Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Thoughts on church and state

John McCain: "I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?' ... I admire the Islam. There's a lot of good principles in it. I think one of the great tragedies of the 21st century is that these forces of evil have perverted what's basically an honorable religion. But, no, I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles.... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith. But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president. I don't say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just would--I just feel that that's an important part of our qualifications to lead. ... I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

Mike Huckabee: "[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."

James Madison: "If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another. ... What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance."

5 comments:

the secret knitter said...

Does it make it even worse that, in my opinion, the majority of them are insincere when it comes to such statements? I don't doubt Huckabee believes what he's saying, but the rest strike me as shameless panderers.

Victor said...

Madison is talking about the establishment of a state church and related questions of formal institutions, which is obvious if ...

(1) you follow the link and see that these quotes is from a speech opposing "A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion" (i.e., to have the state of Virginia pay Anglican clergy);
(2) you look carefully at the words of Donna's excerpt ... "how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government" ... "ecclesiastical establishments" ... "on the ruins of the Civil authority" ... "upholding the thrones of political tyranny" (he's mostly talking about Catholicism here) ... "Rulers ... have found an established Clergy [to be] convenient auxiliaries" ... all of which talk about
(3) you note that significant part of the first argument Madison makes is actually that established churches are themselves violations of religious precepts and/or that religious freedom is a derivable from religion ... e.g. "what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator" and that "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe."

The institutional separation of church and state is a very different animal from the separation of religion and society. The former was unknown in the pre-Christian West and, however varyingly understood in the details, has always been part of Christian teaching since. The latter is an incoherent concept on its face -- not that that deters evangelical atheists and/or secular fundamentalists from wish-pretending otherwise.

So what Madison is talking about has nothing at all to do with the live issues of today and the context in which McCain and Huckabee are speaking. The live issues today involve the state violation of religious freedom and/or the social marginalization of religion. Madison has nothing at all to do with what McCain is talking about, and not much to do with what Huckabee is talking about. (Re the latter: how far Christians should try to shape secular law to conform with religious morality is a nettlesome issue, but the notion that a Baptist minister would deny what Madison said doesn't even pass the laugh test. I had to endure a dinner Saturday night with a twit, who sits on a school board mind you, who said Huckabee wants to "establish a theocracy" and I failed the "hold in the derisive laugh"-test.)

Donna B. said...

In no way am I advocating the separation of religion and society, Victor. Although Madison's statement is referencing a particular act (the state supporting clergy through tax collection), it's clear that Madison is arguing against people (like Patrick Henry) who do not consider it an establishment of religion to make society more appropriately religious, to support and foster more (good) religion. This is essentially the same position that many people espouse today, the people to whom Huckabee and McCain are trying to appeal. Madison's argument goes beyond opposition to direct establishment, and argues that entangling the state in approving of good religion in any way is a mistake.

And if you think Huckabee's Baptist roots means that he agrees with Madison (the Baptists in Madison's time were the ones begging for antiestablishment legislation and arguing strenuously against state entanglement with religion), then you've got another thing coming -- speaking as someone who knows Huckabee much more directly than you. The Southern Baptists of today, with their loyalty oaths and other moves away from congregational polity, are about 180 degrees removed from the Baptists of Madison's time. What a shock -- as soon as they become the ones with the power to do the establishing or entangling, it becomes a worthy goal. Again, Madison recognized this and addressed it directly in the "Memorial and Remonstrance."

And if Madison has nothing at all to do with McCain's statement that the Constitution was founded on Christian principles -- the same Madison who succeeded, with great difficulty, in preventing references to God from being placed in the Constitution, for the first time in the history of democratic government in the West -- I'll eat my hat.

Victor said...

Sorry for the upcoming length:

In no way am I advocating the separation of religion and society, Victor.

I didn't say you were, at least self-consciously ... see (*) later. But many deeply-unreflective people are, and the social circumstances are quite radically different (each of these two facts being both cause and effect for the other). Which means, as I said, that there is no "like to like" comparison to make between the debates of now and those of the 1780s. Madison was arguing when the social reign of generic Christianity was unquestioned -- indeed, he appeals to it as a standard of judgment, repeatedly. We do not live in such a time. I mean ... do you think the statement "Huckabee wants to 'establish a theocracy'," defensible on grounds other than insanity, addiction to hyperbole or blind hate? (I plumb for the third myself.) I realize that's not a statement of yours, but it is the background noise for every discussion of this sort today.

Just to put all my cards on the table, I also generally think Americans have a excessively purist attitude toward church "establishment," reflected in some of Madison's more flowery claims, which, as historical claims, are nonsense on their face. For example, and it's far from the only one, is it really the case, as he argues in (3), that if this bill could be called "the first experiment on our liberties," that the American founding reacted in principle against any possible encroachment of power to prevent any precedent?) And I also think that since Madison and (especially) Jefferson were religious outliers in their time, it's cheaply easy to make the American founding seem more secularist than it was by stacking their quotes like cordwood (many of the juiciest of which were private thoughts from much later).


Although Madison's statement is referencing a particular act (the state supporting clergy through tax collection), it's clear that Madison is arguing against people (like Patrick Henry) who do not consider it an establishment of religion to make society more appropriately religious, to support and foster more (good) religion.

Where? Where does Madison say that making society more appropriately religious or fostering religion is either (1) itself an establishment? or (2) a bad thing, separate from arguing that institutional establishment to do so is bad?

The first argument is incoherent on its face since it would mean religion and society WOULD have to be separated in order to achieve the institutional separation of church and state.(*) Practically every law has some effect on religiosity, either fostering or retarding, and people will inevitably argue for or against such laws on said bases. Madison acknowledges this fact repeatedly throughout, and even argues from it, as for example in #12, where he calls this bill "adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity." That is, Madison sees rejecting this bill as a means of fostering religion.

The closest he comes on the second is #5, where he says "the Bill implies ... that the Civil Magistrate ... may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy ... [which is] an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation." But again, that itself is a religious appeal.

As for Huckabee, I'm quite well aware that current Southern Baptists are 350 years removed from Roger Williams and there has been a lot of history in between. And I acknowledge that you're more up of the details than I. But I've still never seen a shred of real evidence that either Huckabee or any Southern Baptist institution wants either state-paid clergy (the particular of Madison's letter) or the establishment of the SBC as the state church (the principle of Madison's letter). And I did find it rather intriguing, Donna, that to support the contrary claim, you cited two things that, whatever the merits, are both internal church matters -- professorial or employment declarations (I don't see how one can NOT have them, in seminaries at least), and increasing Convention power (though determining the boundaries of communion are features of all groups everywhere). Neither actually has anything to do, by analogy or superficially, with church-state questions.

As for the McCain quotes, you left out one very important thing. In the place where he says "the Constitution was founded on Christian principles," **his very next words** are: "But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, 'I only welcome Christians.' We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles." The American constitution is a political document, sure, and thus secular in itself. But it was written and ratified by a Christian people to create a formal union among themselves. So, in the broadest sense, he's correct that the Constitution established a Christian nation, because that was the socially-presupposed fact at the time, whether or not the word "God" was in the text. (The ambiguity of the word "nation" is that its usage covers both "formal polity" and "informal society," but given that McCain said he was speaking in the broadest sense, I think his intent is clear. Keep in mind we're talking about an oral interview and some imprecision of thought is inevitable.) Again, by your inferences from McCain's words, you seem too eager to me to blur the distinction between "religion and society" on the one hand, and "church and state" on the other.(*) And bejeezus ... in the same interview, McCain even says he could vote for the right Muslim, which puts him far ahead on the scale of secularist "enlightenment" from the American Founders -- several of whom didn't think Catholicism was compatible with republican government (and at the time, it probably wasn't).

Donna B. said...

Look, I don't think McCain and Huckabee are evil theocrats. I think they are well-meaning folk whose view of the relationship between religion and politics is skewed because of their majoritarian position. I think McCain, especially, is bumbling through an attempted big-tent position from an unfortunately mistaken and condescending premise (the Constitution is essentially Christian, making the U.S. essentially Christian not in its demographics but its principles). I feel more pity than anger toward them. But these are extraordinarily idiotic things to say, no matter how well they go over with a certain demographic. They're detrimental to the religion that the candidates profess, as Madison notes; they're detrimental to the expectation of religious liberty people would have in their administrations, as Madison notes; and they're detrimental to the truth of this country's founding, which was manifestly not on the Christian religion no matter how generically conceived, but on secular principles -- a fact for which you as a Catholic and I as a former Baptist have cause to be profoundly grateful. Our gratitude should make us cautious of those who proffer official endorsements of our Christian position, even under the guise of reviving the public square. I'm with Stephen L. Carter on this one -- religion has more to fear than the state from this mutual admiration society.

Oh, and that "social reign of generic Christianity"? Rodney Stark argues that the American populace today is more religious than it has ever been in the past -- indeed, that the time of the founding was probably the least Christian (generic or otherwise) of our history. Maybe the elites of society all held to some generic Christianity while the populace was largely heathen; and maybe the situation is reversed today. But does that render Madison's points moot? In my view, it makes the danger of majoritarian religious favoritism even more acute. A democracy responsive to the will of an overwhelmingly Protestant population motivated by self-interest, because it is less interested in the common good and less amenable to persuasion in those terms, is more dangerous than an aristocracy (for all intents and purposes) exercising a benign paternalism by trying to make the unwashed masses more Christian.