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Church and State

Bert Westbrook questioned my description of Herbert Hoover as the noblest of American presidents:

"Noblest? An odd word to describe a President. There was talk of crowning Washington, who indeed seemed to govern by being accorded deference. But Washington aside, would you say Hoover was nobler than say, Madison? Lincoln?" The word "Noblest": Perhaps to some Americans it suggests that antique institution, nobility. In that sense, George Washington was noble. Although he refused to name himself king, he demanded to be treated like one; people were expected to stand in his presence. I was using the word in the sense of "having high moral qualities", as in Hamlet's "noble soul". Lincoln? His deification should not blind us to reality. His first aim was to save the union (which was also the aim of George III), and the emancipation of slaves was brought in partly to attract blacks, north and south. The atrocious Civil War should have been avoided: Brazil solved its slavery problem peacefully,

But Madison? Madison is remembered in part for his promoting the separation of Church and State. Paul Simon provides sources (Michael Nivak, Joseph Leconte, Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett) giving the basic the basic data. "Growing up in Virginia, the future Father of the Constitution and author of the First Amendment was himself a member of an established church, the Church of England--and he witnessed its intolerance in action. None other than the Baptists, as it happens, were a growing nonconformist minority in the years after the Great Awakening. Their pastors refused to seek licenses from the Commonwealth, asserting that their warrant to preach came from God.

In the summer of 1771 in Virginia, an unlicensed Baptist preacher was preaching outdoors when from across the fields a priest of the Church of England galloped up at the head of the Sheriff and other men, thrust a horsewhip in the preacher's mouth, dismounted, and then subjected the preacher to a thorough flogging in an open field, in plain sight of the assembled crowd. Between 1765 and 1778, Virginia jailed over 45 Baptist ministers, and Madison often defended them. But his studies, as well as unpleasant events in his neighborhood, were making him a devotee of religious freedom.

Madison attended the College of New Jersey, later Princeton, during the heyday of its president John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister who had arrived from Scotland in 1768 and would shortly become the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. First he would turn Princeton into what English detractors called a "seminary of sedition." In 1776, British troops on Long Island burned two men in effigy: George Washington and John Witherspoon. Rev. Witherspoon's "Lectures on Moral Philosophy" were a required course at Princeton, drawing on the Scottish realists, but also on the truths of scripture. Witherspoon championed the principle of freedom of conscience "The greatest service which magistrates or persons in authority can do with respect to the religion or morals of the people," wrote Rev. Witherspoon, "is to defend and secure the rights of conscience in the most equal and impartial manner."

The pioneers of religious freedom in the Colonies--notably the Puritan Roger Williams and the Quaker William Penn--arrived at this arrangement not out of deist rationalism or indifference to religious truth but from a fierce devotion to it. Later, during the Revolution, dissenting minorities who had experienced oppression displayed a special zeal for independence. More than a generation later, Alexis de Tocqueville could still observe, "The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other."

My comment: Paul is annoyed that The Guardian compares American fundamentalists with the Taliban. He quotes the Weekly Standard: "The response of leading Southern Baptists to President Bush's cherished initiative to open government social-service contracts to "faith-based"providers? The heirs of those Virginia nonconformists, fearing government strings attached to government dollars, said they wouldn't touch public money with a ten-foot pole". My own reading of the sources is different. Generally, religious groups were eager to get the financial support by drawing a line between their religion and their faith-based activities. They did not succeed.

One of the paradoxes of history is that religion in America has flourished, whereas the Anglican Church in England is subdued, as is the Catholic Church in most European countries. The Anglican priest mentioned did not learn the lesson of the Inquisition. The union of Church and State can be fateful to the Church. In countries where Islam is the official religion, the result may be the same. It may be that in countries like Iran, Islam will suffer the same fate as the Catholic Church in France.

Another paradox of history is that, while the Baptists freed themselves from the tyranny of the Anglican Church, they became slaves to the alleged inerrancy of the Bible text, while the Anglican Church has become very liberal theologically. The belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is like the Islamic stress on the text of the Koran. The Journal of Church and State is an important source of information and commentary on this. I wonder if its editor, Derek Davis, has any comments.

Ronald Hilton - 1/24/02