Tuesday, August 17, 2010
James Madison said it would be better if we fought with ourselves.
In order to replace the centralized power of a king, emperor, or simple majority, Madison supported a system of warring factions. The irritating arguments on the TV and internet grow directly out of this idea. Because the writers of the Constitution built a system in which shifting partisanship replaced autocracy, we often find ourselves in rather Jerry Springer-like exchanges.
“These supporters of the Mosque are unAmerican! It's like the Nazis putting an ice cream parlor at Auschwitz!”
“Those who would deny the right of believers to build worship houses are unAmerican! How can anyone be so disgusting as to use this as a political weapon?”
“I don't know who my baby daddy is! And I don't care! I'm in love with my grandmother!”
The recent media kerfuffle over the so-called “Mosque at Ground Zero” affords the perfect cross section view of how the rich and lively politicization of our culture can unfortunately distort even our most simple values.
Madison's colleagues, the Constitutional Framers, made absolutely no bones about the importance of the separation between Church and State. These complicated men saw Tyranny (with a capital T) as the bane of civil stability, freedom, and growth. These people knew the Bible intimately; they also knew the writings of Locke and Rousseau. Almost all were churchgoers.
But they knew of the political obstacles of religion. The colonies represented an escape from religious intolerance and State-imposed beliefs. When Ben Franklin, that old charmer and partier, proposed that the Constitutional Convention should begin daily meetings with a prayer, the Framers voted it down. This isn't a legend. I saw and read Franklin's proposal, in his own handwriting, at the Library of Congress this past weekend.
(You have to go to the Library of Congress. It is so cool-- seriously, you will freak out. They have the most amazing stuff. Goosebumps, man. Not the book series-- I mean actual goosebumps on your arms. And neck.)
Wary of the monarchs and aristocracies of Old Europe, the Framers wrote and ratified a document that ensured that certain personal freedoms would be held as our most valuable. The First Amendment of that document identified the principal and preeminent of freedoms: liberty to think, believe, imagine, communicate, and protest.
The Framers sought no byzantine legal system of overseeing religion. They intended the government to simply stay out of personal spiritual business of the citizenry.
This separation between Church and State has provided no shortage of political division in our country-- and yet the most hardened partisans agree on the core idea. The government is to offer no special treatment or bigotry towards any religion. If one follows the civil laws of our country, then one can believe anything one wants.
Our government, therefore, may have no legal position on methods, or places, of worship other than on those that violate the law. It's astonishingly simple.
Those who call for the government to act on the “Mosque at Ground Zero” are, in effect, asking for the government to act in a “extra-Constitutional” manner. Keep this in mind the next time such a call comes from a voice from that also claims to support “smaller government.”
It's hard for me to imagine a better way for the “terrorists to win” than for us to depart from our most cherished values in the name of security or “sensitivity.” The reason “American values” infuriate the Islamic extremists is that, as the Framers knew, personal freedom dismantles the tools of tyranny. Freedom is contagious.
Bin-Laden has publicly decried the “godlessness” of America. His argument against the West is fundamentally religious in nature. He rallies extremists against the malevolent insensitivity of the Americans building military bases in Saudi Arabia. Al-Queda's stated goal is to expel American influences (bases, markets, churches, etc) from the sacred land of Islam.
How ironic that some in our culture would use the same argument to expel an Islamic prayer room from the sacred site of Ground Zero.
Conversely, how powerful for our country to remain steadfast to its Constitution, and the Church-State separation, even at our most sensitive and vulnerable underbelly.
To paraphrase Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and orchestrator of partisan bickering: may the better argument win.