The discussion of the Constitution and the First Amendment continues and this is a good opportunity to join the discussion since my name and partial quote were included in a recent column. Jan. 16 is also the commemoration of the passage on Jan. 16, 1786, of a significant document authored by Thomas Jefferson: the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Tomorrow will be acknowledged by many churches as Religious Freedom Sunday (religiousfreedomday.com).
As we look at the First Amendment we can probably agree on the following:
1) Freedom of Religion was obviously very important since it was the first amendment to this “Bill of Rights” (although it was No. 3 on the original list). The first part of the amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” since there was a fear of a national church. This has not been a fear realized since adoption and we have never been close to a national church.
2) There was a strong Judeo-Christian influence among the delegates of our founders and is clarified in acknowledgement to our creator and that our liberties come from God and not from the state.
3) The second part of the amendment, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” has become the dividing issue in our country, as freedom of conscience is taking second place to a government through the courts deciding what can be allowed. Our early history allowed this expression and is evidenced by the involvement of Jews in the revolution and in 1775 allowing the freedom to be a conscientious objector during the conflict. National days of prayer, proclamations of thanksgiving thanking our creator have been common along with chaplains in our Congress.
We have now moved from The Old Absolute that served us well for 200 years, which is:
Religion is the backbone of American culture, providing the moral and spiritual light needed for public and private life.
We now have The New Absolute over the last 50 years, which is:
Religion is the bane of public life, so for the public good it should be banned from the public square.
If a student bows his head to pray in school or cheerleaders display Bible verses on their posters, they are accused of violating separation of church and state — that is, “subjecting” those around them to their faith.
The Supreme Court is hearing a case now whether or not a city in Maryland can keep a World War I memorial cross that has been there for 100 years! It is called the “Peace Cross” and is in memory of 49 men from the county who gave their lives in WWI. It may seem that this is a topic best fitted for an ivory tower debate but these are issues that have a very real and dramatic impact on daily life.
We want a society that accepts that there are absolutes in morality. This is why we have the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and on the front of the Supreme Court. These are Judeo-Christian principles that are important for the next generation to build their lives on.
In our secular world he or she may also grow up understanding that these principles fit into a specialized category called “religious belief.” As John Adams stated so well, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Thomas Sowell in a fascinating book entitled “The Vision of the Anointed” wrote, “Rejecting traditional morality likewise allows the anointed to believe that, all over the world, millions of people of every race, creed, and nationality have for thousands of years been hopelessly mistaken in thinking that moral codes are necessary for the survival of civilization — a mistake to be corrected by the newly minted wisdom of the zeitgeist (spirit of the age).”
To the average person looking at the moral landscape today it is like an alternate universe with multiple genders, attitudes that destroy marriage and family and forcing people out of business for adhering to religious conviction all decided by judicial fiat.
But anti-religious pressure is not the worst of it. Today’s culture is not only post-Christian but also is quickly becoming postmodernist, which just means that it is not only resistant to Christian truth claims but to ANY truth claims. It rejects any idea of a universal, overarching truth and reduces all ideas to social norms shaped by class, gender and ethnicity.
This has happened in my lifetime. As recently as 1952, Justice William O. Douglas of the Supreme Court wrote, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” There was no uproar over this statement. It reflected how most Americans believed.
Fast forward to 1996 when Justice Antonin Scalia announced in a speech that as a Christian he believed in miracles and in the resurrection of Jesus. Cartoonist Herbloc depicted the Supreme Court justices all holding law books — except Scalia, who was holding a Bible. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen stated that Scalia had disqualified himself from handling further church-state questions — as if only atheists are qualified?
This debate on the founders and the First Amendment to the Constitution is really about our worldview and absolutes. Shakespeare has Albany in King Lear say that “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile.” As we look at the culture and discourse today, these words seem self-evident.
We should not tolerate the assault on our values — those ideas that are worth our allegiance. Ideas that are worth living and dying for deserve a debate and that perhaps not all ideas are equally valid. Whenever an attempt is made for these conversations we are accused of being intolerant, slammed with an attack on social media or met with bored indifference. Chesterton has an insightful commentary that we should be careful tearing down fences and gates until we know why they were erected in the first place.
Psalm 14:1 states, “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’”
Let us not be a nation of fools.
Bob Shillingstad is a regular contributor to The Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org