Declaration of Independence, George Mason, John Adams, State Constitutions, Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 15th, 2012

Politics 101

The Declaration of Independence declared that Government should be By the People, Of the People and For the People 

Tearing down the old order is one thing.  Building a new one is something completely different.  For there’s been a lot of tearing down throughout history.  And rarely does peace and prosperity spontaneously follow.    Which is something that no doubt weighed heavily on the minds of those who voted on July 2, 1776, to declare formerly their independence from Great Britain.  What, exactly, were they to do next?  The most powerful navy and army in the world no longer protected them.  Instead, they were now the enemy of the most powerful navy and army in the world.  Which meant they couldn’t protect themselves.  Their international trade on the high seas.  Or even protect their own people from each other.  For if the British constitutional protections no longer applied to them, what did?  Anything?  Or would anarchy rule?

The Americans declared independence because they were not getting equal treatment under British law.  Much of which they liked.  The execution of it is what they had a problem with.  That and the built-in privileges for some.  And, of course, the established state religion.  Which made many of them come to the colonies to escape in the first place.  So there was a lot in British law they could use.  And some that could do with a little tweaking.  Which is something they could do now that they were starting from scratch.

They had just renounced the royal authority in their states.  Which left these states without a formal framework of law.  And the opportunity to make new law.  Based on the principles in the Declaration of Independence.  That government should be by the people, of the people and for the people.  So when the Continental Congress adjourned after committing their high treason (declaring their independence) the delegates went home.  Back to their states.  To begin the building process of the new order.

The Vehicle for Peaceful Change of Government was and is the Constitutional Convention

Virginia was first.  George Mason drafted their new constitution.  And included a Bill of Rights.  George Mason was a leading mind of the day.  And produced a document that served as a template for other states.  As well as other countries.  It did away with privilege.  And the state established Anglican religion.  Among other reforms.  In Massachusetts the process was a little different.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.  He voted for independence.  And supported the violent revolution that followed.  For he believed when a government harms the people that these people have a right and a duty to abolish that government.  But that didn’t mean a violent revolution whenever the people disagreed with government policy.  Because that would lead to anarchy.  And this was an issue that weighed heavily on the brilliant mind of John Adams.  Who created the procedure of overthrowing a government without suffering through a period of anarchy.  The vehicle for this peaceful change of government was the constitutional convention.  Which provided the framework for the states to develop their constitutions. 

The Massachusetts House appointed a committee to draft their constitution.  When they finished their draft they submitted it to a constitutional convention made up of elected state delegates.  Who approved it and sent it to the towns for approval.  They rejected it.  For it lacked a bill of rights.  Among other required features.  So they started the process again.  They called another constitution convention.  This one included John Adams.  Who had just returned from France.  He took an active part of the deliberations.  And the drafting of the second constitution.  They then submitted this constitution to the towns for approval.  The towns approved it.  And the state of Massachusetts had a new government.  New Hampshire followed this process.  As did the other states.  But it just wasn’t in the American states.  Nations throughout the world have adopted this process ever since.

The Founding Fathers gave their People Great Power and hoped their Religious Institutions would help them act with Great responsibility

Most colonies disestablished the Anglican Church.  Including the taxes that supported it.  And the oaths of Anglican faith required for public office.  But that didn’t mean the states wouldn’t establish their own religions.  Or force the support of it through taxation.  Which is what Massachusetts did.  Either for the preferred Congregational Church.  Or any other Christian religion.  As long as everyone attended church.  For as the Massachusetts Bill of Rights states, “the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality…”

Of course the Quakers and Baptists in Massachusetts objected to paying taxes for what they saw as a violation of conscience.  In Virginia the Anglican Church of England was still supported by the state.  Supported by taxation.  And the state penalized dissenters.  Particularly the Baptists (something James Madison remembered well when later working for the passage of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution).  In direct violation of their own Virginian Bill of Rights.  The Virginian Assembly would subsequently pass an act exempting all dissenters from taxation and abuse.  Thomas Jefferson would take this a step farther with his Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom in 1786.  A piece of legislation that he was particularly proud of.  Even included it on his gravestone.

With great power comes great responsibility.  The Founding Fathers gave their people great power.  Representative government.  And a means to overthrow that government.  The constitutional convention.  That they hoped their religious institutions would protect.  And help their people act with great responsibility.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #14: “Christianity does not beget antidisestablishmentarianism.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 18th, 2010

DID THE FOUNDING Fathers found America as a Christian nation?  No.  Did they found a secular nation?  Not exactly.  Did they found a federal nation?  Yes.

Federalism.  What does it mean?  It means the new federal government would have LIMITED powers.  The new national government would do national things.  Trade.  National defense.  Treat with other nations.  In other words, those things that required a single national voice.  The French didn’t want to treat with the individual states.  They didn’t want one set of trade agreements for Virginia and another for North Carolina.  Neither did Great Britain.  Or the other European powers.  No.  If the United States of America wanted to be an independent nation, then they had to act as a single, unified nation.  So they did.

The other things, the non-national things, they left to the states.  And one of these things was religion.  For when it came to religion, the new federal government did not interfere in the states’ religious business.  Ergo the First Amendment.  The ‘wall’ between church and state was to separate the new federal government from the states’ religious establishments.  If a state discriminated against all but their established religion, that was fine and dandy for it was a moot point as far as the federal government was concerned.  It just wasn’t their business.

Now, a truly secular government would intervene in such a case.  The federal government would later, but at the founding, one of the preconditions for ratification of the Constitution was that it wouldn’t.  And it didn’t.  Interfere with a state’s religion.

WE ALL KNOW the story of the Pilgrims, the Puritans, coming to the New World from England to escape religious persecution.  Probably not as familiar with the backstory.  The English Civil War.  Duke of Buckingham.  King and Parliament.  Queen and Parliament.  The French.  The Spanish.  The Pope.  The Kirk.  The Ulster Uprising.  Oliver Cromwell.  And, of course, William Laud.

Here’s the short version of what happened.  And some back-story to the back-story.  The Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church.  Much fighting ensued.  This split nations into essentially Catholic and Protestant camps (which broke down into further divisions).  England was Protestant.  Scotland was Presbyterian (a branch of Protestantism).  Ireland was Catholic with a Protestant enclave in Ulster.

Mix them together, add a not great English king, who married a French Catholic, throw in a revised Church of England prayer book, bring back some Catholicism to the Protestant Church of England, dissolve Parliament, recall Parliament, try to dissolve it again and, well, you get civil war.  Parliament wins the war.  They behead the king. 

The English Civil War is a little more complicated than this.  But for our purposes, it’s the religious component that’s important. Everyone persecuted someone at one time.  One group, the Puritans, were Protestants.  Hardcore Protestants.  Calvinists.  They were about as anti-Catholic as you could get.  Didn’t like any of the Catholics’ fancy vestments, icons, statues, pictures, altar rails, candlesticks, stained glass windows, etc.  That church was corrupt.  They had lost their way. 

They didn’t believe in original sin or that you can buy your way into heaven.  God chose your fate before you were born.  If you were one of the elect, you passed your days in long church services and you read the Bible.  If you didn’t do these things it was proof you weren’t one of the elect.  And were damned.  No matter what you did during your life.  Cure cancer, it didn’t matter.  You were damned.

They didn’t like Catholics and Catholics didn’t like them.  And, as it turned out, the Protestant powers that be didn’t much care for them either.  In England or on the Continent.  They just couldn’t be un-Catholic enough to please the Puritans.  Much bitterness ensued.  Many left the Old World and settled in the New World.  Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, these Puritans came to the New World to establish that city on a hill of Mathew 5:14 fame (from the Sermon on the Mount.  Given by Jesus Christ.  Just in case you’re unfamiliar with it).

THEY CAME FROM England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France and settled in New England, New York and the far side of the Appalachians.  A hard working people.  They provided for themselves.  Went to church.  Read the Bible.  All work and no play.  At least, some would say. 

They established the state-supported Congregational Church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  John Adams was born and raised a Calvinist and attended this state-supported church.  When writing the new state’s constitution, the state support of the church was a contentious issue.  Most felt that religion was an indispensible part of life.  Others agreed but feared a religious majority would oppress a religious minority.  The process would take 3 years to resolve.

Being in the heart of the rebellion, Abigail Adams, Founding Mother, and perhaps America’s first feminist, experienced much of the darker side of the struggle for independence.  Soulmate of John Adams in every sense of the word, she was as religious as he.  As the war dragged on with no end in sight, she feared it was God’s punishment for the sins of American slavery.

IN VIRGINIA, THE established church was the Anglican Church (i.e., the Church of England).  As in Massachusetts, there was debate about an established majority religion oppressing a minority religion.  For good reason.  It did.  Right in James Madison’s backyard.  Baptists were harassed.  And imprisoned.  You needed a license to preach.  Virginia and the established church made getting that license very difficult.  If you were a Baptist.

America’s least religious Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the Virginian Statute for Religious Freedom.  The Virginian General Assembly passed it in 1786, two years before the states ratified the U.S. Constitution.  To help get the Virginian Baptists on board for ratification, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, promised to add a Bill of Rights after ratification that would add similar rights and protection at the federal level that were enacted at the state level.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN MAY have been a Deist.  He was, after all, the embodiment of the Enlightenment.  Like Thomas Jefferson.  They embraced reason over dogma.  But Franklin believed religious faith was fundamental to civilized society.  His personal beliefs boiled down to simply doing good deeds.  Help others.  And sometimes you need to remind some people to help others.  And that’s why he liked religion.  He spent much of his life helping his community (serving in the state militia, participating in the volunteer fire department, etc.).  At an impasse at the Constitutional Convention, it was he who suggested they should pray.

GEORGE WASHINGTON MAY not have taken communion, but he added chaplains to his army units during the American Revolution.  He believed the American cause was a divine one.  He feared a lack of faith may determine battlefield outcomes.  He led an integrated army of Protestants and Catholics.  And Jews.  And blacks.  And others.  He forbade anti-Catholic demonstrations which were very common in the former British colonies.  When an Army went to Canada to attack the British, they were to respect the Catholic French Canadians and invite them to join their cause.  He would even attend Catholic service on occasion.  Like the army, the nation he would lead would be a melting pot.  Tolerance and respect was the mantra.  For all Americans.

SO, DID THE Founding Fathers found a Christian nation?  No.  Religious establishment was simply beyond the responsibility of the new federal government.  Did Christians settle the original colonies?  Yes.  And they established Christian churches.  And the states were worried that a new federal government would interfere with their religious business.  Some wanted additional safeguards written in.  So James Madison added the Bill of Rights after ratification.  The First Amendment placed a wall between the federal government and the States’ religious establishments.

In time, the states extended the tolerance and respect of religious diversity prevalent in Washington’s army to their states.  They disestablished their established churches.  And, to their relief, religion flourished.  Especially the different branches of Christianity.  Yes, America became even more Christian, but it tolerated and respected other religions.  New York even had a Jewish Temple 3 years after the British surrender at Yorktown.  And even the Catholics were welcomed in the new nation.

DISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM INCREASED THE spread of Christianity.  Like the economy, the freer it was the more it flourished.  And with the great number of Christian religions that have since spread across the nation, it is unlikely that overt acts of Christianity would result in the establishment of one of these.  Or the reestablishment of the Church of England. 

So go ahead and display your Christmas Crèche or the Ten Commandments.  Chances are good that it won’t beget antidisestablishmentarianism.

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