Friday, December 16, 2011

The New England Primer

or, "Things Aren't As Static As They May Seem."

I recently bought myself a copy of The New England Primer. It's a book that was widely used to teach reading and English comprehension in schools both public and private up to 100 years after the establishment of the US Constitution. Every page has a reference to God and/or Jesus. It is as much catechism as it is reading instruction.

We've spent a good deal of time and effort over the last 50 years attempting to purify ourselves of every vestige of religion in our governmental affairs. Los Angeles recently redesigned its official crest to remove a tiny cross that apparently stained the thing with subtle attempts to convert you to Christianity. "Separation of church and state" is invoked like a magical incantation whenever any tiny blot of faith is found in public places.

It was not always thus.

Reading The New England Primer, it is absolutely impossible to come to the conclusion that our current obsessive compulsive disorder for removing religious symbols has any basis whatsoever in the actual Constitution. The people who wrote it, debated it and signed it and then produced case law based upon it for 100 years allowed their children to be taught with this book. Unless you're going to make the case that they were too busy holding truths to be self-evident to notice that little Hezekiah or Constance were being instructed with a catechism book, there's no historical basis for our mania at all.

Instead, you pretty much have to make the argument that you believe the Constitution is a living document that must be reinterpreted by each generation, informed by the culture of that era.

If that's the case, what prevents us from turning around and going back to claiming that crosses here or there or Bible study in public schools is perfectly OK?


Secular Apostate said...

I learned to read sitting on my grandfather's lap. He read to me from the Little Golden Books and, especially, McGuffey's Readers, a classic textbook series used by public schools in the late 19th Century. An excerpt from the McGuffey's Third Reader:

1. When you rise in the morning, remember who kept you from danger during the night. Remember who watched over you while you slept, and whose sun shines around you, and gives you the sweet light of day.
2. Let God have the thanks of your heart, for his kindness and his care; and pray for his protection during the wakeful hours of day.
3. Remember that God made all creatures to be happy, and will do nothing that may prevent their being so, without good reason for it.
4. When you are at the table, do not eat in a greedy manner, like a pig. Eat quietly, and do not reach forth your hand for the food, but ask some one to help you.

I seem to have survived it.

Anonymous said...

The Bill of Rights didn't apply to State governments until 1868, States were well within their rights to mix religion and government until then.

K T Cat said...

The Bill of Rights. Yes, that must have been it. Can't you just see it? Speaker of the House, Charles Van Zandt pouring over The New England Primer and a tall stack of legal books and then turning to his aides in horror, saying: "By the power of reason, that's it! The theists plan on taking over the nation by converting each state individually and then creating their evil theocracy in the aggregate! Quick, there's not a moment to lose! We must make the Bill of Rights applicable to all states! It's a good thing they've only had 100 years to hatch their scheme. In another 100 or so, we'd have been done for!"

And from there it was a hop, skip and a jump to today where we've come to realize that we each have a peanut allergy to the cross and will swell up and die in a massive histamine reaction if we even see the thing in a public place.

Of course, it's entirely possible that at some time in the future, a Supreme Court, tired of the ACLU asking them to remove the letter "T" from the alphabet will finally tell them to put on their big boy pants and get over it.

secular apostate said...

The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment have nothing to do with it. The "wall of separation" has no basis in the Constitution and is an artifact taken from a letter written by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, who were a religious minority in CT. The current state of affairs dates back to 1947, viz., Everson v Bd. of Education, and was intended as a slap in the face for Catholic schools by the rabidly anti-Catholic bigot, Democrat, former Klansman, and Justice on the SCOTUS, Hugo Black.

K T Cat said...

Which brings me back to my original point. What judicial activism has given, it can also take away.

John Travolta said...

I say, hey, believe whatever you want. Just don't try to subsidize it with my tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

Well, Black ruled for Catholics, so I'm not sure what you mean there. The court ruled in favor of allowing compensation to parents for transporting their students to religious schools. Both the decision and the dissent mention the 14th:

"Prior to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment did not apply as a restraint against the states."

K T Cat said...

I say, hey, believe whatever you want. Just don't try to subsidize it with my tax dollars.

Now there's a hopeless goal.

See also: Warming, global.

K T Cat said...

Geeze, anon, it's right in the first paragraph on Wikipedia.

Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court which applied the religion clauses in the country's Bill of Rights to state as well as federal law. Prior to this decision the words, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," imposed limits on the federal government, while many states continued to grant certain religious denominations legislative or effective privileges. This was the first Supreme Court case incorporating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as binding upon the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision in Everson marked a turning point in the interpretation and application of disestablishment law in the modern era.

Here's a tidbit on Hugo Black:

Scholars and biographers have recently examined Black's religious views. Ball finds regarding the Klan that Black "sympathized with the group's economic, nativist, and anti-Catholic beliefs."[13] Newman says he "disliked the Catholic Church as an institution" and gave numerous anti-Catholic speeches in his 1926 election campaign to KKK meetings across Alabama.

SA is completely correct. A rabid anti-Catholic bigot, Democrat and Klan member created all new case law.

John Travolta said...

So would you similarly throw your hands up in frustrated resignation if a Muslim group somehow managed to require kids to say Islamic prayers in public schools at the taxpayer's expense?

Anonymous said...

Look, SA says:

"The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment have nothing to do with it."

Then you say he is right, and quote wikipedia as saying:

This was the first Supreme Court case incorporating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as binding upon the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But while Black applies that reasoning, you can read the decision and see he rules in favor of the busing payments, benefiting the Catholic Church. You can read the decision and dissent here:

Your argument that the founders thought it was ok, doesn't make sense, there were no restrictions on States and religion until well after the founders were out of government.

Doug Indeap said...

Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

While the First Amendment limited only the federal government, the Constitution was later amended to protect from infringement by states and their political subdivisions the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process, and equal protection of the laws. The courts naturally have looked to the Bill of Rights for the important rights thus protected by the 14th Amendment and have ruled that it effectively extends the First Amendment’s guarantees vis a vis the federal government to the states and their subdivisions. While the founders drafted the First Amendment to constrain the federal government, they certainly understood that later amendments could extend the Bill of Rights' constraints to state and local governments.

K T Cat said...

That must have been why the founders sent their kids to schools that taught reading via catechism books.

K T Cat said...

The folks whose kids used The New England Primer not only wrote the Constitution, but their contemporaries included the rabidly violent atheist Jacobins of revolutionary France. There's no question that many in the new America sympathized with the Jacobins, yet they didn't take to their fainting couches with the vapors every time they saw the G-word in a public place.

You can't say they didn't know the intent of the Founders because they were the Founders. You can't say they didn't understand atheism because a brother movement in a major country was infused with it. You can't say they didn't understand tyranny because they had just fought a war to get away from it.

They just had more tolerance than we do. There's no question that our current neurotic behavior is just that, current. It didn't come from the Founders and it isn't based in the Constitution. In part, it's the result of a decision of a Klansman. What can be created out of thin air can go away just as easily.

Doug Indeap said...

It is important to distinguish between the "public square" and "government" and between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

A word should be added about the commonly heard canard that this somehow is about political correctness or people easily offended. We’re not talking about the freedom of individuals to say or do something others find offensive; we have that freedom. We’re talking about the government weighing in to promote religion. Under our Constitution, our government has no business doing that--regardless of whether anyone is offended (and regardless of how many or few favor or disfavor any particular religion or religious event). While this is primarily a constitutional point, it is one that conservatives--small government conservatives--should appreciate from a political standpoint as well. While the First Amendment thus constrains government from promoting (or opposing) religion without regard to whether anyone is offended, a court may address the issue only in a suit by someone with "standing" (sufficient personal stake in a matter) to present the court with a "case or controversy"; in order to show such standing, a litigant may allege he is offended or otherwise harmed by the government's failure to follow the law. The question whether someone has standing to sue is separate from the question whether the government has violated the Constitution.

The KKK-anti-Catholic smear against Justice Black is sometimes offered as an explanation for his opinion in Everson v. Board of Education--even though nothing in his opinions remotely supports that claim, all nine justices agreed on the principle that the First Amendment called for separation of church and state (so it was hardly just Black's doing), and Black led the majority of five in holding that the principle did NOT preclude state funding of transportation of students to parochial schools.

K T Cat said...

Doug, you've offered absolutely no argument against the concept in the post. We didn't wet our pants over crosses on city crests in the past, but we do now and we claim there is some kind of Constitutional basis for it despite the authors of the thing having no such problems.

If you look at the litigants in most of these cases, you can see it's simply a pathological hatred of religion to which we're currently surrendering. Just as the current court system kneels before such creeps, a future one could tell them to sod off and get a freaking life.

K T Cat said...

The KKK-anti-Catholic smear against Justice Black

What smear? He was a klansman who raved against Catholics repeatedly in public speeches. Now we're supposed to think he had some kind of legal insight that his predecessors didn't with no influence from his deranged hatred? Please.

Doug Indeap said...

Without apparent irony or embarrassment, you say I have "offered absolutely no argument against the concept in the post." Am I to suppose that your "concept" is something other than what the arguments offered in my previous two comments directly addressed? In the hope of hitting the mark, I'll add:

James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

It is instructive to recall that the Constitution's separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a "disestablishment" political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term "antidisestablishmentarianism," which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

K T Cat said...

Umm, Madison's kids were taught with the New England Primer or something similar and he didn't have an aneurysm. We can't even have a cross out in the Mojave without thinking it's some kind of theist plot.

K T Cat said...

My point is that you are interpreting Madison in a way that he clearly did not since he didn't act upon it the same way we do. Your interpretation of his meaning cannot be more accurate than his own. Our current apoplexy over religious symbols and Bible study after school is nothing more than fashion. Fashions change.

Doug Indeap said...

I didn't "interpret" Madison. Rather, I quoted him. He said that Congress's appointment of chaplains for the army and navy and the houses of Congress and the President's issuance of thanksgiving proclamations were contrary to the Constitution's principle of freedom of religion. During his presidency, Madison also vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes.

As for Madison's view of children being taught with the New England Primer, I do not know. Important for our present purposes, though, is that any such teaching would not have been conducted by a school run by the federal government, so Madison's understanding of the constitutional separation of church and state would not have played any part.

K T Cat said...

As for Madison's view of children being taught with the New England Primer, I do not know.

But you do know or you certainly can infer from his behavior. While he didn't want Federal money spent building churches, he wasn't running about hollering about crosses on public land. Face it, the Founding Fathers were a lot more relaxed.