Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religion and America: A Prop. 8 U.S. history lesson

I'm sure that many of you are anxious to hear about what went down in Salt Lake last night - but before I post that, let me just share a couple of thoughts with you.

During my days at BYU, I TA'ed for American Heritage, a US history / political science / economics / current events GE, for three years, so between taking it once and then teaching it six times, I've pretty much got the class drilled into me forever.

One of the things that we discussed was the widening circle of rights, and how eventually, if you stretch those circles far enough, one person's right will inevitably butt up against another's. It's precisely what's happening right now!

It is absolutely harrowing to me to see that what my professors said was down the road is right before my eyes.

And for those of you who hated on American Heritage... well, I told you so! ;)

It was probably the most important class we took in college, regardless of major. People just don't know their history! They don't know what they're talking about! I'm so sick of hearing about a "Constitutional right" to marry. So I sat down last night and reread the Constitution, something I think every American should do from time to time. Most of it is about how the government is set up to function, until you get to the Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments. Let's review the First Amendment, shall we?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I think it's worth noting that the original wording of the First Amendment proposed by the Senate on March 9, 1789, is that "Congress shall not make any law establishing any religious denomination." The second version stated "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination." Notice the nuanced difference. For the Founders, the terms "religion" and "denomination" are interchangeable. As a writer, I can appreciate why they would leave one and not both. It would have been redundant in their eyes to have both!

Fisher Ames, the Founding Father who offered the version we now know as the First Amendment, wrote in an 1801 magazine article that he was concerned that the Bible might eventually take a backseat in the classroom: "Why then, if these new books for children must be retained, as they will be, should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book?"

And he's the one who finalized that Congress shall not make a ruling on religion!

I respect the protestors' First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly - but their argument should be directed to the government, not the Church. And even then, the people. voted. twice. on. this. Against every odd they stacked against us. Their reaction is so irrational!

Now, an oft-ignored fact by those who shout about a "separation of church and state" is that, first of all, that phrase is NOWHERE to be found in any of our Founding documents. The concept came from the personal writings of Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a group that constituted a religious minority in Connecticut:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
The place where religion is addressed explicitly in the Constitution is in the last clause of Article IV of the Constitution, which stipulates that "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

As Dr. Frank Fox (my academic idol!) wrote:

While a few of the Framers were religious skeptics, most were committed churchmen - and even the skeptics appreciated religion's power to promote civic virtue. The question was, how to bring such power to bear? Some delegates argued for a mild religious test, requiring officeholders to embrace mainstream Christianity.

Experience had shown, however, that religious tests, however mild, had the effect of cementing an official tie between church and state. Several of the Framers regarded such a tie as desirable. No republican society, they argued, could succeed without some official religion. But most of the delegates took the opposite view. Official religion worked two kinds of mischief, they said. It opened the way for the official church to corrupt the political system, and conversely opened the way for the political system to corrupt the official church. Those delegates representing states where a religious establishment still persisted could testify to the baneful effects.

By prohibiting a religious test, the Framers aimed not to destroy the influence of religion on politics but to purify it. The theory went something like this. All believers, now lacking any official capacity, were welcome to exert their influence on govermnet in any way they saw fit - just as any citizens were. And since no denomination stood to gain by the way of patronage, the motives of all must be relatively pure. The only real message a church might have under the Constitution would be to urge integrity, responsibility and a sacralized civic virtue.

And thus we see that the Founding Fathers merely wanted to keep America from facing the issues of a state religion that they had seen in England. They were not men against religion. Some were more devout than others, but that isn't to say they were all secular men, as is so often taught in schools these days. One has only to read George Washington's farewell address to see his view of the importance of religion in America:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
There is much more I could say on the issue, but I'll end with that for today.

Well, one more thought.

Do you know what the first public school law was in America?

"The Old Deluder Satan Act," passed in 1642. It began "It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures, as in former times..."

I'm just sayin'.

For more information go to


Zoey said...

Thank you so much for this post- it is fantastic! I was actually working on a similar post this morning and you have said just about everything I've been thinking.

ethingtoneric said...

My dear brothers and sisters of Utah, my name is Eric. I live in SLC and would like to ask you a favor. I grew up and was raised as a faithful member of the LDS church. I attended nursery, primary, served several leadership position in young mens, and was eventually married in the Salt Lake Temple. I’m struggling with an adjustable mortgage and the economy’s toll on my job. I am also bisexual.

Many of my neighbors, and I’m sure many of you, felt confusion, and perhaps misapprehension at the massive protest around Temple Square pushing for “Gay Rights.” Please, I ask that you try to understand what’s going on, and why feelings and emotions are so high on this topic. What we are asking for is not a lessening of the value of traditional marriage. We are not asking for you to change your beliefs. We are not asking the LDS or any other church to change its doctrine. We are not even asking you to agree with our beliefs. What we are asking for, is the possibility of being equal citizens, of enjoying the same privileges and civil rights that everyone else has. We are asking that you believe with us that “We the people” means all of us.

There has been a lot of discussion that if same sex marriage was legalized, a church could be sued if it refuses to perform the marriages, but that same concern existed during the civil rights movement, and that never happened.

We don’t hate any church, and we love each and every one of our neighbors here in this great state. Please, recognize that we have the same feelings that you do. We want to be able to express our love for each other in the same way that husbands and wives everywhere do. America has come a long way in such a short time. We recognized that women are equal to men, that people of color are in no way lesser citizens. We recognized that there is nothing wrong with interracial marriage. But there are still steps to take, we haven’t perfected it yet!

We have to come together, right now, as a common people; and say once and for all that we are all equal, that every human being in this beautiful world should enjoy the same rights as everyone else. That no one is better than his neighbors. Please, stand with us. Our rights are your rights.

With all my love,
Eric E.

**Copies of this letter have been sent to all local SLC news outlets, as well as to President Monson of the LDS church. PLEASE!! Copy the link to this page down and share it with EVERYONE that you can think of. Together, we can work for a better tomorrow! The link is:

Christa Jeanne said...

Eric, you're welcome to your opinion, and I wish you well - but same-sex marriage is not a right, gay couples in California already have all the same rights as hetero couples, and every Yes on 8 claim was based in case law or anecdotal evidence.

I would happily extend partnership rights to registered domestic partnerships or civil unions throughout the nation. To not have that is discriminatory, I agree.

But it is not marriage. The definition of the institution that has served as the cornerstone of our society for millenia should not be changed to accommodate a tiny, tiny minority who are using these so-called "rights" as a power struggle.

And in no way does the lack of same-sex marriage stick gay couples to second-class citizenship. It just is not true. You are entitled to your opinion, but seeing as this is a forum and topic close to my heart, I would be remiss to not respond.

As one Latter-day Saint to another, the Family Proclamation is crystal clear about marriage being between a man and a woman; Pres. Monson has echoed that sentiment in recent days. Part of sustaining and following the prophet is heeding to his counsel, because as God's mouthpiece, he will not be led astray. This is an issue where you cannot claim to follow the prophet and simultaneously side with the No on 8 crowd. I do not mean that judgmentally - it is between you and God, and no one else, and I do wish you well.