by John MacBeath Watkins
The "caliphate" of Islamic State appears, at this writing, to be collapsing. At the same time, there are people in the United States insisting that America is a Christian nation.
There are reasons that the founding fathers chose to write a constitution that bans any religious test for holding office, and in 1797 unanimously passed the Treaty of Tripoli, which states in article 11 that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
First, they had been ruled by Britain, which had a state religion, and decreed that only members of the
One result of an established church, the Guernsey MartyrsChurch of England could be officers in the military or hold public office. Many of those who settled this nation did so to practice religion as they saw fit, not as the government saw fit.
Second, the constitution and the Bill of Rights were written by men who admired John Locke, the most influential of the liberal theorists.
Locke is most famous for the Second Treatise of Government, which laid out his theory of the social contract. But another work laid out his thoughts on the relationship between church and state.
This was A Letter Concerning Toleration
written originally in Latin to a Dutch intellectual named Philipp van Limborch, who thought so highly of it that he had it published. He did did so without Locke's knowledge or permission, embroiling Locke in a dispute with High Church members of the Anglican clergy.
They argued that the state has a right to force dissenters to reflect on the Anglican Church as the one true religion.
But wars were fought over which was the One True Faith. The 30-Years War depopulated parts of Europe as effectively as the Black Death had three centuries earlier.
Which is why, in his letter to Philipp van Limborch, Locke argued that:
It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided), but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted), that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion.Further, he argued for separation of church and state. The argument rests, in part, on his definition of the role of civil authorities:
The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.
Locke was not inclined to write briefly, and the argument has many parts, but the most important aspects were:
A) Religious wars are caused not by people believing different things, but by trying to make them all believe the same thing, and
B) You can compel people to act as if they believe in your religion, but you cannot compel them to actually believe, therefore they do not have faith that will save them, even if the state picks the right religion, and
C) When there is a state religion, the state intervenes in religion, and religion intervenes in the state.
On the matter of religion intervening in the state:
What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy.
On the state intervening in the church:
But, to speak the truth, we must acknowledge that the Church (if a convention of clergymen, making canons, must be called by that name) is for the most part more apt to be influenced by the Court than the Court by the Church. How the Church was under the vicissitude of orthodox and Arian emperors is very well known. Or if those things be too remote, our modern English history affords us fresh examples in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, how easily and smoothly the clergy changed their decrees, their articles of faith, their form of worship, everything according to the inclination of those kings and queens. Yet were those kings and queens of such different minds in point of religion, and enjoined thereupon such different things, that no man in his wits (I had almost said none but an atheist) will presume to say that any sincere and upright worshipper of God could, with a safe conscience, obey their several decrees.
The framers of the Constitution were, for the most part, admirers of Locke. They understood that to practice your own religion freely, you must be free of other peoples' religions. This is why the first amendment to the constitution reads:
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.
The boldfaced part is called the establishment clause. It means that the government cannot establish a religion, that is, make one religion the state religion. That is why a senate comprised of people who had been alive during the Revolutionary War and in many cases fought for America's freedom were happy to unanimously pass the Treaty of Tripoli, which as mentioned above, stated that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
What they knew, and many people apparently do not know now, is that one of the things that made America revolutionary was that the state did not dictate what religion would be approved and in some ways dictated by the state to the people. This meant that you could practice any religion you liked.
Events like the Marian Persecutions were still well known at that time, whereas most people no longer know about them.
Queen Mary I was Catholic, and came into power after the deaths of Henry VIII, who had founded the Church of England and seized the property of the Catholic Church, and his son, Edward VI, who had established the Protestant church. Mary made Catholicism the established church of England again, and started burning Protestants at the stake for heresy.
Mary had 283 people burned at the stake, ranging from Church of England Bishops, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to working-class men and women who confessed to beliefs in conflict with Catholic doctrine.
For example Guillemine Gilbert and Perotine Massey, sisters living on the island of Guernsey, were arrested on suspicion of stealing a golden goblet. While they were found innocent of the theft, under interrogation, they admitted to beliefs that, while common among Protestants, were contrary to Catholic doctrine.
The women were sentenced to death for heresy. John Foxe (author of a book now usually called The Book of Christian Martyrs) recorded that Perotine Massey was "great with child," and that when she was burned at the stake, "the belly of the woman burst asunder by the vehemence of the flame, the infant, being a fair man-child, fell into the fire"
Foxe was not there, and I do wonder if perhaps the baby was born in a more usual manner by a mother who must have been writhing in pain, but that's what the eyewitnesses said. They also said the child was rescued from the flame, but the bailiff had it thrown back into the fire. The Guernsey Martyrs had a great deal to do with the rise of Calvinism in the Channel Islands, and the diminishment of Catholicism in the same place.
Given that this could be the face of establishment of religion, the founders of the American nation wanted none of it. The problem is, once you say that yours is a "Christian nation," or for that matter, an "Islamic state." the apparatus of state force can be used to enforce someone's notion of what that religion consists of. This is why Islamic State is killing people for being Shia Muslim rather than Sunni Muslim, and killing Yazidi men and enslaving Yazidi women for not being Muslim at all.
The logic is the same as applied to Bloody Mary's actions. The state does not serve the people, it and they serve God. Therefore, once you have a state-accepted religion, it is the duty of the state to punish unbelievers. No elections are needed, because the state serves God, and his earthly representatives can tell the people who God has appointed to rule them.
This also means that it is imperative for rulers to either be on good terms with God's representatives, or choose those representatives themselves. In killing the upper ranks of the Church of England, Mary I was choosing which of God's representatives should rule on her own legitimacy, and sending an unmistakable message to those who replaced them.
The people who founded America had no use for a system that could produce anything like the Guernsey Martyrs, or the many indignities short of that. They took Locke's advice and separated the state from religion, allowing the peaceful coexistence of different sorts of believers. There had, in colonial times, been individual colonies with established religions, sometimes leading followers of an entire faith to be disenfranchised. In 1718 Maryland, which had been founded by a Roman Catholic, passed a law depriving Catholics of the right to vote, reflecting in-migration of protestants, who had become a majority. Catholics did not regain the right to vote until 1776.
A Letter Concerning Toleration is not much studied today, but it should be. It contains the solution to religious strife, and the logic of the secular state, which are inseparable.