The Constitution vs Religion for Thanksgiving

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While many of our laws have reflected religious beliefs, not all religious beliefs were codified into law.  It is against the law to kill, but, it is not against the law to have another god before “Him”.  It is against the law to steal, but, it is not against the law if you dishonor your mother or father.  Out of the 10 Commandments, only 3 of the Commandments are codified into law; killing, stealing, and adultery.  Today, adultery has been reduced from a criminal act to a civil act leaving only two Commandments as criminal acts.  That hasn’t stopped the religious right, however, from trying to codify other religious beliefs into law.  Prop 8 is merely the latest attempt.

In the 1600’s, religious groups migrated to the new world; Puritans, Protestants, Separatist Puritans, Roman Catholics, Jews, German Lutherans and Quakers among others.  Some left England and Europe to escape religious persecution, others to spread their religious beliefs.  But, once in the new world, these groups began inflicting the very persecution they had left on others.  Persecution could include fines, prison, or even death.

By the 1700’s, the colonies saw the emergence of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals and Deists.  In 1785, An Ordinance for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory, was debated in Congress, to include a proposal to establish religion and provide governmental support to one denomination, but, while that proposal had some supporters, it was voted down.  In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance stated, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.”  

The Constitution itself set out to define how our government would be setup and function.  The Constitution was ratified in 1787.  Our founding fathers realized that the Constitution, in and of itself, was only a framework of our government and that specific protections needed to be enumerated for the people.  Yet, how to do it?  In 1791, the first 10 Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution.  

By the time the Bill of Rights was written and ratified into the Constitution, it became clear that no one religion could hold sway over another without tearing the colonies apart.  James Madison wrote, “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 infringed.”  While this settled the argument over which religion would hold sway over the United States, it didn’t stop state governments from trying to legislate religious beliefs.  

Like the 10 Commandments, our founding fathers enumerated some specific ideals into the Constitution; freedom of religion, press and speech, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to keep and bear arms.  The Amendments also placed limits on the governments powers; being unable to quarter troops in peoples home, unreasonable search and seizure.  The Amendments further gave the people protections; the right to a speedy trial and a trial by their peers.  But, the Ninth Amendment did more; it is the “catch-all” to let government know that while some rights were specifically held, there were many more rights the people had that were not specifically enumerated.

Amendment 9 – Construction of Constitution. Ratified 12/15/1791.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The argument of the religious right goes; since the Constitution does not specifically enumerate certain rights, this right then does not exist.  However, the same can be said of the Biblical beliefs of abortion and homosexuality; the 10 Commandments do not specifically mention abortion or homosexuality, so, obviously it doesn’t exist.  Of course, the whole argument is bogus to anyone who isn’t a religious zealot.  Thus began the battle to define just what rights our Constitution actually did guarantee to the citizen.  

It does not take a Constitutional scholar to realize that if our founding fathers would not allow the government to intrude into a persons home, or to seize a person or their property without a writ or warrant, the people had, by default, a guaranteed level of privacy from governmental intrusion.  Our founding fathers, however, also knew the value of keeping religious freedom neutral from government.  

James Madison wrote about the separation of church from the state:  I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others. (Letter Rev. Jasper Adams, Spring 1832).

The Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v Texas that the states anti-gay law was unconstitutional.  As the Court noted, anti-gay laws were a product of the late 20th century and were not rooted in some ancient, long standing, practice.  In Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruled on an anti-abortion law in Texas and decided that the Constitution did, in fact, provide protection of privacy to an individual that included the woman’s right to chose whether or not she could have an abortion.  What these two cases have in common is that religious belief was codified into a law, ie, that religion had trespassed on the legal right of others as James Madison forewarned.  

Madison also warned the religious of his day, to which we see in our day, about how religion can affect social harmony: The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity (Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, Dec 3, 1821).

The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or over-heated imaginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance, and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for and animosity; and, finally, that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shewn that every relaxation of the alliance between law and religion, from the partial example of Holland to the consummation in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, &c., has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence it was left, with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change, and particularly in the sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than that the law is not necessary to the support of religion (Letter to Edward Everett, Montpellier, March 18, 1823).

Thomas Jefferson opined on the separation of church and state and the intolerance of religion that works to remove rights of the citizen:  I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it… Every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents (letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808).

The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man (Letter to J. Moor, 1800).

Thomas Jefferson even went so far as to add:  In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own (Letter to H. Spafford, 1814).

The Supreme Court has, in effect, carried out its Constitutional duty; to secure for all the rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution and stem the religious beliefs legislated upon the citizenry.  They have done so in regard to anti-gay and abortion laws just as they did with slavery and womens rights before that.

Thus, this Thanksgiving, let us remember that this day was a celebration for all things given to us by those who came before us.  But, just as our founding fathers, we must get back to work manning the wall between the church and the state.


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  1. who, when (I think 16 but am not sure) “witches” were convicted of “witchcraft” in PA, pardoned them all, b/c he didn’t believe in witchcraft.

    But he was a Quaker, and therefore liberal for his time.

    The story was quite different in Massachusetts, for example.

  2. …since government offices mostly all close on Saturday (and always Sunday!) the sabbath is kept by civil society.  False witness is still a crime, a serious one, if it touches on matters of law.  And as Winter Rabbit and Meteor Blades have pointed out, Thanksgiving was given to us at least in part as a celebration of an ethnic cleansing, in the spirit of that whole “no other gods before me” and “I am the lord your god” thing; the very holiday itself can be seen as a celebration of commandments one and two, both historically and philosophically…most religions have an idea of being grateful for existence…but not necessarily to the point of having a thanks feast.

    Not to pick nits lol (its what I do).  Agreed with the diary and thought it was good! But as your diary illustrates, quite well, teasing out Christianity from the civil idea of individuals having immanent, indivisible value has been a long fight.

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