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Phydeaux Speaks
April 2001

Religion's role in US history

Let's talk about religion, and the role it has played in American history. As anyone who attended elementary school in America knows, many of the early settlers in what would become the United States came here specifically to escape religious persecutions. Pilgrims, Huegenots, Moravians, and many others crossed the Atlantic to the Colonies because they were shunned and persecuted as minorities in their European homelands.

Many of the Founding Fathers of the Second Continental Congress were part of a religious sect known as Deists, who were a product of the Enlightenment and believed that once God created thje universe, He interfered with it no more and moved on to other endeavors, leaving us as sole deciders of our own fate. Naturally, then, they were disinclined to support any one religion, and indeed, made no specific mention of religion in the original Constitution.

It was during the debates in the inividual state assemblies, regarding ratification of the constitution, that the Framers began considering the issue of religion. These men had centuries of religious history to consider and they chose to do so. From their Enlightened viewpoint, they saw the excesses of the Catholic Church, both before and after Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the door, including the pinnacle of Christianity, the Spanish Inquisition. Closer in time, and to home, they looked back on the Salem Witch trials of 1692, where twenty people were put to death as witches (most having been accused by jealous neighbors who were settling old grudges). They had, for the most part, lived through the Great Protestant Awakening of the 1740s, which led to a more liberalized outlook on religion throughout the Colonies, especially in the middle and lower classes (meaning the populous colonies of New York and Virginia). This outlook was somewhat frightening to the Framers, who were, for the most part, wealthy merchants from the industrialized North and wealthy, slaveholding plantation owners from the agrarian South, and were vastly outnumered by the middle and lower classes. Alexander Hamilton had even proposed, on one occasion, that the upper class be granted a "distinct prominent share of the government", similar to the House of Lords in the British Parliament. This was rejected out of fear of estblishing a new monarchy, so other, less obvious methods had to be considered for controlling the uneducated masses, who, it was believed, didn't have the leisure time that was required to allow one to think about and make informed decisions regarding government.

And so, there they were, drafting what would become known as the Bill of Rights, which was based on England's older document (not all things British were bad), but was broader in scope and both more and less changeable than the Brits' version. After much debate, these men decided to place first and foremost in these amendments a provision separating Church and State. This amendment also guaranteed, among other things, the freedom to worship as each person saw fit.

In this way, the Framers were able to both protect minorities, of which they themselves were one, and "throw a bone" to the masses by allowing them to worship, assemble and speak however they wanted. The Framers were masterful at placating the masses in their new document, which lulled those same masses (and continues to do so today) into believing they had more power than they actually did.

Which brings us to the present, and the announcement by our Supreme-Court-elected President, who has decided that he has the power to overrule the Constitution and will have his Administration dole out money to "faith-based" help agencies. Let me state my position regarding these groups. They -- and as a local example let us use Asheville - Buncombe County Christian Ministries, or ABCCM -- perform an important and beneficial role in localities all over America, helping those who have "fallen through the cracks" of society. The folks who work at ABCCM, and those who support the program through their donations, are living up to the literal translation of "christian" -- they are being Christ-like, at least in this aspect of their lives.

I do not object to these organizations. In fact, I am a supporter and believe that they deserve and can use every penny. The problem is having public funds, in the form of Federal Grants, being given to groups that do not represent all Americans equally. All of these faith-based agencies are just that -- based on faith, a belief in a greater power (by whatever name). Being faith-based, they cannot help but to follow the tenets of their faithes, and perhaps a non-Christian might be less likely to turn to ABCCM for help than would someone who was raised in the Southern Baptist Church (for instance). Both Moslems and Christians have, according to the First Amendment, the right to believe whatever they want. How, then, is the Federal Government to decide which faith-based groups are to receive funding? How can we be assured of fairness in the handing out of money? How can we truly even expect a government employee, who is most likely associated ith a particular religion, to remain objective when deciding which groups receive money? A person can't help but be subjective; to be otherwise would deny the sense of self.

I personally believe that the govenment itself can aid the needy directly, but I can also see the viewpoint wherein smaller government is better government, and that these faith-based groups are in a better position to help inasmuch as they are already in place and locally operated. Perhaps we could try to make the proposed tax cuts payable directly to the individual taxpayers' faith-based organization of choice.

Well, I can only hope that President Dubya will be intellectuable about this very serious issue.

See ya.

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