The Ear of the Wise – Introduction / Mr. Fischer’s Founding Fables: Part I

Hi, my name is Ben and I’m an addict.

Don’t worry, I won’t be twelve-stepping all over your good time with any jackbooted “Higher Power” mumbo jumbo, but I do have a legitimate problem. Apparently I’m addicted to being really pissed off, and recently I’ve become particularly fond of catalyzing my anger with a specific strain of psychoactive stimulus. My mood-annihilating weapon of choice isn’t a drug, but, according to the tales spun by its insidiously unscrupulous peddlers, it makes heroin’s promise of euphoria sound like a mall kiosk chair massage.

That’s right. I’m hooked on the Word of God.

Okay, so that’s not entirely accurate. My real obsession is Godcasts. That is, podcasts and radio shows of the fundamentalist/evangelical/creationist/all-of-the-above orientation. Seriously. I can’t get enough of ‘em, and I want others to join me in heaping ridicule onto the glistening brain turds that I come across while enjoying my favorite shows, but the people closest to me can only take so much, and no culturally significant cocktail party conversation has ever started with, “You won’t believe what Eric Hovind said the other day.”

That’s what brings me to Crocoduck. I need an outlet for my anger and vexation, and you, the reader, want to revel in the societal nightmares being propagated by rabid theists taking themselves way too seriously in front of microphones. Right? Okay, good. Here we go.

I’d like to kick things off with a nugget of 24-karat fact-mangling gold from Focal Point — “The home of muscular Christianity” — an American Family Radio program hosted by the inimitable Bryan Fischer, Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy at the American Family Association. (I urge you to keep his ludicrous mouthful of a title in mind as you read on.)

In his November 5th broadcast, Fischer takes a few minutes to give his audience a little bit of a “history” lesson on the founding documents of the United States and, more specifically, the protection of the free exercise of religion outlined in their text. Unfortunately for his audience, Fischer gets just about everything completely and demonstrably wrong. His fallacious insult to the legacy of the Founding Fathers stems from an American Minute profile of Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence and unabashed Roman Catholic. Before he delves into Carroll’s writings, though, Fischer interrupts himself to state an absurd thesis:

“Ya know, one of the things that I have argued on this program — and I’ve brought you evidence to back it up and substantiate it — is that the First Amendment was simply designed by the founders to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. When they used the term ‘religion’ they were using it specifically to refer to Christianity.”

See? I told you it was absurd. The funniest part is that he’s completely serious. Fischer honestly believes that, instead of using the word “Christianity” to refer to Christianity, the men who wrote the First Amendment decided to use a word that applies to every belief system that has ever been or could ever be concocted. Apparently he has Jefferson & Madison confused with Abbott & Costello.

It seems that Fischer also forgot how the First Amendment is actually worded. Just for fun, let’s tweak the text so it reads the way Bryan says we’re supposed to interpret it:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Christianity, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

You know what that says to me? It says, “You can practice your Christianity however you want, but it’ll never be the established religion of the United States. We may be open to establishing a religion some day, but Christianity is definitively excluded from consideration,” which is perfect because it makes absolutely zero sense.

Regrettably, none of this has ever occurred to poor Bryan, and he’s motherly in the way he nurses this runt in his quiver full of cognitive atrocities, so the rationalization goes on. First, he weaves a meandering explanation of his conveniently relativistic definition of religion based on the absence of diversity in his boyhood community. According to Fischer, since Christianity was the only religion that was represented on his playground, he and his friends used the word “religion” as a synonym for “Christianity”. He then projects the ignorance of his cloistered childhood onto the learned and worldly framers of the United States Constitution. Fischer actually argues that since a vast majority of the American population would have self-identified as Christian, the only religion that the founders had in mind to protect was Christianity. Yes, it’s idiotic and insulting, but that’s what this guy believes.

I know the mind of a right-wing fundie is a rough sea to navigate, but stay with me. Our hero is finally getting around to talking about Charles Carroll, so a dose of sanity might be on the horizon. (Spoiler: It’s not.)

Since Bryan Fischer is a historical revisionist of the first water, he knows that it’s always a good idea to toss a few dubious statistics into a bogus argument. In doing so, however, he inadvertently makes a point that is of central importance to the quotations that he will be using to substantiate his foolish claims about the First Amendment. He says, “…99.8 percent of the population at the time of the founding were Christians. Of those, 98.4 percent were Protestants; about 1.4 percent of the population at the time of the founding was Roman Catholic. … So Charles Carroll, he was in that minority. He was a Roman Catholic.”

It’s kind of sad to note that, despite the fact that he actually uses the word “minority”, Fischer somehow misses the point that Charles Carroll was a member of not only a religious minority, but an oppressed religious minority. You see, for well over a century prior to Carroll’s signing of the Declaration of Independence, Catholics suffered proscription in most of the thirteen colonies. It was common for Catholics to be denied the right to vote or to hold public office, and in some colonies the practice of Catholicism was banned entirely and the teaching of it could be punishable by imprisonment, or even death. That grim sentence was even carried out, on at least one occasion, in the case of John Ury, amid the furor of the Slave Insurrection of 1741.

That being said, let’s move on to what got Fischer so excited in the first place. In an 1827 letter to Rev. John Stanford, Charles Carroll wrote the following:

“Your sentiments on religious liberty coincide entirely with mine. To obtain religious, as well as civil liberty, I entered zealously into the Revolution, and observing the Christian religion divided into many sects, I founded the hope that no one would be so predominant as to become the religion of the State. That hope was thus early entertained, because all of them joined in the same cause, with few exceptions of individuals. God grant that this religious liberty may be preserved in these States, to the end of time, and that all believing in the religion of Christ may practice the leading principle of charity, the basis of every virtue.”

In light of the fact that Catholic colonists had been persecuted for so long prior to the American Revolution, it seems clear that Charles Carroll was simply expressing that he took pride in the fact that, under the new government, he and all of his fellow Catholics, as well the members of all other Christian denominations, were guaranteed the freedom to practice their religion. Our friend Bryan, however, has a slightly different take on this. He says, “So once again notice that when Charles Carroll, one of the signers of the Declaration, when he used the term ‘religious liberty’ he was referring to the liberty that was to be enjoyed by all who believe the religion of Christ. They weren’t talking about Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims. They were talking about Christians and the various traditions they were a part of.”

Holy hand grenades, man. That wasn’t even close. Carroll wasn’t saying that ONLY Christians should be free to exercise their religion. He was just saying that he’s glad that ALL Christians could finally enjoy that freedom. Fischer doesn’t let his obvious wrongness slow him down, though. He mines another quote from Charles Carroll, this time from his correspondence with George Washington Parke Custis, which was published in Philadelphia’s National Gazette in 1829. Carroll stated the following:

“When I signed the Declaration of Independence I had in view not only our independence from England but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion and communicating to them all great rights.”

Fischer takes another clumsy stab at analysis and says, “Again, this is another time where Charles Carroll said, ‘Look, the Declaration of Independence and the rights that we were talking about there, that come from the laws of nature and nature’s God, included toleration for all denominations professing the Christian religion.’ In other words, the only religion that the founders were concerned about protecting was Christianity.”

Not surprisingly, Bryan’s second attempt, though slightly more obnoxious, is just as wrong as his first. You know how I know that? I know that because I read the rest of that last excerpt from the American Minute post that Fischer is referencing. Here it is in its entirety:

“When I signed the Declaration of Independence I had in view not only our independence from England but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion and communicating to them all great rights.

Happily this wise and salutary measure has taken place for eradicating religious feuds and persecution and become a useful lesson to all governments.

Reflecting, as you must, on the disabilities, I may truly say, of the proscription of the Roman Catholics in Maryland, you will not be surprised that I had much at heart, this grand design founded on mutual charity, the basis of our holy religion.”

It is crystal clear that Carroll is simply saying that he’s grateful that Catholics, after suffering so much oppression under the Protestant majority in the colonies, have the opportunity to freely practice their religion in the United States of America in relative harmony with all other Christian denominations. In no way do any of the passages quoted in this segment corroborate Fischer’s ridiculous and offensive theory about the First Amendment.

There’s one more quote from the American Minute profile of Charles Carroll that I’d like to address. Fischer didn’t mention it in his broadcast, but that’s probably because it not only fails to corroborate his assertion that Carroll’s hopes for freedom were confined to Christians, but it completely destroys that assertion. After Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died in 1826, Charles Carroll became the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the city of New York wanted to get his final comments on that document. This is a portion of what he wrote:

“I do hereby recommend to the present and future generations the principles of that important document as the best earthly inheritance their ancestors could bequeath to them, and pray that the civil and religious liberties they have secured to my country may be perpetuated to remotest posterity and extended to the whole family of man.”

That’s right. “The whole family of man.” With that simple phrase Charles Carroll IS talking about Hindus. He IS talking about Buddhists. He IS talking about Muslims. He’s talking about everybody on the planet, and I’d say that seals Bryan Fischer’s god-awful argument into a tomb from which there is no hope of resurrection.

So try again, Mr. Fischer. I know you will, and I’ll be listening.

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