Russell and Duenes

Killed for Blasphemy

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blasphemyI’ve been doing some research on the original understanding of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. One helpful source is Freedom from Federal Establishment: Formation and Early History of the First Amendment Religions Clauses, by Chester James Antieau, et al. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), 78-80. In it, the authors discuss the existence of so-called “blasphemy laws” in the colonial and Revolutionary period.

Though states had these laws, it does not mean they were strictly enforced, or even enforced at all. Id. at 78. Yet, the colonial punishments provided for in such laws were quite severe in places. For example, in Maryland, “[t]he Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 had provided that anyone who would ‘blaspheme God, that is, to curse him, or shall deny our Savior, Jesus Christ,’ shall be punishable with death, and confiscation of all his property.” Id. at 78-79. Indeed, such “harsh blasphemy laws prevailed until 1819.” Id. at 79. Pennsylvania had a law “which imposed punishment upon anyone who would ‘wilfully, pre-meditatedly, and despitefully blaspheme, or speak lightly or profanely of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit or the Scriptures of Truth.’” Id. Further, “[a]ccording to the Supreme Court of that state, this was still the law in 1824.” Id.

Quite obviously this sentiment did not last over time, id., but a certain Reverend Weldman, in supporting an anti-blasphemy law in New Hampshire, argued for a rendering of the law which would cause anyone “speaking disrespectfully of any part of the Bible” to “have his tongue bored through with a hot iron.” Id. at 80. Another man thought such blasphemy deserved the death penalty. Id. Finally, “[i]n 1788, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who represented that state in the Federal Constitutional Convention and the First Congress, and later became Chief Justice of the United States wrote that civil authority has the right to pass laws against ‘blasphemy and professed atheism.’” Id. 

First let me state up-front that I am not in favor of blasphemy laws. I would agree with the 18th century theologian, Ezra Stiles, when he held that “[r]eligious liberty is peculiarly friendly to fair and generous disquisition. Here Deism will have its full chance; nor need libertines more to complain of being overcome by any weapons but the gentle, the powerful ones of argument and truth. Revelation will be found to stand the test to the ten thousandth examination.” Id. at 79. Yet two thoughts strike me.

First, we moderns, who are accustomed to hearing Jesus’ name used as a swear word, and God’s name damned by colloquial expression, recoil at such laws (and other Old Testament laws of various kinds) because we don’t care about God’s holiness anymore. We don’t taste it. We don’t take ourselves to be subjects, belonging humbly under the infinite authority and rulership of God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. We have made mankind the measure of all things, and reduced God, if we think of Him at all, to a kind of tribal deity, a diversion on the weekends. We certainly rarely consider Him to be the One who “in righteousness judges and wages war,” whose “eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems,” who leads “the armies of heaven,” from whose “mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations,” and who “will rule them with a rod of iron; who “treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God Almighty,” and whose name is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16). One day, every tongue will be stopped at His presence. There will be no blasphemy.

Second, the disciples and followers of every so-called deity – which is everyone on the planet – seek to enforce “anti-blasphemy laws,” and these deities need not be the usual suspects. Sure, Christianity has had its anti-blasphemy laws, and Islam still has them in places, but we often forget that the god  called “secular statism,” which is a very powerful god here in the U.S., also has it’s anti-blasphemy laws. Of course, our name for these laws is something else, like “political correctness.” But they are laws all the same, and they are rather strictly enforced. If you think they’re not, try transgressing one of them in the public square or academia and see what you get for your transgression. It may not be death, but it certainly can be ridicule and opprobrium at the least and loss of job, loss of reputation, and lawsuits at the worst. And did the followers of these other deities have the strength and clout, the punishments would be even more severe.



Written by Michael Duenes

March 3, 2013 at 2:21 pm

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