“Religious Establishments”

Let me note at the outset that if any readers are devoutly religious, please understand that no individual offense is felt or intended by my following remarks. I respect your spirituality, if not always your belief system. But I do feel strongly that the United States was founded as a secular country and must remain so.

The encroachment of “religious establishments,” as James Madison derisively called them — churches, synagogues, mosques, faith-based institutions, etc. — some perhaps doing good works but many doing great damage, from child sexual abuse to cynical fundraising to embedded misogyny to influencing our legislative and legal systems in direct contravention to the Constitution of the United States – all this should be cause for great concern, because the separation of church and state, for the protection of both, should be of crucial importance to the religious community as well as the secular.

In brief: Folks, we can’t return to this subject often enough.

I remember what seemed a milder time, when the militant Christian right consisted of James Dobson and Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson blaming Ellen DeGeneres for Hurricane Katrina, and fanatics picketing abortion clinics. That was bad enough, but way before heavily armed Oath Keepers swore allegiance to religion. Contrary to religionists’ claims that secularism produces moral decay, secular societies – for example, France, Japan, the Scandinavian countries — have far lower rates of homicide, STDs, teen pregnancy, and abortion than the US with its high rate of religionists, a rate unique among industrialized Western nations. Similarly, the more secular blue states in the US have lower rates of divorce, infant mortality, homicide, and violence than the so-called red states, where fundamentalism claims to have planted its flag.

What we name things really matters. Since 9/11 in 2001, there have been more than 20 arsons and attempted arsons at abortion providers, 10 bombings and attempted bombings, and multiple clinics in 23 states have received threats of personal assault, plus anthrax and chemical attacks. None of which were called terrorism. A woman’s abortion rights are under assault from every quarter of the religious right, with the Supreme Court poised to teeter over the edge. “Faith-based prisons” are proliferating – as much to reap profits as to spread the gospel to a captive audience. Taxpayers unwittingly finance such proselytizing prisons, where inmates receive special privileges only if they follow all day, all week, Christian agendas. In New Mexico, the state contracted with the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison “provider” — who “provides” workbooks for women prisoners that emphasize obedience under such headings as “yielding rights” and “proper submission.”

But hey, who reads The Constitution anymore? Our educational system certainly doesn’t draw our attention to the fact that The Constitution contains not one reference to a deity — on purpose. Nor do we know that Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of The Declaration of Independence did not mention “endowed by their Creator,” but read “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men [sic] are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And when he referred to “Nature’s God,” he deliberately meant the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Of course, Jefferson also wrote “Question with boldness even the existence of god.” He was right in step with James Madison, who wrote “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind,” and Benjamin Franklin who proclaimed “I doubt of revelation itself.”

Neither our schools nor our media teach us that “In God we trust” was never on our currency until the anti-communist craze of the 1950s – and that “Under God” wasn’t forcibly wedged into the Pledge of Allegiance until the same period. We don’t know that the US Treaty of Tripoli, initiated by George Washington and signed into law by John Adams, declares “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Or that Jefferson roared “we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity was never a part of the common law.” Jefferson also repeatedly attacked religion as superstition and referred to the clerical establishment as “cannibal priests”; in an 1823 letter to Adams, he wrote, “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with a fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Unfortunately, that day hasn’t arrived yet. How many Americans know that Jefferson wrote clearly he did not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, though he respected the moral teachings of whoever might have been such a historical figure, ranking him with Socrates. Jefferson even cut up parts of a copy of the New Testament and reassembled them to rescue the principles from which Jesus might have taught, to separate them “from the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests. ” (The Jefferson Bible is still available in a 1989 edition.)

As for Jefferson’s friend James Madison, he was wonderfully wild on this subject. The wording in Madison’s first draft of the First Amendment, delivered in a speech in the House of Representatives in 1789, was both more specific and more inclusive than the final version. It read “the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext, infringed.” Madison also accurately predicted “the danger of ecclesiastical corporations,” noting that they had directed “a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority, have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny, and in no instance have they been guardians of the liberties of the people.” These quotes are from his writings titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” Similarly, in his 1817 “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, and Ecclesiastical Endowments,” he denounced “The growing wealth acquired by them [which] never fails to be a source of abuses.” But he doesn’t stop there: “Establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of constitutional principles. Better also to disarm in the same way the precedent of chaplainships for the army and navy than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. . . Religious proclamations by the executive branch recommending thanksgivings and fasts are shoots from the same root with legislative acts, as they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers, and such acts seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. A theocracy having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity is apt to look in the bosoms even of Americans.”

Even of Americans? Sure, yeah. Most people today think of The First Amendment as ensuring “freedom of speech.” Actually, its opening words are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The presidential oath of office as specified verbatim in The Constitution makes absolutely no mention of a deity. On the contrary, the Founders deliberately noted the vow could be sworn as an oath or simply affirmed, a radical notion for the time. All those “so help me God’s” have sneaked in over the centuries.

As for later generations, Lincoln’s own first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation made no mention at all of any deity, but he caved under pressure and added the words “the greatest favor of Almighty God.” Similarly, the words “under God” do not appear in either his first or second draft of the Gettysburg Address.

Well, I could go on, explaining the myth that US law is based on the 10 Commandments is just that – a myth. Or I could trace the history of the Three Tests that evolved from Supreme Court decisions over time, to decide the constitutionality of laws with a religious component. Or I might note statements from the generally acknowledged greatest Justices of the Court on keeping the Constitution safe from religion.

I could throw in other lively quotes, too, such as this, by Oscar Wilde: “Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn’t there — and finding it.” Or: “More crimes and wars have been committed by zealots in the name of God and Jesus and Mohammed than have ever been committed in the name of Satan.” That’s Carl Sagan. Or Mark Twain, saying “If Jesus were alive today, the last thing he’d be is a Christian.” Or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, noting “the Bible was hurled at us from every side.” Or George Carlin: “Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” Or “the real reason people use a crucifix against vampires is that vampires are allergic to bullshit.” Richard Pryor.

Oh sure, I could go on. Then again, I already did that, back when I first researched and compiled the book Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right, in hopes of feeding our hunger for these facts, facts presented with the soundbite brevity of modern communications–a small book, a source to pull from your pocket and brandish. Our enforced collective ignorance is so great that we must regularly remind ourselves and each other that the Founders, with all their faults (and they were many!), were not the pompous old men in powdered wigs about which we were taught. On church and state, they were fire bellowing revolutionaries!