Since it’s the start of the school year, I thought I would begin my 30 day blogging career with “Three Things That Aren’t on Enough Church-State Syllabi.” The idea is to help students understand that current efforts to give religion a more prominent place in the public square have deep roots. They aren’t merely a throw-back to a repressive Puritan era or the result of foreign influences arriving with 19th century Catholic immigrants. Rather, they are part of the mainstream of America political thought since the founding.
Syllabus Supplement, Part I – The aptly named Theophilus Parsons.
Think of Parsons as a James Madison counterpart in Massachusetts – really smart and politically crafty. While Madison led the charge to defeat Virginia’s otherwise popular proposal for a general assessment to support religion in 1785, Parsons had helped ram through the Massachusetts 1780 constitutional provision requiring public support for Protestant ministers, despite not actually having the votes. In course after course, students read Madison’s ringing words from the Memorial and Remonstrance calling the use of religion “as an engine of Civil policy” an “unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”
An interesting, and quite different, perspective can be found in Chief Justice Parsons’ opinion in Barnes v. Falmouth (1810): “The object of a free civil government is the promotion and security of the happiness of the citizens. These effects cannot be produced, but by the knowledge and practice of our moral duties…. Civil government…is extremely defective, and unless it could derive assistance from some superior power, whose laws extend to the temper and disposition of the human heart, and before whom no offense is secret, wretched indeed would be the state of man…. On these principles, tested by the experience of mankind, and by the reflections of reason, the people of Massachusetts, in the frame of their government, adopted and patronized a religion, which by its benign and energetic influences, might cooperate with human institutions, to promote and serve the happiness of the citizens….”
On a somewhat more topical note, Parsons had little sympathy for exemption-seekers, arguing that, since it was only a tax and did not require church attendance, objectors “mistake a man’s conscience for his money….”