We have tried to show in previous issues how an improper emphasis on security and conformity stifled this country for a generation and we have pointed to signs that suggest, to us, that initiative and the individual may soon again be receiving their proper due. But there has been another stifling influence in America—far more insidious—that has pervaded our culture since the nation’s beginnings, yet most of us are only vaguely aware of its continuing effect on every facet of our laws and our lives.
Puritanism—as stultifying to the mind of man as communism, or any other totalitarian concept—has been a part of the American culture since the country’s earliest settlers landed on Plymouth Rock, or thereabouts. For it matters little if a book is burned because it contains an unpopular political idea or an unpopular moral or religious one—the book has been burned just the same—and society is a little poorer for having lost perhaps just one small voice, one difference of opinion, one divergent thought or idea.
We must never forget that this democracy draws its matchless strength from the continuous free exchange of differing ideas and by keeping open the channels of communication for even the most unpopular points of view. Our founding fathers made the protection of every minority and every minority opinion of paramount importance in both our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They recognized that down through history great men and great ideas have been unpopular in their own time. Man learns slowly and cultural changes that might otherwise take years require generations while those that might take generations sometimes take centuries. Socrates, teacher of Plato, and recognized today as one of the great philosophers of history, was accused in his own time of being without fixed principles and sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock; Van Gogh, the brilliant and prolific impressionist, sold only four paintings during his lifetime, was driven mad by despair and killed himself; Galileo was twice tried by the Inquisition for daring to suggest that the earth revolves around the sun; Christ was nailed to the cross for teaching that man should love his fellow man.
Progress necessarily requires the exchange of outdated ideas for new and better ones. By keeping open all lines of communication in our culture, every new idea—no matter how seemingly perverse, improper or peculiar—has its opportunity to be considered, to be challenged, and ultimately to be accepted or rejected by society as a whole or by some small part of it. This is the important advantage that a free society has over a totalitarian, for in a free exchange of ideas, the best will ultimately win out. A dictatorship, with its pre-established dogma, is chained to the past; a free society may draw from past, present and the future.
If much of the foregoing—and of what follows—seem obvious, even elementary, it is necessary, we think, to clearly spell out those accepted beliefs that form the common ground from which our philosophy is derived. Too often the most readily acknowledged precepts become clichés to which mere lip service is paid while their real intent and significance are lost.
In America, we have built an entire nation—a social order, economy and government—on this concept of freedom. And whatever shortcomings it may seem to have are, we believe, less inherent in the ideal of a free society than they are the result of our failing to keep faith with that ideal. This is not to suggest that a nation as large and as complex as this one is capable of remaining free for all without some supervision and control. The economic system of free enterprise, for example, would not continue to function successfully without certain necessary checks and balances. But it is important for us to never lose sight of the primary aim and purpose of our government, which should be to achieve and perpetuate the maximum amount of freedom and opportunity possible for all of its citizens.
True freedom also includes freedom from ignorance, sickness, poverty and fear, without which the other freedoms would be meaningless. Our government is sometimes likened to a parent, but it must be careful not to become a too overly protective parent, whose guidance and control smother initiative and self-respect.
The individual remains the all important element in our society—the touchstone against which all else must be judged. The individual’s very individuality—his right to look, think and act as differently from his fellows as he chooses (without, of course, interfering with the similar rights of others)—supplies the divergent, interacting components that produce progress.
No group is necessarily more important than each individual member of the group. Group thought is not necessarily superior to individual thought and neither is group taste. It is our feeling, moreover, that actions taken to allegedly benefit one group or another—the taxpayer, the working man, the consumer, society, the nation—too often benefit almost no one. So-called “group good” is sometimes a vaguery that shields an activity that could not be justified on any individual basis.
All totalitarian concepts place a particular group—a race, a religion, a class, a country—ahead of the individual. Thus the political extremes of right and left—socialism and communism on the one hand and fascism and Nazism on the other—have more in common, each with the other, than they do with democracy, whose system of checks and balances places it at the political center. Einstein’s theory of curved space would seem to apply to the political universe as well as the physical one: The opposite extremes of political dogma eventually meet.
It is not enough to recognize that a nation is no more important than the sum of all of its people: a country is no more important than each of its citizens, taken singly, and apart from all the rest. For only through concern and respect for each member of society can the whole of society hope to achieve its ultimate potential.
Our founding fathers established protections for America’s individual citizens in both the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, assuring that this nation’s rule by the majority would always be tempered with a concern for the rights and privileges of the most insignificant of our minorities.
American jurisprudence is especially concerned with the protection of the individual, differing from much of Europe’s law in that a man must always be considered innocent until proven guilty; and further, that we would rather allow four guilty men go free than unjustly convict one who is innocent.
With such an acute awareness of the importance of protecting the rights and freedom of every individual in our society, it is interesting to see how and why many of these rights have been lost. Please do not consider us impious if we suggest it is American religion that is largely to blame.
Since many of the early settlers left Europe for the New World specifically because of religious persecution, it seems especially strange that they should adopt the very practices from which they had so recently fled. Nevertheless, this is precisely what they did.
Organized religion, as separated from any personal faith, has had a considerable civilizing influence upon mankind through all of history; it has fostered hope, charity and education. But bloody wars have also been fought because of it, and millions kept in abject poverty, tortured and executed in the vilest ways.
Presumably, a man’s religion should make him a better person—more tolerant, sympathetic and understanding towards his fellows. Too often organized religion has had the opposite effect, placing its emphasis on orthodoxy instead of understanding and emphasizing ritual and dogma rather than spiritual founding principles of faith and love. And make no mistake—the tyranny of man over his fellow man is just as great an evil when it is wielded in the name of God as in the name of the state.
The early Puritans who settled in America did not see their religion as simply one aspect of life, but as the whole of it. As Puritan leader Jonathan Edwards wrote in describing the Christian’s “practice of religion”: “It may be said, not only to be his business at certain seasons, the business of Sabbath days, or certain extraordinary times, or the business of a month, or a year, or seven years, or his business under certain circumstances; but the business of his life.” The attitude is shared by a great many religious people, of various faiths, today. And as far as it goes, it can hardly be criticized. But it must be recognized that in defining the “practice of religion” as a full-time, 24-hour-a-day proposition, religion pervades, directs and controls the totality of human life and thought. Religion may thus be used to justify the regulation of all of man’s activity—and indeed, it has been.
The early Puritan in America is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “a spiritual athlete, characterized by an intense zeal to reform, a zeal to order everything—personal life, family life, worship, church, business affairs, political affairs, even recreation—in the light of God’s demand upon him.” This religion required conformity and things went badly for those early Americans who proved unwilling to conform.
If authenticated cases of “witch burning” were relatively unknown in early America (compared to the thousands of religious executions in Europe by fire, drawing and quartering, boiling in oil, disembowelment and a great variety of other tortures too numerous to catalog here, throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), our Puritan forefathers had other subtler ways of keeping the citizens in line—public floggings, the stocks, the scarlet letter, the ducking stool and an occasional hanging—all for relatively minor infringements of the religious dicta of the time.
The Britannica further describes the daily routine of the Puritan as having involved “the keeping of a spiritual diary in which the events of the day were closely scrutinized and an accounting made of moral successes and failures as well as note being taken of the signal evidences of divine grace or displeasure that had been disclosed during the course of the day.” And if all this strikes the reader as more like Orwell’s 1984 than the beginnings of democracy in America, we can only add a solemn amen.
Freedom of and From Religion
When the leaders of the American Revolution sat down to draft the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they were keenly aware of the excesses that may be perpetuated in the name of the Almighty and the need for checks and balances if further abuses of power by either church or state were to be averted. John Cotton said: “Let all the world learn to give mortal man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will…. It is necessary that all power that is on earth be limited, church power or other…. It is counted a matter of danger to the state to limit prerogatives, but it is a further danger not to have them limited.”
Historians generally credit the reaction to this purityrannical society as a major factor in the early American denunciation of arbitrary power, the demand for liberty and development of our democracy. The founding fathers included necessary safeguards in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights specifically establishing religious freedom and the separation of church and state. To this end, they had a much earlier reference: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Luke, 20:25) But for all their precautions, we do not enjoy true religious freedom in America today. In a remarkable example of double-think, we’ve successfully sustained our freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.
There is a clear and quite significant distinction between these two aspects of religious freedom in a democratic society: Most of us are able to worship God in a manner that suits us and there is never a question or concern about governmental pressure or intervention; only an occasional offbeat cult is apt to draw down civil censure for its meetings (we haven’t heard of any Black Masses being broken up by the gendarmes lately, but there was a back-hills community holding services not long ago involving rattlesnakes that officials put a stop to after one of the faithful was bitten and died). Some of the present-day religious charlatans, who seem more interested in reaching into the pockets of the poor than in reaching heaven with their shorn flock, out-Gantry Elmer by holding their revival meetings on local radio and television, where the audiences can be counted in the hundreds of thousands (the offerings are taken by mail). Although these “services” are patently not as perilous as live serpents, they may provide some of us with cause to wonder whether there is actually too much freedom allowed in certain areas, in the name of religion.
By and large, the U.S. government goes out of its way to respect and protect the personal beliefs of its many religious minorities (and in America, all religious denominations are minorities): Though suicide is legally equated with murder in our society, a Christian Scientist is not forced to accept medicine or undergo surgery, even when a physician may know that without them he is going to die; nor does the government force an authentic conscientious objector to bear arms, even in wartime. Religious freedom is recognized as one of the most basic rights in our democracy, but we protect only one half of it.
The other half—freedom from religion—became an issue of considerable controversy recently in connection with a Supreme Court ruling against the reading of a state-prepared prayer at the beginning of daily classes in New York’s public schools. The decision was widely misunderstood and called irreligious in many quarters, including the floor of Congress, but it was actually just the opposite, being a reconfirmation by the High Court of our Constitution’s guarantees regarding the separation of church and state powers, which are as much to safeguard religion from encroachment by government, as to protect government from undue religious pressures.
It should be understood that when we refer to freedom from religion, we are not simply contemplating the problems that a publicly professed atheist or agnostic may encounter in being accepted in certain areas of our society today, whether or not his religious beliefs (or, more accurately, disbeliefs) would work against him in any attempt to hold public office, become a schoolteacher or receive a promotion in most major business firms; and a good deal more is involved than religious phrases on our federal currency and prayers in our legislative forums. Our concern is the extent to which religious beliefs and prejudices have infiltrated and influenced our laws—the men who enact them, execute them and judge by them.
Caesar and God
Just how important is true religious freedom and a total separation of a people’s church and state? Certainly this country was founded by men with a fundamental faith in God. References to Him are to be found throughout the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Why were these devout men so concerned, then, with keeping separate the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s?
Our founding fathers had the whole of European history, as well as early American Puritanism, to prove only that by keeping religion and government separate is it possible to keep each free. The extent to which this is true may be illustrated by considering the differences in our more fundamental religious and democratic convictions.
At the heart of the matter is religion’s belief in itself as an absolute: there are thousands of different organized religions throughout the world and each is convinced that its own basic beliefs are divinely inspired and true. So resolutely are these beliefs sometimes held that many of history’s bloodiest conflicts have been waged over them. But a free democracy draws its strength from the exchange of many divergent ideas and the recognition that the best of all concepts may give way to a better one tomorrow.
Religion is based upon faith; democracy is based upon reason. America’s religious heritage stresses selflessness, subservience to a greater Power and the paying of homage to Him in long-established, well-defined, well-organized ways; democracy teaches the importance of self, a belief in oneself and one’s own abilities. Religion teaches that man should live for others; our democracy’s free-enterprise system is based on the belief that the greatest good comes from men competing with one another. Religion offers a special blessing to the meek and the promise that they will inherit the earth; democracy requires that men speak out and be heard.
Most religion in America teaches that man is born with the stain of Original Sin upon him; a free democracy stands on the belief that man is born innocent and remains so until changed by society. Most organized religion in the U.S. is rooted in a tradition that links man’s body with evil, physical pleasures with sin and pits man’s mind and soul against the devil of the flesh; the principles underlying our democracy recognize no such conflict of the body, mind and soul. Religion tends to de-emphasize material things, discourage a concern over the acquisition of wealth, bless the poor and promise that they shall dwell with God in the kingdom of heaven; our free enterprise system is founded on the ideal that striving to materially better oneself is worthwhile and benefits not only the individual, but the world around him. Most religions are based upon the importance of the next world; democracy is based upon the importance of this one.
We trust that we have stated the contrasts fairly. Remember that we are referring here to the underlying Puritan religious heritage that runs through all American history (most modern-day U.S. religion, of whatever denomination, shares at least some of these viewpoints with Puritanism). Recognizing that we are necessarily oversimplifying matters a good deal, if you take exception to any of the above, it matters little, so long as we have made our overall point—that American religion and democratic government are built upon different premises, with a great many divergent, if not actually conflicting, ideas and ideals. That’s as it should be, of course, and no one is obliged to pick one over the other—only to recognize the necessity for keeping them separate. With a need for separation of church and state so fundamental to a free democratic society, with a spelling out of that need by our founding fathers in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, with the urging of the Holy Bible to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, how is it that Americans have still allowed religion to enter their government—their laws, their executive offices, their legislatures, their courtrooms?
Quite simply, because the traditions of our people opposed any such separation and traditions do not die easily; they cannot be killed by mere logic, whether voiced in the street or written into a constitution. Throughout European history there has been an intimate connection between religion and government. The Puritan faction that broke away from the Church of England introduced a number of reforms, but a separation of religion and law was not among them. Though early Americans cried out for freedom and hailed the new democracy, Puritanism was not dead. And because certain men continued to act as though church and state were not then, and from that time forward, to be wholly separate and distinct, they never truly have been.
Never on Sunday
How serious have been the results? Your point of view may depend upon how successful your own particular religion has been in affecting the laws of our land—unless you share, with us, a greater concern for a truly free society in which no legislation, no court decision, no governmental action is based upon religious influence, intimidation or prejudice.
All of America’s so-called Blue Laws have been religiously inspired. Every state in the Union except Alaska has its citizens controlled by some form of Sunday legislation. Recently a Pennsylvania justice of the peace convicted 225 people for engaging in “worldly work on Sunday”; included among his victims: stage actors and highway toll collectors. In New York City you can buy newspapers seven days a week (unless some irreligious union leader stops the presses), but you can purchase few of the items advertised therein on Sunday. Last year a Bronx motorist was arrested for changing his spark plugs on the wrong day. The Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled puzzlingly: “It does not follow that because a druggist sells soap on Sunday, a grocer has a constitutional right to do it, too.”
Sunday legislation was quite general in colonial times, Puritan Virginia having enacted such a law as early as 1629. In Connecticut at about the same time, colonists drew up a set of laws that made the Scriptures the supreme guide in civil as well as religious affairs; only approved church members were allowed in politics and in 1644 the general court decided that the “judicial laws of God as they were declared by Moses” should constitute a rule for all courts “till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.” The theocratic character of the government thus established is clearly revealed in the series of strict enactments and decisions which constituted the 45 “Blue Laws” listed by Reverend Samuel Peters in his General History of Connecticut, more than four fifths of which existed in some form throughout the New England colonies. They included the prohibition of trial by jury; married persons were required to live together or be imprisoned; a wife was considered good testimony against her husband; the penalty for adultery was death, and the same for conspiring against the jurisdiction; it was against the law for a woman to “kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day”; no person was permitted to “travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair or shave on the Sabbath day”; and there were heavy fines for “concealing or entertaining Quaker or other blasphemous heretics.”
Blue Laws of one sort or another are still enforced in most states. The Vermont Supreme Court has held that a person hunting on Sunday in violation of the law is liable in a civil action for any hurt that he may accidentally inflict upon a companion, even though he would not otherwise be legally held responsible. In some states, notably in New England, persons have been denied the right to damages for injuries sustained while traveling or working in violation of Sunday laws, on the theory that the offense was a contributing cause to the injury; in some states contracts made or to be performed on Sunday are expressly declared unenforceable, though they are otherwise valid. In Georgia it is against the law to swim on the Sabbath “within sight of a road which leads to a church”; in one Iowa town, it is against the law to go swimming in public at any time, any day, anywhere.
The validity of such laws has often been questioned, on the rather reasonable ground that they infringe Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, but generally without success (for our courts have shown the influence of religious dogma fully as much as our legislators). In 1858 the California Supreme Court held a Sunday observance law unconstitutional on the ground that it sought “to enforce, as a religious institution, the observance of a day held sacred by the followers of one faith,” but three years later it reversed its position.
Humming snatches of It’s a Blue World and Never on Sunday, we confirmed in a heavy volume of our trusty Encyclopaedia Britannica (which we keep close at hand for just such emergencies) that since that time, the courts have upheld such laws with what the Britannica terms “substantial unanimity…at first on frankly religious grounds but later on the ground that to prescribe periodic days of rest from customary labour is a legitimate exercise of the legislative power to provide for the physical and moral welfare of the community.” As neat a bit of double-talk as ever we’ve seen (for which we’ll blame the courts and not our encyclopedia), and pardon us if we’re a mite skeptical about a second set of reasons that is conveniently produced to justify an old opinion, when the first set of reasons begins to wear thin. If these Sunday laws were originally established for religious reasons and initially upheld by the courts for “frankly religious” reasons, let’s not try to pawn off another set of reasons on us today. If we’re not willing to permit full religious freedom to all of our citizens—freedom of and from religion—let’s at least have the gumption to admit it to one another.
In 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court listened to attorneys from Massachusetts, Maryland and Pennsylvania who argued that Blue Laws violated the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. A split decision went against them, thus increasing the likelihood of more, rather than less, Blue legislation across the country in the future.
Since we usually stay abed most Sundays anyway, it’s difficult to get too personally upset over laws concerning who can and cannot work on the seventh day; if God felt obliged to rest up after six days of toil, a mere mortal would probably be wise to do the same. But on the other hand, none of us spends his week putting together the heavens and the earth, which must have been pretty tiring work. Perhaps a highway toll taker can do whatever he wants seven days out of seven. But what really bugs us is the uneasy feeling that if we are able to justify one kind of Blue Law, what’s to stop someone from slipping in a few others on us again when nobody’s looking? No kiss from Mom on the Sabbath and a bullet in the head for adultery! And suppose a “Quaker or other blasphemous heretics” showed up at the Playboy Club some night and we got caught entertaining them?
Darwin and Prohibition
Puritan religious doctrine has infected our laws to a far greater degree than most of us probably realize. And consistent with what one might expect, when religion rather than reason dictates legislation and its adjudication, progress often becomes the victim.
In 1925 the state of Tennessee passed a religion-inspired anti-evolution law making it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals and all other public schools of the state, to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach that instead man has descended from a lower order of animals,” which resulted in the world famous Scopes Trial later that year in which high school biology teacher John Thomas Scopes was charged with teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in his classes. The case caused a sensation, because Christian Fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan went to Dayton, Tennessee, to assist the local prosecutor, and the American Civil Liberties Union took an interest in the case, persuading Clarence S. Darrow, the most famous criminal lawyer of his generation, to accept the role of chief counsel for the defense, assisted by Dudley Field Malone, a liberal Catholic and one of the great courtroom orators of the time, and by Arthur Garfield Hays, the outstanding civil liberties attorney. The rulings of the judge prevented any testing of the constitutionality of the law and Scopes was found guilty on a technicality, but Darrow managed to get Bryan on the stand and subjected him to a devastating cross-examination on his Fundamentalist attitude regarding the conflict between science and the Bible that made Bryan the laughingstock of the nation; many believe that the experience hastened his death, which occurred five days after the close of the trial. The defense appealed the case to the state supreme court which, in 1927, upheld the constitutionality of the law, while clearing Scopes on another technicality.
Perhaps the most hurtsome legislation ever effected in America was the Puritan-inspired 18th Amendment that in 1919 made Prohibition the law of the land. The Anti-Saloon leagues, the W.C.T.U. and other Christian temperance groups had been working toward this end for several decades and a number of states and local communities were voted dry years before national prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages took effect. Prohibition actually began as a Blue Law, when continuous agitation by the temperance societies resulted in a limited statewide prohibition by Indiana statute, in 1816, making the sale of liquor on Sunday illegal.
National Prohibition was a hotly debated moral issue, with strong and sincere feelings running high on both sides, but by World War I, when it came to a final vote, a considerable majority favored its passage and the absent soldier vote, if cast, would not have made any substantial difference at the polls.
The “Noble Experiment” undoubtedly had its benefits, but when weighed against the terrible negatives it produced, the deep social and economic consequences from which we have still not fully recovered as a nation, we have a dramatic lesson in the harm that the most sincerely motivated people can do when they try to legislate the private lives and morals of their fellow citizens. In the failure to enforce the unenforceable laws of Prohibition, there was a general breaking down of law and order: a tremendous illicit liquor traffic developed, putting huge sums of money in the hands of well-organized criminal gangs; public officials were corrupted to protect the illegal flow of alcohol; the general administration of justice was hampered by the overflowing courts and prisons cluttered with Prohibition cases; secret dens of vice, much more difficult to control, replaced the open saloons of yesteryear; and previously respectable, law-abiding citizens flaunted law enforcement.
In the Borah-Butler debate in Boston in 1927, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler argued: “The 18th Amendment must come out of the Constitution, because it does not belong there. It affronts and disfigures it. It contradicts every principle upon which the Constitution rests, and the difficulties, the embarrassments, the shocking scenes reported daily from every part of the land are the natural and necessary result of the inner contradiction that has been set up between the Constitution, as it was, and the 18th Amendment added to it in 1919….
"We talk of law enforcement. You cannot enforce conflicting laws—something must give way; and, when it is the 18th Amendment and the legislation based upon it on the one hand and the whole body of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the whole of political English and American history on the other, which do you suppose will have to give way? It must be this new and invading element in our public law.”
Repeal had become a national issue by the time of the presidential election of 1932 and national Prohibition came to an end in December of 1933. Its major scars are still evident, however—some 30 years later. The general disrespect which a great many Americans still have for their laws and for local law enforcement agents is the direct result of the lawlessness in which the ordinary citizen participated during Prohibition; and the well-organized criminal gangs that developed to supply the demand for illegal liquor used their organizations and the millions of dollars in profit they gained from that “Noble Experiment” to build an impregnable crime empire that law enforcement officers, at the federal, state and local levels, seem at a loss to cope with today.
Prohibition, in one form or another, still exists in many parts of these United States. Whatever benefit these communities—and some entire states—believe they are reaping as a result must be weighed against the very real damage to law, government and public morality that the daily flaunting of prohibition produces. The hypocrisy that accompanies such legislation is sometimes beyond belief, as governmental bodies execute and enforce laws while simultaneously evolving complicated systems for circumventing the laws’ intentions. And as we have already observed, when religion rather than reason dictates legislation, do not expect logic with your law: On Sunday, in the largest city in the land, it is perfectly permissible to drink in public in any of several thousand clubs or bars (after one p.m.), but you cannot purchase a packaged bottle of liquor in order to drink in the privacy of your own home.
In much of what we have written this month, it may have seemed that we have little regard for the religious side of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Life could be a very bleak and empty experience without faith and hope to fill the black void of the unknown.
What we oppose is any man’s attempt to force his faith upon others. Religion should be a personal matter between man and God; it has nothing to do with man’s relationship with government. They must be kept separate—totally separate—and apart. If they are not, man will no longer remain free.