THEOSOPHY, Vol. 36, No. 10, August, 1948
(Pages 446-452; Size: 21K)
(Number 52 of a 57-part series)



ONE of the most elusive Civil Liberties' problems of our time is the relation between government and religion, or State and Church. The issue is raised in several departments of public function: in education, in war and peace, and in programs for social welfare. The question is complicated by certain inherent difficulties, represented by the basic problem of what shall be the legal definitions of "religion," "belief," "conviction," and "conscience." Neutrality must not be sacrificed to clarity, and yet generalities broad enough to be impartial are usually, by the same token, indefinite enough to permit contradictory interpretations. The subtleties of difference between individual minds, the variety of possible beliefs and convictions, and the wide latitude of personal application of the "dictates of conscience" -- render freedom of religion a metaphysical proposition. As with freedom of speech, the function of duly constituted civil authorities is not to provide the freedom, which would be tantamount to "creating" an inalienable right, but simply to prevent infractions and infringements on that freedom by any institution subject to the jurisdiction of the State.

In an era of institutionalization and totalitarianisms, the issue of religious liberty which was shaped so cleanly by, for instance, the philosophical revolutionaries responsible for the American Bill of Rights, is a confusion of good intentions and bad judgment. Shall the children of America study religion in school? May parochial school children have the benefit of public conveyances? Shall Jehovah's Witnesses be required to salute the flag of the country? These questions are paralleled for adults in other relationships: When do religious beliefs or private opinions become political beliefs for which the person can be held publicly accountable? What is the line between tolerance and treason? A United Press staff correspondent, Ruth Gmeiner, discussing the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision on the Champaign, Illinois, "released time" program, assembled a few dilemmas of this kind:

Has the Supreme Court laid down rules that may force the armed forces to give up their chaplains?

If it's illegal for your child to attend religious classes in a public school, isn't it also illegal for the government to require West Point Cadets to go to church on Sunday?

What about the chaplains, paid with tax money, who open each session of the Senate and the House of Representatives with a prayer? School lunches of children in parochial and private schools are paid for out of federal funds. ... Are these tax-financed programs unconstitutional state aids to religion?...

Theosophists will find a special meaning in the historical fact brought out by Justice Black in the Champaign decision, when he observed that "by 1875 the separation of public education from Church entanglements, of the State from the teaching of religion, was firmly established in the consciousness of the nation." But the impetus of the century-long struggle that culminated with the inauguration of the present Theosophical Movement is perhaps more important than the accomplished fact, especially since our present era is witnessing a recurrence of the problem that once may have seemed "solved." It will be well, therefore, to search carefully for the intent of the framers of the Bill of Rights, rather than be content with formal phrasings or slogans which generally do not carry the full force of an idea.

The unspoken assumption behind the fervent opposition of Thomas Jefferson to any traffic between religious sects and the State was not that we must protect ourselves against the danger of dominance by a single religious body, but the hope that men might be encouraged to evolve beyond all sectarian consciousness and therefore from separative denominational classifications. Jefferson was not a foe of religion, but he clearly was a foe of religions, and this attitude was held by a good many of those philosophically lucid men who shared the moment of karmic destiny in establishing American legal traditions.

The viewpoint of Jefferson and Madison was more than a private opinion: it was consistent with the Renaissance, which was, in simplest terms, a movement away from the religious concept of man -- that is, man controlled by institutions. The authoritarian attitude of the Middle Ages broke down slowly, it is true, and in peculiar fashions. Though impelled by the Renaissance belief in the superiority of individual rather than institutional conscience, the Reformation was a step in the development of a hundred-and-one new sects. Apparently men could not move directly from unified control to individual self-discipline, but yet did come to demand some choice as to the type of control they would accept. Nevertheless, complete religious freedom is, finally, freedom from all institutions. The unspoken message of Jefferson is this, and his ideal of democracy is a dream where men live in the spirit of moral self-reliance.

Since so little attention has been paid to the areas of significant philosophical evaluation which are pre-requisite to an understanding of Jefferson's viewpoint, it is indeed the karma of the present cycle to be confused on the place of religion in the life of a citizen. There are times when the members of all denominations recognize that they stand together to preserve the denominational idea itself. The defenders of civil liberties, on the contrary, are more lonely -- they are impelled by an intuition rather than by a need for institutional survival, and seldom have any clear idea of what their opposition entails in philosophical terms. If there were actually any complete atheists, of the no-inner-sense-of-religion type, they would doubtless be utterly uninterested in fighting against sectarian groupings within public schools, for example. It is because they feel, however unconsciously, and seek to express the non-institutional viewpoint on the nature of man -- itself a positive and affirmative "religion" -- that they will undertake costly and exhaustive court debates. In the final analysis, such men are for the one-world attitude which may accompany the progressive disintegration of all sects everywhere.

It may be strange to think of the opponents of religious instruction in the schools, for instance, as heirs to the impulsion of Buddha, Jesus and Gandhi, but in theosophical terms this is exactly the case. Mrs. Vashti McCollum, whose three-year battle for religious freedom successfully culminated in the Supreme Court judgment against the Illinois "released time" program, described herself, in a recent interview, by reference to an impersonal "religious" heritage: "I'm a humanist," she said. "We are neither atheists nor theists. We don't bother ourselves with the question of whether there is or isn't a God. What we try to do is to elevate man's opinion of himself so he'll attack his problems with confidence." (New York Herald Tribune, April 25.)

The McCollum case(1) deserves special attention, for it may set a precedent of wide application in respect to freedom of religion. Particularly valuable is the currency given to a phrase of Jefferson's quoted in the majority decision. Jefferson declared that the First Amendment(2) was intended to erect "a wall of separation between Church and State." This expression was employed in an earlier Supreme Court decision, which the McCollum opinion reinforced: the case of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, New Jersey (decided February 10, 1947). In the Everson case,(3) the Court upheld (5 to 4) the right of a State board to reimburse parents of parochial school students for carfare to and from school. Justices Robert H. Jackson and Wiley B. Rutledge, Jr., dissenting, took occasion to outline more definitely the principle which they considered had been cited but not upheld in the ruling. By the Court's action in the McCollum case (an 8 to 1 decision), these two dissenting opinions, notable for their grasp of the motives behind the First Amendment, have been accorded new prestige. Several excerpts from the dissents may be profitably reproduced here.

Justice Jackson said:

The state cannot maintain a Church and it can no more tax its citizens to furnish free carriage to those who attend a Church. ... Of course, the state may pay out tax-raised funds to relieve pauperism, but it may not under our Constitution do so to induce or reward piety. It may spend funds to secure old age against want, but it may not spend funds to secure religion against skepticism. It may compensate individuals for loss of employment, but it cannot compensate them for adherence to a creed....

We cannot have it both ways. Religious teaching cannot be a private affair when the state seeks to impose regulations which infringe on it indirectly, and a public affair when it comes to taxing citizens of one faith to aid another, or those of no faith to aid all. If these principles seem harsh in prohibiting aid to Catholic education, it must not be forgotten that it is the same Constitution that alone assures Catholics the right to maintain these schools at all when predominant local sentiment would forbid them.

An even broader philosophical and historical ground for dissent was explored by Mr. Justice Rutledge, who reverted to the convictions of Madison(4) and Jefferson in determining the original intent of the First Amendment. This Amendment, Mr. Rutledge points out, "was broadly but not loosely phrased":
The Amendment's purpose was not to strike merely at the official establishment of a single sect, creed or religion, outlawing only a formal relation such as had prevailed in England and some of the colonies. Necessarily it was to uproot all such relationships. But the object was broader than separating church and state in this narrow sense. It was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion....

For Madison [the author of the First Amendment], as also for Jefferson, religious freedom was the crux of the struggle for freedom in general. Madison was coauthor with George Mason of the religious clause in Virginia's great Declaration of Rights of 1776. He is credited with changing it from a mere statement of the principle of tolerance to the first official legislative pronouncement that freedom of conscience and religion are inherent rights of the individual.

It was Madison who proposed and secured the passage of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and his original text should be of interest to theosophical students, for it suggests some of the background for H. P. Blavatsky's use of the phrase, "Republic of Conscience." Madison's wording was, "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or in any pretext, infringed." Had such a declaration been ratified at the outset of United States' history, it would be next to impossible to prove the constitutionality of the most recent law involving "religious training and belief." The 1948 Selective Service Act has a provision which reads:
Nothing contained in this act shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant service (which for the purpose hereof includes training for combatant duties) in the armed forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form. Religious training and belief is a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code. [Italics ours.]
The identification of conscience with organized religion or church teaching, and the definition of religion as a relation to "a Supreme Being" is a far cry from the philosophical concept of religion promulgated so earnestly by Paine, Jefferson and Madison. How this latest denial of "the full and equal rights of conscience" will be received by the protagonists of civil rights remains to be seen.

The conclusion reached on Mrs. Vashti McCollum's suit against the "released time" program in Champaign public schools is a major advance away from any State religion. The majority opinion declared that the Supreme Court was unable to accept the argument that the First Amendment "was intended to forbid only governmental preference of one religion over another, not an impartial governmental assistance of all religions." The State, in other words, should not even recognize the existence of a sect: sectarians are to be protected as individuals, not as members of a sect. Justice Felix Frankfurter, in concurring, stated that--

in no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in schools, to avoid confusing, not to say fusing, what the Constitution sought to keep strictly apart. "The great American principle of eternal separation" -- Elihu Root's phrase bears repetition -- is one of the vital reliances of our Constitutional system for assuring unities among our people stronger than our diversities. It is the Court's duty to enforce this principle in its full integrity.
The implications of the McCollum decision will be further tested in the courts, as variations on the "released time" program are brought up for judicial review. The Open Forum, organ of the American Civil Liberties Union, reports (June 26) a "sweeping decision" rendered by the Circuit Court of St. Louis, Missouri, which, if upheld, will outlaw the religious education experiment all over the nation. Circuit Judge William K. Koerner, on May 25, ruled that individual differences between religious programs connected with public schools are "inconsequential":
Whether these sectarian classes are conducted in the school buildings or elsewhere can make no difference, since attendance upon them during compulsory school hours is deemed attendance at school. Failure to exercise supervision over the instructors of religion and to require the keeping of proper attendance records does not make the school program legal; it merely indicates laxity on the part of the school authorities. The fact that any sect may participate in this program is immaterial; the public schools can not be used to aid one religion or to aid all religions.
The encroachments of sectarian religion upon public institutions and upon the individual citizen's civil liberties will not be wiped out by one Supreme Court decision, nor by ten, and it is not yet certain that even the highest tribunal of the land will be immune to religious pressure groups who seek an offensive and defensive alliance between Church and State. But the slow accretion of judicial precedents, reflecting the fundamentals of this country's original political idealists, will continue to build for the "republic of conscience" they had in view, and it may yet befall that the true American, like the true theosophist, will belong to no cult or sect, yet belong to each and all.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


No invader ever raised standard but persuaded himself that he had a just cause. Sacrifices and prayers have preceded every military expedition. ... Attila conceived himself to have a "Divine claim to the dominion of the earth"; the Spaniards subdued the Indians under plea of converting them to Christianity, hanging thirteen refractory ones in honor of Jesus Christ and his apostles; and we English justify our colonial aggressions by saying that the Creator intended the Anglo-Saxon race to people the world! An insatiate lust of conquest transmutes manslaying into a virtue; and amongst more races than one implacable revenge has made assassination a duty. 


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(1) McCollum v. Board of Education. Cf. Lookout for April, 1948, and November, 1945, Quotations are taken from the report of Supreme Court opinions, October term, 1947 (Vol. 92, p. 451).
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(2) "Congress shall make no law 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." United States Constitution, Article I.
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(3) All quotations are from the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, October term, 1946 (Vol. 91, pp. 472-509).
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(4) The complete text of Madison's Remonstrance, a historic statement of the incompatibility of Church and State in a Republic of freedom and brotherhood, was published by Mr. Rutledge at the end of his opinion. Some extracts are given in this issue, p. 453. [Note: Rather than copying the two pages, and providing the heading, the lead-in comments by the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine, and the "extracts" themselves, which immediately followed this article, here's the heading, the lead-in comments, and a link to the whole document by James Madison, from a page on another web site. --Compiler:]

THEOSOPHY, Vol. 36, No. 10, August, 1948
(Pages 453-454)


[From 1776 to 1786, James Madison kept alive the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia, and in the final phase of the battle delivered his famous "Memorial and Remonstrance," denouncing the Assessment Bill, a taxing measure for the support of religion. Even though at the end the bill had been sufficiently modified to give each taxpayer the privilege of designating which church should receive his share of the tax, and also left him the option of giving his tax to education, Madison was adamant in opposing the precedent followed. The Remonstrance, as Supreme Court Justice Rutledge has recently pointed out, "is a broadside attack upon all forms of 'establishment' of religion, both general and particular, nondiscriminatory or selective." Madison's document aroused a storm of popular protest which defeated the Bill and cleared the way for Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Portions of the Remonstrance are reprinted below. --Editors, THEOSOPHY.]
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