Friday, February 25, 2011

Debate Over the Constitution and Christian Nationalism (Part Six)

After we gave our closing summaries, each debater responded to questions from the audience. One person asked me to respond to "the fact" that, at the time of the revolution, the word "religion" was understood to refer exclusively to Christianity and that disestablishment referred only to the disestablishment of the Christian denominations or sects.

I don't remember my precise words, but I do remember denying that the questioner had a firm grasp of "the facts." Here are the quotations I used to correct this common misperception:

On October 17, 1788 James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that discussed objections being raised against the Constitution at the ratification debates within the states. He wrote: "One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened the door for Jews, Turks & infidels."

That Madison himself was in favor of religious liberty for persons of all faiths is clear from a statement in his Memorial and Remonstrance:

3. . . . "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"

Evangelist John Leland, leader of Baptist efforts for religious liberty in Virginia, clearly supported religious liberty for persons of all faiths:

"Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods, and let government protect him in so doing."

The fact is, at the time the Constitution was written, it was clearly understood that religious liberty and opportunity for public service was being granted to persons of every faith and no faith.