The American Family Association (AFA), identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the folks who paid for Rick Perry’s dominionist prayer-fast in Houston on August 6, has decided that it’s time to point out that Bryan Fischer doesn’t speak for them, even though he is their Director of Issues Analysis. It’s not that they haven’t said this before, pointing out that his blog is his own “opinion” but now they’ve decided to make that point more more clearly.
The point of contention is that Fischer has said repeatedly that the First Amendment applies only to Christians. The new fundamentalist narrative is that the First Amendment in fact established Christianity as the new nation’s official religion, even though the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Fischer: “Islam has no fundamental First Amendment claims, for the simple reason that it was not written to protect the religion of Islam. Islam is entitled only to the religious liberty we extend to it out of courtesy. While there certainly ought to be a presumption of religious liberty for non-Christian religious traditions in America, the Founders were not writing a suicide pact when they wrote the First Amendment.”
Naturally, no fundamentalist is going to get upset about the exclusion of Islam, but when you start to exclude everyone but Christians, people get nervous.
Fischer: “Counterfeit religions, alternative religions to Christianity have no First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.”
Fischer finally had gone far enough to provoke his employer to publicly distance itself from him:
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR ALL
An American Family Association Policy Statement
The American Family Association celebrates Religious Freedom for all people and for all beliefs as one of the foundational values that make the United States of America a great nation.
America’s Founders disagreed how broadly the First Amendment extended Freedom of Religion. Since James Madison, known as the Father of the Bill of Rights, insured that the Congressional debates over the Bill of Rights were conducted in secret, Americans must look to later sources to understand the positions taken by their Founders. Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, whom Madison appointed to the Supreme Court and who later founded Harvard Law School, openly debated over the place of Christianity in American law. Jefferson advocated a broad view that that all religions, not merely variations of Christianity, were to be protected. In his autobiography Jefferson wrote:
[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom… was finally passed,… a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’ The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.
Joseph Story stated a contradictory view in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States:
The real object of the [First] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
Jefferson’s position has ultimately prevailed; under American law all religions enjoy freedom from government interference. However Joseph Story’s view continues to have proponents, including Bryan Fischer, one of American Family Radio’s talk show hosts. However, the American Family Association (“AFA”) officially sides with Jefferson on this question. AFA is confident that the truth of Christianity will prevail whenever it is allowed to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas.
The AFA sounds very reasonable, don’t they? But they leave out a few things. For one thing, as Warren Throckmorton has pointed out, Fischer quoted Joseph Story out of context, and the AFA, interestingly, doubles down on Fischer’s sin by repeating it as well. If you look at the same book Fischer was using (Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,1833), says Throckmorton,
Story’s real argument is for a government which respected the individual conscience, saying that the “rights of conscience are, indeed, beyond the just reach of any human power.” (p. 727). Reading the relevant sections, it becomes clear that Fischer has pulled out a section out of the context of Story’s eloquent tribute to freedom of conscience that is the First Amendment.
Nor is the AFA being entirely truthful about Madison’s supposed secrecy. For one thing, it was Congress that wrote the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment. Madison went before the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, and urged upon them a Bill of Rights, including especially “rights of conscience” which, along with freedom of speech, ought to be placed “out of the power of the Legislature to infringe them.” What Madison specifically said he wanted was this phrase:
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
He also wanted this Bill of Rights to apply not only to the federal government, but to the states. This is part of the public record; no mysteries here.
Madison did not keep the debates secret. In fact, as Gordon S. Wood writes, “The House decided at the outset to open its debates to the public.” The proposal was put before a select committee which was composed of one representative from each state (Madison represented Virginia). After a week of deliberations, the committee came up with the following:
“No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”
This is not exactly what Madison proposed, and despite the AFA’s claim of “secrecy” we don’t have access to the kinds of records now kept. Even for the only public debate on the drafting of the First Amendment we have only incomplete records – as Steven Waldman writes, “The Annals of Congress, a semi-official record of the deliberations, provided a paraphrased version of the debate’s highlights.” But even from this we can see how dishonest the AFA’s statement is.
There was a debate, opinions were expressed, and the language ironed out to what eventually came to be put into the First Amendment. Secrecy has nothing to do with any confusion over what the Founding Fathers intended. We know what Madison intended; we know what Jefferson intended; we know what Washington intended, and that was for everybody to have freedom of religion.
According to the paraphrased account,
“Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”
Of course, then it all went to the Senate, which considered the House’s version of amendments from September 3rd through September 9th. We don’t know what was said but that’s hardly because of some effort toward secrecy. People just didn’t keep good records yet. Look at the muddle we have for the Constitutional Convention itself. The secretary, William Jackson, made an illegible mess of the convention notes, and not only that, he threw away all the loose scraps of paper given him by the delegates.
As Wood writes,
“Despite the opening of the House to the public, knowledge of Congress’s activities by modern standards remained limited. Politics in 1789 was still very traditional in character, small and intimate; and political leaders relied, as they had in the past, mostly on private conversations and personal correspondence among ‘particular gentlemen for their connections and information.”
At any rate, the Senate finally produced its own version which Madison disliked and which the House rejected. This led to the formation of another committee of six men, four of whom were veterans of the Constitutional Convention. It was only now that the final wording of the First Amendment was produced. The House accepted the language on September 24 and the Senate on September 25, giving us the First Amendment.
As should be readily apparent, the AFA is more pretending to be reasonable than actually being reasonable. Whether through carelessness in proofing Fischer’s work or in an attempt to make him look less unreasonable, the AFA has distorted history.
No reasonable person can suggest that all religions (or lack of religion) have equal rights in the “marketplace” as the AFA puts it. The Constitution guarantees this, after all. And that’s all anyone is really asking for – a level playing field. But while trying to get to that level playing field, let’s at least be open and honest about the facts.
Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republican, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 2009), 98.
Steven Waldman, Founding Faither: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (Random House 2008), 146. The Annals of Congress weren’t compiled and published until 1834.
Wood (2009), 99. There was no Congressional Record and no verbatim reporting.