Counterweights: Religion in America – Its Emotional Connection to the First Amendment

September 27, 2012

In this issue, Counterweights tackles a subject that can stir raw emotions – religion in our society and its appropriate place in American public life.  Discussing this issue are Becky Sims, associate professor of political science, and Alan Nichols, associate professor of philosophy.  They will be commenting on the establishment (which prohibits a state-sponsored church) and free-exercise (which prohibits government interference in the exercise of religious beliefs) clauses of the Constitution, as well as the origins of the philosophy not to mix religious expression and government business.

Nichols: Many people believe that separation of church and state originated in the First Amendment of the Constitution.  Actually, the amendment wording allows some latitude in interpretation (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”).  The phrase separation of church and state was written in a private letter by Thomas Jefferson in 1802.  It became part of the discussion surrounding the First Amendment in 1947, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson versus Board of Education, where the court decided to incorporate to the states the establishment clause in the amendment.

Sims: Jefferson’s letter was to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, years after the constitutional convention (at which he was not present).  The Supreme Court didn’t adopt Jefferson’s words until 1879, 90 years after the Bill of Rights.  Apparently there was no real dispute over religion until that time.

Nichols: Yes, but now there are a myriad of issues that arise when the phrase separation of church and state and the establishment and free-exercise clauses are discussed – topics as diverse as evolution, school prayer, vouchers and religious displays in government/public spaces, among others.  Having looked at some of the Supreme Court decisions over the years regarding these issues, and taking into account the noted disagreement of various justices, I think the court has aimed for internal consistency.  In other words, I think the court has tried to speak with some degree of unanimity across recent years on topics like school prayer and equal access.

Sims: Maybe we need to get a handle on what the original intent of the language was.  To understand what the First Amendment meant in 1791 one must look at the events that led to it, but even the meaning derived from those events is indeterminate.  Furthermore, the meaning of the words in the First Amendment has evolved over time and in the context of the United States today.  Legal specialist Daniel Conkle, in his book Constitutional Law: The Religion Clauses, says that the Supreme Court has used creative interpretation, “guided in part by the text and original understanding …but in far greater part of the court’s more general identification and protection of constitutional values.”

The First Amendment was added to the Constitution due to the constitutional ratification debate.  The states were afraid that the proposed Constitution was giving the new government too much power over them and they wanted protection from the federal government.  James Madison proposed the first version of the amendment: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”  As this proposal made its way through the House and Senate it changed in form to the wording we know, although several variations were suggested.

Nichols: And now we have the current interpretation.  The Supreme Court has consistently held – at least since the 1962 case Engel versus Vitale – that official prayer in school violates the establishment clause.  Whether, as in that case, it was a state-written prayer or as in Abingdon School District versus Schempp (1963) a mandatory reading of a Bible verse and the Lord’s Prayer made no difference.  Even a moment of silence would not be constitutionally acceptable unless instituted with a secular purpose.

Why things have evolved this way I don’t know.  Part of the answer must have to do with the court’s respect for precedent, as later, similar cases were also upheld, and in some cases, built upon.

Sims: Well, you can understand that some of the things that happened in the early days of the republic left their indelible mark.  Perhaps we have gone in the other direction in response to them.  For example, at the time the First Amendment was written six states had established religion.  People could receive criminal punishment in some states for failure to attend public worship, among other religious issues.  This practice did not end immediately upon ratification of the Constitution, perhaps because the states believed and desired that the prohibitions only apply to the federal government.  The addition of the Bill of Rights was by majority rule and was specifically to protect the states and people from the exercise of too much power by the federal government.  The states didn’t want the federal government involved in religious issues that they considered to be within their own power to deal with.

I’ve been lingering in the past.  To bring myself into the present day, let me ask you whether you think we are becoming much more secular in America?

Nichols: I’m not sure I agree with the claim that the U.S. is becoming more and more secular, at least not until I am a bit clearer on some of the terms involved in that claim.  The term U.S. could represent the United States government or it could represent something much more amorphous like society.   If you’re talking about society, I’d say that the U.S. is still a deeply religious nation.  That isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself.  If the power of the government is harnessed on behalf of a particular religion, at the expense of other religions or the non-religious, then there is a problem.

Sims: Well, I actually do believe that America is becoming more secular, but the drift toward secularism isn’t just occurring here but also in the western countries of the world.  And I don’t believe its root cause is due to court rulings that interpret the Constitution.  Rather, I think the change is embedded in cultural, religious and economic changes as much as political changes during the last 60 years.

In fact, the very fabric of our society has changed dramatically in that time.  Ease of transportation and communication has increased our ability to attend functions that compete with churches for time.  Children’s sports events are now even scheduled on Sunday mornings.  Pressures of both spouses working have contributed to less involvement in church communities.  Young people have access to many other social outlets, too.  Smaller churches struggle to keep going because people want social life and entertainment that some find in mega churches.  Conversely, mega churches ask for money but don’t offer a sense of community and attachment.  The population is much more transient than it used to be, and many don’t have a religious affiliation.  There are any number of other reasons: controversies over the roles of women, polarized religious messages, differing attitudes about the homosexual community.  Many parents don’t instill religious beliefs at home, and expect public or private schools to do so. They blame the change in culture on “taking prayer out of school.”

So here are my questions.  How many generations have grown up now in this more secular culture?  Do those generations even know how to approach a better way of living centered on community and religious faith?  Is TV evangelism and emotionalism substituting for those communities of faith that existed?  When do people actually interact with each other face to face?  Is religion really more about an individual relationship with a supreme being, or is it also about the community of believers?

Nichols: You’re talking about societal issues.  Let’s consider governmental ones.  In terms of religion, here’s what I think the proper role of government to be – the role that philosopher Robert Nozick called a night watchman state.  It is a government that has very few legitimate functions – defense of individuals against aggression, theft and fraud.  It will have a military, a police force of some sort and a judiciary.  A secular state is a step in this direction, as a secular state is not burdened with trying to enforce religious dictates and secular law, and is therefore preferable to a religious state.

That doesn’t mean I’m against private spirituality or private religious observance.  In fact, I’m not against public spirituality or public religious observance, either, though that begins to move toward the free-exercise clause.  The watchman state I outlined above is commonly called minarchy.  It is rooted in the non-aggression principle, which holds that unsolicited actions affecting the property or person of another are inherently illegitimate when they interfere with a person’s self-ownership.  The point is there is no need to see the practice of religion eliminated or curtailed so long as the non-aggression principle remains inviolate.

Sims: Well, if you’re going to detour into political philosophy a bit, let me add my own opinion about our culture.  Being a focused, devoted, observant religious person (in some faiths) requires self-discipline, a giving and loving spirit, and a genuine concern for others – even those who are different, perhaps unattractive, perhaps not of the same social background or those who might be living in ways that would be considered sinful by many.  In a culture that is increasingly so polarized that members of different political parties won’t even speak to each other and tend to demonize each other, it is no real surprise that the churches are suffering, too.

And that’s a shame because our history is threaded with religious influence.  America began as a Christian nation.  The Declaration of Independence recites the philosophy behind our form of government and it includes reference to “laws of nature and of nature’s God … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  Francis Scott Key’s last verse of the Star Spangled Banner contains the phrase, “And this be our motto: in God is our trust.”  In God We Trust did indeed become our motto.  However, even before the First Amendment, the original text of the Constitution had this stipulation: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States.”  While our founders were Christian men, they didn’t desire a form of government that incorporated any particular religious group as a national church.  They had experienced too many conflicts from religious sources that were punitive.  So I certainly don’t believe that America should have a state church, but I can beg the question a bit.

To the question, “Should Americans have a spiritual belief?” I can answer yes.

Nichols: I don’t believe we should have a state church, either, and most Americans probably feel the same way.  England manages it peacefully, but the UK has a monarchy.  And the Church of England is tied to that because the queen is the head of the Church of England.  By its nature, then, the queen and the church possess some measure of political influence in the House of Lords.  Given our check-and-balance form of government, not to mention the diversity of our population, I just couldn’t see how that kind of state church could function in our country.  And of course, it is expressly forbidden in the Constitution.

Sims: Yes it is, but I do believe that the search for spirituality by the individual leads to stronger communities.  Do you?

Nichols: Not really.  Community is a word that refers to nothing over and above the individuals who happen to constitute it at a given moment.  So it appears to me that communities only exist as convenient, contractual fictions derived from individual decisions, which certain parties strive to make appear necessary for comfort.  Individuals, however, do exist, and from time to time they may band together to achieve certain purposes the way towns and cities do.  But there is nothing mystical or spiritual about that.  Certainly there is nothing there to believe in as bigger than oneself.  What remains is the individual and his /her liberty, which he/she is free to do with as he wants so long as the liberty of another is not violated.

Sims: A very Ayn Rand thought.  But here’s a caution.  Americans emphasize individuality to such a degree that people sometimes believe they can do anything at any time to anyone without consequences.  That can be destructive.  And here’s where I disagree with you.  I think the individual can’t exist if there is no community.  Promoting self-interest is narcissistic.  It isn’t healthy in our private or public lives.  And religion at its best helps us think of others.

Atheism presents a problem for the ideas I have just thrown out there for discussion, of course.  The First Amendment would include the right not to believe in anything.  But I don’t believe the founders meant to allow any one group, including atheists, to hijack this country’s freedom of conscience under that amendment.  Leaders should not have to suppress their personal belief systems to appease groups who have different systems so long as Congress is not passing any law that would establish religion or prohibit the free exercise of it.  Atheism has increased the difficulty of dealing with these issues due to the pressure that atheists place on believers.

Nichols: I don’t know that there is a voice of atheism per se.  There are some vocal atheists, but there really isn’t an organized atheism.  For that reason, I think the influence of atheism on culture is rather small.

Sims: At least we can agree with the fundamental concept of separation between church and state, and that there should be no official state church.  We really go our separate ways about the concept of community and culture.  But after all, that’s what makes the discussion interesting.

2 Responses to Counterweights: Religion in America – Its Emotional Connection to the First Amendment

  1. Susan Claxton on September 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Great discussion. I have to agree with Becky that it does seem those who claim atheism do seem to have a loud voice and do seem to be heard more. I agree there should not be an official state church. It is my understanding that we have freedom of religion not freedom from….

  2. Dana Davis on October 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I found this particular Counterweights to be quite thought-provoking. It has helped me refine my thoughts about religion and its place in my work and personal interactions. I especially like Becky Sims’ caution about excessive individualism. We exist as a society. Have since the dawn of humankind. I believe we are stronger as communities who help each other than we are alone. I wish we had more tolerance for difference, however. People who disagree with us aren’t our enemies. Most of us want the same things — happy, healthy, productive lives for ourselves and our families. We just disagree on how to achieve that goal. More listening and less opining might helps us all. More imagination for others’ plights and positions would no doubt broaden our perspectives on many things.

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