Friday, July 04, 2008

a quick lesson in Constitutional law

This silly editorial from the New York Times has inspired my 4th of July American post-extravaganza. 

The editorial, for all of it's whining, did not seem quite silly until this came up:
The Barack Obama of the primary season used to brag that he would stand before special interest groups and tell them tough truths. The new Mr. Obama tells evangelical Christians that he wants to expand President Bush's policy of funneling public money for social spending to religious-based organizations - a policy that violates the separation of church and state and turns a government function into a charitable donation. 

Several thoughts come to mind on reading this lamentation. These religious-based organizations aren't receiving funds because they are religious-based, they're receiving funds because they are social organizations; AA is a good example of a religious based social organization which primarily serves an important secular purpose. The last comment about "charitable donation" leaves me a little perplexed. Would not the purely secular social organizations given government funding also be relying on "charitable donation"?

The part that gets me the most is of course the use of the phrase "separation of church and state". 
SO, here's a quick lesson in the United States' Constitution for everyone; the following are the whole of the references to 'religion' in our nation's Constitution and Bill of Rights:
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 his Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

from Article VI of the Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

Amendment I of the Bill of Rights

That's it. 
Note the lack of "separation of church and state". The concept, or something roughly equivalent to it, is there, but this phrase cannot be violated as it is not in the law. Instead this phrase originates in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. There he writes:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

Jefferson's concern is apparently with a government's influencing religious observances; "none other" than "man & his god" ought to be responsible for a man's faith and worship. A government in this role would be forcing "opinions" on its citizenry, which is outside of its proper jurisdiction to do. You can read the entire letter here, if you like.

Before you start accusing politicians of 'violating' this or that, know what you're talking about. I'm fairly sure that the Founding Fathers would find many of the issues of debate concerning church and state today ridiculous--they were concerned with separation on a much larger scale. However the documents are what they are, and as ideologies change, interpretations will as well, and here we are.

Also on the patriotic blog-post front, here's an interesting quote from G. K. Chesterton on our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Happy ID4

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Relative Ignorance
+ Righteous Indignation
= American Political discourse.

(this often applies within the Church as well)

Nice Chesterton quote. I think he may be trying to be provocative.