Robert Meyer
Away with the manger!
By Robert Meyer
December 18, 2009

A frequent contributor to my local newspaper wrote a piece before Christmas urging that religious Nativity displays don't belong on government property. Since the piece was only superficially about the Nativity, and sought to expound on issues pertaining to The First Amendment, church/state separation, and claims about the religious nature of the Founders Fathers, I need to clear up some historical misconceptions before commenting on the Nativity itself.

While many people point out that the phrase "Separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution, the concept is certainly a hallmark of the American political system. The "Separation of church and state" is a biblical precept, the modern development of which, James Madison attributed heavily to Martin Luther's "Doctrine of Two Kingdoms" manifesto. It called for distinct jurisdictions of sovereignty between the spheres of church and state.

A working example would be that the state could not bind the liberty of conscience by fining people who didn't attend church, nor could the church impose civil justice by punishing law breakers.

Due to deficient education in civics and history, along with the proliferation of secularism in culture, a shift in perception has occurred replacing the "functional" understanding of church/state separation with an emphasis on "ideological" separation, a concept where no religious precepts are permitted to inform public policy. This was never an objective of the Founders. It essentially results in affirmative action for atheists.

An example of ideological separation might be that arguments opposed to abortion are invalid in the public square because the objections are rooted in religious convictions.

The understanding of church/state separation countenanced by militant secularists is contrary to the historical meaning of the First Amendment, but was unfortunately facilitated by the outworking of the 1947 Everson Supreme Court decision, and a 1954 change in the Internal Revenue Code limiting the tax exempt status of organized religious free speech.

The greatest legal scholar of the era, Joseph Story, commented on the intent of The First Amendment in his 1833 treatise...

"We are not to attribute this [1st Amendment] prohibition of a national religious establishment to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence, than the framers of the Constitution).... Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the Amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragements from the State.... An attempt to level all religions and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference would have created universal disapprobation if not universal indignation."

Historically, church and state separation had nothing to do with whether religious ideas should inform public policy, or whether religious organizations could voice opinions on political issues.

A sleight of hand by some commentators, is to habitually substitute the unique perspectives of Thomas Jefferson for those of "most of the Founders." It is odd that Jefferson is used to personify the meaning of the First Amendment to begin with, since he was serving an ambassadorship in France while the Constitution was being framed. Jefferson's famous phrase "wall of separation between church and state," was coined more than a decade later, and was extracted from the context of a private letter drafted to reassure a religious group from Connecticut that the federal government had no authority to encroach on their free exercise.

Jefferson elaborated on the meaning of the metaphor in his 1805 inaugural address...

"In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities.."

This explains why there is no mention of God in the Federal Constitution, but why politicians of the same ideological persuasion mentioned the Almighty in virtually all individual State Constitution Preambles. It is entirely related to the concept of "federalism," a functional separation of powers, in the governmental structure of authority, which Jefferson observed more strictly than his predecessors. In other words, "The Godless Constitution," was strictly political form, and had nothing to do with deism, godlessness, nor with the religious affiliations of the Framers, which mirrored the general population.

The eminent historian Perry Miller makes dubious the secularist claims that the Framers were primarily deists.

"Actually, European Deism was an exotic plant in America, which never struck roots in the soil. 'Rationalism' was never so widespread as liberal historians, or those fascinated by Jefferson, have imagined." Nature's Nation pp.110 (1967).

The problem with labeling the Founders as "deists," is that once deism is defined, it becomes nearly impossible to make the utterances and deeds of any Founder comport with that definition. The writer was oblivious to that difficulty.

The reason why nativity scenes were placed on public property, is because when the tradition started, it was never an issue germane to the application of the First Amendment.

Let's remember that the posture of The Bill of Rights limits the authority of the federal government, not the autonomy of churches or the prerogatives of religious people, nor originally the activities of local and state governments. At a time when the English language still was an effective communicator of specific ideas, reasonable people could see that a city council commemorating a religious tradition held by the majority of its constituents, was not tantamount to Congress making a law respecting establishment of religion. Ironically, following the writer's suggested policy of taxing churches who speak out on cultural issues, Congress would be doing exactly that.

There can be no doubt that Supreme Court decisions of recent decades have placed careful restrictions on what municipalities can place as Christmas displays — so much so they might be inclined to forget the matter entirely. It is also true that how our tax money is spent is an honest bone of contention for all citizens. But let's be honest here, can anyone really argue that placing a Nativity on city property has a greater negative affect on religious coercion than does a private citizen putting up the same display in their front yard on Main Street? If so, it is a greater violation of conscience than the government using the tax revenues of pro-life Christians to fund abortions as part of a health care bill? A Nativity on public property was tolerated as an act of civility only a generation ago, but has become the fodder for a constitutional grievance today.

It was evident that the writer was someone who wants to make a cottage industry out of grinding a Paul Bunyan-sized axe against Christianity. That "attitude" surfaced when the editorialist stated that if you lob The First Amendment at me, I will overhand-smash it back at you.

Is this statement reflective of someone who is an artisan of diplomacy and tolerance, or does it sound more like Mike Ditka gleefully extolling the grit of smash-mouth football?

I think militant secularists would do well to ask themselves what they really gain with all this. They may not see a manager scene on city property, but their legal efforts to expunge traditional displays at all costs, such as the litigation initiatives of groups like the FFRF, wind up making them look, petty, arrogant and boorish. Furthermore, the display of such intolerance runs counter to their claims that disbelief in the supernatural is evidence of critical thought and enlightenment.

Away with the manger! So what will it be next? Can you feel the gravity of that slippery slope yet? For those indifferent about the issue, the proverbial frog has slipped into the pot and the water is getting hotter by the minute.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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