Given the theocratic passions of our day, with the so-called Party of God lobbing rockets into Israel and the ongoing battles here at home over the Christianization or secularization of public policies, it might be beneficial to think about some of the thing’s the Founding Fathers said about the mixing of religion and politics.
James Madison, frequently referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” argued in 1785 against a bill introduced in the Virginia General Assembly that would have assessed taxes on all citizens for the financial support of “teachers of the Christian religion.”
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society?” he asked. “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.”
After two years of debate, Virginia passed a groundbreaking law that unraveled the ties between church and state, declaring that”all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capabilities.”
Regarding assessments and coercion, the statute stated that Uno man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatever, nor shall be forced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.”
In her book “Freethinkers,” Susan Jacoby writes that the Virginia law, establishing legal equality for citizens of all religions, and of no religion, and separating government from ecclesiastical control, was “hailed by secularists as a model for the new national government and denounced by those who favored the semi-theocratic systems still prevailing in most states.”
Thomas Jefferson, praising the Virginia law, observed that “it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles, and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”
When Connecticut disestablished the Congregationalist Church, Jefferson expressed satisfaction that “this den of the priesthood is at last broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.”
Jefferson’s writings on religion were used against him in the 1800 presidential campaign. In his “Notes on Virginia” (1784), he wrote: uThe legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Defending the concepts of individual freedom, religious liberty, and diversity in opinion, Jefferson wrote: “Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards 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. Let us reflect that is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand.”
Thomas Paine, in a letter to Samuel Adams in 1803, pointed to the all too common link between religion, persecution, and war: “The case, my friend, is that the world has been overrun with fable and creeds of human invention, with sectaries of whole nations against all other nations, and sectaries of those sectaries in each of them against each other.
Every sectary, except the Quakers, has been a persecutor. Those who fled from persecution persecuted in their turn, and it is this confusion of creeds that has filled the world with persecution and deluged it with
Unfortunately, Israel doesn’t have even-tempered Quakers on its northern border. And more broadly, the world’s technical advancements in the art of war seem to be matched by a growth in faith-based extremism and violence.
Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith,” poses a troubling question: “What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?”