Part 2 of this series (The Establishment Clause) can be found here.
Part 3 of this series (“Free Exercise”) can be found here.
We WANT a KING!
A few people from a very unique society centered in religion gathered and decided they didn’t like being unique.
They looked at their elderly leader and said one thing — “give us a king. We want a king – we want to be like everyone else around us.”
And, so, the small nation of Israel got what they wanted — but with a little warning from Samuel: “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses … others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day (I Samuel 8:11-18 NIV).”
Translation: “Look, you fools, wanting a king doesn’t mean you’ll be like everyone else, but once you give those earthly leaders power, you won’t quite get what you really want.”
Creating a flawless society
Every time I read that passage, I think, “what idiots these Israelites were. They had it good, but then decided they wanted to have the same earthly government everyone else had, and look where it got them — EVEN AFTER THEY WERE WARNED.”
But the other part of of me sees something else. Create a king, you give the king power. Give the king power, and the results will always turn into enslavement for you. These folks were warned that they’d become nothing more than tools of the government to achieve the king’s desires, and yet they went along with the ruse.
It still holds water today, and it amazes me how human government is seen — even by the most devoutly religious Christians — as the vehicle by which we will create a perfect society.
But flawed humans can never create the perfect society, and that’s the problem. We can’t today, nor will we ever.
Origins of religion and government
The United States is actually a unique society — and the American evangelical movement has unique roots. Both are founded on the idea that religious belief should be voluntary and personal. While Europeans were passing laws to “tolerate” Catholicism in Protestant countries (or vice-versa) and virtually every country had a state religion — Catholicism in much of the former Western Roman Empire, Anglicianism in England, Presbyterianism in Scotland, Lutheranism in Germany, Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe — there wasn’t much toleration for those who believed differently. Just ask the Anabaptists — whose peculiar beliefs were the one thing that could unite Catholics and Protestants.
Virtually every Western country — going back to the Greeks and Romans — had some form of official state religion, and some form of intolerance for those who refused to practice that religion.
We always hear the stories about how the Puritans came to America to practice religious freedom since their beliefs weren’t really tolerated in England. What we don’t often hear is how the Puritans really didn’t tolerate any deviation from those beliefs — they were trying to create a religious society. It didn’t turn out too well. Instead, much of the American evangelical movement can trace its roots to Roger Williams and the founding of the Baptist faith. Two of the centerpieces of the Baptist faith are that each congregation is essentially sovereign over itself (which has been taken to an even greater extreme in the non-denominational and Stone-Campbell movements), and that, because religious faith is voluntary, it should not be coerced by the state. There should be a separation of church and state in that the government should not be establishing one’s religion. Not only that, Williams recognized property rights and believed the Native Americans should be compensated for land lost to the new settlers. But to practice these new beliefs, Williams had to flee the Puritan colony and begin his own, what today is Rhode Island.
Not surprisingly, those beliefs fit well with the ethos of the new Americans, and we became a society of official tolerance of religious freedom — codified in the early state constitutions. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, the first words of the First Amendment applied the ideas nationally — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … “
Pretty simple. But it’s also one of the most frustratingly misunderstood phrases in our society today.
In Part 2, we’ll look at the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and its application.
In Part 3, we’ll look at the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and its application.