Please Keep Your Dogma From Eating My Karma

The argument about the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the “separation of church and state” sparked by the Coons-O’Donnell debate has stuck with me, and I had a few more thoughts on the matter that I wanted to articulate here.

As a Medievalist, I studied the complex and often disastrous interactions between secular government and the Catholic Church. The historical context of those conflicts makes quite clear the danger inherent in mixing religion and government. The Founding Fathers of the United States were clearly aware of the struggles that occurred throughout Europe on this particular issue, especially given that  the initial impetus for many of the settlers of the American Colonies was a desire to freely practice their religion away from governmental interference.

In an attempt to defend Christine O’Donnell and her interpretation of the First Amendment, the Religious Right and their Tea Party allies have demonstrated precisely why the “separation of church and state” is such an important principle. Keep in mind that I write these words as a political independent who has equal disdain for both parties, but on this issue, the Left is correct, and it is disheartening to me that there are actually people who believe that we should be teaching religion in place of science in public schools. I believe in freedom of religion, but my belief in freedom of religion dictates that I have no business evangelizing to others about what they should believe. This is precisely why the separation of church and state is so important in the first place. It is a protection for everyone, not just government.

Religion is about belief, and when people believe in that which is not tangible and accept it as right, they become dogmatic. Dogma is antithetical to reasoned discussion and debate, and I fear for the future of this country if people truly don’t understand the danger of inviting religion into the execution of governmental functions. One would think that the historical record and the existence of countries like Iran – or Afghanistan under the Taliban – would be enough to show these people the fundamental necessity of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. They don’t get it because they chose to place their faith in a belief system and operate from the premise that they know the truth and can’t possibly be wrong. They assume that they can show everyone else the way, but that thought process is the path of tyranny and the long road to sectarian violence and demonizing of the other for daring to follow the “wrong path.” If it is appropriate to teach “Intelligent Design” (read Creationism) in public schools, then must we also teach the Hindu creation myth in order to demonstrate that we are not favoring the establishment of one religion over another as prescribed by the First Amendment of the Constitution? Would I be correct in insisting under these free-for-all rules that children learn about Odin and Yggdrasil as though Norse mythology offers the truth about how people ended up on this planet?

O’Donnell and her ilk know not what they ask because they can’t see beyond their own “truth.” Then again, they never bothered to question it to begin with, and that might be the saddest part of all. Did God give us the capacity for reason only so that we might abandon it in favor of dogma?

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are probably rolling over in their graves right now.

James Madison Says Christine O’Donnell is Wrong About the First Amendment

In a debate at the Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware on Tuesday, October 19th, Republican Senate Candidate from Delaware Christine O’Donnell questioned whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution in fact provides for the “separation of church and state.” In trying to be cute and score political points with the religious right, O’Donnell repeatedly asked her opponent, Chris Coons, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

The exact words “separation of church and state” do not in fact appear in the Constitution, but rather come from a letter Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut in 1802, in which he wrote, that there should be a “wall of separation between church and state.”

What the Establishment Clause does say is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” The contention of Ms. O’Donnell and those that agree with her is that the Establishment Clause does not in fact provide for “separation of church and state.” I find this argument when coming from people who call themselves “Originalists” and claim to believe that we should only pay attention to the intention of the words written by the Founding Fathers to be horribly disingenuous at best. Of late, I have come to view it in an even less favorable light; the claims of these “Originalists” are outright hypocritical, which I will go into a bit later.

Providing a slightly clearer picture of why the “Originalists” feel as they do is important for the greater context of this particular debate. Most of their arguments hinge on their belief that the application of the Establishment Clause to state governments brought about by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century is overreaching on the part of the court. They argue that individual states should not be subject to the First Amendment’s charge to the federal government and should instead be allowed to make these decisions for themselves. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the idea of the “unalienable” rights provided to citizens by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (of which the 1st Amendment is a part). If individual states could institute “state” religions, the rights of citizens in those states to the free exercise of religion would by definition by infringed upon.

Perhaps worse than the obvious conflict with the Bill of Rights is that the very authority to which these “Originalists” appeal disagrees with them. James Madison, the primary framer of the Constitution, makes very clear what the intent of the 1st Amendment Establishment clause is in many of his writings. As Madison wrote in a July 10th, 1822 letter to Edward Livingston, “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing (sic) that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Further, in an 1832 to letter to the Reverend Jasper Adams, Madison wrote, “I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”

Such quotes clear demonstrate how highly Madison valued the concept of separation between religious matters and secular government, and they are hardly unique quotes. It is a subject his correspondences touch on again and again.

The other problem with the desire to subvert the Establishment Clause that O’Donnell and those who feel as she does fail to realize is that the purpose of the idea of “separation of church and state” is as much to protect religion as it is to protect government. In a March 2, 1819 letter to Robert Walsh, Madison wrote “The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.”

The idea of a distinction between temporal and ecclesiastical power is an ancient one, going back at least to the Medieval period in which secular lords struggled with the priesthood over where power should rest. Certainly Madison and the other founding fathers were conscious of this historical context. As Madison wrote in an 1820 memo, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and & Gov’t in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”

O’Donnell’s smug attempt to catch her opponent in a mistake revealed her own ignorance of the historical context of the Establishment Clause, and she and those who think like her would do well to read some history and find out what the Founding Fathers actually thought. It is unnecessary to divine the intentions of Madison and the other framers when their own words so clearly reveal how they actually felt. No attempt to twist the semantics of the language in the Constitution will change that truth. I encourage everyone to track down some of Madison’s writings and investigate these issues for themselves.

You can watch the original exchange between Coons and O’Donnell at the Fame Appeal blog. Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center also wrote an enlightening piece for Yahoo! News that can be read here.

I Spy, You Spy

Well, recent news of the arrest by the United States government of 12 people accused of spying for Russia has to be one of the more surreal news moments of recent memory. This is the sort of thing you expect to read about in fiction or see on a television show of the scripted variety.

Emerging reports indicate that the accused spies hid the information they were sending in digital pictures. Apparently this sort of thing has been a fear of counter-intelligence types for quite awhile. In a way, it really is quite brilliant. Hiding messages in the digital code of a picture without altering the image itself allows only those who know there is something more too look for to find the information. As the linked news article points out, file sizes limit how much information can be transmitted this way, but it just goes to show that even with the Cold War a thing of the past, a spy’s work is never done.

Now where’s James Bond when we need him?

Uh Oh, Now Daddy is Mad . . .

Well, since I’ve been following the North Korea situation pretty closely, it seems appropriate to mention the latest developments, which may actually be a good sign.

North Korea has always counted on China to provide it protection from those “Horrible, Mean Western Aggressors,” and China has been all too willing to use North Korea as something of a buffer against interference – particularly from the United States – in continental Asia. Perhaps U.S. influence in Japan and the events of the Korean War hardened China’s position, and that is understandable on some level. Whatever the case, China has often served as the biggest obstacle to holding Kim Jong Il and North Korea responsible for their activities.

If China is truly willing to stand with the rest of the world in condemning North Korea for the craven torpedo attack on the South Korean ship, then perhaps progress can finally be made. Lets hope that these leaks about China’s willingness to accept the independent investigation’s conclusion that North Korea was in fact responsible is a sign that North Korea’s proverbial father, always overbearing and overprotective, is finally ready to punish his little boy for relentlessly pushing the buttons of all the other kids. Anyone for a spanking?

North Korea Takes Its Ball and Runs Home

North Korea is at it again. The annoying child that keeps pushing buttons now wants to play the offended and aggrieved party. It would almost be laughable if not for how dangerously unstable the country’s so-called leaders seem to be.

War is never a welcome prospect, but North Korea has now walked over a line that may lead to a very unfortunate conclusion. Much like the angry, petulant child who keeps lashing out until he gets put in his place, North Korea has decided to end the game and take its ball home while screaming about how much everyone else sucks even as the other kids look on in disbelief. Of course, if I were in charge in South Korea, I would tell North Korea, “Hey, you want to cut off communications with us? Go right ahead because I’d rather not talk to you anyway.” I mean, really, is it much of a threat when your worst enemy tells you, “I’m never going to talk to you again!” South Korea’s response should be, “Do you promise?”

Kim Jong Il and his backers long ago left reason behind, and soon enough South Korea and probably the rest of the world are going to have to make a decision about what can be tolerated and what must be punished. Maybe the time has come for the petulant child to get the spanking it needs. Let’s just all hope that the price for indulging North Korea this long does not come back to haunt us all.

You are worthless Alec Baldwin . . .

Looks like North Korea is making friends again, this time sinking a South Korean warship with a torpedo fired from one of their submarines.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is talking tough, saying, “We cannot allow this attack on South Korea to go unanswered by the international community. This will not be and cannot be business as usual. There must be an international, not just a regional, but an international response.”

Somewhere, Kim Jong Il is laughing even as his ministers threaten all-out war if anyone tries to hold North Korea responsible for what they did. So why would North Korea’s leader be laughing? The truth is that Kim Jong Il knows that the international community won’t do anything about it other than talk tough. How many times has North Korea provoked anger and gotten away without any real consequences? Why would they believe that this time is likely to be any different?

The thing is, Hillary is right, even though I don’t think we’ll see any action to back up those words. North Korea essentially committed an act of war and should be held responsible for what they did, but somehow I don’t see anything meaningful being done about it. All of that means of course that North Korea will continue to push buttons and provoke until there is no other option than full fledged war. If a child never learns the consequences of misbehavior, that child will continue to misbehave. North Korea is no different.