Reading William Federer’s book “Back Fired: A nation founded for religious tolerance no longer tolerates the religion of its founders,” I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address. Federer, like Lincoln at Cooper Union, walks the reader through not only what the Founding Fathers said, but also what they did. Lincoln was addressing the extension of slavery into the territories and new states. Federer thoroughly covers the meaning of the First Amendment by explaining how the Founders lived out its application in everyday life.
The Founders meant what they said, and Federer notes this:
It is ironic that Jefferson himself foresaw this temptation to “squeeze” new meanings out of a text. On June 12, 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson:
“On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
I have to say that in a book full of terrific quotes from the founding to the modern era, this is one of my favorites:
I proceed to inquire what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all of the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of the youth; and here I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of religion.
Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.
~ Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in his Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, 1786.
On that same topic, Justice Robert Houghwout Jackson wrote this in an opinion in U.S. Supreme Court decision McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948:
One can hardly respect a system of education that would leave a student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that moved the world society for a part in which he is being prepared.
Part of the confusion that Federer addresses is the notion that the cultural battles today are between the religious and the secular. Federer cites the following from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp which referred to the emergence of “nobelief religions” and “religion of secularism” (emphasis added):
Secularism is unconstitutional…. preferring those who do not believe over those who do believe….It is the duty of government to deter nobelief religions…. Facilities of government cannot offend religious principles….
The State may not establish a ‘religion of secularism’ in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus ‘preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.
Looking at it that way, it’s much easier to understand how the government is to play a neutral role and not one that’s hostile to traditional religion. Federer writes:
Ironically, tolerance now seems to exist for every kind of belief system, except for traditional Judeo-Christian, the very ideology which gave birth to and fostered the idea of tolerance.
Today, some even regard the Bible as “hate speech” because it contains verses referring to adultery, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity as sinful.
Tolerance has broadened to encompass those who have a humanistic and atheistic system of belief, giving rise to a dilemma: in order to have equality among religions, all acknowledgments of deity or anything supernatural, must be removed. Indeed, favoritism seems to be given in schools, government agencies and courts to any belief system other than the founder’s Judeo-Christian belief system.
Lest you think intolerance of religious freedom is something new, Federer quotes President Grover Cleveland who in 1895(!) in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress referred to “a spirit of fanatic hostility to Christian influences…” We certainly see that fanatic hostility today.
Up next: More about the book “Back Fired.”
(First published May 2012)