Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Barbara McGraw, co-editor (with Jo Renee Formicola) of Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America’s Sacred Ground and author of Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America. She is also Director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Recently, WallBuilders, Inc., whose founder David Barton has been a guest on Fox’s “Huckabee,” among other venues, filed an amicus brief in a case in the Ninth Circuit. The brief argues that the religion protections of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should be limited to Christians or, at most, monotheists because, in the founding era, the word “religion” meant only Christianity or, at most, monotheism. Barton’s history is all wrong.
Although the context of the Ninth Circuit case is California’s prisons, the policy that is at the heart of the case is a California policy affecting not only prison inmates, but our military veterans, among others, by limiting employed state chaplains to adherents of five religions (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American) without any non-discriminatory purpose. Wiccan/Pagan inmates and a volunteer chaplain seek reform of the policy.
In “The Meaning and End of Religion,” Wilfred Cantwell Smith proved that it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the word “religion” developed the meaning it has today: the institutions of religion (e.g., Buddh “ism”). Before then, “religion” meant “piety” or “a system of beliefs.” One can look up the word “religion” in founding era dictionaries and find that it had this broad meaning.
The Founders held this broad view, often turning to John Locke as their guide, who said:
“[I]f solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors, all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” (emphasis added)
Following Locke’s lead, Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on Religion” stated: “Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god? . . . . It is the refusing toleration to those of different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion.” And Richard Henry Lee said: “I fully agree with the Presbyterians, that true freedom embraces the Mahomitan [Muslim] and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion. Jefferson considered atheists when he said: “Locke denies tolerance to those who deny the existence of god . . . it was a great thing to go so far–but where he stopped short we may go on.”
But perhaps Richard Henry Lee put it best when he said in 1787: “It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution, it is to be hoped, for ages and millions yet unborn . . . .” In other words, those who differ about religion in ages and among millions yet unborn are included in the protections of the Constitution.
What is especially sad about the narrow way that Barton wants to interpret the founding era is that Barton’s approach obscures the real contribution of Christianity to America: support for a political system that protects the individual’s relationship with the Divine (however understood).
It is true that there were prominent founders who scoffed at Christianity. Jefferson famously said, “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” But there were others who found in Christianity the source of the good will that led to liberty. Noah Webster wrote: “[T]he religion which has introduced civil liberty, is the religion of Christ and his apostles, which enjoins humility, piety and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of government.”
In other words, genuine Christianity supports religious rights for all. Christianity was not at the founding, nor is it now a monolithic “ism” that justifies the domination and suppression of others–not even Wiccan/Pagans.
Ninth Circuit Briefs for McCollum, et al., v. the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can be found here.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.