blog against theocracy

When the subjects of theocracy and church/state separation arise, pundits and bloggers alike reach for quotes from the Founders. Whether found through personal reading or copied from websites, the sentiments of the demigods who separated their colonies from mother England to forge a new nation are rightly revered for the course upon which our nation was set. In determining the exact content of their opinions, reference books can be invaluable; few of us have time enough to read the entirety of the Founders' writings. I offer here my assessment of two such reference books.

Church, Forrest. The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004)

Selections from the usual suspects are here--Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and letter to the Danbury Baptists, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance and Detached Memoranda, The Treaty of Tripoli--but this small-format book of barely 160 pages can only contain so many pieces of the puzzle. As much as I appreciate Forrest Church's work, he made a sloppy error here:

Later a U.S. senator and third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, [Oliver] Ellsworth gets credit for coining the term, "United States." (p. 81)

Thomas Paine used the phrase "The United States of America" in his second American Crisis essay, written 13 January 1777. This predates Ellsworth's use of the phrase at the 1787 Constitutional Convention by a full decade.

An important--and often overlooked--point to consider with the "dueling quotations" that emanate from church/state debates is this: When the Founders wrote approvingly about religion, which they frequently did, it was nearly always for what they considered to be its positive influence on a personal level; they were far less sanguine about religion's sanguinary effects on the body politic. Can one find authentic words--not Bartonesque fabrications--from any of the primary Founders (Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Washington) on the wisdom of commingling church and state? I rather doubt it, but I await the arrival of such.

Menendez, Albert & Edd Doerr. Great Quotations on Religious Freedom (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002)

A more useful book in unraveling the strands of the Founders' thinking on this subject--longer in both page count and historical depth than Church's book--is Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr's Great Quotations on Religious Freedom. The editors divide religious freedom into thirty subcategories, from Abortion Rights to the Voluntary Principle in Religion, and order the quotes alphabetically within the subcategories. The quotations are both useful and amply documented; the only suggestion I would have is that a second index in chronological order would be a wonderful addition to future editions of this highly useful book.

The only glaring omission is that of Roger Williams' comment proposing "[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." [from "Mr. Cotton's Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered," The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume 1, p. 108 (1644), a more complete version of which is available here.]

When discussing religious liberty and church-state separation in their Introduction, Menendez and Doerr make a statement that helps highlights concern about the Religious Right's political might:

It is significant, we think, that twenty-seven of our presidents have made statements on this subject. (With the exception of Ronald Reagan's groundless comment about God's "expulsion" from public schools, the residential utterances have been universally laudatory.) (p. 16)

Theocracy can happen here; we must remain eternally vigilant against it.

American Civil Liberties Union
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
First Amendment Center
First Freedom First
Freedom from Religion Foundation
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
National Constitution Center
People for the American Way
Secular Coalition for America
Theocracy Watch

I submitted this post to the Blog Against Theocracy blog carnival, and I recommend visiting their site for more commentary on this important subject.


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