What about quotations that appear to oppose separation?
Copyright © 1996 by Tom Peters. Originally published on the Separation of Church and State Homepage.
As students of the separation debate quickly discover, the "quotation war" between accomodationists and separationists tends to produce a lot more heat than light. There are at least two reasons for this. First, most quotations are ripped out of the context of the documents from which they are quoted, which leads to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Second, it's easy to read too much into a quotation, especially if the quotation does not directly address the claim one is attempting to prove. The best historical studies on church/state separation take these issues into account when drawing conclusions from quotations; we hope we have done the same in this webpage.
Having said this, we want to argue that there are some systematic problems with the way many accomodationists use quotations. In particular, we believe that many of their quotations are not sufficient to establish their primary claim that the framers intended the Constitution to favor either Christianity or theism, or provide aid to religion. In what follows, we present some guidelines accomodationists should follow if they want to successfully use quotations to prove their points.
- Quote the framers, and not just famous early Americans: If you want to prove something about what the framers of the constitution believed, you have to quote the framers themselves, and not just famous Americans that lived around the turn of the 19th century. Many accomodationists, for example, are fond of quoting the famous lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster, who was a staunch proponent of Christian influence in government, but Webster played no role whatsoever in the formation of the Constitution (he did not even begin to practice law until 1805, 14 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights). Webster's opinions may have been well-articulated, but they are not the same as the views of the framers.
- Quote supporters of the Constitution, not detractors: If you want to find out how the Constitution was understood in 1787, quote people that supported the Constitution, and not those who thought the Constitution was evil. Patrick Henry, for example, made a number of statements suggesting that our nation was founded on belief in God, and that it was important to acknowledge God in civic affairs, but Henry lost the battle to put religion in the Constitution. More to the point, Henry was an anti-federalist, and vigorously opposed the Constitution when Virginia discussed ratification. Quoting Henry to prove things about the constitution is like quoting the chairman of the Republican National Committee to prove things about the platform of the Democratic party.
- Recognize that being sympathetic to religion is not the same as being sympathetic to accomodationism: While many of the framers were devoutly religious men, not all devoutly religious men were accomodationists. It is not sufficient to quote a framer saying that religion is good, or even that religion is important to government; one can believe these things and at the same time believe that the government has no business supporting religion. Jefferson, for example, believed that a generalized belief in a future state of rewards and punishments was important to maintain public morality, but he was staunchly opposed to government support of religion. If the sum of your case in favor of accomodationism is that the framers were religious people, you have no case in favor of accomodationism.
- States are not federal government: Accomodationists are fond of quoting state constitutions, state laws, and state practices in their efforts to support their claims about the federal government. But the First Amendment originally limited only Congress, not the states. State practices, in other words, tell us nothing about what is legal for the federal government. Jefferson, for example, made official declarations of days of prayer as Governor of Virginia, but refused to do the same as President on the grounds that the First Amendment limited him in ways that the Virginia State Constitution did not.
- Make sure you have the right time frame: Between 1781 and 1789 the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, which contained no provisions for religious liberty. During this time Congress acted in a variety of ways that might well have violated the First Amendment. But since the First Amendment was not ratified until 1791, these actions cannot be used to prove anything about that Amendment, or about the meaning of the Constitution, which was ratified in 1788 (the first Congress did not convene under the Constitution until 1789).
So what would a good accomodationist quote look like? Simply put, it would be an authentic quote from someone who was a framer of the Constitution, or someone who was qualified to express a learned opinion about the Constitution, that directly addresses the issue of federal power over religion under the Constitution and the First Amendment.
We think it's interesting that there are plenty of good quotations on the separationist side of this issue. Many framers were adamant that (in the words of Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina), "(n)o power is given to the general government to interfere with it [religion] at all. Any act of Congress on this subject would be an usurpation." Conversely, there is almost nothing that meet our standards on the accomodationist side. We think this discrepancy is both significant and telling.