Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Year of Legislating Dangerously

So I confess, at first I was willing to shrug my shoulders at the PA House of Representatives’ unanimous passage on Jan. 24 of a resolution declaring 2012 as the “Year of the Bible.”

After all, this is the same group of individuals who spent time debating the identity of the state reptile in 2009 while the Commonwealth’s budget was overdue by a month and wallowing in red ink.

Why should we expect them to start doing their jobs now? 

Further, denying the Bible as a central focal point in the development of western civilization is a fool’s errand. It inhabits western literature, laws and traditions.

PA Rep. Rick Saccone
Then we ran an op-ed piece on TheMercury opinion page Sunday in which the resolution’s sponsor, western PA Rep. Rick Saccone, peddled the same statement about his resolution that is on his web site and has been published in half a dozen places around the Commonwealth.

In it, he attempts to appropriate the nation’s founders as assumed supporters of his case that such resolutions, however “non-binding,” are not inappropriate and to suggest that the founders would agree, thus rendering them inherently patriotic and inviolable.

This is a particular pet peeve of mine and is in fact the reason I started several years ago reading up on these wealthy white men founders of ours.

I was tired of having George Washington and Thomas Jefferson thrown up as unassailable bulwarks of Conservative politics. 

As it turns out, what I found is that the founders were not the marble statues imbued with bedrock convictions chiseled in stone that we have come to mythologize them as being, but human beings with faults, doubts and uncommon insight.

They were, to put it simply, men of their times, the close of a period of thought called the Enlightenment.

They were attempting to build a republic larger than anything ever imagined and they were leaders in a country founded by adventurers and refugees from a Europe where the mixing of church and state had bred centuries of warfare over whose interpretation of that selfsame book was correct and whose was heresy.

This issue is squarely at the intersection of ...
In his first inaugural address, Jefferson alludes to this history noting: “And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered…”

Remember, it was nearly 200 years between Plymouth Rock and the Declaration of Independence and the country that was then being established was stepping carefully on religious questions.

The goal of the founders Saccone cites was not to found a Christian nation, favoring one of many factions of Christianity fighting overseas over the other, but a nation in which Christians – and the faithful of every and any other religion – could worship as they pleased without interference from the state and without oversight from the state.

I won’t deny that many of the values on which the country was to be founded have a basis in Christianity and the Bible – after all, they were nearly all Christians of a sort themselves and it was what they knew and where they came from.

But it’s not that simple.

Nothing ever is.

As Jon Meacham wrote in his excellent 2006 work on the subject, “American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation,” many of the founders Saccone cites, were not so much Bible thumping Evangelicals as they were “Deists.”

Wikipedia defines Deism as “a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator rarely, if ever, either intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe.

“For them, Jesus of Nazareth was a great moral teacher – even the greatest in all history – but he was not the Son of God,” Meacham reveals.

In fact, the Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, rector of the church George Washington attended with his wife, when asked about Washington’s religious beliefs replied directly: “Sir, Washington was a Deist.”

Nonetheless, Rep. Saccone plays the game of quotes (one in which I myself have indulged on more than one occasion) to bolster his case, citing Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln to infer they would be likely supporters of his resolution.

Lincoln is a little after the founder’s time, but as an American icon, he’s always a good one to throw in.

Saccone cites Lincoln saying “I believe the Bible is the best book God has ever given man.”

To which I provide this statement of Lincoln’s: “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”

And who knew Lincoln better than his wife?: “Mr. Lincoln's maxim and philosophy were: ‘What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.’ He never joined any Church. He was a religious man always, I think, but was not a technical Christian.”

What are we to believe? (Thus, the point of the game of quotes.)

It’s important to remember that in addition to being men of their time, the founders were also politicians and were speaking to a nation populated by people who, if they had ever read any book at all, likely had read the Bible and little else.

So while Saccone presents us with Jefferson saying (chiseled in granite I might add) “God who gave us liberty,” he ignores the fact that Jefferson also cut up his Bible to remove all reference to miracles by Jesus, leaving only his moral teachings.

Is this the act of a man who reveres the Bible as the inerrant word of God, as Saccone’s resolution insists it is?

Saccone selects from among Jefferson’s many beautiful phrases words chosen for him on a memorial built more than a century after his death. 

But what did Jefferson himself chose to be remembered by?
Thomas Jefferson's tombstone

Among the three things Jefferson himself chose to be chiseled in the granite of his tombstone, and of which he was presumably the most proud, was his authorship of “the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom.”

That most worthy document, written at a time when the state of Virginia was providing salary to Episcopal ministers, actually warns against the very thing Saccone would have us embrace.

Jefferson writes that since “God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens; or by civil incapacitations (italics mine), tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…”

It further warns against “the impious presumption of legislators (again, italics mine) 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 as the only true and infallible…”

To put it in today’s vernacular: “God gave me free will to believe as I see fit, who the hell are you to tell me what I should believe when God himself left the choice up to me?”

In his 1782 work “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson writes: “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”

Does Saccone not know Jefferson is the author of the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state?”

This is the man to whom Saccone would have us look as someone who would endorse the Pennsylvania government’s endorsement of a religious book? 

It seems an odd choice when one looks beyond simple monuments. 

But then, that is the source Saccone quotes as his evidence of the founders’ implied blessing. 

True, George Washington used a Bible when he took the oath of office.

'Washington was a Deist'
 But in 1789, when a group of clergymen complained that the Constitution contained no mention of Jesus Christ, Washington replied: “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.”

Perhaps the most ridiculous citation of all is for Saccone to have invoked John Adams in his defense of governmental support for the Bible.

If ever there was a founder who cast a skeptical eye at organized Christianity and its chief book it was John Adams.

There are too many quotes to choose from, but perhaps this one, from one of his last letters to Jefferson in 1825, will convince the reader that Mr. Adams would not have likely jumped on the Saccone resolution bandwagon:

“There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating into the divine authority of those books?”

None of which is to say that religion does not have a place in the public square. 

It always has and it always will.

It is, to a lesser or greater extent, the motivator and guide for most public figures and thus inherent in their beliefs on which their actions are based and therefore inseparable from the public actions they take.

As Meacham observed: “Our finest hours – the Revolutionary War, abolition, the expansion of the rights of women, fights against terror and tyranny, the battle against Jim Crow – can be partly traced to religious ideas about liberty, justice and charity. Yet theology and scripture have also been used to justify our worst hours – from enslaving black people, to persecuting Native Americans, to treating women as second-class citizens.”

Meacham further writes: “If totalitarianism was the great problem of the 20th century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the 21st.”

He intuits, correctly I believe, that “extremism is a powerful alliance of fear and certitude; complexity and humility are its natural foes.”

And if ever there was a complex relationship in our history, and one greatly in need of not a little humility, it is the relationship of religion and government.

All of which is a long-winded way of pointing out that even more than 200 years ago, the question of religion’s role in U.S. government was being debated, a debate which has not yet been settled and will not be settled by Rep. Saccone’s resolution.

Speaking of which, Saccone’s statement in The Mercury talks a lot about how the founders would certainly endorse his “simple resolution” but fails to quote a single line from it.

You can read the entire text here. It’s not long.

And, in truth, I have little argument with the majority of its text – that is until we get to the final resolved clause, in which there is: “recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth (still historically true) and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures (italics mine).”

It is this last line that crosses a line and instead of simply recognizing the undeniable influence the Bible had on the formation of the nation, now takes a formal position that the government is calling on its citizens to study and apply the teachings of one religious book.

Will 2013 be the Year of the Koran in PA? Not Likely.
Were I convinced that Rep. Saccone would next year be calling for a “Year of the Koran,” followed by a “Year of the Tao-Te-Ching,” and then a “Year of the Veda,” I might be inclined to simply see this as a respectful recognition of the importance of religion.

But given Rep. Saccone’s sponsorship of House Bill 2029, which is similar to an anti-Sharia law law in Oklahoma that was recently struck down by a federal court, I think rather that instead, this is a way for Rep. Saccone to have the government of Pennsylvania place the Bible and Christianity on a higher plane than other religions.

I doubt you would find a founder who, no matter his private beliefs, would support that as an official government action.

And that is a dangerous precedent to let slip past us without notice, or, as Rep. Saccone and the leadership in the House did, slip into a stack of resolutions deemed “non-controversial.”

In fact the matter of the resolution’s passage has led to its own little controversy within the House itself. 

Also approved unanimously in the stack with the Year of the Bible were such constitutionally weighty resolutions as:

·  designating the week of Jan. 22 through 28, 2012, as "Nurse Anesthetists Week" in Pennsylvania.
·  designating the month of January 2012 as "Financial Aid Awareness Month" and commending the work of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and the Pennsylvania Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
·  recognizing the month of January 2012 as "Cervical Cancer Awareness Month" in Pennsylvania.
·  designating February 3, 2012, as "Wear Red for Women Day" in Pennsylvania.

Is this who you want telling you which religious books to emulate?
Now, some of the legislators, chiefly from Philadelphia, guilty of VWR (Voting Without Looking) want a “do-over,” not having noticed that they were taking a step closer to establishing a state religion.

Should we be surprised they voted without paying any attention?

Let’s leave that question unanswered while we ponder these questions:

·        Are the finances of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in such solid shape that we should spend time debating the separation of church and state?
·        Have the hundreds of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania, among the most in the nation, now been fixed so that we can spend time the separation of church and state?
·        Have we solved the problem of rising pension payments for state and education workers to the satisfaction of all so we can now spend time debating the separation of church and state?
·        Have the geniuses in Harrisburg finally solved the puzzle of regressive property taxes and figured out a fair and equitable way to fund public education in the Commonwealth (as the state Constitution requires) so that we can now spend time debating the separation of church and state?
·        Has the second largest legislature in the country figured out a way to cut its size and expenses, or even how to create legislative districts that cross fewer than five county borders so that we can we can now spend time debating the separation of church and state?
·        Have any of the dozens of other more immediate problems facing Pennsylvania, problems those legislators were elected to solve, been addressed to the satisfaction of the people who put them there to the point where we can waste what little time these people actually spend legislating (or getting anything done for that matter) on debating the separation of church and state?

I think if there were any position for which you argue universal support from the, it would be less talk about Bibles and more actual work on behalf of the people who elected you.

I put it to you that we would all be much more impressed with Rep. Saccone if he and his fellow House members would unanimously adopt a resolution declaring 2012 as “The Year of the Effective Legislature.”

Follow Evan Brandt on Twitter @PottstownNews

No comments:

Post a Comment