By now, CounterPunch’s American readers, at least, are becoming familiar with the scandal at the Air Force Academy. Lt. General John Rosa has admitted that the institution is a pious madhouse. “I have problems in my cadet wing … I have issues in my staff, and I have issues in my faculty — and that’s my whole organization.”
His born-again No. 2 commander sent out emails promoing the National Day of Prayer. Evangelical cadets harass atheists & Jews. And chaplain MeLinda Morton was suddenly transferred to Japan after she denounced the fanatics.
Congressional Democrats naturally use this to hit at Bush. But party leaders relentlessly compete with the GOP for right-wing Christian votes. The party’s secularists, atheists, feminists, gays, scientists & such, & its Jewish contingent, will take the issue only so far. They want an ecumenical Academy, like the Army’s West Point, when the real 1st Amendment question is whether there should be any kind of official US government clergy?
There are several standards by which we may judge contemporary liberals. One tradition compares our creatures with the founders of their party. If we could scroll them up to our times, what would they be saying about the scandal?
In this case we don’t have to speculate. James Madison was the mainstay of the constitutional convention, which came up with Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” He authored the 1st Amendment, with its “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In retirement, post 1817, he wrote directly on military chaplains in his Detatched Memoranda.
If we list important documents in the history of religion, certainly Article VI & his 1st Amendment rank up there with the Bible & Luther’s 95 Thesis for social centrality. Given his authority, it would be thought that the memo would be on the bookshelf of every literate American. But it remains unknown to the great majority of voters, clergy, politicians, media pundits & lawyers.
This singular ignorance had an innocent enuf cause. In 1856, Congress authorized William Rives, Madison’s historian friend, to publish his papers. Eventually the memo was misplaced in Rives’ personal papers. It was recovered in 1946 by Elizabeth Fleet, working on a biography of Rives, & published in the 10/46 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly.
There is no doubt of its authenticity & it has been cited by the Supreme Court. But its discovery came just as Democrat Harry Truman was trying to build a world religious alliance against the atheist Soviet Union. Madison’s party & government paid not the slightest attention to the memo & went on doing Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad & Ganesh the elephant god’s sacred work.
Several pages deal with religion. Among other things, Madison asks, “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?” He answers his question:
“In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
“The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”
He had been against Congress appointing chaplains. But, now that it was done,
“Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [the law doesn’t care about minute things]: or to class it cum “maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura.” [with “the stains which either negligence has poured out or which human nature could hardly anticipate.”]
Then he takes his argument to a singularly contemporary conclusion. Read him & there is no doubt as to how he would solve the AF Academy’s problem. As Madison on separation of church & state is, as they say in show biz, a hard act to follow, I allow myself a preliminary note. Then readers can draw their own conclusions re Madison’s message for us & future generations.
The broad public’s notion of evolution goes upward & onward. The offspring of oceanic creatures eventually climb onto land, grow legs, learn to talk, write, until we get to the internet, etc. Progress. But if we use America’s greatest constitutionalist’s thinking as the classical standard, it is obvious that both of his creations, the United States & the Democratic Party, have degenerated to the point of no return. No Democrat, or Republican, for that matter, is going to get up in Congress & speak as he would speak. Indeed, unless we can generate public attention to his memo, no Congressional Democrat will even dare to quote it.
In biology, evolution has been, loosely, upward. But in politics evolution is usually downward.
Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. The object of this establishment is seducing; the motive to it is laudable. But is it not safer to adhere to a right principle, and trust to its consequences, than confide in the reasoning however specious in favor of a wrong one. Look thro’ the armies & navies of the world, and say whether in the appointment of their ministers of religion, the spiritual interest of the flocks or the temporal interest of the Shepherds, be most in view: whether here, as elsewhere the political care of religion is not a nominal more than a real aid. If the spirit of armies be devout, the spirit out of the armies will never be less so; and a failure of religious instruction &, exhortation from a voluntary source within or without, will rarely happen: if such be not the spirit of armies, the official services of their Teachers are not likely to produce it. It is more likely to flow from the labours of a spontaneous zeal. The armies of the Puritans had their appointed Chaplains; but without these there would have been no lack of public devotion in that devout age.
The case of navies with insulated crews may be less within the scope of these reflections. But it is not entirely so. The chance of a devout officer, might be of as much worth to religion, as the service of an ordinary chaplain. [were it admitted that religion has a real interest in the latter.] But we are always to keep in mind that it is safer to trust the consequences of a right principle, than reasonings in support of a bad one.
LENNI BRENNER is the editor of Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He also edited 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis.
Brenner can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.