By Craig Tally
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Regardless of our education and the number of degrees accumulated, much of American wisdom comes from atop a tractor, or behind a plow pulled by a mule.
One such American beatitude is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is precisely my response to the talk today about freedom of religion and the relationship between church and state. We are as free today as we ever were to allow our faith to dictate how we live.
Between the years 1787 and 1800, our young republic was embroiled in a very intense debate over the relationship of government to religion and the church. We were knee-deep in the writing of a constitution, and the topic of religious freedom took center stage. Through trial and error, discouragement, and deep thinking, we tackled this issue.
If you want to get a feel for what it must have been like during those days, consider for a moment our current debate over health care. Today, the conversation on health care grows loud, emotional, frustrating and sometimes unkind.
Back then, the conversation on religious freedom and church-state was equally loud, emotional, frustrating and sometimes unkind.
The most ironic similarity between the two debates is the role of Massachusetts, which was then a Christian state for a relatively short span of time Ñ its constitution labeled blasphemy against God and Jesus Christ a crime, punishable by law. Today, as we contest the issue of health care, Massachusetts once again stands uniquely as the only state with some form of mandatory health insurance.
Philadelphia, led primarily by Ben Franklin, experimented with the strictest expression of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Pennsylvania’s constitution was so strict that, in today’s terms, there could not have been prayers at a public school graduation or a public display of the Ten Commandments. Generally, Franklin believed that good religion needed no governmental support in order to flourish.
Virginia went through a long and very heated debate between two of the state’s well-known sons, James Madison and Patrick Henry. The Revolutionary War had inflicted heavy devastation. Churches which had been burned to the ground still lay in the ashes.
Ministers were leaving the ministry because they could not support their families with the amount of pay churches could afford. Church attendance was in steep decline. Immorality, as Patrick Henry saw it, was rising as spirituality was declining. Sound familiar? Henry’s answer was for the state to step in and help.
He proposed that a portion of taxes be given to churches and denominations. Taxpayers could decide which church or which denomination would receive the support. These funds could be used to rebuild structures or to support a declining clergy. Henry viewed this as a support of religion rather than an establishment of a religion.
Madison, on the other hand, believed government involvement weakens religion. Madison’s view eventually prevailed. For nearly two decades our nation struggled. Good, passionate, highly talented people with brilliant minds pored over these issues. It is a credit to their statesmanship that we suffered no long-term crippling effect.
Out of this epic struggle came two foundational points that have served us very well: Article VI, clause 3 of the Constitution, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” and the initial portion of the first amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So, until I hear a compelling reason to reconsider what was given to us, I say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org