Laicity In The American Republic

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Justice for all.” – Pledge of Allegiance as originally written by Francis Bellamy, vice president of the Society of Christian Socialists and chief spokesperson for the socialist Nationalist Clubs movement.

The “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” part of this derives from the slogan adopted by the Third Republic of France.  This hendriatris, or tripartite motto, dates back to the Club de Cordeliers in the French Revolution, whose slogan was “liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort” (liberty, equality, fraternity or death).

 

Besides “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, another ideal of the Third Republic (and succeeding incarnations) since 1905 has been “laïcité”, often translated as “secularism”.  Secularism does not necessarily mean anti-religion; in politics, secularism simply means exclusion of religion from interference in government affairs.

It is from the French that the English word “laicity” derives, a word rarely used but valid nevertheless.  That laicity, that separation of church and state, was America’s unique gift to the world, for never before in written history, certainly not in the modern era, had a country existed without an officially established religion.  In fact, part of the inspiration for France’s abolition of official religion in 1789 was America’s example. 

Growing up Episcopalian amongst the deluge of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians who inhabit the American South and living next to a family the husband and wife of which became our Jewish godparents, I really took to heart the separation of church and state upon which our republic was founded.  I learned to be fiercely resistant to any attempt to have the yoke of someone else’s religion placed around my neck, knowing that such a yoke would not be easy nor its burden light.

As I grew up and began thinking about eventually entering seminary, which I thought about as far back as junior high school and started planning to do in high school, I began to see that imposition of religion on a governmental level was not only unfair to those not of that particular faith but damaging to and corrupting of both government and religion.  In fact, the reason I listed the establishment of the Christian Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire as one of the five great tragedies of world history in that class my junior year at Tyner High was because of the way that corrupted Christianity. 

Quotes from our Founding Fathers and Presidents illustrate the point graphically.

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. -- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791

I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country. -- George Washington, response to Presbyterian clergymen from Massachusetts and New Hampshire protesting the Constitution making no mention of Jesus Christ, 2 November 1789

The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. -- John Adams, from the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797, passed by the U.S. Senate unanimously

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. -- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, 1 January 1802

Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law. -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, 10 February 1814

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? -- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, 20 June 1785

I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government. - Andrew Jackson, refusing to proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer in 1832

Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between Church and State, and that in my action as President of the United States I recognized no distinction of creeds in my appointments office. -- James K. Polk, diary entry of his response to a Presbyterian minister opposing Catholic army chaplains, 1846

Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school…Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separated. -- Ulysses S Grant, address to the Army of the Tennessee, Des Moines, Iowa, 25 September 1875

I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land before the close of the nineteenth century. It is the acquisition of vast amounts of untaxed church property.... I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation. -- Ulysses S. Grant, message to Congress, 7 December 1875

The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation. -- James A. Garfield, speech in Congress, 1874

I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools -- Theodore Roosevelt, New York public address, 12 October 1915

I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute. -- John F. Kennedy, speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association, 12 September 1960

As you know, the separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration. -- Richard Nixon, telegram to E.S. James of Baptist Standard, 21 October 1960

It's contrary to my beliefs to try to exalt Christianity as having some sort of preferential status in the United States. That violates the Constitution. I'm not in favor of mandatory prayer in school or of using public funds to finance religious education. -- Jimmy Carter, interview in Christianity Today, 2 March 1998

I believe in the separation of church and state and would not use my authority to violate this principle in any way. -- Jimmy Carter, letter to Jack V. Harwell, 11 August 1977

Church and state are and must remain separate. -- Ronald Reagan, speech in Valley Stream, New York, 26 October 1984

The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. -- Hugo Black, majority opinion, Everson v. Board of Education, 10 February 1947

The laicity, the secularism, of our Founding Fathers and their Constitution has always been one of the guiding principles of my political and religious existence, no matter whether I’ve been in a liberal phase or a conservative phase of political philosophy or holding strong belief, passive belief, nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, or anti-belief in religious thought. 

I have only to look at the world around me to see the consequences of letting even a stray footstep cross that threshold from either side.  There is no such thing as a harmless amount of religion in government.  The phrase “a little bit of theocracy” is like saying “a little bit of pregnancy”.  Theocracy is the corruption of religion into ideology and the decay of government into totalitarianism.

All experience of humanity has shown, and most graphically since mid-20th century, that no matter how much theocratists adhere to democratic processes in the beginning and deny that their ideology even is theocracy, their end is the same authoritarian rule as if it were established by an iron heel.

The word “theocracy”, incidentally, was coined by first century Jewish historian and former anti-Roman rebel Titus Flavius Josephus specifically to describe the government under which the Jews of his time suffered.  It was precisely that form of misgovernment and abuse of spiritual authority against which the Galilean prophet Jesus of Nazareth rose.  I always find it astounding that any person calling themselves Christian would advocate the very thing he hated most.

Chuck Hamilton


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