Government and Religion

Thomas Jefferson—chairman of a committee of five to prepare a draft of the Declaration of Independence from England, elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776, Secretary of State under the first President of the United States, and himself the third President—was adamant that church and state must be kept separate.

Jefferson wisely rejected advice from religious representatives who sought to pressure him to institute days of prayer, and said that he believed that government officials did not have legal justification to call people to pray.  Jefferson spelled out his position and that of the nation’s Constitution with this observation:

  • “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises.”   He further clarified this, saying, “Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for (religious) exercises and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposed it.”

One of the numerous milestones during Jefferson’s two terms as president was the definition of treason by the Supreme Court—in the Justus Erich Bollman case (1807) which established an important precedent in the law of writ of habeas corpus and the crime of treason.  The principle laid down was that an actual levy of war, and not merely an intention to levy war, must be established to convict a person of treason.  Today we must ponder finer points of habeas corpus and treason, and whether this precedent covers the deliberate lying to lead the nation into an unnecessary war. 

A friend and colleague of Jefferson, James Madison, was an American statesman now recognized as the “Father of the Constitution,” and he served as the fourth president of the United States.  Madison had made the notable contribution to the Virginia State Constitution in a clause granting a “free exercise of religion”—one of the earliest provisions for religious freedom in American law.  Features of the Virginia constitution were later incorporated into the Constitution of the US.

Events led Madison to recognize the danger of too much central authority in a democratic government.  And being familiar with the Dark Age history of Europe, he recognized as well the danger to democracy of religion being mixed into government.  After he had been manipulated by religious representative into issuing a few religious proclamations, he found himself bitterly regretting that he had done so.  He later wrote, “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion.  Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.”

Today we in the United States find a relentless move by extreme religious factions to take advantage of the religious freedom that Jefferson and Madison championed, and they brazenly attempt to subjugate true democratic principles that elevated the nation to a world power. 

  •  Related post: Corporations Shaft America, Sept. 19, 2009.
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