Separating fact from fiction
“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice.” – (Assassination Day, RZA)
Whenever atheists speak to the separation of church and state in the American context they inevitably end up separating fact from fiction.
University Chair and Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, Michael Paulsen writes: “Everyone with even a modicum of understanding of the Constitution knows, the term ‘separation of church and state’ appears nowhere in the Constitution… The metaphor of a ‘wall of separation’ comes from a letter President Thomas Jefferson penned to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut… The phrase is not mentioned in the Constitution’s text or in any of the debates leading to its ratification.”
If one does not respect God it is highly unlikely that one will respect historical facts. Hardness of heart quickly degenerates into hardness of head.
Case in point. American Atheist Michael Newdow challenged the court for the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that the words were not in the original pledge. What Newdow and company failed to realise is that the words “under God” were not taken from the text of a “Bible thumping” evangelical pastor nor did they come from any church edict. They were taken directly from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
The constitutional basis on which Newdow wrongly appealed is the religion clause of First Amendment which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Therefore, according to Newdow, this clause was intended to exclude religious references such as America being a nation “under God”. However, as Professor Paulsen points out, “a strict separationist view is not supported by the Constitution. Indeed, such an approach would contradict other parts of the First Amendment, in important ways”.
He goes on to explain further: “The correct understanding of the First Amendment is not that it forbids contact — and even voluntary cooperation — between church and state. Rather, it protects private religious liberty, but does so in two complementary ways. In a nutshell, government may neither compel nor prohibit religious exercise.”
Debates about the role (or lack thereof) religion should play in public life and policy are important and should command our best efforts. Such discussions and should not rest on an impoverished interpretation of the American First Amendment’s protection of religious rights that violates both scholarly consensus and common sense.
The Bliss copy of Lincoln’s address, generally regarded as the authoritative copy, is held in the White House. It is the only one to which Lincoln attached his signature and it contains the phrase “under God”.
There are independent reporters, including one from the Associated Press, who telegraphed their transcriptions of this address to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions included the words “under God”. There is no room for ambiguity here, only denial.
It therefore comes as no surprise that we should find atheists leading the charge on this front. As G. K. Chesterton said: “I do not feel any contempt for an atheist, who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification.” C’est la vie.
— Adrian Sobers