Scalia Distorts Jefferson’s Views


Justice Antonin Scalia gave a talk and answered questions at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson. During the Q&A, he rather blatantly distorted Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state, claiming that he did not favor building such a wall.

Scalia has taken heavy criticism in the past for downplaying the phrase “separation of church and state.” He reiterated his position Thursday evening, when he answered a student who asked if America was truly a Christian nation. Scalia said the phrase, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, is often misunderstood.

“He did not believe in the ‘wall of separation of church and state’ you often hear him quoted for,” Scalia said.

Jefferson wrote that phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. It has been cited in Supreme Court rulings, but critics say it has been misinterpreted and taken out of context, that Jefferson was addressing the concerns of the association that the right of religious freedom could be taken away.

Scalia characterized Jefferson as a religious man, quoting from his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the forerunner to First Amendment protections on religious freedom. The statute begins, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it … tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion. …”

Scalia quipped, “Put this in your pipe for separation of church and state.”

But his premise is entirely irrelevant to the conclusion he is falsely drawing. No serious person questions whether Jefferson believed in God (though clearly not the Christian version), but belief in God has nothing to do with what he believed about the relationship of church and state. Jefferson also fought to disestablish the official church of Virginia and urged other states to do the same. And he wrote extensively in his letters and public papers about his views on separation.

For crying out loud, if he “did not believe” in the “wall of separation of church and state,” then how does Scalia explain the full quote from that letter to the Danbury Baptists about the First Amendment:

“I contemplate with solemn 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 and State.”

It could hardly be more clear. He said that the First Amendment was intended to build a wall of separation of church and state and that he regards that with “solemn reverence.” In other writings, he argues that this forbids even passive statements of support for religion like declarations of days of prayer and thanksgiving (he disagreed with Washington and Adams on the subject). So on what basis does Scalia claim that Jefferson did not believe in this wall of separation? His argument sounds like it was rectally derived. There is no evidence for it and much evidence against it.

Comments

  1. says

    He quotes a law that mandates separation of church and state, to argue that the author of that law didn’t believe in separation of church and state? What a fucking fascist liar. This guy may be a good fit for a Russian court, but he’s worse than useless in the USA.

  2. John Pieret says

    belief in God has nothing to do with what he believed about the relationship of church and state.

    To authortarians, majoritarians and theocrats, anyone who believes in God must want to use the state to impose that religion on others.

  3. doublereed says

    Does Scalia not even understand what the phrase Separation of Church and State refers to? Because plenty of religious people support it. Hell, isn’t he Catholic of all things?!

  4. eric says

    It was ostensibly a talk on religion, hosted by a religious organization. Still, I bet that as a SCOTUS a very wide variety of students and professors showed up just to hear what he said. I would’ve loved to have been sitting next to some of the Am. History professors and students when he said that.

  5. arakasi says

    Notice how he doesn’t even try to make a counterargument: he states that Jefferson did believe in a god of some sort (something that wasn’t in dispute, as far as I know) and then declares his point proven

    Which proves that Scalia is an Underpants Gnome. QED

  6. Michael Heath says

    Ed asserts:

    No serious person questions whether Jefferson believed in God (though clearly not the Christian version)

    You’re wrong; if you’ve added “orthodox Christian version” you’d have been correct. Many millions of Christians had and have a belief in the nature of god consistent with Jefferson’s. From very-early Christianity to the present day. They are every bit as Christian as the Tea Bagging trinitarians who remain the predominant opponent in the U.S. to taking care of children, widows, the poor, and “the least among us”. It’s simply a different type of Christianity, one I find far superior.

  7. says

    It was ostensibly a talk on religion, hosted by a religious organization.

    I remember lots of Evangelical Batshit Liars for Jesus when I was at UVA. I’m sure they’re lapping up his shit like loyal dogs, and he’s basking in their mindless bigoted loyalty.

  8. colnago80 says

    Re MH @ #7

    Jefferson rejected the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth, the miracle tales in the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the Trinity, and the Resurrection. His view of Yeshua was much closer to the Islamic position and the position held by some Reconstructionist Jews then it was to the Christian position. Brayton is absolutely correct and accurate, Jefferson, was an Arian whose religious views might be best described as a non-Christian theist. The fact that there may be millions of folks with these views calling themselves believing Christians is totally irrelevant.

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    To be fair to Scalia, I think he was likely referring more to the fact that Jefferson included such language in the text of a statute, thus demonstrating that he’s either a hypocrite – which we would presumably not wish to believe – or that he did believe that government speech can address religious questions such as the existence of god (at least implicitly).

    To be fair to Jefferson and to burn Scalia’s argument like a mad cow carcass, the precursor to the 1st amendment is not the first amendment, and Jefferson believed different things (I know, hard to believe) when he was 3 years old than when he was 13 than when he was 30. It is no proof of Jefferson’s opinion on the effect of the 1st amendment to cite a religious preamble to a bill that was introduced and passed in the leg of a state with an official church that was drafted during the revolutionary war and that went through some significant process of feedback before being adopted 7 years later. This is true even in given Jefferson’s great pride in the passage of the bill.

  10. gshelley says

    Is Scalia simply being dishonest here, or is he such a theocrat that he doesn’t apply whatever critical thinking abilities he has to claims such as this, that are against Separation of church and State?

  11. Chiroptera says

    No serious person questions whether Jefferson believed in God (though clearly not the Christian version)…..

    And certainly not the version accepted by “I believe in the devil” Scalia.

  12. zero6ix says

    My follow up question would be something along the lines of “Okay, so no church/state separation. Alright, which religion are we going to use. Keep in mind you can’t use the term ‘Christianity’ because that word means different things to different christians. Now pick. Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Evangelical Morman…go on, pick ONE.”

  13. Johnny Vector says

    Shortly after Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court, he was a panelist on at least two episodes of PBS’ Ethics in America. I don’t recall any specific statement he made, but I do remember being impressed at his intellectual grasp of the questions being asked. It seemed to me that he understood well that you need to have an overarching principle that applies in all cases, and avoid special pleading. I thought he would end up being a logical and sensible justice.

    That was in 1988. After this many years of seeing him use his intellect only to obfuscate and rationalize his existing biases, I have modified my evaluation. At this point, it is clear that he should suck a bag of dicks.

  14. abb3w says

    arakasi:

    Notice how he doesn’t even try to make a counterargument: he states that Jefferson did believe in a god of some sort (something that wasn’t in dispute, as far as I know) and then declares his point proven

    “Attitude Bolstering” — that is, “generating thoughts that are consistent with and supportive of one’s original attitude without directly refuting message arguments”.

  15. says

    The fact that there may be millions of folks with these views calling themselves believing Christians is totally irrelevant.

    You’re kidding there, right?

  16. says

    Michael Heath wrote:

    You’re wrong; if you’ve added “orthodox Christian version” you’d have been correct. Many millions of Christians had and have a belief in the nature of god consistent with Jefferson’s. From very-early Christianity to the present day. They are every bit as Christian as the Tea Bagging trinitarians who remain the predominant opponent in the U.S. to taking care of children, widows, the poor, and “the least among us”. It’s simply a different type of Christianity, one I find far superior.

    Defining who is and isn’t a Christian (or any other religion for that matter) is notoriously difficult, if not impossible. I generally leave such arguments to the believers themselves. But I do think that a belief that Jesus was divine is a minimal requirement to be Christian. That’s how I define the term myself. After that starting point, there’s all kinds of variation in belief. But I think that’s a bare minimum.

  17. says

    Also, for Raging Bee: Jefferson did not write the First Amendment. He was in France at the time and not involved in the writing of the Bill of Rights.

  18. naturalcynic says

    If Scalia were really serious about the 1st Amendment and a true originalist, he would be looking at the views of Madison, who had the greatest input into the constitution. And if he can’t see the wall Madison put there…

  19. colnago80 says

    Re Raging Bee the Fairfax fumbler

    It’s irrelevant as far as Jefferson’s beliefs went. According to the blogs self appointed expert on Christianity, belief in the Resurrection is a sine qua non for being a Christian.

  20. says

    Christians, by definition, are “followers of Christ”–the man or the idea, makes no difference. There are christians I know who see Jesus as guy who had some great ideas–ideas which got him killed–but not divine. Others are more traditional and see him as 1/3 of the triune GOD. It’s all bullshit to me but as long as they’re not trying to fuck me around because of their beliefs I don’t care what they believe.

    “Also, for Raging Bee: Jefferson did not write the First Amendment. He was in France at the time and not involved in the writing of the Bill of Rights.”

    Oh, yeah, like he couldn’t just IM the rest of the delegates and tell ‘em to goo–, oh, wait, I think the coffee’s ready.

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