I got a very hysterical form letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. What’s impressive about it is that Barry Lynn, the Executive Director who purportedly authored this fevered screed, is totally uninformed about the nature of America’s Constitutional mandates regarding religion. Here’s what the First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Boiled down to its essence, the First Amendment says that government in American may not control people’s religious worship.
By stating this principle, the Founding Fathers sought to distinguish themselves from the European tradition that saw government actively interfering in people’s religious practices. On the one hand, European governments dictated which religion citizens should worship and often controlled the doctrinal substance of that state approved religion. On the other hand, these same governments brought harsh civil penalties to bear on those who refused to comply with state religious mandates. The easiest example to point to, of course, is England, which was the situation against which the Founders were reacting. Not only were the State and the Church of England inextricably intertwined (with the monarch as head of the church), but England in the late 18th Century still had multiple laws on its books barring people who were not C of E from serving in the government or even obtaining a higher education.
Although Leftists deny it, Thomas Jefferson was imply reiterating the principles in the First Amendment when he coined the phrase “separation of church and state” (a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution itself). Although Progressives like to forget this fact, Jefferson was a very religious man, although he was sufficiently private in his worship that he avoided incorporating it into public ceremony, as Washington and Adams had done.
In late 1801, while still President, Jefferson received a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association complaining that, as a religious minority in Connecticut, the state was treating their religious rights as privileges from the legislature, rather than immutable rights inherent in all citizens. Jefferson’s reply makes it plain that the Legislature can neither grant nor deny religious rights, since it is not the responsibility of the American government to interfere in church function and doctrine (emphasis mine):
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
(signed) Thomas Jefferson
It is manifestly clear from perusing both the Bill of Rights and Jefferson’s own letter that none of the Founders intended that religious people must be barred from civil participation. They can bring their values to bear in the civic arena, even if those values are religiously inspired. What they cannot do is hijack the government so that the government uses its coercive powers to force people to worship a specific faith, to interfere with a religion’s doctrine, or to punish or ostracize people for practicing a faith that the government does not sanction.
These subtleties — the difference between government controlled religion, which is bad, and a religious people whose religion informs their conduct, which is constitutionally neutral — completely eludes the anti-religious Left. They want people who enter government to check their religion at the door. They are incapable of understanding that the complete absence of religion is a religion in and of itself, with faith in government and its bureaucracy being substituted in place of faith in God and his morality.
During the 1980s, religious people called this Leftist faith “Secular Humanism.” As a thoughtless, knee-jerk Leftist myself during those years, I actually appreciated the label (“Hah! I’m a Humanist”), but rejected the Religious Right’s contention that Secular Humanism is itself a religion. To the Left, something can be a religion if the word “God” (or, if you’re polytheistic, “Gods”) is involved. None of us on the Left understood (or, at least, the thoughtless amongst us refused to understand) that Secular Humanism is a religion because it is a comprehensive belief system. The only difference between Secular Humanism and traditional “religion” is that, in place of an omnipotent deity, secular humanists worship an omnipotent government that rejects traditional Judeo-Christian moral and social values.
It is this Secular Humanist faith that explains the letter I received today, parts of which I reproduce below, along with my interlineations in red:
Do you know how the Religious Right is now targeting your neighborhood, and every town and city in America?
By joining local school boards and local communities . . . winning local elections . . . and creating local precedents with NATIONWIDE consequences . . .
They want to hit you right where you live.
The Religious Right has hijacked Christianity and claims to speak for all people of faith . . . and its leaders and activists want to force their ultraconservative agenda on you and your community. [You'll notice that Americans United does not argue, because it can't, that religious Christians are trying to enforce their faith on Americans, which would be unconstitutional. Instead, it just makes it sound utterly evil that religious people want to get involved in local politics to advance their values, something that the Founders generally and Jefferson specifically would appreciate.]
The goal of the movement’s members is nothing less than to shatter the wall of separation between church and state . . . and force you to live a “moral” life.
Their morals! [Again, this statement ignores the fact that our government is set up so that all citizens, including religious citizens, are welcome to get into politics to advance their values, including their "moral" values. They just can't use politics as a means of forcing you into their church, something even the hysterics at Americans United cannot say is the case.]
And if they can’t get into your public schools with creationism . . . if they can’t get into your pharmacy to deny patients and their doctors the right to make medical decisions . . . if they can’t use the power of their pulpits to choose your political representatives . . . [If they can't do all that, then they'll leave more room for the Leftists to get into your public schools with endless scare tactics and indoctrination regarding anthropogenic climate change, pro-illegal alien propaganda, pornographic sex education, and identity politics and anti-marriage activism.]
. . . Then they’ll zero in on friendlier, more willing targets to get the political clout and legal precedents they need . . . which then may have nationwide ramifications.
FROM THE BOTTOM UP, THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT IS WORKING TO CHANGE NATIONAL AND LOCAL POLICIES
[I've deleted the bit in Barry Lynn identifies himself, his career and his organization.]
Throughout those years, we’ve seen what happens when religious extremists like Pat Robertson and James Dobson get their way:
* A tax-funded “faith-based” initiative that forces citizens like you and me to pick up the tab for the Religious Right’s ideology-based social agenda. [I have no idea what Lynn is talking about here. As I detailed above, as a tax payer and a parent, I'm currently paying for my children to learn about increasing discredited AGW, the virtues of illegal immigration, radical sex education, anti-marriage values, victim-based identity politics, etc., all of which are part of the Leftist religious canon. After all that kind of intellectual garbage, just how bad can the Religious Right's "ideology-based social agenda be?]
* “Marriage amendments” that turn out anti-gay voters and swing elections. [This is a perfect example of Lynn's confusion about the different between a state religion, and religious people speaking up within a state. The religious right did not seek to force people into a religious viewpoint about marriage in California. That is, no one said, when we pass this law, you'll all have to become Mormons. But people who are religious and take seriously the fact that Western religions limit marriage to a man and a woman certainly did get out and vote. What's really ironic about Lynn's sentence here is that it was Obama's presence in the election that was the "swing" factor, since the same blacks who made their way to the polls so they could vote for him, also happen to come from religious backgrounds that created in them values antithetical to gay marriage.]
* Houses of worship endorsing political candidates, violating their tax-exempt status. [If I remember my election history correctly, the Democratic candidates were barely able to peel themselves out of Leftist houses of worship, and had Leftist religious people crawling all over them. I'm unaware of any celebrated case in which the IRS went after any church, Left or Right, for encouraging its voters values in such a way that the voters learned towards one candidate or another. Churches are allowed to teach values -- and in heated elections, those values may steer voters in one direction or another. This is not the same as endorsing a candidate.]
* More restrictions on reproductive choices chipping away at the right of access to contraceptives and services that citizens have worked so hard to win since the 1960s. [I don't need to make my argument here again about the difference between religious people using the government to force all people to Catholicism or Baptism, so that they forswear abortion, something that hasn't happened and won't happen, and the fact that people of faith are disturbed by the number of abortions performed annually, and who seek to change the laws to change that situation. What I do find interesting, however, is the way in which Lynn's sentence makes it sound as if religious people aren't "citizens." "Citizens" work for abortion; religious people are scary zombies who block citizens from their Progressive-guaranteed rights. That kind of phrasing highlights the way in which the Left is incapable of acknowledging that religious people are citizens and that the Constitution clearly allows them to use government to advance their values, although not to advance their specific faith.]
I’ll stop here. Believe it or not, there are three more single-spaced hysterical pages with this types of ignorant, mean-spirited demagoguery.
Long-time readers know that I don’t even really have a dog in this fight, as I am a non-religious Jew. I am, however, intellectually honest, and it disgusts me to see the Left try to use our Constitution and the deeply religious Thomas Jefferson as vehicles by which they shut religious people out of politics and civic discourse.
Cross-posted at Bookworm Room