Words DO Matter!

Let’s talk about the word “religion,” shall we? I’ve mentioned this before in other writings, but I thought it might be fun to do an in‐depth look at the subject. My thesis is that the word used in the First Amendment’s religion clause is not the same as the word that we use today to interpret it. In fact, the difference is so profound that the IRS was way off the mark in granting a religious tax exemption to The Church of Satan. As you’ll see, saying they make Satan to be their god does not qualify them for religious exemptions under the Constitution. But, the deed is done, and so it goes.

Note in this Google Ngram that the word “religion” was used in books a whole lot more in the early 19th Century than it was in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Those early writings emphasized God Almighty and not some watered down mush relating to anything that people believe. It’s a great illustration to how discussions of this important American institution have waned as the country has prospered.

Words get bounced around over the years, but, like a stream wandering through the forest, they often pick up debris along the way. It’s made up of imaginative stretching, euphemism, hyperbole, overuse, and of course the biggie, manipulation. The word “gay”, for example, meant something completely different in the 20th‐Century than it did in the 19th‐Century. Same with the word “stoned” and many, many others. And it’s interesting how people will reject using the newer definitions when applied to old usage of terms, because the differences are pretty clear, and it just doesn’t sound right.

However, this isn’t the case with “religion,” and it really should be.

The reason it’s not is political propriety. The First Amendment is being interpreted today using a modern definition of the word that includes just about everything and anything people worship. While dictionaries list many possible uses of the word, they also each present choices in a descending list. Only one sits at the top. That is what we need to look at mostly, because it represents the most common cultural usage.

Here’s Dictionary.com’s current and primary definition of religion:

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

So, let’s look at what the word meant when the First Amendment was written. Here’s Samuel Johnson’s 1755 classic, A Dictionary of the English Language, and his definition of religion:

  • Virtue, as founded upon reverence of God, and expectation of future rewards and punishments.

The best source, however, is likely Noah Websters original 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:

  1. religion in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.

So a simple word transformation gives us fits today in trying to interpret the religion clause of the First Amendment, as evidenced by the IRS action. This ought to be the business of everybody, because we’re the ones who must deal with the twisting and altering of reality through word manipulation. I don’t agree with those who say America was birthed as a “Christian Nation,” because Protestants (those English who planted the Cross at Cape Henry) had little in common with Catholics who dominated vast regions of territory.

The point is that early America was populated almost entirely by religious people, those who worshipped God Almighty (and, of course, the dollar). It was simply assumed to be a part of the culture, as in how Samuel Johnson didn’t think it was important to specifically define “God,” and yet the word was used throughout his dictionary in other definitions. That’s where we need to be with our current understanding, and if we don’t like it, we need to change the document, not the word. To do otherwise is dishonest, misleading, dangerous, and even contemptuous.

For all of its societal cockblocking, you’d think the right‐wing Evangelicals would be out front on this. The problem is they are too grafted onto the prime titty of the status quo to make any significant noise at the moment.

Trapped in the limbo of “be careful what you pray for,” these zealots march cheerfully to their doom, the smiles on their faces revealing the degree of their delusion.