Saturday, August 15, 2015

Who Won the Battle Over the Church-State Wall of Separation in 1832?

by Gary Berg-Cross

As we advance (or is it retreat?) into the primary season we are likely to see a “faux pas” of wedge issues as part of the cultural wars that pols use.  Issues about religious beliefs and the separation of church and state context are type of these. Examples include lingering issues over religious exemptions to the Affordable Health Care Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act but new ones continue to pop up.  

A recent one concerned a family bakery owned by a Christian who refused to make wedding cakes for homosexual couples. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that he can’t refuse them. The baker was on Fox News' "The Kelly File" to present his point of view and a counter view was argued by Rob Boston.  You can see the snippet at:

A sad aspect of contemporary life is that our political and judicial systems are quite damaged and sometimes sweep things under the rug rather than addressing challenges.

I happen to be reading Jon Meacham’s American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House ( a free google books version is available.) which provides a view of when a wedge issue was dealt with pretty directly by populist, 7th president Jackson rebutting early attempt by Evangelicals to break through the wall of separation by inserting prayer as a wedge issue into the political process.

Meachen notes (see also a related article) that on religion Andrew Jackson was a surprising figure in American life. While respected the religious aspect of life he refused to formally join the Presbyterian church while in public life.  He thought it would be seen as craven to wave one’s religion at people. And while grew more faithful as he aged  presidentially, as far as politics he was essentially Jeffersonian on church and state, endorsing Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” He did so partly because he believed the church could be corrupted by the state and certainly in part because he could see it corrupting politics in his own time.

Jackson did have real battles with the clergy on moral issues and their calls for the formation of what was to be called the “Christian party in politics.” Jackson was a political enemy of the Evangelical Protestants of the day, who denounced his policies and supported his opposition - the Whig Party and Henry Clay. In the midst of these cultural wars political
opponents like Clay counted  on the Evangelical vote to defeat Jackson in the election year  of 1832 when Jackson ran for a 2nd term.  And a cholera outbreak (natural event but looked on as divine punishment by some) provided an  issue –should the Federal government intervene in a terrible cholera epidemic by appealing to prayer?  Jackson refused to endorse legislation setting up a national day of prayer to address the cholera outbreak.

As discussed by Meachem, Jackson was called on by members of Congress along with “influential” religious leaders (they of the 2nd Great Awakening) to call for a national day of prayer and fasting in response to a cholera epidemic. It does harken back to an era when infections were not understood and religious tradition dictated appeals to divine power to heal what doctors could not. Cholera was perceived, sort of like Hurricane Katrina to some, as divine retribution among many pious evangelicals.  To them prayer was a necessary as part of the remedy.

In a word Jackson refused (and prevailed).  To be sure he softening the argument by not challenging the efficacy of prayer. Indeed he could say that hoped “that our country may be preserved from the attacks of pestilence....  

But he opposed government participation in something that should be up to individual conscience and not act for government.  For to make the federal government involved would be, he said:

“While I am constrained to decline the designation of any period or mode as proper for the public manifestation of this reliance. I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President “
and he feared that this religious encroachment could:
“disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.”

It might not be Supreme Court law, but it is historical precedent that contemporary, populist pols might look to: avoid craven responses and be guided by constitutional limits and founder wisdom to handle these type of wedge issues.

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