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

One Response to Separating fact from fiction

  1. Doug Indeap August 8, 2013 at 2:35 am

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. It is moreover not an atheist concept. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment. It has, moreover, been repeatedly confirmed by the Supreme Court.

    That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who mistakenly supposed it was there and, upon learning of their error, reckon they’ve solved a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his famous metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is simply wrong.

    Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). Indeed, he understood the original Constitution–without the First Amendment–to separate religion and government. He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.


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