I was relieved when I read the headline this week in the Oklahoman, our state’s largest newspaper. The U.S. Supreme Court has once again upheld the Constitution by announcing it will not review an August decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the Haskell County Courthouse lawn. The 10th Circuit Court in Denver had earlier ruled the 8-foot-tall stone monument’s placement on the courthouse lawn in 2004 is unconstitutional because it amounts to a government’s endorsement of religion.
The Supreme Court wisely affirmed a right decision of two lower courts. It did what it is charged to do; it upheld the guarantee of our Constitution that there must always be a formal distance between government and religion. The First Amendment is a command to the government to keep its hands off religion; neither aiding it nor hindering it. Jefferson and Madison knew what they were doing when they insisted on a separation clause in our government’s founding document. If the history of the world has done nothing else, it has clearly taught us that nearly as long as humans have been participating in religion, governments have either assumed the power to regulate, suppress, or foster it; or the authorities of religion have assumed the power to regulate their governments. Kings have sought to place curbs on the church’s influence in the hope of gaining more power for themselves. And popes have insisted that kings should be regarded as simply servants of the church. This back and forth struggle between church and state has been the bane of human progress for centuries.
Many folk like to think the Protestant Reformation reconciled the church-state issues of the Middle Ages. But make no mistake about this—Martin Luther did not believe in religious liberty. He may have sought the freedom to interpret the Bible differently than taught by the Catholic Church. But he also assumed that his own interpretation was the only correct one and persecuted those who disagreed. In England, Henry VIII may have disestablished Catholicism in England by setting up the Anglican Church, or Church of England; but everyone knows he did it not to promote religious freedom, but to allow him to divorce his wife and marry another in search of a male heir to England.
John Calvin may be best known for founding the puritan movement that first brought Protestantism to the American colonies; but he also forced the town council to swear an oath pledging to uphold his form of Christianity. He banned the celebration of Christmas and Easter, raided homes, banned books, and interrogated private citizens in order to stamp out his form of heresy.
We often think the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America for religious freedom. But we quickly forget that their form of religious freedom was meant only for themselves. They had absolutely no interest in promoting freedom of religion for anyone else. Once in the new world, they immediately set up harsh theocracies where every aspect of religious life was regulated and a state-imposed orthodoxy was strictly enforced.
Finally, a preacher named Roger Williams, who had been run out of Massachusetts almost immediately after he had arrived in Boston, came up with a sensible idea. He insisted that the state should have no business in enforcing orthodoxy of any kind. An individual’s understanding of religion and truth must come from within. He believed in total freedom of conscience. It was Williams who actually coined the phrase concerning the “wall of separation between church and state.” His treatise was in response to having been found guilty by a general court made up of Puritan leaders for “disseminating new and dangerous opinions”, and banishing him from the colony.
The point of this historical rambling is to show that religious liberty had existed nowhere in Europe, or even in Colonial America outside of Rhode Island prior to the establishment of our own Constitution. Citizens were regularly taxed to support religion. Laws required men to believe certain tenets of Christianity before they could hold public office. Blasphemy was a capital offense. It was this form of harshness and repression of civil rights that led Madison and Jefferson to advocate the saner principle of keeping religion and government from each other.
Today, the Religious Right, unable to find any support for their views in the historical record, simply invent a new “history” whenever they wish by selectively culling material from the writings, speeches, and the actions of the framers of our Constitution. As Scottish Rite Masons, we are well aware of this kind of tactic. Anti-Masons, made up mostly of the Religious Right, do the same thing when quoting Albert Pike.
But it’s a ploy easily uncovered by astute men.
Just because our constitutional delegates, all religious men, often made speeches outlining the importance of religion to good government in their discussions as framers of the constitution, this did not mean they were promoting a union of the two. Yes, they were devoutly religious men. Comments concerning their personal religious sentiments did exist, but these tell us only that they believed religion was necessary to the function of good government. That did not preclude them in any way from being advocates of church-state separation. Jefferson was firmly convinced that allowing religious leaders to entangle themselves with government would prove an obstacle to human progress and liberty. For our framers, the fundamental concern was in prohibiting “the clergy from getting themselves established by law and engrafted into the machinery of government as being the formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” (Jefferson).
As Scottish Rite Masons, if we are champions of anything, we are champions of religious freedom. We must agree with Jefferson that the best interest of human liberty and progress is served whenever a court decides against a church or any other religious entity or cause from having any legal authority or privilege whatsoever that might interfere with one person’s freedom of conscience in interpreting for himself the essential mandates of God. In a free country, this must always be the first rule of law.
This brings me back to the Haskell County courthouse lawn. The courts have wisely developed a three prong test for determining if the separation doctrine guaranteed us by the First Amendment is being infringed upon. In the case of the Ten Commandments, the three tests seem rather easy to decipher. Is it a religious monument? Is its effect primarily religious? Does placing it on government owned property constitute an entanglement of government in religious matters?
The answer to all three is obviously in the affirmative. Even if no one showed up when the monument was placed, two of the three tests were violated. When the public officials took formal action permitting the monument, the third test was met. Then, to add legal insult to injury, when the monument was dedicated, there were ministers present who spoke in behalf of its message. The message was religious, and the celebration created a religious effect. The fact the county commissioners allowed the monument to be erected on public grounds entangled them in the web of disregard for the public’s constitutional protection.
The bottom line is that the separation of church and state will not survive if not defended. It will not survive if people come to believe that the principle is not in the best interests of our nation, or that it is hostile to religion.
For those who understand the true history behind church-state separation and how the principle defends religious liberty, it is a ‘no-brainer’. We need only to look back over our shoulder to feel the persecution of the past. It is the awareness of such a history that made church-state separation an integral part of the Scottish Rite creed for two hundred years.
It could be our gift to the world if we brought it back into our Masonic consciousness, and became public spokesmen for its cause. When the public is educated, the separation clause can be defended and preserved in America’s courtrooms, schools, statehouses, and in Congress. But to not continue to do so, and even worse, by allowing the Religious Right to prevail in duping our public officials with their revisionist history, could prove disastrous for our country.
Nothing less than the future of religious freedom is at stake.