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Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Donald E. Bowles (“On prayer, the Supreme Court is wrong,” July 22 commentary), wrote that the Supreme Court’s ruling disallowing school prayer was, in fact, wrong. He based this on two arguments: first, that the court should not have cited Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and second, that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation. Both arguments contain major errors.
It seems extremely unlikely that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation in light of the Deist beliefs held by most of them. Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Paine and many more influential founders spoke critically of the accepted Christian religions of the day. Bowles was correct to point out that many of these men attended and served in churches. However, this was most likely a necessity of the times needed to gain any social and political standing. I suggest reading the Founding Fathers’ personal opinions on religion rather than what they said or did to please the public eye.
George Washington, for example, believed in a god he called Providence, but rarely mentioned belief in Jesus Christ, and consistently declined common church sacraments such as communion. If Washington’s own belief in Christianity is doubtful or at the very least unconfirmed, what motive would he have for making that belief part of the country’s essential makeup?
All this, though, is somewhat beside the point. Even if evidence clearly indicated that our founders were Christians, does that mean they would advocate placing their religion on a pedestal above all other ways of thought? Certainly not all Christians are so selfish. Furthermore, if Christianity had been clearly endorsed by the founders, does that mean the legislators of today must also endorse the thinking of past times? The founders took no action against slavery, nor did they take action to establish voting rights for women. Is that justification for us to do the same today? As society changes, so does the way in which we interpret and create legislation.
Bowles makes a slightly more legitimate argument in pointing out that Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists was not part of the Constitution. The letter captured the idea of how the Establishment Clause was meant to be interpreted. In 1801, the minority Baptists expressed concern that they would be discriminated against if the government sided with a majority religion. They felt that religion should not be part of government. Jefferson expressed his agreement, citing the Establishment Clause in his reply and using the now-famous phrase “separation between Church and State.”
There is no reason to suppose Jefferson interpreted this incorrectly, but to be certain, one can also look to Madison, the writer of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause. Madison wrote the clause in response to concerns of religious minorities. If he had not assured these groups that they would not be dominated by a government-imposed religion, the Constitution may never have been ratified.
Madison opposed the use of government land for churches. He wrote to the Baptist churches in North Carolina, “Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty . . . ” If there is any doubt that Jefferson misinterpreted the point of the Establishment Clause, then surely its writer can be assumed to possess the correct interpretation.
The clause exists to protect minorities from an established majority religion. This can be seen in the correspondence between Jefferson and the Baptists. This is why the Supreme Court cited it. The court must then ask how, in today’s world, we might ensure that religious minorities are protected — that no religion is endorsed by federal, state or local governments. One strategy is to disallow mandatory or official prayer in institutions such as public schools funded by the government. This is a simple matter of trying to be fair and unbiased, and that is why the Supreme Court’s decision was just and correct.
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