In a recent speech, the AP reported that Justice Antonin Scalia said “that he does not believe the country’s constitutional traditions enshrine the idea of religious neutrality.” (I’m quoting the article, not Scalia’s speech.)
The article continues:
[Scalia] told the audience at the Catholic school that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.
He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him.
I’d say that Justice Scalia’s ideas about the First Amendment are outside the mainstream. But everyone agrees that if a president wishes to mention or refer to or plead with a god, he or she is welcome to do so, as is any other American citizen.
The Justice does not appear to understand why the Founders put that powerful amendment into the Bill of Rights. Here’s the text of that amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The key idea is the meaning of establishment, which is that a particular religion or flavor of religion would be allied with state power. At the time, there were 18 centuries of experience about what Christians, and their relatives, Jews and Muslims, did when the state adopted a religion: the state killed everyone who disagreed with that particular religious flavor who fell into its hands.
It would take a long book to explain all of the examples. For early Christianity, a reader could do no worse than relevant chapters of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Describing the couple of centuries before the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, various Christians squabbled incessantly with no way to decide their disputes. Once the Roman state allied itself with one of the strains of Christianity, the other views became heresies. The “orthodox” Christians took the opportunity to wipe out the heretics. This behavior persisted against the Arian heresy, the Nestorian heresy, mono-physites, and more.
In more recent times, this same alliance of state power and a particular strand of religious thought in the West led to brutal fights and awful massacres. As for example, the Albigensians of late medieval times. Of course, the Protestant Reformation led to murderous attempts to persuade believes and disbelievers on both sides, depending upon who held state power. This is the era of the Catholic Inquisition and of John Calvin’s theocratic government in Geneva. Both of which burned those who differed.
Of course, Justice Scalia knows that some of the early colonists came to the New World seeking religious freedom. But he and most others do not ponder the question: Who was persecuting them in the Old World? Neither Muslims nor atheists persecuted any of the colonists. Christians persecuted them! I grant that Muslims were doing bad things to European Christians when they could, but these depredations were not the source of the English colonists.
The Pilgrims had the wrong flavor of Protestantism, according to the adherents to the Church of England. But when they arrived in Massachusetts, they set up a theocracy that punished those who believed or behaved incorrectly. The Catholics who founded Maryland, were fleeing persecution by papist-hating Englishmen. But there is good reason why Bloody Mary, Queen of England, achieved her adjective, as a Catholic. Protestant Elizabeth was not above killing conspiring Catholics. Once a religion achieves state power, then religious dissent becomes treason. Death is the punishment for treason against the state.
Peace in a multi-religious society requires that no one sect ever be allowed state power. The founders lived much closer to this history than do we, but even our world is stricken and bloodied by these intra-sect conflicts. A great and centuries long conflict within Islam between Sunni and Shia is playing itself out even today, with many more fatalities within Islam than so-called jihadists inflict on the West.
I suppose that it is not inevitable that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic sects should behave this way. They might have been different. But they have behaved murderously now for 20 centuries whenever they have achieved state power. Justice Scalia is confident that he, at least, would not advocate the murder of those who disagree with him. But history shows that his church, Catholicism, wishes to attain state power and will use that power to enforce its views upon everyone. And the other religions of the West too.