A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, December 22, 2005

In which my alter ego the History Geek explains the separation of church and state for a Dover board member

Apparently, a former Dover school board member has a question.
Former School Board member William Buckingham, who advanced the policy, said from his home in Mount Airy, N.C., that he still feels the board did the right thing.

"I'm still waiting for a judge or anyone to show me anywhere in the Constitution where there's a separation of church and state," he said. "We didn't lose; we were robbed."

I’m avoiding saying, “We wuz ROBBED!” Tee hee hee. Oh wait-- I said it anyway.

Well, okay. Lemme put on my History Geek hat and grab a nice cup of tea.

Let's start with the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from making any law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. "Establishing" in this sense means providing support with tax dollars. There have been many “established” or “state” religions in modern history, such as Shintoism in Japan; Islam in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East and southwestern Asia such as Iran; the Anglican Church in England; Lutheranism in Sweden; Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, and Thailand; Roman Catholicism in Italy and Spain; and the Latter Day Saint church in Utah, to name a few.

In the history of early America, "established churches" were certainly the norm and included the Congregational Church in several New England states and the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church in several Southern states, including the largest state in the early years of our republic, that of Virginia. These churches maintained "established" status until the 1830s. Everyone in the state had to pay money for the support of these churches, even if they didn’t belong to these churches. By the way, in many of these states you could also be fined if you did not attend worship services. The state of Rhode Island was established by Roger Williams, a minister who protested these kinds of practices and possibly established the first Baptist church in what was then called the English colonies in 1639.

Interestingly enough, many of our “founding fathers” were adamant about ending these practices. Most notable were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the former the author of the Declaration of Independence and the latter commonly known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Jefferson wrote a “Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom” for the Virginia legislature as early as 1777, before our Constitution was even drawn up. I like the following quote:
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

Jefferson’s bill was finally adopted in Virginia in 1786.

But of course the Constitution bound only the federal government, not the states in the original understanding. Several states required the holding of Protestant beliefs to hold elective office, and Jews were forbidden to vote in some southern states until 1860—and Jews had been famously exempted from protection under the Maryland Act of Toleration of 1649. Other states, such as New York, Delaware, and Tennessee, went the other direction and forbade clergy members from holding office.

In the early years of the 19th century, those who were in favor of separating religion from tax support were very religious people known as “New Lights” who were also very interested in education: they founded the College of New Jersey (we know it as Princeton) and Brown and others of what we could call “Ivy League” schools. These “New Lights” believed that the "established" churches had become so hidebound and soul-deadening and overly intellectualized at the cost of emotional appeal that the only way to loosen their grip on power was to end tax support of all denominations and sects. The “New Lights” believed in spiritual revival—the original proponents of being “born-again.” And so we had the most fervent Christians fighting FOR the separation of church and state. Through their efforts, and the efforts of other people who disagreed with the beliefs of the established churches, tax support of churches ended by the 1830s in America.

So, yes, our tradition of separating religion from the apparatus of government is "only" about 180 years old, Mr. Buckingham.


At 12/23/05, 11:54 PM, Blogger EdWonk said...

Nicely Done. We've linked this post over at our place.

At 12/24/05, 8:54 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks, Edwonk!

Does anyone really wantt to go back to the days when people could only vote if they were Christians?

And as we've seen in countless ways, when the government starts paying even a 8% of the bills, like in, say, schools, it starts telling people what to do...

At 12/24/05, 2:22 PM, Blogger urbansocrates said...

Thanks for the historical background -- I knew some of it but not all -- and I am so glad the judge in the case found against ID in the science classroom! This Dover school board member should take his nose out of religious pamphlets long enough to find out the central, longstanding principles on which his country is based, and discover that while our Republic has its roots in the Reformation, that doesn't mean that we live in a "Christian country" whatever that means (something different to each Christian, no doubt).

At 12/24/05, 2:29 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Oh, I don't think these people WANT to know anything. They're too suspicious of learning as being antithetical to their religious beliefs.

I am a Christian (with a bit of zen thrown in)-- but there is NO way that I understand this mindset.


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