marxists."

Good point.

I think one of the reasons we see such stereotyping is that so many of the "Christian Nation" crowd declare/imply/pretend that they speak for the Religious Right ... and unfortunately they are often not challenged (at least not in the media). The result is that an association becomes cemented in the minds of those who do not subscribe to the perspectives of the Religious Right.

Likewise, there are many who refer to left leaners and/or progressives as Marxists/Commies. In my experience, many of those leveling such claims/accusations also presume guilt by association. I expect there are many Marxists/Communists who claim to speak for the left, but such is not common place here in the US.

In any event, It is unfortunate that so many of us fall victim to societies stereotypes and our perceptions :-(

Pinky said...

The secular left?
What's that?

bpabbott said...

Pinky asked: "The secular left? What's that?"

Good question/point! ... I have no idea! ;-)

Being secular does not require any prejudice and predisposition.

What secularism does require is that ideas/thoughts/etc be expressed in the absence of doctrine or dogma.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Now, now. You guys know exactly what I mean by "secular left." Let's not get caught up in disingenuousness here, or worse, sophism.

There once was a significant Religious Left, you know, allied with the Democratic Party. The Catholic Worker movement, FDRism. William Jennings Bryan., "Inherit the Wind" notwithstanding. I'm sure some people found that offensive, too...

Jim Sweeney said...

The secular left is not quite an invisible sector. It's preponderantly academic and not politically powerful, except perhaps in local politics in coastal California, but it's not exactly reticent either. The label might arguably describe most American Jews as well.

Liberals running for public office in most districts are obliged to profess some sort of Judeo-Christian fervor, so, sadly, "the religious left" circumscribes the field of credible contenders for office in the Democratic Party.

bpabbott said...

Tom commented: ``Now, now. You guys know exactly what I mean by "secular left."``

Sorry Tom, my comment wasn't pointed in your direction. My response was actually pointed in the direction of my own interpretation ... I apologize for not being clear on that.