Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Too much time to think and the First

Had to do a lot of driving today and as such got to listen to a lot of talk radio. Never a good thing. It seems there's a bit of a kerfuffle about a question asked by a conservative of a liberal. Specifically the question was; what five freedoms are enumerated in the First Amendment.

The short answer is freedom of:
  • Religion
  • Speech
  • Press
  • Assembly
  • Redress
But that's not what the to do is about. It seems the libs think that the first spells out separation of church and state. And the "radical right wing nuts" say it doesn't. Okay.... Let's look at the First Amendment as it's actually written.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Lots of commas and semi-colons.

The first clause. "...make no law respecting AN establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise THEREOF;" (emphasis mine)

The highlighted "thereof" is where most people point and say "See, freedom of religion" and libs say "See, freedom FROM religion". I blogged about this before, complete with Websters and Oxfords definition of "thereof". I don't feel like repeating myself, so go dig through my archives. The upshot? The founding fathers meant, and they expounded on this in the Federalists Papers among other places, you're free to practice, don't practice, whatever, pray, don't pray, God, Ghu, Nature, Glaciers (The Great Pumpkin help us), Trees... well you get my drift. If you want to dance naked around trees on the summer solstice and that's how you worship whatever you worship that was honky-dory with our founding fathers.

The "an" on the other hand. You see, the libs, and this is just my guess, look at "establishment" as a verb. The "an" on the other hand sort of forces "establishment" to be a noun. And therein lies the rub. The libs read that and say "Look! Separation of church and state! See, you stupid conservative bible banging idiots.", and then laugh in a condescending and superior way.

Which is ironic.

Because the "an" is sitting there right in front of "establishment". The noun establishment is a different beast and sort of makes the libs wrong. Which means they're... well, the idiots in this case and even dumber for laughing at the conservatives about it.

At the time the First Amendment was drafted, most, if not all, of the 13 states had official state religions. So, the founding fathers were limiting the federal government from stepping on what they saw as the purview of the states. Which is what the first 10 amendments are all about. Limiting the power of the federal government.

So, "establishment of religion" was meant to be a fancy way of saying churches. Or any organized religious body. (The sticky bit here is that read that way, it makes all those laws exempting churches from taxes unconstitutional)

On a side note, the complaint is if churches had to pay taxes they'd be paying things that were against their beliefs, like abortions and civil union marriages, etc. I'd counter with two arguments. Show me where in the constitution abortions are enumerated. Or for that matter where does it say ANYWHERE that the government has any business in marriages?
Secondly, the government has it's fingers in places that would make the founding fathers flip their powdered wigs. Things like soup kitchens, housing the indigent, orphanages, etc were originally funded in a secular manner by the churches and local charity organizations. If they were put back in their hands the churches wouldn't have to pay taxes for things that were against their beliefs. And besides, I have to pay taxes that go for A LOT of thing I don't want to pay for, why should they be any different.

But I digress.

So, when you look at the word establishment as a noun, you sort of make the concept of separation of church and state vanish from the first amendment. But as it was never there in the first place, that's not that amazing.

People have an astonishing penchant for reading the constitution using modern definitions. Which is boggling when you consider that the people writing the stupid thing could have no way of knowing how the definitions would evolve. They wrote using words with definitions that were valid for their time. We should read the constitution using those definitions, NOT ours.


Old NFO said...

Good post and a VERY good point!

Newbius said...

Clarification: "Establishment of Religion" meant the state sponsorship, support, and official sanction of a Religion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, monarchies were common and state religions (like the Anglican Church of England) were Established as adjunct extensions of the government.

Remembering that monarchies were "divinely appointed", and that monarchs had the "divine right of kings" and basically owned their subjects, using an Established church was another way to co-opt the populace and reinforce the legitimacy of both the Church and the Monarchy.

Our constitution forbids the Establishment of a State Religion. Our Founders understood the dangers, and wanted no part of it in our system of governance.

How sad is it that we have an Established religion now, in the dual forms of Secular Humanism, and Environmentalism. Thomas Jefferson would be appalled.

T said...

I'm glad I could help you straighten out some of those thoughts, Jim. Very good post.

aepilot_jim said...

NFO - Thanks

T - Thanks also.

Newbius - I think you missed the point. It's "an establishment of religion" not "establishment of religion". The "an" makes it a noun. Please read the post. The founding fathers had no problem with state sponsored religions per se. Like I wrote, most of the original 13 states had "state religions", i.e. religions specifically mentioned and sanctioned in their charters or original founding documents. Hell, the original Mayflower colonists were a religious sect fleeing persecution in England. The founding fathers just wanted it kept out of the hands of the federal government. Remember they were trying to weaken all government by dividing its power up among several bodies.

I agree that a government controlled church would just be another form of tyranny. But the founding fathers were men of their times and excluding God from government completely would have been abhorent to them. Look at how many times they refer to God in the declaration of independance.

And referring back to the first amendment, the constitution forbids, to paraphrase it, the enacting of laws in regards to churches or religious bodies. You said it forbids THE establishment of a state religion. That would make establishment the verb in that sentence. They said AN establishment of religion. That makes "of religion" the modifier of the noun "establishment". Establishment of Religion carrys the same meaning as establishment of food. One means church, the other means resturant.

Jennifer said...

So simple and yet so many miss what should be obvious. Language changes. We should read it using the definition used at the time it was written. The phrase "family and friends enjoyed gay relations after dinner" certainly means something far different today than once did.

Mike W. said...

Which is boggling when you consider that the people writing the stupid thing could have no way of knowing how the definitions would evolve.

+1 - Exactly Jim!

As Jefferson put it,

"Let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed."

-Thomas Jefferson letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823