Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ever Notice the Inscription on the Liberty Bell?

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

-Leviticus 25.10

“By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in Philadelphia”
Pass and Stow Philadelphia 1753

Interestingly, our Founding Fathers' view of church and state was such that it did not keep them from ordering quotations of Leviticus to be inscribed on state property [in the 1750's].  Thankfully, contemporary scholars and politicians are here to tell us what the Founding Fathers really thought, lest we be misled by their actual words and deeds.


Doug Indeap said...

The Liberty Bell inscription, of course, preceded the First Amendment by several decades.

Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he considered the question whether these actions were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom" and responded: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion."

At the time of the drafting of the First Amendment and for several decades thereafter, a political "disestablishment" movement swept the country, with the result that not only was the First Amendment adopted to constrain the federal government but also by the 1830s all states ended the practice of supporting a favored church and adopted various constitutional provisions against establishing religion. An early observer of our republic noted the result: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

Benjamin said...

Doug ... not sure of your exact point, but I think I get your drift.

Though the issue is not simple, I think it is wrong to portray Madison as a man with cold feelings toward Christianity in government life - particularly in the lively years he served as a statesman and president.

Points to consider: to your comment in paragraph 1, Madison, himself, issued several days of thanksgiving and prayer as President of the US - which, of course, followed the 1st Amendment by several decades. [9 Jul 1812; 16 Nov 1814; 4 Mar 1815; etc. : http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3616+madison+james+days+of+fasting+prayer+thanksgiving&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us and www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1789.htm+madison+james+day+of+fasting+prayer+thanksgiving&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us].

Further, in Virginia, Madison [along w/ Jefferson] proposed the following bills: "A Bill for Saving the Property of the Church Heretofore by Law Established,” “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers,” “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving,” and “A Bill Annulling Marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law and Appointing the Mode of Solemnizing Lawful Marriage.” [The Papers of James Madison, Robert A Rutland, editor (University of Chicago Press, 1973), Vol. VIII, pp. 396].

He helped author and approve the Virginia Bill of Rights which states, '...all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other."

An interesting contrast and insight into his usage of 'religion' as a subcategory of 'Christian'.

As President, he gave Federal financial aid to the Bible Society [The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington: Gales & Seaton, 1853), Twelfth Congress, Second Session, p. 1325].

So there are 2 basic points of clarification. 1 - I think your quote from de Tocqueville is helpful. The 'separation of church and government' was seen to protect all those of smaller Christian denominations who would have otherwise been persecuted or marginalized by the larger 'religions' or denominations. So interdenominational struggles were not to negatively impact gov't, particularly NATIONAL gov't. 2 - Madison was clearly opposed to a "NATIONAL" preference shown to one denomination. ... which is a different thing from this taking place in each separate state [ie - Virginia's official state church was Anglican, etc.].

Still ... the point remains - if President Obama said even the things Madison did as a politician,[and that's sticking w/ Madison who was comparatively mild in this area] there is little doubt he'd spend the rest of his term in court.

Benjamin said...

Doug - after chewing on it a bit more - I'm glad for your clarification. Your position is that 'disestablishment' was a reaction to such inscriptions. While I would contest that, I see your point.
The point of my post, though, was revisionism. How is it that so much is made of the liberty bell, but the Biblical quote [from Leviticus of all books!!!] is so rarely mentioned? I taught history for 4 years and never ran across it. How can we begin to think about issues of Christianity in public life apart from an understanding of the facts of early American history as they were.

Doug Indeap said...


In his Detached Memoranda, Madison stated his view that "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts" are not "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom." What then, Madison further inquired, should be made of these various actions already taken in the nation's then "short history" inconsistent with the Constitution? Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: "Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature]."

Rather apologetically, he also explained how he came to issue the proclamation you mention and why he worded it as he did: "During the administration of Mr. Jefferson no religious proclamation was issued. It being understood that his successor [i.e., Madison] was disinclined to such interpositions of the Executive and by some supposed moreover that they might originate with more propriety with the Legislative Body, a resolution was passed requesting him to issue a proclamation. It was thought [presumably by Madison] not proper to refuse compliance altogether; but a form & language were employed, which were meant to deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly of the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as well as voluntary performance of a religious act on the occasion."

It appears that he responded to perceived political imperatives, held his nose, and issued a proclamation worded to minimize its ill effects, knowing he was deviating from the First Amendment's principles, which he held dear. Madison's practical suggestion is to acknowledge it as a mistake that is not legitimate precedent of proper government action.

I understand too that some try to draw meaning from what is characterized as giving financial aid to a Bible Society. Congress doubled import duties at the beginning of the War of 1812. A Bible Society that had ordered printing plates in 1809 that did not arrive until 1812 requested to be taxed at the pre-war schedule, and Congress agreed. Religion appears to have had nothing to do with it.

Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state. While it says little about history, you may find its summary of current law interesting. http://www.adl.org/religious_freedom/WFU-Divinity-Joint-Statement.pdf