If They Could They Would

Hey, happy anniversary, Origin of Species. It was published on this date in 1859.

Susan Jacoby writes in Mother Jones:

When the Supreme Court…ordered two Kentucky counties to dismantle courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, Justice Antonin Scalia declared that the Court majority was wrong because the nation’s historical practices clearly indicate that the Constitution permits “disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.” The Constitution permits no such thing: It has nothing to say about God, gods, or any form of belief or nonbelief – apart from its absolute prohibition, in Article 6, against any religious test for public office and the First Amendment’s familiar declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” From reading Scalia, a Martian (or polytheist) might infer that the establishment clause actually concludes with the phrase “free exercise thereof – as long as the faithful worship one God whose eye is on the sparrow.” The justice’s impassioned dissent…is a revealing portrait of the historical revisionism at the heart of the Christian conservative campaign to convince Americans that the separation of church and state is nothing more than a lie of the secularist left.

Yet another reason truth matters. Historical revisionism is a fine thing – it is, as Eric Foner points out, what historians do – if it gets things right, but if it gets them wrong, it’s horrid. The kind that tells the truth about what happened at Nanjing and Auschwitz, in Armenia and Bosnia, is good; the kind that tells lies about it is bad. It’s no good pretending there is no difference, or that the difference doesn’t matter.

The revisionist script goes something like this: The founders were devout men who based their new government on Christian teaching (the religiously correct invariably use the term “Judeo-Christian”); they were unconcerned about religious interference with government and cared only about government interference with religion; and, last but not least, there was no tension between secularism and religion in the nation’s halcyon early decades, because everyone accepted God as the source of civic authority.

That bit about caring only about government interference with religion, not religious interference with government, is why we so often hear that fatuous (and ominous, and irritating) parrot-cry that Joe Lieberman is so fond of: ‘The founders gave us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.’ Well at least that has the virtue of honesty – at least we know where we are with that. No, you don’t get to have freedom from religion, the government can force it on you if it feels like it. Sit still and be quiet.

Confronted with the Constitution’s silence on divine authority, revisionists repeatedly fall back on the specious argument that since everyone took God’s omnipotence for granted in the 18th century, there was no need for the framers to make a special point of mentioning the deity. If that were true, there would have been no bitter debates in the states about the nonreligious language of the Constitution…It is ludicrous to suggest that men as precise in their use of words as Adams and Madison would, perhaps in their haste to get home to their wives, have simply forgotten to mention God.

Besides which it’s not even true that everyone took God’s omnipotence for granted in the 18th century. There have always been atheists, and there were more of them than hitherto usual in the 18th century.

Arguments relying on custom, bolstered by personal religious belief, have great potency when presented to a public with a shaky grasp of even the most fundamental facts of American history…”Oh! Lord!” Adams complained in 1817 to his old friend and rival Jefferson. “Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland, Pensilvania, New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would.” If they could they would. Wherever and whenever they could, they did – and that is why the revolutionary generation bequeathed the unique gift of a secular Constitution to future Americans.

Let’s hope we can hang on to it.

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