Semonche - Religion and Constitutional Government

January 20, 2006

John Semonche
Religion & Constitutional Government in the United States: A Historical Overview with sources
Signal Books, Carrboro NC, 1986

Semonche's summary of origins of religious liberty
"The religious differences of the American people gave rise to a pluralist society. Any talk of a Protestant America not only neglects those who were not of that faith, but also obscures the vital and important differences among Protestants in colonial society. More than anything else, these differences ensured religious liberty in the new nation."1

Discussing the lack of a Quaker clause to the right to bear arms, in fact the deletion of such language before the amendment passed congress, Semonche comments "Apparently the idea that a person had a right to interpose his religion between himself and a civil obligation had little acceptance in American soceity in the late eighteenth century." 21

Jacob Henry, Speech in the North Carolina House of Delegates, 1809
NC constitution restricted officeholding to Protestants. Henry, a Jew, was elected. His election was challenged and challenger (who?) Tried to declare Henry's seat vacant. Henry responded with speech to House invoking the state's 1776 declaration of rights against the constitutional prohibition. Henry succeeded, and kept his seat. He makes the Jeffersonian argument that legislation only touches actions, not beliefs. He then argues that his religion teaches good beliefs, and, in my terms, promotes proper civic faith.

Begin Blockquote:
I certainly, Mr. Speaker, know not the deisgn of the Declaration of Rights made by te people of this State in the year 1776, if it was not to consecrate cerain great and fundamental rights and principles which even the Constitution cannot impair, . . . if, then, a belief in the Protestant religion is required by the Constitution, to qualify a man for a seat in this house, and such qualification is dispensed with by the Decalration of Rights, the provision of the Constitution must be altogether inoperative; as the language of the Bill of Rights is, "that all men hav ea natural and inalienable right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD according to the dictates oftheir own consciences." It is undoubtedly a natural right, and when it is declared to be an inalienable one by the people in their sovereign and original capacity, any attempt to alienate either by the Cosntitution or by law, must be vain and fruitless.
"It is difficult to conceive how such a provision crept into the Constitution, unless it is from the difficulty the human mid feels in suddenly emancipating itself from fetters by which it has long been enchained: . . .
If a man should hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, I do not hesitate to pronounce that he should be excluded from the public councils of the same; and I trust if I know myself, no one would be more ready to aid and assist than myself. But I should really be at a loss to specify any known religious principles which are thus dangerous. It is surely a question between man and his Maker, and requires more than human attributes to pronounce which of the numerous sects prevailing in the world is most acceptable to the Deity. If a man fulfills the duties of that religion, which his education of his conscience has pointed to [110] him as the true one, no merson, I hold, in this our land of liberty, as a right toa rraign him at the bar of any inquisition: and the day , I trust, has long passed, when principles merely sepculative were propagated byforce; when the sincere and pious were made victims and the light-minded bribed into hypocrites.
The purest homage man could render to the Almighty was the sacrifice of his passions and the performance of his duties. That the ruler of the universe would receive with equal benignity the various offerings of man's adoration, if they proceeded from the heart. Governments only concern the actions and conduct of man, and not his speculative notions. Who among us feels himself so exalted above his fellows as to have a right to dictate to them any mode of belief? Will you bind the conscience in chains, and fasten convictions upon the mind in spite of the conclusions of reason and of those ties and habitudes which are blended with every pulsation of the heart? Are you prepared to plunge atonce from the sublime heights of mroal legislation into the dark and gloomy caverns of superstitious ignorance? Will you drive from your shors and from the shelter of you constituion, all who do not lay their oblations on the same altar, observe the same rutual, and subscribe to the same dogmas? If so, which, among the various sects into which we are divided, shall be the favored one?
I should insult the understanding of this House to suppose it posible that they could ever assent to such absurdities; for all know that persecution in all its shapes and modifications, is contrary to the genious of our government and the spirit of our laws, and that it can never prduce any other efect than to render menn hypocrites or martyrs. . . .
Nothin is more easily demonstrated than that the conduct alone is the subject of human laws, and that man ought to suffer civil disqualification for what he does, and not for what he thinks. The midn can receive laws only from Him, of whose divine essence it is a portion; He alone can punish disobedience; for who else can know it smovement,s or estimate ther merits? The religion I rpofess,inculcates every duty which man oes to his fellow men; it enouns upon its votaries the practice of every virtue, and the detestation of every vice; it teaches them to hope for the favor of heaven exactly in proportion as their lives have been directed by just, honorable,and benevolent maxims. This, then, gentlement, is my creed, -- it was impressed upon my infant mind; it has been the director of my youth, the monitor of my manhood, and will, I trust, be the consolation of my old age. At any rate, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you cannot see antying in this Religion, to deprive me of my seat in this house. So far as related to my life and conduct, the examination of thsee I submit with cheerfulness to your candid and liberal construciton. What may be the religion of him who made this objection against me, or whether he has any religion or not I am unable to say. I have never considered it my duty to pry into the belief of other members of [111] this house. If their actions are upright and conduct just, the rest is for their own consideration, not for mine. I do not seek to make converts to my faith, whatever it may be esteemed in the eyes of my ofificous friend, nor do I exclude any one from my esteem or friendship, because he and I differ in that respect. The same charity, therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect, will be extended to myself, because in all things that relate to the State and to the duties of civil life, I am bound by the same obligations with my fellow-citizens, nor does any man subscribe more sincerely than myself to the maxim, "whatever ye would that men should do unto you do ye so even unto them, for such is the law and the prophets."
End blockquote, pp 109-111

Maryland's test act barred Jews from both the legislature and the legal profession. Campaign to overturn the test began 1797, did not succeed until 1826. Quotes Brackenridge speech on the Jew Bill, 1809. Not quoting because it was a losing bill.

Phoco 111-135
Some useful stuff, not quite worth commonplacing.

Posted by Red Ted at January 20, 2006 02:41 PM | TrackBack
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