Building religious tolerance

A reader and Ed Yoder, the author of "False Prophets," discuss the origins of the separation of church and state, and say we're lucky that deists were involved.

By Salon Staff
Published November 17, 2004 3:27AM (UTC)
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Dear Mr. Yoder:

I just finished reading your excellent Salon article, "False Prophets." So far, everyone else seems to have overlooked the critically important fact of the Founding Fathers' deism. President Bush and the Christian fundamentalists are dismantling the Constitution by blurring the lines between church and state. Because they lack understanding of the religious ideas of the Founding Fathers, and are ignorant of secular disciplines, they are creating an environment that the Founding Fathers took great pains to avoid -- an intolerant society in which the religion of the king is automatically the religion of the people.

Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, as you point out. They believed in a creator who set the world free to run with human beings at the helm, whose task was to be guided by reason and to find ways to do it well. Theirs was a rationalist and self-reliant religion. Because of strides in the secular sciences in their time, it became clear to the Founders that the world was far more complex than religion had previously taught. Remember what happened to Galileo at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition when he challenged their worldview by insisting that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the known universe? Do we want to go back to such a society? Religion, like science, does not have all the answers.

Because Bush and his fundamentalist backers lack a knowledge of secular disciplines, they do not realize that they are well on their way to installing in our society the ruthless system of social Darwinism and labeling it "Christian." As in Herbert Spencer's ideology, so in Bush's policies: The financially fittest prosper at the expense of the weak. And ironically so, because social Darwinism is the opposite of Christian social teachings.

Bush and his followers are so obsessed with sexuality that they mistakenly believe that immorality pertains only to sexual behavior. They seem blind to their own brand of immorality and the social injustices it creates, whereby only the wealthy can afford medicine, proper food and shelter, and many others cannot. The greedy society is the very manifestation of social Darwinism.

A society that ignores and/or rejects everything outside its literal interpretation of Scripture harks back to a dark age. Creationism, which certain fundamentalists want taught in the schools, is as much of a "theory" as evolution is, however. Many believers have no difficulty believing in both God and evolution. But because fundamentalists interpret literally, they ignore the obvious element of mythology that permeates Scripture. In their zeal and intolerance, Bush and his followers, no doubt unconsciously, imitate the fanaticism of the Islamist radicals.

-- Maryellen Marzetta

Dear Ms. Marzetta:

Thanks for responding to my article and for your interesting comments about deism and other matters. Your observations are historically sound and important. The vital issue here is not theological but political, in the highest sense -- it is an issue of what sort of polity we shall have. As I said in my piece, the nature and rationale of our Establishment Clause regime have grown foggy in the minds of many, not merely those who follow Bush and other born-again zealots but also many reasonable people who don't bother to understand the implications of Bush's policies -- for example, heavy subsidies to "faith-based" organizations.

Such subsidies, within reason, aren't necessarily violative of church-state separation, properly understood. The Supreme Court in the Everson case, the first decision that in effect "federalized" the Establishment Clause, permitted New Jersey to provide bus transportation at public expense for parochial school students. The rationale cited by Justice Hugo Black for the majority was "safety," but it was an ingenious straddle, because Black had otherwise cited as the fundamental principle involved Thomas Jefferson's view that the Establishment Clause erected "an eternal wall of separation" between church and state. Black's associate and frequent enemy on the Court, Robert Jackson, satirized the decision with a line from Lord Byron ("saying she would ne'er consent, consented"); and Black later went on to advocate the strictest church-state separation.

Some later efforts to deny states the latitude to subsidize school supplies or equipment in private schools have at times stretched a sound principle to the verge of absurdity. Sen. Pat Moynihan, who advocated public assistance to inner-city parochial schools (which are often the only serious educational resort of poor children), once noted that the subsidy of textbooks had been allowed but not of other "teaching materials" such as maps, and asked: What about a map in a book? The question got to the heart of the absurdity, but as I also noted, the great New York senator had remembered the wording of the Establishment Clause imprecisely.

What should not be confused or compromised is the separation principle itself. The most compelling ancillary document with which I am familiar is James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," written in 1785 in opposition to a legislative proposal in Virginia to subsidize "the teaching of the Christian Religion." Madison's words provide an important gloss on Jefferson's "Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom" and on the First Amendment itself. Madison offers the cogent argument that insofar as the claims of the Christian religion (or indeed any other religion) are true, as their adherents claim, religion has no need of worldly support and subsidy. Its supernatural powers should suffice to override whatever secular obstacles present themselves. "A religion not invented by human policy," he wrote, "must have pre-existed and been supported before it was established by human policy."

He went on to say that tax subsidy might well sap the vigor of any religious "establishment" dependent upon it, along with the confidence of its followers in its divine origins -- a point that is often ignored when tax subsidy of religious causes is debated. Madison penetrated to the frailty of all religious "establishments," however benign, for they tend to belie the fundamental claims of the religion they buttress. The sophistication of your historical observations suggests that you must already be familiar with Madison's thought, which was also that of Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others I mentioned in my article.

It was the happiest of historical accidents (or coincidences) that the basic structure of our church-state relationship was fashioned under benign 18th century deistic influences. If the case had been otherwise, and if religion had become entangled with ethnic and communal identities and tensions, as well as evangelical fervor, the United States might very well look like a super-Ireland -- or worse. I hate seeing this heritage heedlessly eroded or squandered by George W. Bush and his self-satisfied and sanctimonious "evangelical" followers.

Those of us who take the Madisonian view seriously and regard it as one of the vital cornerstones of the American system (and intercommunal religious peace) must be vigilant, and aggressive in our vigilance; and I commend your efforts. Yours is one of many positive responses I have had to my Salon piece. Somebody is listening!

-- With best wishes,
Ed Yoder (

Salon Staff

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