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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

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Separation of Church and State

"Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?" Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner on the Ten Commandments ruling, June 27, 2005

To read updates on Church-State Separation, click here.


Wedding Church And State, Susan Jacoby, director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York, writes:

In 1773, the Rev. Isaac Backus , the most prominent Baptist minister in New England, observed that when "church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued."

If only that reverend manqué, President George W. Bush, had consulted the Reverend Backus' "An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty" before endorsing the mischief implicit in a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and "prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever."

One of the most ironic aspects of the current assault on separation of church and state is that the apostles of religious correctness have managed to obscure the broad and tolerant origins of the godless Constitution, which was written and ratified by a coalition of Enlightenment rationalists and evangelical Christians equally fearful of entanglements between religion and government.

By Arthur Schlesinger Jr., published in the Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2004:

The founding fathers did not mention God in the Constitution, and the faithful often regarded our early presidents as insufficiently pious.

George Washington was a nominal Anglican who rarely stayed for Communion.

John Adams was a Unitarian, which Trinitarians abhorred as heresy. Thomas Jefferson, denounced as an atheist, was actually a deist who detested organized religion and who produced an expurgated version of the New Testament with the miracles eliminated. Jefferson and James Madison, a nominal Episcopalian, were the architects of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. James Monroe was another Virginia Episcopalian. John Quincy Adams was another Massachusetts Unitarian.

The Godless Constitution

The word "God" does not appear within the text of the Constitution of the United States. After spending three-and-a-half months debating and negotiating about what should go into the document that would govern the land, the framers drafted a constitution that is secular. The U.S. Constitution is often confused with the Declaration of Independence, and it's important to understand the difference.

The Declaration of Independence is seen as that document that established the new nation of the United States. It was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. It was signed by the Continental Congress and sent to King George III of England. It is a very eloquent document that is celebrated every July 4, but it is not the law of the land. It is a statement of sentiments directed to King George III in reaction to unfair taxation. The U.S. Constitution was ratified on March 4, 1789 -- thirteen years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence refers to "the Creator:"

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document; it is not the U.S. Constitution. Foes of the principle of separation of church and state often refer to the word "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence as proof that the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended for the United States to be ruled by a soveriegn being. Nothing could be further from the truth. The United States Constitution was written and ratified by elected officials representing a coalition of Enlightenment rationalists and evangelical Christians who were deeply concerned about entanglements between religion and government.

To read about twentieth-century church-state separation case law at the Supreme Court, click here.

From Legacy Of Freedom by Rob Boston, Church and State, January, 2003. "Jefferson, Madison And The Nation's Founders Left Us Church-State Separation. Can We Keep It?"

What the Religious Right doesn't tell people, and what, tragically, many Americans apparently don't know, is that when it comes to determining what the laws of the United States mean, the only document that matters is the Constitution. The Constitution, a completely secular document, contains no references to God, Jesus or Christianity. It says absolutely nothing about the United States being officially Christian. The Religious Right's constant appeals to documents like the Declaration of Independence, which contains a deistic reference to "the Creator," cloud the issue and make some people believe their rights spring from these other documents.

The Godless Constitution was written by two professors of government and history at Cornell University. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore have spent their careers studying religion in American life. Some quotes from their book:

The preamble of the Constitution invokes the people of the United States. It does not invoke any sort of God

The Constitution forbids any religious test to hold office. A godless person is just as eligible as a godly one! (Article 6, Paragraph 3)

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin strongly suggested on June 28 that the convention have prayers said there. Evangelists take this as proof that the convention then went on with prayers. But, in fact, the convention did not accept the suggestion, and the convention went on without prayers.

The Treaty of Tripoli

The Tripoli Treaty of 1797 between the US and the Barbary States, unanimously approved by the US Senate on June 10, 1797, specifically states that the US is NOT a Christian nation. At that time, the US government was still dominated by those who are referred to today as the "Founding Fathers". ARTICLE 11:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion... more

Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in the Lee v. Weisman ruling, 1992:

"When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some." more

John F. Kennedy September 12, 1960, address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

From Americans United for a Separation of Church and State:

"It is true that the literal phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution, but that does not mean the concept isn't there. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

What does that mean? A little history is helpful: In an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson, then president, declared that the American people through the First Amendment had erected a "wall of separation between church and state." (Colonial religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams used a similar phrase 150 years earlier.)

Jefferson, however, was not the only leading figure of the post-revolutionary period to use the term separation. James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution, said in an 1819 letter, "[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state." In an earlier, undated essay (probably early 1800s), Madison wrote, "Strongly the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States."

As eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer notes in his book, Church, State and Freedom, "It is true, of course, that the phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution. But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people....[T]he right to a fair trial is generally accepted to be a constitutional principle; yet the term 'fair trial' is not found in the Constitution. To bring the point even closer home, who would deny that 'religious liberty' is a constitutional principle? Yet that phrase too is not in the Constitution. The universal acceptance which all these terms, including 'separation of church and state,' have received in America would seem to confirm rather than disparage their reality as basic American democratic principles."

Thus, it is entirely appropriate to speak of the "constitutional principle of church-state separation" since that phrase summarizes what the First Amendment's religion clauses do-they separate church and state.

Religious Right activists have tried for decades to make light of Jefferson's "wall of separation" response to the Danbury Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong.

As church-state scholar Pfeffer points out, Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."

At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full religious liberty. Jefferson saw his response to the Danbury Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and state. Far from being a mere courtesy, the letter represented a summary of Jefferson's thinking on the purpose and effect of the First Amendment's religion clauses.

Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment." In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'" It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state."

A resource on the Constitutional Principle of Church and State debate.

The Constitution Restoration Act of 2004, introduced into both houses of Congress on February 11, 2004, "includes the acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law by an official in his capacity of executing his office." Katherine Yurica, author of the Yurica Report, reports on this bill that reveals the theocratic intentions of its sponsors including Rep. Robert Aderholt (Alabama), Rep. Michael Pence (Indiana), Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Sen. Zell Miller (Georgia), Sen. Sam Brownback (Kansas), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina).

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

"The constitutional principle of separation of church and state has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in world history. Around the globe, those suffering under the heavy heel of government-sponsored religious oppression look to America's church-state model with longing. The "wall of separation between church and state" is America's bulwark of true religious liberty."

The Supreme Court Case, Locke v. Davey.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on February 25, 2004, that states cannot be required to extend scholarship aid to college students training to become members of the clergy. This decision affirms the right of those thirty-seven states whose constitutions do not support government funding of religious studies. It was a victory for the separation of church and state. From Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, February 25, 2004.

Excerpts from A "Cockeyed Contention" by Susan Jacoby, director of the Center for Inquiry -- Metro New York:

"In fact-and it is a little-known fact today-devout evangelical Christians were among the strongest supporters of the separation between church and state that took shape in the formative years of the republic. In 1784, the revolutionary firebrand Patrick Henry introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would have assessed taxes on all citizens for the support of "teachers of the Christian religion." That proposal was defeated by a now-unlikely but then-familiar coalition of dissident evangelicals and Enlightenment rationalists, led by James Madison. The rationalists feared religious interference with government and the religious minorities feared government interference with religion."

"The religious right stood American history on its head Tuesday, (12/2/03) when, in unusually heated oral argument before the Supreme Court, its representatives endorsed taxpayer financing of religious training for clergy of all faiths."

"U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson spoke for the Bush administration as a "friend of the court" in a case sponsored by the Rev. Pat Robertson's fiercely antisecular American Center for Law and Justice. Olson told the justices that state governments should not only be permitted but in many instances required to finance the training of students preparing for careers in the clergy." more

From Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, February 25, 2004, on the Supreme Court ruling:

"This is a huge defeat for those who want to force taxpayers to pay for religious schooling and other ministries," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This maintains an important barrier to efforts to fund school vouchers and other faith-based programs. Americans clearly have a right to practice their religion, but they can't demand that the government pay for it."

Foes of Church-State Separation

The Texas Republican Party Platform, 2002:

"Our Party pledges to do everything within its power to dispel the mythof separation of church and state."

Christian Coalition: Speakers at the Road To Victory rally sponsored by Christian Coalition just before the 2002 elections,

"seemed to compete with each other to say the worst things they could about this concept." Coalition founder Pat Robertson who described church-state separation as "a lie" and "a distortion foisted on us over the past few years by left- wingers." Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore termed separation "a fable" and insisted that the phrase "has so warped our society it's unbelievable." Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) upped the ante, calling concerns about church and state "the phoniest argument there is."

But the award for the most vicious attack goes to Joyce Meyer, the TV preacher who cosponsored the Coalition's national meeting. Meyer lambasted the constitutional concept as "really a deception from "Satan."

William Pryor, President Bush's stealth appointment for the 11th circuit court of appeals said in a speech that the First Amendment does not mandate "a strict separation of church and state."

Tom DeLay, former House Majority leader, speaking at a luncheon for Congressional staff in July, 2001 called the Faith Based Initiative a way of:

"standing up and rebuking this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last 40 or 50 years."

DeLay's history is a bit confused. The principle was articulated by Roger Williams, founder of the settlement in Rhode Island, in the 1600s. The framers of the US Constitution adopted the principle. It has been upheld by every Supreme Court since 1879 - that is until the year 2002 when the court approved school vouchers. DeLay went on to say "You see, I don't believe there is a separation of church and state."

David Barton

"Who Is David Barton , And Why Is He Saying Such Awful Things About Separation Of Church And State?"

David Barton and the "Myth" of Church-State Separation, Beliefnet (a web site of faith and spirituality)

As a "Christian" nation activist, David Barton, Vice Chair of the Republican Party, was once considered so extreme he was not taken seriously. Now he is listed by Time magazine as one of the nation's 25 most influential evangelicals.

He was also featured on the front page of The New York Times Week in Review, February 27, 2005: Putting God Back Into American History.

Supreme Court Justice Scalia

On January 12, 2003, Supreme Court Justice Scalia speaking at an event called Religious Freedom Day, publicly attacked the separation of church and state signaling the problems this important principle would have under a Supreme Court with a Scalia majority.

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Last updated: December-2005