April 1998

The Historical Contest Between Religion and Government

Professor J D Williams told a record Humanist of Utah audience that the struggle for religious political influence in this nation began with the landing of the Puritans at Plymouth Rock. Speaking to more than 130 people attending the March 12th meeting, Professor Williams explained that the colonies and the original states were theocracies that required church membership to be a government officeholder. As late as 1780, five states continued to have established religions.

The first state to challenge the close ties between government and religion was Virginia where, in 1773, a 22-year-old Princeton graduate James Madison wrote, “Is an ecclesiastical establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society.?” That question sparked a fiery debate that continued for 12 years. One of the prominent supporters of maintaining the Virginia theocracy was Patrick Henry. When Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Ambassador to France, asking what to do about Patrick Henry, Jefferson replied, “What we have to do, I think, is devoutly pray for his death.”

In 1785 Madison published his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” which effectively killed Patrick Henry’s proposed legislation to continue to provide tax dollars to Virginia churches.

The successful political struggle to disestablish the entanglement of religion and government in Virginia inspired Jefferson, Madison and others to seek the same freedom of conscience for every citizen in every state, and they did so with what was to eventually become the First Amendment to the Constitution. Professor Williams said many scholars agree that the First Amendment intended to do the following:

  1. Prevent the establishment of a national church.
  2. Bar government promotion of religion.
  3. Leave religious belief and practice free from government control.
  4. Protect the state from church domination.

J D quoted from the famous letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists’ Association in 1803 saying that the First Amendment had created “a wall of separation between church and state.” He also quoted Supreme Court Justice J. Robert Jackson, writing in Everson vs. Board of Education in 1947: “This freedom was first in the Bill of Rights because it was first in the forefathers’ minds; it was set forth in absolute terms, and its strength is its rigidity. It was intended not only to keep the states’ hands out of religion, but to keep religion’s hands off the state, and above all, to keep bitter religious controversy out of public life by denying to every denomination any advantage from getting control of public policy or the public purse.”

Professor Williams concluded his presentation with the reminder that Freedom of Conscience is the most precious freedom guaranteed by our living constitution.

–Flo Wineriter

Understanding Other Religions

Flo Wineriter, Humanists of Utah chapter president, had a letter published in the Sunday, March 8, 1998, edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.

It is encouraging to read in the Public Forum the intelligent discussions of religious concepts generated by LDS Apostle Boyd Packer’s address on the question “Is Mormonism Christian?” Public discussion of differing religious beliefs has been historically discouraged for a variety of reasons. The result, unfortunately, has been unintentional bigotry, suspicion and condemnation of those who hold religious convictions different from our own.

To grow beyond tolerating the beliefs of others to accepting the right of others to their beliefs requires an intellectual understanding of our differences. That will not happen with the continued indoctrination in isolation of religious concepts. We need enlightened public disclosure of the various religious beliefs concerning the nature of God, Satan, sin, salvation, redemption, heaven, hell, the purpose of life and death. Public and private religious discussions need not degenerate into proselytizing debates of who’s right and who’s wrong but can be conducted in a knowledge-seeking atmosphere.

I believe the “Three R’s” program is promoting this approach to religious education in Utah’s public schools. Perhaps the Salt Lake Tribune could make a meaningful contribution to this dialogue by publishing a series regarding the variety of religious concepts in the Saturday Religion section.

I look forward to the day when we cease to just “tolerate” those who have different beliefs but actually “accept” one another because we understand our different religious beliefs.

…and just for fun:

On a somewhat lighter note, Rolly and Wells of the Salt Lake Tribune held a “limerick contest” in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Board member Earl Wunderli won the contest with this limerick printed on March 13:

There must be a Utah conservative
Who abides by the soft drink alternative,
But who, in 2002,
Would provide any brew
To our guests as a social preservative.

How to Use a Barometer

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague, who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student.

The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected. I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student had answered: “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised when the student did.

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute, he dashed off his answer that read:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x = 0.5 x axt2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.

“Well” said the student, “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I said, “and others?”

“Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.”

“A very direct method.”

“Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”

“On this same tact, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession.”

“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.'”

At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.

This story is widely circulated on the Internet.

–Jonathan Knowles

Was Democracy Just a Moment?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

In the fourth century CE, Christianity’s conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean world gave rise to the belief that a peaceful era in world politics was at hand, now that a consensus had formed around an ideology that stressed the sanctity of the individual,” says Robert D. Kaplan in an article titled the same as this one in the December, 1997, Atlantic Monthly. “But Christianity was, of course, not static. It kept evolving, into rites, sects, and ‘heresies’ that were in turn influenced by the geography and cultures of the places where it took root. Meanwhile, the church founded by Saint Peter became a ritualistic and hierarchical organization guilty of long periods of violence and bigotry.Christianity made the world not more peaceful or, in practice, more moral but only more complex. Democracy, which is now overtaking the world as Christianity once did, may do the same.

The collapse of communism from internal stresses says nothing about the long-term viability of Western democracy. Marxism’s natural death in Eastern Europe is no guarantee that subtler tyrannies do not await us, here and abroad. History has demonstrated that there is no final triumph of reason, whether it goes by the name of the Enlightenment, or, now, democracy.”

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans, because of their (comparative) equality, exaggerate “the scope of human perfectibility. Despotism, is more to be feared in democratic ages,” because it thrives on the obsession with self and one’s own security which equality fosters.

Kaplan maintains that the democracy we are encouraging in many parts of the world will lead to new forms of authoritarianism; that democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before, and from obscure sources; and that many future regimes, ours especially, could resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta more than they do the current government in Washington. The Greek historian Polybius of the second century BCE, interpreted the “Golden Age” of Athens as the beginning of its decline.

The establishment of democracy in some third world countries has led to anarchy. Democracy often weakens states by necessitating ineffectual compromises and fragile coalition governments in societies where bureaucratic institutions never functioned well to begin with. The trouble with our approach to promoting democracy is that in many cases where the country is in economic straits, instead of getting the improvements they need, they get the vote, and groups of soldiers then exploit the prevalent disorder to establish tyranny.

The current reality in Singapore and South Africa shred our democratic certainties. Lee Kuan Yew, by establishing a neo-authoritarian, paternalistic, meritocratic and undemocratic corporation has forged prosperity from abject poverty, while South Africa has become one of the most violent places on earth outside war zones. Educated people are fleeing from it. China from an authoritarian base is bringing significant improvements in prosperity while India has a mixed record of success as a democracy with some poverty-wracked places in semi-anarchy. Peru has benefited from a move toward a subtle authoritarianism. Some other countries are also evolving into hybrid authoritarian- democratic regimes, and they seem to be the wave of the future.

Ironically, while we are preaching our version of democracy abroad, it is slipping away from us at borne. Along with the vast and obvious influence that corporations wield over government and the economy, more covert forms of corporate power are emerging. This is manifested by the huge multiplication of corporation-built sheltered residential communities, malls with their own rules and security forces as opposed to public streets, private health clubs as opposed to public playgrounds, incorporated suburbs with strict zoning, and other aspects of daily existence in which we opt out of the public sphere and the “social contract” for the sake of a protected setting. Dennis Judd, an urban-affairs expert at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says, “It’s nonsense to think that Americans are individualists. Deep down we are a nation of herd animals: mice-like conformists who will lay at our doorstep many of our rights if someone tells us that we won’t have to worry about crime and our property values are secure. We have always put up with restrictions inside a corporation that we would never put up with in the public sphere. But what we do not realize is that life within some sort of corporation is what the future will increasingly be about.”

The growing piles of our material possessions make personal life more complex and leave less time for communal matters. In this historical transition phase, in which globalization has begun, but is not complete and loyalties are highly confused, civil society will be harder to maintain.

We have become voyeurs and escapists. Many of us do not play sports but love watching great athletes with great physical attributes. The fact that basketball and baseball have become big corporate business has only increased the popularity of spectator sports. They provide the artificial excitement that mass existence “against instinct,” as philosopher Bertrand Russell labeled our lives, requires. And “see blood” sports have become more popular. The mood of the Coliseum goes together with the age of the corporation, which offers entertainment instead of values.

Just as religion was replaced by nationalism at the end of the Middle Ages, at the end of Modern Times’ nationalism might be replaced by a combination of traditional religion, spiritualism, patriotism directed toward the planet rather than a specific country, and assorted other emotions. “An elite with little loyalty to the state and a mass society fond of gladiator entertainments form a society in which corporate Leviathans rule and democracy is hollow,” warns Kaplan.

If democracy, the crowning political achievement of the West, is gradually transfigured…then the West will suffer the same fate as earlier civilizations. Just as Rome believed it was giving final expression to the republican ideal of the Greeks and just as medieval kings believed they were giving final expression to the Roman ideal, we believe, as the early Christians did, that we are bringing freedom and a better life to the rest of humankind. Nineteenth century Russian liberal Alexander Herzen wrote, ‘Modern Western thought will pass into history and be incorporated in it…’ Although we are the very essence of creativity and dynamism, we are poised to transform ourselves into something perhaps quite different from what we imagine.”