Saturday, June 03, 2006


Infidels of Every Denomination

Okay, I've already gone in the tank for Michelle Goldberg's new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, once or twice and I haven't even read it. Worse yet, I'm not getting dime one from the publisher.

But the book tour, etc. she's doing just keeps producing these scary stories of the wannabe theocrats. In this example, she tells of the time Congress intended to have a Hindu priest give an invocation, as it has some priest or minister do to open every session. The number of Hindus in America is small, between 700,000 and 1.1 million, but Congress has catered to smaller groups. Goldberg quotes the reaction from the Family Research Council, a spin-off of Focus on the Family:

While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our nation’s heritage. Our founders expected that Christianity and no other religion would receive support from the government, as long as that support did not violate people's consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.
While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the principle of economic freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt flying in the air to the level that sailing ships hold in our nation’s heritage.

There are a lot of things that the Founders of our country would have found incredible about the world today but they, unlike some minds too small to be able to deal with change of any sort, anticipated that the world would not remain static and deliberately fashioned our founding documents to set out broad principles with room enough for each generation to adapt them to their needs.

But even beyond that, it is not at all clear that the people of that time were as narrow of mind as some today. As Goldberg notes, The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, authored by Jefferson, was the likely inspiration for the inclusion of the Establishment clause in the First Amendment. Jefferson wrote of the Act in his Autobiography:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it's 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 it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.
Thus, the Establishment clause was written in the context of a predecessor statute that intended to not only give equal status as a protected faith to Hinduism and other minority religions, but to deny Christianity any favored position. Moreover, it was the clear majority opinion, accepted as a matter of course, in the most populous and influential state in the country at the time.
The idea that free and open-minded thinkers and true children of the Enlightenment such as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, et al. would have been prostrated by the notion of a "Hindoo" saying a prayer in the vicinity of politicians is execrable history, ludicrous on its face, and nothing but blatant propaganda. But the theocrats are also wrong about the attitude of the less lofty figures of the time, the "great majority" of whom understood that their religious freedom critically depended on giving equal respect to those who did not share their beliefs.
I am so sick of these people ascribing beliefs to the Founders which a few moments' reading of the things they wrote would prove to be false. People who think the Founders were so dim that they didn't realize they'd left God out of the Constitution should feel ashamed to want such nincompoops on their side. This "oversight" was pointed out in many an essay and letter back in the 1780s. They noticed. And they meant to do it.
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