Moral Contradictions

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Originial Sin of the Founder's Intent...

...I always wondered, while studying the Constitution and how it applies today, why the Founding Fathers, if they really wanted a Christian Nation, as some claim, leave out the word "God"?

Susan Jacoby has a compelling article in "Mother Jones" titled "Originial Intent".

18th Century ministers clearly saw a problem with the Constitution:
One North Carolina minister observed with forthright disgust, during his state's ratification debate, that the abolition of religious tests for officeholders amounted to nothing less than "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us." The Reverend John M. Mason, a fire-breathing New York minister, declared the absence of God in the Constitution "an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate" and warned that Americans would "have every reason to tremble, lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundation the fabric we have been rearing, and crush us to atoms in the wreck."

Some point to the Declaration of Independence as proof. I can certainly understand this notion, yet cannot get around the fact that the DI separated us from Britain, yet the Constitution formed us. One has to understand that governments ordained by God were a little old in that point of history. All monarchies derived their power from God, and the Americans desired a new experiment by throwing that power to the people - Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists... We The People. In regards to the Constitution and how it applies to today's law, America's history from 1607-1789 doesn't count - only what's written in that document counts, and that's why it's so novel, so incredible, so "original". As Jacoby points out, the Founding Fathers created the first secular government in the world.

Yet, whenever she makes that point, she gets bombarded:
Eighteenth-century theological conservatives lost the battle over the Constitution, and the pill remains equally bitter to their spiritual descendants. Every time I write an article mentioning the constitutional omission of God, I receive hundreds of identical emails calling me a liar (sometimes a godless liar), because the document is unmistakably dated "in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven." That the religious right should fall back on a once-common manner of dating important papers—as unrevealing of religious intent as the use of B.C. and A.D.—demonstrates just how seriously it takes the enterprise of controlling the past in order to control the future.

I'm going to break away from the article and interject a couple of my own comments. I never understood the term "strict constructionist" because it seems that "original intent" is thrown in there as well. I see a difference between reading what the law says and prognosticating what the Founding Fathers meant. When groups from both sides commit this sin of adding words to the law, they step into territory where the answer will never be known and always hotly disputed.

There's also the argument of the personal beliefs and writings of the FF's. Yet today we hear about supreme court justices being nominated and saying that their personal beliefs won't interfere with their interpretation of the law.

Jacoby reminds us that Virginia's passage of the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 played an enormous role in the writing of the Constitution.

Thanks to the strong influence of Jefferson and Madison, Virginia stood alone among the states in guaranteeing complete civic equality and religious freedom to all citizens. In 1786, Virginians rejected a proposal by Patrick Henry to provide public financing for the teaching of Christianity in schools and instead passed an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which ruled out tax support for religious instruction and religious tests for public office. Significantly, the new law was supported by a coalition of evangelicals, who—as a minority in a state dominated by Episcopalians—feared government interference with religion, and freethinking Enlightenment rationalists, who feared religious interference with government.

The influence of Virginia's law, enacted less than a year before the writing of the federal Constitution, cannot be overstated. The delegates in Philadelphia could have looked for guidance to a crazy quilt of conflicting state laws, rooted in religious prejudice and incestuous Old World church-state entanglements. Instead they chose the Virginia model, which, as Jefferson proudly stated in his autobiography, "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

I always heard of the "letter of the law"... only I'm afraid too many substitute the word "law" with "custom".

At the risk of plagarizing Ms. Jacoby any more, I highly recommend that everyone read this article. I've grown up under folks who preached that we are a Christian nation and I've heard all their arguments and the facts they bring up. However, the more I studied history, the more I studied the application of Constitutional law, and the more I thought about this issue, the more evidence I saw that simply undercut the arguments of my youth.

Why does history need to be rewritten to make up for the fact that the Constitution simply does not mention God?