Monday, August 23, 2010

James Madison’s Founding of a Christian Nation

It has become fashionable for politicians and pundits to talk about America as a Christian Nation. When President Obama said we are not a Christian Nation in a speech in Turkey, he received a lot of criticism from the right. Perhaps as a consequence, today almost 1 in 5 Americans think he is a secret Muslim and only 34% believe he is a Christian. Unfortunately, the idea is even the subtext for much of the new found opposition to the building of mosques around the country. In reflecting on this notion of a Christian Nation, it is instructive to review the political writings of James Madison, the principle author of both the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One of his writings, protesting a Bill to enact a public tax to put teachers of Christianity on the government payroll, best summarizes his views on the topic. In this writing he makes the following main arguments that I have simplified to make them easier to for a modern audience to understand:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court and Religion from 1940 – 2005, Part3 -From Christmas to Homosexuality:

Beyond the school system, the Court has also addressed a few issues relating to government displays or actions that convey a religious message. In the 1984 case of Marsh v. Chambers, the Court addressed the constitutionality of Nebraska’s legislature opening each session with a prayer by a Chaplain paid with public funds. The Court decided that this practice is not unconstitutional for three main reasons. First, the long tradition of legislative prayer shows that it has become “part of the fabric of our society.” Second, the first Congress approved legislation for paid chaplains and their action “is contemporaneous and weighty evidence” of the true meaning of the Constitution. Third, the legislators are adults and “presumably not readily susceptible to ‘religious indoctrination’. So the practice is not an establishment of religion. “It is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

The U.S. Supreme Court and Religion from 1940 – 2005, Part2 -Religion and Public Schools:

The Supreme Court took special interest to exert its new power on subsequent generations by reviewing many cases regarding public education. The Courts efforts in this area can be traced with two lines of cases. The first line of cases relate to indirect support of religious parochial schools and the second relate to “religious” education in public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court and Religion from 1940 – 2005, Part1 -Intro and Religion Redefined:

Beginning in 1940, the Court took the relationship between religion and government in America in a radically new direction. First, it decided that all of the limits it read into the First Amendment applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Then it changed the definition of the term “religion” in the First Amendment to include all sincerely held beliefs that impact on a person’s life. With this expansive new power the Court took an interventionist approach to invalidate many local laws. In particular, the Court struggled to reconcile its new constitutional approach with the mass of official and unofficial laws and declarations that the Court had previously trumpeted as clear evidence that “this is a Christian nation.” In the process of replacing Christianity as the overarching religion and system of values in America with Secular Humanism, the Court would lament that “[t]he history of this Nation, it is perhaps sad to say, contains numerous examples of official acts that endorsed Christianity specifically.”

The U.S. Supreme Court and Religion From 1868 - 1940

The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868 after the Civil War. In 1879, the Supreme Court observed that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were adopted “to raise the colored race from that condition of inferiority and servitude in which most of them had previously stood, into perfect equality of civil rights with all other persons within the jurisdiction of the States.” The Fourteenth Amendment reads in relevant part: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”


After the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court’s jurisprudence on religion did not change in three important respects. First, the Court did not appear to think that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the States from establishing a religion.

The U.S. Supreme Court and Religion From 1789 - 1868

During this period, three concepts are expressed in the Supreme Court cases interpreting the religion clauses of the Constitution:
1) The First Amendment only limited the power of the federal government not the states.
2) Christianity is integrated into the common law of the states. So Christianity is to be encouraged without discrimination between the Christian sects or sanctioning religious persecution against non-Christians.
3) The religious courts within the organizational structure of each sect have the final say in matters of faith and doctrine. While, the state courts have the final say in all civil actions.

The Historical Development of the Religion Clauses of the Constitution

Historical context is necessary to properly understand the religion clauses of the Constitution. This article will focus on the relevant history accepted and relied upon by the Supreme Court in its cases involving religion.

The history of religion and government in America starts with the colonies. The first colonies were established on land grants that were clear about establishing the Christian religion. For example, the first charter of Virginia granted by King James I in 1606 included the words: "[B]y the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government."