March 8, 2005

CIRCLES DON'T HAVE SIDES:

The dark side of secularism (James Carroll, March 8, 2005, Boston Globe)

LAST WEEK the US Supreme Court took up two cases having to do with "government displays of the Ten Commandments" – the old question of church and state. Those who emphasize the "bright line" of separation are conscious of the breakthrough it was when, after savage religious wars led by God-intoxicated rulers, a new politics required the state to be religiously neutral.

Thomas Jefferson stood on the shoulders of figures like Benedict Spinoza, Roger Williams, and Mary Dyer, who paid dearly for this principle.

Far from an insult to faith, the "wall of separation" was a guarantee that each citizen, free of public coercion, could worship at the altar of conscience – or not. This foundational idea of American democracy protects political freedom of a diverse citizenry but also creates space within which authentic religion can thrive. The courts are right to keep the line sharp, and new democracies around the world are right to draw it.

But there is a dark side to the separation of church and state, and its shadow grows longer. This core notion has been distorted into a terrible dichotomy that undercuts both politics and belief.

Early on, "church and state" became a euphemism for the separation of the private realm from the public – the separation of morality from law.


What's the bright side? Secularism is nothing but the assertion of public amorality and tolerance of immorality and entirely predictably begets immoral societies.

No one better understood the necessity of Judeo-Christian morality to the survival of the Republic (which is itself just a means of protecting Judeo-Christian society) than the Founders, which is why there is no such separation in the Constitution and why Thomas Jefferson proposed that the state school he founded teach it as a form of universal ethics:

In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing, with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the Legislature in favor of freedom of religion, manifested on former occasions, we have proposed no professor of divinity; and the rather as the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics; to
which adding the developments of these moral obligations, of those in which all sects agree, with a knowledge of the languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, a basis will be formed common to all sects. Proceeding thus far without offense to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets.
-Thomas Jefferson, Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2005 8:44 AM
Comments

Whenever secularists get to talking about American History, they can hardly wait to expound at length on Jefferson. Now, Jefferson was an important figure, no doubt, but he was also not a typical one, nor did he have a large number of followers who hung on his every word as if it were prophecy. Indeed, he was an oddball and was treated as such by his contemporaries.

Furthermore, there were several Jeffersons. One wrote declarations about universal human rights, another was master of many slaves. One wrote about the desirability of a republic of yeomen farmers another owned a large plantation. One wrote about minimal government, another pulled off the biggest land deal in his country's history.

In one of those moods, he wrote about walls of separation and edited a gospel that was free of what he felt were dubious (i.e. miraculous) atributions. Every modern secularist, most of whom are motivated by Marx's atheism, not Jefferson's deism, delights in quoting that Jefferson.

OJ's quote above could probably be read as anti-Christian, and perhaps should be. But Jefferson was not a Marxist, not even a Voltarian, he was not that far out of the mainstream of American thinking.

The mainstream should be sought in the official acts of the founders. For instance the Northwest Ordinance (1787) provides:

Sec. 14 Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Anyone who showed up at a public meeting to argue that he was an atheist, and that making his child learn about God would cause him emotional harm, would have been horsewhipped from the room.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 8, 2005 12:44 PM

Who can ever forget Jefferson's poignant deathbed plea:

"Whatever you do, don't let Nick Nolte play me."

Certainly secularism is amoral. But amorality is also a moral choice.

Morality cannot be separated from law. The very concept of Law is based on a moral understanding, and every law ever written, from zoning codes to the Law of the Seas, reflect someone's moral code (most deal with respect for life and property). The laws we fail to enact are also a moral choice.

Even if we rejected all law and chose anarchy, that too would be a moral choice.

It's a moral universe; get used to it.

Posted by: Noel at March 8, 2005 9:33 PM

Far from an insult to faith, the "wall of separation" was a guarantee that each citizen, free of public coercion, could worship at the altar of conscience or not.

Conscience and religion are two separate things. One can worship at the altar of conscience without any regard to the altar of Judeo-Christian God.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 3:21 PM

Anyone who showed up at a public meeting to argue that he was an atheist, and that making his child learn about God would cause him emotional harm, would have been horsewhipped from the room.

I imagine that a Jew doing the same thing would have been equally treated.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 9, 2005 3:23 PM

To the contrary, they considered themselves Jews:

http://www.brothersjudd.com/blog/archives/003253.html

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 5:24 PM

Without God conscience has no meaning.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2005 5:28 PM
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