Commitment to a belief is only meaningful when it is freely chosen, which is what a liberal, secular American government protects, Greg Camp writes.
First published in July 2019.
According to Bryan Fischer, right-wing political commentator and minister who hosts Focal Point on American Family Radio, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1) only prevents one of the many Christian denominations from being given precedence, rather than applying to all religions or to a lack of religion; and 2) only constrains the federal government, not states or local authorities.
This is a thesis that he pushes over and over. An argument that he supports by quoting Joseph Story, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: “The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
Fischer has at least had the decency to quote the words accurately, but Story’s larger point is to remind his readers that the First Amendment was written with the European history of religious wars and persecutions in mind, and he concludes his passage with the comment that the reason for including religion in the Bill of Rights was to make sure that “the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.”
By “national councils,” Story was making a point that Fischer harps on endlessly, namely the fact that the Bill of Rights was originally designed to limit the power of Congress, not of the states. In Story’s opinion, “the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions.” That was true about the relationship between the federal government and states in the conception of things that the framers gave us. In The Federalist Papers, for example, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the primary authors, express their confidence that the states are the guarantors of liberty, the smaller unit being more responsive to the concerns of the people than a distant overlord would be.
Same-sex couples who wish to be married legally would have begged to differ prior to the Obergefell ruling, and they are not alone in having good reason to observe that the framers’ faith was at times misplaced. Or, in a more cynical view, their faith was justified if we belong to whatever majority is relevant to the topic at hand. But the framers gave the Constitution an edit feature, and while people like Fischer behave as if we are still living in the 1790s, the Fourteenth Amendment is now a part of the document.
Section one of that amendment states, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” From this comes the Incorporation Doctrine, the application of the Bill of Rights against the states. In general terms, if you have rights in one location in the United States, you have them throughout the entire nation’s territory. This means that no matter how concentrated a particular bigotry becomes in a state, the law, if it is meant to conform with the Constitution, cannot share that attitude.
The right-wing in this country love the label of originalist when it comes to what the framers had in mind. Original here being before whatever amendments – the sixteenth allowing income taxes and the seventeenth establishing popular election of senators also come under attack – an originalist does not like were ratified. But the notion of originalism also assumes that we both are capable of knowing exactly what motivated the framers to write the document as-is and ought to care. This is the equivalent of literary critics who spend their time psychoanalyzing the author or wandering through the economics and social structure in which the story was written instead of focusing on the text. What the text means is generally what the interpreter wants to find, however sanctimoniously the argument must be to fit the critic’s ideology.
For people like Bryan Fischer, original America – the time when we were great, in their view – was a mythological age in which hard work and Christian doctrine was all that our nation needed to fulfil its divinely mandated destiny. This vision is the way that Christian Dominionists see America. This ideology wants to impose religious law on all of us and sees the United States as having a role, predicted in prophecy, in bringing about the end of the world. From time to time they claim that they will be gracious to those of us who do not participate in their beliefs, but exclusionary ideologies always come with marching boots and swirling banners hanging about, waiting until they have enough power to make tolerance unnecessary.
The irony is that in our choice not only to have no official religion but also to forbid any religion from assuming the power of the state, the United States has one of the highest rates of religious participation in the developed world. This is in contrast to Europe, a region whose countries have had state-supported denominations of Christianity for centuries or that had the political ideology of communism look a lot like a theocracy. This approach has turned the church into a museum that the government keeps open. A third approach, the one adopted formerly in Europe and today in many Muslim nations is to make conformity to the approved belief mandatory. How sincere populations in Iran, for example, are about their religion is anyone’s guess when the government dictates orthopraxy.
What Fischer’s view illustrates is the lack of faith that the right-wing has in the American system. Freedom is all right so long as we do not stray too far from divine commands that suspiciously line up with one man’s prejudices. I often ask people advocating theocracy why their religion is so weak as to need government power to maintain it. The religious right live with an undercurrent of panic that if our society does not obey their deity, we will all be condemned, but the words of the U.S. Constitution, including its amendments, make clear the American principles that government has no business endorsing or banning religion and that each of us is an equal citizen, regardless of our personal beliefs.
The famous saying – when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross – is not Sinclair Lewis’, but it is a warning regarding the Republican Party during my lifetime. They feel no obligation to the facts or to individual rights for all, and as with totalitarian schemes generally, we are left with the choice to submit or to resist. Christian Dominionism can appeal to some Christians by virtue of sounding like people on the same side, but commitment to a belief is only meaningful when it is freely chosen, and that is what a liberal, secular American government protects.🔷
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