Monday, April 12, 2004

Constitutional Conflicts...

In previous posts I’ve discussed / debated the issue of de-constructionism and how it applies to interpreting the Constitution. Part of my argument is that authors have intentions when they write a document and that any interpretation of that document must be grounded on just what those intentions were. But what about a document with multiple authors? How can we come up with an original intent if the multiple authors of a single document have varying attitudes with regards to a particular topic within the document? Taken a step further, how do we reconcile varying actions, with regards to politically charged issues, between some of our own founding fathers? For example, how did Thomas Jefferson and John Adams view the relationship between the Church and the State, and how it related to the first sixteen words of the First Amendment? In the March 2004 issue of First Things, John Witte, Jr., has an article titled, Publick Religion: Adams v. Jefferson, in which he compares the differing viewpoints on religion and government between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He begins:
The civic catechisms of our day still celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s experiment in religious liberty. To end a millennium of repressive religious establishments, we are taught, Jefferson sought liberty in the twin formulas of privatizing religion and secularizing politics. Religion must be “a concern purely between our God and our consciences,” he wrote. Politics must be conducted with “a wall of separation between church and state.” “Publick Religion” is a threat to private religion, and must thus be discouraged. “Political ministry” is a menace to political integrity and must thus be outlawed.
While about Adams, he writes:
Moreover, the maintenance of religious plurality was essential for the protection of civil society and civil liberties. “Checks and balances, Jefferson,” Adams later wrote to his friend at Monticello, “are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body. Every Species of Christians would persecute Deists, as either Sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unbalanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, Human nature!”
Of the two, Witte states:
For Jefferson, to establish one public religion was to threaten all private religions. To encourage religious uniformity was to jeopardize religious sincerity. To limit religious exercise was to stymie religious development. To enlist the church’s ministry was to impugn the state’s integrity. Religion was thus best left to the private sphere and sanctuary; church and state were best left separated from each other. Adams agreed that too little religious freedom was a recipe for hypocrisy and impiety. But too much religious freedom, he argued, was an invitation to depravity and license. Too firm a religious establishment would certainly breed coercion and corruption. But too lax a religious establishment would convert private prejudices into constitutional prerogatives. Somewhere between these extremes a society must strike its balance.
It's interesting to read Witte's article with the understanding that although two of our founding fathers had similar concerns with regards to the interaction between the Church and the State, they each addressed those concerns with different methodologies.

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