Saturday, December 08, 2007

Making a Great Noise about Religion

[NOTE: This post is expanded from a comment I left at my friend Chuck Blanchard’s blog, A Guy in the Pew.]

Mitt Romney’s speech the other day was despicable, and it’s getting attention all over the Atheosphere. It’s also being criticized on the Web sites of the many believers, like Chuck, who are strong advocates for the separation of church and state.

But I’m not sure we can, or should, make a distinction between Romney’s blatant “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” and all the other presidential hopefuls’ incessant professions of faith. Not one of those candidates, of either party, has come out unequivocally to support the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Nor have any of them argued strongly for the continued separation of church and state in all situations — including the courting of votes.

Oddly enough, some of the most vociferous early proponents of separation were Baptists. Today’s fundamentalists, many of whom themselves claim to be Baptists of one denomination or another, forget or ignore how vehemently their church forebears championed the clear division between religion and government.

Here are a few quotes from two notable Baptist preachers:

Isaac Backus (1724-1806):

[When] church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.

Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.

John Leland (1754-1841):

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. ... Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.

I’ve emphasized a section of this next Leland quote with boldface. It could apply to every politician in the United States today.

Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick despatch, characterise the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined.

Modern-day evangelicals have tried to spin these kinds of quotes to mean that the government, while not allowed to recognize a specific religion, ought to recognize religion as an innate value. But I think it's pretty clear to anyone who reads English that neither Backus nor Leland meant to say that. They meant to say the same thing that many of us mean to say now: There should be absolutely no crossing of the line between church and state. Guard against those men (and women) who make a great noise about religion.


Chuck Blanchard said...


Great point. Indeed, it was this very separation of powers concern that caused many Baptists such great concern about a Catholic in the White House. For it was the issue of public support for parorchial schools that caused the Baptists and the Catholics to be in such conflict. and this is also why J.F.K's sppech was so effective by endorcing the separation of church and state.

What is ironic is that Romney and J.F.K. have essentially the same audience, but just 47 years latrer the successful message is 180 degrees different. How sad.

And since we are quoting Christians on this site (with approval no less), I'll leave you with my favorite C.S. Lewis quote on the subject:

"I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme -- whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence -- the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication."

The Exterminator said...


Thanks for pointing out the irony. I agree that the contrast between essentially the same audience in 1960 and in 2007 is sad. But I'm sure that today's evangelicals will find some way to warp history and make that irony disappear.

John Evo said...

Unfortunately, Backus and Leland are hardly household names when it comes to people associated with the founding of the Republic.

Also, I find their arrogance a bit annoying. Both of their bottom lines seem to be that religion and state should not co-mingle due to the fact that religion is a "higher" venue.

Of course Romney is full of crap. He's trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to stand on the "ideals" of the fundamentalists in order to win their approval while trying to get those same voters to not look at Mormonism. He couldn't care less about the principle of Separation. Just like Dan Quayle, he's no Jack Kennedy!

The Exterminator said...


Of course I agree with you that Backus's and Leland's common rationale for separation is annoying. However, I think it's fascinating that there were notable Baptist preachers who made some of the very same arguments in favor of separation that you and I and thousands of others like us make every single day.

And, really, has anyone put this better? The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

I grant you that Backus and Leland are "hardly household names." However they're well-known, honored even, in the Baptist world.
In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee (is that an oxymoron, or what?) gives out an annual "John Leland Religious Liberty Award." When that prize was bestowed upon our faith-pushing president in 2005, Americans United for Separation issued a statement commenting on the hypocrisy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great quote from one of the evangelical/fundamentalist camps' favorite authors. This is one case in which I agree with Lewis.

Separation of church and state is necessary to protect the rights of all, believers and non-believers alike. Religious Right leaders want to install a theocracy because they want the power they imagine would become theirs in such an event. That's the bottom line. Life under their rule would quickly become hell on earth, even for other Christians.

I get incredibly frustrated by the seeming inability of the average Joe and Jean in the pews to recognize this. Too many of them are either swallowing the RR's rhetoric whole, or are blindly apathetic about the whole matter. None of us can afford to be apathetic about this matter.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

While referring to the Baptists, I'm surprised no one mentioned the fact that the phrase "A wall of separation between church and state" is not in the Constitution, but was first coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

And what's Lewis's problem with the Inquisitor?

The Exterminator said...

Well, SI, here's where I get to sound like a know-it-all (in reality a look-it-up-faster-in-Google-and-pretend-like you-know-it-all). Jefferson was not the first to write about a wall of separation. Way back in 1644, Roger Williams (who called himself a Baptist until he decided he was a "seeker") wrote:

When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself ... and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.

Williams also believed that there should be absolutely no religious test for people in civil government. In fact, he didn't think that civil rulers needed to have faith at all.

A civil ministry, or office merely human and civil, which men agree to constitute, [is] called therefore an human creation, and is as true and lawful in those nations, cities, kingdoms, etc., which never heard of the true God, nor His holy Son, Jesus, as in any part of the world besides, where the name of Jesus is most taken up.

And here are a couple of Williams arguments that might well be directed against the sickeningly pious collection of politicians we have today:

From all which, I cannot truly be alleged by any for the power of the civil magistrate to be exercised in spiritual and soul matters...

By the last will and testament of Christ Jesus, we find not the least title of commission to the civil magistrate (as civil) to judge and act in the matter of His spiritual kingdom.

I think if those two quotes were taken literally by Christians today, it would be impossible for any of them seeking elective office to fulminate against abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, and "secular religion."

I love being able to point to quotes by Christians and rub them in the theocrats' faces.

John Evo said...

Ex said: And, really, has anyone put this better? The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

If they have, I never heard it. That was, indeed, the phrase that jumped out at me when reading your post.

Anonymous said...

Mike Huckabee, erstwhile Republican populist and former Baptist minister, is surging ahead in polls across Iowa and other parts of the country. If you thought Romney was a bit over the edge or Ron Paul too quick to toady up to the religious right, wait till you take a look at this loon. He openly believes the Earth to be less than 7,000 years old. He believes that since science can change every generation or so, if there's a conflict between science and god, he wants to assure us all that he comes down squarely on the side of god every time. While governor of Arkansas he directly violated federal law to prevent an abortion from being performed on a retarded teenaged girl who'd been raped by her step father saying that all life is sacred. He openly advocates a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions.
He also likes to talk about the Rolling Stones and plays bass in what passes for a rock band when he's not on the phone trying to fund his campaign. His populist rhetoric has Wall Street worried because he's saying things they don't like about the disparity between reality and the size of executive compensation in board rooms across America.
The good thing is that when he's challenged on issues of faith, he goes gonzo and really lets fly. This tendency may be what ends his candidacy before he becomes a real threat to us all. Once they get past Iowa and New Hampshire, I think the field will narrow and things will get tighter. Then, in some future debate, if Giulani hasn't been taken down by Bernie Keric's investigation or those into his own indiscretions, he'll be happy to trigger a rant by Huckabee in some national forum. Once the middle of the road faithful hear what this guy has to say and how way out there he is, his candidacy should go the way of Sam Brownback's. Wow! Did I breathe a sigh of relief when he saw the light and bailed.
It's a dangerous time to be alive. Religious wackos in every corner of the globe are attracting adherents because events are so unstable. Rather than look inward for answers to the big questions, many find it too easy to settle for the nostrums that soothed their parents and their ancestors. To make it worse, schools are prevented from teaching the kind of independent thinking that might lead people to question the soft, easy answers peddled by the soap salesmen and women we constantly get tossed as candidates. I know, schools weren't designed to teach that kind of critical thinking to begin with. But there were those few teachers that we all had who made a difference in the lives of their students and opened their eyes to the possibility of a different reality.
O.K., back to work. The view from this soap box is becoming jaundiced and my thoughts are beginning to scatter.

PhillyChief said...

Great post and follow ups. I'll keep this bookmarked for the future for even faster than google look ups to look like I know it all. ;)

I was inspired to respond to Romney's ridiculous speech but it seemed everybody and their mothers responded immediately, and not just in the atheosphere. There have been several mainstream media responses, with my favorite being Hitchens'.

I am not sure what will happen next year, but I think I have enough faith in the biases of Americans that I'm not going to lose sleep worrying. In some ways I think the public is just stupid enough to save itself from doing something really stupid. What? Let me explain. Huckabee. What the hell kind of name is that? He'll never get elected Pres. Done. Seriously, it's as simple as that. Romney? He's a mormon. He'll never get the job. Ron Paul? Never happen. He's got some crazed fan base of computer people, and that's too weird.

Of course this stupidity also goes against Obama (he's black and he's too intellectual) and probably Hillary (women can't be President) yet in another instance of stupidity saving us from stupidity, there's a glimmer of hope I'm hearing. Apparently some of these idiots who think a woman can't be President also think that if she were elected, Bill would essentially guide her to do what's right. In other words, it'll be like re-electing Bill. Now I'm not a fan of Hillary but I can't deal with 4 more years of Republican rule, even if it would be by Guiliani, who is hardly a holy roller.

DaVinci said...

Not that I favor Hillary at this point, but to say that Bill would be the shadow president if she were elected borders on saying that the pope would have pulled the strings on JFK's presidency. It doesnt follow.
I tuned in last week to C-Span II a little late to hear Romney, but I did get to hear JFK. If he were running today, do you think we'd even remember the other candidates names?

The Exterminator said...

I agree with every single thing you said except "OK, back to work."

But ...

First you talked about the soap salesmen and -women we constantly get tossed as candidates. Then you wrote, The view from this soap box is becoming jaundiced and my thoughts are beginning to scatter.

Are you stealing the politicians' boxes again? I thought you'd been warned about this. Maybe your friends should chip in and buy you a real podium for Christmas.

In some ways I think the public is just stupid enough to save itself from doing something really stupid.
Not in the last two elections, it wasn't.

Being old enough to have lived through Kennedy's presidency, I find his deification annoying. This is a guy who would have gotten out-debated by Nixon, if only RMN had had a closer shave and a shirt that fit him better.

But you're right about one thing: There's no comparison between Romney's religion speech and Kennedy's. Not only in content -- which is totally different (See the first and second paragraphs of Blanchard's comment above)-- but in eloquence. Kennedy was dynamic; Romney's totally bland. (Maybe Mitt's magic underwear is too tight.)

Anonymous said...

You implied that the voice of the American public had a fair hearing in the last two presidential elections. Are you sure about that. Did our compatriots actually vote W the marionette and Dick the puppetmaster into office, or were those elections rigged and/or stolen?

John Evo said...

Ex said: Maybe Mitt's magic underwear is too tight

You should probably do one of your comical posts on this subjects. A lot of people don't even know what you are referring to.

Babs Gladhand said...

I know all about magic underwear.