The Establishment Clause Jefferson Vs The Religious

The Establishment Clause Jefferson Vs. The Religious Right Essay, Research Paper

To Thomas Jefferson it was self-evident that religious institutions or sects could not establish, constitute, or have authority in the new American government, nor could government establish religion. When arguing his position, Jefferson sometimes used the carefully worded phrase “ingraft into the machine of government” confirming his concern about those artful clerics or religious extremists who would first inject their religious ideology “into the machine of government” providing them a strategic position to later establish their religion or religious ideology as a matter of law. It is here that the establishment clause would erect a definitive barrier to these usurpations.

The Framers, acutely aware of European and Eastern history, especially events such as the Inquisition, understood human nature had since changed little. Throughout the centuries, the institutional fusion of church and state had oftentimes proven a significant factor in the world’s bloodletting. It mattered not from which “direction” the intrusion originated; the corruption would be the same. If government established or unduly influenced religion or religion established or unduly influenced government, tyranny was the eventual result. Of course, this experiential knowledge was a foundational reason for the emigration of many to America, resulting ultimately in the creation of a new nation.

This then is the genius of the Establishment clause: it cut both ways, necessarily and rightly, though not explicitly so. Because it was patently obvious that no religious institution or sect could be the warp and woof of the new nation, Jefferson spoke primarily to prohibiting government establishment of religion, ultimately declaring “a wall of separation between church and state” as essential to America’s survival.

Putting this idea in historical context, there were (as always) those politicians, government officials, and influential citizens possessed with what is essentially a “dual intellectual citizenship”; religion informing their life at least equally, oftentimes more, than any political doctrine, just as there were some for whom religion was their political doctrine. Some preached on Sunday and legislated, as it were, on Monday, apparently loath to distinguish clearly between their ecclesiastic and civil authority. If not checked, they would attempt to establish or at least unduly “engraft into the machine of government,” as Jefferson said, their religious doctrine using their established political-governmental power, or influential access to this power, explicitly when necessary, implicitly whenever possible, using euphemism where clear expression would reveal their hand.

This was and is the essence of the issue; the essential problem. As they were either already IN government service or attempting to be, preventing them from corrupting or compromising the political process and undermining the Constitution in this insidious manner was at the heart of the establishment clause. This is a subtle but critical distinction conveniently overlooked by Christian Fundamentalists in their modern attempt to accomplish the same ends. They argue the establishment clause was meant only to keep the government out of their business, not to keep them from unduly influencing government.

This is a convenient half-truth, disingenuous at best, as I believe I have shown. Again, preventing this encroachment was the crux of the debate. Logically considered, why would the state seek to establish or “engraft” religion? Only those within government or those seeking political power with such an agenda could possibly present a threat. It is inconceivable that the agnostic, atheist, religiously apathetic, or religiously tolerant would have any such agenda. Clearly, they are content with a “wall of separation”, and it was self-evident, as I have stated, that no established church could frame the government.

The questions of where and with what language the most constitutionally sound barrier could be erected without denying first amendment rights were the most perplexing. The answer is the simply elegant words of the Establishment clause, purposefully imprecise allowing “wiggle room” for the disingenuous to claim essential first amendment rights, but whose plans would become evident to the vigilant, ultimately denying the infiltrators the fruit of their plans. In contrast, the narrow interpretation of the establishment clause by religious extremists may indicate indifference, ignorance, or malevolence to this wisdom. Such wisdom is arguably the consequence of centuries of public policy experiment and experience distilled by brilliant, libertarian minds. If we truly value liberty and freedom, we would be wise to grasp Jefferson’s opinion in its fullness. Their constricted establishment interpretation puts all, they included, at risk.

Consider a natural phenomenon as an illustration of the danger. An estuary is functionally an interface between fresh and salt water where the two sources or bodies never truly merge; they cannot, for one or the other would cease to exist, destroying the system. This establishes a natural and essential separation, highlighted by a “grey area”. For argument sake, assume them proportionate; again, the “direction” of an intrusion would prove inconsequential, the result being the same: systemic collapse; so it is with government and religion. Maneuvering in this “grey area” depends largely on the integrity of those involved. Will they check their motivation, understand their constitutional burden, and desist from intrusive action voluntarily? This is a proverbial “slippery slope”.

“We have enough votes to run this country…and when the people say, we have had enough, we are going to take over”

* Pat Robertson, addressing the Christian Coalition

Since it is understood that to establish or engraft clearly requires political power, presence in the machine of government, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, which is supported in part by his vast media empire with legal advice and protection provided by his ACLJ affiliate. His 1988 presidential campaign was designed to establish a national political base intent on giving him, the Christian Coalition, and supporters, a stronghold in the Republican Party. Their presence first skewed the Party, then the Congress, toward their religious agenda as planned. This is a successful attempt to “engraft themselves in the machine of government” for the admitted purpose of “breaking the wall of separation of church and state”, to ultimately declare America a “Christian Nation”. These are their very words, not mine, which are rarely if ever publicly uttered, but rather used by them, their acolytes, and by sympathetic congregations in church literature, seminars, tapes, presentations, rally’s and occasionally their political literature.

A favorite Christian Coalition retort, “nowhere in the constitution are the words separation of church and state”, is a dishonest device requiring willful ignorance of the history and case law on this subject, and very selective use of constitutional constructionism. They are correct; the words are not present. But they are fully cognizant that the Constitution’s deliberate design included ambiguous concepts, requiring interpretation, extrapolation, and clarification, accomplished primarily through the political process and ultimately, finally, through judicial interpretation and court decisions. John Marshall, arguably the greatest Supreme Court Justice, laid the foundation of judicial review for settling this kind of nettlesome issue, instituting a final arbiter. This process finally gave needed constitutional validity, context and understanding to both the “offensive” Jeffersonian phrase and the very words of the Establishment clause, thus guaranteeing religious liberty and appropriate constitutional boundaries to all.

“Acknowledge” is another expression the Religious Right is fond of using when discussing how the government should approach this issue. One meaning of the term “acknowledge” is “to declare a fact in order to give it legal validity. Here subtly inferring a right to publicly declare a religion “under God” by government officials. These are modern examples of the duplicitous, encroaching behaviors Jefferson warned of and fought against — the very reason for the words “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” But as earlier stated, the necessary prophylactic demanded not only proper wording but also strategic positioning in our legal hierarchy to allow freedom of speech, conscience, and the right to hold public office its legitimate, essential role, even for the disingenuous religious usurpers, who hopefully would be uncovered and dealt with using subordinate legal, political, or social tools.

The agenda of the Christian right is infested with fundamentalism that invariably yields intolerance, bigotry, and divisiveness. One demand, public school sanctioned prayer, will not be a moment of silence, or a “generic” prayer, supposing such were possible. They will ultimately, insidiously, require that Jesus Christ be invoked, (again, their words) ignoring Christ’s declaration: “And when you pray, be not like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners, but when you pray go into your room, close the door and pray in secret…” (Matt 6:5-6) Such obvious violation of “divine law” immediately raises concern about their approach to positive law, to say nothing of the constitutional violation. Such coercion concerns them not at all because “they are right”; a dangerous, unprovable position adopted by most fundamentalists, whatever the faith. The Christian “instruction manual” clearly implies Christ never coerced, but always allowed free will and reason – skepticism — its necessary and proper place, first place, happily the same basic premise on which our nation rests. This is a natural, not theological, law.

Interestingly, Christ reserved his harshest criticism for the political-religious elite, declared his “kingdom not of this world,” and never endorsed or encouraged the amalgamation of church-state as it then existed, or implied such should be among his disciples. Furthermore, he encouraged his followers to recognize the corruption of the system, abandon it, and concentrate on “God’s work”, as did his two most prolific disciples, Paul and Peter. Consider: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” These and other convenient violations or omissions by the RR in their interpretations and positions are interesting indeed.

Perhaps religious fundamentalists need first to examine closely the historical path of various religions. None are born of whole cloth, as they are wont to believe, but are the amalgamation of centuries of tribalism, philosophy, legend, myth, politics, commerce, culture, geography, patriarchy and more, resulting in a rich, complicated religious tapestry. The complexity is baffling for most, especially for those demanding a simplistic, safe harbor in an impossibly complex world. This is why religion, especially fundamentalism, becomes problematic when mixed with civil government. Invariably, this demand to be “represented”, carried forward politically, results at least in serious error, both civilly and ecclesiastically, and more often in tyranny. The Scriptures, reverentially held by so many, if impartially (properly?) read, support this notion. Such a view enhances, rather than threatens, the utility and appeal of this religious material, even helping explain this conflicted, frequently convoluted, literary artifact.

An interesting observation is the undemocratic nature of most fundamentalist churches. These are structured essentially as autocracies where legitimate doctrinal questions or concerns are oftentimes treated as “rebellion” and reasonable dissent is determined to be treasonous, fear being a very effective tool. Knowledge and information may be closely held and conveniently rationed. The leadership jealously protects this rigid authoritarian political structure, the worst of which degenerate into a cult of personality. It must be remembered that these powerful qualities are oftentimes subtle, effected by very polished, artful practitioners. In their defense, they may have begun with better methods and intentions, but if “absolute power corrupts absolutely” as Lord Acton declared and experience witnessed, so too does much power, especially too long held, corrupt much.

How is this germane to the Establishment argument? They were and are the most vocal about the issue. Their religious paradigm and viewpoint has been narrowly circumscribed by their system, truncated, in such a manner that they will effortlessly carry this organizational experience, which is more important to the controversy at hand then their religious view, into their political activity and societal view — a decidedly undemocratic standard. Simply stated, a narrow theological view, learned in and sustained by a dogmatic system, particularly among those for whom religion is the key component of life, can easily translate into very narrow, even harmful, constitutional positions and demands, in essence, constitutional constructionism sufficient to strangle liberty.

The Puritans, among others, provide an excellent domestic example of Fundamentalist intolerance through their denial of participation in local government to any that refused to adopt their religious beliefs. Granted, the Constitution was yet to be born, but the natural law principles on which it would rest were evident. Nevertheless, it was very difficult for any to disabuse their error. Incredibly, they endorsed, even codified the very behavior for which they fled the Continent — hypocrisy assuredly is blinding while bigotry can be rampant among those who profess tolerance. Were they interested in genuine religious freedom, or merely their interpretation of religious freedom? A relevant question then and now.

Israel, Iran, India, Pakistan, The Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria, are only a few of the countries that continue to ingest the brackish social water and attendant political instability and conflict resulting from inadequate separation of religion and state. These powerful, current, real world examples, apparently overlooked or ignored by the Religious Right, should provide more than adequate testimony of the problems and dangers of mixing civil and ecclesiastical powers. Granted there are many other destabilizing issues with which these countries grapple, but those problems do not diminish the importance of the issue at hand. Indeed, there is strong correlation between those difficulties and religious doctrines and authorities in matters of state. As an aside, Israel, if properly scutinized, arguably resembles a police state more than a democracy, but that is a lengthy subject for another time.

Some may argue that I am anti-Christian. I am certainly no more antagonistic than Jefferson and my research show him not at all, but rather its supporter. He believed that in its essence, when properly positioned and understood in a society, Christianity was most beneficial; but he would not endure its strong-arming the Constitution or even other religious doctrines. Christians unjustifiably complain that they are singled out unfairly when this issue is addressed, but fail to consider that historically they are the most vocal and demanding group, in effect representing the clear and present danger.

My experience in and with Christianity, along with the historical record on this subject, compels me to conclude that Christians, in their traditionally arrogant way, would ignore or belittle most everything that has been stated, unabashedly continuing their attempts to establish their religious ideology as the dominant social and political force in America, while actually sowing the seeds of its destruction. Do not be deceived, the leadership of this movement is as lustful of power as any other group of political movers and shakers one could name, but their hubris dissolves any consciousness they should have of this fact. Claiming Christ convicts rather than exonerates them.

Zealotry and religious government have bathed the world in misery and blood enough for eternity, proving separation of church and state an indispensable guardian of liberty for all, whether one is religious or an atheist. Though religion and churches indisputably have a legitimately important role to play in our society, they do not reserve the right to usurp political power to fulfill that role or accomplish their goals, particularly when they fail in their proper mission, as arguably they have. Such behavior, unchecked, traditionally begins with overreaching or overbearing aspirations, manifests as illegitimate, improperly placed efforts to strengthen weakness (theirs), and invariably ends with tyranny. Is not Fundamentalism’s cramped, frequently undemocratic, sometimes bloody history too conspicuous to ignore? Alarmist we need not be, but always vigilant, always defenders of the liberty we enjoy.

The following quotations illustrate Jefferson’s earnest consideration of this issue. Some are slightly off topic but provide a fuller, richer picture of his view.

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

* to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813. ME 14:21

“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.”

* to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:119

“The clergy, by getting themselves ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.”

* to Jeremiah Moor, 1800.

“The advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from [the clergy].”

* to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:305

“[If] the nature of… government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come.

Their steady habits [will] exclude the advances of information, and they [will] seem exactly where they [have always been]. And there [the] clergy will always keep them if they can. [They] will follow the bark of liberty only by the help of a tow-rope.”

* to Pierrepont Edwards, July 1801. (*)

“This doctrine ['that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers'] is the genuine fruit of the alliance between Church and State, the tenants of which finding themselves but too well in their present condition, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpation’s and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change as endangering the comforts they now hold.”

* Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

“The clergy…believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] 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. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.”

* to Benjamin Rush, 1800. ME 10:173

“It is . . . proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe, a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant, too, that this recommendation is to carry some authority and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription, perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed?… Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

* to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:428

“[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom… was finally passed,… a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ”, so that it 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 Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”

* Autobiography, 1821. ME 1: 67

“No man [should] be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor [should he] be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor… otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief… All men [should] be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and… the same [should] in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

* Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. (*) Papers,

“Our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

* Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779.Papers, 2:545

“The proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.”

* Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. Papers, 2:546

(I include the above three references to counter the religious “litmus test” positions that are being used with increasing frequency by religious Republicans to determine a candidate’s worthiness or assail an incumbent.)

“A recollection of our former vassalage in religion and civil government will unite the zeal of every heart, and the energy of every hand, to preserve that independence in both which, under the favor of Heaven, a disinterested devotion to the public cause first achieved, and a disinterested sacrifice of private interests will now maintain.”

* to Baltimore Baptists, 1808. ME 16:318

“It is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere [in the propagation of religious teachings] when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”

* Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. Papers, 2:546

“The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of it’s benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.”

* to Moses Robinson, 1801. ME 10:237

“Whenever… preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science.”

* to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:281

“Ministers of the Gospel are excluded [from serving as Visitors of the county Elementary Schools] to avoid jealousy from the other sects, were the public education committed to the ministers of a particular one; and with more reason than in the case of their exclusion from the legislative and executive functions.”

* Note to Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:419

“I do not know that it is a duty to disturb by missionaries the religion and peace of other countries, who may think the themselves bound to extinguish by fire and fagot the heresies to which we give the name of conversions, and quote our own example for it. Were the Pope, or his holy allies, to send in mission to us some thousands of Jesuit priests to convert us to their orthodoxy, I suspect that we should deem and treat it as a national aggression on our peace and faith.”

* to Michael Megear, 1823. ME 15:434

“Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burned, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth.”

“Believing… that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State.”

* Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, 1802. ME 16:281


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