The framers of the U.S. Constitution had it right
Leading up to the 2004 election, a couple of catchwords were used to motivate a specific group of voters. Those catchwords were “unelected activist judges” and “moral values.” They turned out to be eminently successful. On the surface they appear to be rather innocuous, but like the tip of the iceberg, underneath may lurk a more sinister threat.In 1831, a young French nobleman and political scientist named Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to observe firsthand the great new experiment in self-government, which at that time had been evolving for just over four decades. In the eight years after his return to France, he completed a treatise reporting and analyzing his observations, titled “Democracy in America.” His books were widely read throughout Europe, where a political reform movement was beginning to evolve.One of the central themes in de Tocqueville’s work was his concern that a democratic society could lead to a “tyranny of the majority.” The basis for his concern was that an elected government could all too easily impose laws infringing on the rights of minorities. He cited the fact that both the Congress, which makes the laws, and the President, who executes those laws, are elected by popular vote, which makes them subject to the will of the majority. In recognition of this, the framers of our Constitution were wise enough to provide for oversight by an unelected judicial system whose function would be to protect minorities from imposition of laws which violated the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It is only such unelected judges, who would not be subservient to public opinion, that safeguard our Constitutional rights from being overrun by a tyrannical majority (which has often proven to be wrong). An example is the separate but “equal” laws imposed by white majorities which subverted equal education opportunities for African Americans.Then we come to the ambiguous slogan, “moral values,” which was a euphemism for a set of religious beliefs, employed as a clarion call to mobilize the evangelical fundamentalist religious right. It is estimated that this group may number as many as 20 million, which translates into a block of potentially 10 million voters, of whom as many as 80 percent are convinced that religious beliefs come before all other issues in an election. Those 8 million votes can easily tip the balance in an election, as they did by going to the Republicans in the 2004 election.This support threatens to become a symbiotic relationship, in which the Republican Party needs the vote of the Religious Right to retain power, and the Religious Right sees this dependence as the way of fulfilling its goal of making its religious beliefs the law of the land. The imposition of just such a religious yoke – the British Anglican Church – on the American Colonies was one of the causes of the American Revolution. The Colonists objected to being taxed to support the Anglican Church, and to the repression of other beliefs – Congregationalist in the North and Baptist in the South. It was with this in mind that the First Amendment to the Constitution creating a separation of church and state was adopted.Today we are witnessing an erosion of that separation, with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money being doled out to “faith-based” organizations as a payback for their political support, and the emergence of legislative efforts to convert religious beliefs into law. This domination of the political process by the Religious Right threatens to become a “tyranny of the minority” and can very well spell the end of religious rights for the majority of Americans.The framers of the Constitution had it right. Separating government and religion into separate and independent domains is essential to preserving religious freedom for all Americans.Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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