Founders Wouldn’t Have Targeted Mormons

Founders Wouldn’t Have Targeted Mormons

Column: Founders wouldn’t have targeted Mormons

USATODAY OPINION

On Religion
Faith. Religion. Spirituality. Meaning. In our ever-shrinking world, the tentacles of religion touch everything from governmental policy to individual morality to our basic social constructs. It affects the lives of people of great faith — or no faith at all. This series of weekly columns — launched in 2005 — seeks to illuminate the national conversation.

Fischer and Jeffress have urged their followersto refuse to support the candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), on the ground that his religion is in a pejorative sense a “cult.”

Jeffress argued that America was founded as “a Christian nation” and then defined Christianity in a very restrictive manner, claiming that the Founders embraced his brand of Christianity. Fischer went a step further, asserting that religious freedom, as conceived by the Founders, does not include “non-Christian religions” (i.e. religions different than his).

Here’s the problem: This principle of preference and exclusion was soundly rejected by the Founders.

Thanks to the efforts of the founding generation, Jeffress and Fischer are certainly free to act on their beliefs. They may not, however, claim support from the writers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights for their efforts to define Christianity restrictively and then call on their followers to cast their votes for a president who follows their brand of Christianity.

Their interpretation of the Founders’ vision is indefensible politically and theologically.

Faith of all stripes

The founding generation was made up of followers of the Church of England (Anglicans), Quakers, Catholics, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Jews, those of many other smaller faiths, and non-believers. The first three presidents espoused vastly differing brands of Christianity, ranging from the Anglicanism of George Washington to the Congregationalism of John and Abigail Adams, to a unique brand of “Christianity” on the part of Thomas Jefferson, a belief that largely centered on Jesus Christ as a great teacher and not a deity. Each could well question whether the others were true Christians, and all of them would see the Jeffress-Fischer brand of Christianity as a bit foreign, too.

The experience in post-revolutionary Virginia is particularly illustrative. As a young man, James Madison, the father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was appalled when members of the Anglican Church— claiming to be true Christians —persecuted and imprisoned Baptists and others for preaching without a license. The Anglicans claimed that the Baptist brand of Christianity was heresy. Madison responded by noting that this “diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business.”

Not long thereafter, the Anglicans, who were a majority of the electorate in Virginia sought, with the support of Patrick Henry, to pass legislation that would provide a special assessment (economic benefits) to support Christianity — by which they meant Anglicanism.

This effort understandably troubled Baptists, Presbyterians and others. The Assessment Bill was about to be adopted when Madison rose to oppose it. He obtained a reprieve, suggesting that the legislature first determine the will of the electorate. Petitions opposing the bill were circulated, including Madison’s thoughtful Memorial and Remonstrance, which is strong evidence of the prevailing view of the founding generation regarding religious liberty. The people of Virginia, including many Anglicans, signed the petitions, making it clear that they resoundingly opposed the principle of preference for a particular brand of Christianity.

After noting that “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties,” Madison wisely asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Madison might as well have been speaking to Fischer and Jeffress. He added that the bill “is itself a signal of persecution,” which “degrades from equal rank of citizens all those whose opinions in religion do not bend to those (who control the legislative process).” He closed his opposition by noting that such actions were harmful to the cause of Christianity because such a bill would discourage those of other faiths from coming to Virginia, where the example of true Christians acting privately might bring them into the light of Christianity.

A sacred right

A few years later, Madison led the effort to enshrine the right of religious conscience in the First Amendment. To Madison, this was the most sacred of all rights. For him, the First Amendment included the most significant principle claimed by the founding generation.

Surely, Fischer and Jeffress believe deeply in their brand of Christianity. They also, no doubt, believe that they should be free to urge their followers to eschew a candidate who does not follow their brand of Christianity. They have, however, failed to grasp the crowning principle of our Constitution — the freedom of conscience. They also seem to have forgotten how tenuous religious liberty is.

Before religious leaders in the 21st century declare a religious test for political purposes, they should remember Madison’s caution that their own brand of Christianity could, under such a principle, one day be disfavored in diabolical ways that will lead to persecution.

Rodney K. Smith is a First Amendment scholar and a distinguished professor law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

See USA Today online story here

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