More on the Church/State Issue

A couple folks, responding to my last little missive on the whole church/state debacle, wrote to point out that the Framers never mentioned “separation of church and state” in the Constitution, and to explain that the now-hallowed phrase came from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. In that letter he stated that the Constitution created a “wall of separation between church and state.”

So, in light of these kind reminders, and because I don’t want readers to think I’m dumb or anything, let me elaborate upon my earlier remarks. To wit:

Yes, yes, I know. The issue here has to do with the whole concept of “legislative intent,” the interpretive framework which is historically critical to the resolution of legislative conflict and confusion. When we can’t figure out exactly what a piece of law is trying to say (always a problem when lawyers are charged with the task of communicating), we look (in theory) to the record to see what they said during deliberations on the law in question. In this case, we’re reaching a bit further for Framer intent, I realize.

Now, we know what the Framers wrote in the 1st Amendment, and we also know what Article VI, Clause 3 has to say:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

The Danbury letter is presumed, at least on my part, to represent a Jeffersonian elaboration, and I don’t see anything terribly wrong with examining the larger body of a statesman’s work to determine his intent, especially since those who would pronounce an official fundamentalist theocracy on us in a heartbeat are fond of looking for any little tidbit they can misconstrue in favor of their own narrow dogma.

The Danbury letter clearly demonstrates that the Framers intended to erect a “wall” against state establishment of religion. I wish to hell they had put this kind of language in the actual Constitution and been explicit about what they meant, but frankly, the failing here is the same as failings we find elsewhere in the Constitution – the Framers made way too many generous assumptions about the people they were writing for and about. They assumed a higher intellect and better literacy on the part of the public, and worse, they assumed that people would inherently want to be smart, well-informed, well-educated, etc. A noble assumption, to be sure, but not one that history has done much to validate.

If these assumptions had proven accurate, we’d have a very different landscape of governance than we do today. Instead, we have to worry about the political clout of people who, on the one hand, hate intolerant fundamentalist theocracies elsewhere in the world with a violent, occasionally genocidal passion, but on the other, seem incapable of grasping that the Afghan word “Taliban,” roughly translated into English, means “Christian nation.”

But in case I’m still being vague, let’s put it this way: people who care about their religion have no better friend than a government that cares not at all.

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