Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Secular Founding?

In a show April 1 Bill Maher said: ". . .I don't feel like anybody is speaking out for secular America. You know, the one the founding fathers wanted?" You can check the transcript if you're interested. I guess I'm not sure what he means to say because I don't think the founding fathers wanted a secular America.

Consider the words of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . " This fundament right, listed first in the Bill of Rights, doesn't sound like the founding fathers were seeking a secular America since the language here suggests they respected the individual's free exercise of religion. They certainly did not want Congress to pass a statute saying that there would be an official United States Church, but this was not because they wanted a secular America. Rather, because there were different church denominations, they wanted government to be "blind" to religion, so to speak.

In his book On Two Wings Michael Novak writes about the views of James Madison (described by many as "the father of the Constitution"): ". . . . Madison wanted the church to pass through society invisibly, never being touched by any notice from the state . . . . His motive was not secularism. On the contrary, he thought the churches would be stronger the freer they were from government assistance . . . . Indeed, Madison boasted in later years that the American model of separation -- even if not as pure as he had wanted it -- had led to an unprecendented vitality in the churches, especially when compared with Christianity in Europe." (p. 57)

Or consider John Adams (later to be President) in 1798: "We have no government armed with power of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. "Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." (p. 71 in Novak's book)

Perhaps it is sufficient to add just one more quote from one of the founding fathers. In 1789 President George Washington issued his first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation: "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor. . . . Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the Service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficient Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks, for His kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the single and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war." (p. 23 as cited in Novak's book)

Mr. Maher apparently wants a secular America. I don't think we can say the founding fathers had such a goal.

I suggest Senator Lieberman is a better source on these issues. On the Meet The Press show of March 27 Senator Lieberman said it well: ". . . Look, I want to say generally, very briefly, that the mix of God and government, of religion and politics, is quintessentially American, and it was there at the beginning. The fact is that in the first American document, the Declaration of Independence, the founders of our country said that they were forming the new government to secure the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that they saw as the endowment of our creator. So this government, this country was not neutral about God right at the outset. . . ." And just a bit later he said: ". . . .But I think that the public square is greatly strengthened and enriched when people are prepared to speak, not just about secular notions of justice, but about the moral sense that our faith gives us. . . . And again, I want to say that to me that is not un-American, that is very American. We are -- our Constitution says we don't establish a religion, but it also says everybody has freedom of religion, and everybody has the right to speak their mind. And if your mind is faith-based, God bless you. Speak your mind."

I would add, if your mind is not faith-based, that's your business. Speak your mind.

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