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Framers' 'intent' can be tricky stuff
The framers of the Constitution--particularly Virginians--had different "original intent" when it came to religion and the state.

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Date published: 8/14/2005

S EVERAL SENATORS HAVE already indicated that they intend to question Supreme Court nominee John Roberts about his views on the "original intention" of the framers of the Constitution. They particularly want to know what role he assigns to such an "original intention" in determining the outcome of cases brought before the court.

No one expects the candidate to say (even in the unlikely case he thought it) that the original intention of the framers is of no relevance whatever in deciding cases before the Supreme Court, or that the Constitution is a blank whose entire meaning is filled in by the current justices.

On the other hand, discerning the original intention of historical documents, especially one agreed to by a large body of politicians long dead, is not as simple as it might first seem. After all, not everyone who first read the Constitution or had a hand in its writing had exactly the same thing in mind. Diversity of opinion is not a 21st-century invention. Disagreement and compromise were alive and well in the 18th century.

Take, for example, the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids Congress (though not the states) to pass any laws that establish religion or hinder its free exercise. The first problem is terminological. The word "religion" was often used in the early republic as a synonym for Christianity, especially in its Protestant forms. "Getting religion" was another way of talking about a conversion to Christianity. Although the framers were aware of non-Christian religions, they were not the primary focus of the First Amendment.

What worried Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the various Christian establishments that had once existed in colonies like Virginia and continued to exist in Europe. In the 16th century, Christian Europe had picked specific churches to back, usually with tax money gathered from the purses of the willing and unwilling alike. England was Anglican, Sweden Lutheran, France Roman Catholic, Holland Reformed and Russia Eastern Orthodox.

Where one form of Christianity was supported by the state, very little breathing room was left for all the others. John Bunyan wrote his classic, "Pilgrim's Progress," while imprisoned in Bedford jail for his activities as a Baptist minister in Anglican England. Establishment of religion and the prohibition of free exercise were two sides of the same coin.


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