Posts Tagged ‘first amendment’


May 13, 2010

George Washington

George Washington 

 Dr. James Abercrombie, pastor of Philadelphia’s Christ Episcopal Church, looked out at a congregation that included George Washington the first President of the United States.  Everyone knew that the President walked out of church on communion Sundays, just before administration of the sacrament.  Dr. Abercrombie mentioned no names, but he pointed out the grave responsibility of “those in elevated stations” to set good examples for lesser folk.  His message did not pass Washington’s ears unheeded.  Thereafter, the Father of Our Country didn’t go to church at all on communion Sundays.

Washington was a professed Christian with regular church attendance, but he did not partake in the Lord’s Supper.  The European Enlightenment shaped his religious ideas.  He favored an intellectual atmosphere unfavorable to symbolic rites.  He was far from unique among the Founding Fathers of the American republic.  All Washington’s educated contemporaries were more or less children of the Age of Reason (as Tom Paine called it).  The acknowledged political leaders among them were its eminent sons.

There was no uniformity of opinion among the Founding Fathers on religion or philosophy, but a broad spectrum of sects and creeds, a reminder of the Enlightenment’s respect for dissenting opinions.  Full freedom of belief was not legally protected pre-Revolution; most colonies had an established church supported by the government, but minority groups and nonconforming individuals were guaranteed wide leeway.  Whatever their religious differences, all the Founding Fathers were political revolutionaries, determined to create a new model of government by consent of the governed. 

 Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament

Thomas Jefferson had an intense interest in religion’s relation to government.  In his second term as President (1805-09) he composed for his own satisfaction a version of the New Testament called “The Life and Morals of Jesus.”  He left out the Last Supper.  He said he wrote it to rescue the moral teachings of Jesus from “the crazy speculations of crazy theologists, abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried.”

Jefferson called himself Christian, but rejected “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc.”  He thought Christ was a great reformer, author of a “system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man” – but human not divine.  To be Christian one had only to follow Christ’s system of ethics, uncontaminated by additions, adulterations, and distortions of those who came after.  The “free exercise of reason” was all one needed to tell Jesus’ original teaching from the dross.  Orthodox clergy called this heresy; a cheap disguise for atheism; and an easy target for Federalists in the campaign of 1800.

Yet Jefferson held a belief in a Supreme Being based on reasoned conclusions drawn from evidence and deduction, not implicit faith.  He wrote to John Adams, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.”  Newton and his contemporaries demonstrated that man lived in a universe of precise mathematical law and order; it seemed scientifically evident that such cosmic design could only come from the hand of a divine Creator.

It was not traditional Christianity, this idea of an invisible but demonstrable God whose existence was proved only by His handiwork; for “He” was now a nearly impersonal power, responsible for the origin and laws of the universe, but not interfering in its operation once the myriad wheels of the great machine had been set in motion.  This was “Nature’s God,” as Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence; and to him and many others the religion appropriate to Nature’s God must be natural, not supernatural.  Deism, or “natural religion,” expressed their theological creed, not a Christianity based on revelation, mystery, and miracle.

Atheism and Natural Morality

Prominent in France, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and the Baron d’Holbach postulated an automatic universe, operating by inexorable natural laws, but utterly devoid of God or God’s purpose.  Jefferson resisted such atheism, but he was not an absolutist, even on the question of God’s existence.  His creed of intellectual freedom was too firm for that, and he saw no threat in atheism.  He wrote: ”It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  He urged his nephew to make reason his guide, “call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.  Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Jefferson saw moral and material degradation in France caused by a combination of religious persecution and tyrannical government.  Voltaire wrote that atheists, deplorable as they might be, made better neighbors than religious fanatics.  Jefferson knew French atheists as friends, not monsters.  “Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and d’Holbach,” he wrote, “are known to have been among the most virtuous of men.  Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”  The basis of human morality and government intrigued Jefferson all his life.

Its essence was natural morality.  “Man was destined for society,” he wrote. “He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this.  This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.  The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.”  A gift of the Creator, acknowledgement of its source was not necessary to its function.  If one chose to be an atheist, “you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you.”

The Rock of Democratic Faith

Natural morality was the rock of Jefferson’s democratic faith.  The doctrine of original sin was anathema; human nature could be trusted: all normal men were endowed by their Creator not only with unalienable rights, but also unalienable instincts, including a natural moral sense.  Except in conditions of ignorance, poor education, poverty and bad social conditions, the mass would gravitate toward what was right on fundamental issues, if allowed complete freedom of conscience.  Majority rule – a sacred principle to Jefferson – depended on a well-informed public, each member of which could choose among moral or political alternatives with absolute freedom from mental coercion.

An organized church was unlikely to leave men’s minds completely free.  Each sect claimed special revelation of God’s will directly to its prophets or priests, or recorded in a “bible”.  Religions were unwilling to give up moral (and, political) choices to the untrammeled conscience of the individual citizen.  The Declaration of Independence envisaged a free society ruled by consent of the governed.  Informed decision and consent needed good public education based on complete freedom of mind.  Religion made the first fundamental challenge to the republic’s freedom of mind.

James Madison

Madison and Freedom of Conscience

In 1776, James Madison served on a committee to draw up Virginia’s bill of rights.  The chairperson was the great George Mason, major author of the bill, which was prototype for the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.  Madison and Jefferson thought Mason’s statement on religious freedom fell short in two respects: it allowed continuation of a state-supported church, and spoke of “toleration in the exercise of religion” rather than absolute freedom of conscience.  Madison let the disestablishment issue pass for political reasons, but proposed wording to move forward from mere toleration (which implied the state’s right to grant or withhold religious freedom) to that of freedom of conscience as an unalienable natural right.  It read: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”  It was a quiet yet important triumph in the struggle for complete liberty of thought in America.

In 1779, Jefferson and Madison worked for abolition of state financed religion.  Government salaries for Anglican ministers were suspended, but the church still functioned as the official one in the state of Virginia, it was impossible to be legally married unless an Anglican performed the ceremony, and heresy against the Christian faith was still a crime.  Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” would have swept aside all such restrictions, but it ran into fierce opposition and failed to pass.

In 1784 Virginia’s Anglican hierarchy pressed for new tax funds for church support; Patrick Henry proposed an annual assessment for “support of the Christian religion or of some Christian church,” without naming a specific sect, trying to shift from the traditional single church form of establishment to the multiple, embracing several denominations, a trend in several states.  This defensive strategy has been used for over two centuries to resist government sanction for religion that has moved to a broader and less sectarian base.  In 1784 Virginia Presbyterians, formerly anti-establishment joined to demand the broader form.  Madison said they were as ready “to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out.”

He wrote “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785) to generate thousands of petition signatures to show that the majority were in no mood to forsake the religious freedom promised by the 1776 Declaration of Rights.  The surprised assessment sponsors dropped the bill.  Every man’s religion, Madison wrote,

“…must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right…because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men…. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in the exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?… Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence that has convinced us….”

Important to the First Amendment, Madison and the Virginia petitioners understood “establishment of religion” as any government sponsorship of any or all religions, and not just the European pattern of an exclusive, official state church.  They wanted a solid “wall of separation between church and state,” in Jefferson’s later phrase.

A last minute opposition effort to confine the law’s benefits to Christians instead of protecting even (as Jefferson noted) “the Infidel of every denomination,” failed.  In 1786, Madison sent news that the most sweeping guarantee of freedom of conscience in the history of the western world was a statute of Virginia; its provisions, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

A National Bill of Rights

Revolution had blown away much restrictive custom and legislation.  Most of the states passed bills of rights honoring religious freedom, although, excepting Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, they had church establishment in multiple form.

The national Constitutional Convention in 1786, ignored religious freedom as “state” business.  However, the Constitution was so more powerful than the Articles of Confederation, the rights of people had to be “the polar star of political conduct,” George Mason said.  Delegates began arguing for rights and guarantees.  Charles Pinckney of South Carolina urged a federal Constitutional ban on religious tests for federal officeholders; aware of their own diversity, delegates quickly adopted it as Article VI.

Madison’s amendment on religion became the First Amendment with much rewording.  He first introduced it as, “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, abridged.”  It goes straight to the center of Jefferson and Madison’s agreement on the relationship of religion to democratic government.  The heart of the matter was absolute freedom of thought for the individual citizen without government pressure toward any system of belief whatever.  Had Madison’s suggestion been adopted, official sanction for even vague theism (such as the phrase “In God We Trust” on our money, or “under God” in the national oath of allegiance, would be unconstitutional.  It is sure that his wording would have supported Supreme Court decisions against the devotional use of prayers or Bible reading in public schools.  It may not have shed equal light on controversial church-state issues, e.g. payment of chaplains for service in the armed forces.

In 1789 Madison unsuccessfully opposed appointment of official chaplains for Congress, because “these are to be paid out of the national taxes”; and Jefferson, as President refused to follow Washington’s and Adams’ examples in proclaiming certain days for religious observance.  “I do not believe,” he wrote, “it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines.  Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining of them an act of discipline.”

Fearing that it might outlaw or discourage religion altogether, the amendment was tinkered in the House and sent to the Senate worded, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.”  The phrase “or to prevent the free exercise thereof” indicated a desire that the prohibition of establishment should not be interpreted as hostile to religion; conventional Christian sects were still dominant in America, despite inroads by deism.

Madison’s sharp focus on utter freedom of thought and expression as the essence of what is now the First Amendment is shown by another amendment he advanced specifically forbidding any state to infringe the rights of conscience, freedom of speech, and a free press.  This addition, he thought, was “the most valuable on the whole list.”

Madison’s “most valuable” one was dropped by the Senate.  They struggled over imposing neutral policy on the government, not merely preventing one sect from gaining government favor at the expense of others.  The emphasis on “establish” leans toward the idea of government infringement on the “rights of conscience” although that phrase was dropped.  A joint committee was formed to write the wording now part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Madison was not pleased to see his key phrase “rights of conscience” abandoned, but he was convinced that the Bill of Rights could be reasonably interpreted as prohibiting federal support of religious activities in any form.

A Society So Free

He and Jefferson interpreted it that way during their presidencies and for the rest of their lives.  They led a successful campaign for separation of church and state as an essential for democracy, but their theoretical reasons for doing so were grasped by relatively few of their countrymen.  They knew their ideal was still remote: a society so free that its only ideological commitment would be to freedom of the mind.  Much of the support they rallied for a wall between church and state had other sources; in part a native intellectual current against absolutism which has never – or not yet – failed to flow in America despite counteracting currents of great force.  In part, from the mutual competitive mistrust of the religious sects toward one another.  Always pragmatic, Jefferson and Madison saw the value of this, despite their own rejection of revealed religion.  Variety of belief was a useful insurance against tyranny.

Since ratification in 1791, the First Amendment has had fluctuating interpretation.  In the last half of the Twentieth Century, the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment enjoins the guarantees of the First upon the states, for the protection of every citizen.  There has been confusion and inconsistency; school children pronounce “under God” in the daily Pledge of Allegiance, but may not be led in official school prayers.  Over the years the trend has been toward strict separation of church and state.  The Justices have shown a strong penchant for citing Jefferson and Madison as champions of freedom in explaining and supporting Court decisions on the First Amendment.

There is nothing sacred about our founders’ ideas, but whether one agrees or not about how high and impassable the wall between church and state ought to be in a free society, they deserve to be remembered and understood as the two Founding Fathers who devoted more of their minds and lives to this great problem than anyone else.  They were the center of a high-pressure area in the climate of opinion of their time, and their conclusions are strongly reflected in the Constitution as it was finally adopted.

Emerging from the matrix of the Enlightenment with such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and even George Washington and John Adams, they were its intellectual offspring.  The impact of “natural religion” on the genesis of democratic liberty, through their influence, has too often been ignored.

Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800 before he became President, Jefferson alleged certain clerical “schemes” to breach the religion clause of the First Amendment.  He would oppose them with all his power, he said, “for I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  It was “Nature’s God” that he was thinking of; and for that vow above all others the altar was not to be found, he believed, within the limits of any dogmatic creed.

ABSTRACT: E.M. Halliday, “Nature’s God and the Founding Fathers,” American Heritage. READ THE FULL ESSAY at:


October 13, 2009
Patriot's Dream

Patriot's Dream

Bill Moyers: Was the Financial Bailout Just a Slick, Friendly Takeover of the Federal Government? By Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal. Moyers interviews Marcy Kaptur, a hero of Michael Moore’s latest documentary and former IMF head Simon Johnson on Wall Street’s purchase of our democracy.

4 Supreme Court Cases That Will Say a Lot About the Direction of Our Country By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Would a Human Sacrifice TV Channel be protected by the First Amendment? Answers to this and other key questions will be answered.

As the Supreme Court kicked off its new season last week with a brand new justice on the bench, the cases on the docket provided a fascinating glimpse into the judicial soul of the country.

In the first days alone, there were cases involving dog fighting, a controversial cross on public land, and a number of prickly criminal justice issues.

The months to come will test laws on some of the most controversial issues of our time, including guns, sex offenders and the uniquely American question of whether teenagers can be sentenced to life without parole. The outcomes will tell us a lot about the future direction of the Roberts court, and what it might mean to have Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the bench.

Possible Major Speed Bump on the Way to Legal Marijuana By Stephen Webster, Raw Story. In spite of a law on California books for over a decade allowing sales of pot, L.A. DA Steve Cooley suddenly announces, “The time is right to deal with this problem.”

In spite of a law on California books for over a decade which allows the sale of medical cannabis to properly licensed patients, the district attorney in Los Angeles County is preparing an all-out legal assault against the “vast majority” of dispensaries.

“Hundreds of dispensaries operate under a 1996 voter initiative that allowed medical marijuana use, and a state law that allows for collective growing of marijuana,” NBC Los Angeles reported. “But based on a state Supreme Court decision last year, [LA County District Attorney Steve] Cooley has concluded that over-the-counter sales are illegal. Most if not all of the dispensaries in the state operate on that basis.”

Republican Senate Sex Scandals Point Back to Secretive Conservative Christian “Family” By Bill Berkowitz, Religion Dispatches. It was a hot summer full of sex scandals for GOP members of “The Family,” the exclusive conservative Christian group with designs on DC power.

Before the Tea Party Express brought tens of thousands to protest in the nation’s capital, and before town hall meetings about health care devolved into shout downs, there was the story of the boys of C Street.

What at first seemed like a series of public sex scandals turned out to have a connective thread. The main protagonists (Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Senator John Ensign of Nevada, and former Arkansas Congressman Chip Pickering) were all one-time residents of C Street and members of the Family, otherwise known as the Fellowship. As the summer unfurled, the “three amigos” gave mainstream media outlets plenty to talk about, and this highly secretive and powerful right-wing group got a lot of exposure. And then, as is the wont of the media, the story of C Street disappeared from the headlines.

Insurers Mount Attack Against Health Reform by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar.  WASHINGTON — The health insurance industry is warning that a comprehensive Senate bill would increase the cost of a typical policy by hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars a year after lawmakers eased up on the requirement that all Americans get coverage.

The stinging attack came on the eve of a pivotal Senate vote and was a clear message to President Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders who have been making headway on overhauling the nation’s health care system. The industry fears that a weakening of the penalties for failing to get insurance would let Americans postpone getting coverage until they get sick.

Second Thoughts by Michael Moore.  Friends,

Last night my wife asked me if I thought I was a little too hard on Obama in my letter yesterday congratulating him on his Nobel Prize. “No, I don’t think so,” I replied. I thought it was important to remind him he’s now conducting the two wars he’s inherited. “Yeah,” she said, “but to tell him, ‘Now earn it!’? Give the guy a break — this is a great day for him and for all of us.”

I went back and re-read what I had written. And I listened for far too long yesterday to the right wing hate machine who did what they could to crap all over Barack’s big day. Did I — and others on the left — do the same?

We are weary, weary of war. The trillions that will have gone to these two wars have helped to bankrupt us as a nation — financially and morally. To think of all the good we could have done with all that money! Two months of the War in Iraq would pay for all the wells that need to be dug in the Third World for drinking water! Obama is moving too slow for most of us — but he needs to know we are with him and we stand beside him as he attempts to turn eight years of sheer madness around. Who could do that in nine months? Superman? Thor? Mitch McConnell?

War and Peace Prizes by Howard Zinn.

I was dismayed when I heard Barack Obama was given the Nobel peace prize. A shock, really, to think that a president carrying on two wars would be given a peace prize. Until I recalled that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Kissinger had all received Nobel peace prizes. The Nobel committee is famous for its superficial estimates, won over by rhetoric and by empty gestures, and ignoring blatant violations of world peace.

Yes, Wilson gets credit for the League of Nations – that ineffectual body which did nothing to prevent war. But he had bombarded the Mexican coast, sent troops to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic and brought the US into the slaughterhouse of Europe in the first World War, surely among stupid and deadly wars at the top of the list.

Sure, Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace between Japan and Russia. But he was a lover of war, who participated in the US conquest of Cuba, pretending to liberate it from Spain while fastening US chains on that tiny island. And as president he presided over the bloody war to subjugate the Filipinos, even congratulating a US general who had just massacred 600 helpless villagers in the Phillipines. The Committee did not give the Nobel prize to Mark Twain, who denounced Roosevelt and criticised the war, nor to William James, leader of the anti-imperialist league.



September 11, 2009

Iraq debate – personal historical view

Date: Wednesday, February 14, 2007 8:25 PM

Colin Powell said, “Don’t get into war unless it’s absolutely necessary, and when we do, go to win, no half measures,” but it doesn’t apply very much in real life.

As a Vietnam era veteran, I know Johnson’s phony Gulf of Tonkin Incident fished us into war (I was drafted).  He bought into the radical right’s communist containment scare.  The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars wrote:

      “In part, the process of deception has also been unintentional.  Much of the rhetoric and many of the actions that have accompanied our… involvement have been ad hoc responses to situations of stress: a cumulative series of reflex moves and lunges produced by deepening executive anxiety, defensiveness, alarm, desperation, and even a sensed state of siege.  Similarly in rhetoric, our ‘national honor,’ ‘[enemies] with nuclear weapons,’ and the goal of ‘peace with honor’ – all have misled the public.  At the root of executive deception is a vast amount of executive self-deception – or, .to put it bluntly, stupidity.”

America blithely ignores offers of friendship and makes enemies as fast as we can throw the first sucker punch.  This is not military sense; it’s a bad case of ideology and invention over reason and fact.  But, Americans don’t run out when the fight’s tough – see: Khe San.  We stood nearly twenty years while our military-industrial complex ruined Vietnam.  Our prolonged stay, and side invasions of Cambodia and Laos, generationally disrupted and destabilized Southeast Asia, distorted America’s rule of law, and led directly to the Bush neoconservative leadership miasma.

We are now fighting a war for the health and life of the republic.  Look at how the radical right Republicans have warped the nation they want us to fight for, die for, and honor.  The self-destructive insanity of the radical right Republican way of war makes it looks as if the bad guys have already won.

These are politically motivated wars, fought to extremes because of ill-informed egos and profit.  Bush’s indefensible “give war a chance” was disgusting; so is Obama’s current pursuit of it.  End the war now, no matter how wimpy it looks to arrested-adolescent bullyboys.  We’ve got a lot of positive work to do, and one dollar spent on peace really is worth ten wasted in war!


How 9/11 Should Be Remembered.  The Extraordinary Achievements of Ordinary People by Rebecca Solnit.  Eight years ago, 2,600 people lost their lives in Manhattan, and then several million people lost their story. The al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers did not defeat New Yorkers. It destroyed the buildings, contaminated the region, killed thousands, and disrupted the global economy, but it most assuredly did not conquer the citizenry. They were only defeated when their resilience was stolen from them by clichés, by the invisibility of what they accomplished that extraordinary morning, and by the very word “terrorism,” which suggests that they, or we, were all terrified. The distortion, even obliteration, of what actually happened was a necessary precursor to launching the obscene response that culminated in a war on Iraq, a war we lost (even if some of us don’t know that yet), and the loss of civil liberties and democratic principles that went with it. Only We Can Terrorize Ourselves

Afghanistan and the Wages of Empire by John NicholsIt is amusing, if remarkable, that there are still some players in Washington who try to maintain the fantasy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai governs with anything akin to legitimacy. Karzai, an alleged oil-industry fixer awarded control of his country by occupying powers, has always served with strings attached.

Posted September 11, 2009.

Obama’s Quagmire Looks a Lot like Vietnam by Robert Scheer, Truthdig.

The way he’s headed on Afghanistan, Barack Obama is threatened with a quagmire that could bog down his presidency.  True, he doesn’t seem a bit like Lyndon Johnson, but the way he’s headed on Afghanistan, Barack Obama is threatened with a quagmire that could bog down his presidency. LBJ also had a progressive agenda in mind, beginning with his war on poverty, but it was soon overwhelmed by the cost and divisiveness engendered by a meaningless, and seemingly endless, war in Vietnam.

Victory is a state of mind.

Victory is a state of mind.