When my brother-in-law died a couple of years ago, I inherited from him a pristine set of The World’s Orators, a multivolume collection of “the greatest orations of the world’s history,” edited by Guy Carleton Lee and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1900. The other day, I opened Volume 7, Part 2 completely at random and came upon Sir Robert Peel’s speech, “On the Disabilities of the Jews,” which, according to the editorial note, Peel made in order to support a bill intended “to place the Jew on the same footing, so far at least as civil rights, as the Christian.” The editorial note continues, “Peel, who was usually to be found on the side of toleration and justice, [gave a] speech replete with a dignified breath of tolerance….” I have not yet finished the entire speech, but, early on, he makes an argument for the separation of church and state that I find disturbing, not because anyone is explicitly endorsing this way of thinking today, but because I think it is implicit in the notion put forth by some Republican candidates for president, and certainly by more than a few Evangelical Christian voices I have heard, i.e., that the United States is, at heart, a Christian nation and that our government and our laws ought to reflect that fact. This is what Peel said:
I must in the first place disclaim any concurrence in the doctrine that to us, in our legislative capacity, religion is a matter of indifference. I am deeply impressed with the conviction that it is our paramount duty to promote the interests of religion and it influence on the human mind. I am impressed by a conviction that the spirit and precepts of Christianity ought to influence our deliberations; nay, more, that if our legislation be at variance with the precepts and spirit of Christianity we cannot expect the blessing of God upon them. I may, indeed, say with truth that whether my decision on this question [of the Jews’ civil rights] be right or wrong, it is influenced much less by a consideration of political expediency than by a deep sense of religious obligation.
Between the tenets of the Jew and of the Christian there is, in my opinion, a vital difference. The religion of the Christian and the religion of the Jew are opposed in essentials. Between them there is complete antagonism. I do not consider that the concurrence of the Jew with the Christian in recognizing the historical truths and divine origin of the moral precepts of the Old Testament can avail to reconcile the differences in respect to those doctrines which constitute the vital principle and foundation of Christianity. If, as a legislature, we had the authority to determine religious error and a commission to punish religious error, it might be our painful duty to punish the Jews. But we have no such commission. If the Jews did commit an inexpiable crime nearly two thousand years ago, we have had no authority given to us–even if we could determine who were the descendants of the persons guilty of that crime–to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, not unto the third or fourth, but unto the three hundredth or four hundredth generation. That awful power is not ours. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
In other words, if we were a religious Christian government, not merely a secular government guided by Christian principles, we would, perhaps, be in a position to make the Jews pay for their sins–in particular the sin of killing Christ, but, more generally, the sin of being Christianity’s antithesis. We are, however, not that kind of government and so (this summarizes Peel’s argument as far as I have gotten) we really have no choice; if we are going to be consistent, but to grant the Jews their civil rights.
What I find disturbing in these words is the, to me at least, clear implication that there is a part of Peel that would not mind having “the painful duty” of punishing the Jews, though, to be fair, I don’t know where the logic of the rest of the speech leads Peel and so it is possible that these two passages are part of a rhetorical strategy that does not necessarily reflect the actual position that he takes. Nonetheless, Peel’s implication that a theocratic government would, indeed, be justified in discriminating against, if not outright punishing the Jews is one that I hear echoes of in the US-is-a-Christian-nation rhetoric of some of our Christian politicians; and perhaps I will trace that echo in another post when I have the time. For now, though, while I am not suggesting that any of those politicians are out to get the Jews or even that any of them actively desire a theocracy, I will not deny the fact that their rhetoric makes me wary.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.