By Brent Buttler – In these days in which people’s rights seem up for grabs there is a tendency to wish we could go back to the good old days when people had more freedom to live as they chose to live. However, upon further research I have discovered that people’s freedoms have been eroding away for quite some time.
Some time ago I picked up a book at a Christian book store entitled The Rights of the People, a book on the subject of religious liberty written in the late nineteenth century and reprinted in 1998. As I have been making my way through it I have been impressed by the depth of thought of it’s author, Alonzo T. Jones.
The most recent chapter I have read is entitled “Religious Right Invaded” in which Jones explains how despite the tireless efforts of the founders of this country to separate religion from government (which he maps out in the previous chapter) that in such areas the nation has gone backwards. He went so far to state that there has been “a counter-revolution”. He stated that this counter-revolution was accomplished and consummated in 1892 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).
As is often the case (no pun intended), this decision came into being as a result of a challenge to an existing law. In 1887 Congress passed a law that forbade any alien to come to the U.S. under contract to perform any kind of labor. The reason for this law was that many corporations were going to Europe and finding people to come here and work. The company would pay their way, and because of this they required the laborers to work for next to nothing. This was depreciating the amount Americans could get paid for their labor, so Congress passed a law stating:
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that from and after the passage of this act it shall be unlawful for any person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever, to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration, of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States, its territories, or the District of Columbia under contract or agreement, parol or special, express or implied, made previous to the importation or migration of such alien or aliens, foreigner or foreigners, to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States, its territories, or the District of Columbia.”
A problem arose when Trinity Church Corporation employed a preacher in England to come to the States and preach for them. This act was seen as a violation of the aforementioned law and the U.S District Attorney prosecuted the church. The U.S. Circuit Court decided that the church was guilty. Naturally, there was an appeal taken to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the decision on the grounds that the term “laborer” or “laborer or service” was intended to refer to manual labor, not a professional service. All the Supreme Court had to do was reverse the decision on those grounds, but they went above and beyond what was necessary, and that is where all the troubles began.
The Supreme Court stated, “But, beyond all these matters, no purpose of action against religion can be imputed to any legislation, state or national, because this is a religious people. This is historically true.” Having made such a statement they then had to back it up, and by so doing started down a very slippery slope. For not only were the people of this nation “religious”, but they were also “Christian”. Jones stated in a somewhat satirical tone that the people therefore are now all Christians regardless of whether they were Jews or non-believers because the highest court in the land declared them so. He then states that the very absurdity of the suggestion only demonstrates that the court should have nothing to do with such manners. He continues by stating that people are not made religious by law, judicial decision, nor historical precedent, which brings us to the historical “support” the Supreme Court gave to show that the people of the U.S. are indeed a religious people.
Jones stated that the historical reasons given are at best suspect and at worst complete misinterpretations of the original statements. The first historical reasons given were from European nations (i.e. Spain and England). Jones points out that the Spanish rulers (Ferdinand & Isabella) who commissioned Columbus were in fact the same rulers who established the Spanish Inquisition. To say that the language of these rulers has the same meaning as the U.S. Constitution takes quite a bit of stretching of the imagination. The statements regarding the British monarchy would have quite a bit more weight if in fact the U.S. was still under British rule, but it most definitely is not subject to British sovereignty.
There are many other historical reasons given, and Jones takes time to refute them all, but this is beyond the scope of this post. I will however touch on the reason for which Jones saves his strongest language, the ruling declares that the United States Constitution reaffirms the thought that this nation is a religious nation. To this Jones states, “To say it is absurd is not enough, it is simply preposterous.” He goes on to write that there is another consideration that magnifies that one, namely the fact that the court leaves out Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington from the place where they rightly belong, and drags “Ferdinand, Isabella and Elizabeth into the place where they do not and cannot by any shadow of right belong[.]”
There is much more but Jones sums the entire ruling in this way.
“The United States . . . was turned from the ‘new order of things’ to which it was committed by our revolutionary fathers, and to which it stands pledged by the great seal of the government itself, and was thrown into the evil tide of the old order of things. And thus this enlightened nation, the example and glory of the world, was caused to assume the place and the prerogatives of the governments of the Middle Ages in embodying in law the dogmas and definitions of the theologians, and executing the arbitrary and despotic will of the church.”
So while it is nice to wistfully look back at times gone by and wish that things were like they used to be, it is important to realize that even in the good old days the situation was not as rosy as we thought it was.
Brent Buttler, who earned his Masters of Divinity degree at Andrews University, originally published this essay on his blog, Educational Litter. Buttler describes himself as “a mid-western transplant in a western state who is getting used to winters without snow, and the fact that practically everything is east of where I live.”