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Jefferson and Madison in Warsaw:What Would They Do [1]
Author of this text:

Dr. Kaz Dziamka
Editor, The American Rationalist
Independent Scholar  
A presentation given at the 9th International Conference: „The Legacy of History: English and American Studies and the Significance of the Past"  
Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland, April 3-5, 2002

I'd like to start off by quoting the title of this conference: „The Legacy of the Past: English and American Studies and the Significance of the Past." The subject of my presentation is indeed about the significance of the past, in my case, the significance of the legacy of American constitutional experience — not so much for the United States, but for Poland, or, more specifically, for Poland's Third Republic's experiment in modern democracy. Aldous Huxley once talked about the "usable past," the idea that for most problems we don't need new solutions. The solutions are already there, in the past. The problem is to study the past, to search out the wisdom of the legacy of history.

In my discussion I will focus on American democracy as it should be, as it was designed, largely by only two men: James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the most important Founding Fathers of the American Republic and the two most important politicians in American history. Even though the reality of life in the United States falls rather short of the American political ideals, these ideals nevertheless inspire us and give us something to live up to. I believe that Polish politicians could learn from the wisdom of American political ideals.

The most important political principle governing American democracy as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution is undoubtedly the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, sponsored by James Madison, the „Father of the U.S. Constitution":

Congress shall make no laws 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.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of this Amendment is the so-called establishment clause („Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion") and the free exercise clause („or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") both phrased by Madison. This idea — that the political government should not help establish or support any church and that U.S. citizens should be free to worship or not as they like — was revolutionary in the eighteenth century. As American historian Henry Steel Commager argues, to disestablish the church and to allow for religious freedom was:

perhaps the most important decision reached in the New World. Everywhere in the western world of the eighteenth century, church and state were one; and everywhere the state maintained the established church and tried to force conformity to its dogma… Thus the United States took the lead among the nations of the earth in the establishment of religious freedom. That is one reason America has never had any religious wars or religious persecutions. (qtd in Larue 13)

(The last statement-that „America has never had any religious wars or religious persecutions" — is unfortunately not true. Until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, the US government had often been in flagrant violation of its own constitutional law by, for instance, persecuting and denying religious freedom to Native Americans. What is true, however, is that had the US government respected the First Amendment, there would probably have been no religious persecutions in the United States.)

At the time the Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791, and became part of the U.S. Constitution, it was not clear to everybody what exactly the establishment and free exercise clauses meant. The first important official-and destined to become the most famous — interpretation of the First Amendment came from President Thomas Jefferson, a friend and close associate of James Madison, who on January 1, 1802, wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The U.S. President was responding to a letter from the Association in which the writer was concerned about the establishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut. Jefferson's letter, partly quoted below, contains the famous metaphor of „the wall of separation" between church and state. According to Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, this interpretation of the First Amendment makes Jefferson's letter „destined to rank" (Voice of Reason 1) with the most famous American political documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights:

Gentlemen

(..) Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State...(emphasis added) (Free Mind)

"That wall, embodied in the First Amendment, is," points out Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., former U.S. Senator from Connecticut, „perhaps America's most important contribution to political progress on this planet" (311). The ratification of the Bill of Rights marked the highlight of Madison and Jefferson's long-fought legal battles to disestablish churches in America. What made the successful ratification of the Bill of Rights possible was, in particular, Jefferson's 1777 „Bill for Religious Freedom" in the state of Virginia and Madison's 1785 essay "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments," a broadside against a bill by Patrick Henry for tax-supported Christian education.

For Jefferson, in particular, freedom of religion-and freedom from religion - was critically important. In what is most likely his most often quoted statement about religious freedom, Jefferson points out the following in Notes on Virginia: „The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (Query 17, 285).

In many subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States, the „wall of separation" metaphor has became the guiding principle in legal decisions. For example, in a landmark case Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, Justice Black argued eloquently in favor of strictly separating religion from government:

The „establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbelief, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect „a wall of separation between church and state" .. That wall must be high and impregnable. (qtd in Voice of Reason 4)

The First Amendment is, then, clear evidence of the secular character of the U.S. Constitution, the basis of the American democracy. Compared to the Polish Constitution, adopted in 1997, the U.S. Constitution contains no mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. Even the word „religion" is mentioned only in the First Amendment (to disestablish it) and in Article 6, Section 3, to ban all religious tests for public office: „[..] no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Clearly, the most distinguishing attribute of the American political system is its secular — non-Christian, non-religious — character. Contrary to a popular myth, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. This is exactly what, for example, a late eighteenth-century trade agreement states, an agreement in the Treaty of Tripolis, signed by the Senate under President John Adams in 1797: „The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…" (qtd in Boston 78).

In sharp contrast, the Preamble to the Polish Constitution alone mentions „God" twice: „[..] those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty" and „recognizing our responsibility before God." The Polish Preamble also talks, erroneously, about Polish culture being rooted „in the Christian heritage," even though the real roots of Polish culture are Slavonic (which is to say non-Christian) and even though Christianity was forced upon the Slavic tribes by political fiat in 996, when Poland's Slavic Piast ruler, Mieszko I, "adopted" Christianity.

What is even worse is that the fundamental democratic principle of the separation of church and state has been further compromised by the decision of the Polish Government to ratify the Polish Concordat in 1998. Several provisions of this religious treaty between Poland and the Vatican are such serious violations of this principle that they would never be adopted in the United States because such provisions and other privileges of the Catholic Church in Poland would effectively destroy separation of church and state, the foundation of the American democracy. Here are ten examples:

Violations in Poland of the principle of the separation of church and state:

1. Article 12 of the Concordat introduces Catholic („religious") indoctrination at public expense in public schools, including nurseries and colleges, as well as in the military (Article 16).


1 2 3 Dalej..

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«    (Published: 05-06-2003 Last change: 25-11-2003)

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Kaz Dziamka
A college professor, editor of The American Rationalist (since 1996) and English section of Racjonalista (since May 2003) and writer from New Mexico. More...

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