Missouri Lawmakers Want an Official "Majority" Religion
Ever since Roberts and Alito were confirmed, political religious zealots have been on a rampage:
Missouri legislators in Jefferson City considered a bill that would name Christianity the state's official "majority" religion. House Concurrent Resolution 13 has is pending in the state legislature. Many Missouri residents had not heard about the bill until Thursday.Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson saw this coming. This is a from a must-read essay about secularism by Robin Morgan:
The resolution would recognize "a Christian god," and it would not protect minority religions, but "protect the majority's right to express their religious beliefs.
The resolution also recognizes that, "a greater power exists," and only Christianity receives what the resolution calls, "justified recognition."
State representative David Sater of Cassville in southwestern Missouri, sponsored the resolution, but he has refused to talk about it on camera or over the phone.
Raised a Calvinist, Franklin rebelled -- and spread that rebellion, affecting Adams and Jefferson. His friend, Dr. Priestley, wrote in his own Autobiography: "It is much to be lamented that a man of Franklin 's general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers."
A scientist, Franklin rejected churches, rituals, and all "supernatural superstitions."
"Scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself." (Franklin's Autobiography, 1817-18).
"Some volumes against Deism fell into my hand ... they produced an effect precisely the reverse to what was intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were cited in order to be refuted, appeared to me much more forcibly than the refutation itself; in a word, I soon became a thorough Deist." (Ibid.).
The false image of Washington as a devout Christian was fabricated by Mason Locke Weems, a clergyman who also invented the cherry-tree fable and in 1800 published his Life of George Washington. Washington, a Deist and a Freemason, never once mentioned the name of Jesus Christ in any of his thousands of letters, and pointedly referred to divinity as "It."
Whenever he (rarely) attended church, Washington always deliberately left before communion, demonstrating disbelief in Christianity's central ceremony.
Adams, a Unitarian inspired by the Enlightenment, fiercely opposed doctrines of supernaturalism or damnation, writing to Jefferson: "I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved - the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"
Adams realized how politically crucial -- and imperiled - a secular state would be: "The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [forming the U.S. government] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses. Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery...are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind." (A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787-88).
It's a commonly stated error that U.S. law, based on English common law, is thus grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Yet Jefferson (writing to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814 ) noted that common law "is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England ... about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century. We may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
Jefferson professed disbelief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, while respecting moral teachings by whomever might have been a historical Jesus. He cut up a Bible, assembling his own version: "The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful," he wrote Adams (January 24, 1814), "evidence that parts have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds."
Scorning miracles, saints, salvation, damnation, and angelic presences, Jefferson embraced reason, materialism, and science. He challenged Patrick Henry, who wanted a Christian theocracy: "[A]n amendment was proposed by inserting 'Jesus Christ,' so that [the preamble] should read 'A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion'; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." (from Jefferson's Autobiography, referring to the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom).
The theme is consistent throughout Jefferson 's prolific correspondence: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God." (letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787).
"[The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." (letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800).
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which...thus [built] a wall of separation between church and state" (letter to the Danbury [ Connecticut ] Baptist Association, January 1, 1802).
"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government" (letter to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813).
"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own" (letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814).
"[W]hence arises the morality of the Atheist? Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God" (letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814).
"I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know" (letter to Ezra Stiles, June 25, 1819).
Although prayer groups proliferate in today's Congress, James Madison, "father of the Constitution," denounced even the presence of chaplains in Congress -- and in the armed forces -- as unconstitutional. He opposed all use of "religion as an engine of civil policy," and accurately prophesied the threat of "ecclesiastical corporations."
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise" (letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774).
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution" (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Section 7, 1785).
"What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries" (Ibid., Section 8).
"Besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst. in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect. The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs. is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles. Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy. Religious proclamations by the Executive [branch] recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root. Altho' recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers" (Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1819).
That's only a sampling, quotes that blast cobwebs off the tamed images we have of the Founders. Their own statements -- not dead rhetoric but alive with ringing, still radical, ideas -- can reconnect us to our proud, secular roots, and should inspire us to honor and defend them.
The Founders minced no words -- and they acted on them. Dare we do less?