Thursday, March 12, 2009

2 Myths from American History

I'm in the middle of a Church History class this semester, and in my reading lately I was reminded of 2 myths that I used to believe from American History:

    Myth #1: Most people came to America for religious liberty. In reality, they were very much fed up with the lack of reform within, specifically, the Anglican Church (at least from a Puritan perspective) and wanted, as Mark Noll puts it, "tighter govermental control of religion than existed in the Old World." [Mark Noll, The Old Religion in the New World: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 74] They were seeking for purity in the Church and the State and assumed that the solution for that would come by starting over somewhere else and then tightening up that link at the new place. (Now, if you're from an Anabaptist background [i.e. Quaker, Mennonite, Amish, et al], your heritage was concerned with a government that did not dictate religious life. But if you're in a Baptist church today, you may be surprised to know that your lineage doesn't draw directly from the Anabaptists!)

    Myth #2: The founders of the US Constitution expected the First Amendment to enforce separation of church and state across the country. In reality, their intention was that this was a state matter and each state should determine what their religious life would look like. They simply did not want the national government to dictate that. In other words, it was assumed that each state would adopt specific religious elements into their makeup. As Noll pointed out (72), 12 of the states then continued to have a religious test required to be taken in order to hold public office.

How does this change or underscore what you've thought about our history and how does it impact your view of the current conditions of our country?

1 comment:

Dave said...

Thank you for that post! The issue is frustrating to me. It is such irony that Jefferson's metaphor, "separation of church and state," is so often used to prohibit religious recognition in public ceremonies, etc. Usually this was caused by court intervention. Clearly, based on his actions, that is not what Jefferson intended. And in fact that is not what happened for the first 150 years or so of our country's history. The limitations we see more recently have been imposed by the courts. Yet Jefferson wrote often (and pointedly) about his fear that the courts would gradually take on more power and overturn the other two branches of government. Here is one such statement:

"In denying the right [the Supreme Court usurps] of exclusively explaining the Constitution, I go further than [others] do, if I understand rightly [this] quotation from the Federalist of an opinion that 'the judiciary is the last resort in relation to the other departments of the government, but not in relation to the rights of the parties to the compact under which the judiciary is derived.' If this opinion be sound, then indeed is our Constitution a complete felo de se [act of suicide]. For intending to establish three departments, coordinate and independent, that they might check and balance one another, it has given, according to this opinion, to one of them alone the right to prescribe rules for the government of the others, and to that one, too, which is unelected by and independent of the nation. For experience has already shown that the impeachment it has provided is not even a scare-crow... The Constitution on this hypothesis is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please." (