It hates the federal

The Tea Party has a point about religion and the founding fathers

By , Wednesday 31 August 2011 12.30 BST

There’s a presidential election coming up and, what do you know, the religious right is going to be a pretty important factor. It’s time to brush up on all that separation of church and state stuff.

A central claim of the holy Tea Party folk is that this separation is a myth, that the founding fathers never intended it, that it’s a secular liberal invention, part of a socialist conspiracy. Of course, all good liberals know how to respond: silly fundies, silly ungrateful fundies, denying the beautiful fusion of religion and liberalism that is enshrined in your nation’s constitution. Those founders weren’t puritan bigots like you; they were liberal Christians; in fact many of them were so liberal they were barely Christian. Read some real history instead of creationist pamphlets and you’ll see.

Such is my habitual response. But recently, looking into the issue in a bit more detail, I have noticed with a certain awkward feeling that it ain’t quite so clear cut after all. The conservatives have a point – well, half a point. It is important to acknowledge this, factor it in. The alternative is the sort of liberal complacency they accuse us of.

The best book on the issue that I know of is Founding Faith by Steven Waldman. He narrates the religious developments of the revolutionary period with great care – and in good, chatty prose.

The key point that he gets across is that religious liberty was not a secure achievement of the revolutionary period. Yes, the revolution entailed a move away from established churches, but this move didn’t actually go very far. Each state remained free to determine its own religious policy, and most were only half-interested in reform. Old habits, such as barring “heretics” from public office and promoting “real” religion with government funding, died hard. Only a few of the founders, notably Jefferson and Madison, were really serious about separating church and state. They managed to do this in Virginia, but they could hardly tell all the other states to follow suit.

Isn’t the separation of church and state in the US constitution? Not really. Madison wanted a law defending religious freedom throughout all the states, but quickly perceived its impossibility. The result, the first amendment, is a pretty meaningless compromise (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). The real question was not whether there should be a new federal establishment (obviously not, no one wanted it), but whether the federal government should protect religious liberty throughout the states. And the question was evaded. If anything, the first amendment seems to defend states’ rights to form their own religious policies. But it also contains a nod to the cause of religious liberty. It expresses a vague desire that religious liberty should be national policy – but the gesture remains limp.

So the conservatives are sort of (admit it quietly) right. The original constitution does not demand the separation of church and state. But it does express an aspiration towards this. And subsequent American history does move in this direction. The watershed is, guess what, the civil war. After the civil war there was a new law, the 14th amendment, that insisted states could not pass laws infringing on citizens’ civil liberties. And in the 20th century this was taken to mean that the first amendment now applied on a state level. So it became the federal government’s business to protect all Americans from the blurring of religion and politics. Jefferson and Madison’s dream realised? Perhaps, but it could hardly have been a more muddled process. And it could hardly have produced more resentment in religious conservatives, whose theology is not attuned to the principle of separation, but is more akin to the original Puritan vision of a godly nation.

What emerges is that the religious right has a deep affinity with the Confederate cause: it hates the federal government’s ability to override states’ rights. As Waldman puts it:

“Those who are angry that God has been “kicked out” of the public schools shouldn’t blame the ACLU [the American Civil Liberties Union] or, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson – but Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. The decisive blow against prayer in school came when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.”

So this presidential election will be yet another fighting of the civil war. Go Lincoln! or or

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