Some blog posts that I write get many comments right away.
Some never get any comments at all.
And then there are those that get belated comments. Such it has been with my post from last July, Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness.
This blog entry received three separate comments from one Miriam, who seems to want to convert me to Christianity. Sorry, Miriam, but my heart belongs to Torah.
Being one of the token Jews of the Homeschool Blogosphere has its little ironies. During Hannukah, I received a gift and an earnest letter from a Mormon reader of my blog, who wants to convert me to Mormonism. Very kindly meant, I am sure, but this is also not a likely prospect. As Rabbi Joe Black said at the Boychick's Bar Mitzvah, " . . . for 4,000 years our people have lived by [Torah] and too often, they have died for it." I, as an American, have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to be free of religious coercion, and frankly, I am glad I do not have to die for Torah. I would so much rather live by it. I like being Jewish. It is part of my personal pursuit of happiness.
But I digress. The real meat of Miriam's argument was that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that this religious expression was intended to be Protestant Christianity. Now, I cannot argue that the founders were not Christian. They were. But what I can and do argue, quite passionately, is that many of them were also aware of the dire nature of the Christian brutality against other Christians that ocurred in Europe, and that they were not eager to replicate it here. Consider, as just one of many examples, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. (Son of Liberty Paul Revere was the descendent of a survivor of that terrible event).
More to the point, the founders were also steeped in the Enlightenment philosophy that came from England and Scotland, which emphasized the rights of man, and also took a rather dour view of the human capacity for self-righteous violence. The Glorious Revolution in England had come on the heels of the English Civil Wars, which were as nasty a religious conflict as had been the murdering of religious dissidents by Bloody Mary. These Enlightenment values with respect to the freedom of the human mind and conscience were expressed by Thomas Jefferson thusly:
"Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time . . ." --Thomas Jefferson, Preamble to the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, 1785 (Emphasis added).
We can see from the emphasized portions the Enlightenment influence on Jefferson's thought: that the Creator has made the mind to be free, and that no coercion can effect holiness, and that reason is the ultimate guide of the human conscience. The influence of the experience of religious coercion in Europe can be seen from Jefferson's comments about the uninspired and fallible nature of the men who would coerce the faith of others.
And of course, there were great differences among the colonies themselves with respect to religion. There was Puritan New England, Quaker Pennsylvania, the small "c" catholics (Church of England and Church of Scotland) of Virginia and the Carolinas, the Dutch Protestants of New York, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland. Some of the Colonies had established religions, but others, such as Rhode Island, were established on the principle of the right to freedom from religious coercion.
All of these realities undoubtedly influenced the non-establishment clause of Amendment I of the United States Constitution. But the overall Enlightenment philosophy of the Rights of Man is the overarching justification for the rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence and ennumerated in the Bill of Rights. These rights are individual rights based on the nature of the human being who requires Liberty in order to live. This is what is meant by "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . ." These Enlightenment values are further revealed in Jefferson's writing:
" . . .that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right;
"that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty . . ." Ibid.
The establishment of a Constitutional guarrantee of individual rights for the first time in human history recognized individual human beings to be free and independent masters of their own lives, and subject only to their own conscience with respect to religious opinion and belief. This is what is so revolutionary about the American Republic. We do not owe our allegiance to Kings or Princes, nor Popes or Bishops, but to the Constitution and the Republic that it created. The government exists to protect our rights, we do not exist to serve the government.
What is most interesting to me about Miriam's argument, and indeed the arguments of most dominionist Christians, when they insist that this is a Christian nation, is that they always assert some collective right of "society" to govern what they consider to be the sinful behavior of fellow citizens. Thus Miriam argues:
" . . .Take for example homosexuality, where I personally believe that this behavior does in fact violate the rights of others (especially when viewing its effects on society as a whole), many people in today’s culture would disagree vehemently, claiming the behavior is harmless to others." (Comment on Declaration! The Pursuit of Happiness, linked above).
This argument is premised on the idea that society as a whole has certain rights that supercede the rights of the individual. What rights those are she left unstated, because, in fact society is not an entity in itself, and has no rights. All rights are held by individuals.
Miriam, as an individual, has every right to snub homosexuals, refuse them entry to her church, hate them in her heart, and refuse to socialize with them. The values by which she enacts such behaviors are between her and her own sovereign conscience. But Miriam has no right to initiate force against them in the name of any god or government. She and her coreligionists may not deprive them of their lives, liberty, or property.
Part of Miriam's confusion about the individual nature of rights may come from the recent movement to assign rights to groups: gay rights, women's rights, animal rights, and so on. Miriam would be correct if she stated that such attribution of group rights violates her own individual rights. For example, gays have no right to get the government to force a photographer to take pictures of a gay wedding (to cite one notorious New Mexican violation of the Constitution) by threatening to remove her business license. That would be a violation of both her liberty and property. But gays do have every right to snub her, refuse her entry into their churches, and hate her in their hearts. They also have the sovereign right of conscience.
Finally, I also disagree with Miriam's assertion that the rights declared in the Declaration of Independence are based on what she calls "Judeo-Christian" values. Perhaps, because I am a Jew, I am far more aware of differences between the universalistic values of Christianity and the more particularistic Jewish legal tradition. For example, Judaism does not assert any obligation of non-Jews to obey Halachah (Jewish law). Christianity, with its doctrine of universal salvation, on the other hand, requires all human beings to recognize the deity status of Jesus or be consigned to death and hell. Jewish moral values only require right action, whereas in Christianity, there is a great emphasis on right belief. Judaism does not claim moral dominion over all human beings. Christianity's adherents often claim that they invented morality.
Both Judaism and Christianity subscribe to certain more universal human moral standards (you shall not steal, you shall not murder). These universal moral standards are also the basis for the concept of the Rights of Man, which were developed in Western culture. And although both Judaism and Christianity have greatly influence Western ideas, the set of Western values itself, including the concept of natural rights, is not purely derived from religious thought. And these values predate fundmentalist Christianity by more than 20 centuries.
The United States has NO established religion. As the first amendment states:
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.