Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Religious Equality in America

How to deal with the matter of religion and public life was one of the central questions facing the framers of the Constitution as they invented a new nation. For 150 years, the colonies had, for the most part, been little theocracies, run by different established churches. The framers knew well the problems posed by religious supremacism, although they certainly did not call it that in those days. They understood what can happen when religions wield state power. And they knew that in order to bind together the potentially fractious new nation they needed to inoculate it against the ravages of religious bigotry and worse -- the religious warfare that had wracked Europe for a millennium.

What did they do? Well, in the first place they made no mention of God in the Constitution. What they did do was to put in, Article 6, a key phrase - "...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Cornell University historian Issack Kramnick details the history of Article 6 in his book The Godless Constitution.)

[ Note : I posted an essay today at the Rockridge Institute's online conference Spiritual Progressives: A Dialogue on Values and Building a Movement. Discussions today focus on such matters as religion and politics and separation of church and state. The conference is ongoing, May 9th-May 20th. Here is my contribution. (I have written about this on my web site and in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.) ]

What this [ Article 6 ] meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one's qualifications for office. By logical extension, this also meant that one's religious identity would be irrelevant to one's status as a citizen. This clause, set in motion the disestablishment of the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. When the Constitution was sent to the state legislatures for ratification, the absence of mention of God and Christianity in the Constitution led the the Christian Right of the day to fight ratification. They lost.

While it was deeply significant that Catholics, atheists, Quakers, and Jews would enjoy equal status as citizens in the United States along with Protestants of various sorts, they key was that people had the right to believe differently. Religious freedom, as we think of it now, is the right of individual conscience. In terms of our role as citizens this is perhaps best framed as religious equality. I believe that when we are grounded in this history and are able to articulate this history and its contemporary meaning, progressives will own the moral and political high ground in the public debate with the theocratic Christian Right.

The First Amendment built on and clarified the implications of Article 6. But what Article 6 did was to establish the right to believe and to think differently without having to answer to a state sponsored religious orthodoxy. The right to believe and therefore to think differently, is a necessary prerequisite for speaking freely and worshipping freely. It is this right to believe differently that is the foundation for every advance in civil and human rights in our history.

It is also the historical fact of our right to believe differently as enshrined in Article 6 that unravels the false claim that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation." Indeed, it was Christians, members of established churches, who wrote the Constitution and who ratified it in the state legislatures. In that sense it was Christian political leaders who believed so deeply in the need for religious equality that they disestablished their own churches.

If religious equality is to survive in our time, I believe it is necessary for us to reclaim our history and stand up to the historical revisionism of today's theocratic Christian Right.

-- Frederick Clarkson


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