Sunday, February 10, 2013

America's First Freedom

by Richard Balmer
Q.  Do you think most Americans have a good grasp on the origins of religious freedom?
A. In a sense, I don’t think the story can be told too often. I regard the First Amendment as the genius of American life, certainly the key to understanding religion in America and why faith has flourished here as nowhere else. I fear that Americans take the First Amendment for granted, and too often we fail to appreciate that religious freedom was born out of the crucible of religious repression, both in the Old World and also in various American colonies. 
Q. In your view, what is the relationship between religious freedom and separation of church and state? Can true religious freedom exist when there is no separation?
A. I don’t believe that religious freedom can exist apart from the separation of church and state; anytime the government is involved there is, at some level, coercion, or at least the specter of coercion. I like to think of the First Amendment as having set up a free marketplace of religion, where all religious groups are free to compete in this marketplace and none enjoys preferred standing from the state.  (Interestingly, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, his brief for free-market capitalism published in 1776, uses religion as an example of the salutary effects of the absence of government regulation.)
The religious effect of this free market, to extend the economic metaphor, has been that various religious groups have sought to peddle their wares. American history is littered with examples, from Ann Lee (Shakers) and Joseph Smith Jr. (Mormons) to Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Elijah Muhammad (Nation of Islam) and Joel Osteen (a kind of prosperity evangelicalism) and many more. This free marketplace of religion has ensured an unmistakably populist cast to religion in America (which is not always a good thing), but the absence of a religious establishment has also guaranteed a robust, lively and salubrious religious culture.
 Q. Thomas Jefferson’s skepticism of conventional Christianity is well known, and James Madison was notoriously reluctant to discuss his religious views. Yet both men eagerly worked alongside clergy to ensure religious liberty in America. How did this partnership of religion and Enlightenment philosophy bear fruit?
A. The cooperation between evangelicals (principally Baptists) and Enlightenment deists is one of the more unlikely political coalitions in American history.  But it worked – beautifully! I think it’s fair to say that each side had different motives and ends in mind. The founders, like Madison and Jefferson, didn’t want religious factionalism impeding the function of the new government, and I believe that Madison’s Federalist No. 10, which argued that political factions should be allowed free expression so they could effectively enervate their dissent, applied to religious groups as well.
On the other side, the evangelicals wanted to ensure that the integrity of the faith would not be compromised by conflation with the state. Here I go back to Roger Williams, who (as far as we know) originated the language about a “wall of separation” between church and state. As I point out in the book, it’s important to remember that Puritans (and Williams was originally a Puritan) did not share our romantic, post-Thoreauian notions about wilderness. Puritans were not members of the Sierra Club. Wilderness was a place of darkness and danger, where evil lurked. So when Williams talks about protecting the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of a “wall of separation,” he’s saying that believers need to be careful about conflating church and state lest the integrity of the faith be compromised.
Q. Do most religious leaders today appreciate the protections that church-state separation gives to religious institutions?
A. No, sadly, I don’t think they do. My reading of American history is that religion has flourished here, as no­where else, precisely because the government has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business. We Americans are off the charts in any quantitative measure of our adherence to religion. That some religious leaders seek to collapse the distinction between church and state demonstrates, at the very least, a lack of appreciation for the First Amendment and for all it has done to abet religion in America. Why these folks persist in compromising the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment remains an unalloyed mystery to me.
Q. How do you respond to those who assert that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation”?
A. The quick, shorthand response is simply to quote the Treaty of Tripoli, which opens: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….” That treaty was submitted to the United States Senate on June 7, 1797, read aloud, and approved unanimously.  We’re talking now about the founding generation, and it is clear that this founding generation did not regard the United States as a “Christian nation.”
A longer answer would be, well, longer. We’d have to examine the documents themselves as well as the proceedings surrounding the drafting and the ratification of the Constitution. Then we’d have to look at the religious sympathies (or lack thereof) of the founders themselves. This is some of the material I included in the book First Freedom. I would concede that the United States is a “Christian nation” only in the sense that a majority of Americans throughout its history have identified themselves as Christian. But to say that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” simply belies the facts.
Q. The book ends with a story of Thomas Jefferson receiving a mammoth cheese wheel on New Year’s Day, 1802 – the same day Jefferson penned his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists that included the “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor. There has been much debate over the past 210 years over what Jefferson meant with that phrase. How do you interpret it?
A. I think it’s significant that one of the principal founders of the nation employed the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” as shorthand for the First Amendment. Clearly, Jefferson believed this phrase captured the essence of the Establishment Clause. Let’s remember that we’re not talking here about someone who was uninvolved in the founding of the nation! Nor was he writing 100 or 200 years after the fact. His letter to the Danbury Baptists represented his understanding – as a founder – of the First Amendment.
I get a kick out of those who argued that the founders of the nation never intended the separation of church and state because the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. In a very narrow, literalistic sense, they’re right. But to vindicate their argument, they would have to demonstrate that “separation of church and state” doesn’t represent a reasonable summation of the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders, clearly thought it did.
Q. The argument is sometimes made that the founders intended religious liberty primarily in a Christian context and didn’t really perceive the concept as protecting non-Christians or non-believers. What do you think of this argument?
A. I think Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” thoroughly debunks that argument, as I point out in the book. Madison’s “Memorial” was an argument against Patrick Henry’s proposal that the taxpayers of Virginia support the “Christian religion”; although Henry’s bill seemed headed for quick approval by the Virginia legislature, Madison’s case for supporting no religious group whatsoever carried the day. In addition, George Washington several times acknowledged the presence of Jews in the new nation, and he had no objections to Muslims at Mount Vernon. So to say that the founders were unaware of other, non-Christian religions is simply false. And, even so, they chose to offer religious freedom to everyone. 
Q. Christian fundamentalism has a long history in America and has often sought political power. Some observers believe fundamentalism is on the wane, and that the Religious Right as a political force will become less powerful in the years to come. What is your view?
A. I don’t think fundamentalism is on the wane. [Noted Harvard theologian] Harvey Cox and I differ on that, and we’ve aired our differences both publicly and privately – but I assure you, in a congenial way. I’ve predicted the demise of the Religious Right before, so I’m a bit chary about doing so again. That said, I think there’s some evidence that the Religious Right is beginning to collapse beneath the weight of its own contradictions.  
Where I find evidence for that is in the widening generation gap among evangelicals. During the 2008 election, for instance, we heard the old-line leaders of the Religious Right – people like James Dobson and Chuck Colson, among others – argue that the only salient moral issues for evangelicals were abortion and same-sex unions. A younger generation of evangelicals saw things differently, discerning a much broader spectrum of “moral” issues, including hunger, poverty, war, torture, immigration and, significantly, the environment. The 2012 election saw a widening of that generation gap. This younger cohort of evangelicals, if pressed, will say that abortion and homosexuality are wrong, but I detect very little passion behind those affirmations.
My aspiration for evangelicals is that they rediscover both the words of Jesus, who invited his followers to love their enemies and to care for “the least of these,” as well as the noble legacy of 19th-century evangelicalism, which invariably took the part of those on the margins of society – slaves, the poor, women. As this younger generation of evangelicals reclaims that tradition, the Religious Right will be consigned to the trash heap of irrelevance.
Q. The United States is undergoing some fairly significant changes in religious demographics. Protestants are now a plurality, the number of people who say they have no religion has increased and non-Christian groups are growing. What challenges does increasing pluralism present to our country?
A. I view this circumstance as a wonderful opportunity – and I speak both as a historian of American religion and as an Episcopal priest. I think Protestants in the United States have become complacent over the decades, the centuries, because their faith was always the majority faith. That’s no longer true. This represents a challenge to those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus to make our case in the arena of public discourse – not from a position of entitlement or of the majority, but just as any other tradition has had to complete in the free marketplace of religion. We haven’t had to do that until now. Here’s our chance to think creatively about how to make the case for our faith, not necessarily in the sense of offering apologetic arguments but in the sense of living the faith in a winsome way. 

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