Friday, December 15, 2006

Roy Moore on Keith Ellison

A number of people, most prominently Dennis Prager, have assailed Keith Ellison, Dem.-Minn., the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. None of that has bothered me as much as the recent babble from Roy Moore, Alabama's "Ten Commandments judge." Where Prager simply disagreeed with Ellison's decision to be sworn in on a copy of the Qur'an, Moore goes a step further in a piece on WorldNetDaily: "Muslim Ellison should not sit in Congress."

Judge Moore's knowledge of history is as bad as his understanding of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. "In 1789," he writes, "George Washington, our first president under the Constitution, took his oath to 'preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.'" A number of people who have actually studied this (such as J. L. Bell) say that there's no evidence that Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the Constitutionally-prescribed oath. Like the myth of young George chopping down the cherry tree, the story of Washington saying "So help me God" first appeared long after his death (in this case, in the 1850s). In fact, there's no evidence that any president said "So help me God" until Chester A. Arthur did so in 1881.

But it's Moore's next sentence that I find most infuriating: "Placing his hand on the Holy Scriptures, Washington recognized the God who had led our Pilgrim fathers on their journey across the Atlantic in 1620...." Our Pilgrim fathers? Who is he talking about? As far as I know, there are no Pilgrims among my ancestors. The one ancestor I know who goes back even nearly that far was Joseph Surratt, my eight-times great grandfather, who was born in France in 1659 and died in Maryland, founded by the Catholic Calvert family, in 1715. Judge Moore's ancestors, those Pilgrims, weren't very big on Catholics.

Joseph Surratt is just one of the 1,024 ancestors from my family tree at the ten-generations-back level. Except for that line, I know none of them beyond the great-grandparent stage. I wonder who those other 1,023 were. Maybe some were from Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams.

Does Judge Moore remember Roger Williams? Williams was expelled from the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1636 because he refused to toe the Puritan line. His problem was not that he wasn’t religious enough (the historian Perry Miller called Williams “the most passionately religious of men”) or that his beliefs were unorthodox (he was as strict a Calvinist as any of the Puritan leaders); what got Williams into trouble was that he didn’t like others telling him what to believe, how to worship, and so on, and he told the colony’s leaders that his religion was his business, not theirs.

He left Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island, based on the idea “that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with a full liberty in religious concernments.” In other words, the new colony would exercise complete religious liberty; freedom of conscience would exist for everyone, including nonbelievers.

Since religion is a personal decision, Williams said, government should stay out. “All civil states,” he wrote, “are essentially civil, and therefore they are not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.” Or, as Williams said in his most memorable statement on the topic, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In 1639, Williams established the first Baptist church in America, based on the Baptist principle of “soul liberty,” the idea that God instilled within each person the freedom to make his own decisions in religious matters. No one has the right, Williams said, to impose his faith on another. (This is why Baptists reject infant baptism: everyone must make his own decision about God, so baptism has to wait until the child is old enough to make religious decisions for himself.)

Maybe some of my forefathers and -mothers were from Pennsylvania, established by William Penn, a Quaker, as a colony that would welcome religious dissenters, among others. Judge Moore's Pilgrim fathers, along with their Puritan neighbors in New England, didn't care much for Quakers. Who can blame them? After all, Quakers have held some awfully radical ideas, such as the notion that we all possess an "inner light," a bit of God within us, and therefore all of us--male and female, black and white, rich and poor--are equal. Being a Quaker became a capital offense in New England, and in 1660, Mary Dyer and two others were hanged because they refused to "repent" for that crime.

Maybe some of my 1,024 10th-generation ancestors were Pilgrims. Who knows? and Who cares? This isn't an anti-Pilgrim piece; rather, it's a reminder of the religious diversity that has existed here for a long time, and a reminder that Judge Moore's suggestion about Keith Ellison violates not only the Constitutional ban on religious tests for officeholders, but our history as well.