The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Why the Religious Right is Wrong

An Essay by Barbara Ehrenreich reprinted here from the September 7, 1992 issue of TIME magazine

Reprinted by permission of Barbara Ehrenreich

That low moaning sound in the background just might be the Founding Fathers protesting from beyond the grave. They have been doing it ever since the Republicans announced a "religious war" in the name of "traditional values." It grew several decibels louder last week when George Bush, at a breakfast of religious leaders, scorched the Democrats for failing to mention God in their platform and declaimed that a President needs to believe in the Almighty. What about the constitutional ban on "religious test(s)" for public office? the Founding Fathers would want to know. What about Tom Jefferson's conviction that it is possible for a nonbeliever to be a moral person, "find(ing) incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise"? Even George Washington must shudder in his sleep to hear the constant emphasis on "Judeo-Christian values." It was he who wrote, "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land...every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart."

George Bush should know better than to encourage the theocratic ambitions of the christian right. He has claimed-to much snide derision-that when he was shot down during World War II and lay floating in the Pacific for four hours, he meditated on "God and faith and the separation of church and state." But there could be no better themes for a patriot to address in his final moments. The "wall of separation" the Founding Fathers built between church and state is one of the best defenses freedom has ever had. Or have we already forgotten why the Founding Fathers put it up? They had seen enough religious intolerance in the colonies: Quaker women were burned at the stake in Puritan Massachusetts; Virginians could be jailed for denying the Bible's authority. They knew Europe had terribly disfigured itself in a religious war recalled only by its duration-30 years. No wonder John Adams once described the Judeo-Christian tradition as "the most bloody religion that ever existed," and that the Founding Fathers took such great pains to keep the hands that holds the musket separate from the hand that carries the cross.

There was another reason for the separation of church and state, which no amount of pious ranting can expunge: not all the Founding Fathers believed in the same god, or in any God at all. Yes, the Declaration of Independence refers to a deity, but only in the most generic terms-"Nature's God," the "Creator," "Providence"-calculated not to offend the doubters and deist (who believed that God had designed the universe, and left it to nature to run). Jefferson was a renowned doubter, urging his nephew to "question with boldness even the existence of a God." John Adams was at least a skeptic, as was of course the revolutionary firebrands Tom Paine and Ethan Allen. Naturally, they designed a republic in which they themselves would have a place.

For this, today's Republicans should be far more grateful than they are. Abe Lincoln, the patriarch of their party, did not, according to his law partner of 22 years, believe in a personal God, and refused to join a church, stating "When you show me a church based on the Golden Rule as its only creed, then I will unite with it." Ulysses S. Grant, another Republican, exhorted his countrymen to "keep the church and state forever separate" and strongly opposed the use of any public money to support parochial schools-as proposed in the 1992 Republican platform.

Yet another reason argues for the separation of church and state. if the founding fathers had one overrearching aim, it was to limit the power not of the churches but of the state. They had seen the abuses of kings who claimed to rule with divine approval, from Henry VIII, who arbitrarily declared himself head of the Church of England, to the high-handed George III. They were deeply concerned, as Adams wrote, that "government shall be considered as having in it nothing more mysterious or divine than other arts or sciences."

The government the Founding Fathers designed could levy taxes and raise an army, but it could not do these or any other things in the name of a Higher Power. We salute our flag, not kneel before it; we pay taxes, not tithes. By stripping government of supernatural authority, the Founding Fathers created a zone of freedom around each individual human conscience-or, for that matter, religious sect. They demystified government and reduced it to something within reach of human comprehension, protest and change. Surely the Republicans, committed as they are to "limited government," ought to honor the secular spirit that has limited our government from the moments of its birth.

The same fear of governmental tyranny kept the Founding Fathers from prescribing anything like "family values." Homosexuality was not unknown 200 years ago; nor was abortion. But these were matters, like religion, that the founders left to individual conscience. If there was one thing they did believe in, to a man, it was the power of the individual, informed by reason, to decide things for him-or her-self.

Over the years, there have been repeated efforts to invest the U.S. government with the cachet of divine authority. "In God We Trust" was first stamped on currency in the 1860's. "Under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance during the McCarthyist 1950's. George Bush campaigned in 1988 to have the flag treated like a sacred object. And perhaps every revolution is doomed to be betrayed, sooner or later, by its progeny. It only adds insult to injury, though, when the betrayal is dressed up in the guise of "traditional values."


Time Magazine, September 7, 1992

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