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Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Reader Disagrees

Should religion have no role at all in public affairs?

The following comment came from reader Leonard Dickens, who has an interesting website called Unruled.

Mr. Dickens was responding to Ethics Without Religion? An Addendum.

He wrote:

There is a difference between trying to remove something from ?public life?, meaning, establishment by the State, and between attacking people.? You as a libertarian, if you are, should understand that.

The State should not establish religion.? What that means is debatable, but I?d guess you?d agree.? Well, that is why liberals don?t want Christmas publicly celebrated.? They understand that it is a religious holiday.? Or the pledge of allegiance - as a Christian, I would expect you to to be concerned about such idolatry.? Liberals are.

Now, you may see both these things as just fine.? Certainly you suggest that you do.? My point here is not to convince you otherwise, just to say that there are colorable arguments that they are establishment of religion.? You don?t have to agree with the arguments to see that there is at least something there worth public debate.

Whereas, flying planes that you don?t own, into buildings that you don?t own, which are full of innocent people - I don?t think you?d find anyone who?d call that morally acceptable outside of a context of declared war.? And even then, most people would say it is wrong.? As a libertarian, it looks like initiation of coercion to me.

It?s not a difference in degree.

My reply:

Thanks for your comment.

I consider myself to be a traditionalist, not a libertarian.  Conservative, as the term is now pejoratively used, carries too much baggage that’s not part of my collection.  My preference is, not legislated morality, but the Judeo-Christian ethic that requires each of us as individuals to deal benevolently with others.

That’s not far from the libertarian view, as I understand it.  However, I add what James Madison termed “auxiliary precautions.”  Experience under the more or less libertarian Articles of Confederation demonstrated the need for some limited powers of coercion in the federal republic.

With regard to establishment of religion, I would respectfully disagree a bit with you.  The meaning may be debatable today, but it was not so in 1787 when the Constitution was written.

In The Religion Clause Upside Down I wrote:

“In 1787 when the Constitution was written, the meaning of ?an establishment of religion? was crystal clear, and there was only one meaning:? to prevent an American version of the English Test Acts that had restricted holding public office to members of the Anglican Church, as well as the requirement that all citizens, regardless of their religious faith, pay taxes to support the Anglican Church.?

The reason also was abundantly clear: everyone wanted to avoid the religious conflicts that in England had produced the 1644 English Civil War, fomented among other things by the Stuart kings? intriguing to reinstitute Roman Catholicism.? Victory by Oliver Cromwell?s Puritan army led to the beheading of Charles I and instituting the Puritan Protectorate, followed by the post-Restoration bloodless civil war of 1689 that ousted James II.

The intention to confine prohibition of an establishment of religion to Congress was equally clear.? In 1787, six of the thirteen states had officially established state religions that were in no way affected by the Constitution.? Such matters were left to the voters of each state.

Free exercise of religion was essential, because by 1787 the United States had more Protestant denominations than anywhere else in the world, as well as Roman Catholicism and the Jewish faith. “

A basic element of my understanding is that a federal republic of limited powers must be counter-balanced by a self-restrained citizenry governed by Judeo-Christian morality.  That certainly was the understanding throughout the colonies in 1776 and the states in 1787.  John Adams’s statement (in this website’s statement of purpose) sums it nicely: 

“We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion.  Our constitution is made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

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