Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Founders’ Confidence that True Religion Would Win

Ok, David, you can keep your job. That was an awfully nice plug for my book.
I particularly liked the focus that David placed on my provocative notion that 18th century evangelicals might accuse 21st century evangelicals of lacking confidence in their own faith.
This leads me to a broader point that ought to delight conservatives: the Founders applied a strong free-market prism to religion.
“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “And when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil powers, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of it’s being a bad one.” In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson made the same point: “It is error alone which needs the support of gov’t. Truth can stand by itself.” During the fight in Virginia over whether to use taxpayer money to subsidize the churches, a Presbyterian petition opposing the idea predicted that such subsidies would lead to a colony “swarming with Fools, Sots and Gamblers.” (That’s the preachers, not the congregants).
The Founders and the other advocates of religious liberty back then seemed more confident in the ultimate power of their religion to win followers than some religious leaders do now. In arguing against the plan to subsidize Virginia’s churches, Madison accused the Anglican church leaders of “an ignoble and unchristian timidity.” John Adams even extended the principle to non-Christian religions, suggesting that we could all benefit from exposure to the sacred texts of the “Hindoos” and “Persians.” “Men ought (after they have examined with unbiased judgments every system of religion, and chosen one system, on their own authority, for themselves), to avow their opinions and defend them with boldness,” he wrote in his diary in 1756.
What does this mean in terms of modern church-state fights? I don’t know whether Baptist leaders like Isaac Backus or John Leland would have wanted prayer in public schools or not, but I imagine they would be saddened by the emphasis on that cause placed by many of today’s religious conservatives. I can hear Backus shout: How tepid is your faith if you think it can be easily shaken without constant reinforcement by a government-run school! How ineffective must be the churches – and parents — if you rely on the public schools as the only way to keep your children away from depravity! Crutches are for the weak or ill. Backus and Leland would exhort: God does not need the support of government to prevail.
In old age, Madison was asked to assess whether this radical new approach to religious freedom had worked – not merely because there was newfound security of religious minorities but because the quality of religion had improved. “The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State,” he wrote. I suspect that the current political lineup over separation of church and state might puzzle a good free-market man like Madison.

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Charles Cosimano

posted April 3, 2008 at 11:12 pm

One must not forget the sentiments of Light-Horse Harry Lee (Robert E. Lee’s father) who said, “Now that we’ve run out the King, let’s run out the churches as well!”

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posted April 4, 2008 at 4:31 pm

It is clear that this concept advocated by the founders is completely in line with Biblical teachings. Nowhere in the Bible are believers told to seek the support of governments to advance their faith. In fact, the teachings of the Bible would seem to emphasize the need for churches to remain entirely separate from government, accepting neither support nor approval from it.
History would seem to confirm this. In times when the church became too entwined with politics, both government and the church (and by extension, people) suffered. It seems that the church grows best when it is entirely separate from government and free to speak truth as it sees fit, not as government permits it.

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posted April 9, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Indeed, the current crop of Christofascists lacks the same sort of confidence the Framers had. Because to them, it isn’t about faith at all. It is purely about politics, and power. The power to coerce people to fill their collection baskets, so they can buy more power.

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posted January 27, 2009 at 8:51 am

Forgive me for bringing up and old article but I found my way here via a google search and felt compelled to reply :)
from the article:
“I don’t know whether Baptist leaders like Isaac Backus or John Leland would have wanted prayer in public schools or not, but I imagine they would be saddened by the emphasis on that cause placed by many of today’s religious conservatives. I can hear Backus shout: How tepid is your faith if you think it can be easily shaken without constant reinforcement by a government-run school! How ineffective must be the churches – and parents — if you rely on the public schools as the only way to keep your children away from depravity! Crutches are for the weak or ill. Backus and Leland would exhort: God does not need the support of government to prevail.”
I’ll admit that the Founders wanted “separation of Church and state” but neither was the gov. (especially the fed. gov.) meant to be so entangled in/controlling of education and peoples daily lives. From the very beginning a well-educated citizenry was thought to be essential to protect liberty, i.e. educating the basics of reading, writing, math, and geography, but reading included History.
“The reading in the first stage, where [the people] will receive their whole education, is proposed to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.” –Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:106
‘Education for liberty’ meant preparation to exercise and protect the basic freedoms of religion, press, assembly, trial by jury, security of person, due process and other guarantees of the Bill of Rights of 1791 and to understand why they chose a Republic form of government. That was the only reason Jefferson advocated for compulsory attendance at the state level. It was also not their intention to FORCE the mockery of todays “education” system, that forces upon even the youngest in our society a low self-esteem, and a stifling of individual, independent thought, on anyone.
Up to the 1850s, when we didn’t have public schools, the average literacy rate was almost 90 percent (excluding slaves of course, because it was a crime to teach a slave to read because, as Madison put it, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people”). Compulsory education was not part of early American society, which relied instead on private schools that mostly charged tuition or education at home.
We have gone from giving the public the OPPORTUNITY to be educated for their liberty to forcing them into a type of prison system that conditions and indoctrinates them to become “good workers for the government” and “good surrenders or advocates for collectivism/socialism” and charging parents with child “abuse” if their child doesn’t attend school for 180 (or whatever) days no matter what illness (unless excused by a doctor) or calamity might prevent/hinder it.
Just like everything else we’ve gone from Quality to quantity and/or given up one for the other altogether almost since the beginning of government involvement. First they lengthened the school year, then they lengthened the school day giving parents little or no time with the children. The various reasons I could find: give children more time to learn the 4 subjects (reading/history, writing, math, and geography), especially for those slower learners, and to more reflect the average business day. Only just like everything else that is suppose to “give more time” they started teaching more subjects and this is something they continue to do to this day while shortening recess and lunch. And yet more and more stories of Obesity in children, well that’s what happens when you “train” them to wolf down food in about 15 minutes which is what the average time the elementary child gets to actually sit and eat plus taking away recess time which is actually exercise for the average child. Can we say DUH!
The First Amendment to the Constitution plainly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”
Since there can be no federal law on the subject, there appears to be no lawful basis for any element of the federal government – including the courts – to act in this area.
Moreover, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution plainly states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
This means that the power to make laws respecting an establishment of religion, having been explicitly withheld from the United States, is reserved to the states or to the people.
Taken together, therefore, the First and 10th Amendments reserve the power to address issues of religious establishment and free exercise thereof to the different states and their people.
In Federalist No. 41, James Madison asked rhetorically: “For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? ”
The Federalist Papers are one of our soundest guides to what the Constitution actually means. And in No. 84, Alexander Hamilton indirectly confirmed Madison’s point.
Hamilton argued that a bill of rights, which many were clamoring for, would be not only “unnecessary,” but “dangerous.” Since the federal government was given only a few specific powers, there was no need to add prohibitions: it was implicitly prohibited by the listed powers. If a proposed law — a relief act, for instance — wasn’t covered by any of these powers, it was ipso facto unconstitutional.
Adding a bill of rights, said Hamilton, would only confuse matters. It would imply, in many people’s minds, that the federal government was entitled to do anything it wasn’t positively forbidden to do, whereas THE PRINCIPLE OF THE CONSTITUTION IS THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS FORBIDDEN TO DO ANYTHING IT ISN’T POSITIVELY AUTHORIZED TO DO.
Hamilton too posed some rhetorical questions: “For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?” Such a provision “would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretence for claiming that power” — that is, a power to regulate the press, short of actually shutting it down.
We now suffer from the sort of confusion Hamilton foresaw.
And for those state constitutions that say almost the exact same thing as the US constitution it means the power is given to the people.
No, religion shouldn’t be in the public schools, but neither should the public schools (governments) use compulsory attendance to indoctrinate children and impose their views and doctrine.
Public education reduces opposition to wealth transfers by teaching students that redistribution, public works, and democracy are the American way.(“A REPUBLIC if you can keep it”) War and crisis increases the size of government. Public education tells us we need government all the time. Public education introduces the mantras of democracy to the young. Democracy keeps the two major parties in power, keeps their spoils flowing in, and tells us that intervention is okay because the majority voted for it.
The conclusion is that public schools and compulsory attendance laws benefit educators, administrators, and politicians more than citizens or their children. But one could draw deeper conclusions. Through the Mises Institute and other free market organizations, one can find books on the evils of all kinds of intervention and democracy, and how once instituted these evils begin to destroy us as individuals, then our families, and even society itself.
Public education is the glue that holds all of these ideas together. It is how these ideas are spread to society at large. Thus, one might argue that public education is the greatest evil of all, and that it must be struck down in one mighty blow before we begin to find ourselves as persons, families, and a people again.

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