Monday, August 30, 2010

Mere Christendom & The First Amendment

by Douglas Wilson

It should not be surprising that after I have urged the establishment of a mere Christendom for some time, that questions about the First Amendment might arise. It would appear that I am trespassing on the sacred precincts. It would seem that I am strolling across the manicured lawns of the Temple grounds, in order to have a better shot at kicking one of the sacred geese.

So perhaps I had better explain. My position on this can be summarized nicely and in brief compass. It is not the case that a mere Christendom would violate anything in the First Amendment, and the second point would be that, even if it did, we need Christ more than we need Madison.

But, on this point at least, we may certainly have both. The First Amendment, rightly understood, does not prohibit a civil acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus. It prohibits the establishment of a particular denomination of Christians at the federal level as the national church. It does not in any way prohibit, to take an example at random, the erecting of a Christmas creche on the steps of the Mugwump County Courthouse. Here's what the amendment says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Our concerns for the present have to do with the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. We may discuss what lawyers have done to mangle the rest of it some other time perhaps.

If you would be so kind, please note the first word of the First Amendment, which is Congress. Congress is the only entity which can violate the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, and they can do so in two ways. The first would be if they were to pass legislation that created the Church of the United States, as England has a Church of England and Denmark the Church of Denmark. The Founders did not do this because they objected to national churches, but rather because they objected to the idea that the United States was a nation. We were, rather, a confederation of nations, meaning that any established religions needed to exist at the appropriate level, which was not the federal level. At that time, federal government and national government were not interchangeable synonyms. If you take the trouble to read The Federalist Papers, a collection of newspaper articles urging ratification of the Constitution, you will discover one of their points to be the fact that those urging ratification disavowed the idea that the Constitution was in any way creating a nation. And this is why, incidentally, Lincoln's phrase in the Gettysburg Address -- "four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation" -- was such a masterpiece of revisionist history.

The second way Congress could violate this part of the First Amendment would be if they interfered with the free exercise of religion, as practiced by any other entity that is not the Congress. Thus far, Congress has not violated the establishment clause, unless you want to count the IRS, but they have specialized in crude and repeated violations of the free exercise clause. Free exercise of religion is rapidly coming to mean that you can still believe whatever you want behind your eyes and between your ears, just so long as you do not try to exercise your religion freely, out in public where people can see you. This is not unlike the modern legal theory, with regard to one amendment down, that argues that the right to keep and bear arms means that you don't really have the right to keep and bear arms. It is hard to get your mind around such legal suppleness, and a minimum of three years in an accredited law school is usually required.

When the Constitution was adopted, 9 of the 13 colonies had established religions at the state level. The longest surviving of these was the Congregational Church in Connecticut, which was supported by that state down into the 1830's. But the point is not that we have such established state religions now. The point is rather a principled one, demonstrating with unarguable clarity what the original intent was. The federal government did not require the states to maintain an established church, but it most certainly permitted it, and did so expressly. Alabama could be officially Baptist, Connecticut Congregational, and Virginia Episcopal, and nothing about such an arrangement would be a violation of the First Amendment as originally conceived. At this point, compare the First Amendment and the Tenth Amendment. What Congress could not do, e.g. establish the Presbyterian Church, any one of the states most certainly could do.

All the states could pick different state flowers and the national government could pick a national flower, and no great conflict ensue. We could do the same with state birds, and adopt the bald eagle as the national bird, and it would cause no great consternation. But to have different state religions, and one national religion over them all is just asking for trouble. The founders were not stupid men, and so they decided to not go there.

In fact, this original understanding of the First Amendment provides us with a model of mere Christendom. The principle of organization between different Christian states need not take a stand on the denominational questions that divide the states from one another. That is what I am arguing for. This is the pattern for mere Christendom. But this cannot be done, let it be said in passing, if Michigan were under Islamic Sharia law and South Dakota under Lutheranism. Religiousdom does not provide a principle of unity at all. Christ does.

So what went wrong? As a result of the War Between the States, and subsequent interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, the position and role of the Bill of Rights was entirely reversed. It was decided that what the federal government previously could not do, as prevented by jealous state governments, the state governments now could not do, as prevented by the overweening and ravenous federal government. We used to be protected from the federal government by the states, and now we are "protected" from the states by the feds. And thus it came about that the function of the Bill of Rights, which was to guard us against an out-of-control central government, went by the wayside.

This reversal tells you everything you need to know about how it came about that our government no longer requires the consent of the governed in order to function. This reversal tells you everything you need to know about how the list of grievances that the Government needs to be willing to redress, as described later in the First Amendment, is a list that is getting longer by the minute.

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