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Forrest Church Speaks on God and America in San Diego

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007 at 1:10 PM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Forrest Church, Unitarian-Universalist minister and son of the late Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), spoke October 4 at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in San Diego on the history of the relationship between church and state in the U.S. His message, surprising in front of a progressive audience, was that religion shouldn't dominate politics but it shouldn't be read out of the public sphere altogether either. Many progressive causes, including the abolition of slavery and the 1960's civil rights movement, were headed by religious leaders.

Forrest Church Speak...
church.a.jpg, image/jpeg, 600x879

Forrest Church Speaks on God and America in San Diego

Minister, Son of Late Senator, Corrects Misconceptions of U.S. History

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Descriptions of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. and their attitudes towards the proper role of religion in government usually fall into one of two opposing camps: those who argue that they assumed America would be a “Christian nation” and therefore Biblical morality should rule in this country; and those who fiercely resist any connection between church and state and argue the Founders wanted a “wall of separation” between them. Neither view is accurate, Forrest Church, Unitarian-Universalist minister in New York and son of the late Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), argued in a speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest October 4. According to Church, the arguments over the relationship between church and state are as old as the British presence in the New World and were fought in the late 18th and early 19th century as bitterly — and with both sides making many of the same points — as they are now.

“There were two tunes being sung at the outset of our republic, and those tunes came together, not always harmoniously,” Church explained. “The first theme came from the Puritans, who came to New England to create a pure Christian government. The divines who ran things believed that without a healthy respect for Christian logic, the government would fall apart because God would withdraw his support. The other theme was sounded in Enlightenment France, and that is the theme of ‘sacred liberty’ codified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The first group believed in one nation under God; the second in one nation with liberty and justice for all. These two themes are still in play today.”

As a shorthand way of designating these two views, Church cited the U.S. motto, E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one” — and called the Christian-government group “unum” because they emphasized Americans’ unity under God. He called the sacred-liberty group “pluribus” because they emphasized diversity and freedom of thought. What’s more, when he cited which Christian denominations were on which side in the early years after independence, he startled many in the audience because the alignments were almost opposite to the ones we know today. The New England denominations — Unitarians and Congregationalists — and the Episcopalians were in the forefront of the Christian-America unum group, Church explained, while the leaders of the pluribus individual-conscience, sacred-liberty, wall-of-separation group were the Baptists.

According to Church, the reason the Baptists were at the forefront of support for separation of church and state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was that, as a minority denomination, they believed “their liberties would be compromised” if church and state were united. “This made for some pretty strange bedfellows,” Church admitted. During George Washington’s presidency the church-state division, like many other issues that later divided the country, was kept relatively under wraps. Washington’s administration included both Alexander Hamilton, strong unum advocate of a “Christian America,” and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the leader of the separationist pluribus group.

Church described Washington himself as “a deeply moral man but not a religious one. He never mentioned Jesus, but he believed the government should be established on a moral platform. He was probably a deist, though he wasn’t intellectually curious enough about it to define himself that way, and he couldn’t stand any factionalization. … Washington believed so strongly that religion should be kept out of politics, he refused to accept petitions from religious groups who tried to influence public opinion — including the Quakers, who tried to get him to abolish slavery.”

During the question-and-answer period, one audience member challenged Church’s analysis of Washington, quoting the famous lines in his Farewell Address of 1796 (“which wasn’t a farewell and wasn’t an address,” he conceded): “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Church responded that Washington actually didn’t write most of his Farewell Address; Alexander Hamilton did, and it was Hamilton’s view of the proper relationship between religion, morality and government that was being expressed in that passage more than Washington’s own. According to Church, Washington was upset that Hamilton’s draft didn’t mention his proposal for a non-sectarian public university in the capital city — a radically separationist notion at a time when all U.S. colleges were owned by religious denominations and accepted students only from their own church — and where Hamilton’s draft had said flat-out that morality could not exist without religion, Washington edited the speech to add the qualification, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

Once Washington retired from the presidency in 1797 and died two years later, Church continued, all the factionalism that he had kept under wraps erupted, leading to the hotly contested 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the establishment of the two-party system that continues to dominate U.S. politics to this day. In this campaign, Adams’ party, the Federalists, called Jefferson “an infidel and a French toady who would turn the nation into ‘a morass of democracy,’” Church said. “The New England Congregationalists and Unitarians, who had nothing in common theologically, stayed together [in that campaign] because they overlooked their religious differences to fight for their Puritan heritage.”

Jefferson, Church added, didn’t help his cause any with his letters against “priestcraft” and his total support of the French Revolution even as it turned into the bloodbath of the Reign of Terror. Adams, Church said — drawing on the example of revolutionary France — “believed that if religion were not involved in government, the people would run amok. Jefferson, who was kind of an Enlightenment priest, was opposed to any involvement between church and state — not to protect the church from the state, but to protect the state from the church.”

Adams triggered the controversy, Church explained, in 1798 when, as part of his administration’s threat to go to war with France, he “declared a national fast day and used the language of Puritan New England” — specifically the idea that God was punishing the American people by withdrawing His protection from them and threatening them with attack from a foreign power. “France had become the enemy,” Church said. “There were riots in the streets of Philadelphia because the religious Left and outsiders were appalled that Adams was potentially establishing a Presbyterian government and a national prayer.” When Jefferson finally won the presidency in 1800, Church added, “the Unitarians, Congregationalists and Episcopalians vividly proclaimed the coming of Armageddon. The Baptists and Methodists were less forthcoming and the Catholics practically hailed the coming of the millennium.”

At the end of his presentation, Church gave a brief analysis of modern America’s religious and political alignments. He said that the reason the denominations of today have switched sides from their historical positions is that now “the mainline Christians — Episcopalians, liberal Presbyterians, Methodists — are marginalized. The Baptists and the Assemblies of God are now the religious insiders, and therefore they don’t fear a union of church and state the way their forbears did.” He also joked that the modern-day Unitarian-Universalist church — the one he preaches in in New York and the one he was speaking at in San Diego — “would just horrify the John Adams Unitarians of New England.”

Church warned against the tendency of modern-day progressives, viewing the radical religious Right in general and the Southern Baptist Convention in particular as bitter enemies of religious and social freedom, to read today’s history back into that of the country’s founding and assume that the New England unum group were the bad guys. He said that the “moral arguments” of the New Englanders and their churches “were stronger than the arsenal of the ‘sacred liberty’ party” — particularly on the issue that would lead to the next great ideological division in American politics: slavery.

According to Church, 75 percent of the members of the abolitionist movement in the first half of the 19th century were ministers from New England churches — while the Southerners who preached endlessly about individual rights and “sacred liberties” either owned slaves themselves or defended the right of others to do so. He argued that that’s no accident: if you are as doctrinaire on the subject of individual liberties as Jefferson was, there’s no moral framework on which to condemn someone else for owning slaves.

Asked if this analysis meant that he regarded secular people as “less moral” than religious believers, Church said, “No, of course not. It means that there is something to be said for someone’s vote being determined by moral principles.” Pointing out that religious leaders were in the forefront of abolition as well as the Prohibition movement, and more recently the movement against abortion and women’s right to reproductive choice, Church said, “You have to be aware of the nuances before making an absolute proscription” of religious involvement in politics. “Religion and politics should mix because, ideally, our religious values are our highest values and should influence our votes. But when church and state unite, there is the danger of whole groups of people being read out of the American covenant.”

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